In the smaller of the two graves lay the swaddled bodies of three children, none of them older than five; in the other, set apart from the rest of the little churchyard, the body of their mother sprawled in the sodden garments she wore when they drowned her that morning. A restless, biting wind blew off the sea and scattered sandy earth onto her wet hair.
“A pity,” said one of the monks at the side of the grave as he looked down at the mother.
“She was an adulteress,” said his superior, Brother Haganrih, in a quelling tone. “She died as she deserved to die.”
“It is still a pity,” said the first monk. He was taller, younger than his superior, and in spite of his recent vocation he had not rid himself of his attitude of command, a fault for which he was often chastised and which he prayed daily to be rid of. He could not easily bow his head even now.
“She should not have done the sin. That is the pity, that she was weak,” said the superior. “She let another man than her husband touch her.”
The first monk sighed. “She said she was forced.”
“What woman does not say that when she has been found out? It is the way of women to lie, especially about their fleshly passions. Eve said a similar thing to Adam and to God, that the Serpent forced her to eat of the apple, not that she wished to have forbidden knowledge. Women are ever thus.” The superior stared into the grave once more. “Best to cover her up. There’s nothing more we can do for her in this world.”
The first monk Signed himself and reached for the wooden shovel. “May the White Christ have mercy on her and upon all Christian souls,” he said as he began to fill in the grave.
“The father will have to pay for killing the children,” the superior reminded the first monk. “He will have to give forty pieces of gold.”
The first monk nodded as he worked: Brother Giselberht was aware of the law of King Otto; it was not so long ago that he would have been the one to enforce it. He could not deny the justice of the sentence on the woman or the wergeld for the children. Still, as a man who had killed his first wife, he had the uncomfortable knowledge that such acts lingered and ate at the soul. He added his own petition to Heaven along with prayers for the repose of the dead woman and her children.
By the time he was finished, the wind had become fiercer; the sea was now a deep grey-green, rolling heavily like entwined sleeping monsters, whitecaps showing as far as the monk could see. Somewhere, beyond the horizon, a storm was gathering, the first gale of winter, he suspected, and coming almost a month earlier than usual. All the signs warned of hard times ahead: at dawn he had observed a fox-cub attacked and carried off by an owl as night came to an end. It was an evil omen, one he had pondered through his recitation of morning psalms. He took his shovel and started along the low headland toward the squat wooden buildings surrounded by a stout log fence that housed the Aceomataec or Cassian Benedictines and was dedicated to the Holy Cross.
This place was not so much a change from the fortress Brother Giselberht had commanded two years ago as it first appeared: both were isolated, both were less than sixty years old, and both had been established when the Danes had been pushed back and the Wagrians and Obodrites had been brought under the rule of the King of Germania. Life in one was hardly less austere than life in the other.
In the monastery church the None Choir was chanting their prayers, part of the continual song of worship that rose from this place without ceasing. The monk stopped long enough to kneel at the entrance and prayed to be worthy to enter this holy ground. He was still new enough to the Order that he said none of his prayers by rote, but invested each with emotion and fervor. As one of the Vigil Choir, he would enter the chapel to chant to the glory of the White Christ from the middle of the night until dawn.
Brother Giselberht returned the shovel to the tool shed and then made his way to his cell, one of four cubicles in a cabin of standing logs. There were seventeen such cabins, all in a row, and all but five of the seventy-three monks lived in them: only the warder-Brothers stayed always in the gatehouse except during their Hours of chanting; Brother Haganrih had a cell at the rear of the church, where he could protect the altar with his life.
It was Brother Giselberht’s hour of personal prayer, and he set about his devotions with the fervor and determination that were the mark of the depth of his conversion. He Signed himself, lay prostrate on the plank floor, and began to recite the Psalms, starting with the Sixty-first; Benedictine Rule required that he complete a recitation of the Psalms each month, but such was Brother Giselberht’s dedication that he doubled the requirement regularly. Between each verse he asked God to forgive him for the murder of Iselda, reminding God and His Son that he had been in the right when he did it and that the reduction of the wergeld required by her family exonerated him from all wrongdoing. But these protestations brought him no peace and he felt as if his words were being drawn into a vast emptiness, which was a failure of faith.
