The clouds were spilling out low across the sky when we shoved off. Thirty of us on board, Gnut rowing with me at the bow and behind us a lot of other men Id been in some shit with before. Some of their families came down to watch us go. ØrlStender fucked up the cadence waving to his son, who stood on the beach waving back. He was a tiny one, not four or five, standing there with no pants on, holding a baby pig on a hide leash. Some of the others on board werent a whole lot older, rash and violent children, so innocent about the world they would just as soon stick a knife in you as shake your hand.
Gnut was overjoyed. He laughed and sang and put a lot of muscle into the oar, me just holding my hands on it to keep up appearances. I was missing Pila already. I watched the beach for her and her bright red hair. She hadnt come down to see me off, too mad and sad about me leaving to get up out of bed. But I looked for her anyway, the land scooting away with every jerk of the oars. If Gnut knew I was hurting, he didnt say so. He nudged me and joked, and kept up a steady flow of dull, merry chatter, as though this whole thing was a private vacation the two of us had cooked up together.
Djarf stood at his spot in the bow, the blood in his cheeks. His high spirits were wearying. Slesvigers will burst into song with no provocation whatever, their affinity for music roughly on a par with the wretchedness of their singing. He screeched out a cadence ballad that lasted hours, and his gang of young hockchoppers howled along with him and gave no one any peace.
Three days out, the sun punched through the dirty clouds and put a steely shimmer on the sea. It cooked the brine out of our clothes and got everybody dry and happy. I couldnt help but think that if Naddod was really as serious as we thought he was, this crossing would be a fine opportunity to call up a typhoon and drown us all like cats. But the weather held, and the seas stayed drowsy and low.
We had less light in the evenings out here than at home, and it was a little easier sleeping in the open boat without an all-night sun. Gnut and I slept where we rowed, working around each other to get comfy on the bench. I woke up once in the middle of the night and found Gnut dead asleep, muttering and slobbering and holding me in a rough embrace. I tried to peel him off, but he was large, and his hard arms stayed on me tight as if theyd grown there. I poked him and yelled at him, but the big man would not be roused, so I just tried to work up a little slack to where he wasnt hurting my ribs, and I drifted back to sleep.
Later, I told him what had happened. "Thats a lot of horseshit," he said, his broad face going red.
"I wish it was," I said. "But Ive got bruises I could show you. Hey, if I ever come around asking to be your sweetheart, do me a favor and remind me about last night."
He was all upset. "Go to hell, Harald. Youre not funny. Nobody thinks youre funny."
"Im sorry," I said. "Guess you havent had a whole lot of practice lately having a body beside you at night."
He rested on the oar a second. "So what if I havent."
Thanks to the easy wind bellying our sails, we crossed fast and sighted the island six days early. One of the hockchoppers spotted it first, and when he did, he let everyone know it by cutting loose with a long, obnoxious battle howl. He drew his sword and swung it in figure eights above his head, causing the men around him to scatter under the gunwales. This boy was a nasty item, with a face like a buzzards, his cheeks showing more boils than beard. Id seen him around at home. He had three blackened, chopped-off thumbs reefed to his belt.
Haakon Gokstad glanced up from his seat in the stern and shot the boy a baleful look. Haakon had been on more raids and runs than the bunch of us put together. He was old and achy and worked the rudder, partly because he could read the tides by how the blood moved through his hands, and also because those old arms were poor for pulling oars. "Put your ass on that bench, young man," Haakon said to the boy. "We got twelve hours work between here and there."
Excerpted from Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower, published March 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2009 by Wells Tower. All rights reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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