All young Eyvind ever wanted was to become a great Viking warrior—a Wolfskin—and perform honorable deeds out in the name of his War fathergod, Thor. He can think of no future more glorious. And the chance to make it happen is his when his older brother Ulf is brought the tale of a magical land across the sea, a place where men with courage could go to conquer a land and bring glory to themselves. They set out to find this fabled land and discover a windswept and barren place, but one filled with unexpected beauty and hidden treasures... and a people who are willing to share their bounty.
Ulf's new settlement begins in harmony with the natives of the isles led by the gentle king Engus. And Eyvind finds a treasure of his own in the young Nessa, niece of the king, seer, and princess. His life will change forever as she claims his heart for her own.
But someone has come along to this new land who is not what he seems. Eyvind's heart friend, Somerled, the strange and lonely boy Eyvind befriended so long ago has a secret—and his own plans for the future. The blood oath that they swore in childhood binds them in lifelong loyalty, and Somerled is calling in the debt of honor. What he asks might just doom Evyind to kill the only thing that he has ever truly loved.
Will the price of honor create the destruction of all that Eyvind holds dear?
Critically acclaimed fantasist Juliet Marillier returns with the start of a new fantasy saga, a wonderful love story set amidst high adventure. Wolfskin, the first book in The Light Isles series, is a lush tale of the clash between the warlike Norsemen and the mysterious and magical people who live at the top of the world in the land that will become Scotland—and it is the story of the man and woman who forge a bond that will remake their world.
Release date: August 1, 2004
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Print pages: 496
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Winter bites hard in Rogaland. Sodden thatch shudders under its blanket of snow. Within the earthen barns sheep shiver and huddle, their breath small clouds. A man can lose himself in the drifts between byre and longhouse, and not be found again until the spring thaw. The pristine shroud that covers him is deep, but his long sleep is deeper still. In such a season the ice forms black and hard on lake and stream. For some, it is a good time: merchants whip their horses fast along the gleaming surface of the waterways, sledges piled high with pelts of squirrel and winter hare, with sealskins and oil and walrus tusks, with salt fish and fine embroidery. Boys dart across the river on their bone skates, quick as swallows, voices echoing away to lose themselves among the pale twigs of the winter birches.
It was Yuletide, and today there was no skating. The wind screamed around the temple, demanding entry through any chink or cranny its piercing fingers might discover. The timbers creaked and groaned in response, but held firm. So far, the roof had not leaked. Just as well he'd climbed up and shifted some of the weight off the shingles, Eyvind thought. The place would be full to bursting for the midwinter sacrifice.
Folk were already streaming into the valley, coming by sledge and on foot, on skis or skates, old men carried on their sons' backs, old women pulled on hurdles by red-faced children or panting dogs. The wind died down, as if holding its breath in honor of the occasion, but a new storm was coming. Dark clouds built in the west.
Eyvind had been working hard. The temple was on his mother's land, though shared by all in the surrounding district, so the burden of preparation fell squarely on the household at Hammarsby. He'd spent the morning chopping wood, stacking the pungent-smelling logs by the central hearth, making and banking the fire. It was nearly time for the ceremony; he should stir the coals now and put on more fuel. The white goat could be heard outside, bleating plaintively. His sisters had swept the stone floor clean and stripped the cobwebs from the rooftrees, while his mother, Ingi, polished the bronze surfaces of ritual knives and bowls to a bright, sunny sheen. These now lay ready on the altar at the temple's northern end. Cold light pierced the shingled roof above the hearth. From the altar, Thor's image stared down at Eyvind. Bushy browed, full-bearded, the god's wooden features held an expression of ferocious challenge. In his iron-gloved right hand he gripped the war hammer, Mjollnir; his left was held across his chest, to signify the making of some vow. Eyvind stared back, meeting Thor's gaze without blinking, and his own hand moved to his breast as if returning a pledge of allegiance. Till death, he thought Thor was saying, and he whispered his answer, "Till death and beyond."
