The knarrs rock to and fro, jolted by each foot stepping cautiously from plank to deck. Beneath, the fjord's waters brew up darkly. Barely I raise my chin above my bundle - small and coarse, it holds all that I possess. I press it tightly to my bosom. My heart pounds against it. Already, my skin is cold.
We crowd of thralls are thrust about. Upon a shouting, "Off!" we are pressed to let a horse, heavy-laid with bundles, pass. It steps upon the planking board, which sags, groaning loudly.
"Oh, 'twill break!" sudden the other thralls quick-whisper. "Or sink the ship!" "Nay, I'll not ride upon it." "Nor step - not another foot aboard."
The master's thrall's-watch hears us. He comes, heavy with his step, a seal's-gut cord twined about his fingers. "Hush you - all of you! Or upon your backs will fall our fate, as swift and ill as the whim of the weaving Norns."
The fateful Norns - three weaving ladies. So we're told they weave even upon the Norse gods' fate. Old One-Eyed Odin, Frey and Freya, Frigga, and Thor, and even Loki fear them! I like it not to think upon them now, upon this coast, before this swaying board.
Yet the foreman's words hush up the rest. The horse passes from the planking, settling in the hull of our master's ship. More they load the knarrs, ever tighter with cattle, boxes, trunks, bags of meal and seed, packets of skin, and coiled rope. Around me, braying goats and sheep soil bundles we packed just last night or many weeks before, while the sea laps still and hungrily upon our clamor.
From the first, there had been talk of dread upon this trip - thralls' talk, mostly - all fired up and wary. Grumbles, grunts, and reluctant groans from those who feared to stay or those to go. Well we knew Einar could not take us all. He would choose, and many terrored they'd be sold away. They trembled at their fate, looked about askance, plotted some, and planned and fretted mostly. I think I alone did not wonder much, for I knew then where my mother went I would surely be. And she would be with Einar. She had been his favorite - even until the day she died.
So, last spring, as I chored upon the hill watching old ships in the fjord raised up and repaired and fresh logs hewn to build new knarrs, I began with some excitement - and much unexpected dread - to realize we would truly leave this Iceland. Some say life is always better far away, where a slave might be freed if he proved his worth, or at least free to do somewhat more as he pleased; but I say life here is all I know. What lies ahead I cannot see.
With last autumn, the real preparations began, the storing and packing of grain, and drying of fish, and brewing mead, and catching fresh water from rains and streams in barrels lined with tar, and weaning lambs, and slaughtering sheep too old or sick to cross the ocean with us. And the selling of goods. I held the rag to catch my mistress' tears over her chest of heavy oak with its sturdy iron lock, from which she removed her fine-wrought linens and gauzy silks brought from afar, and tapestries stitched by her grandmother's hands, and other such treasures from her folk all long past, to be sorted, and many forsaken.
For me, there was cloth, too, to be woven for the sails. Had I known how hard and long and tedious the task, I might have thought to run away, but by the time I knew it, we were well into winter. There was nowhere to stray. Through the long nights and the cold, short days, we worked before the standing looms, weaving, ever weaving, until our arms ached, and our feet and our backs, and we could barely lift the threads. But at last the sails grew wide and strong. Just with springtime they were completed. We did not dye them as we might a Viking's sails, for these were not for raiding or battles, unless to win this foreign shore. But it is said there will be no one to conquer. Where we go there are no people, only ruins of campfires and strange tooled bones. Still, some speak of draugs in the night, dead walkers who would lure us to the mountain and madness or worse. So much I fear I will be dragged away that once, in a fit of terror, I begged my master if it were true. But Einar promised, upon his soul, Eirik Raude had seen none.
Excerpted from The Thrall's Tale by Judith Lindbergh. Copyright © 2006 by Judith Lindbergh. Excerpted by permission of Plume, a division of Penguin Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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