In which Karik Haldsson and his companions are sent out from their families and seek a new village to call their home.
The Isle of Vrania is a cold and harsh land. Broken away from the rest of the world, it spends each year wrapped in the storms and winds that come howling down from the northern seas. Hard and short are the lives of those who live on the isle’s rocky shores and barren mountains. Each summer they work themselves to the bone to eke out a little food from the rough soil, and when the winter comes, they huddle against the snow and ice as best they can.
On the western coast of Vrania, many inlets are carved out of the rock stretching miles inland. Fed by the icy streams that come down from the mountains, these inlets are cold and deep, deeper than any man knows. Now, on the shores of one of these inlets, is a village called Yrdnara.
Like the other villages along the coast, Yrdnara struggled every year to gather enough food for the winter. Yet every year, for all their work, there was little enough to go around. Some years the harvest was good and the fish plentiful, so that only the very old and very sick breathed their last as the land was buried in snow. But some years the harvest was poor, or the inlets were bare of fish. Then the cold would come, and in the summer there would be many new graves on the slopes north of the village.
So Yrdnara, along with many of the villages along the coast, determined that it was better that the food should go to those who needed it most, and that those best able to care for themselves should be sent out to fend for themselves. Every five years, they held a casting of lots. The bravest and strongest of the young men cast their lots into a jar, and out of it five were selected to make their own way beyond the village.
Some traveled up into the mountains and lived lonely lives among the rocks, surviving off the meager provision of the mountains.
Others traveled up from the sea to Bjarnmont, where their king held court and launched raids on his rivals. There, if a man was brave enough, and lucky enough, he might win some measure of fame and fortune.
Still others banded together and formed for themselves small settlements wherever they could find fish and other forms of food.
Now it happened some years ago, that a man named Hald lived in the village of Yrdnara with his wife Elva. They were farmers and had three sons. The youngest was called Mirn, the second was called Karik, and the eldest had his father’s name, as is the custom with these people.
Their families had lived in Yrdnara as long as could be remembered, and though another ruled in the village as Jarl, neither Hald nor Elva were taken lightly. They labored as best they could each year, and if they had extra, they saw that it went to those who could best use it.
But there came a year when the winter storms came far earlier than usual, and much of the meager crop was lost, while the inlet gave up few fish to the nets and lines that were diligently thrown in.
They tightened their belts as best they could, and Elva showed her sons how to sing and tell stories, for songs make the cold and hungry nights of winter pass more easily.
As the winter wore on many throughout Yrdnara wasted away and grew sick, and among these was Karik’s younger brother, Mirn. As his brother’s sickness deepened, Karik hunted endlessly with his older brother Hald Haldsson or with his father, and at times even going out alone into the storms and venturing deep into the mountains. Many times, their father warned them of the treacherous snow drifts, the deceptive ice packs where a man could be lost in an instant. Each time however, Karik found his way home through the storms. But each time he found Mirn sicker than when he had left.
Yet all their efforts were for naught. Before the winter was over, Mirn breathed his last, and Karik helped his father bury his brother on the northern slopes overlooking Yrdnara.
Thus, with heavy hearts in the spring, the lots were cast, and Karik’s name was pulled from the jar. Four others were also chosen, and the chief of these were two brothers, Revik and Igil, who were close friends of Karik. When their lots were chosen, they were given until the last day of summer to leave as was the custom, that they might be given time to prepare. Wisic and Umir were the names of the other two.
They spoke at length where they should go, and Revik said that it seemed best to go to Bjarnmont. “Ever the king is in need of men.” He said. “And he leads many raids against the eastern Jarls. There we may win renown and wealth.”
Igil agreed that this seemed like a good enough plan to him, but Karik did not agree.
“I do not think that Jarhost will be of much help to us.” He said. “Let us go northward and seek out what we may find. Mayhap we shall find a way to better feed our people.”
But the others disagreed with him, and the decision was made to make for Bjarnmont as soon as summer ended.
As the harvest began to ripen however, messengers came down from Bjarnmont to the villages bearing a message from King Jarhost. The winter had decimated his crops, and he had barely the food to feed his own household, much less newcomers cast out from their own homes. He would accept none of those the villages chose to put off.
At this, Revik was exceedingly downcast. For though he was young, he was very strong and he longed to gain glory in battle, and hated farming. Karik saw this, and found time to speak privately to Igil.
“Your brother’s heart is set on fame and renown, but if we do not live past this coming winter we shall have neither.”
Igil admitted that this was true.
“I do not believe Revik will give up his dream of serving a Jarl in battle, but for a short time he must.” Karik said. “Besides I do not think that any good will come to us from Bjarnmont. I do not wish to risk my life so that King Jarhost might have thirty cows instead of ten. There must be a better way to feed our people, and I mean to find it.”
“I see your point when it comes to Jarhost’s cows.” Igil nodded, “But do you truly expect to find anything northward except for more ice?”
“To the south is the endless sea.” Karik answered. “To the west is the Black isle through which none can pass. To the east is Jarhost and his endless cattle wars. That leaves north. I would see what we may find.”
