Gisle carried the deer over his shoulders. A blood stain on the fur testified to where the arrow had stuck. Geir walked alongside carrying the bows and arrows.
“This will be good. I can already smell fried meat,” Geir said. “Can’t you?”
“Mhmm,” said Gisle.
“But next time you will also strike true. You are much stronger than I. Simply be calm when you shoot. Relax and become one with the animal! Since I am smaller than you, I cannot stretch the bow as far, although I hit better. It took a while before she fell.”
“What do you think Mother and Father will say? It will be good to have meat.”
“Are you hot? Do you wish me to carry it for a while?”
“It’s alright. I am fine.”
“Shall we swim when we get to the boat? It is hot.”
“We must skin the animal first. Then we’ll take a swim.”
The path ran over a soft carpet of conifer needles. As soon as there was daylight, they had left home. Now the sun stood high in the sky. The cool morning mists had since long disappeared. Instead, a humid heat prevailed. Although the day was past noon, neither of them had thought about food. Not until now.
“My stomach is rumbling.”
“No, we must skin the body first. We’ll soon be there.”
They almost ran the last stretch down to the lake. By the water, they hung the deer in a tree by its hind legs and drew off the skin as their father had taught them. In the sky, white birds screamed, and an occasional crow cawed. They laid the head and skin on a stone slab and stowed the carcass aboard the boat. Finally, they took off their clothes and smeared a little blood on themselves.
“Thank you, Freyr for the generous catch,” said Geir.
“Thank you, Ullr,” said Gisle.
Then they both jumped into the water. The birds continued to scream.
Back on land, they took out the food bag and allowed themselves to indulge. Their mother had provided bread, some cheese, a dried fish, and a waterskin which they had filled with fresh water. Gisle cut thin slices of the fish and passed them to Geir who bit, tore, and chewed at the firm flesh. He thought food tasted better when you were hungry. Even the bread was good, although it was both dry and a little moldy.
The sun warmed them, and the boys dried in the sun before putting their clothes back on, talking about many things. Geir felt in his whole body that this was a good day. He had his two-year older brother with him, and they were enjoying each other’s company. That was not always the case.
On the way back, they took turns rowing. Admittedly, they went faster when Gisle rowed, but Geir would get grumpy and quiet when he wasn’t rowing, so it was best to take turns. In any case, they weren’t in a hurry. The sun had some distance left until it reached the forest edge to the west. Nótt would bide a little.
When they rounded the final headland, Gisle immediately felt that something wasn’t right. The wind didn’t bring the usual sounds. In fact, it brought no sounds at all. They should have heard the farm animals by now, or familiar voices and the metallic clanging from the smithy. But they could hear nothing.
And the breeze brought the scent of smoke.
Gisle rested on the oars.
“Geir, do you hear how quiet it is?”
The wind sighed wearily among the trees and the waves gently slapped against the boat’s boards.
“Geir… Listen …”
“Yes,” said Geir, “I hear. Or rather, I do not.”
They listened again. And sniffed the air.
“It is very much too quiet,” Gisle said. “And there is the smell of fire.”
Geir swallowed and felt a lump forming in his stomach.
“Do you think something has happened?”
He looked anxiously at his brother.
“I do not know,” replied Gisle, his jaw muscles clenching.
He started rowing again but didn’t take the straight route across the bay. Instead, he kept the boat to one side, along the shore. Here, it was not visible from the farm. You can never be careful enough, he thought.
They moored at a tree trunk some distance from the jetties, left the boat taking nothing with them, ran through the pastures along the forest edge, and crossed the burial ground. The last bit was uphill. The farm was on the other side of the ridge. Gisle ran ahead, and Geir came a few paces behind. When they had almost reached the crest, Geir saw Gisle first stop abruptly and then collapse. Perhaps there was a sound too, but he didn’t hear it. When Geir caught up with his brother, he could see for himself what had happened. The farm at Hersby... no longer existed. In its place, devastation was all that remained.
Ashes whirled in the wind. Ravens circled in the sky.
* * *
As evening approached, the wind had died down. Crickets chirruped in the meadow and bees buzzed between the clover flowers. Fridbjörn was carving plugs for a scythe whose pegs had broken and talking to his sons Rörik and Radulf. His wife Holmdis, and his daughters Frida and Freydis, were in the hall with some of the other women, clearing up after supper.
