Smile of the Wolf by Tim Leach
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Published: 12th July 2018
Eleventh-century Iceland. One night in the darkness of winter, two friends set out on an adventure but end up killing a man. Kjaran, a traveling poet who trades songs for food and shelter, and Gunnar, a feared warrior, must make a choice: conceal the deed or confess to the crime and pay the blood price to the family. But their decision leads to a brutal feud: one man is outlawed, free to be killed by anyone without consequence; the other remorselessly hunted by the dead man’s kin. Set in a world of ice and snow, this is an epic story of exile and revenge, of duels and betrayals, and two friends struggling to survive in a desolate landscape, where honor is the only code that men abide by.
Tim Leach is a graduate of the Warwick Writing Programme, where he now teaches as an Assistant Professor. His first novel, The Last King of Lydia, was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize.
This book really intrigues me, I very rarely read historical fiction but when I do I usually end up loving them. This book though is a whole new thing for me. This sort of book seem to be extremely popular at the moment, so this book is perfect for fans. This extract has me extremely interested and it’s been put on the TBR. The writing style is brilliant, it flows like a song and is wonderful. I’m intrigued by the characters, the setting and how the story actually started. I hope you like it, be prepared though, it is a long one!!
In the long winter, even the wealthiest of Icelanders curses the day that their ancestors came to this land. They forget the dream of the people, that dream of a world without kings, and know only that they live in a dark, lonesome place. But when the sun begins to ride higher in the sky and the snow begins to quicken and thaw, it is an easy land to love. The dream grows strong once more, for we are a stubborn people.
Men and women emerge from their homes like bears from their winter caves, the sunlight feeling as sharp on the eye as a blade against the skin. They break the ice from the rivers, begin the first sowing of the crops, free their herds to wander to the high mountain pastures, go to trade for supplies and visit distant friends. And as they travel the stories travel with them.
There had been no more sightings of the ghost of Hrapp. Rumour spread that it was Olaf who had killed the ghost, since he was the last to have seen and fought with it. He denied it, honourable man that he was, but they mistook his honesty for modesty, and so the story spread.
As for Erik, there were stories of him, too. Some thought he had fallen through the ice in a river, others claimed he had gone in search of lost sheep and wandered, lost himself, until the cold murdered him. There were many who said that the winter madness had taken him as it takes so many, that he had cast himself from a cliff or gone to lie down in the snow and waited to die. They had seen him lonely, as I had, and knew it was a hard thing for a man to make it through the winter alone. I waited to see if any would make the connection between the two stories, between Erik and the ghost. But no man did. It takes a woman to think in that way.
A pile of blunt weapons beside me and the whetstone at my feet – that is what the first day of spring means to me. For soon we would be hunting again, and so whilst Gunnar tended the herd I took the weapons of the house to the sharpening stone.
I was working on my weapon of choice, my spear, and enjoying the feel of the sun on my face, when I heard the door of the longhouse swing open. I listened; would it be the whispering footfalls of Freydis, Gunnar’s daughter? The stamping tread of Kari, the boy who wished to be thought of as a man, and who mimicked the heavy steps of his elders, though he did not have their weight? The children liked to play with me, fascinated by my red hair, convinced it was some trick or illusion. When the day’s chores were done I would lumber around on all fours chasing them through the house, or tell them the stories my father told me – the old Irish stories of the Red Branch and the Fianna – whilst Gunnar watched and grinned and shook his head, and told me I had missed my vocation as a nursemaid. Perhaps they had come to bother me early.
It was not the children who stepped out. It was the strong tread of Dalla, Gunnar’s wife, and I saw her lean around the edge of the turf wall and look upon me.
She could have been a rare beauty, black haired and pale skinned, were it not for her warrior’s nose, broken and reset long ago, so that it was almost flat against her face – a parting gift from her father, or so Gunnar told me. In truth her shattered nose suited her, for she was a hard woman, well suited to these lands. Without a word she dipped a horn cup into the pail of milk she carried and offered it to me.
‘My thanks,’ I said as I drank it down, still warm and thick.
‘Hard work,’ she said.
‘It is. Harder to sharpen a spear than to use it, easier to kill a beast than to skin it…’ I trailed off. There was an ending to that proverb that I did not wish to speak.
‘Easier to kill a man than to bury him,’ she said, finishing the saying.