When he left his cell he was exhausted, more ready for sleep than for the weaving he had been assigned to do. The bell for supper rang as he crossed the central court of the monastery, which afforded him some relief, although he longed for a slice of lamb or pork instead of the fish and bread and thick pea gruel that was their daily evening fare. Meat was one of the many things he had given up when he had renounced the world and his title. He lowered his eyes to the bare ground and noticed that a half-dozen dark feathers tipped with brilliant red were scudding along the ground, driven by the wind created by the hem of his habit as he passed. Another omen, he knew, but one that was mysterious to him. With the image of the feathers hot in his mind, he knelt at the door of the refectory and Signed himself, asking God to make him grateful for the food provided.
There were long plank tables set up along three of the four walls, and the monks gathering there did so in complete silence, taking their places and bowing their heads over the wooden platters set before them. Aside from the shuffling of their feet and the scrape of the benches the only sound in the refectory was the distant chanting of the None Choir.
Two of the new Brothers served the meal, offering bread trenchers to each of the seated monks before putting the bowls of baked fish and pea-and-barley gruel on the long table. Large flagons of mead were put on each of the tables, and the monks filled their wooden cups with their contents. As soon as this was done, the two new Brothers prostrated themselves in the middle of the room and waited while the seated monks recited the prayers of thanksgiving. Then, as they returned to the kitchen to prepare a meal for the None Choir, Brother Haganrih came to the center of the room and began to read the Lesson for the day: the ordeal of Jonah in the whale. He was accorded the attention of every monk as the austere fare was eaten with as little attention to the food as possible in order to avoid the deadly sin of gluttony.
As soon as the Lesson was finished, the meal was over. Whether or not the monks had eaten their fill, or had tasted more than a sip of mead, they had no recourse but to rise and go to the ambulatory—in this case, a wide pathway around the inside of their walls—for meditation and preparation for Confession, which was carried on communally just before sunset, when the Compline Choir replaced the None Choir in their church.
Brother Giselberht was pondering the meaning of the omens of the day when Brother Olafr came hurrying toward him, swinging his crutch and hopping, making a signal to him to stop. The other monks in the ambulatory took great care not to listen to what passed between the two. “Good Brother, may God keep you ever in His care,” he said ritualistically.
“And amen say all good Christians,” answered Brother Giselberht, but with reservation, for he did not often see a warder-Brother except to learn of misfortunes. “What has God brought to this place?”
“Your sister wishes to speak with you,” said Brother Olafr.
“My sister?” he asked, because this was not time for her scheduled visit; he Signed himself, anticipating something terrible and hoping God would spare him in the same instant. “Did she tell you what the cause was?”
“She said only that it was urgent,” replied Brother Olafr.
In a day beset with worrisome omens, this was the worst. “Where is she?” he asked, trying to do as the Order required him: to use as few words as possible.
“We have her at the gatehouse, in the reception room. She apologized for interrupting our Offices.” Brother Olafr ducked his head, though his expression was more disapproving than humble, and he went on with resentment, “I did not look at her but to identify her.”
“God will reward you for preserving your chastity,” said Brother Giselberht distantly. “I will have to go to her.”
“Brother Haganrih will not approve. You will have to Confess your disobedience.” He frowned as he pulled his habit more closely around him, trying to keep out the freshening wind.
“I will do so,” said Brother Giselberht, and started across the central court of the monastery toward the gate-house where visitors were received.
There was a single lamp in the gate-house reception room, and it was placed to illuminate a painting of the White Christ risen in glory; He was dressed in Byzantine splendor and the wounds in His hands and feet emitted rays of light. Smoke from the lamp was already fading the colors.
