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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

A Gathering of Ravens

A Novel

Scott Oden

Thomas Dunne Books

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

BOOK ONE

THE ISLAND OF SJÆLLAND, THE DANEMARK

THE YEAR OF OUR LORD 999


1


The storm howled out of the west like the terrible voice of God, shouting down the heretics who doubted the coming Apocalypse. The autumn had been warmer than it should, and Njáll son of Hjálmarr—who in the last year had forsworn the whale-road so he might carry the banner of the White Christ—knew he should not have trusted it would hold. The priest back in Jelling, that scrofulous bastard who preached conversion with the sword rather than the psalter, had warned him that this oväder—this un-weather—was of the Devil’s making; that the fumes of Hell warmed the world of Man, and soon the armies of God would strike from the Gates of Heaven to set the balance right.

A year ago, before his conversion, Njáll would have dismissed the priest for a fool. He would have seen the heathen hand of Thor in the deafening crash of thunder and the jags of lightning crackling across the night-black sky; heard the false laughter of Rán in the pelting hail and the sheets of rain soaking him to the bone. And he would have sacrificed and called out to Odin for succor. But, like the blessed apostle Paulos, the scales had fallen from Njáll’s eyes and he could see the truth laid out before him: the power of the old gods was breaking, and the world’s end was nigh—and not the treacherous lie that was Ragnarok, with its false promises of glory and slaughter without end, but the Day of Judgment when the White Christ would return and scour the earth clean of heathens and apostates and deniers of the Lord.

And Njáll Hjálmarr’s son counted himself blessed to have received the gift of salvation so close to the end …

Thunder shook the heavens. Njáll kept a tight grip on the halter of their donkey. The beast shied and threatened to bolt with every step, its eyes rolling in fear. Only the strength in his great shoulders, a legacy of the days he had gone raiding with Norway’s king, Olaf Tryggve’s son, kept the animal from plunging off the path and into the undergrowth, where wind-stripped leaves faded from orange and red to a muddy brown in silent testimony to the coming winter. The path, hardly better than a cow trail, led inland from the beach at Seal Reef. Roskilde was their destination; once there, his companion, Aidan, would take service with old Father Gunnar and Njáll would … would what? Simply await the End of Days?

Water sluiced from Njáll’s salt-and-pepper beard as he hauled on the rope lead; he tried to drag the blasted donkey but the effort only gouged furrows in the mud. His feet slipped on wet rock; he nearly fell. Njáll railed at the animal, his voice lost to the roaring wind. “Damn you, you miserable beast! I swear if we reach Roskilde I’m going to skin you and make a pair of boots from your flea-bitten hide!”

For a moment, Njáll considered backtracking to the beach, to ride out the storm in the moss-grown ruins of the old stone tower there—a relic of the days when the kings of the Shield-Danes ruled over Sjælland. But Seal Reef was a good two hours or more behind, while Roskilde was a day, perhaps two, ahead. No, they needed shelter here, now.

There was a lull in the rain; the echo of thunder rolled from horizon to horizon. Njáll glanced about, seeking Aidan. The irrepressible young Briton, who for the last year had helped guide the Dane through the darkness and into the light of the Christ, was ahead of him, clambering up the rock and scrub of the hillside. Njáll frowned. “Aidan!”

Aidan turned. The gale snatched off his cowl, revealing a shock of hair the color of dark copper and not even a hint of a beard. He bent into the fierce wind; his black woolen mantle flapped like vestigial wings as he pointed to something a short way up the slope.

There, partially hidden by hawthorn and bramble, was the yawning mouth of a cave.

Njáll waved him back. Though secure in his newfound faith, the Dane had not lost the superstitions of his heathen kin. He had learned from a young age that a cave like that might shelter any number of fell creatures, beyond bears or wolves. Witches could meet there in conclave, to weave the songs that wrought the doom of good men; trolls, wights, and goblins might lurk in the shadows, ready to seize unwary travelers. The spreading Word of God might keep the evils of a forgotten world at bay, but it could not destroy them completely …

Njáll shouted at the younger man, cold dread seeping into his bones. “It’s not safe!”