The night we came back from hunting the ghost we had found her awake, for it was in the early hours of the dawn when we returned, stumbling with exhaustion and covered in the filth of battle and burial. Her hard eyes asked the question and perhaps words would have followed. But Gunnar had reached out and taken her by the hands. He closed his eyes, and I thought for a moment that he would shame himself with weeping. But when he opened his eyes again, they were clear. He kissed her on the forehead and said: ‘Please, do not ask me. All is well. But do not ask.’
She had looked at the bite on his hand, the blunted edge of his sword, the marks on his shield. She read a story in our eyes, the eyes of men exhausted with killing, and it seemed as though she did not wish the story to be spoken. She let us go to sleep, rolled up in furs upon the floor, and when we woke she asked no questions. From the way she acted, we could pretend we had dreamed it all: a nightmare of blood and snow and an illstruck pact.
I looked down and tested the edge of the spear against my thumb. Sharp enough. I took the next blade from the pile and said: ‘I am glad to see the end of winter.’
‘As am I. But I suppose you will be leaving us soon.’
‘I shall,’ I said. For soon it would be the Day of Movement, when a wanderer such as I would have to find a new place to call my home. She put down the pail and sat upon the ground, her back against the house.
‘I wish that you would not go,’ she said.
I smiled at her and sang her an old quatrain:
One must go on,
and not stay a guest
Forever in one place:
A loved one is loathed if he lingers too long
In another man’s hall.
Then I said: ‘It is ill luck to winter twice in one place. One winter makes a man a guest, two makes him a thief. I have never seen it go well.’
She did not answer. Instead she looked down on the weapons at my feet, at one in particular at the top of the pile. Gunnar’s sword, a blade of Ulfberht steel worth more than his farm, its edge still hacked and blunted from winter. I lifted it, and I began to sharpen it against the stone, as carefully as I would have tuned a rare harp.
‘Why would you want me to stay?’ I said.
Her eyes were on the edge of the sword. ‘I am afraid.’
‘There is nothing to be afraid of.’
She nodded slowly. ‘I shall hold you to those words,’ she said, and there was a hardness to her voice – the kind you hear in the words of a chieftain or the captain of a warband. For that longhouse was her domain: the key to the stores hung around her waist, not Gunnar’s. She would not have me in her home if she did not will it, no matter what Gunnar might say.
‘Your husband has done nothing to bring shame to you,’ I said.
‘He is an honourable man.’
‘As are you.’
I shook my head. ‘No. Honour is a luxury for the wealthy, the brave. I am neither of those things. I cannot afford it. I settle for cunning and loyalty. But Gunnar is an honourable man.’
And as if my words had summoned him, I saw him crest the rise of the hill, bearing a trussed sheep beneath his arm, the stray he had gone in search of. Even at a distance I could see the smile on his face as he waved to us, and I waved back to him and took up a brace of spears from the ground. Once again, it was time for us to hunt.
‘Why were you speaking with my wife?’
A dangerous question that Gunnar asked me, as we walked towards the sea. Many have answered it poorly and paid for it with their lives. But Gunnar asked it with a smile on his lips, and so I answered him in kind.
‘The business of love, of course. It is a difficult thing to conduct a love affair in winter. This spring season suits me better.’ I levelled a finger at him, and sang:
For when a husband shepherds sheep
Even a wolf may woo his wife.
He roared then, but there was laughter in it, and in a moment we were wrestling on the ground, laughing and cursing each other in turn, fighting for the lock of the head or trap of an arm that would end the contest. I could not have stood against him with a blade for more than a moment, but there in the grapple his tall and rangy swordsman’s build worked against him and we were evenly matched. Perhaps I could even have beaten him if I had truly been trying, but after a time I was careful to offer him a left arm that he could easily put into a lock. We might have been friends, but it would not do to show up one’s host.
When we rose from the ground, brushing the dirt from our clothes, he handed me the spear I had cast down when we fell and clapped me on the back.
‘We should find you a wife,’ he said. ‘That might stop you from chasing after mine.’
‘A man of no property does not hope for such a thing. Nor does a wanderer want it.’ ‘There is a time when you will grow tired of moving on, Kjaran.’
‘I doubt it.’
‘Where will you go to this time? To Olaf’s house?’
‘The Peacock? Perhaps. I have never much liked a chieftain’s home. Too many people.’
He chewed on the corner of his moustache, his habit when thinking of what to say. I saw it often, for he was not much a man with words. ‘I would like you to stay.’
‘One must go on and not stay a guest—’
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I know that song. You have sung it often enough. But I wish that it was not so.’ As he said those words we reached the top of a hillock and what I heard struck me into silence. For the first time in many months, I could hear the sound of the sea.
