The messenger was a servant, dressed in a worn coat. He gave Tóti a long look before speaking. "Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson?"
"That's me. Greetings. Well, I'm an Assistant Reverend."
The servant shrugged. "I have a letter for you from the District Commissioner, the Honorable Björn Blöndal." He pulled a small slip of paper out from the inside of his coat, and gave it to Tóti. "I've orders to wait here while you read it."
The letter was warm and damp from sitting inside the servant's clothes. Tóti broke the seal and, noting that it had been written that same day, sat on the chopping block outside the doorway and began to read.
When he finished Blöndal's letter, he looked up and noticed the servant watching him. "Well?" the servant prompted, with a raised eyebrow.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Your response for the District Commissioner? I don't have all day."
"May I talk with my father?"
The servant sighed. "Go on, then."
He found his father in the badstofa, slowly smoothing the blankets upon his bed.
"It's from the District Commissioner." Tóti offered his father the unfolded letter and waited as he read it, unsure of what to do.
His father's face was impassive as he folded the letter and handed it back. He didn't say anything.
"What should I say?" Tóti asked, finally.
"That's your choice."
"I don't know her."
"She's not in our parish?"
"Why has she asked for me? I'm only an Assistant Reverend."
His father turned back to his bed. "Perhaps you ought to address that question to her."
The servant was sitting on the chopping block, cleaning his nails with a knife. "Well, now. What response am I to give the District Commissioner from the Assistant Reverend?"
Tóti replied before he knew his decision. "Tell Blöndal that I will meet with Agnes Magnúsdóttir."
The servant's eyes widened. "Is that what this is all about then?"
"I'm to be her spiritual advisor."
The servant gaped at him, and then suddenly laughed. "Good Lord," he muttered. "They pick a mouse to tame a cat." And with that he mounted his horse and vanished behind the swell of hills, leaving Tóti standing still, holding the letter away from him as though it were about to catch fire.
Steina Jónsdóttir was piling dried dung in the yard outside her family's turf croft when she heard the rapid clop of horses' hooves. Rubbing mud off her skirts, she stood and peered around the side of the hovel to better see the riding track that ran through the valley. A man in a bright red coat was approaching. She watched him turn towards the farm and, fighting a flicker of panic at the realization she would have to greet him, retreated back around the croft, where she hurriedly spat on her hands to clean them and wiped her nose on her sleeve. When she returned to the yard, the rider was waiting.
"Hello, young lady." The man looked down at Steina and her filthy skirts with an air of bemusement. "I see I have interrupted you at your chores." Steina stared as he dismounted, gracefully swinging his leg over his horse. For a large man he landed lightly on his feet. "Do you know who I am?" He looked at her for a glimmer of recognition.
Steina shook her head.
"I am the District Commissioner, Björn Audunsson Blöndal." He gave her a little nod of his head and adjusted his coat, which, Steina noticed, was trimmed with silver buttons.
"You're from Hvammur," she murmured.
Blöndal smiled patiently. "Yes. I am your father's overseer. I have come to speak with him."
"He's not home."
Excerpted from Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. Copyright © 2013 by Hannah Kent. Excerpted by permission of Little Brown & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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