The air was crisp and chill, the sacred space clean and quiet in the cold winter light. Later there would be a press of bodies in the temple, and it would be all too warm. As Eyvind used the iron poker to stir the embers to life, there was a sound from the entry behind him. He turned to see a tall, broad figure striding toward him, hair and beard touched to dark gold by the glow of the rekindled fire.
"Well, well, little brother! I swear you've doubled in size since the harvest!"
Eyvind felt a huge grin spreading across his face. "Eirik! You're home! Tell me where you've been, and what you've been doing! I want to hear eveything!"
His brother seized him in a brief, hard embrace, then stretched out his hands to warm them before the flames.
"Later, later," he laughed. "Time enough for all that after the sacrifice. We'll have many tales, for I do not come alone."
"Hakon is here too?" Eyvind asked eagerly. He admired Hakon almost as much as he did Eirik himself, for his brother's friend had earned his wolfskin at not quite sixteen, which was generally thought to be some sort of record.
"Hakon, and others," Eirik said, suddenly serious. "The Jarl's kinsman, Ulf, is with us; a fine man, and a friend of ours. He's brought his young brother and several of his household. They're on their way to Jarl Magnus's court. Ulf has a wish for some delicate silverwork, I think to impress a lady. I made it known to him that our sister's husband is skilled in this craft. They will spend some nights here, in any event; the storm looks likely to prevent further travel for a little. The Jarl himself was urgent for home. He has a new son, bred when we came back from the spring viking; he is gone ahead, but we have time before we must join him. He will not set out again before spring's seeding is attended to." He glanced at his brother, and his tone changed. "Eyvind? I've a favor to ask you."
There were new sounds from outside now, the rapid approach of many folk, voices raised in greeting.
"Later," Eirik said.
Eyvind asked him no further questions, though it was hard to wait. Eirik was his hero. Eirik was a Wolfskin. That was the most glorious calling in the whole world, for surely nothing could surpass the moment when you heard Thor's call to battle ringing in your ears, pulsing in your blood, filling every corner of your being with a red rage that shut out any thought of fear. To charge forward in pure courage, inspired by the god himself—that bold vision tugged at Eyvind's thoughts by day and filled his dreams by night. What matter if a Wolfskin's life were short? Such a warrior, once fallen, would be carried straight to Thor's right hand. One day he himself would pass the test, and become one of that band to which Eirik and Hakon belonged, as had many of Eyvind's kin in times past. The men of Hammarsby had a noble tradition in the Warfather's service. So Eyvind practiced with the bow and with the axe. He ran and climbed, he skated and swam. He shoveled snow and hunted and grew strong, awaiting that day. Eirik's tales kept his dreams alive. Later, perhaps his brother would tell of the autumn viking, the riches plundered, the battles won.
The folk of the district crowded into the temple, along with the men of Jarl Magnus's household, warrior and swineherd side by side. The high seat, its wooden pillars carved with many small creatures, was allocated to Ulf, kinsman of the Jarl, and by him stood the two Wolfskins, gold-bearded Eirik and the taller, hawk-featured Hakon. Each wore his short cloak of shaggy fur, fastened on the shoulder with an ornate silver brooch. Both were well armed: Eirik had the lethal skeggox, or hewing axe, on his back, and Hakon bore a fine sword, its hilt plated with copper. The nobleman, Ulf, was young: not so much older than Eirik himself, Eyvind thought. He had many folk with him, probably housecarls called into service for the autumn viking, with a few richly dressed men who might be part of Jarl Magnus's household elite, or Ulf's own retainers.