We are a people that came from the sea. We have given it up now, broken our ships for timber, set aside the life of the Viking for that of the farmer, chosen peace. And yet it still calls to us, fills us with that longing to wander upon it, to listen to it speak. It is a great prophet, is the sea: one need only sit upon the shore for a time to know that the answers to all mysteries are contained within the chanting of the waves. But we have lived apart from the sea for so long that we no longer speak its language. And so we look upon it like deafened men towards a singer, trying to understand what has been lost to us.
We come to hunt upon its shore, for any man may claim what falls upon the common ground of the coast. Driftwood from distant lands, whole trees washed white from their long journey, invaluable in a land where the tall trees grow no more. Seals, lost and sick, who come to the shore to die. Wood and meat; with a little luck, a man may earn a
fortune in both from the leavings of the waves.
The drift ice had barely cleared and there would be little offered up by the god of the sea. We were out more to enjoy our freedom than in any hope of finding such a bounty. To walk on grass and not snow, to feel a fragile heat from the sun on our backs and to listen to the sea once more – this was all that we had expected.
Then, a turning of the coast, a cove unseen. There before us, a great black shape so large and so strange that at first I could not name it, sprawled upon the sand and unmoving in the tide so great was its weight. Only the stink of rot – dis tant, but still sharp in the air – gave me understanding. A whale, washed ashore. Long dead and partly rotted, but still a farmer’s fortune in oil and meat and skin.
Yet no sooner had I seen it than I saw something else beyond: three black dots in the distance, hurrying forward. Some rival party of hunters on the common land, and they too had seen the whale. And then the wind was battering against my ears and the shingle crackling beneath my boots as Gunnar and I began to run.
It was a race, for the coast was land that no man laid claim to except by the oldest right of all: by being there first. Gunnar outpaced me and ran ahead, casting aside his sack as he ran but keeping hold of his hunting spear, for to get to the whale emptyhanded would mean nothing: dead as it was, we could only claim it by placing the first mark upon it.
Our chase was a lost cause. The other party was closer than we to begin with, and they had a fast runner with them, a shorter man who ran ahead of his companions. We would not come second by much, but I saw no way that we would make up the ground. Still, we ran as hard as we could, for what else was there? To do anything less would be shameful. Something changed in the way Gunnar ran. I thought at first he had stumbled or hurt his foot, for he ran sideface, leading with his left foot for a couple of steps. Then I saw his body arc and twist and heard a great shout as he let the spear fly.
I stopped still and watched it go, the point twisting lazily through the air. I heard a cry from the other party, saw their leading man throw his spear in imitation, but though he was a strong runner his arm was weak and his weapon fell well short. A smack of iron into flesh echoed out across the beach; Gunnar’s spear found its mark.
A cry of victory, and Gunnar and I were walking then, grinning like children who have won a race in the fields. We would offer that other party some portion of the whale as tribute to their efforts, for I had seen feuds start over such things before. Honour would be served and each of us would go home with a prize.
But when we reached the whale and looked upon the other men, I saw the smile fall away from Gunnar’s face. The three who came towards us – I could not name them, yet it seemed that I knew some aspects of them all too well. The hooked shape of the nose of one man, the hard edge of the jaw of another, the coarse black hair that crept over the knuckles of the third – all were familiar to me, as though one man that I knew had been split amongst these three that I did not.
The knowledge came to me then and I knew why Gunnar did not smile.
‘A fine throw,’ said Snorri, the small quick man who had almost beaten us to the carcass. Gunnar licked his dry lips.‘Thank you.’
‘Your skald should compose a song for it.’ This from Hakon, the eldest.
‘The Saga of the Rotting Whale.’ They laughed. We did not. The largest man – I remembered his name as Björn – noted our silence, and his great black brows came together in a frown.
Snorri, Björn and Hakon. The sons of Harold the Serpenttongue. Brothers of the man we had killed.
I had heard that they had spent the winter travelling from one man’s house to another, searching for news of their brother. They had never come to Gunnar’s farmstead, for we were too far from Erik’s farm to fall under suspicion. But they had questioned many others in the first month that their brother went missing, leaving only an empty house behind. There had been no feud, no man who stood to gain from his death, no one who could give them any clue as to what had befallen Erik. They were left only with that unknowing, that hollow in the mind when a loss cannot be answered for.
‘I am sorry to hear of your brother,’ Gunnar said.
‘What do you know of it?’ asked Hakon.
