Love and destruction, toil and triumph blend in a gripping historical fiction account of the life of Erik The Red, taking him from the Iceland into the great unknown as he searches for his place in the world. Exiled from his homeland of Norway as a boy, Erik Thorvladsson wants nothing more than to honor his father's legacy and to figure out where he belongs in the world. But to claim and cultivate his own homestead is no easy task. Navigating natural disasters, violent clashes, and banishment, he seeks his fortunes in an Iceland on the brink of change. But when a conflict over property erupts into violence, Erik is outlawed from the country for three years and sets off on his greatest challenge of all. Assembling a group of settlers, he and his family sail west into uncertainty, hoping to finally find a green and prosperous land to call their own. "A mysterious death and a fantastical curse add light intrigue while mature sexual situations make this a great crossover novel for adult readers." - Kirkus Reviews
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Erik the Red
Translation by Oliver Latsch
He hadn’t counted how often he’d walked the stony path from the meadow up to the farmstead and back, nor how often he’d passed the other servants and Erik. They’d all been exchanging jokes in the morning, but soon everyone had fallen quiet, silently battling sweat and weariness. We’re two-legged hay-creatures, he thought, and I will soon choke on this smell.
He carried the hay-filled sailcloth on his neck and shoulders. It was his last load for the day, and having reached the barn, Tyrkir dropped his burden with a sigh. He folded the cloth and shuffled back across the yard, scratching at the fleas. The new biters were everywhere, under his tunic, on his neck and arms. The two vertical jambs, the crossbeam, and the driftwood door were all one could see of the main building, which otherwise was nothing but a long, grassy hill that seemed to smoke from its depths.
The scrawny seventeen-year-old stepped inside. He was greeted by darkness. The grassy sod between the floor supports smelled musty, and after three steps, he opened the inner door.
“Drink!” Erik was standing by the barrel right behind the entrance to the hall, his red hair matted with sweat. He grinned at Tyrkir, dipped the ladle into the sour milk, and handed it to the slave. “Our first harvest. Thanks to the gods! You will see how we get our steer and cows through the winter. Come spring, we’ll have done it!”
Tyrkir quickly emptied the ladle. He dipped it in once more and drank again. Despite their difference in class, he and the son of farmer Thorvald had formed a deep friendship, even with Erik being three years older. “Tastes better than any beer back home!”
“This is home now.” Erik clenched his fist. “Forget Norway. This is Iceland, and by Thor, this forsaken rocky land will not defeat us. Never.”
“All right. I believe it. But the hay will only get us through a month.” Before Erik could respond, Tyrkir added, “I know. We’ve found three more meadows with good grass. I know.”
Erik threw back his shaggy mane and turned around. “It’s getting better, Father. Our wise German thinks so, too. All will be well, you’ll see.”
He got no answer from the high seat near the center of the great firepit, which stretched like a glowing band through the main hall. The light from the embers flickered over the rows of rough beams supporting the ceiling before it faded into the dark of the two side rooms.
“Father, tomorrow we should drag the ship higher up the beach. Who knows how long this good weather will last.”
There was still no answer. Erik squinted toward the fire. No wave of the hand? No nod from the mighty head?
Tyrkir shrugged. “The master is sleeping.”
“Nonsense. My voice wakes everyone, even those without ears.” But the jest quickly died on Erik’s lips. The young men shot a glance at each other, then they both dashed toward the high seat. There was Thorvald, his back stiff, his gray-haired head against the backrest, empty eyes staring into the fire.
Tyrkir put his arms around his friend’s trembling shoulders. They stood that way for a long time, as though waiting for the scene before them not to be true.
Outside, noise and laughter echoed down the hall. The other five male servants entered, along with two maids.
Tyrkir rushed toward them, his hands raised in warning. “Quiet! Stop! The master is dead.” Unconvinced at first, they quickly saw the hard edge in Erik’s narrow, freckled face. Realization set in. The women pressed their lips together; the slaves nodded. One of them let out a groan.
“Go outside and wait until you’re called,” Tyrkir said quietly before turning away.
Erik was already standing behind his father in the dark. Tyrkir approached him slowly, keeping close to the rough pillars on the right side of the hall. Catching the eye of a dead man could bring terrible misfortune. Anything but that, he thought. The danger was too great that the farmer’s last thought would burn itself into his mind and torment him for the rest of his existence. He slipped into one of the side rooms and felt along the benches and tables until he found a woolen rag, then quickly started tearing it into small shreds.
The two young men worked together in silence. They were ready. Erik approached the high seat from behind, reached around, and closed his father’s eyes. Now no more thoughts could escape from his eye sockets.
Only then did they dare step in front of the dead man. Quickly, they stuffed a woolen shred into Thorvald’s mouth and used the other scraps to block his nostrils and ears. They could leave no opening for the spirit to slip out of the body’s protective shell so it could go on to perform terrible deeds. Only after they’d sealed every one of Thorvald’s seven openings did they step back.
“Why did he have to pass on like that? As a straw-corpse?” Erik muttered, slamming a fist into his hand. “Father was a brave Viking. If anyone was deserving of a seat in Valhalla—”
Tyrkir cut him off: “Not now. Later.” He called in the maids, and under his stern supervision, they cut out Thorvald’s toenails and fingernails. He threw them all into the fire; nothing could remain of them. Soon, the stench of burning keratin joined the thick smoke.
Erik ordered the other servants to assist him, had them move the tables and benches from behind the high seat, and then he strode in a straight line from the chair to the wall. He scraped the outline of a big square into the wall with his knife. “Begin.”
The men removed the sod and earth from the joints, before carefully lifting out the stones one by one. Two of the men rammed their spades into the protective layer, while the other two went outside to work toward them. The earth kept caving in, and it took much effort to keep the tunnel to the outside as narrow as possible.
“It’ll do.” The twenty-year-old man lifted his father from the high seat. Tyrkir grabbed the feet and walked ahead, and so they shifted the dead master through the opening to the outside. They carried him a good stone’s throw from the house, placing the corpse on a rock. “It’s far enough.”
Tyrkir folded his arms. Behind him, the servants had already begun to relay the bricks and patch the opening. They would soon have the six-foot-thick wall sealed again. “We will stand guard until we’re sure the master’s spirit won’t find its way back into the house.”
