/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy, / Series: Craw

Fenrir

M. Lachlan


M. D. Lachlan

Fenrir

And he caught the dragon, the old serpent, that is the Devil and Satan; and he bound him by a thousand years. And he sent him into deepness, and closed, and marked on him, that he deceive no more the people, till a thousand years be filled. And he sent him into deepness, and closed, and signed, or sealed, upon him, that he deceive no more people, till a thousand years be fulfilled. After these things it behooveth him to be unbound a little time.

THE KING JAMES BIBLE, REVELATION 20: 1-3

When the?sir saw that the Wolf was fully bound, they took the chain that was fast to the fetter, and which is called Thin, and passed it through a great rock — it is called Scream — and fixed the rock deep down into the earth. Then they took a great black boulder and drove it yet deeper into the earth and used the stone for a fastening-pin. The wolf gaped terribly, and thrashed about and strove to bite them; they thrust into his mouth a certain sword: the guards caught in his lower jaw, and the point in the upper; that is his gag. He howls hideously, and slaver runs out of his mouth: that is the river called Van; there he lies till the Weird of the Gods.

THE PROSE EDDA

PART ONE

Sword Age

1

Wolf Night

He had never seen a sight so beautiful as Paris under flame. It was dusk and the smoke lay across the low sun in a long stripe of black like the tail of a dragon, its head dipping to a mouth of fire on the river island town. He looked down from the hill and saw that the towers on the bridges had held: the Franks had repulsed the northern enemy. Though part of one bridge and an abandoned longboat beneath it were on fire, the saffron banners of Count Eudes still flew all around the walls above the water, like little flames themselves answering the dying sun.

Leshii inhaled. There, beneath the smell of the burning wood and the pitch the defenders had hurled down on the invaders was another smell he recognised well. Cremation.

He associated it with the Northmen, with the burning of their dead in their ships. He’d watched them in the aftermath of the battle to take Kiev, pushing the dead rulers Askold and Dir out of the town out onto the lake in a blazing longboat. They’d given them a fine send-off, considering they’d butchered them.

The smell seemed to suck all of the moisture out of his nose and mouth. People had burned down there. He shook his head and made the lightning bolt symbol of his god Perun across his chest with his finger. Warriors, he thought, had too much of the world. If it was ruled by merchants there wouldn’t be half the killing.

He looked at the city. It wasn’t big by his eastern standards but it was wonderfully placed on the Seine to stop the Viking raids getting any further upstream.

The dusk was cold and his breath clouded the air. He would have loved to have gone down to the city and sat by a fire with a mug of Frankish wine.. He found the Franks very relaxed and peaceful — at least when at ease in their own towns — and they were great lovers of silk. He’d always enjoyed Paris with its fascinating houses, square and pale, with arches for entrances and steep pitched roofs of checked tiles. No point letting that thought grow. The idea of warmth only made the cold seem deeper. There would be no shelter that night, beyond his tent. The hillside would be his bed, not an inn in the merchants’ quarters.

He watched as, on the bridge, the defenders beat down the flames. The bridges had been put there primarily to prevent ships coming up the river. They had done their job, along with the other defences the count had built. It was difficult to estimate the size of the Northmen’s army. If they controlled both banks of the river, he put it as massive, at least four thousand men. However, yellow banners spread themselves among the sprawl of meaner houses outside the city too. So perhaps the Danish force was smaller. Big enough, though, easily big enough to overrun any dwellings unprotected by the city walls.

Yet they hadn’t bothered to take them. Clearly, the northerners did not regard those buildings as important. They were moving through to richer and bigger towns along the river. Paris was just an obstacle to overcome and they weren’t going to lose good men fighting over a few huts. Leshii was impressed. Most commanders he knew had very little control over what their troops did once they got in sight of the enemy. This was a disciplined army, not a rabble.

Could he get down to one of those outlying houses, hire a bed there? No. The whole country would be in a terror and he’d be lucky not to be strung up by either side if they saw him.

There were Vikings on both sides of the river, he could tell. Their longships were moored on both banks and their black banners drooped in the still spring air for a fair slice of land about. Leshii gave a shiver when he thought of those banners. He had seen them enough times in the east — ravens and wolves. Such creatures prospered in the Norsemen’s wake. The city would fall, he thought, but it would take a while doing so.

‘She is in there?’ Leshii spoke in Latin, as it was the only language he shared with his companion.

‘It was foreseen.’

‘Good luck getting her out. They won’t welcome a Northman in there.’

‘I won’t ask for their welcome.’

‘Better declare yourself to your people and enter when they enter. They surely will, their army is huge.’

‘They are not my people.’

‘You are a Northman, a Varangian as you are called.’

‘But I am not a Dane.’

‘All Varangians are the same, Chakhlyk. Dane, Norseman, Viking, Norman, Varangian: these are only words for the same thing.’

‘My name is not Chakhlyk.’

‘But your nature is — it means “dry one” in my language. What is a name but what men call you? My mother called me Leshii, but at home they call me Mule. It’s not a name I like but one that fits because I’m always carrying things here and there for one person or another — princes, kings, myself. They call me Mule: my name is Mule. I call you Chakhlyk: your name is Chakhlyk. Names are like destinies, we do not choose them.’

The Northman snorted. It was the first time since they had travelled from the east that Leshii had seen him smile.

Leshii looked at his travel companion, who was more than a mystery to him. He found his presence deeply disquieting and, if the instruction to show him to Paris had not come from Prince Helgi the Prophet himself, he would have found some way of avoiding the trip. Helgi was a Varangian too, the ruler of Ladoga, Novgorod, Kiev and the surrounding lands of the Rus. He had warred as far as Byzantium, nailing his shield to the gates the city closed against him. He was a mighty ruler, and when he commanded his subjects did well to obey.

Leshii had asked the name of this strange man, but Helgi had told him he didn’t have one so he was at liberty to make one up. Chakhlyk then, which was more polite than what he might have chosen. Chakhlyk was tall, even for his race, but unlike many of his kinsmen was dark and thin and wiry, reminding Leshii more of something grown from the earth, a twisted tree perhaps, rather than a human.

Leshii knew everyone who had been to Ladoga, most people in the neighbouring city of Novgorod and a fair few even further down in Kiev, but he had never seen this fellow before. At first he had tried conversation with him. ‘My business is silk, brother; what is your trade?’ The man had said nothing, just looked at him with those intense dark eyes. Leshii had understood when the prince had sent them out without any escort what the man’s trade was. He had understood it when other traders on their route had sat away from them at the fire, when curious farmers had gone creeping back to their homes rather than talk to them, when bandits had watched from the hills but not summoned the courage to come down. His trade was fear. It seeped from him like the musk of an animal.

Leshii guessed that the wolfman must be one of the northerners’ wild priests, though he had never seen one like him before. The Varangians’ kings were their main holy men but a variety of odd individuals sacrificed to their strange gods at their temples in the woods outside Lagoda. They wore symbols of hammers and swords and, he had heard it rumoured, even real nooses for their very secret ceremonies. This man, though, just wore a strange pebble at his neck on a leather thong. Something was scratched on it, but Leshii had never quite got close enough to see what.

The Northman took off the bag he carried on his back and unrolled something from it.

Leshii, to whom the contents of bags were always an irresistible spark to curiosity, came to see what it was. He recognised it immediately — it was a complete wolfskin, though rather unusual. The fur was coal-black and, even in the dusk, its gloss seemed almost unnatural. It was huge, quite the biggest wolf pelt Leshii had ever seen, and as a trader he had seen a few.

‘It’s a fine skin,’ he said, ‘but I don’t think the townsmen of Paris will be in the mood for business. If you are planning to sleep in it then in such cold as this I, your guide, should be allowed a share.’

The Northman didn’t reply, just walked back into the trees taking the pelt with him.

Now Leshii had nothing to do. He began to feel sorry for himself. He had hoped the rumours of the siege of Paris had been untrue. If Paris was under attack it was likely that other bigger and more important trading centres, such as Rouen, had taken a hit too.

Had he struggled on with his cargo for nothing? He supposed there might be the possibility of finding some takers for his goods in the Viking camp. He went to see to the mules, in two minds whether to take off their burdens there and then or to keep them on in case any stray northerners came up the hill after dark and he had to get away quickly. Perhaps he could sell to the invaders. He had lived under the rule of the Varangians most of his life and understood them. He could do a deal, he thought, if he could persuade them not to hang him in sacrifice to one of their odd gods.

He looked down at the river plain. The longships to the north were withdrawing to the south bank. Something was happening there. The Danes were running away from the bank as if pursued. From the east, casting long shadows behind them, he saw two riders moving across the plain — one leading the other’s horse. The Danes were rushing to greet them. Perhaps they were merchants, he thought, perhaps there was a proper market for his goods after all.

He was cold and he was old, too old for this. He might even have found a way to refuse Helgi and stay in Ladoga had his business been better. Five rough years with cargoes lost to bandits and a silkworm disease in the east had eaten into his savings. Helgi’s offer to buy him a cargo had been too good to refuse. If he could get a decent price for it he would leave the travelling to younger men in future. Too tired to think any more, he untied the bags from the mules. Could he sit down to a fire and some wine? Why not? One more plume of smoke wouldn’t matter in the darkness and, behind the hill, the fire wouldn’t be seen by anyone.

He saw to the animals, laid out his rug, made a fire, drank his wine and ate some dried figs along with a little flat bread and some cheese. Before he knew it he was asleep, and then, under the light of a full and heavy moon, he was awake again. What had woken him? Chanting, an understated mumble of words like the sound of a distant river.

He shivered and stood to find his coat. His head cleared. Never mind the coat, where was his knife? He took it out and looked down at it in the moonlight. It was the one he used to cut silk — sharp, broad-bladed, single-edged and comforting.

The chanting went on in no language of the many he understood. He was faced with a choice: go towards it, ignore it or go away. With a train of six mules there wouldn’t be much sneaking off. The noise was too disquieting to let him sleep and he knew that there was the possibility it was some strange enemy. Better to surprise than be surprised, he thought, and made his way towards the sound.

The trees cut sharp shadows into the moonlit ground, dark lines of ink on a page of silver. Leshii gripped his knife. There was a pale shape sitting thirty paces from him through the trees. He made his way towards it. The chanting stopped. A cloud blew across the moon. Leshii could see nothing. He went forward sightless, groping from tree to tree. And then, at his shoulder, he heard a breath.

He took a pace back and stumbled on a root, falling onto his backside. He looked up and, as the moon turned the edge of a cloud to crystal, it was as if the shadows seemed to coalesce into something approaching a human form. But it wasn’t human because its head was that of a huge wolf.

Leshii shouted out and pushed forward his knife to interpose it between him and the thing that seemed to be drawing in the shadows, taking its substance from them.

‘Do not fear me.’

It was the Chakhlyk, the Northman, his voice hoarse with stress. Leshii squinted into the darkness and saw that it was him, with that huge pelt draped over his shoulders, the head of the wolf above his head, as if it was his own. He had become a wolf, a wolf made of shadows, skin, fear and imagination.

The wind blew the clouds aside for a moment and the tall figure was caught in the stark light of the moon. The pebble at his neck was gone and his face was smeared with something, his hands too, something black and slick. Instinctively Leshii put his hand forward and touched the wolfman’s head. The merchant felt wetness on his fingers. He put them to his lips. Blood.

‘Chakhlyk?’

‘I am a wolf,’ said the Northman. The clouds returned, and it was as if he was a pool of darkness into which all the shadows of the forest poured as streams. Then Leshii was alone in the night.

2

The Confessor

Jehan could smell the plague setting in, the deep note of putrefaction beneath that of the filthy streets, beneath the sour starvation on the people’s breath.

They carried him down from Saint-Germain-des-Pres at night, the smoke of the burned abbey still in his clothes. He felt the cool of the water approaching, the stumble of the monks as they put his pallet onto the boat, the sick rocking that accompanied the journey across. He sensed the tension in the men in the tight silence that they kept, heard the careful movement of the muffled oars, the strokes gentle and few, and then the harsh whisper of a password.

‘Who?’

‘Confessor Jehan. Blind Jehan.’

The gate opened and the perilous part began — the transfer from the little boat onto the narrow step. The brothers tried to keep him on the pallet at first but it was quickly obvious that would be impossible. He solved the problem himself.

‘Carry me,’ he said. ‘Come on, hurry up. I am light enough.’

‘Can you climb on my back, Confessor?’

‘No. I am a cripple, not a monkey — can you not see?’

‘Then how shall I carry you?’

‘In your arms, like a child.’

The men escorting him were new to the monastery — warriors sent from a brotherhood to the south to help Saint-Germain defend against the Northmen, much good that the two of them had done. They were unused to Confessor Jehan and he could feel their uncertainty in the way he was taken from the boat. The warriors had never touched a living saint before.

It was a tight squeeze through the Pilgrims’ Gate. The walls of the city had been built by the Romans nine feet thick. The passage through them on the city’s north side had been cut later, to spare royalty the crush of the market-day crowds. It was not a weakness in the wall but a strength. Any invader breaking in would have to turn his body and sidle into the city, no chance to use a weapon. The passage from the gate was known as Dead Man’s Alley for good reason.

So, though the monk who carried him went carefully, Jehan found himself bumped and scraped into the city.

He was carried up the steps. He heard the gate close behind him, footsteps and murmured questions to his companions. The wet scent of the spring river was replaced by the damp and piss of the tight alley and the astringent, strangely pleasant note of boiling pitch and hot sand as they reached the top. Clearly, if the Vikings were to try their luck at night by that gate then the defenders were ready for them.

The monk lowered Jehan to his pallet again and he felt himself lifted up. The pallet moved through the narrow lanes. They had come at the dead of night to hide from their enemies but also from their friends. With so many sick in the city, so many desperate souls, the confessor’s progress would have been impossible by day — too many seeking his healing touch.

They came to a halt and Jehan felt himself lowered. A light breeze brought the stench of rot. He had heard that there was nowhere to bury the dead now and that corpses lay out in the streets awaiting a time they could be properly buried. If that was the case, he thought, it would do the people good. It was spiritually useful to confront the reality of death, to see the inevitable end and to think on your sins. He felt sorry for them, nevertheless. It must be hard to lose a loved one and to pass their mortal remains as you went about your business every day.

The confessor knew there was a chance he could be marooned on the island. A section of both banks of the river had held against the Danes, making resupply of the walled city, and expeditions like his own, risky but possible. However, the people were weak and dispirited from nearly four months of struggle. If the Norsemen attacked the city outside the walls, instead of concentrating on the bridges barring their progress upstream, the banks would fall and there would be no resupply, no coming and going even for a small unlit boat in the middle of the night.

‘Father?’

He recognised the voice.

‘Abbot Ebolus.’

‘Thank you for coming.’ The voice was near his ear — the abbot had bent to Jehan’s level. The confessor could smell the sweat of battle on him, the smoke and the blood. Up close, the warrior-monk reeked like a butcher’s shelf. ‘Do you think you can help her?’

‘Surely it is we, not she, I am here to help.’

Ebolus shifted on his haunches. Jehan heard the jingle of mail. The abbot was still in his armour.

‘You know why you are here?’

‘Count Eudes sent for me so I came. His sister Aelis is afflicted.’

‘Just so. She is at the father’s house at Saint-Etienne. She claims sanctuary there.’

‘From what, an ague?’

‘It is not an affliction of the body, rather one of the mind or spirit. She has taken to the great church and will not come out. Eudes feels it’s bad for the sentiment of the people. They need to see the nobility confident and healthy.’

‘Take her out and tell her to smile. There’s no sanctuary for a woman from her relations who wish her to come to table.’

‘She claims to be pursued, and as such my men will not force her from the house of God.’

‘Pursued by what?’

‘She will not say. She says something is coming for her and that she can only be safe from it in the church.’

The confessor thought for a moment.

‘Is she a woman of the court?’

‘No, she was raised half wild down at Loches on the Indre.’

‘Then it’s likely some country fancy has come into her head. There are plenty in that area who dance naked before bonfires in the night, only to go to church when the sun rises.’

‘Aelis is a Christian.’

‘But she’s a woman. She has believed some peasant stupidity, that is all. It’s troubling, I grant you, but is it really worth bringing me over here in the middle of a siege?’

The abbot lowered his voice. ‘There is more,’ he said. ‘Count Eudes has received an offer.’

‘The pagans want money to leave?’

‘No. They want the girl. If she can be persuaded to go to them they’ve sworn that they will leave us alone.’

Jehan rocked back and forth — in contemplation or under the influence of his disease Ebolus could not be sure.

‘A girl, a marriage, brings peace and security, even the possibility of conversion of the pagan. Silver is only like giving a lamb to a wolf — he will be back for more. You are certain the northerners will leave if they have her?’ said the confessor.

‘They have given their oaths, and it is my experience that, when they swear, they swear in earnest.’

‘They gave their oaths when our fat emperor paid them off rather than facing them as Christ’s enemies in the field, but they are back.’

‘I think this is different. We may be wrong about why they are here. There is talk that they came just for her. They have no designs upstream, and if Aelis goes to them then they will retire.’

‘A count’s sister seems a poor prize for a Viking king,’ said Jehan.

‘She is high-born and a famous beauty. A Frankish farmer’s daughter is too good for their highest king.’

‘And yet,’ said Jehan.

Ebolus shifted on his feet. ‘And yet.’

The confessor thought out loud. ‘So the girl can lift the siege, free her people from plague and send their enemies from the land if only she will marry this barbarian, and yet she will not. Is she so full of pride?’

‘There is a problem in that-’

Ebolus was cut short by a stir in the street. Someone was coming. Heavy footsteps approached, ten men at least, thought Jehan, marching in step. Soldiers. The footsteps stopped near to him. Jehan became aware of a presence at his side, someone looking at him, someone for whom every nearby conversation halted, for whom even the animals seemed to stop braying.

‘Monk.’

‘Count Eudes,’ said Jehan.

‘Good of you to come.’ The count’s voice was as Jehan remembered it — curt, brusque, implying that time was short and he had pressing business to attend to.

‘When the count commands, the brothers of Saint-Germain obey.’

There was a short laugh.

‘Not so, or your monks would be here defending my walls instead of cowering in the countryside with their treasures buried more deeply than their sins.’

‘The confessor is still at the abbey,’ said Ebolus.

‘You were there when the Normans plundered it?’

‘No. But I returned after they had. Even Sigfrid can’t burn somewhere twice.’

‘I wish your fellow monks had your courage.’

‘It seems courage would not be required if your sister were made to do her duty and marry this heathen. I would gladly go with her to help bring him to God.’

The count said nothing, and the streets around him seemed to empty of noise in respect to his silence. When he spoke again there was an edge of anger in his voice.

‘They have not said they want her in marriage.’

‘I did not get the chance to elaborate, Confessor,’ said Ebolus. ‘The pagans…’

He seemed to have difficulty continuing.

‘Yes?’ said Jehan.

Ebolus went on: ‘Our spies tell us it’s something to do with their gods.’ The abbot’s voice was almost ashamed.

Jehan fell silent. Somewhere far off a child was crying.

Eventually, the confessor spoke. ‘That,’ he said, ‘changes the complexion of things. A sacrifice? We won’t give up Christian daughters to heathen murder no matter what the cost.’

‘We have no thought of that,’ said Eudes.

Ebolus spoke: ‘Why not? What choice do we have? If the people discover this offer has been made — and discover it they will — then they’ll tear her from the church and throw her to the barbarians, sacrifice or no. You have not seen the streets, Confessor. The plague takes so many that we cannot bury our dead. We have no silver to offer, the king has given it to the Norsemen for twenty years now. We need to buy time and then strike at these heathens.’

‘I will not send my sister to the slaughter,’ said Eudes.

‘How many warriors do we put in the way of death? I have lost one brother and expect to lose more. It will be a noble end for her,’ said Ebolus.

‘And what will they say of Eudes?’ said the count. ‘That he is so weak he gives up his only sister to rape and murder. I will stand alone against them with this city a field of ash about me before I let that happen.’

The confessor felt irritation building in him. He felt the need to move, to pace around, to slap the walls, to express the passion God had put within him in a physical way. His body, though, would not allow that.

‘Turn me.’ He spoke to his attendant monk.

‘Father?’

‘My hip is chafing. Turn me.’

The monk did as he was asked, rolling Jehan onto his other side and arranging the cushion beneath him.

Jehan paused for a moment, offering a prayer against wrath, and then spoke: ‘There can be no concession in this way to pagans. It is one thing to marry the girl to a godless king, perhaps even a good thing. That way, through prayer, through devotion and humility, we may hope she will bring the unbeliever to Christ. It is quite another to imperil her immortal soul, to imperil all our immortal souls by knowingly handing her over to the worshippers of idols. Et tulisti filios tuos et filias tuas quas generasti mihi et immolasti eis ad devorandum numquid parva est fornicatio tua immolantis filios meos et dedisti illos consecrans eis.’

He said the words so quickly that Ebolus, though well educated in Latin, strained forward to hear them. ‘What?’

The confessor twisted his head in frustration and said, ‘In plain Roman, moreover thou hast taken thy sons and thy daughters, whom thou hast borne unto me, and these hast thou sacrificed unto them to be devoured. Is this of thy whoredoms a small matter, that thou hast slain my children and-’

Ebolus interrupted. ‘My Latin is as good as yours, Father; if anything it is my ears that fail me.’

‘Then hear this,’ said the confessor, feeling heat come to his cheeks. ‘Give that girl to the Northmen and you will imperil not only her soul but your own. Better a thousand righteous deaths than one that the Lord abhors. You are right to protect her, Eudes. The piety of kings is the protection of their people.’

‘It is a hard god you follow, Confessor,’ said the abbot.

‘It is God, plain and simple.’

‘Then go to her and make her show her face in the streets,’ said Eudes. ‘That’s all I ask.’

‘There might be a way that would satisfy us all,’ said Ebolus.

‘If fat Emperor Charles got off his backside and sent some men down here,’ said Eudes.

Ebolus breathed out heavily. ‘That would take a miracle and the Lord is sparing with those. No. Look, we cannot send the girl to the northerners against her will. That would make us as the Sanhedrin, who brought Christ to Pilate. But she can volunteer. That would make her a martyr. There are plenty of examples of saints who have willingly given up their lives to pagans to defend the faith. And you, Eudes, would not appear weak. You would have a martyr in your family. Will you not allow her the bravery that you show on our ramparts every day?’

‘She is my sister,’ said Eudes.

‘And this is your city. If Paris falls, what will they say of Eudes then? If ever you have ambitions to be king of the Franks, then they will lie in its ashes,’ said Ebolus. The abbot’s eyes met Eudes’s, searching to see the count’s reaction to his words. He saw nothing, which he took for encouragement, so he went on: ‘And there is a precedent. Saint Perpetua was torn to pieces by wild animals in the amphitheatre in Rome for refusing to renounce the Lord. It might be argued that was a pagan ritual, of a kind.’

Jehan felt his body twitch and convulse.

‘This is sophistry,’ he said, ‘and I am not happy that we are using our philosophies to murder this girl.’

‘What would you do, Confessor, if it was your blood they wanted?’ said Ebolus.

‘I would go to them,’ he said.

‘Exactly. Then can you say the lady should not even have the virtues of martyrdom and an eternal reward explained to her?’

The confessor thought for a second.

‘I cannot.’

‘So you will talk to her?’ said Ebolus.

‘Just get her to smile and face the people,’ said Eudes. ‘That will be enough.’

‘But you have no objection to the confessor reminding her of her duties to the city? You will not allow a selfish pride to cloud your judgement of the necessary?’ said Ebolus.

‘I will not have her forced.’

‘No one is talking of forcing her,’ said Ebolus; ‘we are simply seeking to remind her of her Christian duty to put her fellow men before herself. Confessor, can you do this?’

Again, silence from the confessor. After a time, he spoke: ‘I will speak but I will not persuade her. Any decision must be her own.’

‘Then let us not delay,’ said Ebolus.

Jehan felt a strong hand on his arm.

‘Concentrate on getting her to show herself to the people. If I find that you have coerced her in any way, monk, then do not expect to leave this city alive.’

Jehan smiled. ‘I never expect to leave anywhere alive, Count. To do so is to presume too much knowledge of God’s will. But I am an honest man and I will treat your sister honestly.’

‘Then go.’

Jehan was lifted and carried forward on the pallet. They passed through the city. He heard the cries of starving children, the coughs of plague victims, weeping and even some drunken singing. It was, he thought, the music of despair. He longed to silence it but he knew that his powers of healing were very limited. Sometimes he doubted that he did anything at all when he laid on his hands for the cure of pain, made the mad sane or even, in some terminal cases, told the person their time was up and they should depart for heaven. They believed him to be a saint, so they got better for him, came back to themselves or they died, sometimes. The faithful benefited the most. Was God working through him? Of course He was, he thought, what else could it be?

He felt himself ascending a hill, the men carrying him slipping on the straw that had been laid on the cobbles. There was a lot of straw, some fresh-smelling, some stinking of rot. Either variety was no good sign — it was put down as a kindness to the inhabitants of nearby houses, to keep the sound of hooves and wheels to a minimum. This was a courtesy extended only to those on their deathbeds. He prayed for them — yes, that their lives should be spared but mostly that they should come to know God. Death held no dominion over the righteous man.

He had work here, he thought, administering the viaticum blessing, the preparation for the journey after death, absolving sins and getting people ready for heaven. Eudes had said the girl could save the city. No. The city could save itself, kneel down before God, ask his forgiveness and welcome him into its heart. Then physical death could hold no fear for those who lived there, as it held no fear for him.

Straw for silence. It was a symbol, he thought, of man’s useless attachment to earthly things, a wafer-thin reality. Christ would come one day, Christ the wrecker, Christ the down-thrower, Christ who sees all sins and holds us accountable for them. Where would be our pretences and our excuses then, our comforts and our indulgences? They would be as straw before the wind.

And yet the girl could stop the slaughter. He saw the point Ebolus was making. One girl’s life against those of the whole city. It would be better for everyone if she could be persuaded. The confessor’s view was different. One girl’s life and eternal damnation against death with the possibility of salvation. It wasn’t even a choice.

‘Saint-Etienne, Father.’

They were at the great church of Paris. Jehan could almost sense its bulk before him, as if it did something to the air around it, or rather to the dark — intensifying and deepening it, turning it into something Jehan could feel on his skin like the presence of deep water. Since he had been blind, Jehan had come to almost feel the pressures that buildings and even people exerted on the air. He might have been tempted to say he had evolved an extra sense but he was a practical man. So long in the darkness, he thought, his mind simply looked for stimulation in other ways. And of course he remembered the church from before he had been afflicted. It was almost the first thing he’d seen when he came to Paris, brought by monks from the great forest of the Rhine. Perhaps that accounted for the resonance he still felt.

Jehan could recall little of his early life. He’d been a foundling. That building was almost his first memory. He remembered the huge octagonal dome rising above him out of the many-sided base. He had never seen anything like it. The monk who had brought him from the east had gone inside to discuss the boy’s future, leaving Jehan standing in the overwhelming bustle of the Parisian street. He remembered how he’d run his hands all the way around the building and counted its sides — twelve, each bearing a fresco of a man he now knew to be an apostle. He recalled the deep dark windows, the sheer bulk of the stone and, when you went inside, the vaulted ceiling, the marble on the floor so shiny that he had feared to tread on it, thinking it was the surface of a pool. Then, as he’d waited for the brothers of Saint-Germain to collect him, he remembered the sun through the windows in the evening that cast shadows that seemed as deep as pits.

‘Is she alone in there?’

‘Yes, it is very late.’

‘Carry me in and set me beside her.’

The monk was lifted from the pallet and carried into the church. He felt the warrior stumble as he went through the porch.

‘Be careful,’ said the confessor.

‘I am sorry, Father. We are all blind men in here, there is scarcely a light.’

The confessor grunted. Since the siege the church would have given up its candles, and besides, why would it be lit at night?

‘Can you see her?’

‘No.’

‘I am here, whoever it is who looks for me.’ The voice was clear and strong, with that mild note of irritation that royals often employed when speaking to their inferiors. He recognised the tone. The nobility were occasional visitors to his monastery, though the men came more often than the women. Noble ladies, though, were interested to meet saints, and he had received her there when she was around twelve. He had been eighteen. Now she was eighteen and her voice had changed and deepened, but he still knew it. The girl had asked him why he was so ugly. He had replied that it was the will of God and he thanked Him for it.

The confessor breathed in, using the smell of incense and beeswax to calm himself and order his thoughts. What would he say? He had no idea now; he only knew what he would not say, that she must go, it was her duty. No, he would put the alternatives before her and the decision would be up to her.

‘It is Confessor Jehan, lady.’

‘They sent me a saint,’ she said. The voice was not that of a frightened country girl with a head full of devils. It was absolutely that of a lady of the court, one of those educated women who liked to tease the priests with their knowledge of the Bible, to argue even — however demurely — about its interpretation.

‘I am not dead yet, lady, nor would I presume to know the creator’s view of me.’

‘You are a healer, Confessor. Have you come to cure me of my resolve?’

Jehan, used to listening where he could not see, detected a note of fear in her voice. And no wonder, he thought. Her options in life were very unattractive.

‘I have come to speak to you, lady, that is all.’

There was a noise from outside, shouting and screaming, the ringing of bells and the blowing of horns. It was the sound, Jehan knew, of battle.

‘The Norsemen are attacking?’ said the confessor.

‘It would sound as if that were so, Father,’ said the monk carrying him.

There was a great crash quite near the church. The monk gave a cry of surprise.

Jehan said, ‘God smiles on those who fall defending his name, brother. It’s unlikely to be a serious raid; I think they’re just trying to prevent Eudes from repairing his tower. Carry me on, as I said.’

The monk walked on through the vast space of the great building. Jehan heard the scrape of a flint, smelled tinder and the burning beeswax that followed it. He heard too the lady’s intake of breath as she saw him.

‘I’m afraid the years have not improved my looks, Lady Aelis.’

‘I hope they have improved my manners,’ she said. The girl sounded genuinely shocked, and the confessor could hear she was struggling to control her voice.

‘May I sit a while with you, then?’

‘Yes.’

There were more screams from outside. The defenders would be fighting, thought the confessor, largely without armour. There would have been no time to put it on. His whole conversation, he thought, could very quickly become an almost grotesque irrelevance if the northerners got into the city. How many of them were there? Thousands. How many men-at-arms in Paris? Two hundred and fifty? While the towers held they were safe. If they fell then the city would be swamped. There was nothing for it but to proceed and to trust to the will of God, as he had always done.

‘Set me down,’ he said to the monk, ‘then draw your sword and go to the ramparts to perform the office of a faithful man.’

The monk put him down then left, clumping his way from pillar to pillar as he walked out of the candle glow.

‘You are…’ She hesitated.

‘Worse than I was? There is no need to hide from it, lady; it is a plain fact.’

‘I am sorry.’

‘Do not be. It is a gift from God, and I welcome it.’

‘I will pray for you.’

‘Do not. Or rather, pray as I pray. Thank God for visiting this condition upon me and the opportunity it has given me to prove my faith.’

Aelis caught the implication of his words. He felt blessed to have been tested in his faith. She should feel the same. She did not, however.

She looked at the figure in front of her in the candlelight. When she had seen him before he had been blind and confined to a chair. Then, she had been struck by his eyes, which didn’t focus at all but ceaselessly scanned the room, as if he was trying to follow the flight of an annoying fly. His face too had been twisted into a permanent grimace. Though she had thought him ugly, she had seen worse deformity on any market day in Paris. Now, she thought, he could be the king of beggars, if he chose. His body seemed to have shrivelled, his arms to have withered and twisted; his head was cast back as if permanently looking upwards. She knew the joke was that he always looked to heaven, but, faced with the reality, she could not find it funny. The monk swayed back and forth as he spoke, like someone in deep contemplation. Aelis found the whole effect very unsettling.

Ever since she had been a little girl, and more since she had become a woman, she had been able to perceive people in a way that went beyond the normal understanding of the five senses. It was almost as if she could hear people’s personalities like music, sense them as colours or symbols. She had grown up around warriors, seen their scars and heard their stories of battle and fortitude against the northerners. When they had spoken, the colour of iron had come into her mind, of swords and armour, and the dark skies of war. Her brother had a presence like a mailed fist, hard, uncompromising, but nevertheless insubstantial compared to that of Confessor Jehan. The monk’s body may have been broken, but his soul, his will, seemed to sit like a great mountain in the dark, solid and immovable.

She took up the candle and went to the altar. The gold of the candlesticks and communion cups caught its flame and glittered as she moved. The abbot would not have them removed — that would be to admit that the Norsemen might get in. There had been hope that the monks at Saint-Germain would send over some of their relics. They could hardly expect the bones of Saint Germain himself, but there had been talk that the stole of Saint Vincent might be sent across. However, the abbot of Saint-Germain had pointed out that the monastery had been sacked by Norsemen three times already and the stole had provided no protection then.

Aelis kneeled beneath the altar.

‘God has tested me too in a smaller way. Should I be thankful?’

Jehan measured his words carefully.

‘We should be grateful for anything that comes from God.’

The confessor was just a voice in the darkness to her.

‘I am not afraid of the Norsemen,’ she said.

‘Then what are you afraid of?’

Aelis crossed herself. Jehan heard her mutter a prayer. Her voice trembled, though she fought to suppress it, not to appear weak in front of a low-born man.

‘Something is coming for me, and I know that if I consent to go with the Norsemen, or even if I leave this church, it will find me and take me. It brings peril for us all.’

‘You can’t stay inside a church all your life,’ said the confessor. ‘What is coming for you?’

She said nothing for a moment. Then: ‘When your blindness came upon you, Confessor, you had a vision?’

‘Yes.’

‘Of the Virgin Mary.’

‘Yes.’

‘Did she speak to you?’

‘No.’

‘So how did you know it was her?’

‘I knew. And from the gift she awoke within me.’

‘The prophecies?’

‘Yes.’

Jehan remembered the day that had changed his life. He had been found by hunters in the woods at the age of around five or six, and then deposited at a monastery in the East Frankish lands of Austrasia. He had been delirious. All that was certain was that someone had taught him to speak Roman and he had suffered a great shock that had left him with few memories. He had been taken west to Paris by a travelling monk, where he had been given a place at Saint-Germain by the mercy of the Church. His recovery had been as remarkable as it was quick. By the age of nine he was helping the monks, studying, playing and laughing. In many ways he outshone his peers. His facility for writing would have been surprising in a child who had been raised to it from his earliest years. Languages too came easily to him: the common tongue of Roman, Francique, as spoken at court, Latin for official business, Greek, even the Norse and Saxon that the missionaries taught him. More amazing was his ability at chess. He had watched two monks play the game and then sat to try for himself. In his first game he beat one of the abbey’s strongest players. The boy, it was said, was blessed.

Then the Virgin had appeared to him. It was high summer, the hungry month of July, and he had nothing to do but walk the fields of unripe crops. The sun was over the corn and the sky was a burning blue. When the monks spoke of visions he had always imagined that an angel or the Virgin would appear on a cloud or in a haze. But she had stood beside him so real he felt he could touch her. She had spoken to him, or rather he had heard her voice in his mind, though he had never admitted it to anyone, too unsure of what she had meant. He had pondered her words for years, and he had never revealed them.

‘Do not seek me.’

He had taken it for a warning against the sin of pride, of trying to be too holy and putting himself above other men in piety. Seeking heaven, he felt, was the surest way to lose it.

She had walked away from him and he had run after her, but the blindness fell upon him and he had been discovered wandering by the hives, lucky not to blunder into one and be stung.

His prophecies had been correct — raids along the coast, Rouen in flames, Bayeux, Laon and Beauvais ruined, the sons of the Church executed. The abbot had declared him a saint on earth — a confessor — and God had blessed him with further afflictions and further visions.

‘They made you a saint because you saw her?’

‘Yes. That and the monastery’s desire to have a confessor among its monks. It was just and it was politic,’ he said.

‘What would they make you if you had seen…’ She couldn’t finish.

Jehan was quiet, allowing her to compose herself.

‘Do you need to ask for penance?’

Aelis gave a short laugh. ‘I have nothing to confess, Father, no sin to be forgiven, but if I was to stand in front of the congregation, call what I have experienced a sin and ask a priest for forgiveness, my life might be over before I left this church. Can I ask you privately? Will you swear never to reveal what I have to say?’

‘The sacrament of penance must be conducted publicly,’ said Jehan.

‘I have nothing to be sorry for. Will you swear?’

‘This path is strewn with briars,’ said the confessor under his breath. What if the woman told him she was an adulteress or, worse, a murderer? He could not, in conscience, hold on to a secret like that.

The noise of the fighting was getting closer. Had the Norsemen taken a tower? That was impossible, he thought, without mining. The enemy had already tried that, and to no success.

The cries and the curses focused the confessor on his task.

‘I will swear,’ he said.

‘They made you a saint because you saw the Virgin,’ said Aelis; ‘what would they call you if you had seen the devil?’

‘The common people might cry witch,’ said the confessor, ‘though belief in witchcraft is heresy. Someone might be held a heretic if they declared themselves a witch, but a vision is a vision. Of itself it means nothing.’

‘So what would you call me?’

‘You have seen the devil?’

‘Yes. Am I a witch, unknown to myself?’

‘Christ saw the devil in the wilderness — was he a witch?’

She bowed her head.

Jehan swallowed and began to rock more rapidly.

‘There are many explanations for this sort of thing. An illness, perhaps, a passing brain fever. A dream is often just that, lady, a fancy without any connection to the day-to-day.’

‘I dream him while waking. He is always there.’

More screams. Jehan heard a shouted word in the Norse tongue: ‘Die.’

He didn’t pause. ‘And how do you know him for the devil?’

‘He is a wolf. A man and a wolf at the same time. He comes from the shadows and the side of my sight. He is beside me as I fall to sleep and there in the instant of my waking. He is a wolf and he speaks to me.’

‘What does he say?’

Aelis crossed herself again. ‘He says that he loves me.’

There was a clamour right outside the cathedral. The fighting was close now. Aelis looked up. The darkness around the weak candle glow seemed to swim and to seethe, a liquid black. There was a thump against the door, so hard that it seemed it would splinter.

‘Are we to die, Confessor?’ said Aelis.

‘If it is God’s will,’ said Jehan.

‘Then pray for us.’

‘No,’ said the confessor. ‘Pray for our enemies, that they might find the light of Christ in their hearts before our soldiers kill them and so have a chance of heaven. We are believers and so can be more hopeful we will go to God.’

She stood and Jehan heard her draw in breath. To Aelis the dark had now taken on a different quality. It seemed to bristle, to move and even to shine, like the fur on a hog’s back. Then the shadow at the edge of the candle glow took form, moved and stepped forward into the light.

The lady gasped. There, like a creature of wrapped shadows, stood the figure of the wolfman, his savage head leering down at her from the darkness, his pale skin taut and smeared with blood.

‘He is here,’ she said. ‘He is here!’

‘Who?’

‘The wolf, the wolf! The devil is come!’

Jehan cast his head around. There was a dark, animal scent away to his left. He could hear the breathing of a third person now, hear the girl trying to catch her breath in her panic.

‘We are clothed in the armour of God, Satan; you cannot harm us,’ said the monk. His voice was steady and calm, almost bored, like a teacher speaking to a naughty child.

‘ Domina,’ said the wolfman. He hacked out the word as if it was stuck in his throat, his accent guttural and strange. ‘ Domina.’ Aelis tried to make herself think. She had been taught Latin since her earliest years but she couldn’t even make her mind translate this simple word. The monk, however, was unafraid.

‘Do not call for the lady, devil; your business is with me.’ The confessor spoke in Latin too.

The wolfman ignored him.

‘ Domina. My name is Sindre that is called Myrkyrulf, and I am here to protect you.’

Finally Aelis found her Latin. ‘Against what?’

‘Against this,’ he said, and the doors of the church flew in.

3

Death and the Raven

Aelis would later recall only impressions of the first moments of the attack. There had been the flash of something, like a curve of flame, like a sliver of a blood moon glinting from the dark. It was the sword, she realised later, the sword that belonged to that hideous thing. It had caught the fire of the buildings that were burning behind the church, the blade sparking to life in an instant before turning from the light and vanishing from the sight but not the mind.

She had never seen a weapon that was curved like that. Its shape seemed like a symbol for murder, a shallow crescent of malice. And then that word that sounded like a talon tearing through the darkness.

‘Hrafn!’ It was the wolfman who spoke and though she did not understand what he meant it seemed to wake something in her, to bring images with it, smells and sounds. She saw a wide plain of the battle dead, saw ragged banners streaming in the breeze. The air was thick with what she at first thought was smoke but, when she identified the sound that accompanied it, she knew was not smoke. It was the buzzing of numberless flies. He was there on that plain, the wolf. She couldn’t see him but she could sense his presence, a hot snuffling and grunting thing creeping at the side of her eye that she could not turn to see with her full sight.

She stood up, blinked and shook her head, forced reality to return. She put her hand to a pillar for support. The vision had been so sharp and had come on her so quickly that she feared she was going mad.

The church was suddenly crazy with battle. Men hacked, kicked, bit and punched at each other in the dark. In the firelight she saw her brother, Eudes, his shield strapped on his back, slashing with his long and short swords into the enemy. The Danes had come, for sure.

Axe heads glinted in the dark, faces loomed and fell, spears were thrust and hacked down, friend became indistinguishable from foe.

The wolfman grabbed her by the arm and pushed her forward. ‘Walk towards the door,’ he said. ‘You will not fall.’

‘Aelis, Aelis!’ her brother was screaming but he couldn’t get to her, he was hemmed in by two opponents. The flickering light of the flames outside fought the darkness of the church; things flashed from the shadows, metal, wood, blade and spear tip, shields, faces, arms and feet. Three times men came at her, trying to grab her and pull her away, but three times the snarling shadows seemed to engulf them before they could touch her and they fell with terrible cries. She kept walking towards the door. Ten pillars from it, eight, now five, now two. She was nearly free. Then the arc of the crescent was sweeping down on her, the curve of flame that was that terrible sword.

‘Aelis, Aelis!’ Her brother’s face was contorted in anguish, as though melting in the heat of the burning buildings. Fire seared her skin; the taste of ashes and blood was in her mouth. The sword was a tongue of lightning stretching towards her. There was a blur of movement, a sound like a sack falling off a cart as the shadows reached out to smash the swordsman to the floor. Then she was running, bundled through the narrow streets by an unseen hand. She glanced behind her, tried to see who was driving her on. It was the wolfman. Even though she was running as fast as she could, he was just sidestepping down the alleyways, watching for pursuers as he drove her forward.

‘Hrafn!’ he screamed back towards the church, then he said something unintelligible, though she could tell it was in the Norse tongue. The words meant nothing to her but she caught their intent clearly. The wolfman was warning away his enemy, telling him that he would die.

She stumbled but the wolfman held her up. Where was he taking her? The moon was a lantern, casting the streets in a bright and empty light but leaving deep shadows beneath the eaves of the buildings.

Then they were out into the square and she saw where they were going — down the alley to the Pilgrims’ Gate. There it was, but locked and guarded. Two men-at-arms came forwards with spears.

‘Lady, we are here for you.’

The wolfman pulled her to a halt, ignoring the advancing warriors, still looking behind him.

‘Up into the house,’ he said. ‘Jump into the water and swim. He will not follow you that way. Fall prisoner to any but him. Do not let him see your face. Do not let him see your face!’

‘Who?’

There were two soft thumps, followed by a sound like the fall of a thousand coins. Both the men-at-arms had collapsed, hauberks crashing to the cobbles. Black-plumed arrows had caught one in an eye, the other through the neck.

‘Go!’ The wolfman leaped to shield her. Another soft thump and a heavy exhalation. The wolfman had taken an arrow to the back. He still had the strength to push her towards a door. She pulled it then pushed it. It opened and she fell into a small house.

Moonlight split the darkness inside and she saw the huddled faces of women and children looking at her in terror. She pushed through them to a ladder to the next floor. The room erupted in screams and clatter, as the crowd tried to avoid her, to get out, to do anything but sit in frozen fear. She went up one level, where sleeping mats were strewn around, and then to another above it, a lightless place. She felt around the walls, trying to locate a window. She bumped into something — a loom. It was a weaver’s house; there had to be a window for light to work by. She tripped and hit the floor heavily, stood up and pressed on, her hands frantic on the walls.

Then she found it. Cloth had been nailed across the window in a poor attempt to keep out the cold. She tore it back and looked out. She was not on the river side but looking into the street. Something down there slipped from shadow to shadow. Was it the wolfman? There was movement beneath the arch of a doorway. Then it stopped. A figure walked forward from the direction of the great church. He went to the arch and knelt at the edge of the dark. She shivered to look at him. He was a lean dark man, his hair thick with tar so it stood up in a shock. Something had been put into it — feathers, black feathers standing up in a horrid crown. He was completely naked, his body smeared in white clay and ashes so it shone under the moonlight, pale as a corpse. In his hand he carried a bow and on his back was an empty quiver and that cruel curved sword she had seen in the church, now housed in a dull black scabbard. There was something wrong with his skin too, she realised. It had a rough quality to it. She squinted forward through the dark. It didn’t look like smallpox, but she was too far away to tell.

The inhabitants of the house were streaming across the square, the women herding the children away. Eight of the Danish invaders came into the square — big men covered in tattoos, the one at the front carrying a large shield with the design of a hammer on it. His sword was drawn and he was pointing it at the naked man, warning him in some way. Not friendly.

The man was oblivious to him; he was tugging at something in the shadows. It was an arrow. It would not come free and, as he pulled it, the body of the wolfman came with it into the light.

‘No!’ said Aelis, and the man turned to her. She threw her hands across her face and peeked out from behind her fingers like a frightened child. He gave a rasping cry of exultation as he saw her and leaped towards the house. The big man with the shield cursed and Aelis scrambled across the room. She lost all composure, knocking over looms, falling over bales, crawling towards the opposite window. She pulled off the vellum covering it and crouched to look down into the river. It was three times her height beneath her.

She couldn’t jump, couldn’t bring herself to do it. She heard the creature make the floor below, his footsteps light and quick. She put a leg out of the window but brought it back again. The drop was too great. She stepped back inside the room and glanced around her. There was the hatch where the ladder emerged. She tried to kick the ladder away but it had been tied tight to the beams and she had nothing to cut it free with. She looked down, remembering the wolfman’s warning to cover her face. There, just visible in the weak light of the floor below, was a face looking back at her, its eyes sharp and pitiless as a bird’s. At first glance she thought that he was wearing a mask of some sort, but as he put his foot on the ladder she could see his face was a network of tiny scars, as were his neck and upper body. It was nothing like leprosy — in places the scars were neat and defined, more like a large pin had dug into him than like the ravages of disease.

He looked up and spoke to her in Latin: ‘Thing of darkness, death bringer, you will not escape me.’

‘Who are you?’

‘A man of honour,’ he said and leaped at the ladder.

And then Aelis was falling. She had done what she thought she could not and gone feet first through the window. The water hit her hard, forcing her wimple over her eyes, blinding her. She struggled for the surface, her skirts heavy and tight about her legs. She pulled off the wimple and cast it aside. The water was so cold, ice meltwater from the hills, crushing the breath from her body, but the current was not strong. The upstream bridge on the south side had partially collapsed. The Norsemen had made an abortive attempt to pile debris, bodies and whatever they could get their hands on onto the ruin to make a causeway to the city. They’d been beaten back but had succeeded in somewhat stemming the considerable force of the river. The downside was that the water was foul. Aelis clamped shut her mouth to avoid swallowing it and struck for the shore. Her country childhood served her well — she was used to swimming in rivers and lakes — though her skirts were terribly restrictive and she had to hold them above her waist and kick with her legs to make progress. Things were smashing into the water about her. A table leg went over her head, then something heavy splashed behind her. She coughed and shook, turned and saw a stream of cloth from a bale flying through the night. Her pursuer had no more arrows and was throwing all he could find. She hammered forward across the river, went under, panicked, her legs pumping wildly. Then she hit something. Solid ground was under her feet. She made one last effort and got to the bank.

She didn’t turn, just kept scrambling up, her flesh shaking on her bones with the terrible cold. She heard the voice of the thing behind her.

‘ I dag deyr thu! ’ he shouted, and then in Latin, ‘This is your death day, monster!’

4

A Necessary Sacrifice

Aelis clawed her way up the bank. She was on the south side of the river, though she couldn’t tell exactly where. That is, she knew where she was in relation to the city but not to the Norse camps. The invaders were on both sides, though she had no idea how far their control extended.

There was still a clamour at the tower on the bridge. To her alarm, she heard the invaders were retreating; the bells had changed their pattern to tell the people the Norsemen had been beaten back. The screams of the fighting were dying and the men-at-arms on the tower were shouting cat calls and insults after their enemies, goading them for running, asking where their famous Viking fury was now.

The enemy would be returning to his camp and Aelis realised that she might well be right in the middle of their retreat. Men were moving through the houses and huts. She saw the outline of someone with an axe across his shoulder, another man with a spear. They could be Danes or they could be her people, she couldn’t be sure. As soon as the bulk of the Norsemen moved to the main attack at the bridge, the Franks would come in from the forest to worry their camp. The number of invaders was so great that no victory could be gained, but they could injure a guard, steal a pig and, most of all, keep a few of the Danes from attacking the city. It was too risky to approach the dark figures, though. Who knew who they were?

Some of the houses were even still inhabited by Franks. It had been a mystery to Aelis why the Northmen had not taken the whole south bank, but her brother had explained it. The houses outside the city wall were very poor and the people many and strong from labour on the land. The Norsemen’s numbers were great, but not so great they could be profligate. They would take the houses, he said, but on their way back. They wanted slaves but had no intention of carrying them upriver if they ever got past the bridges of Paris. They’d be an encumbrance to further looting. They’d allow the Franks to feed and care for themselves until they returned, then they’d take them captive. The Vikings treated the Franks like a cook treats his hens, her brother had said.

She looked up to the weaver’s house, her body still convulsing with cold. The feathered man had gone, but then she saw another face at the window. It was the warrior with the hammer on his shield. He threw the shield into the water and, in an instant, leaped to follow it. Then another man came to the window and jumped too. They were chasing her, and there were a lot of them.

She blundered forward into the darkness of the houses, running as fast as she could. There was another splash behind her, and a shout of complaint as one of the Norsemen hit the river too close to a comrade. She had to find somewhere to hide for the night, to spy out the land and try to find some way back into Paris — or out into the friendly country beyond — before the next day. Even that wouldn’t be easy. She had lost her wimple in the river and her hair was uncovered. The Franks were tolerant people and women could even travel unchaperoned throughout their lands, but with her modesty so badly compromised, there was a chance she’d be taken for a whore for any man to use as he saw fit.

She could not approach anyone male, particularly at night, but if she could find a woman of her own people then she could explain her state of undress, borrow some sort of head covering and stay with her until morning. Then, with luck, she could get back to the city across what remained of the southern bridge. There was enough debris there to make it serviceable to anyone willing to wade and climb their way across. The few provisions the city managed to get came in that way.

A cloud took the moon and the night became very dark. She made her way left, as she knew the Norsemen were camped nearer to the westernmost bridge. She kept low and moved from shadow to shadow, knowing that she could as easily be killed by her own side as by the enemy. But she still couldn’t see who had possession of the houses and couldn’t risk going in.