Ranegonda was wrapped in a long, hooded mantel dyed the color of pine needles that concealed her russet bliaut and pale blue chanise as well as her long, fair braids. She was kneeling before the painting, her head bowed, but rose as soon as her brother came into the room, her hand on the hilt of the dagger she wore at her waist. “God preserve you from all evil, Giselberht,” she said, lifting the hem of her garments as high as her knees in recognition of his former status; her heuse were made of heavy leather with thick soles, and reached to her calves. She was much like her brother—slender, sinewy, tall, and grey-eyed—but at twenty-five she was showing the first signs of age that had not yet touched him.
“May the White Christ also keep you, Ranegonda,” he said as he Signed himself, unwilling to look at her because he was embarrassed that she still insisted on treating him as if he commanded the nearby fortress. “It is not your day to be here.”
“I know,” she said, “and I apologize for intruding, but there are two circumstances that bring me.” She watched him to see if he would permit her to continue. “First is that King Otto has sent word that he will not be able to supply the fortress with the requested additional soldiers until next spring. He has had other battles to fight and he cannot spare the men for a short while yet. I have the letter, if you want to read it?” She indicated the heavy leather wallet that hung from her belt along with a massive ring of keys.
“It is not fitting for me to read what the King has written; I am out of the world.” He motioned her to move back from him, as if the very presence of the letter could contaminate him further. “You may tell me what it says if you think I must hear it, but otherwise, it is yours to deal with.”
Ranegonda stepped away from him, limping a little, for her old injury was paining her today. “I will have to write to him, then. He will have to know that his dispatch has reached us and that the fortress is taking measures to prepare for the winter without his assured help. Margerefa Oelrih will expect some account of our plans, and King Otto will demand an acknowledgment of his orders. But I will have to tell him that you have been informed or nothing I say will be heeded.”
He nodded once, showing his understanding of her situation. “You have my permission to use my seal for this letter. You may write to the Margerefa and the King that you have informed me and that I continue to leave such concerns of the world in your hands. Say that I repose my trust in you, and beg that the King will do so as well.” He waited for her to continue, and when she did not he reminded her, “You said there were two things.”
“The second is the more difficult,” she said, unwilling to look at him.
“Tell me what you believe I must know,” he ordered her. “Since you are reluctant to speak of it, I must suppose it is about Pentacoste.”
“I fear it is,” said Ranegonda, her pale skin flushing.
“What is it this time?” Brother Giselberht asked, feeling very weary. He did not like having to turn his mind to his second wife, let alone talk about her.
“She has been permitting Margerefa Oelrih to visit her, as her own guest, not as the King’s magistrate. He was at the fortress but two weeks since and stayed for ten days doing nothing but paying court to your wife. I have said that it compromises your honor and the honor of the family, but she says that there is no impropriety, and with you withdrawn from the world and your marriage to her, she is entitled to seek some consolation in the company of those whose rank is equal to her own. She has no desire to enter Orders and will not return to her father unless she is ordered by the King himself.” She said this very quickly, as if she had been afraid that if she faltered she would not be able to finish. “I don’t know what to do. She will not listen to my objections.”
“No,” said Brother Giselberht. “It is not surprising that she…”
“It makes no difference who speaks to her,” Ranegonda went on. “She pays as little attention to Brother Erchboge as she does to me, and none at all to the other women of the fortress, not even her two attendants, who have been at pains to accompany her at all times.” She looked away from him suddenly, her certainty fading. “She told Brother Erchboge that you deserted her for the White Christ, and that shows to her that the White Christ does not accept her, or He would have kept you together as man and wife.”
Before he became a monk, Brother Giselberht might have thrown a tankard or a platter across the room had he been told of such intractability, had his wife dared to challenge him so flagrantly. Now he mastered himself to click his tongue in condemnation. “It is pettiness and the frailty of women that makes her do this thing. As the master of the fortress in my stead, you may send Margerefa Oelrich away at any time he comes for business that is not the King’s. Inform my wife that he is not to come again except in the discharge of his office. Tell her to pray for inspiration that she may be worthy to be one of those women who forsake their sex to leave the world behind for the glories of Heaven.” He Signed himself and waited until Ranegonda had done the same.