The two friends stared down at the ship and out to the restless sea. The day was fading. It was July, and the sun was setting again, though its pale glow would keep lighting the night as it wandered east, beyond the horizon to reappear from behind the rim of the earth.
“I mourn him. Had he known of his end, he would have asked me. I’m sure of it.” Tears dripped into Erik’s red beard. “One quick stab would have secured his eternal joy, but now he has to move to the domain of Hel.”
Tyrkir understood his friend’s sadness. The thought of his father spending eternity in the dim afterlife under the earth rather than enjoying feasts and joys with the gods was grim. Up there, in Asgard, honorable Vikings rode out every morning to meet on the battlegrounds and measure one another with axes and swords, sparks flying and blood flowing. After the battle, all wounds would close, and the warriors would go back to the shield-covered Valhalla to feast with the gods. Every day was a feast day and a celebration. The vat of mead would always be full, and there would be an endless supply of bacon and meat from boiled hogs.
But as Thorvald hadn’t fallen like a warrior—since he hadn’t himself determined the time and manner of his death—he would have to wander through darkness and cold to the realm of the goddess Hel. His path would lead him past roaring rivers, until he finally reached the golden bridge across the chasm, which would take him to the hall of the straw-dead. There, Hel reigned over all the shadows. She was awful to behold. The body and face of the cruel goddess were half black and half blue. Only her eyes glowed brightly. She would assign Thorvald his place among the silent masses, where he would endure nothingness, boredom without even the tiniest diversion, until the end of all time.
“The master was always good to me.” Tyrkir picked up a pebble and rolled it in his hands. “When he bought Mother and me, I was afraid of him. I was so small and scrawny.”
“But you are also wise and clever, and that impressed Father.”
The servants called them. Only the fresh sod showed where the opening had been. They had done quick and thorough work. Now they came nearer to help with the body.
“He shall lie there, at the edge of the cliff,” Erik ordered, “looking east over the sea. Dig the grave as deep as you can manage.”
There was no wood for a coffin; it was too precious. All that grew here in the stormy northwest of Iceland were scraggly birches, and what driftwood they found on the beaches was urgently needed for building houses or making tools.
Erik secured his father’s sword. He left him some bread and meat for his journey, and then they wrapped him in sailcloth before lowering him into the knee-deep grave. One last silent nod, and then the two friends formed the burial mound with rocks. They gave it the shape of a ship, the bow pointing due east.
“It’s not enough,” said Tyrkir. “Every stranger should recognize the master.” He crouched down and cut some runes into a stick, then rammed the rod into the middle of the pile. Erik said, “Read it to me.”
“‘In memory of Thorvald the Brave.’”
“That is good and true.” Erik nodded. “We will not forget anything, and he will live forever in our memories.” He turned to the servants and maids. “Come to the house. Let’s honor your master!”
The high seat between the two richly carved wooden pillars remained empty. After the meal, Erik had the servants tap their only barrel of mead.
Since their departure from Norway, Thorvald had guarded that barrel of intoxicating liquor like his own life. It was meant for their first Yulefest in the new land. Now it was tapped for a wake.
Erik stood close by the great fire. He looked across at the maids, and then at the servants by his side. “Let me call my ancestors!” There was nothing more important than the clan. It was the only refuge. A freeman answered to no lord; he was responsible only to his family, then to his neighbors, and then to his people. Their names formed the chain connecting the forefathers to their children’s children. “Grandfather Asvald! Here stands the son of your son. Do you hear me? Bring your father, Ulf, and you, Ulf, bring your father, Oxenthorir, to us!”
Erik waited. The only sound was the crackling of the fire. Suddenly, the smoke stopped rising to the wind-eye, the opening in the ceiling. Instead, it drifted as a thick cloud through the hall, before it again formed a pillar of smoke straight up to the ceiling.
Tyrkir closed his eyes. He quickly thought of his ancestors far away in Germany. Even if I knew your names, you would not hear me. Never would you come to sit with me, a slave.
Erik continued. “Today, Thorvald joins you. He was honorable and proud, like you.” Erik told of the campaigns and battles his father had fought, how he had built a farm in Norway and had become a farmer and trader. “He was respected and liked at all the trading posts. . . .”
Tyrkir felt a sting. He no longer focused on the speech, his thoughts drifting to Haithabu on the banks of the fjord Schlei. It was where the Vikings had brought him and his mother after their raid on their home far south by the river Rhine.
I was called Thomas then, he remembered, and I was just five winters old. And my mother? He didn’t recall her age, only that she had been beautiful and wise. And her smell when he snuggled up to her—he would never forget that smell. She’d served in the house of a slaver, carefully guarding her child, no longer raising him in the Christian way. “You have to live like these people. You have to think like them, or else you won’t survive when they take you away from me.”
Getting used to his new name had been hard. She’d begun calling him Tyrkir, instead of Thomas. “There is no god in Viking heaven like Tyr” was how she began every story about Valhalla, teaching him to be proud of his new name.
During the years that followed, Tyrkir had soaked up everything about his new surroundings. He’d only spoken German when he was alone with his mother. Otherwise, he’d spoken Nordic, like all the children in Haithabu. He’d soon learned every custom, and he’d learned to feel and think like them. His time in Germany hadn’t been erased, but it had become a distant secret buried deep in his soul, one he rarely touched.
Tyrkir had lived eleven winters when the prosperous trader Thorvald came with his ship from Norway and took a liking to the slave woman and her child. He’d paid a high price for them. His laughter had been so loud when he squeezed Tyrkir’s mother to his side. The small boy had been terrified of him.
During their journey back to Norway, his mother had become sick, and by the time they reached the homestead in Jaedern, she’d had to be carried off the ship on a stretcher. She’d died a few days later. Tyrkir remembered the farmer cursing: “A bad trade! Not once did she entertain me, not once did she work in my household. I paid good silver for her.”
Then he’d looked at the crying boy. “I don’t want you, you scrawny thing. I’ll leave you to the wolves.”
Tyrkir had wiped his eyes. “Don’t send me away, please,” he’d whispered. “I have learned a lot, Master,” and he’d shown how he could carve wood with his knife, how quickly he could build a fire. Then he’d dashed across the yard and back. “That’s how fast I am.”
The master had muttered into his beard. “And what else can you do?”
The little brown-haired German boy knew about herbs and healing plants. “My mother taught me. I also worked in the vineyards back home. . . .”
“Wine?” Thorvald licked his lips. “The little mite knows how to press wine?”
