865 A.D. Warring kings rule over the British Isles, but the Church rules over the kings, threatening all who oppose them with damnation. Only the dreaded Vikings of Scandinavia do not fear the priests.Shef, the bastard son of a Norse raider and a captive English lady, is torn by divided loyalties and driven by strange visions that seem to come from Odin himself. A smith and warrior, he alone dares to imagine new weapons and tactics with which to carve out a kingdom--and launch an all-out war between....The Hammer and the Cross. At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.
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November 01, 1994
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Excerpt from The Hammer & The Cross by Harry Harrison
The Hammer and the Cross
NORTHEAST COAST OF ENGLAND, A.D. 865
Spring. A spring dawn on Flamborough Head, where the rock of the Yorkshire Wolds juts out into the North Sea like a gigantic fishhook, millions of tons in weight. Pointing out to sea, pointing to the ever-present threat of the Vikings. Now the kings of the little kingdoms were uneasily beginning to draw together against this threat from the North. Uneasy and jealous, remembering the long hostilities and the trail of murder that had marked the history of the Angles and the Saxons ever since they came here centuries ago. Proud warsmiths who overcame the Welsh, noble warriors who--as the poets say--obtained the land.
Godwin the Thane cursed to himself as he paced the wooden palisade of the little fort erected on the very tip of Flamborough Head itself. Spring! Maybe in more fortunate parts the lengthening days and the light evenings meant greenery and buttercups and heavy-uddered cows trooping to the byres to be milked. Here on the Head it meant wind. It meant the equinoctial gales and the nor'easter blowing. Behind him the low, gnarled trees stood in line, one behind the other like men with their backs turned, each successive one a few inches higher than the one to windward, so that they formed natural wind-arrows or weathercocks, pointing out to the tormented sea. On three sides all round him the gray water heaved slowly like an immense animal, thewaves starting to curl and then flattening out again as the wind tore at them, beating them down and levelling out even the massive surges of the ocean. Gray sea, gray sky, squalls blotting the horizon, no color in the world at all except when the rollers finally crashed into the striated walls of the cliffs, shattering and sending up great plumes of spray. Godwin had been there so long that he no longer heard the roar of the collision, noticed it only when the spray reached so high up the cliff that the water which soaked his cloak and hood and dripped onto his face turned salt instead of fresh.
Not that it made any difference, he thought numbly. It was all just as cold. He could go back into the shelter, kick the slaves aside, warm his frozen hands and feet by the fire. There was no chance of raiders on a day like this. The Vikings were seamen, the greatest seamen in the world, or so they said. You didn't have to be a great seaman to know that there was no point in putting out on a day like this. The wind was due east--no, he reflected, due east a point north. Fine for blowing you across from Denmark, but how could you keep a longship from broaching to in this sea? And how could you steer for a safe landing once you arrived? No, no chance at all. He might as well be by the fire.
Godwin looked longingly at the shelter with its little trail of smoke instantly whipped away by the wind, but turned his pace and began to shuffle along the palisade again. His lord had trained him well. "Don't think, Godwin," he had said. "Don't think maybe they'll come today and maybe they won't. Don't believe that it's worth keeping a lookout some of the time and it's not worth it the rest. While it's day, you stay on the Head. Look out all the time. Or one day you'll be thinking one thing and some Stein or Olaf'll think another and they'll be ashore and twenty miles inland before we can catch up with them--if we ever do. And that's a hundred lives lost and a hundred pounds in silver and cattle and burnt thatch. And the rents not paid for years after. So watch, Thane, or it's your estates that will suffer."
So his lord Ella had said. And behind him the black crow,Erkenbert, had crouched over his parchment, his quill squeaking as he traced out the mysterious black lines that Godwin feared more than he feared the Vikings. "Two months' service on Flamborough Head to Godwin the thane," he had pronounced. "He is to watch till the third Sunday after Ramis Palmarum." The alien syllables had nailed the orders down.
