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Fin Gall

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Fin Gall

  Fin Gall

  A Novel of Viking Age Ireland

  James L. Nelson

  Copyright © 2012 James L. Nelson

  All rights reserved.

  ISBN: 13: 978-1481028691

  ISBN-10: 1481028693

  To Lisa, with Viking Love…

  Fin Gall - Gaelic term for Vikings of Norwegian descent. It means White Strangers.

  (For other terms see Glossary, page 278 )


  The Saga Of Thorgrim Ulfsson


  here was a man named Thorgrim Ulfsson, who was called Thorgrim Night Wolf. He lived in East Agder, in Vik, in the country of Norway.

  When Thorgrim was a young man he became an hirdman for a powerful jarl who had a farm fifty miles away. The jarl, Ornolf Hrafnsson, was known as Ornolf the Restless, and for three summers Ornolf and his men went a-viking in England and Ireland.

  Thorgrim was an excellent fighter, and a clever poet as well, two skills much prized by the Vikings. Soon Ornolf raised him from hirdman and made him a chieftain and second in command. Thorgrim was well respected by the men, and loved by Ornolf.

  At that time the plundering was very good, and Ornolf greatly increased his wealth, and all the men who sailed with him became rich as well. After three years, Thorgrim left him and returned to his farm in East Agder. With the riches he had won during his time a-viking he purchased more land, as well as cattle and slaves, and soon became one of the most prosperous farmers in the area.

  Thorgrim was still much favored by Ornolf the Restless, who did not forget the good service that Thorgrim had done him. When Thorgrim decided that the time had come to marry, Ornolf offered him his second daughter, Hallbera Ornolfsdottir, know as Hallbera the Fair.

  Though Ornolf’s wife was famous for her wicked temper and sharp tongue, all of his daughters were sweet and mild of temperament. Ornolf loved them and would not force any to marry against their will. His offer to Thorgrim, therefore, was on the condition that Hallbera favored the union. But Thorgrim was a kind and clever man, and also very wealthy, and so Hallbera was eager for the marriage.

  At the wedding, Thorgrim presented Ornolf with fifty silver coins as a bride-price, and Ornolf gave Thorgrim a fine farm in the north of the country as a dowry.

  Thorgrim and Hallbera were well married, very much in love and pleased with the life they made on their ever-expanding farm in Vik. They had three children. Their eldest son was named Odd, the second son, Harald, and a daughter, Hild. The sons were hard working, and grew strong and became skilled farmers. When Odd grew to be a man, Thorgrim gave him the farm in the north country that had been given to him as a dowry and Odd left home to work his new farm.

  Ten years after the birth of Hild, Hallbera was once again with child, but she was no longer a young woman and things did not go well. Despite the best efforts of the midwife, and many sacrifices that Thorgrim made to the gods, Hallbera died giving birth, though the child lived. It was a girl and Thorgrim named her Hallbera after her mother.

  Ornolf the Restless had never lost the desire to go a-viking, even though he was now comfortable and wealthy, so he purchased a longship and gathered a crew and asked Thorgrim if he would sail as second in command.

  Before that time, Thorgrim was happy on the farm, and did not care to go voyaging any more. But after Hallbera died it was hard for him to be there without her. Also, he did not wish to deny Ornolf, who was his father-in-law, nor was he displeased with the promise of battle, so he agreed. The year was 852 by the Christian calendar, seven years after Thorgils, the Dane who had made himself king of Ireland, was drowned by the Irish people.

  Thorgrim’s second son, Harald, was then fifteen years old, as strong as most men, and ready to go a-viking, so Thorgrim brought him along.

  Here is what happened.

  Chapter One

  He who has traveled

  can tell what spirit

  governs the men he meets.


  Ancient Norse Poem


  he storm was vicious and building in strength. Death-cold spray came blowing sideways, gray-mountain waves rolled down on the laboring longship.

  Ornolf the Restless was roaring drunk.

