Enjoy this exclusive excerpt from No Snakes in Iceland. In these chapters, Edgar, an English poet in Viking Iceland, settles uncomfortably into the routines of a farm terrorized by a ghost—a ghost he has been tasked with killing—and meets some threatening new figures.
The party came twenty strong, down to the dale in the dawn-light. They rode two abreast on great mainland mares. Only the thralls rode the shaggy horses of the island. At their head rode Sigurd Thorulfsson.
I was awake to see their coming. I had had my first night of untroubled sleep at Thorsstead—Aud had not shown herself and the others were too busy with the Amundarsons, by turns avoiding and fawning over them. I went to sleep at dusk and slept until a half-hour before sun-rise.
I stood beside the well. It afforded the best view of the valley in two directions, toward the pass through which we had ridden and toward the fold where Sursa had died. Sigurd and his men were on the valley-plain before the world-candle had even touched it. They rode not unswiftly, in a hurry but with thought for the horses. By the time I could make out each rider, Sifrid and Kormak flanked me at the well.
“That at the head,” Kormak said, “is Sigurd Thorulfsson. Brother to Thor.”
I had guessed as much, but did not begrudge Kormak his say. I respected him and felt yet anger at myself for the poor wording of my talk the day before.
I nodded and looked more closely at the man on the way ahead.
Sigurd stood tall. I could tell even from some furlongs off and him astride a horse. He wore thick cloaks of bear-fur and wool well spun. Gold clasped his cloak. He wore etched rings on his arms and fingers—they glowed dull silver in the morning light. His hair and beard were a dark hue of yellow gone grey at the brow. Viking armor girt him round and Viking weapons dangled from his hips. Here rode a man not unlike many I had seen in Iceland and at home. What struck me most was the woman at his side.
She rode a great pale mare. Gold glinted at its harness and her saddle. She too wore bear-pelt and rings, but more than Sigurd and of greater sheen. With the sunlight she would gleam, I thought. And she stood tall, at least as tall as Sigurd and perhaps higher. Her hair was a dark red-gold and her skin moonlight pale. Somehow, I felt our dealings with Sigurd would be of less weight than ours with her.
I asked Kormak who she was.
“That is Asdis Einarsdottir,” he said, “wife of Sigurd.” And then, without looking at me, “Asdis—is a terrible woman.”
The line of horses rode up the hill and through the gates. They fanned out to fill the farmyard with Sigurd and Asdis at their middle. With them rode six great warriors, broad-built and battle-bold, all armed with axe and sword. Then six slaves in homespun, and behind them six riderless horses, ponies laden with pack. They were a striking lot.
The stead’s whole turned out to see them come. In the middle of the yard, around the well with me, the housemen and warriors like Skeggi and Hall, and their servants with them. Leofric came last, belting his robe and yawning. At the outer edges of the crowd stood the charwomen and cooks, stablemen and the ragged children of the thralls. And by the time the horses had ridden through the gate, Aud was come into the yard and stood before everyone else in her finest clothing, the mourning clothes in which I first had seen her. She stood still, waiting for a greeting. There would be none from her.
Sigurd reined in. He was not a skilled rider—his horse bucked and skidded as he reined up before Aud. Sigurd righted himself in the saddle, then caught his breath and looked at Aud, who said nothing.
At last, Sigurd said, “Greetings, Aud Gudmundsdottir.”
Aud nodded. “Sigurd Thorulfsson.”
“I came as soon as I heard,” Sigurd said. “I know not which is worse—the fate which Urd has brought to Thor or the anger that kept me from him for so long.”
“I know,” Aud said.
Sigurd glowered and kept on. “I am sorry, Aud Gudmundsdottir. He was dear to me.”
“You lie, and twice.”
“Were I you,” Asdis cut in, “I should be more careful in my words.” Her voice was deep for a woman, but not unkind. I looked more closely at her now. Whatever kindness her voice held was not held in her face. I felt myself turn cold and I drew my cloak closer.
“Were I you,” Aud replied, “I should not lecture a woman that married lawfully.”
