Chapter one


John Snow, The Slayer Rune, 2nd edition
Sigurd straightened his cloak. Standing under the farm tree, he peered down the sloping fields, watching Grim's house at the edge. He wanted to visit Grim but also make sure that the old man was alone. Grim shared his little house with two of the farm girls: Hild and her sister, Yljali.
  It was a clear morning, a bit chilly, but the sun was already warming up the barley fields. Among the spikes of corn, small wisps of mist drifted and dispersed like fleeting vettir, the fickle spirits of the land. Sigurd had hoped to catch a glimpse of Yljali on her way to work, but he saw no one along the path. There were no signs of life around Grim's house, but further down, along the seashore, the harbour was bustling with activity.
  And no wonder, Sigurd thought. Today the king was coming to Vik.
  Down by the nausts, the boathouses, he could see that yet another knorr had arrived. Now the men were busy unloading the ship; yelling and pointing and wading the water, the crew carried barrels and bales on their shoulders. Vik was a trading centre and the landing a shallow beach with poles poking up through the water. The heavy-loaded knorr was tied to one of the stakes. Outside the vessel a fleet of emptied ships were floating high, swirling round their anchors.

  Looking out the fjord, Sigurd saw even more boats moving into the bay. The narrow Vikfjord ran southwestwards with farms spreading on the banks. At the outer end, to the east, Howlinghead rose, a mountain with watch-guards and a wooden signal fire. Further out: Host Island and the Seal Skerries. Watching the sea road, Sigurd knew the king would not come by way of water. His retinue would arrive on horse and foot.

  "Grim is alone, but you had better help your brother; he is sorting out weapons."
  Tora, Sigurd's mother, came up beside him. She wore fine clothes as usual. Today, with the king coming, her brooches glittered with meandering snakes wrought in gold.
  So, she knew Grim was alone, Sigurd thought, watching the hut down the slope, but he was not surprised. His mother was mistress at Vik; in her belt she carried a large ring with keys to all the coffers and chests. Even if Hild and Yljali were thralls, they worked as maids under his mother's command. Naturally she would know where they were. Sigurd knew, however, that his mother had her own reasons for keeping an eye on the girls.

  Sigurd turned around and gazed in the direction his mother was pointing. In the yard he saw Hakon, his brother, fly – or flee – towards the weapons stores. His brother had a strange way of walking or loping; with slow strides he was moving amazingly fast.
  In the opposite direction of Hakon, Harald, their father, came stomping. He had donned his blue chieftain's coat and strapped on his best sword. His father was huge and angry, and Sigurd realized his mother's bidding was in fact a warning. To get at his father first, Sigurd started following Hakon.
  "Where are you going?" his father asked when they met.
  "To the weapons room," Sigurd answered.
  "Very good," his father said, a little taken aback. "But make sure you change clothes before King Godred arrives!" He pointed at Sigurd's worn cloak and breeches, as if Sigurd cared. He loved his old clothes, and besides, he had recently cut his hair. His hair was long and fair; it was sheared off at the shoulders.

  Sigurd continued walking, and despite the hint of rebuke, he felt he had got the better of his father. Striding on, he could see that his brother had fared worse, far worse. Hakon was three years his elder, but his brother was mute; he couldn't speak, and their father hated him for it.
  Now Hakon's head and shoulders were hanging down; he suffered.

  The weapons room lay at the end of the hall. It had two doors, one to the hall-room, and one to the yard. Hakon Mute was heading for the outer door, where Gisli was leaning on the frame. Gisli the Armourer was smiling in the door opening, his sword hanging by his side. He was one of very few who cared talk to Hakon, even if he never received an answer. Gisli was captain-of-arms at Vik, leader of the fighters, which meant he also took care of the weapons stores.
  Gisli greeted Hakon, and when Sigurd arrived, they entered the room. In the dim light of a torch, Sigurd could see weapons and armour all around. Leather mail was hanging on the wall, and helmets lay stacked on a table. Throwing and stabbing spears stood in rows, along with axes in all shapes, most of them long-handled. Some of the weapons, like the boarding axes, were intended for fighters manning the war-ship, the drakkar, but most of the gear was kept for the land-troops, summoned in times of war.
  No rare chain-mail or valuable swords were stored in the room; the house-troops kept their own weapons. His father had seven men-at-arms at the farm: the gard-wardens, strong fellows who loved fighting. On fair days they were training in the courtyard. Then the warriors dressed up in ring-mail and helmets. They fought with swords, they threw spears, and they practised with bow and arrow. The young boys, like Sigurd and Hakon, were also taught how to fight. Sigurd was good at sword, but Hakon Mute was better.

