What happened to the peaceful waves that escorted them out of Dublin’s harbor? Rionan held tight to the side of the ship as the bounced like a cork in between the swells. Rain peeled down in sheets and struck her face with stinging pricks. Ingrid and two others shoved against the steering oar to keep their course in line. Those not lashing down cargo or tying their mates to the deck were strapped to the rowing benches pulling against the rough currents that rose seemingly out of nothing.
“Hold fast!” Ingrid screamed into the wind, but even her powerful voice was drowned out by the shrieking sea.
The day had started so calmly. The sun had beat down on their backs and the journey was easy as they kept the shore in sight. They’d made good time for the past week, stopping only to camp in the evenings. Rionan had gotten used to the early rising accompanied by a breakfast of dried meat and hard bread as they packed up the camp to return to the sail. Boredom seemed to take over, interrupted by chores and rowing. Endless rowing. Rionan wondered at the sail that seemed to do nothing but hang limply in the air without a breeze to catch. The lack of wind didn’t deter their journey in the least, but this morning had been particularly dead. She’d spent most of the day ferrying the words of the crewmember at the foredeck to the one stationed at the steering board.
Ingrid had taken over rowing when the sun was at its highest, and Rionan had had a chance to see her new owner in action. Though she was a woman, one of three on board, Ingrid commanded the respect of the crew. No one questioned her decisions or tried to stop her from enacting them. It was fascinating. The only one that seemed able to talk back to Ingrid, was Bjørn. He treated Ingrid like a daughter or a younger sibling. He never dismissed her decisions, but would often offer other options or amend her plans. It was Bjørn who first noticed the change in the atmosphere.
“The sky is changing,” he said while pointing at the gathering gloom in the far distance. Rionan squinted to see what he was talking about. The vague gray covering was so far in the distance she could barely see it but he seemed convinced. “We may need to settle on the shore.” Ingrid passed off her oar and joined him. Rionan listened as they considered the options.
They’d tried to head inshore but the clouds caught up, darkening as if by magic and tossing the ship back and forth. Rionan grasped onto the rail and clutched at the weathered wood hoping it would grant her safety. The man maintaining the steering board pushed against it until he too was thrown to the side by the strength of the water. Ingrid hollered commands and moved into position, steering the ship herself, slowly, two others made their way across the deck to join her.
“Rionan, get to the fore deck!” She blinked furiously against the rain spraying into her eyes. “Point us to shore!”
Rionan whimpered and trembled, the violent tossing robbing her of the ability to move. The rag she’d tied around her head to protect the skin from the sun slapped wetly against her face adding a staccato percussion that further hindered her hearing. She tried to mime at Ingrid with one hand to show that she couldn’t move, but the captain was having none of it.
“Move, Thrall!” The fury in her voice carried across the dozen of rowers who also glared at her. All of them were doing their best, even the crew members not rowing were busy tightening cargo, saving supplies, and shifting from side to side to keep the ship steady on the waves as they threatened to tip them too far into the water.
Rionan shuddered and detached her arms from the post. The deck bucked beneath her and caused her to stumble catching herself on the rough planks and loose wares. By the time she made it to the foredeck, her hands and knees were covered in scraps and the roaring was so loud in her ears she could barely hear Ingrid’s voice.
She squinted into the abyss and caught the barest hint of the land. Waving madly, she pointed them in the right direction. She saw more than heard Ingrid bellow at the rowers as she shoved the steering board with all her might. Gradually, they came closer to land. The waves slapped against the hull, but their ship stayed true. Rionan had never been so grateful to see sand and trees in her life.
The hull ground against the beach knocking her off-kilter and into the saltwater below. Thankfully it was only waist deep and other sailors joined her, casting ropes down to help pull the boat further in, effectively beaching themselves at the random copse of trees.
With no time to set a camp, everyone abandoned the ship, only staying long enough to cover the cargo, and fled to the trees where they hunkered down wrapped in pieces of oiled cloth to fend off the worst of the squall.
Rionan shivered under her wrapping. It wasn’t meant to provide warmth, just a temporary shelter. as the evening turned into night, and the winds died some, people began to huddle closer, sharing warmth as the agitated splatters of raindrops turned into steady taps. She saw two cloaked figures bustling between groups, handing out something. As they drew closer, she realized it was Bjorn, tugging along an exhausted Ingrid. He deposited his captain next to Rionan and handed her some dried meat.
“There’ll be no fire tonight,” he said. His wiry, pale beard was the only thing she could see in the dim light. “Make your peace with the cold, and keep an eye on her.” He nodded to Ingrid whose labored breathing was making little puffs of steam in the chilled air. Rionan accepted the meat and watched him walk on to another group. She checked on Ingrid, concerned at the way she leaned heavily against the tree behind them.
“Are you alright?” she asked. Ingrid nodded.
“I jus’,” she panted. “Got knocked around by the board, is all.” Rionan frowned, the board was heavy. She’d had a chance to see that for herself. It took a great deal of strength to manage it in waters like this. She was amazed Ingrid had been able to take it on at all. The woman was large, easily dwarfing Rianon, and muscular to boot, but the past few hours had given her the impression that Ingrid was closer in strength to a bear than a human.
“Try to eat,” she said offering Ingrid a strip of dried meat. It was salted so heavily that one couldn’t tell what it was. It could have come from a deer as easily as a seal. She hadn’t questioned it though. Food was food, and in the face of what they’d just gone through, any food was welcome.
“Thank you.” They shared the small meal and huddled more deeply into the tree and each other. Lightning crackled overhead, startling Rionan and causing her to shudder as her wet clothes dragged across her skin.
“Come here,” Ingrid ordered. Rionan looked over to see that the other woman had her arm extended, offering to let her sniggle into her side. With the only other option being to shiver, Rionan took it. They readjusted the wraps, using one to cover their heads, and the other to cover their legs. She curled into Ingrid’s side like a lost puppy, stealing every spare bit of warmth that she could and clutching onto her cross.
As the night wore on, and the rain tapered off, Rionan whispered prayer after prayer. Between dozing, Ingrid’s arm would tighten around her before slackening again. Her breathing had evened out, but she still shifted uncomfortably every once in a while. When the moon was high in the sky and the clouds had all but dissipated, she finally spoke.
“Stop the muttering,” Ingrid hissed. Rianon stopped mid-prayer, fearful that her temporary ballast would push her away if she continued. “Sleep now.”
The arm that had gone slack tightened again, pulling Rionan more securely against the rough cloth of Ingrid’s shirt and vest and letting the taller woman’s mangled braid tickle her nose. Rionan froze and waited. The situation was so unfamiliar to her that she didn’t know how to react. The bands of muscle held her still as Ingrid’s breathing slowed and deepened into true sleep. As the captain’s breaths became more even, Rionan felt her own eyelids begin to droop. Exhaustion tugged at her like a lead weight and she was helpless against it. Before finally nodding off, she remembered thinking this was the safest she’d felt in years.
The irony hadn’t escaped her. Where one Viking took everything away from her in a single night, another held her safely during a storm. This had to be God’s own little joke. Choked laughter bubbled up in her throat but try as she might it wouldn’t escape. Instead, tears welled up and streaked down her cheeks. Not for the first time, she fell asleep angry, not at Ingrid, but at herself, and at the Christ that would allow this turn of events. In her dreams, she saw gold relics backlit by fire.