Then the cloud slipped away from the moon, the river turned to a shining silver path and she saw them — four men with shields in conference, two more heaving themselves up the bank out of the river. She knew that if she stayed she would be discovered, so she ran. She heard a halloo behind her. They’d seen her.

She plunged through the dark as she had plunged through the water, legs thrashing at the ground in an effort to go faster, falling, rising, driving on. The men were fanning out, moving through the houses. She came to the edge of a wood, which she knew stretched up to the top of the hill. She stumbled in, unable to find a track in the dark. Again, the cloud was her friend, blotting out the moon and casting the forest into blackness. She went on anyway, trying to keep silent, to keep her balance, to locate a path, to move quickly — so many contradictory things to do that she achieved none of her goals. She fell for a last time and gave up any attempt to stand. She crawled on through the tearing brambles, the nettles that stung and the stones that cut her knees. The men were crashing about in the woods behind her. She heard a shouted word she recognised. ‘ Hundr! ’ They were calling for a dog. She was exhausted but had to go on. The moon crept from behind the cloud to reveal a trail, a slick path of flattened grass. She got up and ran to the top of the hill, and over the crest, shouting out in surprise as she saw the little fire.

A man stood up from beside it. He was small, squat and dark with a broad-bladed knife in his hands.

‘ Chakhlyk? Volkodlak. Lycos? Lupus? ’ She recognised the last two words. Wolf. He came forward, the big knife raised.

She thought of that terrible dream, and of the man who had tried to protect her, who had been a wolf, and also of the thing in her visions, that had said that it loved her. The thoughts never settled to make any sense, but perhaps it was her sensitivity that let her see the connection between the stout little man in front of her and the tall wolfman who had fallen fighting for her. Whatever, she was at his mercy.

She said in Latin, ‘I am Lady Aelis of the Franks, line of Robert the Strong, sister to Count Eudes. I am pursued by Normans and will offer great reward for any that help me.’

The man gave a smile big as a tear in a sheet.

‘You?’ he said. ‘Lady, I was sent on a delegation to meet you here.’

‘By whom?’ She put her hand to her hair, trying to cover it.

There were noises from back down the hill — barking and the cries of men.

‘Prince Helgi of the Rus.’

‘Then, in honour of your prince, can you preserve me? I can’t outrun them. Can you hide me?’ said Aelis.

He stepped towards her and put the knife up to her throat.

‘I am not afraid to die,’ she said.

‘Well, I hope there won’t be any need for that,’ he said. ‘With your permission, lady?’ And then he cut off a huge hank of her hair.

5

Voices in the Dark

The battle in the church had ended. The Vikings had driven the Franks outside and slammed shut the door but now they were trapped. From within, the confessor could hear the Franks assembling in the street, hear their excited cries.

‘They’re inside! They’re inside! We have them.’

The words of the psalm came into his head unbidden, but he would not say them out loud.

‘Arise, O Lord; save me, O my God: for thou hast smitten all mine enemies upon the cheek bone; thou hast broken the teeth of the ungodly.’

That was in him, to call up the god of the Old Testament, the powerful, protecting, avenging god. Instead, he thanked the Lord for his trial and prayed that the heathens might come to Christ’s peace before they died. God’s will, he thought, was all-encompassing and to complain or show weakness before life’s trials was to rail against Him. If things were so, it was because He wished them to be so.

Around him the Vikings were talking. He knew enough of their language from previous sieges and from more peaceful meetings to understand them. The confessor’s ability with languages was remarkable. Norse had come to him as easily as if he had been raised speaking it.

‘We’re stuck in here.’

The confessor could hear the Norsemen pacing around.

‘How many dead?’

‘Of us, none, I think. No one here anyway that I can see. Has anyone got a candle or some reeds?’

‘Sigfrid’s men? How did they do in the fight?’

‘Four. Well, I think it’s four, it’s difficult to tell in here.’

‘It can’t be four. Only four followed us in.’

‘I know. Doesn’t say much for the skills of the king’s warriors, does it?’

‘One of them had a decent sword, though.’

‘You can’t have that, Ofaeti. If his kin see you with it there’ll be trouble.’

‘You’re right. For them.’

Ofaeti. The confessor recognised it as a nickname. ‘Fatty’ was the nearest translation.

‘You’ll have to give it back. I can hardly see in here. Are you not wearing any trousers or shoes?’

‘I’m not, no.’

‘Thank Thor it’s dark, then. Why not?’

‘I was just about to treat one of the camp ladies to the benefit of my expertise when Crow-Arse went up the wall. I didn’t think you’d appreciate it if I stopped to get my finery on before I followed you.’

‘She stole your trousers as soon as you took your eye off her, didn’t she?’

‘You can’t trust whores nowadays,’ said Ofaeti.

Another voice spoke. ‘No wonder the Franks ran away with that dangling at them.’

Laughter.

‘I can’t believe we let ourselves end up in this mess.’ The voice had something of a chuckle in it.

‘Following that shapeshifter was bad luck, for sure.’

‘He would have taken her if we hadn’t. And look on the bright side. We’re surrounded by so many that even you will be able to hit at least one of them, Holmgeirr.’

‘I blame you for this, Ofaeti, this is your god’s doing — Tyr’s blessing, many enemies.’

The voices were light and the men laughed as they spoke. The confessor recognised it for what it was — warrior bravado, but if it was an act, he had to admit it was a convincing one.

‘Let’s face it,’ said the voice belonging to the one who had been called Holmgeirr. ‘The one to blame is that Odin-blind crow-man we followed in here. Where is he now?’

‘He followed the wolfman and the girl.’

‘Oh, terrific. Kiss goodbye to the reward then. Helgi’ll be as likely to nail us up by our nuts as give us anything now.’

‘We might still be in luck. Fastarr and the others went after him.’

‘Let’s hope they skin the bastard if they find him.’

‘Let’s hope he doesn’t skin them.’

The confessor had not heard the next voice before. It was quieter and more serious.

‘It’s too late. The Raven will have her. He said he would.’

‘Don’t say that, Astarth. That girl’s worth seventy pounds of silver to us alive. What’s he want her for? Sacrifice?’

‘Nothing so fancy; he just wants her dead.’

‘Why?’

‘What do you mean, why? When did the servants of Odin ever need a why to want someone dead? Perhaps he’s hungry.’

‘Oh, don’t. No, don’t.’

‘Fair point, though, isn’t it?’

‘I can’t give Sigfrid a pile of gnawed bones, can I?’

‘Why not?’

‘Well. It could be anyone, couldn’t it?’

‘Now there’s a plan,’ said Ofaeti.

The men seemed to find this truly hilarious.

Jehan heard the church door creak open, a shout and then the door was slammed again.

‘Try it, you Frankish bastard, just try it,’ shouted a Norse voice. ‘Come on, see what you get!’

The voice he had heard called Holmgeirr said, ‘Look, it’s as black as Garm’s arse in here. Get a light, will you?’

The confessor continued to pray for the life of the Norsemen’s souls and the death of their bodies.

‘Never mind that. What are we going to do about this lot outside? I tell you, they’ll burn us out. We’ll have light enough then.’

‘They’ll never burn their own holy place, that’s our job. Relax. It’s built like a mountain anyway, I doubt you could burn it. The worst that can happen is that you’ll die by the sword.’

‘Looked on like that, what am I worried about?’

‘Actually, the worst that can happen is we get caught.’

‘I ain’t getting caught.’ It was a fourth voice, low and rough.

He heard the sound of a flint being struck, some blowing and puffing and then: ‘Hang on a minute, who’s this?’

A sword was drawn.

‘A beggar.’

‘No, look at his hair — he’s a monk. I’ll tell you who this is, boys: it’s our passage out of here. It’s their crippled god. It’s the god Jehan they’re always on about.’

‘Not God,’ said Jehan in deliberately bad Norse. He decided that the less the Norsemen thought he understood of their tongue, the better for him. However, the suggestion that he was a god had forced him to deny it.

‘He’s a healer, they reckon.’

‘Doesn’t seem to have done a very good job on himself, does he?’

‘Here, god, do my arm. Your boys gave it one hell of a whack.’ The confessor guessed the arm must be broken. The Norsemen liked to make light of their wounds whenever possible. The man wouldn’t have asked unless he was in dire pain.

‘Need to set it,’ said the confessor.

‘Can you do that? Do you have the skill?’

‘My hands bad but can tell you,’ said the confessor, ‘if you come to Christ.’

He felt his heart pumping and scolded himself for it. These northerners were not afraid to die, whatever lies they believed. Why should he be so?

‘I’ll come to any god who’ll fix this bastard arm,’ said the Dane. ‘What do I have to do?’

‘Baptism, water.’

‘Careful, Holmgeirr,’ said one of them. ‘They eat human flesh that lot, it’s well known.’

‘Don’t the Ravens do that too, and they follow our gods?’

‘Odin ain’t my god. A god of the living beats one of the dead.’

‘I’ve made plenty of corpses following Lord Thor, but I’ve never eaten one, nor has the god ever asked me to.’

‘Odin doesn’t demand that; it’s the Ravens who offer it.’

Confessor Jehan felt a jab in his side. ‘You, Christ God, I’ll suffer a broken arm for a year rather than eat anyone.’

‘Never mind that,’ said another voice. ‘Open that door and tell them we want a chat. Tell them we’ve got their god in here and if they want to ever see him alive again they better let us out.’

‘You go out and tell them. They’ll stick an arrow in whoever opens that door.’

‘I’ll do it,’ said the one who Jehan had heard called Ofaeti. ‘Ask for Tyr’s protection in this one. Stick close behind me.’

‘Not you, you fat bastard. If they’ve got bowmen out there they’ll never miss someone of your size.’

‘You want to do it?’

‘Second thoughts, you’re the ideal man for the job. Keep your shield low, mate. After you.’

Jehan felt a strong arm around him and he was lifted into the air. Someone had picked him up as if he was a child. He felt the man draw out a knife and knew what was going to happen.

The door was opened and he heard Eudes shout, ‘Hold!’

The Norseman screamed at the top of his voice, so loud it made the confessor wince, ‘We’re taking your god out of here. Stay your hand if you want him to live.’ Then he spoke to Jehan: ‘You, tell them to give us free passage back to our camp if you want to live.’

The confessor’s voice was calm. He spoke in the high language of Francique so people would know his words were intended for the Frankish leaders. The time for praying for his enemies’ souls was over. They had refused to convert and set themselves outside God’s mercy.

‘These men are enemies of God and I have hope of heaven. Strike, and if I die, know that it was with the Lord’s name on my lips.’

Jehan heard the Franks step forward. A knife pricked the skin at his neck, but then Eudes was shouting, ‘No, no, stand back. Stand back, put down your weapons.’

Jehan heard a voice, close at his ear. ‘Thanks for that, god. I guessed what you said and you can be sure you’ll pay for it when we get you back.’

‘Give them passage,’ shouted Eudes. ‘Set your ransom and we’ll want him back intact, northerners. Come on, let these men past.’

‘Cut them down!’ shouted the confessor. He couldn’t work out why Eudes wouldn’t attack. He would have thought the count would have been glad to get rid of a troublesome churchman, particularly one who was not amenable to bribes or threats.

‘My name is Ofaeti. Bargain with none but me!’ shouted the Norseman and carried him out into the night.

As Jehan was carried towards the bridge, he realised that the count was a more subtle politician than he had given him credit for. The king and the dukes of the Carolingian empire might refuse to come to the aid of little provincial Paris, but could they refuse to come to the aid of a saint?

6

Captives

Leshii had almost hated to cut the girl’s hair. She was very beautiful and her hair was an almost white blonde. However, there were two advantages to slicing it off. The first was that it would help disguise her from the Danes who were looking for her, enabling him to claim a good ransom from the wolfman — or rather via the wolfman from the rather richer Prince Helgi. The second was that he could sell the hair to a wig maker. A crop like that was a rare capture; it was even clean. How much? he wondered. Ten dinars? Two good swords’ worth at least.

She had understood what he wanted to do but instinctively objected. ‘The Bible says it is a disgrace for a woman to cut her hair.’

‘And for a woman to be raped and murdered by Norsemen? Surely your god would prefer a lesser evil.’

Aelis saw his reason and held still while he worked. The cutting was notable for speed rather than finesse, and her remaining hair was reduced to clumps. The merchant had the severed tresses inside his pack in an instant — along with the lady’s rings — and, just as quickly, produced some wide trousers, gathered at the knee, and a long kaftan.

From down the slope they heard a dog barking and the calls of the men following it.

Aelis kicked off her soaking dress and stuffed it into a bush. Down to her hose and undershirt, she went to put the kaftan on but the merchant stopped her and passed her a rough shirt, no more than a tube with holes in.

‘Better not to wear the wet one,’ he said, ‘it might provoke questions.’

Aelis was deeply reluctant to undress in front of this man, so she went a few paces into the woods. She stripped off her hose and tunic and put on the new clothes. They stank of horse and, worse, of man. Suddenly his hands were on her.

‘I will die before you take me.’

‘You have a taste for drama,’ said the merchant. ‘You are to be a boy; best cover the things that announce you, very much, as a woman.’ His eyes bulged as he said this in a self-mocking acknowledgement of his sauciness. ‘I know you Franks and Neustrians have no conception of real buttons.’

One by one, he pushed the twelve buttons at the front of the kaftan through their loops. Aelis was glad he did, as she would have had no idea how to put on such a strange garment herself. Then he put a rough cap on her head and smeared dirt all over her face. She looked like she was meant to, a young male slave, his hair cut short as a sign of his subjugation.

‘You are a mute,’ he said, ‘and my servant. Your breasts are flat enough in that but it might be well to keep your arms crossed when in company. It’s a good job you’re a skinny thing — if you had big tits we’d have no chance.’

Aelis was unused to having commoners talk to her like that. Had he spoken that way at court he would have found himself doing very hard penance indeed. However, she realised she was in no position to argue.

‘And one more thing. Stay here; pretend to be sleeping. Let me handle this.’

‘Can you persuade them?’

He looked at her. He knew Helgi coveted this woman above all others, that prophecy had told him their destinies were linked. However, Helgi’s was a new realm and the Franks held him in contempt. He would not be allowed to marry their lady. Hence, he had decided to take her. The reward for bringing her to the prince, thought Leshii, would allow him to retire into idleness and safety for the rest of his life.

‘I’ve spent my life persuading people,’ he said. ‘Now lie down and wait.’

Aelis did as she was bid while Leshii went back to his fire. He heard the men approaching up the hill, calling to each other and to her.

‘Come on, darling. Best we get you than the Ravens, believe me.’

‘You’re worth too much for us to harm you. Come on, you can be in front of a fire in short order if you show yourself.’

The dog was barking with the hollow bay of the hunt. It came first, bounding into the camp and quartering the ground with its eager nose.

Leshii breathed out. He was used to making audacious deals, used to taking his life in his hands as he crossed the vast plains of the east, out to Serkland, where the desert people sold him silks and swords, west to the great markets of Denmark and Sweden and even south to Byzantium, the empress of cities. This, though, was going to be difficult. Six men at least, all fevered with the hunt and the day’s battle; him with only his knife to protect all his wares and the most precious commodity of all — the lady who was going to make him a rich man. He got hold of his nerves and spoke in the Norse tongue, high and clear, allowing his accent to colour it more than was strictly necessary in order to sound exotic.

‘Greetings to the sons of my good friend Ongendus, who is also called Angantyr. How fares the noble king of the Danes?’

‘You’re a bit late, foreigner — he’s been dead these twenty years.’ The men were all soaking wet, gleaming in the moonlight — as were the points of their spears. The dog, a large, smooth-haired beast, was briefly taken with the remains of Leshii’s meal and was gnawing on a mutton bone. Leshii thought of his mother. She’d have taken it from the dog and boiled it for soup, small as it was. He preferred to discard such things, not because he was rich but because he had aspirations to be rich. Act wealthy and you will be wealthy, an Arab had once told him. It seemed good advice, but up to that point it had met with only limited success. Perhaps the saying had less truth than he had supposed. It wasn’t the acting that had let him down, for sure — Leshii was good at that

‘Then tell me his noble son Sigfrid has grown to rule you Danes. He was always the strongest and most noble lad. I played with him when he was a child. Does he still speak of me? Say that he does.’

‘Our lord is Sigfrid, true. Are you a friend of his?’

‘I was like a second father to the boy when he was young. I am Leshii, merchant of Ladoga known to you as Aldeigjuborg, ambassador of Prince Helgi the Dane, called Rus, ruler of the Eastern Lake, the lands of Novgorod and Kiev. Come and share my fire. We are kinsmen. I have wine here if you would like it.’

‘My name is Fastarr, son of Hringr. No time for wine, brother,’ said one of the men. ‘We are hunting a girl who has been on this shore. Have you seen her?’

The merchant swallowed. He liked the sound of ‘brother’.

‘No one but me,’ said Leshii. He watched as the two men at the front whispered to each other, one shooting him a sidelong glance.

‘Can’t we stop for a bit of wine, boss?’ The one who asked was small and thin but had a cold impassive killer’s face.

‘We could be all night and not find her. Let’s give it a bit longer with the dog and if he doesn’t turn anything up, call it quits and drink this merchant’s stash,’ said another.

Leshii glanced nervously towards the packs with his bottles in them. It was good stuff, meant for trading, not quaffing by a bunch of hairy-arsed warriors.

‘Plenty of time tomorrow, then,’ said Leshii. ‘My brother is coming with enough to drown us all. I will ensure you are the first to sample it. How Sigfrid will rejoice to have us both by his side again.’

‘You have no bodyguard, merchant.’ Fastarr spoke.

‘I travel with a magician, a shapeshifter. He looks over me whenever I am in need. Incredible. A man only needs to raise his sword against me and it is as if the shadows themselves strike at him. Splat! He is dead.’

The men murmured to each other again. Leshii caught a word. Hrafn — raven.

‘You arrived today?’

‘Indeed.’

‘We saw your welcome at the camp.’

Leshii realised his whole story was about to fall to bits. He had said he had known Sigfrid but not realised he had been made king of the Danes. Now the men thought he had been into the camp, so why hadn’t he made himself known to the king? But he knew very well that the present has a way of shaping the past and thought that he might get away with it, once enough wine had gone into the Norsemen’s mouths. So he did what he always did when he thought he was winning in a transaction. He said nothing, smiled and shrugged.

‘Where is the Raven now?’ asked the one with the hammer on his shield, who had been called Fastarr.

Again, Leshii smiled and shrugged.

‘He can’t have made it over that quickly, can he? Didn’t he go back over the bridge?’ said one of the younger men, looking about him. ‘That Odin lot give me the creeps. Especially the woman. She’s not here, is she?’

‘That witch isn’t bothered about the likes of you,’ said Fastarr. He addressed Leshii: ‘We’re looking for a Frankish woman — a noblewoman — we saw her jumping from a house above the walls. She’ll fetch a good ransom.’

Leshii didn’t blink.

‘I have no one,’ said Leshii. ‘I brought the Raven here and he was grateful and promised always to guard me. I have no idea what else he wanted.’ He wondered who this Raven was. He had come with a man he was convinced was a shapeshifter but he had been a wolf. Still, if the Varangians were scared of ravens, he was quite willing to make Chakhlyk a raven.

‘Why didn’t you take the Ravens to the king?’

So there were more than one.

‘I was waiting to gauge the reception they got,’ he said.

‘Good move. I’d have cut them into slices as soon as they got there if I’d been Sigfrid, starting with the woman.’ The one who spoke was thin and wiry and had most of the fingers on his left hand missing.

The dog finished its bone, sat up and coughed.

‘A fine animal, brothers. How much would you want for it?’

Leshii knelt down and gestured for the dog to come to him, but it just looked at him and moved away. He stopped himself from sighing. He’d wanted to hold it so that it couldn’t go into the woods and discover the lady.

‘A good hunting dog like that would cost twenty deniers,’ said the Dane.

‘Bring him here and let me examine him,’ said Leshii.

‘Saurr, get here,’ said the little one with the spiteful face. Leshii winced at the name. It meant ‘Shit’. ‘Saurr, do I have to beat your arse? Get here right now.’ But the dog was gone, snuffling around in the trees. Leshii remained calm and concentrated on how he would explain if Aelis was discovered. The dog gave a bark and then there was the sound of it tugging at something, and of something else tearing. It barked again and again in a regular, high note. The noise meant one thing to the Norsemen. It had found something.

They went diving into the trees, spears held high as if to stab a boar.

‘Honoured Danes,’ said Leshii, ‘your dog has simply discovered my servant.’

The Danes came out of the wood, pulling Aelis with them. In the dark, with her cap and short hair, she really did look like a boy.

‘I thought you said you had no one else with you.’

‘No man. This is not a man, it is a slave.’

‘You lied to us.’

‘Not so. To us a slave is less than a dog. Would you count your dog as a man?’

The big Viking grunted and looked Aelis up and down.

‘What’s your name, kid?’

‘He is a mute and a eunuch,’ said Leshii, ‘taken from Byzantium, or Miklagard as you call it, when Helgi the Prophet attacked that town.’

‘Why’s he skulking in the woods?’

‘He stinks,’ said Leshii, ‘so he sleeps where his smell can’t bother me or the mules.’

Fastarr laughed. ‘Smells all right to me, but I’ve been fighting a siege for six months and probably couldn’t smell a bear if it got into bed with me.’

‘Bears have better taste than that, Fastarr,’ said one of the warriors.

‘You’d know, you married one.’

More laughter. Then Fastarr spoke again: ‘Wait here,’ he said to Leshii. ‘In fact, Svan, can you stay with him and make sure he goes nowhere?’

Svan was a huge man with forearms as big as Leshii’s thighs, two heads higher than the merchant with a great axe slung across his shoulder. He smiled pleasantly, thought Leshii.

‘I’m glad to stay,’ he said. ‘I’ll get dry by the fire and this merchant can tell me tales of the east.’

‘You’ll do well under Svan’s protection,’ said Fastarr, ‘but you’ll find his nice manners disappear quick enough in a scrap.’

Leshii gave a thin smile at the threat. He was a captive and knew it.

The men fanned out into the forest, calling to the lady, calling to the dog. Leshii heard their voices fading down the hillside.

He sat staring into the fire, making conversation with the hulk at his side and wondering how best to survive the night with his body, his goods and his grip over the lady intact. He needed to make this man his ally. Svan wasn’t keen to talk about himself, so Leshii told him stories of the east, of the towns of Ladoga and Novgorod, where the Norsemen ruled over the native population, partly by strength of arms, partly by consent. The tribes had been unable to agree on how to govern themselves, so they had called in the Norsemen, the Varangians as they were known, and asked them to rule in their place. Prince Helgi, the Varangian ruler, was said to be descended from Odin himself and to have powers of prophecy and who knew what other magic.

‘So how did you come by the protection of the Ravens?’ asked Svan. ‘You seem like a sociable fellow. Why are you consorting with cannibals and lunatics?’

Leshii, who missed very little when it came to human weakness, noted the little glance Svan took behind him as he spoke. He was scared of these Ravens, whoever they were.

‘Sometimes one doesn’t choose: one is chosen,’ said Leshii.

‘Well spoken,’ said Svan. ‘So they forced their company upon you?’

‘They frightened me half to death.’ If Svan was afraid, he thought, he would be afraid too. Similarity and agreement, he knew, were the keys to getting this man to like him and perhaps ultimately to survival.

‘As they should,’ said Svan. ‘He’s a hard bastard that Hugin and you have to respect him for that, whatever else he is, but his sister’s as mad as the moon. What’s her name, friend? Remind me.’

Svan, thought the merchant, wasn’t as stupid as he looked. He’d detected some uncertainty in Leshii regarding the Ravens and wanted to probe further. Luckily the merchant had a healthy appetite for stories and was well travelled. Odin’s ravens, he recalled were Hugin and…

‘Munin,’ he said.

‘Ah, that’s it, though you couldn’t have got much chat out of them.’

‘Less than from the boy here.’ Leshii glanced towards the lady.

‘Does he always sit with his arms folded?’

‘It is the habit of his people.’

‘They’d be better keeping their hands on their swords, that way they wouldn’t end up as slaves,’ said Svan.

Leshii grinned and pointed at the berserker as if to say ‘you’re a wise one there!’ and Svan looked well pleased with his response.

There was a stirring in the trees. Leshii thought of the wolfman. He didn’t know whether his return would be his salvation or damnation. Could Chakhlyk take on so many warriors? But it was just the dog, which had lost interest in the chase and returned to the spot where it had obtained its last meal.

‘You are Danes?’ said Leshii.

‘So you call us, but we are Horda men, from the land to the north and west of the Danish kingdoms,’ said Svan. ‘We’re mates from a raiding longship. There are twelve of us in all.’

‘Isn’t twelve a magic number for a berserker clan?’

‘I believe so.’

‘Are you berserkers?’ Leshii was wary of berserkers and had found them a very unsettling presence whenever they had turned up in Ladoga. They went into battle crazy with mushrooms and herbs, impervious to wounds that would kill normal men. It was said that they didn’t leave the fight in the fight. That is, they treated their whole lives as a fight. It was one thing, thought Leshii, to have a bad temper, quite another to cultivate one.

‘We are known as the Hammer God’s Berserks, which is another way of saying that we’re not. Nowadays “berserker” is used for any fierce warrior, and in that way we are berserkers. In my grandfather’s time it meant only the cult of Odin lot, real madmen. We’re not those, though it doesn’t hurt to let people think we are.’

‘Who do you follow?’

‘God or king?’

‘Both.’

‘We follow Sigfrid because he pays us for our service — he has offered a bounty on the lady. For a god, we follow many, but my favourite is Thor, god of thunder. A more straightforward god than your raven lord, Odin. No madness, no magic, no stringing people up to sacrifice, just “Do as I say or get a hammer in the head.”’

‘That’s your philosophy?’

‘Not at all. I use an axe, not a hammer. Ah, here comes Fastarr now.’

The warriors were back, sweating and dirty from their exertions.

‘Have you found her?’ said Leshii.

‘She’s gone,’ said Fastarr. ‘Here, crack open the wine. Tell your boy, merchant, to bring me wine.’

Leshii knew the lady would not know which pack contained the wine so he stood instead.

‘Don’t let the boy see which pack the wine’s in, honoured Dane. Brother, your slaves must be trustworthy indeed that you allow them such knowledge. I’ll serve you myself.’

Fastarr laughed. ‘In Hordaland there are two types of slaves. The first are the trustworthy ones. They can be allowed to know the whereabouts of valuable things.’

‘And the second?’

‘The dead ones,’ said Fastarr.

The men burst out laughing and Leshii gave a deep smile. In the east it was said that laughter was a family house — you needed an invitation to get in. Laughing too enthusiastically would have been an intimacy too far, he thought. Better share the joke quietly and not cause resentment.

‘If we killed all the bad slaves in the east we’d have none left,’ he said.

He made a big show of making Aelis turn her back to him as he opened the pack with the worst wine in it. He took out two bottles and came back to the fire with them. He sat and took out the wood stoppers and removed the oily hemp padding that had kept them in place.

‘Here, friends,’ he said, ‘drink your fill.’

‘Two bottles is not our fill, merchant,’ said the rat-faced berserker, taking one from him and swigging it back.

‘You must leave me something for the king,’ said Leshii. A silence fell and he felt the mood darken. Fastarr looked at the merchant.

‘You’re a friend of our lord?’ he said.

‘A second father,’ said Leshii.

‘Very good. I think it’s the least we could do to take you to him.’

‘I have to wait here for my protector,’ said Leshii.

‘That Raven’ll be back in camp soon enough, I should think, provided he hasn’t found anyone dead to eat,’ said Fastarr. ‘Come on, Hastein. Svan, grab hold of those mules and packs and let’s get back down to the camp. I want to be the man who brings such a dear friend to the king’s sight.’

‘I must wait here,’ said Leshii.

But it was no good. Fastarr took his arm, pulled him to his feet and led him down the hill while the other men loaded up his mules. He’d be lucky, he knew, to ever see those packs again.

‘I have gifts for the king in there. Don’t open them,’ said Leshii.

‘We won’t,’ said Fastarr, ‘until you’ve met him.’

Leshii looked back towards Aelis.

‘Well don’t just stand there, you idiot boy,’ he said. ‘Roll up my carpet and make sure it’s stowed fast. If it hits the mud again you’ll follow it.’ Aelis stood looking at him in incomprehension and Leshii realised he had spoken in Norse. Still, it would benefit the girl’s disguise if he treated her badly.

‘I said get the carpet!’ he screamed at her. He grabbed the edge of the carpet, mimed rolling it up and pointed at the mule. Aelis still hadn’t understood a word he said.

‘That is a bad slave who makes twice the work for his master!’ said the rat-faced one.

‘Are you sure it’s the boy who’s the slave here, merchant?’ laughed Svan.

‘Put the carpet on the mule,’ said Leshii in a low voice to Aelis. Then, more loudly and in Norse, ‘I ought to beat you, but bruises would make you even more useless. Do it, put the carpet on the mule.’

Aelis hurried to roll the carpet and Leshii mocked her, miming her inexpert actions, pulling faces at her. The Norsemen thought this high entertainment but Leshii had achieved what he wanted. By placing the lady beneath their contempt he had made her true nature invisible to them. They were looking at a simple boy, they thought, and had enjoyed Leshii’s ridicule. He had placed the idea of a stupid slave in their minds and made it difficult for them to see anything that didn’t fit that conception. It was a kind of everyday magic, but one he normally used in reverse, to make someone see the rarity and value of commodities that were neither rare nor valuable.

Leshii turned to Fastarr. ‘I look forward to your hospitality.’

The Dane smiled at him. ‘And we to yours,’ he said, gesturing down to the twinkling lights of the Norse camp that lay in the deep dark of the valley like a mirror to the stars.

7

An Awakening

Aelis felt sure she would not survive until the dawn. Everything was going badly for her, right down to the smallest detail. The mules refused to move, the packs slipped on their backs, she stumbled and fell on the slippery mud of the slope into the camp, her toes were numb with cold and she feared discovery at any second.

All that she could have borne. She had been raised on a country estate and spent many nights roaming the forests near her home, sleeping out with her friends under the stars, drinking from streams and going hunting with the daughters of the count. Her aunt had taught her how to use a bow and said that Aelis might not be good but was certainly lucky when it came to shooting deer. She held the bow wrong, nocked the arrow wrong, drew it wrong, moved when she shot and, like as not, hit what she was aiming at. So she was used to the discomforts of the outdoors. She was unused, however, to the ridicule.

Her fear brought on clumsiness, and every time she slipped or a mule wouldn’t move, Leshii led the chorus of derision. The little Norseman with the mean mouth had been particularly cruel, walking behind her and tripping her with his spear, laughing all the time. No one had ever treated her like that and she found it very hard to bear. Tears started to come down her face but that only made the men mock her more. In the end Leshii had come to her rescue, telling the spiteful little elf who was tormenting her that if his slave came to damage, he would ask for compensation from the prince.

The camp was a vision of hell. Hard faces, scarred and filthy, loomed from the firelight; women and men copulated like animals in the open air while, not three paces away, someone else sat eating from a bowl or sharpened an axe. This army had been ravaging the countryside for years and was more like a travelling town. The children were goblins, pulling at the packs, jabbering at her in their strange language, touching her even. The Vikings had taken over many of the mean houses, though their numbers were too great for all of them to be accommodated that way. So there were tents and shelters built from branches and foliage, but many were content to sleep huddled together beneath blankets and furs in the open air. What do they do if it rains? thought Aelis. There were so many of them, so many spears stuck upright in the mud, so many shields and axes. It really seemed as if this camp stretched as far as the night itself.

The mules pressed on, the warriors swatting away the children, calling to friends. They approached the river and Fastarr talked to a man on the bank. He gestured them towards a small beached longship. It was lying at an angle and the man put a plank up to its side.

The Viking turned from his negotiation and spoke directly to her but she didn’t understand what he said.

‘Come on,’ said Leshii. ‘Get the mules on the boat.’

Aelis wanted to speak, to tell the merchant that would be impossible. She loved horses and had grown up around enough mules to know they only worked for people they trusted. Mules were more intelligent than horses and needed to be coaxed rather than bullied. The animals were not going to walk up a plank onto a precarious boat for her.

She felt an intense shame building within her, an anger and a deep resentment. Her legs hurt and she had bruises down her back where she had been prodded. That feeling she had had since she was a girl returned, the ability to sense people’s emotions, to hear their character almost as a musical note, to see it as a colour. When she was a small girl and given to sentimental descriptions she had told her nurse that she could hear the ‘strings of the heart-harp’. The sickly sweet description made her blush now that she was a grown woman. But it really did feel like that, and the feeling was intensifying. The Norsemen were a mixture: toughness, cruelty, generosity, bravery, humour; she experienced their minds as a thin band of sound, bright colours, a feeling both hard and cold. The merchant was more complex. When she thought of him she had a taste in her mouth sweet like honeyed almonds, but underneath was something else bitter and astringent: cloves and smoke, vinegar and tar.

One of the Vikings was screamng at her in Norse, gesturing to the mules and then to the boat. It was the little one again, the nasty imp with his pinched face and thin, strong limbs. Aelis understood nothing of what he said, but his presence was dull and heavy, baleful and narrow. He kicked her and her legs went from under her. She hit the ground hard, driving the wind from herself and banging her head. He was screaming at her, gesturing for her to get up with one hand and prodding her with the butt of his spear with the other. His voice was shrill and high like a pipe blown by a child, almost hysterical.

Fastarr grabbed him by the shoulder and spoke to Leshii: ‘I am sorry for my kinsman, merchant; he has been unlucky in battle these two years.’ His voice was softer, like a flute, she thought. What was happening to her? Her senses were jumbled by the fall but something else was taking over and the world was not as it had been. All her sensitivities seemed amplified, people and personalities understandable to her in new and confusing ways. It was as if the uncommon stress had unlocked something in her.

‘Wounded?’ Again Leshii spoke in Norse. She heard the word as two thudding syllables, like the beat of a drum and, though its exact meaning was obscure to her, she understood well enough what was meant. It was as if all the feelings and emotions of those around her were an open book. She understood what the Norsemen were saying but in a way that went beyond the comprehension of a straightforward translation.

‘No kills,’ said Fastarr. ‘A case of bad luck, not cowardice as his enemies maintain.’

‘What use is a slave that will not work?’ It was the shrill pipe again.

‘About the same as a warrior who does not kill,’ said Fastarr. ‘Now let the boy put the mules on the boat, Saerda, and try picking your next fight with a Frankish man-at-arms, not a mute idiot.’

Though the words were not quite clear to Aelis, she understood that the Viking with the hammer shield was defending her and that he was mocking the thin little one, who he felt obliged to have in his company out of some debt of duty. Aelis realised that Saerda — she recognised the word as a name — was in as much danger as she was from his fellows and, more than that, he knew it.

She stood up and the night seemed to teem about her, the thoughts and emotions of the people in the camp buzzing like insects over a swamp. An image came to her. She saw herself on a tall mountaintop overlooking a vast valley. Something was living inside her — it seemed to glow and pulse. It was one of many things, a note, a vibration, that she carried in her bones. She could not name it but she envisaged it as a shape, like a shallow Roman one thousand, M, shining in the darkness of her mind. It had a living lustre to it, deep like the flow of light on a bay mare’s back. She smelled horse too, and the shape seemed to steam and stamp and sweat. It was like a living thing, something that expressed itself through her and that she, in living, expressed. She tried to give the shape a name in her mind but the only word that came to her was ‘horse’. The shape, she knew, was associated with horses — more than that, it was linked in a fundamental way to the creatures.

‘Get the mules on the boat.’ It was Leshii who spoke. She looked at the animal nearest her. As she moved towards it, it turned away, but she persisted and put her hands up to its head. She envisaged that glowing, rippling shape floating before her and the sound of its breathing emanating from her. She could feel the mule’s fear and mistrust, but the shape gave her a calmness that seemed to pass to the animal. The mule became quiet and nuzzled into her hand. Then she led it up the plank into the boat.

When all the animals were on board, the warriors climbed in, along with Leshii, and they pushed off for the far shore. The Vikings all sat down but there was no space for her, so she leaned her backside on the rail. She had never felt so strange in her life. It was as if her mind was no longer her own but had things growing in it, living there, shapes like the horse symbol that danced and spun at the very edge of her sight. She had sensed them before, she thought, when ill with scarlatina as a child. It was as if extraordinary fear and uncertainty called them forth, that the raw panic she felt under the eyes of the berserks had shut down her conscious mind and allowed them to appear.

She trembled. What was happening to her? It was as if the strangeness she had always had was now more present in her mind than her everyday self, as if she had been fundamentally wrong in her understanding of herself. She had been a count’s daughter, a girl in a meadow, a child to be married for the benefit of her family, a wild thing under the stars. Now it seemed that the things inside her, the musical senses, her sensitivity to attitudes and moods, had grown to be giants, shadowing all that she had formerly been. How had she controlled the mules? Witchcraft? Was it possible to be a witch and not know it?

She looked up at the bridge that ran from the city to the opposite shore. They were giving it a wide berth, making sure they were out of range of bowmen. Even now its tower was being repaired and fortified, and men swarmed over it. She wanted to cry out or to plunge into the water and swim for it, but she knew the Vikings would spear her before she got ten strokes from the boat.

The city was still smouldering and she watched the smoke rising up against the moon like a fracture in the sky. Something dropped from the tower onto the bridge — the figure of a man. She looked around her. No one else on the boat had noticed it, and it seemed no one on the tower had seen it either. She had only glimpsed an instant of movement but she knew what it was. She felt something emanating from the figure like a chill across the water — a carnivorous presence, something sharp-minded and aggressive, with glittering little eyes. She could not put it into words, but the presence manifested itself in her mind like the sound of the sky cracking. It was a raven’s cry

The merchant came and sat next to her and said softly in Latin, ‘I am sorry for my disrespect. It is for your safety.’

She felt the tears in her eyes again.

‘Don’t worry; it will be all right,’ he said.

She gave him a questioning look.

He smiled and nodded to the Norsemen, some of whom — unbelievably — had gone to sleep virtually as soon as the boat had pushed off. ‘All these bastards will have their heads on your brother’s gates one day, you’ll see.’ He put his hand on her back. ‘Rest assured, I will help you. Your interests are my first concern.’

Aelis, who could hear emotions like music and see them like colours, looked at him and mouthed the word: ‘Liar.’

8

A Meeting

The monk said nothing, though he was sure that the Norseman was about to break his ribs. He was being carried over the shoulder of what he could tell was a huge man who was running hard. The Viking’s shoulder hammered into the confessor, driving the air from him, but the monk would not give in to complaint. The confessor sensed when they were outside the city — the temperature dropped when they were through the gate, the heat of the burning buildings shielded by the walls.

‘Coming through, coming through!’ shouted the man.

Jehan could hear other footsteps behind him, the warriors who had been in the church, he guessed. The man carrying him had been called Fatty by the others, but he didn’t seem slow or to have any difficulty sustaining a good pace, despite his burden, although he panted heavily and cursed as he ran.

‘How are we going to get him over this rampart?’

Jehan knew the bridge had been blockaded at both ends to deny the raiders access. The Franks shouted insults at them as they ran through their ranks but no one lifted a weapon against them. They honoured Eudes’ command.

‘Shove him over. Heave him up.’

The rampart was not a wall, just a collection of broken carts, rubbish and rubble.

The confessor felt himself hurled up into the air, to land with a thump. It was agonising but he had no time to recover. Rough hands were on him again and he was swung up further, coming down hard on the rubble again with a bigger crash. He cried out, his twisted and useless joints forced into movement by the repeated battering.

‘Throw him down. I’ll catch him.’

‘No!’ The word escaped Jehan’s lips, but he was falling to land with a fearful jolt in someone’s arms. He thought he would pass out with the pain but his will kept him conscious.

‘Safe!’ said a voice.

‘Thank Thor for that!’

The confessor felt himself simply dropped to the ground. He tried not to groan but couldn’t restrain himself.

‘Shut up, you. You’re lucky I didn’t chuck you over at one go.’

‘Where to now?’

‘Drag this god or whatever he is up to Sigfrid and see what reward he offers for him. He’s a giver of rings, that king, and I don’t think we’ll be disappointed.’

‘Best wait for the others, though, so we all get something.’

‘Come on, let’s get into the main camp. That work’s given me a thirst.’

Jehan gagged with the pain and cursed his body for its weakness. He was ready for whatever fate the Norsemen planned for him but he was behaving like a quivering child.

He was picked up again, this time between two of them, grabbing an arm each. He could almost hear his joints squealing as they lifted him, but he was master of himself again and made no complaint. He sensed that he was carried up a hill, and gradually he came into noise — rough singing, the crackling of fires, the braying of animals, conversation and shouts.

He was dumped on the ground once more. He heard the Norsemen making a fire, collecting pots, pissing and laughing. One of the berserkers said he was going in search of a ‘proper’ healer to tend his arm. Again, Jehan thanked God for his trials. Other men, more able men, had the illusion of taking a hand in their fate. He could have run, if his legs would have carried him, fought, if his arms had held a weapon. The outcome would have been the same — whatever God willed. In his condition there was no lying to himself or misreading his place in the cosmos. He was a cork bobbing on the tides of God’s mind, as all men were. God had just granted him the affliction that let him see it more clearly.

Then there were voices nearby.

‘Ofaeti, why are you so fat?’

‘Because every time I fuck your wife she gives me a hazelnut.’

‘That’s as good as a password!’

‘It’s good to see you alive, my friend!’

There was laughter, backslapping and questions about what had happened to who; who had died and who lived.

‘We walked in there with twelve of us and came out with twelve. We should tell the rest of this army to go home; we can take this city ourselves, I reckon.’

‘Did you get the girl?’

‘Oh yes, I just didn’t mention it.’

‘That’s a no, then.’

‘It’s a no.’

‘But we did get this kind merchant and his stack of wine. Merchant, introduce yourself.’

‘Leshii, servant of your kinsman Helgi the Prophet, friend to King Sigfrid and to all who serve him.’

‘Very nice, where’s the wine?’

‘Boy, a couple of bottles for our friends,’ said Leshii with a note of forced jollity in his voice. ‘I will take the advice of these fine warriors and allow you to see where I keep them but know that, should any go missing I will give you the best justice — the Viking kind!’

‘Just two? Seems a bit skinny. Boy, get more.’ That was a Norseman.

‘He doesn’t understand your tongue, friend.’ The exotic voice again. An easterner, Jehan thought.

‘Then translate.’

‘Lady, the bag on the rear mule contains the best wine for these fellows. Take out a skin of that, would you?’

Had Jehan heard right? ‘Lady’? The merchant hadn’t said domina, which even non-Latin speakers would recognise. He’d said era, which was mildly less respectful but probably wouldn’t be known to the Norsemen. So there was a woman there, a disguised woman.

The merchant spoke in Norse: ‘Serve the wine, boy; don’t stand there staring at the monk. Haven’t you ever seen a god before? You’ll be seeing another soon enough if you don’t hurry up.’ More laughter. Then the exotic voice in Latin: ‘Take heart, lady. This is the easiest way to make them see what we want them to see.’

‘The lad’s crying again!’

‘The monk’s a cripple, boy, like you can see on any roadside. By Thor’s bulging bollocks they don’t breed ’em very tough in Miklagard, do they? Maybe we should try our luck there. If they don’t like deformity we could just show ’em Ofaeti’s bollocks and they’d open the gates to us. That’s more like it, get another. Let’s drink this lot dry and think about seeing the king later. We deserve a little reward after our labours, don’t we, lads?’

It couldn’t be her, could it?

‘Give me that.’ It was a cold, hard Norse voice, close by.

Under his breath, more felt than spoken, he said the word: ‘ Domina.’

The confessor felt fingers brush his face, a gesture of tenderness. He had the strangest sensation, the only way he could have described it was to say that it felt like her, but he had never touched her, nor any woman that he could remember. Still, the touch seemed to carry her signature, the note of her, like a distinctive perfume, almost. The pain and the indignities had not daunted him. This did. No one had touched him but to lift or bathe him since he had been seven years old. A chill went through him, a delicious cold tingle from his forehead to his knees. He had warned people about the pleasures of the flesh since he had been old enough to speak in church but to him such pleasures had been only dry things, spectres raised from the Bible by the readings of his brother monks. He had despised them without knowing them. One touch, though, and he had understood. Who had done that? Was it her? For the first time in years he hated his blindness. He needed to see, to know.

The men settled down to drinking and the confessor felt the cold of night deepen.

He calmed himself by focusing on preparing to face Sigfrid. He would not beg or bargain for his life, he was determined. The monk knew that the longer he stayed in the camp, the more likely the Emperor Charles was to come and rescue him. A living saint could not be allowed in the hands of heathens. Jehan made himself forget the strange feelings that the touch had raised in him and tried to reason. What would he do if he was Sigfrid? The Viking was no fool and he must see that holding the monk was dangerous for him. Would he ransom him? Jehan doubted it. Why bother? The city would fall soon enough and then he’d have whatever was in it for free. No, while he lived, the confessor realised he was only a unifying force for Sigfrid’s enemies. The Viking king would kill him, he felt sure.

He turned his mind to prayer but could only think of the touch that had set his skin singing. Jehan was in some ways a humorous man, and it did strike him as ironic that he had discovered the sin of carnal pleasure just in time for it to admit him to hell. He made himself pray: ‘Heart of Jesus, once in agony, receive my sinner’s soul.’ In the morning, thought Jehan, he would see Christ’s face and, he hoped, be taken into his peace. He knew his fate among the Normans was God’s way of chastising him for his pride. It was Lucifer’s sin, and Jehan’s old weakness, to think yourself better than others. He had let them call him a saint, a living saint. Well saints suffered and died, so God had granted that he would do the same. The Norsemen had crushed three churchmen at Reims with great stones. He put it from his mind. He was going on a journey. The conveyance did not matter.

There was the sound of shouting and the men all around him got to their feet.

‘Who are you?’

‘King’s man Arnulf. Sigfrid wants to see you straight away. You have something of his.’

‘That will be me,’ said the eastern voice.

‘The Christian holy man, the flesh eater, he wants him.’

Perhaps, thought Jehan, he would be seeing the face of Jesus sooner than he had anticipated.

9

Alone

Confessor Jehan had been taken. In the rush of her flight and the fear of her capture Aelis had forgotten he had been at her side when the Norsemen attacked. And her brother, what of him? Eudes was a peerless warrior, a prodigy at arms according to his tutors. It had never even occurred to her that he could be hurt, let alone killed. But the Norsemen had walked away with the confessor. Eudes would never have allowed that while he had breath in his body. She went cold. Did her brother still live?

She had touched the confessor on impulse, to reassure him, or rather just to let him know he was not alone. She could imagine what he would say to that. ‘I am never alone; I am with God.’ And yet it had felt right to reach out to him.

Now her mind began to clear and she was terrified. Inside the church she had been unable to bring home to the confessor just how real her dreams had been. And then the wolf had appeared, a wolfman rather, who had given his life for her. The simmering sense of danger she had in her dreams of the wolf now spilled over into her waking life. What of that thing that had come from within her to speak to the mules — what was that? She tried to force her attention back to the present. The immediate danger from the Norsemen should be her concern, she thought, not the threat of devils.

The Norsemen were all very drunk and stumbled to find their weapons. She couldn’t tell what they were saying but they seemed worried. She kept away from the imp, fearing him. The others had become louder and more friendly with the drink; he had become withdrawn, more sullen, sitting at the side of the fire with a weak smile of contempt for his guffawing companions.

They all went down a slight slope to the biggest house in the area. It was a mean dwelling, as all those outside the city walls were, timber-framed with unfinished mud for its walls. It had been decorated in a hideous pastiche of the Roman style, its steep pitched roof timbered but daubed in painted checks to try to give the impression of tiles, leaving it more unpleasant-looking than if it had been built as a simple peasant’s dwelling in unadorned wood. Scraps of vellum hung at the windows. Aelis guessed the Norsemen had cut them through when they moved in, unused to anything to keep the draught out. It was a small thing, a very small thing, but it seemed to bring home their barbarity to her. How could the Franks lose to such a rabble? Because, as her brother said, the emperor was fat and lazy and preferred to fritter away his people’s fortune in bribes to the Normans rather than face them in the field as a man. Eudes himself had shown they could be beaten, and more cheaply than they could be bought, but Charles insisted on paying them to go away. Her brother had maintained that payments in gold guaranteed the Norsemen would come back. Payments in steel meant they would not.

They arrived at the house and she stopped the mules. Warriors were all around, some standing in full armour, some sitting down playing at dice, eating or sleeping. Then she remembered one of the packs contained her hair. What would the king make of that if he saw it? The Norseman called Fastarr put up his hand and addressed the warriors. She couldn’t understand what he said but Leshii, seeing her fear, whispered a translation.

‘This is the king, boys. Remember, for once, that I’m the one you elected speaker so let me do the talking. It’s me he struck the deal with and me he’ll want to hear from. I don’t want one word out of any of you, is that understood?’

‘What if he questions us directly about what went on?’

‘Say you just followed me. Any more questions, just say you don’t know and that I had a better view of it than you.’

‘What if he asks me about my cock?’ said Ofaeti, scratching himself. Leshii translated, seeming to find any mention of sex or the seats of corruption of the body vastly amusing.

‘Well, I could definitely get a better view of that than you. You can’t have seen it these fifteen years, you fat bastard.’

There was laughter but Fastarr quietened it.

‘Seriously, no jokes. Don’t speak unless you’re spoken to. Let’s get in and out of here as quick as we can. Get the monk.’

Aelis stood and watched as Confessor Jehan was dragged inside and Leshii busied himself with the mules. The Norseman had forgotten about him, too worried by the king’s summons and he wasn’t about to remind them. She felt cold and in her mind heard that voice again, the crack of a raven’s call.

She looked down the slope towards the river, towards the formidable but battered tower on the bridge. She’d be shot by her own people before she even got within shouting range if she tried to swim for it. The only way was north, into Neustria, much of which was under Norman control. She would have to bide her time to escape; besides, it was her Christian duty to do her best to protect the saint.

She was too much in demand, she thought. Wolfmen, ravens, the Danes, all seemed to want her. For the moment it was safer to be a mute idiot boy.

She touched the leading mule’s ears and it nuzzled into her. At least, she thought, she had won an ally there.

10

Bargains and Threats

Jehan smelled roast meat and a fire scented with pine needles. Fresh reeds had been scattered on the floor. There was a hum of conversation in the house which stopped as he was brought in.

‘Lord Sigfrid,’ said Fastarr, ‘we have captured this man, one of their gods, and we bring him before you to await your pleasure.’

‘Did you get the girl?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Why not?’

‘She escaped us in the darkness of the south bank.’

‘So why are you not there? It will soon be light.’

‘We had lost her, sir, and this man is such a valuable commodity we thought you would want him straight away.’

‘Or did you get bored, want to return to your drink and your women, and thought you might throw me a scrap to keep me sweet?’

No one said anything and Jehan heard the king snort. There was a noise like metal on wood. A cup or a bowl on a table? A sword?

‘Did the Raven get her?’

‘Not as far I know, sir. He shot another shapeshifter but didn’t get her, I think.’

‘Doesn’t like getting his feathers wet,’ said Ofaeti.

Fastarr breathed out. The monk could sense he was irritated that his request for silence was going unheeded.

‘Another shapeshifter?’

