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Saturday, June 18, 2011

Kári the Lucky (an excerpt)

Kári Solmundarson was a Hebridean Norseman who left the Hebrides as a teenager, and went to Iceland.   Iceland of the 10th century was a violent place, the home of blood feuds, rivalries, and challenges to the death, and Kári was a man of his times -- swayed by passion, loyal to his comrades, ruthless to his enemies.  When he arrives in Iceland, he is caught up in the decades-long feud involving his friends, the three sons of Njal Thorgeirsson.

When after a devastating battle, Kári is left the only survivor of the Thorgeirsson clan, he vows revenge on the men who killed his friends, a revenge that spans five countries and twenty years. Ultimately, he finds himself questioning the purpose of it all -- whether pain and suffering are a reasonable tradeoff for honor and saving face.

Kári the Lucky is based on a true story, originally recounted in the Icelandic tale "Njal's Saga." It is a story of intrigue, love, passion, loyalty, and violence, and most importantly, a story of how one man came to question the meaning of good and evil.

Kári the Lucky is available as an e-book from Amazon and Barnes&Noble.

In the following passage, Kári's friends, the three Njálsson brothers (Skarp-Hedin, Helgi, and Grím) have been captured by the Jarl of Orkney, who suspects them of hiding an Icelander he is pursuing.  The fugitive, Thrain Sigfússon, is a ne'er-do-well -- but because of a blood feud, the Njálsson brothers had sworn to their father to protect him, and now they are torn between an oath and their own lives, as the Jarl has sentenced the three brothers to death if they don't reveal what they know of Thrain's whereabouts.


All through that day, I watched and waited, unable to keep my mind off the Njálssons, still tied up in the Assembly Field, and the fugitive Thrain Sigfússon. My duties that day – helping with loading barrels of salted dried meat and fish into a storehouse for the winter – seemed to pass at a snail’s pace, and my eyes kept straying; first out toward the Njálssons’ ship, at anchor in the harbor, and then up toward the Assembly Field. I wondered if tomorrow there would be only three blood-soaked patches where now my friends were sitting.

The night fell, and I returned to my sleeping quarters, but I could not sleep. I tossed this way and that, and finally rose and dressed. A quiet, amused voice – my comrade Kol – said, “Enjoy her well, Kári, and then maybe when you return you won’t keep me awake with your rolling about.” I suddenly realized that he thought I was going to meet a woman.  I managed a forced laugh, and then left, hoping that Kol would not find it strange that I was going to meet a woman while wearing my sword.

All was dark, and the settlement was quiet. I knew that few guards were posted unless there was reason, but I did not wish to be marked by even those few. I walked up past the main cluster of buildings; no sound issued from Jarl Sigurd’s house, for which I was very glad. From there I walked out onto the Assembly Field.

In the light of the sliver moon, all that was visible were vague shapes. I could see the huddled form of the Njálssons, where they sat waiting for execution; and a guard, standing near them, leaning on a spear.

The guard heard my footsteps; even in the dark, I saw him move, catching up his spear and pointing it toward me. “Who is it?” he said, his voice challenging.

“Kári Solmundarson,” I said, trying to make my voice sound authoritative. “The Jarl himself told me to relieve you, as you will be wanted first thing in the morning. You may return to your sleeping quarters for the night.” It did not sound very plausible, but I was not practiced in deceit and could think of nothing better.

The guard sounded wary. “For what purpose does the Jarl want me?”

“I do not know. Ask the Jarl that tomorrow.”

There was a pause. “The Jarl told me that I was to guard the prisoners through the whole night,” he persisted.

I shrugged, although I doubt he saw that in the dark. “Very well. Shall I go now and tell the Jarl then that you are refusing to follow his orders?”

There was another pause, during which the man shifted uneasily from one foot to another. “I will go,” he said, but still did not sound certain. Nevertheless, he walked past me, down the hill toward the settlement.

“Sleep well,” I said to his retreating form. “I envy you your night’s sleep, as I will get none.”

As soon as his footsteps had retreated back toward the settlement, I heard Helgi’s voice saying, “Kári? Is that you?”

“Yes,” I said, and went over to them and cut their bonds with my sword. They stood, rubbing their numb hands and stretching their eased limbs.

“Have they captured Thrain?” whispered Skarp-Hedin.

“Not that I’ve heard,” I answered.

“No thanks to you, Helgi,” Skarp-Hedin said irritably. “With that remark of yours about the water casks, I’m surprised that Thrain isn’t tied up here next to us right now.”