“Safer than walking in this wrack!” Aidan replied, his voice high and sharp, like that of a castrato. Before Njáll could respond, Aidan scrambled up the slope, slipped behind the hawthorn thicket, and vanished into the mouth of the cave.

Njáll reeled off a long—and very un-Christian—litany of curses. He did not dare leave the donkey to its own devices. One sharp crack of thunder and they would not see their belongings again until they reached Roskilde, if then. Njáll’s curses redoubled as he manhandled the beast up the slope; despite the chill and the rain soaking him to the bone, sweat dripped from his brow by the time he reached the stand of hawthorn. The God-cursed animal balked at entering the cave, so Njáll compromised: he tied the donkey’s lead rope as tightly as he could to the thickest branch he could find. Pausing to dig a bearded axe with a short oak haft from his gear—the skeggox he had carried on the whale-road—Njáll charged in through branch and bramble, half-expecting to see nothing left of Aidan but bloody shreds.

But Njáll’s war cry died on his lips, his charge to death and glory arrested by a distinct lack of foes. Indeed, the slender young man stood whole and unscathed inside the mouth of the cave. He looked over his shoulder at Njáll, blue eyes daring the wet and bedraggled Dane to reprimand him. Though Aidan’s cheeks were ruddy and windburned, his features were as fine and delicate as any woman’s. Njáll might have marked him for a lesser son of nobility had he not known better.

“God loves a fool,” Njáll muttered, breathing hard. “That’s the only reason I can fathom why you’re not dead yet.”

Aidan grinned. “God also helps those who help themselves, which is why we now have shelter from the storm.”

Caves were a rarity on Sjælland, and this one, Njáll could see, was rarer still. It was gigantic. It could easily have held the burial mound of Gorm the Old, back in Jelling. The cave entrance hung like a ledge in the wall of a mine shaft; gray light and rain trickled down from a scrub-choked fissure twenty feet over their heads, the water dropping down to pool in a corner of the cave floor, some thirty feet below them. A trio of stunted hawthorn trees grew at the edge of the pool, branches still festooned with autumn leaves; a fourth, nothing but a dead husk, stood like a naked caricature of its brothers. How far back the cave stretched Njáll could not apprehend, for its farthest reaches lay cloaked in darkness. He wondered if this might be the lair of the dragon that slew and was slain by old Bödvar, the Geat who made himself king of the Shield-Danes? Though given over to the Christ, Njáll felt his once-heathen blood stir at the thought of testing the edge of his axe against the scales of a great wyrm. That would be a good death!

Aidan shuffled close to the edge and peered down at the pool. “Why doesn’t it flood?”

“Drains out through chinks in the rock, I’d wager.” Njáll sniffed the air. It was damp and musty, with a faint metallic-animal reek that reminded him of a badly tanned leather jerkin worn beneath a chain hauberk.

To the right of the entrance, a series of rock shelves like stair steps carved by dwarves led down to the cave floor. Njáll tested them. They were slick with moisture but solid. The Dane descended first, axe held loosely in his fist. His free hand brushed the cave walls. Under his fingers, he could feel scratches and grooves.

“Runes,” he said, his voice echoing.

Aidan looked closer. “Here’s a word in Latin, I think.”

“What does it say?”

The youth tilted his head this way and that, rising on his toes as he tried to get a better view of the faint inscription. “‘Or-Orcadii,’ perhaps? Maybe ‘Orcades’?”

“Orkney?”

Aidan shrugged. “Hard to tell. Could be…”

Jags of hard white light flashed from overhead; in answer, thunder seemed to shake the very ground. By the time they reached the last step, a fresh deluge was pouring from the fissure. Chains of lightning made bright the gloom of the cave; by their brilliant flares Njáll saw another sigil chiseled deep into the wall: an eye, its slitted pupil like that of some monstrous serpent. The giant Dane shuddered.