Eyvind's eldest brother, Karl, began the ceremony, his solemn features glowing warm in the fire's light. Eyvind was pleased with that fire; the smoke was rising cleanly through the roof opening to disperse in the cold air outside. Karl was no warrior. His choice had been to stay at home and husband the land, his brothers' portions as well as his own. It was a decision that, in hindsight, had been both wise and prudent, for their father, Hallvard Karlsson, had died in his prime, falling nobly in the service of the old Jarl, and leaving Ingi a widow. A young man with a young family of his own, Karl had simply stepped into his father's shoes. Now he and his mother controlled a wide sweep from hilltop to fjord, and commanded great respect in the district. All the same, Eyvind had never understood how his brother could prefer that existence over a life as Thor's warrior. Yet Karl seemed content with what he was.
"Master of storm, tamer of waves, iron-fisted one!" Karl now addressed the god in ringing tones. "Hewer of giants, serpent-slayer, worthiest of warriors! In blood, we honor you! In fire, we salute you! In the shadow time, we seek your protection. May your strong arm guard us on land path and sea path. Smite our enemies and smile on our endeavors."
"Hewer of giants, serpent-slayer, worthiest of warriors!" the assembled folk chanted, and their voices rose with the fire's heat to ring out across the snow-blanketed hills and the dark fir trees, straight to the ears of the god himself. Eyvind joined in the response, his gaze on Thor's staring, formidable eyes. Now Ingi walked slowly around the temple, bearing the ritual arm-ring on a small embroidered cushion. Over many hours a fine smith had wrought there an image of the world tree with its attendant creatures: the serpent Nidhogg at its deepest roots, the noble eagle at its tip, the squirrel Ratatosk scampering between. The pattern went right around the ring; a man could never see the whole of it at one time. They held the sacrifice at first frost, at midwinter and in spring; at all other times, this treasure was well locked away from curious eyes. One hand after another reached out to brush reverently against the gleaming gold: girls' hands still soft and milk-pale, men's hands branded by axe shaft and bowstring, gnarled old hands that knew many winters on the land. All moved to pledge allegiance to the warrior, Thor, and to Odin, who had hung on that selfsame tree in search of wisdom. Even the thralls, clustered like a body of shadows at the far end near the door, stretched out tentative fingers as Ingi passed.
Karl lifted one of the ritual knives from the altar. The goat was struggling, afraid of the crowd and the fire. It seemed to Eyvind that the boy who clutched its neck rope could not hold the creature much longer. If he let go of the rope, the goat would free itself and bolt across the crowded temple in a chaos of hooves and horns. One could not offend the god thus. Eyvind got up and moved forward, relieving the red-faced lad of his charge, soothing the animal with soft words and a careful hand.
"Go on, then," he muttered. Karl raised the sacrificial knife; the firelight shone bright from its bronze blade. Eyvind tightened his grip, forcing the white goat's head back, exposing pink, naked skin where the hair on the throat grew more sparsely. Perhaps sensing the inevitable, the creature made one last desperate surge for freedom. But Eyvind's hands were strong. "Hurry up!" he hissed.
The knife came down, swept across. It should have been easy. Karl was a farmer; slaughtering stock was a routine task for him. But at the vital moment, a bird shrieked harshly above the smoke hole, and somehow the knife slipped sideways, so the blood did not spurt free and scarlet, but only seeped dark against the pure white hair. The goat screamed, and went on screaming. The god was displeased. Karl stood frozen, knowing the omen was bad for them. Thor's eyes were fierce and angry on his back.
"Here," said Eyvind. He took the knife from his brother's fingers, holding the bleeding goat with one hand, fingers twisted in the rope. His legs were on either side of the creature, forcing its agonized form still. This must be done well, now, or there would be failed crops, and sick beasts, and death and defeat on the field of war.
"Iron glove guide my blade," Eyvind said, fixing the god's wooden eyes with his own. "In your name, great battle god!"
There was only one way to do such things: hard and swift, straight across, near severing the neck. Fast, accurate, and merciful. How else could a clean kill be made? The screaming ceased. The white goat went limp. Eyvind's sisters held the bronze bowls to catch the blood. There was no telling what Thor thought of the manner of it, but at least Eyvind had done his best. He turned to face the folk, helping Karl to lift the slaughtered goat high so the blood could flow into the bowls. Drops spattered hands, faces, tunics. The altar bore a pattern of red spots; a bloody tear trickled down the face of the god.
