The Thief of Faces
Terror doesn’t loosen my bowels any the less just because it’s familiar. I lay in the snow, with my chattering teeth gritted, while the Wolfcoats sniffed about, snarling at one another. Gusts of snow blew between us and when the Wolfcoats were visible again, they were reduced to two. Then the archer crossed the river. He padded right past my hiding place, his bone trinkets jangling and the air steaming around his sharpened teeth.
The other, their leader, stayed a while longer on the ice. He seemed to be staring right at me over his hooked nose. Go away, I urged him with my thoughts.
He sniffed the air. Then he turned into the woods and vanished into the snowy flurries.
I exhaled and cursed my perverse Wyrd. Wulfhedhnar! – and a pack of them.
Berserks are upsetting to be around. They smell bad, have terrible personal habits and you never know when the volcano of rage inside them will erupt. Yet they are genial and sensitive companions compared to the Wulfhedhnar. What was a band of Wolfcoats doing here, so far from the battles and slaughters they enjoy? Then I returned to fretting about how they would find me in the snow, dig me out and chop me to pieces with the Saxon knives they carry – ugly meat cleavers grimed with filth and poison. Or perhaps tear me to pieces with their teeth and nails.
But getting up would be even worse. Then I would be exposed and death would come at me, from behind, on a raven-fledged arrow. I tested my Wyrd by thinking about Lady Gudhrun squeezing my hand and discovered that I was not ready to die quite yet.
I pulled myself out of the drift. The storm had lessened, but the wind still blew snow horizontally across the river. Perhaps bad until it eventually killed me. I crossed back over the ice, hoping my pursuers wouldn’t choose this moment to reconvene. On the other bank, I followed the rising ground towards the cliff. With each step, I sank knee-deep into snow. Fear must have put wings on my feet earlier, because I had seemed to skip over the snow’s surface like an elf with those Wolfcoats snapping at my buttocks.
What were they doing here? Why had they killed my friend?
Here lay poor Hrapp, the arrow in his neck still pointing skywards. He was no less dead than before, so I felt no guilt about stripping him of his skis. I’ve always preferred skates to skis, but I had served King Harald (trolls take him!) up in Trondheim, where they even have a god of skiing and archery, named Ull. I pulled the birch planks off Hrapp’s feet, strapping on the long gliding ski then the short pushing ski. I spent some time casting about for his ski pole under the fresh snow.
Slowly does it! I had not been on skis since before losing my eye. I pushed away confidently – and slammed into a tree.
Pushing away again, I knocked myself over on a low branch.
I sat up, rubbing my bruises and cursing the fickle god Ull. But the fault was mine. My one eye, which couldn’t aim an arrow, could no longer judge which trees were near or far. I needed an open space to make my getaway. Walking instead of sliding, I made my cautious way back to the frozen river.
Better luck was at hand. No grey-pelted Wolfcoats loomed out of the woods. The wind had dropped and snow fell vertically now. The river was white and bare.
I took huge strides to get myself out to the middle of the river, then pushed off. The long ski made that wonderful hissing noise and I pushed with the short one, adding speed with each thrust. Snowflakes seemed to streak past. If my jaw had allowed it, I would have laughed out loud.
Something else hissed by my ear. It was an arrow. I looked back. The archer stood on the ice some distance behind, drawing back his bow. Another wolfish figure bounded from the bank.
It was a test of speed now – and for speed, birch skis are unmatched. The hiss of the skis became a high pitched whistle but it was joined by another shrill sound – the shriek of the Wolfcoat closing in on my flank.
The river curved and I curved with it, leaning into the pole and sending up sparkling ice dust as I turned. The Wolfcoat, without skis, had no choice about his direction. He flashed through the mist I left behind me and slammed into the rocks along the river bank. His shrieks cut off suddenly.
An arrow fell into the snow nearby. The archer was taking aim again, but I was nearly out of range. More speed, I told myself, and don’t look back.
Twin howls broke out behind me, one near, the other more distant. It was the Wolfcoats, venting their frustration. Another bend in the river appeared in front. More speed, I reminded myself, and don’t look back.
Except I looked back. Of course I looked back.
Over my shoulder, I saw the archer running across the ice to his comrade, sprawled on the rocks. Both figures were small and getting smaller. Before falling snow hid them, I saw the bowman slip and slide across the ice, crashing into his friend. It looked painful and humiliating and worth looking back for.
I returned my attention to the route ahead. The third Wolfcoat blocked my path, arms wide to grab me.
I yelled and turned, leaning away from his clutches. The Wolfcoat leapt at me and grabbed me as I shot past. His nails tore at my arm and the ski pole flew out of my hand. Something snapped. The ground, so smooth a moment ago, bucked us both into the air. I landed with the Wolfcoat on top of me, then I was on top of him. We rolled together. My enemy gnashed his teeth. I wailed like a babe in the cradle.
Over we went together, bouncing and sliding. Then the worst sound of all: another crack, like my snapped ski, only louder and deeper. The ice was breaking.
The Wolfcoat and I slid to a halt. We lay for a moment, only a foot apart, he on his belly and me on my back. We turned our heads and looked at one another. He was a young man. He had a hooked nose and a long chin. When his lips parted, I saw his teeth had been filed to dainty points.
I exhaled and so did he. Our breath misted together. I ventured a friendly grin. Were about to burst into laughter together at this silly misunderstanding? Or would he try to kill me again?
When he lunged for me, I had already scrambled out of reach. The ground tilted. Freezing water lapped my ankles. The hook-nosed Wolfcoat slid towards me while the ice behind him rose up.
If I hadn’t been wearing the skis, I would have lost my balance and fallen into the river. Instead, I scrambled away from the water, taking big strides on the tilting surface. The ice righted itself again, but I could feel it bobbing under my feet.
I stood on a circular platform of ice. The Wolfcoat slid off the edge but his nails scrabbled at the surface and caught hold. Glaring at me, he pulled himself back onto the platform and crouched there, his breath steaming.
We faced each other, me on two legs, him on all fours and maybe a half dozen paces between us. The ice platform shifted under our weight but between us we kept it balanced. Underneath, the waters roared and frothed. The surrounding ice had cracked too, but into smaller chunks that bobbed up and down, like ships on a high tide swell.
My long ski was broken. The front half hung by splinters.
I raised my palms towards the Wolfcoat in a peaceful gesture.
“This is a dangerous situation, Brother Wolf.” I forced a merry note into my voice. “Perhaps, a truce, while we get off this ice?”
He was already leaping at me. Without his weight, the ice at his end rose up with a whoosh. My side plunged into the churning water and took me with it.
There’s nothing like freezing water rushing up your nethers to make you think again. The ice platform reared up like an overturning boat and started to spin. The Wolfcoat’s furious eyes were inches from mine. He had grabbed a handhold and, when he lashed out with his free hand, his ragged nails tore away my jaw-bandage.
A strange game ensued. I pulled myself round the edge of the ice, which sank with my weight, while the Wolfcoat, clinging to the middle of it, hissed and clawed at me.
This could have gone on for a while. I saw a way to end it. I let go, grabbing at any other floating ice within reach.
Without my weight on it, the submerged edge of our platform shot up, then crashed down, then the whole thing see-sawed violently. When the ice settled, I was pleased to see it was empty. The Wolfcoat had been thrown off.
This was good, but I’d be joining him in a moment, because my furs were soaked and I can’t swim. I grabbed the ice platform then dragged myself over the lip.
I expected the ice to see-saw again, but it remained level. There was an explanation: my wolfish companion, bedraggled but still alive, was pulling himself onto the other side.
We stared at each other thoughtfully from opposite edges of the ice. I reached out for another handhold to pull myself over the lip. This made my end sink again and his end rise. Panic filled his eyes and his nails scrabbled on the surface. He found a grip and dragged himself further onto it. This balanced the platform and the see-sawing slowed.
Our strange dance entered a new stage. Without speaking, we coordinated our movements, each of us dragging ourselves onto the ice inch by inch, until we both crouched, facing each other, soaking wet and breathing heavily.
It was time to put a stop to this. I pulled out Tunga. I waggled the sword in his direction to make sure he understood. I was armed: he was not.
The Wolfcoat gnashed his teeth. I remember Ogmund shouting that blades couldn’t touch him; this was said of the Wulfhedhnar too, that you had to crack their skulls with hammers to kill them. Even if this wasn’t true, the Wolfcoat probably believed it to be true, so my sword wouldn’t scare him.
He had already attacked before I’d finished these deliberations. This time he slid across the slippery surface, making the platform tilt less. I chopped at him with all my strength but missed and the sword embedded itself in the ice. The Wolfcoat’s claws snatched at my wet cloak, but then he slipped past me. I clung onto the jammed sword for balance.
The Wolfcoat slid right to the edge and the ice platform dipped under his weight. The water bubbled up round his knees.
Holding onto the sword with one hand, I ripped away my broken ski, a birch wood plank about three feet long.
The Wolfcoat swayed back and forth, waving his arms as the ice sank underneath him.
I stretched the plank towards him, waving it in front of his hands.
He blinked in surprise. The ice groaned. He slipped. Even Wolfcoats panic. He snatched at the support I offered him. A faint smile turned his thin lips when he felt me take his weight.
Of course, then I let go.
He fell with a roar and a splash. I saw him, briefly, under the ice, shooting past in the fast current. On the other side, his head popped up, only to be whacked by one of the other floating ice chunks. After that, he was gone, leaving a rocking chunk of ice with a smear of blood down its side.
And the moral is, never turn down the first truce.
