Monday, January 24, 2011

Stand By Me; the World Shifts

1017 AD

The last thing Leif was sure he saw with his own eyes was Tall Cedar's smile. Then the heat and the sweat and the stench of bodies overwhelmed him, and he saw other things:

His son, Erik, alone in a small boat, poling away across a river. Darkness on the other side.

His foster-father, Tyrker, laughing wildly, mouth agape and full of meat.

His foster-brother, Stókk, lying on stone as if dead, bound with chains.

His wife, Laussa, screaming and crying with grief, spattered with blood.

His nephews and neice, Stókk's children, smiling, holding stone knives and spears while the stockade burned around them.

Leif screamed and thrashed. It was like trying to escape from a tangle of thick vines, or a giant spider's web. There was terrible heat and he couldn't breathe.

Then it was over, he was on his hands and knees in the grass, chest pounding, gasping at the cool evening air. People around him were shouting, calling him. Hands reached out for him, he brushed them away. The earth tilted under him as he staggered to his feet.

"I am here," he said. "Where is Erik? Where is Laussa?"

"Your son and wife are at the potlatch, my lord," said a voice. "They are dancing."

Leif found a tree and held on to it for dear life. Spots swam in front of his eyes. "Tyrker? Stókk?" he said.

"They are feasting, my lord," said the voice. Leif placed the voice: his manservant, Róg.

"God bless you, Róg," said Leif. "Stand by me. The world shifts."

Róg took his hand, and Leif steadied himself. The ground settled somewhat. "Where are Stókk's children?" he asked.

Róg did not answer.

"Róg! Where are they?"

"I do not know, my lord. They were dancing with Erik, but I don't see them there now --"

Leif screamed, "Find them!"

Róg barked orders. Leif heard running and calling. "Find them," he whispered. The smiles, the burning --

A distant shout: "Here they are!"

"Bring them to me," said Leif. "Bring them all to me. It's time for the gift-giving."

"But my lord," said Róg, "that is not until well after nightfall; people are still eating and dancing and the sweat-lodge is not -- "

"Now is the time," growled Leif. "I will be giving my gifts. Gather everyone."

Róg obeyed. As the orders went out, and the dancing and feasting came to a chaotic stop, Róg helped Leif over to the great hall. Leif felt his strength returning as they climbed the steps, and when they entered, Leif said, "Thank you, Róg," and let go of his arm.

"My lord," said Róg, "the food for the gift-giving is not ready."

"Serve wine only," said Leif. "This will not take long, and then we can return to the dancing and feasting outside."

Róg bowed and went out to arrange matters. Leif slowly walked down the long central table to his great carved seat and lowered himself into it, listening to the shouting and calling outside. After a moment he heard the words he'd been waiting for: svi∂a, brenna. Arson.

People began to file in and take their seats at the long table. His brother Thorvald and his family; Tyrker and his 'Namgis wife. Tall Cedar and his family.

"Leif," said Tall Cedar. He looked concerned. "You left the sweat lodge. Are you -- "

"Yes, I am fine now," said Leif. "I had a vision. We will speak later."

Tall Cedar nodded and sat down. Others came in, and then his wife and son, who sat next to him.

"Leif," said Laussa urgently. "What is going on? Why are you calling the gift-giving now? -- Did you hear about Stókk's children?"

"I had a vision," said Leif. "Quiet now, I will explain everything."

"Father," said Erik. "They were at the north end of the stockade, by the grain stores, setting -- "

"I know," said Leif.

"Why would they do such a thing?" asked Laussa.

Leif shook his head. "When you are no longer a child," he said, "and not yet full grown, there are strange fires that burn in you. You need to test yourself against the world. You need to prove, to yourself and to the ancestors and to whatever gods there be, that you belong here. This is why I, and so many other young men, went a-viking when I was fifteen. And why the 'Namgis here have their vision quests and death-houses. But these young people, their mother and grandmother are 'Namgis, but they are not 'Namgis enough to visit the death-houses, and there's nowhere in Leifland to go a-viking."

