Paul Christopher

The Templar Legion

“Who will help me grind the corn?” said the Little Red Hen.

— English Traditional

Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.

— Ernest Hemingway

Frankly, I’d like to see the government get out of war altogether and leave the whole field to private industry.

— Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Be careful what you wish for; you might just get it.

— H. L. Mencken


A.D. 1039

The Nile River at Karnak

One hundred leagues from Alexandria

His name was Ragnar Skull Splitter and his ship was the Kraka, named for the daughter of a Valkyrie and a Viking chief. Kraka’s carved wooden image, eyes closed in dreaming sleep, long hair covering her naked body, graced the bow of his warship. It was said that Kraka, like her mother before her, had the power to interpret dreams and see the future. Ragnar fervently prayed that it was so and that she would guide him home once more with her prophecies, because for the last ten days he had traveled a river that seemingly had no end and for five of those days had traveled through what he now knew, despite the blistering heat from the relentless sun, was nothing less than Niflheim, the dark and eternally frozen land of the dead.

Ragnar was the cousin of Harald Sigurdsson, the head of the Varangian Emperors Guard in Miklagard, the Great Walled City, or Constantinople, as the local people called it. Ragnar was Harald’s greatest warrior, and before setting out from that wondrous city at the neck of the world he had vowed to his cousin that he would not return until he had found the secret mines of the ancient king and taken their vast riches in Harald’s name.

If he failed it would not be for the lack of a good ship and good men to sail her. From his position on the steering platform at the high end of the stern he proudly looked down Kraka’s length.

She was eighty feet from the carved effigy of her namesake in the bow to the high, elegantly curved line of her sternpost. She was eighteen feet wide and barely six feet deep from the gunwales to the keelson that ran the length of the ship. She was made of solid oak from the shallow slopes of Flensburg Fjord, her clinker-built hull created by overlapping planks attached to the heavy ribs with more than five thousand iron rivets, roved between each plank with tarred rope. The planks became progressively thinner as they rose toward the gunwales, making the boat light, strong and flexible. She drew less than three feet and could be rowed right up on the shallowest beachhead.

At sea with her big sail set, Kraka could make an easy ten knots and could travel more than fifty leagues in a single day. Here, on a river as black as night, its waters populated by swimming monsters of dizzying variety, she could barely do two knots and travel six or seven leagues before her thirty-two rowers could no longer lift the ponderous eighteen-foot oars.

Ragnar looked fondly down at his men from the steering platform. Like Ragnar, they were stripped to the waist, the muscles of their backs and shoulders gleaming with sweat as they pulled the ship through the ominous waters. Also like Ragnar, each of them wore the linen head coverings bound with strips of cloth the local people called nemes.

In the bow, on a smaller version of the steering platform, stood the strange, high-ranking negeren court slave pressed on him by Harald, and the slave’s even stranger companion, a gigantic eunuch named Barakah who took care of the negeren’s personal needs as well as recording their whereabouts with fantastically detailed maps, sketches and drawings, made at his master’s order. The black man’s name was Abdul al-Rahman and it was he who suggested that Ragnar and his men adopt the nemes after two of the warriors collapsed over their oars, stunned and terribly sick with the sun.

Just below the steering platform, Aki, the last oarsman on the starboard side, called out the cadence with an old kenning chant:

Most men know that

Gunnbjorn the captain

lies long buried in this mound;

never was there

a more valiant traveler

of the wondrous-wide ground of Endil

his tale told proudly and with honor

in the skalds

till Njor?r, god of oceans,

Drowns the land.

Ragnar turned to his steersman, a gruff, powerful man named Hurlu who’d been steersman on Kraka for years before Ragnar became her captain. “How long have the men been rowing?”

“Since the morning daymark.” Hurlu squinted up at the sun, which was almost directly overhead. “Six hours at least. Too long.”

Ragnar nodded. He’d done his time at the oars often enough and knew the weight of the heavy blade digging through the water. His shoulders ached at the memory. “We should pull into shore,” said Ragnar. “Let the men rest.”

“I agree.” Hurlu nodded.

Ragnar let it pass. In a younger man it would have been an insubordinate response, but Hurlu was as old as the planks in Kraka’s bilge and he’d been piloting ships since Ragnar had played with balls of yarn in his mother’s lap.

“We’ll need shade,” said Ragnar. He looked out at the bleak, arid land on either side of the river. There was nothing to see but bare rock and high ridges of sandstone baking in the relentless sun.

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