My platform swayed a few more times as I worked to free the sword. It came loose at last. I made my clumsy way to the shore, hopping between shifting ice. The water in my furs had frozen. I would be freezing next. There was no hope of getting back to Thurstang before the Frost Giants snipped away my fingers and toes or the remaining Wolfcoats found my scent again.
I rested against a tree and gabbled some calming runes. Murdered babies and now Wolfcoats. How could it get worse?
I scanned the treetops for a landmark but everything was hidden by fresh snow. Except, behind the pines, a faint plume of smoke smudged the winter sky. Poor Hrapp Squintbrow had mentioned a lodge nearby. With the shadows lengthening, I trudged into the woods to find a warm hearth, my ears alert for the howls of my pursuers.
If I’d known what was ahead, I would have stayed on the ice.
The town was full of weeping women. The murder of Ingaberg’s faceless baby had sent the mothers of Thurstang into a frenzy of sorrow. I had to get away. I had a faceless child of my own. I’d named many runes to bury his memory, only to have my old ghosts raised by a mother’s screams. Even a troll hunt was better than staying here.
So, troll hunts.
This is how it is with a troll-hunt. Every man fit to travel is called up, along with some of the older women who know troll-lore, the way old women do. The troll is hunted across field and forest. There’s a lot of banging drums and rattling kettles, because trolls hate noise. A wise thul is needed to recite charms and carve runes on all the doors and markers posts. Skalds like me go about, singing charms about the bright gods that trolls find so offensive. Everyone has a fine day out and the troll-wise experts get paid for their help.
At the end of it, the troll is driven out of the land.
For a time. Perhaps.
The troll hunt had already set off while I was in my sick bed. I wandered into the mead hall and found it deserted except for old greybeards playing at the game of Hnef’s Table. The children had disappeared, kept at home by their terrified mothers.
I loaded up a sledge with some warm furs, my sword and a flask of spiced wine taken from a thrall I intercepted on his way to Lodhinn’s quarters. Then I set out after the Jarl’s party.
The wood-paved path climbed above the fjord, up tree-lined terraces, to the valley between the mountains. The passage of the hunting party was visible in the snow, which promised to make a swift ride for my sledge. I stopped and looked both ways, as a man must on the edge of two worlds.
Below me, the roofs of Thurstang, with its chimneys and steaming tanneries, looked oddly welcoming, as even the meanest hovel does in winter, when the ice forms on your beard. Ice was also forming on the fjord, with lumps of it drifting out towards the sea like lazy whales. Over the mountaintops on the other side of the fjord, grey clouds massed, promising more snow. A Winter Viking is a chancy journey even in fine weather, but what would persuade so many captains to risk their ships and their crews if more ice filled the straits? Perhaps that was the real reason for this troll hunt: hopes must be kept high because men, stuck in a hall through the darkest month, turn to mutiny and complaint when luck turns bad.
On my other side, the high valley snaked away between the peaks. In summer, there would be fields of barley up here, orchards and forests teeming with game for the nobility to hunt and the common folk to skin and cook. Now, the frost giants claimed their lease on this place and had made it as they like it: cold and white and empty, a fastness for the wolf and the screeching owl. And, of course, trolls.
Two worlds: the world of men, with the laws and songs and bright gold; and the world of trolls, mysterious and deadly. The trolls had come down into our world to murder and mutilate; now we were entering theirs.
I flicked my whip and the ponies pulled the sledge at a brisk pace. Later, I would spare their strength by walking alongside them, but, at the start of a journey, there’s nothing finer than gliding over crisp snow, feeling the breath snatched from your lips as the pines flash by. Then it is that a man feels as the gods must, moving effortlessly through a magical realm.
The dread of the faceless baby faded. The future opened before me, with no ghosts.
Moments later, I pulled myself out of a snow drift. The sledge lay upturned. One of the ponies had wandered off.
You see how it is? Your mind is with the gods in high thoughts, and some troll places a boulder just under the snow, to wreck your sledge and snap your neck, if that’s to be your Wyrd.
Well, it wasn’t to be my Wyrd. I had fallen clear and landed in soft snow. Once again, death had called my name but I was too crafty to answer.
I examined the sledge. There are men with the skill to repair such things. Those men are called carpenters. Thankfully, I was taught useful arts instead, like poetry, so I left the vehicle in the snow. The remaining pony limped, so I untied it; its good horse-sense would take it back to its stable. My somewhat more questionable sense would guide me on, on foot, into the winter woods.
Not for the last time, I found myself missing my invalid’s bed, with Valka’s bright smile and warm nearness. Then the thought of that little shrew’s spitefulness filled me with better purpose. Onwards!
It goes without saying, on a troll hunt, that when you set off, bruised but in high spirits, still wearing a bandage round your head, along a well marked path under blue skies, the following things will happen.
First, the temperature will drop, so that your breath clouds and your beard crackles with frost. White mist spreads from the tree roots and fills the path, filling in the ruts and craters left by the beasts and sledges of the party that went before you.
Secondly, it will start to snow. Not a great snowstorm, just a few wisps drifting in the air. This is merely the foreshadowing, the way irresistible Wyrd clears its throat before Dooms are pronounced.
Thirdly, those clouds that were far behind you will roll overhead, like a shutter being pulled across the sky. Under the pines, it grows very dark. Still travelling hopefully, you stumble, tripping on roots and sliding into buried ditches.
The master stroke is the fork in the path. Now that enough mist has thickened and enough snow fallen to disguise the route your predecessors took, a fork in the path must present itself. In two directions, white lanes curve away between the trees, both featureless and smooth.
And then, only then, at that precise moment as you stand there, indecisive, naming travel runes to no effect, that is when the snowstorm arrives. For after that, immediately after that, within seconds, the world is a seething cauldron of sleet and screaming winds.
This should go without saying of course, for how could it be otherwise on a troll hunt?
I blundered into the snowstorm anyway. I tried to shield myself from the wind, but it seemed to come at me from all directions...
Was I on the right path? Was I even on a path at all?
The curtains of snow parted and the trunks of trees emerged, and then vanished. Low branches struck my temples, again and again. Then the snow drew around me like a swaddling band and everything became white. I took another step but found no ground. I pitched forwards into space. Several more branches reached out to smack me and tear at my clothes. I rolled in the snow and fell again through branches. Only after much of this did I crash into a bed of pine cones and lie there, stunned, watching the snowflakes spiral down towards me out of darkness.
This was fine troll-work. The finest. And yet, I lived.
I tested one leg, then the other, and found them to be unbroken. It was not my Wyrd to fall to my death. But, perhaps, instead, it was to die of cold in a trackless forest. After all this troll-work, I felt that the bright gods owed me some sliver of luck. Surely that was not too much to ask, even from Odhinn the Grudge-Nurser?
“Eirik Glee? Is that you?”
A friendly voice! I sat up, dislodging icicles and pine cones.
It is strange, but I’ve seen green hills rise above the sea’s horizon when the last fresh water is spent and the weary sailors can row no more. I’ve seen a beautiful woman sleeping in the morning light surrounded by my own tangled sheets. Yes, and I’ve pressed my ear to a woman’s belly and felt the kick of a child, my child, answering to my voice. These are special moments. Yet it seemed to me that Hrapp Squintbrow, appearing before me in this troll-haunted wood, surpassed them all. Seeing him standing there, draped in warm furs with absurd skis tied to his feet, I loved him dearly.
“It is I, Eirik!” I cried. “Hrapp, dear friend, it is myself, and no other.”
Hrapp stomped over to me. Despite their foolish appearance, the skis made it easier for him to walk on the snow.
“You fell from the sky! Gods and elfs, what are you doing here?”
“Searching for the Jarl. Is he near?”
Hrapp regarded me like some sort of marvel.
“Not near, but drawing closer,” he told me. “The Jarl returns to Thurstang and I go ahead of him to prepare for his return. There’s a lodge nearby, friend Eirik. I’ll guide you to it and you can find warmth and rest.”
I let him pull me to my feet and examined the sheer hillside I’d tumbled down. The cliff was studded at intervals with small trees that clung to the rock face and short snow-filled ledges. By some sublime joke on the part of Wyrd, it was through these I had dropped, slowing my headlong fall. Had I fallen a few feet to either the left or the right, I would have dashed open my skull or snapped my neck.
“Hrapp, my friend,” I said with a sigh, contemplating the narrowness of my brush with death, “it seems that good luck comes disguised as bad fortune. Hindsight is everything.”
Hrapp didn’t reply because an arrow pointed out of his throat. It stayed there, dripping blood. With his head still raised to the heavens, Hrapp fell to his knees, like a worshipper at a Blót. He made a gurgling noise and then sprawled on the ground. The snow around him turned a livid red.
I believe there will come a day when events like this no longer surprise me and I react to them immediately, with clarity and great cunning.
This was not that day. I stood staring at the back of Hrapp’s head and the black-fledged arrow sticking out of his neck. I reached out with my boot to prod him.
He remained still.
Another arrow slammed into the tree trunk behind my shoulder, dislodging more tinkling icicles.
I didn’t need another hint to solve this riddle. I ran.
Once again, branches slapped my face and pulled at my shirt. If I was lucky, there might be another cliff to fall off. I wanted to look back, but didn’t dare. Someone had killed Hrapp and would now kill the witness – me.
The trees vanished behind me and I was under open sky. I was also sliding. My feet shot from underneath me and I landed on my back, but kept flying forwards, across a frozen river. I came to a stop when I ploughed into a snow drift on the far bank.
More snow slid onto me, covering my arms, chest and beard. With my head hanging backwards, I could see across the river, although everything was upside-down. The snow was already covering the tracks left by my slide across the ice.
