In which Karik learns the village’s secret.
As they came out of the trees and approached the village, they saw but one man, who approached them with a friendly smile and informed them that he was Unhost, the Jarl of the settlement.
“It is not much of a Jarldom.” Revik muttered, and Igil thumped him to be quiet.
But Unhost only smiled, and admitted that it was not much. “But it is ours, and we work hard to make it what it is.”
As he looked them over, Karik stepped forward. “Dranri of the mountains sends his greetings.” He said quickly, “And told us that you should look for him in a week’s time.”
“That is excellent news.” Unhost smiled. “I take it that you are exiles, seeking a home.”
Karik nodded and said it was so.
“Well, we have much work that needs doing.” Unhost told them. “And if you are willing to lend a hand, then it is likely that we will have a place here for you.”
Then he invited them to join him for dinner, if they did not mind working with him to make it. The promise of food was welcome to them, and they agreed happily. A small basket of potatoes were cleaned in a bucket of cold water, and several fish were cleaned and gutted before the lot was thrown into an iron kettle to boil. It was short work for the six of them, and soon they all sat about the fire in Unhost’s home.
It was a small building, with a thin roof and walls only a few feet high. The greater part of it had been dug out and lined with rocks and old, thin hides to make it look less like a badger’s den. Yet about the upper edges, where the rocks met the roof beams, there were many cracks and holes. Karik thought this was a strange thing.
While their stew boiled, Unhost asked them many questions about who they were and where they were from. All of this was told without too many words, and when the stew was done, they set to eating eagerly, being careful to pick the fish bones out of the hot broth.
“It seems,” Karik spoke his thought out loud, “that there are very few people here. We hardly saw anyone but yourself when we arrived here.”
“There is a reason for that.” Unhost replied. “And it is this, there are very few people here.”
They laughed at this, and Unhost the most of all.
“But” he went on after a moment, “The few of us there are must range far and wide to gather for the winter. Our fishermen are often out in the bay, our hunters and foragers are often deep in the mountains. Our farmers are a little way from the beach, where the northern storms that sweep in from the sea do not reach them, and our herdsmen are further up still, in the hills where they may keep our goats. But tell me, what kind of skills do you have, and what kinds of work are you accustomed to?”
Revik said that he was a great hunter, and Unhost replied that would be very welcome.
Igil said that he was skilled as a fisherman and a boat builder. To this Unhost said that they had a boat builder, but he would be very grateful of assistance.
Wisic said that he was also a fisher, and knew more than a little about the keeping of nets, and Unhost said that this was not a skill that was ever unneeded.
Umir said that he was a better hunter than fisher, and also had some skill as a forager. Unhost nodded and said that these were also very useful.
Karik said that he had some skill as a hunter, but his greatest skill was as a farmer. Unhost said it was late in the year to sow crops, but that there were herds to be gathered in and cared for.
“There is plenty of room, and there is always work to be done.” He said. “The fish are often plentiful, and there are even a few farms along the stream. Several of them could no doubt use help, and would be happy to share.”
They talked more as the night grew close, and Wisic asked why the village appeared to be such a poor place if they could so easily take five exiles in.
Unhost smiled a little at this, his rough beard shifting as he did so. “It is how I like it. If we are too prosperous, King Jarhost will come with his swords and his thanes and demands that I pay him tribute. As long as we are a tiny village barely able to feed ourselves, he leaves us alone. As to why we can take you in, it is because there is so much work to do here.”
Then, because the night was drawing on, he took them and showed them to a shed where they often kept their boats when the storms came in.
“It is not overly comfortable,” He said, “But for one night, it will suffice.” It was cold with only a thin deer hide hung over the doorway, and the stars could be seen through the branches that had been laid over it as a roof. But there was a fire in the center, and spare wood set by the door.
When Unhost had left them, they stacked a little wood on the fire till the flames were crackling happily in the darkness. The hut was a poor thing, but it kept off the wind, and kept in the warmth from the fire. So they gathered around the dancing flames to decide what they should do.
Revik said that it was a poor place that Karik had led them too, and he for one was not pleased with how things had gone since they listened to him.
