Smile of the Wolf
Kjaran, a travelling poet who trades songs for food and shelter, and Gunnar, a feared warrior, must make a choice: conceal the deed or confess to the crime and pay the blood price to the family. For the right reasons, they make the wrong choice.Their fateful decision leads to a brutal feud: one man is outlawed, free to be killed by anyone without consequence; the other remorselessly hunted by the dead man’s kin.
Set in a world of ice and snow, Smile of the Wolf is an epic story of exile and revenge, of duels and betrayals, and two friends struggling to survive in a desolate landscape, where honour is the only code that men abide by.
The voice seemed to come from all around us in the dark,
as though every woman who had seen her kin slain
were screaming down upon us. It took me a moment to see
her – another figure in the dark, running at us from Hrapp’s
The light of the moon caught her face as she drew close;
it was Vigdis, the wife of Hrapp, who was screaming. I saw
another thing under that light, that it was no ghost on the
ground before us. It was a living man who lay there, gasping
wetly for air, drowning in blood on dry land.
He wore Hrapp’s tunic and his face was daubed white with
curdled milk, but there was no mistaking who he was now that
battle fever had left us. A neighbour of ours: Erik Haraldsson,
one of the first to tell the stories of the dead man walking.
‘Erik,’ I said.
The dying man lifted his head at the name. He tried to speak
and bubbles of blood burst upon his lips, black under the light
of the moon.
I did not even see her move, she was so quick. In a moment
Vigdis had leapt at Gunnar and held his right hand with both
of hers, trying to wrestle the blade from him. And when he
tried to pry her away with his free hand, she sank her teeth into
the flesh of his hand, right between the thumb and forefinger.
He bellowed in pain and struck her. She twisted away, nose
pouring blood and legs shaking, but still as full of fight as any
young warrior. Her eyes strayed to the axe on the ground, and
perhaps she would have taken it up and fought like a shield
maiden from the old stories if she had faced one of us rather
than two. As it was she watched us silently, teeth bared and
I knelt beside Erik. I showed him the knife; he wept and
clawed at the red snow with his hands. Then he nodded. He
watched the knife come, but at the last moment he closed his
eyes and turned his head away. He could not bear to watch.
The blood steamed against the snow; the sound was like
river water when you break the ice in spring. And though
I thought she would fight and struggle and kick and howl,
Vigdis gave up all fighting the moment the knife bit deep. She
stood still and soundless and watched the man die.
I rubbed my hands clean with snow, stood and faced her.
‘What is your part in all this?’ I said.
‘It is cold out here,’ she said. ‘Come with me. I will tell you
‘We must bury him and mark the grave. We must tell his
family what has happened.’
She looked up at the stars, judging the colour of the sky:
the time we had left until the sun rose upon the killing.
‘It is cold,’ she said again. ‘That can wait.’
She turned from us then and picked her way carefully
through the snow, back towards the squat house in the distance.
And, like the fools we were, we followed her.
They are as dark as tombs, the houses of the Icelanders. In
other lands some light may bleed through a thatched roof; the
occasional gap in the walls is permitted to let in a little light.
But our homes are without windows, walled over with earth.
They seal out the winter cold, and sun and moon and stars are
sealed out as well. There is only the light of the cooking fire to
see by, and that is little more than embers at the end of winter.
Vigdis gave us bread and that watered-down, end-of-winter
ale that I had grown to hate. She moved around the narrow
building and I could see that she was a handsome woman,
slender and flaxen-haired. More beautiful than in daylight,
as I was to learn later, for in daylight one could see her eyes –
thief’s eyes, my people call them. But in that half-light of the
fire, I began to understand why she was a woman that men
might fight and kill for.
We sat together in that homely barrow and did not speak
for a time. Had some lost wanderer come in, we might have
looked like any other household. Family and friends, host and
guests. Not the killers that we were.
At last, Gunnar spoke. He had been hard at thought in the
near darkness, yet still he said: ‘I do not understand.’
‘Your friend does,’ she said, looking at me. ‘Don’t you?’
‘Yes, I do,’ I said, as I stretched out my hands over the
embers of the fire. ‘Who would hold land that the dead walked
upon? Who would have a ghost for a neighbour?’
‘You are clever,’ she said. ‘That was what we thought.’
‘A trick. A trick to win land from other men.’ I took another
sip of ale. ‘Was he your lover before Hrapp died?’
‘No, he was not.’
‘But afterwards, Erik came to you.’
‘Yes. I was lonely. He was kind to me.’
‘And was it your plan?’
She shook her head. ‘It was Erik. I was afraid to refuse him.’
‘I do not believe it,’ Gunnar said. ‘It was a womanly trick.
Erik would not think of it.’
‘Believe what you want,’ she said.
Gunnar stood and raised his hand as if to strike her again.
She did not start or flinch, merely stared back, unafraid, ready
to take the blow. There was still dried blood on her lips and
chin from where he had struck her before. Knowing the kind
of man Hrapp had been, perhaps she knew what it was to be
beaten and feared it no longer.
‘Gunnar,’ I said, a note of warning in my voice.
There was a hiss as Gunnar spat into the fire. ‘Enough of
this. What need is there to speak? We have witnesses to the
killing and can say that it was a fair fight. We will go to his
family tomorrow, pay the blood-price and end this matter.’
I said: ‘Why should you pay for killing a dishonourable
‘He has brothers, uncles, friends. I will pay them. Pay them
well. That will be an end to it.’
‘No.’ The word cut through the darkness, but it was not I
who spoke it. Vigdis waited until we both turned to her, before
she bowed her head and spoke again. ‘Think of the shame of it.’
‘Why should we care for your shame?’ Gunnar said.
‘Not mine. Erik’s,’ she replied, and that was the thought
that gave us pause.
