Robert Low - The Whale Road

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Robert Low - The Whale Road
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A band of brothers, committed only to each other, rides the waves, fighting for the highest bidder, treading the whale road in search of legendary relics.Life is savage aboard a Viking raiding ship. When Orm Rurikson is plucked from the snows of Norway to brave the seas on the Fjord Elk, he becomes an unlikely member of the notorious crew. Although young, Orm must quickly become a warrior if he is to survive.His fellow crew are the Oathsworn---named after the spoken bond that ties them in brotherhood. They fight hard, they drink hard, and they always defend their own.But times are changing. Loyalty to the old Norse Gods is fading, and the followers of the mysterious "White Christ" are gaining power across Europe. Hired as relic hunters, the Oathsworn are sent in search of a sword believed to have killed the White Christ. Their quest will lead them onto the deep and treacherous waters of the whale road, toward the cursed treasure of Attila the Hun and to a challenge that presents the ultimate threat.Robert Low has written a stunning epic, a remarkable debut novel. Not only a compelling narrative, The Whale Road also brings a new Viking landscape stretching from Scotland through the Baltic and on to Istanbul.________________"A company of warriors, desperate battles, an enthralling read."---Bernard Cornwell

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When young Orm Rurikson is plucked from the snows of

Norway to join his estranged father on the Fjord Elk, he becomes an unlikely member of a notorious crew. They are the Oathsworn - so named after the spoken bond that ties them in brotherhood - and they ply a casual trade on the ocean wave, selling their swords to the highest bidder.

But times are changing. Loyalty to the old Norse Gods is fading, and the followers of the mysterious 'White Christ' are gaining power across Europe. Hired as relic-hunters by the merchant rulers of a bustling city, the Oathsworn are sent in search of a legendary sword of untold value to the new religion.

With only an odd young girl as guide, their quest will lead them onto the deep and treacherous waters of the 'whale road', toward the cursed treasure of Attila the Hun. And to a challenge that will test the very bond that holds the

Norsemen together.

Runes are cut in ribbons, like the World Serpent eating his own tail. All sagas 1 are snake-knots, for the story of a life does not always start with birth and end with death. My own truly begins with my return from the dead.

There was a beam, knotted and worn smooth where nets and sails hung, with a cold-killed spider hanging by the slenderest of threads, swaying in the breeze, swimming in my vision.

I knew that beam. It was the ridge beam of the naust, the boatshed at Bjornshafen, and I had swung on those hanging nets and sails. Swung and laughed and had no cares, a lifetime ago.

I lay on my back and looked up at it and could not understand why it was there, for I was surely dead.

Yet my breath smoked in the chill of that place.

`He's awake.'

The voice was a growl and everything canted and swung when I tried to turn my head to it. I was not dead. I was on a pallet-bed and a face, jut-jawed and bearded like a hedge, floated in front of me. Others, too, peered round him, all strangers, all wavering, as if underwater.

`Get back, you ugly bollocks. Give the boy room to breathe. Finn Horsehead, you would frighten Hel herself, so I am thinking you should bugger off out of it and fetch his father.'

The hedge-bearded face scowled and vanished. The owner of the voice had a face, too; this one neat-bearded and kind-eyed. 'I am Illugi, godi of the Oathsworn,' he said to me, then patted my shoulder. 'Your father is coming, boy. You are safe.'

Safe. A priest says I am safe, so it must be true. A moment's vision-flash, like something seen in the night when a storm flickers blue-white: the bear, crashing through the roof in a shower of snow and timbers, roaring and snake-necked, a great mountain of white . . .

`My . . . father?'

The voice didn't even sound like mine, but the kind-eyed stranger called Illugi nodded and smiled.

Behind him, men moved like shadows, their voices ebbing and flowing in a tide of sound.

My father. So he had come for me after all. The thought of that stayed with me as Illugi's face faded to a pale orb; the others, too, dwindled like trailing bubbles as I slid away, down into the dark water of sleep.

But the priest lied. I was not safe. I would never be safe again.

By the time I could sit up and take broth, the story was round Bjornshafen: the story of Orm the slayer of the white bear.

Alone, when the White Bear, Rurik's Curse, came for revenge on the son—and then, presumably, the father—brave Orm, a mere boy becoming a man fought it over the headless body of Freydis the witch-woman. Fought it for a day and a night and had finally driven a spear into its head and a sword into its heart.

There was more of the same, of course, as my father told me when he came to me, hunkering by my bed and rubbing his grizzled chin and running his hand through his lank, once-gold hair.

