Late summer, AD 1008
Out of long habit, the Northman, Gudbjartur Einarsson, carefully examined his surroundings every morning. He climbed a ladder to the palisade parapet and circled the settlement looking out over the bay, the fen, and surrounding countryside. Alert for the slightest danger or anything that did not belong in his world, the daily ritual, and a wave from the two tower guards assured him that all was well. He turned back toward his longhouse, his immediate thoughts being the coming adventure for his sons, Ivar and Lothar, and their small friend Yola.
He entered the house to find his sons almost finished with their morning meal. “When you are done, go and get Yola. Yesterday, I spoke to his mother about the hunt. He will be ready to go,” Gudbjartur said.
Watching his sons run excitedly from the house, Gudbjartur shook his head at such exuberance on a full stomach. He rubbed his stomach at the thought of food, and smiled a greeting to his wife as she moved the kettle from the hearth tripod to the stone warming ledge.
She ladled the steaming fish chowder into a bowl and handed it to him. “They are really looking forward to this, Gudbj,” Ingerd said.
Gudbjartur sat down in his high seat and began to eat. “It is time. This is their rite of passage to manhood.” He noisily slurped the thick liquid from the bowl, leaving a few chunks of cod in the bottom, which he ate with gusto. Suddenly he stopped chewing, pulled a long rib bone from his mouth, and examined it ruefully. “I could have choked on this, Ingerd.”
She chuckled at him. “That is why we should chew our food instead of bolting it down in chunks. Honestly, you are as bad as the boys.”
Grinning at her, he got to his feet and placed his empty bowl and spoon with the other dirty utensils. “Thank you. The chowder was delicious.”
“It should be. We made it with butter and milk. You ate so fast I am surprised you could taste it.”
“I tasted it, all right. I am in a hurry. The boys are eager to get going.” He watched her for a moment. “They will be men soon, Ingerd, whether we want them to or not,” he said gently, mindful of her feelings on the subject.
She leaned against the wide shoulders of this man she loved so much, warm and content as he put an arm around her. She gazed up into his pale blue eyes. “I know. I know. But they seem so young.”
“They are young. Soon they will be men. You were only two years older than Ivar is now when you birthed him.”
“And well I know it. The birthing was very hard for me and that is why we have had no more children. Something came loose in me.”
“I know, Ingerd. I think that is why the gods sent us Lothar. He is our son, too, as if you birthed him.”
The boys rushed in with Yola in tow, effectively shattering the moment, much to Gudbjartur’s relief.
He gave Ingerd a final squeeze, released her, and gave his attention to the three boys. “I have told you what you can take with you, and I see you have your packs and weapons in order. The only food we will have is dried meat. We will use it if the hunt is unsuccessful.” His glance played over the three boys. A slight smile pulled at the corners of his mouth. Their barely checked exuberance, as they listened intently to him, caused a flush of pleasure through his chest. “Say goodbye to your mother, and we will be off.”
The best the boys could manage was a perfunctory peck on her cheek before they ran from the longhouse. Gudbjartur hugged and kissed Ingerd, examined her appreciatively at arm’s length, and then hugged and kissed her again. Then he picked up his gear and walked from the longhouse to begin the much-anticipated hunting expedition.
Ingerd watched him go. A heat rose in her. She smiled and hugged herself with pleasure. She began to clean up the mess from the morning meal, whistling softly as she worked.
As Gudbjartur walked into the settlement commons, he saw his chieftain, Halfdan Ingolfsson, talking to the two men tending the charcoal kiln. He joined them, not interrupting the conversation beyond a nodded greeting.
“It takes all day for the charcoal in the kiln to cool enough to shovel it out when we open it up in the morning,” Grimr said, glancing from Halfdan to Gudbjartur. “After we empty the kiln it takes a short time to fill it back up with wood and light the fire. We throw the wood in through the vent hole on top until the kiln is full. Then we light it at the bottom opening.” He gestured as he spoke. “After it catches fire we place the flat rock over the vent and roll another rock in front of the bottom opening. By dawn the next day we have a kiln full of charcoal.” The man grinned through the grime that covered his face.
“The woodcutters haul the dry wood in for us,” Barthur, his companion, said. “We would rather do this than cut wood, but I know we will be swapping jobs soon. As you told us, Gudbj, it keeps us from getting bored.”
Gudbjartur acknowledged him with a nod and spoke to Halfdan. “The boys are waiting for us.”
They took their leave of the kiln tenders, shouldered their packs and weapons, and headed for the landing beach to meet the boys.
“They gave me a report on the winter charcoal supply,” Halfdan said, as he and Gudbjartur strolled slowly along the log walkway toward the main gate. “The bins in each longhouse are almost full. Then they will pile the excess charcoal under the shed roof next to the kiln until they judge there is plenty for winter. I left that up to them. They know more about it than I do.”
“I spoke to them several days ago. Since they started using the new kiln their job is much easier. The charcoal is all made of dry birch wood. Birch will give us better heat than the pine we normally use,” Gudbjartur said as they walked through the gate and down the hill toward the landing beach.
Further conversation about the charcoal supply ended when the three boys saw the men and ran to meet them.
“Which boat are we taking?” Ivar asked breathlessly.
“This one.” Gudbjartur swung his pack aboard. “Your mother has already put a pack of dried meat aboard in case you boys do not kill us fresh meat.”
“We will not fail, Father,” Lothar said, a determined look on his thin face.
Gudbjartur could not remember the boy ever calling him father before. Taken aback, the big man gripped the boy’s shoulder in a rare display of affection. “I never thought you would, Lothar.” Gudbjartur glanced at the smiling Halfdan and turned away, unaccustomed to the feeling one word had brought to him. He carefully laid his bow, quiver of hunting arrows, and axe across the boat’s thwarts. “Load your gear, boys. We will launch the boat and get under way.”
The boys gathered their scattered gear and loaded it aboard. The two men, eagerly assisted by the chattering boys, pushed the boat’s bow off the beach and all clambered aboard.
Note: The next installment follows on Friday, 6 January 2012, and each Friday thereafter until completion of the Chapter One.