Egil opened his eyes. The gods had given him another day. He could tell by the light streaming in through the slats in his barn wall that he had awoken late, closer to midday than to dawn. He couldn't remember what would have made him sleep so long, or why he had slept in his barn. His favorite donkey looked at him, and he looked back.
The moments just after waking are strange, and belong more to gods than to men. Men cannot remember the previous day, at least for a few moments, and sometimes forget even their own names. They have been outside the stream of life for hours and they must take some steps to wade back into the middle world. It is a time that is suited for thinking of the heavens and talking to ghosts, if any are nearby.
Egil didn't see any ghosts around him this morning. A pity. Egil always wanted to see or talk to a ghost, and he had never had a chance. Now was as good a time as any to arise, Egil decided. He rolled down the slope of the hay he had sprawled on, and felt some sharp pains around his body. His mind waded back into the details of his life, and he remembered the previous night. There was mead, of course. And there were axes. He tried to remember why he had a fresh memory of axes.
"EGIL!" a voice cried, far away. "Where are you EGIL!" The "gil" of his name was shouted so loudly and so nasally that it sounded like the blast from a horn at the beginning of a battle. It had to be Felman. Only Felman would shout so obnoxiously. Egil staggered to his feet, and stumbled out of his barn. His eyes were not ready for the light that greeted him there. But he saw a figure in the distance, and he straightened his back and opened his eyes. He had to appear strong, despite his pains and fatigue. Once a warrior allows himself to appear weak, his comrades will trust him less, and appearance is the first step to reality.
Felman saw him emerging from the barn and approached quickly. "EGIL," he said, still loud even though they were now only a few feet apart. "EGIL," he said again, smiling. "How is your wound? Did you heal last night?"
Egil looked down to his right side where Felman had been gesturing. For the first time he noticed that he had a small wound near his hip. It was covered with leaves and caked over with the syrup they used to clean wounds, mixed with dried blood.
Egil remembered more. He had gone to Felman's cabin last night, where Felman and his cousin had shown him their new axes and their old mead. Felman's cousin thought that these new axes were the right weight and balance for throwing, and he even called them "throwing axes" as if he were an expert. They may have been throwing axes, but none of them were ax throwers, and the mead only gradually made them worse. While Egil had been retrieving one of his wayward axes, Felman had made one of his wayward throws, and had just grazed Egil's side. They had fumbled through the process of cleaning and dressing the small wound and then Egil had wandered home and slept it all off.
"Egil! My friend!" said Felman, still beaming. "Why did you sleep in the barn? Your wife told me she hasn't seen you!"
Egil remembered that too. He didn't want his wife to get worried or angry, or most likely, both, about his ax throwing or his fresh wound. He thought he could sleep it all off for a night and see her with a healing wound rather than a bloody gash, and get a better reaction that way. Anyway, he liked the soft hay there in the barn, and the feeling of the wind on warm nights like this one. The short summer of their land would be over soon, and he wouldn't get to enjoy the wind during the long, cold winter.
"I wanted to catch up with my good friend the donkey," Egil said, trying to deflect.
"Ah, it must be convenient to have your mistress living so close to home," Felman said.
Egil was tired of these weak jibes. "She told me you wanted to be her friend too but she couldn't stand your stench." He hoped that would end that line of conversation.
Felman laughed good-naturedly. "I am glad you are walking around in good spirits today! I brought you more mead to help you stay warm."
Before he took a great swig of the mead, Egil said to Felman, "Let's go see Canute."
They walked towards the coast, where they knew Canute would be. The sun was strong and warm and seemed to fill the whole day with golden optimism. Even the sheep in the fields they passed seemed content and happy. With each step, Egil felt the grass of his home underfoot, breathed in the air of his country, and felt glad to be alive, and glad to be a Norseman and a warrior.
They finally found Canute, by the coast where they expected him to be, just past a big field with many grazing sheep. Canute was standing on the prow of a beached ship, trying to balance a plank on the gunwale. It repeatedly fell off to one side or the other, and Canute had to jump off the ship several times to retrieve it.
