Iceland, 1,000 A.D.
This saga begins as most sagas do, at a time long past and in a land far away. But that’s where the similarities end because this saga is no ordinary saga and Iceland, at the dawn of the second millennium, is no ordinary land. All the same, this saga must begin somewhere, so it begins with a man working in his garden. With the mid-day sun bearing down upon his broad shoulders and the sweat beading upon his brow, Leif Ericson has the telling physique of a man who spends his life in labor of the land.
The garden sits alongside Leif’s new, stone house. Well built, it boasts a sturdy wooden door and shuttered windows which open to the south and west. A small outbuilding at the back of the property shelters his penned livestock; six sheep, a milking cow and an old draught horse named Olaf, handed down to Leif from his father, Eric the Red.
Leif’s modest estate sits at the fore of a level meadow, atop a hill at the far edge of Eiriksstadir, or “Eric’s Homestead.” The hill affords an expansive view of Eriksfjord to the west. Then behind, looming in the distance is Mount Eric. Named so because Eric thought it sounded nice and rolled off the tongue when he said it: “Mount Eric.”
Now, being the son of someone famous is challenging enough. But for Leif, being the son of the man who discovered, named and settled Greenland is difficult beyond measure. Because being the son of Eric the Red is akin to a planet eclipsed by its own sun: always outshone, while having to exist within its considerable shadow.
Joining Leif in the garden are his friends, Magnus and Thorbald Thorson. With adz and shovel and determined effort, they break the ground to prepare for the seed. The Thorsons are prototypical Vikings; both enormous, bearded monsters who are often the largest in any room. Quick to action and easily entertained, Magnus and Thorbald are loyal as the day is long, and always willing to lend a hand. Especially if paid in beer.
For a moment, Leif takes a break from busting the soil to address his other, non-working friend, Hictor the Misinformed. “That manure will not spread itself,” Leif say’s.
Slight of build and with long black hair, Hictor leans against a rock and munches on an apple. He glances down at the pile of horse poop, “You know, you’re right.”
“Well, that shovel is of better use in your hands.”
“I doubt it,” Hictor replies.
Hictor is a skald, and skalds are not the typical Viking. They are proud poets and bold storytellers who weave magic with their tales of Odin and Thor, the Sagas of their ancestors and the promise that awaits all true Viking heroes in Valhalla. It is the duty of a skald to chronicle the deeds of Iceland’s most daring heroes and heroines, her most outrageous villains, outlaws and rogues.
“Worry him not,” Magnus teases. “Should Hictor get a blister, then he can’t write. And all we’ll hear is whining and complaining.”
“I’m not a whiner,” Hictor whines.
“Oh, yes you are,” all three men state in unison, and enjoy a hearty laugh.
But just as soon, the laughter ends. Magnus points to the horizon as three men on horseback approach the house, each bearing a sword. “These riders,” Magnus asks. “Who are they?”
“I do not know them,” Thorbald replies.
The riders pull up, and Leif does not recognize two of the men. The third man, although smaller than his companions, Leif recognizes.
“It’s been some time, Eckhold,” Leif says.
Eckhold Eel-tongue and Leif go way back, but as they reached their teens, drifted apart. Eckhold found his way among the more nefarious youth in Iceland; committing petty crimes and earning himself a spotted reputation.
“Aren’t you a sight, Leif Ericson. Toiling in your garden. And is that little Hictor?” Eckhold says. “I never took you for a laborer.”
“It’s not what you think,” Hictor defends.
“It’s really none of my business,” Eckhold replies.
“Then what is your business?” Magnus asks.
Eckhold straightens up in his saddle, and addresses Leif, “You’ve built well, my old friend. This is a nice place you have here, very nice.”
“What do you want, Eel-tongue?” Leif asks.
“You’re right, straight to it,” Eckhold leans forward in the saddle. “You know the rules, Ericson. Now that your house is complete, you must pay the tax. I’d say ample tribute to be twenty pieces of silver.”
While Iceland answers to no king, and there’s no centralized government or ruler to offer protection or services, the inhabitants of the various districts are still under the feudal jurisdiction of their Godi. A Godi is a chieftain to whom they must pay a tax, or shake-down for the privilege of keeping the Godi and his Thingmen, men like Eckhold from robbing them blind. The assumed value of their property determines the amount anyone pays. By declaring 20 pieces of silver, Eckhold places a great assessment on Leif’s home, knowing he has the means to meet the obligation.