Karik answered that Revik had done nothing but complain since they left Yrdnara and it did not surprise him that nothing was to Revik’s liking.
“This is a poor village.” Wisic said quietly. “And though there may be no honor to be won, or glory to be gained, winter is close. Within a few days we will see snow. It would be a bad time to be still be searching for shelter when that happens.”
“All villages are poor.” Karik snapped. “And as for glory or honor to be won here, that remains to be seen. This is where we should stay.”
“Who made you our ruler?” Revik asked. “Or have I forgotten something?”
Umir nodded. “Whether we should stay here or not, I do not like the way you speak as though you ruled us.”
At this Karik seethed. “You too Umir? Must I strive with you as well?” He spat into the fire. “I am only trying to do what is best for us. If you had listened to Revik, then we should be freezing on the slopes of Bjarnmont, or hiking the frozen marshes of the Undmir.”
“But then we would be moving toward something.” Revik snarled. His fingers tightened on his ax hilt. “Instead we sit here, having left one poor village to settle in another.”
“Your desire for glory would have you freezing in the mountains.” Karik answered him. “If you would rather be dead beneath a glorious pile of ice, then go and let us be rid of you.”
At this Igil took Karik outside and told him that Revik was right. “My brother and I are as one,” he said as well, “and if you drive him away then I shall go with him. Besides, what right do you have to be so arrogant? You have led us to a tiny village of very few people, all of them so poor they cannot cover their dwellings with furs.”
At this Karik stood for a moment as one struck to stone.
“That is it.” He said at last. “Did you not feel it Igil? When we came here. The wrongness? Something here is strange.”
“You have lost your wits.” Igil sighed.
“Then where are they?” Karik whispered. “The furs in Unhost’s hut cannot be less than two years old. And if they are not within the jarl’s hut, then where might they be?” Igil allowed that Karik’s words made sense.
“Come, we have a few hours of darkness.” Karik kept his voice low, though they could see no one moving among the huts and pens. “Let us go about and see if I am right, if there is anything that may show why this place seems so strange.”
Unhost’s hut glowed still with firelight in the darkness, and when they crouched beside it and looked in, they saw Unhost speaking in low tones to three other men they had not before seen. After a moment, the men left the hut and sat beside the fire in the center of the village, all of them watching the hut where Karik and the rest were supposed to be sleeping.
Igil said that this seemed very odd. But when Karik pressed his face against the crack and looked inside, he said he had just seen a thing stranger still. When Igil asked him to explain himself, he said that Unhost had vanished through his floor.
Igil replied that this was unlikely and it would take a closer look to tell what manner of mischief was afoot.
“Come then.” Karik said, and prepared to move, but Igil held him back.
“Walking through the village is one thing.” He whispered. “It is another to break into his home. Our host will not take it kindly to find us prying into his business.”
“Then we must not be caught.” Karik smiled in the darkness.
Quietly they crept inside, till they crouched over the place Karik had seen Unhost disappear. Karik felt about with his hands and found only a pile of thin furs, worn with age.
“Perhaps he is a skin changer.” He whispered.
“Perhaps he crawled through this door.” Igil replied and lifted the latch on a small trap door that had been hidden under the furs.
Karik allowed that this was more likely.
Slowly they opened the door and peered down into tunnel cut into the rock. They slipped inside and felt their way along, careful to move silently. They had not gone far however when the tunnel began to be lit by a warm glow, and the sound of feasting echoed off the rocks.
The peered around each corner, fearful it was the last, until peering around one last rock, they saw the true hall of Unhost.
The rocky cavern had been hollowed out and furnished like a great hall, and many sat about the tables drinking and eating happily.
When they had seen this, Karik pulled back behind the rock. He said to Igil that since they knew now how things stood, they should leave, for their host doubtless would not be pleased to find them prying into his business.
Igil replied that he was wise to say so, and the two of them hurried back up to the village. At the doorway of the hut they stopped and looked out at the men sitting by the fire watching their house. Igil said it would be difficult for them to make it back to the hut with their friends.
