Rolf must want ale. That was my first thought when I woke to that evil day. We lay aft in the ship, huddled in the shadow of the prow’s carved dragon head. I turned over to ask Rolf if he thirsted—in an instant, I knew the answer was no. I’d bandaged him yesterday, when he and the others made it back to ship after the Shetland raid. It had been no serious wound—“a spear’s tickle,” he’d called it—but now blood drenched the cloth. My hands trembling, I touched his throat, but I needn’t have to be sure. To each man and woman comes a cup of luck, sipped over a lifetime. In the night, Rolf’s went dry.
I tried stifling my sobs so the crew wouldn’t wake. They slept sprawled across benches, for what had once been a cramped boat for sixteen had become a luxurious one for five, or rather four men and a boy. Knut was the first to rouse. He eyed the swollen clouds of the red-gray dawn, tugged his tangled beard, and spat, muttering darkly to himself. Apparently, sleep didn’t blunt yesterday’s rage and sorrow. Next, Eirik roused and scratched his face. With laughable alarm he groped for his tight-fitting hood, which had fallen off overnight, and placed it back on his head. I’d guessed he wore this to conceal his cheeks and neck, hoping the men might forget he was their only shipmate not yet bearded. Turning toward me, the boy must have seen despair plain on my face, for he approached, saw Rolf and cried, “The captain! There’s something wrong with the captain!”
Instantly the ship stirred. Gisli blinked and blinked, as if that might dispel this ugly dream. Snorre fiddled with his pack, digging deep for something. And, Odin hear my truth, on Orm’s face I caught the flicker of a grin.
Knut stomped over. A glance at Rolf told all he need know. “The gods cursed us! It mocks them to sail with a woman. I told that husband of yours before we sailed. See what it has done! Yesterday at the raid my son slain. And now our captain dead.” My face caught a peppering of spittle as he growled, “Do you see these oar-benches, Gunilla? Ten of them empty! These deaths I lay at your feet!”
“Enough, Knut!” Orm shouted. His eyes twinkled gallantly at me. A twinkle from long ago, when we would sneak off to the meadow, praying our parents mightn’t discover us. “She has no part in the ill luck.” To Eirik he turned and ordered, “Fetch him some ale.”
“I am no serving boy!”
“You are what we wish you to be! Serving boy, mender of my tunic or bait for our fishing nets! Fetch it! Now! And keep our hands filled with drink, we shall have need of it today.” The stout cask leaned against the starboard side. Eirik, grumbling, pulled off the lid and dunked the wooden cup.
Finally, Gisli stopped blinking and I could see how much summoning of spirit it took for him to stand before the men and address them. With Rolf gone, he, as steersman, took command. Gisli always preferred his own company, happier with sails and a rudder than with others, and his first utterance did little to shout a newfound genius for leadership. “What do we do? Erm, about his body?”
“Burn it,” Eirik proposed, closing the cask. “It is the only proper thing for the captain.”
“How would we burn it, you mewling puppy landsman, aboard ship?” Snorre hollered, Eirik purpling in embarrassment.
Through all this talk of theirs, I barely heard a word, for still I reeled at losing my Rolf. Warriors’ wives ought not to be shocked by violent death, but only yesterday I’d been certain our life-threads would twist together for many years yet. The wound had been so trifling. Still, it was my duty to put aside my feelings and honor him now. “Rolf would have wanted to make his last journey from his own land,” I said. “As this cannot be, he will go to his other home. To the sea.”
Though a moment ago he looked more likely to lodge his axe in me than agree, now Knut smiled. “Aye, that’s the first wisdom I’ve heard today.” He quaffed the ale Eirik delivered him. “Very wise. Yet it is a dread thing to drop into the depths, our captain’s body the plaything of sea trolls. More so on such a hapless voyage. It’s as if the gods leagued together as one to torment us. And look now to the east. A maelstrom brews. Too much ill luck, I say, if we mean to get home. First we ought to turn the gods back to our side.”
“How?” Snorre asked.
“Gunilla was Rolf’s wife. To honor our captain—and to please the gods—she should go with him to the sea.”