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ODD TANGLE-HAIR GOES A-VIKING
Youthful pride coupled with brutal betrayal turns Odd’s life upside down, and he must flee his beloved Iceland clinging only to the hope that one day he will return to mete out his revenge.
An old grudge erupts into violence as Odd Tangle-Hair refuses to back down from the men he believes shamed his father and betrayed their heritage by turning away from the old gods in favor of the White Christ. But when the violence escalates and Odd’s family bears the brunt of it, he must leave his beloved Iceland behind and find his own way in the world. The golden age of Viking conquest is fading when he takes to the seas, but his journey is full of adventures, and he meets priests and politicians as well as many unscrupulous men all too eager to take advantage of a young man abroad for the first time.
Beautifully written, impeccably researched, and deeply rooted within the oral tradition of story telling, Bruce Macbain has woven an evocative saga that will sweep readers into the past and plant them firmly in Odd’s rapidly changing world. Odin’s Child will appeal to readers of Norse history, sweeping sagas, and the tale of a young man coming of age in a time of transformative change.
Praise for Odin’s Child:
—Odin’s Child is the first of author Bruce Macbain’s ‘Odd Tangle-Hair Saga’ trilogy. Impressively well written, Odin’s Child is an inherently fascinating read and documents Macbain’s considerable storytelling talents in crafting truly memorable characters and deftly embedding them into a complexly woven and solidly entertaining story that will leave his readers looking eagerly toward the next title in this outstanding series. Very highly recommended for community library General Fiction collections. – James A. Cox, Midwest Book Review
—Macbain has turned from his home stomping grounds of ancient Rome to this first in a new Viking series. His writing is vivid and compelling, and his understanding of Norse and Icelandic culture and history is woven deftly throughout the tale. The cast of characters is well-fleshed out and Odd makes for a wonderful protagonist. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and I eagerly await its sequel. Highly recommended.” — Justin M. Lindsay,Historical Novels Review
—Meticulous research and poetic writing make Odin’s Child a multilayered masterpiece in the genre of historical fiction. It brings medieval Scandinavia vividly alive. Written with passion, peopled with superbly realised characters, I was gripped from the very first page of this historical novel. — Carol McGrath, author of The Handfasted Wife and The Swan-Daughter
—This first book of “Odd Tangle-Hair’s Saga” is a triumph for Macbain, previously known for clever detective novels set in ancient Rome. Odin’s Child takes place in 11th century Iceland, where Odd grows up as the younger son of Black Thorvald, a once-fierce warrior who has fallen into bitter melancholy as the ways of the “White Christ” overcome the worship of Odin and Thor. When a rival chieftain rigs a murder charge against Odd and his brother in order to acquire Thorvald’s farm, the bloody consequences leave 16-year-old Odd no choice but to flee his homeland on a stolen ship with a ragtag crew. His ambitious plans to go a-viking and return, laden with gold, to take revenge on his family’s enemies go utterly awry as he is swept into extraordinary adventures with a Lapp shaman who saves his life, a battle for the kingdom of Norway, and captivity in superstition-ridden Finland. Quite aside from the colorful settings, full of battle-lore and wonderful detail, Macbain’s skill is in letting us see how this inexperienced boy, haunted by the loved ones he has lost and desperate to prove himself, begins to know and trust himself as a man. – Sherry Christie
—Odin’s Child is easy and clear reading, filled with cultural nuances that envelope the reader in Odd’s adventures and experiences. The sheer brutality of the times even seems naturally done, though it’s horrific to think that the way to revenge is through splitting your enemy’s skull in two with a hefty axe.