Watch they had said and watch he would. But he didn't have to do it as dry as a reluctant virgin. Godwin bellowed downwind to the slaves, for the hot spiced ale he had commanded half an hour before. Instantly one of them came running out, the leather mug in his hand. Godwin eyed him with deep disfavor as he trotted over to the palisade and up the ladder to the watchkeeper's walkway. A damned fool, this one. Godwin kept him because he had sharp eyes, but that was all. Merla, his name. He had been a fisherman once. Then there had been a hard winter, little to catch, he had fallen behind with the dues he owed to his landlords, the black monks of St. John's Minister at Beverley, twenty miles off. First he had sold his boat to pay his dues and feed his wife and bairns. Then, when he had no money and could not feed them any longer, he had had to sell his family to a richer man, and in the end had sold himself to his former landlords. And they had lent Merla to Godwin. Damned fool. If the slave had been a man of honor he would have sold himself first and given the money to his wife's kin, so at least they would have taken her in. If he had been a man of sense he would have sold his wife and the bairns first and kept the boat. Then maybe he would have had a chance to buy them back. But he was a man of neither sense nor honor. Godwin turned his back on the wind and the sea and took a firm swallow from the brimming mug. At least the slave hadn't been sipping from it. He could learn from a thrashing if from nothing else.
Now what was the wittol staring at? Staring past his master's shoulder, mouth agape, pointing out to sea.
"Ships," he yelled. "Viking ships, two mile out to sea. I see 'em again. Look, master, look!"
Godwin spun automatically, cursed as the hot liquid slopped over his sleeve, peered out into the cloud and rain along the pointing arm. Was there a dot there, out where the cloud met the waves? No, nothing. Or ... maybe. He could see nothing steadily, but out there the waves would be running twenty feet high, high enough to shelter any ship trying to ride out a storm under bare poles.
"I see 'em," yelled Merla again. "Two ships, a cable apart."
"No, master, knorrs."
Godwin hurled the mug over his shoulder, seized the slave's thin arm in an iron grasp, and slashed him viciously across the face, forehand, backhand, with a sodden leather gauntlet. Merla gasped and ducked but did not dare to try to shield himself.
"Talk English, you whore's get. And talk sense."
"A knorr, master. It's a merchant ship. Deep-bellied, for cargo." He hesitated, afraid to show further knowledge, afraid to conceal it. "I can recognize 'un by ... by the shape of the prow. They must be Vikings, master. We don't use 'em."
Godwin stared out to sea again, anger fading, replaced by a cold, hard feeling at the base of his stomach. Doubt. Dread.
"Listen, Merla, to me," he whispered. "Be very sure. If those are Vikings must call out the entire coast-watch, every man from here to Bridlington. They are only churls and slaves, when all is said and done. No harm if they are dragged from their greasy wives.
"But I must do something else. As soon as the watch is called I must also send riders in to the minister at Beverley, to the monks of good St. John--your masters, remember?"
He paused to note the terror and the old memories in Merla's eyes.
"And they will call out the mounted levy, the thanes of Ella. No good keeping them here, where the pirates could feint at Flamborough and then be twenty miles off roundSpurn Head before they could get their horses out of the marsh. So they stay back, so they can ride in any direction once the threat is seen. But if I call them out, and they ride over here in the wind and the rain on a fool's errand ... And especially if some Viking sneaks in through the Humber while their backs are turned ...
"Well, it would be bad for me, Merla." His voice sharpened and he lifted the underfed slave off the ground. "But by almighty God in heaven I'll see you regret it till the last day you live. And after the thrashing you get that may not be long.
"But, Merla, if those are Viking ships out there and you let me not report them--I'll hand you back to the black monks and say I could do nothing with you.
"Now, what do you say? Viking ships, or no?"
The slave stared out again to sea, his face working. He would have been wiser, he thought, to say nothing. What was it to him if the Vikings sacked Flamborough, or Bridlington, or Beverley Minster itself? They could not enslave him any more than he was already. Maybe foreign heathens would be better masters than the people of Christ at home. Too late to think that now. The sky was clearing, momentarily. He could see, even if his weak-eyed landlubber of a master could not. He nodded.
"Two Viking ships, master. Two mile out to sea. Southeast."
