chapter 1

Jorunn cringed at the shriek of a nail prying loose from the death door. Another nail screeched, as nerve-rending as the scream of a Valkyrie on the gale. Just the other side of the wall her father wielded an iron bar to gouge at the hatch in the planking.

Embers glowed beneath the pot in the central hearth. Shadows hung like shrouds from the rafters, wreathed in smoke and steam. The stench of blood filled the room. Jorunn's little sister shivered against her side as they knelt together in crumbling bedstraw beside their mother.

At the next yank of the bar, the hatch fell open. Light spilled into the gloomy chamber and streamed onto their mother's disheveled hair. "Push her out to me," Knut ordered from beyond.

Jorunn gave her mother's cold hand one last squeeze. "Forgive me, Mor," she whispered, then shoved against that beloved body.

Knut's hands appeared and grabbed the shoulders of the corpse. Cursing, he dragged the body out. "Useless woman! About time I was rid of you."

Jorunn clambered to her feet, swiping at tears, and ran outside. Svana followed after.

On the snowpack in the yard lay their mother, blood-drenched, her belly still mounded with the child that refused to be born. Two corpses in one.

Knut dragged the sledge into place, but instead of lifting his wife's body onto it, he turned the heavy wooden contraption over on top of her. At Jorunn's gasp, he snarled, "I'll cart her away when I'm good and ready. This will keep the vermin off." He set to hammering the death door back into place so the dead woman's ghost could not retrace its path and haunt those who still dwelled inside. Over his shoulder he said, "Get the gruel on. I'm hungry."

Jorunn stumbled back into the one-room cottage, dark, drafty, rank with the heavy odor of life spilled into the bedstraw. Her guts twisted, though not with hunger. She knelt at the other side of the chamber, beside the rough stone quern and the nearly-empty barrel of barley.

She ground grain into meal. Each turn of the stone grated loud as a landslide in her ears. She would not cry. She would not cry. Her face still bore the marks from the last time she'd wept in his presence. The big iron caldron still hung over the coals, water hot, ready for the birthing. She dipped some into the smaller porridge pot and stirred in a handful of ground barley meal.

Svana brought an armload of wood indoors, stoked the cookfire, then huddled at Jorunn's side.

"Her pain is over," Jorunn murmured as they waited for water to come back to a boil. "She will lie in peace once we finish mounding her grave with stones."

"I wish I could go with her," Svana whispered.

Jorunn gulped. "I, as well." The meal churned in the roiling water, churned like the grief in her belly.

The hammering stopped. Knut stomped inside and took the lone stool. Jorunn filled his bowl with thin barley porridge, then sat with her heart-faced little sister on the pallet they shared.

Small sounds echoed in the cottage as if in a cavernous hall - Knut's wooden spoon scraping, his jaw popping as he ate, the soft breathing of three people where there ought to be four.

Svana's hand crept into Jorunn's, trembling.

When their father finished, Jorunn dished up what little was left into Svana's bowl, then scraped the pot for her own meager firstfare. With every movement she felt Knut's scowling gaze upon her.

"As worthless as your mother," he said at last. "I needed sons from her, not daughters. You, I've no more use for you. You're old enough. Go hire out."

"What?" she asked, his words knocking together, making no sense.

"Lackwit! Listen." He boxed her ear.

Jorunn yelped and drew back. Through the pain and ringing she heard him go on, "My next wife won' ugly maid of sixteen...under the same roof."

"I've fifteen winters," she gasped, "not sixteen."

"Old enough!" he barked, rising like a bear guarding its fish run. "Out. Eat at someone else's trough."

"Now?" she asked in disbelief. "Midwinter?"

"You think I want to wait till summer to take a wife?" Knut asked in scorn. "Ja, now."

Jorunn sidled toward the door, Svana still tucked at her side.

Knut grabbed the nine-year-old's arm and tore her free. "Not this one. I need someone to cook and clean and do my next wife's bidding."

"But she's too young! She needs me!"

"If you dither about," Knut said, pushing Svana aside and looming over Jorunn. "I'll drag you out and sell you for a thrall, if I can find anyone foolish enough to want such a misbegotten, troll-marked hagling." He swatted at the large red birthmark on her neck.

With one last despairing glance at her little sister, Jorunn stumbled out the door into the bitter teeth of the wind. She took her snowshoes from the nail in the wall, strapped her feet in, eyes swimming with tears. Her whole world thrown to ruin over the course of one morning.

Hire out? Where? Who would take in help in the middle of winter when food had to be meted out with care to last until spring?

The thought of Svana alone with their brute of a father chilled her heart more than any wintry blast could do. She must find a place close by, and dash home whenever she could.

"Jorunn!" hissed a voice from the wall.

She hunkered next to an unpatched chink between logs. "Svana! I'll find a place to take us both on, then come back for you. I vow it, so help me Freyr and Njord and Almighty Odin!"

There came a yelp from inside. Quiet fell. No more whispers from her sister. Jorunn stood. "I vow it, on Mor's soul." She shuffled past the bottoms- up sledge where lay the stiffening corpse.

Her beloved mother, gone now, forever silenced. Her mother, who had been training her in the skills of a flatbread-baker, a position of honor and respect all through the mountain dales. One slim chance for escape from this miserable life on the fringes.