My father, Rurik. The man who had fostered me on his brother Gudleif at Bjornshafen. He carried me there under his cloak when I was no more than fat knees and chubby fists, in the year Eirik Bloodaxe lost his throne in York and was cut down at Stainmore. I am not even sure if that was a true memory, or one patched back to the cloak of my life by Gudleif s wife, Halldis, who liked me above the other fostris who came and went, because I was blood kin.

She it was who taught me about sheep and chickens and growing things, who filled in the rents in my memory while she sat by the fire, the great hangings which portioned the hall stirring and flapping in the winds which thundered Bjornshafen's beams.

Patient and still, click-clicking her little bone squares as she wove strips of bright wool hemming, she would answer all my piped questions.

Rurik came back only once, with a white bear cub,' she said. 'Said for Gudleif to keep it for him and that it was worth a fortune—and it was, too. But Rurik, of course, couldn't stop long enough to make it into one.

Always off on the next tide, that one. Not the same man after your mother died.'

Now here he was, sprung like a breaching whale from the empty sea.

I saw a nut-brown face and, since folk said we looked alike, tried to see more handsome in it than, perhaps, there was. He was middling height, more silvered than fair now, his face roughened by wind and weather and his beard cropped short. His blue eyes laughed, though, from under hairy eyebrows like spiders' legs, even when he was being concerned.

And what did he see? A boy, tall for his age, with good shoulders and the scrawn of youth almost gone, with red-brown hair that fell in his eyes unless someone rough-cut it with shears. Halldis had done it while she lived but no one much bothered after the coughing sickness took her.

I looked at him with the same blue eyes, staring at his snub-nosed face. It came to me, with a sudden shock, that I would look like this when I was old.

`You are come after all, then,' I said, feeling foolish even as I spoke, for it was self-evident he had come—and not alone, either. Behind him, in Bjornshafen's boat-shed, their temporary quarters, were the hard-faced crew of the ship he mastered. Gunnar Raudi had warned of these.

`Why would I not?' he answered with a grin.

We both knew the answer to that one, but I would have preferred it said aloud.

`When word comes that a man's son is in danger from his own kin . . . well, a father must act,' he went on, serious as stone.

`Just so,' I replied, thinking that he had taken his time about acting and that ten years was more than a pause for breath in the journey to his son. But I said nothing when I saw in his eyes how he was genuinely puzzled that I would think he wouldn't rush to my aid.

It only came to me later, when I had aged into life a little, that Rurik had done his task of raising me as well as any father and better than most—but looking at this new man, this rawboned hard man from a boatload of hard men and realising he was the one who had left me in the first place, with no word since and no prospect of one, I grew so angry and twisted with it that I could not speak at all.

He took that for something else—the moment of our meeting, the horror of what had gone before with the white bear and the snow journey—and nodded, smiling.

`Who'd have thought that bloody little bear cub would have caused such trouble,' he mused, rasping his chin with horned fingers. 'I bought it from a Gotland trader, who had it from a Finn, he told me. I thought to sell it in Ireland, to make a jarl's cloak, or even a pet, but that nithing Gudleif let it go. Arse. Just look at what happened—I nearly lost my son.'

Gudleif had cursed his brother, that bear and, in the end, the one he suspected of letting it go. It had grown too big for its original cage, so had to be tethered loose and fed mountains of good herring; the thrall had grown too afraid to go near it.

There had been about an eyeblink of cheering when everyone saw it had gone, then blind panic that such a monster was loose. Gudleif and Bjarni and Gunnar Raudi had hunted it all that year, but found nothing and lost a good dog besides.

The words were queued up in me, fighting like drunks trying to get out of a burning hall. My father was breathtaking . . . not one word about where he had been, or why I had been left so long, or what had been my life in the five years before he brought me here. Or even that the bloody bear had been his fault all along.

It was infuriating. My mouth gaped and shut like a fresh-caught cod and he saw it, put it down to the emotion of the moment, of seeing his long-lost father, and made manly of it. He clapped me on the shoulder and said, gruffly, 'Can you walk? Einar is in the hall and wants to see you.'

Fuck Einar, was what I wanted to say. Fuck you, too. Freydis is dead because of your bloody bear and the fact that you weren't around to decide what to do with it before someone got tired of it and let it escape.

Where were you? And tell me of me, my mother, where I am from. I know nothing.

Instead, I nodded and weaved upright, while he helped me into breeks and shoes and kirtle and tunic, me leaning on him, feeling his wiry strength.

He smelled of old sweat and leather and wet wool and the hair grew up under the neck of his own tunic, all around, curling wads of it, grizzled and darker than that on his head and chin.

And all the while the thoughts in me wheeling and screaming like terns round a fresh catch. The years between us and the wyrd of that white bear. How long was it free? Six years? Eight, maybe?

Yet this winter it had sought me out somehow, tracked me down and brought my father back to me with its death, like an Odin sacrifice.