Godwin was away, bellowing instructions, calling to his other slaves, shouting for his horse, his horn, his small, reluctant force of conscripted freemen. Merla straightened, walked slowly to the southwest angle of the palisade, looked out thoughtfully and carefully. The weather cleared momentarily, and for a few heartbeats he could see plain. He looked at the run of the waves--the turbid yellow line a hundred yards offshore which marked the long, long expanse of tidal sandbanks which ran the full length of this barest and most harborless, wind- and current-swept stretch of English shore--tossed a handful of moss from the palisadeinto the air and studied the way it flew. Slowly a grim and humorless smile creased his careworn face.
Great sailors those Vikings might be. But they were in the wrong place, on a lee shore with a widow-maker blowing. Unless the wind dropped, or their heathen gods from Valhalla could help them, they stood no chance. They would never see Jutland or the Vik again.
Two hours later fivescore men stood clustered on the beach south of the Head, at the north end of the long, long, inletless stretch of coast that ran down to Spurn Head and the mouth of the Humber. They were armed: leather jackets and caps, spears, wooden shields, a scattering of the broadaxes they used to shape their boats and houses. Here and there a sax, the short chopping sword from which the Saxons to the south took their name. Only Godwin had a metal helmet and mail-shirt to pull on, a brass-hilted broadsword to buckle round his waist. In the normal way of things men like these, the coast-watch of Bridlington, would not hope or expect to stand on the shore and trade blows with the professional warriors of Denmark and Norway. Rather, they would fade away, taking as much as they could of their goods and wives with them. Waiting for the mounted levy, the thane-service of Northumbria, to come down and do the fighting for which they earned their estates and manor houses. Waiting hopefully for a chance to swarm forward and join in the harassing of a beaten enemy, the chance of taking loot. It was not a chance which had come to any Englishman since Oakley fourteen years before. And that had been in the south, in the foreign kingdom of Wessex, where all manner of strange things happened.
Nevertheless the mood of the men watching the knorrs out in the bay was unalarmed, even cheerful. Almost every man in the coast-watch was a fisherman, skilled in the ways of the North Sea. The worst water in the world, with its fogs and gales, its monstrous tides and unexpected currents. As the day strengthened and the Viking ships were blown remorselessly closer in, Merla's realization had come to everyone :The Vikings were doomed. It was just a matter of what they could try next. And whether they would try it, lose, and get the wreck over with before the mounted levy Godwin had summoned hours before could arrive, resplendent in its armor, colored cloaks and gold-mounted swords. After which, opinion among the fishermen felt, the chances of any worthwhile plunder for them were low. Unless they marked the spot and tried later, in secret, with grappling irons ... Quiet conversations ran among the men at the rear, with an occasional low laugh.
"See," the town reeve was explaining to Godwin at the front, "the wind's east a point north. If they put up a scrap of sail they can run west, north or south." He drew briefly in the wet sand at their feet. "If he goes west he hits us. If he goes north he hits the Head. Mind you, if he could get past the Head he'd have a clear run northwest away up to Cleveland. That's why he was trying his sweeps an hour ago. A few hundred yards out to sea and he'd have been free. But what we knows, and what they doesn't, is there's a current. Hell of a current, rips down past the Head. They might as well stir the water with their ..." He paused, not sure how far informality could go.
"Why doesn't he go south?" cut in Godwin.
"He will. He's tried the sweeps, tried the sea-anchor to check his drift. It's my guess the one in charge, the jarl what they call them, he knows his men are exhausted. A rare old night they must have had of it. And a shock in the morning when they saw where they were." The reeve shook his head with a kind of professional sympathy.
"They are not such great sailors," pronounced Godwin with satisfaction. "And God is against them, foul, heathen Church-defilers."
A stir of excitement behind them cut off the reply the reeve might have been incautious enough to make. The two men turned.
On the path that ran along behind high-water mark, a dozen men were dismounting. The levy? thought Godwin. The thanes from Beverley? No, they could not possiblyhave arrived in this time. They must only now be saddling up. Yet the man in front was a nobleman. Big, burly, fair hair, bright blue eyes, with the upright stance of a man who had never had to plough or hoe for a living. Gold shone beneath his expensive scarlet cape, on buckles and sword-pommel. Behind him strode a smaller, younger version of himself, surely his son. And on the other side of him another youth, tall, straight-backed like a warrior. But dark in complexion, poorly dressed in tunic and wool breeches. Grooms held the horses for half a dozen more armed, competent-looking men--a retinue, surely, a rich thane's hearth-troop.