I will kill cleanly for you, Eyvind told Thor, but not aloud. Let me be a Wolfskin, and I will be your bravest warrior. Braver than Hakon; braver even than Eirik. All that I am, I will give you. He looked down the temple toward the great assembly of folk, and straight into a pair of eyes so dark, so piercingly intense that his heart seemed to grow still a moment, then lurch painfully back into life. His mind had been on Thor, and blood, and sacrifice, and for a moment he had thought—but no, this was only a boy, a lad of his own age or maybe younger, who stood among the richly dressed entourage of the nobleman, Ulf. But how he stared. He looked at Eyvind as a starving wolf gazes at a man across the wayside fire, wary, fascinated, dangerous. The boy was pale and thin, his brown hair straggling unplaited, his mouth a line. His features were unremarkable save for those feral eyes. Eyvind blinked and looked away.
The girls bore the brimming bowls down the temple, white fingers dipping the blood twigs in, splashing bright crimson on floor and wall, anointing pillar and hearth and door frame, marking each man and woman with the sacrifice. When the bowls were empty, Karl laid them on the altar beside the knives, and the goat was dragged outside to be gutted and prepared for cooking.
"Warfather, we toast you this day of Yule!" Karl raised his great drinking horn. Ingi had passed between the men, pouring the ale with care: one would not wish to offend Thor by spilling any before the toasts were complete. "All hail, great battle leader!" Karl called. They drank.
"All hail mighty Thor, smiter of serpents!" Ulf cried, rising to his feet and lifting his own horn, a fine piece banded in silver. The men echoed his ringing tones and drank again.
"We salute you, crusher of giants!" Eirik's voice was as fierce as his weathered countenance. So the toasts continued, and as they did the patch of sky darkened above the roof aperture, and the inside of the temple glowed strangely in the fire's light. The boy was still staring; now the flames made twin points of brightness in his night-dark eyes. Thunder cracked in the sky above; sudden lightning speared the sky. The storm was on its way.
"Thor is well satisfied," said Eirik. "He calls his greeting to our small assembly; it is a hearty war song. Come, let us move close to the fire, and pass the day with good drink and feasting and tales. A long season we spent on the whale's way, with the wind biting cold through our tunics and never a drop of ale nor a woman's soft form in our sight. We thank the god for guiding us home safely once more. We thank him for our glorious victories, and for the rich spoils we carry. In the growing season, we shall sail forth again to honor him in deeds of courage, but for now, it is good to be home. Let him look kindly on our celebration."
There were many tales told that day, and the more the ale flowed, the more eloquent the telling. There were tales of Thor's valor and Odin's cunning, tales of dragons and heroes. Eyvind sat close to his brother, Eirik, savoring every moment. Of such stuff are dreams made. He wanted Eirik to tell them about the autumn viking: where they had been, what battles they had fought and what plunder they had brought home. But he did not ask. It was enough, for now, that Eirik was here.
That boy was still watching him. Perhaps he was simple in the head. Eyvind tried staring back; the boy met his gaze without blinking. His expression did not change. Eyvind tried smiling politely, though in fact he found the constant scrutiny unsettling. The boy gave a little nod, no more than a tight jerk of the head. He did not smile.
At length, the fire burned lower. The smell of roasted goat flesh lingered. Bellies were comfortably full of the rich meat, and of Ingi's finest oatcakes. The temple was warm with good fellowship. Thor, it seemed, had overlooked the imperfect manner of the ritual, and chosen to smile on them.