When Ranegonda had Signed herself, she watched her brother with concern. “You’re thinner,” she said at last.
“It is fitting for a man with my sins to fast,” he answered.
“Still,” she said.
“I am grateful that God has given me time to seek redemption before ending my life. That it cost me a little flesh is nothing if it preserve my soul.” He was not quite three years her junior, and most of the time held her in affection. But there were times when she spoke as if they were still children and she tasked with guarding him at play or providing his meal for the afternoon, and such instances irked him.
“The signs are for an early winter, which could lead to a lean harvest; I know you have noticed them,” she said. “I do not like to see anyone so thin when food is plentiful, for those are the ones who starve when food is scarce, as it is likely to be this winter. You will fast more than God could require before spring comes.” It was a lesson they had heard from their mother all through their youth, before she had died ten years ago giving birth to dead twins in another hard winter.
“The White Christ provides for us here, Ranegonda,” he reminded her sternly. “We are told to trust in Him.”
Ranegonda gave him a somber look. “Your crops are like all the others, and they will yield less grain because of winter arriving early. The storms will destroy the crops, and there will be only the early harvest to salvage. You know that as well as any farmer does. So I tell you once more, eat while there is bread or you will not live to celebrate the Risen Christ again.”
“If Brother Haganrih allows it, I will.” He met her glare with one of equal force. “Is that all?”
She was about to say yes, and then she hesitated. “I found spiders in the muniment room yesterday, in the old chest, not the new.”
“With the deeds and the gold?” he asked, horrified by the omen.
“Yes,” she said.
This time he Signed himself without thinking. “Sweet, White Savior Jesus,” he whispered, using the old soldiers’ oath; he would have to atone for it later. “How many?”
“Five that I could find. There could be more.” Her face was grave. “I haven’t mentioned it to anyone, not even to Brother Erchboge.”
“I should hope not,” said Brother Giselberht with feeling. “Five! With the gold and the deeds. Lord of Salvation! And there could be more. You believe there could be more?”
“I looked but could not see them, but—” She broke off, then stared at him. “I will look again if you want.”
“No,” he said at once. “Leave it is as it is. You have seen the omen and told me. That’s sufficient.” He wanted to ask her if she had discovered anything else, but the dread that she could tell of things still worse kept him silent. He tucked his arms into his sleeves. “Well, you have told me. Is there anything more?”
“A minor thing.” She gestured to show that it was not urgent. “It concerns Captain Meyrih.”
“Is he well?” asked Brother Giselberht.
“It’s his eyes. They’re starting to fail him. The moon is on them. He does not wish to give up his command, but he tells me that he cannot see well enough to perform his duties. He is afraid that he cannot protect the fortress as he must.” She tried to look reassuring. “His children are all but grown, and he has your vow of protection, but he does not want to become one of those old, blind veterans who sit in the sunny corner of the barracks and drone on about the great battles of the past.” She shared his sense of indecision. She lifted her skirts to her knees again. “Let me know what you would like me to do when I come again in four days’ time.”
Brother Giselberht nodded slowly. “This is unhappy news,” he said. “Captain Meyrih taught me half the skills of war.”
“He is nearly forty. What else can he expect?” Ranegonda did not wait for an answer. With a quick movement she was at the door, tugging on it to get it open.
“I will pray for an answer,” said Brother Giselberht, watching as she closed the door behind her; he went and secured the stout wooden bolt before returning to the monastery grounds and his interrupted meditations.
Ranegonda hitched up her skirts and climbed back into the saddle on her feisty dun, saying nothing to the two armed men who escorted her. She clapped her heels to the dun’s sides and started him cantering away from the monastery, signaling to the men to come with her. Her features were set, showing none of the emotion that gripped her; it was not for her to reveal to these men how little she had gained from speaking with her brother, who was becoming a stranger to her. It was more than their growing alienation; she was upset by Brother Giselberht’s reticence and his indecision.