“Woman, bite your tongue,” Sigurd shouted. He turned back to Aud. “I am sorry, as is my wife, whether you choose to believe me or not. And I shall look carefully after your life when I am master here.”
And now, I understood. I felt suddenly sick upon looking at Sigurd and his men. He was not come to mourn. With Thor Thorulfsson dead, his farm—long-house, thralls, and all—would pass on to his brother. It shocked me that Aud could not keep it—perhaps she could, but she would have to face Sigurd first. And from what I then knew of the Icelanders’ laws, she would be hard-pressed to keep Thorsstead were Sigurd to bring suit at the Althing. I hoped it would not come to that, but knew not how Aud could keep her husband’s farm.
And then I was startled—I liked some Icelanders over others.
Aud showed no sign of fear or anger. She stood stone-still as always, staring Sigurd straight in the eye. After a moment, Sigurd looked away and stirred. At last, Asdis spoke, “Will you not have us in?”
Aud paid her no heed. Still staring at Sigurd, she said, “You are not master here, Sigurd Thorulfsson.”
Sigurd raised his eyebrows. “Eh?”
“Nor will you be.”
He seemed unwilling to argue. I saw him glance at Asdis, who gave him a curt nod. He said to Aud, “I won’t, will I?”
“Gisli!” Aud called. “Gisli Thorsson! Come out to meet your uncle.”
As one, the crowd turned to the hall-mouth. The child that appeared in the doorway was small and frail and not above ten years old. Blankets wrapped him about and his thin ghostly hair played over his forehead in the breeze. He stepped from the long-house door and padded swift and silent over the yard to his mother’s side. Aud put her arm about his shoulders and spoke again to Sigurd.
“The son of Thor Thorulfsson will hold his land-take, and until he is able I am mistress here.” She stroked the boy’s white-blond head. “Gisli, greet your uncle—he is a wealthy man.”
The child looked up at a gaping Viking and said, “You do not look like my father.”
Eadwin says that it is well the Devil came a snake to our mother in Eden, because the snake would be a beautiful creature had he not chosen to curse its shape with his presence. I cannot agree. But then, I have reason to loathe the worm. Eadwin says that the story points out a truth of the liar—he comes as a lovely thing to take that which is loveliest. For that, he gives something lovely but paltry. And fleeting.
Eadwin also says that it is easy to mark Satan—he brings the brightest gifts.
I remembered Eadwin’s saying when Sigurd finally found a place in the long-house. He moved in with his men and doled out gifts—rolls of fine cloth, new belts inlaid with stones and red gold, daggers and a few rings for the best of Thorsstead. He shouldered in with his men and took my place on the benches near Thor’s high-seat, and I moved across the long-fire and farther down, below Hall, Skeggi, and Kormak, and before Ufi and Orm. I struggled about the hall for some time to gather my gear, and only after it was safe in my new place did I realize that the men had better weapons than they could steal from me.
I looked them over. I had caught the names of two at least—Thorkel Bleeder Sveinsson and Karlsefni Nub, both great, blond men a span taller than I and nearly twice as broad. Nub I took to stem from two blade-stunted fingers on his left hand. Bleeder, I hoped, meant that he hemorrhaged.
The warriors were all well-armed. Each carried swords and axes of the Danish kind, and some also had shortswords. They each had a helm and round shield, painted with runes and signs I only half understood. A few—Nub and Bleeder among them—brought mail-coats, but most had chosen to travel light. And they were stout-built to a man, grim-faced and silent. So much I could say for Sigurd—he had hired no brawlers. These men wore the earnest look of warriors I had faced at home. They were not wanton, nor would they offer mercy. I saw them, and thought of long-boats moored at sea and Vikings on the strand. I did not feel hungry that night.
They drank from sacramental vessels. Bowls and cups marked with the cross and chi rho, now chipped and scuffed and their silver tarnished. I watched them and tried to hide my anger. I know not how well I hid it—it is not easy to hide so vast a thing.