“But even if Baugi made a hole in the rock and Odin shifted his shape into that of a snake’s, I do not understand how he could get through,” said Radulf. “A snake wriggles when it moves. It can’t go into a long and narrow hole.”
The brothers were talking to their father about the time Odin had stolen the mead of poetry from the giant Suttungr, who had hidden it inside the mountain and set his daughter Gunnlöd to guard it.
“Maybe he stiffened like a stick and then Baugi pushed him through,” Rörik tried.
“Perhaps, or Gunnlöd dragged him by the head because she wanted him to come to her inside the rock.”
“Well,” said Fridbjörn. “If Odin can shift his shape, and become a snake, as well as a lot of other things, I think the journey through the hole was an easy thing for him. Do not forget that he is a deity. Gods do things that we humans cannot always understand.”
Suddenly, he fell silent, pointing.
“Someone’s coming. Over there.”
All three turned to look. Out at the forest edge, from the direction of Skaelby, two figures had appeared. They moved quickly.
“It is hard to see from here, but it seems to me they are Gisle and Geir. In any case, these are not grown men. What are they doing here, alone and at this time?”
“Let’s go and meet them,” Rörik suggested.
“The last one there is Clumsy,” Radulf shouted.
The two of them set off with eager strides toward their two cousins. Neither of them wanted to be Clumsy.
Fridbjörn went into the hall and warned Holmdis and their daughters that his brother’s two youngest sons were on their way. When he and his wife returned outside, the four boys had come together, but it was clear that something wasn’t right. Normally, they would have wrestled and run around each other. Now they moved purposefully toward the hall. Their voices weren’t audible until they came much closer, and even then, only as a low-pitched murmur. Far from the usual clamor.
“Uncle and aunt, our farm has been attacked,” Gisle burst out, without even the usual greetings.
“What do you say? Tell me!” Fridbjörn was equally direct.
Geir, always more voluble, took over from his big brother.
“We were hunting all day, and when we came back from the forest, we found the farm ravaged. Mother and Father have been killed, the hall is ashes, and we can find neither the farm people, nor Gunn and Ginna. All the cattle are also gone.”
Geir related the facts as stolidly as he could. It was clear that he had cried; he was not able to hide it completely. I must be strong, he thought. Big brother Olof will not return until this autumn. Until then Gisle and I must persevere. Gisle stood next to him, and his facial expression was a mixture of determination and fear.
“Did you see any of the fiends?”
“No, it’s all over. We left home early this morning and came back in the afternoon. Everything happened while we were away.”
“And you saw nothing unusual on the way here?” Fridbjörn asked.
“Nothing. Bakarum, Ed and Skaelby were as usual.”
“What can you tell us about Helge and Helga?”
“Both were beaten, slashed and stabbed. Father’s spear lay beside him, broken into pieces. The shield was gone. He probably had no time to pick it up. Mother lay outside the smithy, or what was left of it. Several of the farmhands were dead, and some of the older women. The others were gone.”
“Could they have run into the woods?”
“I don’t know. We must return and take care of Mother and Father. We put them in a shed that was still standing so the ravens could not get them, but it is not a good place. They cannot stay there.”
The conversation continued and they all agreed to return to Hersby at dawn to discover the extent of the devastation and save what could be saved. And they would look for Gunn and Ginna, the other women and the livestock. In addition, Helga and Helge must be put into the earth, at least until they could provide them with a proper sending off.
Gisle felt as if a sack of stone had been hung across his shoulders. It would have been easier if Olof had been at home and not traveling, but he and Fridbjörn’s eldest son, Gangulf, had left with Styrbjörn and his crew. They had intended to go to Friesland, or even Frankland, to sell furs, leather, and iron. If they did well, they would bring home Frankish sword blades, among other things.
“We must do two things before it gets dark,” said Fridbjörn. “First, we must spread the word among our kin. The four of you go to Viby, Skillinge, and Rodsunda. Our smith, Smid-Ebbe, and I will go to Knista and Skaelby. Then we will gather for galdr and seiðr, to seek advice from all good powers, and to ensnare the nīðings.”
When the brothers returned from their task, night had fallen. The stars shone but the moon was no longer visible. It was in the second phase and had been fiery yellow for the short time it was up. Gisle felt it was a sign of misfortune.
