Great Hairy Boats
by Gustavo Bondoni
To say that Hans was about to have a bit of a bad day, while technically correct, would have been something of an understatement. It would also have been unfair to the millions of individuals who firmly believe that a bad day is one on which they break a fingernail, thereby giving them the moral justification to act in a cross and unpleasant manner all week long.
Hans, of course, wasn’t aware of this. As a matter of fact, he had great plans for the rest of the day. Currently, he was sitting on a grassy knoll outside the village, drinking red wine with Frieda and quietly calculating the quantity of wine necessary to separate her from the her dress. Truth be told (or foretold in this case) however, Hans’ day was about to go seriously, unpleasantly, ridiculously not according to plan.
Blissfully unaware, he looked out over the bright blue sea while waiting for the level of wine consumed to get to the point that he had calculated sufficient for his purposes.
“Oh, Freida,” he purred, “what a perfect day! The sun in the sky, nary a cloud in sight, the birds singing and the forest about us. God must be smiling upon us today. Our love must be his wish!”
Freida was drunk. But not that drunk.
“Hans, if that’s the best you can do, we might as well return to the village right now.” She stood and made as if to leave.
“Wait!” Hans was a bit too tipsy much for advanced, strategic thinking. “How can you not feel inspired by this glorious day? Are you made of wood?”
Freida met his questions with stony silence. Even through the haze and alcohol fumes, Hans could tell that things were going downhill very, very fast. Still, he was nothing if not determined. As Frieda turned her back and strode off, he called after her.
“Can you not see the beauty of the waves? The glorious blue of the deep sea? The square sails coming towards the shore from the north? Are you blind?” This last was a shriek. Damn. Why was it that every time he got her alone, he bungled it?
He dropped his chin on his fists and sat there in abject misery, staring out at the sea and the square sails. Watching them move up and down as they got larger. Up. Down. Up. Down. Up. Down
There certainly were a lot of them, he thought, bobbing there in a slightly arrogant and vaguely menacing way. He spent some idle moments trying to puzzle out what it was that made them sinister, but soon gave up.
No matter. A day this beautiful was made to sit in the sun and enjoy life. He did this, absently drank the remaining wine, and wondered why God had made him so lonely.
The sails approached. Now that they were a bit nearer, he could make out the fact that the sails were attached to boats. They weren’t particularly pretty boats, he thought pettily, but there sure were a lot of them.
When the first of the boats reached the shore, and he could see that they were actually rather large. From the boats emerged some rather large men who reminded Hans of large blond bears who had forgotten to shave and had a peculiar affectation in headgear. It was the first time he had seen bears wearing horned helmets.
“Great hairy men in great hairy boats,” Hans giggled to himself.
One problem with consuming large quantities of wine is that you will not stay drunk forever and, slowly, discernment will return. In Hans’ case, the nagging sense of undefined threat managed to break through in what seemed to him to be a flash of divine inspiration. One moment, he was watching the men descend from their boats, saying silly things to himself about their hair, and the next he found himself on his feet in a terrified stupor.
“Shit!” Taking care not to be seen, Hans ran as fast as he could for the village, spurred on by the terror in his stomach. Branches whipped his face painfully, and he stumbled more than once on exposed roots, scrambling on all fours until he could get back up. Behind him to his left, he heard a great cry, and the thrumming of thousands of running feet also moving towards the village.
After what seemed like an eternity– but was actually closer to thirty seconds — Hans emerged from the forest into the village clearing. ReLeif filled him as he spotted the wooden village walls. Safety was in reach. Despite the burning in his lungs, he redoubled his efforts.
The village was small and isolated far from the main trade routes. Years of hard experience with the wild had taught the villagers the merits of tall walls and sturdy gates. In all of Hans’ lifetime, the villagers had always managed to hold off attacks from brigands and thieves. Why, once, they’d even thwarted ten mounted soldiers! Inside the walls, he would be safe.
He was nearly there! As he passed the final bushes, he looked back to see the progress of the Viking horde. They were just clearing the trees at a dead run, looking for all the world like an incoming tide. There were thousands of them, all screaming jibberish. Even with his lead, Hans would barely make it in time. He redoubled his speed towards the gate without taking his eyes off the invaders.