"Canute! My friend! What are you doing!" Felman shouted. Egil admired Felman. He was friends with everyone, or at least acted like he was. Felman lived in the foothills of the mountains, in a place that was a little remote. Egil thought that people in such remote places must be more friendly than normal to overcome their isolation. Felman had overcome it, and then some.
Canute was not friends with everyone. This was not because he was unkind, but rather because he was focused elsewhere. Canute was tall and a little heavy, with light brown hair and a big face. His eyes were always a little far off, and he never seemed to be happy unless he was working on one of his ships.
Canute finally noticed Felman and Egil when they were a few steps away. He realized that Felman had asked him a question. "It has to balance," he said, as if that explained everything. "That is how I know where the middle is." He turned back to the plank. Egil and Felman let him be.
Canute was important to Egil and Felman since he was building their ship for the next season. They had both missed the chance to go a-viking this year: Egil had a badly injured leg at the time the ships left on their journeys, and Felman's clan had been feuding with the clan that owned all the good ships. Now was the peak time for getting treasure, and both of them were stuck at home with nothing to do but tend to the animals, throw axes, and wait for the next season. They wanted to make sure they didn't miss another season, so they checked on Canute's progress frequently, bringing him gifts and paying him compliments to make sure he would continue to work diligently. They probably didn't need to encourage him, though. Canute seemed to live for the shipbuilding and would have done it all day whether or not he were rewarded externally for it.
"Canute! My friend!" Felman started again. He was not a man who was afraid of repetition. "We brought you our best mead!" Felman abruptly grabbed the wineskin Egil was holding, and thrust it up uncomfortably close to Canute's face.
"A kindness," Canute said politely, placing the mead down next to him.
Felman smiled, waiting for Canute to talk some more. At least, he started asking questions.
"What is your progress on our ship? Will she carry us a-viking in the next season?"
Canute paused. "She is beautiful," he said simply. "The cherry wood is heavy, but strong. It can carry more pitch," he continued. "You will face less danger from ramming, and she will last longer without decay." He paused again. "She will ride low in the water, but she will be steady." He seemed to think this concluded the matter, and went back to his plank.
Egil was pleased, and looked at Felman to see his reaction. Felman was distracted. He was looking soutward down the coast. "Canute," he said, pointing to a bark on the horizon, "is that ship one of yours?"
Canute looked up, interested. "No," he said. "Its symmetry is poor, and it lists dreadfully. The portside rowers are scarcely even getting their oars into the water."
"Egil," Felman said, more seriously. "Does that ship belong to your clansmen?"
"It is no ship of my clan," Egil said with certainty. "Do you know the ship?"
"I do not know the ship," Felman replied. "We will plan to greet them as friends," he added, forcing a smile.
Egil knew why Felman was nervous. This was the season of treasure hunting abroad, and all the working ships should be far away. An active ship on their coast now would either be the remains of a failed expedition returning early, maybe full of desperate, maddened men, or a band of psychopathic outlaws who would dare to prey on their own people in a time of relative weakness. Egil and Felman both reached to touch the hilts of their swords, thinking of how they would deal with this potential threat. Canute didn't seem to have a sword with him, but merely continued working on his ship as if nothing were amiss.
They could do nothing but wait. The ship flew quickly through the shallow waters just off the coast. As it got especially near, they saw it veer toward them. They had expected this to happen. The grazing sheep behind them, the ship with its fine workmanship which might have held some leftover treasure, it all created an obvious target for a sufficiently greedy crew. Egil suspected that the crew would try to kill him and his friends so they could easily steal the sheep and strip Canute's ship of its contents and fine wood. The enemy ship ran aground about 100 paces from them, and eight men who looked tired but determined jumped off and ran towards them, swords drawn.
Felman was a born warrior. He lived for moments like these, and in the end he might die for them too. His face looked both angry and happy. Egil fought out of duty, not out of desire. He knew that warrior life was required for him to be a full man and to live someday with the gods, but he took no special pleasure in it. Today was a day for him to do his duty.
