Weight Watchers, where art thou? . . .
Cnut Sigurdsson was a big man. A really big man! He was taller than the average man, of course, being a Viking, but more than that, he was . . . well . . . truth to tell . . . fat.
Obesity was a highly unusual condition for Men of the North, Cnut had to admit, because Norsemen were normally vain of appearance, sometimes to a ridiculous extent. Long hair, combed to a high sheen. Braided beards. Clean teeth. Gold and silver arm rings to show off muscles. Tight braies delineating buttocks and ballocks.
But not him.
Cnut did not care.
Even now, when three of his six brothers, who’d come (uninvited, by the by) to his Frigg’s-day feast here at Hoggstead in the Norselands, were having great fun making jests about just that. They were half-brothers, actually, all with different mothers, but that was neither here nor there. Cnut cared not one whit what the lackwits said. Not even when Trond made oinking noises, as if Cnut’s estate were named for a porcine animal when he knew good and well it was the name of the original owner decades ago, Bjorn Hoggson. Besides, Trond had no room to make mock of others when he was known to be the laziest Viking to ever ride a longship. Some said he did not even have the energy to lift his cock for pissing, that he sat like a wench on the privy hole. That was probably not true, but it made a good story.
Nor did Cnut bother to rise and clout his eldest brother, Vikar, when he asked the skald to make a rhyme of Cnut’s name:
Cnut is a brute
And a glutton, of some repute.
He is so fat that, when he goes a-Viking for loot,
He can scarce lift a bow with an arrow to shoot.
But when it comes to woman-pursuit,
None can refute
That Cnut can “salute” with the best of them.
Thus and therefore, let it be known
And this is a truth absolute,
“Ha, ha, ha!” Cnut commented, while everyone in the great hall howled with laughter, and Vikar was bent over, gasping with mirth.
Cnut did not care, especially since Vikar was known to be such a prideful man he fair reeked of self-love. At least the skald had not told the poem about how, if Cnut spelled his name with a slight exchange of letters, he would be a vulgar woman part. That was one joke Cnut did not appreciate.
But mockery was a game to Norsemen. And, alas and alack, Cnut was often the butt of the jests.
He. Did. Not. Care.
Yea, some said he resembled a walking tree with a massive trunk, limbs like hairy battering rams, and fingers so chubby he could scarce make a fist. Even his face was bloated, surrounded by a mass of wild, tangled hair on head and beard, which was dark blond, though its color was indiscernible most times since it was usually greasy and teeming with lice. Unlike most Vikings, he rarely bathed. In his defense, what tub would hold him? And the water chute into the steam hut was often clogged. And the water in the fjords was frigid except for summer months. What man in his right mind wanted to turn his cock into an icicle?
A disgrace to the ideal of handsome, virile Vikinghood, he overheard some fellow jarls say about him on more than one occasion.
And as for his brother Harek, who considered himself smarter than the average Viking, Cnut glared his way and spoke loud enough for all to hear, “Methinks your first wife, Dagne, has put on a bit of blubber herself in recent years. Last time I saw her in Kaupang, she was as wide as she was tall. And she farted as she walked, rather waddled. Phhhttt, phhhttt, phhhttt! Now, there is something to make mock of!”
“You got me there,” Harek agreed with a smile, raising his horn of mead high in salute.
One of the good things about Vikings was that they could laugh at themselves. The sagas were great evidence of that fact.
At least Cnut was smart enough not to take on any wives of his own, despite his twenty and eight years. Concubines and the odd wench here and there served him well. Truly, as long as Cnut’s voracious hunger for all bodily appetites—food, drink, sex—was being met, he cared little what others thought of him.
When his brothers were departing two days later (he thought they’d never leave), Vikar warned him, “Jesting aside, Cnut, be careful. One of these days your excesses are going to be your downfall.”
“Not one of these days. Now,” Cnut proclaimed jovially as he crooked a chubby forefinger at Inga, a passing chambermaid with a bosom not unlike the figurehead of his favorite longship, Sea Nymph. “Wait for me in the bed furs,” he called out to her. “I plan to fall down with you for a bit of bedplay.”
Vikar, Trond, and Harek just shook their heads at him, as if he were a hopeless case.
Cnut did not care.
But Vikar’s words came back to haunt Cnut several months later when he was riding Hugo, one of his two war horses, across his vast estate. A normal-size palfrey could not handle his weight; he would squash it like an oatcake. Besides, his long legs dragged on the ground. So he had purchased two Percherons from Le Perche, a province north of Norsemandy in the Franklands known for breeding the huge beasts. They’d cost him a fortune.
But even with the sturdy destrier and his well-padded arse, not to mention the warm, sunny weather, Cnut was ready to return to the keep for a midday repast. Most Vikings had only two meals a day. The first, dagmál or “day-meal,” breaking of fast, was held two hours after morning work was started, and the second, náttmál or “night meal.” was held in the evening when the day’s work was completed. But Cnut needed a midday meal, as well. And right now, a long draught of mead and an afternoon nap would not come amiss. But he could not go back yet. His steward, Finngeir the Frugal (whom he was coming to regard as Finn the Bothersome Worrier), insisted that he see the extent of the dry season on the Hoggstead cotters’ lands.
