There is power in words, read or spoken. Sometimes just words you think of. Words like ‘loss’, ‘death’, ‘love’, ‘father’. Sturla was good with his use of words, in making arguments and convincing others of the right and logic in his case. He won his case against the priest Solvason, boasted, gloated, and then fell dead. Perhaps it would have been best if his body were eaten by Grendel, rather than be offered to Christ or Odin.
First days At Oddi
I missed my family. My brothers mostly, though they were cruel to me sometimes because I was the youngest. I missed mother and her warm comforting embraces, when she hugged my head and told me everything would be alright. I even missed my father, though he often scared me, with his loud voice and rough ways. But I always felt safe with him, felt that he would protect me, unless it was me he was angry with. But I was quick to learn how to placate him, appease his anger. By the time I became resident at Oddi, I confess that I could be a devious child, though that skill did not help me much, at first.
Oddi was nicer than my home. It was filled with fine cloths and carved furniture and smells of camphor and other things that the priests burned to bring spirits into the air. I slept in the loft with the other boys, like me, though all of them older. We shared the sleeping pallets, which was good, so we could keep each other warm with our body heat when the nights were especially cold. Even now I remember that first week, laying in the bed, looking out the little window into the early daylight. It was raining hard; my breath was in the air and my tears made my face cold so I had to squeeze my eyes shut tight to keep them back, and I had to hold my breathing, to quell my sobs so I didn’t wake the other boys. I was abandoned, cast out from my family and made to make my life among strangers. I was afraid and filled with anguish. I felt like I was bleeding from my heart. I was four years old then, everyone was bigger than me. Some were nice but the priests were very strict and quick to admonish. They did not take well to my attempts at foolery and were quick with the rod when they caught me not paying attention. But I was not deterred and though they thought they were bending me to their discipline, they were fooled by my feigned compliance.
I found the times more relaxed at the eating table, when some conversation with others was permitted, though there was always a great deal of praying before and after the meal. The food was plain but filling, there was little variety. Once a week there was boiled meat and once or twice a year, during feasts, the meat was made very delicious by roasting on a spit over open fire.
Oddi is the place where I learned that I could make lies without bursting into flame, though my deceptions could only be used sparingly lest they be discovered as untrue. For the most part I was an honest child, remained loyal to rules and lessons and was much quicker at study than any other boy at the Oddi school. There were many things I took to naturally, that I enjoyed, gained skill at, received praise and encouragement for and proved myself an excellent student. I desperately wanted to go home, at first, but I soon found my place and thoughts of my family and Hvamm slowly melted into pictures in my memory. Nay, I did not forget them, and my brothers came from time to time to remind me that they would always be older than me and to say they would always be smarter than me as well, even though I learned this not to be true as I aged.
I say now, as I look back, that it was Oddi that made me the man I became. As much as the trepidation I endured, in the beginning, that smothered me like a cloak of soaked fur, once I took hold and came into myself, I sprouted, grew and blossomed like a giant sunflower, bold and brilliant. I knew I was such and played that to my great advantage. There were times when I thought myself superb above all others and times when I thought I must be a great dullard. Do not blame me for that, life is life and that was mine. I was happy and I was sad, no different than you.
I say that I was a smart and perceptive child. I learned quickly to make alliances with the bigger boys, especially the older ones that weren’t particularly bright. They were good allies in certain circumstances. It didn’t take much to coerce and lead them; a few offerings to help with lessons, speaking well of them with the priests and encouraging them at their studies. There was equal value in alliances with people of greater knowledge and power than myself. But Jon Loftsson’s son Saemunder, one of my teachers, was the most revered and I made every effort to befriend him. But there are also lessons to be learned in making disingenuous alliances; lessons that took me somewhat longer to appreciate, though I did eventually come to understand the difference between loyalty and fealty. This lesson in particular I took with me through the rest of my life, measuring those beneath me and those above. I confess that power was a luxurious liquor to me, like strong fine tasting wine, not like the musty ale or sour mead of the lower class who had to toil in the fields or work with beasts or fish the cold ocean waters. It was not just the power of my command over them but also a power inside me in my ability to speak laws and write histories and sagas, as if I was able to create new worlds. This skill later served me on my travels to Norway, where I sought the pleasure of young King Hakon and Earl Skúli, but that is a later story.