Reginhart, the younger of the two armed men, spurred his horse to catch up with her, calling out “Mädchen! Mädchen! as he went. The older, Ewarht, held his distance.
Slowly Ranegonda pulled in her horse, letting him fall back to a slow trot. “I ask your pardon,” she said to Reginhart as he caught up with her. “It was unwise to do that.” Her eyes sharpened. “But I am called Gerefa, not Mädchen.”
“It was a fine race,” said Reginhart, patting the neck of his bay and ignoring her correction. “I like a good run now and then.”
To the north the Baltic Sea stretched out, more restless than it had been an hour ago. Ranegonda pointed to the horizon. “By tomorrow there will be rain.”
“The harvest isn’t complete,” said Reginhart.
“We will have to work tomorrow morning, as long as we can, to bring in as much as possible,” she said. “The men will have to go to the fields with the farmers or we will not have bread after the Nativity Mass.”
“Some will refuse,” Reginhart predicted. “It is not mete that fighting men should work like peasants.”
“It isn’t fitting that they should starve, either, but that will happen if they will not help the harvest,” said Ranegonda sharply. “You need no bad omens to see in what plight we stand. We have less grain in storage now than is prudent, and if we lose any of this harvest, it will go hard for us.” She looked to the right once more, studying the sea again. “The storm is a bad one.”
“You’re certain,” said Reginhart. “The season for them is a month away yet.”
“All the signs point to it.” There was also the throb low in her leg, which was more reliable than all the signs together. “We will have to be ready.”
“How can we be, with most of the rye still standing in the field, and half the wheat?” He sounded angry because he was frightened and unable to admit it. “You are a woman, and you are taken with odd notions.”
“I am Gerefa of the fortress,” she said in a tone that permitted no argument. “And I tell you that we will have to work like the lowest slaves if we’re not to starve this winter.”
Reginhart wanted to protest this, but as Ewarht was now just a length behind them, he kept silent; it was not his place to question what Ranegonda said as long as her brother kept to the monastery. Ewarht was a stickler for correct form and he would not look favorably on Reginhart if he thought the younger man was challenging their Gerefa. He squinted into the sun ahead of them. “We will not be at the fortress much before dark.” It was true enough, and safe to say.
“We can push the horses,” said Ewarht.
“No,” said Ranegonda. “We can’t afford having one go lame, or risk a fall. If we keep moving we will arrive while there is still light, and we’ll be safe.”
There was a vast expanse of forest reaching along the wide lowland where they rode, and within that forest there were rumored to be bands of desperate men. To venture through the close-growing trees was hazard enough in daylight—at night it was egregious folly. Reginhart pointed toward the first of the trees. “Keep your sword out,” he recommended to Ewarht, who had already drawn his.
Ranegonda reached for the scabbard that hung from the high pommel of her saddle. She drew her short-sword and said to the others, “Good. We’re prepared.”
“The road is poor,” said Ewarht as if they had forgotten since they rode over it half a morning ago.
“Be careful, then,” said Ranegonda. The sword felt heavy in her hand, and she had to keep from balking at its purpose. Twice in the past she had been forced to fight off robbers, and both times had left her shaken and nauseated. She did not want to have another such encounter.
“You should take a larger company of men with you,” advised Ewarht as they entered the cover of the trees. It was darker here, and the sunlight, by contrast, more brilliant and red, making their eyes water when they moved through the slanting rays.
It was hard to pick their way along the narrow, rutted path through the trees. For the first quarter of their passage they went without speaking, each of them listening for inappropriate sounds, staring into the green darkness for the flash of metal. They were forced to ride in single file, which increased their vulnerability to attack from the side. Reginhart used his sword to swipe at the bushes as they passed, making sure that no one lurked within them. As startled birds rose in loud cries there was a constant rustle as animals moved away from the intruders.