A group of men in furs emerged from the trees. One of them, who carried an evil-looking bow, slithered on the ice. The other two pulled up short. Then they did a strange and terrifying thing. They dropped to all fours and sniffed the air. One of them ran round in a little circle. The sound of their snarls carried across the crisp air.
“Oh gods,” I moaned.
The men wore the skins of wolves over their heads and shoulders. They were Wolfcoats and they were going to hunt me, kill me and eat me, but probably not in that order.
A child with no face. Empty sockets and white bone where there should have been pink skin and milky lips.
“It’s not my fault!” I cried. “I didn’t do it,” I shouted. “It wasn’t me!”
Far away, on the corpse-shore where the dishonoured dead lie waiting for the end of the world, Fridha heard my cries and called my name.
These were bad dreams, my worst in months. I walked the cold shore of Nastrond, as I always did in my dreams, with the mist rolling in from the ocean at the edge of all worlds. There were faces under my boots but I wouldn’t look down. I mustn’t look down. There might be one face there I could not bear to see.
Voices came from the mist along with the tears of women. Perhaps these were the mothers of Thurstang, comforting Ingaberg, but in my dream they sounded like another woman’s tears. I called her name but Fridha did not come to me. Not even the flash of her sun-burnished hair. I ran across the beach of upturned faces, calling her, but found only tears and they were my own.
I awoke in pain. My face had swollen up like sail in the sea wind. What had that berserking madman done to me?
“He dislocated your jaw.”
The foreign thrall, Valka, knelt beside my pallet, kneading herbal paste into a strip of linen. From behind the room’s shutters, wintry light brightened the room.
“Am I dead now?”
“Alas,” she said, “no.”
I took a moment to think about this.
“Why are you looking after me?”
“Lodhinn Knudsson commanded me to nurse you.”
So that was it! The spiteful thrall and the vengeful thul, joining forces against me while I lay helpless. The duel with the Berserk had been engineered by Lodhinn, out of revenge. Surely he had weakened the chains so the madman could escape! Now they were brewing up some trollish poison to carry me off for good.
“Are you… are you going to kill me?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
She held out the evil-smelling rag towards my face, but I flinched away. So, it was to be suffocation! I tried to draw breath, but my mouth wouldn’t let me. The pain was enough to make me want to die anyway.
“Don’t be a child,” Valka said. “This is a soothing treacle and the bandage supports your jaw while it heals.”
When I resisted, she looked at me from under her fringe with those severe blue eyes.
“You’re not in danger. Think clearly. If you were to die, they’d have me strangled for it.”
“Why should Lodhinn Knudsson care about that? That duel was his doing. He’s sent you to finish the job he started!”
“Lodhinn is the thul and if his patients die, it looks bad for him,” Valka replied, reasonably enough. “If you want to dishonour him all over again, go ahead and die. Otherwise, let me put this bandage on.
This was good sense. I relented. Valka leaned over me. She unspooled the linen strip, stretching it across my jaw, over my ears and the crown of my head and back down again, then looped it around more times. Her breasts dangled excitingly in front of me.
An old sea-viking named Hjalti Thorolfsson once gave me some wisdom. He had been wounded by an arrow, as later happened to me, but had recovered well enough. Unfortunately, the wound festered. Hjalti was a big man with ruddy cheeks and a booming laugh, but he told me he was dying. How did he know?
“I take no joy,” he told me, “from meat or beer or the pendulous breasts of women. There are only days left. Would that I had died in battle, so that the valkyries might take me, but my soul must wander the cold shore of Nastrond instead. Such is Wyrd.”
His Wyrd was to die within the week, but I took a cheering thought from his passing. That is this: that no matter the pain or the loss, so long as there is joy in the senses, death is not near.
The way my senses responded to Valka’s curves, I knew at once that I wasn’t going to die.
“Where are you from, Valka?” I asked, hoping to make her ministrations last.
My nurse tutted as she fussed with the dressing. Reaching behind my head to knot the bandages, she pulled even closer. That was a sweet moment, but then she drew away.
“Dwarfland,” she said, with a sour tone.
“Surely not, but rather beautiful Alfheim,” I rallied. “You must be one of the Light Elfs!”
Valka looked at me coldly.
“Really,” I insisted. “Your accent, your manner – you’re a riddle to me.”
She switched her gaze to the rafters.
“Valgerdha – Valka – isn’t my birth name. I was born in the Land of Song, among green mountains and sweet rivers.” She looked at me again, with softer eyes but a loftier tone to her voice. “You are a skald, Eirik Glee, but you haven’t heard music until you’ve heard the language of my people. There is no poem like the name my mother gave to me.”
I’ve never met a thrall who didn’t give herself airs, but this one’s were grander than most. I started framing a barbed reply to bring her down to earth, but then I noticed the tears on her cheek. I thought again. To have your language taken from you, is like the loss of an eye. Half a world goes with it. You learn new tongues and there are words you hear in them, but there is no music.
“Valgerdha,” I said at last, “tell me your true name. Let me make a song of it.” My voice was hoarse so the offer didn’t sound convincing.
“That name, sweet poet, is a riddle,” she replied, “that I will never tell someone like you. Now it’s important that you stop speaking.”
She reached out and took the ends of the bandage wrapped round my head.
“Why?” I croaked. “Is it unhealthy for me to speak?”
“No. I just don’t want to listen to you any more.”
She pulled the bandages tight and my teeth snapped together. Te strip of cloth clamped my jaw firmly shut and tied a knot in it. Gagged, I could only glare at the girl. She brushed down her smock and turned to go with her pretty chin in the air.
The door opened and the room filled with people and the sound of women’s voices. Even through the fug of Lodhinn’s herbal treacle, I could detect the scents of women’s hair and the milky smell of babies.
Lady Gudhrun Quick-Tongue stood over my bed. She smiled a smile of radiant concern.
“Are you recovering, brave poet?” Her voice was warm and husky.
I nodded like a fool. A beauty like her would set a cripple to skipping. Then her daughter Gisla appeared and their combined loveliness was sufficient to raise the dead. A wet-nurse followed after, holding a sleeping baby, but I paid little attention to her.
“Truly, you are as skilled with your sword,” Gudhrun continued, “as you are with your tongue.”
I nodded, glad the bandage stopped me from blurting out some idiotic joke about swords and tongues. Was the lady flirting with me?
“So brave and so skilful!”
This was Lady Gisla,. She had a faint lisp, an odd imperfection that only enhanced her charm. Her hair shaded to gold and her eyes were as blue as the summer sea. Yet there was a strange composure to her.
I stopped nodding. It was hurting my neck.
“How long will we be robbed of our skald’s voice?”
This was Gudhrun again, turning that ever widening smile to Valka, who kept her eyes lowered but appeared to be listening to praise of me with growing nausea.
“Your thul says a month before he sings again, my mistress,” she replied.
The two noblewomen exchanged downcast expressions. I wasn’t happy either. A month?
“By then, Yule will have passed,” said Gudhrun. “The feasts will be ended. We will lose you, Eirik Glee, back to King Harald’s court, before we have truly enjoyed you.”
I hadn’t come all this way and fought a Berserk to spend a month as a dumb invalid and then be dismissed as soon as the Goddess Blót arrived. Yule was my chance to perform! I struggled with the bandage.
“Mpf!” I said when the knots resisted my fingers. “Ngh,” I added and also, “Gnnng!” as I rolled my eye at them to stop them leaving without hearing me out.
The two noblewomen watched their mad poet thrash around in his sick bed but Valka, with obvious irritation, stepped forward and loosened the knots she had tied.
“Thank you, Valgerdha,” I said with icy civility, once the bandage allowed me to talk. “Noble Ladies, I would not deny you any joy this Yuletide.” Moving my jaw made me wince. “No injury will stop me singing, for the company, if your thul’s treacles can dull my pain.”
Gudhrun teased at her lip with her pink tongue, a tiny gesture but it revived me greatly.
“I wouldn’t want you to harm yourself…”
“I know some runes of my own that speed recovery,” I added. “Please tell your noble husband not to put me out of his mind this Yuletide.”
Gudhrun returned her radiant smile.
“Would that all my noble husband’s servants were as eager as you, Eirik Glee. You must tell him yourself. He has gone hunting the troll that killed poor Ingaberg’s boy. Lodhinn Knudsson rides with him and will be delighted to see his patient recovered.”
I didn’t believe that for a moment. A troll-hunt? Perhaps the duel with Ogmund had been considered a draw. But if the Jarl was hunting trolls, his new skald had to make an appearance and show himself to be useful, sweet though a sick-bed with such lovely nurses might be.
Gudhrun leaned forward and squeezed my hand warmly. She held on to it and squeezed my fingers a second time for good measure. I was aware, under the sheets, of my nethers insisting that they too were hale and keen to serve the Lady Gudhrun in their own capacity.
“The pleasure,” I told her truthfully, “is mine, fair lady. I’ll acquaint your husband with my recovery and the first song I sing to the company will be a praise-song to your beauty and compassion.”
I even found a smile for Valka, who regarded me with an expression of contempt.
I would have been less keen to please if I had understood the Wyrd that was spinning around me. Under the bewitching smiles of Gudhrun and Gisla, I had forgotten Nastrond’s cold shore, the dead faces under my boots, the nameless baby with no face and his mother, weeping in the mists.
I had forgotten about the thief of faces too. That was my big mistake.
