Only the bravest men betake themselves a-Viking. It is a dangerous profession, but a lucrative one for those who are successful. When Eilif bought my freedom, he recruited me as ship’s boy. He first taught me how to tie knots. I thought a Viking should first learn how to wield a sword or throw a spear. But a Viking, Eilif said, is nothing without the skill to sail his ship, and to sail his ship, he must know his knots.
Ours was a warship named Sail Horse of the Mountains of the Swans, or Sail Horse for short, and it was one of many kinds of boats sailed by those who roved. Sail Horse contained all manner of ropes, and each use required a different knot. I thought to find a life of excitement at sea, perhaps filled with unbridled adventure. That was how it was always described in Hagar’s hall. Instead, I found myself spending my first days aboard the longship fiddling with ropes to make one knot or another.
“A true Viking is a seafarer first and a warrior second,” Eilif said. “His strength is his ship, not his sword or his ax.”
I admired Eilif. He was strong-minded, intelligent, and he had exceptional skill in navigation. What I admired most about him was his ability to command the respect of his men. They obeyed him without question. When a new recruit stood against him in protest or defiance, it always ended badly for him. Eilif hardly had to lift a finger before his loyal followers put the challenger in his place. Seldom did he have to raise his voice. He could cut through men’s courage in a single glance. The men feared his wrath, but he did not have to threaten them with any violence to earn their loyalty. It was Eilif who taught me the power of respect in commanding fealty.
As ship’s boy, it was my duty to learn the craft of sailing, roping, and cleaning, and also cooking. My first night aboard Eilif’s longship, the second-in-command, Egill, taught me and the other ship’s boy how to make the foods needed for a long sea voyage.
For most of the day the men ate dried, salted fish, but at night they preferred fresh cuts of herring or mackerel with bread if we had any in the hold. On some days, when a favorable wind blew, we made a fire in a large iron pot suspended from a tripod that was bolted to the deck. The pot swayed with the ocean’s waves, so the coals did not spill out. From the same stand, we hung a smaller iron pot and dipped it into the flames. This was how we made our stews. As our days in open water passed, the ingredients to make the stews dwindled, leaving us with nothing but raw fish to eat until we reached land.
Egill was no ordinary Northman. His father lived in the Far North, beyond the edges of what Danes considered to be the known world, and he traded with a mysterious people called the Sami. It is believed by the Northmen that the Sami possess magical powers—powers that have allowed them to survive in the harsh Northern wastes since the creation of Midgard. They gave him rich white furs, and in return, he gave them grains, iron tools, and mead.
To forge trade relations with the Sami, Egill’s father married one of their chieftain’s daughters. Eilif believed Egill had inherited his mother’s ability to see into the other realms and to interpret the will of the gods. At first, I did not believe Eilif, but I later learned to respect Egill’s abilities and magical powers. Although he shared half his blood with the Sami, he had the look of a Northman. He had long, curly brown hair and a coarse beard that he boasted could stop an arrow from piercing his chest. So proud of his beard was he that he drunkenly dared me once to throw a dagger at it to prove to me it could stop the blade. Years of braiding and exposure to the sea had made the beard hard as wood.