Our lives are short on the cold earth and we all long to leave
something behind. A little gold for our sons and daughters –
but more than that, an honourable memory: to be spoken of
as a good man. And here was Erik, playing at being a dead
man, a coward’s trick to cheat his neighbours of their land.
‘What would you have us do, then?’ I asked.
‘Nothing,’ she said.
I saw Gunnar shudder. He whom none could call coward,
and I saw the touch of fear on him. For a man may kill, and
so long as he speaks of it openly, so long as he pays the bloodprice
to the family, it will do him no dishonour. Yet to kill
and to conceal the killing – our laws knew no greater crime
I thought on that, it is true. And I thought of how little
Gunnar had to call his own, the price he would have to pay
for the man he had killed. He had laboured for many years
to have something he might leave for his sons. A little land, a
decent herd, a few ounces of gold, a good sword. No king’s
treasure, but something a father might be proud of. Now it
would be taken from him.
I thought of how rarely a feud had been settled with silver,
for all that the laws decreed. How the dead man’s brothers
would come for us, if we allowed the killing to be known.
Gunnar looked on me then. In his eyes, I saw him asking
me to decide.
We did not dare risk the light of a torch, for fear of who might
see it. And so we dug through the snow and broke open the
icy ground in darkness, a miserable act of labour that took
the rest of the night. It is always harder work to bury a man
than it is to kill him.
When we had covered the unmarked grave, Vigdis came to
us with a skin of water. ‘Thank you,’ she said, and kissed our
hands, our murderers’ hands.
‘You shall speak of this to no man?’ she said, and we swore
that we would not. She clasped our hands in turn, as though
we were merchants concluding our trade. When she took
Gunnar’s hand, I saw him pull her close, whisper a question
to her. But I did not hear the words, nor did I hear her answer.
We walked in silence for a time, and I thought of the man
we had killed. I had sung in his little farm two autumns before,
but had not sought to winter with him. He was a quick man
with a jest, kind as well, but it was a wifeless and childless
home he had and so he was always touched with sadness.
I remembered one night, when we had drunk too much too
quickly, I heard him weeping when he thought I was sleeping.
He was lonely, I think, and I have always feared the lonely.
‘No good will come of this,’ Gunnar said.
‘Perhaps,’ I answered. And though we tried to speak again
many times in that long walk back, we found no more to say
Wait. Something is not right.
The fire grows low and we must not let it die. It is dark
outside and I know you must be weary. We should let the fire
burn to embers, we should lie down and sleep. But we shall
not. There is much more I have to tell you this night. I will
not give this story to you a piece at a time, like a starving old
woman eking out the supplies from her petty pantry. We shall
feast tonight on this story. I shall tell it all to you.
So – throw the good brush upon the fire. No, no, not that
from that pile, use the best wood we have, there is no need to
save it. Why? I shall tell you that, soon enough. But not now.
That is better. I see you clearly now. A good thing, to see
that face of yours in this light. A sadness, too, of course. For
once I spoke and sang in the longhouses of great chieftains, a
hundred souls in a silent room, listening to my words alone.
I never sang to a king’s court, not as those truly great poets
do, but I did have some honour granted to my voice. Now it
is you alone that I sing for.
The fire burns brighter. And now I will tell you another
story. Let me tell you of how our people first came to this
Ah, yes – roll your eyes if you will. You shall tell me that
you have heard this story many times before. This is true.
But you will listen once more. For this is a story that cannot
be told too many times. No other story matters, if this one is
There was an empty land before them, a tyrant at their heels
– that was the way the first men came to this island. That is the
way all new countries are settled.
When they gathered on the shores of the old country, what
they could not load on to the long ships they burned. They
would leave nothing for the king who drove them from Norway,
the man they called Harald Fairhair. They kissed the soil and
the sand, and wept for the homes they would never see again.
They cast away, that great fleet of exiles, out across the dark
sea to a place known to them only by rumour and myth.
Not all lived to see the new land. Storms and drift ice tore
ships open, sending many to feed the fell spirits that hunt in
the black water. Others wandered lost in the storms, washing
ashore in hostile countries where they received a welcome of
iron, a home in shallow earth. But the survivors pressed on,
sailing past the coast of Scotland, past the islands of Orkney
and Faroe. At last, they reached their new home. Your family,
It was a great island in the midst of the cold sea, a place of
green shores with an icy heart. An unpeopled country, its name
hard and unforgiving, but that was what drew the settlers. It
was their protection, to live in a land that no others wanted.
A place that seemed uninhabitable. But with a little skill, and
fortune from the gods, they knew there was a living to be made
here. Not much of one, it was true. They would never be rich
or powerful men – just a nation of farmers scratching at nearbarren
soil, fighting to keep their herds alive through the long
dark. They told themselves they did not want wealth or power.
Perhaps some of them even believed it.
As they drew close to shore, the captain of each ship lifted a
long, narrow object from the deck. They did so carefully, as if
they held a child in their arms, unwrapping the sealskin blanket
to reveal the treasure within. No gold or weaponry, but a simple
piece of wood. Part of a door or a roof or a column from a high
seat, some fragment of the home that they had left behind. And
for some it was a coffin they unwrapped, one of their kin who
had begun the voyage, but had not lived to see its end.
Each man threw his memento out into the wild waves and
watched them go. Some of the pieces of wood went straight to
shore, others followed the eddies into closed coves and fjords,
others still were caught in currents and wandered to some
distant part of the coast. Where each of those staves went, a
ship followed. Where they washed ashore, there a family settled
and made a new home from the wood of the old.
They came to build a country without kings and cities. A
place where every man was equal, every man had land. A place
with no rulers save for honour and the law.
And, for a time at least, it was true.
The King and the Slave (2014)
Smile of the Wolf (2018)