The school at Oddi is the place that made me a poet, a lawyer, a speaker and a leader. This is where I learned to be a gentle man, though I had many days when thoughts and acts of violence were more commonplace for me. This is where I learned the magnificence of putting words to parchment, that once scribed would be part of the history of mankind and I would always be remembered, as if I were made immortal through my writing. This is where I learned of many writings that had been made before me. Writings of kings and trolls, giants, gods and strange beasts. Many of these stories I learned by ear and wrote them down and though they were not made by me, they became mine. This is where I learned that I had a great many ancestors and that they stretched far into the distant past. This amazing thing is what made me determined to understand and record my own place in the history of my people.
I was ready and would have become like the renowned Bishop Klaeng, who my father revered and often quoted, but times had changed between his day and mine. I admired him and was drawn with my boyish curiosity, particularly by the story of the Bishop, when he was my age, attending the school at Holar, caught reading the library’s copy of Ovid’s ‘The Art of Love’. He snuck in and pirated the manuscript and was found enraptured by the steamy love poems. Of course he was admonished by his Bishop, scolded, told that it was difficult enough for a boy of twelve to make his way without being confused by sexually explicit writings. The book was repatriated to the library and the boy’s ways were redirected so that he might become a sober man of God, as he was destined.
I found it more difficult than not to abandon my thoughts of the body of the other sex and thus I knew I would never have the discipline to become a man of power in the church; my power would have to come from my other strengths and skills. I found my mind often drifting to those other worlds we go to when we are dreaming, and encountering the female kind and not knowing how to act. I dreamt of strange machines, giant edifices, people clothed most curiously, not knowing how imperfect they were and without giving thought to it, just knowing that the things of those dreams would become real in days to come.
I liked this idea, that I came from kings and that I could be a king myself, in the right circumstance. I imagined myself wearing ornamented robes, brandishing my scepter, seated upon my throne making judgement upon my vassals, leading a great army to victory over heathen enemies. But I would have to earn my way, grow into kingship. First I must be a prince and learn the lessons of court and politics and how to rule and lead. I was twelve when Loftsson gave me this lesson. Then he left me to ponder on the bank of the Ranga. My father had not been a king so how could I ever be a prince, a king in waiting?
To earn my royal blood I enticed young Thorlakar to battle me so I could become learned in the martial art of war. He was new at the school, a boy of eight and very keen to play Viking games rather than spend his hours under dim candlelight learning to scribe on parchment. We took up staves, though they were really just long branches found at the banks of the Ranga. We battled, swinging and thrusting our weapons as if we were true warriors. Chips and bark and slivers flew in the air, we spun and volleyed, parried and thrust and it was great fun, unseen by the priests.
But then Thorlakar struck me hard on my bare knuckles, shedding skin and drawing blood. A bolt of fire ran from my hand up my arm and made tears come to my eyes unwillingly, which humiliated me because I could not hide the wet upon my face. It is surprising how quickly pain can turn to blind anger. It was as though I could not help myself or prevent my arm from swinging my stave at Thorlakar’s face. I did not think, it was an uncontrollable reflex. In the next instant my stave broke in two upon poor Thorlakar’s face, splinters flew and the sharp end of my stick found its way into Thorlakar’s eye.
He fell to the ground, dizzy and stunned, rolling in the tall grass near the edge of the river. He rose, screaming and cursing, god forsaken words that I could not understand, his hand clutching his face, blood leaking between his fingers. His screams transformed into sobs of panic as he ran back towards the school. His eye was gone to Valhalla before him.
Of course there would be punishment for my grievous sin. There might be a beating or whipping against the post, work duties that were given to the newest boys, from which I had graduated long ago, but which humiliation I might now deserve. The meagre food on my plate might be rationed further until I starved into a skeleton or I might be made to stand before the school in shame, before every lesson. I was afraid of the unknown punishment that would surely befall me. But most of all I feared that I would lose the regard of Jon Loftsson. He might think a great deal less of me and all the work I had done in the years at Oddi, all the accomplishments I had earned, all the praise that had come to me for my achievements would be washed away in that instant when my stick struck poor Thorlakar’s eye. There was nothing I could do except face my punishment, beg forgiveness and perform whatever penance was assigned me. I thought of running but even that coward’s exit was not an option for me; there was nowhere for me to escape to, nowhere to hide. I stood on the bank of the Ranga praying to God or Odin, whichever one was real, to take me back in time to the moments before I struck Thorlakar, so I could make it not happen, or to rouse me from a horrid dream to see young Thorlakar sleeping quietly on the pallet beside me, both of his eyes whole.