The storm blew itself out, but the hearth company remained at their benches. Faces were pale with fear. Women’s sobs echoed from the Ladies’ Bower. Ingaberg the grieving mother was being comforted and, as is the way with women, the tears of one drew tears in the rest, like an incoming tide.
“Weregild – who pays a blood price for my son? Someone must know!”
The speaker was the grieving father, Dag Stygsson. He was one of the Jarl’s hearthmen, distinguished by a mane of red hair. He dressed well in furs and silver rings, but he had labourer’s hands. He was another commoner who had been enriched in the last Winter Viking – the sort of man Hrapp envied.
Jarl Eyvind turned to the fat priest, who sighed.
“Runes have been cast, omens consulted,” he said to the company while the furious Dag Stygsson stalked up and down the hall. “Can no one here speak of this crime? A boy has been murdered, in his crib! Murder and mutilation! Someone, speak!”
In the grey light, everyone sat still and silent, contemplating their cold oats and stale beer. Many of these men had seen such bloody work done on a battlefield. But to a baby, in his crib? I sat on a stool beside the Jarl’s throne, plucking gloomy notes on my harp. To murder a man’s child is to rob him of his future, his name, his hope. Poor Dag Stygsson. I had wept those same tears once.
Then someone muttered, “Trolls!”
That call was taken up:
“ – Trolls, aye!”
“ – For certain, trolls!”
“ – Troll-work if ever I saw it!”
A change came over the company now that this crime had a culprit. I groaned and knuckled my forehead. I hate trolls.
Let me explain about trolls. There’s not much misery or grief that cannot be laid at the feet of trolls. They walk invisible or make themselves into anything they choose. Your horse goes lame? A troll did it! Your wife miscarries? A troll smote her! Your house burns down? Trolls must really hate you!
This talk was on every tongue now. I stared around the room like the one sober man at a wedding. Everyone seemed to be an expert in troll-lore with something to offer about the troll that murdered Dag Stygsson’s son.
This is how I view it. There are things that no man knows with certainty, nor will ever know, such as why there are no baby eels, or where starlings go in the winter, or whether this Middle World is really rounded (as they say in Byzantium) or a flat disk (as is obvious to the stupidest child). And on these matters men will argue and put forth their baffling explanations. But troll-lore infuriates me above all these things. For example, there are riddles where the answer is ‘a troll.’ It’s impossible to solve these riddles (unless you already know them) because anything can be a troll and a troll can be anything.
“What’s hot and cold, dry and wet, small and huge, all at the same time… A troll!”
See? Not a good riddle.
Then there are sagas where the hero has to defeat a troll but this can only be done with a certain spell or a magic axe. Why? No reason, that’s just how it is. I’ve yawned through these sagas before. In the sagas I tell, I want the hero to kill a flesh-and-blood man, like a rival warrior or even a Berserk, and I want there to be a reason for this, like a blood feud or a broken promise or a woman’s love. I don’t put trolls in my sagas.
But I am on my own in this matter.
Nonetheless, I tried to make an appeal to the company.
“What sort of troll walks abroad in the holy season of Yule?” I cried, waving my arms for attention. “We all know the sound of music and the scent of roasting meat offends them. Surely, this is man-work, not troll-work! A man did this to Dag Stygsson’s son, to poor, helpless…”
I tailed off – what was the baby’s name?
“Hostein,” muttered a voice beside me. It was the fat Godhi. He was considering me with an odd expression on his face.
“Poor helpless Hostein Dagson,” I added, “was surely the victim of human malice, not trolls.”
Everyone stopped to digest this. It was an unwelcome thought.
“But who?” Dag Stygsson’s voice sounded frail now, as if his anger had burned through him like a wildfire leaving only ashes. “Who would do this?”
The doors banged and a group of men entered, led by the thul Lodhinn. The black-robed wizard had disappeared into the Bower with the ladies after the crime had been discovered. He had been missing for the last couple of hours. Now he was back with a troop of soldiers and a prisoner.
“Do you ask who? Let the just gods decide. We have one murderer here.”
The sentries led a man down the aisle, his chains clinking. He was a big fellow – a foot taller than me, but every part of him was broad, from his massive arms and barrel chest to his box-like head. He was etched with tattoos proclaiming him a Berserk, dedicated to Odhinn, madness and death, in no particular order. I hadn’t expected to run into a Berserk again, so soon after escaping from Harald’s hairy crew. But Jarls like to keep a Berserk on hand, stupefied with drink, to impress people.
“The gods demand justice, blood for blood,” Lodhinn continued. “How can Dag Stygsson receive justice for his son while this murderer still lives and breathes?”
This Berserk looked placid, but I didn’t look into his glassy eyes as he lumbered past.
“Who’s that?” I whispered to Hrapp who sat nearby.
“Ogmund the Ganger,” Hrapp Squintbrow whispered back.
I could see why he was a ‘Ganger’ or Walker – someone that huge would never mount a horse.
“What did he do, that they keep him chained up like that?”
“He killed the last skald,” said Hrapp. “Poor Olof. Tore him to bits. They say he ate some of the bits.”
That shut me up. I fell to wondering, what sort of Nidh poor Olof must have composed to drive that dopy-looking Berserk into a murderous frenzy. Silly question really, since Berserks get out of bed in the morning in murderous frenzies. I was pulled back to the moment by the sound of my own name being called.
Lodhinn Knudsson had been reciting the laws of the tribe and mentioning the opinions of various gods and elfs concerning the sin of murder. He pointed at me now and his smirk suggested some private joke unfolding. That smile should have put me on my guard, but I had forgotten the reason I had already given this man to hate me. It had been an eventful night.
“My lord?” I called to Jarl Eyvind in my brightest voice.
“Will you serve as my skald in this?” the Jarl demanded, regarding me over his nose.
“In this and anything else!” I replied, approaching the nobles’ table with a cheerful skip.
Something seemed wrong. If Lodhinn’s grin got any wider, the top of his head would have to fall off. The Berserk, meanwhile, fixed me with a look of fury.
One of the sentries, the older man with the grey beard, presented me with a cloth bundle. He wasn’t smiling. His comrade held on to the Berserk’s shackles.
Inside the bundle was Tunga, my sword. Suddenly my bladder felt very full.
“Holmgang!” roared Ogmund the Ganger, struggling against his chains. “Holmgang for Ogmund!”
In a just world ruled by just gods, Berserks would not be allowed the right of Holmgang, which is a duel to the death. But this is Odhinn’s world and follows his rules and Odhinn’s tastes run to the whimsical. His whim seemed to be that Ogmund would prove his innocence by chopping me to bloody messes.
“My lord..!” I began my protest. I wasn’t going to touch that sword. “What have this man’s crimes to do with me?”
“Holmgang!” hollered Ogmund, straining at his bindings. One of the links snapped. Someone shouted out a warning.
Lodhinn explained what was about to happen: “Ogmund the Ganger murdered our skald, Olof Ormsson. So does it please you, Jarl Eyvind, that your new skald should prove the murderer’s guilt in battle? Then, with justice done, we will track down the child-killer. Let a skald avenge a skald!”
“Me?” I cried, looking from Lodhinn to the Jarl and back again. “Me fight the Berserk? What will that prove?”
“Holmgang proves the dead man’s guilt!” crowed Lodhinn. “And if the new skald triumphs, it shall prove his words, that no troll did the night’s dreadful deed!”
Well, that made no sense at all, but it went down well with the crowd. People love trial by combat. But the prospect of fighting a Berserk brought my wits together. I turned away from the offered sword – to lift it was to accept the challenge. I needed an argument. The Peace of Frey governed this hall – let me call a champion! There were traditionally three days to prepare for a duel. Or better still, why not trial by ordeal? Let the monster prove his innocence by gobbling hot nails!
I never got a chance to make my case. Ogmund broke his chains. Moving with unexpected grace for such a big man, he snatched a spear from the nearby sentry.
“Holmgang for Ogmund!” he yodelled and ran at me, spear first.
Odhinn must have been commanding my limbs, or else they remembered some of their old war skills, because my hand grabbed my sword and used it to turn away Ogmund’s spear in a surprisingly elegant way. Then the Berserk collided with me and I flew away from his colossal shoulder in one direction and my sword flew away in the other.
I skidded along the floor. I heard some sensible fellow shouting, “The Peace of Frey! Remember the Peace of Frey!” before I realised it was my own voice shouting and no one was listening.
The warriors leapt up and formed a tight semi-circle around the space where I lay. One of the Varangians threw me a hog knife and it embedded itself in the floor nearby.
More guards rushed towards Ogmund and my spirits rose. Then Lodhinn directed them instead to form a cordon around the Jarl and his family, for the ladies of the Bower had come running at the uproar.
“Holmgang!” roared the Ganger.
I scrambled towards the knife, snatched it up and got to my feet.
Ogmund placed the shaft of his spear between his teeth. As Berserks do, he started gnashing on the wood, chewing on the splinters until blood mingled with the white froth over his whiskers. When Berserks start eating things, it can go on a while. I thought I’d take my chance. I know a nice move with the knife where you lunge for the head, but, a-ha, it’s a feint. You duck down instead and slash your opponent’s hamstrings. With Ogmund hobbling about, I’d be able to get back to my sword, which lay on the floor only yards away.
I made my lunge.
That part of the plan went well. But Ogmund, with that cat-like speed he’d already shown, caught the blade in his fist.
“I feel no pain!” he snarled, spitting splinters into my face. Blood welled up between his fingers. The knife crumpled in his hand.
“Blades don’t touch me!” the madman yelled.
I decided to dart to his left. He still held the spear in that hand and cracked it over my head. That sent me spinning. I bumped into the carved pillar in the middle of the room.