Egil and Felman stood with their backs to the ship, swords drawn, ready for whatever came.
Two of the youngest and most eager of the enemy crew arrived first. They were scarcely more than boys, probably trying to prove themselves to their chief on what might have been their first journey. This was a fine warmup, Egil thought. The boy who approached him had never studied swordsmanship, it seemed. Egil was able to push away his eager thrusts easily. His mistake, Egil thought, was thought it was easy to predict his movements. He looked exactly where he was about to thrust, and his body warmed up to thrust for several seconds before he started the movement. People think that swordfighting is a coarse activity for strong oafs who thrust dumbly. But the best fighters had great subtlety, darting their eyes so you could never see what they were targeting, and almost dancing to make you unaware of their intentions.
Egil did not want to kill this boy, even though the young man had asked for it by approaching him in his homeland with a drawn sword. He landed a strong but glancing blow to the side of his thigh. The boy was shocked, and staggered quickly away, holding one arm up as if to surrender. Egil let him go. The boy went to lean against the prow of the ship. Egil could tell that the boy wouldn't fight anymore, but also that he wasn't too badly hurt - just as Egil had intended. They boy raised his sword and hacked spitefully at the wooden woman who Canute had carved as the ship's figurehead, knocking the sculpture off the prow, and hacking it to pieces where she lay on the beach. If he could not succeed in fighting people, at least he could fight statues - that seemed to be what he was thinking.
When Canute saw the boy hacking at the beautiful figurehead, he cried out, as if in physical pain, a loud, moaning cry. Canute's affection for his ship almost made Egil laugh, but then he noticed the six angry and hungry men plodding towards him and Felman and eyeing the sheep behind them. Felman, for his part, had not been so merciful to the boy who had tried to attack him. He had stabbed him deeply in the side. The boy lay next to the ship, bleeding.
The six men who approached after the boys looked experienced. They naturally split into two groups of three as they approached Felman and Egil. Egil had fought many times, but he had never fought three skilled men at once. He could not see a way to triumph.
Egil thought about the day that had led him here. He thought of the bright sun that had made everything seem right, and how it had all turned foul so quickly. He thought of his wife and children, and how they would miss him and mourn him. He thought of friends like Felman, and drinking mead and throwing axes, and enjoying all the good pleasures of being alive. He had already made plans for the winter that would start a few short months later. In their land, the winter was a time without sun. He had prepared for that huge and thoughtful night, and now these three men had come to send him to another one.
Just as the three men got close enough to almost reach Egil with their broad swords, something fell from the sky on the faces of the men. It was black and liquid and it made them scream in terror and pain. They all dropped their swords and clutched their faces with mad terror. Felman, busy trying to parry the assaults of the three men who had approached him, soon saw the same welcome sight: blackness pouring down and enveloping the attackers, who ran towards the ocean water, screaming.
It was boiling pitch that had rained down, and Canute who had made it rain. He had a pot of pitch boiling near the middle of his deck. Applying the hot pitch was an important part of the ship construction process, and now Canute's construction methods had saved their lives.
After the injured men had run away to their ship, drifting listlessly away in the sea and tending to their wounds. Egil, Felman, and Canute sat together in the sand, leaning their backs against the hull of the ship, exhausted from the short battle and passing the remaining mead back and forth.
Egil was impressed by Felman's fighting spirit. He had never shown any sign of fear or reluctance. "Felman, my friend," he asked. "What makes you fight?"
Felman answered immediately. "I fight for my people and my homeland. For the grazing sheep and the soaring mountains, and the grain and the fish and the mead," he added wistfully, "and the ships," he said, looking at Canute.
Egil nodded. "I fight for my wife and my children, for our clan and our blood."
They both looked at Canute. Egil broke the silence. "Why do you fight, Canute? I have never seen you fight before, and I didn't expect you to join us. I thought you would just hide beneath the deck or among the sheep."
Canute also didn't hesitate to answer. "I love my ship."