  He stood up in the bow of the longship, his longship, which he called Red Dragon. He kept one massive arm wrapped around the slender wooden neck that swept up in an elegant arc and ended fifteen feet above his head with the grinning, teeth-baring head of a dragon. The dragon head was a frightening sight, but not half as frightening as Ornolf the Restless was at that moment.

  His hair was red and gray and plastered against his head and back, his beard drenched and matted until it looked like seaweed. The padded tunic that he wore bound with a wide leather belt tight around his thick middle was soaked through. He was engaged in a pissing match with the god Thor.

  “God of thunder and lighting, eh?” he bellowed up at the blanket of clouds that hung low and dark over the sea. “This the best you can do!? It will take a damned sight more than this to kill Ornolf!”

  The bow of the longship rose on a wave like the hand of Odin lifting Ornolf up into the sky and he whooped with the exhilaration of it. Then the ship slid off the wave, down, down, twisting into the trough. The larboard side ladle-dipped into the sea, scooped half a ton of water that rushed in a wave amidships, crashing against the mast, against the dozens of sea chests lashed to the deck, against the sixty-three or so soaked, miserable warriors who were not enjoying the storm half as much as Ornolf.

  “Hah!” Ornolf roared at the heavens. “That it? I can make more water than that!” And to show Thor he was not kidding, Ornolf let go of the dragon’s neck and fished himself out of his breeches, urinating half over the side and half on the deck as he tried to maintain his balance on the wildly swinging bow.

  Ninety feet aft, Thorgrim Ulfsson braced himself against the steerboard’s tiller, guiding the shallow longship through the mounting seas. He turned his head away from the spray and spit the seawater that ran down his face and into his mouth. He could barely hear Ornolf’s drunken raving over the shriek of the wind, but he heard enough to make him wish the old man would shut up.

  He’ll bring bad luck on our heads, just to show Thor he’s not afraid of even a god... Thorgrim was personally devoted to the cult of Odin, but he still did not think it was a good idea to taunt Thor in that way.

  On the deck amidships, most of the three score warriors who had sailed with Ornolf on this voyage sat huddled under blankets and furs, enduring the cold and the wet. Others were furiously bailing, flinging buckets of seawater to leeward, or shoveling water with leather helmets. The longship was a hundred feet in length, but it was still essentially an open boat. The ranks of round wooden shields mounted on the ship’s low sides offered some protection from the wind, but not much.

  “Come along, Thor, you sorry creature,” Ornolf shouted, “if you have a lighting bolt for me, I’m ready to catch it! Right here!” He held his ass up to the sky, as much as he could. Ornolf had trouble bending in the middle.

  The men amidships looked at one another, shook their heads, stared at their jarl with raw anger. Thorgrim was not the only one who wished Ornolf would shut up.

  Thorgrim’s son, Harald Thorgrimson, took his place among the men. Harald was fifteen, though his size made him appear older, and what he lacked in quick wits he made up for in strength and eagerness. He was shorter than the rest but nearly as broad. He was beardless, of course, but beyond that he was much like the other warriors. He was flinging water overboard, using his iron helmet as a bucket.

  The longship’s red and white striped sail was lashed tight to the yard, the yard swung fore and aft and hoisted five feet up to give the vessel some steerageway. All around her, the
dull, steel gray waves, their tops ripped open white, rose in monotonous succession up around the longship until there was nothing to see but mountains of water on either hand. And then the seas would lift the ship, up and up, and through the blowing spray and the torn clouds they would catch a glimpse of the low green shores of Ireland, a few miles to windward.

  Forward, Ornolf raged on, unmoved by the nasty looks flying like spray. One twist of the tiller, Thorgrim thought, and I could drive our bow into the sea and sweep Ornolf away like swatting a fly. But of course he would never do such a thing. He was Ornolf’s hirdman. Ornolf was his father-in-law.

  “Harald!” Thorgrim shouted to his son, and then louder, to be heard over the wind. “Harald!”

  Young Harald looked up, squinting into the spray. His cheeks were bright red and he was smiling, but Thorgrim could see the fear behind the smile. It didn’t worry him, that his son was afraid. Harald was young still, and Thorgrim could remember being afraid himself at that age. He could recall the taste of fear, like some food he had eaten once, long ago, and now could just barely recall. There was nothing Thorgrim feared now. Nothing in the physical world, anyway, the world of men and storms.