We ate dinner after sun-down, skyr and broth and a little flesh, with markedly poor mead. I could not help but wonder whether Aud were forcing lesser food on her hated in-law—the night before we had eaten richly. I wondered especially that she had chosen to eat with us, rather than in the private side-room with Thor’s—and Sigurd’s—mother, as she had the last several nights. I watched her, but she betrayed no sign of thought or will. Instead, she sat still in Thor’s high-seat, the first I had seen anyone sit in it since my arrival. Beside her on the broad seat was Gisli, the heir. With him, Aud sent a message even I could understand.
What I could not understand was Sigurd Thorulfsson. At first seeing Gisli Thorsson, he had been shocked. I had expected wrath, but never did he show it. Instead, he spent the rest of the day unpacking his beasts and walking about the farm, making weak jokes with everyone he met. He seemed oddly at ease with his failed attempt to take his dead brother’s farm.
Sigurd had given the last of his gifts when first he spoke to me. He drank from a jeweled cup and spoke to me over the lowering fire-flames. “I hear you are come from King Aethelraed.”
I forced a smile and nodded. I watched the flame flicker on the vessel’s silver cross. “He did not send me, but yes—I served him at home.”
“As a shaper, I hear.”
“As a chronicler and a shaper, yes.”
“I am sorry I had no ring for you, Shaper.” He drank deeply from the cup. “I brought only enough for those I knew would be here.”
I wish I had thought more on that, but I said only, “Don’t worry yourself over it.”
He put a finger to a gem-stone on his cup. It hung wrought into the silver at the crossing of the two bars of a gold rood. I watched as he hooked a fingernail under it. “A gift for the shaper in return for some songs?”
“No,” I said.
He nodded and turned back to his bowl. Beside him, Asdis shot him a look and turned to watch me. I was less than comfortable. When next Sigurd spoke, he did so as he sucked at a bit of gristle. “I have seen your lands. A lovely place.”
I never know what to say this—thank you seems to accept as mine what he said of my home—and so I said, “Yes.”
“Your towns—those with the walls—have given us trouble in recent years. What do you call them?”
“Burhs,” I said. Our fortified towns had dealt well with many of these people’s raids. Still, they failed sometimes, as I well knew.
Sigurd smacked his lips. “Yes, that’s the word. Anyway, as I said, they’ve given us some trouble.”
Clearly not enough, I thought. I said, “And what of our fyrd?” Sigurd looked up, curious. “Our army,” I said.
Sigurd dismissed it with a wave of the hand and took a bite. “Nothing to speak of. I suppose you’ve fought with it?”
“Then perhaps I should know your face. In what years?”
“Most recently at Watchet, some three years ago.”
“Then I should know you. When last I was in Ireland I took part in a raid or two across the water to England. You led the men there?”
“With another man, Goda.”
I had been in Cornwall with letters for Goda from the king. When we heard of the Danes’ plundering, we gathered what men we could and marched to defend the mint at Watchet. The raiders arrived the next day and Goda was killed, and a great slaughter with him. I do not remember Sigurd there—watching him now, at supper, he struck me as best suited to the ship-guard.
“You fought well—but not for long.”
“Long enough to drive you back into the sea.”
Sigurd wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “I seem to recall the men’s leader falling headless. This was this Goda?”
I gritted my teeth. “Yes.”
“A bad death,” he said. “We raided up and down the shore and took gold and thralls for weeks. We sold the thralls for yet more gold in Dyflin. What is one mint?”
“You tell me. You lost twenty-three raiders attacking it. Five of them we caught and beheaded unarmed, to keep them from the halls of your gods.”
He stared at me. Finally, he waved a hand and returned to his food. “Good that you outlived your lord Goda,” he said. “I’ll want music after the meal.”
He belched and kept eating, and said not another word to me. Still I tried to smother my anger—though Sigurd cared for nothing but his food and drink, Asdis kept watch on me through the evening. After their arrival in the morning I had not seen her all day. I had decided that she spent the day in a sulk, hidden somewhere in the long-house. The thought amused me and I forgot the insult for a time.
