Iceland, The Free State
The Taking of the Hay
Three riders picked their way in file up the narrow mountain trail. The pitch of the land would have killed them if they had slipped, but the horses were sure footed and canny, and each man knew the saddle. On their left, far below, was the Swan’s fjord, a deep rift driven straight into the mountain to let in the sea. Thousands of the white seabirds swam the ink blue water. Others flew about, a cloud of white specks circling like flakes of dust in sunlight.
The men came to Vadils Head, a small plateau dotted with the stone cairns of the dead, the highest point on the vast ridge of the mountain spur that fell steeply to form the eastern side of the fjord. Ragged, treacherous sheep paths scarred the slope, but no man could live there. The side facing north to the open ocean was sheer cliff. From it, the beaches on the narrow coastal plain below could be spied out for ten miles or more to the east and west. The men yearned for the good fat of whale, and it was in summer that the creatures most often stranded on the beaches of the Island, driven to madness by the Gods so that men could feast. But there was nothing except the Earth. The youngest of them bent down and idly rattled the iron ring bolt driven into the rock at the cliff’s edge. The other two frowned darkly at him, shaking their heads. The shades of the men who had been hanged there would not like his mockery.
Two of the riders were brothers, called Thorleif and Illugi. The other was Ulfar, the Freedman. He would always carry that name, as a man who had been released from slavery by his master Thorbrand, the father of the two men with him. Ulfar’s son would be a bondi, a free man, like the two brothers, but never Ulfar himself. He would always be the man who had once been a slave.
He could accept that. It was the Law.
If only he had sons.
He had not come to the high place to find whales.
Ulfar found a spot away from the other graves, back from the cliff. The sons of Thorbrand left him in peace, although they had come as witnesses to the burial. He tried to place the stones quickly, without thinking on what he did. The infant was wrapped many times in wool, but he had still sensed the round flesh of the malformed arms and legs through the folds as he cradled it on the long ride up the mountain. It had filled him with dread and despair. Auln, his wife, had begged him not to curse the elves when he buried their child and so he held his tongue and lay the offering of smoked fish near the cairn. He peered over his shoulder at the brothers to be sure they could not see him. They were strong men. Even in the idle moments of waiting for Ulfar, they stood testing their courage at the very edge of the cliff, Illugi the younger with his toes hanging in air. They would have thought him sentimental and weak to let tears fall onto the ground over a child too young to have been given a name. Ulfar covered his face with one hand as the pain wracked him for a time. Then he put it away forever, and went to join them at the cliff’s edge.
He stayed one step back. The wind blew hard, and one blast could knock a man over.
Nothing. Nothing but black sand and pounding surf and wind.
The stark beauty of his land struck him then, there above the clouds, banishing for a moment all sadness. Towards the interior of the island were the white mountains, home of the God Under the Earth. Below was the sea, giver of life, laid out before his eyes as if he were Thor himself. Between them ran the thin line of green lands on which alone men could live. His soul struggled with it, forcing the wrenched agony of his despair into the rise of song.
“Face of the Sky God above
Face of the Sea God below
Stone and ice and water pressed between,
and man, the withered stem, springs from the crevice.”
The others nodded at his song, but said nothing.
They mounted, and rode for awhile until they were out of sight and sound of the ghosts that haunted the cliff top.
On a vast slab of stone with a good view, they sat side by side to pass a bag of curd back and forth. Their eyes roamed the land, while the two brothers spoke idly of the weather.
Across the fjord was a gentler land, rolling green hills of rough pasture, and a solitary wonder standing out from the landscape; a forest of birch trees growing thickly near a shallow cliff, each trunk strong enough to cut for house frames, rare treasures in a land stripped to rock by men and sheep. The forest was called the Crowness. It belonged to the old viking, Thorolf Lamefoot.
Ulfar swallowed nervously at the thought of Thorolf. The man was his neighbor and the troll on his doorstep, the bane of his life. He winced at the memory of his booming voice, his vast angry face, and his drunken accusations. So he moved his eyes from the man’s forest, to banish the beast’s spirit from his heart.
Far to the northeast, on the flat coastal lands beyond the reach of the fjord, grew a solitary hill, surrounded by mist. That was Helgafell, the holy mountain, the farm of Snorri gothi, chieftain to the sons of Thorbrand, and many other men.
To the southeast, close by Ulfar’s own farm within the deep body of the fjord, was a larger house, a true great Hall, the turf of its walls and roof thick and green with marsh grass. Bolstathr farm was the home of Arnkel gothi, chieftain of the fjord. He was the son of Thorolf Lamefoot the Viking, and also a man not to be trifled with lightly. Father and son had much in common. Arnkel’s plot was smaller than Ulfar’s, hardly more than a single home field and a garden, but a gothi could turn his hand to other ways of making a living. Men will always disagree and feud, and someone must be there to mediate. For a price. The gothi drew men to himself, and wealth, and respect.
To the south, at the very base of the fjord, lay Swan firth. It was the best farm in the region, split by a foaming, icy river running from the glaciers, full of sea salmon in the run, and other fish year round. Flat, fertile earth covered both banks of the river. The farm belonged to Thorbrand, and his six sons.
Thorleif and Illugi were the eldest and the youngest of the six, and far enough apart in age that the hatred of brothers had never risen for each other. Thorleif had almost thirty years to him, a respectable age, but his teeth and arms were still strong. Illugi was sixteen, full of young muscle and spit.
Illugi had the sharpest eyes. He raised a hand and pointed below.
“Ulfar, isn’t that Lamefoot there, in your meadow?”
They peered down at the tiny figures moving on the ridge separating the old viking’s half of the land from Ulfar’s.
They were taking in the hay.