The wyrd of it made me shiver—those three Norn sisters, who weave the lives of every creature, had started on a strange tapestry for me.

Finally, as I fastened and looped a belt round my waist, my father straightened from doing up my leg-bindings and held out Bjarni's sword to me. It had been cleaned of all blood; cleaned better than it had been before, for there were fewer rot spots on it than when I had stolen it.

Ìt isn't mine,' I said, half-ashamed, half-defiant, and he cocked his head like a bird and I laid out the tale of it.

It was Bjarni's sword, he who had been Gudleifs oarmate of long standing. He and Gudleif had taught me the strokes of it, and then Gunnar Raudi, unable to watch any longer, had picked it up, spat between his feet and shown me how to use it in a real fight.

`When you stand in a shieldwall, boy,' he said, 'forget all the fancy strokes. Hit their fucking feet. Cut the ankles from them. Stab them up and under the shield and the hem of their mail, right into their balls. It's the only bits you can see or reach anyway.'

And then he showed me how to use the hilt, my shield, my knees and elbows and teeth, while Gudleif and Bjarni stayed quiet and still.

It was then I saw they were afraid of Gunnar Raudi and learned later—from Halldis, of course—that Gunnar stayed at Bjornshafen because he had got both Bjarni and Gudleif back from a raid to Dyfflin that went badly wrong. Everyone thought them dead and then, two seasons later, in they sailed with a stolen ship, captured thralls and tales of Gunnar's daring. They owed him their lives and a berth for as long as he breathed.

Ì stole it from Gudleif,' I told my father, `when it was clear he wanted me to die in the snow on the way to Freydis's hov.'

He rubbed his beard and frowned, nodding. 'Aye, so Gunnar said when he sent word.'

That had been the day Gunnar had cracked my world, a day that began with Gudleif sitting in his gifthrone with his ship prows on either side and himself swathed in furs, trying to be a great jarl and managing only to look like a bad-tempered cat.

Bjarni had died the previous year and Halldis the year before that. Now Gudleif complained of the cold and avoided going out much. He sat, hunched and glowering, with only old Caomh close to his elbow, the thrall who had come back as a slave from a Christ temple in Dyfflin.

Nearby, the equally old Helga shuttled a loom back and forth and grinned her two last teeth at me, while Gunnar Raudi, just visible in the smoking gloom, worked on a leather strap.

Ì am not up to the journey to the high pasture this year,' Gudleif said to me. 'The herd needs to be brought down and some essentials taken to Freydis.'

It was an early winter, the snow curling off Snaefel, the colour leached from the land by cold, so that there were only black tree skeletons on grey under a grey sky. Even the sea was slate.

Ìt has already snowed,' I reminded him. Ìt may be too deep to drive horses down now.' I refrained from reminding him that I had spoken of this weeks before, when it might have been easier to do.

There was no sound save for the clackshuff of the loom and the sputter of a fire whose wood was too damp. Halldis would not have made it so.

Gudleif stirred and said to me, 'Perhaps. If so, you will over-winter there and bring them in spring.

Freydis will have prepared.'

It was not an attractive proposition. Freydis was a strange one and, truth to tell, most people thought her a volva, a witch. I had never seen her, in all my fifteen years, though her hov was no more than a good day's walk up the lowest slopes. She tended Gudleif's best stallions and mares on the high pasture and was clever at it.

I thought of all this and the fact that, even if she had prepared well, there would not be enough fodder to keep the herd fed through the hard winter it promised to be. Or, perhaps, even the pair of us.

I said as much and Gudleif shrugged. I thought Gunnar Raudi was probably best to go and said that, too.

Gudleif shrugged again and, when I looked at him, Gunnar Raudi was busy beside the hearthfire, too concerned with his strap of leather even to look up, it seemed to me.

So I prepared a pack and took the sturdiest of the ponies. I was considering what best to take Freydis when Gunnar Raudi came to the stable and there, in the warm, rustling twilight of it, tore everything apart with a simple phrase.

`He has sent for his sons.'

And there it was. Gudleif was dying. His sons, Bjorn and Steinkel, were coming back from their own fostering to claim their inheritance and I was . . . expendable. Perhaps he hoped I would die and solve all his problems.

Gunnar Raudi saw all that chase itself like cat and dog across my face. He said nothing for a while, still as a block of grindstone in the fetid dark. A horse whuffed and stamped; straw rustled and all I could think to say was: 'So that's where the faering went. I wondered.'

And Gunnar Raudi smiled a grim smile. `No. He sent word by the next valley up. The faering is missing because I sent Krel and Big Nose to row it to Laugarsfel, there to send word to Rurik.'

I glanced at him anxiously. 'Does Gudleif know?'

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