Authors: Kevin Crossley-Holland
Bracelet of Bones
Children’s books by Kevin Crossley-Holland
The Arthur Trilogy:
The Seeing Stone
At the Crossing-Places
King of the Middle March
MYTH, LEGEND, AND FOLKTALE
Tales from the Old World
The Old Stories: Folk Tales from East Anglia and the Fen Country
The Magic Lands: Folk Tales of Britain and Ireland
Viking! Myths of Gods and Monsters
The Green Children
(illustrated by Alan Marks)
The Ugly Duckling
(illustrated by Meilo So)
How Many Miles to Bethlehem?
(illustrated by Peter Malone)
King Arthur’s World
Bracelet of Bones
New York • London
© 2011 by Kevin Crossley-Holland
Maps © 2011 by Hemesh Alles
First published in the United States by Quercus in 2014
Jacket design by James Fraser
Front cover photography © Neil Spence
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by reviewers, who may quote brief passages in a review. Scanning, uploading, and electronic distribution of this book or the facilitation of the same without the permission of the publisher is prohibited.
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, institutions, places, and events are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons—living or dead—events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
In Norway and Sweden
age 14, Halfdan’s daughter
age 15, Solveig’s stepbrother
age 10, Solveig’s stepbrother
a farmer in Trondheimfjord
a young priest
a very old man in Trondheim
a Swedish fur trader
trader and skipper
Slothi’s wife, a seeress and healer
age 11, Slothi and Odindisa’s son
age 9, Slothi and Odindisa’s daughter
Red Ottar’s slave
On the Way
a master carver
an Armenian pilot
a laughter maker
foreman of the portagers
king of the Rus
Market stallholders in Ladoga, Kiev, and Miklagard
Gods and Goddesses, Giants, and Spirits
(Norse unless otherwise indicated)
god of the sea
world of the gods and goddesses
flaming three-strand rainbow bridge between middle-earth and Asgard
giant heroes of the Rus
foremost of the fertility goddesses
foremost of the fertility gods
watchman god who was the son of nine waves
realm of the dead. Also the name of its monster ruler, a daughter of Loki
Norse god often called the Trickster
(Damp Mother Earth)
three goddesses of destiny
foremost of the Norse gods. God of poetry, battle, and death
Russian god of thunder and lightning
goddess of skiing and hunting
wolf who pursues the sun
long-legged son of a farmer who became Thor’s servant and accompanied him on a journey to the world of the giants
god of the sky and thunder and of law and order
beautiful young women who chose dead men on the battlefield and brought them back to Odin’s hall, Valhalla
s this it?” Solveig called out.
No trees stood on the battlefield. Nothing but little scrubby, twisted black bushes.
Without breaking his long, limping stride, Halfdan glanced over his shoulder. “You all right, girl?”
It’s all dead, thought Solveig. There’s nothing left but black fingers, black hands, thousands of them. Stiklestad. What can ever grow in this place again?
She caught up with her father and slipped her hand through his right arm, and he turned and embraced her. He almost crushed her, and Solveig could feel him trembling. She looked up at him, startled.
“I wanted you to see it so you’d understand,” Halfdan told her, “and I wanted to see this place again myself. Once more in my life on this middle-earth. Stiklestad to fuel me! Stiklestad to put fire in my belly.”
Then the two of them loped across the middle of the battlefield, the fighting-farming Half-Dane and his shining daughter. The gusty night wind had gone quiet, and
the sun—at least the bright eyeball glaring through the lumpen gray-brown clouds—had already climbed as high in the skull of the sky as it meant to.
“Today’s the battle day,” her father reminded her. “The last day of August.”
“Five years ago,” Solveig replied.
“Harald was fifteen,” her father said. “Same as you.”
“Rising fifteen,” her father said with a half smile. “Fifteen and rising. But I was ready to follow him, all right. So were many others along the fjord. Harald Sigurdsson, he was born a leader. Mind you, King Olaf thought he wasn’t strong enough to fight, but Harald told him,
If I’m not strong enough to swing this sword, I’ll bind my hand to the hilt.”
“King Olaf wasn’t surprised,” Halfdan continued. “He knew what his half brother was made of. There were three thousand of us, Solva. Three thousand. But even so, there were many more in King Cnut’s army.
“I can still smell it. The sharp stink of fear, the thickness of sweat, the sweetness of blood, the scent of grass mangled and trampled, the body of earth gouged and churned. I can still hear it. The clang and the clatter and the moaning and shrieking—”
“Father!” protested Solveig, and she put her warm right hand on his brow. “Now that you’ve come back here, you can leave it all behind you forever.”
“This is the battle that needs to be told and retold,” Halfdan went on, “and in this place more than anywhere, to honor all the men who died here. The wolf chased and
swallowed the sun. It was still early in the afternoon, and by the time the sun was born again King Olaf lay dead.” Halfdan pointed. “Just over there. I was in the shield rampart around him. I lost my footing, I stumbled, and one of Cnut’s men slashed the back of my right knee. The bastard cut right through my hamstring.”
