This is set during the War of the Baltic League, in which my fleet blockaded the coasts of Germany and Norway for twenty years on end. The British did the same in the Napoleonic Wars, in our timeline; with rather unpleasant results for Norway. Some things don’t change.
An ancient, grey-haired one, the poet calls him; but he was not so old when I met him. Not in body. The eyes, though, that was a different matter. His eyes were ancient.
There was no outermost, wind-blown isle, either; all that’s a later invention. When I met him he lived on his farm, same as he had done since he came back from his tours on the merchant ships. A barren land, right enough, but enough to feed a man, if he worked hard – enough for a family, in fact. At least in a good year. In a bad year – well, that’s why the man is famous. That was why I wanted to talk to him. That stubborn refusal to give up is just the kind of thing we need.
It wasn’t going to be easy, though. Terje is of south-coast stock; not perhaps quite so hardy a breed as the fishers of the Nordland coast, but even more close-mouthed, especially about their hurts. He would never have spoken about his old troubles to a random stranger, or even to someone he knew well, of his own free will. But I had a trick up my sleeve: One bottle of the yellow drug, better than any amount of alcohol for loosening tongues. And it is tradition, in these farming communities, that a deal is sealed with a drink. So a man buying up the barley harvest for a good price had no difficulty getting the drops into Terje.
It is the way with these people, that once the dam breaks, they will pour out their trouble to any sympathetic ear. The loss of his wife had been festering for a long time in Terje. A leading question, a friendly look, and the loss of inhibition from the yellow drops – that was all it took. He set down his glass with a thump, and glared a challenge at me. Now, I am a man of the Ynglinga Hird, and certainly stronger and nastier than any downtime farmer; but even so I felt the threat in those ancient eyes, and unwillingly sat back in my chair. But the blaze and fret was not for me; he was looking back into the past that troubled him yet.
“It was the second year of the war,” he began, “sixteen hundred and nine. My daughter was a year old; it was her birthday, in fact. We didn’t celebrate. The hail had knocked down what was left of our harvest the day before. That was the last blow, you understand. In an ordinary year we would have scraped through it. Our neighbours would have helped, and we had a little money saved up. Two strong hands” – he brought his up, flexed them; they were huge, scarred with a lifetime of work – “would have seen us through. But that year they were no gain. There were bad harvests all over the land, and the blockade closed the ports. Our gold was worthless. Nobody was selling grain for love nor money. I wouldn’t either, if I’d had any.”
“I spent a day or two going about in a daze. I could see the rest of my life stretching out before me, and it was right short. My daughter would likely have gone first, she was not big; then my wife. It’s not easy to die of starvation, it’s the sickness that gets you, when you’re weak with hunger. I saw a lot of it that year, later on. It got to where I thought I’d better dig the graves right away, in case I was too weak for it when the time came. I put them out there” – he nodded vaguely towards a wall – “where they’d overlook the sea. There’s worse places to be buried. But I’d only got to the third spade-stroke when I thought, to hell with this. The sea’s been my friend all my life, it’ll do a better job for me than just watching over my wife’s grave.”
“My wife thought I was mad, and she was right too. I’ve still got the dory, you know; it’s a cockleshell. You wouldn’t take it out fishing in any kind of blow. But I thought, die drowning or die starving, what difference? At least on the sea I had some kind of chance. Not much of one. You know what they say around here if something is stupidly dangerous: They call it a Terje. To cross the sea in an open boat! And I left out the mast and sails at that. The Jutland reef is one thing, a right devil’s job I had clearing it with no sail; but that’s just hard work and danger. The Yngling blockade ships – well, a sail would have been just asking for it.”
“Have you ever rowed for three days, upland man? Three days with nothing to do but bend your back to the oars, push against the water, again and again? Your hands go numb first, then your arms. Your back never does, and you wish it would. Your lips hurt from the salt, and your eyes from the glitter of the sun on the water – but you thank the gods for that, for any sort of blow would finish you.”
He paused for a gulp of drink, looking at me appraisingly. I’ve never rowed across the Kattegat, but I know the sort of tiredness he was talking about. Walking across the Jotunheim with a backpack weighing fifty kilos, and only enough food for three days, and if you don’t get there in time you’ll walk back again, you get into that sort of state quick enough. Perhaps he saw it in my expression, for he nodded.
“Well. I got there in the end, Fladstrand. The Danish harvests hadn’t been good either, but they’ve better land than us, and they could import grain from Germany on the roads. It wasn’t cheap, but gold was no use to me that year. I got enough to save our lives. Nothing grand, God knows. Three casks of barley, that’s all. But this is a barren land I own, and those three casks were life itself, not just for me, but for my wife and child. I looked at another three days rowing, and I laughed. Aching back and numb arms and all, I laughed. Life itself, man! I held it in my hands, and the world was a fine place then.”
“The fourth day I saw land again. Do you know the lay hereabouts? No? Well. The first thing you see, coming in from the south, is the Imenes saddle, blue and wide. I knew then just where I lay, an hour from home. I was ready to burst into a hymn. Then I saw the Hesnes sound, and the sail that was in it, and the flag: Red and gold, the Lion Rampant. A frigate of the blockading fleet.”