‘Yes, sir. A wolfman.’

‘Where did he come from? Could he be the wolf that was prophesied?’

‘I don’t know, sir. Anyway, he’s dead.’

‘Unlikely to be that wolf then. Has anyone seen the Raven since?’

‘I expect he’ll be back in the woods with his sister, provided she hasn’t died.’

‘In which case he’ll be cooking her,’ said Ofaeti.

‘Shut up, Ofaeti,’ said Fastarr.

The king gave a dry laugh. ‘You don’t fancy cutting the crow’s throat, do you, Fastarr?’

‘I would have done it in the city if he didn’t move so quick, sir.’

‘Really? I wasn’t being serious. He’s useful to me and an ally. We just have a disagreement on the correct path forward, that’s all.’

‘Above my head all that, my lord.’

‘Good.’

The confessor heard footsteps approaching. Sigfrid’s voice said, ‘This is the god?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘The crippled saint. That’s not a god, Fastarr; you should get your terminology right. But you act for God, don’t you, priest?’

Jehan said nothing.

‘You’re renowned, do you know that? Your men-at-arms shout your name as they pour fire and stones down on my ships. Is he a mute? Is his tongue as twisted as his body? Does he speak our language?’

‘He can talk, I reckon,’ said Ofaeti. ‘He said something in their temple.’

‘What did he say?’

‘He wasn’t a god.’

‘Well, we’re agreed on something then. How did you come by him, Fastarr?’

‘He was with the girl in the temple.’

‘So you had her and you let her go?’

‘The wolfman got her out, sir. He’s a sorcerer; there was nothing I could do. I broke a good sword hitting him with it and the lads here snapped a few spears on his hide.’

Jehan doubted that. The Norsemen hadn’t mentioned it, and something so remarkable would have been bound to excite comment.

‘And yet the Raven did for him.’

‘Enchanted arrows, sir. They can only be harmed by magic, and the Raven is a well-known magician.’

‘I wonder. So what happened to the girl?’

‘She jumped out of a window on the south bank. Ran up into the woods, and that’s where we lost her.’

Jehan heard someone breathe out and pace the floor.

‘The reason I allow you Horda in my camp at all is that you are supposed to be great heroes. Mighty men! And yet a girl loses you in the dark.’

There was much shuffling of feet.

‘Where would this girl have gone, priest? Is there anywhere on the south bank she would have run to?’

The confessor remained silent.

‘We’re not the only ones looking for her, you know. If I take her then she’ll live. If others get hold of her she’ll need all your god’s help and more.’

He felt breath on his face. The man had bent to address him.

‘Our Raven wants her, and he is not a tender man. She’ll be eaten by him, most likely alive. If you want her to avoid that fate, help us find her.’

For the first time Jehan spoke: ‘Why do you want her?’

‘So he does talk. Answer my question: where is she?’

‘I did not know she had been taken. My knowledge of the back country is poor. As you see by my condition, I am not used to wandering the fields.’

The voice came closer to his ear.

‘You don’t seem scared, monk.’

Jehan said nothing again.

‘You’re a prophet, aren’t you?’ said the king.

Silence.

‘Come on. I know it. Don’t think your Eudes is the only one with spies. We’re not quite as backward as you think, you know. You’re a prophet, I’ve heard it said.’

Jehan could smell something underneath the pine needles, underneath the reeds and the roasting meat. What was it? The same smell he’d experienced in Paris. Dead flesh. Rot. Human putrefaction.

‘Let’s do this the easy way. I want you to work for me. You tell me what you need and I’ll give you what you want. What do you want?’

Jehan knew only one response to such a question. ‘Your soul for God.’

‘No. I am a king and Odin’s man — it is well known. But let me make you comfortable. Would you like wine? Food?’

‘Yes. But I cannot feed myself.’

‘Well, I’m not going to feed you. I draw the line at touching cripples.’

‘Use the boy.’ It was Ofaeti’s voice.

‘Silence, fat bellows,’ said Fastarr.

‘What boy?’

‘A merchant outside has a boy slave, a mute and an idiot. He’s from Miklagard and simple anyway, so it’s not going to matter if he catches anything off the cripple.’

‘Mute I like,’ said Sigfrid. ‘Send him in. You, berserkers, get out of here. And the rest of you. Go. I’ll speak with the monk alone.’

‘Out!’ It was Fastarr’s voice. Jehan heard the men leave.

It was quiet for a moment and the confessor listened to the fire crackling, the sound of the king pacing the reeds. There was that smell again. Death.

The confessor heard footsteps.

‘Feed this monk. Meat and wine.’

Silence.

‘What’s wrong with you, boy? Feed the monk.’

‘He doesn’t speak your language.’

‘Do you speak his language?’

‘Yes.’

‘Speak to him then.’

‘You are to feed me and give me drink. If it is you, lady, then spill a little wine as you do,’ the monk said in Greek, which he knew the lady spoke and was almost certain Sigfrid did not.

Jehan heard a plate lifted, the glug of wine into a cup. When the cup was pressed to his lips, it was too high and the wine spilled down his front.

‘Careful, lad. That stuff’s too hard to come by to waste,’ said Sigfrid.

The confessor was fed bread and meat in quantity. He hadn’t realised how hungry he was until he started to eat.

‘Have faith, lady,’ said Jehan. ‘We will prevail here.’

Again, that hand on his shoulder, the cold tingle that shivered through his body.

‘Let me tell you my problem, priest.’ It was Sigfrid’s voice. ‘Your lot on the walls are holding out rather longer than I had anticipated. It’s not easy to keep my army together. Many of them will go home if we don’t break in soon, or even offer themselves to my enemies. There are enough warlords here who are only loyal as long as I keep the plunder rolling in. Do you understand?’

‘Yes.’

‘Now, my people are a superstitious lot. Me, I’d convert to your religion tomorrow and take advantage of all the alliances and marriage possibilities that would bring. Your god talks of peace but he’s mighty in war — we saw in our grandfathers’ time the power of the old King Charles. So I like your god: he makes his kings rich and powerful.’

‘Christ doesn’t want men who come to him for such reasons.’

‘I didn’t ask him what he wanted, did I? It was more me telling him what he was going to have. Anyway, there is a prophecy. Our seers have seen it, the thing that pursued your lady has seen it, half the holy idiots of the north have seen it. Our god, Odin, will come to earth in the form of a man.’

‘That is a lie.’

‘Maybe. Maybe not. Doesn’t matter. The people, the vast majority of the northern men, will follow the one who they believe to be this god on earth. If this god happens to be me, then they will follow me.’

‘So why do you not claim to be him? If you believe it all to be no more than a lie, then why not make it a useful lie?’

‘I do claim to be him. And I didn’t say I thought it a lie. However, the prophecy is widely known and it comes with certain conditions. “How ye shall know him” — you know the form. The person, or the thing, that will identify the king of gods in earthly shape is our friend Hugin, known as Hrafn, he who staged a single-handed assault on your city not five hours ago, obliging a good number of my men to follow him to prevent him performing the darker aspects of his desires. He is of the cult of Odin the hanged, the mad, the wise, deep in magic, lord of poetry, blah blah blah. He himself is said to be the incarnation of one of the mad god’s ravens, his intelligencers, who spy on all the world for the god and return to whisper their news in his ear. So much bunk you may think but no more ludicrous than what you’re peddling. What’s a living saint if not a bit of god on earth, eh? Anyway, he needs to give the nod to Odin made flesh, announce him and proclaim him.’

‘Why don’t you just make him do that for you?’

‘You can’t make that thing do anything. Believe me, if I put him to torture it will be sweet rest compared to what he’s put himself through. I would love to but it isn’t practical. Also, the people wouldn’t stand for it.’

Jehan felt the wine cup raised to his lips again. Aelis, he was sure it was her, was trembling.

‘So I’m left with fulfilling the prophecy. Which is where it gets interesting. Our people believe that, on the final day of the gods, Odin will fight a creature called the Fenris Wolf. That creature will kill the god. The appearance of this wolf here in middle earth will indicate who Odin is. It will come to kill him.’

‘So you prove yourself king of kings by dying?’

‘Just as your Christ did, eh?’

‘That is sacrilege.’

‘Calm yourself. The way I see it is this. If we can fulfil this prophecy, get this wolf to turn up, then I can rewrite destiny.’

‘How?’

‘I’ll kill it. I’m good at killing things, it’s been my only profession. That way we make our own myths. I will be Odin in triumph. If it kills me, I have a hero’s death and renown down the ages. I really don’t see how I can lose.’

‘And if it doesn’t appear?’

‘It will. If we can get hold of your lady.’

‘What has she got to do with this?’

‘Our Raven has a sister. She is a prophet of a sort and she has identified your lady as the key to the appearance of the wolf. Odin has come to earth before, fought the wolf before, and in some way this girl, who has lived before, was caught up in all that. Where she goes, the wolf will follow. That’s why we want her.’

Jehan swallowed. He thought of what Aelis had told him in the church. It was becoming clear to him what had happened now. She had heard the rumours of what the Norsemen intended for her and it had given her nightmares. As it would anyone.

‘And why does the heathen sorcerer try to kill her?’

‘He doesn’t agree that I’m Odin. He thinks the wolf has not come yet. If he can kill this girl before the wolf catches her scent, so to speak, then he can weaken it or even avoid his master’s death. It’s like your seers who read the future in the night sky. Could they shape the future if they could reach to the heavens and snuff out a star? The Raven believes that is possible and your lady is the star he wants to snuff out.’

‘You don’t think that is necessary?’

‘I believe the god — me — can cheat his destiny too. We just want to go about it in different ways. I want the girl to live, to snare this wolf. Then I beat it in combat, as I’ve beaten everything that has stood before me. He wants her to die sooner. It’s a difference of theological opinion.’

‘This is poisonous nonsense,’ said the confessor.

‘Maybe and maybe not,’ said Sigfrid. ‘I have seen enough of prophecy to know that it can be true. Why not then the gods? I am supposed to be of the line of Odin. Maybe I’m the god; maybe I’m not. All I know is that if I can get this wolf to turn up and then kill it, our friend Raven will declare me a god.’

‘There is one god, one almighty power, Jesus, who is Christ, risen and glorious.’

‘Well,’ said Sigfrid, ‘why don’t we put that to the test? You prophesy where the girl is and I’ll convert to your god. I’ll have to do it on the quiet of course, but I’ll convert openly once all the armies and the warlords have rallied to me and sworn allegiance. Really, I will.’

‘Prophecy is a gift from God: he will not send it under such circumstances.’

‘He must.’

‘I will not do this thing. Use your heathen Raven woman if you must, for all the good it will do you.’

‘I’m afraid she’s not really up to that at the moment. The methods for obtaining prophecy are rather’ — Jehan heard the king tap on something in thought — ‘draining, I think it fair to say.’

‘Do not look to Christ for your answers. He has only one answer for the likes of you, and it is eternal damnation.’

‘You refuse me help at your peril.’

‘I am not afraid of death.’

‘Well good, because I think you’re about to meet him.’

The smell of putrefaction became overpowering and Sigfrid heard the lady draw in breath. There was a light step upon the reeds.

‘Saint,’ said Sigfrid, ‘this is the Raven Hugin. He has already half killed his sister pulling prophecies from her; he can quite easily do the same to you.’

11

Hrafn

The thing’s eyes seemed to bore straight through Aelis, the same glittering black gems that had looked at her in the attic. She felt herself trembling and backed into the shadows. Had it recognised her? It looked down at the priest. Perhaps it hadn’t.

It came forward into the candlelight and she could see it properly. It was bone-thin and wrapped in a cloak of black feathers, its black hair stuck into a shock with an oily tar, feathers within it sweeping up into a sort of black crown. Its face, now she could see it more clearly, was a terrible mess of scars, deep but tiny wounds, some festering and swollen, some healed and some still seeping blood. The creature reeked of corpses.

Aelis watched as it approached. The monk flinched as it bent close to his ear and spoke in Latin. ‘The prophet,’ it said. ‘Are you Jehan, who they call Confessor?’

‘I will have no dealings with devils.’

‘I am not a devil. You will work for us, prophet. If you have the gift I can show you how.’

‘How do you speak our tongue, monster?’ said the confessor.

Jehan felt himself shaking, as he often did when he was angry and cursed himself knowing that his enemies might mistake it for fear.

‘I was raised as a monk, for a while.’

‘So you turned your back on Christ.’

‘At Saint-Maurice he found me-’ the man clasped his fist, fingers up, ‘-and then at Saint-Maurice he threw me away.’ He cast his hand down to the floor. ‘Conversions can go both ways, Confessor.’

Jehan swallowed. He recognised the name of the monastery. Saint-Maurice was an Augustinian house to the east, in the mountains of Valais. It was one of the great centres of Christendom, known for its treasures and relics and the song of ages, the laus perennis — the monks had begun to sing the psalms nearly four hundred years before and, working in shifts, had never stopped since. How had this monster come out of such a place?

‘How do you know me?’

‘I have heard of you. I should fear you, I have been told.’

‘Fear God,’ said Jehan, ‘for he reserves special torments for the likes of you.’

The creature smiled. ‘And for you, it would seem.’

Aelis tried to place the thing’s accent. Northern certainly, but not a Dane’s. It was nearer to the merchant’s.

‘Can you make this monk find the girl?’ said Sigfrid. Aelis didn’t understand him but she guessed what he said from his urgency and his gestures.

The Raven nodded, though it replied in Latin. ‘In a short time perhaps, perhaps not. Given longer, yes.’

The king became angry, waved his arm to indicate the whole camp and, Aelis could tell, asked the Raven to be as quick as possible.

‘Then we will try. The method will be quick. It will kill him but we will have our revelation.’ Again the Raven spoke in Latin. Aelis knew that by speaking in a tongue the king understood poorly the creature was in a weird way expressing its superiority, its power even, over the king. And he was threatening the monk.

The king said something in Norse.

‘He thinks you are a risk to him alive, Confessor. Doesn’t he know they will come after your bones, your relics? Should I grind them to dust?’

‘No one will seek me,’ said the confessor.

‘Not so. Even dead you are a rallying point, but let’s not run ahead of ourselves.’

‘How long?’ said Sigfrid.

There was another conversation in Norse. Aelis sensed the king didn’t trust the Raven. The king raised his voice.

The Raven shrugged and bent to where the confessor sat on the floor. In the firelight the confessor’s twisted body reminded Aelis of a melted candle stub, the long form bending over it like a shadow it had thrown.

‘Will you work with us, Confessor? Will you use your abilities to help us? It will cost you little.’ He spoke in Latin.

Silence gave the Raven its answer.

‘Do you know how magic works?’ said the creature.

The monk said nothing but Aelis felt a coldness coming from the Raven, a sense of high and desolate places and of something else she couldn’t quite identify. She was tempted to say it was loneliness, though she couldn’t imagine the creature having any tender feelings at all.

The Raven continued: ‘I do. Through shock. Your thoughts are intertwined, like the weft on a loom. If there is magic in you it is a single thread obscured by many others, the illusions of the everyday, of hungers, lusts, the babble of your priests, the senses and smells of the world. Those illusions must be removed. Something that scars or revolts, or throws the thoughts into chaos is required. Something that cuts the duller threads and leaves the scarlet of the truer, magical self shining through. Your hermits do it in their isolation, so that the thoughts fall in on themselves to reveal the magical self beneath. Your Christ did it on his cross, calling down lightning and causing the dead to walk while those next to him only spluttered and died. Not everyone can achieve this, or, rather, exactly what we can achieve is different. Some people can prophesy. Some can see far in distance but not in time, put their mind into a raven’s body and fly with it on the upper airs. Some can slow time and see everything at half its speed, become mighty warriors. Most can just scream.’

The thing walked around the confessor, looking at him as a man might inspect a market-day pig.

‘Believe what lies you like.’ The comparison of Jesus to a magician had incensed the monk and he was unable to stop himself speaking.

‘Tell me, Confessor, when you first saw, when the visions first came to you, your body was struck as it is?’

‘God blessed me twice that day.’

‘Did the vision produce the affliction or did the affliction produce the vision? And when you see, the affliction gets worse, does it not? I ask my question again. Are the visions the cause or the symptom of your frailties?’

‘It is all from God.’

‘From the fates,’ said the creature. ‘Even the gods must follow the skein that is woven for them.’

‘Then your Odin will die and be replaced by a kinder god, isn’t that what your prophecies say?’

‘We will defy the prophecy. In my time on this middle earth the dead god will rule. He will escape the teeth of the wolf and will live to start a battle that will consume the world and stock the halls of the dead with many heroes. I will see him king over all the world. What happens in eternal time I cannot influence. The wolf will take him eventually but not until I am drinking with the slain in Valhalla.’

The confessor, who was a good reader of men’s voices, sensed something behind the Raven’s words. There was the faintest tinge of deceit, like the quiver in a novice’s voice when he asks to be allowed to go into town with a healer when really he is intending to meet some girl in the market square. Had Christ completely let this man go? The confessor could not believe it. He decided to test him on his faith.

‘You control nothing while you worship idols.’

‘Wrong,’ said the creature. ‘I control you. You will prophesy, monk. You will reveal the girl to us. She is the wolf hook, the thing that draws him on. Do you think the wolf gladdens when he thinks of his death in the final battle? No. Only she spurs him forward to his destiny. She is the fates’ instrument. It has been foreseen.’

‘I will do nothing for you.’

‘You will, one way or another.’

Aelis felt cold. The grey light of the predawn was coming into the house, banishing the shadows of the fire. In a short time she would be visible to the thing again. She moved to the furthest corner of the room, like a new and timid slave hoping to escape notice.

Hugin stood up and turned to Sigfrid. There was a conversation in Norse between them and the Raven pointed north.

Sigfrid looked pale. The creature smiled and said to Jehan, ‘The king is of a tender stomach for a warrior. But he must realise there are no easy ways to magic.’ He gestured at his scarred and torn face. ‘And I should know. Now, if you’ll excuse me, Confessor, the people are calling for me. I have a sick child to cure.’ He went out past the monk into the growing light.

12

A Matter of Will

The berserkers were sleeping at the feet of the mules, lying on Leshii’s bags, when Aelis came outside.

Leshii had paid them to guard his goods. The merchant had vowed to himself to have the money back off them in some way before he left, particularly as their services hadn’t been necessary beyond some initial scuffling. When the people of the camp discovered the wine had gone and there was no food on the mules, interest quickly waned. You couldn’t eat or drink silk and the only trade anyone was interested in doing was for a square meal, so when Leshii showed them a length of yellow silk, they had gone back to what they had been doing before — starving, complaining and preparing their weapons.

Leshii was tired but he’d been unable to sleep. He felt old and cold in the morning mist. He’d seen the creature leave the house and had recognised him for what he was — a shaman, a magician and very likely a madman. The strange figure made the merchant shiver. Never mind, he told himself, he’d seen more terrifying men. At that instant, though, he couldn’t recall where.

The king came out of the house. He bowed deeply, wondering how he would explain it when the king didn’t realise it. He too hadn’t slept, Leshii could see.

‘On your feet, warriors!’ he shouted.

The berserkers creaked up slowly, shaking the dew from their hair and then wishing they hadn’t as the reality of their hangovers dawned on them.

‘Get the monk up into the woods, to the Raven’s camp.’

‘I’d prefer not to go up there, sir,’ said Fastarr.

‘And I’d prefer you did.’

Aelis went to the merchant. He was red-eyed and yawning.

‘I had to watch all night,’ he said. ‘That should have been your job.’

Aelis gave him a look to tell him that though she was disguised as a slave he shouldn’t make the mistake of treating her like one. He smiled. She wasn’t a slave, for sure; more like a precious possession now.

Ofaeti brought the monk from the house, carrying him over his shoulder. Leshii could see the confessor’s pain and his efforts to hide it.

‘I’m not traipsing all the way up there with him, merchant; lend us a mule,’ said Ofaeti.

‘The one that had the wine will be considerably lighter, practically unburdened,’ said Leshii. ‘Put him on that. I’ll take my animals to a safe place in the woods.’

‘No,’ said Sigfrid. ‘You are to do me a service, merchant, and can accompany these men.’

Leshii forced his face into a smile. ‘As ever for you. I only aim to please, lord,’ he said.

‘Follow the monk. Be with him for the coming day. Do not leave his side and report to me what he says.’

‘Always your servant, great lord.’

Sigfrid looked at Leshii oddly and the merchant thought he might question his familiarity, but the king just said ‘You can leave the bags and the mules you don’t need here.’

‘My lord, I prefer to guard them.’

‘It was an instruction, not a request. The packs will not be stolen from, nor your animals eaten — you have my word. You can have them back if I find your report satisfactory.’

Again Leshii smiled. This place, he was sure, would be the death of him. There was no trade to be had one way or the other, no entertainment and not even any food. The best he could hope to come away with was a case of scurf. The worst, well, that would be not coming away at all. Still, Leshii was a practical man and knew the northerners stood by their oaths. The bags might be safer with the king than at his own side. And at least the Vikings had not mentioned that he had claimed to have known the king since he was a boy.

They went out past the smouldering fires of the camp, through the bands of mist and up the incline for a very long way. Leshii looked behind him as they climbed. The mist sat in the shallow valley of the river like broth in a bowl. And what a broth, a brew of trouble, plague, suspicion and death. They reached the edge of the forest, where already people were chopping logs, and went under the trees. There was a narrow track, just a depression in the grass really, and they followed that. The woods were wet and lovely: the dew sparkled in the pale sun and bluebells flashed like jewels in the web of the low mist. Leshii could not enjoy the morning, though. He was a captive. He glanced at Aelis. What was she? The captive of a captive. Quite a fall for a noblewoman in just one night, he thought.

They were no more than a spring hour into the woods when they came to a clearing. The trees were high here, huge oaks budding into leaf.

‘It’s here,’ said Fastarr.

Leshii could see nothing to indicate a camp. They went into the clearing.

‘Hrafn!’ shouted Fastarr. ‘Hrafn!’

From up in the trees a raven stirred from its nest.

‘Wrong one,’ said Ofaeti. No one laughed.

The bird sat looking at them from a high branch.

‘They’re strange things, those,’ said Ofaeti. ‘They won’t nest together, but as soon as one of them gets a sniff of food they’re cawing their heads off calling for the others to come and join in.’

‘Let’s hope there’s no more like Hrafn around,’ said Fastarr.

‘You should let me gut that corpse-muncher,’ said Ofaeti.

Fastarr smiled. ‘If we ever meet him out of the protection of Sigfrid’s people then I’ll race you to cut his throat.’

‘You shouldn’t say that,’ said Svan. ‘He’s a priest of Odin. He cures people, and he’s worth ten men in battle, I’ve seen it.’

Fastarr grunted, clearly unwilling to debate the subject. ‘Hrafn!’

There was a stirring down in the wood.

‘Oh, on Freyr’s fat cock, it’s her,’ said Ofaeti.

‘Let’s leave the prisoners and get it over with then,’ said Fastarr. ‘I don’t want to be around to watch this.’

‘Are you so soft, Fastarr?’

Leshii looked around. It was Saerda, the hard little man who had delighted in tormenting Aelis.

‘I have killed a score of men,’ said Fastarr, ‘but they have been the honest deaths of sword, axe and spear. This offends me.’

‘You don’t like to see your enemies suffer?’ said Saerda.

‘I like ’em dead and quick,’ said Fastarr, ‘the quicker to return to my ale and my women.’

‘Each to his own,’ said Saerda with a shrug, ‘I can stay with them if you like.’

‘Do as you want,’ said Fastarr. ‘Just the sooner…’

His voice trailed away. Leshii’s mouth fell open. Aelis actually screamed, but no one seemed to notice, they were too busy holding on to their own stomachs. Leshii had encountered a leper on his travels, though he had run from him quick enough. This, though, was another kind of deformity entirely.

A woman had appeared at the edge of the clearing. Her hair was black and disordered, she wore a dirty white shift stained red with blood at the front from two raw wounds at her neck, and she swayed as if almost too weak to stand. It was her eyes, though, that caught Leshii’s attention. She didn’t have any. Her face was marked with cuts, like her brother’s, but much more numerous and severe, and her head was swollen, almost spongy in appearance, like a monstrous oak gall. There was no discernible nose, just a ragged slit for a mouth, and where her eyes should have been were torn and vacant sockets, the shape of them hardly distinguishable. What had done that to her? Leshii wondered. Disease? It looked like no disease he had ever seen, though her face was bruised black and red with infection, puffed out unevenly on one side, almost shrunken away on the other. Her, eyes, though, her eyes were truly terrible. He remembered fetching bread from his grandmother to his mother when he had been young. The old woman had given him half a loaf, and on his way home he’d thought he’d just take a nibble, so he’d pinched a little off as he walked. It had been delicious and he couldn’t resist taking another pinch, then another, until the inside of the loaf was nearly hollow. That was how the woman’s eyes appeared, like the inside of that loaf, ruined by tiny degrees.

The woman swayed forward across the clearing and then tripped and fell, groping blindly on her hands and knees, sniffing and feeling her way towards them.

‘What do we do?’ said Fastarr.

‘Don’t look at me,’ said Ofaeti.

‘This is their camp. She wants the monk; give her the monk,’ said Saerda.

‘How, in the name of the Norns’ icy tits, do you know what it wants? Are you a bastard mind-reader now?’ said Ofaeti.

The woman heard their voices and craned her head. Leshii watched as she got to her feet and stood facing them, arms by her side, about twenty paces away. This was becoming rather too weird for the merchant’s tastes. He was, he thought, only a morning’s hard walk away from the area the Norsemen controlled. If he could, he would take the lady and just strike out for Ladoga. He’d have to leave his silks and his mules, but the prince would provide him with ample compensation for those if he delivered him the girl. For the first time since he’d left the east, Leshii wished the wolfman was back by his side. He at least would give him a chance of escape.

‘This is meant to be where we leave the monk. Let’s just leave him and get out of here,’ said another berserker.

Fastarr shook his head. ‘We need to find out where this girl is. If that’s what the Hrafn’s after, we need to get to her before him. We have to hear the prophecy and react before he gets his claws into her.’

‘Well, shall I get the monk down or not?’ said Ofaeti.

‘Yes.’

Leshii looked around. The tall figure of Hugin had appeared from the other side of the clearing. He was carrying three small bags across his shoulders and wearing a pair of ragged trousers and a torn smock of dirty grey wool, still greasy as if it had just come from the animal and had not been soaked in hot piss to get the grit and the grease out of it. At his side was that cruelly curved sword. Leshii had heard of such swords, of course — they were a legend among the Moors and the blue men of Africa — but even when he had travelled down the camel roads to Serkland, he had never seen one and wondered what smith had the skill to make such a weapon.

‘Leave the monk,’ said the Raven. ‘Set him down here, at the edge, under the branch of this oak.’

Leshii watched as the confessor was taken from the back of the mule. It almost broke his heart to see. The value of a saint had to be huge, he thought. Even the man’s bones would be worth a fortune to the right monastery. Perhaps, thought the merchant, he might get a chance to steal the corpse — as he was certain the confessor was about to become — once Hugin had finished with him.

The confessor didn’t complain as he was taken down. The Raven kneeled beside him and put his hands on his brow and on his chest. Leshii thought he almost looked as if he was tending to him. It was when he saw the noose, with its tricky, sticky knot, that he knew for certain he was not.

The Raven cast the rope up over the branch of the tree and then slipped the loop over the head of the monk. He took up the slack, pulling the confessor up into a seated position. The rope was not strangling the monk, Leshii could see, but it was forcing him to work for his breath. The merchant was meant to stay to find out for the king what the confessor said. As far as Leshii could see, the confessor would do very well to keep breathing, let alone issue any prophecies.

‘You can discover where the girl has gone like this?’ said Ofaeti.

‘Perhaps,’ said Hugin.

The monk groaned and then was quiet. Leshii admired him. He could tell that he wouldn’t give in to pain, to argument or to pleas. The confessor was the stuff martyrs were made of. Leshii’s mind was ever on profit and he thought that he might be able to get a few hot meals out of monasteries in return for an account of how the man had died.

Hugin opened his first bag. It contained a white powder. He took a handful and smeared it on the confessor’s face and hands. The sorcerer wasn’t rough, Leshii noticed; in fact he was very careful, patting at the powder, wiping it smooth with his thumb like a mother taking dirt from her son’s face in preparation to meet guests. Then he opened the second bag and removed a very curious item indeed — a carved wooden shape, like a short double-headed spoon with ties of leather coming from each end. Hrafn held it up to the monk’s eyes. Leshii could now see what it was — some sort of eyeguard, like the metal ones the Norsemen occasionally put on their funeral helmets. These were impractical for fighting use — the metal would like as not direct the tip of any thrust into the eye as much as away from it — but they looked impressive. This one, though, was not attached to a helmet and had no holes in it. Anyone wearing it would be able to see nothing. Hrafn did not tie it on; he seemed to think better of it and put it to one side. Then he opened the third bag. In it was a human hand, one finger tied to a looped cord. The shaman put this around the monk’s neck.

Leshii glanced at the berserkers. They were muttering to each other. The merchant could see the ritual — as it appeared to be — made them very uncomfortable.

Hugin walked to the ruined figure of his sister in the middle of the glade. He took her gently by the hand, guided her across to the monk and sat her down beside him. She put her arms around the confessor and sang.

Her voice was beautiful. It was a song in no language Leshii understood but it seemed almost to chime and ring as she sang. It was dizzying too. He felt himself drifting off, as you might doing dull work while the sun shines outside. The song carried him away and he forgot where he was. Presently he noted that it had become darker. The light had begun to fall. At first he thought it must have gone cloudy, but then he realised that it was dusk. There was a smell of fires from down the valley and the sun was low through the trees. The berserkers were quiet, laid out on the grass, as if asleep. The woman thing, the faceless horror, still cuddled and crooned at the monk; the Raven still sat on his knees nearby, staring into the middle distance. There was a noise Leshii couldn’t place. At first he thought it was the wind in the trees. It had that quality to it, rising and falling, but was not quite like the wind. More like the breath of a great crowd, a babble of voices.

The woman’s song went on. Leshii looked into the trees. All around them, silhouetted against the falling light, ravens were assembling, scraps of black dropping onto branches. They were beneath a ravens’ roost, where the birds gathered from their nests at night to seek the protection of numbers until the dawn.

Now one fell like a dark leaf from a tree and alighted on the woman’s shoulder, its head turning this way and that in apparent curiosity. Leshii watched as she held up her finger. It pecked at it, drawing a gout of blood. The woman seemed not to notice but slid the finger under the bird’s foot. It took hold and she felt with her free hand for the monk’s shoulder. Then she blew on the bird and it hopped forward onto the confessor. Leshii watched as the monk sensed its presence. He tried to draw his head away but it was held firmly in place by the noose. A normal man may have been able to writhe away, to frighten the bird, but the confessor could not. A tiny turn of his head was all he managed. The raven pecked, but not at the monk. It stripped off a tiny piece of meat from the hand hanging around Jehan’s neck and gave a loud caw. Leshii thought that if the night had a voice, that was what it would sound like. Now other birds tumbled from the trees with cackles of delight. The merchant watched as the birds tore into the hand at the monk’s neck.

There was another sound, an exhalation, a deep sigh, more like one of despair than of pain. The monk, noticed the merchant, had blood running from his cheek, then from his forehead, then from his neck and his ears and his lips.

Hugin went back to the confessor and crouched at his ear.

‘Odin, lord, in this offering of pain,

Odin, lord, your servants beseech you,

Odin, lord, who in agony won lore,

Odin, lord, direct us to your enemy.’

The words were a mumble, repeated and repeated.

The monk’s body convulsed, and one or two of the birds took flight, but four remained to tear at his flesh. They seemed almost leisurely in their feeding: pecking, swallowing, turning around, cawing and calling and pecking again.

The berserkers were standing up, some shaking their heads, some turning away and feigning indifference, one watching in fascination. Saerda seemed to be enjoying the spectacle. The merchant saw that Aelis couldn’t look away and was trying to speak, her voice reduced to an appalled stammer by what was happening. In a few seconds, thought Leshii, she was going to betray herself. He put his arm around her as a token of comfort but also as a means of restraint. He knew it must look odd to treat a slave that way but no one was looking at him; all eyes were on the confessor’s suffering. The red sun cast long shadows through the trees like welcoming arms to greet the incoming night. Leshii realised they had been there for hours.

The monk could hardly move but his voice was strong, passionate even. ‘I have come back for her. She is near me.’

The merchant pulled at Aelis. ‘Come away,’ he said. ‘Come away.’

‘She is here!’ screamed the monk. ‘She is here.’

‘Where? Where is she?’ Raven was at his ear, speaking low like a parent coaxing a fretful child to sleep.

‘Here, she is here.’

‘Can you see her? Where is she?’

‘Near me, she was always near me. Lord Jesus, let me resist this. I will not reveal her.’

A raven hopped up onto the monk’s face and took a tentative, inquisitive peck at an eye. Hugin held the monk’s hand and intoned again.

‘Odin, lord, take this agony for your agonies,

Nine days and nights on the storm-racked tree,

Odin, lord, who gave your eye for lore,

Lead us to your enemies.’

‘Aelis! Aelis!’ the monk was screaming. ‘Come to me, come to me. I have looked for you for so long. Aelis. Adisla, do not go from me — it will be my death!’

Adisla? Who was that? wondered Aelis. It sounded like a Norse name. And yet it seemed strangely familiar to her. She was overwhelmed by the urge to help the confessor. She started towards the monk but Leshii stopped her. His solemn faith that this magic would not work had been replaced by an equally solid conviction that it would. In a second, he thought, the monk would identify the lady.

Now the birds fell from the trees like leaves in a black autumn, mobbing the confessor’s body, shrieking and cawing.

Leshii had made up his mind. The silks didn’t matter, nor did the mules. His life and whatever reward he could get for the lady were all he had.

‘Come on,’ he said. ‘We’re going.’

He couldn’t move her. She was rooted where she stood, trembling, her eyes fixed on the confessor.

That terrible woman was singing again over the coaxings of Hugin.

Then the monk gave a scream unlike any other, a sound of torment, a high note in the music of hell. There was confusion and shouting. The Raven was up, shooing the birds away from the monk’s body. He hacked at the rope with his knife and the confessor collapsed like a bag of wet sand. Aelis, unable to stop herself, ran to him, pushing past the berserkers, rushing past Hugin, who had turned away from the confessor with his head in his hands.

Leshii dashed after Aelis and then bent to try to control the weeping girl. ‘Remember,’ he whispered, ‘you are a mute, a mute. Say nothing or join this man in his torments.’

He had been trying not to look at the monk, but as he pulled Aelis away caught sight of him. The confessor’s tongue was lolling from his head. It reminded Leshii of a piece of liver, slick and shiny with blood, and ragged at one edge. The merchant could only marvel at the sort of mind capable of doing what the confessor had done. Jehan would not give them a prophecy, no matter how they enchanted and tormented him, and had done the only thing he could to spite his captors and stop himself from revealing Aelis. He had opened his mouth to let the birds tear out his tongue.

13

The Reward of Honour

A silence fell on the clearing when the Raven cut down the monk.

Ofaeti walked over and looked down at the merchant’s boy, who was cradling the confessor in his arms. ‘Of your religion, I guess, son,’ he said. ‘Well, if that’s the measure of these men then we can all pack up and go home now. That is a man of iron, I’ll give him that. Eh, Raven? He did for you, didn’t he? Crippled, trussed, tied and enchanted, but he beat you at your own game.’ Aelis didn’t understand a word he said but caught the sentiment in his voice.

She looked down at the monk. His blood was black and shiny in the moonlight, one eye swollen and raw. The bird had virtually removed the eyelid, though the eye itself looked intact. His face and ears were a mass of cuts, the white nub of a cheek bone showing through and a hole in his cheek exposing a tooth. She removed the remains of the horrible hand at his neck and threw it away. No one tried to stop her.

‘He won’t recover from this,’ said Leshii. ‘The wounds won’t kill him but they’ll turn bad. I’ve seen it before.’

‘How much are god bones, by weight?’ It was the voice of Saerda. He gave a short laugh and prodded his boot at the monk’s side.

Aelis was on her feet in a second. Without thinking what she was doing, she had pushed Saerda in the middle of the chest. He was taken by surprise and fell back over a tree root. He didn’t take long to recover, though, drawing his knife even as he tripped, regaining his balance before he hit the ground and springing to stab at Aelis. It was four strides between Saerda and the lady. He took two before Ofaeti, with surprising quickness, stepped across and dropped his shoulder into the thin man’s side, battering him into a tree. All the wind went out of him as he hit the trunk. He slumped to the floor and lay there panting.

Ofaeti pointed at the monk and spoke: ‘This man has earned my respect for tonight. Let the boy care for him, if it suits his temper. If it’s a fight you’re after, Saerda, you needn’t be disappointed. I stand ready to oblige.’ Again, Aelis couldn’t grasp exactly what he was saying but the meaning of his words was clear enough to anyone.

Saerda stood and dusted himself down, still trying to recover his breath. Then he gave Aelis a look that needed no interpretation at all, smiled and backed off towards the camp.

It was night now and the big moon turned the clearing into a silver circle. Hugin said something in Norse to the merchant.

Leshii shook his head. ‘I don’t think he knows we are here.’

For the first time, the Raven fixed his eyes on Aelis. ‘Keep him warm for the night and give him water if he calls for it. He won’t die before tomorrow.’ He turned to Leshii again and said, ‘Tell the king what he said and that, one way or another, the monk will have given us all he has to give us by this time tomorrow. Now I need to think.’

He walked back across the clearing, taking his sister by the arm and escorting her into the trees

It was quickly obvious that Jehan was going to die. He was very cold and he shook. His wounds were awful, oozing stab marks across every inch of exposed flesh. Strangely, the birds had not pecked through his clothes. The habit and undershirt had put them off and they had gone only for the skin they could see.

Jehan was delirious, clinging to Aelis’s hand, gargling and babbling. His tongue was terribly swollen like a fat blood sausage and he could hardly close his mouth. Aelis tended to him, dabbing his mouth with a damp cloth to keep it moist, squeezing in a little water. From away in the trees, from the direction of the Raven’s shelter, chanting came, low and indistinct, a smoke of words, just a tinge of them on the breeze.

Leshii sat with her. He was a hard man who saw the world in terms of profit and loss, but even he had been shaken by the monk’s ordeal, she could see. A boy came running into the clearing and spoke to the Vikings. She saw the one called Fastarr nod and point towards her. The big fat Norseman came up and said something to the merchant. Leshii replied and the man went away.

Leshii said, ‘I have to go to report to the king. He has sent for me.’

‘On what?’ She spoke low, careful to see if she was observed.

‘What the monk said under torture.’ Leshii did not dignify what he had seen with the name of magic. The man had been half killed and had nearly revealed what he had guessed — that the lady was near him. No prophecy to that, he thought. ‘You have to come as well. They were insistent. Seems like you might have more slave work to do down there.’

She touched him on the arm. ‘The confessor is dying,’ she said.

‘Yes.’

‘I need to stay here with him. Let me stay here.’

Leshii shrugged and turned to the Norsemen and shouted something at them that Aelis didn’t understand. The fat one replied, shaking his head.

‘No, you have to come,’ said Leshii.

‘I will not leave him,’ said Aelis, averting her face.

The merchant spoke to the berserkers again. There was a brief discussion between them. Then the fat one shook his head and made an odd gesture. She heard the king’s name mentioned.

Leshii turned to Aelis. ‘Ofaeti says Sigfrid can fetch and carry for himself for one night. The priest has earned some comfort. The berserker will do your work for you if the king demands it. You look after the monk. If you can move him then go down the river to the woods by the ford. I will meet you there and I swear I will reunite you with your people.’ Leshii made to stand. ‘You have a friend there in the fat Viking, it seems, but I must be gone.’

Aelis stood and nodded to Ofaeti. She was afraid, but inside her a certainty was growing. God had put her together with the confessor. And God, she thought, knew well his friends from his enemies. If anyone should be scared, it was the sorcerer and his horrible servants.

14

A Discovery

Leshii and the berserks made their way back down into the camp, towards the house Sigfrid was using as his headquarters. The assault had been a substantial one that day and the Norsemen had taken many casualties. Fires blazed in the night, and the sound of rough music, pipe and drum, was cut through with groans and screams. Faces, pale and thin, loomed from the darkness. This, thought, Leshii, was what the land of the dead would be like.

The house was visible from a way away under the bright moon, its checked roof gleaming in the silver light. Leshii was tired and looking forward to the hospitality of the king. The advantage of dealing with monarchs was that — even in times of hardship — there was good wine to drink and good food to eat. He went in to find the king sitting on a chair in the centre of the room. It was no throne but had been put in such a position that it was clear it was intended to stand in for one. Leshii wondered if some formal court was taking place. In all his other dealings with the Norsemen they had rarely stood on ceremony, particularly in times of war.

The king gave Leshii a curt smile and held out his cup to be filled. Leshii noted that the man who did so was not Sigfrid’s normal servant but the skinny berserk Saerda. So this was where he’d gone when he left the camp.

‘You haven’t brought your boy with you, merchant.’

‘He is tending to the monk. The Frank has had a rough time of it today,’ said Ofaeti.

‘I said he was to be brought here.’ Sigfrid was pale and clamped his jaw tight, as if trying to bite down the anger that was rising inside him.

‘One servant’s like another,’ said Ofaeti. ‘I’ll stand the boy’s place, if I have to.’

‘I said the boy was to be brought, now bring the boy, fat man.’

‘It’s an hour up the hill,’ said Ofaeti. Then he looked at the simmering king and said, ‘I’ll go, I’ll go.’

‘Good. Bring him and make no fuss about it. Do not alert the Raven.’

‘You’re the boss,’ said Ofaeti. He turned and went out of the hall, gesturing at Fastarr to come with him.

The king took up his wine and swallowed down his temper. Then he spoke to Leshii in a more even voice. ‘So what did he say, the saint? What revelations did he bring forth?’

Leshii glanced about him. The warriors in the king’s house seemed almost to crackle with excitement. All eyes were on him and Leshii had been in enough losing deals to know when it was time to call it quits and get out. This was one of those moments. However, while the king was there, there was no question of that.

‘Come on, merchant, what did he say?’

Leshii wondered if he should lie but thought better of it. Latin was spoken widely enough for the king to have heard from elsewhere. The truth was the only safe course.

‘He said she was here,’ he said.

‘Really?’ Leshii could see that behind the king’s light manner was a boiling rage. ‘Why do you think that was?’

‘I am not a magician, lord.’

The king stood, so quickly that Leshii almost leaped backwards. Sigfrid was clearly only just managing to keep a hold on his fury.

‘Oh, but you are, merchant, you are. I have heard that I knew you as a child — my men here tell me. But I have no memory of you. Have you wiped it away?’

Leshii was relieved. If that was all this was, he could talk his way out of it.

‘I merely said that your renown was so great that I knew of you and your father as a child, even in my home beyond the Eastern Lake. They sing of your deeds there. Perhaps your warriors misunderstood me. My command of your language is not so sure.’

‘It is good enough to lie in,’ said Sigfrid.

Leshii said nothing, as he guessed whatever he said would not do him much good.

The king clapped his hands together. ‘Good Saerda,’ he said, ‘show our esteemed guest what you found in his packs.’

‘You gave your oath not to touch them!’

‘Nor did I. Saerda caught a boy trying to steal from them,’ said Sigfrid. ‘A thief opened your packs, merchant, not one of my warriors. And why are you so keen that no one should see your wares? It’s an unusual merchant who doesn’t display his goods.’

‘I prefer to be there when they are displayed, my lord, or I find I get a rather poor price for them, nothing being the poorest price I know.’

‘There are worse payments than nothing at all,’ said Sigfrid, tapping at the hilt of the sword on his belt.

Saerda shot a brief smile towards Leshii and dragged one of the packs forward. It had been opened. Leshii felt his heart beginning to race as the berserk reached within and pulled something out. There was a flash of pale gold in the candlelight. Aelis’s hair.

‘What’s this, merchant?’ The king’s voice cracked in his anger.

Leshii breathed out slowly and spread his arms wide. He needed to calm himself.

‘I bought it from a peasant woman on the way here. It will make a fine wig; any of your warriors would be proud to take it to their wives.’

The king set his jaw. Then he took something else from the bag, something small enough to fit into his fist. He held out his clenched hand.

‘What do you think I have in here?’

‘I am a low man and would not like to guess the minds of kings,’ said Leshii.

‘A good answer. Mine is better. Would you like to hear it?’

‘If it pleases you.’

‘I have your death, merchant.’

Leshii swallowed. He had thought, in the safety of the clearing with the lady, that he had lived a long life and would not mind leaving it for the chance of riches. Now his life seemed very short indeed. Strange thoughts came into his head. I haven’t done anything, he thought. I haven’t lived. He had walked the silk trails with a camel, gone to the frozen shores of the north, seen the Holy Roman Empire and the southern olive groves, but, facing his own death, he saw the reality of his life. He had done all these things alone. He thought of his mother. She was the last person he had really loved, been willing to die for. That, he realised, was what he meant when he told himself, I haven’t done anything. He had never replaced that love — with that of a friend, a woman, a child. Trade had been everything to him, and now here he was in his last deal, trying to bargain for his life.

The king came over to where Leshii was standing and opened his hand. In it were two fine lady’s finger rings, one with the single lily of the Margrave of Neustria on it, the sign that would announce the wearer as a high-born woman, a descendant of Robert the Strong. The Vikings had suffered at his hands and eventually killed him, so they knew his crest very well.

‘Taken in payment for silk, my lord. Who has made a story from some tresses and a few baubles here?’ He glanced at Saerda.

The king seemed to think for a second.

‘Where was this trade made?’

‘Just the other night, lord. A strange fellow brought these things, tall and clad in a wolfskin. I did not like him much but he seemed willing to pay a good price for-’

The king held up his hand. ‘We will see,’ he said. ‘Your boy will be back before the night is out and we’ll see what tales he has to tell.’

‘He is not a talkative fellow, sir,’ said Leshii.

‘He’ll say enough, whether he speaks or not. If he is, as I suspect, the lady I’m looking for, then I’ll gut you here on the floor myself.’

There was a commotion outside and a man entered the hall, short of breath. It was one of the berserkers who had met him on the hill on the first night — a tall, wiry man with a scar that ran across his cheek and sliced off the top of his ear. He was carrying something over his arm. It was a bundle of wet cloth.

‘What do you have for us?’

The berserker threw the cloth down. It hit the reeds with a squelch. It was stained but anyone could see it was the fine silk and brocade of an expensive dress.

‘Found where the merchant had his camp,’ said the man. ‘It’s Frankish, my lord, and no mistake.’

‘Exactly as worn by the lady we pursued,’ said Saerda.

Sigfrid drew his sword and strode forward as Leshii threw up his arms to try to fend him away.

15

The Agonies of Confessor Jehan

Voices, and pressures in his head. Dizziness, confusion and pain. The confessor had known the Raven was trying to enchant him but he had struggled against it.

They had come at him, knowingly or not, through his weakness for human touch. He had felt the woman holding him, the brush of her hair against his face, heard the beauty of her singing and, against himself, had drawn comfort from her embrace.

It was a woman — he could tell from the shape of her, the softness of her thin arms, even the sound of her breath. He had tried to get away from her at first, to move as best he could, but he was so cruelly tied it was impossible. The pain at his throat from the rope was awful, the Raven’s chant hypnotic, the woman’s voice entangling his thoughts like a coil of smoke from an incense burner entangles a sunbeam. He could have resisted them all, remained as himself fully present in the agony of the rope, had it not been for her touch.

He began to lose track of time. He would drift away from the pain, and her embrace would seem like the warmth of a fire after a long cold journey in the wind and rain. Then the constriction at his throat would begin to dominate his thoughts, his whole consciousness condensing to that tight band around his neck. After a while he couldn’t tell who was asking him the questions, or if he was replying. He seemed to be somewhere else, not in the clearing at dusk but somewhere much darker. He was underground, he could sense it. The air felt close on his skin, damp and cold. Was this hell? Voices were around him. He recognised one as his own but, bizarrely, he couldn’t tell which one it was.

‘Where will we find her?’

‘Who?’

‘The girl who was with you in the church at Paris.’

‘She has always been with me.’

‘Where is she?’

‘I know.’

‘Where is she?’

‘She has come to me.’

‘Where is she?’

‘I must fortify myself for the struggle ahead.’

And then he moved, the rope dug into his neck and he choked. He felt hands adjusting his position, alleviating the tightness slightly. The odour of putrefaction was in his nostrils, the horrid voice of the Raven in his ear, resuming that blasphemous chant.

‘Odin, who gave his eye for lore,

Odin, who hung for nine days on the storm-racked tree,

Odin the bold, the furious and the mad,

Odin accept our gift of pain.’

Jehan forced the words from his strangled throat: ‘Jesus, who died for our sins on the cross, who suffered so we may be free, forgive my sins and welcome me to your heaven, Lord.’ The confessor was certain he was to die there and offered a prayer against pride that God had selected him as a martyr.

He heard the Raven snort in frustration. Then the woman’s voice changed, took on a different quality, more cracked, urgent, imploring. That was when the first bird came to him.

It had been more of an irritation than anything when it had first dropped onto his chest. He hadn’t known what it was, its touch as light as a spider’s until he heard it call. Of course he had heard the birds gathering in the trees, but in his pain and his anguish he hadn’t registered the noise above any of the other sounds of the evening. When the second bird descended, dread set in. He had heard them pecking but couldn’t feel them on his own skin; they were tearing at something about his neck. Then the first wound had come, just an exploratory nip at his cheek. He gasped but then there was another stab at his cheek, harder, and the rasp of the bird, hoarse and exultant. He tried to writhe away but the rope bit deeper into his neck. The birds were on him then, shredding his flesh and his willpower in a torrent of pecks like the fall of an agonising rain. He managed to turn; the rope tightened and he blacked out for a second.

When he came back to consciousness he heard voices.

‘Adisla, come back to me!’

‘No, Vali, no. You are trapped in the schemes of the gods and I want no part of that.’

‘I love you.’

‘And I you. But it is not enough.’ He recognised neither of the names, but they seemed to resonate within him, like the shadow of a memory, known and then slipping away, leaving no more trace of itself than the feeling that something of huge importance lay lurking at the limit of the mind, ungraspable.

Then the memory sparked in his mind, as real as if it was happening right there. The Virgin Mary was in front of him gathering to herself the light of the cornfields and the blue of the sky. She was beautiful and she touched him on the shoulder.

‘Do not seek me,’ she said; ‘let me go.’

He was crying out, screaming and moaning as the birds tore his flesh to a bloody lace.

‘Where is she?’

The voice brought him back. He had betrayed himself, not known himself. Who knew what he had said, who knew what he would say, under such torture? They wanted the lady. He knew where she was; he needed no divine presence to tell him. She was with the merchant. He could stop the pain and the sharp tac tac tac of the bites, the stabbing and the tugging at his skin, in an instant. The confessor knew he could not hold out much longer. As a bird tore a red string of meat from his lips, he recited the words in his head: I put my faith in Christ. Then he opened his mouth to the savage beak. After that a blackness seemed to come up from inside him and his senses failed.