“What bandit’s lair is this?”

“Does it matter?” Aidan replied. “God has granted us a dry place of respite from the storm. Would you turn up your nose at a gift from the Almighty?”

Njáll glared up at the eye; the crude savagery of its carving left him uneasy, like a memory of something—some whispered warning—from his childhood. He glanced around, half-expecting a fork-tailed devil to leap from the shadows. “Satan’s own front porch is no gift.”

Aidan chuckled, shaking his head. “Come, turn your axe on that dead tree so we can get a fire going. I’ll see to our poor donkey. I think you will better appreciate the Lord’s generosity with dry clothes, warm feet, and a hot meal in your belly.”

Njáll grumbled, but in short order the two had built a small campsite against the cave wall, near the rising steps. No amount of coaxing, however, would convince the donkey to move deeper than the relatively dry cave mouth. Taking pity on the trembling beast, Aidan unloaded their possessions—two woven reed panniers, their contents wrapped in seal skin—and left the donkey hobbled and tied by the cave entrance, along with a measure of oats and a bucket of water drawn up from the pool below.

The fire crackled to life, lending warmth and a little light to their corner of the cave. While Njáll busied himself with setting a hank of salted pork to roast over the flames, Aidan took his spare clothing and moved off to the far side of the cave—out of sight—to change. When he returned, he laid his wet garments out to dry. Njáll followed suit, a ritualized sort of modesty that seemed natural between the two of them. While Njáll was gone Aidan fished some bread and cheese and a handful of dried apples from their gear, along with a flask of watered mead, and prepared them each a plate of food. The smell of roasting pork, and the sizzle and pop of fat, made Aidan’s mouth water. Stirring the fire, he felt a faint breeze coming from deeper in the cave, like the exhalation of some great beast. He was staring at the darkness behind them when Njáll came back. “How deep under the earth do you think this cave goes?” he asked the Dane, who knelt and spread his own wet clothes out alongside Aidan’s.

Njáll glanced at the rear of the cave and shrugged. “Only God knows.”

“We should investigate it.”

“Not until I have the warm feet and bellyful of food you spoke of.”

Njáll sat on the lowest step; Aidan handed him a plate, and both men bowed their heads as Aidan recited the Lord’s Prayer, his mixed accents, English and Danish, mangling its Latin phrases. At the end, both of them muttered, “Amen.” And with a nod, they fell upon their food.

“Who made that, you think?” Aidan asked, jerking his narrow chin at the eye sigil. “And what does it mean?”

“An ogre, like as not,” Njáll said around a mouthful of pork. “My grandfather told me caves like this were hacked out of the earth by the sons of Ymir, foul beasts who drink the blood of good Christians.” Njáll paused. He swallowed and then fixed Aidan with an iron-hard stare. “Are you a good Christian? They will ask you this, once we reach Roskilde. They will ask how you came to be here. They will ask you about your home, your people, and why you left a place as sacred as Glastonbury to join a wretched little church that’s two hairs shy of the asshole of the world. And they will ask if you cleave to our Lord’s commandments. How will you answer?”

Aidan didn’t flinch; this was an old game between them, preparation for taking up a life of holy service when truth and circumstance did not match one another precisely. “I will answer with alacrity,” Aidan replied, “and silently implore God to forgive the lies that must escape my lips. I will tell them the tale of Red Njáll Hjálmarr’s son, who captured me in the sack of Exeter and forced me into a life of vile servitude. I will tell them how the power of the Redeemer turned Njáll from his heathen ways and how I, because of my upbringing at Glastonbury, helped set that once-vicious reaver’s heart upon the path of the One True God. And I will tell them that, with the End Times upon us, I came east with you so we might help spread the Gospel among your godless kin.”

Njáll nodded. “But, what if they discover your true nature? What if you fall in love with one of your brother monks and he rejects your advances? What then?”