The brothers looked at Ulfar. It was far away, but the old man’s lurch was unmistakable, as were the stacks of hay already piled high onto Lamefoot’s oxen by his slaves.
“He’s past the ridge line, into your land now,” said Illugi. “Think he’ll go farther?”
A spike of cold fear flared in Ulfar’s gut.
“I don’t know,” he said. He shared the meadow with Lamefoot. Each of them was owner to the hay on their half of the meadow. He swore again. All his polite words to the beast had been wasted. “Auln said he was up to something.”
Thorleif and Illugi looked up with wide eyes. “Did she see that?” Illugi asked nervously. Men and women sometimes came to Auln, even though she told them that her visions came at their own time, not at her call.
Ulfar did not answer. He chewed his lip worriedly.
“That old man would scare the piss out of a stone,” Illugi said. “Why does he hate you so much, Ulfar?”
“Quiet, boy,” said Thorleif, knowing Ulfar’s fear. “We’d best get down to the ford and across the river.”
They walked the horses until the trail became safer, and then rode as quickly as they dared along the hairpins to the valley bottom.
Ulfar and Thorolf had cut the hay together two days before, as their old agreement had said they should. It was a time Ulfar dreaded all year. The fallen stalks had been left to dry in the field. The old man had grumbled with disbelief at Ulfar’s prediction that no rain would fall for several days. Ulfar peered up at the thin layer of cloud, knowing that the old man had panicked, and read the sky wrong, as always. It would not rain that day, or the next, and the hay would still not be dry.
Ulfar swore, his breath coming short. He did not want to fight. What did he know of fighting?
The ford was a quarter mile up the river, just behind the brother’s plot of land. The mountain trail wound down, down toward the valley, and led eventually to the ford. They waded across the river, the water soaking them to their thighs.
A boat floated in an eddy of river current, anchored fore and aft. Two men sat in it, fishing with lines. They looked up at the men crossing the ford, and one flashed a rude sign with his fingers.
“The Fish Brothers,” Thorleif growled. He cupped his hand to his mouth. “One fish of every three is ours, you sheep lovers, that’s the fee for putting your lines in our river. And not the smallest, either.”
The men in the boat shouted insults back, standing.
“Damn their eyes,” Thorleif said to Illugi. “If father allowed it, I’d cut them up into pieces and use them for bait. They rob us every time they drop a line here.”
They rode wetly up the bank and cantered hard along the shore, throwing a final shout at the Fish Brothers. A short run along the fine gravel brought them to Swan firth. The other sons of Thorbrand came from their work at the sound of their horses, spilling out of the great turf house and the barn and the smithy. They shouted loudly when Thorleif and the other two did not stop.
“Lamefoot’s stealing Ulfar’s hay!” Illugi shouted back at them.
The brothers dropped their forks and buckets and ran after them, although Thorbrand shouted at them to stop from the door of the house, his grey beard wagging with the force of his calls. It was not far. A half dozen households lived less than two miles apart from each other, wedged together by the pitch of the land, the mountains and ice desert pressing them to the coast.
Ulfar reined in at the rock wall by the base of his side of the high meadow. Lamefoot had always gone a stroke of two past the ridge line, but now he was halfway down the slope, his four big slaves sweating and covered in hay slack, and grinning at him. They thought themselves as good as him, because he had once been a slave. There stood Lamefoot, pretending to look at the sky.
“Thorolf!” Ulfar said loudly. “Call your slaves off! I know you think it is time, but the hay is not ready yet. It will rot in the hay barn.” He would pretend that Thorolf was not stealing his hay, that he was only doing Ulfar a service.
His horse shied from his loud words, and he should have dismounted, but he was afraid, and wanted the size of the animal under him.
Lamefoot picked his teeth and looked at Ulfar. He drank from the skin in his hand, and spat a mouthful out rudely. “Looks like rain.”
The old beast was drunk again, thought Ulfar. Very drunk. There would be no reason from him.
The other sons of Thorbrand began to arrive, running up breathless to see the commotion. Thorleif’s hand fell on Ulfar’s elbow.
“He’s wearing his sword,” Thorleif said quietly. “And look, his slaves have their spears and shields. See them there, lying on the ground?”
More hay was gathered.
“Lamefoot!” Ulfar shouted, his fear turning to helpless rage.
Thorolf reacted immediately. He marched down to the wall, pitching away the skin, the sword scabbard banging his thigh. Ulfar backed the pony away fearfully, and the slaves laughed at his white face.
Lamefoot pointed a finger at him from behind the wall, eyes red with anger and drink.
“Say that name again and I’ll call you out and cut you down like this hay,” he said, his rough voice like stones rumbling down a hillside. “I will take my fair share of this crop. Your side grows thicker.”
There was silence on the hill. Lamefoot was grey haired and slow with age and his belly was a mound, but his shoulders were as wide as two men, side to side and front to back. The finger he pointed was a sausage, calloused and immense. He turned his eyes to the sons of Thorbrand, who backed away nervously.
“He meant no insult, Thorolf, and if you take him to duel we will witness that you do so with injustice.” Thorleif said, his voice hard. He made himself ride forward a pace or two. “You will lose much, in land and property, paying for that killing.”
Lamefoot’s eyes were like embers on him, burning through the vast whiskers.
“What do you know about duels, bondi?” he said, and spat on the ground. “You have never fought one. I have.”
“I know that, Thorolf,” Thorleif said quietly.
“The Law says you cannot do this,” Ulfar said, pleading now.
Lamefoot waved his hand toward the great turf Hall further down the fjord, where his son Arnkel gothi the chieftain lived. “There is the Law.”
He turned away and spat to one side. Ulfar rode off with the sons of Thorbrand, the laughter of the slaves burning his back.