16

Running

Aelis went to the mule and led it to where the confessor lay. It came quietly and without complaint. She didn’t know how to get the monk to stay on its back — it was a pack animal and had no saddle. She glanced across the clearing. The low drone of chanting from the shelter in the woods went on. The torturers were still in their den. Aelis looked at the smouldering fire the Vikings had left. She had a powerful urge to take up its embers and use them to burn the horrible pair in the middle of their sorceries.

She knew that she could not succeed, though. All she would do was get them to come out.

The monk’s eyes were glassy and he was scarcely conscious. She spoke to the mule in a low voice, telling it to be quiet and hold still, summoning that shape in her thoughts, the one that said horse to her. There it was — she felt it, shivering and stamping in her head. For a moment the strangeness of that struck her, but she was too scared of the Raven and his awful sister to dwell on it for long. She picked up the confessor. He exhaled heavily as she lifted him. He was not heavy, his body wasted by his paralysis, but still she struggled to get him up. She spoke again to the mule, wedging the confessor against the animal’s flank. Her kaftan was wet with Jehan’s blood as she slumped him over the mule’s back. He gave a short cry, more like someone dreaming than in pain, as he fell into position.

The chanting in the shelter stopped and Aelis froze. The chanting did not start again but she heard no other noise from that direction, just the sounds of the Viking camp drifting up through the night. She led the mule forward but the confessor started to slide off its back. She caught him beneath the armpits just before he fell and shoved him back up.

The monk would not remain on the mule by himself. She put one hand out to steady him and took the halter with the other. She was having to escape by edging sideways, nearly backwards. There was no immediately obvious track through the woods, other than the one that had been beaten down by the Raven to get to his den.

Which way to go? Should she follow the merchant’s instructions? She didn’t trust him but she had no other protector. She would go to the ford. Where was it? Over the hill. In her panic she couldn’t even remember if the woods thinned on the top of the hill to allow her a view of the river. Never mind. The grass was long and there were many brambles but she chose what looked like the easiest way and pulled the animal on. It responded to her, stepping forward into the darkness beneath the trees. She hadn’t gone five paces when the monk slipped again. This time he let out a loud cry.

She heaved the monk back up and went on. Beneath the trees the dark was shot with a web of moonbeams that sparkled and teemed with insects. Fireflies flashed green against the blackness and the moon frosted the trunks of the great oaks. It was like a trap though, the whole wood. She couldn’t move forward without snaring her feet, without the mule blowing and snorting enough to wake a thousand Vikings, without the monk falling.

From down towards the Viking camp she heard voices. Someone was coming up the hill. She breathed in. She could not continue as she was. Almost without thinking, she shoved the confessor forward and jumped up behind him onto the mule’s back. The animal gave a sigh of complaint but didn’t buck or shy. She gently kicked it in the ribs to encourage it forward. It didn’t move. Then she realised: the mule hadn’t been trained for riding. It was a good pack animal but it had spent all its life in a train.

Again, that shape came into her head, the one that steamed and whickered. She thought of it and the animal moved, finding its feet easily in the dark.

They went through the wood, the mule more confident than she was. To her, every shadow was the Raven, every tree at the limit of her vision a Dane. Aelis thought she heard something and stopped. There was something coming after her. She could hear its tread behind her, fast and light, moving quickly where she was forced to plod. She knew that any further movement would give her away, so she drew the mule into the shadow of a big tree. She could not make it be quiet, so she tied it to a branch and hauled the confessor fifty paces to a brook and lay flat against its bank.

Aelis was quiet for some time. She heard nothing but the breeze in the trees. She returned to the mule and untied it. Then they were on her, two of them, taking her to the ground at the leap. She saw their knives gleam and heard words.

‘Where is he?’ It was her own Roman tongue. ‘Where is the confessor?’

‘I am Lady Aelis of the line of Robert the Strong,’ she gasped out the words as quickly as she could speak.

‘Lady?’ A man was squinting at her through the dark. He was wearing a stiff leather jerkin. She didn’t recognise him. His companion was more lightly dressed, though he had two small axes in his belt. There were noises from her left. She looked around. Other faces were looking at her from the trees. Her mind took a few moments to adjust. The men were warrior-monks, she realised, their hair cut short and shaved on the crown. There were ten of them. The two nearest her were clearly puzzled, so Aelis spoke quickly to explain herself, to tell them what had happened.

‘We are from Saint-Germain,’ said the monk who had attacked her. ‘We’re trying to capture a Dane and find out what has happened to the confessor.’

Aelis bowed her head. ‘He’s here,’ she said, and led them, along with the mule, back to the little brook. There was a gasp as the monks looked down at the saint.

‘What have they done to him?’

‘A foul abuse,’ said Aelis.

‘Lady, we need to get him around the back of the hill and across the ford to the monastery.’

‘Then secure him on the mule.’

The monks worked quickly. They had rope with them, brought for the purposes of tying a captive. Now they used it for the confessor. He was in a bad way, his skin cold, his breath no more than a flutter. Aelis prayed for him and the monks led the mule across the brook.

‘We will stay inside the trees as far as we can,’ said the monk, ‘then we drop down to the river and away from our goal to the crossing. From there, the way is easier and less fraught with danger as we double back to the monastery. There are northerners everywhere, lady; we must be careful.’

There was more noise through the trees. Horses. One of the monks crouched. The others went for their weapons. There was a skittering movement to Aelis’s left. What was that? She had assumed it was the monks when she had heard it before. No. Now it seemed to be to her right.

Then it was as if the air fell apart. A scream cut through the shadows. She saw her, the terrible woman in the bloody robes, fifty paces away, her white shift almost glowing in the moonlight, her hands down by her sides, her body rigid but her ruined face emotionless. Aelis realised that the scream was not one of pain, or of anguish, but one of summoning.

There was a stutter of hooves from deep in the trees. Then there was quiet. Whoever had heard the scream was listening to see if it was repeated. It was, so loud it was almost unbearable to hear. From much further off came an answering call splitting the night. The hooves turned towards Aelis, the horses moving slowly through the trees.

‘We need to go before they see us,’ said Aelis. ‘Kill her.’

‘I will not strike down an unarmed woman,’ said the monk.

‘Then give me that,’ said Aelis, pulling a knife from his belt.

She ran towards the woman but it was as if a shadow had gone over the moon. The witch, and Aelis was sure she was a witch, was nowhere. She peered through the columns of trees, looking for her. She saw something glint. A sword. Every Frankish sword was in Paris, defending the city. It was the Norsemen, she knew.

Aelis ran back to the monks. ‘We need to go, now, before we’re found.’

‘No.’ The monk shook his head and spoke in a low whisper. ‘Our movements must either be quick or quiet, and either way we will be discovered. Brother Abram, Brother Marellus, take the lady and the confessor back to the monastery. We still might surprise whoever is here if we act now. Brothers, we are Christ’s men, we are pagan-killers; let’s take the fight to them.’

The monks nodded and crept away through the trees, crouching low and saying nothing. One of the remaining monks took her by the arm while the other led the mule.

‘Lady, the river crossing. We must be quick,’ he said.

They moved away up the hill and she followed them through the dark of the trees.

17

A Deal

Leshii had never spoken faster: ‘I have sent her away with the monk. You kill me and you will never find out where she has gone.’

The king didn’t pause in his advance but didn’t raise his sword; he just smacked a brutal headbutt into Leshii’s nose.

A white light split the merchant’s sight and he realised he was sitting on the reeds.

‘Do you think, merchant, that you can separate a god from his destiny?’ said Sigfrid, standing above the little man with the sword point pressing into his belly.

‘My lord, I was in a situation where I had to choose my deaths. I was being loyal to my own king by concealing the girl. If I had given her to you I would have had to break my oath and face Prince Helgi’s wrath. What choice did I have?’

This time Sigfrid drove his boot into Leshii’s chest, knocking him flat.

‘Where is she?’

‘I will show you, my lord.’ Leshii put his hand to his face. His nose was broken, he was sure.

‘You will tell me.’

‘My lord, I am a merchant. This knowledge is all I have to bargain with. Give it up and I am dead.’

‘You’ll die anyway. What’s a day to you?’

‘Before I reveal her whereabouts I would require an oath that you would let me live.’

Another kick, harder. Leshii curled up in a ball on the floor.

‘Impossible. You have concealed her from me, lied to my face. I would rather lose a thousand women than accept such an indignity. I offer you a quick death, no more. Decide now or I’ll give you to the Raven.’ The king raised his foot again.

‘A deal,’ said Leshii through teeth clamped together with pain. ‘Nice doing business with you.’

‘Don’t provoke me, merchant,’ said Sigfrid.

Leshii lay where he was. He had given up on his life and accepted he would die. An attempt to remain cheerful was all that he had.

‘We’ll go now,’ said Sigfrid.

A bodyguard pulled Leshii to his feet. Sigfrid put out his arms. Another bodyguard put the king’s hauberk on him and passed him his shield with its terrifying wolf’s head design.

‘Do we need our byrnies, lord?’ said a warrior. ‘We’re only going to fetch a girl.’

Leshii knew he was referring to the mail coat — the Varangians at Ladoga called them that too.

‘If the Raven finds out where she is, then we’ll need them,’ the king said. ‘That is a mighty man. He’s supposed to be on our side but imagine what might happen if he turns against us.’

The warriors dressed and armed themselves, went outside and mounted horses. There were eight of them, in full byrnies and helmets, their shields across their backs and spears in their hands. Escape? thought Leshii. No chance. He looked around for a horse.

The king caught his eye. ‘You go on foot.’

‘But won’t that slow you down?’ said Leshii.

‘No.’

‘Why?’

‘Because,’ said the king, ‘you are going to run. Saerda, drive him.’

‘My lord.’ The skinny berserk turned his horse and rode it at the merchant. Leshii tried to dodge but was too slow, and the berserk fetched him a whack about the ear with the flat of his sword, sending him stumbling forward.

It had been in the back of Leshii’s mind to lead the warriors to the trees and then give them the slip when he got the chance. At the pace Saerda was slapping him on he wondered whether he could even make the wood.

They raced up through the camp, Leshii’s boots slipping on the mud, children shouting and trying to trip him. Some even threw shit and stones until some hit the king and they all ran for it like rats down a riverbank. Leshii was a tough old man who’d lived his life walking beside caravans, perched on a mule or a camel, but the pace Sigfrid demanded would have tested someone half his age. He panted and heaved. The king brought the flank of his horse alongside him and barged him to the ground.

‘Get up, merchant. Your meeting with death is pressing and you wouldn’t want to be late.’

Leshii couldn’t reply. It was as if the air was too thick for his lungs, like he was trying to breathe soup. He lay face down and waited for the inevitable — the stamp of Sigfrid’s horse, the stab of a spear.

‘My lord, the merchant will be in no fit state to lead us anywhere if we continue like this.’ It was one of the king’s bodyguard, a hard-looking bald man with the tip of his nose missing.

‘Get him to his feet,’ said Sigfrid. The bodyguard got down off his horse and helped Leshii up. ‘Now cut his throat unless he tells us where the girl is in his next breath.’

Leshii bent over panting, shaking his head. The bodyguard unsheathed his knife and Leshii just sank to his knees, looking up at him.

‘No, no, no,’ said Sigfrid, tapping aside the blade with his spear. ‘Just get him on your horse and bring him on. Is it up here, merchant?’

Leshii nodded and coughed out a ‘Yes.’

The bodyguard mounted then helped the old man onto his horse behind him. They went forward at a slower pace, Leshii’s mount unwilling to go at anything faster than a walk with the extra weight of the merchant on its back.

They climbed the hill under a small, sharp moon, and went into the dark of the wood. Leshii was clinging now to desperate hopes. First he hoped they would encounter the Raven. He had no idea how that would help; he just knew it would be a difficulty for Sigfrid. Leshii had decided that he would lead the king to the lady but he thought she might see them coming and try to run, which might create a diversion. Leshii counted the ‘mights’. Three. He remembered his mother’s saying ‘two “mights” are as good as a “won’t”’. After that, what? Hope the confessor could call on the help of his god.

It was very dark beneath the trees and progress was slow. A scream, not a natural sound at all, more like a long scrape of steel on stone, came from their right.

‘What was that?’ Sigfrid turned to a bodyguard.

‘Could be anything, lord. One of our men with an unwilling woman, I should guess.’

‘I didn’t like the sound of it,’ said Sigfrid. ‘Let’s take a look.’ He turned his horse in the direction of the noise.

Another scream, equally as unnatural but from deeper in the woods, came from behind them. Then another, in front.

‘Is the lady in that direction, merchant?’ Sigfrid pointed straight ahead.

‘Yes, lord.’

All Leshii knew was that there lay a possible delay. Of course the lady was in that direction.

‘Come on. That sound has the mark of the Raven about it. We can’t let him get her,’ said Sigfrid, and spurred his horse off the track into the long grass and brambles.

The light beneath the trees had almost an underwater quality to it, the leaves mottling the moonlight and turning the ground to a shimmering seabed. A dull thump and the first throwing axe hit the horseman to Leshii’s right in the shoulder, bouncing off his byrnie and catching him in the face to smash his teeth. Five more followed. A horse caught one in the side of the neck and went into a crazy, screaming, spinning dance, crashing into the other animals. Leshii saw Saerda fall from his horse, his animal bolting into the trees.

‘Franks! Franks!’ It was Sigfrid’s voice.

The bodyguard sitting in front of Leshii on their shared horse drove the beast forward and his elbows back to rid himself of his passenger. Leshii fell heavily. He saw Sigfrid leap from his horse and go howling into the undergrowth with his sword; three of his men did likewise, ditching their horses to plough into the battle. Another, beset by two attackers, was trying to stab them with his spear. He was unused to fighting on horseback and in the end just threw the weapon and leaped off to fight on foot with his axe.

Something glinted on the ground in the moonlight. It was a throwing axe, a francisca, as the enemies of the Franks called them. Leshii picked it up and just ran, not even looking where he was going. He was exhausted but fear drove him on, up the wooded slope away from Paris, over a little brook and into the darkness. He willed himself forward. He knew he didn’t have long. He had glimpsed the Franks and there weren’t many of them. The one he had seen close was lightly armoured and his weapon no more than a big knife. Against Sigfrid’s men, he knew they wouldn’t stand a chance. They’d had their opportunity in the ambush and it had passed them by. So the king would be after him soon.

What to do? No new plan occurred to him, so his old one would have to suffice. At least if he found the lady he could use her to his advantage.

He felt himself laughing as he pushed through the woods. Hadn’t he taken this mission for the comfort it had promised him? And hadn’t he cheated death, at least so far? He muttered a word of thanks to Perun, the thunder god of his people, and pressed on.

From somewhere behind him, far but not so far, came another terrible scream. The voice before, thought Leshii, had been a woman’s. This was definitely a man’s.

He came to the edge of the woods at the top of the hill and looked down at the Seine, a metal ribbon under the moon. It was a long drop to the flood plain and he would be visible all the way. Still, once he had gone a few hundred paces he would be indistinguishable from any other drunken Norseman or vengeful Frank stalking the dark. Well, cling to that hope anyway. He looked up at the moon, for the first time in his life wanting to see cloud.

Then he saw them, down below. There were two figures carrying spears or staffs, another smaller person and, following behind, a bandy-legged mule carrying a large pack. He recognised the animal’s gait. It was his and so there was a good chance that the lady was with it.

There was a noise to his right. Sigfrid had regained his horse and had come out of the trees, the animal shaking and stamping away the underbrush from its coat. Leshii went flat to the ground as the king drove the horse up and down the edge of the wood. Another rider emerged further up the hill but halted, apparently watching Sigfrid, unnoticed by the king. Then Sigfrid gave a whoop and galloped down the hill. Leshii got to his feet, a tree trunk between him and the watching horseman. Who was it? Leshii saw the people with the mule turn and look towards Sigfrid. The two larger figures levelled their spears and stood against the king while the third ran with the mule down the hill.

Then he heard the scream again. This time it seemed close.

18

Royal Blood

Aelis heard the clash behind her but didn’t dare to turn to see how the monks were faring against Sigfrid. She knew it would be badly. The Viking king seemed cut from the same cloth as her brother Eudes, a man raised to arms from his earliest years. She knew the two monks were no more than armed scribes, more at home with ink than spears, and would not do well against him.

She hurried down the hill. It was a broad grassy expanse, eaten short by sheep, and there was no hiding anywhere. Her only hope was a collection of little farmsteads below her. The sound of the fighting stopped but still she rushed on, leading the mule. The confessor, she thought, might be dead. He hadn’t moved or made a noise since they had tied him to the mule, and although she had checked him regularly, it had been difficult to tell if he was breathing or not.

Down, down, down the slope towards the group of houses and tiny fields. She heard the horse behind her, coming on at the trot. Sigfrid had no need to exhaust his mount by galloping, she thought; he had seen her and had all the time in the world. She gripped the knife she had taken from the monk. She was determined that Sigfrid wouldn’t take her without a fight but her hand was trembling. The king had just done for two young men, both armed with spears. What chance did she have? Next to none, but not none, she thought.

The sound of the horse came closer but still she didn’t turn, tugging the mule on through the moonlight.

Sigfrid shouted something in his own language and his words were harsh. She guessed he had lost men in the fight. That would have been her brother’s first thought.

‘Stop,’ he said in grating Roman. ‘Stop or die.’ She kept going, holding the knife by her side. The hoofbeats followed right behind and the horse drew alongside, the rider nudging its flank into her.

‘The saint is dead,’ said Sigfrid. ‘Stop and I might persuade my men to spare some of your monks. Come on.’

He leaned down from the saddle and slapped her fingers away from the mule’s reins with the flat of his sword.

‘I said stop.’

For the first time she turned to face him. ‘I am the daughter of Robert the Strong, scourge of the Norsemen and defender of the faith,’ she said. ‘My father was a second Maccabaeus to your heathen hordes. If you want me to stop, then stop me.’

‘You can walk back or I can punch you into unconsciousness and put you over the back of the mule with the saint. Your choice.’

It seemed as if Sigfrid’s physical self was not big enough to contain the strength of his soul. But there was something else too. He seemed to have a force emanating from him, which pushed others down, bullied and belittled them. Here was a man, she thought, who had only ever considered his own needs, his own glory, a man of violence and risk who was prepared to do anything to make the world see him as he saw himself. Aelis was used to such men and was not intimidated by them.

She brought up the knife. ‘I choose the second. It will be difficult to subdue me without taking a little damage yourself, I think.’

Sigfrid snorted and brought the flat of his sword against the back of her knife hand with a stinging rap. The weapon went spinning to the ground.

‘I’ve lost enough men today to darken my humour to pitch,’ he said. ‘I think I’ve given you enough chances. You are a virgin, lady, aren’t you?’

Aelis just spat at him.

‘Well, I think I’ll put you on your back and show you what you’ve been missing. If I have to break your jaw to do it, that suits me fine. After that I think you’ll come quietly enough.’

He began to swing himself out of the saddle. Aelis felt a great rage. She saw her brother’s city burning, her friends and subjects beset by Norsemen, the confessor tied and tortured, her father tricked by the Norse King Hastein into taking off his armour and then cruelly butchered. She was a woman and had never been able to take arms against the enemies of her people. She hated the Norsemen but she had never had an outlet for her hate. Now something gave it expression.

Again the shape came to her, the one that shone and stamped, breathed and sweated the idea horse. She had the shape in her mind and she saw it projected onto the form of Sigfrid’s animal. The king had one foot in the stirrup as he dismounted. He gave a slight shake to free it, but as he did so Aelis imagined the shape bursting into gallop. She saw wide plains of grass, felt her heart full and strong, and a sensation of effortless power swept over her as the horse symbol manifested inside her. Something between a word and an emotion leaped from her towards Sigfrid’s horse.

‘Go!’

The horse surged forward as though a wolf was on its back with Sigfrid’s foot still in the stirrup. His sword arm was flung back and he dropped the weapon, his body falling with a terrible twist. His head hit the ground hard, though he remained conscious, fighting to get his foot free. The horse pulled and bucked, dragging the king down the slope for ten paces before his foot came loose and he came to rest, lying panting on the ground.

Aelis wasn’t idle while this was happening. She ran to the sword, picked it up and rushed to where Sigfrid lay writhing. He had sat up to clutch his leg but his instinct had proved wrong. Aelis guessed the limb was broken and the pain of touching it had doubled the king over. She saw the fingers of his sword hand were shattered too, pushed back up into his palm.

Sigfrid nodded when he saw the sword and tried to stand, but it was impossible. He set his jaw and said, ‘I am to die. In battle, good. Will you let me say some fine words before the Valkyries come to take me? You will tell them to your skalds, your masters of song? Kill me but let me be remembered.’

Aelis looked down at the man in front of her, everything she despised made flesh. It was Sigfrid and his kin who had burned Chartres and taken her father’s lands in Neustria, they who controlled what should have been hers. It was Sigfrid who had put the sons of the Church to the sword and brought plague and starvation to her people.

‘I’ll tell them nothing and you will be forgotten,’ she said.

She went to push the sword into him two-handed, but Sigfrid caught the blade in his one good hand.

Blood poured from his fingers as he tried to force it back. Sigfrid smiled. ‘I regret having this sharpened, now,’ he said. His hand was shaking, blood streaming down the white of his arm. Aelis shoved as hard as she could, driving her full weight into the pommel of the sword. But Sigfrid, facing death, was still terribly strong and he held the blade.

‘Do you know what the prophecy says, Aelis, what the raven woman gave her eyes to discover? Do you know? You have a wolf on you, a wolf, and he hunts you eternally, through many lives. But the wolf knows only destruction, and when he finds you he will destroy you and all you care about. You are cursed, Aelis, for ever, tied to the destiny of the gods.’

The king could hold the sword no longer. He gave a great cry and threw the blade aside, but Aelis brought it back to his face and lunged again. He tried to turn away but was hampered by his injuries and the sword plunged into the side of his neck. Blood pulsed from the gaping wound. Sigfrid put his hand up to try to stop the flow but it was useless. He fell back, looked at Aelis and, with his last available strength, shook his head and smiled. ‘A woman, some sort of wolf, then. Perhaps I was Odin after all,’ he said, and died.

Aelis sat down, panting and shaking. She was covered in the king’s blood. She looked around her, back up the hill. No time to recover, no time for delay. She ran to where the monks were. Marellus was dead, a scarlet bloom of blood visible on his pale skin where his habit was open at his chest, but Abram was alive, if unconscious. He bore no obvious signs of a wound other than a hugely swollen jaw. The king must have punched or clubbed him down, she thought.

She went back to the king’s body. Quickly she stripped off his clothes and put them on. They buried her, as did his mail hauberk, but she wore it anyway. It felt very heavy on her shoulders, but once she had tied the king’s big belt around her, the weight was spread and more bearable. There was a comfort in the heaviness too, a feeling the armour might do some good. She strapped on Sigfrid’s sword and knife, threw on his swamping cloak and put the shield on her back as she had seen her brother do so many times. She almost hated to take it because it bore the loathed symbol of the wolf she had seen flying from the Vikings’ banners. The helmet was so big it was useless, but she put his boots on, glad to get something on her bare feet. The king had money with him — two dinars and three tremisis. He also had a fine arm ring in silver, a serpent eating its tail. She pushed the purse into the front of the hauberk and the ring after it.

She checked the confessor. He was breathing, but faintly. She needed to get him somewhere he could rest, but what about the unconcious monk? Sigfrid’s horse was too big for her to lift him on and the mule wouldn’t carry two men. She peered at the farm buildings near the river. They were burned, she could now see. There was the ford just beyond the buildings and, past that, the edge of another big wood. The trees offered the best cover and a place to weigh her options, she thought. She’d have to make two trips, one with the confessor and the other with Abram.

She looked up again. Up on the hill she could see someone moving. She had to go. She called to Sigfrid’s horse, almost too softly to be heard. The animal turned as if ridden and came to her. It was a big beast and she was encumbered by the cloak and her boots, but the horse was patient and eventually she got on, shaking her head in disgust at the saddle. It was made of turf, as many of the Viking saddles were. No seat for a king, she thought, nor even for a lady. Still, it was a saddle and it worked, so it would have to do.

Aelis turned the warhorse around and walked it to the mule, leaning down to gather up the pack animal’s halter. She glanced behind her. The figure on the hill was now running down the slope waving at her crazily. From the big baggy kaftan tucked into his stockings at the knee, his lopsided cap and pointy little grey beard, she could see it was the merchant, puffing and blowing towards her, flapping his arms to attract her attention but not making a sound, like a court fool conducting a mad mime.

She guessed that he must be pursued, or rather that he feared attracting the attention of pursuers — that explained his silence. She knew that the merchant would try to ransom her but, then again, wasn’t that what she wanted? She couldn’t risk capture by the Norsemen. The merchant might get past whatever enemy forces stalked the riverbank, reach her brother and send help to get her home. He could help with Brother Abram too.

She brought the horse around to face him. Leshii bent over, resting his elbows on his knees, and wheezing like a clapped-out hunting dog.

‘You kept your oath!’ he said, as if each word was the weight of an anvil and had to be heaved out of his breathless body.

‘Did you keep yours?’

‘I had business with the king. As I see you had. Did the monks do for him? I can’t believe that.’

‘He died by the sword,’ said Aelis, ‘just his own, and wielded by a woman.’

‘You killed him?’ said Leshii. ‘All the warriors in Francia haven’t managed that. How did you do such a thing?’ He was bent double, still trying to catch his breath.

Aelis ignored his question; they had to move. ‘One of the monks is alive. You can carry him,’ she said.

‘Then you’ll have another body on your hands,’ said Leshii. ‘Let me help put him on your horse.’

Aelis nodded. That was, she had to admit, the best plan.

‘We’ll go to the woods,’ said Aelis. ‘From there you can cross to the south bank. Go to Saint-Germain or, if the way is blocked, try to send word to the city. There are men who can get in and out for the right price.’ She reached into the sagging byrnie and pulled out the arm ring. She threw it to Leshii.

‘Tell my brothers’ guards his sister sent you this, from the body of the king she killed.’ Leshii examined the ring, nodding in appreciation of its workmanship.

Brother Abram was not as light as the confessor, and it took a good deal of heaving to get him across the horse’s back. Aelis led the horse while Leshii steadied Abram and led the mule. Clouds scudded across the moon as they descended towards the black ribs of the charred buildings. In the gloom the ridge of the woods behind them vanished into shadow.

They didn’t see the rider at the edge of the trees come down the hill, nor the figure in the feather cloak who stepped from the darkness to take the hand of the pale woman and watch him descend.

19

A Fight for Saerda

Leshii was hungry now and frozen. It was that moment in the predawn when the night seems coldest, perhaps because you know the warmth of day is so close.

The lady had refused him even part of her cloak, preferring instead to use it to cover the senseless monks. He did point out that the big monk wasn’t going to notice if he was warm or not, and that it was better a man who was awake should take it, but the lady gave him a look that was not likely to warm him up. Still, he couldn’t complain too much because she suffered herself. Underneath the mail coat, which she showed no signs of removing, all she had on was Sigfrid’s light trousers and silk shirt. Not much for a chilly night.

As a man of lands of the Rus, he was used to the cold, but he was used to being adequately dressed too. The night had been chilly when the air was still, but there was now a breeze in the trees, blowing the cold of the river across their camp, if you could call it a camp. There was no question of having a fire, nor any flint or steel to start one with. Anyway, fires invite curiosity, the last thing they wanted.

The lady, against his better judgement, had released the mule and horse to forage in the wood. He thought they might as well kill one and eat it as lose it to whoever found it. The animals didn’t run off, though; they even came back after they’d been to the river to drink. The river. There was another problem. The spring rains had been heavy, and it was deep and fast-flowing. The ford could be crossed by a skilled rider or by five or six people, all linking arms against the flow, thought Leshii. An old man, a girl and two injured monks? Never. Still, he thought, he might just about make it alone if he could take the mule.

What do with the lady? He could disarm her as she slept and tie her up. But he couldn’t transport her bound and gagged all the way to Ladoga. An obvious captive was an incitement to robbery — bandits would try to ransom her themselves. And he couldn’t trick her into going willingly.

He lay down and tried to sleep, his mind churning over his problems. The horse had wandered around behind him, he thought. He could hear it snorting in the trees. Then he came to himself. No, both animals were there, next to the lady, untied but content.

It was another horse. He stood.

‘Lady, lady.’

Aelis was on her feet with the shield up and the sword in her hand.

Leshii could see nothing. He heard Aelis say a word under her breath in her native Roman. His command of that language was poor but it was a word any trader would know: ‘horse’. She was staring into the trees. She said the word again and there was a voice, almost in reply.

‘Stay there. Stay there. Hold it. Hold. Ahhh!’

There was a crash in the dark, the sound of someone falling. Aelis held up the sword. It gave Leshii no confidence at all. She looked exactly what she was — a fine lady dressed up as a warrior. She held the blade upright, the handle high at the side of her ear as if the weapon was a fan and the shield had its face to the ground, her entire chest and head exposed.

Movement in the trees, something coming at them fast, far too quick to be a man. A riderless horse. As it drew level with the lady, it slowed and went to join the other animals. Leshii watched in wonder as it did so. It was the strangest behaviour he had ever seen from a horse. One second it seemed in a terrible sweat; the next it was rubbing into the other beasts as if they’d shared the same field all their lives.

He didn’t have time to think about that. He saw a blink of white in the dark and a slower movement, left to right. He had the impression of something creeping, almost crablike.

‘That’s a Viking horse,’ said Aelis.

‘How do you know?’

‘The saddle, see. They’re so badly made, they-’

He never knew what she was going to say. He saw a face through the trees and, with his merchant’s ability to remember names, immediately knew who it was.

‘Saerda, friend, have you taken a fall?’

The man came forward, snarling like a dog who’d had a bone snatched from him.

‘You, lady, owe me weregild,’ he said. ‘You killed a king. What’s the rate for that? More dinars than Paris can hold, I think.’

‘She doesn’t speak your language,’ said Leshii, ‘but nothing is beyond negotiation. Work with us to return her to her city and she will see you’re rewarded.’

He guessed what Saerda had done — watched from afar until the trouble was over and then approached them when there was less chance of others taking his prize.

‘I know the reward the Franks would give me,’ said Saerda. ‘Rollo is my king now. He doesn’t want the people to kneel and call him a god. He’s content just to see them kneel. He’ll pay a good price for this girl and then he’ll either marry or ransom her. She can come back with me.’

‘Tell him if he takes a step closer I’ll kill him,’ said Aelis.

‘The lady invites you to sit a while with us and talk things through,’ said Leshii.

‘Yes, it looks like it,’ said Saerda, ‘very much indeed. Do you want to fight, lady, is that what you want?’

He moved towards her across the glade. Aelis thrust forward the sword but her arm was straight and stiff, her body taut, like she was reaching with a pole for clothes drying high on a hedge. Saerda moved more fluidly. He put his sword up to hers and tapped it a couple of times. His arm was a whip, fast and accurate. Twice she thought he would shake the sword from her hand just with the force of his blow against it.

He withdrew slightly and she instinctively poked the sword after him. He had been waiting for that, Leshii could see. Saerda caught her blade with his in an enveloping motion. He whirled it round and round in four quick circles before a sudden jerk of his arm sent it singing into the trees. He feinted a blow at her head, and Aelis took the bait, raising her shield to her face. There were two smart smacks on the shield but Saerda’s sword had gone nowhere near it; he’d driven it straight down through the toe of Aelis’s boot. Late and clumsily, Aelis brought the shield to the grass between them. Saerda’s mouth fell open like a gargoyle’s as he saw the two black-feathered arrows protruding from it. He turned to look behind him, and Aelis hammered into him, sending him sprawling. A noise, no more than twenty paces away, a war cry, thought Leshii, a strangled croak of aggression.

‘No!’ Aelis’s eyes were wide with terror. She retreated a couple of steps, dropped the shield and then turned and fled through the trees, Sigfrid’s big boot still pinned to the floor by Saerda’s sword.

Saerda got to his feet and retrieved his weapon but went no further. Just visible through the shadows, twenty paces away, Leshii could see a terrible, lean, naked figure drawing a bow. It was the Raven. How could he aim in the dark? Leshii thought of the shield, stuck with arrows. It had been rare luck that Aelis had moved it in front of her face at the right moment. Leshii picked up a heavy stick and hurled it. He hit the bowman square on the arm, causing him to loose an arrow into the dirt.

‘Oh dear,’ said Leshii to himself as Hugin turned and lowered the bow. The merchant ran. Leshii couldn’t see where he was going — the moon through the trees robbed the forest floor of all perspective, every shadow containing the possibility of an ankle-breaking depression, a root or stone. He fell and fell again. Then he rose and tripped once more. He was flat exhausted and could not run any further.

He sat up. The grim figure was coming towards him through the bars of moonlight, his cruel sword drawn. In a frozen instant of terror, Leshii saw his opponent, the thin limbs, the muscles wound onto his bones like creepers around a tree, the face eaten by the self-inflicted torture of the birds to who knew what purpose, that cold weapon, death made steel, which seemed to shimmer and flash in the moonlight.

The Raven was still twenty paces from him when Leshii fainted to the ground.

20

Caught

Aelis ran too, flat out and blind with terror through the wood. There was a thump, a blinding light and she was down. Witless with fear, she had blundered into a tree.

She could hear the monster behind her, his pace quick and light. She knew that to hide was suicide. Raven had sunk two arrows into her shield from thirty paces, through the deep darkness of the trees. He would find her, she knew. There was his call again — horrible, almost mocking.

She ran on, as quickly as before. She couldn’t afford caution, though she stumbled and tripped on roots, sudden dips and unseen rises. She crashed into a thicket of ferns, sensing the river’s cold before she saw its glitter, the moonlight turning the water to a road of sparkling ice. But it was no road you could walk on. The cry was near her now; she had no choice, and she leaped in.

In her haste she had forgotten the mail coat. It was heavy but not so heavy that she couldn’t keep her head above water. Her brother and his men held races across the Seine in full war gear in times of peace, and she told herself she was of the same stock, though her limbs were tiring quickly.

Aelis hadn’t expected the current to be so strong. It swept her downstream, and she had to pump her arms to keep her mouth above water. The cold was a serpent, crushing the breath from her body and dragging her down. She kicked for the opposite bank but she was exhausted and couldn’t fight the pull of the freezing river. The black mass of a fallen tree loomed in front of her and she snatched at a branch. No good. Her numb hands couldn’t grasp it. The water took her and spun her, but then the little breath she had in her body was driven from her. Her leg had caught on something submerged. She gulped in an icy mouthful and was certain she was going down. She cried out and beat her hands against the current’s pull.

Her foot was stuck fast but she managed another breath. As she did, her hand touched something rough, cold and hard. It was a tree trunk, beneath the water. She hugged it, turning her back to the stream, clinging on. She was pressed against the trunk of the tree, frozen but breathing.

She looked around. The tree emerged from the water and went under again, but it was attached to the bank. If she could free her foot she could pull herself to the shore. She tugged at her foot. It had become wedged at the ankle between a branch and the trunk. Every time she tried to free it, the bitter cold water threatened to shove her forward and down. There was nothing for it, though, she had to try. Aelis crossed her feet and used her left leg to hook back on her right. The ankle came free, the water tried to tear her from the trunk but she was ready and clung on. She felt her way along the tree to the shore.

The ravaged face of the sorcerer looked down at her from behind a drawn bow. Aelis looked up at him and realised that all hope was lost. She shook and shivered on the trunk.

‘Go on then.’

The Raven put down the bow and crouched at the side of the river. His eyes were just blank spaces; his face under the moonlight was a moon itself, pitted, torn and unreadable.

She went to climb onto the bank; she had to get out of that icy water no matter what. Hugin moved his head to one side and looked down at her. Then he drew a long thin knife from his belt. He wasn’t going to let her get out.

She knew she was going to die. How long would it take?

Longer than she had expected. It got lighter, and lighter still. She didn’t die, though she shivered and her hands were blue. She knew it was impossible to get across the river, impossible to get past the Raven. How much time passed? The spring hours, the divisions of twelve between sun and dusk, seemed as long as those of high summer. How many had gone by since she entered the river? One? Two? Still he sat there, a great carrion bird, watching her like a crow watches a dying sheep. The sharp moon hung in a sky of duck-egg blue and the sun through the trees turned the air to crystal. It was day, she realised.

Her vision faded, the moon dancing and wheeling, blurring and finally fading from sight. A sharp crescent of light split the darkness and at first she thought it was the moon again. But it was not. It seemed she was standing inside a cave, and the crescent of light was its mouth. She walked to the mouth and saw that the cave was set in the wall of a dizzying cliff. The air seemed to rush beneath her; wisps of clouds hung like mountain spirits at her feet. She held something heavy in her arms — a man. He was dead and he had died for her. She looked behind her. Somewhere inside the cave was someone else she had loved, she could sense it.

A thumping, rhythmic song came into her head.

‘Then fares Odin to fight with the wolf…’

She had never heard it before, but she knew its meaning was bound up with her life. The cold sent pins and needles through her body, but it wasn’t just a physical sensation; something seemed to fizz and spit in her mind.

She could see more now — a huge wolf, its head bloody and its jaws red, was tearing at a fallen warrior beneath a sky of ravens on a wide bleak plain. As it shook and ripped the man’s flesh, shapes seemed to appear in her mind, and she knew them for what they were — magical symbols, expressions of the fundamental relations of the universe, living things that could plant themselves to shine and chime from the dark shadows of the mind.

She spoke the words in her head:

Runes I took from the dying god,

Where the wolf tore men on Vigrid plain.

She should be dying, she knew, but there were things inside her that did not want to die, and would not let her do so until she had fulfilled a purpose.

She saw another symbol, a jagged tear in the fabric of the blue sky. It was one of the magical shapes, a rune, as the rhyme had said, but different from the others. What did it mean? A hook, a trap, a trap for a wolf. But it meant more to her than all the other shapes combined, more than the one that seemed to burst with flowers, wither and grow again, the symbol of rebirth, more than the symbol that seemed to her like a shield around her, more even than the one that gabbled and talked, to chuckle at the good fortune that it brought.

Again, that voice in her head. She seemed to recognise it. It was like a child’s but worn and heavy with experience.

The fetters shall burst and the wolf run free

Much do I know and more can see.

A strange realisation swept over Aelis. She would not die because she was linked to something so much greater than herself through those strange shapes, the runes that had taken root in her in lifetimes she had lived before when she had watched a god die under the teeth of a wolf. One of the symbols emanated in her mind — the horse rune, which sweated and stamped and now careered and galloped. There were others too, growing within her, whispering to her, coming to bloom.

She came back to herself. She was still on the trunk in the river. The Raven was still crouching, his cruel knife in his hand.

When he saw her move he stood up and retreated a pace, but she remained within his reach and the knife was pointed towards her. She clawed herself up onto the bank and lay retching and convulsing on the ground. The Raven prodded her with his foot, examining her, almost as if he was trying to understand the woman he had made his enemy. There was a sound in Aelis’s mind like the rushing of blood, like drums to call the wind.

She didn’t know where the words came from, but she spoke to him: ‘The thread of my fate is woven. It doesn’t end today.’

The Raven didn’t seem to notice that Aelis had spoken in Norse, a language she barely understood. He just shrugged and took her by the throat.

21

Last Rites

‘Confessor. Confessor. God. Saint.’

The voice called him back to consciousness, though Jehan could sense that it would not be for long. He felt as though he was on the brink of an abyss, his thoughts teetering and threatening to fall into nothing.

Where had he been? In a dark, deep place where the rocks sweated moisture and his enemy waited.

‘No, Vali, no. You are a different thing now, trapped by fate. You are the ending, the destruction.’ It was a woman’s voice, speaking in Norse. It was Aelis’s voice. ‘Vali.’ He recognised the name. She had infected his mind with her touch, set a vibration in him that had shaken the mental structures he had built through denials, willing and unwilling. He wanted her and God was showing him a vision of the hell to which that love — no, Jehan, call it by its rightful name — that lust had condemned him. The lady had said she feared she was a witch and, like a witch, with a touch she had turned him into something else.

‘Confessor. Priest.’ The voice again. He was in agony, his skin felt too tight for his body. The wounds he had taken were beginning to swell and ache dreadfully. The worst was his eye, throbbing and raw. The pain filled him up; he could think of nearly nothing else. He forced himself to speak, though his jaw was bruised and swollen from where the hanging rope had pulled up under his chin, and he hardly had the strength to move his mouth. His tongue was thick and swollen but his will was strong and the confessor made himself talk.

‘You are a Norseman — I know you by your speech. Are you of the faith? Are you a priest? Say mass so I might pass over.’

The confessor gave a cry as something brushed his torn nose. The Norseman couldn’t hear much of what he was saying and had pressed his ear to Jehan’s mouth.

‘What is mass?’

‘The body and the blood of Christ. Anoint me in blessed oil and prepare the way.’

‘You are dying.’

‘Yes. Give me unction so that I may be more certain of heaven.’

‘What is unction?’

‘You are no man of God. I will die unshriven. Forgive me, God, for I have been a prideful and arrogant servant to you. What is your name, Norseman?’

‘Saerda, priest. Your friends have left you.’

‘Then be a friend to me. Allow me to bring you to Christ and then pray for me.’

Even at the last, Jehan wanted souls for Jesus.

‘How shall I come to Christ?’

‘Partake of his body and blood with me. Let me bless you as I bless myself.’

There was a snort from the Norseman. ‘I will help you perform the ritual.’

‘You have the bread?’

‘That becomes the flesh? Is it true you drink the blood?’

‘Yes, the wine that becomes the blood, the bread that becomes the flesh.’

‘I have bread.’

Jehan thought. He didn’t have the oil to anoint and purify the seats of corruption, his hands, forehead, feet and genitals, but he would have to do what he could while he had strength.

The confessor felt his whole body shaking as he repented his sins, the pride in his holiness, the pride in his strength in accepting his affliction as God’s will, his presumptuous certainty that he was intended for heaven. He asked for pardon and recited the Apostles’ Creed: ‘ Credo in Deum…’

Jehan could hardly get the words out. He said the Lord’s Prayer and then he was ready for his final mass. Calling on Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God and, amending the words to fit his terrible situation, he said, ‘Bring me the bread to bless it.’

There was a short laugh, a wet sound and a low groan. Then a noise like the slapping of lips. Jehan, who had to use his ears where his eyes had failed, recognised the sound as the cutting of meat. Then the man came to Jehan and cradled him in his arms.

‘Say your words.’

Jehan spoke: ‘This is the Lamb of God, that takes away the sins of the world. Happy are they that are called to his supper. The body of Christ. Give me the bread so I can bless it and eat it. You must put it to my lips; I cannot raise my hands.’

Jehan felt something slip into his mouth. It wasn’t bread. It tasted of blood. He choked and coughed.

‘Animal flesh will not do!’

‘That is not animal flesh,’ said Saerda.

‘What is it?’

‘Your brother monk.’

Jehan tried to spit but he couldn’t. His body twitched and convulsed; his lacerated tongue tried to push away the corruption that was in his mouth but the blood taste would not go. He called out, but his cry was nothing beyond a whisper.

‘Your friends are gone. Our man Hrafn is seeing to your lady; your merchant has fled, and your monk is your supper. I will perform your dirty ritual, you flesh-eater, who cowers in the face of his enemies and calls it virtue.’

‘Our father-’ Jehan began the Lord’s Prayer.

More of the filthy stuff was pushed into his mouth, fingers shoving it past his tongue. He tried to bite, but his mouth would not close and he realised his jaw must have been broken by the rope. The agony went right through him as Saerda forced open his mouth. There was something else in there, something slick and wet, which slid into his throat like a bloody oyster. Saerda had his hand on the confessor’s nose, clamping shut his mouth.

‘It’s one of his eyes, holy man. Come on, priest. This is the body, this the blood. Here, drink and eat to go to your god.’

He threw the confessor back on the ground and for a second Jehan thought his ordeal was over. It had only just begun. Saerda called out the names of the parts as he forced them into Jehan’s mouth — the liver, the kidney, the heart and the balls. Jehan vomited but the slick meat was only shovelled back in.

‘Do you think you could eat all of him, priest? Think how holy you would be, think.’

Jehan’s thoughts were scrambling under the horror he was enduring. In his mind he saw a plain with a hollow, dead light, a body in front of him, its armour torn, its spear broken.

Saerda was pacing around him, now, taking his time.

‘Stop!’

‘I won’t stop. I lost my king and my horse tonight; the Raven’s taken a lady who could have brought me riches, and all I have is whatever I can get for your useless bones. That has put me in a fearful bad temper. You’ll eat until that temper’s spent.’

He pushed something more into the confessor’s mouth, wrenching back his head. He cursed as the monk convulsed and shook from his grasp. Saerda pulled him up by his habit but the monk wrenched back in a terrible spasm, tearing away from his fingers to lie trembling and jabbering on the floor. Jehan saw a cave, saw himself lying unable to move, not because of illness but because a rope, terribly thin and strong, wound about him, lashing him to a great rock. He saw the Virgin and heard her screaming at him that his destiny was to kill and to die.

‘You broke my bastard finger!’ said Saerda. ‘Now you really are going to pay for that.’

The berserker took up the glittering rope of Abram’s bowels, sat astride Jehan’s chest, and thrust it into the confessor’s face, forcing as much as he could past his teeth.

‘You’ll eat, you’ll eat and you’ll eat again,’ said Saerda.

The monk’s whole body twisted and writhed, and Saerda could not hold him. Jehan threw him off. The monk felt as though every muscle was trying to break free of the bone. His head turned and shook, his legs kicked, driving him around in a wild spin. His lips foamed blood. All he could think of was blood, Christ’s blood, streaming in the sky. The sun was blood, the moon blood, the air blood, the water and the light blood. He heard the words of the Bible in his head:

He hath led me, and brought me into darkness, but not into light.

Surely against me is he turned; he turneth his hand against me all the day.

No, God had not turned against him; God had loved him and marked him out as special. But the words would not stop rattling through his head like a rat in an attic.

My flesh and my skin hath he made old; he hath broken my bones.

He hath set me in dark places, as they that be dead of old.

He hath hedged me about, that I cannot get out: he hath made my chain heavy.

Also when I cry and shout, he shutteth out my prayer.

The words seemed to speak to him, telling him something that was more bitter to him than any torture, any affliction or pain. God had deserted him. He could not believe it to be so. It was the work of a devil. Hell had set a worm in his mind.

He hath filled me with bitterness, he hath made me drunken with wormwood.

He hath also broken my teeth with gravel stones, he hath covered me with ashes.

And thou hast removed my soul far off from peace: I forgot prosperity.

And I said, ‘My strength and my hope is perished from the lord.’

Jehan screamed, more in his mind than with his voice: No! No! No! The Lord is my portion, saith my soul; therefore will I hope in him. The lord is good unto them that wait for him, to the soul that seeketh him. The words were like a high and melodious music but underneath them something deeper beat out a dark poetry.

Much have I fared, much have I found,

Much have I got of the gods,

What shall bring the doom of death to Odin,

When the gods to destruction ride?

He had never heard that verse before but he knew the answer, it was on his lips.

Saerda drew his knife and leaped at the confessor’s chest, pinning him down, shoving the point into the side of his cheek.

‘Shut your rattle. You’ll eat him or you’ll eat yourself. I’ll cut you up and stuff you down your own throat.’

Jehan saw himself. He was lashed to the rock, his fetters tourniquets, his mouth wedged open by something sharp and strong. He knew the answer, knew who it was who would bring death to the pagan god.

The wolf shall be the bane of Odin,

When the gods to destruction ride.

Jehan reached up his hands and found Saerda’s head. He saw that cave in his mind, felt the sharp thin bindings cutting his flesh and pinioning him to the huge rock. The wolf, the wolf would bring death to the god. It was all he existed for, all that he did. There was a sensation of release and freedom. He was the wolf.

‘The fetters have burst,’ he said, and he broke the Viking’s neck.

22

Helpless

Leshii had come round to find himself alone. The Raven, he thought, must have gone straight by him.

It was morning. He thought of the lady. At first he found it hard to orientate himself to determine which way she had run, but a gasp drew him to where she was. He was about to go to her but a glint of steel stopped him. It was the Raven, he knew, that naked figure, pale as a corpse, crouching in the grey dawn light by the river.

Leshii wanted to creep closer but he couldn’t make his legs do it. Fear overcame his will and kept him from moving. He was in terror of that awful man.

For the first time since he had met the berserkers, he thought of Chakhlyk. Where was the wolfman? Dead, he didn’t doubt it.

He thought of that skinny berserker too: where was he? His mind came back to what it always came back to — value. He’d seen enough of the berserkers who had drunk his wine to know they owed no blood loyalty to the king at the camp. They couldn’t speak Latin, couldn’t bargain with monks. His one way forward, which was not attractive at all, was to ally himself to those men. He turned the arm ring over in his hand. At least he had something of worth, as necessary to him as a weapon to a warrior. Now he could buy and sell again, now he could trade, now he was himself.

He outlined his position in his mind, the deal he was making with fate. The least he wanted was safe passage home. Helgi might have him killed if he came back empty-handed, but his mission had only been to lead the wolfman to Paris. However, it would be much better to return with the lady because there was no guarantee how the king might react and it was better to be certain of a reward. Ideally he wanted the monk to sell and the lady too. The lady was about to die, he had no doubt, and there was nothing he could do to prevent it. So then, find the berserkers, employ them as bodyguards and get the monk, or his bones. He could promise to pay them once he was paid for the monk. He couldn’t ransom him, alive or dead, without someone to defend him.

But no, he wasn’t thinking straight.

Leshii fought to put his thoughts in order. He’d been Sigfrid’s prisoner. As soon as the king’s body was found the whole place was going to be crawling with Vikings looking for his killer and Leshii would be high on their list of suspects. The risk of going back to the Viking camp was just too great. He was faced with walking back to Ladoga with nothing to protect him but the coat he stood up in and his wits.

There was a movement in the trees. Horses, coming past at the trot, keening and fretful.

What was wrong with those animals? He’d heard that sound they were making recently, when the Viking horse had taken a throwing axe in the neck. It was the sound of terrible, mortal distress.

He looked through the trees, away from where the Raven crouched at the water’s edge.

There was more movement. Yes, the king’s big horse. A horse would make his journey much easier, if he could make it come to him. But it seemed to be having some sort of fit, stamping at the ground, sweating and frothing. It was looking towards where the Raven was crouching. It was Sigfrid’s animal for sure, the one Aelis had been riding. Further off in the trees he heard another call, a bray. It was his mule! Now he could get that. If Leshii knew anything, he knew mules, after thirty years on the trade routes. He felt sure he could catch it and got to within about twenty paces, whistling softly. He could see the animal was scared but it was in nowhere near as bad a state as the horse. ‘Come on, girl, come on.’

The mule took a few paces away.

Something came running through the trees to Leshii’s left. There was a huge cry, another answering it. Against himself he ran to see what it was. It was the wolf.

23

Wolf’s Blood

Death did not come to Aelis, but something like it did. The shadows unwrapped, reached forward and took the Raven to the ground before he could strike.

Hugin was standing again almost before he’d gone down, slashing up and around with the knife with a terrible speed. At first, as the two figures grappled in front of the sharp morning sun, Aelis thought it was a wolf. It sounded like a wolf and was as quick, but she saw, as an arm flashed out to block the knife, that it was a man, the same man who had come for her in the church.

‘Run, run,’ he was screaming. ‘He will kill me soon and then he will come for you again. Run!’

