Chapter II- A Viking Education
Tendrils of smoke swirled about Ulf Uggasson, the skald of Laxardal. He was surrounded by children as he told them the Thrymskvitha. Rather than using the complex skaldic verse it was written in, he told it plainly.
“… so Thor and Loki traveled to Thrym’s hall in Jotunheim, disguised as Freyja and her bridesmaid. Thrym, the Jotun King, laid out a grand feast for his wedding guests. He had no idea in his thick head that his ‘bride’ was really Thor, though ‘Freyja’ had a massive red beard and was more muscled than a bull. Now I needn’t tell you that giants have huge appetites. But Thrym was growing alarmed at how much his bride-to-be was eating. In fact ‘Freyja’ out-ate them all! ’She’ gobbled up a whole roast ox, eight salmon, and four barrels of ale!”
Ulf deepened his voice as he spoke Thrym’s words, “'I have never seen a woman eat so much!’ But Loki answered him…”
The story weaver put on a falsetto voice, and the children erupted in laughter. “'Oh, great lord Thrym, she was so overjoyed when she heard she was to be your wife, she did not eat for eight days!’ That answer satisfied Thrym.”
After the feast, the Giant King began to lift his ‘bride’s’ veil to kiss her, but dropped it in alarm. ‘Why, her eyes blaze like fire!’ But Loki replied, ‘Oh, great lord Thrym, she was so overjoyed when she heard she was to be your wife, she has not slept for eight days!’ That answer satisfied Thrym.”
At the wedding, Thrym told his servants to bring out Thor’s hammer and to lay it on ‘Freyja’s’ lap to hallow the wedding. But as soon as the hammer touched Thor’s knees, he grasped Mjollnir, and jumped up. Ripping apart the dress and veil, Thor cried out, ‘I can’t take this anymore!’ Thrym scratched his head, ‘Wait, you’re not Freyja.’
The children burst into laughter again. When they settled down, the skald made a swinging motion. “Thrym barely finished his observation when CRACK! The hammer collided with Thrym’s forehead with the sound of thunder, and the giant was thrown off his feet, and broke through the walls! Soon, every giant in Thrymheim lay dead. So it was, that Thor got his hammer back.”
Leif could still hear the other children laughing with delight at Thor’s antics, and he smiled to himself as their ox drawn wagon trundled along the rutted path that led back to their home. It was late, though you would not know it by the sun that never sets on Midsummer’s day. His mother sat in the back with the other children, little Freydis’ head on her lap already fast asleep, while Leif and his older brother sat in the front with Tyrker who drove the oxen.
Picturing the mighty Thor in a dress and veil made Leif giggle and Tyrker looked at him with a raised eyebrow that invited explanation, “Thor as a woman! And to think that Thrym was fooled! Tyrker, do you think Giant women have beards?”
The Magyar chuckled himself, “I know not, but I would not be surprised.”
“To take the bearded Thor for beautiful Freyja, the jotnar would have to be blind,” interjected Thorsteinn quite seriously. He had Gudrun Osvifrsdottir on his mind, a young maiden he had just been with at the feast and one that he had always thought “the most beautiful woman in Iceland.”
Both Leif and Tyrker fought back laughter at this. Thorsteinn, not wanting to be the object of their amusement, turned around and slid into the cart with the others.
Leif was just as happy to have Tyrker to himself, “In the land you come from, do they tell funny and clever tales about the gods?”
“There was a time when the people of my homeland worshipped the stars and spirits of fire, but now we believe in only one God. Many wondrous tales are told of Him, but none of them funny.”
They sat in silence for a while until Leif eventually broke the silence. “When will you teach me to fight with a sword and shield?”
“Tomorrow, after you finish your chores and I teach you your letters,” Tyrker said, and tousled Leif’s hair.
Leif woke up early that morning, ate a quick bowl of hraeringr and a cup of buttermilk, before starting his chores. The sour porridge was his typical breakfast and he loved how the hearty meal filled his empty stomach. He was charged with feeding the animals in the morning. The cattle and sheep from the farm had been taken to graze at the highlands near Snowfell for the summer, so that much reduced his work. Leif led the couple goats and handful of pigs to the rowan grove south of Haukadal to graze and rut for food, then went back to the stables to feed the horses. Lastly, he scattered seed for the chickens and geese.
At this point, the farm workers were out in the fields cutting the summer barley. Leif gathered the grain into sheafs as his older brother, Thorsteinn cut it with his scythe. After they completed their row, the thralls collected the sheafs for threshing.
By midmorning, Leif’s chores were done. He ran to the pantry in the longhouse to get a quick snack of cheese and flatbraud. Two thralls were busy tearing out a section of the turf wall which had been damaged a while back by a landslide. Erik had plans to to reinforce the wall and have a doorway put in so supplies could be brought into the pantry directly without tracking mud through the entire house. Now that Erik was banished, Tyrker set these two upon the task. Leif asked them where Tyker could be found and they pointed down the hill. The boy leapt through the hole that would be the pantry door and flew down the steep hillside.