  “Come aft!” Thorgrim shouted and Harald set his helmet down and made his way aft, twisting between the men and leaping the sea chests. He was agile like only a fifteen year old can be.

  “Yes, father?”

  “Your grandfather has pushed his luck far enough! Grab that rope and lash him to the stem!”

  Harald grinned at the thought. He was the only one aboard who might lash Ornolf in place. If any other man tried it, Ornolf would have flung him into the sea, but he would never do anything to harm his beloved grandson.

  Harald took up the rope, made of braided walrus hide, and skipped forward as easily as if he were walking down a path on their farm in East Agder and not along the slick, half submerged deck of a violently pitching ship.

  Thorgrim watched him, marveled at his grace and recalled a time when he, too, could move like that. Thorgrim was thirty-eight. Two and a half decades of fighting and drinking, hard work and hard seafaring were having their effect. He wondered sometimes how Ornolf, fifteen years his senior, could keep on, but Ornolf’s capacity was legendary.

  Up in the bow, Harald maneuvered past the swaying jarl and flipped the rope around the stem. Thorgrim could see mouths moving, arms flailing, but he could not hear what was said. Then Harald whipped the rope around Ornolf’s mid-section and made it fast, with Ornolf showing no sign of objection.

  Harald knew how to handle his grandfather. They were much alike, grandfather and grandson, and Thorgrim did not always think that was a good thing.

  Now Harald was coming aft again, moving with purpose, but Thorgrim could spare him only the occasional glance as he concentrated on keeping the ship bow-on to the seas, keeping her from turning broadside to the wave set and swamping. Over his tunic he wore a bearskin cloak, lashed tight around him, which had kept him warm and dry for a time, but now it was soaked through and heavy as a mail shirt. His arms were beginning to ache from heaving on the tiller, but he had the feel for the ship now and did not dare turn the steering over to anyone else. Nor was there anyone aboard with his skill or experience in such things.

  “Father!” Harald came aft, shouting from only a few feet away.


  “Grandfather says he saw a ship. Out there!” Harald pointed over the leeward side, though at the moment there was nothing to see but a wall of water, rolling away down wind.


  “Well, he says we should see what they are about!”

  Thorgrim nodded. Plunder. It was foremost in everyone’s thoughts, and any inconvenience, such as a storm that threatened to kill them all, was not going to dampen their appetite for it.

  They were a month out of Vik, in Norway. In that time they had raided a village on the northeast coast of England, which had yielded little, and then taken a Danish merchant ship after a short fight. The Dane, they found, was crammed with valuable trade goods - furs and iron ax heads, amber, bundles of cloth, walrus ivory and whetstones. Now Ornolf was shaping a course for Dubh-linn, the Norwegian longphort in Ireland, where they planned to sell what they had taken. More was always welcome.

  The next in the endless progression of waves moved under the longship and lifted it skyward and Thorgrim swept the southern horizon for the ship that Ornolf had seen, but he could see nothing. The other ship, no doubt, had gone down in a trough as they were lifted up.

  “Did you see this ship?” Thorgrim asked.

  “No! Perhaps I can now!” Harald slipped around Thorgrim and put one foot on the ship’s rail, then flung himself up even as the ship dropped away under him. He grabbed the tall sternpost in a bear hug, squeezed with his feet, worked his way up higher.

  A moment later he shouted, “Yes! Yes! There it is, right down wind!” Harald slid back down the slick carved wood and landed on the deck. “No great size,” he said, almost apologetically, as if it was his fault, “but right down wind.”

  Thorgrim nodded as he digested this. It was utterly insane to close with a vessel in those seas, never mind trying to board it, but it never occurred to him not to try, nor would it have occurred to any of the others.

  “Go tell the men we are going to turn and run for this boat! Tell them we’ll have the yard braced square as we turn!”