Among their neighbors, their word had been met with dismay and anger. This act of the nīðings must not remain unavenged. Word was to be carried from farm to farm, and within a few days, everyone in Soland, as well as the rest of the uplands, would know what had happened. Now they must all watch and ward off any hostility.
The boys entered the hall but stopped at the door. There were many inside, but everyone was silent. Only the fire, which spread a faint glow, made a gentle crackling noise now and then. Fridbjörn and Smid-Ebbe had not yet returned, as they had farther to go, but Holmdis seemed ready. She sat perched on the high seat with her legs crossed. Between her fingers she twisted a thread and span a distaff. Her eyes were half closed. Next to her sat two women, rocking back and forth. Gisle knew they were there to help Holmdis, among other things by getting a response from her fylgja. The farm people stayed along the walls. The brothers sat down among the shadows.
What a terrible day this had been. Geir thought of the deer he had shot and how good everything had felt when he and his brother were out hunting. How brutally it had all changed when they returned home. Mother and Father no longer among the living, and Gunn and Ginna gone, as were the farm and all the farm people. An emptiness grew within him: they would never return. May Gisle and I manage, and may at least Olof come home soon, he thought.
It was hot in the hall. Geir’s head jerked. He had probably been drowsing but couldn’t really tell for how long. But Fridbjörn had returned, as had Smid-Ebbe. They sat on the other side of the hall and watched Holmdis. She had begun to make sounds. From her throat came a song that rose and sank in tone and strength. Geir could make out some of the words, but most was incomprehensible. He glanced at Gisle, who was watching Holmdis as tensely as the others in the hall.
Holmdis was known for being able to see things that were hidden. It was said that she was able to travel in other worlds and could speak to those who lived there.
Suddenly Fridbjörn and Smid-Ebbe rose. They each took an end of a spear and held it horizontally between them, then approached Holmdis, raising the spear up in front of her face. She straightened and looked over it, as if toward a far distance.
“Do you see anything?” Fridbjörn asked.
The answer did not come immediately. The whites of Holmdis’ eyes gleamed in the darkness.
“I see Helge and Helga.”
Gisle gasped. She sees mother and father? he thought. How are they? I want them back. He wanted to shout at Holmdis, but didn’t dare. Even though it was hot in the hall, he had goosebumps.
“I see Helge and Helga. They are waiting at the farm, they are expecting to be avenged, and they wish to travel on.”
Geir thought Fridbjörn hesitated for a moment, but just then he spoke:
“Do they wish to speak, or not?”
“They wish to speak, even though they are dead.”
“How many were in the group that killed them?”
“There were two ships, a dozen men in each.”
“Who were they?”
“None we know.”
“Where are they now?”
“Soon autumn is going to be here, and they must go home.”
“Where are Gunn and Ginna?”
“Aboard their ships. Like all the farm’s other maids.”
“And the cattle?”
“On board and scattered across the woods.”
“Do you see anything more?”
“I see nothing more… nothing more.”
Fridbjörn and Smid-Ebbe lowered the spear and retreated to the shadows. Unexpectedly, Holmdis exclaimed in a shrill voice:
“I curse these nīðings ninefold!”
Everyone in the hall mumbled in response. Gisle thought this must be a strong galdr. He had heard that Holmdis’ magic was strong. He hoped that was true. He so wanted this to work.
“Helge’s slayer slain!”
Holmdis’ voice was jarring as she shrieked.
“Helga hereafter avenged!”
Everyone in the hall mumbled. Some cupped their hands over their mouths. The sound was threatening.
“Gunn and Ginna repaid!”
Gisle thought of his sisters. They were a few years older than him, both largely adults. That men sought after them, he knew. There had been several from the neighboring farms who had made their intent clear, but the girls hadn’t been interested. It was obvious that raiders would want to take them, for they were both well-grown and beautiful. But they would not be easy to deal with. Both were proud and could vanquish their younger brothers in all sports except archery and javelin throwing. Strange, he thought, that my name is Gisle, arrow, while I am good at spears and Geir, spear, is good at archery. We are called the opposite. It must be Urd who has messed with our life threads. Or maybe Odin who plays pranks on us.
“Burned farm, injured farm folk and livestock paid,” Holmdis continued.