Because of the great attention to cultural and historical detail, I think this would make a great addition to any university’s Icelandic or Norse literature program. And to anyone interested in historical fiction centred on Icelandic and Norse traditions, this is not to be missed! – Kristin Ravelle
PART ONE: ICELAND
CHAPTER 1: THE STALLION FIGHT AT THINGHOLT
On that day in May, as we rode to the stallion fight at Thingholt, my fate showed itself to me. A raven flew low across the sky into the rising sun and the moment I saw it I knew that Odin had spoken to me and that he would give me courage for the thing I had secretly made up my mind to do. Only now, half a century later, do I see what a long text was folded into that swift vision.
The spring of my sixteenth year had come early to the South Quarter of Iceland, with hot-cold days and thunderclouds sweeping up over the mountains. The stallions, smelling the air, trembled and kicked against their stalls. At this season if you stake out a mare where the stallions can smell her, they will fight like berserkers to get at her, and a great one will die before he breaks and runs.
Black Grani was such a one. This was his fourth spring and the time had come to bring him to the South Quarter Thing and fight him. Thorvald, my father, grumbled and held back, but I gave him no peace, until, at last, he flung up an angry arm, which meant ‘yes’.
Although my brother Gunnar and I had set out early from the farm, the day was far gone before we came in sight of Thingholt plain and heard the distant shouts of men and the whinnying of horses. We left Grani and our mounts at the horse lines and walked across the sparse heath into the holiday crowd. And as we pushed our way through, there were some who knew us. A few old men came up and in low voices asked to be remembered to our father. But one red-faced woman, seeing us, cried, “Jesu!” and dragged her little daughter from our path.
Gunnar—six years older than me and as reckless as he was handsome—stopped short, favored her with his wickedest grin and purred, “I’ve eaten my breakfast today, housewife, or wouldn’t I just love a bite of your fat girl! Now, my black-headed brother here, who is greedier than I….”
The woman elbowed herself out of our way. Some, standing nearby, laughed at her, though others eyed us coldly and shook their heads.
“I’ve too sharp a tongue in my head,” Gunnar allowed to no one in particular. “It’s my single fault.”
Ahead of us a crowd was gathered for the horse fights. We worked our way to the front until the clearing lay before us, a haze of dust hanging over the trampled grass. At the edge of it the mares were tethered, while in the center two farmers, stripped to the waist and backed by a knot of shouting friends, shoved and goaded their snorting stallions into battle. It was a good match and we watched, shouting with the rest, until the loser, foam-flecked and streaked with blood, charged into the crowd, scattering spectators to right and left. Winning horse and master both threw back their heads and cried victory.
In the days before the White Christ came to Iceland, the winning horse would have been sacrificed to Frey, whose horse’s prick fertilizes the fields, and the meat cut up and sold to the folk to eat. Christian priests had soon put a stop to that, but they were too shrewd to make us give up our sport entirely.
While pieces of silver changed hands and horns of ale went round, Gunnar fingered his yellow beard and looked over the crowd for a likely competitor.
“I will goad Grani.” I had waited until now to speak.
“Maybe next year, Tangle-Hair,” he answered, not looking at me. “When you’ve got more size on you. You’ll get yourself trampled.”
Our younger sister had given me the nickname ‘Tangle-Hair,’ as well as ‘Black-Brows’ and ‘Half-Troll’ and several others. Our father resembled a black bull—short, thick and dark. Not handsome according to the taste of our people. And I was the image of him, black and shaggy-haired from birth. How much did I resemble him beneath the skin? That question gnawed like a worm in my belly.
“Gunnar,” I said, “I goad him or no one does.”
My skin was cold. What Gunnar could do smiling, I did with teeth clenched. That was the difference between us.
“That’s not how you put it to Father.”
Not even to my brother could I confess the real reason–scarcely even to myself–the fear that our father’s sickness also infected me, carried in the blood that gave me his looks and his temper. I would master my fear today or die. I didn’t mind which. We fixed our eyes on each other.
“If it goes badly, you’ll face him by yourself.”
“I oughtn’t to let you.” But then he smiled. “I hope Grani knows what to do because it’s certain as rain and fire that you don’t. Just promise me you won’t lose your temper, it’ll only worry the horse.”
