Kirsten grew up in loneliness. She rarely saw her mother, the count’s family cared little for her and the servants avoided her; when they passed her in a dark hallway, they pressed up against the wall as if she were a leper…
Thankfully, she had Berthe, who dried her tears when she’d skimmed her knees once again on the raw cobblestones of the courtyard, and Hugon, Berthe’s husband, who whittled birds, whistles and ships for her out of wood.
When she turned three, the count of Oldendonk entrusted her to the nuns of a remote monastery, who schooled her in the teachings of Christ. To her astonishment, they also treated her with a kind of timid reverence. And in herself, she discovered a strange pride that made her feel different from the others. The only people she missed from keep Oldendonk were Berthe and Hugon. No matter how friendly the sisters were, not one of them offered her a shoulder to cry on when her favorite dog was mauled by a wild boar, forcing the hunters to kill him, and nobody knew how to handle a knife and wood the way Hugon did.
Many nights, she’d quietly cry herself to sleep in the dormitory, lonely and confused by the many questions that were never answered. Why couldn’t she have stayed at Oldendonk? Where was her mother and would she ever see her again?
On her tenth birthday, it all became suddenly clear to her. The abbess called her to her in the arched walkway around the courtyard. It was winter, but despite the freezing cold, snow hadn’t fallen yet and it smelled musty like dead leaves and moldy walls.
“Kirsten,” the abbess said, “you are now old enough to know your ancestry.”
The abbess was a strict woman who never used many words.
Kirsten looked wonderingly up at the small face under the gray hood.
“I come from keep Oldendonk,” she said. “I remember clearly. My mother’s name is Alfie. There were Berthe and Hugon and the count and the countess…”
But the abbess continued on talking like she hadn’t heard the girl’s words.
“Today, you will find out who your father is.”
Stupefied, Kirsten stared at her. There had never been a father in her life and she had never wondered why that was. Men died in wars or accidents, so that many women were widowed at a young age. Kirsten never stopped to wonder if that is what happened to her mother. She never wondered who her mother’s husband had been of what he had looked like.
“Eleven years ago, emperor Louis met your mother during his travels. She was very beautiful.”
Kirsten didn’t understand why the emperor suddenly showed up in the story. And why did the abbess’ voice sound so cold and disapproving all of a sudden?
“He took her into his company and when she fell pregnant not long after, he entrusted her into the care of the count and countess of Oldendonk.”
Kirsten’s knees felt weak as wax all of a sudden and her head clouded with mist, causing her thoughts to form very slowly.
…when she fell pregnant… the count of Oldendonk… Did that mean that she…?
Pieces of a mosaic that didn’t make sense separately, but, when put together in the right way, suddenly became a drawing. Pieces. Her mother, pale and quiet, but unbelievably beautiful, with hair like the spun gold woven into the most precious fabrics. The fear of the servants at Oldendonk. Her education in this secluded monastery with reading and writing and Latin, which was more than exceptional for girls. The timid reverence of the sisters.
If you put all the pieces together in the right way, as by magic, the shining picture of a king’s daughter appeared: Kirsten, the daughter of Louis, who ruled the Frankish empire. It also explained why she’d had to miss her mother all these years, why her childhood years were filled with loneliness and silent sorrow.
“My mother?” she asked. “Is she…?”
Has the emperor taken her again? she wanted to ask. Is she still at court? Is she still as beautiful?
The abbess interrupted her.
“We shall not speak of your mother. The emperor’s instructions were clear: raise you as it fits a king’s daughter and tell you what I just told you on your tenth birthday. The first we have done with great care. You read and write like a clerk, both in Latin and your own language. The second instruction has just been filled.”
Kirsten spoke rebelliously: “I have the right to know…”
“You have no other right than to obey the emperor. Now go!”
Halvdan’s father was called Torfil and his mother was Gudrun. Torfil was farmer, shipbuilder and Viking all at the same time, a very common combination in that time and place.
From the first moment that words started to mean something to him, Halvdan would hide away every winter, listening open-mouthed to the stories Torfil and his friends recounted over and over again. Stories about gods and people, about trolls and dwarves, but mostly about adventure-filled raids and exotic trading places on distant shores. No matter how late it got, not once did he fall asleep. In his imagination, the wind roaring around the longhouse became a storm that propelled the dragon ships across the towering waves and that bulged the sails, making the masts creak and groan.
As he got older, he started to understand things better. Gods, in turn mild and ruthless, courageous and sly, faithful and licentious, got their place and role in the realm of the gods. Settlements – Ladby, Hedeby, Birka, Haithabu, Dorestad, names that sparkled as rubies in the reddish firelight –, seas and islands received a name and place on the map that was slowly forming inside his mind. Ships became living creatures, at times docile, at times obstinate, but always reliable. And then there were the stories about lands at the end of the world where chaos ruled, because they contained fire-spitting mountains covered in ice and giant icebergs floating in a boiling sea.