“I have a plan” Karik whispered, and crept slowly away from the settlement to where the brush had not been cleared. When they reached it, he stood with a sigh and began to relieve himself in the bushes. Igil tried to shush him, but Karik only yawned loudly as he fastened his pants and began to make his way back toward their hut.
“Come.” He said sleepily. “I am tired.” He stumbled and tripped over everything in his path as he returned.
The men at the fire stood quickly when they saw them, but sat back down at Karik’s muttered apologies. With that they returned to their hut and slept for the rest of the night.
The sun was not yet over the horizon the next morning when they heard the sounds of the village stirring to life, as boats were brought in and nets were repaired at the shoreline.
When Karik stepped out of their hut, a cold wind struck him in the face, blowing in from the sea. A heavy fog lay upon the water, and he could see but a short way out, and the mountain he had seen the day before was hidden from him
But he did not have long to look, for Unhost appeared out of the grey morning to greet him and his companions.
Igil he sent to work on the fishing boats with one named Havar. Though Havar was not an old man, his knowledge of boats was considerable, even then, and Igil learned much from him.
Revik was sent with a man named Almir Alsson, who hunted the cold woods to the north, and the two of them set out with little talk passing between them.
Wisic was sent out into the inlet on a small fishing boat with a man named Torig Ingsson. Torig was an old, shrunken man, but his long fingers were very skillful with a net.
Umir was sent with Flovi Grimsson and his wife to forage in the foothills that rose alongside the stream that poured into the inlet, for there were many berries, mushrooms, and nuts still to be found there.
When his friends had been sent to the places, Karik asked Unhost where he would be most useful. But before Unhost could answer, the bleating of goats was heard, and an older man appeared out of the wooded slopes driving a crowd of goats before him.
So Karik met Bodvar Miriksson.
Bodvar was an older man, and he greeted Karik warmly saying he was glad of the help, for their goats were scattered widely in the mountains. Karik replied that as of yet he was not overly familiar with these mountains, but Bodvar said that he would soon learn.
“Besides,” he said “loneliness is my greatest enemy among the mountain pines.”
It was the work of several hours to distribute the goats which Bodvar had brought, for they were portioned out among the village, and it seemed that there were more goats than was proper for the number of people in the village. But Karik kept his thoughts to himself for the time, and helped Bodvar work.
When they had finished, Unhost saw that they received a number of fish which had been salted only recently, and with these on their backs, Bodvar bade Karik to follow him.
Up a winding path they went, leading deep into the mountains till they arrived at his home, which was set in a cleft of the rocks not far above the village. Like Dranri’s house, it was set among the stones, so that it was difficult to see where the house ended and the rock began.
“Where are the pens for the goats?” Karik asked.
“We do not use pens,” Bodvar replied, “but caves. There, and there.” He pointed to where the bushes grew thick up against the rocks. “We cover the entrances with brush, it keeps the animals quiet, and hides them from predators.
“You have many wolves here?” Karik asked.
“Among other things.” Bodvar said, and took him within his house. Inside, Karik saw that what he had imagined to be a tiny house was little more than a doorway. Bodvar’s real home was itself set in a cave. No wind swept through holes in the walls, no melting snow fell through cracks in the roof. A fire burned in one corner, the smoke lifting up and vanishing into a hole that had been cut into the turf.
“It is not much.” Bodvar said. “But it is comfortable, and it is mine.” A woman came around the corner and embraced Bodvar before turning and asking who he had brought with him.
“This is Karik.” Bodvar answered. “He is an exile who has come to us and Unhost says that he has experience as a farmer.”
“And so he was exiled.” The woman shook her head. “Are you violent?” She asked Karik “Did you break some law in your village?”
Karik shook his head, and the woman nodded. “You men and your silly rules make no sense.” She said, grabbing Karik and dragging him before the fire. “Come, let’s have a look at you.”
“This is my wife, Siggi.” Bodvar laughed as Karik stumbled across the floor. “Siggi, where is Ylmi?”
“She went hunting.” Siggi replied as she sat beside the fire and pulled Karik down as well. Taking his face in her hands she peered fixedly at his eyes.
“What village did you come from?” She asked.