There was no answer from Odin so it must have been God that forced me down the path on my reluctant walk back to the school. When I finally made myself present, I was grabbed by the scruff of my tunic and dragged like a sheep about to be slaughtered, into the presence of Jon Loftsson. In that moment I envisioned that I might be hung by my ankles, my throat slit open so all the blood would leave my body, that I would be skinned with sharp knives, my belly cut open so that the sack of my insides fell onto the ground, then my body halved, then quartered then butchered into portions for the cooking cauldron. I had such great fear that I felt myself go weak and that I might collapse unconscious or die from sheer fright. My heart pounded so hard I felt the blood pulsing through my limbs, I shivered, frozen, even though I could feel myself soaking with sweat. I wanted to cry like a child, but I did not.
Jon Loftsson was angered. I could see it on his face. But even as I looked at his angry mask it turned from a raging sea to calm water, right before me. He asked me what happened. I dropped to my knees and confessed my foolish game, told that I was practicing to be a king. I spoke in trembling gasps and whispers, like a repentant child, not like a king that requires no forgiveness for his actions. I clasped my hands, praying to Jon Loftsson to forgive my foolishness. He rose from his chair and stood like a mighty tower over me. But he did not strike or kick me or even scold me in a harsh voice. He told me that I would never be a king because my first thoughts were for myself and not Thorlakar. That a leader of men thinks first about the men he leads, not about his own comfort and safety. He does not think first about his own glory and wealth, does not think about the admiration and praise that might come to him from others. ‘Nay’, he said to me. ‘You will not be a king; it is not within you. A king is not simply a slayer of men nor just a leader at the head of an army. He must do things and be things that others cannot. But you may yet be a leader of men, though it will take much practice and very much more discipline’.
To this end Jon Loftsson commanded me to become Thorlakar’s lost eye. That I must forever, or as long as Thorlakar wished it, provide him with the fullest sight that my own ability could provide. I was not to do his work or cut his food or do things for him that he could do just as well himself. I was filled with great relief, that this simple task was my punishment. But my relief did not last long. It is not that Thorlakar was unreasonable with his demands on me, but there was a deep brooding resentment that emanated from him that was deeper than the punishment given me by Loftsson. He begrudged me and gave favor and kindness, playfulness and attention to other boys at the school, but not me.
I did my best to provide service and sight to young Thorlakar. I tried to act towards him the way that Thordar or Sighvat would act towards me but my efforts went mostly ignored. I felt that other boys began to take up this sentiment towards me, as if Thorlakar’s resentment became painted on them and that my status and standing in the school was diminished. I was not a king and the abyss between myself and that goal grew wider. I told Thorlakar that I was sorry for putting his eye out and that if I could take it back that I would or if I could trade places with him I would, but of course that is not the reality of life. My punishment was a weight upon me and I felt it heavier and heavier as days went by, but I also grew in my understanding of how Thorlakar must feel. As more days passed I gained more empathy for his plight and this empathy grew to the point where I genuinely did feel more deeply for Thorlakar than for myself. And I was pleased for this and felt this understanding made me a better person.
Late in the summer of that year Thorlakar was given the chore to harvest wild greens for the cooking pot. I carried the basket as he pulled the greens. They came easily from the soft rain soaked ground along the riverbank and our basket filled quickly. The Ranga was higher than it had been all summer because of the heavy rain and the melt coming off Hekla. As Thorlakar pulled on a deep root, the soft bank gave way beneath him and he fell into the fast flowing river. He screamed, I dropped the basket and lunged for his hand but I was only able to brush the tips of his fingers as he fell away. He bobbed up and down in the roiling Ranga, his head disappeared then reappeared then was gone beneath the water. I ran along the bank, slipping and tripping trying to keep pace with young Thorlakar as the Ranga carried him away. But our small river carried poor Thorlakar into the larger Thvera which soon joined with the wide Holsa and took him all the way to the ocean. I watched him go. I watched him flail his arms and tumble in the current until he was just a dead lump upon the water in the distance and looked no different than a hewn piece of log or a lamb that had fallen into the river.
I sat on the bank of the Ranga and cried long into the day until others came to fetch us back. I had no words. Some said among themselves secretly that I had pushed Thorlakar into the water so I could be free of my commitment to be his lost eye. I was not punished for the lost boy. My lessons and duties returned to normal and I took up the quill with renewed fervor. I suffered my guilt silently, even though I was not blamed. After a while, those feelings numbed and faded far into the depths of my memory.
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