"But father," said Erik. "I'm fifteen, and I don't go round setting fire to things."

"See that you don't," growled Leif. "Now sit and be quiet for now."

Last to come in were Róg and four guards -- two Norse, and two 'Namgis -- escorting Stókk and his wife and three children. His eldest son had a huge bleeding bruise on his forehead.

Róg threw a bundle on the ground: tinder, logs, and fuel. "My lord," he said, "These three children of Stókk were found by the grain store. They had these fire-lighting things with them. They had already set a fire, which fortunately did not burn very much, and we put it out easily."

Stókk said, "Leif, foster-uncle, let me deal with them. They were only playing, they did not know what -- "

Leif nodded. "Thank you," he said. "Everyone, please take your seats."

"But my lord," said Róg, "the grain stores -- if we had not discovered them, we might not have made it through the winter! These children are nearly full grown, and must be -- "

"Thank you, Róg," said Leif firmly. "Sit. All of you, sit. Drink your wine. It is time for the gift-giving."

Slowly they sat down. Leif held them all in his gaze. Stókk said, "Foster-uncle, may I see to my son's brow? He sustained a grievous blow when -- "

"It is time for the gift-giving," growled Leif. "Silence."

When all were seated, Leif raised his cup and drank. Everyone else did the same.

"For ten years," said Leif, "we have celebrated the potlatch with our friends the 'Namgis, and given thanks for our treaties and alliances that allow us to live safely here among them. The Norse and the 'Namgis have grown rich off each other. The White Christ has smiled on us all." Leif knew that a mention of the White Christ would rankle many of the people there, but this was an official occasion. And deep down, he felt needed Christ's blessing for what he was about to do.

"I have many gifts to bestow today," said Leif. "For Tyrker, my foster-father, and his family: gold arm bands, and a knife with his family crest, brought from Sweden." He nodded to Róg, who went to fetch them. Tyrker stood, raising his cup, and gave a toast of gratitude to Leif.

And so it went: a Danish tiara for Laussa, a good sword for Erik, new armor for Thorvald... This was the nature of the potlatch: a man gives away his wealth, and gains praise and loyalty. It was a 'Namgis tradition, but not so different from the ways of Leif's fathers. As Leif gave his gifts to his friends, allies, and beloveds, they each stood in turn and toasted him and called him the greatest of men. And the wine flowed and warmed the great hall, and the trouble and confusion of Stókk's children was forgotten.

Until, when almost all the gifts were given, Leif stood and called them by name.

"Gar∂ Stókkson," bellowed Leif. His head felt clear and cold, but the wine and anger still boiled and burned in him, and his vision of the great hall was hazy and mixed with images of blood and fire from the sweat lodge. "To you I give one third of our grain store."

Thorvald, Róg, and several others stood up and started shouting and pounding the tables. Leif bellowed, "Silence!" And when the cries stopped, he looked round at the faces staring at him in shock, and said, "Hear me out. To Gar∂ I give one third of our grain store. Also, three of my finest sheep; and Skyót, one of my best stallions."

He fell silent, and watched Gar∂ as the young man -- he was not yet seventeen -- raised his cup in a shaking hand to praise and thank him. "Silence!" bellowed Leif again, and Gar∂ dropped his cup; it bounced and spilled on the floor.

"Bjarta Stókksdóttir," he said. She slowly stood, her face a mixture of fear, confusion, and defiance. "And Orm Stókkson. To each of you also, I give one third of our grain store. And to each, three of my finest sheep. Bjarta, you may have the mare Gríma; and Orm, the stallion Flekk."

He waited to see if they would dare lift a cup to him, but they only stared.

"And one more thing for all three of you," said Leif. "Banishment."

He finished his cup in one draught, then turned and stamped out.

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