It is said that the isle of Vrania is named for the trickster Vranr. He was so cunning, the stories say, that the seven kings turned away from their wars against the dragons to imprison him on the distant isle, barring his return with treacherous rocks and storming seas. Whatever the truth of the old stories, the isle of Vrania is harsh beyond measure, its shores surrounded by the tumultuous waters of the great sea, and swept by the frigid winds and storms which come howling down from the icy North Sea. Hard and short are the lives of those who live there, as they strive, year on year, to hoard enough food to last the winter.
In the days when Karik was young, King Viglir ruled the eastern plains of Vrania, from the sea to the first mountains, where his people raised herds of cattle. King Jarhost, from his great hall on Bjarnmont, ruled the eastern portion of the isle, from the mountains to the western coast, where the poorest of Vrania worked in their little fishing villages.
One of these villages was called Yrdnara, and it was here that Hald and Elva made their life, with their sons: Hald Haldsson, the eldest, who bore his father’s name; Karik, the second born; and Mirn, who was the youngest.
Like the other villages along the coast in those days, there was often too little food in Yrdnara to last the winter. Some years, the harvest was better and the fishing less sparse, and so it was only the very old and very sick who breathed their last, as the land was buried in snow. But, on other years the harvest was barren, the inlets bare of fish. The cold would come, and in the summer there would be many new graves on the slope, north of the village.
Because of this, in the years when the harvest was at its worst, and the winter looked at its most grim, it was customary to send out the young men most likely to make a way for themselves. Some of these outcasts made their way deep into the mountains, and lived lonely lives among the rocks, surviving off of the meagre provision of the mountains. Others took the path from the sea to Bjarnmont, where their king held court, and launched cattle raids upon the plains of Viglir. This had not taken place for several years when Karik was born, and happened only once when he was a very young child.
The people of Yrdnara were hardworking, and laboured from dusk to dawn, gathering food and preparing their village against the storms which plagued them. In Karik’s sixteenth summer, however, the fish dived deep before their time, and the fjord surrendered little to their nets. Then came the winter storms, far earlier than usual, and much of the meagre crop was destroyed. The villagers tightened their belts, and helped each other as best they could, sharing what food they had. Meanwhile, Hald took his sons into the forest, hunting whatever they could find in the snow.
In the evenings, Elva showed her sons how to sing and tell tales, for songs make the cold and hungry nights of winter pass more easily. But, even the mightiest songs cannot hold back death forever, and the god of the underworld was busy that winter.
Karik’s uncle, Halric, died of frostbite, as the first icicles formed on the rooves of Yrdnara; Grita, the wise woman of the village, was placed beneath the snow as the winter solstice drew near.
On the longest, darkest night of winter, before the door of every house was built a bonfire, to burn through the night and ward away Dunharvic, the horseman of the dead. But, it was in vain, for of the nearly one hundred souls who lived in Yrdnara, twelve did not wake the next morning. And, when Karik rose from his bed after Dunharvic’s Night, he found his brother Mirn sick. It was the cold sickness, born of too much cold and too little food.
Elva tended him as best she could, and Hald took his two sons deep into the forests, to seek out anything they might eat. They hunted as often as they could, by sun or by moon, but the storms often drove them inside, even as their food grew less every day.
Then, Hald grew ill, and Karik hunted only with his older brother, and often alone, as he attempted to cover more ground. Many times, their father had warned them of the treacherous snowdrifts – the deceptive ice packs, where a man could be lost in an instant – but, each time, Karik found his way home through the storms. And, each time he found Mirn sicker than before.
In the end, Karik found that all of his effort was for nothing; as the snows deepened, in the heart of winter, Mirn breathed his last, and Karik helped his father bury his brother, on the northern slope which overlooked their village.
The wind howled outside their small hut, as the snow piled high against its walls. Karik stared into the fire, as he sat there with his mother. His father and brother were asleep, and it was Karik’s turn to tend the fire.
“I miss him,” Karik said, simply.
He felt his mother look up at him, but his own eyes remained on the fire, watching the small flames gnawing away at a damp log. With a pop, each flame would then go out, winking away into the few glowing coals. Karik felt among the sticks at his feet for some dry wood, which he could use to coax the coals back into flame.