She tried to stand but her legs wouldn’t obey her; they were frozen dead. She got half to her feet but fell like a drunk, grabbing for a tree with an arm that was numb with cold. She fell, head smacking into the ground. Then she tried again, but she couldn’t even feel her limbs, let alone use them.

‘Run, run!’

Aelis heard that sound in her head — like a great rushing of water, the movement of wind in the mouth of a cave, the tide of the blood in the ears, but it was none of those things.

The Raven was on top of the wolfman. He had his knife in both his hands and was straining to get the point into his opponent’s neck. The wolfman had caught the blade, the blood on his fingers bright in the dawn light. Hugin gave a great hoarse cry and drove the knife down, but the wolfman snapped it and used the Raven’s downward momentum to drive his head into his opponent’s nose. Then he was on him, screaming and biting and punching and tearing. The sorcerer went for his sword but the wolfman pinned his arm, making it impossible to draw. The men were on their feet now in a brawling embrace, staggering from tree to tree. They fell, broke, got up again, but the wolfman never let Hugin get far enough away to free his sword. But the Raven didn’t need a weapon. With ferocious speed he smashed his knee upwards into the wolfman’s midriff, driving him up into the air. The wolfman hit the ground like something wet.

Aelis thought her mind was going to split. That sound was within her and without her, coming from that pulsing, breathing, running rune. What was it?

The Raven reached for his sword; the wolfman lunged to stop him, and for a second they stood swaying together by the river’s edge. Then the big horse smashed them both into the water. Aelis finally placed the sound. It wasn’t water, blood, wind or drums. It was hooves.

Leshii came running. The Raven was gone, but the wolfman was clinging by one hand to the branch of the tree that had saved Aelis. Leshii could see he wouldn’t last long. The horse had knocked him almost senseless and he was groaning. Leshii had never heard him acknowledge any hardship before. The wolfman was twenty paces out in the powerful current; Leshii was old, he couldn’t save him. But he had to. It was not heroism or fellow feeling that drove him on but, as ever, practicality. He needed a protector and he needed someone to help complete his mission. Chakhlyk was his only hope.

‘I am coming, dry one, I am coming.’

The king’s horse had knelt down beside Aelis, lightly pressing its body into hers, offering her its warmth. The other animals had come in too — Saerda’s horse and the mule. Leshii knew what he needed to do. The mule was a pack animal and wouldn’t like to be ridden, but it would be led. He took its halter and walked it out into the rushing water, standing upstream so his weight pushed into its side. He knew there was no creature on earth as sure-footed as a mule, and the animal went out into the river with a slow confidence.

About ten paces in, the pressure of the water became too much for Leshii and he draped himself over the mule’s back, driving it on with a slap on the rump. The water was only up to the top of its legs when they reached the wolfman, but the flow was so strong that the merchant knew he wouldn’t be able to stand unsupported. His plan was to wedge himself against the mule to resist the current. He dropped into the water and immediately realised he’d been too hopeful. The water caught his feet as the mule skipped free and back to the bank. Leshii slipped and grabbed for the wolfman on instinct, pulling him from the branch. The water took both of them, and drove them backwards but Leshii got some purchase on the riverbed and with a great heave shoved himself and the wolfman towards the bank.

The current pulled and turned them and then it had them, surging them on. For a few seconds they were lost, but then Leshii felt a great crack on his side, solid ground beneath his feet and grass in his hands. He’d been smashed into the bank fifty paces from the tree, where a bend narrowed the course of the river. He and the wolfman were alive. From across the river he heard something between a croak and scream. He peered across the bright water. On the opposite bank a naked figure with something tied to its back was pulling itself onto dry land.

Leshii coughed and stood, almost laughing.

‘Well, he won’t be coming back over here in a hurry. Chakhlyk, my dry one, you’re wet enough now.’

The wolfman heaved himself up onto his bleeding hands. Now Leshii could see the wound in his side, a thumb’s width of broken arrow shaft protruding from just below his last rib. No wonder people were scared of him, thought Leshii. He had fought the Raven with that in his guts. But the wolfman couldn’t be long from death.

‘He is calling to his sister,’ said the wolfman. ‘We need to go, and now. He has seen the lady and she is in great danger.’

There were sounds through the trees — shouting, lots of men.

‘No time,’ said the wolfman. ‘Come on.’

Aelis was trembling as the blood returned to her limbs. ‘What about the confessor and the monk?’

‘Murderers! King-slayers! They have his clothes, they have his clothes!’

There was one Viking, a boy, fifty paces off, just visible between the trees and the river.

‘Go,’ said the wolfman. ‘Now. I will find you. Merchant, get on that animal and take the lady to Helgi.’

‘I am going to my people,’ said Aelis.

‘No. You have very little time. The wolf is coming into flesh — it is foreseen. You must get to Helgi; only he can save you from what stalks you.’

‘What stalks me?’

‘Death, destruction, again and again in many lives.’

He lifted the lady onto the horse and Leshii got up behind.

Aelis looked down at the wolfman and stammered, ‘W-why are you doing this?’

‘For love,’ he said. ‘I will find you. Aelis, Adisla, I will find you. Now go!’

A shadow sang across the light. The wolfman stepped forward and took it from the air. It was a spear.

‘Go. They are near.’

He slapped the animal’s rump, and it took off through the trees with the Norsemen at its back.

24

At Ladoga

Paris was still unscorched, Sigfrid living and the confessor still a lost child grubbing in the great forest of the Rhine when Helgi went up to the roof of the loading tower to survey his new lands at Aldeigjuborg, or Ladoga as he was learning to call it to please his subjects. He had something else to celebrate beyond taking possession of the town — the birth of a daughter.

The Viking king looked out over his lands and waters. Stretching out in front of him in the clear day was the river leading to the trembling blue of Lake Ladoga, its green islands just specks in the distance. Spread out around it like stars around the moon were the turquoise flashes of other lakes, so many he had never managed to count them. He looked at the winding rivers that connected them — some like threads, others more like blue roots, all reaching out from the great shimmering boss of the lake, stretching east to Miklagard and the steppes, west to the Eastern Lake, and north to home.

His men, the northerners, were lords of the water, kings of ships. No wonder the native tribes of Slavs and the Finns had asked him to rule over them. He had been surprised when he received their ambassadors asking him to be their king, but when he came to think about it, it was only a just reward. Who had warred more than he had? Who had stocked the All Father’s halls with so many dead warriors that his armies would stretch from horizon to horizon? Who had sacrificed slaves and cattle at summer blot and winter feast? Helgi. Odin was his god, the god of kings, and he had rewarded him handsomely.

Years before, his people had come in conquest, ruled for a while and been overthrown. But the chaos that followed was so bad and the memory of their easy and liberal rule so good that within twenty years a tribal faction, too weak to make a bid for power on its own, had invited them back.

It felt good to be king — khagan — of such a fertile land. Helgi climbed down the tower to take in the celebrations going on below. The Slavs might have some funny customs but they liked a blot — a celebration and feast — as well as any man of the north. Helgi took to the streets, his bodyguard closing in behind him. He stood for a while watching some sacrificed slaves, naked and painted, swinging from a gallows under the wide blue sky. The sight of this proof of his power and riches was pleasing to him. The smell of the piss and shit that had fallen from the dead men as they choked mingled with the temple incense, the stink of the animals, the perfume of the garlands that the young girls wore, the herbs of the beer in the horn he drank from. He found the sensation rich and intoxicating.

Summer in the lands of the Rus was a beautiful thing — you could almost smell the heat, although there was a freshness to it that blew in off the river and made even the midday sun bearable. This was an abundant land: wheat in the fields, the nets of the fishermen on the lake heavy with fish, furs and honey in great supply and fine forests for hunting and firewood.

The nine dead men dangled from the scaffold in the temple to Svarog, master of wolves, who was Odin by another name, as far as Helgi could see. The ruler’s concessions to Slav culture stopped at changing the names of his own gods, who had brought him such fortune, and he had actually sacrificed the dead men to Odin, lord of the hanged. By that stage the locals were so drunk they assumed the sacrifice was to Svarog. But Helgi had been careful to honour the native gods too. The temple of Perun had even been given a new statue of the god, with his great hammer raised, ready to strike the blows that split the sky with thunder and lightning.

Their creeds were very similar, thought Helgi, especially the belief in a world tree on which sat the various realms of existence. The Slavs were wrong to believe it was as oak because Helgi knew very well that it was an ash called Yggdrasil, but the difference in detail was so small that the khagan had taken it for confirmation of the compatibility of the northern and Slavic peoples and evidence of the truth of their beliefs. Even the blot was a Slav tradition. They called it a bratchina — a brothering — but they were talking about the same thing. Drink, women, sacrifice and a good scrap to round it off in all likelihood.

Ladoga was thronging that day. The harvest was shaping up to be a good one; the khagan had donated ten prize cows to be slaughtered, and the army was in fine shape. Helgi’s own men from Skania had accepted the name the Slavs had given them as the ruler’s bodyguard — druzhina — and a good fleet was moored on the river and out on Lake Ladoga. Khazars had joined the force too, and the farmers and fishermen of the wider countryside were behind him, keen to move south and east for a taste of plunder. They were all in town, happy to throw flowers upon the river by day and drink and fuck their way into their gods’ favour by night.

Helgi paraded the streets, handing out small gifts of money and loaves to the people, conspicuously directing his heir Ingvar to assist him. He needed to be seen to direct Ingvar because the boy was not his son, only his nephew. Part of the bargain that had seen him gain the loyalty of his druzhina — four hundred men — was that his own sons would be overlooked.

The arrangement was not unusual, and the Norsemen had no tradition that the first son, or any son, should immediately take the throne when a king died, but Helgi was a modern man. He saw the virtue of a clear heir and of that heir being beyond dispute. However, Ingvar was not subject to the special curses the gods held in reserve for those who killed their fathers. A blood heir might be more patient than a named successor in waiting for the current king to die. Ingvar was now six. In ten years, maybe as little as six, he would seek his inheritance. And Helgi was only khagan thanks to the Slavs. They remembered his father Rurik and had backed him for the throne. Ingvar, his dead uncle’s child, had as many warriors from Skania as Helgi, and the boy’s own uncles had forced oaths from Helgi that he would be his heir.

Helgi touched his sword and remembered the words he had spoken to his sons on the days of their birth as he placed it between their infant hands: ‘I shall bequeath you no wealth and you will have nothing except what you gain for yourself by this sword.’ It was supposed to be a formality, an encouragement to be self-reliant. But Helgi had started with nothing himself and had hoped to give more than that to his boys.

The king, though, had schemes. The cities to the south and the east, Novgorod and Kiev, were tiny and barbarous. He intended to take them and to give Ingvar the task of ruling them. He’d call Novgorod his capital first, and when he was ready to strike at Kiev would say it was time to move on there. Ingvar could spend his time fending off the mad Pechenegs and the incursions of the Greeks from Miklagard. When the boy failed, as he would, his authority would be fatally undermined and Helgi could step in to take over with the support of Ingvar’s own kinsmen. Perhaps Ingvar would even be killed fighting the maniac southerners.

Helgi would not have broken his oath to protect and nourish the child; he would have fulfilled it by putting him to work as a ruler before he was even eight.

‘ Khagan.’

It was one of the druzhina, a small wiry man who on ceremonial occasions wore full war gear including a coif of mail that covered his entire face apart from the eyes. Over it he wore a gold-inlaid round helmet and he carried a fine sword by his side.

‘Yes, friend.’ This was the traditional way the Slav khagans addressed their bodyguards, and the Norsemen had quickly picked up the habit.

‘The priestess begs your presence.’

‘For what?’

‘You have sacrificed mightily. You are a great friend to the wolves, so much a feast do you prepare. The priestess of Svarog, of the sky and the blue of the sky, would entertain you now.’

Helgi grimaced. The idea of sex with the woman didn’t appeal to him, though he knew it might be required. The Slavs had all sorts of traditional rituals for their kings, which could be pleasant when it came to deflowering virgins to bless the land but asked a little too much when it came to lying with one of the ancient, unwashed and crazy priestesses of Svarog.

‘She would grant you a prophecy.’

Helgi laughed. ‘I hope I can keep my trousers on for it.’

‘I understand you can, lord. You just have to go down to see their oracle.’

‘Good, good. I should think our sacrifice should have ensured a fine prediction. The witch should be happy with what I gave her.’

He would remember that place for the rest of his life, the darkness of the hut, the closeness of the fire and the cloying smoke of the herbs the priestess had thrown onto it, foul things that burned with the smell of pitch. He never knew whether he had only dreamed that they had brought the corpses in to sit beside him in the tiny room.

The priestess had said only that Svarog was a complicated god, lord of the bright air and of the sun but also guardian of the sun in the underworld when it disappeared at night. Svarog knew the dark places of the earth and the realms of the dark gods, and it was to that side of his nature that the rite of prophecy appealed.

She had cast her herbs into the fire, murmured her rituals and uncovered the oracle, a carved tree of wood, a face daubed on it in a childish way.

His mind lost focus and wandered. When he came back to himself, his limbs were stiff and he felt far too hot. The dead men were around him, their ripe berry heads dark and swollen in the light of the witch’s baking fire. The place was an oven, and Helgi wanted to get up and leave, but it was up to him to bless his kingship by emerging with a favourable prophecy.

He had had no idea that the ritual would be so arduous. He had thought he would go in, receive good words from the priestess and come out again. Not so. He was to prophesy; he was to be the gate through which the magic would pass, so said the witch. And for that he needed to suffer.

More logs were put on the fire, more herbs, and he tried to tell her he had endured enough, that kings were to be obeyed not tortured, but the herb smoke seemed to rob him of speech. Were the corpses there? It seemed so one moment, not the next. Helgi was a warrior, a man of cold certainties. It bothered him greatly that these dead men were neither quite there nor quite absent. They seemed to blame him for something, their eyes bulging and bloody. And, strangely, he seemed to care. He seemed sorry, although he had no idea why. He had paid for them: their lives were his. No man could say he had done wrong by killing them.

The daubed face looked at him, its expression seemed full of smirking knowledge. The oracle knew things, Helgi could tell. The oracle had inside information, he was a sly one, a secret titterer behind the backs of great kings, he was no woolly headed man that oracle, he was a smart fellow indeed. What was happening to Helgi’s thoughts? He chewed at nothing, he stretched the muscles of his face and stuck out his tongue; his nose streamed with snot; he longed for water but could not move.

The priestess was alongside him, a woman in a wolfskin snuffling and scratching near his side. No, not a woman. A wolf.

‘Where am I?’

‘At the well.’

He looked around. The room was gone, the dead men too. Instead he stood on a wide plain of black ash under a bright steel sky. The plain was utterly featureless apart from a protrusion that seemed like something grown from the same stuff as the ground, like the stump of a tree but rootless, black and hollow.

He walked up to it and looked in. A sheen of silver water was inside it, coming right to the brim of what he realised was indeed a well.

Helgi looked to his side. Two figures were there. One was a terrible old man, his face contorted into the drooling fascination men show when watching dog fights or duels. Around his neck was a strange noose tied in a complicated knot, and he stood frozen, his hands out wide. He carried something in one of them, something that dripped blood to the floor. It was an eye, his own. Helgi realised the man had torn it from his head. He stood by the well as if offering it to the heavens.

On the ground was another figure, headless. Next to it lay the crude head of the oracle, looking up at Helgi from the black floor.

‘This is the well.’ Helgi couldn’t tell who was speaking.

‘Whose well?’

‘Of Mimir, the first man.’

Helgi knew the legend. This was the well of wisdom where Odin had given his eye for lore. Helgi plunged his hands into the water and drank deeply. Now he was no longer on a barren plain — a gigantic tree stretched up above him, a black ash tree spreading its branches across all of the sky. Snakes slithered and spat at its base, all around his feet, around the well, around the body on the ground, around the feet of the strange old man who had ravaged his eye.

Helgi saw visions. A rearing horse with eight legs was stamping him down, all his lands were burning and Ingvar was at the head of his army, taking his glory, stealing his plunder. He was being buried alive, a thick stream of earth dropping into his mouth, stopping his nostrils, denying him breath. He was in a pit, a pit that was being filled up, a grave in the Christian manner, sealed in and weighed down by soil.

He heard a voice in his ears: ‘Odin is coming and will tear you from your throne. Ingvar will be king. You will be killed by the creature of hoof and mane, and Ingvar will take your glory.’

‘I shall kill him.’

‘You will never kill him. The god is coming, and his manifestation is your death. Bar his way.’

Helgi choked on the soil, his vision gone, his breath denied.

And then he was in the light and the air of the market square, under a cool and smoky evening sky, his people around him, his druzhina offering him wet cloths, drink and food.

‘A premonition, khagan?’

Helgi swallowed, spat and forced his voice to speak. ‘Great fortune,’ he said, ‘great fortune.’

‘This,’ shouted a druzhina to the crowd, ‘is the blessing of the gods, a prophecy sent to honour the birth of the khagan ’s child!’

25

A Change of Identity

It was not the wind that awoke Jehan, nor the clear blue cold of the spring day. It was the voices of the Norsemen. He heard them shouting, one phrase heard many times: ‘King-slayer, king-slayer, we will find you!’

He had an intense pain in his eyes, a searing ache. He put his hands up to his face and blinked. The agony of his torn eyelid was gone. This was another sort of pain. He blinked again and again.

He had a sensation of light, swimming brown and green and gold. There was a broad vertical line in front of him. What was it? A tree, a big oak. Jehan coughed and tasted blood. He turned to his left. There was a flash of bright gold. The river.

He breathed out, leaned back on his hands and realised it wasn’t a dream. He could move. He could see.

He got up and staggered against a tree, unused for so long to standing. At his feet was the body of Saerda, his head twisted almost to face the opposite way nature intended. Jehan sank to his knees in prayer.

‘Dear Lord God almighty and father everlasting, who hast safely brought me to the beginning of this day, by thy holy power, grant that this day I fall into no sin but that by thy restraining care my thoughts be set to keep thy holy laws and do thy holy will.’

Jehan had never cried, not as long as he had lived, but he cried then. God had granted him release from the bondage of his body, and Jehan had used it immediately to kill. The commandment was clear: ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ But the Viking had been a devil, an enemy of Christ.

Jehan put his hands to his head. He felt in such confusion. What was happening to him?

‘A Frank!’

Three men were dashing towards him, two with spears, one with an axe. He wanted to wait for them, wanted to accept the punishment of God’s will, but he couldn’t. His legs began to move, haltingly at first but with increasing fluidity. He was running, for the first time since he was very young, he was running.

The sensations were nearly overwhelming — the feel of the forest floor digging into his tender and uncalloused bare feet, the dazzle of the light through the trees, the rush of greens and browns as he fled from his pursuers — and he just wasn’t used to it all. He fell, stood and tripped again. Finally, a tree root took his leg and they were on him. It was then that he gave up. He had surrendered all right to try to preserve his life. He had partaken of unclean meat. He would accept death and, inevitably, damnation. A man must accept the will of God no matter what it might be.

Others were around him now, faces pink and angry. He was unused to seeing, to focusing, and the faces seemed to whirl and smear, a circle of flesh hemming him in. He had to get back to what he knew. Jehan closed his eyes.

‘Is this the king-slayer?’

‘It’s a monk by his clothes, though a rough one.’

‘He’s not a monk; they cut their hair funny.’

‘Well, whatever he is, he’s a Frank. Shall I kill him?’

‘Best.’

‘Hang about, son.’

Jehan opened his eyes again to see a fat Viking with a big blond beard shoving through the crowd of faces.

‘Before you go killing anyone, why not ask who might have a use for him?’

Jehan recognised the voice. It was Ofaeti, the one who had carried him from the church.

‘Can you speak our tongue?’

Jehan tried to remain still but found himself nodding.

‘How did you get here? Are you one of that party that ambushed the king last night?’

‘He couldn’t ambush a tree with a piss. Look at him — he’s as frail as an old woman.’ It was another voice.

Ofaeti crouched beside him. ‘What happened to your confessor? He’s a mess. Did the Raven get him? Hang on, that shield looks like the king’s. And I recognise those arrows.’

‘The king was robbed after he’d been killed. Maybe one of the thieves paid the price,’ said someone else.

‘Maybe the king was felled with arrows and the thieves dropped it here in their flight,’ said another.

‘Those are the Raven’s arrows.’

‘Did he kill the king?’

‘More like whoever stole the king’s stuff.’

‘Perhaps this is the killer.’

‘Are you saying our king could have been killed by an unarmed slave like this?’

‘Of course not.’

‘Well don’t open your mouth if you can’t speak sense.’

‘Watch who you’re talking to.’

The men fell to arguing. Ofaeti ignored the rising hullabaloo and spoke to Jehan.

‘There’s one of our men with his head facing the wrong way down there. I guess you’d have noticed if someone had done that in front of you.’

Two of the Norsemen picked Jehan up and dragged him back to where the bodies of Abram and Saerda lay.

‘Are these the god’s bones?’ said one, poking at the bloody remains of the monk with his foot.

‘Last time I noticed the Raven was mutilating monks. That’s a mutilated monk. Raven’s arrows are in the king’s shield down there. Leaving aside how that got here, that makes the man down there that confessor, I reckon,’ said Ofaeti.

‘Are we in the god bones trade now, Ofaeti?’

‘Well after two nights making the lady who we’d been sent to kidnap fetch us drinks, and then the man who was going to pay us for her being killed, I’d say we should move out of the noblewoman abduction line of work and into something else, wouldn’t you? We can’t be any worse at it.’

‘I can’t believe we had her there and didn’t know.’

‘I’m going to pretend it never happened. I thought she was too good-looking for a slave.’ Ofaeti shook his head and looked at Jehan again. ‘You, Frank, we’ve got your saint’s bones. If you want them back, you’ll have to pay for them.’

Jehan hadn’t thought of that. Abram would need a proper Christian burial. He couldn’t allow him to be taken by wild animals.

‘We will pay,’ he said.

‘What did I tell you. Speaks Norse like a Haithabu whore — that is to say, well enough for what we want him for. Frank, you are going to help me sell his bones.’

‘To Saint-Germain?’

‘No chance. You’d like that, I bet. We’re going east, son.’

Men were streaming past the confessor into the trees.

‘You don’t know me?’

‘No, should I?’

‘I’m the confessor. I’m the one you took from the church.’

‘Of course you are. You’re blind, you’re crippled and you’ve had half your face eaten by ravens. On top of that you were shaved bald on top yesterday and today you’ve got a fine thatch. For someone who’s been tortured to death, I must say, you look pretty well. Now get that mess over there into a sack. Once you have, we’re going on a little journey.’

The confessor touched his head. His tonsure had grown out. It was only a small detail but it left him mildly panicked. It was if part of his identity had been removed. He looked down at his body. It was wasted and thin still and yet it moved. He could walk. God had released him. It was all too much to take in. The implications of his cure were so huge. Jehan breathed in and tried to focus on what he needed to do rather than what had happened to him. If Aelis was with the merchant, she would be on her way to Ladoga by now — he had heard the easterner pressing the case of Prince Helgi.

Jehan knew he had no way to get back to the city, or even to Saint-Germain. Could he rescue Aelis if he followed her? That morning, standing upright, the sunlight through the trees dappling the forest floor and turning it to a shimmering stream, he felt anything was possible. Everything was so beautiful. But it was more than that. He felt bound to the girl, almost compelled to follow her. God, he felt, had picked him out for the task and cured him so he might accomplish it.

And there was one further advantage of travelling east. The sea way would be impossible, thick with Norse pirates, so they would go by land and he would learn what stood between him and the lands of the Rus. It was a chance to gain information about the enemies of God, even to seek out evil and uproot it.

He looked at the fat Viking, the one who seemed to be the leader, if not in name then in the respect the men gave him.

‘I am a monk and I can help you. There is a monastery I know that is in need of some relics and would pay well for them,’ he said.

‘Where’s that?’ said Ofaeti.

‘In Agaune, to the south and east in the Pass of Songs,’ said the confessor. ‘The abbey of Saint-Maurice.’

‘Why so far?’

‘You need to step out from the shadow of war to a land where you will be seen as merchants, not pillagers. If you approach an abbey in this land then you will be cut down. Not all monks are men of God, as you know, and some grew up with a sword rather than a Bible in their hands.’

Ofaeti looked the confessor up and down. ‘A word spell,’ he said. ‘Magic or sense? There’s no way back to our boats, for sure.’ He snorted. ‘Yes, Fastarr? What do you think?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then follow,’ said Jehan.

Saint-Maurice, thought the confessor, was where the Raven had said he was found and lost by God. The Raven had been described by Sigfrid as an intelligencer, so someone had sent him. Jehan had no idea who but he thought the abbey of the black saint was as good a place as any to try to find out.

26

Shelter

‘Melun,’ said Aelis as the horse slowed in the trees. ‘We’ll go to Melun. The town is loyal to my brother and the Northmen have not come so far down this time.’

Leshii nodded. He didn’t like the sound of that. In Melun the lady would go back to her people. Yes, they might reward him for looking after her, but then again they might not. He knew very well how capricious and unpleasant rulers could be. What if her brother decided that cutting her hair had been dishonourable or that no foreign man could have stayed on the road for so long with a young woman without taking advantage of her? He didn’t even know who was in charge in Melun — some local noble or bishop who would want the glory of finding the lady for himself? Helgi and his promised reward remained the best bet.

The trouble was that the lady had got her bearings and knew exactly where she was going. He had thought he might fool her, take her on his path and call it her path, so to speak. But he could think of no other option, so if the lady wanted to go to Melun, then he had to go there too. Her horse pressed forward through the trees, heading south down the river and Leshii followed, leading the mule.

‘Lady, following the river’s too obvious; they will think of searching for you there.’

Aelis said nothing, just kicked her horse forward. They travelled all day, passing the burned remains of three monasteries. The Vikings wouldn’t make a full push without their ships but were willing to make the occasional incursion on foot.

Eventually the trees thinned and gave way to a conglomeration of little fields and houses. It was dusk and a big red sun dipped behind them as they approached. Peasants came out to look at them, at first shouting and hissing and fetching staves, but Aelis spoke to them in Roman, calming them and telling them she was the cousin of Robert the Strong with a message from Count Eudes to the bishop on his island monastery. She had killed the Viking king and was here to encourage the men of the countryside to take heart and rally to Paris’s defence. She did not reveal herself as the count’s sister because she knew her people. It would have been too much for them to take in that she was dressed as a man, let alone travelling unchaperoned with a strange foreigner and her hair exposed for all to see. They would kill the merchant and brand her a whore. The disguise would have to remain intact for now.

The news of Sigfrid’s death soon spread through the farms and quickly there was such a throng that Aelis and Leshii could go no further. The farmers called out questions — ‘Did he die well?’ ‘Is his head on the city walls?’ ‘Do his men withdraw?’ — and offered ale and bread, praising the lad who had done such a fabulous deed. ‘Stay with us tonight and tell us your stories,’ someone called. ‘Please, lord, favour your people.’ Aelis was tired and suddenly the cold she had felt in the river came flooding back to her. It would be good to take a bed among these people. She looked to Leshii and he smiled. The merchant reflected that it was bad luck to lose the chance to take the lady east but consoled himself with the thought that at least he was used to it. The way the fates had treated him in the last few days would have been too much of a shock for a man accustomed to good fortune.

Leshii and Aelis were taken to the biggest house in the village. It was a mean place, low-roofed with walls of wood, straw, mud and dung, but the fire inside was warm and there were chairs to sit on and a bed to lie down on. Aelis did not dare remove her war gear for fear of exposing herself as a woman, but was so tired she fell asleep on the reeds of the floor and was covered with a blanket by the farmer’s wife. Leshii fared less well. Foreigners were always suspect and he was left to sleep as best he could. These were not the cosmopolitan people of Paris but peasants, some of whom had never even been to the town of Melun, whose walls they could see from their own fields.

Aelis slept dreamless and deeply with the farmer’s family around her, some on the floor, most in the bed they had been glad not to have to give up to the young lord. The fire was low and the night was dark by the time the first raven alighted near the smoke vent, its landing as soft as a raindrop’s. Then a second bird joined it, and a third.

27

Munin

A shape emerged from the shadows to stand by the seated figure of the woman with the ruined face in the firelight. The man himself had a face that was ravaged and torn and in his hand he carried a cruel curved sword in a scabbard.

‘Not yet,’ he said, ‘though it will be death by water, I know.’

The woman did not turn from the fire. The voices were few and distant in the empty spaces of the evening but the woman knew they were not alone. Men were camped around them among the trees. She could sense their breath, sense the heat of their animals and the sour note of fear on their skin, fear of what was behind them in the camp and what was in front of them in the half dark. They were scared of her, she could tell, but they were not there to kill her. Murmurs stirred in the trees like the rustle of leaves. ‘What next?’ ‘She will know.’ ‘She is a Norn and weaves the skein of our fate now.’ ‘What does she want?’ ‘What they always want.’ ‘What?’ ‘Death.’

Hugin ignored the whispers behind him and took his sister’s hand. She squeezed gently on his fingers. He uttered a single word: ‘Success.’

The woman turned to him on instinct, though her eyes did not see him. As she moved, the whispers fell silent.

‘I saw her face,’ said Hugin. ‘We will catch the monster now; it is only a matter of time. Don’t be scared, my sister. Our struggles and sufferings will bring their reward.’

Munin squeezed her brother’s fingers again. ‘You’re troubled,’ she said.

‘It’s nothing.’

‘You’re troubled.’

‘The wolfman found us again.’

‘He has the stone and I cannot see him. But that is not what is troubling you.’

‘I have seen her before,’ he said.

The woman now put her other hand over his. ‘Here?’

‘Not here. Before.’

‘This has happened before. It’s a powerful magic that she carries with her. You have had a glimpse of something, that is all.’

‘Of what?’

‘She and you. In another lifetime. It has been revealed to you already. She was the god’s death before, and unless she is stopped she will be once more.’

Hugin nodded. ‘Then she will be stopped.’

A horse somewhere breathed out and a man said a word to calm it.

‘Who are these?’ said Munin.

‘Grettir’s war band. Hated by Rollo. Their ships have been seized and they have put the thread of their fate in my hands. They are here if we need them. They are two hundred and fifty men. Will we need them?’

The woman bowed her head in thought. Beside the fire was a tangle of branches bearing the long-leafed fingers of the ash tree. Hugin took one up and cast it onto the fire. Then he sat back by his sister, gave her his hand again and listened as she chanted.

‘Blood, by blood begot,

Flame, by flame begot,

Death, by death begot.’

Over and over again she intoned the words until they were no more than an numbing haze of noise. There was restlessness around them. The war band now depended on the guidance of the sorcerers but were very uncomfortable in their presence. Some men paced back and forth. Some went and sat deeper in the trees. Only a few stayed to watch the chanting woman spin a web of sound through the forest.

Hugin felt something move in his head, as if his brain had acquired a terrible asymmetric weight and was far heavier on one side than the other.

Images rose in his mind and he knew his sister was taking his thoughts to use for her magic. Hugin had his own magical abilities, gained through privation, ritual and contact with the gods, but he was a man and he could never have what Munin had — runes, the symbols that express and shape the energies of creation. Her strength was so much greater than his. She concentrated on the symbol that grew within her, feeding off her and feeding her, sustained and sustaining. Hagalaz, the hail rune, symbol of destruction and crisis. Hugin felt its presence as his sister touched his mind — the driving wind, the sting on his face, the vision dying under the needles of ice.

As the coldness entered him, he knew that he and his sister were becoming one person, the division of their flesh an unimportant detail, nothing beside the unity of their minds. He saw a boy in the water, helpless, his lips blue and his flesh pale with cold. No, it wasn’t a boy; it was the woman, the one they had been following. They had known she would be in the church, so their visions had suggested, but they had been unable to see what she looked like. All they saw when they tried to summon her image was the jagged rune, the Wolfsangel, with its three meanings, storm, wolf trap and werewolf. Now Hugin had seen her and Munin could see her too. In her mind Munin was not blind, and Aelis was as clear to her as if she had been standing in the firelight in person. The sorceress looked into the lady’s pale blue eyes. Then she breathed in the scent of the ash fire.

The ash was the world tree on which all creation sat, gnawed at by the serpents that writhed in the earth beneath it. She said their names in her head. Nidhogg, the malice striker, Iormungand, Goin, Moin, Graftnitvir and Graback. But one was missing, the one she was looking for. She saw the world tree towering above her, and her mind seemed caught like the moon in its branches, a shining thing that spread its silver light over the trunk as it searched for what it needed. She let herself sink, falling through the leaves and the loam and the roots to the unstill earth beneath. She seemed to drop through writhing bodies, feel coils around her, things that crawled and crept over her skin. Then she had it, the one she was looking for.

‘Svafnir,’ she said. ‘The masked one.’

Hugin and Munin felt the serpent writhing in the cavern of their shared consciousness, squirming through their thoughts like a worm in the soil, curling around the thin bars of the hail rune that enchanted it. Then it was as if something had gone wild inside them, thrashing and turning. Images of hate and death sprang up, Danes and Franks with twisted faces dying under Hugin’s sword, a body found cold in the morning, a woman weeping with only the mocking call of a crow for an answer.

A raven descended from the tree.

Blood, by blood begot. Hugin could not tell if the words were in his head or were spoken aloud.

The bird hopped up onto Munin’s shoulder and pecked at her ear, drawing blood.

Hugin heard his sister’s voice in his head, addressing the bird: You shall find her.

A second bird dropped onto her other shoulder and drove its beak into her neck.

Fire by fire begot.

A gout of blood ran down her breast.

You shall mark her. Munin to the other bird.

Now a third, a black leaf dropping from a branch. It too drew blood on her neck.

Death by death begot.

The bird sat looking at her, as if waiting for instructions.

And you shall carry the blood of the serpent to where she rests.

The first raven gave out its cracking cry and flew up into the night, the other two calling after it as they chased it into the dark.

Hugin felt the heaviness in his head shift. He was cold, tired and vulnerable, though he still got to his feet. ‘The birds will do for her?’

The woman said nothing but Hugin nodded anyway. ‘Then I will go to make sure. Grettir’s men will burn the earth to find her.’

‘Take forty men to the farms to the south, and if you cannot find her there, she will no longer be your concern. You have business elsewhere. The girl has been seen. If she can be killed then I will kill her.’

‘And if she can’t?’

‘Then a hard road opens to us. We must find the wolf and contain him.’

‘So where for me?’

‘The road east to the dead lord’s well. The wolf will seek the god’s trail there. We must see him at least, to know how to act.’

‘How shall I summon him? I am a man, not a woman. My magic is a weak thing.’

‘Yes.’

‘So?’

Munin’s head bowed for a second. ‘You know who is in the hills and streams of Aguanum. You know what he wants. Give it to him until he reveals the wolf to you. The waters of the temple are hungry. It is up to you to feed them.’

‘How many?’

‘How many what?’

‘How many deaths?’

‘All of them,’ said Munin.

Hugin breathed out and glanced towards the men in the trees. ‘You will not come with me?’

‘I will stay here and try to kill the girl.’

‘What of the rest of the war band?’

‘They will travel with me to track the girl. If I cannot kill her by magic they can do it by more usual methods.’

The Raven bent down and squeezed his sister’s hand. ‘It’ll be all right,’ he said. ‘We will survive this.’

‘That doesn’t matter,’ she said.

‘It does to me.’

‘The god must live.’

‘And you too, my sister, and you too.’

The woman said nothing, just felt for a bundle of yellow rags at her side and pushed it into Hrafn’s hands.

He could feel something solid beneath the cloth. He shook it and heard liquid. He touched his tongue to his lips.

‘All of them?’ he said.

‘All of them.’

Hugin kissed his sister on the forehead. He went to the men waiting among the trees and told them they were to split into two groups. The two hundred-odd who were to stay with Munin gave a cheer and tall Grettir himself shouted that they had a powerful witch on their side and that their fortunes were now secure.

‘We will have our boats back!’ he shouted.

Hugin nodded. ‘She will help you get into the camp,’ he said. ‘If you take twenty men you can get your boats. Then head down the Seine and meet your main force there.’

‘When will we be reunited?’ said Grettir. ‘I am lending my men, not throwing them away.’

‘You will be reunited,’ said Hugin, ‘before the year is out. You have my word. My sister can find me through her art.’

Grettir smiled, though Hugin noticed some concern in his eyes as he glanced towards his sister.

‘She is a good woman,’ Hugin said, ‘and you will prosper by her side.’

He raised his arm as a signal to his chosen men to follow him. The forty hurried to shoulder their shields, to be out of the presence of the torn and tattered thing that sat by the fire in the woods relaying messages from their gods. Then they followed Hugin as he walked into the forest night.

28

Ravens

The young man had at first thought to kill the bird that dropped from the smoke vent. Boiled raven was barely edible but meat was scarce enough to make anything welcome. But then it had looked so funny, perched on the shoulder of the sleeping lord. The bird then hopped up onto his head, and the young farmer had wondered, half hoped, that it would make its mess on the nobleman’s hair. He bore no ill will to the lord at all, in fact he rather respected him, but his sense of humour was such that birds messing on the hair of sleeping men was extremely amusing to him.

But then there had been a flutter and a tumble of wings, and he felt a sharp sting on his cheek. It was another raven, flapping to the smoke vent. He put a hand to his cheek then his fingers to his lips. Blood. The thing had cut him, pecked him or slashed at him with its feet as it flew past.

He said nothing but just looked down at the blood on his fingers. The bird on the nobleman’s shoulder was looking at the young farmer, its eyes two little gleaming coals. He felt no inclination to move, though the heat of the embers seemed oppressive. The bird kept looking at him. Was it his imagination or did it seem to be standing in a sort of questioning posture, its head cocked as if evaluating him?

His hands went back to his cheek. The wound was painful, not like a normal cut, more like a bee sting. He felt his heart begin to race. Nothing seemed clear to him. It was as if something was writhing in his head, as if he wanted to stand up, sit down, be still and run all at the same time.

The breathing of the young lord seemed abnormally loud, irritatingly loud. The man might have killed the enemy king but did he have to hem and haw so? Had the lord really killed the king? He knew those noblemen were full of lies, despite their airs and graces. The heat was becoming unbearable. He took off his smock and sat bare-chested. He was sweating heavily now. The pain on his cheek was spreading a numbness all the way down his right side.

The bird’s eyes never left him.

The young farmer stretched out his arms. ‘What answer would you have me give?’ he said. He realised he was talking to the raven. The stupidity of that struck him and he fell to giggling. The bird watched him still. The young man had never been so hot nor found anything so funny. He was shivering despite the heat. The giggling subsided and he felt another emotion growing inside him. Anger. He knew, of course, what the noble intended. To rape his sister, take his crops and kill anyone who stood in his way. They did that sort of thing, those high men; it was well known.

The nobleman wasn’t really sleeping; he was lying there like a fox, biding his time until everyone dropped off. Then he would get up to begin his foul acts. The nobility took its portion by right, but the people expected defending in return. What had they done, these fine fellows? Allowed the country to be overrun by Norsemen, Neustria pillaged and Paris besieged. If a common man did not pay them his dues what could he expect?

The heat in his head was unbearable. He felt something biting and writhing within him, tearing at his reason, shredding his thoughts. The bird’s eyes were on him, glittering black stones. He stood up. He picked up a knife from the bench at the table. They had had meat as an honour to the lord. The blade was a good one, used for fine boning. He looked down at the fat foreigner who was the nobleman’s servant. Him first?

The nobleman stirred.

No, better to take the warrior in his sleep and deal with the servant afterwards.

The raven cawed as the young man stepped forward and plunged the knife into Aelis’s belly.

29

Strange Companions

Jehan wondered why the Norsemen had agreed so quickly to his suggestion that they head for the mountains. There was no return to camp, no leave-taking of companions; in fact, there seemed to be some urgency about their departure. Ofaeti had four men with him, and they hurried north to meet up with six more.

They found each other at the beginning of the wood where the Raven had tried to work his magic on Jehan. Down the hill they could see the Viking camp. There was activity, noted Jehan, men gathering, tiny but visible under the big moon. The six brought four mules with them and one riding horse, though they were lightly provisioned. The animals bore mail hauberks, spears, axes and a couple of bows, bedding and not much else. The men had clearly left in a hurry.

With his restored sight he could not help but stare at them, stare at everything. The night was cloudy but the moon was visible, crisping the edges of the clouds with silver. The air seemed charged, the land to glow. Did Eden know a light so lovely? he thought

These men were different from the other Vikings he had seen in the wood. They were blonder, taller and for the most part more strongly built. Ofaeti was a sight to behold, fat but powerful, using a spear for a staff. Svan too was a giant, with a great red beard that seemed to burn like copper in the day’s strange light. He carried a large single-headed axe. Fastarr, the one with the hammer on his shield, was a lean and nimble-looking man who wore a sword at his belt. He had a large and ugly scar on his cheek — clearly he had taken a spear point or sword tip there at some point. Then there was Astarth, the youngest with his wispy beard, and the rough and coarse Egil, whose profanity stood out even in that company of battle-bitten warriors. The rest of the eleven had not yet been addressed by their names and the confessor had no urge to ask them. One was older than the rest. He was grey-haired and two fingers on his right hand were missing. Another carried two swords at his belt, though the rest of his dress was poor.

The men were having a debate as to whether they should put on their war gear. Ofaeti ended it. ‘The sooner we’re out of here the better. No time for all that,’ he said.

‘You know the way?’ said Fastarr to the confessor.

‘I know of it,’ said Jehan, ‘it is south-east by the trading route to Lombardy.’

Ofaeti nodded. ‘Get us there and emerge with our gold and you’ll never hear from us again. On the courage of Tyr, I swear you will come to no harm. Betray us and I will kill a monk for every day of my anger, and my anger does not cool slow,’ he said. ‘I want your word, on your god, that you will treat us as fairly as we treat you. That is to say, well. You’ll have no trouble from us if you give us none. Do you swear?’

Jehan looked at the men. He was in their power and had little choice. He needed to get to Saint-Maurice and these men looked capable of getting him there. How much money would he get for the monk’s bones? None. So his oath would be discharged the moment he told the berserkers they had earned no pay for their booty. Then the monks would be free to kill them. Was that the most satisfactory outcome? It was certainly the one that most churchmen would favour. But surely it would be better to bring these men to Christ. He would try, he thought, he would try.

‘You have my oath,’ he said. ‘I will serve you in this task.’

‘Good,’ said Ofaeti. He went to a mule and took out a pair of sandals.

‘It’s a long walk so you’ll be needing these. Don’t think it a kindness. I don’t want you slowing us with blisters or taking up space on a mule. Where do we go from here?’

‘There is a ford. I think it’s down this hill.’

Jehan strapped on the sandals, his fingers fumbling at the knots. He was unused to tying on shoes, unused to doing anything at all for himself.

‘Hurry it up,’ said Fastarr. ‘Lord Rollo is about to express his gratitude for what Ofaeti did to his son. A ford where?’

Jehan pointed to where the memory of his childhood told him the ford was but the berserkers were staring back down the hill. He turned to see what they were looking at. A group of warriors was assembling. How many? Forty or so, more joining from down in the camp, some on horseback.

Ofaeti shrugged. ‘He was a grown man and it was he who issued the challenge.’

‘After you’d punched him in the face and knocked the teeth out of his head.’

‘After he’d called me unmanly. The law’s plain. I could have killed him for that on the spot. I was willing to leave it at a broken nose. He was the one who wanted to take it further.’

‘They are massing,’ said Holmgeirr.

‘We could stand and fight,’ said Astarth.

Fastarr shook his head. ‘If few are to succeed against many then the many need to flee. They are Rollo’s men and will fight with a grudge. We can’t kill enough to rout them. We’d never run so many.’

‘We could just roll you down the hill to flatten them, you fat bastard,’ said Egil.

‘If you like,’ said Ofaeti. ‘The walk back up will do me good.’

‘It’s Hvitkarr, one of Rollo’s chieftains. At the mead bench I heard him confess he couldn’t understand a word the skald was saying. I think a man who cannot understand poetry must be a poor warrior,’ said Astarth.

‘True enough,’ said Ofaeti. ‘I once heard him telling the tale of a victory, and a dog could have made better verse. The spirit of Odin is not in him, so why would it be in his men?’

‘They are too many. Come on,’ said Fastarr. ‘If we make the woods to the south we’ll lose them. We’ll make for the ford.’

‘And then what? Steal a boat? Does the river go to this monastery, monk?’

‘It goes part of the way,’ said the confessor. ‘There is a short cross-country part where you can take the old Roman road, the Transversale, until you meet the Saone going south, and then you follow the Rhone to the door.’

Jehan was speaking from what he had heard from pilgrims; he had never travelled the route himself. The pass Saint-Maurice stood in was the quickest way through the mountains to Lombardy, Turin and ultimately Rome.

‘We’ll walk,’ said Ofaeti. ‘The rivers will be alive with spies looking for northerners. Come on. We don’t want to get caught by Rollo’s men while we’re crossing. The river’s high and it’ll be hard enough without those bastards coming after us.’ He took the halter of the mule and descended the back of the hill at a trot.

Jehan glanced back. Riders were joining the men at the edge of the camp. The confessor knew he and the berserkers would be caught. That did not frighten him much. However, a different anxiety was gnawing at him. The taste of that human meat in his mouth would not leave him. He felt sick but strangely elated, as if part of him had enjoyed his grisly meal. He also realised, with surprise and horror, that he was anticipating the fight to come. Saliva had risen to his mouth and his limbs felt light and quick. As he moved through the trees following the warriors, he offered a prayer that, should he kill, he should kill justly and take no joy in it. The Church was clear — it was good to kill heathens but not to revel in slaughter.

Everything felt so strange: there were so many changes for him to come to terms with. He had been blessed, he was sure. God had looked down on him in his torment and released him from the bonds of his disease. Whatever came after could only be God’s will. All he had to do was to pray and accept whatever happened, react as he felt God wished him to do.

Jehan also noticed he felt stronger. The pace was fine, though the warriors were running. He tried to pray and the words of the Creed, the statement of belief on the nature of Christ, came into his head: God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made.

They reached the edge of the wood and looked at the long drop towards the ford.

By the power of the holy spirit incarnate, through the Virgin Mary made a man.

The Vikings trotted down the hill with Jehan beside them. He kept glancing back but he could see nothing behind him. He felt joyful and full of life, and ashamed at that joy when he considered what had passed his lips not a day before. He felt a hand on his arm. It was the fat one, panting at his side.

‘Not so fast, monk,’ he said. ‘You wouldn’t want to leave us behind.’

Jehan came to himself and checked his pace. He didn’t feel like slowing, though; he felt like tearing through the night to give vent to the boiling energy rising inside him.

30

A Question of Fear

Aelis felt the thump in her ribs. She awoke to see the half-naked man standing over her. He was sweating heavily, his eyes rolling in his head. She tried to stand but he kicked her legs from under her, driving the knife down between her shoulder blades. This time, as it hit the mail hauberk she wore beneath the cloak, the knife snapped. The blow was a heavy one, though, and she fell face first to the reeds.

People were on their feet, the whole house in uproar. The young man seemed nonplussed by the fact that his weapon had broken and sat down on the floor.

Aelis stood and a terrible pain shot through her. Her ribs were broken, she thought, front and back, but the mail coat had saved her life.

She bent for her sword but she was in agony and her movement was slow. The young man looked up at her, almost as if seeing her for the first time. Then he lunged from his sitting position, driving himself forwards to slam into Aelis, sending her sprawling. His hands were at her throat, but she had Sigfrid’s sword free from its scabbard. Her vision constricted to a tunnel, her head thumped, her ribs were on fire, but she shoved the blade into the man’s belly and kept pushing until the crosspiece hit his navel.

Her sight faded, the voices of the room were distant and echoing. The hands at her throat were unyielding. Then there was a thump and she could breathe again. The merchant was standing over the young man, who tried to get up but the handle of the sword dug into the floor and he gave a terrible cry. He pulled at the weapon, struggling to get to his feet as if drunk, one leg gaining purchase on the floor, the other flailing, refusing to obey his commands. For a second he was upright but then lurched forward and dropped to his knees, his shaking hands still tugging at the unmoving handle of the sword.

Aelis was doubled up on the floor, gasping for breath, coughing and choking, still uncertain as to whether she had been stabbed, so great was the pain in her ribs.

‘You’ll die for what you’ve done, nobleman!’

The boy’s father was striding towards her, an axe in his hand, but Leshii leaped between him and the spluttering figure of Aelis. The merchant had drawn an axe and held it above his head, ready to strike. An angry crowd of around twenty people faced them. The farmer’s wife, a big woman with raw cheeks, ran weeping to her son.

‘No one does anything until we find out what’s gone on,’ Leshii said. ‘Look to your boy rather than a fight you won’t win. The lord did for Sigfrid; he’ll do for you.’

The farmer looked at Aelis, clearly wondering what his chances were in a fight against the young nobleman. Not good, he seemed to decide. He went to where his wife was cradling her son’s head. The young man was still sitting upright, his eyes staring into nothing.

‘What happened?’ The farmer’s wife’s voice was gentle.

The youth’s mouth fell open.

‘My thoughts were a snake,’ he said. ‘He had been hiding inside me and he came forward to strike. The raven called him out. The bird bit at me and my thoughts went wild.’

‘This is sorcery,’ said Leshii. ‘The boy was bewitched. The Raven is a noted necromancer, an unholy priest of the Viking invader. Look, there is his instrument, the bird, that is what drove your son to this.’

The raven was in the open doorway. As if it heard its name, it took wing and flapped into the night.

‘He came at me while I was sleeping,’ said Aelis, each word forced out with what little breath she had. ‘If I had attacked him first with my sword he would have had no chance to strike at me. Look, he broke the knife on my mail.’

The farmer looked up to where the boning knife was snapped to its handle.

‘Get out,’ said the farmer. ‘Go from this place. You are not welcome to come here bringing devils to our door. Get out!’

Aelis stood and limped towards the door, the eyes of the crowd on her. Leshii, though, stayed.

‘What are you waiting for, foreigner? Leave!’ said the farmer.

Leshii stepped forward. ‘I’m afraid,’ he said, ‘I can’t leave you with my lord’s sword. It is too valuable a weapon. It’s worth three of your farms.’

‘I will kill you before you take it.’

‘Let him take it, father. I can abide it no more.’ The boy’s voice was faint.

Leshii looked into the farmer’s eyes. The man looked away and then at his son. He kissed the boy on the forehead and his wife squeezed her son’s hand.

Leshii stepped forward and took the handle of the weapon gently. Then he put his foot into the youth’s chest and with a wrench pulled it from his body. The boy gave a yelp but then was quiet.

Leshii stood above him holding the bloody sword.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘Apply to the count for compensation. Tell him the one he thought lost did the work. Ask in the name of Lady Aelis.’

‘Get out!’

Leshii left the house and went to Aelis. She was lying in the mud and shit next to one of the flimsy animal shelters.

‘Well, lady,’ he said in a low voice, ‘we have the clothes we stand up in, weapons, two horses and a mule. You are followed by enchanters who have shown their skill. Will you put your trust in me now?’

She said nothing.

‘Now will you believe me? There are sorcerers hunting you. You must get to Ladoga and Helgi. He is a great magician and will drive these evil things from your back.’

He put his arm around her to lift her, but as he did became aware of a presence in the shadows. It was the wolfman.

‘Chakhlyk?’

