Monday, June 24, 2013

The Softer Side of Vikings by Gina Conkle

The Softer Side of Vikings
What?

Maybe you’re scratching your head at that.  Afterall, Vikings spent all their time raiding and pillaging, right?

True.  They did some raiding and pillage. But, they made great strides in a dark time of world history.  When you dig a little deeper, you’ll find passionate storytellers, artisans, and builders of the finest ships…and yes, even law-abiding citizens and diplomatic warriors.

There’s a lot of beauty and adventure to the Norse people, and some pretty peace loving people, too.
Case in point: Gunnar of Hlidarendi found in Njal’s Saga.

Why do I like Gunnar so much?  He was an outstanding warrior, highly skilled in combat, many say without equal in his time. He swam like a seal, jumped high even in battle gear, and never missed when he aimed bow or spear. Gunnar was also handsome, loyal, and considerate to others, and yet he disliked killing.  He preferred to use wits to solve a problem.

Huh?

A Viking who’d rather use brains than brawn to settle a dispute? 

Yes.

A young kinswoman, Unn, approached Gunnar.  She had inherited much wealth but lost it to another man.  Perhaps pleading youthful female stupidity, she appealed to Gunnar, “Help me recover some of the wealth I lost.”

Gunnar could’ve strapped on battle gear and charged at the Viking who swindled poor Unn.
He didn’t. He did two things that astound me.  First, he went to an older relative for advice (Njal).  That advice?  The quick summary: Dress up like a poor traveler and swindle it back.

The second astounding feat…Gunnar followed that advice. He won back much of Unn’s lost wealth, using cleverness and wits.

The hero in my book Norse Jewel reminds me of Gunnar.  Hakan, a chieftain of some renown, wants to lay down his sword and live a peaceful farmer’s life.  But, Norse Jewel’s about all the things that happen --- deceit and old loyalties --- that call upon his warrior’s ways, thus, keeping him from a quiet farm life.

And just to clarify, Gunnar was not the inspiration for Norse Jewel. I wrote Norse Jewel years ago and started reading the sagas later.  The initial spark of inspiration for my book came from the movie “Gladiator.” If you didn’t see it, Roman General Maximus Decimis Meridius tells the emperor he wants to go home and farm. At the time, I read lots of Viking history books (still do). My “what if” moment came when I pictured a Viking chieftain as the reluctant warrior.

I’m amazed by the breadth of Norse culture: their sense of democracy, the great equality women enjoyed, and their art and ship engineering.  But, for now I share with you a peek of one real warrior and one fictitious warrior.

I hope you enjoyed this quick Viking snapshot.  I welcome you to leave a comment and share your impressions of Vikings and Viking history. 

And thank you “I'm Shelf-ish” for this opportunity to be a guest on your blog.

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EXCERPT

He saw wetness on her lashes. She turned her face to the fields, and another piece of the riddle that made Helena fell into place.
Hakan cupped her chin. His thumb stroked her scarred jaw. “Your pouch, the stone is the reason for this. Magnuson said as much.”
She nodded, sniffling and swiping at tears that rolled down her cheeks.
His thumb brushed a tender stroke over her cheek’s curving pink scar. “The stone almost cost you your life. Why?”
Hakan, with great tenderness, stroked her face. The salve had done its work: smooth, touchable skin remained. But the salve only healed skin deep wounds. Some wounds lurked deeper than the Dane’s cut. What ached beneath the surface? More fat tears rolled down her cheeks.
“I am a peasant maid.” Her voice quivered. “When Guerin wanted me, I felt…” Helena sniffed and chewed her lower lip. “I was suddenly important. A woman of value. Without it…”
Her vulnerable admission was a tender spot for her. Couldn’t she see her worth was higher than any stone?
His thumbs wiped away her tears. “Keep the pendant. It came at a great price. Wear it for all to see.”
Hakan took her hand in his and set the necklace in her palm. He curled her fingers over jewel and chain.
“Aye, Helena, the stone could buy more thralls. But ‘tis metal and stone. They do nothing for me.”
Her lashes, spiked with wetness, fluttered at him. Bewilderment writ on her face, he soothed his voice as if calming a babe.
He shook his head. “I’ll not trade you for that.”
“I don’t understand.” Her eyebrows knit together.
How could he explain what he didn’t fully understand? He was on shaky ground. From the corner of his eye, part of a red sail caught a strong breeze and fluttered. Selig replaced the rocks that tamped down the sail before the whole cloth blew free. The vibrant red waved at him, a banner by which he could escape explaining why he would not let her go. Hakan waved his arm at the sails drying in the meadow.
“Look what you’ve accomplished in so short a time. You promised me great talent weaving fine linens…to expand my wealth.” Hakan’s arms folded across his chest. “Strong sails for my ships. This I understand.” Tilting his hand toward the jewelry in her own, the corners of his turned down. “Stones do nothing for me.”
A thousand glittering stones couldn’t equal her worth. He stared into the depths of her blue eyes and called himself a coward for not admitting this to her.
Helena sniffed again and clutched the pendant, returning it to the leather pouch. “Is there no custom? No means to gain my freedom?” she asked, her voice hoarse with emotion.
Hakan sighed. “There are ways.”
“Mardred told me a thrall can earn her freedom after some years of service. Is this true?”
“Aye.” His arms stayed crossed, unmoving. He’d give no more.
“Then, may I strike such an agreement with you?”
“Such as?”
“I want to earn my freedom.” Her eyes pleaded with him.
Hakan shifted his stance, cagey about giving an inch. His neck and shoulders knotted.
True, many a valuable thrall gained freedom after years of service. Most stayed.
“Serve me well for seven years, Helena, and you’ll be a freewoman.”
“The time cannot be shortened?” She clasped her hands together. “Seven years,” she groaned. “So long.”
“I will not be swayed on this.”
She canted her head at him, doubt clouding her features. “But, will you keep your word, my lord?”
“What makes you doubt me? The way I’ve mistreated you?” 
Helena flinched at his sarcasm. She was not satisfied. Seven years must feel like one hundred to her. Her fingers plucked at her apron, and she kept silent. A stab, like a hot brand, hit him. This was rejection. An arm’s length from her, Hakan shut himself away as if in a distant fortress. “I require your respect. For seven years.”
Pain flashed from her eyes. She dabbed at their corners and nodded.
Hakan needed to move. He needed something to ease the itch that plagued him. He needed to keep a good distance from her. His ax leaned against the barn. He grabbed it and swung the heavy tool over his shoulder.
“I have to clear some trees,” he announced. The field did need widening, and he needed wood.
The tree line would keep him a safe distance from her, yet he could keep an eye on the longhouse. And the loom where she would sit. Hakan walked to the edge of the yard and something pushed him to needle her.
“I expect fresh bread at my table tonight. See to it.”
Her eyebrows shot up at his harsh command. He hadn’t spoken to her that way since the journey to Svea. Her body visibly bristled at his tone. He waited, and Helena bowed her head in exaggerated servitude. Hakan whistled on his way to chop wood, pleased at gaining the upper hand.
Much could happen in seven years.


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