Beside me on the bench, Ufi gulped the last of his skyr. I had eaten only a little of mine, and so I let him take it.
“My thanks, Edgar,” Ufi said.
“He is,” Orm said.
Ufi and Orm, I had learnt, were not actually slaves to Hall, but freemen who had neither the money nor the will to work elsewhere. “Why should I work elsewhere?” Ufi had said to Sifrid earlier. “Hall does not beat me and he hasn’t sent me to kill anyone.”
“Yet,” Orm said.
Sifrid was far from me on the benches, with the slaves at the far end of the hall. Leofric was with him, stretched on the bench, wolfing his supper. His appetite, I saw, was unchanged by the head-blow from Skeggi’s stone.
So through dinner, I had none to speak with but those around me. But Hall and Skeggi I would not speak with, nor they with me. Kormak was silent since the coming of Sigurd. After his arrival, he had disappeared for much of the day. And Ufi and Orm—I did not know how to speak with them.
The mead went its rounds after mealtime. I took my chance to talk to Sifrid.
“The eorl visits his thegns,” Leofric said.
“You are more ass than thegn,” I said. Sifrid snorted. Leofric lay back and managed a laugh.
I sat beside them. “What do you think?” I asked in Latin.
Sifrid took the hint and looked about. “On what?”
I nodded to the end of the hall. Sigurd was trying to make Aud speak. She spoke never more than four or five words at a time. Sifrid grinned. “I believe he’s in for a difficult period.”
“Certainly,” I said, “but their courts—the Althing. He may bring suit and take the property from her.”
“That I seriously doubt. If you have not noticed, authority on his side is distinctly matriarchal.”
“Better is it to live in an angle of the roof,” Leofric groaned, “than with a litigious woman in a beautiful house.”
I laughed. Sifrid laughed, but soon was sober. I looked at him.
“What?” I asked.
“Our visitor is not the only person that will be having a difficult time,” Sifrid said.
“What do you mean?”
“Our friend from the pass has been spreading rumors.”
“Kormak told me something about that.”
“He is an intelligent man. What has the liar been saying?”
Sifrid sighed and set down his bowl. “He carries on about my uncle’s mission to the island. He claims that those killed were killed by my uncle and his men. That they were homicides, that we are, as well.”
I remembered the stories of Fridrek and Thorvald. I knew next to nothing about them. “Are the stories true?”
“I know not,” Sifrid said, slipping back to Englisc. “My uncle is a zealous, proud man. But he is an earnest man, and faithful. I do not see him killing, much less on the gounds given by our friend.”
“Kormak knew them for lies. He believed none of it.”
“Then we have some hope. But Kormak strikes me as a man of good sense. Most are more easily led astray. And I doubt not that my uncle found some trouble here, but in a matter like this, blame can never be laid at one man’s feet. My uncle’s deeds have nothing to do with us. He may have hurt the work of Christ, but that does not mean Christ would have had him do so. Many act in the All-mighty’s name that do not work his will.”
I nodded. My own mind-thoughts had shown Skeggi’s tales to be untrue—why should Fridrek kill those he came to save? I said, “What do you plan to do?”
Sifrid shook his head and smiled. “Nothing. God will have his way.”
“Do you think you will be attacked?”
“You sound sure.”
I looked back at my weapons, lined at the wall behind my place on the bench. Skeggi and Hall caught my eye. Their looks were unfriendly. I turned back to Sifrid. “Take at least my seax. When the time comes, I may not be able to help you.”
I stared. The word had shocked me. “You will not?”
“I will not,” Sifrid said. “Brother Edgar, my work for God is not served with weapon and shield. Yours—well, it may be. I am one that God will not have slaying, though if I am to be slain, it will not be without reason.”
I shook my head and could not help but laugh. Nothing makes a man so feel like laughing than a talk about death. “You’re senseless.”
“At last,” Leofric said, “we can all agree on something.”
Sifrid laughed. “Time will tell.”
