The Thief of Faces
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