Siggi looked back to Bodvar. “It is north or south of Geirstadt?”
“South.” Karik answered, but Siggi gave him a withering glare.
“I didn’t ask you. Husband?”
“He is correct, I believe.” Bodvar settled himself in a chair and began sipping from a wooden mug. “Three, maybe four fjords south of here.”
“Ah.” Siggi replied and looked Karik up and down, her eyes lingering on his worn clothes. “It was a long journey, yes?”
“And I take it that the good Unhost welcomed you warmly into our little settlement?” Siggi peered back at his eyes. “He welcomed you warmly no doubt?”
Karik shrugged. “He welcomed us.”
“There are enough of us here already.” Siggi replied and stood again. “It is difficult for us to make our living with that weasel squeezing us for all he might.”
“I do not wish to be a burden.” Karik replied. “I can work well, and I can make more than I eat.”
“We will see if this is so.” Siggi muttered, and returned to the meal she was preparing. Karik rose to his feet, and the dogs quickly surrounded him with wagging tales and warm tongues.
He had not been there long however, when the dogs leapt up and ran to the door barking and wagging their tails.
“It seems Ylmi has returned.” Bodvar set a pair of logs on the fire.
The door opened to reveal a young woman with long, brown hair pulled back into a single braid. With a smile she patted the dogs and set her bow and quiver by the door.
“There are exiles in the village.” She announced to the room as she pulled off her heavy cloak. “A couple were bumbling about the woods this morning, I fear we will be asked to feed yet more hunters.”
“Indeed.” Bodvar nodded gravely. “Fortunately, we shall have help in this.” He pointed to Karik, who sat against the wall. “He is one of the exiles who has joined us.”
Ylmi’s eyes snapped to him. “You had best pull your weight. I weary of feeding slackers.”
“I do not intend to be a burden.” Karik answered.
This was how Karik met Ylmi Bodvarsdottir.
The next morning, Bodvar took Karik with him into the mountains to look for goats. As they walked, Karik asked many questions about the village and about Unhost. Most of them Bodvar answered, but often Karik found that his answers did nothing to address his questions. Finally he stopped, and spoke to Bodvar.
“I get the feeling that you are hiding things from me. There are many strange things about this village that concern me.”
Bodvar replied that life was often concerning. “Besides,” he said. “You are young, and you have much to learn. Also you are new to our village, so you should not expect to be told everything at once. Trust must be earned, and so far, you have not earned much.”
So the rest of the day they spent gathering the goats, but Karik noted that Bodvar’s eyes often turned northward, toward the mountain in the sea.
Later that day they sat on a ridge and looked down on a small valley where the goats were grazing peacefully. While they rested Karik told Bodvar of his hope to find food to feed his people.
“Not all ills in the world have a remedy.” Bodvar replied. “Often our lot is to struggle. I have struggled for years, and even so I do not know that we will survive the winter. But,” he smiled at Karik, “I have a warm home, and a loving family. To face the winter with them, it is enough.”
Karik thought on this as they worked. The settlement’s goats had been loosed into the forests to forage for themselves during the spring and summer, and though Bodvar had done his best to keep track of them, they were now spread over miles and miles of forest and hilly terrain. Each day they brought back a few and penned them up in the caves, and when the caves began to grow crowded Bodvar announced that the next day they would take what they had down to the village.
“We will keep a few.” He told Karik, “as payment for our work. But most will be returned to the families that own them.”
Karik looked over the herd, and it seemed to him that there were many goats for a few families.
“The winter will be long.” Bodvar told him. “And there must be more to put out to pasture in the spring.”
Karik nodded, but even so, it seemed to him unusual for so many goats to be brought in.
The next day they made the journey down into the village, and it was very slow going with the goats, so that nightfall drew near as they completed their work. Bodvar said he would spend the night with Unhost and said that Karik would be welcome to do the same.
But Karik said that he would like to see his companions, and hear how they were getting on. Wisic and Umir he found hard at work, and though they welcomed him, they said that they did not have time to sit around talking. From them he learned that Revik and Almir were on a hunting trip and were not expected back for several days.
