Cecelia Holland Varanger

ISBN 13: 9780765305589

Varanger

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9780765305589: Varanger
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Corban Loosestrife’s son Conn is a clever and strong leader of men; his cousin, the god-touched Raef, is his shield and navigator. They have joined a fur-trading ship to Russia, and are forced to over-winter in Novgorod. While there, they take service with the leader of the Rus, Dobrynya, and with him travel south to Kiev, and then on with a raiding party into the northern reaches of the Byzantine Empire. With vivid description and passionate characters, Cecelia Holland takes the reader back to a time when heroes voyaged to the far corners of the known world.  Whether fighting the ice in a deep Russian winter, sailing down a great river in a dragon ship, or wandering the elegant streets of the Black Sea city of Chersonese, Holland makes it real.

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About the Author:

Cecelia Holland is widely acknowledged as one of the finest historical novelists of our time. She is the author of more than thirty novels, including The Angel and the Sword, Jerusalem, Lily Nevada, and The Kings in Winter. Holland lives in Humboldt County, in northern California, where she teaches creative writing, and is current at work on a new historical novel.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1
“Your brother’s an odd one,” Thorfinn said, counting the money.
“In a fight, he’s the best,” Conn said. “On any water.” He was used to people thinking Raef was his brother. He thought they were better than brothers. “Don’t play dice with him.”
Thorfinn looked up from the pile of coins in his hand. His hat was tucked under his arm and his bald head shone as if waxed. “He cheats?”
“Oh, no,” Conn said. “Or at least I’ve never caught him. But he doesn’t lose.” He looked away up the shelving river beach, where Raef had gone toward a swarm of waiting peddlers; he was standing in front of an old woman selling smoked fish. Tall and gangly, slightly stooped, Raef himself looked a little like a long narrow fish. Conn turned back to Thorfinn. “I’ll take his.”
Thorfinn dug into the leather sack and counted up more coins; the money was in different kinds, so he was looking at each one carefully. “Anyway. You two got me through that mess up in the lake, and I heard what you did at Hjorunga Bay. I take it you’re wintering here in Holmgard? The river’s already icing up, here.”
Conn said, “We might.” He had no idea what lay ahead of him; he had never been this far east before. Or this far north, which was the trouble now. This city lay in the middle of a frozen fen; there was a foot of snow on the ground here already and more to come, by the feel of the wind. He put out his hand for Raef’s money and Thorfinn gave it to him.
“If you decide to go elsewhere, do it soon, before the winter takes hold. If you stay here, you’re welcome at my hall. Just ask in the market, you’ll find it. I keep a good hall, plenty of drink and meat, and a hot fire always.” Thorfinn pursed his lips, his pale eyes calculating. “Take care here. Don’t mess with the local girls. And watch out for the Tishats.”
“The what?”
“One of their words.” Thorfinn made a little vague gesture toward the town on the riverbank. “The commander of the city guard. Big, ugly bastard named Pavo. Scalplock down to his ass, hands like mauls. Everybody steps out of his way.”
Conn felt the hair tingle up on the back of his neck. He thought, Not me.
Thorfinn was watching him, his eyes narrow, a little smile curling the corners of his mouth. His gray hair hung in a fringe below the smooth dome of his head. His beard was still mostly dark, but streaked with gray, like strings of frost. “There’s something you can do for me, later today, if you would. I have to go up to the council oak, and present myself to the chief. If you’d go with me, I’ll see you’re well repaid.”
Conn nodded. “Raef and I, we’ll come.”
“Good.” Thorfinn laid a fatherly hand on his shoulder. “I’ll send Einar for you when the moment comes. Thanks. And tonight we’ll tell stories and pass a cup beside my hearth.” The hand on Conn’s shoulder rose and fell solidly. “Thanks, Conn.” He went on down toward his boat, in the shallows where the slaves had it half unloaded.
Raef was walking up the beach again, eating a smoked fish. “Did you get mine?” He held out another of the fish, stiff, greasy and golden, with horrible eyes, stinking of smoke.
Conn declined the fish and handed him half the coins. Their sea chests stood on the icy sand by his feet and in unison they stooped and lifted them up to their shoulders. Conn led the way up the shore toward the city, Raef on his heels, munching steadily through the fish.
The town sprawled across the bank in the low sun, taking up most of a snowy bench along the river, the place studded with big oak trees. An earthworks hemmed it all against the river. Conn noticed that the base of the earthworks was paved with stones, like the Danewirk. He wondered who they held outside, here, who their enemies were.
Within the crescent of the earthworks, most of the buildings were sunk down into the ground, the ridgelines of their roofs coated with a filthy glaze of old snow. One end of each roof was overhung with a cloud of smoke. The hazy sky was colorless as iron, the sun used up burning a hole through the middle, so it gave no warmth and little light. Conn felt the coming of the winter like a roof shutting down over him; in a few days getting out of here at all would be hard. At his elbow, Raef put the last of his fish into his belt pouch and sorted through the money in his hand.