‘Only what all men know.’ Björn spoke.
‘They seem to know nothing at all,’ he said.
‘Perhaps it was an outlaw that killed him.’
‘Why would you say that?’
‘It seems the most likely thing.’
‘It is not our place to guess, Gunnar,’ I said. I looked to Hakon. ‘If I hear anything more than rumour, I will tell it to you.’
‘I thank you, Kjaran.’ He clapped me on the shoulder. ‘It is good to talk with you once more. It would be even better to hear you sing again. My wife still speaks of your last visit; you must come to us soon. Gunnar cannot keep you to himself for two winters now, can he? Perhaps you will winter with my family this year?’
‘Perhaps I will. I would like that.’
‘You are always welcome in my home.’ He slapped the flank of the whale and its flesh rippled at his touch. ‘A rich prize. What will you do with it?’
Gunnar said nothing. The brothers looked to one another. Then Björn spoke, a blunt demand: ‘What portion of the whale will you give us?’
‘Björn,’ Snorri said, a warning in his voice. He turned back to us and smiled. ‘But I am sure that so honourable a man as Gunnar will not begrudge us some share of the prize. We did sight it first, after all.’
Still Gunnar did not speak – his face blank, his eyes unseeing, like a seer in a trance. I saw the brothers grow restless, shifting halfway into fighters’ stances, their hands twitching towards their weapons.
‘Gunnar,’ I said, hoping that my voice might shake him from his silence. And at last he did speak – the worst words he could have said.
‘Take it all.’
Björn recoiled as if struck.
‘You insult us,’ said Björn.
‘I will not be in your debt. You think us beggars?’
‘You won it fairly,’ Hakon said. ‘I will not take your prize from you. Come, gift us a tenth, a third if you feel so generous. There is no need for this.’
But Gunnar stood there, staring at the ground and shaking his head, mouthing no over and over again, and he would say no more.
‘Give our share to the gods,’ I said. ‘That is what Gunnar means.’
‘I did not think you both such pious men,’ Hakon said. ‘This bounty is a gift from Ægir,’ I replied. ‘We need his favour more than we need the meat. Take what you will from it and burn the rest for the god.’ And with that I put my hand on Gunnar’s back and led him away as if he were an exhausted child. As we walked down the beach I heard Björn muttering something, and I quickened my step to outpace the words. If we heard the insult, we would have to fight them.
‘I did not think the shame would be so much. How do you lie so easily?’
We were far from the beach when he spoke to me. Far from the beach and far from home, sitting beside the shore of the river, trying to find the words that would make sense of it all.
I washed my face in the water, feeling the sharpness of the cold against my eyes. ‘Because I have to,’ I said. ‘There is no breaking from it now. We must fight for this lie as if it were our king. It keeps us safe.’
‘I will not fight for a king. Or for a lie. I fight for my family. I fight for you.’
‘Then lie for us.’
I said nothing more and I let the silence come.
It should not be so difficult a thing, to keep a secret in a country like ours. It is a lonely life where one’s family is one’s world, where months can pass before a man spoke to one who was not his wife or child. The farmsteads as scattered as the stars in the sky, distinct and separate. An Icelander with a secret has no priest pleading for his soul or king threatening his body, and yet still he feels the longing to confess. As we walked back towards the farm, Gunnar moved slowly, weighted with his secret. I thought on the coming summer, when I would leave him and his family behind, to move on and find a new home for the winter. Once I had told myself that I lived as a wanderer because I had to, that a slave’s son had no hope of becoming a landed man. Then for many years I had thought of it as a blessing, to wander the land free and unshackled. And now I wondered if it was the coward’s longing: to stay moving, one step ahead of the feuds that come as inevitably as the winter ice. ‘Home,’ Gunnar said, as we came in sight of the farm once again, a quiet relief in his voice. To return to the dark, like a beast returning to its caves and tunnels. I suppose it is an easier thing to be a murderer in the darkness than to try and stand as one in the light of day.
Gunnar patted the figurehead that hung above his door, the carved dragon’s head that had once been part of his ship, and I touched it too, for I was in need of a little luck. We must both have felt some premonition to have acted so, for when we went inside, we could see an unfamiliar shadow in the darkness. I saw the two small shapes of Gunnar’s children, the flatnosed profile of Dalla, and one other whom I did not recognise at first. Yet it took only a moment to know who it was, for as the months had passed I had seen that silhouette many times in my memories, and in my dreams.
It was Vigdis, the wife of the ghost.