Now all is clear and sharp save the very beginning. I never knew my mother. I was told that I was tempest-born, on a beaked ship in the Northern Sea, of a captured woman, after a sea fight and a sack of a coastal stronghold. I never heard the name of my mother. She died at the height of the tempest. She was of the North Danes, so old Lingaard told me. He told me much that I was too young to remember, yet little could he tell. A sea fight and a sack, battle and plunder and torch, a flight seaward in the long ships to escape destruction upon the rocks, and a killing strain and struggle against the frosty, foundering seas—who, then, should know aught or mark a stranger woman in her hour with her feet fast set on the way of death? Many died. Men marked the living women, not the dead.
Sharp-bitten into my child imagination are the incidents immediately after my birth, as told me by old Lingaard. Lingaard, too old to labour at the sweeps, had been surgeon, undertaker, and midwife of the huddled captives in the open midships. So I was delivered in storm, with the spume of the cresting seas salt upon me.
Not many hours old was I when Tostig Lodbrog first laid eyes on me. His was the lean ship, and his the seven other lean ships that had made the foray, fled the rapine, and won through the storm. Tostig Lodbrog was also called Muspell, meaning “The Burning”; for he was ever aflame with wrath. Brave he was, and cruel he was, with no heart of mercy in that great chest of his. Ere the sweat of battle had dried on him, leaning on his axe, he ate the heart of Ngrun after the fight at Hasfarth. Because of mad anger he sold his son, Garulf, into slavery to the Juts. I remember, under the smoky rafters of Brunanbuhr, how he used to call for the skull of Guthlaf for a drinking beaker. Spiced wine he would have from no other cup than the skull of Guthlaf.
And to him, on the reeling deck after the storm was past, old Lingaard brought me. I was only hours old, wrapped naked in a salt-crusted wolfskin. Now it happens, being prematurely born, that I was very small.
“Ho! ho!—a dwarf!” cried Tostig, lowering a pot of mead half-drained from his lips to stare at me.
The day was bitter, but they say he swept me naked from the wolfskin, and by my foot, between thumb and forefinger, dangled me to the bite of the wind.
“A roach!” he ho-ho’d. “A shrimp! A sea-louse!” And he made to squash me between huge forefinger and thumb, either of which, Lingaard avers, was thicker than my leg or thigh.
But another whim was upon him.
“The youngling is a-thirst. Let him drink.”
And therewith, head-downward, into the half-pot of mead he thrust me. And might well have drowned in this drink of men—I who had never known a mother’s breast in the briefness of time I had lived—had it not been for Lingaard. But when he plucked me forth from the brew, Tostig Lodbrog struck him down in a rage. We rolled on the deck, and the great bear hounds, captured in the fight with the North Danes just past, sprang upon us.