Ho-hum. Cnut didn’t even bother to stifle his yawn.
“Even in the best of times, the gods have not blessed the Norselands with much arable land, being too mountainous and rocky. Why else would we go a-Viking but to settle new, more fertile lands?”
“And women,” Cnut muttered. “Fertile or not.”
Finn ignored his sarcasm and went on. Endlessly. “One year of bad crops is crippling, but two years, and it will be a disaster, I tell you. Look at the fields. The grains are half as high as they should be by this time of year. If it does not rain soon—”
Blather, blather, blather. I should have brought a horn of ale with me. And an oatcake, or five. Cnut did not like Finn’s lecturing tone, but Finn was a good and loyal subject, and Cnut would hate the thought of replacing him. So Cnut bit back a snide retort. “What would you have me do? A rain dance? I can scarce walk, let alone dance. Ha, ha, ha.”
Finn did not smile.
The humorless wretch.
“Dost think I have a magic wand to open the clouds? The only wand I have is betwixt my legs. Ha, ha, ha.”
No reaction, except for a continuing frown, and a resumption of his tirade. “You must forgive the taxes for this year. Then you must open your storerooms to feed the masses. That is what you must do.”
“Are you barmy? I cannot do that! I need the taxes for upkeep of my household and to maintain a fighting troop of housecarls. As for my giving away foodstuffs, forget about that, too.
Last harvest did not nearly fill my oat and barley bins. Nay, ’tis impossible!”
“There is more. Look about you, my jarl. Notice how the people regard you. You will have an uprising on your own lands, if you are not careful.”
“What? Where? I do not know—” Cnut’s words cut off as he glanced to his right and left, passing through a narrow lane that traversed through his crofters’ huts. Here and there, he saw men leaning on rakes or hauling manure to the fields. They were gaunt-faced and grimy, glaring at him through angry eyes. One man even spat on the ground, narrowly missing Hugo’s hoof. And the women were no better, raising their skinny children up for him to see.
“That horse would feed a family of five for a month,” one toothless old graybeard yelled.
His wife—Cnut assumed it was his wife, being equally aged and toothless—cackled and said, “Forget that. If the master skipped one meal a month, the whole village could feast.”
Many of those standing about laughed.
Cnut did not.
Good thing they did not know how many mancuses it had taken to purchase Hugo and the other Percheron. It was none of their concern! Cnut had a right to spend his wealth as he chose. Leastways, that’s what he told himself.
Now, instead of being softened by what he saw, Cnut hardened his heart. “If they think to threaten me, they are in for a surprise,” he said to Finn once they’d left the village behind and were returning to the castle keep. “Tell the taxman to evict those who do not pay their rents this year.”
By late autumn, when the last of the meager crops was harvested, Cnut had reason to reconsider. Already, he’d had to buy extra grains and vegetables from the markets in Birka and Hedeby, just for his keep. Funerals were held back to back in the village. And he was not convinced that Hugo had died of natural causes last sennight, especially when his carcass had disappeared overnight. Cnut had been forced to post guards about his stables and storage shed since then. Everywhere he turned, people were grumbling, if not outright complaining.
That night, in a drukkinn fit of rage, he left his great hall midway through the dinner meal. Highly unusual for him. But then, who wouldn’t lose his appetite with all those sour faces silently accusing him? It wasn’t Cnut who’d brought the drought; even the most sane-minded
Creature must know that. Blame the gods, or lazy field hands who should have worked harder, or bad seed.
As he was leaving, he declined an invitation from some of his hersirs who were engaged in a game of hneftafl. Even his favorite board game with its military strategies and rousing side bets held no interest tonight. Bodil, a chambermaid, gave him a sultry wink of invitation in passing, but he was not in the mood for bedplay tonight, either.
He decided to visit the garderobe before taking to his bed, alone, and nigh froze his balls when he sat on the privy hole. He was further annoyed to find that someone had forgotten to replenish the supply of moss and grape leaves for wiping.
When Cnut thought things could not get any worse, he opened the garderobe door and almost tripped over the threshold at what he saw. A man stood across the corridor, arms crossed over his chest. A stranger. Could it be one of his desperate, starving tenants come to seek revenge on him, as Finn had warned?
No. Despite the darkness, the only light coming from a sputtering wall torch, Cnut could see that this man was handsome in appearance, noble in bearing. Long, black hair. Tall and lean, though well-muscled, like a warrior. And oddly, he wore a long white robe with a twisted rope belt, and a gold crucifix hung from a chain about his neck. Even odder, there appeared to be wings half folded behind his back.
Was it a man or something else?
I must be more drukkinn than I thought. “Who are you?”
“St. Michael the Archangel.”
One of those flying creatures the Christians believe in? This is some alehead madness I am imagining! A walking dream.
’Tis no dream, fool,” the stranger said, as if he’d read Cnut’s thoughts.