And smashed into it. Hard.
Sitting on the ground in front of the gate, listening to the horde closing in behind, he blinked, then jumped to his feet.
“Open the gates!” He shouted up at the defenders on the wall. His cry was lost in the Viking charge. He tried again, louder.
“You’ve got to be kidding!” the defender replied, favoring Hans with a look that expressed a certain amount of concern for his mental well-being .
Hans took a step back and shook a fist at the wall. “You bastards! Just wait until I get in! I’ll-” He was engulfed by the tide of humanity behind him and propelled bodily into the wall. This time, he didn’t get back up for quite a while.
When he awoke, the first thing he noticed was the smell of smoke. He sat up quickly. The second thing he noticed was that he was now very dizzy. He landed hard on his back again and stared at the sky for a few minutes.
Up again. This time, he carefully lifted his head before looking around. Red light bathed the western sky, casting long, flickering shadows over what had been the wall. Hans shook his head to clear it, ignoring the dizziness this careless action caused, but the flickering remained. The village was on fire.
He stood up abruptly, which was a mistake. A massive ham hand took hold of his shoulder and steadied him.
“Whoa there, boy,” said the hand’s owner, in heavily accented German. “Don’t want to fall and hurt ourselves, now do we?”
“Ung?” Asked Hans, displaying his native Teutonic intelligence as he stared at the village. It wasn’t on fire after all. Only the granary in flames. All the other buildings were charred mounds and smaller detritus lay in haphazard fashion on the ground. Hans had the sinking feeling that he didn’t really want to know what they were.
“So, where are you from?” Asked the Viking who was still grasping Hans’ arm, which effectively prevented Hans from moving unless he wished to leave the arm exactly where it was, after removing the rest of his body from it. Fortunately, the Viking had an axe handy if he decided to do so. The man was enormous, and smelled the way Hans would have imagined an unwashed Barbarian to smell, if he’d ever had a reason to imagine that before. The tips of his helmet horns towered two feet above Hans’ head.
“Wh- Where?” Hans stammered.
“Well, no matter, we’ll have plenty of time to talk later. But now tht you’re awake, we’d better get you to the chief.” The Viking started walking toward the village. Hans went along with his arm.
He was about to protest that he just wanted to go home, and that home was in fact the burnt out shell that they were passing, and that he would appreciate it if he could be dropped off right there, when he realized with horror that the small mound that he was carefully stepping over was, in fact, a villager. Most of a villager. The rest of the villager was a few feet away. Hans promptly decided that pointing out that he was also a villager would not be conducive to excessive longevity, and kept his mouth firmly shut.
By the time they reached the village square, he was numb and barely reacted when he recognized Freida’s body lying in the mud. A group of Vikings were busy searching the corpses for any valuables.
The largest warrior spotted their approach and walked towards them, cleaning a blooded blade on his bearskin tunic.
“Haraldr,” hailed his companion, “this is the one I told you about earlier. I would have come before, but I didn’t want to move him in case he was hurt worse than I thought.”
The one named Haraldr looked him over critically.
“A bit small for a fearsome warrior, isn’t he?”
“What matters is the size of the heart, Haraldr. And this one showed more courage than I would expect from even the greatest of our warriors. And even less intelligence!”
“Admirable, to be sure, but a bit far-fetched, Leif. Must you always exaggerate everything?”
“I swear I’ve never seen anything like it. You would have seen it too, if you hadn’t been busy directing the charge from the rear. He tried to storm the compound. He even tried to knock down the gate! All by himself!”
“So? Lots of men tried to knock down the gates.”
“With their heads? This one is obviously a berserker of the greatest kind. Even as we hit them, he was standing beneath the gate shouting curses at the archers. It was enough to bring tears to my eyes!” Leif finished extolling Hans’ virtues, and a long silence ensued. Haraldr looked Hans over critically, and it must be admitted, with a certain measure of disdain.
“OK,” he said finally, “you can keep him. But you feed him and take care of him! If he gets killed in battle, I don’t want to see you moping!” Haraldr walked off.
Leif clapped his hands with delight.“Just what I always wanted! An apprentice warrior!” He pounded Hans on the back in a friendly way, nearly breaking it. “We’ll get along just fine! You’ll see!”
