Washed up in a hostile city, battle-weary and out of luck,
the Oathsworn lie waiting for their reluctant leader, the
young Orm, to bring them back once more to wealth and
warfare. But Orm’s prized sword, the legendary Rune
Serpent, is gone, stolen by the rapacious Starkad, and with
it the runes writ upon the hilt that only Orm can decipher.
The Oathsworn embark on a dangerous journey,
pursuing the elusive Starkad across the turbulent ocean.
Unafraid to fight and cunning in the ways of men, they
wreak violence and bloody revenge on their enemies.
Caught up in the treacherous battles in the East between
the rulers of Constantinople, aided by hordes of Viking
mercenaries, and the Arabs, their adventures will take
them from Greece to Jerusalem, across the dangerous wolf
sea where only the hunting hungry dare to sail…
Only the hunting hungry
Set sail on the wolf sea
Old Norse proverb
1 MIKLAGARD, the Great City,AD965
His eyes flicked to the bundle in my hand, then settled on my gape-mouthed face like flies on blood. They were clouded to the colour of flint, those eyes, and his snake moustaches writhed as he sneered at me, the blow I had given him having done nothing except annoy him.
`Big mistake,' he snarled in bad Greek and moved up the alley towards me, hauling a seax the length of my forearm out from under his cloak.
I hefted the wrapped sabre, swung it and revealed how clumsy the weapon was in that single moment.
He grinned; I backed up, slithering through black-rotted rubbish, wishing I had just gone my way and ignored him.
He was quick, too, darting in fast and low, but I had been watching his feet not his eyes and swung the bundle so that it smacked him sideways into the wall. I followed it with a big overarm hack, but missed. The bundled sword cut through the wrappings and struck sparks from the wall.
Showered with brick and plaster chips, he was alarmed, both at the near miss and the fact that there was now a sharp edge involved. I saw it in his eyes.
`Didn't expect this, did you?' I taunted as we shifted and eyed each other. 'Tell you what — you tell me why you are following me all over Miklagard and I will let you go.'
He blinked astonishment, then chuckled like a wolf who has found a crippled chicken. 'You'll let me go?
I don't think you realise who you are facing,
I am a Falstermann and not one to take such insults from a boy.'
So I had been clever about him being a Dane, I thought. It was a pity I had not been so clever about taking him on. His feet shifted and I had been watching for that, so that when he swung I caught the seax on the shredded bundle, wincing at the blow. I turned my wrist to try and tangle his blade in cloth and almost managed to twist the seax free of his grasp. He was too old a hand for that, though, and I was too clumsy with the sword wrapped as it was.
Worse than that — even now I sweat with the shame of it — his oarmate came up behind me, elbowed the breath out of me and slammed me to the clotted filth of the alley. Then he plucked the wool-coddled sword from my fluttering hands, easy as lifting an egg from a nest and, dimly, I realised that's what they had wanted all along. I was gasping and boking too much to do anything about it.
`Time to row hard for it,' this unseen one growled and I heard his steps squelching through the alley filth.
I was sure death had not been in the plan of this, but the man from Falster had blood in his eye and I had rain in mine, blurring the world. The cliff walls of the alley stretched up to frame a patch of indifferent grey sky and it came to me then that this would be the last sight I would see.
I did not want to die in a filthy alley of the Great City with the rain in my eyes. Not that last, especially, for the vision of the first man — the boy — I had killed came back to me, lying on a heath with his bloodless face and his eyes open and startled under little pools of rainwater.
The Falstermann loomed over me, breathing hard, the seax reversed for a downward thrust straight at my belt loop, rain pearling mistily on the pitted steel, sliding carelessly along the edge . . .
The rain, says Sighvat, will tell you all about a place if you know how to read it. The rain in a Norway pine wood is good enough to wash your hair in but, if a city is really old, it drips from the eaves with the grue of ages, black as pitch, harsh as a curse.
Miklagard, the Great City, was ancient and her pools and gutters spat and hissed like an evil snake. Even the sea here was corroded, heaving in slow, fat swells, black and slick and greasy as a wet hog's back, glittering with scum and studded with flotsam.
I did not even want to be in this city and the gawping wonder of it had long since palled. Stumbling from the ruined dream of Attila's silver hoard, those of the Oathsworn who survived the Grass Sea of the steppe had washed up here, after a Greek captain had been persuaded to take us. Since then, my great plan had been to load and unload cargo on the docks, husband what little real money we had, waiting for the rest of the Oathsworn to join us from far-off Holmgard and make a crew worth hiring for something better.
At the end of it all, distant as a pale horizon, was a new ship and a chance to go back for all that silver, a thought we hugged for warmth as winter closed in on Miklagard, drenching the Navel of the World in misery.
That black rain should have been warning enough, but the day the runesword was stolen from me I was wet and arrogant and angry at being followed all along in the lee of Severus's dripping walls by someone who was either bad at it, or did not care if he was seen. Either way, it was not a little insulting.
On a clear day in Constantinople you could almost see Galata across the Horn. That day I could hardly see the man following me in the polished bronze tray I held up and pretended to study, as if I would buy it.
A face twisted and writhed in the beaten, rain-leprous surface, a stranger with a long chin, a thin, straggled beard, a moustache still a shadow and long, brown-red-coloured hair that hung in braids round the brow, some of them tied back to keep the hair from the blue eyes. My face. Beyond it, trembling and distorted, was my shadower.
`What do you see?' demanded the surly Greek owner of the tray and all its cousins laid out on a worn strip of carpet under an awning, heavy with damp. 'A lover, perhaps?'
`Tell you what I don't see,' I said with as sweet a smile as I could muster, 'you
I don't see a sale.'
He snorted and snatched the tray from me, his sallow face flushed where it wasn't covered with perfumed beard. 'In that case, fix your hair somewhere else,
he snapped, which I had to admit was a good reply, since it let me know that he understood Norse and that I had called him a bowlegged grave-robber. He had called me little girl in return. From this sort of experience, I learned that the merchants of Miklagard were as sharp as their manners and beards were oiled.
I smiled sweetly at him and strolled off. I had learned what I needed: the bronze tray had revealed, beyond my face and watching me, the same man I had seen three different times before, following me through the city.