“This is a new one.” He held up the smallest coin, turning it to show Conn the faces on either side, all wreathed in strange runes. “I’ve never seen this one before.”
“Don’t lose it,” Conn said. “It’s gold. It’s more than a penny. You can’t buy anything with it, it’s too much.”
Raef tucked the coin into the pouch on his belt. The ground was rising slightly underfoot, the snow on either side trampled to black muck, the boards of the walkway booming hollow. Ahead, a hammer banged. They were coming up to a forge. In front of a fat brick cone of a furnace, a clot of men stood around watching the smith pound away at a chunk of red iron. The smell of the hot iron reached Conn’s nose and he tasted it in his throat; he thought of the blade it would be and his hands tingled. He thought regretfully of the sword he had lost at Hjorunga Bay.
The boardwalk was leading them into the city, which was smaller than Hedeby, maybe fifty roofs, with stretches of open snowfield and naked trees between, pens for animals. They passed a shambles, with scraped hides nailed to the walls. It felt good to be walking, after so long on the boat, and the town spread out around him wide as the whole world, a web of smells and sounds and new sights.
A woman with a red-patterned shawl around her head came toward him, holding a basket of bread, and calling in a long voice. A baby slept wrapped into the cloak on her back. A row of slaves trudged along the boardwalk, hauling familiar bales of cloth and wool: part of the cargo Raef and Conn had just brought in here from the west. Under a gaunt tree a little way off a man knelt down, fumbling with something on the ground.
Near the center of the space within the earthworks, they came into a broad, crowded market. All around the edge people were selling baskets of bread and fish and nuts, while other people roamed around before them looking everything over. Most of them were using the other language, which he had heard already coming through Ladoga, out on the Swedish Sea. The cackle of voices was like geese flocking and the swarms of people never stopped moving.
A few little club-headed horses stood under the leafless broad-spreading branches of a massive oak tree at the center of the space, and several men were sitting or standing just in front of it, passing around a jug. Likely this was the council oak Thorfinn had mentioned. Conn stopped a big-bosomed girl selling warm meat pies from a tray in her arms, and dickered with her awhile, enjoying her soft roundness, before he took the pie and enjoyed that.
Raef said, “What did Thorfinn say? Did you ask him where we can go next?”
Conn licked meat juice from his fingers. “He has a place here. We can stay with him, he says, all winter if we have to. I’d as soon go south, I hate long nights.” He turned and looked after the soft roundness of the pie girl walking off.
Raef gave a little shake of his head. “Last night was damned cold.”
“He wants us to stand behind him, later, he has to present himself here. I said we would. We can certainly stay the night at his hall.”
“Let’s stow these chests there, then.”
They were leaving the market behind, drifting down a broad lane through a stand of sunken houses, the sharp ridged rooflines taller than they were; the log trusses were carved in patterns like vines. Under the eaves were stacks of firewood, rows of barrels, sleeping dogs. All the doors faced south. Steps led down into the houses. All around the snow was trampled into crisscrossing tracks, like a web. They passed one little house made all of wood, even the roof, the door hanging open; Conn looked in as they went by, saw the firepit in the middle, and decided it was a bathhouse.
Before the next set of steps a woman bundled in a shawl stooped to sweep the snow off the hard ground with a handful of straw. Hung between the trusses above her doorway was a swag of yellow cloth. Beside the wall lay a garden turned over for the winter, blanketed with more straw, all covered now with a hat of snow.
Conn felt the cold of the oncoming winter in that thick blanket of straw. In the way these houses crawled down into the ground to stay warm. He shifted the weight of his sea chest, in which he had nothing save one cloak and an extra pair of shoes. “There’s got to be some way to get south of here.”
Raef said, “Not if the river freezes up. I’d say, two more nights like last night, we might not have gotten this far.”
“Ah, you stonehead. Always down.” Conn cuffed his arm. “There must be some way out of here. If we stay with Thorfinn we’ll have to ship out with him in the spring.”
“He’ll go west,” Raef said. “I don’t want to go backwards.” In the last few years he had grown much the taller of the two of them, but he was lean as bone and jittery as a reed in the wind, and he stooped, as if to stay at Conn’s height. He veered off suddenly toward the nearest tree, where a wooden post stood tilted back against the trunk. Four faces were carved into the top, each looking a different way. A broken bowl lay on the ground before it. “So that’s what it is,” he said.
“Some kind of god,” Conn said.
Raef took a little piece of the fish out of his belt pouch and bent and put it down at the foot of the post. Conn crowed at him.
“You are spook-ridden as a Christian, you know that.”
Raef shrugged. “It’s their place,” he said.
