Authors: Marti Talbott
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It was near the end of Stefan Rossetti
’s fourteenth year that his father, the commander of the Viking longship
and its fleet of seven ships, at last agreed to take him aboard. Standing on the beautiful Scandinavian shore, his smile was wide and he was certain no happier laddie ever was or ever would be again. He watched the other men wade into the crisp waters of the bay, toss their gear inside, turn around, lift themselves up until they could sit on the rim of the ship and then easily swing their legs over. It was something he had practiced several times and knew precisely how to do.
Why he failed he would never be quite certain, but he guessed it was because the boat he practiced on was smaller than his father
’s ship. He managed to toss his extra clothing, a heavy blanket, his warm cloak and even the shield his father had given him the night before into the ship. But when he tried to sit the rim, he was suddenly face down in the water. Just as abruptly his father hauled him out – one hand grasping the back of his baggy brown long pants and the other taking hold of the back of his red tunic. Stefan was swiftly pulled aboard and abruptly dropped - leaving him wet, face down on the deck and completely humiliated amid roars of laughter and jeers from not only his father’s men, but the crowd standing on the shore.
Humiliated indeed, but not enough to set aside his elation at being aboard, even when none too gently
, his father shoved him into a sitting position in the stern, warned him to stay there and took little notice of him for a long time after.
’s father was named Donar after a Norse god of storms most no longer believed in. He had a square face with neatly trimmed facial hair and although his nose had obviously been broken more than once, it was straight and pointed, which all the woman agreed, made him exceedingly handsome. His long blond hair, sharp blue eyes, and height of nearly six and a half feet made him by far the strongest and the most mighty, which earned him the respect if not the fear of the other men.
As soon as his son was settled, Donor began barking orders. He needn
’t have bothered for his men were well aware they were expected to be seated facing the stern on the narrow benches that lined both sides of the deck, holding their long oars straight up – which was exactly what they were doing.
It was a proud ship of iron and oak wood carved upward at both the stern and the bow until it reached twice the height of the tallest man. The horn was carved into the fierce head of a dragon and faced outward to ward off sea monsters while the back represented the dragon
’s tail. Attached to each side of the ship’s bow was the golden image of a fierce lion to ward off any animal dangers they might encounter on land.
The large ship could easily hold a hundred men, although Donar chose to take only sixty per ship. Fewer men meant more room for sleeping, supplies and any captives they happened to bring back. In preparation for each voyage there was much to consider and Donar ran a mental check list of supplies, which he always saw to the loading of himself. But when it came to enough food, he searched the face of the man seated to his right until Anundi understood his concern and nodded
– they had ample food aboard and Donar’s only son, his only living family, in fact, would not taste hunger on this voyage.
Satisfied his ship was ready, the commander took up a position near his son in the stern, took hold of the rudder post, raised his other hand high and looked across the water at the other ships in his fleet. Each man also held his oar straight up and was staring at his ship
’s stroke who in turn impatiently watched Donar for the signal.
The race was about to begin.
It was the same each time they left shore and only once had another ship beaten Donar’s crew out of the bay, through the narrow fjord and into the open waters of the North Sea. Some said he cheated, for his mooring was at least a hairs-breath closer to the fjord than the other ships. To prove them wrong, Donar had the
moved northward several feet and inwardly smiled.
’s men were not stronger or more skilled; it was his ship that gave him the advantage. All Viking ships had shallow hulls which enabled the men to beach the ship, strike and make good their escape with lightning speed. But the pride of the Viking fleet was fitted with a hull that was a good six inches shallower than the others, allowing just enough more speed and agility to win nearly every race.
Someday he would share that secret with his son. It was not cheating so much as it was a necessary challenge for the men, lest they grow lazy and incompetent. And it was good fun for all. Every man, woman and child came to watch and most hastened to place a wager or two, for or against, the longship
Donar lowered his arm until it was straight out. In precise unison, all sixty men in each of ten ships set their oars in the water and got ready. Stefan
’s chest swelled with pride for now he was not just another number in the crowd watching, but was himself aboard ship and about to taste the delights of the entire world. He had only a slight twinge of regret when he leaned out so he could see around the steep upward swing of the carved back and take one more look at the beloved aunt and uncle who raised him after his mother passed.
Then his father dropped his hand, gave a shout and the race began.
In every race it was at this very point that the winner and the losers were determined for it was not enough to simply lower the oars in the water. They must be lowered at precisely the right angle so that when the shout was given, the men could immediately pull with enormous force at the same moment and the same angle, lift the oars, put them back in the water and pull again in perfect harmony. It was a skill they practiced often at sea.
Not at all his first time on the ocean, Stefan knew enough to hang on, but he did not expect the profound jerk sixty powerful men could create. He lost his grip and went tumbling forward. But then the oars were lifted, which stopped his momentum and he rolled back. It took him two more attempts to get himself upright long enough to grab hold of anything at all, which happened to be an ax handle with the blade driven hard into the deck.
He quickly looked up to see if his father had noticed his blunder, and was relieved when the commander seemed only to care about the competition. Nevertheless, Stefan could not have been more chagrined for they were fast approaching the fjord and he had nearly missed the whole race.