In some disappointment, Karik went walking along the shore. The wind was blowing in cold and steady from the sea, and in the dim light of the setting sun, he could see the dark shape of the mountain in the west. A storm was approaching from the north, and the mountain seemed to split the sky between dim light to the south, and darkness to the north.
As the wind howled, a fork of lightning ran the length of the clouds, snapping seemingly in the mountain itself.
“Karik!” He turned to see Igil coming toward him out of the gathering darkness, and the two embraced.
“It seems you at least are happy with how things are here.” Karik told him. “But have you discovered anything concerning this place?”
“Indeed I have.” Igil told him. “And it was for this reason that I came looking for you. Come.” And with that Igil lead him away from the rising tide. Just as they reached one of the low houses the rain came pouring down, soaking them as Igil hurried the last few feet and pulled Karik down through the doorway.
Inside, Havar stood ready to welcome them, and lifted a small door that opened into the floor, not unlike the one they had seen in Unhost’s dwelling. Thunder echoed over the bay outside as Karik and then Igil went through the trapdoor.
As in Unhost’s dwelling, a passage had been carved into the rock, though here the rock had not been smoothed or finished, but at the end of it a small door was set in the rock. Iron pins held it in place and it screeched as Igil pulled it open.
“I have brought him.” Igil said excitedly, and Karik saw that he spoke to a tall, lean man who sat beside a small fire.
Thus did Karik Haldsson meet Havar Ivarsson, and much sorry came from that meeting.
But Karik looked about, and saw that a small, but comfortable home had been carved from the rock, and asked what manner of place it was.
“A safe one.” Havar replied as he stoked the fire. “The world is not yet safe for us all. When you came down from the hills, did you see the mountain Isle that sits some ways off our shore?”
Karik admitted that he had.
“There is a beast that dwells there.” Havar said slowly. “A dragon of the north.”
Karik’s eye’s widened, and a hundred thoughts went through his mind at once, and a flash of understanding. “This is the reason for your homes to be buried so deep.” Karik said “You dug for yourselves homes from the rock to protect yourselves and your belongings from the dragon.”
“Even so.” Havar replied. “At least, that is how matters began. There are hot springs deep underground, and that is the reason that our crops grow so well. So, the first men who came here dug deep to escape the beast and to find warmth. But they found more than warmth.” He reached under his cloak and pulled a small leather bag from his breast. Weight it for a moment in his hand, he tossed it to Karik.
Loosening the draw string, Karik slid his fingers inside the leather and drew out three small lumps of a cold, yellow, metal.
“Gold?” He shrugged. “What use is gold to those who are starving?”
“Little and more.” Havar answered. “But this gold has worth beyond what others may think. For Unhost has had dealings with the dragon.” He smiled at the shock on Karik’s face. “Yes, indeed. Each year we present him a measure of the gold we have found along with sheep and goats… And thus, he allows us to flourish in the site of his mountain.”
Karik thought on these things for a moment, enjoying the warmth of the fire while above them the storm could be heard faintly, thundering over the bay.
“Why is Unhost so secret on this matter?” he asked at last.
“Because dragons attract all manner of attentions.” Havar replied. “And for all the beast’s greed, Unhost has prospered here in its shadow. Tell me Karik, if the king in Bjarnmont heard that one his shore villages had found gold, but that all of it was paid to a dragon which lived nearby, how long do you think that village would remain prosperous?”
“The king would try to take the gold for himself.” Igil answered.
“So.” Karik eyed Havar carefully. “Why have you told us this?”
“Because,” Havar answered eagerly, “Igil has told me much of you, and because you are hungry. Dragons are not known for keeping oaths, yet Unhost is unwilling that we should attempt to rid ourselves of the beast. We are prosperous now, but for how long? At some time, the dragon will decide that a tiny bay at the edge of our Isle is not enough. He will seek out other conquests, and then we will be destroyed, for all our deep hovels. How long can we live without crops, without hunting?
“Yet Unhost would have us stay here forever. We must grow. We must push out. The gods love those who are cunning enough to care for themselves, but if a man is greedy then the fates may take all away.”
Karik allowed that this was true and he would think on the matter for some time and see what came to light.