While he went back to fetch Grani, I drew a long breath and stepped into the circle to yell my challenge. This was the first time I had put myself forward in a group of strange men. I had a lump like a fist in my throat and hardly recognized my own strangulated voice. In answer there was only a little laughter and scattered shouts of “Brave boy!” Then anger welled up in me and I cried out, “Odd Thorvaldsson does not leave this circle with his horse un-fought!”
For a long moment, nothing. But then there was a stir in the crowd. “Hold on! Hold on!” Some jumped aside and others turned round to look as a man thrust his way through from the rear. He launched himself toward me across the open space.
“Don’t burst your lungs, boy, Hrut Ivarsson still has one good ear left to hear you with!”
There was laughter from the crowd at this joke, which he acknowledged with a wave of his arm.
I knew who he was. Even to our remote farmstead the story had made its way of how this man Hrut had got his ear torn off in a brawl last Yule Feast. Strife-Hrut, as his neighbors called him, was a bully, who couldn’t enter a strange hall without starting a fight and who never paid blood money for his killings, though he was rich enough. He farmed down on the Whitewater, near the coast, and spent a part of each summer over the sea, trading in his own ship.
He thrust his face at me–red and meaty, with small eyes, and a scrappy beard. He grinned, showing broken front teeth, and said, “I’ve a roan stallion, ugly as me and less good-natured, that I’ll match with yours for the stakes of a silver ounce.” He pulled a bit of hack-silver from his purse and waved it under my nose. “And seeing as you’re only a young’un, my boy Mord will goad him, that isn’t much bigger ‘n what you are.”
He had two sons, Mord and Brand, who had followed him into the circle and stood behind him now, one to either side. Both of them were closer to Gunnar’s age than to mine and no prettier to look at than their father.
“Mind you,” Hrut tapped my chest with a thick forefinger, “I take up your challenge out of kind regards for Thorvald, for I know whose son you are. He had a shrewd head and a heavy hand once upon a time, and I call it a shame he keeps himself so close nowadays.” It was meant as a sneer and was said loud enough for many to hear.
“He has his reasons,” I said.
“I expect he does.”
With a nod to his sons, Strife-Hrut went off to round up his horse. A moment later, Gunnar appeared at my side, grim-faced.
“Tangle-Hair, these are men who don’t like to lose. They’d sooner kill a horse–or his driver.”
“What would you have me do?”
“In Christ’s name, Odd, let me handle the horse.” Whenever Gunnar swore by Christ it was as if to say, Our mother would ask this.
“Give me the goad,” I said.
They were coming back now, leading their scarred animal, the survivor of many a fight, and the crowd gave them room, for the horse was side-stepping and his ears were flat against his head. I laid aside my sword belt and tunic and picked up the iron-pronged club, while Gunnar, with his hands tight on Grani’s halter, brought him to the edge of the clearing. The moment Grani saw the roan, his lips drew back over his teeth and he rolled his eyes like a battle-mad berserker.
“He won’t need the goad,” Gunnar shouted over the noise of the crowd. “Keep close and let him hear your voice–that’s all he wants.”
Round and round the stallions circled each other in the dusty ring, lashing out with their hoofs, thrusting with their necks, snorting with the same sound that the earth makes when it steams and heaves beneath our feet. And I, with the choking dust and the hot reek of horseflesh in my nostrils, danced alongside Grani, shouting his name and rushing in to throw myself against his flank as he charged.
We fought like brothers, he and I, side by side, the same blood, foam, and sweat soaking us both. The battle-joy rose in my throat and swept me up so that I had scarcely a mind left with which to tell myself, You have conquered fear–the sickness hasn’t touched you.
