Here's another excerpt from my Viking fantasy novel, a work in progress of which I've already published two excerpts in these pages (see here and here). The background to this snippet is that Alvar, now in his mid-teens, has joined the crew of a trading ship that Olaf, his mentor, has taken to the upper reaches of the Baltic Sea to look for amber, a valuable commodity in Viking trading. Olaf has taken a party of warriors inland on his quest, while Alvar and other younger men hold the trading vessel in readiness for a quick getaway - which is about to be needed.
Early in the afternoon of the eleventh day, Sture noticed a faint cloud of smoke far inland, south of our position. It had to be a big fire for us to notice it from so far away. He pointed it out to us, and we watched for a while; but there was work to be done, so we turned to again.
Later in the afternoon, approaching sunset, Vegard, the youngest among us, called, “There’s another fire! This one’s much closer.” We looked, and sure enough, also south of us, more smoke was rising. It grew rapidly thicker, and spread out to the northeast, driven by the prevailing wind. It was no more than three or four vika away.
“That’s strange,” Sture said, his voice puzzled. “We’ve seen no sign of fires inland ever since we got here, then we see two in one day – and big ones, too, judging by the smoke. I wonder if there’s a raiding party attacking settlements? If so, where did they come ashore? We haven’t seen any other ships nearby.”
I suddenly tensed. “Olaf said his amber discovery was south of here. What if he’s running for it with all he could gather, and trying to delay pursuers by lighting fires?”
We looked at each other in sudden tension. Sture said uncertainly, “We don’t know for sure.”
“No, we don’t, but I think we should be ready, just in case,” I said firmly. “If it’s not Olaf, we lose nothing by preparing. If it is him, we need to be able to get them aboard in a hurry, and get out of here before their pursuers can catch up with them. I think we should move the knarr closer to the shore, and anchor it in water that’s no more than waist deep. It’s shallow-draughted enough for that. They can wade out to us if they have to, and ride their horses right up to the ship to offload their packs.”
Sture nodded. “There’s no tide to speak of here, so far up the Eastern Sea, so that should be safe enough. Let’s be careful, though. I don’t want to ground the ship and damage it.”
We rowed slowly and carefully towards the shore. When we got near, Sture turned the ship around, then dropped an anchor from the bow. He paid out the rope as we backed towards the surf line, then dropped another anchor from the stern. We rowed out again until the knarr was positioned midway between the anchors, tested the depth with the shaft of an oar, then made fast the ropes. The ship rolled and pitched gently, her bows pointed out to sea, ready for a fast escape if one was needed.
By now, the light was fading fast. Sture said, “We’ll put a lantern at the top of the mast, as well as on either side, to make sure we can be easily seen. Alvar, you’re the nimblest. You go up the mast.”
I lit a lantern, tied a line to it, and shimmied up the mast. As I reached the top, I looked out, and saw a group of horsemen burst out of the brush onto the beach between us and the village. It was already dark enough I could not identify them, but the leader pointed straight at the ship and shouted something. Even at that distance, I recognized Olaf’s voice. Their horses turned towards us and galloped closer.
“Here they are!” I yelled as I shimmied down the mast again, not bothering to haul up the lantern. “They’re almost upon us!”
I stood by to cut the stern anchor rope if necessary, but no-one followed our comrades as they drew closer. They rode their horses into the surf, wading out to us. Olaf was in the lead. He called as he approached, “We’ll throw everything aboard fast, then abandon the horses. We’re being pursued. We’ve got to get away before they get here!”
“We’re ready!” Sture shouted back.
We lined up on both sides of the ship. Two horsemen at a time on either side handed up their bedrolls and saddlebags, then sacks containing what felt like rocks from the saddles of the pack horses. As soon as each man had unloaded everything, he held out his hands, and we pulled him up and aboard. His abandoned mount and pack horses were jostled clear of the ship by those pressing in behind them. They would make their own way back to the shore.
Olaf was the first aboard, of course. He strode back to the stern, and clapped Sture on the back. “Well done, lad! You were just where I hoped to find you, and I see you’ve already prepared for a fast departure. Well done indeed!”
“That was Alvar’s idea,” Sture generously acknowledged.
I waved at Olaf as he looked at me, but didn’t have time to say anything as I caught another sack of amber and dropped it into the cargo area. It was filling up fast, and exhausted, panting men, some sporting light wounds, were lying and sitting on the foredeck and afterdeck, getting in the way of our efforts.
As the last few horsemen came alongside, another, larger group of riders burst out onto the sand. They shouted in anger as they saw us, and spurred their horses down the beach towards the ship. Olaf yelled, “Hurry up! We’ve got to get out of here before they arrive!” He spun on his heel and strode towards the rope leading to the stern anchor. “Tell me as soon as the last man’s aboard!” He took out his dagger and held it ready. “Sture, stand by to haul in the bow anchor and hoist the sail! The rest of you, all except the wounded, man the oars and stand by!”
All was chaos and confusion as men scurried to obey, only to get in the way of the last cargo and riders coming aboard. I tried to focus on the sacks I was being handed, throwing them onto the by now sizable heap in the cargo area amidships. At last the rider called, “That’s it!” He held out his hands, and two of us grabbed them as he kicked his feet out of the stirrups and threw himself off his horse. We hauled him bodily aboard, dumping him just inside the gunwale as he gasped for breath, and ran to our oars.
“That’s all!” I yelled to Olaf.
Olaf slashed with his dagger at the rope where it crossed the gunwale. The anchor rope parted, and the knarr surged forward as our oars beat at the water. In the bows, Sture and another man hauled frantically at the other anchor’s line, pulling it up out of the muddy bottom. We had lost our stern anchor, so we dared not lose the bow one as well. As soon as it was aboard, Sture made a sign to Olaf, then turned to the mast and cast the sail loose from its bindings. He and others hauled its boom up the mast. The evening breeze caught it as he and another man trimmed it, and the ship leaned to the wind. The water began to rustle and gurgle beneath the knarr’s bows as we gathered speed.
From the beach came outraged yells and shouts. Arrows splashed around the ship as enemy archers fired at us, but they were exhausted and out of breath from the long pursuit, so their accuracy was very poor. Only three arrows hit the ship, and none of them found living flesh. As we pulled away into the gloom, Olaf shouted, “Put out the lanterns!” Once they went dark, those on the shore had no clear target, and their fire died away.
We rowed hard for half an hour until we were well away from the coast. We shipped the oars and sat back exhausted, panting for breath.
Olaf said, “We’ll go on under sail for the night. Sture, take the steering oar and follow the North Star. We’ll go straight across the Eastern Sea to the northern shore, and then bear west for Birka. I don’t think this side of the Eastern Sea will be very welcoming towards us for the rest of this year, once the word gets out.”
The writing process continues to be plagued by the effects of the medication I've been prescribed following my heart attack last November. That makes it much slower than I'd like. Nevertheless, it continues, and I'll do my best to have this and other books out as quickly as I can manage. Thanks for your patience.