“And if I don’t pay?” Leif asks.
Eckhold smiles, he likes his job, “Leif, I remember the games we played as children. But times have changed. Don’t make this any more difficult than necessary.”
Magnus, fearing not the men on horseback steps forward, “Answer the man’s question,” Magnus demands. “What will you do if he doesn’t pay?”
Eckhold shifts in his saddle, now uncomfortable with the whole situation, “You know my employer?”
Leif and his friends acknowledge.
“Then you understand I do not want to tear down this beautiful home.”
Magnus takes one step and is upon Eckhold, yanking him from his horse before anyone draws their sword. Magnus flips Eckhold to the ground like a rag doll, slapping him into the pile of manure. Eckhold howls as Magnus jams his knee into the man’s back. Grabbing Eckhold by the hair, Magnus pulls his head until he’s within a moment of snapping the man’s neck.
Leif steps forward, and leans-in to face the fear in Eckhold’s eyes, “What has become of you? Is your life worth twenty pieces of silver?”
Magnus releases Eckhold, who gasps for air.
“Ride off and tell Skalgrim that I am Leif, son of Eric the Red and I will never pay his demand.”
Eckhold slips and falls in the manure, his clothes and face caked in dung, “You’re mad…” he snarls at Leif. “Stubborn and mad.”
Eckhold steps to his horse and regains his saddle. But first he casts a frown of disappointment upon his two companions, who just shrug their shoulders. He addresses Leif, “I’ll tell Skalgrim. But his answer will be to burn down your house.” Eckhold pulls the reins on his horse and the Thingmen ride away.
Skalgrim Sledgehammer is a name known throughout Iceland, and northern Europe as an outlaw, and a thief. For many years, long before settling in Iceland, Skalgrim plundered the Celtic islands, the Norman and British coasts. Notorious as a Viking raider he struck fear in the hearts of all he encountered; marauding at will, taking as he pleased and leaving few survivors.
“That’s just great,” Hictor whines. “Now he’ll tear down your house.”
“You pay Skalgrim,” Thorbald advises. “Everybody does.”
“Be reasonable,” Magnus follows. “If you don’t have twenty pieces, pay him what you can.”
“Listen to yourselves…” Leif counters. “I work and toil and sweat for my wage. I will not turn it over to Skalgrim because he demands.”
“You won’t listen to reason,” Hictor argues. “But you’ll lose all you’ve worked for on stubborn principle?”
“I will not pay Skalgrim. And that’s final.”
“You’re screwed,” Thorbald observes.
“You know he will return with twenty men,” Magnus says.
“No, he will not return with twenty men.”
“How are you so certain?” Hictor asks.
“Because I’ll take the fight to him,” Leif declares. “Come, we will visit my father.”
As Leif and his friends approach Eiriksstadir, they notice Eric sitting alone out front. He’s slumped-over the stone wall, as if a man broken. Leif can tell that Eric isn’t in a congenial mood. Not that he would ever get a job as a greeting hostess, Eric appears tired, worried, upset.
“Father, what bothers you?” Leif asks.
Eric, never one to mince words is direct, and to the point, “It’s Skalgrim, he took my cow. He came to the house the other day bearing several jugs of Madeira. I love Madeira, you know? We drank until I can’t remember anymore. You told me not to trust him. I should have listened.”
Leif shakes his head. He knows when Eric takes to drink, nothing good ever comes of it. Like the time back in Norway when Eric and his friends thought it would be great fun to paint King Olaf’s horses green. They broke into the royal stables, paint at the ready. But Eric forgot to close the barn door and before they could open the jugs of paint, the horses bolted and didn’t stop running until they reached Sweden. Olaf was not amused.
“When I awoke, my cow’s gone,” Eric explains.
Leif furrows his brow. Now, he not only has to challenge Skalgrim’s demand for twenty pieces of silver, but he must also defend his father’s honor and reclaim their property. He knows it will not be easy. Skalgrim is battle tested, has a short temper and will take a life if given the least provocation.
“Skalgrim is the reason for our visit,” Leif explains. “We will return your property.”
Eric’s mood improves, “My boys, you make me proud. Come inside the house.” But as he hops down from the stone wall, Eric catches a whiff of Leif and the others, “But first, you must get clean. You smell like poop.”