Geir decided that the homestead must be rebuilt exactly as before, but with an even larger hall. We will have many farmhands and a lot of cattle. When Hersby is rebuilt, we will feast and win lasting friendships.
“All gold handed back!”
And gold and silver, he thought. We had gold and silver, but it is probably gone as well. Friends should give each other gifts. Then gold and silver are needed.
“Cursed be you nīðing! You will never again find peace in your home, never have children, never enjoy the wealth you think you have. I blunt the edges of your weapons. Women will end your life. Without honor you shall die, and no one will remember you. Thou shalt be dead, and Hel shall be thy fine. I cast runes into the fire. Now it shall be as I have foretold.”
Proclaiming these words, Holmdis threw three sticks with runes written onto them, into the fire, then sat quietly. The murmur from the benches rose and sank for a while but at last everyone fell silent.
* * *
The next day dawned with a pale sun and easterly wind, and rain in the air. They set off early for Hersby, to witness the devastation and begin to clear up: Fridbjörn, Smid-Ebbe, Radulf, Rörik, Freydis, Frida, Gisle, and Geir, as well as some farmhands. When they arrived, Fridbjörn gave out chores to everyone. The farmhands dug a grave for Helge and Helga, where they would rest together with the other slain until they could be equipped for the journey beyond. Gisle, Geir, Rörik, and Radulf, together with Fridbjörn, searched through the farm’s burned remains for objects that could still be of value. Not least, they must find out if the silver remained. The girls and Smid-Ebbe investigated whether there were scattered cattle, or people, in the fields or at nearby farms.
When they gathered again around noon, it was raining. The mood was subdued, but they had at least managed to collect some useful tools and equipment. As expected, the silver was gone. In its place a pit gaped in the hall’s earthen floor.
The atmosphere eased a little when the girls and Smid-Ebbe returned, accompanied by people from the neighboring farms who had captured much of the livestock. There were sheep, goats, cows, pigs, and horses. They had also managed to find Fjolvar, one of the farmhands, alive. He had tremblingly left the forest and joined the Bakarum farmer. His eyes were red, and his nose ran.
“Most of all, I would have preferred to follow the others, to where they are, and not have to live on with the shame. I could not fight and dared to defend neither householder nor housewife,” he said.
Soon he was sobbing again.
Gisle looked at him wonderingly.
“I had gone out into the pasture to do my business when they appeared. When I saw them, I just sat there. At first, I dared not move and after a while I slipped away. I ran and ran until I could run no more. Forgive me, but I could do nothing. They were many and everything happened very quickly.”
“At least two dozen, maybe four. There was nothing I could do.”
“Did you recognize anyone?”
“No, I did not get close to them. Forgive me! I lacked both weapons and courage.”
“Without weapons, there is not much you could have done. This was nīðings’ work,” Fridbjörn interjected. “Do you have any idea where they came from?”
“They came from the lake,” said Fjolvar, pointing.
“Yes, but were they from the uplands, or far away?”
“They were not from our area, no. It sounded like Danish to my ears, although you can never be sure. They went forth like men in harvest and slaughtered everything that came in their way. Helge defended himself with a sword and an axe. He fought bravely but in vain. Their power was too great. When all our men were dead, they plundered everything of value: weapons and silver, cattle, and women. Last of all, they burned the buildings and disappeared.”
“Do you know anything about Gunn and Ginna?”
“No more than that they were taken away. They fought the best they could but did not have much chance against fully equipped men.”
Fjolvar was an only child, and rather scrawny. He had come to the farm with his parents when they were no longer able to support themselves. They had exchanged land and freedom for food and shelter. Now his parents were dead, and he helped with those things he could manage. In all that required courage he was no one’s first choice, but he was good at counting and telling tales. In addition, he knew something about the secrets of runes.
Now he sat with his head in his hands and despair in his heart. Frida, who had been listening, sat down next to him, and put an arm around him. Tears also ran down her cheeks.
Gisle and Geir’s cheeks were also wet when they put their parents in the ground. Later, they would return and give them a real parting, but this was still a farewell. The boys stood close together with their father Helge’s broken spear in their hands and watched as the farmhands filled the pit and raised poles to mark it. Afterwards, they swore that they would not rebuild the farm until their parents had been avenged and their sisters found. Helge’s broken spear was saved for the final journey to Valhall.
Then they all headed back to Tuna, each with burdens to bear, both visible and invisible.