“Yes, I learned it all from my mother,” he’d lied. “Believe me, Master. I’m useful.” Desperate, he’d spread his arms. “I also know the gods, all of them! Odin, Freya, Thor, and the wisest god, Tyr! He chained the wild hound Fenrir and bound him for all time. Well, he lost his right hand in the process. . . . But I still have two! Tyr is the best warrior and the wisest scholar. That’s why Mother named me after him, because I’ll become like God Tyr—”
“Quiet, you grub. None of us will be like a god.” Thorvald had grinned broadly. “Your everything, everything, everything is going to clog my ears. All right, you may stay. I give you to my son Erik. And woe to you if you keep him from his work.”
In three years, a friendship had grown between the two boys. Erik, the strong, slightly irritable heir, and the agile, sharp-thinking, narrow-chested slave had found trust in each other. And today? They shared their joys and sorrows and were able to settle even the sharpest disagreements without falling out. It will stay that way, Tyrkir thought as he refocused on the speech.
“It came to a fight!” Erik had just reminded everyone of his father’s quarrel with his neighbors in Jaedern, an insult that Thorvald could not accept without revenge. “By Thor, our fight was honorable. No ambush. We openly faced the enemy. But on the day of the tribunal, the witnesses testified against us. They’d been bribed.”
The Thing-gathering had found Thorvald guilty of malicious murder, and the verdict had been the loss of honor. The farmer would only be granted a short period before he might be openly hunted and killed by anyone. Thorvald had quickly sold the farm, equipped his ship, and set sail with his son, some servants and maidservants, a few cattle, and the most necessary belongings. His destination was Iceland, the promised land of emigrants. Westward for seven days, through the ups and downs of the stormy waves. The dragon at the bow defied the sea.
But they came years too late to claim good, fertile Icelandic soil. “No land for you!” Erik clenched his fist. “You, my friends, heard it again and again. No land! We were pushed farther and farther north. It was only here, on Sharpcliff at Hornstrand, that we could finally build the farm.” They had all worked hard, including Thorvald, until a few weeks before he’d been overcome with fatigue. Because his limbs would no longer obey him, he had stayed in the house.
“Take leave, friends! Drink with me to Thorvald!” Everyone in the hall grabbed their cups, draining them to the bottom.
Erik looked at Tyrkir quizzically. They exchanged a nod and then Erik walked calmly to the seat of honor. The murmuring ceased—not one sound in the hall—as all eyes followed him anxiously. He slowly stroked the carving on the posts. These supports were like a sacred shrine. The leader of a clan maintained them, and everyone to whom these duties and rights were assigned added an ornament or magical sign at some point. Erik stretched his chest and took the raised seat.
Tyrkir waved the servants and maids closer, signaling them to refill their cups. “Long live our Lord Erik, who is called the Red, and he shall live and protect us. May the gods never deprive him of their favor!” The servants joined in. Yes, praise to our new lord. The cups were filled and refilled again. Sip by sip, the sweet mead transformed the sadness of the last hours into the joy of serving Erik.
But the great man couldn’t stay on the bench of honor for long. “If the gods have the right, so do we. Let us celebrate!” He waved his cup in his left, and with his free arm, he embraced the hips of one of the two maidservants, pressing her against him, then slowly turned with the girl still pressed to his side and kissed her. Breathlessly, he released the maid and grabbed at the second slave. “And you, Katla?”
As the pretty maidservant pressed closer to her master, much to his delight, Tyrkir noticed the greedy hunger in the other servants’ eyes. There was danger in the air. Heated by the mead, they might easily forget that only the lord was allowed to help himself to the women. In three steps, he was beside the maid and pulled her away. “Leave it alone, Katla,” he warned quietly. His angry look sobered Erik for a moment.
“Yes, Tyrkir is right,” he said. “Two women are not enough for everyone. Let’s drink! We do have enough mead!” His laughter was infectious, and soon the hall was filled with exuberant noise until, eventually, heads became heavy.
Late that night, Erik pulled his friend along behind him. “Come with me!”
They left the hall with sluggish strides and trudged through the pale twilight over to the burial mound on the cliff. For a long time, Erik stood there. Finally, he asked, “What now? I am the lord, but you’re the clever one. What now?”
Tyrkir stepped close to his side. “Marry.”
“You must get married, and I say that not only because the farm needs a mistress. You’re the last of your clan. You’ll need children for the line to go on.”
Erik shook his head. His gaze had lost some of its drunkenness. “Just like that? Get married? It takes two. Have you forgotten that? Who am I supposed to—”
Tyrkir scratched at his flea bites. Despite the mead, he somehow managed to arrange his thoughts. He’d thought this plan through, but had not yet dared to propose it to his friend. Now the time was right. “Down at Hvammsfjord, when we asked for land there,” he began carefully. “You met the daughter of old Thorbjörn.” He pretended not to remember the name of the young woman. “What was her name?”
“Thjodhild,” Erik murmured thoughtfully. “Thjodhild of Hawk Valley.” The memory seemed to paint her picture in his mind. “Not a bad woman. And she was still free in the spring. She is blond and straight grown. Yes, not a bad woman.” He gently jabbed his friend in the chest. “We leave first thing tomorrow. Why should Farmer Thorbjörn have any objections to me? Look at me! I am a son-in-law. He couldn’t have wished for a better one.”
“You should probably take a bath,” Tyrkir remarked. “Otherwise, no one will recognize your beauty.”
“Don’t you dare!” Erik raised his fist, half in anger. “You’re speaking to your master.” When he saw Tyrkir’s bold look, he embraced his slave. “Nothing will separate us, not even a woman. Never. That I swear!”
A diversion, finally!
For two weeks, Thjodhild had been longing for this day. The market was held down by the fjord. In the summer, it took place in the middle of the first week of every new month. It was nothing compared with the big market during the Allthing in the fall, but it was good enough for her. Thjodhild measured time by the market days. After every one, she lived off her memories for a while, and then counted the days until her next visit.
Thjodhild had swapped her coarse smock for a shift and a skirt with straps secured by brooches. Over it, she wore a large green shawl held together by a silver clasp. The chain of bronze medallions nestled coolly around the eighteen-year-old woman’s neck. She had carefully combed her long blond hair, which fell from under her headscarf and far down over her back.
To be free of all of her chores! No laborious whipping of the salt butter today, no work in the house or stable. To see other people and forget her monotonous everyday life for a few hours.