He leaned out again to look back at the figures of his aunt and uncle growing smaller on the shore of his Scandinavian homeland. Then he looked to see where all the other ships were. The
was ahead, but not by much. He held his breath. Surely his first race would not be a loss. If it were, it would be a terrible omen, so much so his father might take him back home for fear of what it could mean.
But then the
shot ahead and when Stefan looked, a group of men standing as close to the high walls of the fjord as the flat land would allow, judged the winner of the race and held up Donar’s colors of blue and gold.
It was such a short race the men were hardly winded, or so they would have the laddie believe, even though their tunics were sweat completely through. Thrilled, Stefan joined his triumphant shout to theirs. The race, what he saw of it, exhilarated him and already he was looking forward to returning home having won his first race, become a man and if he could manage i
t, some sort of hero.
No sooner had the thought passed through his mind than he turned his attention back to the ship and marveled at the way it glided over the smooth blue water of the fjord. Seven of the ten ships dropped back, but he was expecting that. Donar wanted only two ships to accompany the
on this voyage. Even after they passed successfully between the two foliage covered high cliffs with cascading waterfalls, the men continued to row, although at a less urgent pace.
At last they entered the North Sea and conquered the first few waves before Donar shouted, “Stow yer oars and set yer shields lads!” Their precision was remarkable as one by one each man lifted his oar, set it inside and then hung his colorful shield over the side facing ou
Stefan watched his father give charge of the rudder to Anundi
, and then hang his son’s shield next to his own on the port side. Then his father shouted the order Stefan most wanted to hear. “Set yer sail, lads.
It was a monstrous wooden mast made of the same sturdy oak as the ship and set just a bit off center, with a thin golden image of a bird at the top that moved according to the direction of the wind. The massive square sail was as tall as the ship was long and would be used as a tent when the rains came, as surely they would. Made of thickly woven, off-white hemp, the sail was unfurled, hoisted to the top of the mast by several stout men and with a loud pop, the wind snapped the sail taught. As quickly as they could, the men secured the rigging to the shi
p sides, the bow and the stern.
’s uncle had taken him to sea a time or two, but only on a small boat fit for fishing. Fascinated, Stefan studied every inch of the sail, watched exactly how everything was done and it was only after, that he realized his father had walked the length of the ship and was now in the bow. He could only see his legs under the billowed bottom of the sail, his father said to stay put and Stefan knew not to disobey. But he sorely objected to such a barrier now that he could at last spend more than a day or two with his father.
‘Tis safer here, laddie, till ye’ve the hang o’ it.” said Anundi. Like all the men, Anundi Spörr was dressed well. He wore leather shoes, long pants with attached socks that insured warm legs and feet, a tunic and a floppy long-sleeve under tunic made of linen. The undergarment hung several inches below his red woolen outer tunic and was belted with a leather belt and a bronze buckle. Being able to wear linen, and more of it than necessary, especially if it was brightly embroidered or decorated with colorful cloth braids, which his was, signified great wealth.
All the Vikings brought back plunder and their families prospered because of it, but everyone said his father and Anundi were the wealthiest of the lot. An abundance of weapons was also a sign of wealth and the Vikings in his father
’s command had them all. They each had a long handled axe, a three-pronged spear with iron tips for killing and for fishing, a helmet with a nose protector, a sword, and a dagger.
Anundi’s sword had a gold plated handle and a wide, flat blade.
Now that the hard work of rowing was ended and there was a nip in the sea air, Anundi handed off the rudder to yet another man so he could put on his long, sheepskin cloak. Once he had it around his shoulders, he held a round, gold broach steady at the neck, pinned the two layers of material together and then moved the opening to one side keeping his sword and th
e hand needed to wield it free.
It was the first real notice Stefan had taken of his father
’s longtime friend and second in command. He nodded his understanding and waited for Anundi to sit down beside him before he asked. “To where do we sail?”
“Scotland, laddie, Scotland
– the land o’ delights.” His smile made the boy smile too. “Laddie, do ye intend to die this day?”
Stefan was shocked by the question. “Nay.”
“Then ye best get out o’ those wet clothes afore ye freeze solid.”
Donar stood squarely in front of the long, dragon-shaped neck of the bow with his legs apart for balance. He folded his arms and nodded his approval to his men. He was pleased with winning the race and the precision with which they carried out their tasks. It was a sign of great respect for a man who wanted to impress the son he hardly knew.
His son, however, was even more inexperienced than he suspected and with the sail between them, he at last allowed himself to laugh at Stefan
’s ungainliness. “The laddie be none too steady,” he whispered to the men nearest him. Soon he was joined in laughter, leaving Stefan puzzled as to what the joke might be. But the eyes near him left no doubt – they were laughing at him. No sooner had he concerned himself with that, than he was diverted by a dolphin in the water on its back beside the ship, eyeing him as though it too was laughing.
Stefan rolled his eyes and defiantly folded his arms.
He did not know why, but the boy suddenly leaned out and looked back at the land he was leaving behind. For a moment he feared he would never see it again, but he shook off the foreboding and continued to marvel at the diminishing size of the place he knew to be a beautiful, vast land with pleasant meadows, fine fishing and snowcapped mountains. He watched it for as long as he dared, then turned back to face his father.