I was about to say, “Could I only pray like you, Sifrid,” when a friendly voice called behind me:
“Shaper! To the fore!”
I froze. The time had come. I turned and saw Ufi on his feet, rousing the others to theirs. Orm shot up and Kormak rose. Sigurd, Nub, and Bleeder stood—doubtless they wanted some song after their journey. I stood and tried to pass up their calls. They only cried for my songs the more.
I heard Sifrid laughing. I looked to him. He laughed harder and said, “If you could see your face!”
Even Leofric, with his bruise-blacked face, laughed. Despite myself, I laughed and, at last, stepped over legs and bodies to my place in the hall. All sat. I looked to Aud. She sat with Gisli below the glowing snakes. Their red gold bodies seemed to twist with the firelight. I lowered my head.
“I’m afraid,” I said, “my songs are all in Englisc.”
“A worthy tongue,” she said. It was not the answer I wanted. And then, with a smile that begged me do her bidding, she said, “Sing, Edgar Song-shaper.”
“Sing!” Orm shouted.
I turned back to Aud. “What would the mistress of Thorsstead like to hear?”
Aud glanced at Sigurd and smiled. I was suddenly a pawn in this game of ruling. She looked at me. “What was the favorite of your friends in England?”
I knew but would not sing it. Before I could think of another, I heard a voice behind me.
“The harvest song!” Sifrid said.
I shot him a look. People were forever asking me to sing the harvest song. It was the first thing I had sung for Sifrid, and even he and the other monks had worn it out after a time. I suppose it is only natural. I must admit, even to myself, that the words are catchy and the tune jaunty, especially when played by a skilled harper. Often the song brings on dancing and singing, so that my little song goes on and on until I can take it no more. But I have no skill with a harp and none here knew the tune, so I hoped that I would, for once, be spared the repetition.
“What did he say?” Sigurd said. Sifrid had spoken in Englisc.
“The harvest song,” I said for them.
“Sounds lovely,” Asdis said, the first she had spoken to me.
A harp was offered me. I turned it down—I am a bad harper. They handed it to Kormak, who said that he would follow my song as best he could. I thanked him.
“Come now,” Ufi said. “The harvest song!”
“The harvest song!” Orm said. “The harvest song!”
I turned back to the hall and stopped. All eyes were on me, awaiting. The hall was silent but for the crack of the dwindling fire. For a moment, I was at home. I cleared my throat, found the words, and sang:
Stunt the stalks and start anew,
harvest here, the hearth-fires leap.
Reap the rye, round it up,
stack and store against the hoarfrost.
Bread is born and barley reaped,
and weary we will work no more.
Hie to hall and hark to song,
pass the platters, pile the tables
with fatted flesh, fired on coal-glow.
Winter walks, wandering chill.
Soon the snows will seal the land.
Sing then song, shape new verse,
linger laughing, loud with ale.
God has granted good and bounty,
harp-sing to him and heap his praises.
They knew no Englisc, but soon they hummed along, tapped their feet against the benches or slapped the board with open palms. As I sang, I felt better and bolder. My voice got stronger with every line. It had been a year or more since I had sung so well. I wondered if I could find peace here, among these Icelanders, these Danes, these Vikings in their land, so far over flood from my home. Near the end, it struck me that I hoped it was so. I was not worried about my trip to Sursa’s grave—there would be time for that, should I ever need to go. I found I did not care whether I ever made the journey or not. Sursa had no power any more. Aud would keep the farm and Gisli would grow old on it, and Sigurd and his men would go away in the days to come, and I could go back to the abbey and scratch at my parchments alone by the sighing sea.
I ended, and they cheered. My face burned.
“I haven’t a clue what you said, but I loved it!” Orm shouted. This, too, is the shaper’s bane.
“Again!” Sigurd’s men said. “Again!”
I felt my face go white. I looked at Sifrid. He was laughing.
“Again!” Ufi and Orm had taken up the cry. “Again! Again!”
Sifrid clutched his side and laughed ever harder. At last, I started laughing with him, and then I sang again. And again.