Hakon spoke. "I have a tale," he said, "a tale both sorrowful and inspiring, and well suited for Thor's ears, since it tells of a loyalty which transcended all. It concerns a man named Niall, who fell among cutthroats one night when traveling home from the drinking hall. Niall had on him a purse of silver, with which he planned to buy a fine horse, and ride away to present himself to the jarl's court. He was not eager to give up his small hoard and his chance to make something of himself, for Niall, like many another young farmer's son, was not rich in lands or worldly possessions. He had worked hard for his silver. So he fought with hands and feet and the small knife that was the only weapon he bore; he fought with all his strength and all his will, and he called on Thor for help from the bottom of his lungs. It was a one-sided struggle, for there were six attackers armed with clubs and sharpened stakes. Niall felt his ribs crack under boot thrusts and his skull ring with blow on blow; his sight grew dim, he saw the night world through a red haze. It occurred to him, through a rising tide of unconsciousness, that this was not a good way to die, snuffed out by scum for a prize they would squabble over and waste and forget, as he himself would be forgotten soon enough. Still he struggled against them, for the will to live burned in him like a small, bright flame.
"Then, abruptly, the kicking stopped. The hands that had gripped his throat, squeezing without mercy, slackened and dropped away. There was a sound of furious activity around him, grunts and oaths, scuffling and a sudden shriek of pain, then retreating footsteps, and silence.
"An arm lifted him up. Odin's bones, every part of his body ached. But he was alive. After all, the gods had not forgotten him.
"‘Slowly, slowly, man,' the voice of his rescuer said. ‘Here, lean on me.
We'd best make our way back to the drinking hall; you're in no fit state to go farther.'
"The man who had saved Niall's life was young, broad, and big-fisted. Still, there was only one of him.
"‘How did you do that?' Niall gasped. ‘How did you—'
"The stranger chuckled. ‘I'm a warrior, friend, and I keep a weapon or two about me. Thor calls; I answer. Just as well he called tonight, or your last breath would be gone from your body by now. My name's Brynjolf. Who are you?'
"Niall told him, and later, when his wounds were dressed and the two men were sharing a jug of good ale by the fire, he explained to Brynjolf his plans to present himself to the Jarl, and seek a place in his household.
"‘But my money is gone,' Niall said ruefully. ‘My silver, all that I had saved—those ruffians took it. Now I have nothing.'
"‘You have a friend,' Brynjolf grinned. ‘And—let me see—perhaps not all is lost.' He made a play of hunting here and there, in his pockets, in his small knapsack, in the folds of his cloak, until at length, ‘Ah,' he exclaimed, and drew out the goatskin pouch that held Niall's carefully hoarded silver. Brynjolf shook it, and it jingled. ‘This is yours, I think.'
"Niall took the pouch wordlessly. He did not look inside, or count the money.
"‘You wonder why I did not simply keep this?' Brynjolf queried. ‘When I said you had a friend, I spoke the truth. Let us travel on together. I will teach you a trick or two, for a man with such scant resources will not get far beyond the safe boundaries of the home farm, unless he learns to defend himself.'
"So Niall and Brynjolf became the best of comrades, and on the way to the Jarl's court they shared many adventures. And they swore an oath, an oath deep and solemn, for each scored his arm with a knife until the blood ran forth, dripping on the earth, and they set their forearms together and swore on their mingled blood that they would be as brothers from that day on. They vowed they would put this bond before all other loyalties, to support one another, to stand against the other's enemies even until death. This oath they swore in Thor's name, and the god smiled on them.
"The years passed. Brynjolf joined the Jarl's personal guard, and acquitted himself with great valor. Niall learned to use the sword and the axe, but he was not cut out to be a warrior. In time, he discovered he had a talent for making verses, and this pleased the Jarl mightily, for men of power love to hear the tales of their own great deeds told in fine, clever words. So, remarkably, Niall became a skald, and told his tales at gatherings of influential men, while his friend journeyed forth with the Jarl's fleet in spring and in autumn, to raid along the coast of Friesland and Saxony. When Brynjolf returned, they would drink together, and laugh, and tell their tales, and they would pledge their brotherhood anew, this time in strong ale.