‘Ladoga,’ said Sindre. ‘You must get her to Ladoga. I can help you as long as the arrow lets me live.’

Leshii nodded. ‘Then let’s get the animals,’ he said.

Aelis looked up from the mud. Her mind felt dislocated, knocked sideways. She thought of the horses at the river, of how she had killed Sigfrid and she shuddered. What explained that? Supernatural forces seemed all around her and within her. She stood. She was in no condition to ride but she had seen the look on the young farmer’s face, and, more than that, had sensed what was within him. There had been an acid feeling to his presence. A sensation like heartburn sprang up inside her when she thought of him. Something more than human, venomous, had hissed and coiled within him. She felt certain Leshii was right: it was sorcery and she knew it was unlikely that this attack would not be the last.

She glanced at the two men with her. Would one of them come for her in the night, his eyes wild, his body burning? She couldn’t think too much on that. She had to get away from this thing that was following her, and to quell the odd sensations that afflicted her.

The wolfman, she could sense, was a good man acting for good, his presence complicated and odd, wild yet not hostile. When she looked at him she saw great spaces, valleys, rivers and woods, felt a longing, but a solidity too. He would not let her down, she knew.

‘Come on,’ said Leshii. ‘Let’s at least get away from here. Who knows what’ll happen if these countrymen suddenly decide they want revenge for the death of their kinsman.’

Aelis allowed Leshii to help her up onto her horse, her ribs were agony. The wolfman mounted the other animal and the merchant led the mule out of the village, heading north by the Pole Star. Aelis could not decide what to do. The forces against her seemed overwhelming. She wanted to go to Melun but couldn’t be sure she wouldn’t be making things easier for her enemies by going there — surrounding herself with men who could be enchanted. They made slow progress over wet fields and finally came out into common land and woods. Passing through a clearing, she heard distant screams, sounds of anguish and terror from back the way they had come. She turned to look behind her.

‘Don’t think about it,’ said the wolfman. He drew his horse alongside her. He was not used to riding, she could see, and was lucky Sindre’s horse was a well-trained gelding. He flopped on the animal as a passenger, not a rider. She wondered if it was the effect of his wound or if, like the northerners, he had never been taught to ride properly. ‘We must press on, and quickly,’ he said.

‘What is it?’ said Aelis.

‘The Raven is not easy to kill,’ said Sindre, ‘but he will not know where we have gone and neither will the farmers. If we can make the River Oise then we can take a boat. We must not sleep until then.’

‘He will kill all the farmers?’

‘He will spare some of them for a while to try to gain the information he needs but then he will kill them too. He can’t risk them running to their lord, and a party of warriors searching the countryside for him and whoever is with him.’

‘He seems a match for any warrior.’

‘Perhaps. But what if your kinsmen find us? He means to kill you and doesn’t want anything delaying that. If your people rescue you it will make things difficult for him.’

‘Then I should go to my people.’

‘You will only delay your death. You were with your people when he came for you before. Helgi is your only hope in this.’

‘Why does that thing want to kill me?’

‘Just press on. We have no time to talk.’

‘Why does he want to kill me? I have a right to know.’

The wolfman swallowed and went to put his hand on her hair in a gesture of affection. Then he withdrew it. ‘He is afraid of you. Now let’s be gone.’

‘We go nowhere until you tell me more. Why am I pursued? Why am I harried? How can something like that be afraid of me?’

Sindre looked across at her. He leaned heavily on the pommel of his saddle.

‘Because something else follows you too. It always has and always will.’

‘What follows me?’

‘You dream of a wolf?’

Aelis nodded. ‘How did you know that?’

‘I dream of him too.’

‘Does he say that he loves you?’

The wolfman was silent but Aelis could see the fear in his eyes. He looked very old, she thought, or rather he had an air of great age about him. He had, she thought, travelled a long way to be with her, and not just in distance. When she looked at him she felt the wheel of the seasons turning — rain, sun and rain again. But she sensed something else too. His life was passing. It would not be the arrow that killed him, nor the Raven. His death would come quickly and unforeseen.

When she was a child she had taken her meals in the kitchen at Loches. She was a girl and so was not invited to the high table, but she had not wanted to go. In the great hall there was an iron stand as tall as a man. It held a brazier at the top of it which lit the room on feast days. She had hated it and not known why. It seemed to her like an evil presence simmering by the table, a tall, pendulous thing full of harm. Her cousin Godalbertus was hardly more than a baby, just able to walk. The stand had fallen, caught by a drunken nobleman, and had struck the child and killed him. Count Albertus had had the stand taken outside. Someone had filled the brazier with earth and grown flowers in it. All her youth it had stood in the garden, flowers spilling from its basket, like death in his victory garland. When Aelis looked at Sindre it was as if the stand — or rather the evil feeling the stand seemed to generate — was behind him, ready to fall.

‘What will happen to me?’ she said.

‘You will go to Helgi and you will be saved.’

Aelis sensed the uncertainty in his voice.

‘Will the Raven kill me?’

‘He will try. I cannot tell. No one can tell. It will not profit you to know more until you are with Helgi. I promise you, he will give you a better explanation than I can.’

‘And you do all this for the love of your prince?’

‘Lady?’

‘You said you were acting for love.’

The wolfman looked into her eyes. Aelis had that feeling of great age again, but this time seemed to share it. She went back in her mind to her childhood and then beyond that. She had the sensation of a weight in her arms, of falling and of a terror at her back that she could not shake.

The wolfman winced and grasped his side.

‘We must move quickly. I am in no condition to fight the Raven if he finds us.’

‘If he is scared of me then shouldn’t we wait for him?’

‘The Raven expresses his fear in sword cuts and tortures,’ said Sindre. ‘He does not hide from the monsters of his dreams, he hacks them down.’

‘Can we get on?’ said Leshii. ‘We can find the river. The current is too strong to take a boat, but if we can find a crossing we can cut north and lose our pursuers.’

Aelis looked at Sindre. In her mind she was standing on a ledge in a high cold place. She was holding something in her arms. It was a man. She could not see his face. Was it the wolfman? Someone like him, though she couldn’t tell. She didn’t know what to make of the vision, nor did she know if she saw the past or the future. Perhaps, she thought, she saw something that had never happened, nor never would be. But it told her she was linked to this man in a way that went far deeper than his rescue of her or their present conversation. But when she looked at him, she did not think of love. Another word came into her mind: daudthi. It meant nothing to her — that is, she couldn’t translate it — but it too seemed to come in a rush of images and sensations: a warrior, his white hair gleaming from the dark and then gone like a fish in a pond, cries of anguish, her body aching and bruised, and a smell, a deep animal smell seeping from somewhere at her side, a smell that brought her around again to that word and a knowledge of its meaning. Daudthi. Death. And it was death she saw when she looked at Sindre, not love.

But still, better death for her than against her. The wolfman had tried to protect her and she felt compelled to act on her instinctive trust of him.

She looked up at the Pole Star and then east to the constellation of Cassiopeia. Its flat upright M-shape seemed to her like the symbol in her head, the one that called the horses, and she imagined the stars as a rearing horse pointing her way. There lay her destiny, she was sure, with Helgi and his magic in the lands of the Rus.

‘Take me to the east,’ she said, and squeezed her legs against the horse’s flanks to urge it forward.

PART TWO

Wolf Age

31

Helgi’s Sacrifice

Years before Aelis set off to seek Helgi’s help, the child had been taken to the roof of the river loading tower — the highest structure in Ladoga, nearly five man heights tall. Logs had to be removed from the roof in order for her to be passed up through a gap.

Her father laid her down there himself.

‘Nearer the apex, khagan.’

The healer chinked like coins in a purse as he spoke, his whole body adorned with charms and trinkets. Prince Helgi glanced at him and moved the girl nearer to the top of the roof.

‘The surest cure is at the apex,’ said the healer. ‘That is where the cooling humours of the sky settle.’

‘They’ll be no cure for her if she rolls off to her death,’ said Helgi.

‘I will sit beside her and make sure she comes to no harm,’ said the healer.

‘Yes,’ said Helgi, ‘you will.’

He touched the girl’s head. She was boiling in her own sweat. He cursed himself. It never did to love your children too much, least of all the girls.

Helgi was a troubled man and the little girl had been one of his comforts. She was bold and funny, even going as far as to ridicule his stern manner. He would have cut a warrior down for that but she just made him laugh, made him forget his tormented sleep and the nightmares that woke him ranting in the darkest hours of the night. In those awful dreams he always found himself back by that well, the vision of his own death, of the trampling hooves, waking him with a shout. When he returned to sleep there was worse. He saw a warrior on an eight-legged horse — Odin was coming to earth and would march at the head of Ingvar’s armies. The god was treacherous, it was well known, but Helgi felt cheated. He had sacrificed so much, given so many slaves, so many cattle, so much gold. But the portents were clear — he was under divine threat.

So he had sent throughout his land for wild women and holy men, for priests and witches, wanting to hear that the prophecy had been wrong. The mystics came pouring in to Ladoga like a market-day crowd, rattling bones, casting runes, sweating and fasting for prophecy. So many came that Helgi earned his nicknames ‘Helgi the Magician’ and ‘Helgi the Prophet’. All the troll-workers told him nothing, just that he would be a great king throughout all the known lands of the earth. He did not believe them and saw that they only sought to please him.

One mountain woman, though, had drawn a shape in the dust of the floor. ‘This is your destiny,’ she had said. The outline was that of a horse.

‘I will be killed by my horse?’ He glanced left and right. The hall was empty, the druzhina sent outside to prevent them hearing anything that might upset them and, through them, the people. ‘Could the horse be a symbol? Might it mean something else? Might it be that a god is the only thing that can kill me? Could it be a sign of great fortune?’

‘Anything can mean anything,’ the wild woman had said and put out her hand for gold.

There had been a sound from beneath a bench at the side of the hall, and he’d turned to see what it was. It was his little girl, Svava, poking her face from the shadows. He’d laughed when he’d seen her.

‘You know I should beat you for sneaking, don’t you, girl?’

The girl had just chuckled and come up to him.

‘Can I have an apple?’

‘This woman isn’t a farmer, she’s a witch. A troll-worker. Shall I get her to eat you?’

‘I might eat her,’ said Svava.

‘My girl,’ he’d said to the wild woman, ‘as bold as any boy and ten times as cheeky.’

But the wild woman had her gold and was heading to the door, plunging Helgi back into his thoughts of what Odin was about to take from him and give to Ingvar.

Helgi had tried to weaken the boy but Ingvar’s faction was strong, the loyalty he commanded from kinsmen in the druzhina not far from Helgi’s own. His uncles were hard and cunning men and watchful for any plot, so that way was not open to Helgi. He would have to let his original scheme stand: conquer the south and leave the boy to make his mistakes. He was at the mercy of the god and there was nothing he could do about it.

And then in January, the traveller had come, fighting through a terrible blizzard, hunched against the cold. The men had thought him a beggar in his rags and wolfskin, but had been shocked to see anyone emerge from that storm.

The guards had let him in to the town out of amazement and pity. He’d gone to one of the fires they kept going behind the gatehouse to warm himself. A man came to tell Helgi because lone travellers on foot were unheard of in that country at that time of year. No one could travel in such weather and live. Helgi told the druzhina to stay where they were in the mead hall. It would be a dark day when the prince of all the east needed a bodyguard to face a frozen and wandering beggar. He’d been bored, to tell the truth, by the men’s boasts and the drinking games where a mistake in the rhythm of a complicated pattern of clapping forced the error-maker to take a swig. Helgi had played the games so many times that he found it impossible to fail at them and sometimes broke his rhythm deliberately just to wet his palate.

So he had gone alone, shielding his face with his cloak as he walked half blind through the storm.

The man had stood by the fire, the snowy wind turning the back of his body white, looking like a thing of ice himself, a statue topped by a shock of red hair. Helgi told the guard he was a poor host and to get the visitor some food, and the traveller had smiled at him. With his smile, the blizzard stopped and the wind died.

Helgi had looked up. It was night, just past dusk, and the sky was a dark and frozen purple, the stars shards of ice, the slim moon an icicle ready to drop. Without the shrieking wind the special silence of the snow fell upon the town and with it a sense of complete stillness. Helgi felt strange. ‘I know you,’ he had said.

‘And I you, my burning prince, whose desires have melted away all the storm.’

‘What do you know of my desires?’

‘The only thing worth knowing about them.’

‘And what is that?’

‘They will never be fulfilled.’

Helgi felt his blood fall to his knees, though he maintained his composure. It occurred to him to strike the man down where he stood for his insolence, but he felt strangely vulnerable. The freakish change in the weather had unsettled him, but there was something else. What? This man, the firelight crawling over his body like so many snakes, had come half naked through weather that could kill a horse under its rider.

‘Then I should make them greater,’ said Helgi. ‘That way, in falling short, I will have enough.’

The man smiled. A grin of ancient hunger like a wolf’s, thought Helgi.

‘You know what will kill you.’

‘My horse. I am glad of it. It means I am immortal for Helgi owns no horses. All he rides, he borrows.’

‘What a fate! To be master of nothing but a borrowed horse, your lands snatched away by the dead god’s hand. Would you see him?’

‘Show him to me.’

The man moved his hand and the snow in the gatehouse square rose from the ground. It swirled and eddied, turned tiny whirlwinds and finally took shape. It was a scene from the sagas. The dread lord Odin, one-eyed and fearsome, his face contorted into a scream, sat on his great eight-legged horse Slepnir, driving his spear down at a terrible wolf that tore and bit at his shield. The sound of the battle grated through the town and Helgi wondered why none of his druzhina came out to see what was happening.

The spear stabbed into the wolf, lodging in its flesh, and the animal gave a terrible keening howl but it didn’t falter in its attack. The rider’s shield shattered, and the wolf’s front paws dug into the horse’s flank, its teeth snapping at the man’s throat, its body tossed around in a crazy spiral as the monstrous horse screamed and bucked to be free of it. But the wolf did not let go.

And then the snow spectres crashed to the earth and the night was quiet again. Helgi walked forward to where they had fought. All that lay on the snow was a twisted rope. Helgi recognised the triple knot of Odin.

He picked it up and took it to the beggar. It seemed the natural thing to do.

‘When he died last time,’ said the man, ‘this happened.’ From nowhere he produced a long knife and with skilful fingers cut the knot into three pieces.

‘He is in the world, sundered,’ said the man, holding the pieces of the rope out to Helgi. ‘If he ever becomes whole again you and the armies of mankind will have never known such destruction. He will light a fire from the shores of the blue men to Thule, and from the green hills of Albion to the sands of Serkland.’

‘I don’t understand,’ said Helgi.

‘He is in the world, as three. If he becomes one again, you and all the kings of the world will run from him like rats from a fire in the corn. Only his favourite will remain. Ingvar will triumph. Ingvar will rule.’

The man’s words seemed to fizzle and sizzle in Helgi’s mind with the sound of a branding iron on an animal’s back.

‘And how does he become one?’

‘How he does anything — by death. Three live with the runes within them. Fragments of the god. Eventually there will be just one, and your destiny will fall upon you and sweep you from the earth.’

‘Who are they? What do I need to do?’

‘Those who drink at Mimir’s well pay a price so to do. Odin gave his eye for wisdom; the bright god Heimdall gave his ear. What did you give?’

‘My peace.’

‘It was not enough. More is required.’

‘What?’

‘A child.’

‘Which child?’

‘The one who sits beside you in your great hall.’

‘For what?’

‘For death.’

Helgi felt a delicious current of anticipation flow through him. Could the god really be asking for Ingvar?

‘And if I do this, the god you have shown me does not come?’

‘Your debt to the well will be paid. Your name will echo down the ages as the mightiest khagan of the earth. You will have a vision, and the way forward will be revealed to you.’

Helgi smiled. ‘You are a god,’ he said. Helgi could sense it. The air around the man seemed to have a pressure to it that rendered the prince’s senses dull, as if he was underwater. Next to him, Helgi felt slow and fragile.

‘I am.’

‘What is your name?’

‘I have many. Here I am Veles and in Rome I am Lucifer. To you I am Loki.’

Helgi felt fear stopping up his breath like a suffocating hand. He composed himself. The terror quietened. He had come to the attention of the gods. He was important, marked for greatness.

‘They call you lie-smith,’ said Helgi.

The god smiled. ‘Those who do not listen make me a liar,’ he said. ‘Men hear what they want to hear, and when they curse me it is not for lying but for speaking the truth. Thank you for the warmth of your fire. I shall repay the gift when I return to take what you have promised me.’

He turned and walked out into the snow. Helgi watched him go, thinking how foolish the gods must be to demand as a sacrifice what he had been praying for them to take away.

That night he had dreamed of a lady who lived in the land of the Franks, blonde and beautiful, a lady who walked in gardens by a river.

‘Who are you?’ he asked.

‘One of the three. You shall know me by these signs.’ She held out her hand. In it were eight wooden counters, all marked with a rune.

‘What is your name?’

‘Aelis, of the line of Robert the Strong.’

‘While you live, I prosper,’ he had said to her.

He had sent a delegation to her brother at Paris the next day, asking for her hand in marriage. He didn’t even receive a response. He had considered an attack but his army was tied up at Kiev, keeping the Pechenegs at bay. That’s when he had decided to kidnap her.

On the roof by the healer Helgi looked down at Svava. He had not thought the god would ask for her. The god had said, ‘The one who sits beside you in your great hall.’ Ingvar was there at all meetings, beside him at every judgement he made, every farmer’s squabble he sorted out, every warrior’s weregild claim, even when visiting kings were entertained. He had given his oath to raise the boy, but if fate struck him down, if the gods struck him down, then Helgi would be free of him without breaking his oath and free to name any heir he chose.

The prince hadn’t even considered the girl — he was a warrior, how could he have thought her important or in any way interesting to the god? She was a scrap, a little thing not six years old. How could the god want her when he could take a boy now thirteen and already battle brave? But the god knew his weaknesses and Helgi had come to realise that you don’t bargain with such as he and walk away without paying in meaningful coin, never mind smirking up your sleeve at your own cleverness.

Helgi looked down from the tower roof. The town was on an elbow of land that stuck out into the wide River Volkhov. Facing inland he could see clear green lands — the barrows of his dead countrymen nearest to him, the woods like a sea themselves beyond. They were digging a barrow for Gillingr now, his Viking brother, who had fought with him as far south as Miklagard, as far west as the Islands to the West. A gash of red soil had been cut behind the last complete barrow, ready for the construction of the burial chamber. There was a problem there, he had heard, but he was too taken with his daughter’s illness to enquire much about it.

His daughter would not have a barrow. She was a thing of movement, bright and quick. He couldn’t bear to think of her entombed under the earth. It would be fire for her, to match her spirit. He looked over the river. He felt like a bird, floating on light above the water, a bird that could turn in a moment and follow the river south to swoop on Miklagard, to plunder the treasures of the Byzantine emperor, to fly on to the Caliphate and return with all the jewels of Serkland. The girl moaned in her fever. He looked down at her and shook his head. He had allowed himself to love his daughter. Men, and kings in particular, should never love their girls, he thought. They were bargaining tokens, no more, to be traded with other kings for gold, land or peace. But he had loved her, for her fierce heart as much as anything.

Svava and her sisters were banned from approaching the king without a lady or their mother to supervise their behaviour. She, though, recognised no bans. She’d come to see him, sneaking in to watch as he dealt with traders, princes and war chiefs in his grand hall. The little girl thought he couldn’t see her, crawling beneath the benches with the dogs, but he saw her all right, catching his eye as he settled a dispute between farmers, robbing him of all sternness at the very moment he might have screamed at the complainers to get out of his sight. She made him chuckle, and although he should have beaten her until her legs were blue, he didn’t. He winked at her and threw her one of the apples the peasant plaintiffs brought as gifts.

He could never turn her away, and eventually she’d just sit by his side on the floor with Ingvar his heir on the other side on a chair as he did his work. He was aware of how it made him look to his men and was careful to pick occasional fights in order to show that, though he might be tender-hearted to his daughter, warriors could expect less kindly treatment. ‘There’s no respect like corpse respect,’ was a maxim his own father had drilled into him from an early age. However, he was pleased when he saw some of his chieftains had begun to allow their own girls to sit beside them at the mead bench.

‘Aeringunnr.’ He went to her and sat down, put his hand to her head and was sure she would die. He had called her by her full name only once before. To him she had always been Svava, or Mouse for her habit of appearing where he least expected. But Mouse was too timid a name for her and he had dropped it and settled on Svava, after a Valkyrie, one of Odin’s battle maidens. ‘Aeringunnr.’ He had called her that when he’d gone to see her on the day of her birth and given her the name. Now, he knew, he was using it to say goodbye.

Tears came into his eyes so he turned his face away from the healer. He spoke to the girl, his eyes on the distance. ‘See what you’ve done? I can’t go down like this.’ Below, warriors were gathering. It was one thing to be seen to have a soft enough heart to have the child on his knee, another to be seen nursing her like a servant.

The healer, who only understood the East Norse of his masters if he listened very carefully, said nothing.

Eventually Helgi composed himself and turned back to the healer. ‘If she dies,’ he said, ‘so do you. She’ll have a boat burned for her to take her to the afterlife. You’ll be in it. It will be a privilege for you, so be happy.’

‘She won’t die, khagan, not on the roof and surrounded by charms.’

‘Good,’ said Helgi. ‘If she lives I’ll leave you to seek a less noble death. You can fuck yourself to death in a whorehouse at my expense.’

‘You are generous, khagan,’ said the healer.

The girl turned slightly and the healer grabbed at her to stop her slipping off the roof.

‘ Ulfr.’

‘What did she say?’

‘I can’t tell, khagan.’

Helgi bent his head to the girl’s ear. She moaned again, repeating the word.

‘It’s likely nothing, lord,’ said the healer. ‘In fever people say all sorts of things that-’

‘ Ulfr.’

Helgi fixed the healer with a stare. ‘What are you talking about, man? She said “wolf” as plain as I can hear you. What does it mean?’

‘There are many forms of spirit that can enter her. It may well be that a wolf spirit has come upon her and-’

The healer was stopped by Helgi’s look of simmering, almost murderous appraisal. The prince was a good judge of men, the healer knew, and had seen through him. But the healer also knew he was the only hope Helgi had.

Helgi spoke slowly and the healer could tell he was struggling to keep his famous temper. ‘Keep her cool up here. If it rains bring her in. Apart from that, make sure she doesn’t fall off.’

‘Yes, khagan. Yes, lord.’

Helgi took one last look at his daughter. She was wet with fever, scarlet patches covering her face, her hair sodden with sweat.

‘And pray to our gods,’ said Helgi, ‘because tomorrow I think you are travelling to their lands as escort to a princess.’

32

Saved for Christ

The rain-swollen river was a sheet of crumpled lead under the moonlight. The air was beginning to spit with moisture and Jehan knew that the best he could hope for was a cold and wet night in sodden clothes, if they managed to make the ford and get away. They hurried down the hillside towards the water where it passed some ruined farmsteads. The river was flowing unusually fast. It had been a wet spring, the rain prolonged and heavy. But the ford should be passable, he thought. Then again, he had never had to consider such a thing in his life. He had spent most of it cloistered in Saint-Germain, never travelling anywhere.

The Vikings seemed less sure they could make the crossing. Up the slope horsemen had gathered. Jehan counted twenty. Beside them were more warriors on foot, maybe twice that number. They had seen the berserkers and the lead rider pointed his spear towards them and kicked his animal down the hill.

‘Can we make it?’ said Astarth. The young man seemed in a fever, undecided between attack and retreat, stepping one way and then the other, certain only that he didn’t want to stand still.

‘We have to,’ said Ofaeti. ‘Come on, get the mules in. Those not leading an animal link arms. The river’s shallow here but it will be powerful. If we can cross before they arrive, we can disappear in the woods the other side. Let’s make sure we don’t get caught in the water.’

The men splashed in, pulling the mules after them. There was no order, no line. They all leaped in at the same time, straining towards the far shore — a distance of a hundred and fifty paces. Jehan had no choice. He followed them.

The river was thigh deep and very powerful, and Jehan staggered as he stepped into it. Then he steadied himself. The wonder of his transformation had not left him and he was amazed by how strong and stable he felt, despite the push of the water. The Vikings were not so sure-footed. They staggered, stopped, tottered forward and stopped again, all the time fighting for balance.

Down the hill the riders came at an uncertain trot. Vikings were no horsemen, it was well known, and they struggled to get the animals to go faster. Still, there was no need for great haste. They were four hundred paces away but the berserkers were only ten paces into the river and already they were grabbing on to each other, forced to link arms to make headway. Jehan saw that some of the horsemen carried bows across their backs. The rain was coming down now and if only the clouds would cover the moon there would be the protection of darkness. But the clouds did not cover the moon.

The horsemen were three hundred and fifty paces away, the berserkers only fifteen into the river. It would be slaughter, and Jehan needed these men to get him to Saint-Maurice. Astarth had the idea of mounting a mule and rode it to the other bank. Three followed his example, clambering up onto the animals over their packs before making for the far shore.

Jehan strode forward through the racing water, seven Vikings struggling in his wake.

‘No good,’ shouted Ofaeti. ‘Best turn and face them.’

‘No!’ shouted Jehan. Astarth had collected the mules and was forcing his way back into the water with them, coming to the rescue of his comrades, riding one and leading three.

Jehan reached back to the first of the chain of seven. ‘Take my hand!’ he said to Egil, who grasped at him with a curse. Then Jehan pulled, dragging the men behind him.

The horsemen were two hundred paces away, Jehan could hear their catcalls now: ‘Run, you cowards, too unmanly to fight!’

‘Come in here and say that!’ shouted Ofaeti, though he was having terrible trouble standing.

Jehan drove on. He felt strong and stable in the water. The berserkers made better progress with him pulling. Fifty paces, fifty-five. The horsemen were now on the bank. Sixty paces, seventy. Something splashed into the water. An arrow.

Astarth had the mules alongside his friends and the berserkers leaped for the animals. Three got on and another three managed to clasp the packs as the animals turned for the far shore. Only Ofaeti had run out of energy. He stood swaying in the stream like a drunk man trying to remember the way home.

More arrows. Three horses had entered the river and were wading towards them. Ofaeti fell in a slow tumble, waving his arms for balance. As he fell he managed to twist and grip the riverbed, crouching on all fours facing the surging current. More arrows, but this time coming from the opposite bank. The berserkers were now firing back at the approaching horsemen. Jehan stepped forward, but the horsemen were too near. He might get ten paces dragging Ofaeti but no more. The confessor faced the oncoming riders.

There were three of them, their horses moving on with high and careful feet. A ridiculous situation had occurred. Now the berserks on the far bank were trying to ride the mules back to their friend’s aid, But the animals had made one return journey through the powerful current and were refusing to make another. The beserk called Vani was wading back but his progress was very slow.

The three horsemen had spears. Jehan didn’t know what to do. He helped Ofaeti to stand and the big berserk drew his sword, but it was all he could do to keep his feet, let alone fight.

Jehan went to take the weapon from him. Ofaeti gripped it and wouldn’t release it.

‘Please,’ said Jehan. ‘You can’t fight them without your legs.’

The Viking nodded and passed over the sword. The monk strode towards his attackers. The riders were unused to fighting from the saddle but had no choice. If they got down they’d be in exactly the same situation as Ofaeti, unable to balance, vulnerable to arrow or spear should their enemy allow his friends a clear shot.

Forward the horsemen came, stabbing down at Ofaeti and the monk. Jehan made sure he was the main target, leaping at the riders and slashing with the sword. A spear snicked past his chest but Jehan was quick, bringing the sword down hard on the rider’s leg. The man cried out and his horse caught his fear, staggering sideways in the stream and throwing him into the water. In a breath he was gone in the darkness. Another spear was driven down at Ofaeti, but he managed to grab it, tugging hard at the weapon. His opponent, though, was no fool. He just let go of the spear, causing Ofaeti to overbalance and go sprawling back into the river. Jehan flung the sword towards the bank and dived after him, out of the shallows of the ford and into the deep water. Suddenly the remaining horsemen were isolated and five arrows sang across the river. Jehan heard screams, animal and human, as he plunged forward through the black water.

Almost the second that he dived in, Jehan regretted it. The man he was trying to save was a pagan and an enemy of his people, but he had acted on instinct, not even knowing whether he could swim. But he cut through the icy water with ease. He caught a glimpse of something a way in front of him — the Viking’s big blond head bobbing on the surface.

Jehan didn’t have time to think how strange it was that he, who had been so afflicted he couldn’t even perform the most basic functions of life without help, was now shooting forwards through the bone-biting cold of the river to rescue a man who had been hailed a mighty hero by King Sigfrid.

Ofaeti had nothing to cling to, nothing to stop him being carried back towards Paris and the Viking camp; that, though, was the least of his worries. The water was numbing and the current strong. Jehan, though, was quick through the water, arrowing towards his target. The confessor seemed guided, the big man his clear objective, despite the dark, the rain and the swift-running waters.

In four breaths he was on Ofaeti, taking him in a powerful grip.

‘No good,’ said Ofaeti. ‘I will pull you down. Let go of me.’

Jehan said nothing, just kicked for the shore. The current was strong but he was stronger, and he quickly made the bank, dragging Ofaeti out of the water. The big Norseman lay spluttering on the cold grass.

Upstream Jehan could see Rollo’s forces hesitating on the opposite bank, peering through the darkness. On their side of the river the other berserkers were moving off.

‘Your friends are making for the trees,’ said Jehan. ‘We had better join them. I need your protection on the way to Saint-Maurice.’

Ofaeti lay back, his arms above his head, trying to get his breath.

‘How can you see so far? I can hardly see past my own boots in this darkness.’

‘You’re shocked from the cold,’ said Jehan. ‘You’ll regain your eyes soon enough.’

Ofaeti got to his feet. Jehan looked at the Viking’s face. The big man was staring at the confessor with something approaching fear.

‘My eyes are good enough,’ he said. ‘Let’s go before Rollo’s men gain the courage to cross. I thank you for what you did for me.’

‘Don’t thank me, thank God. None is saved nor lost but by His will.’

Ofaeti nodded.

‘Will you pray with me?’ said Jehan.

Ofaeti gave a short laugh. ‘When we are safe from our enemies, if it pleases you, I will. If it’s your god that saved me, then Lord Tyr won’t begrudge me giving him thanks.’

The confessor smiled. Was this what God had freed his limbs for — to convert the heathens? It had to be. He had thought none of the berserkers would ever return from Saint-Maurice. Now he saw a different way. These men would make formidable soldiers for Christ. They would welcome Jesus and his divine presence into their hearts, which would drive out the pagan lies they had been raised to. ‘Lord Tyr’ would be exposed for what he was, nothing more than a shade in a story that any child could see through.

‘Come on then,’ said Jehan. ‘Follow close if you can’t see your way.’

The two men scrambled up the bank and ran towards the line of trees.

33

One Gift Demands Another

In Ladoga, all those years before, the healer had sat and watched what he confidently expected to be his last dusk turning the river to a winding path of flame, like the road to hell. He was a Bulgar, a happy, dark little man dressed in bright yellow silks that did nothing for his pale complexion. Helgi had gone down to be with his warriors and the healer was alone on the roof apart from the little girl.

He shook his head and thought of the warning his father had given him: ‘You have a talent, but use it sparingly. Cure too many and the gods will be jealous.’

He hadn’t listened, of course, and had travelled from all the way beyond Kiev practising his trade. The charms and the potions were what he sold, but he knew that these, which his father had taught him, were only useful up to a point. The real secret of his success was that he had worked his first years for little or no pay, just taking a meal when he needed it. All he asked in return was that, if he was successful, people spread the word.

It had worked. The healed sang his praises and the dead never complained. By his third year he was sought all over the east. And then he had heard that Helgi was seeking a new physician. Like a fool, he had been pleased when the king had chosen him, not realising that a healer relies as much on his luck and reputation as on his skill.

He looked down at the child beside him. She was hot enough to set fire to the roof. She would burn him up too, for sure, if he didn’t cure her. It occurred to him to simply jump from the tower to save himself the pain of the flames. He had nothing more to give. His last hope had been to take her to the roof, to show her to the eyes of Tengri the eternal sky, but it was failing.

But then he remembered he had been taught a charm by a stranger who had joined him on the road to Kiev. He’d been travelling with a party of Khazars who were heading west. They’d kept their fire going all night because there was a rumour that a wolf was stalking the road. The healer had no liking for wolves and had found it difficult to sleep. Of course there always were wolves — he heard their howling in the hills — but to be told one was nearby and had raided a camp, taking only a goat when it could have taken a child, unsettled him.

Eventually, in the blackest part of the night when the clouds ate the moon and the only light came from the campfire, he had drifted off, slumping to the ground from his sitting position. A low snarl tight by his ear had snapped him back to consciousness. The wolf was sitting close by his side. He had started to scream but suddenly a hand was across his mouth, silencing him.

A voice: ‘You were about to cry wolf but which wolf is it that gives you alarm? The one that sits by the fire or the one who dwells in here?’ He felt a sharp prod in his chest, and when the hand at his mouth was released he turned to see a very strange fellow indeed. The man was tall, pale and beardless, with a shock of red hair protruding from beneath the bloody pelt of a wolf, worn as he had seen some shamans wear them, its head over his head, as if the creature had crept up behind him and sunk its teeth into his skull. Apart from that, he was entirely naked, his pale skin writhing with snakes of firelight.

The healer looked around for the wolf. It was gone.

‘There was a wolf here,’ said the healer.

‘Now it is here,’ said the stranger and drove his finger into the healer’s chest again.

‘I do not take your meaning, sir,’ said the healer.

‘Ambition is a wolf, is it not, that chases us on to who knows what heights? So I say again, here is the wolf.’ Once more the stranger’s finger jabbed hard into the healer’s chest.

‘Do desist from poking me so, sir,’ said the healer. ‘I bruise easily.’

‘Do you not have a salve for bruises?’

‘I do not.’

‘What can you cure? For I see you are a healer by your charms and philtres.’

‘I-’

‘Headache?’

‘Yes.’

The man cuffed the healer hard about the head.

‘Ow!’

‘Vomiting?’

‘Yes, I-’

The man thumped the healer hard in the stomach, so hard that his dinner came back up and he was sick on the ground.

‘Broken limbs?’

‘I have some skill-’ The man raised his hand but the healer quickly added, ‘-though not in that area.’

‘Ah, the gift of healing is so rare nowadays. It is hard to tell the honest man from the charlatan.’

‘I am a truthful man.’

‘All the best liars are. You are the king of charlatans because the first person you deceive is yourself. You are sincere in your insincerity, truthfully false. Liars have more truths in them than all the honest men of the world. You lie to yourself so much that you empty yourself of them. Then, when you tell the people you can heal them, that cannot be false, for all you have left in you are truths, so men must believe them. You eat lies and belch truth, such is the way of the self-deceiver. Sincere thieves are the best ones, I tell you most earnestly. The gold ring you wear on the chain about your neck, I need it. Pass it to me.’

‘Need it for what?’

‘It is a cure for the lying tongue.’

The healer had thought at the time that seemed a reasonable explanation and had taken off the chain to give it to the man who, if he recalled correctly, had dangled it above his lips before lowering it into his mouth and swallowing it whole.

‘That was my ring,’ said the healer.

The strange man leaned towards the healer and it seemed that his head became that of a gigantic wolf which opened its mouth improbably wide and said, ‘It prettifies my bowels now. Reach in and tickle it out!’ He spoke with such force that the healer flinched away from him.

‘You will bite my arm,’ said the healer. For some reason it didn’t seem odd that this man had become half wolf.

‘You see,’ said the half-wolf. ‘I have cured the liar in you, for now you speak the truth.’

‘What shall I have for my ring?’

‘Advice,’ said the wolf-headed man, smacking his lips with his tongue as if savouring the taste of the fine gold ring.

‘What advice?’

‘Go north.’

‘For what?’

‘To wait upon the lord of deceit himself. He who lies lying in Ladoga. That priest of pretence, hierophant of hypocrisy, monarch of mendacity, the tricky sticky fellow, the fakir of fakement, the wolf in wool, oath-breaker, foreswearer and god. King Shit himself. I am his servant, you know, but like all servants I hold my master in cold contempt. I will better him one day, though it may take me a year or two. Today we give him what he wants; tomorrow he may not be so lucky.’ The half-wolf’s tongue slapped around his muzzle as he spoke, and the healer feared the creature might fly into a rage.

‘You’re talking about Helgi the Prophet?’

‘Helgi? Do you know his physician has found all ailments’ surest cure? You should hurry to that king’s service.’

‘I cannot compete with a man who holds such knowledge.’

‘This is the cure!’ said the half-wolf, and from somewhere he produced a hangman’s noose tied with a tricky triple knot. ‘Surely you can hang as well as he. There is no talent for hanging, my fine fibber, no skill to it — the most untutored farm boy takes to it as well as the highest king.’

‘I do not wish to hang,’ said the healer.

‘Only he wishes to hang. Only he.’

‘Who is he?’

‘He is three.’

‘Three what?’

‘People!’ He cuffed the healer across the back of the head. ‘A triple knot like this, waiting to be tied. And what is a knot that is not tied? Not a knot? Not so. For if a rope is not a knot then all things are not knots that are not knots and that is not a useful distinction. However, a rope that has been a knot but is a knot no more is more not a knot that one that has never been tied, which nevertheless is still not a knot. So we have degrees of notness matching our degrees of knotness, former, present or future, the triple knot of time. When something has once been something else, can it ever be what it once was again? I think knots. And what is a knot unknotted? Not a knot. And if the knot is retied? It becomes not not a knot, that is a knot once more. This is not a knotty problem, though it does concern knots, does it not? Three of them.’ The creature seemed exasperated, as if he had explained the obvious to the healer and found him simply too dim-witted to understand.

‘You are a man of the Christian god. I have heard their tales of three in one but I prefer my own gods for the luck they have brought me,’ said the healer.

‘Who are your gods?’

‘The sky and the blue of the sky.’

‘How conveniently ungraspable,’ said the wolf. ‘They’re all at it nowadays — mysteries and cant. What would you say to a god who gave you something actually useful? A solid god, a big pale, beautiful flame-haired immortal who occasionally likes to appear as a wolf?’

‘I would follow him.’

‘And if he didn’t want scabby scratchy followers like you?’

‘I would… I would…’

The half-wolf put his fingers to the healer’s mouth and slapped him on the back with the other hand so that he coughed out air.

‘I would say thank you,’ said the healer as the creature manipulated his lips to form the words.

‘I will offer you a charm.’

‘And what must I do to get it?’

‘Go to Helgi, take his gold. But let his little girl, the one fierce in heart, drink this.’

‘Drink what?’

The wolf took a bottle from the healer’s pack and poured its contents onto the floor. Then he bit deeply into his hand until blood dripped into the bottle.

‘I offer rare bargains to those who please me.’

‘I will take your charm.’

The creature put the bung of cloth back into the bottle.

‘Here is the charm,’ he said. ‘Congratulations. You are an instrument of destruction. But be of good cheer. It is death that we destroy. We are its enemies.’

He scratched something onto a piece of birch bark and passed it to the healer.

‘This one must the sons of men know, those who would heal and help. Carve it once when you need it most. It calls forth the fever.’

On the roof, under the stars, the healer didn’t know how he had forgotten that night. How had he forgotten the fever charm? It had not seemed at all strange to him to sit talking to a man who was also a wolf. It had not seemed strange when he had given the girl the blood for a fainting fit she had suffered one day. And it had been alarming, but not strange, when the fever had fallen upon her shortly afterwards.

He stripped a piece of bark from the roof with his little knife and carved the sign the stranger had given him. He didn’t know what to do with it so he just put it on the girl’s chest.

*

The girl spoke — ‘Liar. Where are you, liar?’ — and sat upright, clutching the bark to her, staring wide-eyed over the town.

Then he was no longer alone on the roof. Beside him, squatting next to the girl, was the pale flame-haired man.

He smiled at the merchant and chanted,

‘When I see up in a tree

A corpse swinging from a noose,

I can so carve and colour the runes

That he walks and talks with me.’

‘Who are you?’ said the healer.

‘I am a fever,’ said the pale man, ‘a fire to light the bones within you.’

‘You are a man. I have seen you before.’

‘House-rider, troll-witch,’ said the man to the healer, ‘make your way back to your shape.’

The little girl did not understand the literal meaning of his words but understood the man was telling the healer to return to being something he had once been before.

The healer climbed down through the hole in the roof and the pale man sat holding the girl’s hand. She stirred and looked up at him.

‘I have dreamed of you,’ she said.

‘And I of you. What did I say in your dream?’

‘My home is in the darkness,’ she said.

‘Yes.’

‘I am of the dark.’

‘Yes.’

‘Is there a darkness near here?’

‘They have found one under Gillingr’s barrow,’ said the pale man. ‘Would you like to see it?’

‘I would see it,’ said Svava. ‘I know you. You are the wolf’s father. The begetter of death.’

‘Yes.’

‘I have a fierce heart, everyone says it. I am not afraid of you.’

‘No.’

‘What am I?’

‘A little broken thing,’ said the man, hugging the girl to him.

‘Will I ever be mended?’

‘First you need a little darkness, where the lights inside you can shine,’ said the pale man. ‘Do you fear the dark?’

‘No.’

‘Then come with me.’

Svava went down the ladder in the loading tower, past the winch that pulled up the goods, where the healer now hung from a rope like a forgotten sack, and out of the town, hand in hand with the pale man.

They went to the barrow, the naked grave, its black mouth open to the stars. The height of two men down was a deeper darkness, a hole.

‘The Romans mined here,’ said the man, ‘but bad luck dogged them. Many men were sacrificed, by accident and design. Mercury was worshipped here. He lived here. Old man Odin, to you modern people. This is the place.’

‘What place?’

‘The appointed place. Here the things that need to be seen can be seen.’

‘These tunnels are a city beneath the earth and its people are the dead,’ said Svava.

‘You can see that already?’ said the man.

‘Yes.’

The pale figure trembled and let go of her hand. ‘You are sure you are not afraid of the dark?’

‘No,’ she said. ‘I think rather it is afraid of me. See how it shrinks from me. Even in there it dare not face me.’

‘The dark is a wolf who runs from fire.’

‘I am a fire.’

‘You are a fire.’

‘I would talk with these dead fellows,’ she said. ‘The ghosts must be merry now they have no lives to lose.’

‘Then go in.’

The little girl walked forward and bent to the mouth of the hole. Then she crouched down and crawled inside. The god smiled his wolf smile and turned away.

In his great hall, Helgi was dreaming of the vast offerings he had given to Odin — the warriors he had taken in battle, the slaves and the cattle, the gold cast into mires. He saw himself piling them up — the bodies of animals and men, the treasures of silver and gold — but every time he looked away from the pile it seemed to shrink, requiring ever more corpses, ever more jewels to make it look right again. Dreams have their own sense of right and wrong, and to Helgi it seemed that a body hoard was only satisfactory when it challenged the mountains with the shadow it cast.

In his dream Svava stood in front of him, a pale child in a dirt-stained shift.

She spoke: ‘Better not to pray than to sacrifice too much. One gift always calls for another.’

Had he killed too many, been too keen in his wars, given too many slaves to the gods? What were they asking for now?

‘My darling,’ he said, ‘I did not think he would ask for you. I did not think the god would take you.’

The girl moved her right hand from where it rested on her left hip, up across her body, a back-handed gesture almost of dismissal.

All around him strange symbols sang and hummed in the air. Runes. He counted them. There were eight. He was in his bed and wet with sweat. He could not get up. It was as if he was oppressed by a vast weight, and his chest could not rise.

Something was crawling across his skin like a snake — a rune, a single upright stave with two others sloping away from it. It creaked and groaned like a rope on a ship, like a rope taut with a dead man’s weight. He knew its name. Ansuz. He lifted his hand to touch it where it writhed on his face. He saw gallows, black lines on a hill against an angry dusk. Phrases of poetry went screaming through his head like hurled spears. He saw a rider hurtling across a plain, a girl in a garden under a metal moon, a well and, next to it, the headless corpse of a man. Mimir’s well, the well of prophecy. He knew that this was no ordinary dream; this was a communication from the gods.

The rhymes rattled through his mind like pebbles down a staircase, the runes singing around him, calling out to him to embrace them.

Know how to cut them, know how to read them,

Know how to stain them, know how to prove them,

Know how to call them, know how to score them,

Know how to send them, know how to send them.

He looked at the rune, the gallows rune, creaking and twisting on his skin and within his thoughts. The rune was wrapped around him, constricting him, crushing the breath from his body. He felt a tightness at his throat, all his weight, all his consciousness, suspended from his neck. He knew whose rune that was. Odin, Odin the treacherous, Odin the ruination, lord of the burned earth.

‘This is the meaningful letter,’ said Svava, ‘though it is not what it seems. This is the deceiver’s rune. Your rune, for you deceived me.’

‘Svava, I did not know.’

He was reaching out for his girl but he could not touch her. He could not sit up no matter how hard he tried.

‘I have your prophecy, father, the one the god promised you.’

‘Svava, Svava!’

The pale child looked down at him. ‘If three become one, then the ravener will come,’ she said. ‘Find her and give her the protection of the dark.’

Svava turned back to the darkness and sleep pulled Helgi down.

34

A Haunting

As Jehan headed east, the rain was unceasing, turning the fields to mires and the trade tracks to swamps. The Seine was in flood, the current too strong to row against for long, even if the Vikings could have scouted out a decent boat. The stars were invisible under the cloud by night, so when they came to forks in the river they either guessed the way or waited for day and took direction from the sun. Jehan knew that the Vikings might be seen as raiders and told Fastarr to hide his splendid shield with its hammer motif and on the plainer shields chalked the sign of the cross. The berserkers agreed to this but would not cut their cloaks in the Frankish fashion. Ofaeti said he’d rather die of a spear than a frozen arse.

The Transversale to Lyon was a good old Roman road but fraught with danger. When they met travellers he told them the Norsemen were Christian converts, protecting him on a pilgrimage to Rome. The eleven proved their worth. Bandits lurked on the road, and about forty of them barred the way near Auxerre, too scared to attack but testing the northerners mettle. They found the mettle in good order and scattered when Ofaeti screamed for his men to charge. There were easier targets than a troop of well-armed and battle-bold northerners, and the thieves disappeared as quickly as they had come. But it was all Jehan could do to talk one group of merchants — a hundred or so strong — from attacking the Norsemen, so when they got to the Saone, which flowed in the right direction, they took the broad river south.

Huddled on a stolen river barge — hardly more than a glorified raft — wrapped in their cloaks and travelling by night when the moon allowed, the Norsemen were less conspicuous than they had been on the open highway. The abbeys they passed were poor and mean-looking and the Vikings took Jehan’s word that there were no great bargains to be made there. They didn’t even make use of the pilgrim hostelries the abbeys kept for travellers both religious and secular; they were too wary of the reception they might get. The human remains they carried with them were kept in a sack which was towed on an improvised raft of branches because of the smell. Jehan had to admire the Vikings’ woodworking skills. The little raft took them next to no time to make and even he — who had spent most of his life inside a monastery — could see it was better built than the one they had stolen from the riverbank.

The Vikings fed him nothing, but he wasn’t at all hungry. He drank from the river and felt he needed nothing more to sustain him. This was just part of God’s blessing, the same one that had cured him of his affliction, he was sure. The words of Romans 14: 17 came to him: For why the realm of God is not meat and drink but rightwiseness and joy in the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit did really seem to be filling him. Sometimes the rain was so heavy it was almost painful, but he was not cold and he put back his head to drink it in, enjoy its taste and delight in the looseness and power of his limbs.

He had, he was sure, been blessed. The trials he had undergone, the tortures at the hands of the Raven and Saerda, had been a gateway of agony through which God had stepped. He had eaten of unclean meat, true, but even that did not seem so bad now. The taste of the blood haunted him but he did not find it unpleasant. That in itself, he thought, was a message from God telling him not to blame himself for what had been forced upon him and not to question what had happened to him. He had been freed from the bonds of his infirmity for a purpose. Every instinct he had told him to pray, to know God’s mind.

When Jehan prayed it was not as the weavers, butchers, candlemakers and reeves of Paris prayed — requests for help, a word of thanks, something like a silent conversation. Jehan had spent years with God as his main companion, a presence by his side in the dark of his cell, the guiding principle of his every thought. Prayer was indivisible from his life. In some ways his life was a prayer, every action, every mouthful of food enabling him to serve God. So he sat in the dark and the chill on the raft as the Vikings steered it on under the black sky, sinking down into himself, surrendering will, surrendering personality, to God.

‘Let me know your purpose, Lord.’ The movement of the raft lulled him, the cold seemed to leave him. He fell through a thicket of his own thoughts, jolting awake as he relived the shock of the moment when he realised strength and freedom had returned to his limbs. Infirmity and constraint had been so familiar to him that the sensation of free movement was very disconcerting.

As he prayed, the feeling of Saerda’s head in his hands came back to him, the quick snap with which he had broken the Viking’s neck repeating itself over and over in his mind. He remembered something else from that moment: a presence — yes, a presence, and not one he had ever felt before. There was a sort of signature note to the way it felt. He was tempted to say that it was evil, but it wasn’t quite that. No, this presence that watched him unseen did not have a moral nature at all. He tried to think of a word to sum up what he thought of it, ‘hungry’ seemed to fit best.

The movement of the raft seemed indistinguishable from the movement of his mind towards God. The words of Psalm 51 came into his head. He knew it well, the Miserere, and the memory of his brother monks singing its verses rose in his mind, a chant as rhythmic and restful as the lapping of water against a riverbank. The beauty of the Latin carried him away, though three lines came to him in plain Roman.

Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit.

Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee.

Deliver me from the guilt of blood, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness.

The guilt of blood, the guilt of blood. That taste was in his mouth now, the meat that had been forced through his lips. He could smell it too, coming from the little raft behind, blood and rot, putrefaction and something else. What was that smell? It was the body of Brother Abram, he could tell, but it wasn’t a smell he’d noticed in the streets of Paris or on the countless occasions when he had been brought to the sick, dying and dead. It was deeply disturbing. The odour, strong and deep, was almost pleasant. He was hungry, he realised, very hungry indeed, but curiously the idea of food repulsed him. Only the subtle flavours of decay that seeped from the little raft that bore the monk’s remains seemed appealing.

His mind wandered and the poetry he had heard in his agonies before came back to him.

Brother will fight brother and be his killer,

Axe age, sword age, shields are split asunder,

Wind age, wolf age, before the world plunges down.

No man shall spare another…

He forced his mind back to prayer. He needed to summon his powers of concentration, to hear nothing but the words in his head, but at the same time he had to surrender himself, to let go of ordinary thought and let God come to him. Why have I been chosen, Lord? What is it you want from me?

The budding trees beside the river stretched up their branches as if in supplication to the sky, as if they too were begging God for an answer.

There was a movement on the bank, something pale.

Jehan peered into the darkness. Someone was watching the boat, not twenty paces away. At first Jehan thought it was a child, but as the raft moved nearer he could see that it was a very strange figure indeed. It was a girl, he thought, or, rather, it was female. She was a pauper and all she had was a rough blanket of dirty wool pulled around her. Her face, though, was what really took his attention. It was not that of a child, but not quite that of an adult. It seemed to hover between youth and age, terribly drawn, pale and shrunken, with eyes that burned and hated. Jehan guessed she must be starving, though there was no need to starve so close to a river and easy fishing.