The leading stranger held his empty hand up. "You do not know me," he said. "I am Wulfgar. I am a thane from King Edmund's country, from the East Angles."
A stir of interest from the crowd, the dawnings his message might be of hostility.
"You wonder what I am doing here. I will tell you." He gestured out at the shore. "I hate Vikings. I know more of them than most men. And, like most men, to my sorrow. In my own country, among the North-folk beyond the Wash, I am the coast-guard, set by King Edmund. But long ago I saw that we would never get rid of these vermin while we English fought only our own battles. I persuaded my king of this, and he sent messages to yours. They agreed that I should come north, to talk with the wise men in Beverley and in Eoforwich about what we might do. I took a wrong road last night, met your messengers riding to Beverley this morning. I have come to help." He paused. "Have I your leave?"
Godwin nodded slowly. Never mind what the lowborn fish-churl of a reeve said. Some of the bastards might come ashore. And if they did, this lot might well scatter. A dozen armed men just might be useful.
"Come and welcome," he said.
Wulfgar nodded with deliberate satisfaction. "I am only just in time," he remarked.
Out to sea the penultimate act of the wreck was about totake place. One of the two knorrs was fifty yards farther in than the other; her men more tired or maybe less driven by their skipper. Now she was about to pay the price. Her wallowing rolls in the waves changed angle, the bare mast rocking crazily. Suddenly the watching men could see that the yellow line of underwater sandbanks was the other side of the hull. Crewmen exploded from the deck and the planks where they had been lying, ran furiously up and down, grabbing sweeps, thrusting them over the side, trying to pole their ship off and gain a few extra moments of life.
Too late. A cry of despair rang thinly across the water as the Vikings saw it, echoed by a hum of excitement from the Englishmen on the shore: the wave, the big wave, the seventh wave that always rolls farthest up the beach. Suddenly the knorr was up on it, lifted and tilted sideways in a cascade of boxes and barrels and men sliding from the windward into the leeward scuppers. Then the wave was gone and the knorr smashed down, landing with a thump on the hard sand and gravel of the bank. Planks flew, the mast was over the side in a tangle of cordage; for an instant a man could be seen grasping desperately to the ornamented dragon-prow. Then another wave covered everything, and when it passed there were only bobbing fragments.
The fishermen nodded. A few crossed themselves. If the good God spared them from the Vikings, that was the way they expected to go one day--like men, with the cold salt in their mouths, and rings in their ears to pay kindly strangers to bury them. Now, there was one more thing for a skillful captain to try.
The remaining Viking was going to try it, to scud south with the wind abeam and all the easting he could get, rather than wait passively for death like his consort had. A man appeared suddenly at the steering oar. Even from two furlongs' distance the watchers could see his red beard wagging as he bellowed orders, could hear the echo of his urgency rolling across the water. There were men at the ropes, waiting, heaving together. A scrap of sail leapt free from the yard, caught instantly by the wind and tugged out.As the ship shot urgently towards shore another volley of orders swung the yard round and the boat heeled downwind. Within seconds she was steady on a new course, picking up speed, throwing water wide from her bow-wave as she raced away from the Head down toward the Spurn.
"They're getting away!" yelled Godwin. "Get the horses!" He cuffed his groom out of the way, scrambled astride, and set off at a gallop in pursuit, Wulfgar, the stranger thane, only a pace or two behind, and the rest of their retinues following in strung-out, disorderly lines. Only the dark boy who had come with Wulfgar hesitated.
"You're not hurrying," he said to the motionless reeve. "Why not? Don't you want to catch up with them?"
The reeve grinned, stooped, picked a pinch of sand from the beach and threw it in the air. "They've got to try it," he remarked. "Nothing else to do. But they're not going to get far."
Turning on his heel he indicated a score of men to stay where they were and watch the beach for wreckage or survivors. Another score of mounted men set off along the path behind the thanes. The rest, bunched together, began to trot purposefully but deliberately along the beach after the racing ship.