In Halvdan’s head, the conviction that a dragon ship was the only real home of a Viking grew stronger every day.
As soon as his legs were strong enough, he could no longer stay away from the boathouse, where new ships were being build all the time. He learned to judge tree trunks and had the uncanny gift to pick out boards that would fit together seamlessly. Torfil noticed and condoned it, telling his friends: “That third son of mine, he will become a shipbuilder we will be proud of.”
When Halvdan learned of those words – and what don’t you learn of in a small community where words are endlessly repeated? – he replied: “I want to build ships in the winter, but in the summer I want to sail with the Vikings.”
This made his father laugh proudly once again.
The monastery was like an island that, surrounded by forests, was secluded off from the rest of the world. The only road there was an unpaved path, so small that two horsemen could barely ride next to each other. Outside of the palisade stood the huts of the craftsmen, most surrounded by hedges to protect against predators and robbers and westward, to the river, lay fields and meadows where sheep and geese were herded.
Kirsten not only learned to read and write, pray and sing, but also pouring candles, carding wool, spinning and weaving. “This is the only way,” said the abbess, “to get respect for the garments that you are wearing.” She held a piece of cleanly washed wool in her hand, “If you wear garments that you made yourself, it contains a lot of yourself: the sweat of your hands, the saliva that you used to dampen the spinning thread, the power of your arms during weaving, your fantasy when devising the pattern, your taste when choosing colours, …”
Sometimes, during long winter nights, stories were told about the world outside of the monastery walls. Kirsten had heard the stories so many times, because they were told over and over again and rarely added on to, but still she looked forward to them. The story of Roeland, the brave margrave, who lead the rearguard of Charlemagnes’ armies in the Pyrenees, but who was lured into a trap because of a betrayal and died at Roncesvalles, that was her favourite story.
And there, in that rugged mountain pass, under a burning summer sun, the Saracens threw themselves like madmen onto the rearguard of the large army.
She couldn’t imagine the mountains, nor the turmoil of war, but she could imagine Roeland very well: tall, with golden hair, strong, but at the same time limber like a predator…
When he saw that his men were dying one by one, he raised his horn, the Elephant, and blew the emergency signal meant to warn Charlemagne. With Durandal, his infallible sword, he swung around himself fanatically, but the attackers were too numerous like corn on a cornfield and when the sun was high in the sky, even the bravest of all the knights fell…
Stories were also told about Kirsten’s grandfather, Carolus Magnus, who was called Charles The Great by the people and who was emperor of the entire civilized world. And about her great-grandfather Pepin, who as majordomo had more power than the king at the time himself. About her great-grandmother, Berthe with the wide feet, who was switched as a bride and was told to have been beautiful, if not for that one little failing. Maybe I look like her, Kirsten thought, except… She looked at her own small feet, which seemed like they were made to dance. Once, when she’d have a groom, a powerful lord who would take her to the court of the emperor, she would be at his side…
Thoughts like those were a big comfort in the loneliness of her days.
The wild geese returned from the south, the forests looked as if they were covered in a green haze and Halvdan felt a strange unease in his blood. He came to the boathouse much less these days, but helped as much as he could in preparing the three dragon ships that were riding the waves in the cove and waiting there for the fleet that could sail in any day now to set a straight course to the west.
For three summers, Bran who was to old to go sailing with the Vikings, had been teaching him to handle the sword, the spear and the big, heavy Viking axe. Halvdan’s arms and legs were as muscled as those of an adult warrior and he was so skilled with the sword that at the latest midwinter feast, where many young men gathered, he only had to lose out to his father.
And now, on this morning, they were waiting for him, his father, his mother and his two older brothers. Sven was holding a ring mail on his outstretched arms, Erik a helmet and Torfil proudly showed a long, double-edged sword. It hadn’t been spoken about earlier, but Halvdan understood that next summer, he would be allowed to go sailing with the Vikings. He tried to hide how happy and proud he was, buckled the ring mail and put on the helmet, a solid helmet that protected neck, head and nose and was laid in with plated silver. Then Torfil handed him the sword and hugged him.
“Use your sword as a brave Viking,” he said. “But don’t abuse it. It is a lot, killing a man. You take away everything he has and everything he would ever have.”
There were also gifts from his mother: a warm cloak, a fire iron and a hunting knife with a handle worn smooth by use.
And then they all drummed around him and patted him on his shoulders and the maids and servants were there, and Leigne, red-headed Leigne, who was the same age as him and turned blood-red every time she crossed his path. Later he snuck out and went to admire his mirror image in the water of the brook. His face, split through the middle by the metal nose protector, looked strangely adult.