Thórólfr Sigardson was a wanted man, but he would rather face ten oceans and all the monsters hiding within than do what Hrafn Skjeggestad had ordered him to do. He had been at sea for fifty-five days. He knew that because he had cut a notch in his walking stick for every night he survived on the unforgiving ocean.
Norse society had no public justice system. Punishments were carried out as revenge by the victim of a crime or banishment as a skoggangr, or outlaw. Hrafn Skjeggestad was the Erilaz, or the Earl, of the region Thórsholr was a part of and did not allow magic of any sort to be practiced in his region. Being the largest man in Thórsholr, Thórólfr had been asked to do many difficult things--hunt down and kill a pack of wolves that was killing local livestock, escort a villager out of town--but he had never been asked to kill someone. Execution wasn’t even an acceptable form of punishment.
When he was told to execute Nökkvi Gulbrandsen, his neighbor, for being a seiðmaðr—a magic user—he refused. He believed it to be every person’s right to wield magic, if they had the power to do such, no matter if they were a man or a woman. Some people did think male magic users as womanly but that doesn’t give anyone the right to take a person’s freedom or life.
Even though his authority was only superficial, Hrafn Skjeggestad took exception to being disobeyed. For this, he accused Thórólfr of trying to steal from him. How many longhouses and longboats had he helped build? How many people had he influenced with his kindness, generosity and wisdom? Now, he was an outcast, a skoggangr. And he was fine with that.
Thórólfr stood at the bow of his longboat, his ten hired sailors rowing behind him, as it approached the shores of Crete. Here, he would make a new life. He left no wife, no family in Thórsholr, so starting fresh would not be all that difficult. The crew taught him a few basic phrases in Greek to get by until he could learn more.
Thórólfr grasped his walking stick and stepped off the boat, planting his boot down on the beach. Pieces of broken seashells crunched underneath his feet as he looked toward the walls of a nearby fishing village. Turning toward Ionnes, the leader of the hired sailors, he pulled a dark brown, leather pouch out of the pack he had tucked in his belt and tossed it to him. “That… and the boat should be more than enough payment.”
“Thank you, my friend,” Ionnes said, grinning. “May your Valhalla look well upon you.”
“And you, as well, your Olympus.”
“One thing before we leave you. Do you remember the phrase ’Tha í̱thela éna potó apó ta kalýtera katsikísio oúra sas’?”
“Yes. ’I would like to buy a drink.”
“Well, it actually means, ’I would like a drink of your finest goat urine.”
The smile on Thórólfr face disappeared like the setting sun on the horizon.
“I thought, since you compensated us so well… you deserved to know that. ’Tha í̱thela na agoráso̱ éna potó.’ That is, ‘I would like to buy a drink.’”
As the Greek mariners walked away laughing, Thórólfr turned back toward the village… toward his new life. The white walls of Pyrgos rose thirty feet above the beach. In the middle were stairs six feet wide that led up to the city. The wall, Thorolfr guessed, was not to keep out enemies, but the sea. Without trepidation or fear, he ascended the stairs, eager to begin whatever new adventure lay before him.
He reached the top of the wall and was berated with a multitude of sights, sounds and smells. Much larger than any fishing village he was accustomed to, Pyrgos looked as though it could answer many of his prayers—shelter, employment, a new life.
A young man walked by him, carrying a pole on his shoulders with a pail of water hanging on each end.
“Excuse me,” Thorolfr said in Norse, which, of course, the boy did not understand, but stopped and turned anyway.
“Er… me synchoreíte,” Thorolfr said to the young man, who appeared to be about sixteen years old.
“Where is the nearest inn?”
“Well, the nearest inn is ekeí péra…,” he said, pointing, “A llá o asfalésteros pandocheío den eínai pára polý perissótero. Synécheia mou . Páo̱ dexiá parelthón. My name is Modeos.”
“I understand a little at least. My name is Thórólfr Sigardson.”
They passed the place Modeos had pointed to but he kept walking.
“Isn’t this… the nearest inn?”
“No, no, no. Akolouthíste me.”
“Vóreia ánthropos,” someone said from the steps of the nearest inn.
“Keep walking,” Modeos said.
“Vóreios ánthro̱pos, miláo se sas. Éla edó! Eíste mikró gia mia varváron. Boreíte pithanótata talantévetai éna spathí san éna mikró korítsi pou katéchoun éna louloúdi.” The man smiled as he lazily leaped, twirled and pretended to flip his hair.
“Thórólfr didn’t know what he said but he had the feeling it wasn’t a compliment. He continued to follow Modeos down the street as he felt a hand on his walking stick. He looked back and saw the big, toothy grin of the man from the steps of the ‘nearest’ inn. Thórólfr reached down and grabbed the bottom end and swung it up, hitting the man in the groin, after which, the man let go and bent over in order to protect himself from further striking. Thórólfr then flipped the top end around and hit him square in the jaw, knocking him to the ground.