“If winter is coming early,” said Ewarht from the rear after they had gone some distance, “it is time to start hunting. There are boars and stags to bring to earth.”
“That there are,” agreed Reginhart from the front. “We can hunt boars later, but if we’re going to chase stags it had better be while the ground is still hard.” He coughed once. “And before the wolves get them.”
“I’ve already considered that,” said Ranegonda, trying not to permit her nervousness to show. “After the first storm will be time enough for stags.”
They went on a way with only the smacking of Reginhart’s sword and the fall of their horses’ hooves to mark their passage. Then Ewarht said, “If you can read the signs for early winter, surely the wolves can, too.”
“Very probably,” said Ranegonda, thinking that the forest was much larger and deeper than she remembered from earlier that day. “Creatures have learned these things of old, and their knowledge is vast.”
“I saw scraps of red cloth tied to the branches of the oak tree in the field to the west of the fortress village,” said Ewarht.
“Some of the peasants try to serve God and the old ways,” said Ranegonda, who had occasionally left yarn tied to the branches of trees when she was younger. “If they want the oaks to carry messages for them, we must pray that God will show them His Mercy in their ignorance.”
“Brother Erchboge won’t like it,” Ewarht predicted, listening intently as they continued on. “He says that those who leave tokens for the old gods will suffer for it when they have to answer to the White Christ when He comes. There is no place for the old gods where the White Christ lives. The White Christ forgives all sin, but only the sins of those who believe in Him.”
They were almost at the edge of the trees now, and beyond was a stretch of fields, then a gathering of stone-and-thatch houses and a fenced yard of cut trees at the foot of the only real promontory on the coast for several leagues in both directions. It was there that their fortress stood, taking up most of the high ground, an irregular oblong surrounded by a stone parapet and guarded by two towers instead of the usual one, the taller by the landward gate, the shorter on the highest point of ground above the beach; it was there in the uppermost chamber a huge brazier burned night and day to guide ships at sea.
“We were lucky this time,” said Reginhart as the last of the sun’s rays struck his leather-and-scale armor. “At another time we might have to battle our way out of there.”
“At another time, we will be hunting,” said Ranegonda, determined not to appear frightened. She returned her sword to its scabbard. “If we catch more than stags or boar, it will be the misfortune of the outlaws we find.” She wanted to force her dun to canter, but she knew the gelding was tired, and so allowed him to continue to trot. She said to the others, “We do not have to go in single file here.” The road was a fairly straight track, wide and rutted from the constant traffic of woodcutters with carts who ventured into the forest to cut trees. Today it was dusty, gritty with sand, but once the rains came, it would quickly become a bog.
They reached the village and passed down the only street. Those few villagers who were not yet within doors stopped and went down on their knees as Ranegonda went by, though one of the men held up a talisman to ward off evil; the old gods did not like women commanding the fortress.
When they started up the hill toward the massive wooden gates, Ranegonda could hear a wooden horn sounding, marking her return. Just as they reached the gates, they swung ponderously open, permitting Ranegonda and her two armed men to pass inside. As they drew up in the courtyard, grooms with slave brands on their foreheads came running out to take charge of the horses.
Because of her skirts it was an effort for Ranegonda to swing her leg over the saddle as she dismounted, and she set her jaw in the hope that her weak right ankle would not buckle as she put her weight on it; she managed the chore well enough and handed the reins to the nine-year-old boy who had charge of the horses and the dogs of the fortress. “Make sure they have grain tonight,” she told the boy.
He bowed, his knees slightly bent. “That I will, Gerefa,” he said, and took the reins of Ewarht’s and Reginhart’s mounts as well.
The fortress was ugly, utilitarian in the extreme, with two blunt towers and little windows which were covered with parchment in winter when it was often colder inside the stone edifice than outside. Wooden buildings occupied most of the eastern half of the courtyard, housing for the men-at-arms and their families; the stables, kennels, coops, and slaves’ quarters were on the west side, with a wooden Common Hall in the middle, the stone kitchens, baths, and bakehouse behind it. In summer the place remained dark and held the dank heat with tenacity. But it gave protection and safety, and that made it beautiful to Ranegonda. A second call on the wooden horn informed all the inhabitants of the fortress that Ranegonda was inside the walls.