Slowly, his mother rose and came to sit beside him.
“We will meet the dead again,” Elva said, quietly. “There will be a day when we are rejoined, in the halls of the All Father.”
Karik’s fingers were almost numb from the cold, but he found a pair of sticks which felt more dry than wet, and placed them on the coals surrounding the damp log. “Yet, I miss my brother still.” He laid the sticks in place and blew on them gently, until a small flame flickered to life. He looked up, to see the glint of a tear on his mother’s face, reflected in the fire’s light.
“I do as well,” she said, softly. “I miss him very much.”
Karik stared into the fire, watching the flames rise higher. He thought of how Mirn had coughed, toward the end, his whole body seizing and shivering with cold. He thought about how Mirn had suffered, and how his father had suffered, and how his mother still suffered. A few more sticks set the fire to crackling again, and he saw the log begin to catch, at last.
It suddenly occurred to him that his mother had watched Mirn grow sicker alone. While he had distracted himself by hunting, she had watched his brother every day, as his cough worsened, his shivering grew more violent, and he slipped farther and farther away.
“I am sorry,” he said, quietly; “he was your son before he was my brother.”
Elva gave a sad smile. “Next year will be worse,” her voice shook as she said it. “It may be that they will throw lots for outcasts.”
“We will hunt,” Karik said, firmly, “and the fishing will be better.”
“Even so,” Elva shook her head, “a year such as this is hard to recover from.”
Karik stared into the fire, and a question which had been burning in him for some time finally came out: “Perhaps I should try to make the passage of the Black Isles.”
Elva looked up, sharply. “Do not say such things, on the day when I have already buried one child!”
“We came from the west,” Karik persisted, “or so the tales tell. There must be a way.”
“Unless the gods have closed it,” Elva’s voice was suddenly bitter. “Many have been taken by Dunharvic, who thought to cross the Black Isles. There is a curse on them that our people cannot break.”
She turned her eyes on him, fixing him with a stare which burned brightly in the fire’s glow. “The only thing worse than burying a child is knowing that your child is dead and not being able to bury him. You will not chance the Isles!”
Winter turned to spring, but the new season brought little relief to the village. Hald and Hald Haldsson turned to laying out crops, while Karik was sent to hunt and fish.
When he hunted, he went alone, but when he fished, he took out a boat with Igil Tormsson, a young man of his own age. Together, they were very cunning with a boat, able to slide into narrow places, where other fishermen were too careful or too wise to go. Igil shared Karik’s curiosity about the Isles, and his mother had told him more about it than had Elva.
“The last ship to try the Isles from Yrdnara went only a few years after we were born,” he told Karik. “Apparently, the bow carving washed up on the shore a year later. Although many tried before then, none have tried since.”
“I have heard that those up the coast achieved much the same result,” Karik said, as he slowly pulled in a net, “as far north as Yrdstadt, at least.”
Igil nodded, then the two of them worked in silence for a while, listening to the lapping water against the boat, the cries of the gulls and the moan of the wind, as it came sweeping over the cliffs overlooking the fjord.
“There will not be enough food,” Karik said, at length.
Igil looked up, sharply. “Why do you say that?”
Karik gestured at their boat, empty of fish. “My father’s crops take slowly, for all the work he and my brother put into them.” He shrugged; “When the fishing is poor and the harvest is weak…” He shrugged again. Igil shook his head.
A heavy gust of wind suddenly blew over the cliffs, howling loudly, and both young men looked quickly to the sky. No dark anvil clouds could be seen over the mountains, nor the long, heavy clouds which often preceded them, so they turned back to their fishing.
“The hunting is nothing to speak of, either,” Igil grimaced, and jerked his head to the wooded slopes, where his brother Revik had disappeared on a hunt that morning. “Revik said yesterday that it’s been a whole week since he found a fresh deer track. Even the wolves are growing sparse.”
Karik nodded but, before he could answer, he felt a pull on the net. Slowly, he worked it in, his heart beating faster, until the whole net rose out of the water, and he saw three fish tangled in it.
Igil grinned at the catch. “I was worried we would go back empty. Perhaps today will be a good one.”