“Fire doesn’t touch me!” I heard Ogmund bellow, moments before his hands grabbed my shirt and lifted me into the air.
Ogmund’s crazed eyes looked into my own. His forehead hit my chin. I heard a crack, like an axe chopping wood. For a moment there was no pain or light, no up or down, only me, hanging in space, like Odhinn on his steed.
A cry went up from the crowd, a mixture of excitement and sympathy. Somebody, I reflected, has just been very badly hurt.
Then I hit the floor. Breath was knocked out of my lungs. Dimly, I could see Ogmund striding towards me.
The giant paused and roared at the crowd, then at the Jarl and all his guards, then at the gods overhead. He shredded the hempen smock he wore. He ripped away all his filthy clothes and jumped up and down, his manhood flapping like a flag in a winter wind. He was hamasking – going through his frenzied transformation.
The warriors whooped and shouted insults or encouragement to the big maniac while the women of the hall exchanged private observations regarding Ogmund’s dangling nethers. Still stunned, I threw up over the floor. By the time Ogmund’s frenzy had peaked, I had pulled myself upright against another pillar.
He hadn’t turned into a bear, but he came at me again in a different frame of mind. His eyes were those of a beast sensing its kill. A slather of blood-flecked drool hung from his beard.
I ducked behind the pillar and when Ogmund went one way, I went the other. He changed direction and so did I. We must have circled that pillar a dozen times, me keeping inches ahead of his grasp and the audience yelling, “Boo!” and “Kill him!” and other pieces of advice.
I made a dash for another pillar. Ogmund was at my shoulder. He caught my shirt and tore it and now we were both shirtless, him chasing me back towards the first pillar all over again. Would this end when we were both naked, like a whorehouse parlour game? Or was Odhinn waiting for me to die a warrior’s death, soiling myself in terror while the Berserk popped my arms out of their sockets?
At least Odhinn was sparing me a dishonourable death in old age, in bed, surrounded by adoring grandchildren. Religion struck me in that moment as fundamentally flawed.
Odhinn must have noticed my impiety, because he directed my feet to trip over something. It was my sword, lying where it had fallen. I sprawled on the ground with it just out of reach.
Ogmund thundered past me. He slipped on my pool of vomit and skidded into the roof pillar, face-first, with a force that brought flakes of thatch down from the ceiling.
The big Berserk turned slowly. The impact had turned his face to bloody paste, but his eyes blinked and they were strangely sane. He opened his mouth as if to speak, but only spat out a broken tooth. Then he crashed to the floor. He lay next to me, still.
Helpful hands pulled me to my feet.
“Well fought, One-Eye!” said a voice in an Eastern accent.
I saw a Varangian, grinning at me through one of those ridiculous moustaches they like to grow. He pushed my sword into my hand and propelled me towards Ogmund’s unconscious body. I tried to shout but my jaw wouldn’t work. I thought, perhaps, if I kill this maniac, they’ll give me a bed to lie down on. Maybe some warm soup, nothing chewy. But I didn’t have the strength. The sword slid out of my fingers.
I wondered as I passed out, whether this made Ogmund guilty or not, since I had failed to kill him in combat. Perhaps there were trolls at work after all. Then the floor rushed up to me and everything went dark
Mead, as everyone knows, was stolen by Odhinn. The dwarfs brewed it for the giants but the gods wanted it for themselves, as well they might, because it’s delicious. Crafty Odhinn slipped into the giantess Gunnloth’s bed and pleasured her three nights in a row, each time for a tiny sip of the magical liquor. But Odhinn is a trickster and he swallowed the whole vat, making off on eagle’s wings with the mead in his mouth. The Giants chased after and Odhinn spilled some drops on the Middle World, which is why we humans have it now.
It’s all a metaphor, of course. The Mead is poetry, which dizzies the mind, turns a thing into what it is not, and cajoles beautiful women into opening their thighs. Or so I was promised when I began my new career in poetry. So far, I’ve only got as far as dizzying the mind.
The mead at the Golden Roofed Hall was potent stuff. I sat in silence, reliving my memories of Kaupang and the Berserks, the wrath of Harald Tanglehair and poor Fridha. Thoughts of Fridha caused me to flinch away from memory. I muttered the runes of forgetting and tried to study my new home.
A fat man with limed hair had finished a long prayer. The runes painted on his face marked him out as a Godhi, the local priest. Good. This meant I had missed the tedious invocation of Frey that brought the god’s Peace down on this hall. Once the Peace of Frey was in place, the drinking could start in earnest.
Up on his seat of dooms sat the Jarl of Thurstang. Eyvind Eythorsson was every inch the rural chieftain, bad hair and too much eye-liner, muscular once but swollen with cheap beer and rye bread. There were more gold rings on his arms than you expect in places like this. His wife stood beside him. They made quite a contrast: dove beside a bloated goose! The Lady of Thurstang was a statuesque beauty, very tall with a long chestnut braid and a dress that Frankish seamstresses had laboured a year over. Someone had come into money. A lucky raid? A dragon hoard?
“An amazing raid,” Hrapp confirmed. “Monasteries! Monks! We melted down the gold and sold the prisoners. Blood in the surf! The lamentations of women!”
“You were there?”
“Ah, no. But I will be! Next time” Hrapp sat beside two enormous Danes and slapped their backs. interrupting their singing, which, if you’ve heard Danes singing, you’ll know is no loss to the arts. “Isn’t that right, my fellows?”
The two Danes nodded happily. I sat opposite them with my back to a bench of cheering Varangians.
“We’re going back for more, eh lads? With more ships!” Hrapp leaned forward conspiratorially. “It’s going to be a Winter Viking. We sail after the Yule Blót!”
I understood now. The Jarl had stumbled onto some untouched monastery on a foreign shore, looted it and been clever enough to keep the location secret. Now every mercenary in Norway wanted a piece of the pie.
A Winter Viking was no ordinary raid. It meant sailing in the dark months, straight after Yule, when sensible folk hunkered down and waited for Spring. Very risky. A storm could wreck such an enterprise. But if his luck held, Jarl Eyvind would go back with three or four times the force of his first visit and utterly demolish the unlucky community he’d discovered. I wondered where this doomed settlement might be. Somewhere nearby but undefended. There were a lot of Frisian thralls on the markets these days. Francia perhaps?
“I’ll be with them this time,” cackled Hrapp Squintbrow, tearing a rind of meslin bread from the loaf and dunking it in his beer. “Some of that slaughter will be my red work! Then I’ll be a hearthman and bear a sword like yours.”
I watched Squintbrow lick his fingers and giggle at the prospect of profit and plunder. There is only so much gold in the world and blood flows when it moves around. If Squintbrow was happy to stay a lowly Karl, he’d probably live to curse his ingrate grandchildren in his old age. If he won a sword for himself on a Winter Viking, he’d probably be dead within the year on some doomed venture or ill-advised duel. Hrapp Squintbrow didn’t know yet that swords owe their wielders nothing. Grandchildren are a better investment. I became morose at that thought. Dark memories stirred. There had been a child of mine once.
I repeated my runes of forgetting, over and over.
Hrapp proceeded with his explanations. The beautiful woman with the chestnut hair was Jarl Eyvind’s wife Gudhrun, called Quick-tongue, for her wit and charm, supposedly.
“Don’t be fooled by beauty,” Hrapp told me. “That one has a heart as hard as her voice is soft. She bore our Jarl only daughters until he decked her in Viking gold. Skál!”
“Skál!” I replied, sipping at the mead with more caution.
Since last year’s raids, two squealing babies had arrived. The two heirs were brought out of the Bower at the back of the Hall where the women of the household lived. The twins were paraded in front of the guests as proof of the old Jarl’s virility – or mastery of his wife’s stubborn womb. A tall man bent over the babies. He wore a cloak of raven feathers and carried the rune-wand of a thul. This wizard applied ointment and runes to the babies’ lips and fingers.
“Their nurse left them unattended and they tried to eat hot embers that had fallen from the fire, as babies will,” Hrapp went on, pointing to the infants. “Lady Quick-Tongue had that thrall whipped to death.”
That sounded like firm discipline for thralls. In my current mood, it didn’t sound excessive. A light whipping would improve haughty Valka’s manners, I brooded. But I ignored the rest of Hrapp’s gossip. I spent my time instead studying the Jarl’s wife and his daughters, Gislaug and Ingimod and another one with an even more horrid name. Ingimod was dough-faced with her father’s hooked nose.
Ah, but Gislaug Eyvindsdotter. Gisla, they called her, lovely Gisla…
Gisla was slim as a willow wand, fair as a sheaf of summer wheat in the sun. Valka waited upon her and I had thought Valka the beauty until I laid my lone eye upon Gisla. Pale cheeks and red lips, hair of gold and eyes as grey as the summer sea. There had been another beauty once, like that, that turned her smiling face my way. Aye, but I will think no more about the past. I drank a toast to Gisla instead, whose loveliness reminded me of a happier day.
“There sits a treasure fit for a Viking,” I slurred after several more toasts to Gisla’s loveliness. “Gishla –” her name seemed to be defeating my tongue “- She’s why you’re all here, eh?” I nudged one of the Varangians behind me – it was Velmud, perhaps, or maybe Vermund – in what I thought was a discreet manner, but knocked over his drinking horn. “She must be married soon, to some lucky hero, am I right? Am I right?”
Hrapp caught my arm and pulled me away from the Easterners’ company, explaining something about the Yule Blót, but I wasn’t paying attention. Blood sacrifices bore me. All those hours standing around in a field or a beach, until some poor animal gets its throat slit. That did remind me of something I needed to know.
