Sample Chapter

Chapter 1

Summer, 825

Asa was running barefoot in a short white dress.

As she ran through the grass above a gravel beach, a cluster of sheep parted before her, bleating. Then she cut across a headland and ducked through a row of pole racks. Old slave women cutting down dried codfish there threw up their hands.

When she emerged from the last of the pole frames she suddenly stopped. Ahead of her on the beach was a dragon-prowedlongship—the ship that was to take her away.

Men at a smoky fire on the beach stirred a cauldron of pitch to caulk the ship’s lapped planks. Other men atop the long boom straightened the rigging of the blue-and-white-striped sail. Still others carried tubs and bundles up the gangplank.

She gave her head a shake to arrange her long blond hair. Then she strode onward at a dignified gait.

“Asa!” A red-bearded man called to her impatiently from the row of shields along the ship’s gunwale. “Where have you been?”

What could she tell her father? That she had wanted to make flower chains and ride the brown mare beyond the fields one last time? That she had needed to run barefoot with short dress and loose hair, knowing all these things would be forever forbidden to her after today?

“I was saying goodbye.”

Her father blew out an exasperated breath. “There will be time to tell everyone goodbye at the feast tonight. Don’t you want to see what’s sailing with you?”

“Oh yes,” she said, brightening again. Nordic tradition forbade unmarried women from owning property—even their own clothing. But what treasures would she be given as a bride?

She rounded the ship’s prow, running her hand along the carved dragon’s head as if she were stroking the forehead of a familiar horse. At the gangplank two massive men with axes, swords, and metal caps grunted, “Hail, Princess!” They held out hairy arms as impromptu railings, but she balanced up the narrow ramp on her own.

On the deck her father stopped her at arm’s length and held her chin to examine her. “Asa, Asa. My little troublemaker.” He shook his head, wondering if even as proud a man as Eirik of Horthaland could tame her. The woven belt pulled casually about the waist of her pleated white shift accented her womanly form, but her feet were sandy and a daisy clung to her loose hair.

Asa looked up at her father, realizing this would be the most difficult good-bye of all. As he stood there, shaking his head,Harald Granraude of Agthir seemed everything a Norwegian king should be. A purple cloak, pinned with an inlaid silver clasp, draped his powerful shoulders. His features might have been hewn from oak, with stern, bushy eyebrows, but gentle brown eyes.

In a way she hardly looked his daughter, for her own eyes were blue and her blond hair straight. But she owed him her high, white forehead, her tall frame, and a certain commanding demeanor that—so people said—had won her so many powerful suitors.

“Come and see what I have loaded,” Harald said.

“Do you have the looms?”

“Yes, yes. All your weaving things.” He led her across the cluttered deck to a hunchbacked older man who was assembling a large square structure of carved boards. “You see, Orm has been busy.”

The stooped man stood with some embarrassment. “Princess Asa.”

Asa suppressed a smile, for the old artisan had always been a favorite of hers. “So what have you made now, Orm?”

“Why, since I did the carvings on your ship in honor of your birth, it seemed only fitting that I carve the vessel for your next voyage.”

“But what is it?” The framework seemed too flimsy for a sleigh or a wagon, although it was about the right size.

The old woodcarver fit a post through a chiseled slot and tightened the joint by tapping a wedge. “Why, it’s collapsible. Easier to take along, such as now. Look at these fine horsehead figures.”

Asa rolled her eyes. “But what does one do with it?”

“Do?” Orm chuckled. “Why, Princess, I thought you knew what one does with a bed.”

Asa flushed and the king roared. When Harald’s laughter finally subsided he kicked an oak chest and handed her a heavy key. “Look in there, child. That will lift your spirits.”

She held the bronze key in her hands a moment, admiring its heft. Receiving the key was a rite of passage she had looked forward to for years. Every woman of consequence in Norway’s kingdoms wore a key or two at her waist. A key was a wife’s badge of office, symbolizing her right to possessions of her own. It meant she no longer had to endure the frustration of being as powerless as a thrall, but rather was chieftain of her home.