Igil acknowledged that this seemed fair enough to him and he would think it over. With that he returned to his work, building a boat for his father, which he hoped to finish before the last day of summer.
That night, the five young men gathered together to discuss what they should do now that Bjarnmont was closed to them.
Revik suggested that they should seek service with Hegli, the Jarl who ruled the Undmir, and if he did not accept them, then they should cross the mountains, and seek service with the western Jarls. “If we are able to make a name for ourselves, then our lives will be much easier going forward. A hero is rarely turned away from a hearth when the cold winds come out of the north.”
But the others opposed this. Wisic pointed out that it would take several weeks to reach Undmir, and longer to reach the western Jarls. “Winter will not be far off when our time comes to depart, and it may catch us on our way, with neither hall nor home to shelter within.”
“Besides,” Umir said, “If King Jarhost, the wealthiest of all the kings and Jarls in Vrania, is too poor to take in new swords, then there is little chance that anyone else will.”
When they had spoken, Karik made his case, stating that it might be best to wait for a year or more before pursuing service with King Jarhost. “Until then, let us go north and see what we can find there. Perhaps we may find a good place to survive the winter, and perhaps we may find a way to make a name for ourselves in the process.”
They talked it over for much of the night, till the fire burned low and they grew weary.
At last Igil stood and said that he agreed with Karik. “A year or two in the north should allow us to satisfy Karik. There we can build homes to survive the winter, and wait for Jarhost to accept new warriors.” They agreed to this, but Revik was angry, and would not speak to Karik.
So the summer came to an end, and they made the final preparations to travel northward. The night before they left, Karik sat with his father by the father and they spoke of many things, but mostly they spoke of Karik’s desire to end the famine.
His father shook his head with a sigh. “We have lived this way for many years.” He said. “If there was a way to end it, should we not by now have found it?” Karik said that he would look all the same, but he did not share the matter that lay closest to his heart. For ever his thoughts turned to the Black Isles and what might lay beyond them.
The next morning, on the last day of summer, Karik Haldsson set out northward with the other exiles. They traveled for several days, passing through the many little villages that are spread among Vrania’s eastern shore. As they hiked over each cliff, Karik would gaze out over the sea, and imagine that in the distance he could pick out the shapes of the Black Isles. Ever his mind turned to what might lay beyond them.
In each of the villages they came to, Karik would seek out the most experience sailors and ask what they had seen of the Isles. Most of them would chuckle and exchange knowing glances, and a few would grow quiet as they remembered their companions who had died upon them.
“The currents there are treacherous.” They said. “The water there swirls and bends with no account. The Isles are bare, black rock that will cut a ship in half or scrape her keel clean off. And once the ship is gone…” they shook their heads. “No man can survive those waters. If he is not pulled under by the currents, he will be beaten to death upon the rocks.”
“Leave it boy.” One kindly old man said to Karik as they prepared to leave. “There’s naught there but death. Whatever is beyond them is forbidden by the gods.”
“But did we not come from beyond them?” Karik would ask. “Did our forefathers not come from across the sea?”
Then the old men would smile again at each other and laugh. “There is always one who thinks he knows better than the rest of us.”
“You will be the next one dying on the rocks.” The more solemn would warn. Then they would point to Revik and Igil, “Be sure you are not with him when he goes to his death.”
But their words did little to cool Karik’s interest.
Still they trekked northward on the Isle, as each village refused them shelter and bade them move on.
The days grew shorter, and the cold winds came more often out of the north. At last a day came that they found themselves in the far northern mountains. There they came upon the path that lead west, higher into the mountains and toward Girhom and Gar’s pass.
Revik said that Girhom might be worth visiting, but Wisic pointed out that if Bjarnmont did not have a place for them, then Girhom was far less likely. As they argued on this, Karik thought he saw a man across the gorge, making his way among the rocky slope.
He asked Revik who he thought it might be, and Revik replied that as they were new to the area, it was unlikely any of them knew him.
Igil spoke up and said it was likely an exile, one who had taken to living by himself away from the village.
Karik nodded “I would speak with him, for as Revik has said, we are new here, and unfamiliar with the land this far north.”
So they made their way down across the gorge and sought out the man they had seen, but he had vanished, and no sign of him could they find.
“It is not likely he would sit here and wait for us.” Revik said. “And I doubt that he would be happy at the prospect of sharing his food with strangers such as us.”
Karik said that this might well be true, but he still wished to have words with the man.
Just then Igil looked out at them searching about the rocks and among the trees for sign of the man’s passing, when he broke out in laughter.
“What fools we all are,” he said “searching for a man here in the rocks, when it would be much easier to find his mark in the sky.”
Revik frowned at his brother, for Igil often said things in a roundabout manner.
But Karik looked to the sky and saw the faint trace of smoke rising from the tops of the gaunt pine trees a short way ahead.
They made their way toward it, and soon found themselves on a faint footpath that led down into a little hollow. A small space had been cleared, and a hut had been built among the rocks so that it was impossible to tell where the house ended and the rocks began. It was covered with earth and rough stones and a small wooden door was set in it. All about the clearing were the bones of animals, and hanging from nearly every tree were hides and furs hanging out.