Hans rolled his eyes and briefly considered clearing up the misunderstanding about his identity. He was certain that, in the long run, it would save them all quite a bit of unpleasantness, and generally be a better, less stressful solution. However, he declined that option due to the fact that he was a bit queasy on the subject of fatally bleeding wounds, particularly when they were his own, and allowed himself to be led off to the nearest ship.
# # #
Many significant things have been said regarding Viking ships. Unfortunately, their significance lies mainly in the fact that, more often than not, they were the very last thing the utterer ever said. Let’s face it: most people who coexisted with the Nordic marauders would have been hard-pressed to tell a mast from an elephant, except by smell, which meant that despite being significant, most of the things said were not actually coherent. Also, considering the violent disposition of the average Viking warrior, it is likely that he would have taken offense to anyone trying to smell the mast, leading to the rapid elimination of the offender. And, as the reader is surely aware, being dead would make it difficult to find an elephant to smell, particularly in Northwestern Europe.
The obvious loophole in this argument is that somebody could conceivably have traveled to Africa first in order to smell the elephant, then returned to Europe to smell the Viking mast. Even if this were the case, the odds are that this person wouldn’t have said anything interesting, or even understandable, about Viking boats while being put to the sword by the horde.
Had their words, despite the obvious difficulties involved, been coherent, the only good thing they would have said about Viking ships was that they usually stayed afloat. They would also have noted that the boats exposed their crews unnecessarily to the weather (not a good design trait in the north Atlantic), and rocked from side to side. All in all, they would have concluded, such boats were an excellent way to become cold and seasick, both worthy goals for anyone that enjoys being cold and seasick. They were also the preferred delivery method for large numbers of murderous blond guys with axes and bad breath.
The best thing that could be said about this particular Viking fleet, was that, besides being composed of lots of murderous blond guys with axes and bad breath trying not to be seasick while sailing, was that it was heading south toward balmy breezes and pleasant weather. The second best thing was that the Vikings, having just stabbed, burned, looted and raped their way through an entire village, were likely to remain content with sailing south at least until some time during the next morning. The third best thing that would have been said was that they were moving away from Hans’ vomit, the almost continuous flow of which had only recently stopped. Chiefly because his stomach had completely emptied over the course of the past four hours.
“Not cut out to be a sailor, are we?” chuckled Leif, as he slapped Hans on the back. Hans wondered idly if broken ribs would, eventually, put him out of his misery. He had a terrible feeling that he would find out soon enough and cut off this line of thought
“I guess not. Where are you taking me?”
“Where in the south?”
By the look on Leif’s face, it was obvious that the Viking was serious, and that pursuing the subject any further would not be the healthiest of options. Unfortunately, however, Hans was extremely curious as to why Leif was touchy about the motives behind what seemed to be a perfectly innocuous plunder and murder expedition to the south.
“I said shut up!”
Hans sighed and observed the activity on board. He reasoned that this must be the command ship, if only because Haraldr was here and obviously in charge of all activity. Haraldr screamed orders, and crewmen rushed to obey.
There was, however, an anomaly. Off to one side of the boat stood a man who towered head and shoulders above the rest. Wrapped in a bearskin cloak with a horned helmet, he seemed to be impervious to the wind, the water and the movement of the boat and wore an expression of vague sadness. The crewmen gave him wide berth, and lowered their eyes respectfully if they were unable to avoid having to talk to him. Even the captain, who was implacable as a glacier when dealing with his crew, seemed out of sorts whenever he went near him.
“Leif,” said Hans.
“I told you to shut up,” replied Leif, wearily. He sighed. “What do you want now?”
“Who is that?” asked Hans, pointing at the bear-skinned warrior.
“Don’t you ever mind your own business?” Leif looked Hans straight in the eyes. “I’m starting to think that Haraldr was right. We should have killed you at the village. You ask too many questions.”
“And I’m starting to think that you don’t know anything and are pretending to be in on some great secret to avoid having to admit it,” said Hans. He was filled with horror as soon as he said it, but he was also fed up with being treated as a defenseless imbecile. So now, he trembled as he waited for the end to come. There was nothing he could do to forestall it.
