There was a chuckle, a dry rustle of sound like a rat in old bracken and the night crawled back from the flame………Closer still and he saw an arm but only knew it from the dark by the silver ring round it, for the cloth on it was midnight blue. Another step and there was a face, but the lamp blurred it; all the man could see clearly was the hand, the skin sere and brown-pocked, the fingers knobbed.
That and the eyes of her, which were bone needles threading the dark to pierce his own.
“Erling Flatnef,” said the dry rustle voice, “You are late”
The moth-wing hiss of her voice was slathered with sarcasm………..
For it was Gunnhild; wife of the great and fearsome Norse Warlord, Eirik Bloodaxe, Mother of Kings………..Seidr rich, and quietly menacing -The Witch Queen. The gods knew how old she was, yet still strangely beautiful, and still a power.
Robert Low`s Oathsworn series of novels about the saga rich, and famed band of Viking warriors, who`s fearsome reputation cut a bloody swathe throughout the known world, from Ireland to the great city of Miklagard ( Constantinople), seat of the Byzantine emperors of the eastern Romans, is without doubt the finest series about this period ever put to paper.
Crowbone, the fifth in the series, takes our anti-heroes across the Irish Sea in pursuit of the legendary Odin`s Widow, the great battle axe of King Eirik. Orm Bear Slayer and his not so Merry Men really do make your worst nightmare look like a Disney sugar coated cartoon for under five`s. This is the raw power of Viking power politics, red in tooth and claw: it`s a place where personal disagreements aren`t open for discussion, but are settled by the sharpened edge of an axe head. Personal ambition, and an unrelenting drive for eternal Fame and revenge are the fuel which powers the engine forever pushing these men on.
This time, Orm is left behind on personal business, but he leaves some of his fabled Oathsworn in the tender hands of young 17 year old Norse princeling Olaf Tryggvasson – otherwise known to all as Crowbone. In Viking society, even young boys not yet in their teens were given command of warbands; if they did a good job and earned respect, it didn`t matter how young they were. Crowbone had killed his first man at the age of nine, by burying an axe deep into his head. His Fame was all ready well known by the time he set sail to Ireland.
Along the way, his bloody path crosses the Norse King of Dublin Olaf Irish-Shoes, and the High King Of Ireland Mael Sechnaill. But at the centre of the spidery plot sits Gunnhild, the Witch Queen, Crowbone`s mortal enemy when he was still in his mother`s womb; the woman who had sent her dark lords out into the world to destroy all traces of Crowbone and his family so that her own children might rule unhindered in his place. Her last surviving son, Gudrod, is young Crowbone`s chief rival for the throne of Norway, and so the Witch Queen requires him to terminate Crowbone with extreme prejudice…….But neither had counted on the Oathsworn.
The language is rich, vibrant and descriptive, as it unpeels a world of forgotten, sights, sounds, pungent aroma and the folklore of Viking Sagas. When Gudrod had arrogantly stood his ground having been waylaid for raiding a church, Low`s choice of language is elegantly short and colouful:
“You robbed a church,” Ulf went on and Ogmund had finally had had enough. The casual trio, the whole raid had him ruffled as a wet cat and Ulf taking on the mantle of leader here was more than enough.
“When I need you to speak, Ulf Bjornsson, ” he said, low and harsh as grinding quernstones, ” I will find a dog and have it bark.”
Despite being outnumbered by three against twenty, Gudrod displayed the massive self confidence and bravura of a Norseman against incalculable odds; he simply faced down the enemy and verbally treated them as a piece of irritating scum to be casually flicked off the sleeve. Convinced by this incredible show of arrogance by the legendary Bloodaxe`s son that there were hundreds of men lurking behind Gudrod in the woods; how many ships would a son of Bloodaxe bring with him? the hapless Ogmund buckles…………
” So we will leave,” Gudrod ended, his voice cold as the metal rings which hid his face. ” You will not stop us.”
Low`s narrative is lyrically, and mellifluously descriptive and yet is very much of the earth, and bleak barren wilderness that so many of these hard men lived and died in. Dark humour is always present; to make light of imminent death has always been the way of warriors to handle their precarious existence. The subliminal lesson in Norse history, psychology, character and mythology these immensely enjoyable books give the reader is incalculable. They really should be the first shop for any would be student of the Age of the Norse which dominated European history for some three hundred years.
This is no country for old men. There are shipwrecks, pitched battles and cold blooded murders, all told with the feel and grip of grim reality. Low`s storytelling is rich, powerful, uncompromising and atmospheric; a tale as ever, best told round a warming fire in the crouching dark as the shadows play on the walls of memory.