Asa fit the key into the chest’s slot, turned it, and slid it to one side. Springs creaked inside the chest’s iron rim. When she lifted the heavy lid, metal glinted at her from inside. Handfuls of silver coins lay heaped amidst filigreed gold brooches, a silver chalice, and a massive, twisted gold necklace she guessed might weigh three pounds. Beneath the treasure were rare Arctic fox furs and folds of scarlet Frisian cloth.

She looked at her father, a lump in her throat. “This is wrong, father,” she said.

“Wrong? Why wrong? A princess deserves to take a royal fortune into her marriage.”

“But if you give me gold, it means you are not giving me land.”

The king looked at his daughter blankly. Then he slowly turned away, beginning to growl like a prodded bear. He banged his fist against a cask. “Why must you be so cursed political? I thought I was through with plotting, ambitious women when your mother died.”

He shook a finger under her nose, but she did not flinch. “ What did you imagine, child? That you would be heir to Agthirinstead of your brother? He turned away again. “I should change my mind and give you to Guthroth the Viking. Then you could be a cursed king each summer while he’s off pirating.”

At this threat Asa felt a sudden chill. She had gone too far. “I’m sorry, father,” she said, lowering her eyes. “I was ungrateful. You have been very generous.”

Of all her suitors she feared Guthroth most. She had never met the man, just as she had never met her future husband or most of her suitors. But she knew them by their reputations. The court poets, the skalds, invented verses about everyone of consequence.

Guthroth was both the most powerful king in southern Norway and the most brutally unpredictable. He ruled Vestfoldfrom an island in a small but dreaded fjord called the Vik. His red-sailed ships terrorized the Norwegian coast, using the slightest provocation as an excuse to raid and loot. The only season without attacks was summer, when Guthroth’s longshipsdisappeared across the sea. They returned to Norway each fall with strange slaves and unbelievable treasure.

Harald had once ridiculed the pirates from the Vik with the disparaging name “Vikings,” and now, out of sheer defiance,Guthroth’s men used the name themselves with pride. As a result it had seemed unlikely that Asa’s father would acceptGuthroth’s marriage offer. On top of everything else Guthroth was an old man of forty-five winters, with a grown son. But she had been relieved when the official messengers had been sent to tell Guthroth no.

“Well, it is a bit late to refuse Eirik,” Harald said, softening his tone. “I suppose you’ll do well enough with him.” In fact,Harald had chosen Eirik partly because he thought Asa’s ambitious nature might thrive in Horthaland. Though Eirik had nowhere near the metal wealth of the Vikings, he stood to inherit his aged father’s huge kingdom in the northern fjords.Harald had decided to give Asa silver only because he knew Eirik’s matching marriage gift could be nothing else but land.

“Is Eirik really as quick-tongued as the verses say?” Asa couldn’t help asking yet again about her husband-to-be. She had been pondering a poem in which the young Eirik gave his best horse to a shepherd when the horse refused to cross an ice-covered stream. She wondered, did that kind of impetuousness mean he might scold a wife with independent ways? Would he find her at all attractive? And would she like him? The poets never said outright if a man was handsome or not. It seemed she couldn’t ask anyone the questions that worried her most.

“A wife should be glad if her tongue isn’t quicker than her husband’s. Then she always has the last word.” To hide his smile, Harald turned to help direct four men carrying a wooden sledge past the mast.

When he looked back and saw his daughter lost in thought, turning the bronze key over in her hand, it suddenly struck him how much he would miss her. Perhaps he shouldn’t have married her off so far from home? Since his wife had died, Asahad been his greatest comfort. He wondered if he had spoiled her, giving her half the honors of a queen, yet allowing her to dress and act with the freedom of a girl. She was fifteen, and still running about in a short linen shift. A mother would have been stricter. The thought made him gruff.

“It’s time you prepared for the feast, Asa. Get a decent long dress and cloak out of the chest. And have one of the thralls tie up your hair. Eirik of Horthaland’s wife will have to bear herself with proper dignity.”

“Yes, Father.” She started to open the chest again, but he stopped her.

Slowly he touched her blond hair, and his lips tightened. “Remember me, Asa.”

This chapter taken from The Ship in the Hill by William L. Sullivan.