‘Do you see?’ said Jehan, gesturing to the figure.

‘What?’ said Fastarr.

‘The child, on the bank.’

‘I see nothing,’ said Fastarr. ‘Beware of tricks, monk. You’ll find we have a few of our own you might not like.’

Jehan could not believe the Viking couldn’t see her, but when he looked back, the child was gone. He returned to his prayers and tried to think no more about it. But that face kept coming back to his mind, the face of a child who had seen too much suffering for her years, a face that looked at him with an unswerving stare into which he could only read animosity.

The boat was coming to a bend in the river, where a broad but shallow beach bore a couple of huts. A big wooden cross marked the beginning of the road towards Mont Joux, and then on into Italy and Rome

‘Here, monk?’ It was Ofaeti, the fat one.

‘Here,’ said Jehan. ‘You will wait while I speak.’

‘It’s a bold slave who gives his masters orders,’ said Ofaeti.

The confessor looked hard at the big Viking. ‘You are in my country now,’ said the monk, ‘and everything you dream of, everything you are, depends on me. If you want to live you will do as I say.’

‘You gave your oath that you would serve us.’

‘And I am keeping it,’ said Jehan. ‘You need me now, do not let pride blind you to that. I serve you best by leading you. The first thing you will do is buy some blankets and, if you can, a tent or two here. The local farmers will have something. If you don’t have shelter in the mountains you will freeze to death.’

Ofaeti looked at the confessor and nodded. He turned to Fastarr. ‘These monks have more nuts than a squirrel’s larder,’ he said, ‘but they see the truth right enough. Let him be our voice for as long as he is useful.’

They were met with stares, but the fisherman at the beach was too mindful of the safety of his family to ask many questions of the Norsemen. Jehan again explained that they were his bodyguards, hired to take him on a pilgrimage to Rome. The fisherman nodded at the Vikings and said something about thanking God that such men could be bought, for if they couldn’t the whole country would be in ruins. Then he took their money and sent his boy off to buy blankets and two small tents.

When he returned, the berserks set off, Jehan at the front, up into the icy mountains and the valley of the black saint.

35

The Valley of the Black Saint

The way up into the mountains was hard. Rain turned to sleet as they climbed and then to snow. The winter snow had gone and the fresh falls came down on a cold, green landscape. On the lower slopes it didn’t settle. Further up, though, the mountains were shrouded in white.

They rounded a great lake with settlements all along it. They didn’t stop but Jehan cut a staff and made a cross, holding it high before them. Pilgrims were common on that route, if unusual at that time of the year, and the locals seemed reassured. The Vikings sounded their horns and trusted to luck. No one attacked them and they were even able to buy a little bread. Jehan did the talking and the Norsemen kept silent. The mules were loaded with firewood on the advice of the locals. The way into the mountains would be cold and they would need all the warmth they could get when they camped.

The body of the dead brother was dragged on a roughly constructed sled. The smell of rot was becoming unbearable to the Norsemen, though Jehan did not find it unpleasant.

‘We should boil his flesh off,’ said Egil.

‘And where’s the pot big enough for that?’ said Ofaeti.

‘Then burn him,’ said Egil. ‘Hey, monk, is a cooked saint as good as a raw one?’

Jehan said nothing.

As they turned south into the pass the snow set in properly, and the river they were following up began to turn to ice. The berserkers were northern men and so well dressed for such weather, but they had to keep moving throughout the day to keep the cold at bay. The nights were made tolerable, though not pleasant, by a fire, but there was little to eat, save some fish the Vikings had caught in the river and the bread they had bought.

Luckily the dead monk’s body soon froze and the smell abated. The mountains were closing in, dark walls rising up into grey cloud. It was as if they were trapped in a trough between gigantic waves that towered above them as though suspended in the moment before collapse. Five days in and the waves vanished, invisible in the snow. There was little shelter in the valley and the firewood was running low. The tents were a mercy, even though they bulged with the number of men they held. The cramped conditions at least meant they were warm.

They pressed on, faces cast down to the ground. Only the feel of the track beneath their feet, worn smooth by traders and pilgrims, kept them going, though often they stumbled and fell. None of the Vikings complained, though Jehan could see that they suffered. The confessor couldn’t get the face of the child who had watched him from the riverbank out of his mind. He imagined her watching him still, just out of sight. When rocks or icefalls loomed out of the mist, for a second he thought it was her.

On the sixth day the weather relented. The cloud was still low but the snow was lighter and they could see their way forward. Jehan saw Ofaeti looking at him.

‘You are a strong man, monk.’

Jehan kept going.

‘When did you last eat?’

‘I can’t remember.’

‘Two weeks at least. And yet you stride out like a man on a good breakfast. You don’t even wrap your feet in rags. What is it that drives you on?’

‘God.’

Ofaeti nodded. ‘Tell me about this god.’

So Jehan told him the story of Jesus’ birth, how he had been born among the animals, raised as a carpenter and died on the cross so mankind could live eternally.

The Norsemen loved stories and they all listened with great interest. Ofaeti in particular seemed intrigued. ‘I will try this god of yours. He will sit alongside Tyr in my heart for a while and I will see the luck he brings.’

‘Christ sits alongside no one. You must reject your idol.’

‘That I will not do. Is your god so jealous that he cannot admit another?’

‘Yes,’ said Jehan. ‘If you were baptised but did not reject your devil then God would punish your descendants to the third generation.’

‘For what?’ said Egil. ‘I have a wife, but can’t I lie with another woman if I choose? Will my wife curse me if she hears of it?’

‘Your wife should curse you. You should be bound to one woman only.’

‘I am bound but not so tightly I can’t take a roll in the hay with another if I choose. What woman would begrudge her seafaring man that? Do such witches exist?’

‘The Lord tells us, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” I will tell you a holy story and see if it can sway your pagan heart.’ Jehan told the story of Moses and how he had brought down the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai.

Ofaeti and the berserkers laughed.

‘So you Franks believe, “Thou shalt not kill?” How many of us northerners would you slaughter if you went to it without a tender heart?’

‘It is permissible to kill the enemies of God. There is just and unjust killing, the Hebrew makes that clear. The command is closer to “Thou shalt not murder.”’

‘How do you know an enemy of God?’

‘Ordinary men need not worry about such things; the priests can point them out,’ said Jehan.

The Vikings laughed again.

‘A convenient set-up for all, I think. I like this God, he who knows the difference between noble fight and murder,’ said Ofaeti.

‘He is my strength and my light.’

‘And for that reason I’ll think him a good god. He has made you a mighty man.’

‘He has,’ said Jehan, ‘though I would thank him more if he had made me the weakest.’

‘Why?’

‘Because God tests those that he favours. From his own son, he asked the sacrifice of life.’

‘That is not such a great sacrifice,’ said Ofaeti, ‘not to us. You go on to dwell in the halls of the All Father to feast eternally and battle eternally. Death is like moving to another land, as so many of our people do.’

‘In pain, crucified, nailed to a cross?’

‘A funny end for a carpenter,’ said Ofaeti.

‘King Nesbjorn crucified a shoddy boatbuilder once — said he’d teach him how to drive in nails,’ said Egil. ‘Perhaps it was similar.’

Jehan swallowed his anger. ‘He knew what his fate was and went willingly, for our sins.’

‘To be fair,’ said Ofaeti, ‘I’ve got any number of uncles who knew the Valkyries were hovering above them. Heggr and his boys got trapped by a bunch of islanders out west. They could have surrendered and waited for ransom but a man called him a coward — only word the bastard knew in Norse — so they showed them they weren’t. Two out of ten came out alive, but no one in those parts has ever called us cowards again, so it was worth it. A brave man, this Jesus, no doubt, but the world’s full of brave men. Or rather the next world is!’

‘When you are downtrodden, when you are at your lowest, when every one of your fellows has deserted you, my god lifts you up and walks beside you. Does yours?’

‘Tyr likes powerful warriors. He leaves cowards to make their own way,’ said Ofaeti.

Jehan turned to the big Viking and took him by the shoulder. ‘Am I a coward?’

Ofaeti looked into his eyes. ‘I believe you are not,’ he said.

‘No Christian is. Let me tell you the story of this place. Do you know who the black saint was?’

‘No.’

‘A saint is someone perfect in holiness, as Maurice was. He is known as the black saint because that was the colour of his skin.’

‘Black skin!’ said Egil. ‘A dwarf then?’

‘A man of the Roman Theban legion, a descendant of the ancient pharaohs.’

‘The people of those lands are blue,’ said Ofaeti. ‘I know it because it is said that is why they are called Blaumen.’

‘One man’s blue is another’s black,’ said Jehan. ‘The Theban legion was composed entirely of Christians, 6,666 men strong.’

‘That’s a mighty force,’ said Ofaeti.

‘Depending on the mettle of the men,’ said Egil.

Jehan went on: ‘They served the pagan king Maximium Caesar, who ordered them, for the pleasure of his god Mercury, to kill some Christian families who were living in this place. The legion refused.’

‘They were wrong to do so if they had taken an oath to the king,’ said Ofaeti.

‘They had a stronger bond to their god,’ said Jehan. ‘When the news of their refusal came back to Caesar he ordered that one-tenth of their number be killed.’

‘What is a tenth?’ said Astarth

‘A lot.’

‘More than a dozen?’ said Ofaeti.

‘It is 666 of them,’ said Jehan.

‘And their fellows stood by and saw so many slaughtered?’ said Egil.

‘They welcomed martyrdom.’

‘What’s that mean?’ said Egil. ‘Your Latin means nothing to me, priest.’

‘The chance to die for their god.’

‘They’d have been better men if they’d killed for him. It’d be a mighty king who came in and took so many from Rollo’s army, I tell you that,’ said Egil.

‘When the first tenth had died, the emperor sent his orders again. They were refused. And he killed 666 men again, and again, until only six remained. Then he killed them and the whole legion was dead.’

‘Would they not have been better defending these families of their god? The Roman king could now order his other soldiers to slaughter them,’ said Ofaeti.

Jehan ignored the question in order to drive home his point. ‘Six thousand, six hundred and sixty-six men stood and died in this place. Their bones may be beneath your feet. Do you call them cowards?’

‘I don’t know what to call them,’ said Ofaeti. ‘I know what to call a man who fights; I know what to call a man who runs. One who does neither I have no name for.’

‘He said he was called a Saint Maurice,’ said Egil.

Jehan spoke in a low voice: ‘You are less than serious, Egil, and yet you should quake in fear before my god. I am not a warrior. Your idols would not be interested in me. I have been downtrodden, taken from my homeland by savage men, my companions killed, my future promising only death. Do I tremble? No, because my god is a god of love.’ He grabbed the tip of Egil’s spear and held it to his own breast, staring the Viking down. ‘You are brave men, but it is the bravery of fools who do not know what is arrayed against them. You would shake to your boots if you knew his wrath. Yet God wants to love you. He offers you deliverance, asks you to dwell for ever in his house. If you refuse, damnation awaits. You will be tied and pinioned and thrown into the mouth of hell, where the eternal suffering of fire awaits.’

‘Burned for eternity by the god of love?’ said Ofaeti. He seemed puzzled.

‘He offers you his mercy. If you refuse it, you condemn yourself,’ said Jehan.

‘I could do with something to warm me up,’ said Egil. ‘It’s like Nifhelm up here.’

‘Nifhelm?’

‘The realm of the ice giants,’ said Ofaeti. ‘It’s underground, so I’m fairly certain it’s not around here.’

‘It’s a silly myth,’ said Jehan.

Ofaeti shrugged. ‘It is cold, though, isn’t it? There could be white bears here, which wouldn’t be a lot of fun. I’ll tell you what,’ he said: ‘if your god sends us this monastery, a warm bed and a bowl of stew before the night’s out, then I’ll believe in him.’

‘You worship God without conditions. You don’t make bargains with him.’

Ofaeti looked genuinely nonplussed. ‘So what do you do?’

‘Praise him.’

‘Flatter, you mean. Lord Tyr would strike such a man down. You offer him the death of fine warriors in battle, gold and cattle, not words to please a lady. If you can’t bargain with a god then the god is no good to you.’

The mist in the valley was thinning. Jehan peered through the grey air. There was a cliff rising out of the main slope, and beneath it was a structure too regular to be natural. It was just a shape, a darker grey on a field of other greys, but the confessor knew it could only be one thing — the monastery. From along the valley he heard a sound. It was the wind, though it reminded him of what he would soon be hearing. Singing. The monastery was famous for its acoemetae — the sleepless ones. The monks sang in shifts, unceasing for nearly four hundred years now. He looked at the sky. It would be around mid-afternoon, the little hour of nones. They’d be singing the songs of ascents. He recited the words of one of them to himself.

He who goes out weeping,

Carrying seed to sow,

Will return with songs of joy,

Carrying sheaves with him.

The message of the psalm cleared his head and renewed his strength for the struggle to convert the northerners. He had to accept that he was dealing with a simple people. There are many ways to Christ, his abbot had told him. Perhaps he should let the northerners walk theirs. He looked up. The great cliff curved around to his left, the monastery tight to it. Could none of the Vikings see it?

‘If God sends you the monastery, will you renounce your idol?’

‘He’d have to chuck in a whore as well for that,’ said Ofaeti. ‘He’s a god of love; he should have a few at his disposal. But I hear your god doesn’t like whores, begging the question of what he does like.’

The confessor waved his hand. ‘Honest men and good women. Whores are tolerated by some in the Church for they keep the good women of the town chaste. They are not tolerated by me. Pray properly and God will send you a wife.’

‘All whores are thieves too,’ said Ofaeti, ‘but they’re gone by the morning. It’s one thing to get done by a pirate, it’s another to invite him into your house and let him complain when you fart. I’ll have no wife.’

‘You don’t want children, Ofaeti?’

‘Don’t you, monk?’

Jehan snorted and looked to the mountains, just gigantic shadows in the mist. He had often lectured people on the sins of the flesh. What had Eudes said to him when Jehan had warned him that his whoring would see him in hell? ‘It is easy to be chaste when God has made it impossible for you to be anything else.’ Had Jehan known lust? Of course, but he had prayed for it to go and it had, largely. Those feelings were not the hardest ones to control. God had stricken his body, rendered him blind, and Jehan had known why. God had wanted him for Himself. In darkness and constriction he had no closer companion than God, certainly no greater love. But with a touch in the dark of the Viking camp something else had stirred inside him — a longing greater than lust for true companionship, for touches that did more than lift him, wash him, cut his hair or trim his beard. For most of his life he had been alone in the darkness with God. He cursed the ingratitude that made him hungry for something more.

He knew, to his regret, that it was possible there were whores at the monastery. The abbot’s position in recent years had been given to warrior nobles. While a core of monks kept the hours and attended to God’s works, there were many at such places who preferred to eat, drink and satisfy their lusts. They weren’t monks, just lesser sons whose families had nothing better to do with them.

The monastery seemed clearer to him now, and he was surprised none of the Vikings had yet seen it. There was a smell in the air — something sweet, the scent of cooking perhaps. No. Not cooking, but something like it. It was a note he’d never quite noticed before, an alluring aroma like ripe cheese, pungent and strong yet delicious.

‘Hey! Look!’ Varn was flapping his arm. ‘Can you see that?’

‘I can,’ said Ofaeti. ‘What is it?’

‘It’s Saint-Maurice,’ said Jehan. ‘If there’s a whore in there, then your soul’s Christ’s.’

Ofaeti laughed. ‘If she’s a pretty one, then why not? Whatever’s inside, let’s hope it’s a gift from your god and not from mine.’

‘Why?’

‘Because that would be fifty angry monks come to cut our throats,’ said Ofaeti. Jehan recalled the big man’s words in the chapel: ‘Tyr’s blessing, many enemies.’

Jehan glanced at the Vikings. They were not in a good state — hungry, frozen, ice in their beards, their cloaks and blankets tight about them. Were the monks of Saint-Maurice in a belligerent mood, he thought, the northerners would not last long.

It was better to be cautious.

‘You stay here,’ said Jehan.

Ofaeti shook his head. ‘We’re coming with you.’

‘If you do, they’ll think you are bandits and kill you. There are five hundred monks in there, and their house possesses some of the greatest treasures in Christendom.’

‘Got what?’ said Ofaeti.

Jehan realised too late what he had said, but the damage had been done. He was glad he’d exaggerated the number of brothers by at least five times.

‘This place is in the mountains on one of the main routes between Francia and Rome. Do you think they have never seen a bandit before? Or a hundred bandits, or a thousand? You are eleven. If you let me speak, you’ll be in the warmth of their guest house before nightfall. If you don’t, you’ll be spending another night in the cold.’

Jehan would fulfil his oath, he thought: he would put the Vikings’ case to the abbot. But he would not lie. The bones were those of a brother, not a saint. And he knew that when he explained exactly who the Vikings were and that they were pagans, their lives would not be worth much. The abbot of Saint-Maurice was the second son of a powerful and warlike Burgundian noble. Such men were drawn to the Church for the power it offered rather than by piety and weren’t slow to use their swords. He felt sure of the answer the Norsemen would receive. He didn’t want them dead and would argue that they could be brought to Christ, but he knew the outcome of his visit to the monastery would not be good for them.

The Norsemen muttered but Ofaeti knew they had no choice but to accept what Jehan said. However, before the monk went, the big man took him by the arm.

‘You are a hardy man and a brave one,’ he said, ‘but I remind you of your oath. We are offering no threat. If they come to kill us then they will be the Caesar and we the Theban legion saints.’ He prodded Jehan firmly in the chest. ‘“Thou shalt not murder,” so your god says.’

Jehan nodded.

‘And one other thing. This warrior puts his head on a block for no man. If your brothers come, we will bless them.’

‘Bless them?’

‘They want to go to their god, don’t they? We’ll speed them to his side.’

Jehan smiled at him. ‘We spend our entire lives preparing to die,’ he said, ‘but I will seek their protection for you — if you come to Christ.’

‘Protection first, then we’ll see.’

Jehan didn’t move, just looked into the big Viking’s eyes.

‘You are very wonderful,’ said Ofaeti.

‘What?’

‘You look blank when I bargain, so I thought I’d try praise, like you said. Your mother raised a mighty man. Is that not praise enough?’

‘My mother didn’t raise me,’ said the monk, ‘or anyone, as far as I know.’

36

Rescue

The riders caught them as they made the river on the third day. Aelis had not even been aware anyone was following her, but as they broke from the woods into an open meadow, they heard the horses behind them. The wolfman’s wound had turned bad and there was no way to outrun them. There were no boats at the river and there was no prospect of escape.

Sindre had been riding with increasing difficulty and eventually Aelis had had to take his mount’s reins. The wound seeped through his tunic, bloodying his fingers where he held his side. Each evening he would search the woods and return with a strip of bark on which he would scratch a symbol. He would sit staring at it until sleep took him and throughout the next day would hold it in his hand as he rode, glancing at it and mumbling into nothing,

‘The meaningful rune that the dead god stained,

That the rune lord of the Gods carved.

Odin for the Aesir,

Dvalin for the dwarves,

Asvith for the giants and the sons of men,

I myself carve here.’

As the river approached, Aelis had seen his skin turn pale. She knew that he was teetering on the edge of death. When the halloo of the riders sounded behind them, Sindre hardly looked up. When he did, he was shaking and his teeth were chattering. He could hardly sit on his horse, let alone fight.

There were twenty of the horsemen, and two levelled spears at them, but Aelis was not scared. The way they rode told her all she needed to know. The riders were confident, holding their spears with ease and poise, their movements as they directed their animals hardly noticeable.

‘Northerners, you’re going to get it, you bastards!’

The rider was speaking Roman and had a Parisian accent, nasal and reedy without the guttural crunches and rolls of the people with whom she’d been raised.

She shouted back to them in the same language, ‘I am Lady Aelis, brother to Count Eudes, harried and pursued by Norsemen and monsters. Get off your horses and bend your knees to me.’

The lead rider lowered his spear and came forward to draw his horse alongside her. He looked at her war gear, the helmet stuck on the cantle of the saddle, the sword at her side. He put his hand to her head and touched it.

‘Where’s your hair?’

‘Take your hands off me. If my brother was here you would be flogged on the spot for that impertinence. I was attacked by the Norsemen and had to disguise myself.’

‘No lady would ever cut her hair,’ said the horseman. ‘What are you, a witch?’

Aelis was so pleased to see Frankish riders that she was willing to indulge the man’s rough ways. ‘I’m the lady who will be kind enough not to mention your behaviour to Sieur de Lanfranc, if it ceases now.’

Aelis had mentioned the name of her brother’s master of horse. As a knight, the horseman would not be subordinate to Lanfranc, but the old cavalry commander — whose grandfather had won his rank under Charlemagne — made life very difficult for those who crossed him. Lanfranc was notoriously sweet on Aelis and not above calling a man out in a duel if he thought it would please her. Few people would relish testing their sword skills against his.

The horseman glanced back to where a second rider, a taller man, was trotting in.

‘A little less rough if you would, Renier. I can’t imagine the count will be happy if his sister reports your manners.’ His accent was stronger — eastern, thought Aelis.

‘I can’t see why she’d cut her hair,’ said the first man. ‘It’s a shame and an indignity.’

‘Next to rape and murder?’ said the taller horseman. ‘You were raised in little Paris, Renier. Had you been brought up in one of the great cities you might be less easily shocked. A spell in Aachen would have done you good. Chevalier de Moselle. Madam, you are our mission, we have been sent to find you.’

‘The siege is lifted then?’

‘No, we broke out. But that means we can break back in again. The Norsemen are not as united as they were and are busy fighting among themselves at present.’

‘You didn’t come just for me?’ Aelis was appalled that men had been taken from the defence of Paris just to look for her.

‘No. We have delivered a message to the emperor. He will now move to help us, I am sure. Our task is over. We have you and all that remains is for us to dispatch these foreign dogs who have taken you prisoner and we will return you to Paris and your brother.’

‘We are not foreign dogs,’ said Leshii; ‘we-’

‘No,’ said Moselle, ‘you are not even that; you are the corpses of foreign dogs.’

He drew his sword but Aelis put up her hand. ‘These men have rescued me.’

Moselle looked at Leshii and the wolfman. ‘That one is a northerner,’ he said, pointing to Sindre.

‘Some of the northerners have worked for us in the past and still work for the emperor. This man has no allegiance to the Paris Danes.’

Moselle made a tight little nod.

‘Tell them to get down from their horses. A merchant and a pagan should not be riding fine animals like that.’

‘Fine animals?’ said Leshii. ‘This is a common pack mule!’

‘Too good for you,’ said Moselle.

Aelis gestured to Sindre. ‘He killed the Viking king.’ She knew no Frankish warrior would accept that a woman had killed Sigfrid. In fact, to suggest it would be to mock them, to say that she had achieved what they could not.

Moselle nodded again. ‘And Sigfrid gave him a blow for his pains, by the look of it.’

‘He took an arrow. It’s still in him. Can you draw it?’

‘Fiebras!’ Moselle turned in his saddle and shouted.

‘He’s a healer?’ said Leshii.

Moselle snorted at him. ‘He’s a warrior. Just happens to be handier with the pliers than the rest of us.’

Leshii got down from his horse and helped the wolfman down. Aelis could see he was not best pleased to meet the Franks.

‘Your ransom gone, merchant?’ she said to him in Latin.

‘I am sure your brother will reward me for my pains.’

‘Let’s hope he doesn’t give you pains for your reward,’ said Aelis, though her tone was light enough and she intended to see the merchant compensated for the loss of his wares at least. She pulled her cloak up to cover her shorn head but Moselle immediately took a silk scarf from around his neck and passed it to her. In a second she had regained her modesty. Then she went to the bushes and took off the big mail shirt. She rejoined the horsemen and gave the sword to Moselle.

‘Give this to my brother from the wild man,’ she said. ‘It belonged to the Viking king.’

Moselle looked impressed. ‘He was a strong man,’ he said.

Sindre was on the ground, scarcely breathing. Fiebras, who had produced a big pair of long-nosed pliers from his saddle bag, knelt beside the wolfman.

‘Not long for him, lady,’ said the Frank. ‘The kindest thing is to leave the arrow and let him die.’

‘Might he live if it’s drawn?’

‘Might is a big word,’ said Fiebras, ‘but yes, he might.’

‘Then draw it.’

Fiebras told his colleagues to make a fire, then went to the river and pulled out a reed, which he split with a knife. He put the pieces in his cap and returned to the wolfman. Sindre was secured with a length of rope, bound tight around his arms and legs. Two of the biggest Frankish knights pinned him, one lying across his legs, the other across his chest.

‘Why are you doing all this?’ said Aelis.

‘I might have to reach down past the shaft of the arrow and crush the barbs on its head,’ said Fiebras. ‘He will not like it, though it’s the right time. The wound has a lot of pus.’

‘That’s a good thing?’ said Aelis.

‘Our doctors say so. The Arabs disagree.’

‘And you?’

‘I do what I can.’

Fiebras approached the wolfman. Aelis could see Sindre’s eyes were glazed and he was sweating heavily.

‘Hold him,’ said Fiebras.

He pushed one of the split reeds into the wound, wrapping it around the shaft of the arrow. The wolfman bucked but the men on top of him held him firm.

‘What are you doing?’

Fiebras displayed only mild irritation. This was, after all, the sister of his lord who was asking the questions.

‘I’m covering the arrowhead. If we can push aside the flesh it might come out. The reed stops the head from causing more damage.’ He gave a gentle tug at the shaft and Sindre twisted. ‘Keep him still,’ said Fiebras, ‘or it will be worse for him.’

He tried again. This time Aelis thought Sindre would lift off the ground and two more Franks knelt to hold him down.

‘Strong,’ said the fat one lying across his legs.

‘Have you no wine for him?’ said Leshii. ‘In my country we give men wine before such procedures.’

‘Wine is for Franks, not foreigners,’ said Fiebras. He gave another tug on the arrow and Sindre cried out. ‘No,’ he said. ‘It’s stuck.’ He withdrew the bloody reed and threw it to the ground. ‘Are you sure you want him to go through this, lady?’

‘If he can live, I want him to live.’

Fiebras picked up the pliers. They were long and at the tips splayed out like a duck’s bill. ‘My father bought these off an Arab twenty years before. They’re the best tools for the job. Malger, heat some oil.’

From a flask a stout Frank poured oil into a pan and put it into the fire they had made.

‘Now,’ said Fiebras, ‘hold him as firm as you can.’

The men bore down on Sindre as Fiebras worked the pliers into the wound. Sindre was delirious now. He was shouting in Norse, but his words were unintelligible even to Leshii.

Fiebras had the pliers about the arrowhead. Sindre fainted and the stout Frank got off his legs with, ‘Thank the Lord for that.’ The biggest man they had was a barrel of a country knight in a yellow tunic. He squeezed on the pliers as hard as he could. Fiebras called for the oil and took over again. As he worked the arrow free, the oil was poured into the wound.

Aelis could not watch this and turned away, offering a prayer of thanks that Sindre was unconscious. Finally he was bandaged and left to recover. She took him some water and used it to wet his lips. Her countrymen looked at her strangely but she did not care. She owed this man her life, she was sure.

Her euphoria at finding her own people receded and she began to think clearly. She remembered the wild-eyed boy in the peasant’s house raving about the bird that had been sent to bewitch him and suddenly felt afraid. Leshii came to sit beside her.

‘Not near the lady, old man, you understand?’ said Moselle.

‘Let him approach,’ said Aelis.

The knight shook his head and turned away. Aelis adjusted the scarf on her head, emphasising her modesty. She had to regain the esteem she had lost by allowing her hair to be cut.

‘You should tell them,’ he said, ‘about the ravens. These men are a danger to us if they become enchanted.’

‘My people are apt to blame the person who is pursued by such things as much as the pursuer,’ she said. ‘They might wonder what devils I had conjured to spark the interest of hell.’

She thought for a second. ‘It is heresy to believe in witchcraft, but there might be a way.’

She stood and approached Moselle, then drew him to one side. ‘Knight,’ she said, ‘I am about to entrust you with information that may seem incredible to you but is true. Can you keep a secret and relay it to your men in a way they will find palatable?’

‘I will try, lady.’

‘You may know that Father Jehan from Saint-Germain came to see Count Eudes just before I was attacked and fled.’

‘I do.’

‘The confessor had one of his visions…’

‘God blesses him with many insights.’

‘Indeed. Well, this is what was revealed to him. I am in grave danger of dying in a very unusual way. The birds of this country carry disease, and Confessor Jehan told me he had seen one peck at me in his vision and cause me to fall ill, die even.’

‘Yes.’ Moselle looked serious.

‘For this reason no bird can be allowed to approach our camp.’

‘No bird ever does, not unless it wants cooking.’

‘Exactly so. But the confessor has proved correct many times before. So, if you could alert your men to be on their guard against birds. It is necessary to set a watch in the night too.’

‘A bird will never come by night. I never heard of anyone getting attacked by an owl.’

‘Nevertheless, this is what I want, and as my brother’s sister what I command.’

Moselle shrugged. ‘As you wish, lady. It will be an easy thing. No bird will come near.’

‘Then the task should not trouble your men.’

Moselle gave his instructions without offering an explanation. However, the horsemen were not a military unit in the old Roman army style. Three or four — the ones Aelis recognised — were Eudes’ vassi dominici, or at least that was the title they would adopt if he became king. They were his vassals, members of powerful families, and not accustomed to obeying orders blindly. But war had taught them the value of recognising a leader, at least in the field, so Moselle received polite enquiries, rather than an interrogation. However, the more noble riders would not demean themselves by watching for birds and Leshii was given the job. Aelis had to argue strongly that it was important someone else kept watch at night too and the merchant could not do it all himself, and in the end it was agreed that the lesser knights would take it in turns.

The sun was already setting, so they made camp. To Aelis’s delight the Franks had tents with them, and she was given a whole one to herself. They carried no poles but cut them as required. She crept beneath the heavy hemp cloth, its musty smell reminding her of the garden at Loches where she and her cousins had slept the summer nights as children. Apart from privacy for Aelis, the tents also gave everyone some protection from the ravens. Only the sentries would be outside.

Sindre was a barbarian and lay beneath the stars. At least the night was dry and Aelis put a horse blanket over him. Leshii was not given shelter either, so would keep the fire going beside the wolfman. She also warned the merchant against taking the blanket.

Wrapped in the Viking king’s cloak Aelis sank to sleep and to dreaming. She was back at Loches and the girls around her were in a state of high excitement. The little tent they played in had something inside it. She stood by its side and listened. An erratic flutter. Something was trapped in the tent. What was making that noise? She knew! The sound, she realised, was the panicked beating of a bird’s wings.

37

What Happened at Saint-Maurice

Jehan held up his cross and walked towards the monastery below the great cliff, towards the walls and the buttresses of the church, which rose above him like a headland from the sea.

No one came to greet him. The squat villa outside the walls that served as a guest house was empty save for some chickens sheltering from the cold. This wasn’t odd in such a season — pilgrimages wouldn’t start until the threat of winter had subsided. Only the very, very holy or the very, very mad would try to cross before the snows melted. With the country at war — northerners to the west and the north, Bavarians and Slavs stirring in the east, and infighting between the emperor and his nephew all around — there would be few even when they came.

He went across to the doors in the monastery wall. They were strong and thick, though wide enough to drive a cart through. Cut into them at the bottom was a smaller door to admit pedestrians. Jehan knocked. There was no answer. He turned the handle and pushed at the door. It was open. Jehan felt a sense of disquiet, although he wouldn’t have expected the door to have been barred. The monastery was far from the sea and access to it was through well-defended lands. The door would only be locked at times of threat.

He looked back at the Vikings. They were scarcely visible in the mist. They’d get restless soon enough and go into the guest house, he thought. They weren’t the sort of men to freeze to death for fear of offending anyone. He stepped inside the doorway. The church was in front of him, the arches of the cloister stretching away to his left, but there was no one at the gate. More worryingly, he could hear no singing. The song of ages should have been coming from the church. It was a building of pale stone with towers at either end. Into the wall facing Jehan were cut four arched windows, glazed and patterned with rich blue glass. Jehan remembered how wealthy the monks of Saint-Maurice were said to be and barred the door behind him.

He walked to the church. The door to that was open too and he went inside. His eyes took a second to adjust to the dark of the interior. That smell was there again — deep, sour, appetising. Jehan couldn’t place it at all. What was it? Some sort of dough? Incense? There was another smell too, slightly incongruous — a powerful scent of horse.

He passed through a vestibule, which was plain and unadorned. This was clearly the poor door. The main and nobles’ doors would be on the other side of the church. He continued through into the church proper. The light from outside was weak and at first the arches of glass looked like doorways of light floating in a black void. To his left, an arched walkway curved around behind the altar; in front of him were the aisles where the monks stood before the splendid altar of gold and silver topped with an image of Christ on the cross. The light on the gold seemed to dance and swim like the shimmer of bright coins in a fountain.

Why had that image come to him? There was a fountain at his monastery, and visitors could never be dissuaded from throwing small coins into it. The monks tolerated the practice but Jehan disapproved. It was a tradition left over from the Romans, he knew, and therefore not far from the worship of idols. It was his last childhood memory before the Virgin had taken his sight away.

He became aware of a noise. Someone breathing. Or rather something. There was movement beneath the altar. He peered into the darkness. The light was fading further, the windows just dim blurs now. He could see very little of the interior of the church.

He went to a branched candlestick and took up the flint and tinder beside it. In a few moments he had a flame and lit a candle and then another, until all four candles on the holder were alight. He walked forward. At the altar he stopped and held up the light. There was movement and a snort, and then a different kind of lustre to the gold of the altar, a deep chestnut brown. Behind the altar, tied up next to a font, was a horse. It was calm but noisy as all horses are. Its blowing and stamping had been so incongruous and unexpected in the church that he’d failed to realise what it was. A saddle lay on the floor — it had a high cantle and pommel in the Frankish style — along with a healthy pile of shit. Jehan felt his anger rise that someone had chosen God’s house as a stable. A Frankish knight would never do that.

He considered leading the animal outside but something was very amiss in this place. Should he get the Vikings? He looked at the gold on the altar. No, they’d have torn it off and be halfway to the coast with the rest of the monastery’s treasures by morning if he did.

He went to the rear of the church, taking the candlestick with him, and the horse went back to staring into nothing. The door to the night stair leading to the monks’ dormitory was in front of him. It too was open. He walked into the cold air outside. The dormitory was a large two-storey villa he could just make out in the light of his candles. There was no light leaking from it, though that was no surprise. He was going to look stupid and be very unpopular if he woke the monks. Perhaps keeping animals in the church was a Burgundian custom, though he doubted it.

He walked down the stairs, the candles guttering as he moved. He was cold and decided that the best chance of finding anyone awake was to go to the warming house, the only part of the monastery other than the kitchen that would be allowed a fire. Monks were supposed to live an austere life, but it would not be unusual to find half the monastery asleep by the fire in really cold weather like this. He guessed the warming house was on the ground floor of the dormitory building, so the heat would rise into the sleeping area.

To his right was a low building with a tiny door cut into it. He knew instinctively that this was the sacristy, where the holy vessels for celebrating mass would be kept. The snow by the doorway was a different colour, almost black in the weak candlelight. Someone had dragged something from the sacristy, and it had left a long dark trail on the white of the snow. It smelled of something deep and sour. Without thinking, he put his hand down and scooped some up. The snow melted in his fingers, leaving them strangely sticky. Jehan licked his fingers and felt a cold thrill go through him. The snow tasted delicious. Had someone spilled some food there? If it was food, it was none he had ever tasted. It seemed to carry a sensation of the frost inside it, and sent a tingle rippling over the skin of his arms and back.

He looked around him and breathed in. The taste of the snow filled him up, prickling the hairs on his neck, causing him to swallow, jolting his mind as if he had suddenly woken from dozing at the side of a fire.

Jehan walked on, following the trail. Away from the wall more snow had fallen to cover the stain but the smell didn’t go away. He put his hand through a knuckle’s depth of snow. The sticky stuff was beneath it. He put down the candlestick. Then he cast his arms about him, scrabbling at the ground. It was as if the whole surface of the inner courtyard was covered in the dark goo, just under the sheet of freshly fallen snow.

Jehan smeared the goo onto his face, scooped handfuls into his mouth, lay down in the snow and lapped at it like a dog. He had never been so hungry. It was as if all the days without food, the meals where he had watched uninterested as the Vikings cooked their fish and game, came back to him now and sent him into a wild hunger for whatever it was beneath the snow.

He didn’t know how long he had lain and lapped like that but the sound brought him to himself. Again, it was horses. He stood, soaked and shaking though not cold, not cold at all. His mind seemed a thing of many parts, as if he couldn’t quite get his reason to engage, as if his normal patterns of thought were there but unavailable to him, as useless as a book to a blind man. He picked up the candlestick. Only one candle remained alight and he used it to light the other three. Then he went through another open door into the large building to his right. It was the refectory, the large dining hall of the monastery, benches pushed to one wall, a long table overturned next to them. He shook his head to clear his thoughts, offered a prayer for guidance to help him think and slowly he regained his clarity. There were the horses, six of them. This time he noticed that, though the horses were good riding animals, the saddles stacked in the corner of the room were all pack saddles. Or rather, two of them had been fine Frankish riding saddles but they had been adapted to carry big baskets at either side. Jehan had seen enough horses before his affliction to know that animals as fine as these should not be used for hauling. You could buy five nags to carry your pack for the price of one of these animals. Norsemen, he knew, were neither great riders nor judges of horseflesh.

He went out of the refectory and back to the dormitory building. The warming house was a good one, complete with the Roman system of underfloor heating, the vents at his feet. He bent down. Someone had sealed them with earth. He opened the door and went in.

Jehan stepped back and gave an involuntary cry. There were forty or fifty Norsemen crammed into a room not ten paces by ten, huddled around the cold hearth of the warming house. The air was heavy with the smoke of the dead fire but he could make the bodies out through the murk by the light of the candles. They were sitting upright, leaning on each other or against the walls, rich plate and candlesticks strewn about them, one, a big man with a three scars across his bald head, seated on a glorious chair of gold and enamel — the reliquary of Saint Maurice, which contained the saint’s bones. No one moved and Jehan could see that not one of the Norsemen was alive.

A celebration had been interrupted here, thought Jehan, by the angel of death. He felt his heart racing. He was sweating despite the cold, salivating so heavily that drool ran down his chin. Was this the beginning of the condition that had claimed the Norsemen? He was so hungry. The Vikings had clearly raided the kitchen before retiring, and half-eaten fowl, bread and cheese were in their hands, in their laps and on the floor. It held no appeal for Jehan, though. He must, he thought, be ill. To be starving but unable to eat was surely a sign of the onset of some sort of malady.

He held up the candlestick and stepped into the room to examine one of the dead warriors. He was a young man of around fifteen, blond and beardless. His mouth smelled of pitch and at his lips was a black froth. The same with the next fellow and the next. In the lap of the man with the three scars was a big bowl of the monks’ cloudy beer, still unspilled. Behind him was a barrel, a hole smashed in one end. Jehan sniffed at it. The smell of the pitch was there too. Poison. But why was the room so very smoky? Jehan looked down. Someone had broken a hole in the floor. The smoke from the warming fire would be able to go directly into the room. Someone had killed these men in the most deliberate way.

He was suddenly very cold. He took one of the Vikings’ cloaks and, for good measure, the sword, scabbard and belt of the big man in the chair. It was a good Frankish blade. The people would trade with the invaders, no matter what penalty their nobles threatened.

Before he left, he put his hand on the chest that was built into the chair — the one that contained the remains of Saint Maurice. His reason was available to him only in glimpses but he used a moment of clarity to talk to God.

‘Strengthen me,’ he said. ‘Let me know your will. Make me your right arm, God, that I may serve you.’

It was no good, though. He couldn’t clear his head, couldn’t work out what do. His reasoning powers were failing him. All he could think of was his hunger. Even the fate of the monks seemed to pale beside that. But what was he hungry for?

He went out of the warming house and over to the infirmary. There might be some sort of physic or purgative he could use to get this sensation out of his head. He opened the door and peered in. The iron smell of cut meat filled the room. There were five or so monks asleep in their beds, their bald heads reflecting the candlelight like a row of strange pink flowers shining from the dark. Jehan felt relief coursing through him, but then he realised what was missing. There was no snoring, no breathing. His heart was the loudest thing in his ears. It was only then that he really looked at what was in front of him. The two nearest him were lying normally, but the others were at odd angles, limbs half out of bed. They had been slaughtered.

Jehan desperately wanted help but there was nowhere to go to get any. He would need to send a messenger to the next monastery. Where was that?

He walked forward to the end of the infirmary. Was there no one alive here? And then he saw him. In the candlelight, watching him, was a figure. It gave him a start. A man was standing stock still at the far end of the room looking at him but saying nothing.

‘What happened here, brother?’ asked Jehan.

The man didn’t reply. Jehan took a pace forward.

‘Brother?’

As he drew nearer Jehan saw there was something wrong with the man. His weight was distributed incorrectly. That is, he seemed hunched forward, as if leaning over a high bar. Jehan moved the last few paces through the dark and drew level with him. He was a monk — he could tell by his tonsure — but that wasn’t what took the confessor’s attention.

The noose at his neck was suspended over a ceiling beam. Jehan put out his hand and touched the man’s cheek. He was cold as a fish on a slab. There was no point cutting him down, clearly. Jehan looked at the knot that tied the noose. It was a strange affair, three knots in one, in tight interlocking triangles. Jehan swallowed. He had seen that somewhere before, he felt sure. He drew the sword, his hand brushing his tunic. It was wet at the front and a thin stream of drool dribbled down from his lips.

How many monks were there at Saint-Maurice? Five dead in this one room. That left maybe fifty or sixty others at a minimum. What had happened to them? Where were the boys, the scholars and the novices? Jehan could only think that, by God’s mercy, they lived down the valley in the winter or had been away for some reason.

He felt powerfully intrigued by the dead men. His mouth ran with saliva. Jehan shook his head, overcome by horror, unable to acknowledge the thoughts that were growing in his mind. He had to get out of the infirmary and he blundered for the door, dropping the candlestick as he went.

The horse in the church neighed. Jehan heard a voice say a single word in Norse across the still air. He recognised it. ‘Easy.’ Someone was soothing the animal. He left the candles where they were and made no bid to relight them.

Jehan gripped the sword and crept across the courtyard then up the night stairs towards the door, just visible in the gloom. It was still ajar, as it had been when he’d gone out. As quietly as he could, he made his way into the church. He drew back the curtain covering the internal porch.

A single candle burned, a bud of light in the great soil of the church’s dark. He could see no one in the darkness, only the lustre of the candlelight on the gold of the altar. Something caught the candlelight lower down, a flash of silver near the floor. At first he couldn’t make out what it was. It was as if there was a crescent moon of light but a piece of blackness ran up and down its length.

‘I am cleaning my sword, monk of Saint-Maurice. Do not make me dirty it again.’

Jehan couldn’t see who it was but he replied in an even voice, ‘I am not a monk of Saint-Maurice.’

There was a clatter and someone stood up. The horse, disturbed by the noise, blew and whinnied in the darkness.

‘Then who are you?’

Jehan said nothing. An animosity and anger he had never felt before was buzzing through his bones. He had never seen the man’s face but he recognised the voice. Hugin — Hrafn — the Raven, the man who had tortured him.

The Raven said in a faltering voice, ‘You must have seen some things here that are difficult to understand. I-’

‘Where are the monks?’ Jehan cut across him.

The Raven tilted back his head as if in thought. ‘Come, share my meal. The day has been hard for me, and I would welcome conversation and forgetfulness for a while.’

Jehan stepped towards the light. Hugin’s eyes flicked to the sword the confessor held. ‘There can be no calm talk while that is in your hand,’ he said.

‘You killed them?’

The Raven pursed his lips. ‘Not all of them, not yet,’ he said, ‘though that may yet turn out to be necessary. Please. Sit. I am not the monster that I might appear.’

Jehan lowered the sword to the floor and sat down beside it, pulling the Viking cloak about him. He had the instinct to attack this abomination but needed to know what had happened, why such strange forces were arrayed against the Lady Aelis.

The sorcerer stank of something, a deep, enticing odour of iron and salt.

‘Where are the monks?’ Jehan watched his breath clouding the candlelight in the freezing air.

‘Below.’

‘Live or dead?’

‘Both.’

‘Below where?’

‘I will show you soon enough.’ The voice was not the one that Jehan had heard in front of the king, or nursing him through the torture beneath the beaks of the birds. That voice had been calm and even. Now the Raven stammered and his words were faint and weak, scarcely audible.

Jehan felt dizzy. The hunger had not gone from him, that terrible hunger for the sticky sweet stuff beneath the snow. What was it? Raven was covered in it, he could tell. The confessor swallowed, offering a prayer for guidance.

‘You killed all the Vikings.’

There was no reply. The Raven just sat staring into space.

‘Why did you kill them? They were your kinsmen. Why?’

The Raven looked around him. His eyes betrayed fear. ‘The will of God.’

‘How can you know the will of God? It is given to us through prayer and the edict of the Pope.’

‘It would seem to be his will that Vikings die. Do not your monks, your Ebolus and your Joscelin who died at Paris, fight to kill them?’

‘For just reasons, according to Saint Augustine. In a war waged for good, sanctioned by holy authority and with peace the aim.’ Jehan kept his voice calm.

‘You are not a monk — I see by your hair — yet you speak like a monk,’ said Hugin.

‘I am a monk,’ said Jehan, ‘though I have travelled a hard road.’

Jehan looked around him. Something seemed to move in the shadows, there and gone in an instant. The Raven stroked his forehead and looked at the floor. He seemed to be struggling for the strength to continue.

‘Then know that there was nothing to displease Augustine in the Vikings’ deaths, nor that of your monks. They died, or will die, for good, sanctioned by the holiest authority there is, and, as you say, with peace the aim.’

‘Did you eat them?’

‘What?’

‘They say you eat corpses.’

‘They say that of your priests too. I have eaten no one. That is a route to madness. Men have misunderstood certain practices, that is all.’

‘What practices?’

Raven swallowed. ‘I am, whatever you might think, a man of compassion. The berserkers told you this, the ones you travel with?’

‘How do you know who I travel with?’

‘I watch the land, before and behind. The fat one is distinctive even at a distance, and I know they are not a people with a talent for deceit. The cross that went before them was carried by you, no?’

‘Yes.’

‘I was with your band in Sigfrid’s camp. Some of the men there are Christians, there with their families. They heard that I could heal. I tried for their daughter and failed. I could do nothing. She had been hit by a horse and her body was broken. The priests of your land are cowards and fled when they heard Varangians were on their way. They would not come to tend to her. I said I’d do what I could. The girl was dying. She was a Christian; her family were distraught. I said the mass for them and administered the unction. Ofaeti and his men took it as true that I was eating flesh.’

‘You are a heathen.’

‘I am a man,’ said the Raven, ‘and my god is not jealous.’

‘Nor is he compassionate.’

‘His halls are full of the souls of warriors dead in battle. He doesn’t seek the soul of a little girl. Where it goes is of no concern to him. Your god should be pleased that I would cast his magic for him.’

The Raven cupped his hands around the flame of the candle for warmth, reducing the light in the church to a ball in his hands. When he spoke again, his voice was stronger.

‘Our gods are not so different. Mine wants blood. So does yours. Sometimes, as when the black saint marched through these passes, it seems their desires are as one. Odin is here, in the stones, in the mountains, in the pass. He is the god of the dead and he seeks deaths to please him. How lucky then that your god wanted the same from his Theban martyrs.’

‘My god is not your god.’

‘What do you know of my god?’

‘Only that he is false.’

Raven nodded. ‘He is that, he is that.’ He seemed to ponder for a few moments. ‘But isn’t it just a matter of how you look at it? My god’s treachery is well known. He kills his heroes to take them to his halls. Yours lets his martyrs die to test their faith and sends them to heaven.’

The confessor forced himself to think straight, willed his mind back to the favour he had asked of God with his hand on the saint’s casket. There was the movement again at the side of his eye. Jehan remembered the conversation in Sigfrid’s house, the Raven’s revelation that he had been a Christian once and that this place had found him and lost him in the faith. To know his purpose was to know his weakness. Jehan said those words over and over in his head. Reason was now a candle in a storm, only kept alight by diligence and great attention.

‘You are not a monk, yet you speak like a monk,’ said Jehan.

‘I once was,’ said Hugin.

‘So why did you desert Christ?’

‘Because Christ deserted me.’

‘He is always there for you.’

‘He was not there for me when I asked him to be. Something else was.’

The Raven took his hands from around the flame. The sudden illumination caught the gold of the altar, the dancing light rendering it liquid in the darkness.

‘What?’

‘Another way.’ The horse shifted from foot to foot and the candle guttered in a draught. The Raven had his face in his hands, almost as if grieving, his emaciated head like a golden skull in the candlelight. He spoke in a low voice: ‘Christ abandoned me. I prayed and he abandoned me.’

In the shadows, like something half glimpsed through murky water, was a figure. It was the child Jehan had seen on the riverbank, the dreadfully starved waif with the lined and drawn face. The Raven had not seen her, and Jehan did not draw his attention to her, afraid of what the sorcerer might do. As the Raven stared at the floor, Jehan gestured, trying to shoo the girl away. She didn’t move, just stood looking at him, her face a pale mask in the darkness.

‘My family were poor people of this village, and they had many sons and daughters. I was not their own but a foundling who the monks had paid my mother — the woman I called my mother — to wet-nurse. I stayed with them until I was five and my father died. Then the monks took me in as an act of charity. They schooled me and fed me and were to make me one of them.’

‘That was Christ’s work indeed,’ said Jehan.

‘Indeed. The life here for boys was not so hard, and I still could get away down the valley to see my family. My sister, in particular, was dear to me.’

‘Better to have looked forward to God than back to earthly ties,’ said Jehan.

He was speaking almost by rote, doling out the wisdom that had been doled out to him, counselling as he had been counselled. It was as if the very ease of the words was a line to which he could cling as the rage inside him threatened to sweep away everything that he had been.

‘I didn’t think so,’ said Hugin. ‘She meant more to me than God did. My mother was busy with the flock and her children, my father was dead, my sister was the focus of any tender feelings I had. When I had been five years at the monastery, the fever took her.’

‘She died?’

‘She would have died, had I not acted.’

‘Did you pray?’

‘Yes. And I petitioned the abbot to send for a healer. He said that the valleys were overrun with little girls and one less wouldn’t displease the Lord. He would move to save a peasant’s son who could tend a herd, build and fight for God, but not one of their sluttish daughters.’

‘The man was wrong to say that,’ said Jehan.

‘It cost him his life,’ said Raven. His voice had lost all its earlier weakness. Now it was strong, certain, deepened by anger.

Jehan couldn’t reply. His head was spinning. The odour of that stuff was in his nostrils again. The rage was growing inside him. He fought to hold on to it, to remember his purpose of finding out why this thing sought out the Lady Aelis, to understand it so he might defeat it.

‘I went to her side and I knew that she was dying. My mother had called in a woman from the hills, one who kept to the older faith, who had burned her face for her art. She told me that this place, this valley, is a special place. The church was built on a spring sacred to the old god — the dead god, the god of the hanged, the keeper of the screaming runes. The Romans said there was a temple of their god Mercury here when they arrived. I know him by a different name: Odin. Others call him Wotan, Wodanaz, Godan, Christ.’

‘Christ has nothing to do with idols, only in that he casts them down.’ Jehan was focusing hard on the Raven now, trying to keep his mind away from… from what?

‘Your god is as hungry for blood as any men have bowed to since the world began,’ said Hugin. ‘Tell me, when the first stone struck the first martyr, when Stephen spilled his blood for Christ, did your god smile?’

From blood. The sensations of his torture at Saerda’s hands came back — the taste of the flesh in his mouth, the coursing energy that had filled his body as the warm blood had trickled down his throat. It had been horrible then but now the memory seemed not horrible at all, dear to him even.

‘The god needed a death. The valley wanted a death. She showed me the triple knot.’ The Raven’s hands made a lazy pattern in the air. ‘Three in one, the dead lord’s necklace that slips until it sticks and then slips no more. I went to the abbot in his cell. He had drunk a bellyful and it was easy to do what the god asked.’

Jehan’s throat was dry. The eyes of the child seemed to bore into him. He felt he desperately needed water, desperately needed to eat. He licked his lips. The taste of the stuff he had found beneath the snow was on them, but it did not fulfil him, only fired his will to seek more.

‘By the morning my sister was well. The wild woman said that the price of my sister’s life was her service. I followed them into the hills.’

The whole church seemed to Jehan to rock.

‘Do you say the idol you seek to appease wants death now?’

‘I have given him that. I don’t know what he wants.’

Jehan could think no more about the Raven’s words. The blood inside him was turning the veins and cavities of his body to sea caves, smashed by surf. He could only think of one thing.

‘What is that?’ said Jehan. He struggled to get the words out.

‘What is what?’

‘You have something on you. Something wet.’ Jehan could scent it. He longed to lap it, to suck at the cloth of the Raven’s cloak, to drink in the smell and the taste of the black ichor that covered the Raven’s head, his shoulder and his hands.

‘The same as you, monk. It is tough work that I do.’

‘What is it?’

The Raven smiled. His face, thought Jehan, was familiar. It was a symptom of the sickness that had come upon him since he had come to the monastery, he was sure. He had seen the Raven’s face somewhere before. It was torn, swollen, pockmarked and disfigured, but he knew it.

‘What is it?’

‘It is blood.’ The child dropped back and the shadows covered her. She was a face retreating into a mire of darkness. Then she was gone.

Blood. Jehan fell forward onto the flagstones. He had known what the smell was but he had blocked it from his mind. Blood, as he had tasted in the clearing, blood, as he had lapped it from the snow. The church seemed to spin about him. He felt his throat constricting and his skin clammy, sweaty and cold. His body seemed to bubble with the need for action.

Prayers and snatches of songs, articles of the Church, seemed to split apart and run through his mind, looking to coalesce into something intelligible, looking to bring him back to who he was. One who vomits the host because his stomach is overloaded with food, if he casts it into the fire, shall do penance twenty days… God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made… If those little beasts are found in the flour whatever is around their bodies shall be cast out… We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come… He would not defile himself with the king’s food, nor with the wine which he drank… If a dog should eat it, a hundred days…

The rage inside him felt as though it would split his skin. His throat was burning now with a thirst that demanded immediate satisfaction.

‘You are ill, traveller,’ said the Raven. He looked around him. ‘This is your god’s house but he is not here for you. My fellow, yes, my fellow, he waits in the dark where he has always waited. Here, quench your thirst.’

He passed the confessor a cup. The water in it smelled familiar, though Jehan’s thoughts were too disordered to recognise it. He swallowed it down.

His thirst was not quenched. He wanted only one thing. Blood. He looked at the Raven and knew what he needed to do. He stood. He had the sword in his hand. The Raven stood. Jehan tried to lift his hand to strike but the sword wouldn’t move. His arm would not obey his command.

‘This place wants death,’ said the Raven, ‘and it seems it wants yours.’ He pushed Jehan in the middle of the chest and the monk fell back. Jehan was lying on the floor, the smell of blood filling his mind. He was coughing. He put his hand to his mouth. A black ooze was at his lips. The cup had been poisoned. He had known the taste if only his mind had been functioning well enough to recognise it. And yet the feeling had begun long before he’d drunk the poison.

‘You have killed me.’

‘Not yet,’ said the Raven, ‘not yet.’

Jehan looked up at the scarred mess of the sorcerer’s face and finally recognised it. He had not looked in a mirror since he was seven years old, but there in front of him, thinner, eaten and torn by ritual and privation, scarred and misshapen, was his own face looking back at him.

Jehan collapsed and the Raven took him by the arms and dragged him to the crypt.

38

The Wolfstone

Prince Helgi the Prophet lay sweating in his bed. The khagan had a problem. He needed to be a bulwark for his people, a rock on which they could depend, so by day he presented a front, was bluff and cheerful, indulged in the drinking games and allowed his warriors to let him win the contests of strength and speed. But at night, in sleep, he had no such control over himself. He cried out in the dark, and his cries were cries of panic. The Norsemen were not a private people: they slept in their longhouses side by side, children, men and women all packed in together. Soon his night terrors were the stuff of marketplace gossip; they undermined him in his dealings with his druzhina, and he heard it whispered that Ingvar’s party were using them to foment trouble against him.

It was as if his fear of the god’s prophecy — that Ingvar would rule — was itself making that prophecy come true.

The rabble of soothsayers and magicians was still around him, living off his coin, but Helgi put no faith in any of them. He went again to the temple of Svarog, into its dark lodge, breathed in the burning herbs, endured the darkness and the waiting, but nothing came, just visions of Svava, watching him, always watching him. He needed more.

He found himself unreasonably irritated with the normal night-time sounds of his hall — a child crying, a mother soothing it, a couple kissing and caressing, an old man snoring and farting — and went outside to look up at the deep stars. He would conquer everything under them, he thought, if only that awful prophecy didn’t hang over his head like an enemy’s axe.

‘You need to take the girl from Paris.’

A voice. Helgi looked around him. There was no one, just the shadows under the lee of the hall roof.

‘Who is this?’

‘A friend.’

It was as if the shadows unwrapped, and the wolfman stepped forward, tall, dark, his face drawn but his limbs strong, the great wolf’s pelt about him, its jaws over his head as if devouring it.

‘I can bring her here. I can convince her. My destiny is entwined with hers. It has been revealed to me.’

‘Who are you?’

‘Sindre, called Myrkyrulf.’

‘You are a sorcerer?’

‘Of a sort.’

‘How much are you looking for?’

‘I don’t want silver; I need something greater than treasures from you.’

‘What?’

‘Your promise. The one-eyed god is coming to earth and we must prevent it.’

Helgi swallowed. The man seemed to know about Loki’s prophecy, but the god had revealed it no one, and no magician had even come close to guessing it so far.

‘What promise?’

‘You must keep her safe. You must find a place of safety for her.’

‘That is my wish, but I cannot get to her.’

‘I can.’

‘So why do you need me?’

‘Because it is my destiny to die at the hands of my brother. I can bring the girl here, I am sure, but her ongoing protection must be someone else’s responsibility.’

‘Who is your brother?’

‘The sorcerer called the Raven. This has been revealed to me.’

‘By who?’

‘By my mother.’

‘Who is your mother?’

‘A slave from the north. Her name is Saitada and she is a wide-seeing woman and an enemy of the hanged god.’

‘What do you know of the one-eyed god. Of Odin?’

‘I am his enemy.’

‘Is he coming to earth?’

‘We can prevent him.’

‘How?’

The wolfman touched his own neck. A pebble hung there, a common grey stone with the crude etching of a wolf’s head upon it.

‘This is a gift of Loki, the enemy of the gods. It stops magic, silences runes. To come here she will need her magic to defend herself. Once she is here, she must wear this, the Wolfstone. The wolf will not find her while she wears it. You will be able to get her to a place of safety.’

‘Why will she not go to a place of safety without it? Does she seek death?’

‘She doesn’t, but the runes do. And she is pursued. There is another woman who carries the runes. She seeks the lady’s death and is very capable of causing it. She and her brother — Hugin and Munin, strong sorcerers as I know to my cost — are servants of Odin.’

‘I have heard of them.’

‘I have fought them, but I cannot risk too much. It is my brother’s destiny to kill me. This stone has been my protection.’

‘Keep your stone. I have had enough of charms,’ said Helgi.

‘My mother is skilled in Seid magic and used this stone for many years to protect herself from witches. Put this on her, and you and she will be safe from the runes. The god cannot come together on earth. Ask yourself why I should lie about this when I have spoken so much truth about everything else.’

Helgi looked at the man and believed him. He knew so much; he wanted no reward; he had come unseen past the town’s guards. All this was reason to accept what he said, but there was more: Helgi wanted the wolfman to be speaking the truth, so he decided that he was. ‘The destiny will be prevented?’ Helgi thought of Ingvar marching at the head of his army.

‘This is my hope.’

‘What do you need to get to Paris?’

‘Only a guide,’ said the wolfman.

‘I will give you my strongest men.’

‘Let me travel quietly,’ said the wolfman. ‘To conquer Paris and take the girl you would need ten thousand warriors. Better to send none at all than too few. We are to take the girl by stealth. I need only a guide, a little man who can go to an inn and buy food for me without sparking comment.’

It was then that Helgi had thought of the merchant who had come to him petitioning for a loan to help buy a cargo that he was certain could earn the prince ten times his outlay. Helgi had sent him from his hall. The man had been unlucky in business and the khagan thought it might be catching. But Leshii the silk man would do, he thought, for men came scarcely any littler than he.

Helgi had a question before granting the wolfman even a dog to guide him: ‘If you are certain of death, then why do you try to save the girl? You will not be here for her.’

‘Because I have died for her before. It is my destiny to do so. It is the nature of my bond to her. And if the god fails to come to earth, perhaps his spell will be broken and when we live again…’ he seemed briefly lost for words ‘… we can live unremarkable lives.’

‘It is a blessing to be a hero,’ said Helgi.

‘I have not found it so,’ said the wolfman.

Helgi held out his hand. ‘The stone. I will need it if it is as you say, and the magic inside this girl can work independently of her will.’

‘No,’ said the wolfman. ‘I will need it to fight the forces that are against me.’

‘So how will it come to me?’

‘We have a powerful god working for us in Loki. This is his gift. If he wants you to have it, as I believe he will, then the stone will make its way to you.’

Helgi did not know what to believe but he was certain of one thing. The wolfman seemed confident he could recover the lady from Paris, and the prince would only have to risk the life of one failing merchant to let him try.

39

Song Everlasting

Water and darkness. Cold and noise. A voice singing. Singing? Jehan could see nothing. He was pinioned to something, tied with his hands behind his back, up to his chest in cold water. Someone next to him was singing. Plainsong. The words seemed curiously muted, a tight little echo that spoke of a low roof.

‘You will not fear the terror of the night,

Nor the arrow that flies by day,

Nor the plague that prowls in the darkness,

Nor the scourge that lays waste at noon.’

The voice was tremulous, the notes uneven, but Jehan could tell it had been trained in the monkish practice. The song was a psalm. He felt so strange he couldn’t tell if he was dreaming or awake.

‘Who is here?’ said Jehan.

The sensation of hunger was no duller in him. He spat. The taste in his mouth was vile. Poison. Yes, he had been poisoned. He recalled the Vikings in the warming house. The poison on their lips had not killed them — they had been asphyxiated by the smoke. The thought came and went like a footprint in the sand, washed away by the cold tide of hunger.

One voice stopped singing and said, ‘Brothers Paul and Simon. Who are you?’

‘Brother Jehan, of Saint-Germain.’ It was as if he was shouting his name over a high wind. He felt tormented, almost unable to think.

‘The confessor of Paris?’

‘Yes.’

‘Have you come to save us?’

‘I cannot save you.’

The song of the man on his right continued:

‘A thousand may fall at your side,

Ten thousand fall at your right,

You, it will never approach,

His faithfulness is buckler and shield.’

‘Are you strong enough to sing, brother? We must keep the song going. This abomination has befallen us because we allowed it to stop.’

Jehan couldn’t reply. He moved his leg. Something bobbed against it.

‘We are to die,’ said the monk. ‘Thank God for the gift of our martyrdom.’ His words were brave but his voice was quaking. Jehan could tell the man was cold. Jehan was cold too, very cold.

‘Where are we?’

‘In the lower cave, at Christ’s well.’

The song went on:

‘See how the wicked are repaid,

You who have said, “Lord, my refuge!”’

‘Where is that?’

‘There is a tunnel from the crypt. It drops to here, a holy well beneath the earth. The Norsemen slaughtered us without pity. It is polluted now.’

Something else bobbed against the confessor’s arm. Something else too, tickling his hands. Weed? No, there was a solid form behind it. Jehan grasped it and felt around with his fingers. He ran them across something hard and smooth, a semicircle of ridges and bumps. Then he let go. What he had in his hand was hair, he realised, and they were teeth he felt with his fingers.

‘Can you move?’ said Jehan.

‘No. Are you not tied?’

‘I am tied.’

‘Then it is useless. He will be waiting for us. He means us to die here.’

Jehan swallowed. He was trembling too. The song to his right faltered.

He strained forward and coughed. Something was at his neck. A noose. He tried to work it free by twisting his head but that only made things worse. It was tight now, not crushing his windpipe, not even cutting off his blood, but he knew that any more struggling could kill him.

And then he saw it — a light coming towards him. It was a candle. Surely some of the monks had survived; surely some of the Vikings would become sick of waiting and break in. He saw where he was — a pool in a natural cavern, its ceiling an arm’s reach above his head. Three big pillars of limestone sank from the roof into the water, and it was to these that the men had been bound. To his right was the singing monk, spluttering out the words of the psalm. To his left another, fatter monk. Both men were chattering and shaking with the cold.

All around them, the bodies floated or hung in the water, pale as dead fish in a pond, their human juices, blood, shit and piss, voided from the body by death, turning the pool to a stinking soup. The monks had been murdered, no doubt — some by the sword, some by the nooses tied with three close-fitting knots.

The Raven put down the candle by the edge of the pool. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘This terror is… required.’

‘Unclean thing,’ said Jehan, ‘abomination, sorcerer-’ The rope dug into his neck, choking him. ‘I am not afraid of you.’

The Raven smiled at him but there was no humour in his eyes.

‘It is not your terror the god wants. He looks for mine. These…’ he searched for a word but could not find one, so he used the confessor’s ‘… these abominations are not my inclination. Do not mistake me for the Roman who gloried in torture.’

Jehan tried to speak but could only cough.

The Raven continued: ‘We will both have what we want, monk. I will have my vision and you will be a martyr. When they find you they’ll make some rare art to commemorate this death. The pilgrims will wear medallions for you, no doubt.’

‘I-’

Jehan couldn’t speak.

The Raven sat down at the water’s edge. He rocked backwards and forwards intoning a chant quite different to the plainsong of the monks. This was low, guttural, and its metre pattered and stuttered, raced and paused in a dizzying tumble of Norse words.

‘Fenrisulfr,

Pinioned and bound,

Wolf, ravenous and tortured,

Great eater,

Godbane and blight,

I will suffer as you suffer.

For my agony

Insight,

For my terror

A vision…

The chant went on and on, the plainsong rising above it. The monk to his right failed and the other took up the recitation. The psalms had been sung every day in that place for hundreds of years. For what? thought Jehan. To keep this horror at bay. Had this abomination lain unfed for so long because the monks had kept to their vigil?

The cold numbed him, the chants made his head feel like a ripe fig, straining to split its skin. Do you know what they did to me? Do you know what they did? There was a voice in his ear full of rage and hatred. He was in a different place. Or rather it was the same place but changed. There was no pool at all. The room was dry, in fact parched. His nostrils stung and his tongue seemed cased in sand. Around the pillar to his right wound a great serpent, gold, red and green, dripping venom from its lips. It stretched up over his head, curled about the pillar that secured him and down the pillar to his left. On that, pinioned like him, was an extraordinary sight.

A tall pale man with a shock of red hair was screaming as the serpent dripped venom into his eyes. His skin was red raw where the venom burned it, his hair singed to patches, his eyes dark as liver, his lips black and charred. Acrid steam issued from the flesh as the venom trickled and seared.

‘Can you not free me, my son?’ The voice was imploring, between a sob and a scream.

‘I am tied myself.’ Suddenly Jehan’s thinking was clear.

‘They tied you like they tied me, the gods of darkness and slaughter.’

‘Can we get out?’

‘We will get out. It is foreseen.’

‘Where is the Raven? Where is that creature?’ Jehan shouted.

‘Gone.’

‘He deserves death.’

‘He is death’s servant. He serves the god in the noose.’

For the first time in his life Jehan felt afraid. This thing in front of him was in torment but it had a presence that seemed to make the air heavy around it. An awful thought came to him: This is hell. His pride had undone him and he had been sent to the lake of fire. ‘You are a devil,’ he said, ‘and this is hell.’

‘Hell fears you, Fenrisulfr. Its halls tremble to hear your voice.’

‘Why do you call me that?’ The name seemed to resonate in his head like the bell of hours.

‘It is your name.’

‘Release me from this place, devil.’

‘Would you be free?’

‘I would be free.’

‘Then run free.’

Suddenly Jehan was choking again, drowning, back in the pool. Something was beside him in the dark, its great head lolling against him, its breath hot on his skin, the monstrous note of complaint and agony that issued from its throat threatening to burst his ears. The wolf was next to him, held down with bonds cruel and thin. Its agony consumed him, and he was no longer himself; he was the wolf, trying to stand, trying to breathe even, beneath the awful constriction of the vicious threads that held and cut him. He broke his bonds behind him and ripped at the noose around his neck with his fingers, tearing the rope to nothing.

Something at his side was in its death throes. The seductive beat of a failing heart, constricting veins and muscles, the shallow, frozen breath filled his mind. His body responded to it and he forced his way through the water to drink in the delicious rhythm of death, to take it in and express it like a dancer expresses music.

There was a great cry. It was so near that at first he thought it had come from himself. But it had not. It had come from the man lashed to the column of rock, the man dying under Jehan’s fingers and teeth. More noise, more howling. The other monk was screaming for him to stop. Jehan went to him and made him quiet.

When he was done, Jehan lay a while in the water, like a corpse among corpses. He thought nothing, felt nothing. He did not question, did not think, as the pale child took his hand and led him from the pool.

40

A Commercial Decision

Leshii was dreadfully tired. The fire was warm and hypnotic and he allowed himself an old man’s fancy of picking faces in it as he thought about his options.

The only hope he had was that the lady would arrange some sort of compensation for him when they returned to Paris. But how certain was that? The whole town was surrounded by a seething mass of Danes, like so many ants around the discarded core of a pear. There would be a fight to get in and Leshii wasn’t up to that.

Even if he did get in, how would he get out, this time with no warriors to help him? Accept it, you fool. You’re a poor man now. All your labours have come to nothing. He said the words to himself and felt very bitter.

Warriors — Franks or Danes — might think it noble to have striven and lost but he couldn’t see it that way. He had planned an old age in a courtyard garden warmed by the sun. He had thought he might have a fountain in the Roman style, a woman to cook and clean for him, perhaps even a bed slave if he could afford one. All that was gone, just the memory of a dream.

He fell towards a miserable sort of sleep but his anxiety brought him jolting back to consciousness.

How long could he go on trading for? He could make a living, of course, scratch together enough for food and some mean lodgings, but he knew what faced him when his eyes failed, his back seized up or his knees — already painful — became unbearable. He would starve or have to cast himself on the mercy of the temple of Perun. It was no way to end your life.

The warmth of the fire lulled him and he started drifting away once more. A noise broke his dozing. It was the call of a bird. He looked around him. Two ravens were perched on the sleeping Frank. All the feelings he had been suppressing inside him seemed to come bursting out — anger, disappointment fear — and he picked up a stick to hurl it at the birds. Then he stopped himself. The Frank was Renier, the one who had implied Aelis was a whore for cutting her hair. Leshii had had a thought.

He put the stick back down and looked around him. There was no raven coming for him. He went across to the horse and the mule they had brought with them. Both animals were hobbled — a forefoot and a back leg tied together to make it impossible for them to wander too far. He removed the hobbles and tied the beasts loosely to a tree. He wanted to saddle up the horse but feared too much stamping and blowing would wake the Franks. Then he took his knife and went to Aelis’s tent. As he passed the Frank, he saw in the moonlight that the bird had taken a peck at his cheek.

It hadn’t woken the warrior, though the man was mumbling in his sleep: ‘She is not of my party. She will counsel against me for my angry words. She will produce sons to frustrate the claims of my line. Eudes is not the man to lead the Franks. She is not of my party. She will counsel against me for my angry words. She will produce sons to frustrate the claims of my line. Eudes is not the man to lead the Franks.’ He repeated the words again and again.

The raven flew from the man’s shoulder up into a tree, fading to invisibility against the dark mass of the branches.

Leshii knelt by the flap of the tent. ‘Lady, lady!’

There was no answer.

‘Lady, lady. Quickly, before it’s too late. The Frank is enchanted.’

‘Who is there?’

‘Shhhh! Do not attract his attention. You must come away with me now. The Frank is enchanted and who knows how many more of them. You are not safe with these men, lady.’

‘What do you want, Leshii?’

‘Quick, pull on your boots. You are in danger. Hurry.’

Aelis came to herself and did as Leshii asked. She looked out of the tent across the glade. The Frank sat, his sword drawn, looking down at it and mumbling to himself as if he didn’t quite know what it was.

Aelis crawled out of her tent. ‘Alert the others,’ she said.

‘No, I think they may be enchanted too, we have no way of knowing.’ Leshii’s voice was an urgent whisper.

‘So what do we do?’

‘Come away, now. You are not safe. The ravens will find you everywhere. Ladoga is your only course. Helgi can save you if we can keep the enchantment away until then. I have a plan how we might do it.’

She looked at the merchant. Aelis, who heard people as music and sensed them as colours, could tell he was lying, or rather that he was motivated by self-interest and was not telling her the whole truth. He seemed to hum with threat, like the buzz of a hornet across a summer’s day. But when she looked at the mumbling Frank she sensed something of a different magnitude altogether. There was tumult there, disturbance, like a mighty flood driving a screaming waterwheel.

‘We need to go,’ said Leshii.

Aelis knew he was right, and they began to make their way across the camp. As they passed him, the Frank stood. ‘Look at your hair. That is the mark of an enchantress. You are no princess but a peasant slut!’

‘Get on the horse! Go back to where we met,’ shouted Leshii, who had given up hope of not waking the other Franks. He formed his hands into an improvised stirrup and Aelis jumped up onto the horse with a gasp. Her ribs were terribly painful. She forced herself to forget that, pulling up a spear from where it was stuck butt first in the mud.

The Frank leaped towards her, and she flicked the hindquarters of the animal out of the way with the pressure of her leg. Leshii kicked at the Frank’s legs and knocked him to the ground, but the man was up in a second. Other knights were pouring from the tents.

‘He’s enchanted; he’s trying to kill the lady!’ shouted Leshii.

Aelis put her legs to the horse, and it sprang forward into the night, away down a track. Renier went plunging after her, screaming and shouting.

‘You see!’ shouted Leshii. ‘You see!’

‘What has happened? Slowly!’ It was Moselle, buckling on his sword.

‘The lady is pursued by enchanters. They have possessed your bondsman. He means to kill her.’

‘Crap,’ said Moselle. ‘Get me my horse. Never mind the saddle; just get my horse.’

A young knight unhobbled Moselle’s mount while the others set to, freeing their animals. Moselle jumped up onto his horse and was gone through the trees after Renier and Aelis, the others charging after him.

Leshii looked around the camp. The last of the knights had disappeared. He was sorely tempted to look for any coins they might have left, but he knew that if Aelis was found and the Franks returned they would soon notice any missing money and only one person would get the blame.

Leshii wasn’t about to let Aelis get away from him, so he threw a saddle over the horse that had carried Sindre, tacked it up as quickly as he could and tied his mule behind. The knights couldn’t punish him for taking a horse that was rightfully his, and at that moment the horse and the mule were all Leshii possessed in the world.

As he worked, he glanced down at Sindre. The wolfman was flat unconscious.

‘Ah, Chakhlyk,’ he said, ‘why did I bring you here? There has to be an easier way to earn a living.’

He squatted beside him and put his hand on his brow. The wolfman was cold, not long for life clearly. Leshii wanted something to remember him by and was about to take the wolfskin when he paused for a second. It was valuable but so dear to the wolfman that Leshii could not bear to steal it. The thought struck him as odd. The man was going to die; why not take his valuables? But the merchant could not.

‘You’ll need that for your magic in the afterlife,’ he said.

But then he saw the stone at Sindre’s neck, the pebble. He looked at it. So that was what the design was — the crude head of a wolf. It made sense, Leshii guessed. He studied the complicated knot that tied the stone to the thong. The pendant was worth nothing but it was something to remember the wolfman by. Leshii cut it from his neck. Then he got up onto the horse and looked down at him.

‘Good luck,’ he said, making his lightning bolt sign, then kicked his horse into a trot.

It wasn’t difficult to discover where the Franks had gone. There was a terrible hullaballoo coming from within the trees. As Leshii got closer, he could hear the Franks were arguing with each other.

‘You will not strike my brother!’

‘You need to hold him.’

‘Renier, put down your sword, man. What’s wrong with you?’

There was a scream, some more shouting and then the unmistakable sound of swords clashing.

‘Don’t hurt him. The merchant was right — he’s enchanted.’

‘He got my arm! Christ, Renier, you’ll pay for that.’

‘Stand where you are!’ It was Moselle’s voice above the uproar. ‘No one harm him. Get behind him. We’ll mob him and tie him up.’

Leshii drove his horse forward to see the Franks circling Renier, who slashed out with his sword, his breath heavy and his eyes wild.

‘Now!’

The knights leaped forward almost as one. In a few seconds they had him on the ground, disarmed but struggling.

‘What is this, merchant?’ Moselle stood and approached Leshii.

‘I don’t know. Witchcraft.’

‘There’s no such thing; the priests are firm on that.’

‘What do you call it then?’

The knight shrugged. ‘I don’t know. How can we shake him from this?’

‘The last time I saw it, we ran a sword through the victim. That cured him.’

‘I’ll run one through you in a moment,’ said Moselle. ‘You think this will pass?’

‘It did before, but, as I said, the man was dying. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to look for your count’s sister.’

‘Tie him,’ said Moselle to the Franks; ‘I’m going to get Lady Aelis.’

One of the knights ran back for some rope while the others held Renier down. Moselle jumped onto his horse. He said nothing to Leshii, but the merchant followed him. Behind them a cry went up.

‘Get him!’

‘He’s over there!’

Renier had escaped and the Franks were hunting him through the trees. Leshii didn’t look back, he just kicked the mule on, determined to be away from the enchanted knight.

Moselle was a considerably better rider than the easterner, and Leshii struggled to keep up. Eventually he gave up and just followed the path of the Frank’s horse through the trees. He was confident he was on the right track as there was only one negotiable path. It was nearly dawn when he came upon them. Aelis was standing in front of Moselle and next to a stream. She’d had to pause to rest her horse, thought Leshii, and that was how she had been caught. Moselle was attempting to reason with her.

‘Lady, the danger is over. We’ve restrained Renier. He is not himself. I cannot explain it but I can deal with it. He will proceed tied and under guard until we reach the city. It’s only a day’s good ride away. Please come with us.’

‘My mind is made up,’ said Aelis. ‘I’m not coming back to Paris. It’s too dangerous. At any moment my kinsmen could be turned against me. I need to go to the root of the problem and end it there.’

‘That is impossible. You are a woman,’ said Moselle. ‘Let me go. I am a warrior and veteran of many battles. Whatever it is that afflicts you, my men and I can put an end to it.’

‘No, you can’t,’ said Aelis, ‘though I wish you could. If you came with me, one of you would turn against me, then one more. I can’t be near people, least of all warriors. Give me the sword.’

‘Lady?’

‘The sword. By my family’s right of command, give me the sword that I gave to you — the Viking blade.’ Moselle had clearly decided Sigfrid’s sword was superior to his own and had taken to carrying it.

‘What for? I am not enchanted; I’m not going to attack you.’

Aelis shook her head. She went to where Moselle’s horse was standing. It was a fine grey, almost glowing in the predawn light. Aelis stroked its nose and nuzzled her head into its neck. Then she turned to Moselle.

‘Give me the sword.’

Moselle shrugged and untied the sword. Aelis took it and put it on.

‘Another disguise?’ said Moselle.

‘No. I need it to defend myself. Do you have any money?’

‘A few denier.’

‘Give me those too.’

Moselle took a purse out of his tunic and passed it to her. Aelis was relieved to find it was relatively heavy.

‘What do you plan to do, lady?’

‘To go to the east, where I shall solve this problem or die.’

‘This is unnatural. Only men should say such things,’ said Moselle. ‘You are enchanted too.’

‘The northerners have battle maidens,’ said Leshii. ‘I’ve seen one in Kiev. She did look unnatural — too tall for a woman and not at all demure. Someone should have beaten her and put her in her place, but they were all too scared, I think.’

‘Give me your knife and your axe,’ said Aelis to Leshii.

‘How many weapons do you need?’

‘Just all the ones that are near me. You are coming with me, merchant; you’re going to show me the way.’

For the first time in a long while Leshii smiled. ‘I’d be delighted.’

‘You’d trust a foreigner?’ said Moselle.

‘I don’t trust him at all,’ said Aelis, ‘so at least we know where we stand. Besides, if he becomes enchanted he is old and unarmed so I can kill him.’

‘A thousand advantages!’ said Leshii.

‘I will not allow it,’ said Moselle. ‘Your brother would not allow it, and I feel I am acting on his behalf. You will come with me willingly or, I regret to say, you will come unwillingly, but one way or another you are coming to Paris, lady.’

Aelis shook her head and whistled to her horse. The animal came to her, and she stepped onto a fallen tree trunk and mounted. Moselle wasn’t slow to do the same.

‘Lady, you cannot outride me. Do not make me carry you back to Paris.’

‘I can outride you,’ said Aelis. She turned her horse and trotted it down the path towards the rising sun. Leshii kicked his horse after her, the mule trailing behind.

‘This is stupid,’ said Moselle and squeezed his legs on his horse’s flanks as a signal to advance. The animal didn’t move. Moselle kicked again. The horse didn’t budge. He kicked again and again, but still the animal stayed where it was. Then he got off and tried to lead it by the reins. It had never disobeyed him before, been alert to his every command as they’d cut their way through the press of Danes outside Paris, but now it simply would not go on. When he smacked its rump all it did was turn on the spot. When he led it in a circle it was happy to go back the way they had come but would take no more than a few paces to the east. Moselle knew it was insanity to follow her on foot without his men — there were legions of bandits, Slavs, Magyars, Norsemen and, who knew, even Saracens on the road to the east. A Frankish knight would be as vulnerable as — he tried to think — an old man and woman travelling alone.

Moselle had no choice, though: he would have to follow her, and for that he’d need another horse. He mounted and urged his horse forward one last time. The animal would not budge. He wheeled the horse around and kicked into its sides. It immediately trotted back down the path towards the camp where Sindre lay with the raven on his chest.

41

A Changed Man

‘Monk? Monk?’

It was daylight, a weak dawn. Jehan was in the main courtyard of the monastery. The snow had stopped falling but the day was grey and the light flat. Ofaeti was in front of him. The fat berserker was wearing three cloaks and a pair of fine boots, and the bag at his side clunked and clanked with sacred vessels. There was bread on his lips and he was munching on a communion wafer.

‘Hrafn?’ said Jehan. It felt more natural to him now to use Norse than Latin.

‘Gone,’ said Ofaeti, ‘thank Tyr. Came past us like the wolf after the moon. Left the door open too, which was nice of him. What have you been doing? You’re soaked. Get some dry clothes off the bodies or you’ll be dead before we’ve left this place.’

Jehan didn’t feel cold. Next to him was the girl, the one who waited and hated at his side.

Ofaeti spoke. ‘Come on, get some clothes, I don’t want you dying on us. And sniff the wine before you drink it. Some of it’s poisoned, by the look of what happened to Grettir’s men.’

Jehan looked around him, trying to work out what had happened to him.

Ofaeti shook him. ‘Monk, come on, hurry up. We need you more than ever now. The cover is that we’re transferring this stuff on behalf of your Church. Getting it out of the way of those naughty Norsemen.’

The pale girl put her hand into Jehan’s. It felt tiny to him, her fingers so delicate and fragile. His own hand seemed swollen and puffy, painful almost. His whole body felt the same, like a shirt he had outgrown. His skin was tight on him and he flexed and strained his muscles against it. He felt as if his actions were not his own, or rather that he was remote from his body — it a puppet, he a distracted and drunken puppet master.

‘Do you not see her?’ said Jehan.

‘The whore you promised me?’

‘The girl. Here. The girl.’

Ofaeti looked about him. ‘Is this one of your stories? Fine, but wait until we’re gone from here. This place seeps death and I don’t want to give it mine.’

‘The girl.’

‘If we get back to Hordaland, I’ll buy you a girl, shortly before I sell you. Come on! There are cloaks and boots by the cartload on Grettir’s men. Get some, and take a spear too if you’re wise. Come on, monk, We’ll make a Viking of you yet.’

The girl turned to face Jehan. She hated him, he could tell, but he couldn’t bring himself to tell her to go. He recalled the pond, the bodies — men and boys — and the Raven. His thoughts were returning to him, just there at the edge of his understanding, like a voice echoing from far down a valley.

Ofaeti shoved him towards the warming house. The door was open and bodies spilled out of it like a hideous tongue from a black mouth. Some were naked, some half dressed. The berserkers were still stripping them. Each living man had bags and sacks with him laden with as much gold as he could carry. The reliquary seat had been smashed, all its gilt panels and gems ripped from it. Astarth wore the fine silk robes of a priest, while Egil held the golden shepherd’s crook used in the mass.

Jehan felt something inside him, the cold shadow of an anger he would once have known. Now he was a stranger to himself. The energy that had coursed through him on the journey to Saint-Maurice was gone, replaced by a torpor, a slowness of mind. He felt that unless he focused very hard on what was in front of him and around him — the courtyard beneath his feet, the voices of the Vikings — then another reality just behind it was ready to break through and devour it.

‘Some quality stuff even for you, Christ’s man,’ said Egil.

‘Hey, I’m a man of Christ too,’ said Ofaeti. ‘Half a day worshipping him and we get all this stuff. Take my advice: offer him a prayer. You won’t be disappointed.’

Ofaeti threw Jehan a good cloak lined with fur. He sniffed it. Fox. The fur smelled to him as though it had never been washed. He sensed stress seeping from it, felt the animals’ terror as they were caught and killed, told male from female, young from old. He put the fur about him.

‘Here. What’s wrong with you?’ It was Ofaeti. ‘You have to get dry.’

‘The Raven’s been at him, I reckon,’ said Egil. ‘Look at his teeth.’

Ofaeti peered into the confessor’s mouth. ‘He’s bleeding,’ he said.

‘Strikes me that when a man gets cut in the mouth like that with no other mark on him then there’s some funny stuff going on,’ said Egil. ‘And who’s the king of funny stuff? The Raven.’

‘Are you all right?’ Ofaeti put his hand on the monk’s shoulder and looked into his eyes. Then he shook his head. ‘Reckon you’re right, Egil. Some sort of sorcery. But he saved my life so I’ll save his. Here, help me dress him.’

Ofaeti and Egil stripped Jehan, who made no effort to resist. Then they dressed him in clothes from Grettir’s men — two tunics, two pairs of trousers, a pair of fine boots and a couple of cloaks. As they did, Jehan had a glimpse of himself as he used to be — infirm, crippled, twisted. The monks had dressed him; the monks had washed him. Since he was young he had relied on others to care for him. A strange feeling of comfort came to him, of familiar things in familiar surroundings.

Ofaeti tied a beaverskin hat about Jehan head and in his hand he put the staff with the cross on it. Jehan dropped it, watching it fall without interest or concern.

‘Looks like I’ll take that then. We’ll need it until we reach our homelands,’ said Ofaeti. ‘You’re a cunning man, monk, to come up with this idea.’ He stared into Jehan’s face and saw no response. ‘Or at least you were. Shivering. Good sign. Often happens when you warm up.’

The Vikings had almost loaded up the horses they had found. Many wore three or four cloaks, fur hats and even gloves.

‘I’ll say this for Grettir,’ said Astarth, ‘he was a good king, a giver of rings. Look at this fine stuff.’

‘He hit a trader coming down from the north just as he came to join the siege,’ said Ofaeti. ‘A good haul too, thank Tyr and Christ and Jesus for us.’

‘Christ is Jesus, like Odin’s Grimnir. It’s a guise of his,’ said Fastarr.

‘All gods like a disguise,’ said Ofaeti, ‘the better to keep an eye on their followers.’

The kitchen had been raided but the food in the warming house had been left. The berserkers had seen the froth at the mouths of the dead and guessed they had been poisoned, so any bread, smoked meat or dried fruit was subjected to a lot of sniffing and poking. Egil was still doing this as he loaded it.

‘Here’s an idea,’ said Astarth, ‘we get the monk to eat it first.’

‘Good plan,’ said Varn. ‘Shall we give him some now?’

‘He’s not having any from my share,’ said Egil.

‘Your share of poisoned meat?’ said Astarth.

‘Still my share,’ said Egil.

‘I’d say by the look of him he’s eaten some. The man doesn’t look well.’

Jehan looked around him. There was something strange about the light. It seemed more intense, the colours more vivid. The snow was no longer an even white. A sheen lay upon it, subtle, barely perceptible, with splashes of greens, reds and browns and around them an iridescence as the weak light split the water crystals to rainbows. And the walls of the monastery were slick and wet with colour. The colours brought smells: plants that he recognised as belonging to the woods of Paris on the skin of the Vikings, the piss and shit of animals and humans, frozen mosses and moulds, the iron of the rust that streaked down from a horse ring sunk in the stone, the wet wood of the trough that stood next to it, the sweetness and corruption on the breath of the men, the death stink on the corpses that hung on their stolen clothes, where it mingled in with the living sweat and grime of the berserkers. It was intriguing to him, and lovely. The world seemed gloriously stained. Only the pale girl at his side had no odour, no sweat, no signature.

‘You should soak us, monk. That way we’d get a haul like this every day,’ said Varn.

‘No one’s pouring water on me in this weather,’ said Egil

‘How do you go about it if it’s cold?’ said Varn. ‘They soak babies, you know. In their freezing churches in the middle of winter. I’m surprised it doesn’t kill half of them.’

‘It’s a way of sorting out the tough ones,’ said Astarth. ‘If the kid cries they leave it out on the hills, and that’s true because my uncle told me.’

They were talking about God, Jehan realised. God. The words from the Bible did not come easily to him now. He tried to think of a line, a prayer, a song, to clear his simmering head.

‘Father, why have you forsaken me?’

‘What?’ said Ofaeti.

‘He’s raving,’ said Egil. ‘Leave him here.’

Ofaeti shook his head. ‘There are twenty kinds of enemy between here and the north coast, and he may be able to help us with half of them. Tie him to a horse and stick another cloak on him. He’ll freeze if he doesn’t move. Come on. We’ll scout a river out from the high ground and take it north. If we can buy or pinch a boat, we’ll get through. We’ll be face down in our ale in the halls of the Horda before the month’s out.’

Jehan felt himself lifted, as he’d been lifted many times before. This time it took two berserkers to get him into the saddle.

‘What’s he been eating?’ said Varn.

‘Stone, by the weight of him.’

‘You’re a hardy man, monk,’ said Ofaeti. ‘Even if you have eaten poison I’ll bet you’ll be right as rain in a couple of days.’

Jehan’s hands were loosely tied to the pommel, his feet bound to the stirrups, and then the berserkers were on their way, heading back down the pass. Jehan glanced to his left. The girl with hate in her eyes walked beside him. He had the sense that she was happy with the direction they were travelling.

‘What is your name?’ he said. She did not reply, but for some reason a name came into his head, a name that seemed to trail a hundred others behind it. Svava. It meant nothing to Jehan. He could tell hardly anything about the girl, form no impression of her. He only knew that she hated him and he felt bound to follow her wherever she chose to go.

42

The Shattered Lands

Aelis had to be wary as she headed north. She needed to get a boat downriver to the coast and from there go east. Her only hope was that the wolfman had been speaking the truth. She had to believe he had. He had nearly given his life for her twice, may in fact have given it already. And she sensed no dishonesty in him at all, unlike in the little man who rode beside her.

Of course she was careful. She refused to let Leshii sleep near her at night, leaving him to guard the horses while she found a place to hide. If he couldn’t find her then he couldn’t kill her no matter how many ravens came to warp his mind. A bigger problem would be getting hold of a boat. They needed to buy one outright and travel alone. She could not explain her odd behaviour to others and could not camp with any party of traders or pilgrims she encountered.

As it was, Leshii came up with the solution. He did a deal with a river family to take their boat down to the sea. There was no room for the horses so Leshii sold them at what, he kept repeating, was a scandalously low price. The problem was that there was only one buyer. He came from a day’s travel away and had only a few deniers. It was a question of take it or leave it. The man didn’t want the mule and Leshii was not about to leave the animal for whoever found it. He took it aboard and it settled down well enough after some initial coaxing. A boy and his two uncles followed in another vessel, to bring their boat back when they reached the sea. The men were fishermen not farmers, so there was no substantial spring planting to be done and they were glad to take the payment.

Leshii explained that Aelis was a young monk travelling east and preparing for the life of a hermit so would need to be alone to pray at night. The fishermen were not curious sorts and asked no more questions, though their gaze did linger on the sword at Aelis’s side.

The weather broke as they travelled north, iron-black clouds igniting with halos of sunlight before blowing away to leave a clear and cold blue sky. The meltwater had gone and the river’s flow was slower but still enough to take them on at a good pace.

Aelis sat in the boat huddled under her cloak. The enormous change her life had undergone since leaving Paris had come home to her and she found herself shivering and rocking, not just with the cold.

The river narrowed and broadened, bent and straightened; they passed through small settlements and larger ones where curious villagers stood on the banks to see them pass. Many of the people looked very poor, their clothes tattered and torn, a number with limbs missing or leaning for support on their fellows. The houses too were mean things, flimsy-looking, many of them burned shells. Norsemen had been there and the land was shattered. Why did King Charles buy the Vikings off? she wondered. He should have driven them out.

Leshii was puzzled. ‘They have enough traders on this river. I don’t know why they look at us as if we had the many heads of Triglav.’

‘Who is Triglav?’

‘A horse god of my people. Four heads. His worship has fallen into disuse. Helgi holds the horse in contempt and prefers to fight on foot. He won’t have the animals worshipped in his lands.’

‘What do you know of Helgi?’

‘He’s a Viking, but not from the same place as the lot besieging your brother.’

‘How many did he slaughter to win his crown?’

‘None. His ancestors conquered Ladoga, then we overthrew them and set up our own king, or rather kings. We are a fractious people, lady, many loyalties of tribe and family. We could agree nothing. So we invited the Norsemen back to rule us.’

‘You asked them to make you slaves?’

‘Not slaves, subjects. There are no ancient grudges against the Norsemen. When the Norseman makes a decision he does it on the facts, not to spite one tribe or favour another. It was for the best, and we have prospered under his rule. Helgi attacked the lands to the south and established Novgorod, which is to be the new capital when it’s completed, and Kiev, which suffered badly under the rule of two wild Varangians, Askold and Dir.’

Aelis shook her head. ‘You are not a proud people to invite another race to rule you.’

‘We are too proud. That was the problem. We’d take a thousand indignities from a foreigner before we took one from a neighbour.’

Aelis looked out. The forest of the Arrouaise was tight about them, its big oaks in bud, the river gentle and pleasant.

‘Do you think he can help me?’

Aelis knew what the answer would be — Leshii was never going to say ‘no’. But she wanted some reassurance, even the sort the merchant had to offer — which was not much different to the patter he used to sell his wares.

‘If Chakhlyk thinks so, then I think so. He has laid down his life for you, so I think you can trust him.’

‘He said he was doing this for love. Do you know what he meant?’

‘Love of money, very likely.’ Leshii saw the joke had gone down badly. ‘Who knows, lady? These men are full of riddles. He is a sorcerer, a shapeshifter. His words can have a thousand meanings and none. I do not look too deeply.’

Aelis leaned back in the boat. The mule had gone down onto its haunches. Leshii was steering — the current was strong enough that they didn’t often need to row — and Aelis tried to sleep. It was cold but she was tired. The movement of the boat lulled her. She felt herself sinking and couldn’t tell if she was awake or dreaming.

‘You did it before; you can do it again.’ A voice, a woman’s voice.

She suddenly sat upright, reaching for her sword. She was on the boat still but it was night, the river cloaked in a strange dark in which moonlight turned the water to a shimmering veil of silver, the leaves of the trees to pewter, the sky to a forge-blackened steel. She had known that darkness before. At Loches, when she had walked in the night.

There was someone with her on the boat, but she couldn’t make her head turn to look. Where was Leshii? Nowhere. Where was the mule? Nowhere.

‘You did it before. Do it again.’

‘What did I do before?’

‘What you needed to. What you will do again. Do it.’

It seemed to Aelis that the river was flowing through a very strange place indeed. It was underground, and there were no stars, just the glimmer of strange shining pebbles in the dark; no trees, just great trunks of rock dropping from the ceiling of a huge tunnel.

The boat came to shore by a small black beach. A tunnel stretched away in front of her. She got out and followed it down into the earth. From somewhere far off she could hear a monstrous grinding sound, the like of which she had never heard. It was like a great stone moving over rock. In the streets of Paris she’d once seen a pair of horses harnessed to a cart spooked by a dancing bear. The cart had hit another, smashing a wheel and breaking a horse’s leg. The uninjured animal had panicked and tried to bolt, the cart scraping behind, the lame horse screaming and staggering. This sound was also of something stricken, broken, and brought with it a sensation of deep agony, something wrong in the order of nature. But Aelis felt compelled to seek it out.

She walked down the tunnel, and though it was dark, she could see. A light seemed to shine from within her, and she realised that another of those strange symbols had lit up inside her. This was nothing like the horse symbol: it did not breathe, it did not sweat, and though it shone, it was not with the lustre of a horse’s coat but with an intense flame. It was a much smaller presence than the horse symbol, not at all expansive but dense and bright with a light that seemed to illuminate not only her vision but her mind so that she became aware of the teeming darkness pricked by lights that spread out across the earth. There were so many living things around her shining from the vast night, she felt like a bright cold star in the twinkling field of the heavens.

‘You did it before. Do it again.’

‘What?’

‘Your lover is dead but he will live again. Without you if your courage fails.’

Aelis looked around her. Just the tunnels, just the rock. She couldn’t see where the voice was coming from. Then the tunnel dipped and turned, grew narrow. A gap was to her right, no more than a fissure in the rock. Something glistened and shone on the wall next to it. She put out her hand and touched it. She looked at her fingers. They were wet and shiny. She couldn’t see the red of the blood, the whole cave was bathed in a lead light that turned everything to shades of grey but she sensed red. Aelis went through the crack in the rock, edging herself sideways to get in. She was not a big woman but still it was a breath-crushing push, the fissure so narrow that at points she had to wriggle to get through. But she did get through. She was in a room, a small chamber just high enough to stand in, though after ten paces it began to taper to nothing, the jagged ceiling coming down to a sharp and stony floor like the jaws of a great animal.

It was a scene of carnage. On the floor lay a huge wolf, its eyes vacant, its tongue lolling, its throat cut, a pool of blood about it. It was dying, and the noise it made was a wet rasp that seemed to fill up her mind, leaving her incapable of thinking of anything else. The wolf’s breathing quickened when it saw her and it tried to get up, though it seemed fatally wounded and could not stand. She did not feel afraid and went forward to put her hand on its great head. Its eyes turned to hers and they seemed almost human, full of longing.

Next to it lay three bodies, or the remains of bodies. One was a man with long silver hair, his hand still clasped around the handle of a strange curved sword. She had seen that before. It was the Raven’s sword. The second hardly existed. It was no more than a ripped spinal cord hanging from a skull like a bloody plait. It was female, that was all she could say. The other body she knew. Its face was instantly familiar.

The man wore a dark wolfskin about him, and his muscles were strong and taut, but a gout of flesh had been ripped from his side. She thought of Sindre, who had struggled to rescue her from that thing with the torn face, but this was not Sindre. Though the face was much stronger, more vigorous, not drawn or wasted like that of the monk, still she recognised him. It was Jehan, the confessor. Aelis felt her throat tighten, tears come to her eyes. She heard her own voice speaking: ‘I loved you but the gods did not love us.’

Someone was watching her but she could not see who.

She knelt at the confessor’s side and pulled back the wolfskin from his face. He was dead. She lifted him. His body felt light in her arms. She dragged him through the fissure in the rock, pulling him through until she was back in the larger passageway.

Aelis felt a breeze on her right side and looked to see where it was coming from. An archway of light was there. She walked towards it.

Lady! Lady! Another voice. She recognised it. It was the merchant.

She stepped into the arch and found herself looking out over a broad and beautiful land of mountains and rivers. To her right she saw the ocean, to her left a wide and fertile valley. She was very high up indeed; wisps of cloud hung beneath her. When she looked down, the ground seemed to rush and swim, and she knew that if she stepped forward, she would fall to her death.

‘You did it before; you can do it again.’

Lady, put down the sword. Lady, you will hurt yourself.

‘Do it. For your lover.’

She looked over her shoulder. Behind her was the creature with the defiled and torn face, the woman whose head looked like a gall apple on an oak rather than anything human.

But then she felt a light burning inside her. She felt something manifesting in her mind — a shape, two lines at an angle, like a K but without the vertical line, an arrowhead. It flamed and burned, crackled and shone, and when it shone it threw out a light that illuminated everything before it in a way far beyond sight.

The man in her arms had the confessor’s face, but it was not the confessor.

‘He is not dead,’ she said.

‘He is on the brink. If you go, he will know and he will follow you.’

‘He is not dead. I know who he is and so do you.’

Lady, lady, put it down, for the sake of the lord of the holy lightning. What do you mean to do? Does not your religion forbid it? A Christian must not take his own life. You must not take your own life.

Leshii was gesturing at her with his hands raised as if trying to coax a valuable vase from the hands of a two-year-old. To Aelis he was an insubstantial figure. The reality of the caves seemed stronger.

‘See my lover. Your pretence is undone,’ Aelis said.

She turned and showed the face of the man in her arms to the woman behind her. The creature fell back and clasped the side of the cave, then fell to the floor and screamed, a piercing frightful noise that had within it the tortured cries of foxes in traps that Aelis had heard in the night at Loches, the screams of relatives of thieves hanging on the gallows, the cries of children in the burning buildings of Paris. It was the sound of the collapse of reason and sanity.

She looked down at the face of the man in her arms and now she screamed too. It was the Raven.

Aelis let the sword fall from her hands, and Leshii sprang forward to wipe away the blood where she had been pressing it into her neck beneath her chin.

‘It was the witch. You were enchanted.’

‘Yes.’

‘What is to be done? What is to be done?’ The merchant was talking as much to himself as to her.

Aelis sat back against the prow of the little boat. She was cold beyond measure.

‘Get me to a fire, Leshii.’

‘The night is falling, lady. We cannot risk the birds.’

‘The birds will not come tonight.