We left the field quietly, skirting the edge of the settlement, and made our way down to the harbor shore. It was a peaceful night, and the waves lapped the shore sleepily. I saw with relief that the skiff was still there, pulled up onto the gravel; we dragged it into the water and cast off toward the waiting ship.

The slap of the oars sounded rhythmically in my ears as we approached the ship. I found myself wondering what I should do. By identifying myself to the guard, I had made myself complicit in the Njálssons’ escape; surely the Jarl would kill me when my part in the deceit was discovered. I had no real desire to go with the brothers to Iceland, but the thought crossed my mind that I did not have many other options.

Helgi and Grím pulled in their oars, and there was a harsh scraping sound as the edge of the skiff rubbed against the side of the ship. Skarp-Hedin reached out and grabbed the gunwale, and we prepared to board.

There was a voice from the ship. “Who is it?”

Without thinking, Helgi looked up and said, “Thrain?” Instantly Skarp-Hedin tackled Helgi and pulled him down into the skiff. It was fortunate that he did so; at the same moment, a dark figure leapt down from the ship into the skiff, and I heard the whistle of a sword pass where Helgi’s head had been only seconds before. I pulled out my own sword as a second man jumped into the skiff.

Brief though it was, that was the most terrifying battle of my life; in a rocking, unsteady boat, in nearly total darkness, and with three of my closest friends beside me. When I struck out I literally could not be sure of who I was striking at. In the end, we killed both of them, but I am not completely certain of who killed them or how. Within minutes, however, both of our attackers had been slain and tossed overboard.

I faulted myself for not realizing that the Jarl would post guards on the Njálssons’ ship, to prevent just such an escape. There was no time for blame, however, and the four of us climbed aboard the ship, pulling the skiff up behind us. Skarp-Hedin had been grazed on the leg by a sword thrust, but it was shallow and he seemed to take no notice of it. The rest of us were all unharmed.

“You know, Kári, that you can’t stay here in Orkney now,” said Skarp-Hedin.

“I suppose not,” I said.

“You will be welcome at our father’s house,” Helgi added. “Come to Iceland with us; or if not, we will bring you wherever you wish. We owe you our lives.”

“You haven’t gotten away with them yet,” I said wryly.

“Where is Thrain?” Skarp-Hedin asked.

“We stowed him in a cask in the hold,” said Helgi, and pulled up the wooden cover over the ship’s hold. He reached down and rolled one of the casks back and forth. “This is the one, but it’s empty.”

“One of Jarl Sigurd’s men told me that they’d opened every cask on the ship, and found nothing,” I said.

Suddenly, there was a rustling sound from underneath the floor planks. I drew my sword again, wondering if there was a third guard in hiding; but in a moment, there was a bump, and Thrain Sigfússon’s head popped out through the trapdoor. We all gaped for a moment, speechless.

“How did you escape the Jarl’s men?” demanded Helgi. “They were right on top of you.”

“I think we should discuss that once we are at sea,” said Grím, and that seemed good sense. We drew up the anchor, and set to the oars with a will; even Thrain did his part. Within less than an hour we were around the headland and out of sight from the settlement.

“Now, Thrain Sigfússon,” said Skarp-Hedin, pulling on the oars with an easy motion of his thickly muscled arms, “How did you escape from the Jarl’s men?”

“I stayed in the cask until I heard the Jarl’s men leave the first time,” said Thrain. “After they left, I assumed that they would not be returning, and I was cramped in the small space; so I got out, and climbed into the end of the hold in the bow. It was narrow, but you had a bundle of wool blankets down there; and there was a piece of loose wood on the floor, so I pulled the blankets around me, and propped up the wood on the other side so it looked as if the hold ended there. When they came back the second time, I was tucked away safe and snug, and they didn’t have any idea of where I was. But then they left two men behind, and until I heard your voices, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was wondering if I might starve down there in the hold.”

“Starvation might have been preferable to what the Jarl would have done to you,” said Helgi.

“Do you think the Jarl will pursue us?” asked Thrain.

“We will have to wait and see,” I said. “It wouldn’t surprise me. Jarl Sigurd is not a man to trifle with.”

We pulled in the oars, and brought up the sail. The wind caught it, and it billowed out before us. Off to Iceland, with all of us; who could have predicted it? I had once more had a sudden change of fortune, from one day to the next. But yet again, the gods had held their hands over me and I had come through without a drop of blood lost.

1 comment:

  1. Flows nicely, I am intrigued. Another TBR for the Kindle. Proud to have in PubWrite

    As I write about Celts, Ireland and Druids, our Nordic cousins are near to my heart.