As the minutes passed even the landsmen realized what the reeve had seen straight away. The Viking skipper was not going to win his gamble. Twice already he had tried to force his ship's head out to sea, two men joining the red-bearded one as he strained at the steering oar, the rest of the crew bracing the yard round till the ropes sang iron-hand in the wind. Both times the waves had heaved, heaved remorselessly at the prow till it wavered, swung back, the ship's hull shuddering with the forces contending on it. And again the skipper had tried, turning back parallel with the coastline and building up speed for another dash to the safety of the open sea.
But was he parallel with the coastline this time? Even to the inexperienced eyes of Godwin and Wulfgar it looked this time as if something was different: stronger wind, heaviersea, the grip of the inshore current dragging at the bottom. The red-bearded man was still by the oar, still shouting orders for some other maneuver, the ship was still racing along, as the poets said, like a foamy-necked floater, but her prow was turning in inch by inch or foot by foot; the yellow line was perilously close to her bow-wave, it was clear she was going to--
Strike. One instant the ship was running full tilt, the next her prow had slammed into unyielding gravel. The mast snapped off instantly and hurled itself forward, taking half the crew with it. The planks of the clinker-built boat sprang outward from their settings, letting in the onrushing sea. In a heartbeat the whole ship had opened up like a flower. And then vanished, leaving only cordage streaming in the wind for a moment to show where she had been. And, once again, bobbing fragments in the water.
Bobbing fragments, the fishermen noticed interestedly as they panted up, this time rather closer to shore. One of them a head. A red head.
"Is he going to make it, do you think?" asked Wulfgar. They could see the man clearly now, fifty yards out in the water, hanging still and making no effort to swim farther as he eyed the great waves pounding in to destroy themselves on the shore.
"He's going to try," replied Godwin, motioning men forward to the watermark. "If he does, we'll grab him."
Redbeard had made his mind up and started to swim forward, hurling the water aside with great strokes of his arms. He had seen the great wave coming behind him. It lifted him, he was swept forward, straining to keep himself on top of the wave as if he could propel himself up the beach and land as weightlessly as the white foam that crawled almost to the soles of the thanes' leather shoes. For ten strokes he was there, the watchers turning their heads up to look at him as he swung to the crest of the wave. Then the wave in front, retreating, checked his progress in a great swirl of sand and stone, the crest broke, dissolved. Smashed himdown with a grunt and a snap. Rolled him helplessly forward. Dragged him back with the undertow.
"Go in and get him," yelled Godwin. "Move, you hare-hearts! He can't hurt you."
Two of the fishermen darted forward between the waves, grabbed an arm each and hauled him back, for a moment waist-deep amid the smother but then out, the redbeard braced between them.
"He's still alive," muttered Wulfgar in astonishment. "I thought that wave was enough to break his spine."
The redbeard's feet touched the shore, he looked round at the eighty men confronting him, his teeth showed suddenly in a flashing grin.
"What welcome," he remarked.
He turned in the grip of his two rescuers, placed the outside of his foot on one man's shin, raked it down with full weight onto the instep. The man howled and let go the brawny arm he was clutching. Instantly the arm swept across, two fingers extended, driving deep into the eyes of the man still holding on. He, too, shrieked and fell to his knees, blood starting from between his fingers. The Viking plucked the gutting-knife from his belt, stepped forward, seized the nearest Englishman with one hand and stabbed savagely upwards with the other. As the fisherman's mates leapt back, shouting in alarm, he snatched a spear, whipped the knife back and hurled it, grabbed a sax from the hand of the fallen man. Ten heartbeats after his feet touched the shore he was the center of a semicircle of men, all backing away from him, except the two still lying at his feet.
His teeth showed again as he threw his head back in a wild guffaw. "Come now," he shouted gutturally. "I one, you many. Come to fight with Ragnar. Who is great one who comes first? You. Or you." He flourished his spear at Godwin and Wulfgar, now isolated, mouths gaping, by the fishermen still drawing respectfully back.
"We'll have to take him," muttered Godwin, drawing his broadsword with a wheep. "I wish I had my shield."
Wulfgar followed suit, stepping sideways, pushing backthe fair-haired boy who stood a pace behind him. "Go back, Alfgar. If we can disarm him the churls will finish it for us."