It was late when at last I lay down. My blankets bore my body to sleep, and as I drifted off, I heard the wind without and the stillness of the valley. I dreamt and was not unhappy. I slept well that night. It would be the last time for a great while.
This I learned of Gilsi Thorsson:
The boy was weak from the day of his birth. A second generation of Bjarnasons faced the choice to be rid of a child. Aud would none of it. Neither would Thor nor his mother, Gudrun Thorfinnsdottir. They had saved Sursa and found worth in him, if not for his mind, for his harping and keeping of sheep. And if the simpleton Sursa Thorulfsson could serve some purpose, sickly Gisli could as well.
Aud raised him. He was often sick. Aud kept him apart in the long-house’s private chamber. When ill, Aud and Gudrun healed him. When lonely, Sursa became his friend. The great child played with him, and also among Gisli’s favorites was Odd Margeirsson. Thor kept the two often together. The solemn Odd taught Gisli verses, and the frail but playful Gisli made Odd have fun.
The slaves and farmers spoke of Gisli only among themselves. I still know not why, but they guarded him as Aud did. Beyond the valley-walls, Gisli did not exist.
When Sursa died and began his haunting, Aud kept Gisli within the house night and day. She thought that the ghost would slay him, to bring his friend down to Hel in the dark roots of the world-tree. So far, her plan had worked. When Sigurd Thorulfsson came to take his brother’s farm, the years of secrecy paid off. Gisli was Thor’s nearest heir, and never had Thor made plans for Sigurd to inherit anything from him. There was deep hatred between the brothers, though why, Kormak did not tell me.
The day passed without event.
I rose late and spoke long with Kormak. He told me of Gisli, and spoke of a great many other things. He said the men with Sigurd were all outlaws or berserks. Thorkel Bleeder killed two men in Norway and came to Iceland for his outlawry. Karlsefni Nub was a berserk from Denmark. He raided three years and killed a man in the Orkneys. Kormak told me there was a price on his head.
The others were no more worthy. Bjorn Hallsson and Eystein Nose were berserks from Sweden. Thorgils Craft and Eirik Unborn were outlaws, Craft from Norway, Unborn from Iceland. He had only returned three months before.
I was wary of the berserks. The Icelanders do not like them much either. I remembered the fight outside Hrolf the Godi’s farm and hoped that Sigurd would deal firmly with his men or go away peacefully. And soon.
I asked Kormak about the Thorulfssons, Thor, Sursa, and Sigurd. He told me that Thor was eldest, Sigurd youngest, but that was all. I said that I felt no little hatred between Sigurd and Thor’s house, and asked why. Kormak would say nothing but that it was true—the brothers had disliked each other.
I asked him again about Sursa. I had come to believe that Sursa would not attack, not because I did not believe him to be real, but because he had given me no reason to. Kormak took my words well this time. He said that he had no way of understanding that which was not man. He also said, kindly, though the message could have been ill-mannered, that I would do well to stop asking after the mind-thoughts of a mound-dweller.
About the sixth hour, Sifrid and Leofric returned from a farm that lay nearby. He took a small meal and we spoke for some time. I told him all that I had learned—including the names and manners of Nub and Bleeder, Bjorn, Nose, Craft, and Eirik Unborn. He told me that Unborn had been at the farm because of a woman there, and that he had spoken to him for some time.
Sifrid left soon on another trip to another farm, this one some hours’ walk away. I did not even think about the danger after sun-down.
It occurred to me later that Sigurd and Asdis had disappeared. I had not seen them the entire day. I only realized this when I saw them returning from a ride to the west, toward the mountain-wall. Sigurd was a man, it seemed, that liked to be away from the farm. I hoped that he would be able to control his men despite this.
Toward evening a chill wind blew through the dale. Iron-grey cloud scudded over the sky and a freezing drizzle fell. Kjartan Kormaksson saw me about the time it began and told me that snow was coming.
“Snow?” I said. It was some weeks past winter’s end, well into mud-month.
“If not now, then within the week.”