  Harald grinned as he tumbled off forward. Thorgrim kept his eyes to weather, glanced now and then amidships as Harald spread the news. The Viking host, men who a minute before had been dour and sulking, now cast off their drenched blankets and furs and stood grinning in anticipation. It was as if the heavens had opened and spilled sunshine and mead down on them.

  I pray to Odin this is worth it... Thorgrim thought. There was every chance that the vessel was no more than some pathetic fishing boat, not worth the considerable risk of attacking it in those high seas.

  Up in the bow Ornolf fumbled for half a minute with the knot Harald had tied in the walrus rope, then pulled his dagger and cut it away, stumbling amidships, shouting orders. Men hunkered down along the sides of the ship, prepared to haul the yard square, and unhitched the braces from the cleats on which they were made off.

  “Do you see that, Thorgrim?” Ornolf bellowed as he joined his hirdman aft. “You show Thor you have balls as big as his, and he drops a gift right in your lap!”

  “His aim could be a little better!”

  “Ah, you young men are soft, like women! You don’t know what real fighting is!”

  Thorgrim smiled at Ornolf’s jibing. He did not feel soft and he did not feel young.

  “I’ll see my grandson does not become a feeble woman like the rest of you, count on it!”

  Thorgrim had only half an ear for Ornolf, his concentration mostly on the set of waves over which they were riding. He renewed his grip on the tiller, waited, waited for the flat spot, the tiny break in the cresting seas where he could turn the longship.

  And then it was there, not perfect, but the best he could hope for. He leaned hard on the tiller and watched the tall dragon prow sweep around, falling off the wind, and the men amidships hauled the big yard around.

  Another wave came up under the longship and twisted it around and Thorgrim fought back with the steeringboard to keep the ship from turning too far. The wind and seas were behind them now, and the once laboring ship was racing down the waves, rising stern-first and sliding forward down the water hill until the wave passed under and bucked the bow up high. The wind seemed suddenly not as fierce, and with the thought of a victim under their bow, the men seemed absolutely buoyant.

  “There! There!” Ornolf had his sword in hand and he used it to point forward. The other ship was cresting a wave, half a mile down-wind.

  Irish... Thorgrim thought. It was a curragh, a large one, running down wind with a scrap of sail showing. It could be a fishing boat or a coastal trader. Not likely to have anything of great value aboard.

nbsp; The Vikings did not care, they were ready for a fight. Amidships men were freeing swords from sheaths and hefting axes and spears. The round shields came off the gunnels. Kotkel the Fierce was swinging his ax in an arc so that others had to duck out of his way. Some thought Kotkel a berserker, and if he was not, he was close enough.

  Olaf Yellowbeard and his twin brother, Olvir, were settling their shields on their arms. Vefrod Vesteinsson, known as Vefrod the Quick, pulled off his heavy fur cape and dropped it onto the deck. Harald slid his helmet on his head and adjusted it until it sat right. Thorgrim wondered if the fishing boat would put up enough of a fight to sate all those eager men.

  The next rising sea showed that they had halved the distance to their prey - the waddling curragh was no match for the longship in speed. Thorgrim felt the battle-madness creeping over him, and he breathed deep because he did not want to give himself over to those spirits.

  Down into the trough of the waves, and up again, closer to the Irish vessel, which now was running for all it was worth, the sail spread nearly full. They had spotted the stalking wolf.

  That rig will not last in this wind, Thorgrim thought, and as if his mind controlled such things, the curragh’s mast crumpled and fell. The sail smothered the forward end of the boat, and the curragh swung around broadside to the sea and rolled hard.

  Now the longship was on them, the Vikings whooping it up, gathering at the gunnel as Thorgrim tried to steer the vessel, like steering a runaway sleigh he could just barely control. There was a better chance they would be killed trying to bring the ships alongside than in any fight with these Irish fisherman.

  Thorgrim heaved the tiller, then leaned back, working the longship around. On board the curragh they were hacking at the fallen sail and rigging, trying to make fighting room, swords and axes rising and falling and men clad in mail standing at the gunnel ready to meet the Norsemen.

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