“I … I don’t know,” Aidan said with an exasperated sigh, weary all of a sudden. He rose and took Njáll’s empty plate. “I don’t care for such things, not at Glastonbury, certainly not at Exeter, and not now. I only know this: I won’t live as I did before, and I want to serve the Lord in what time remains to us. Nothing else matters.”

Njáll nodded. “Pray that will be enough.”

Aidan carried their dishes to the pool and rinsed them in the stream of rainwater falling from above. He heard rumbles of muted thunder as distant lightning yet cast its white glare over the hillsides. Aidan peered up through the fissure; outside, night had fallen and a chill had settled on the land. By dawn, it would be frigid. Aidan turned and shuffled back toward their fire.

The youth looked longingly at the hinterlands of the cave, its shadow-cloaked mystery crying out for resolution. Maybe a little exploration before bed. A flare of lightning cast its glare …

And as Aidan watched, the light illuminated a figure—etched it against the darkness with startling clarity. Something shaped like a man, savage and barbaric. Something that moved.

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” Aidan dropped the plates; he trod on the hem of his robe, tripping and scrabbling over the rock in his haste to get back to the fire. “Christ Almighty!”

Aidan’s cry startled Njáll, who had settled against the now-warm wall with his eyes closed. He lurched to his feet and hefted his axe. “What ails you?”

The youth gestured toward the darkness at the rear of the cave. His voice, when he found it, was a terrified hiss. “We … We are not alone! There’s someone back there! I swear it! A man, surely…”

Njáll’s eyes narrowed. “Stay behind me.” He reached down, drew a brand from the fire, and held it aloft. Wood crackled and sparked; embers drifted on the faint breath of air.

Njáll, too, saw something move. His makeshift torch revealed a glint of iron, the swirl of a wolf pelt, and then … nothing. He tensed, ready for the rush of a foeman. His axe felt once more like an extension of his arm. “If I say run, you run. Do you hear?” he muttered to Aidan, who nodded. Njáll drew himself up to his full height and bellowed into the darkness: “Who goes? If you be a thief, we are but poor sons of Christ! We have nothing! Show yourself!”

The echo of Njáll’s challenge died away. He strained to hear some sound, a clink of metal on stone, a hissed breath, something. But there was nothing, save for the dull rumble of thunder and the splash of rain. He was on the verge of calling out again when a voice answered from the gloom—a voice as hard as knapped flint that spoke the tongue of the Danes with an accent Njáll could not place. “You have food, poor sons of Christ.”

“Aye. Little enough for our own needs, but what we have we will share with you.”

“At what price?”

“We ask nothing in return. Our charity is the charity of Christ,” Njáll said. “My brother, here, will fetch you a plate. Aidan?”

Njáll heard a snuffling sound, followed by harsh laughter. “Brother, is it?” There came a derisive noise, just then—halfway between a growl and a cough. “Faugh! I’ll play your little game, poor son of Christ. I have crossed paths with many a Dane in my day. Spear-Danes and Shield-Danes, Bright-Danes and Ring-Danes, West-Danes and South-Danes … but never a Christ-Dane.” The voice filled that epithet with a sense of scorn. “Do you Christ-Danes still follow the ancient laws of hospitality?”

“We do,” Njáll replied.

“And did I sneak past you like a thief in the night, Christ-Dane?”

Njáll ground his teeth. “No.”

“I don’t understand,” Aidan said. The youth shot Njáll a confused glance.

“Then understand this, little fool.” The voice grated like iron on a whetstone. “This cave is mine! I have marked it with the Eye! You trespass, disturb my rest, drink my water, and cut down my trees, and you have the spleen to call me your guest?”

“We … We meant no offense,” Aidan said. “We did not know this cave belonged to you.”

Still cloaked in shadow, the figure laughed once more. There was no humor in his voice. “Aye, claim ignorance and blindness, for is that not your way? Keep your Nailed God’s charity. I will trade you my hospitality for your food. Do we have a bargain?”