With nothing but an old shawl to fend the cold, Jorunn trudged by snowshoe to all the high outfarms. No one would take her on. Last of all she headed for the mead-hall of the bonde, the wealthy freeman who owned most of the dale. Her mother had shied away from dealing with folk at this grand abode, and Jorunn soon learned why

"Do you take me for a cotter's wife?" the lady of the hall demanded, standing like a gate of flesh and finery in her doorway. From indoors, the odor of roasting meat wafted past her on a warm breeze. "Why would I want to house a wandering beggar? Where are you from? Why are you roaming in midwinter?"

"Misfortune at home. No room for me now." Jorunn felt her cheeks heat.

"Who are your kin?"

Jorunn gulped at the question she'd dreaded. "I dwelled at a cot at the bottom end of the dale. My father, øy, my father is Knut."

The lady's eyes narrowed. "That lout? And your mother, that good-for-nothing thief, I know about her."

Jorunn's back stiffened. Lies! All lies! she wanted to shriek. "I would rather starve than steal," she said, and tried to look humble.

"So he's beaten that much sense into you." The lady regarded her. "I will not take you in, daughter of Knut. I need no more drudges under my roof, certainly none of that blood. But there is a steading looking for help, I've heard. Guests coming for Yule. Perhaps they'll take you on."

Jorunn dared hope. "Where, may I ask?"

The lady's lips curved in a spiteful smile. "Dondstad." She swept back into her dwelling, the grand hall with meat roasting at a roaring hearthfire while a chill wind cut to Jorunn's heart.

Dondstad. The place of her mother's disgrace.

Jorunn stumbled from the bonde's houseyard and stood at the brink of the long slope down the dale. One of the thin smoke spirals off in the southeast came from the fire Svana tended at their tumbledown cot where their father ruled with an iron fist. She couldn't go back. But she had found no haven for the coming hours of darkness and danger.

The days were short in this season of long winter nights. The evening sun, hidden behind the dark forested ridge to the west, lit only the highest slopes to the east. Blue fields of shadowed snow swooped down from the heights to the valley bottom. No haven anywhere in Morgedal. The scene blurred, billowing with misery and despair in the cloud of her breath.

She blinked. One small figure tramped up the dale, treading the path Jorunn had taken. Her heart lurched. Was Svana coming after her?

She hurried down the slope.

Nei, not Svana. It was a boy stomping along on stubby snowshoes, she saw. Twelve-winters-old Oddleif, who dwelled deep in the forest with his older brothers. Tangled tawny-brown hair sprang out from the edges of a mottled green felt cap he wore pulled low. He waved and cried greeting.

Jorunn slowed her pace. Grief and weariness settled over her shoulders and weighted her legs. She couldn't summon the voice to call back.

Oddleif bustled up the path, snow flying from the rims of his snowshoes. His wind-reddened cheeks bunched in a grin, and his hazel eyes glinted merry as a fox. "Have you been to the bonde's hall? That's where I'm going. I've a brace of hares to trade." He swung two furry bodies from a length of twine. "Snared three. Keeping one for the pot." His grin faded as he neared. "Something's wrong. Your mother?"

Jorunn avoided his shining gaze. She studied the sky. How much longer would the light last? In a wooden voice she said, "I'm going to Dondstad."

Oddleif said nothing for a moment. "For a midwife?" he guessed.

She shook her head, battled a knot in her throat. "Nei," she managed at last. "Yesterday is when we needed one. The baby was breech."

"Uff da!" Oddleif lurched close, his snowshoes knocking on hers, and hugged her tight. "Oh Jorunn, my heart breaks for you!"

She swallowed hard. The only word of comfort through all this ordeal, coming from a ragamuffin even poorer than she.

"But why Dondstad?" he asked.

In short choppy sentences she told him her plight, and the knife to her heart at leaving Svana behind.

"I'll come with," he offered.

Jorunn pointed at the hares. "What about--?"

"Trade here, trade there, I don't care where." Oddleif hopped into a turn and struck off downhill, swerving toward the western ridge and humming an old tune she had taught him.

One she'd learned from her mother. The melody burrowed deep into her soul, and her eyes grew misty again as she strode along. She hadn't had even a moment to mourn.

Oddleif broke into song. "No child to be born on this frosty morn, or so say the Norns. What else rhymes with born? Or should I switch to half-rhymes?"

"Øy, that's not a poem I'll help you with," Jorunn said, her voice cracking. "What are you thinking?" She pushed past him.

"If I were skilled as a skald, you wouldn't scold," Oddleif said, then yelped, grabbed her elbow and yanked her to a stop. "Troll!" he blurted, staring at the snow in their path.

Something huge had ventured out of the woods to stand in the open. Footprints twice as large as a bear's, with a stride longer than that of a moose. At the tip of each toeprint, a stab in the snow like a dagger thrust.

The spoor of a mountain troll.

detail from "Askeladden og trollet (paa flya)," 1910, by Theodor Severin Kittelsen, 1857-1914

Painting at top:
"Winter in Forest," by Ivan Shishkin, 1832-1898

Learn more about

You can find

Find all Holt's books on her...