“What do you want?” Cnut demanded.
“Not you, if I had a choice, that is for certain,” the man/creature/angel said with a tone of disgust. “Thou art a dire sinner, Cnut Sigurdsson, and God is not pleased with you.”
“Which god would that be? Odin? Thor?”
“For shame! There is only one God.”
Ah! Of course. He referred to the Christian One-God. Vikings might follow the Old Norse religions, but they were well aware of the Christian dogma, and, in truth, many of them allowed themselves to be baptized, just for the sake of expediency.
“So, your God is not pleased with me. And I should care about that . . . why?” Cnut inquired, holding on to the doorjamb to straighten himself with authority. He was a high jarl, after all, and this person was trespassing. Cnut glanced about for help, but none of his guardsmen were about. Surprise, surprise. They are probably still scowling and complaining about the lack of meat back in the hall. I am going to kick some arse for this neglect.
“Attend me well, Viking; you should care because thou are about to meet your maker.” He said Viking as if it were a foul word. “As are your brothers. Sinners, all of you!”
“Seven brothers, each guilty of one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Pride. Lust. Sloth. Wrath. Gluttony. Envy. Greed.” He gave Cnut a pointed look. “Wouldst care to guess which one is yours?”
Nay, he would not. “So I eat and drink overmuch. I can afford the excess. What sin is that?”
“Fool!” the angel said, and immediately a strange fog swirled in the air. In its mist, Cnut saw flashing images:
• Starving and dead children.
• Him gnawing on a boar shank so voraciously that a greasy drool slipped down his chin. Not at all attractive.
• One of his cotters being beaten to a bloody pulp for stealing bread for his family.
• Honey being spread on slice after slice of manchet bread on his high table.
• A young Cnut, no more than eight years old, slim and sprightly, chasing his older brothers about their father’s courtyard.
• A naked, adult Cnut, gross and ugly with folds of fat and swollen limbs. He could not run now, if he’d wanted to.
• A family, wearing only threadbare garb and carrying cloth bundles of its meager belongings, being evicted from its home with no place to go in the snowy weather.
• Warm hearths and roofs overhead on the Hoggstead keep.
• A big-bosomed concubine riding Cnut in the bed furs, not an easy task with his big belly.
• The same woman weeping as she unwrapped a linen cloth holding scraps of bread and meat, half-eaten oatcakes, and several shrunken apples, before her three young children.
Cnut had seen enough. “This farce has gone on long enough! You say I am going to die? Now? And all my brothers, too? Excuse me if I find that hard to believe.”
“Not all at once. Some have already passed. Others will go shortly.”
Really? Three of his brothers had been here several months past, and he had not received news of any deaths in his family since, but then their estates were distant and the roads were nigh impassable this time of year. The fjords were no better, already icing over, making passage difficult for longships.
“I should toss you down the privy hole and let you die in the filth,” the angel said, “but you would not fit. Better yet, I should lock you in the garderobe and let you starve to death, like your serfs do.”
Ah, so that’s what this was about. “You cannot blame me for lack of rain or poor harvests. In fact, your God—”
Before he could finish the thought, the angel pointed a forefinger at him, and a flash of light passed forth, hitting Cnut right in the chest, like a bolt of lightning. Cnut found himself dangling off the floor. He clutched his heart, which felt as if a giant stake had passed through his body, securing him to the wall.
“Let it be known hither and yon, the Viking race has become too arrogant and brutish, and it is God’s will that it should die out. But you and your brothers are being given a second chance, though why, only God knows.”
What? Wait. Did he say I won’t be dying, after all?
“This is thy choice. Repent and agree to become a vangel in God’s army for seven hundred years, and thou wilt have a chance to make up for your mortal sins. Otherwise, die and spend eternity at Satan’s hearth.”
A sudden smell of rotten eggs filled the air. Brimstone, Cnut guessed, which was said to be a characteristic of the Christian afterlife for those who had offended their god. At the same time, he could swear his toes felt a mite warm. Yea, fire and brimstone, for a certainty.
So, I am being given a choice between seven hundred years in God’s army or forever roasting in Hell. Some choice! Still, he should not be too quick to agree. “Vangel? What in bloody hell is a vangel?” Cnut gasped out.
“A Viking vampire angel who will fight the forces of Satan’s Lucipires, demon vampires who roam the world spreading evil.”
That was clear as fjord mud. Cnut was still pinned high on the wall, and he figured he was in no position to negotiate. Besides, seven hundred years didn’t sound too bad.
But he forgot to ask what exactly a vampire was.
He soon found out.
With a wave of his hand, the angel loosened Cnut’s invisible ties, and he fell to the floor. If he’d thought the heart pain was bad, it was nothing compared to the excruciating feel of bones being crushed and reformed. If that wasn’t bad enough, he could swear he felt fangs forming on each side of his mouth, like a wolf. And his shoulders were being ripped apart, literally, and replaced with what, Cnut could not be sure, as he writhed about the rush-covered floor.
“First things first,” the angel said then, leaning over him with a menacing smile. “You are going on a diet.”