Njáll considered the offer. In the past, he would have simply trusted his axe to win the day and taken what he needed as spoils of battle. But those days were over. He was a man of peace, now. Perhaps this was a divine test of his patience, of the strength of his new faith? Surely he could pass a night with a surly heathen in exchange for warmth, shelter, and the blessings of the Lord. Slowly, he let his axe fall to his side and nodded. “We have. I am Njáll son of Hjálmarr. My companion, here, is Aidan of Glastonbury. We are bound for the church at Roskilde. How are you called?”

The figure moved nearer to the circle of light cast by the travelers’ fire. The thunder had faded; the rain was a soft hiss. Weak flares of lightning revealed little more than a twisted silhouette, gnarled limbs bulging with muscle and sinew. “I am called many things, Christ-Dane. Corpse-maker and Life-quencher, the Bringer of Night, the Son of the Wolf and Brother of the Serpent. I am the last of Bálegyr’s brood, called Grimnir by my people.”

Aidan backed over to the panniers and drew out some bread and cheese. A bit of pork remained, as well as an apple, wrinkled and sweet. He glanced up as he worked, curious as to what kind of man this Grimnir was. “Who … who are your people?”

But what stepped from the shadows was not human. The flickering firelight threw Grimnir’s features into sharp relief. While his face had the same construction as a human face, its planes and angles were long and sharp, vulpine in the half-light of the cave. Coarse black hair, woven with gold beads and discs of carved bone, framed eyes like splinters of red-hot iron, set deep into a craggy brow. He was broad of chest and long of arm, slouch-backed in his posture, with tattoos in cinder and woad snaking across his swarthy hide. Grimnir was clad in antiquated splendor: a sleeveless hauberk of iron rings sewn onto black leather, a kilt of poorly tanned horsehide cut from the flanks of a dappled roan, a cloak of wolf skins, and arm rings of gold, silver, and wrought iron. One black-nailed hand rested on the worn ivory hilt of a long seax.

Aidan was taken aback, but Njáll reacted as though he had been struck. He brought up his axe. No longer was he a man of peace in the service of God; rather, he was a Dane facing an ancestral enemy. “Christ’s mercies! Skrælingr, I name you! Back, child of Satan!”

“You would forget our truce, Christ-Dane?” Grimnir’s voice was full of cold menace; he shifted his weight, balancing on the balls of his feet like a predator ready to spring.

“There can be no truces with an enemy of God!”

“Bugger your god!”

But before Njáll and Grimnir could come to blows, Aidan thrust himself between the two, with no thought for his own safety. “Stop! Both of you! Is it not written that we should love the sinner though we despise the sin?”

Njáll hesitated. “This is no mere sinner, Aidan! It is not even a man! It comes from a race of traitors and oathbreakers and defilers of corpses!”

“And so? Were not your people once described in no less despicable terms? How runs the prayer, brother? It was once on the lips of every God-fearing man from Britain to Byzantium. Do you recall it?”

The stinging condemnation in Aidan’s voice dampened Njáll’s anger. “Aye. ‘Deliver us, O God, from the savage race of Northmen.’” Njáll lowered his axe, teeth grinding with the effort; though he might struggle with it every day until the End of Days, he was a man of God, now, and not some blood-mad heathen. Not any longer. When he spoke again his voice was constrained. “Thank you for reminding me. You are wise beyond your years, and a Christian without equal, brother. Forgive me, Grimnir. We are ill guests to abuse your hospitality so. Will you not join us?”

Grimnir’s narrowed eyes slid from man to youth and back again. He was plainly suspicious of them, but with an agonizing slowness he nevertheless took his hand from the hilt of his seax. “Tonight we eat, and you will sleep in peace. But, come the dawn, I might just split your miserable skull, Christ-Dane.”

Njáll picked up the plate of food and held it out to Grimnir. “Fair enough,” he replied. “If that is God’s will, so be it.”

With a fierce grin, Grimnir accepted the food and joined the two travelers by the fire.


Copyright © 2017 by Scott Oden