“I damn near cried. But the dawn wind was weak, and there was strength in my arms of a sudden; I went west, harder than I’ve ever rowed, before or since. They couldn’t catch me with that wind blowing, and that tide. But they lowered a ship’s boat, and rowed after me. Sixteen of them. Have you ever tried to row harder than sixteen men? If any man could have done it, I was the man, in that moment. I rowed for my life, and for my daughter’s life, and the sea was white in my wake and the blood ran from my fingernails.”
“There’s a blind shoal they call Gjæsling, just east of Hombor sound. Two feet of water, and that only if you know just where to go. Any onshore wind at all, and there’s a deadly chop. That’s where I went. Straight through the gap, by luck and by God. But they saw the chop, and followed where I had gone. My own wake led them through my trap. That’s the last time I prayed – no, I shouted to God. So near, and inshore my wife was waiting with my daughter for bread! But the sailors were louder, perhaps; sixteen of them, and one of me, what was God to do? Or perhaps He just doesn’t listen. At any rate they caught me.”
He paused for a long moment, looking past me. He wasn’t seeing the farmhouse now. I kept a respectful silence, and at length he went on.
“I fought. Sixteen against one, and the one tired to death, but I fought. Then an oar-blade caught me in the stomach and they took me to their ship. The officer on the boat was some stripling of eighteen, just about old enough to shave. I think I was his first ‘action’, if you call it that. The way he looked at me you’d have thought I was a German man-o-war’s captain, and he’d captured my ship single-handed. But the frigate’s captain was an older man, my age perhaps. They brought me before him, and – I begged. I was broken with the loss of all my hope. No pride, I begged the man to let me go.”
“He didn’t say a word to me, at first. ‘How much contraband?’, he asked the midshipman. It wasn’t much, as I told you. Three casks of barley. Enough for a year, for three people. Nothing more than life itself. He laughed. My daughter’s life, and he laughed. But he let me go. ‘They won’t feed any soldiers on that’, he said. The midshipman objected. ‘Blockade runner’, he called me, which I guess was true enough. But the captain said they weren’t there to kill Norse, but to drive out the Germans, and they let me go. Even gave me a draft of rum. I think they were impressed with my rowing. So I came home. I was rich then, for an hour. Wealthy beyond dreams of avarice.”
“Too late. I was too late.” Tears glittered in his eyes, and one ran down his cheek. He went on unashamed, not trying to fight them. I could feel them prickling at the back of my own throat. “Two of the garrison, Germans. They saw a farmhouse with no man to protect it, and they demanded beer. My wife didn’t have anything to give them. It got ugly. When I got back… Too late. Their officer heard my complaint. He had them flogged. Flogged! Two murders, a woman raped, and they got fifty lashes each!”
“I tried to get my neighbours to rise up with me, to kill the garrison. They wouldn’t fight. I don’t blame them. They had their own families to think of. The Germans would have come down hard, killed every tenth man. There are too many of them, even the Ynglings couldn’t drive them out. Two strong hands… not enough. The war ended and the Germans are still here. And I’m still here. I’m rich, you know. Three casks of barley were worth their weight in gold that year. I own this land, free and clear. I could remarry, have other children. I don’t know why I don’t.”
His whisper ended, and we were silent for some time. When I trusted my voice again, I spoke. “I know a house, some distance up the coast, and inland. A man lives in it, with his wife and daughter. He is a farmer now, but he bought the land with his mustering-out pay from the Kaiserliche Armee. Gunther is his name. Gunther Brandt.”
Terje looked at me. “Say you so, upland man? And what’s that to me now?”
I held his gaze. “It is – whatever you choose to make of it. Much like life. Perhaps it is life itself. Revenge sometimes has that effect.”
“Yes,” he breathed. “Sometimes it does.”
There was another silence. Terje looked at me with his haunted eyes, thoughtfully. “And what is it to you, upland man with the strange accent? Why do you offer me life, who was content with waiting to die?”
“Perhaps I have a passion for seeing justice done. Perhaps I’ve left too much death behind me where I’ve gone, and would like to sow a little life, for a change. And perhaps, once in a while, I might have a need to hide for some time, or for a friend to hide, or for a message to be passed. Possibly I might even need men to fight, one day in the distant future. Perhaps not, too. My work is long, and chancy. But I would like to have your aid. And I pay well, as you see.”
“Do you, indeed? Life hurts, you know. I don’t know if you do me any favours.”
“It may be so. But if life hurts, still it is all the life there is. And sometimes the pain is glorious.”
“Yes…” His voice firmed. “Yes, that’s true. I remember. I’ll take your deal, upland man. Tell me where to find Brandt, and his wife, and I’ll remind him what justice is. And if you pass through here, or a friend of yours… I know a small dory, and places to hide it, where nobody on foot ever comes.”
We shook hands on it, and had another drink. Thus do we build our network: One man at a time. Someday we’ll cover the land. Someday we’ll rise up. But until then – one man at a time.