The best-known of this sort of tale is Beowulf. Indeed, my introduction to the Viking narrative was Beowulf. It’s a remarkable tale of heroism and monsters, and if you haven’t read it, let me encourage you to do so. There are many translations into modern English available, and you can choose from prose or poetic versions. A very nice one is that by the late, great Irish poet Seamus Heaney.
But there are many great sagas. For instance, in recent years, J.R.R. Tolkien’s version of The Saga of the Volsungs was published. Tolkien fills in some of the blanks for modern readers by including related scenes from other works, and so the title of his translation is The Legend of Sigurd andGudrun.That all may be a long-winded way to get to my point, which is to introduce the passage below, part of a work in progress from my own Viking tale, Evening Wolf. The title character, Kveldulf (whose name translates to Evening Wolf), actually appears in one of the original Norse tales, Egil’sSaga, a famous saga about a black-hearted warrior-poet named Egil Skallagrimsson. Kveldulf is Egil’s father. A few hints about Kveldulf’s youth are mentioned in the saga, but no specific details. I use those few clues to build my story about Evening Wolf. On with the tale . . .
Osvif Knifetongue was awake and up before the day to see the sun burn off the fog that had separated them from the other ships they traveled with. Last night, quickly reaching the point they would be unable to see or hear, the longship turned closer to the coast as the stars appeared and then disappeared in the building haze. The thickening dark of night had moved them to cease seeking the rest of their pack and to anchor in this cove.
Someone of the company stirred the embers of the fire into life behind Osvif. Already the water and the fog had shared their last kiss, and the cloud’s belly rose to show the pink sea surface.
The vanishing haze and the rising sun revealed a skiff out on the water.
Thorolf Gellison was at Osvif’s shoulder now. The two had been companions since they were youthful playmates. Thorolf was bigger and usually won whatever physical game the boys played. But Osvif was more thoughtful, smarter in ways Thorolf couldn’t quite manage, and Thorolf had recruited Osvif to lead this raiding party.
Thorolf’s sight was sharp as a [raptor’s]. He peered at the skiff. “Someone’s aboard,” he said. “But he’s not moving about. Not coming in.”
Osvif gestured with his head. A smallboat was put out, oars shipped, and he was rowed to the skiff.
As they approached, Thorolf swore. “It’s not a man.”
Then Osvif saw with his own eyes. What they had thought was a man was simply a man’s skin, wrapped about a frame of sticks to approximate a man. It sat upright in the skiff. A bear’s pelt was draped over its shoulders to complete the illusion.
“It’s a witch’s boat,” one of the crew said.
“Burn it,” Thorolf said.
“It might carry treasure,” Osvif said.
“Burn it,” Thorolf repeated.
Osvif felt the same chill as the rest when he gazed at the craft as it swayed on the water. He agreed with Thorolf, but some contrary twinge made him say, “We’ll bring it with us.” The hairs rose on the back of his neck even as he spoke.
He heard Thorolf growling deep in his throat. The sound was nearly inaudible, but Osvif caught it. He turned to Thorolf.
“We won’t bring it aboard,” he said. He refused to go that far with what even he recognized was an irrational decision. “Tie it aft. We’ll tow it until we find someone who’ll know what to do with it.” He turned away from Thorolf to look at the skiff again. “We’ll find someone.”
Thorolf rubbed his palms on his thighs. He continued to growl.
+ + +
Two days later.
Osvif Knifetongue leaned forward as the longboat approached another dragon ship. It lay still on the water. It had the same graceful lines as his craft.
“Slowly,” he ordered. The crew complied. Osvif was surprised at their continued loyalty. Or at least their compliance. He wondered why they had not yet pitched him overboard and cut loose the skiff. Was it merely Thorolf’s presence? Or something else? How far would Thorolf go before he, finally, refused Osvif’s commands?
They came alongside the other ship. The thwarts touched, and Thorolf led the men in securing lines between the two craft.
The ship’s fine workmanship was marred by cuts and gouges made by swords and axes. Claws had apparently splintered the surface of the central mast. Below those marks sat one man huddled in a robe of wolf fur. His interest in the newcomers seemed hardly aroused.
“Where is everyone else?” called Osvif. He saw streaks of blood on the deck.
“Left me behind,” the stranger answered.
“Who are you?”
“Ulf Bjalfason. My mother is Hallbera, daughter of Ulf the Fearless. I am called Kveldulf.”
“I’ve heard of him,” Osvif replied. “You don’t seem very interested in whether you float alone here or get taken aboard.”
Kveldulf shrugged. “Someone will come along. You came along.”
“You may not want to join us.” Osvif nodded toward the stern. “We’re towing some bewitched thing, not sure what to do with it.”
Kveldulf raised his head and peered. “Let’s see.” He arose, nearly naked beneath the robe. He strode leisurely to where he could see Osvif’s tow and stared long at it. Osvif noted the long, lean muscles that wrapped the stranger’s frame and stretched and knotted as he moved.
He came back to the central mast. “I know that man.”
Osvif heard one of his men mutter, “Od’s blood,” while another shushed him: “Odin’s fickle. Best not call his name, or he’ll make matters still worse.”
“A man no more,” Osvif said. “A skin sark warming sticks.”
“I’ll take it,” Kveldulf said.
Osvif peered at this stranger. He heard the crew whispering behind him.
“Give me the skiff,” Kveldulf said, “and you can have this boat. I’ll take some provisions, what I’m wearing. You can have the rest.”
Osvif wondered if this was some pirate’s trick. He turned to Thorolf, who frowned and nodded. He then saw the jittery mass of men on his own deck and recognized how worn thin was the strand that held them in check: ready to part, sending them into some blood fury that would likely lead to his own death.
He turned back to Kveldulf. “We’d be off roaming and raiding. We’re to meet up at the Orkneys, drive south to Francia. We’ve fortunes to make. It’s yours.”
+ + +
The transfer completed, Osvif watched Kveldulf paddle the skiff toward the south. The skin still sat upright on its frame in the bow.
Thorolf led the men in shifting goods from the abandoned longboat. They had found no sign of another person. There were a few weapons—an axe, two knives, and a sword. The men kept these. But four mail shirts were turned up and then tossed into the deeps. One of the men muttered, “I’ll not wear the armor of ghosts.” Thorolf had not scolded.
They set fire to the empty ship. Osvif and his men turned their craft to the west. The smoke of the fire smudged the sky behind them for hours.