“How do you know?”
Kjartan winked. “My father is a cunning man.”
I laughed. “I am sure of it.”
“We will ride to Sursa’s folds soon,” Kjartan said.
“Did your father say that?”
“Yes, but—he told me not to tell you.”
“He wanted to surprise you.”
“There is no need,” I said. “We can see it any time.”
“I’ll speak with him. I have no need to see Sursa’s grave or the folds for now.”
Kjartan nodded, but looked at me as if suspicious. He felt that I no longer feared Sursa’s attack. Children are wary, that way.
By dusk the turf at the hall’s roof-edge froze and tussocks crunched underfoot. In the dimming I saw Sursasdal fading into rain-grey. A thin mist rose from the distant river and low places in the earth-folds sent up fog. I entered the hall as the watchmen closed the farmstead gate.
The hall was stifling hot. The fire stoked, the whole hall glowed red. The snakes and idols graven on the roof-beams danced and twisted overhead. The berserks sat down to their mead and got an early start. I sat down to eat. If not better, the food was more plentiful than the night before—skyr, broth, black bread with butter and salt, stock-fish, and whale-fat. I was hungry and ate all that was given me.
I had just finished the last of my bread when I remembered Sifrid.
He was not in the hall at supper. I checked the latrine room and did not find him there. I asked after him from Kormak, but he knew no more than I did. Sifrid had not come in from the other farm. Nothing had been seen or heard of him, and it was night.
I would not sleep well, I knew. And if I slept, the dreams would wake me. As I sat in thought, Ufi and Orm came to me. They had already drunk not a little mead.
“Song-shaper,” Ufi began, “I wonder—do you know riddles?”
I did not feel much like riddling. “Yes.”
Ufi felt something wrong, but kept on. “I know a few myself.”
“Just a few,” Orm said.
“You will hear one of mine, then?” I said.
“If—if we may.” Ufi was excited.
“My riddles are only in Englisc, of course. Do you understand it?”
“Only a little.”
“A little bit of Englisc.”
“I’ll speak it first in Englisc,” I said, “and if I can, again in Dansk.”
I have spoken a number of riddles, though I am more fond of songs. A song tells a story—a riddle goes round in circles, tricking and prodding. I liked to get to the point. I chose one that I knew would keep them busy, so I could have the evening for my worry:
A mail-coat met a mitered head.
Neither nodded nor words spoke.
A king in crown calmly stood
by eorl and elder. Each was still.
None nodded, none spoke.
None could nod, none could speak.
Words withheld within were held.
I asked if they understood. They did not. I was less than surprised. I thought a moment and spoke this Dansk version:
Mail and miter
king in crown
eorl and elder
None will nod
nor will speak.
are held within.
This they understood—the words, at least—and furrowed their brows. I hoped they would tire and leave. The answer is obvious to a learned man, and one used to monks and scribes. But these two would never have seen the answer to know it, and what the eye has not seen is often unthought of.
My unkind plan worked. Ufi and Orm thought long, and then left for a walk about the fire-hued hall.
I sat alone in thought. My light mood of the night before was gone. I thought on Sifrid. I hoped that he had stayed on at the farm, though I knew well that he would try to walk back through the ice and dark. If Sursa did not come and kill him, the watchmen may, thinking the ghost was come back. Were he to die—which he had spoken of so lightly the night before—my last friend would be gone, and I would be alone in the land of enemies, my penance incomplete.
I wanted to see England again, and my family and friends. Aethelraed, Sigeric, Byrhtnoth and the other Eadwin I had known, and all those others from the eorldoms and bishoprics of home. As I crept toward slumber, I saw Kormak rise to get more fire-wood. The red glow waned, and as it did, the red-lit hall and the ruddy faces around me faded.
When I dreamt that night, I saw them all, but foremost among them I saw Aedre, weeping. The simplest dreams are often the worst.
* * * * *
These passages excerpted from chapters 20-22 of No Snakes in Iceland, a novel by Jordan M. Poss. Copyright 2016, Jordan Poss.