By the door of the hut sat a man, honing his ax with a stone. At his feet sat a great, black hound. The man did not look up as they approached, but the dog watched them with bared teeth and a growl on the edge of his maw.
Karik bade his companions wait, and he advanced toward the man with Revik close behind him. He introduced himself and asked if the man was averse to some small company for a short time.
The man answered that his name was Dranri, and if they came in peace, he was willing enough to be a host. “It is not easy to be cast out from your homes.” He said. “You cannot stay here more than a day, but I will give you such help as I am able. We exiles must help each other as we can, for no one else will.”
Then they ate a mountain goat that Dranri had killed the day before. They gnawed at it until nothing was left in the setting sun but a pile of white bones under the pine trees. And when they had finished, they slept there that night in the clearing beside Dranri’s house.
But Karik did not lay down with the others, but sat by the fire while the wind blew through the tree tops, and the stars shone high above them. And he spoke with Dranri while the night grew cold.
He told Dranri of his dream to find food for his people, but Dranri shook his head, and his great beard wagged as he did so.
“It does not exist here, on this Isle.” He said. “Northward there is good fishing in the little bay you will find, but there is only a little left over for the people who live there. We trade with them every year, our furs for their fish, and the trade is good.
“To the east, in the cattle lands which Jarhost so loves to raid, there is more food and less hunger, but even if we were all to eat together, we would soon consume them and be worse off than before.”
“Have you seen these lands?” Karik asked. “Why does Jarhost not give aid to the villages which he claims to rule?”
“Because he is comfortable in Bjarnmont.” Dranri answered. “When I was exiled, I wandered these mountains for two years before loneliness and hunger overcame me. I served Jarhost for three years, and he threw me out when he had to tighten his belt at the table.” He spat into the fire. “Above all Jarhost loves comfort, and since he has it, he will not move. No matter the plight of our island.”
“If it is not within our island,” Karik asked, “Then perhaps beyond the Black Isles? What might lie beyond there?”
At this Dranri chuckled. “I have heard these words spoken before, by others such as yourself. And in the cold winter days I have sat by the fire and wondered. Do you know what I have wondered boy?”
Karik said that he did not.
“I wonder why everyone wonders how to cross the Isles, but never discusses what comes next.”
Karik asked him what he meant.
“If you cross the Isles, find rich lands and plentiful food, what will happen next?” Dranri threw several logs into the fire and watched as the sparks flew up into the night sky. “What will Jarhost do when there is another with greater wealth than he? What will the mountain jarls, who survive on cattle raids, see villages that no longer need them? When exiles no longer swell their ranks desperate for food and shelter?
“There will be turmoil, and hunger. Lords will seek to strengthen themselves, as they always do.” He pointed his small ax handle at Karik. “Before ever you lay your hand to the tiller of your ship, look first to the sky, and think what lies beyond the horizon.
No man seeks defeat, But he who sees it from afar may plot a course around it.
The next morning, they rose and thanked Dranri for his hospitality, promising to repay it if ever they were in a position to do so.
Dranri said that it was not likely this would be the case, and pointed them in the direction of the village. “When you arrive, tell them that Dranri the Hunter sent you, and that I will be there soon, for the forests have been full these months past.”
Karik agreed to do as he said, and they made their way down the path Dranri had pointed out, down the mountainside down toward the sea.
The wind was blowing in from the north, whipping the stubby trees long their path, and high above them dark storm clouds were rolling in. Revik said that if this village did not take them in, then it might be that they had chosen the worst path after all.
“That may be.” Karik answered, pausing to catch his breath on the steep slope. “But it may be that we have taken the best path.”
“You are a fool.” Revik spat into the trees and pushed past Karik.
In more than one place the path dropped almost straight down, and they had to take great care to ensure they did not go tumbling down through the pines that grew along the lower slope. Yet soon the path drew near a stream that came down out of the mountains, they soon came upon the village which Dranri had spoken of.
A rough, rocky strip of land ringed the beach of the fjord, dotted by low houses of stone, roofed with turf. From their height, Karik guess that they were dug into the ground, with most of their room beneath the surface. Stone pens surrounded many of the houses, and a few men could be seen tending small gardens about the village.
Beyond them, the dark waters of the fjord stretched northward as the shore rose into low cliffs along it, widening out as it went until it reached the sea. But Karik peered out in surprise, for it seemed to him that at the mouth of the fjord there was an island rising into a mountain. It was far off in the distance, and the clouds hung heavy over the whole fjord, so it was not an easy thing to sea.
To the west, a wide stream plunged down from the mountains, hurrying down toward the fjord. To his surprise Karik saw several farms on its banks, stretching back into the mountains. Men said that this far north there was little point in growing corn, but here, though the plots were small, thick green stalks stood tall, heavy with corn.
Revik grunted. “This place is not very promising.”
“They are growing corn.” Karik answered. “It may be there is more than meets the eye.”
Revik scoffed at this as they began to make their way into the village, but Igil looked thoughtful.