"One summer Brynjolf came home with shadowed eyes and gaunt features. Late one night he told Niall a terrible story. While Brynjolf had been away, his family had perished in a hall-burning: father, mother, sister, and young brothers. A dispute had festered over boundaries; this had grown to skirmishes, and then to killing. Late one night, when all the household slept, the neighbor's men had surrounded the longhouse of Brynjolf's father, and torched it. In the morning, walking among the blackened ruins of the place, folk swore they could still hear screaming, though all were dead, even the babies. All this, while Brynjolf himself was far away on the sea, not knowing. When he set foot on shore, they told him, and saw his amiable face become a mask of hate.
"Niall could think of nothing to say.
"‘I will find the man who did this,' Brynjolf muttered, cold-eyed, ‘and he will pay in kind. Such an evil deed invites no less. He is far north in Frosta, and I am bound southward this summer, but he and his are marked for death at my hand.'
"Niall nodded and said nothing, and before seven days had passed, his friend was off again on the Jarl's business. Niall put the terrible tale in the back of his mind.
"It was a mild summer and the earth wore her loveliest gown. Flowers filled the meadows with soft color and sweet perfume, crops grew thick and healthy, fruit ripened on the bushes. And Niall fell in love. There were many visitors to the court: noblemen, dignitaries, emissaries from far countries, landowners seeking favors. There was a man called Hrolf, who had come there to speak of trading matters, bringing his daughter. Every evening, folk gathered in the hall, and in the firelight Niall told his tales and sang his verses. The girl sat among the women of the household, and he thought her a shining pearl among plain stones, a sweet dove among barnyard chickens. Her name was Thora, and Niall's heart was quite lost to her snow-pale skin and flax-gold hair, her demure features and warm, blue eyes. As he sang, he knew she watched him, and once or twice he caught a smile.
"Niall was in luck. He was shy, and Thora was shyer. But the Jarl favored his skald, and spoke to Hrolf on Niall's behalf, and at length, her father agreed to consider the possibility of a marriage in a year or so when the girl was sixteen. For now, it would not hurt the young man to wait. They might exchange gifts. Next summer, Niall could visit them in the north. All things in good time.
"The lovers snatched moments together, for all the watchful care of Thora's keepers: kisses in shadowed hallways, one lovely meeting at dusk in the garden, hidden by hedges of flowering thorn. They sang together softly; they taught each other verses of love. Niall told Thora she had a voice like a lark; she giggled and put her arms around him, and he thought he might die of joy and of anticipation. Then summer drew to a close, and Hrolf took his daughter home.
"Brynjolf did not go on the autumn viking that year. He excused himself from court and traveled north, and with him he took his blood brother, Niall the poet. To distant Frosta they journeyed, and by the wayside, they acquired two large, silent companions, men with scarred faces, whose empty eyes filled Niall with dread. There was no need for Brynjolf to tell him where they were going, or for what purpose. It was a quest for vengeance, and Niall's oath bound him to it. He fixed his thoughts on the summer, and on his sweet Thora. Life would be good: the comforts of the Jarl's court, the satisfaction of exercising his craft, the joys of marriage. He must simply do what had to be done here, and put it behind him, for there was a rosy future ahead.
"They moved through deep woodlands by night. At the forest fringe, Brynjolf halted them with a hand. Not far below them lay a darkened long-house, a thread of smoke still rising from the chimney. The folk were abed; a half moon touched the roof thatch with silver and glinted on a bucket set neatly by the well.
"‘Draw your swords,' whispered Brynjolf. ‘Not one must escape: not man, woman nor child. Go in quickly. There may be dogs.'
"Then they lit torches from the one Brynjolf had carried, and with naked sword in hand, each ran to a different side of the building. Niall's was the north. He saw the flare of dry wattles catching to east and west; so far, the dogs were silent. But it seemed not all there slept. From within the darkened house, close to the place where he stood frozen, clutching his flaming brand, came the sound of a girl singing. She sang very softly, in a voice like a lark's, a little song known only to a pair of lovers who had crafted it one summer's eve in a sheltered garden."