Her mother had stayed on the farm because her leg was hurting again, so only Thjodhild and her stepfather had saddled their horses earlier that morning. They’d ridden through the upper Hawk Valley, along the brook, past the lake and forest, and finally down to the beach. Some neighbors had joined them along the way, swapping stories, and the time had quickly passed.
Even the weather is lovely, she thought. Despite a few fast-moving cloud shadows, the August sun shone down from the glass-blue sky onto the stalls and booths as laughter, shouting, and bargaining filled the small trading place. The bright light and pleasant warmth added to the general atmosphere of cheer.
Thjodhild had been waiting for her father for a while. He was standing at the horse trader’s with his big farmer friends, inspecting the powerful animals, reaching into the luxuriant manes as if into women’s hair, checking teeth, stroking bellies and the tendons of the front hooves.
“And I say, this mare is stronger!”
“Or maybe you’re wrong, Thorbjörn.”
“Don’t say that! I know more about horses than you do.”
A heated argument was brewing. Thjodhild knew this back-and-forth all too well, and a lot more time would pass before the men reached an agreement.
She strolled through the crowd. From the corner of her eye, she enjoyed the hungry looks of the young farmers. The unmarried sons of the wealthy landowners had come for business but were in festive attire, hoping to finally find a bride. Some had already asked for Thjodhild’s hand, but so far, no one had pleased her. Since Thorbjörn himself had not had any children but loved his wife’s only daughter like his own blood, he would not marry her off without her consent. And so Thjodhild remained free.
“I’ll wait until someone pleases me,” she often said to her mother while they enjoyed the steam and warmth of the sauna house together.
“Don’t wait too long, girl,” the old woman had warned just a few days before. She had lost her first husband, Jorund, at an early age and had been glad to have found in Thorbjörn another capable, kindhearted farmer for Hawk Farm. “Flowers are beautiful when they’re in bloom, but they wither quickly.” She stroked her large breasts and weighed them in her hands. “In the old days, they were firm and taut. And today?”
“Don’t worry! I know what I want.”
“No, listen to me! The younger brother of the master of the Valtjof Farm, Ejolf, would be a—”
“Enough!” But Thjodhild quickly softened, lovingly rubbing her mother’s back. “Forgive me, Mother. Please understand. No matter how rich his family is, the name already has me shivering.” Thjodhild shook her head. “I will never marry Ejolf Dirt.”
Though he was now a man, as a child he’d soiled himself, and the unfortunate nickname had stuck. Thjodhild was sure to run into him at the market today. She could already see his grin, hear his boasting. And like every other time, she’d turn away until he finally relented.
The smell of roasted seal meat crept into her nose. No, not just yet. She would eat something later, together with her father. But first, she wanted to take her time looking at all the wares on offer.
Yes, it was a beautiful day. Besides fishermen and artisans, some neighbors were offering what they could spare: to trade a spade for a chain for the cooking pot, two knives for scissors. Thjodhild did not feel like buying household goods today. Instead, she went to the stalls displaying decorated shoulder straps, jewelry, and other treasures. She marveled at an arrangement of small figures carved from walrus teeth, then moved on. She stayed longer at the silversmith’s, transfixed by his gleaming handiwork. If only I were not so reasonable, I would buy all his bracelets and brooches. She sighed.
When she turned, she found herself looking straight into a freckled face with dark, smiling eyes for a brief moment before the slim lad stepped aside for her. Who was that? He must be a stranger, though I can’t help feeling I’ve met him before. Judging by his smock and shorn hair, he had to be a slave. Thjodhild jutted out her chin. How dare he!
A little later, at the potter’s cart, he was suddenly beside her again. “You’re blocking my view,” she barked at him.
“Don’t be angry, fair lady.”
The warm voice made her pause. “What do you want from me? What is your name?”
“Tyrkir, chosen by God Tyr.” He smiled. “No, no, I am not a messenger from the gods. I want nothing, and yet I do want something. Or rather, my master wants to show you something.”
A serf looking for customers in an odd way, nothing more. Somewhat amused, Thjodhild nodded. “All right, where is his stand? Take me there.”
The first thing she heard was the authoritative voice. “I killed the bear myself in Norway. And believe me, it was a fight to the death!” Then Thjodhild saw the bright red mane above the heads of three women who had surrounded the hunter and were haggling. He rejected each of their bids with the same words: “Too little. By Thor, I shall not sell this fur so cheaply.” Finally, the customers gave up in disappointment and went to the next stand.
Tyrkir approached slowly with the slim woman. As soon as Erik spotted them, he wiped his face and drove his hands through his hair. “It is a beautiful day today” was all he could manage. She nodded slightly, and when she bent over the soft, brown-black bear blanket, he secretly motioned to Tyrkir, pleading for help. Tyrkir just smiled.
“How much do you want for your fur?” Thjodhild asked.
“My fur? I’ll give it to you for all that you are.” Erik’s face blushed red, darker than his beard and wild mane.
She looked at him, surprised.
His amber eyes held her gaze. “This is my prize, fair Thjodhild. And I won’t bargain, just so you know.”
“You know my name?” Before he could answer, she remembered him, his eyes. “Weren’t you with us in the spring at the farm?” Of course, he and his father had asked for land all along the coast of Hvammsfjord, in Salmon Valley and Hawk Valley. “You’re Erik the Red who came over from Norway.”
“That’s me. We settled up north, on the Hornstrand. Now we have a big farm there. Good grass. Even plenty of farmland. We did well.”
Thjodhild looked briefly at Tyrkir, then again at the broad-shouldered boy, annoyed because her heart was beating more quickly. “You were never a bear hunter, and yet you had me lured by your servant. Don’t think I’ll fall into your trap!” Still, the game excited her. Let’s see how clever he is. “It’s a pretty long way from the Hvammsfjord to here.” She raised her brows. “No wise farmer makes such a journey during harvest time just to visit our little market.”
“I do. Even if you insult me.”
Tyrkir held his breath. Be polite, my friend, he pleaded. Don’t spoil everything before it’s even begun!
Erik struggled hard against his rising anger. “Perhaps I’m not as clever as you. That may be so. But I know what I want.”
“And what’s that?” Thjodhild asked.
“My fur,” he growled. “I want to sell it to you.”
Thjodhild drove her fingers through the bear fur on the wooden trestle: “You mean this fur here?”
“Yes, damn it. And by Thor’s hammer, my hide as well. That’s why I’m here.” His anger grew stronger, bursting out of him. “But with your sharp tongue, I don’t know if you’re the right one, after all.”
“Too bad. You’d give up so easily?” Thjodhild turned away. After a few steps, she called over her shoulder, “Perhaps I’ll stop by later with my father. If the bear fur is still available, who knows? Maybe he’ll buy it for me.”
Erik stared after her and then punched his fist into his left hand.
“Some woman she is,” he murmured. “Good riddance. Better you don’t come back.” As soon as he saw Tyrkir grinning, Erik growled, “Stop smiling! It was your clever plan. Oh, I should—”
“Why are you upset?” Tyrkir calmly stepped toward him. “She took the bait. Believe me.”
“That stuck-up woman? Never!”
Tyrkir was about to explain the situation to his disappointed friend when a young farmer appeared in front of them. “You are strangers?” The man had an angular face, angry eyes, and was dressed in tight trousers and a shirt made of the finest linen, along with a brown cape worn on his left shoulder, which covered the hilt of a sword. On his right side, the man carried a battle-ax in his belt next to a knife and coin pouch. “What are you doing here?”
“Who wants to know?” Erik straightened to his full height. At that moment, he wouldn’t have objected to a brawl.
“Before you stands Ejolf of the Valtjof Farm. Everyone knows me here!”
They measured each other with their eyes, and in the end, the well-groomed lad was the first to lower his gaze. “All right, not today.” He eyed the Red through half-closed lids. “I saw you talking to my Thjodhild. And for a long while. What about?”
“Nothing that concerns you.”
Quickly, Tyrkir pointed to the fur. “The beautiful woman liked it. My master gave her the price, that was all.” The answer didn’t seem to satisfy Ejolf, but he didn’t press further. “Well, you’re in luck. If Thjodhild wants the fur, then I’ll buy it. It would make a fine gift. Name your price.”
Over the head of the young farmer, Erik spotted the blond woman, now accompanied by her father, approaching. He crossed his arms in front of his chest. “Too late. I won’t be doing business with you. Either I sell the fur to the daughter of Hawk Farm herself, or I keep it.” He drew his brows together, then loudly asked, “Why do you say your Thjodhild? Do you have an understanding with her?”
“We will celebrate our wedding at the beginning of winter. And then she will belong to me. I have long been in agreement with the farmer.” But Ejolf didn’t notice who was coming up behind him.
“Liar!” Ejolf flinched at the sound of Thjodhild’s voice and spun around.
“There’s no truth to this,” the young woman hissed at him. “Don’t you dare spread such lies, do you hear me? Never again!”
Ejolf muttered, “Thorbjörn, how can you let your daughter talk to me this way? I thought we were good, peaceful neighbors. Here, I wanted to give her this fur. Just like that, for her to enjoy. And in return, she insults me in front of strangers.”
The gray-bearded farmer tried to appease him, but Thjodhild interrupted. “Leave it alone, Father! I can speak for myself.” She pressed her fists into her hips. “You can give me no pleasure whatsoever, Ejolf Dirt. As a neighbor, I can suffer your presence, but never as a groom.”
“Wait and see!” He grinned slyly. “No one else at Hvammsfjord would dare get in my way. You’re not getting any younger, and eventually, there will come a day when you’ll be happy for me to have you. You’ll beg me to.”
She abruptly raised her hand, but he ducked just in time. “Away! Go away!” she seethed. “Go to your friends, those idiots, and leave me alone!”
Ejolf was still grinning. “I’ll see you soon.” He cast the stranger and his servant a sharp look. “You’re to forget what you heard, understand? Not a word about it, or you will wish we had never crossed paths.”
Erik didn’t so much as blink, and as soon as the pretentious man was out of earshot, he mumbled to Tyrkir, “This woman, she’ll be a handful.”
Still worked up, Thjodhild stepped in front of the Red. “And now to you: Do you stand by what you said to me earlier?”
“What did I . . . ?” Erik frowned, but Tyrkir nudged his elbow into his master’s side, and understanding suddenly dawned. “Yes, by Thor. Every word was true.”
“All right, then.” She turned to her stepfather. “I’ll take the fur.” No, he could leave the silver in the pouch; they had already agreed on the price. “Please invite this man and his slave to our farm as guests. There you will have time to discuss arrangements.” With that, she turned and walked away.
Thorbjörn shook his head apologetically. “My daughter is a little . . . lively.”
“That seems to be the truth,” Erik replied, releasing a breath.
The farmer and his daughter left the trading place earlier than usual. His guests rode a bit behind them. The afternoon sun glistened in the willows on either side of the stream. Thorbjörn eyed the young woman at his side; she was sitting upright in her saddle, looking off at the black mountain ridges in the east. Finally, he broke the silence. “So fast? Are you sure, girl, that you’re not making a mistake?”
She turned her attention back to her stepfather. “He’s different from the other men I’ve met so far.”
“And it’s not because you want to punish young Ejolf? Oh, child, nobody knows anything about this Erik.”
She took in her father’s worried expression. “But I feel something new in here. No, no, trust me. My heart alone won’t decide. We have plenty of time before we must make up our minds.”
Three horse lengths behind them, Erik fidgeted with the halter in his fist. Tyrkir waited patiently.
“It wasn’t your plan alone,” the giant grumbled. “You are not that clever. Must be providence. What do you suppose? Which god had a hand in this?”
“It wasn’t Tyr. He doesn’t interfere in these sorts of things. But perhaps he gave God Freyr a hint. He knows something about fertility. After all, we are in a bit of a hurry.”
“Could be.” Erik stroked his horse’s mane and patted his neck. After some time, he smiled to himself.
Thorbjörn of Hawk Farm understood how impatient the red-haired man must be. His servants couldn’t be left alone in the north for too long during harvest time, but a marriage was not a quick transaction; the terms had to be properly negotiated. It had already cost the good-natured big farmer a lot of effort to explain to his wife, at Thjodhild’s request, that her beloved daughter had decided not to choose one of the neighboring young farmers, but instead wanted to leave with this stranger.
Since breakfast, the men had been sitting alone in the spacious living hall decorated with tapestries. Erik’s line of ancestors had no flaws, even when he reported frankly about the conviction in Norway and the escape. Thorbjörn had only shrugged regretfully. Bought witnesses! How quickly anyone could have suffered the same misfortune. “We are all subject to the whims of fate.” No, the court case was settled, and it no longer mattered. “What do you offer our daughter?”
“Well, there’s a lot to consider.” Erik had feared this question, and now he regretted that his friend was not present for this conversation. He’d give anything right now for Tyrkir’s signals and glances. “All right, then. Ten cows in the barn. My bull is hot-blooded, I assure you. Then horses for each servant. Yes, and a good forty sheep. The land . . .” Erik stretched, then told of fertile meadows, and the leeks, onions, and peas abundant in the field. The more he spoke, the more splendidly he painted his property, and he was sure that through hard work, he’d be able to develop it to the size of Thorbjörn’s farm in the future.
“I had no idea.” The farmer scratched his beard thoughtfully. “Didn’t know that it could be done so easily up on the Hornstrand. It’s a shame we can’t combine our farms. That would please my wife. Not just because of the land—we have enough of that ourselves—but because then she could see the girl more often.”
“We will visit you,” Erik assured him hastily.
“And you own a ship?”
Relieved to report something that was finally true, Erik raved about his seaworthy knarr, proudly calling her Mount of the Sea. Forty servants could comfortably find room on her. He spoke of the red sail, the dragon’s head at the bow, and the large cargo hold. “When I stand aft at the tiller, wind, sun, and the North Star are my friends—”
“That’s enough,” Thorbjörn interrupted. “I like you, yes. I believe you are a man full of energy. Now that I know your fortune, I want to offer you just as much in return. Thjodhild shall have ten servants and five maids to accompany her to the Hornstrand.”
“I do lack women,” Erik interjected.
The landowner generously increased the number by another four female slaves. He also offered lumber—enough for a women’s shelter—along with wool, two looms, and other household goods. The list went on for a long while, and Erik was astonished at what a rich woman he’d won.
“Do you agree? Is the dowry appropriate to your possessions, if we don’t include the value of the ship?”
“I would have taken her for less.”
Thorbjörn smiled. “How infatuated and inexperienced you are. If a clever matchmaker were to negotiate with me instead of you, such a confession would never cross his lips.” The arrangement of a marriage was a sober deal, he warned. After all, according to Viking law, in the case of divorce or separation, women were entitled to half the common property. “Take my advice, boy: When we repeat our agreement in front of witnesses tomorrow and they fix the bride-price for Thjodhild in silver, be silent about your feelings. They will only cost you.”
Erik swallowed. Was this a reprimand or even an insult? Only after some careful thought was he able to reassure himself; the big farmer had no wish to offend him. He only meant Erik well. “I’ll remember that for next time.”
“Don’t you dare! I’ll give you my daughter, and with her and only her, you shall increase the happiness of your clan.”
The broad-shouldered redhead understood that, too, and he was glad when he was able to finally escape the living hall.
In the two weeks that followed the engagement beer, he hardly saw Thjodhild. Erik hadn’t been able to talk with her much before, and they’d never been alone. Thorbjörg was always watching over her daughter. When the rising unrest in his loins kept him from his sleep at night, he complained to his friend: “How am I supposed to be certain about my wife?”
“You must wait until she lies beside you.” Tyrkir yawned. “Your surprise will come on the day of the feast.”
The old farmer’s wife had resigned herself to her future son-in-law, but she was full of worries, especially as they weren’t following the usual waiting period of at least two months before the wedding. She would have liked to see a grand celebration during the three holy nights that marked the beginning of winter. “That would be the best date to ensure my child’s happiness.” Instead, she had her hands full in August. New cooking pits were dug, goats and sheep were slaughtered, and the freshly brewed beer was fermenting in the barrels.
The bride helped tirelessly and endured an endless stream of advice during the idle hours. “There’s not much time left, child.” The mother raised her breasts. “But I will give you all the knowledge I can to make you a good mistress.” Thjodhild listened patiently.
Though she’d laughed little these past weeks, her step was more buoyant than usual. The appointed date approached. The invitations were issued, and on the day before the wedding, the unmarried daughters of the wealthy neighbors arrived. As Hawk Valley lacked hot springs fed by Iceland’s underground fire, they took over the sauna house with their giggling, whispering, and chatting. Usually, the sauna was a place for masters and servants to rest together on Saturdays, or as a warm place for childbirth. Today, however, no man was allowed to enter this area behind the main building.
The first task was to prepare the bath for the bride. Soon, the girls huddled together in the antechamber, nibbling on honey-sweetened berries. They began with stories of boys in general, but little by little, they exchanged more suggestive, pleasurable details as their cheeks grew red and the water bubbled in the crucibles behind them.
“She’s coming!” Thjodhild silently acknowledged the joyful greeting. Her expression remained strained. She wore only a simple shift. She had barely slipped it off when the other girls all quickly disrobed. They openly displayed their bodies, cheerfully accepting admiration or mocking consolation, and then led the bride naked into the parlor. A pleasant heat greeted the young women. They drew lots, and two were allowed to sit in the giant vat with Thjodhild while the others served them. As the water hissed on the hot stones, the room quickly filled with steam, and then lukewarm water was poured into the tub.
For the first time, Thjodhild felt the painful realization that she had to say goodbye—to being a child, and to her dreams. How often did I wash the bride myself? she thought. Sometimes I was even jealous. And now today, it is my turn. She was leaving her parents, her comfortable home. What waits for me up there in the north, so far away from Hawk Valley? How lonely will it be there?
“Why aren’t you happy?” The girl next to Thjodhild scooped water with her hand and let it run over her neck and breasts. “Tomorrow, you’ll have a man. If I were you, I couldn’t wait. . . .”
“You’re right.” Thjodhild pushed aside her worries with a sharp clap. “Erik is strong.” She splashed the others. “And now he’ll be my husband!” Finally, the tension released and the young women cheered, pouring water over the bride’s head, then tickling her until she begged for mercy and rose from the tub with her arms stretched high. The servants thoroughly thrashed and rubbed her back, buttocks, and legs with fresh birch twigs and scrubbed her from head to toe.
A tub of cold water waited in front of the sauna house. Thjodhild emerged, gasped for air, and screamed, immediately followed by the terrified screeching of her friends. Later, they sat together wrapped in cloths. “Remember . . . ?” Stories from the past came to life while they wound the bridal wreath from flowers and leaves. In the evening, Mother Thorbjörg and two maids brought meat soup and a jug of mead. Her gait was heavy; the effort of the past days had made her leg ache again.
“Come sit, Mother,” Thjodhild said. “Rest with us a while.”
“Thank you, my child.” When Thorbjörg noticed the disappointed faces all around her, she had to chuckle. “No, don’t worry, you excited sheep. The old hag is leaving now. I won’t spoil your last maiden night.” She looked at Thjodhild for a long time, then she stroked her knee and smiled. Before she left, she scolded the other girls. “Tomorrow, you’d better make my daughter glow. If I have to give away my girl, then she will be the most beautiful bride of Hawk Valley.”
Erik had ridden up the nearby hills with Tyrkir. They’d left the horses behind at the edge of a grove and were watching the setting sun. “This area must be a garden of the gods.” The twenty-year-old tore out a tuft of grass and earth and inhaled the smell. “If I’d been allowed to settle here, my happiness would be complete.”
“I’ve never seen you like this before,” Tyrkir mocked. “Did Father God Odin, the one-eyed protector of the poets, suddenly blow beautiful words into your ear?”
Erik thoughtfully rubbed the tuft between his fingers. “I just feel that way today.”
Both stared at the sinking fireball on the western horizon.
“What are you afraid of?” Tyrkir began quietly, and since he didn’t want to mention Erik’s lies about the farm on Sharpcliff, he added, “Who knows what our future will bring? I’m sure whatever it is, we’ll ultimately win good fortune.” He wanted to cheer up his friend. “You get a beautiful, proud wife. And it’s good that we’ll soon be heading north, because here in Hawk Valley, you now have an enemy.”
“Ejolf, the brother of the landlord of the Valtjof Farm?” Erik shook his head. He’d given the man no grounds for a feud. Thjodhild had never been promised to that braggart.
“Even so, he’ll try everything to harm you,” Tyrkir said. “And we both know how injustice makes you angry.”
“Why are you so clever?” Erik grinned, and his boyish good humor returned. “I wonder why you haven’t found a woman yet!”
“That’s your responsibility,” Tyrkir replied. “You’re the master.” He raised his hands defensively. “On second thought, better not. With your taste, you’re sure to put a cow in my bed. No, my lord, let me find myself a bride, and then I’ll come to you.”
“Stupid lad!” Erik laughed and shoved him gently in his chest. “No cow! But we take home five new maids with us. Maybe you’ll like one of them.”
“You marry. I still have time.”
They raced to their horses. Tyrkir was the first to jump into the saddle, and Erik galloped after him, past the birch grove and down the meadow hill.
They’d made the blood sacrifice—a special plea to the mother goddess Frigg for happiness, the blessing of children, and peaceful coexistence. Thorbjörg had insisted that the little goddess Var, who heard and fulfilled every promise, also be remembered.
The smell of burnt juniper filled the spacious living hall. Since the hearth fire in Thjodhild’s new home could not be consecrated that day, she’d take some of the holy ashes in a leather pouch with her and would later repeat the ritual on Sharpcliff. All the guests had taken their seats; the closest relatives sat close to the honorary chairs, then friends and neighbors.
The host had to pay meticulous attention to where guests were seated because proximity or distance reflected how much respect he showed to those invited. The happy faces around the fire proved that Thorbjörn had not made any mistakes. And when he brought the bride and groom together, cheers and chants of joy broke out in the hall.
It was only with great difficulty that he was able to calm the enthusiasm again: “Friends! Friends, listen to me!” It took him some time before he could continue. “Let’s take the oath!” The company went silent. “Everyone in this hall swears by their honor that they will not resent one another’s words as long as we drink and the feast lasts. No matter how hard our heads become, no feud must arise from our drunkenness.” Women and men solemnly raised their right hands. “With this, I open the wedding feast. Drink and eat, dance and laugh. Be my guests for three days and two nights.” Steaming bowls were brought in by the maids. Servants filled the cups from jugs.
“Where is your slave?” Thjodhild was seated next to Erik on the second, slightly lower bench of honor opposite her parents. As a sign of her new status, she had tied her blond hair into a knot at her neck, and a big ring hung from the belt of her light blue dress. Keys were still missing, but she would receive them in her new home. “I want to drink with him and you first, because I can’t shake the suspicion that he was the one who brought us together.”
“That’s not true,” Erik countered weakly. “But if you so insist, there might be something to it.” He whistled. Tyrkir, standing near the doorway, raised his head, understanding the signal, and squeezed through the rows of benches toward the bridal couple. He looked at his master, waiting for his request.
“No, not me. Your mistress has something to say to you.”
Thjodhild handed the slave her jug of mead. “I know you are my husband’s friend. And I very much wish that you not only serve me but also stand by me in joy and sorrow, as faithfully as you do him.”
Tyrkir regarded her openly. “It’s difficult to share love, Mistress. But right after Erik, I give you a place of honor in my heart.” He took a sip, then handed the jug back to her. She toasted with Erik and both emptied their vessels.
A sudden noise from outside cut through the celebration—a man was screaming, cursing, his words incomprehensible. Little by little, the party took notice, and the carefree laughter gave way to a watchful tension.
“Come out! You stole my bride! Do you hear me, you coward? Come and fight!”
Thjodhild clenched her hands into her wedding scarf. “It’s Ejolf Dirt,” she whispered. “Ignore him. Please!”
The jealous man kept screaming outside. The guests were becoming restless; some men felt for their daggers. Tyrkir looked anxiously at his friend and saw the anger building inside him. Help, great Tyr, he pleaded silently. Grant him restraint! Do not let this day drown in blood!
“How dare he,” growled Erik. “Just turns up . . .” He stared at Tyrkir. “Where is my sword? Bring it here. Also the ax. I’ll show this boy that Erik Thorvaldsson is not a cowardly rabbit.”
“Right away, sir,” Tyrkir said, but he didn’t move. “But, are you sure you’re not mistaken? I hear the man raving, but he did not mention your name. Perhaps his challenge is meant for another guest.”
The giant clenched his fist. “You will obey me, or I—”
“Yes, it’s better if you hit me.” Slowly, the weedy man crossed his arms behind his back. “Go ahead. You can take out your anger on me and save yourself from the consequences of any hasty action.”
Erik snorted and threw himself back so hard, the high seat groaned.
Ejolf’s curses were still ringing through the hall.
The bride’s father watched the son-in-law sharply, then finally stood. It seemed that his reason won out. “No one will disturb my daughter’s day.” He called over to the row of benches occupied by the neighboring big farmers. “Valtjof of Valtjof Farm, your brother was not invited. He’s entered my property without permission. For peace’s sake, go see to it that the hothead no longer bothers us.”
The roundish farmer turned bright red but rose from his seat. As everyone looked on, he walked along the fire to the exit. A single sharp order and the shouting cut off, and shortly after, Valtjof returned. He raised his hand before the benches. “Forgive me, neighbor! The lad is still young and unstable.” Then he turned to address Erik. “May the gods bless you and your wife with many children!”
His words were met with silence. After a tense pause, Erik pressed out through his teeth, “Forgotten. Every word of your brother. He could not offend Thor in me.”
The men in the hall looked at one another, amazed. Each of them had, as a child, chosen a guardian from the circle of gods, one who had dwelled within him ever since, giving to him their trust and confidence. An insult or any kind of offense hurt, above all, their own god, and only revenge could appease his anger.
A murmur went through the rows of tables. The groom had not felt attacked by an equal. For him, Ejolf Dirt was just a stupid ruffian who could not violate his honor. What a noble gesture!
Valtjof bowed deeply. “For your generosity, I am in your debt. Take a bull as atonement from me.”
As soon as Erik had accepted the compensation, enthusiastic congratulations were offered to him from all sides. The feast came to life again, now even more cheerful and boisterous. The minstrels took to the drum much too early, conjured up waves of sound with their harps, and blew on the lur until hunger drove them back to the plates.
Erik sat next to his bride, drenched in sweat. Tyrkir knew what a battle his friend had fought with himself. “This victory was hard-won,” he said quietly.
“Shut up,” Erik grumbled. “Didn’t I send you for beer?”
“Forgive me. How stupid of me. The whole barrel, sir?”
They looked at each other, and their mouths twitched.
“Never mind. Just beer. I’m thirsty.”
Tyrkir took the cup and pushed himself through the rows of tables.
Thjodhild lightly touched her husband’s arm. “I’m proud.”
Erik puffed out his chest. “The wedding was good,” he said, awkwardly, but only later that night would the real celebration begin. “If you know what I mean.”
Her look told him just how well she’d understood him.
Erik had almost overcome the first drunkenness by the evening. Before he and Thjodhild were led to the other house, Tyrkir insisted on pouring a bucket of cold water over his head. “I don’t want you to sleep through your surprise.”
“You think? I could never get that drunk.”
The maidens had shaken out the blankets and decorated the bedposts with bouquets. Embers crackled in the firepot. They were now standing together in front of the wedding room, whispering and giggling. As soon as the bridal parents approached with the couple, they fell silent, and only their shining eyes revealed where their thoughts had strayed.
Thorbjörg pressed her daughter against her mighty chest, as if saying goodbye before a journey into the unknown. The big farmer laid his hand on the groom’s shoulder. Then the young women opened the door wide before closing it again quietly behind them as they left.
The couple was alone. Neither said anything, and because Erik just stared ahead, Thjodhild worried that he was as inexperienced as she was. She boldly disrobed, presenting herself to her new husband. “Do you not like me?”
The red one looked up in awe. “A gift.” His voice barely obeyed him. “I’ve known enough women, but you are a gift.”
She hadn’t expected so much flattery, so she slipped under the feather bed, staying close to the left edge. Erik tore his shirt over his head, then hastily took off his trousers and climbed in from the other side.
“You’ll want for nothing with me,” he said, but didn’t move.
“I trust you.”
Slowly, they slipped toward each other. They’d barely touched when Thjodhild hit something hard and cold with her thigh. Frightened, she threw the feather bed aside.
“What is it?” asked Erik.
She held a bronze Thor’s hammer in her hand and laughed. She had put this into the bed of newlyweds herself often enough. “And today of all days, I didn’t even think of it.” She looked down at Erik. Her gaze lingered. “I also believe,” she whispered, “that such a . . . that it stimulates masculinity. Do you understand?”
The journey home went well. It was raining, but the wind was good, and the servants rarely had to push out the oars. Tyrkir stood at the bow by the dragon’s head, a vigilant pilot whose calls or hand signals were immediately obeyed by his friend on the aft steering deck.
During the second day, the gentle green coast retreated, and rugged, steep rock cliffs appeared, interspersed with narrow, deeply cut bays.
They’d set out soon after the wedding feast, equipped and overloaded like a train of settlers. Thorbjörn had taken it upon himself to escort the bridal couple and their servants from Hawk Valley over the pass to the Bocksfjord in the east. At the front, Valtjof’s bull pulled the cart with the timber, while each packhorse trudged under its heavy load of presents, new household goods, and clothing.
“You didn’t exaggerate.” As soon as the big farmer saw his son-in-law’s ship, he let out an appreciative whistle. “Your knarr really is a mount of the sea.”
“I know none better!” Erik stroked the slender bow like a sweetheart, and Thjodhild nudged him, a gleam in her eye. “I come first, you Viking!”
They’d fastened the dowry and the wood, and then Erik ordered the bull and horses to be hobbled in the hold—they’d manage the journey north better lying on their sides.
The farewell had been short. The daughter had waved to the father standing on the beach until the ship had slipped out of the bay.
For the past hour, the wind had been blowing more violently. The waves carried crowns of foam, and Erik navigated even closer along the shore. Tyrkir signaled from the bow deck to avoid the dangerous reefs. The ship’s speed had to be reduced, and Erik commanded the line guards reef the sail halfway. “We’ll be there soon,” he shouted to Thjodhild.
She stood next to him, shielding her eyes against the rain. She saw stony beaches and black cliffs passing behind them; even the small fjords of the morning had been left behind. Once we’re around the next headland, the area will open up again, she told herself, trying to soothe her increasing restlessness. But even after the next rocky ridge, and the next, she saw no sign of land that would entice a farmer to settle there.
“There, you see?”
“Where?” she asked.
“Up there!” Erik pointed to the ridge of a cliff.
“I can’t see anything.” She shrugged. “What am I looking for?”
But her giant was too busy and did not answer.
She went forward to Tyrkir. “Tell me, what’s up there? And why are we landing here?”
He wiped his wet face. “This here is Hornstrand. Up there, that’s Sharpcliff.”
When she remained silent, he added, “Well, everything looks better when it’s not raining.”
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