‘The Elder King,’ Snippet 3

Reconstructed longhouse at Lofotr Viking Museum. Photo 2008 by
Jörg Hempel

I raised my face to look at him. “Why have I never heard of this?” I asked. “I’d think Augvaldsness would be a place of pilgrimage for the whole north – for the English and the Franks as well.”

            “We’ve been chary of the great Roman church here in Rogaland,” said Baard. “They keep throwing that Arian thing you touched on in our faces, when they notice us at all. We’d as soon not have them looking too closely at our ways. We’ve learned that when the Romans look for error, they generally find it, whether it’s there or not.”

            “As an Irishman, I know what you mean,” I said.

            Baard slipped the cover back on the reliquary, and we went back out into the dark. You’d think that that revelation would be my chief memory of that night, but it pales in recollection, because of what followed.

            As we stepped back through the entry and into the hall, a figure filled my view, dark against the light, haloed like a saint in some eastern icon. She sidestepped right to let me pass, and I stepped left to let her pass, and so we did that foolish dance you do in narrow places, each trying to make way for the other. At last we both stopped and laughed, and by now I could see her face.

            It was the loveliest face I’d ever seen on human head. She was woman in her full bloom, but slender. A few strands of hair that peeked from under her headcloth were light brown, and her eyes – those eyes! I see them even now – large and blue under dark brows slightly curved. Her face was longer than an oval, rather triangular in shape to make room for those great eyes,   and her lips were full, but not to excess.

            At that very moment I felt my stomach lurch, as if I’d stepped down a well in the dark.

            I closed my eyes and shook my head, fearing I’d eaten something bad and was about to shame myself before this woman, through being sick. The feeling passed.

            Then I looked back in her eyes, and my stomach went whump again.

            I looked away. All was steady.

            I looked back at her.


            I was lost for words to say, but Baard moved up from behind me and broke the moment.

            “Ah, Lady Godwina. Father Ailill, I’ve been meaning to present you. She has a boon to ask of Erling, and we’d hoped you’d speak for us.”

            “Anything — anything I can do with honor,” I said, my mouth dry. She gestured toward the space behind Baard and me, and we all moved back into the entry room, away from the noise of the feast.

            “’Tis honor to meet you, Father Ailill,” said Godwina. She spoke the Norse tongue well, but with the accent of the English. “May I present my brother Edwald?”

            I hadn’t even noticed the man. He was dressed in gray and wore a hood which he kept up, even here indoors, and he kept his arms thrust up the long sleeves of his shirt. I couldn’t get a good look at his face, but it seemed to me there was something amiss with it. “Greetings, Edwald,” I said.

            “Edwald speaks little,” Godwina said. She said it calmly, as if discussing commonplaces with a friend. “Knut the Dane had his hands, his ears, and his nose carved off.”

            The man lowered his head. An accustomed action, I guessed.

            “One of Knut’s hostages,” I said.

            “Yes,” said Godwina. “When Knut fled England after his father’s death, he maimed the hostages he’d taken and left them ashore. When he came back with his armies, and seemed likely to prevail, we’d no wish to live longer in his England, though our kin submitted to him. We took ship for the Orkneys, where we have kin, but a storm drove us to this isle and wrecked us. We’ve no wealth left beside a good English name. We learned that Erling is enemy to Knut. So we’ve come to ask his aid.”

            “What sort of aid?” I asked.

            “Passage to the Orkneys.”

            “I’d think that’s something Erling might do,” I said. “Are you keen to meet him now?”

            “Whenever we may.”                                           

            “Then let’s go say hello,” I said. “He’s most often in a jovial mood when bellies are full and the drinking has gone serious.”

            I led them down the hearth-way to Erling’s high seat, half way down the hall on our right. Erling was having a joke with one of the rich bonders – the rich farmers – and when I caught his eye he beckoned me nearer. We all stood before him, the longfire to our backs.

            “My lord Erling,” I said. “I would present Lady Godwina, an Englishwoman, and her brother Edwald.”

            The two of them bowed gravely.

            “English,” said Erling. “You’re foes of Knut?”

            “Foes to the death,” said Godwina.

Erling smiled at that. “Best to keep your voices down, then. Jarl Svein seems to have dozed off, but I’d rather he not waken to hear us goat-mouthing his brother’s lord.” We all nodded.

            “How long away from home?” Erling asked Godwina.

            “About a month.”

            “Then tell me news. Is Jarl Erik dead yet?”

            “Alas, no. He prospers, as does his king, whom may God smite.”

            “Your talk suits me well,” said Erling. “Thralls, bring a bench for these people. I would have words with them.”

            A short-legged bench was brought for us and we sat, our backs to the fire. Ale-filled cups were placed in our hands. Then followed the story, and questions and answers I won’t weary you with. Erling asked keen questions, and Lady Godwina proved a woman who noticed things, as well as one of good sense.

            “Have you heard of a Norwegian named Olaf Haraldsson?” Erling asked at last.

            “Surely,” said Godwina. “He fought for Ethelred as a mercenary. He’s known as a canny and bloody-handed warrior. They call him Olaf the Stout.”

            “Olaf Digre in Norwegian,” Erling said, nodding. “But the name means more than fat. It means stubborn and proud, someone who must have his way in all things.”

            “I found him so,” said Lady Edwina with a smile, “when he tried to talk me into his bed. My husband yet lived at the time. Young Olaf took it badly that I turned him away.”

            Erling quaffed ale from one of his Rhenish glass cups. “There are rumors he’s headed for Norway, as Knut’s man,” he said. “Which is puzzling, as I’d heard — as you say – that he was with Ethelred.”

“He disappeared from court,” said Godwina. “Some said he’d gone over to Knut. He wasn’t the only one. We, of course, had nowhere to go, except out of the land altogether.”

“A man with an eye for the main chance,” said Erling. “Not overburdened with loyalty. That’s good to know, in case he should wash up here.”

“Why do you ask about him?” Godwina asked.

Erling looked around. “His name keeps popping up. Have you ever noticed, sometimes a man or a thing you’ve never heard of before becomes everyone’s talk all at once, for no reason you can tell?”

“Well, if you meet him, my counsel is not to trust him.”

 Erling sat in thought for a moment. “So what can I do for you?” he asked.

            “We beg passage on one of your ships to Orkney. Our kin there will make it worth your while.”

            “I think that can be arranged,” he said. “But I hope you’ll not hasten to leave. You are charming company, Lady Godwina. I observe that Father Ailill can’t take his eyes off you, in spite of his views on priestly marriage.”

            I was about to make a sharp retort, presuming as so often I had on Erling’s friendship, but Jarl Svein in the guest seat across the fire chose to rouse himself, snorting and calling for more ale. Erling said it was time for his own bed. Lady Godwina took her leave, and I adjourned to my place on the bench.

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