The two Englishmen edged forward, swords drawn, facing the bearlike figure which stood grinning, waiting for them, the blood and water still surging round his feet.
Then he was in motion, heading straight for Wulfgar, moving with the speed and ferocity of a charging boar. Wulfgar sprang back in shock, landed awkwardly, a foot twisting under him. The Viking missed with a lefthand slash, poised the right arm for a downward killing thrust.
Something jerked the redbeard off his feet, hurled him backward, struggling helplessly to free an arm, twisted him round and threw him heavily into the wet sand. A net. A fisherman's net. The reeve and two more jumped forward, seized handfuls of tarry cordage, jerked the net tighter. One twitched the sax from an enmeshed hand, another stamped savagely on the fingers holding the spear, breaking shaft and bones in the same movement. They rolled the helpless man quickly, expertly, like a dangerous dogfish or herring-shark. They straightened, looking down, and waited for orders.
Wulfgar limped over, exchanging glances with Godwin. "What have we caught here?" he muttered. "Something tells me this is no two-ship chieftain out of luck."
He eyed the garments of the netted man, reached down and felt them.
"Goatskin," he said. "Goatskin with pitch on. He called himself Ragnar. We've caught Lothbrok himself. Ragnar Lothbrok. Ragnar Hairy-Breeks."
"We can't deal with him," said Godwin in the silence. "He'll have to go to King Ella."
Another voice broke in, the voice of the dark boy who had questioned the reeve.
"King Ella?" he said. "I thought Osbert was king of the Northumbrians."
Godwin turned to Wulfgar with weary politeness. "I don't know how you discipline your people in the North-folk," he remarked. "But if he were mine and said something like that - I'd have his tongue torn out. Unless he's your kin, of course."
In the lightless stable no one could see him. The dark boy leaned his face on the saddle and let himself slump. His back was like fire, the wool tunic sticky with blood, rasping and pulling free at every movement. The beating had been the worst he had ever suffered, and he had suffered many, many thrashings from rope and leather, bent over the horse-trough in the yard of the place he called home.
It was that remark about kin that had done it, he knew. He hoped he had not cried out so that the strangers would hear him. Toward the end he hadn't been able to tell. Pained memories of dragging himself out into the daylight. Then the long ride across the Wolds, trying to hold himself straight. What would happen now they were in Eoforwich? Once upon a time the fabled city, home of the long-departed but mysterious Rome-folk and their legions, had stirred his fervent imagination more than the songs of glory of the minstrels. Now he was here, and he only wanted to escape.
When would he be free of his father's guilt? Of his stepfather's hate?
Shef pulled himself together and began to unbuckle the girth, dragging at the heavy leather. Wulfgar, he was sure, would soon formally enslave him, put the iron collar round his neck, ignore the faint protests of his mother, and sell him in the market at Thetford or Lincoln. He would get a good price. In childhood Shef had hung around the village forge, drawn by the fire, hiding from the abuse and the thrashings. Slowly he had come to help the smith, pumping the bellows, holding the tongs, beating out the iron blooms. Making his own tools. Making his own sword.
They would not let him keep it once he was a slave. Maybe he should run now. Slaves sometimes got away. Usually not.
He pulled off the saddle and groped round the unfamiliar stable for a place to stow it. The door opened, bringing inlight, a candle, and the familiar cold, scornful voice of Alfgar.
"Not finished yet? Then drop it, I'll send a groom. My father is called to council with the king and the great ones. He must have a servant behind his chair to pour his ale. It is not fitting for me to do it and the companions are too proud. Go, now. The king's bower-thane waits to instruct you."
Shef plodded out into the courtyard of the king's great wooden hall, new-built within the square of the old Roman ramparts, into the dim light of the spring evening, almost too tired to walk straight. And yet, inside him, something stirred, something hot and excited. Council? Great ones? They would decide the fate of the prisoner, the mighty warrior. It would be a story to tell Godive, one that none of the wiseacres of Emneth could match.
"And keep your mouth shut," a voice hissed from inside the stable. "Or he will have your tongue torn out. And remember: Ella is king in Northumbria now. And you are no kin to my father."
Copyright (c) 1993 by Harry Harrison and John Holm