“Tell me, about the last skald – Olof, the fellow who was murdered?”
The worst threat to a poet is other poets. One that I know, Hord Silkbeard, was a travelling harper like me, once, till his silken couplets attracted the envy of a court poet with influence. A group of poetry-lovers visited Hord one night and they pulled his tongue out with hot pliers. Pulled other things out too. Now he sells seidh and his own backside on the wharves of Hirsk to out-of-luck pirates and homesick Finns. Hord Silkbeard was unfortunate with his couplets and now he couples most unfortunately. It’s a fraught business, creating art.
Hrapp started explaining something about an orchard but then fell silent. Something was taking place.
The tall man in the raven cloak had taken to his feet. I groaned. When a thul opens his mouth, he’ll use every word he knows before closing it again. This fellow’s unkempt beard was worthy of Harald Tanglehair, but black and streaked with white.
“Where is the newcomer,” he boomed in the theatrical tone all thular use in public, “that bears Odhinn’s Gift on his lips?”
That was my cue. As a skald, I was the bearer of Odhinn’s Gift – poetry. I stood up and turned around so that everyone could get a good look at me. I kept my eye patch on. The warriors grinned through their beer-soaked beards. The Varangians folded their brightly-inked arms. They knew what was coming.
“Lodhinn am I,” the tall man announced: “Thul and sage, wise in the runes of men and elfs, learned in saga and song, troll-crafty am I, Knud’s son they call me, and Eyvind Eythorsson is my lord.”
A bit pompous and I didn’t like that ‘learned in saga and song’ stuff. That was supposed to be my job! This Lodhinn seemed to think he could fill the old skald’s boots without me.
“Lodhinn Knudsson, be hale!” I replied, smiling broadly while wishing him dead. “Eirik Glee am I, skald and harper, not unwise in runes nor uncrafty in troll-lore, a master of song and saga am I, riddles I weave, Odhinn’s friend they call me –” I flipped up the eye patch to show my bare socket, to gasps from the audience “– and Eyvind Eythorsson will be my lord and I his praise-singer.”
It wasn’t bad, though I say it myself. I had trodden on Lodhinn’s toes in a gentle way by claiming to know as much about runes and trolls as any thul. Heads swivelled back to the tall man. Lodhinn was clearly the sort who didn’t waste a smile on anything less than a drowning cat, but his lips hooked upwards now as he prepared his evil Nidh.
“Eirik One-Eye? Such a one it was
Who fled the field, fearful of harm,
Surrendering sight as well as sword;
Are you that youth, that yelled for mercy
And soiled his stockings when spears advanced?
Now Eirik Netherwetter, this Nidh I name!”
Strong words! Me, a coward, wetting myself in fear on the battlefield? It was a routine insult really, but the audience loved it. The jolly Danes showed themselves to be comedians by going through a pantomime of examining my nethers for telltale stains and my boots for puddles of piss.
But the trick with a Nidh is how you react to it. If you flush and clench your fists, then everyone sees it’s under your skin. Then they’ll never hear your reply for laughing.
I kept my calm and spread out my fingers, examining my nails for flecks of dirt.
When he’d done, I carried on with my grooming. In a contest like this, it was up to me to reply, insult for insult. This was my reply:
“Lodhinn Knudsson, late do you linger!
I counsel you creep away while I craft my Nidh
And bury your beard in your mother’s breast.”
My Nidh was taking shape nicely. A suggestion of cowardice back in his face and I’d brought his mother’s breasts into it too! All this and only the third line! The warriors banged the benches in appreciation. I reminded myself that poets were murdered in these parts. Keep things friendly, I told myself: friendly and polite.
Then mischievous Odhinn whispered something into my mind and my Nidh went off in a different direction.
“But maybe your mother’s a mysterious sight?
Black is your beard but your bristles are white
Has a beast like a badger birthed you one night
When your father, wine-fuddled, loved it like a wife?
Do you too loose your loins in the creature’s lust-hole!
The badge ‘Lodhinn Badgerfucker’, on you I bestow.”
Lodhinn’s eyes hardened.
Had I gone too far?
Had I gone too far, just like Hord Silkbeard? A hint of cowardice, mother’s breasts, standard stuff for an insult contest; why didn’t I leave it at that? Why did I have to go too far?
Then everyone laughed.
They banged their drinking horns on the tables and roared with delight, brawny warriors and toothless men, even the thralls. ‘Badgerfucker’ was on everyone’s lips. The Varangians had to have it explained, then declared it the finest Nidh outside of Rus, which from an Easterner is the highest praise imaginable.
Lodhinn fliched. The clatter of drinking vessels on the benches became a drumbeat.
The Jarl stood up and silenced the room. He had a crooked nose like an eagle that made him look commanding when he roused himself. This was the moment of truth. If my Nidh was a slander, I’d find myself dining in a dungeon tonight.
Jarl Eyvind glared at me as did his chestnut-haired wife in the pretty dress. Then he turned to Lodhinn, who was shaking with the fury of a dishonoured man. The thul’s crazy hair had, if anything, even more white in it now among the black.
Jarl Eyvind passed his hand over his mouth. Was he hiding a smile?
“Badgerfucker!” he chuckled.
Then he snorted. Lodhinn sagged, his humiliation complete. Jarl Eyvind pointed at me.
“Be hale, Eirik Glee, and be my skald.”
More roaring and giant Danes pounding my shoulders. A close call? It was tempting to blame Odhinn for my perverse inspiration, but it was probably being embarrassed by that slave girl Valka that made me want to punish someone so badly.
“My skald, Eirik Glee,” the Jarl bellowed, “has been tempted here from the court of King Harald to sing for us this Yule!”
Well, that wasn’t entirely true, was it? But I wasn’t going to correct Jarl Eyvind on that point. Besides, I did know Harald Tanglehair, though nothing would tempt me back to his poisonous court.
“Badgerfucker!” cried Hrapp, clenching my hand in his and wiping tears from his cheeks with the other. “Brilliant! Bring mead. Mead for our poet! Skál!”
I relaxed and accepted their congratulations. I would be asked to perform again, many times, tonight, but I would need to keep things sensible. Standard sagas, old riddles stuff everyone knows. No more mad improvisation. No more dishonouring important people. But first, lots of mead. I held out my drinking horn to be filled.
The mead, smelling of honey and spice, streamed into my lap. I yelled as the cold liquor soaked into my thighs.
The girl Valka held out the serving bowl, now empty. She glanced at my crotch and her pretty brow wrinkled.
“You soiled your nethers,” she said. “Skál!”
She flounced away. I wanted to shake her like the doll she was, but the delighted Danes started back-slapping again, hooting in my ears and shoving their own mead horns under my nose. There was nothing for it but to join in the joke.
As I watched Valka move down the other aisles, ignoring my angry stare but making a great display of smiling to everyone else, I realised that I’d made enemies of the first two people I’d met tonight.
Then the laughter died on everyone’s lips.
The doors to the hall opened and the storm blew in, making the fires roar and smoke. The curtains parted. A red-headed woman entered, her handsome face disfigured by shrieking.
“My boy… look what it did to my boy…!”
I think that was the moment for me when the gates of the Underworld opened and my old ghosts returned. My Wyrd closed around me like the net that traps the twisting fish.
The woman’s knees weakened and she fell. The bundle in her arms unravelled, spilling its content onto the floor. The bloody object had been a boy once. Its hands and feet had been cut off and that was not all. Above the chin and between the ears, an eyeless skull peered out of the boy’s head.
The child’s face had been cut away, cut away and stolen.
I had not come all this way for this. Silver and gold had brought me to the Golden-Roofed Hall – and safety from King Harald’s vicious henchmen. Now here I was in a place where they murdered poets! Under my breath, I added a few unkind names of my own to Odhinn’s many titles. The one-eyed god had contrived to land me somewhere I didn’t want to be - somewhere even more hostile than Kaupang, if that could be imagined.
And how had I come to be here? You’ll be wanting to know about murder and the thief of faces, yes, but that will come about soon enough. First you must understand something about me and my crooked Wyrd and the way my mischievous god tricked me into doing his dark work in Thurstang.
And it came about in this manner.
It all began in a brewery in Kaupang, where I was sitting with no silver and no girl, and if that sounds like the fate of the inglorious dead you wouldn’t be far wrong. It wasn’t one of the nice breweries either. You see, the town was glutted with King Harald’s fawning poets and all ears were deaf to my glees and riddles. The boy-king’s revolting Berserks were wrecking all the finer taverns and the prices had shot up. I didn’t think the sentence of death Harald put on me at our last meeting still applied, but the thought depressed me. I needed a new plan and a plan needs someone with money to fund it.
That’s why I marked Hrapp Squintbrow when he entered the sooty hall. I didn’t know his name was Hrapp, of course, but I guessed his by-name from the way his eyes darted to left and right, bulging like a frog’s. He carried a jangling purse and had the look of a man keen to spend what was in it. I pulled up my hood to shadow my own empty eye socket and beckoned him over.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” I said in what I call my Odhinn-voice, deep and impressive.
Hrapp startled at that, because back then he didn’t know me from old bones. I didn’t even smirk. I’d been through this many times.
“That silver you carry will purchase a service for your lord. Share a coin with me and I’ll be your guide in this town.”
The hood, the deep voice, the I’ve-been-expecting-you routine, it makes strangers think they are meeting a sorcerous Finn or rune-reading Thul. Hrapp blinked again, which wasn’t a pretty sight, given the way his eyeballs rolled around inside his skull.