“Sure. Look, there’s Einar.”
He yelled, and by the string of horses, whose line ended at this tree, several other men yelled back. One of them strode forward, lanky yellowheaded Einar, who had sat on the bench behind him on Thorfinn’s boat, and who talked too much, and who now gladly greeted them, and slung his arm around Conn’s neck.
“What’re you doing? What’re you doing? Come drink with us.”
“Later,” Conn said, disentangling himself from Einar. He was glad to see that the strangers with Einar all looked dansker. “We’re supposed to stand up with you for Thorfinn. Where’s his place, anyway?”
“Right over there—” Einar tottered a few strides away, pointing. “That one with the red sun on the door.” He slapped Conn across the back. “You’ll be there, too? That’s good. We can use you. Helgi will be glad, too. I’m really glad Thorfinn thought of that. Come back, once you’ve stowed your gear, there. We’ve got a whole cask of this kind of mead these people cook up. It’ll put the fire in you. Bring a cup.”
“Maybe,” Conn said. He started off toward the door of the red sun. Raef had been in Holmgard for only a few hours and already he was itching to move on. Since he left the far western island where he had grown up, he had been moving, driven like an ember in the wind; he had no idea what he was looking for but the need to find it would not let him rest. When he was sailing, at least, he knew he was going onward, but now he was stuck here, probably for the whole winter, and it already seemed too small to him.
Thorfinn’s hall was deep in the ground, but its rooftree stood higher than Raef’s head, and when they went down the front steps it was like walking into a cave. On either end of the long dark space a fire burned in a stone hearth, and smoke filled the top half of the room; there was no other light, and it all stank of sweat and old food and piss. The sleeping benches along each wall and three big cloth looms took up most of the space. Raef knew why so many people were out in the street in spite of the cold. He and Conn left their sea chests on an empty bench as close to the door as possible and went back up to the ground.
“I’m still hungry, where’s that pie girl?”
“Over there’s a cooker.”
They went back into the market; up ahead on their right was an open brazier and a man squatting behind it turning strips of meat laid across a grill. An old woman selling bread had set up next to him and people were waiting in a crowd two and three deep in front of them. Raef stood with his head down, jingling the coins in his hands. Conn dickered with the Sclava behind the grill, pointing and gesturing, and got them each some chunks of greasy meat piled on a piece of bread.
“Do you want to go find Einar?”
“Not yet. He’s hard on the ears, Einar.”
Raef laughed. He stuffed his mouth with the bread and the sour, stringy meat, warm and good.
They went down to the river again; Thorfinn had moved his boat on down the shore, where several other boats were drawn up almost to the top of the bank. The peddlers had gone. Where Thorfinn’s boat had been before, three stacks of wool and cloth stood on the beach and a steady stream of slaves came and heaved them up on their shoulders and bore them away into the city.
Raef walked down to the river’s edge, muddied and scummy from the constant coming and going of men. The farther bank was marsh, flat to the horizon except for an occasional elm tree; oaks would not grow on such soggy ground. Another boat was just rowing up from the lake beyond the next bend, to the south, not a clinker-built Western longship like Thorfinn’s but a single hollowed log, its sides built higher with planks, wallowing in the water, oars at either end.
The sand under his feet crunched with ice; he saw petals of ice in the shallows, even now, with the sun as high as it was going to get here for the next four or five months. In places where the water was still, he thought he saw a thin film on the surface, the flakes of ice knitting together like a cold garment. The sky was yellow, not just from the smoke of the city fires. It would be dark soon, and the noon hardly by.
The log boat pulled in, and Conn found the captain and they stood talking awhile. The captain was going straight south again in the morning, but he already had a full crew. Raef stood staring at the log boat, wondering if he even wanted to sail on something so miserable.
The captain’s voice boomed. “If any of my men decide to stay here, I’ll take you on. But don’t depend on that. And I’m only going to the other side of the lake.” He turned back to his log boat, bellowing to his crew to work faster.
Raef followed Conn up toward the boardwalk; the wind down the river was cutting sharp and low clouds were moving in from the northwest. Conn said, “What do you think of that log? That’s our only chance, I think. If we don’t leave that way, we won’t be getting out of here.”
“I hate those boats. They’re worse than rafts. They handle like dead bodies.” They passed the forge again, where a few men still gathered around its fire.
“There’s Thorfinn,” Conn said.
Raef looked up; their old captain stood up ahead of them on the boardwalk, watching them come, and he waved his arm impatiently at them to come faster. The peaked hat perched on his dome of a head made him look even taller than he was. Raef hung back a little, not liking such a summons. Einar and Helgi were already standing by Thorfinn, and two of the other men who had been with them...

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