  Inside the room, along the wall facing the yard, the training gear was lined up near the door. Sigurd and Hakon started to carry out wooden swords and steel swords with blunted blades. They fetched spears and oily coils of rope; they were preparing for swordplay and other competitions. On the outside, in the bright morning light, they sorted out the best weapons, and Sigurd was impressed by how well Gisli kept the old tackle.
  Only the best warriors used their own weapons at swordplay; they knew how to fight without notching the edges. All others used blunted swords; the youngsters had to use wooden ones.
  Sigurd held up a wooden blade and swung it in the air. It was just as heavy as an ordinary sword; it had a core of iron. He used to like competitions, but during the king's visits he had to fight the king's son, and he always lost. He didn't like that.
  While picking and trying weapons, Sigurd noticed that more people had arrived at Vik. All around the yard traders were putting up sale stalls; they were pitching tents and setting up tables. In front of him women and boys were carrying hides and furs, axe heads and hammerheads: all kinds of goods.

  The Vik farmyard was large. The hall and the huge yard-tree lay closest to the fjord, and behind the rest of the buildings lay in a square. There was the cook-house of stone, and the storehouses standing on stilts. In a row, at the opposite side of the yard, the pig house stood, and the barns, and the hay-sheds. The slaves lived in their own barn, behind the pigsty.
  Traders were still arriving, and the sale stalls were now encircling the whole farmyard; the booths had started to close in on the open area in the middle of the yard. Gisli the Armourer saw it and shook his head.
  Gisli was off, and after a while he came back with a bundle of willow twigs. Pointing and directing, he told Sigurd and Hakon to mark out spaces for spear throwing and a running course. "We don't need stockfishmongers haggling in the middle of the running track," he said.

  The brothers hadn't started planting sticks, before Sigurd saw the traders turning their heads; across the yard Hild and Yljali were heading for the cooking house. Both girls were dressed in ordinary short-sleeved maid suits with twined belts around their waists. But plain clothes could not hide Hild's voluptuous body, and Sigurd could see why the traders stood gaping.
  Hild was no doubt the most beautiful woman at Vik. She was tall with long raven hair. She had dark eyes, large lips, and bursting breasts. Her name was Hild, even if her skin was dark. She was an Arab slave and had got her name from her Danish captor. Now she was his father's lover.
  Behind her sister, and less conspicuous, Yljali followed. She was young, even younger than Sigurd by a few winters. She was lovely too, and even more beautiful. Yljali was not as tall as Hild, but she had long, dark hair and brown, sad eyes. She had rounded breasts, not swaying like Hild's, but firmer. Sigurd thought her breasts curved like ripe apples. He felt shy watching her; his breath strained, and his heart started pounding.
  While Sigurd was staring at Yljali, he could sense that Hakon was glaring at Hild.

  Watching the sisters, Sigurd was glad no one had thought of changing Yljali's name. Silently, within, he mouthed her name, when Hild and Yljali suddenly stopped their walk. Towards them his mother and father came hurtling, quarrelling loudly. From some of the words, Sigurd could hear they were arguing over Hild – again.
  For the king's visit Sigurd's father had wanted to dress up Hild, obviously to show her off. But his mother wouldn't hear of it. Hild should wear ordinary clothes and not attract attention, she demanded. Hild was a simple thrall after all, a slave, she reminded his father.
  Listening to his mother's voice and watching his father's posture, Sigurd knew who would win the fight.

  At first, Sigurd had liked his father's idea. Dressing up Hild would probably mean that Yljali got finer clothes too. But as he thought it over, he realized his mother was right. Of late, the household fighters – and his father – had been studying Yljali's figure and discovered her growing beauty. With the king's band of warriors, his hird, roaming around, even greater dangers lay ahead, especially since the warriors would never dare to touch Hild, the chieftain's woman, his frille.
  King Godred would stay for three days, on veitsel it was called, and travelling with the king were all kinds of people: jugglers, fortune-tellers, and every sort of riff-raff, also seductive women. Excited people would drift in to Vik in great numbers; the courtyard would be packed. In such a throng you never knew what could happen.
  It was better Yljali stayed in the background.

  In the yard, pretending it didn't matter, that he did not care, his father lost the argument, but Sigurd could see that he left the row in a rage. With little hope of finer clothes, Hild and Yljali started towards the cookhouse. Sigurd's mother, the undisputed mistress, went into the hall.
  The episode was over, and when again the traders were busy stacking their wares, Hakon Mute turned his head towards Sigurd and made a quick, throat-cutting gesture with his hand. Believing he meant their father, Sigurd started to laugh. But his laughter choked when he saw the black hatred in Hakon's eyes.
  His brother was not joking.


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