Hrut’s horse was a fierce biter and soon Grani was bleeding from his face and neck. But his strength began to tell against the roan. He drove his foe back on his haunches and, rearing up, lashed him with his fore-hoofs. Mord used his goad frantically, raking his animal’s back until long ribbons of blood ran down its flanks. His brother Brand rushed in, too, to throw his weight against the beast and the two of them shoved and flailed and swore, but the roan had no heart left in him. Wide-eyed with fear, he shied away, tumbling Brand over in the dust.
“One more time, Grani!” I shouted.
Then Mord raised his arm. I saw what he was going to do and I tried to throw myself in his way–too late! The goad went up and came slashing down at Grani’s head. My beautiful stallion rose on his hind legs and wheeled round, showing only a red well where his eye had been. In the same motion he struck me on the brow with his fore-hoof, knocking me down, and with a scream of terror and pain plunged through the crowd.
The next thing I remember, Gunnar was holding me up under the arms, wiping the blood from my eyes with a strip of his tunic. Together we stumbled after Grani. A dozen men were holding him down by his head and legs as he writhed in the dirt. What happened after that comes to my mind now only in sharp splinters of memory: my brother forcing my fingers around the haft of a spear, his mouth working, saying that the horse must not live mutilated, the spear shuddering in my fist, sinking deep, until half its length was buried in Grani’s chest, and his hot blood spurting over my hands.
“A good sacrifice,” said someone in the crowd who was of the old religion. “Frey is glad of him.”
I pressed my face against Grani’s neck, letting my blood and his run together, until Gunnar pulled me away. “There is a reckoning,” he said.
Followed by the crowd, we walked back to the clearing. There Hrut and his sons with four of their hirelings stood close together, looking truculent and just a little frightened. There was a numbing pain in my forehead over the right eye. My legs barely held me up.
“Stay behind me,” ordered my brother.
He was holding the goad–I suppose he had pried it from my hand–and, without a word, he went straight for Mord. Quick as a cat he swung it, aiming for the eye, and Mord let out a howl and fell to the ground. Instantly, the rest of them had their swords out. We would have died there and then if bystanders hadn’t rushed between us, throwing their cloaks over the blades and pushing us in opposite directions.
Next moment, there came a shout to make way. Hjalti the Strong, big and barrel-chested, shouldered his way into our midst and roared for quiet. He was the godi of Tjorsariverdale, a respected and powerful man.
He stamped his foot and glared around him. Devil skin him, he would stand for no brawling at his Thing. If folk couldn’t enjoy a simple horse-fight without falling to blows, then damn him if he wouldn’t see it all put a stop to!
But Hrut appealed to the crowd to pity his boy that was all bloodied and who knew but what he was blinded for life.
“Hold!” cried Hjalti. “Enough! The harm’s equal for both. Mord’s wound for the horse’s. No blood money owed on either side, nor any more blows to be struck, or you’ll have me to deal with. Agreed?” It wasn’t a question.
He looked to us. Gunnar, after a long moment, let the goad drop from his hand. “Agreed,” he said between his teeth.
Hjalti looked to Strife-Hrut. Hrut said nothing, but he and his men turned their backs and stalked off, dragging Mord behind them.
“Well if he murders you,” confided Hjalti, watching them go, “it’ll be flat against the law.”
Hjalti-godi was renowned for his keen legal mind.
The crowd began to drift away, except for a few who approached us and asked quietly if they might buy a haunch or a side of Grani to take home for their table, the horse having so much strength in him, and bugger the priest that didn’t like it.
I walked apart and let them bargain with Gunnar. I hadn’t the heart for it.
When he came back he threw an arm around my shoulder. “You want to stay a bit?” he asked. “Watch the wrestling, stone-lifting? Listen to the lawsuits?”
I shook my head, no.
“Not anxious to go home and deal with him, are you?”
“He must be told, Gunnar. And maybe he’ll see what fate lies ahead of us—the feud, if there is one. He has the gift, you know he does.”
Gunnar spat and ground the spittle into the dirt with his toe. “Much good it does him.”
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