It was a great reLeif when Leif looked at him and laughed.
“You want to know who he is?”
“Then go ask him.” Leif stalked away, leaving Hans standing alone, unsure of how to proceed. After a while, he noticed Leif also standing alone some distance away, glaring at him. He didn’t move.
Leif was joined by three more Viking raiders and all four conversed among themselves, pausing periodically to look at Hans and laugh. They also pointed him out to other members of the crew and laughed.
Yet still he sat.
The original four Vikings began pantomiming the action of picking up a heavy object and throwing it overboard, and started toward him. Hans ran. Sadly, Viking boats are not all that large and Hans had only three choices: he could dive overboard and die, he could run around the ship until Leif and his buddies caught him and threw him overboard, in which case he would die, or he could talk to the giant in the bearskin cloak as the area around the big man was the only clear space on the whole ship.
Being a coward made the choice very easy He ran toward the man as fast as his legs would take him. He arrived as the boat crested a particularly large wave and fell down the other side, flinging him towards the sea. He grabbed onto something as he flew past, and held on with all his strength. It was only after his heart rate returned to normal that he realized he was holding the handle of the largest war hammer he had ever seen..
“Please let go of that. It’s mine, you see.”
“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.” Hans let go rather quickly. He couldn’t have lifted the hammer anyway, had he been inclined to do so.
“Why are you here?”
“Why are you here? Everybody else avoids me. I can tell. They think they’re so smart and subtle, but I can tell.” The large Viking sounded petulant. “So why are you here?”
“It’s a bit of a long story.”
“In that case, don’t bother.”
“Um.” Hans and the Viking stared at each other for a moment without speaking. Hans thought the man made Leif look like a stunted dwarf and he felt reasonably sure that this man, had he wanted to, could have crushed him like an ant against the deck. By the look of distaste on the warrior’s face, the Viking was thinking precisely the same thing. This made Hans somewhat nervous.
“Who are you?” Hans regretted both his tone, and the fact that he had opened his mouth, the very instant after the question slipped out. Too late, of course.
The effect on the giant was not what he expected. Instead of swatting Hans aside for his impudence, the man puffed up his chest as if to make a great pronouncement.
“I am Thor.” His voice boomed across the deck.
“Oh,” said Hans. “What is it you do?”
“I am Thor!”
“Yes, yes, I heard you the first time. The men avoid you. They seem afraid of you, yet you do nothing. Are you some sort of commander?”
“I am –” Thor stopped mid-bellow. “But I already said that, didn’t I?” He waited for Hans to nod. Hans obliged. “That doesn’t mean anything to you?”
“Er, no. Should it?” Hans had the distinct feeling that this wasn’t going well at all.
“Have you not heard of Thor? The very mountains tremble at my name!” Hans shook his head. “I am the God of Thunder.”
“You’re a God?”
“Of thunder, yes.”
“Of thunder.” Hans had had a particularly bad day and considered that being expected to believe that this large, smelly fellow was a God of anything was really a bit unfair. His tone of voice said as much.
“Yes. Well. Other things too, of course. You know. Lightning. Storms. Minor headaches. That sort of thing.” Thor sounded uncomfortably matter of fact, as if he were talking about nothing more unusual than what they might be having for dinner.
There was another long, awkward pause while Hans tried to formulate a response. He discarded the first four answers that came to him because they were variations of the phrase, ‘God of thunder, huh? I think you’ve been out in the sun too long’. “Minor headaches?” He would have been the first to admit it was a weak comeback, but Hans was still proud of the solution.
Thor didn’t seem to appreciate it much. His voice became very low and dangerous.
“Do you have a problem with that?”
Hans nearly wet his pants. “No! Not as such. It’s just that minor headaches don’t seem to justify Godly intervention.”
“Hah! Typical mortal. Do you think these things happen by themselves? Gods have to be on top of everything. That’s why we’re omnipotent and omniscient. We have to do everything.”
“So what are you doing now?”
Thor seemed to deflate, shrinking to merely colossal proportions.
“South. As far as we can go.”
“But we’ll fall off the edge of the world!”
Thor growled and took a step towards Hans, who immediately changed the subject.
