A fantasy adventure set in the 9th century. With plans under way for a Christian crusade against the pagan Viking lords of England, an English boy finds himself a pawn between those Vikings who would live in peace and those who seek only war.
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Harry Harrison is the author of Deathworld, Make Room! Make Room! (filmed as Soylent Green), the popular Stainless Steel Rat books, and many other famous works of SF.
The Hammer and the Cross
Thrall Chapter One 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." "Longships?" "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...
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