Thórólfr stood in the middle of the street, his chin held high and proud. “I know you don’t understand what I’m saying, but I know… you understand this.” He pointed at the man lying half-conscious in the dirt. “Goat urine!”
‘Goat urine’ was the worst thing he knew how to say in Greek, but perhaps it would be enough to be left alone.
Modeos, who was waiting at a crossroads not far away, raised his eyebrows as he looked at Thórólfr. Then, he shook his head and chuckled. “Den eínai várvaros. Treló, allá den eínai várvaros.”
“I will find someone with a great amount of patience to teach me this language.”
Modeos stopped and turned around, being careful not to spill water from the buckets he was still carrying.
“Is this it?” Thórólfr asked, looking at a humble structure made of dried mud and wood. The doorway was dark but a warm light flickered from inside.
“Nerissa,” Modeos called. A moment later, a woman’s face appeared in the darkness. She stood in the shadow of the arched doorway, but her face reflected the light of the moon, though, she seemed to glow with a light of her own. The color of her skin was rich olive and her complexion was flawless. How he longed to brush his hand against her cheek. Struck by her beauty, he stood there, frozen.
“Pós boró na sas voithíso̱??”
“I would like a room, please.”
“Aftós den miláei polý ellinikí. Eínai apó to Vorrá.”
“The North Man.” She stepped back, out of the door, held her hand out beside her and bowed her head.
“Thank you, Modeos,” Thorolfr said to his new friend.
“Eíste efprósdektoi, Thorolfr Sigardson. Ísos tha écho anánki apó éna somatofýlaka kápoia stigmí sto méllon. Welcome to Pyrgos.”
Thorolfr remained outside the door for a moment, lost in a sea of strange words. But then he looked back at the woman waiting for him and he was, again, filled with comfort and warmth, as if he were home after a long journey.
Thorolfr walked in and looked around, not knowing what to do next. Sensing his confusion, Nerissa went behind him and helped him remove his outer garments. She took his walking stick and bag and put them in the corner of the front room, tapped her lips with her thumb and first two fingers, then reached down and lightly patted a round pillow on the floor beside a short table. The pillow and the inside walls were just as plain as the outside walls. The only patches of color lay on the table in an assortment of jewelry in various states of assembly. She swept the trinkets into a box as he sat down, and she disappeared into another room.
Less than a minute later, she came back with a plate on which were two pieces of flat bread, two grape leaves, two thin slices of lamb and a few crumbles of goat cheese.
“Thank you,” Thórólfr said to his hostess.
“You’re welcome,” she replied. “My name is Nerissa.”
After his meal, Nerissa showed him where he could sleep. A fleece rug on the ground looked a lot more comfortable than a piece of wooden floorboard in a longboat and he was looking forward to a good night’s sleep without any drunken sailors singing drunken songs of drunken conquests.
In the morning, Thórólfr was awoken by rays of sunshine piercing through the window. His eyes ached for more rest but he was thrilled that it was a sunbeam waking him and not a face full of saltwater. With his eyes still closed, he breathed in two lungs worth of crisp, morning air as he stretched out his arms and sat up. He raised his eyelids to see a large, clay bowl of water sitting by the door. Propped up against it was a yellow sea sponge and beside that a corked, green vial. Thórólfr removed his tunic and laid it on the fleece he slept on. For the moment, he would settle for cleaning just his upper half. He would find a bathhouse later and clean more thoroughly.
He knelt down beside the wash basin and uncorked the vial, picking it up and bringing it to his nose. Rosemary and lemon. He tilted it over the bowl and let a few drops of oil fall into the water. The clean, citrus-y smell rose up and into his nostrils, clearing out all the remaining fish smell from his voyage. He dipped the sponge, squeezed it, took it out of the water, squeezed it again and washed the stink of the sea off his face, chest and underarms.
Nerissa placed a bowl of fruit on the table as Thórólfr emerged from his room. “Thórólfr Sigardson. Kathíste, parakaló. Fáte.” She pointed at the pillow and the table with her hand.
“Ti échete kánei gia tin work?”
“Work? Um… Fish. Hunt. Protect.”
“Fishing boró na chrisimopoiíso. Protecting boró na chrisimopoiíso, idiaítera apó Tryphon. Hunting den boró na chrisimopoiíso.” She shook her head. “Écho mia prótasi.” She pointed her finger at Thorolfr and then held up one finger. She tapped her lip with her finger for a second and smiled. She held one hand up with her fingers splayed and the other hand on top of it the same way except turned ninety degrees.
“of fish… aná iméra,” she said, making a circle with her thumb and forefinger, arcing it above her from one side to the other.”
“Yes. Protection ti nýchta” and she waved her hand across the room.
“One net of fish per day, protection at night and I can stay for free?”
“Yes. Kai...” she grabbed a grape, held it up and said, “Stafýli.” She put her hand on the table and said, “Trapézi.”
“And you’ll teach me Greek?”
“I accept. Naí. Yes.”
“Polý kaló. Boreíte na xekiní̱sete sí̱mera. Eláte mazí mou.”