“Why are we going south?”
“Because I say so.” Thor’s tone said that the discussion was over.
Hans wanted to leave, but was unsure whether permission had to be granted for such a bold move. After a bit, he broke the silence. “I always thought Vikings came from the north.”
“But we’re going south.”
“I don’t understand. Shouldn’t you head home after a raid?.”
“Why does your lack of understanding not surprise me?”
“Why are you afraid to tell me your motives? I’m surrounded by Viking warriors. I can’t escape. I can’t even swim! There is no way I can tell your secret to anyone. How could telling me what’s going on possibly hurt you?” The words exploded out of Hans as he lost his temper, and he immediately regretted them, but it was too late.
Thor burst out laughing. He laughed for quite a while. “Afraid of you? That’s rich! Of course we’re not afraid of you!”
“Then why won’t you tell me?” Hans was completely fed up with being alternately kidnapped, belittled and insulted.
“Well, you see…” Thor’s voice trailed off. He looked glumly over the ocean.
“It’s a bit embarrassing.”
Thor glared at Hans. “Stop repeating everything I say! Look, I’ll tell you, on the condition that you then leave me alone. Agreed?”
“I’ll make it short enough so that even your unbelievably limited brain can grasp it. After Odin created the world, the chosen children lived only to cavort and pillage. Life was good, and thunder was given its due reverence. But after a while, they were the only people left in the far north, and it was less fun. We Gods didn’t like it either, since each time they fought we would lose many worshippers. So it was that we showed them how to build boats and sail south toward soft, easy prey. This was a glorious time for everyone. Our children had glorious fights and much plunder, we got more worshippers with each conquest, and the people of the south had the enormous privilege of being our victims. Everybody was happy. However, I had a misunderstanding with Odin, and he sent me to count all the stones in Britain as punishment. By the time I got home, things had changed horribly. Our people had become weak and were worshipping a new God brought to them by infidels from the south. I was disgusted. Their manhood had been stripped from them. They no longer delighted in pillage and murder as they had before, but instead, they tried to live up to the moral standards of this new God. When I tried to reverse the conversion, it was worse than pulling weeds from a garden. I would strike one down with lightning, and two more would spring up in his place. It was a nightmare! So I gathered those men who believed fervently in me, ordered them to build a fleet and sailed south.” Thor paused, and seemed to be waiting for an answer of some sort.
“Well,” said Hans after the pause became uncomfortable, and then dangerous, “at least you were able to find loyal men.”
“Who said anything about loyalty?”
“It would seems to me that they follow you without question.”
Thor winked at Hans. “After the sixth straight unbeliever got hit by lightning, the rest suddenly had a mass religious experience and saw the error of their ways. I can’t imagine how that could have happened. It’s somewhat mysterious, don’t you think.”
“All very well and good,” said Hans, who obviously thought it wasn’t, “but I have just one more question: do you really think you’re a God?”
“Oh, good grief!” Thor shouted, and ripped handfuls of hair from his head.
Hans crossed his arms and waited for an answer.
Lightning fell from the sky, hit Hans on the head and turned him into a greasy cloud of smoke.
# # #
A few moments later, Haraldr was at Thor’s side, inspecting the damage. “You seem to have burned a large hole in the bottom of my ship.”
“The guy was bothering me,” Thor replied calmly, “It was more than justified.”
“You do understand that we are now going to sink and die,” said Harladr. Then he brightened, “Unless you do something about it, that is.”
“You could keep us afloat with your Godly powers.”
“It would be a nuisance to have to switch to another boat after coming all this way.” Thor stroked his beard, considering. He peered across the waves at the rest of the fleet.
Haraldr cleared his throat. “If you could do something now? We’re sinking fast, you see.” Sweat beaded on his forehead despite the wind.
Thor squinted at the hole through one eye, then shook his head. “Keeping large boats afloat is very tiring, even for a God. I’m afraid you’re on your own in this one, Haraldr. But thanks for coming this far.”
Thor watched the crew as they desperately tried to save the hapless boat. He watched both boat, and crew, sink without a trace in very short order, and then walked calmly over the surface of the sea in search of a replacement, softly singing a hymn to himself as he went.