“How do you know…?”
At this point, I pull customers in like flapping fishes. Holding Hrapp’s gaze with my left eye, I tipped back the hood to let him see the gaping socket on the other side of my face.
“Allfather Odhinn!” exclaimed Hrapp piously.
My empty eye often got that reaction. My one-eyed god Odhinn has a reputation for wandering this Middle World, hiding under gallows and lurking in graveyards and rushing out to frighten people with his famous deformity. Our resemblance is profitable for me, but I doubt the Allfather takes much pride in it. He’s a mischievous god, is Odhinn, and a wise man keeps him at a distance. But I’m not wise in that way.
“Have a care, Squintbrow!” I boomed, thoroughly enjoying my Odhinn-impression. “The Gallows Lord will not be mocked. Show me your silver.”
Hrapp pulled out the purse. He tugged at the cords and coins spilled out, but then the squinter lived up to his by-name and peered at me with his unsteady eyeballs.
“What do you know about my lord, stranger?”
He placed his hand over the coins.
“That he rewards his humble servants as if they were warrior hearthmen,” I said, noting the gold rings Squintbrow wore on his wrist and his lack of a sword. “In your eagerness to serve him, you have travelled by sea and even taken the oars yourself.”
This impressed Squintbrow, as well it should. But it was no great mystery. I’d seen his furs were stiff with salt, like most men fresh from the sea, and, in the firelight, I could see fresh calluses on his soft hands.
“This is surely sorcery,” he breathed.
I didn’t want to disappoint him, so I said nothing.
Hrapp introduced himself and prattled about his sea journey, as if no one had ever thrown up over the side of a longship before him. I kept my eye on his silver. Since finding myself with just one eye, I suppose I’ve learned to use it a bit better than most people use their two. Being observant and drawing conclusions is a bit like solving riddles, which I’m good at too, but it looks like necromancy when you tell people things about themselves that their own mothers don’t know. It’s a talent that had earned me beers and coins on previous occasions. Hrapp Squintbrow was about to offer me both.
“Beers, beers for myself and my friend!” Hrapp announced, pulling at the apron of one of the brewer’s wenches.
The girl was a plump creature with saucy lips and I’d spent the afternoon propositioning her to no end, although my cheek was no longer a stranger to the flat of her palm. She scowled at me, but returned quickly with a keg of beer and two drinking bowls. Hrapp dropped a coin into her apron pocket then held up another for her to see and dropped that after the first.
“For special treatment,” he leered. “Don’t wander too far!”
The girl didn’t look delighted with the assignation, but nodded. Squintbrow rubbed his sore hands together as he watched her go. What is it about a sea journey, I reflected, that makes a man so eager to couple when his boots hit dry land? I advised myself that, the next time I travelled, I would keep a cold space between my dignity and the first woman I met on shore.
“To my lord, Jarl Eyvind Eythorsson,” Hrapp cried, raising his drinking bowl in a toast, “to my Lord of the Golden Roofed Hall. Skál!”
That was the moment when I was misled by a metaphor. A Golden Roofed Hall! My poet’s mind came alive with tales of Asgardh, where the immortal gods feast, and the gilded treasure-hall of Old King Hroar. I stopped scheming for beer and silver pennies. A grander prize formed in my mind: to be court poet – a skald! – in a Golden Roofed Hall! For the first time since fleeing Harald’s court, I was stirred by ambition.
“Skál!” I replied.
I yanked the hood back over my head and ducked low over the table.
Here was the reason why. A group of King Harald’s Berserks had entered the brewery. I have enough reasons to be nervous around Berserks. They are Odhinn’s folk too, but the inspiration the Gallows God gives out to them is very different from the sort he whispers to us poets. Berserks howl and scratch themselves like beasts, they pull their clothes off, they bite people. I’ve seen those madmen run out naked onto the battlefield, throwing themselves onto enemy spears. They think they’re bears. The Wulfhedhnar are even worse. They think they’re wolves.
They were wild-looking even for their kind, with their filthy hair braided into tangles in imitation of the boy-king they doted on. I didn’t recognise them, but that wouldn’t stop them recognising me. My one eye is distinctive.
“Eyvind Eythorsson is my lord,” cried Hrapp, so that the room could hear, “and he’s the Jarl of Thurstang!”
I wished he would shut up and enjoy his beer. His boasting drew the attention of the Berserks, who looked across to us with a mixture of irritation and amusement. Drunken Berserks are slightly less fractious than sober ones, but, since you never meet a sober Berserk, it hardly matters.
“His Golden Roofed Hall is filling with warriors eager for renown,” Hrapp went on, twisting around to draw everyone in the room into our conversation, “but our skald, Olof Greywhiskers, is dead and the Jarl seeks a new poet!”
I pressed my forehead onto the table and wished myself elsewhere. One of the Berserks had roused himself and approached. He stood over our table now, reeking of stale beer and dead enemies.
“All the poets in this town sing the praises of King Harald,” he slurred. “Your Jarl should be here too, pledging his sword, to join the war against the Goths!”
“Let me tell you, there’s no more loyal vassal to King Harald than my lord!” Hrapp protested, then added “Ow!”
I had kicked him, of course, under the table. You don’t argue with Berserks. You offer them alcohol and if that doesn’t soothe them, a woman. But Hrapp was from somewhere up-country where the bear-cult wasn’t strong. The only Berserks he’d be familiar with would be broken-down old veterans and ale-bloated braggarts. But these fellows were lean and rangy killers and King Harald’s favour was their licence to kill whom they pleased.
“Who’s this?” growled the Berserk, prodding me as I sat with my face hidden.
“A sorcerer!” Hrapp answered. “A sorcerer with only one –”
I wanted to kick him again before he could mention my eye, but I didn’t get the chance. The Berserk grabbed my hair and yanked me upright.
“Sorcerer? I’d like to see some seidh magic!” he bellowed.
But he was drowned out by his comrades. A fight had broken out, as it always does when Berserks are in town. One wildman had snatched some girl from the lap of a seaman and he, poor fool, had risen to defend the girl’s honour, or his own. Their table was tipped over, the girl screamed, an axe was brandished.
A roar, like a beast emerging from its winter cave, rattled the roof beams. The dead man’s head rolled across the floor, but I didn’t attend to that. Nor did anyone else. All eyes were on the other Berserk who had killed him. This man thrashed on the floor, spitting and howling. He was hamasking, going through his berserker transformation. Once it was complete, he’d probably kill everyone in the room.
I flopped back onto the table. The Berserk at my side rushed to his comrade along with his friends. They named runes and massaged the madman’s scalp and sang soothing little songs to put the bear in him back to sleep. The best people to deal with Berserks are other Berserks, which is all they’re good for in my view.
“This man’s blood-price,” cried our Berserk, pointing to the severed head that lay in the corner of the room with a surprised expression on its face, “will be paid by King Harald.” He scattered coins across the floor. They glinted in the pool of blood that spread from the dead man’s corpse. “Drink, everyone, to Harald the Victory-Giver!”
There were a few weak cheers to that. We all watched as the Berserks carried their frothing comrade out of the hall. The brewer watched them go and, once the door had closed on them, sent his shaven-headed thralls to roll the body in a rug and put the head in a sack and start clearing up.
The rest of us, who had barely breathed during the entire exchange, discovered ourselves to be powerfully thirsty. The wenches similarly discovered gratitude and appreciation for their regular clientele. They came out with full bowls of better ale and served us all a generous stoup while the slaves mopped the blood from the floor.
Hrapp recovered from his shock. He pulled his silver bangles down to his wrist and kissed each one, breathing thanks to the gods, goddesses and elfs that he was still alive. Then he remembered his mission for the Jarl of Thurstang.
“This silver,” he explained, gathering the pennies together into a pile, “is to tempt a new skald to winter with us and sing praise-songs. If skalds flock to King Harald’s court, I’ll go there to recruit the finest…”
I didn’t want to listen to any more teeth clattering the praise of King Tanglehair (and more of that self-righteous maniac at another time). More importantly, Hrapp was my passage out of this town, away from Harald and his ghastly henchmen.
“Look no further, I am your new poet!”
“You? But you’re a seidhman?”
Well, I didn’t like that! ‘Sorcerer’ has a touch of glamour to it, but a ‘seidhman’ is a male prostitute with a gift for clairvoyance and access to drugs.
“Seidhman?” I spluttered. “I’m a skald!”
“You do magic.”
“Poetry,” I told him, “is the greatest magic of all!”
“I’m not sure…” Hrapp muttered. “I have my orders…”
He rose to leave. I saw my passage to a Golden Roofed Hall slipping away. Those Berserks had shown me what fate waited for me here in Kaupang.
“What are orders,” I added, catching his sleeve, “compared to the power of Wyrd?”
Wyrd – all-powerful Fate! Hrapp was a superstitious man. Here was my chance.
“Yes, Wyrd!” I continued. “It was Wyrd that brought you to this brewery, Wyrd that brought you to my table.”
It’s strange how people respond to being told about their Wyrd, especially if they’re doing something disreputable. Hrapp was here to spend some of his lord’s coins on beer and wenches and now here I was, telling him this was all part of Wyrd’s inscrutable destiny. It’s a very cheering thought for a guilty conscience.
“You think so?”
“It was Wyrd that brought me here too,” I told him. “It is Wyrd that you and I return to your Golden Roofed Hall together.”
Hrapp Squintbrow studied the purse. His thoughts moved in a happy direction.
“I won’t need all this money for my commission,” I said, lifting the purse from his hands and tipping half the coins into my palm. I was still shaking from the business with the Berserk. I spilled the rest of the coins on the table. “The rest are for you – as a finder’s fee!”
Wyrd and self-enrichment, what a powerful combination! Hrapp needed no more persuading and I allowed myself to be hired. The rest of the coins went into the apron of the beer-wench and her eager sisters and many cries of “Skál!” followed. I drank far more than I should and confided more in Hrapp than was wise, but I think he was too fuddled to recall much of it. I was escaping from Kaupang and from Harald. I was leaving danger behind. That was worth celebrating!
We sat the girls on our laps and investigated their charms, but the beer made fools of us and in the end we slept, Hrapp and I, side-by-side under the table, while the wenches robbed us of the coins left unattended.
The next day, I joined Hrapp at the bow of the returning ship. We took it in turns to spew into the waves as the lights of Kaupang dropped away beneath the mountains and the sky. One by one, they winked out and I congratulated myself on a wily escape. A new life lay ahead, the life of a skald to a wealthy Jarl in a Golden Roofed Hall.
A life far away from King Harald, a life with no Berserks in it.
A life without thoughts of Fridha, without our faceless child.
A life where old ghosts would not follow and Odhinn’s spite would pursue me no further.
I was wrong about that, of course.
The mists cleared from the fjord. Our longship glided in. Dripping wharves appeared and mean houses huddled together. Another out-of-the-way fjord, another backwater town. Over the rooftops, the mead hall rose up on timbers. Here was the famous Golden Roofed Hall.
The famous golden roof was just thatched straw, now mildewed green after the rains of autumn. Straw it was, not gold at all.
Not gold at all!
I felt like blaming Hrapp for my disappointment, but it was my own fault. Me, a poet, taken in by a simple metaphor! I wanted to spit with disgust, but it was so cold the spittle froze on my beard,. I settled for cursing, drawing on the private parts of trolls and gods equally. What was I doing in this wintry midden?
Thurstang, they called this place. It sheltered on a fjord that snaked between two brooding peaks. The firs marched up to where the thunder lurked around the mountaintops. I sniffed the air. Even my landsman’s nose could smell a storm coming up through the straits.
Filthy chunks of ice bobbed in the waters and creaked against the sides of the ship. The fog thickened. The storm was going to be a bad one.
Thurstang. I examined my new home through the dusk. The tanning pits beyond the wharves reeked even in the cold. The waters churned with blood from the slaughter pens. Cattle came here to be turned into boots and belts and all things leather. I would be eating a lot of beef this winter, that much was certain.
My new friend Hrapp Squintbrow pulled himself onto the wharf, shouting for the harbour master, who didn’t appear. The oarsmen loaded goods onto the wharfside. I stayed put. This vessel would surely turn back for Kaupang. I would stay aboard and escape to warm taverns and inexpensive whores and risk the fury of King Harald’s henchmen.
But that was not my Wyrd and, twist as he may, no man escapes his fate. At any rate, I wasn’t escaping mine. Thunder rumbled. Behind us, the open sea was lost in an oncoming darkness. The storm was blowing in.
I had come to Thurstang and its Golden Roofed Hall, for better or worse, and I would not be leaving soon. The god Odhinn would have his jest at my expense after all.
Harbour torches roared and flapped in the rising wind. Sleet came with it. I clutched the satchel with my harp in it. It was time to get inside. Though I’d landed in a sewer, it would at least be a warm one. Surely, Odhinn’s spite was satisfied now?
I was wrong about that, of course.
“Hrapp,” I called to my companion as he climbed the steps to the Hall. “What exactly happened to your last poet, old Olof?”
Hrapp shouted an answer and the wind caught his reply and blew it away. I saw him make his introductions and enter. Now it was my turn. Two guards waited at the doors, their arms folded.
There are formalities for getting into a mead hall, even when there’s no one inside but a bunch of old women beating the moths out of the tapestries. When there’s an event, like a big Yule Feast, then the sentries want to earn their silver. This means lengthy introductions, with the sentries under the eaves, close to their big warm braziers, and you standing in the rain, shivering and sneezing. You have to name yourself and your tribe and all your ancestors back to a god. Then you hand over your weapons and if you’ve got a sword, like me, then you have to name that and all its owners and everyone it ever killed, all the way back to the smith that forged it. If the sentries are feeling mischievous, they will make you repeat it and try to catch you out.
I pulled a patch over my empty eye-socket and began my family tree.
“Eirik Glee am I, son of…”
“Just hand over the sword.”
“Really?” I shouted over the gale. “Don’t you want to know who I’ve killed with it?”
I’ve got half a dozen different ancestries memorised for different occasions and twice as many blood-soaked histories for my sword, Tunga. It’s important your sword has killed people the locals might have heard of, but no one they are related to. That takes good judgement. And yes, I own a sword. I was a warrior once, before I lost my eye.
The two sentries pulled their fur cloaks tight across their throats. One was an older man, the other a youth. Their fingers were already blue.
“You’re the poet, aren’t you?” said the older guard. “That’s what Hrapp says. Do you kill people with poems? Now hand over the sword and get inside.” He had an iron-grey beard and a patient, humourless manner.
“Tunga,” I said, handing the sword over.
“Your sword’s called ‘Tongue’?”
“Yes. Because it’s so sharp,” I said, trying to grin through my chattering teeth.
The older guard looked at me as if I was elf-struck then shook his head. He looked like the sort of person who preferred blades called Blood-Guzzler and Widow-Maker. He wrapped my sword in a roll of wool and placed it in the store box under the steps.
“Get in then,” he said. “The Yule Feast is starting. Be hale!”
“Be hale!” I replied, glad to be away from these glum guards and the plummeting temperature. I stepped through the doors and had a moment of confusion among the heavy drapes that kept out the cold. I thrashed about looking for the slit in the curtain. Then someone caught my hand and pulled me through. I stepped into the light.
When a bird flies in through the open window of a feast hall, it’s stunned by the light and the noise. You can see it, zooming around the pillars, bumping into the walls in its confusion, until it finds another window out, back into the stormy night. I felt as the bird must. Voices boomed in my ears and the odour of roast meat filled my nostrils. Plates of silver and gold lining the walls dazzled me. I gripped my guide’s hand and came face to face with the girl.
She was lovely. Small and delicate, with wide laughing lips and sky blue eyes under a fringe as dark as a raven’s wing. Her skin was clear and clean, like those dolls they make in Rus. There’s something about sea-journeys that makes a man giddy around women.
“You must be a goddess,” I told her.
Her smile widened. “Thank you,” she said with a strange accent. A blush crept up to her throat.
I was composing another gallant remark when I noticed how her hair was shorn short. My goddess was no lady. She was a thrall, a slave girl.
How awkward. No sooner into the hall and I’m flirting with the slaves. Some people consider that to be coveting their property.
“Show me to the guests’ bench.” I had to repeat it, louder, because of the noisy feast going on around me. “The bench! Take me there!”
She drew me towards the benches at the side of the hall. The clamour died down.
“Valka,” the girl said, “I’m Valka.”
I didn’t reply for two reasons. For one, I was looking at this young woman. She was extremely short. The goddesses Freyja and Frigga had blessed her with all the womanly gifts and in delightful proportion to her elf-like height.
Then I noticed the table we had arrived at. A row of faces looked up, slack-jawed, with porridge dripping from their lips. Each of them had ghastly short-cropped hair.
“This is the Thrall’s Bench!” I cried.
I snatched my hand away. Two or three slaves, realising Valka’s mistake, grinned and nudged one another.
“But I thought you were one of us!” Valka stamped her foot. It was a haughty gesture at odds with her low station and height. “What did you mean by what you said to me?”
The wretched girl had taken my compliment too seriously. A beauty like her, stuck in this backwoods place, must hope for a visitor to come one day, with a handsome thrall in tow. Here was I, my hair slicked down with sleet, reduced to my third-best shirt, having pawned my better ones. She had taken me, not the honoured guest, but the honoured guest’s slave!
“What did you say to her?”
That was Hrapp’s voice. His squint took in the Thralls’ Bench, Valka’s blush and back to me.
“He called me his goddess!” Valka replied.
The impudent cat drew herself up to her full height, which wasn’t much, and tipped up her chin like a princess. The other thralls, being a coarse bunch, hooted with merriment.
“Goddess, aye, the goddess of –” but my normal hoard of words was empty “– of dwarfs!”
Not my finest put-down, but it wasn’t the most sophisticated audience. The thralls loved it, the menfolk anyway and some of the spiteful girls with plainer faces. A couple of the older women supported Valka, who swayed before the unkind laughter.
Hrapp laughed too as he pulled me away.
“Thralls!” he explained. “The pranks they get up to. But watch out for little Valka. She’s a great favourite of the Lady Gisla and the Lady Gisla does no wrong in this hall.”
There was something I needed to know from Hrapp, but it had been driven from my mind. I glanced behind me. The girl sat with her own kind now, but I saw her pale face staring after me with a look that would open graves.
Hrapp led me between the benches and I studied my new home. The benches were full of warriors. Not just the muscled toughs who mooch around the fjords every winter looking for hospitality, but some proper Vikings showing off their scars, even some tattooed Varangians from the faraway East. Had I been wrong about this place? The outside was a thatched barn, but there was real sword-power under the roof. That’s when I remembered what had been bothering me.
“Hrapp!” I shouted in his ear. “You were telling me, what happened to the last poet?”
“He was murdered!” Hrapp replied. He pushed me into a bench and sat opposite me. “Horribly murdered. Here, drink some beer. And welcome to Thurstang.”
Continued in Chapter 2