As Hakon recounted his tale, there was a deathly silence in the temple. Some of his audience had seen this coming, knowing the way of such tales, yet still the horror of it gripped them.
"What could he do?" asked Hakon. "Thora was there, in the house, and already flames rose on three sides of the building, hungry for wattles and timber and human flesh. She was the daughter of Brynjolf's enemy, the man who had cruelly slaughtered his friend's entire family. Niall loved her. And he had sworn a blood oath to the man who had saved his life. ‘Let me die this day for what I do,' muttered Niall. ‘Let my eyes be blind and my ears deaf. Let my heart break now, and my body be consumed in this conflagration.' And he reached out with his flaming torch, and set fire to the wattles on the northern side.
"It was a vengeance full and complete. The flames consumed all; there was no need for swords. When it was over, Brynjolf paid off the hired men, and he and Niall went homeward. Brynjolf thought Niall a little silent, a little withdrawn. Still, reasoned the warrior, the skald led a protected life. He was not accustomed to acts of violence, to the daily witnessing of sudden death. Indeed, if it had not been for Brynjolf's own intervention, Niall would not have survived to journey forth from the home farm and become a man of wealth and status.
"They returned to the Jarl's court. For a long time, Niall made no more poems. He pleaded illness; the Jarl allowed him time. Brynjolf was somewhat concerned. Once or twice he asked Niall what was wrong, and Niall replied, nothing. Brynjolf concluded there was a girl in it somewhere. Folk had suggested that Niall had a sweetheart, and had planned to marry, but now there was no talk of that. Perhaps she had rejected him. That would explain his pallor, and his silence.
"Winter passed. Brynjolf went away on the spring viking, and Niall made verses again. Over the years, and he had a very long life, he made many verses. He never married; they said he was wed to his craft. But after that summer, his poems changed. There was a darkness in them, a deep sorrow that shadowed even the boldest and most heroic tale of war, that lingered in the heartiest tale of good fellowship. Niall's stories made folk shiver; they made folk weep.
"A young skald asked him once why he told always of sadness, of terrible choices, of errors and waste. And Niall replied, ‘A lifetime is not sufficient to sing a man's grief. You will learn that, before you are old.' Yet, when Niall died as a bearded ancient, Thor had him carried straight to Valhöll, as if he were a dauntless warrior. The god honors the faithful. And who is more true than a man who keeps his oath, though it breaks his heart?"
After Hakon had finished speaking, nobody said anything for a long while. Then one of the older warriors spoke quietly.
"You tell this story well, Wolfskin. And it is indeed apt: a tale well suited for this ritual day. Which of us, I wonder, would have the strength to act as this man did? And yet, undoubtedly, he did as Thor would wish. There is no bond that can transcend an oath between men, sworn in blood, save a vow to the god himself."
There was a general murmur of agreement. Glancing at his mother, Eyvind thought she was about to speak, but she closed her mouth again without uttering a word.
"It is a fine and sobering tale," Karl said, "and reminds us that an oath must not be sworn lightly. Such a tale sets a tear in the eye of a strong man. My friends, the light will be fading soon, and some have far to travel."
"Indeed," said Eirik, rising to his feet. "It grows late and we must depart. I and my companions have journeyed far this day; we return now to my mother's home, to rest there awhile. You'd best be on your way while it is still light, for the storm is close at hand. There will be fresh snow by morning."
* * *
It was as well the longhouse at Hammarsby was spacious and comfortably appointed. A large party made its way there, arriving just before the wind began to howl in earnest, and the first swirling eddies of snow to descend. The nobleman Ulf and his richly dressed companions, the two Wolfskins and a number of other folk of the Jarl's household gathered at Ingi's home. The wind chased Eyvind in the small back doorway; he had arrived somewhat later than the others, after staying behind to make sure the fire was safely quenched and the temple shuttered against the storm. The instant he came inside he
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