At the boundary line of their land stood a stone and sod wall. This is where Leif found the Magyar at work.
“I have finished my morning chores!” He barely got the words out through his hard breathing.
Tyrker set a turf block in place and wiped his wet brow with the back of his hand. “Steady, young one. Catch your breath and we’ll collect the others and I’ll make this strong,” he said, tapping Leif’s temple, “before I make this strong,” he then tapped Leif’s arm.
From midmorning till midday meal, Tyker taught the children. For most boys education would consist of learning how to fight, and how to recognize a few runes. But the Erikssons got a more eclectic education from Tyrker. Not only were they taught combat and runes, but also Latin, astronomy, wortcraft, and many other skills besides.
It was after lunch that Tyrker had been training the boys in combat. This happened every afternoon, except on Sunnudagr, which the freedman said was a day of rest in his homeland. On this day they focused on Latin and runes, but for a much shorter time, and the rest of the afternoon was for play.
But of all things, Leif liked learning the skills of a warrior. Tyrker had showed them the basics of fighting with a spear and the bearded axe. The beard of the axe could be used to hook an enemy’s weapon or shield, or be used to trip them, and a spear, if used rightly, was so powerful that it could pierce a man’s shield and go straight through his body with one thrust.
However, Leif desperately wanted to learn to fight with a sword and shield, and one day Tyrker had agreed to teach them. The sword was a noble’s weapon. Any Norseman could afford a spear or axe. Only a very few could afford a sword. There had been a sword in their distant family, but Leif’s ancestor had given it to his eldest son Naddodd, who later discovered Iceland. Sadly it was not given to his second son Oxen-Thorir, Leif’s forefather. Though swordless, Leif was determined to one day become a hirdman for a powerful lord and then he would have his own sword, a fine sword he reckoned.
But for now, a wooden sword would have to do. Armed with such a weapon and a shield, Leif and Thorsteinn were ready for their first lesson. Tyrker drew a large circle on the ground with a stick, and told the boys to stand inside and face each other, in a mock holmgang. The boys circled each other, poking at each other with their swords, getting a feel for each other, waiting for some opening. Thorsteinn, being a bit larger than his younger brother, swung wildly at Leif who was caught off guard. He barely got his shield up to block the blow. He recovered quickly and made his own swing which was easily blocked by his brother. They circled each other again, but this time when Thorsteinn charged, Leif spun easily out of the way and smacked his brother lightly on his backside with the flat of his wooden blade. This enraged the older boy who swung wildly and Leif again danced away from the blade. He laughed in the joy of the moment. A third time his brother lunged and this time Leif spun around even as he dodged the blow. Thorsteinn was both tired and humiliated and threw down his sword and shield and was about to storm off when the Magyar grabbed his arm and growled close to his face, “Never! Never thrown down your sword and shield! You never quit the field until your enemy is dead. When we practice, I tell you when you are done and only then can you step outside of the circle and lay aside your shield and weapon. Sit here,” he indicated a stone just outside the circle.
Leif saw how serious Tyrker was so he tried to suppress his smile, but he was not successful. The Magyar took up Thorsteinn’s shield and sword and turned toward Leif. He was not smiling. He then stepped into the circle and with a quick wrist action, spun the sword at his side. “Leif, you have quick feet and fluid moves….” Suddenly the teacher swung out his shield catching the boy’s shield on its edge so that it flung out wildly. Leif spun with the motion but before he could face his opponent once more, a quick arcing motion of Tyrker’s wooden blade took the boy’s feet right out from under him. Face down in the turf, he felt the point of the wooden sword between his shoulder blades. “…but battle is not a dance! It is hard hitting, brutal yet efficient. One, two, three moves is all you have to put your enemy down and then you are on to your next opponent. Take more than that and you will be raven’s food.”
Some days, Tyrker would take the boys out hunting. Leif soon became quite adept with the bow. He would often bring home a few ducks or a grouse or two. He also enjoyed his lessons in wortcraft. He knew the uses of many herbs, and could tell an edible mushroom from a poisonous one at a glance. He knew the difference between Ilmreyr and Kornsura, or a sweet dewberry and a bitter stone bramble.
Time seemed to pass quickly for Leif. The next year, Thorvald was old enough to be taught also. By the third summer, when Erik’s time of exile drew to a close, Thorsteinn was an excellent warrior, while Leif and Thorvald, though budding warriors themselves, were both known more for their significant learning and wisdom.
In the early summer of Leif’s eleventh year, Tyrker took Erik’s sons to the woods near the Hvammsfjord and left them to employ their knowledge and skills of survival.
The boys made their way to the coast and took to the rocks, searching for seals to hunt. That’s when they saw it. A whale was beached on the surf. Leif couldn’t believe their luck. A whale would feed the family for months! And no one lived nearby to lay claim to it. It was all theirs! That’s when it hit him. There was no one to help them haul all the meat home.
Leif’s thoughts were broken by distant yelling. He looked up. A knarr was sailing up the fjord. And Leif would recognize that scarlet and black checkered sail and that deep-bellied ship anywhere. It was the Wave Swine. Erik the Red had returned.