“Mädchen,” said the monitor as he approached her, his head lowered to show respect to the office she held. “The White Christ be praised for your swift return.”
“And my escorts be praised, as well,” said Ranegonda as she Signed herself.
“Yes. Most certainly,” said the monitor, who wore an owl’s claw on a thong around his neck. He lowered his head still further, knowing that what he told her next would not be welcome. “Your brother’s wife would like to speak to you. She is waiting in the sewing chamber.”
Ranegonda heard this out stoically. “All right,” she told the monitor. “I will be with her as soon as I have set my cloak aside. Tell Pentacoste that I do not want to come in a dusty cloak smirched by the stains of travel.” It was nothing more than a delaying tactic, but it was plausible enough, and the monitor accepted it without reservation. As he backed two steps away from her, Ranegonda steeled herself for her necessary conversation with her sister-in-law.
* * *
Text of a dispatch from the customs officer at Hedaby to Hrotiger in Rome; carried overland by a party of merchants bound for Salz in Franconia, transferred to another company of merchants and taken as far as Constanz in Swabia, and transferred there to a courier of the Bishop of Milan bound for Rome. Delivered December 19, 937.
* * *
To the factor and agent of the Excellent Comites Saint-Germanius, Hrotiger in the city of Rome, greetings at the end of September.
This is to inform you that the first of five ships bound from Staraya Ladoga has landed. The cargo consists of furs, amber, silk, brasses, and spices. The taxes have been paid upon the value of the cargo, but it cannot yet be released until the other four ships have arrived or been accounted for, as the full value of the goods cannot be assessed until that time. We will hold this cargo in our warehouse, and when all parts of the shipments have been received, we will arrange for their shipment to Rome, in accordance with the orders of the Comites Saint-Germanius.
The Captain of this first ship to land, the West Wind, has informed me that the Comites sailed aboard the Midnight Sun, which is the largest of the other four ships. It is expected that the rest will arrive shortly if they have not been damaged or sunk because of the tempests. There have been four storms in the last ten days, and many ships have put in to port to find shelter. Many of the sailors newly arrived in Hedaby have said that other craft were in grave danger from the storms. Therefore we are hesitating to state more than that we have not received confirmation of any wreckage from the Comites’ ships. We are just now seeing ships in the harbor that were expected more than a week ago. These have brought word of two of the Comites’ ships, the Savior and the Golden Eye, which have been sighted on the water and bound for this port. We have not yet received any word about the Harvest Moon or the Midnight Sun, either to the good or the bad. In duty to your master, we must tell you that there have been reports of other ships sunk, although none of the sightings have been part of the Comites’ ships we have already mentioned, nor have we been informed of jetsam discovered belonging to him.
It is also possible that pirates have attempted to seize the cargo carried in those ships, and if that is the case, it will be some time before we will know of it, for pirates carry their plunder far from these harbors, the better to conceal their deeds. It is possible that if pirates have taken the cargo they may also demand ransom for your master, in which case you will know of it before we do at Hedaby. We pray that no such misfortune has befallen the Comites, but pirates are desperate men who care nothing for their own safety, and will venture onto the waves when prudent men search for safe harbor.
Should there be reason to send another report, it will be dispatched to you as soon as possible, in order that you can act upon whatever information is given before the first of the year. Your master has provided instructions in the event of any difficulty arising from his voyage, and we will act upon them if it becomes necessary. If we have not received the cargo of all five ships by the end of the year, we will release those portions of the cargo which have arrived and arrange for them to be carried south to you.
With the wish that God favors you and the cause of your master and brings you health and prosperity, we vow continuing service to you.
the sign of the customs clerk
by the hand of Brother Thimofei
Copyright © 1993 by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro