Iceland 995 C.E.
Early in the month of Harpa
KOL opened his eyes to see the stars of Oðinn’s Wain sliding out from behind a moonlit cloud. The boy struggled to focus, but the entire night sky seemed to be swirling above him. The threadbare cloth of his tunic was poor protection against the bitter cold night air, and the grassy earth he lay on was cold enough to make his body ache. He felt sick. His head was throbbing, and his mouth felt as if it had been stuffed with wool.
And underneath all of that, he sensed the presence of something malevolent—a terrifying feeling that death was near. But the feeling was already slipping away from him and his muddled memory held nothing to account for it.
“Kol!” his mother’s voice called to him, from somewhere far away. Perhaps that was what had awoken him. He wasn’t sure. The only thing he could remember distinctly was that this had happened before, and that his mind should clear soon.
If only he weren’t so nauseous. And a warm cloak would be nice. He was starting to shiver uncontrollably.
The voice was nearer now, accompanied by the faint jingling of her key ring. Then suddenly his mother was kneeling beside him, trying to wrap a cloak around him and help him sit, both at once. It wasn’t easy. He was too weak to offer much help.
“Your father finally let me come look for you once it began to get dark,” Herdis muttered, her voice bitter but low, as though she were afraid Bjarne might overhear.
The boy remembered now. He’d been in the pasture with his father and his older brother, Ottar, when he’d had one of his… fits. Or whatever they were. They were hard to describe, and he didn’t really know what to call them. His father called them “fainting spells,” usually in a tone dripping with contempt. But to Kol, it was as if the world was being torn away from him. He didn’t just feel dizzy or black out. He lost everything—his sense of who he was and all recognition of his surroundings and the people around him. He would spiral down into darkness, and when he woke, everything was blurry and muddled. Sometimes it took a full night’s sleep to make him feel right again.
Ottar often said he twitched when he was unconscious. This was usually followed by him mimicking the movements and laughing, as though it were the funniest thing he’d ever seen. Bjarne had little to say about it except that a farmer had no business fainting like a girl, and he’d damn well better outgrow it.
It was at his father’s order that Kol was generally left to lay wherever he fell, until he woke and came inside under his own power.
WITH his mother helping him, the boy managed to walk to the sod-covered farmhouse. Bjarne and Ottar had long ago finished eating and were stretched out on the wooden benches that hugged the walls on either side of the long fire, Ottar whittling away at a comb he was carving. At thirteen, Kol’s older brother was already beginning to resemble their father—broad-shouldered, with a coarse face and nondescript brown eyes. He didn’t yet have his father’s bristly beard, but he shared the same unkempt brown hair.
Kol, on the other hand, took after their mother in both looks and temperament. He had been born with coal-black eyes—startling for a newborn—and this had inspired his name. In time, he’d grown a thick head of black hair to match, but his skin had remained pale and smooth. This had earned him nothing but derision from Ottar, and Bjarne likewise had nothing good to say about a boy who looked “pretty.” No amount of hard labor on the farm had put muscle on Kol’s slight frame, and no remedies his mother could find seemed to strengthen him.
As Kol took a seat on the bedding he shared with Ottar, Bjarne said nothing… until the boy waved away the bowl of stew Herdis offered him.
“You should eat something,” the woman said softly.
“I feel sick.”
“I’ll boil some valerian for you, then.”
Bjarne snorted at this. “Do you think your mother has nothing better to do than coddle you? If you can’t eat the food she prepared, maybe you should go to sleep.”
Kol felt too ill to argue, but when he moved to lie down, his mother put a hand on his shoulder to stop him. “I don’t mind.”
At this, Bjarne looked annoyed, but the sharp look he received from his wife silenced him. Herdis rarely stood up to her husband; however, the man knew better than to argue when she did.
As Kol sipped at the cup of hot, earthy-smelling water his mother handed him moments later, he couldn’t help but wonder what would become of him if she was no longer there to protect him.
Six weeks later—Midsummer
“YOU’RE not pulling it tight enough,” Ottar snapped, giving Kol a hard shove.
The twelve-year-old let his older brother yank the girth out of his hands and stepped back. He gritted his teeth in frustration while he rubbed the spot Ottar had hit on his shoulder. “I didn’t want to hurt him,” he said.
They were saddling a small, shaggy-haired, brown stallion. His name was Alsvinn, which meant “very strong,” but he was aging and the boy couldn’t help but feel they would be overburdening the poor beast once the tent and other things they were bringing to the Althing were fastened on.
“Do you want everything to fall off?” Ottar asked, angrily tugging at the girth until Alsvinn grunted.
Before Kol could think of a response, he heard their mother shouting over by the longhouse. “What are you doing, you stupid animal? Get down from there!”
Both boys turned to see Herdis flapping her apron at one of the sheep. The animal was perched on the roof of the house, grazing on the long grass that grew there. Built against the leeward side of a hill, the sod roof had long ago become indistinguishable from the hill itself. While this served to keep the longhouse warm in the winter months, it also made it easy for the sheep to wander up onto the roof and damage the sod with their grazing.
Ottar laughed and his mother glared at him. “Since you have time to stand around laughing at your mother, you must have time to climb up there and get her down.”
“Don’t argue. Just get her off of there. Now, before the stupid thing falls and breaks her neck.”
Herdis went back inside to continue packing. But she was hardly out of sight before Ottar chose to ignore her. “You do it,” he ordered his younger brother as he hefted the bundled tent into position and began to tie it in place.
Kol thought about protesting that their mother had ordered Ottar to do it. But truthfully he preferred to deal with the sheep rather than subject himself to more of his brother’s foul temper. He groaned to show at least some resistance to being ordered around, then went to attend to it.
The easiest way to get up onto the roof was to climb up the gentle slope on the side near the barn. From there, Kol could simply step onto the roof. But he approached cautiously, fearing that the dumb animal would panic and tumble over the edge. If it injured itself, his father would take it out of his hide.
Moving slowly, Kol managed to sidle up to the sheep and grab her by the wool on her neck. She ran, but he was able to hang on long enough to guide her up and over the top of the hill before she pulled free.
He heard Ottar laughing at him and turned to glare down at his brother. But before he could think of a response, Kol caught sight of something in the distance, coming toward the farm—horses and several men. Promptly forgetting his annoyance, he peered at them until Ottar noticed and turned to look himself. “Is someone coming?”
There were few roads in Iceland, so the party approaching was following what amounted to little more than a path over the grassy tundra, winding between farms. Kol knew what farm lay in that direction, and the sight of two heads of bright red hair among the party confirmed his suspicions.
“It’s—” He almost said “Thorbrand” but caught himself. “It’s Harek.”
Harek was the chieftain to whom Bjarne had sworn allegiance. He was a large man, boisterous and good-humored, but possessed of a sharp mind, and he had earned a reputation for being fearless without being foolish. His generous and straightforward nature had gained him many friends and allies.
But Kol’s eyes weren’t on Harek. They were on his son, Thorbrand. The same age as Ottar, Thorbrand stood a head taller than most thirteen-year-olds, with a mop of fiery red hair and blue eyes as clear as glass. The only boy among three sisters, he was a younger version of his father—handsome and jovial, with a good head on his shoulders. The two families saw each other just a few times a year, so really Kol barely knew him. But with other boys their age few and far between, he was the closest Kol and Ottar had to a friend.
Ottar ran off to fetch Bjarne from the stable, where he was repairing the wood and leather saddle for their other horse—a gray and white speckled mare called Flekka.
Kol chose to remain on the roof, perching like some giant bird, as he watched the travelers come into view over the low rolling hills. At this time of year, the hills were green and lush with grass, contrasting sharply with the black basalt of the foothills to the north.
He waved and was pleased to see Thorbrand wave back, along with Harek and some of the others in the party. Kol scrambled off the roof and ran down the road to greet them.
“Heill, Kol Bjarnason!” Thorbrand called out with mock formality, laughing at the younger boy’s enthusiasm. The redhead was walking alongside one of the horses, and when Kol was close enough, he casually reached out and snagged the boy’s neck in the crook of his arm, pinning him and tousling his hair. There was only a year’s difference between them, but Thorbrand often treated him as if he were much younger—perhaps because Kol was so small for his age. In any case, Kol couldn’t really say he minded.
He fought to free himself, but not very hard. When Thorbrand let him go, he managed to gasp, “Hello.”
Harek and the other two men in the party—Thorbrand’s brothers-in-law, Eyjolf and Halfdan—were walking alongside horses pulling the two family wagons. Thorbrand’s sisters, Bera and Gudrun, rode their own horses, while his youngest sister, Ingunn, was allowed to sit in one of the wagons.
The two eldest women in the family were also on horseback. Kol recognized Halldora, Thorbrand’s mother, a cheerful woman with a booming voice and a muscular frame. But there was one person Kol had never seen before. She was an old woman; to Kol, she seemed ancient, with more wrinkles in her face than he’d ever seen before. She had a stern expression and sharp, hawkish features.
But what struck him more than her face was her clothing. She was wearing the rich blue cloak of a seiðkona—a sorceress—trimmed with white rabbit fur. Tied to her saddle was a long staff, capped with an elaborate brass ornament in the shape of a little house. This, too, was the mark of a seiðkona. Kol had never met one before, but he had heard they were to be feared. One might help a farmer by foretelling a good year or a happy marriage, but she could also kill a man from a great distance. Kol had also heard that a seiðkona could shapeshift.
The old woman took little notice of him, however. Her eyes were raised to the sky, and she seemed to be watching something intently. Though as far as Kol could see, there was nothing there but a gyrfalcon circling high above them.
“Heill, Kol,” Harek greeted the boy. “Please tell your father I’m here.”
But Bjarne was already walking toward them from the barn, Ottar in tow. He hailed his chieftain and said, “Come rest awhile. Herdis will bring you something to eat and drink.”
Kol noticed both his father and Ottar giving the seiðkona uncertain looks. But nothing was said. The woman herself still appeared lost in her own thoughts, though Kol had the uneasy feeling that she was watching them all out of the corner of her eye.
Harek nodded at his son, handing him the reins of the horse he’d been leading. “Bring the women to the house. Then water the horses. Bjarne and I have things to discuss.”
Thorbrand did as his father asked, while Harek led Bjarne off somewhere to have a private conversation. Both of the other men went along, and Ottar looked torn for a moment, clearly wanting to follow. But he just as clearly wasn’t invited, so he settled for falling into step alongside Thorbrand. As young as Thorbrand was, he was already making a reputation for himself as a skilled fighter and had bested several grown men in mock combat at last year’s Althing. Ottar admired him, though he would never admit it.
Kol trailed along behind until they reached the farmhouse. Herdis had come outside to greet the visitors, but Halldora hopped down from her horse and quickly hustled Kol’s mother back inside. “I’m glad to see you, dear. But I have some bad tidings. We’ll help you finish packing while we talk.”
Thorbrand’s older sisters followed them into the house, but Ingunn and the old woman didn’t seem inclined to move.
Thorbrand approached the seiðkona and reached up to her. “Can I help you down, Aunt?”
She accepted the boy’s assistance with a muttered “thank you,” but when he offered to help her inside the house, she made a rude noise and snapped, “And listen to that tedious story again? No, thank you. I’ll take a brief walk to stretch out my legs.
“Don’t worry,” she added, when the boy looked distressed, “I can manage on my own.”
“What was all that about?” Ottar asked when the woman had walked out of hearing. But Thorbrand was busy lifting Ingunn down from the wagon. The ten-year-old was perfectly capable of getting down on her own, but she laughed delightedly when her brother picked her up and plopped her on the ground.
“The outhouse is over there,” Thorbrand told her, pointing to the tiny outbuilding across the courtyard.
“Who says I need the outhouse?”
The girl looked stubborn for a moment, then sighed and gave in, running off across the yard.
With Ottar and Kol assisting, Thorbrand unhitched the wagons and led the horses across the yard to the barn, where they could drink at the trough.
“One of our thralls was killed, this past Washing Day,” Thorbrand said, and it took Kol a moment to realize he was finally answering Ottar’s question. “A young boy named Illugi. Up in the shieling.”
He was referring to the hills between the Harek farm and a farm owned by a man named Gorm. This area was common land, and both farms sent sheep up there to graze. But Gorm and Harek had been feuding over it for longer than Kol could remember.
“How did he die?” Ottar asked eagerly.
Thorbrand shot him an annoyed look.
“Gorm did it,” he replied. “One of his men, anyway. But the bastard denies it. Just as he did when Kalfr was killed six weeks ago. There was a witness this time, but who’s going to take the word of another thrall? Gorm refuses to pay.”
While it wasn’t strictly illegal to kill a slave, if a man killed another man’s thrall, he was required to pay fair compensation to the owner.
Thorbrand looked in the direction of the barn for a long moment, and Kol sensed that something must be bothering him.
“Why don’t you watch the horses for a minute,” Thorbrand told Ottar, “while Kol and I see what else needs to be brought out?”
Kol’s brother looked scandalized. “Me? Let the runt watch the horses. I can carry more than he can.”
“Maybe I’ll carry his stuff, too, then,” Thorbrand replied calmly, putting a hand on Kol’s shoulder to guide him to the farmhouse. The gesture was clearly a dismissal. Kol gave his brother a startled glance, but Ottar was already turning away, muttering darkly to himself.
As they walked, Thorbrand said, under his breath, “I would never say anything insulting about a man’s brother. Ottar is… very strong.”
Kol caught the faint smirk on the boy’s face and stifled a laugh. If only he could trade brothers, he thought. Ottar wasn’t that bad. But it would be nice to have a brother who actually liked him, as Thorbrand seemed to.
“I didn’t want to mention this in front of him,” Thorbrand went on. “He’d think it was exciting.”
Thorbrand paused in front of the entrance to the house. “Father has grown tired of Gorm’s squabbling over the shieling. Even if he wins another suit against him, Gorm will just pay for the thrall and laugh it off. So Father intends to confront him in front of witnesses and challenge him for exclusive use of the land.”
Kol looked at him, puzzled. “Challenge him?”
“In a holmgang.”
Now Kol could see why Thorbrand was concerned. Harek was reputed to be an excellent swordsman, but Gorm was massive and possessed of a violent temper. Most men stayed well clear of him. A duel with him could easily get Harek killed.
Kol was uncertain what he could say to reassure a boy so much stronger and more confident than he was himself, so he simply said, “Your father’s a wise man and a great fighter. Freyr has always been at his side.”
Thorbrand nodded and gave him a faint smile in response.
When they entered the tiny, mud-floored foreroom, the boys could overhear the women talking.
“Oh, she’s really very dear,” Halldora’s voice came to them, before they opened the inner door.
Thorbrand’s sister, Bera, laughed. “As long as you do what she tells you.”
“Well that runs in the family, doesn’t it?”
Kol opened the door and his mother looked up from the blankets she was bundling together. “Kol, take these outside, please. Along with those bundles on the bench.”