They are near the water now; the ice crackles under their boots. He holds up a hand. They stop.
He lies down on his stomach and eases forward. Less than a hand-span beneath him, he can see the gulping black sea. In front of him, the white-shrouded shape bobs in the water. The frozen fingers beckon him invitingly.
The ice grinds its teeth.
He jabs with the scythe and, with a rush of exultation, feels it catch on the cloth. He heaves. The body floats closer, pale hand flapping towards his face. He flinches. Then the material rips and the scythe tears free. The body bobs away.
'Leave it,' growls the dark-haired man.
He stretches out with the scythe again. His cold muscles shriek in protest, and his arm judders with the effort. He jabs hard, and the metal point stabs through the sheet. He winces, as though the cold metal has punctured his own flesh, then closes his eyes, breathes deeply, and stabs again. The blade sinks into the meat.
The other two men hold him as he starts to heave the body from the water. Slowly, a dark shape emerges and flops out onto the ice.
'I'm sorry,' he rasps.
They carry the heavy parcel over the sea-ice, back to land.
He tries not to look down at where that dead hand trails across the slush and ice, like the fingers of a child, balling snow ready to hurl. Smoke from the fires in the nearby crofts sends a black scrawl into the icy air—dark runic scribbles against the villagers' excited white breath.
As the men near the shore, the people surge forward, fluttering like eager carrion birds, jostling to be the first to gorge on this unexpected feast.
Long shall a man be tried.
Icelandic proverb from The Saga of Grettir the Strong
Skálholt, August 1686
Rósa sits in the baðstofa of the croft that newly belongs to her and her mamma. A biting plume of wind shafts through the gaps between the turf wall and the tiny window, which is made of pale sheepskin, shorn of wool and stretched, until it is thinner and more translucent than the expensive paper imported from Denmark.
She shivers as the wind plucks at her tunic, but still she huddles closer to the opening to catch the fading light, tugging her shawl about her shoulders.
She dips the quill into the precious pot of ink.
My dear Jón Eiríksson,
I write to beg your mercy and understanding, my husband. Your apprentice, Pétur, arrived today, with your kind gift of three woollen dresses and bade me to join you in Stykkishólmur. I wish to be a dutiful wife in this, our new marriage, but I regret I cannot join you
Rósa stops, bites her lip and pulls the shawl more closely around her. Then she scores out cannot and writes will not. Her hand wobbles and she presses down so hard that the quill snaps, spattering ink over her words.
Her eyes sting. She growls, balls up the paper and hurls it to the floor. 'Pick that up, girl,' her mother wheezes, from the opposite bed. 'Are we richer than Niord to waste good paper and ink?' A rattling cough bubbles from her chest.
'Sorry, Mamma.' Rósa smiles, teeth gritted, then picks up the paper, smoothing it over her knee. 'I cannot think...' She feels her mouth crumpling, and bites the inside of her cheek.
Her mother smiles. 'You are nervous, of course. Your husband will know that, no matter what you write. I remember when I wed your father...'
Rósa nods mutely, a sudden stone in her throat.