Igil’s optimism was well-founded, and when they drew their boat back up on the shore, they had enough fish to feed their families for the day.
Still, Karik thought on his conversation with Igil, and he knew that there was little being put aside for the winter.
Spring dragged into summer, and although the whole village worked from sunrise to sunset – and, at times, beyond – the stores of food for winter grew slow, indeed.
At last, the day came when Jarl Ingbor called them all together, and told them that the village would be sending out exiles.
“We will not have enough food,” he said, quietly, “so I have determined that five of our young people will be sent out, to seek a life for themselves elsewhere.”
Karik rose slowly, and he heard his mother catch her breath behind him. Igil rose as well. The jarl nodded slowly, in thanks. Lots were then cast to choose three more.
The first lot to fall was that of Umir Malsson; the second that of Wisic Unlisson; and the third was that of Revik Tormsson, Igil’s brother.
“You will be given until the last day of summer to prepare yourselves, and give your families whatever aid for the winter you can,” Jarl Ingbor told them. “But then, when the sun sets on the last day of summer, you must be gone, not to return for at least one year.”
Before the assembly was dismissed, Bori Longbeard, one of the oldest men in the village, suddenly rose to his feet and said that he required a boat.
“I have seen many years in this village, and it has cared long for me,” he said, in a voice ancient and cracked. “Now, I would go to the hall of the All Father, having done a great deed: I will attempt to find a passage through the Isles.”
“That is not necessary,” Jarl Ingbor said, quickly. Pondering this response, Karik remembered that Ingbor was the son of Bori’s sister.
“The years lie heavy upon me, my jarl,” Bori said, wearily. “It is in my mind that, even in failure, I will do more for my people by going than I would by staying.”
At that, another four of the village’s elders stood and said that they would go with Bori.
“We have no ship capable of passing the seas,” Ingbor protested.
But they would not be deterred. “We have the fishing boats,” Bori said. “In the coming days, we will see if we can make one more fitting for the rough seas beyond the fjord.”
That night, after the last light of the sun had faded from a moonless sky, the five young men gathered around a fire, outside of Igil’s and Revik’s home.
“It seems that we are to make our way together,” Revik said, when they had gathered. Though he had not yet seen his eighteenth winter, he was the largest man in Yrdnara, and although Igil came close to matching him in height, none could match him in strength.
“So it seems,” the others agreed.
“It seems to me,” Revik continued, “that it would best for us to go to Bjarnmont. King Jarhost is ever in need of warriors, to aid in his cattle raids – it may be that we can win some measure of glory, before our lives are over.”
Karik hesitated for a moment, then leaned forward. “Many go to Bjarnmont each year; few make a name for themselves.”
He held his hands toward the fire, to capture some of its warmth. “Let us go northward and see what we may find. Perhaps there is land, near Vanik’s point, where we could grow food, or find hunting which has not been overtaxed.”
Revik shuddered and shook his head; “No. I have no wish to die slowly, trying to grow onions in rocks. In Bjarnmont we will be warm for the winter, we will eat of Jarhost’s cattle, and we will die swiftly, on a spear’s point.”
Karik ground his teeth; “We will do better for our people if we can find a place to grow food.”
“Karik makes a good point,” Umir pressed, “but, although I dislike Revik’s plan of dying, he does as well.”
He glanced at the faces around the fire. “Winter will not be far off when we leave; we will not have time to find a promising place in the north, build a home and lay aside stores in time to survive. Our best chance is to find another settlement, where we will be welcome. Along the coast, that will be hard to find, but Bjarnmont may have its doors open to us.”
Over this, they argued for some time, until the wind grew too cold and the knowledge of the next day’s work drove them to their beds. But, before Revik banked the fire, they agreed that they would make for Bjarnmont together, when the time came.
Karik returned to his bed deep in thought, for it was in his mind that there might be many things in the north of more value than one of King Jarhost’s cattle raids. He thought that if they could perhaps gain some small measure of wealth, they might be able to explore the lands in the north with more advantage. With these thoughts in his mind, he lay himself in his bed of furs piled over straw, resigning himself to the service of King Jarhost, and fell asleep.
But, although the matter seemed settled, it did not remain so for long.