By John C. Hocking
from Black Gate 13, copyright © 2009 by New Epoch Press. All rights Reserved.
The wind tore the tops off the gray waves, flung the cold spray in our faces, and we laughed. We laughed and clapped each other on the back and shook our swords at the dark sky.
The sail of oiled wool bellied full and strained at the mast, pulling our knarr through the night. And at the base of the mast, wrapped in blankets, was Asdis, daughter of Thorgeir Broadshield. Her brother Asbjorn had sheathed his fine Damascened blade and now sat beside her, proud and princely.
The rest of us sat or sprawled on the boat’s ribbed belly, as proud as Asbjorn, if less princely. Of all who had set forth from Sandur, none had been slain and only two bore wounds of any consequence. Orm had taken a blow to the shoulder, probably from a mace and, though he strove to appear unaffected, I could see that it was all he could do to keep from clutching it and weeping. A sword had glanced from my helm. It had been a powerful stroke, but it took Einar’s man off balance and my ax had split him so that he fell on the stones of the beach and died there in his blood. He was the first man I had ever slain. He was dead, but his parting gift to me had opened the scalp over my left ear so that my neck and shoulder were painted with blood. In exaltation at our escape I’d ceased to notice, but it bled still, warm even in the chill sea wind. I pressed the wound occasionally, and wiped my palm on my breeches. It seemed a small price to pay for having surprised a superior foe and won back a precious prize against heavy odds.
“Brand!” The voice of Asdis rose over the wind, which seemed to quiet in response.
She called my name. I went to my chieftain’s daughter where she sat wrapped in blankets to her chin, leaning on the mast. Her sharp gray eyes regarded me in the first glimmerings of false dawn.
“Brand, you loyal lummox. Your head is half split.”
“It is of no consequence, chieftain’s-daughter.”
She sat up, the blankets dropping away and revealing her slim body clad in the brief shift of Eastern silk that her captors had made her wear. About her neck was her old necklace of jet and amber, and a slim, dark torc encircled her left arm. I’d never seen the torc before. She stretched out a white arm and snatched an iron dagger from her brother’s belt, then used it to cut a strip from a blanket.
“Here,” she held it out for me. “Bind up your wound.”
I took the strip of rough fabric and regarded Asdis in much the same fashion as I had since I was a stripling, with my feet rooted in place and a foolish emptiness filling my brain.
“Can’t have the warrior who saved me from Einar’s shaman bleeding himself dry before we get home.”
Asbjorn stood up, legs braced against the knarr’s steady roll. “It was you?” He had the gray eyes of his father and sister, but where their hair was darkling, his was pale. “I stood at the door of the long house with Orm and Thorolf, slaying any foolish enough to come out. Gods, but that was a pretty piece of raiding. The skalds will sing of it!” The gray eyes grew wild with memory.
“I did not save her,” I said. “When I found her in the seidur hut, she took my dagger from my hand and cut herself free. And when Skorri burst in waving his staff she thrust him through the belly.”
“Even so?” exclaimed Asbjorn. “Did you slay Einar’s shaman?”
“Nay”, said Asdis. “He fled, yowling like a scalded dog.”
“Although he fled, the blow was surely mortal,” I said.
“Freya’s teats!” cried Asbjorn. “Skorri the shaman slain by my own sister! And how many others feed the ravens, Brand?”
“Three,” I said as I knotted the blanket-strip around my head. “I think.”
Asbjorn laughed. “Probably more then, as thinking was never your strength.”
“Aye,” I agreed, “but no matter how many fell, this is a night to remember.”
The wind had slowed as we spoke, dwindled to a fading breeze. The sail went slack. Clouds massed to the East glowed like tarnished silver against the last of the night.
“Asbjorn!” cried Thorolf from the steering oar. “Chieftain’s son, what is that?” There was something like fear in the man’s voice, and he was no coward. I stepped past Asdis and looked out across the dark swells to where Thorolf pointed.
To the north and west, a light moved in the sea. Asbjorn came to my side, put one hand on the gunwale. He squinted into the breeze’s last, dying breath.
“Phosphorescence,” he said loudly. “Common enough in these seas.”
The light was circular and farther across than our knarr was long. It slid beneath the waves with sinister purpose, moving toward us.
“That is not phosphorescence,” I said.
The light was sickly white and dark mottlings moved upon it. It drew closer.
“Odin on the tree,” swore old Halfdan. He came to his feet beside Asdis as if to protect her. The gray-bearded warrior had dandled her on his knee when she was a babe.
I seized the gunwale with both hands and stared into the sea. A blade of ice seemed to pierce my belly.
It was a face. The dark mottlings were eyes and nose, flowing beard and open mouth. The luminous face, huge as god’s, moved beneath the knarr.
Asdis gave out a sharp cry that was cut off as swiftly as if she’d been struck a mortal blow.
Asbjorn’s hand was on my arm, squeezing through my mail. “Gods! What is it?”
“It is Skorri,” I rasped. “It is the shaman.” There was a gentle lurch of the deck, much as if we had dropped anchor. The knarr was no longer moving.
Vali staggered to the stern, caught up his spear from where it lay beside the steering oar, then cast the weapon into the sea. It passed through the luminous face and dropped from sight into the vast darkness waiting below.
“Fools!” cried Asdis, rigid against the mast. “Witless fools!” Her voice was as harsh as the cry of a gull, and utterly foreign to the woman I knew.
Asbjorn wheeled toward his sister as Vali fell to his knees in terror. Old Halfdan recoiled from the girl he would have died to protect.
I looked from the face in the sea to my chieftain’s daughter. The face’s lips moved, but it was Asdis who spoke.
“Look to the South,” Asdis snarled, “Can you see your death approaching?”
Asbjorn’s eyes, wide with horror and disbelief, remained fixed on his sister but I did as Asdis bade. And saw, in truth, our death riding the foam-crests, bearing down upon us.
The complete version of “The Face in the Sea” appears in Black Gate 13.