Solveig grabbed her father’s arm, and her eyes flooded with tears.
“That’s why your right leg’s shorter than your left.” Solveig gulped. “But you’re still as tall as a pine tree. Always getting in your own way. Odin knows how many times you’ve cracked your head against the lintel.”
“I know,” said her father. “I’m like one of those clumsy great frost giants I’m always telling you about. And over there, see, just by that knoll, that’s where your uncle—”
“Eskil!” exclaimed Solveig.
“Your mother’s best brother. One man cut him down and another hacked off his right leg.”
Solveig screwed up her face.
“He was only eighteen. And marrying that September.” Halfdan grimaced. “Where was I? Yes, the shield rampart. Harald’s wounds were worse than mine. Much worse. Cnut’s men beat him to the ground. One arrow was sticking between his ribs, and another had pierced his stomach. Blood was spitting out of that one, and because of the barb it was impossible to pull it out cleanly. But Harald would rather have been the cause of his own death than allow Swedes to kill him. He just grabbed the arrow shaft and ripped it out of his own stomach.
“After that, Harald lost half his blood and some of his guts as well. That’s when I called over to old Rognvald—he was one of the king’s earls—that I knew a farm hidden in the forest . . .”
“Ours, you mean,” said Solveig.
Her father nodded. “A safe house.”
Solveig shook her golden hair and stared in admiration at her father.
“You’d have done the same, Solva. I don’t know quite how—Rognvald white-haired and me with my severed hamstring—but we half carried Harald, half dragged him.” Her father frowned. “I can’t remember much about it. Except how much it mattered. More than anything. That and the pain.”
“I remember,” Solveig said. “Well, I half remember. You and Asta arguing because she didn’t want Harald in the house.”
“She was afraid for Kalf and Blubba.”
“Afraid!” Solveig exclaimed scornfully. “I remember that saying you told me.”
“Yes,” said Halfdan.
“Fearlessness is better than a faint heart for anyone who puts their nose out of doors. The length of my life and the day of my death were fated long ago.”
“That’s right,” said Solveig.
“She was afraid for you too, Solva.”
Solveig sniffed. “I can still see Kalf and Blubba stretching a sheet of canvas between the rafters and you putting Harald over your shoulder and somehow getting him up the ladder.”
“Earl Rognvald only stayed for one night,” Halfdan went on. “He said he’d never be safe, not in Norway. He kissed Harald’s forehead—it was so pale and cold—and said he’d be waiting over the mountains in Sweden.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Harald’s recovery took weeks, not days. Months, in fact. By then it was winter, so Harald had to lie low. And wait. He wasn’t much good at that.”
“I’m like that.”
“Yes, Solva, always impatient! But that was the time when Harald and I talked. We talked and talked. We told stories. We laughed.”
“I remember how he laughed and how he loved your stories.”
“He brayed. He shouted with laughter, and our turf walls shook. But then came the day when Harald asked me which way Earl Rognvald had taken into Sweden. He was planning to escape east and south with him and other survivors until they were strong enough to return and fight again and win back the kingdom of Norway. I told Harald it was best to sail down the fjord, because I’d heard of a traders’ track leading west over the mountains from Trondheim. But he said, ‘No, that’s not the best way. Not for Rognvald. Not for me. I don’t want to be recognized.’
“So I led him along the string paths through the forest, along the sheep runs east into the Kjolen Mountains. Each of us carried an ax, and Harald was wearing his sword as well, under his cloak. We each had a sack over one shoulder stuffed with food—smoked mutton and good whey cheese.”
Solveig nodded and patted her left shoulder.
“Ah!” exclaimed her father. “You made it?”
“I always do. And we’ve got carrots. And pink plums.”
“You’re right,” Halfdan said. “It’s well after midday. I’m hungry.”
“Over there?” suggested Solveig. “There’s a bit of grass by that bush.”
That was when she saw it. It was jammed inside the twisted bush, and at first she thought it was a piece of canvas, then a wedge of pine wood.
“What is it?” her father asked.
Solveig pulled it out and held it between her fingertips— a blade of bone, stripped by sea eagles, bleached by frost, sharpened by time.
Halfdan took the bone and inspected it. “Poor sod!” he said. “His shoulder blade. One of us? One of them?”
Solveig closed her eyes. “Any of them,” she murmured, and she gently shook her head. “Eskil. All of them.”
“I know,” Halfdan said.
Solveig secured the bone inside the waist cord of her felt cloak and stroked it. “I’m going to carve it,” she told her father.
“Or Asta could use it. For smoothing.”
Solveig screwed up her face.
Her father shook his head and gave a rueful smile. “You and your stepmother.”
Solveig opened her bag. She pulled out a tatty old piece of cloth and, inside it, whey cheese and pink plums. As soon as she’d broken off a nugget of cheese and swallowed it, she
lay propped up on her left elbow and looked at her father with her left eye—the violet one—and then with her right.
“Well?” Halfdan asked her.
“Was she tall too?”
Solveig nodded. You always know what I’m thinking, she thought.
Halfdan looked at his lap. “Yes,” he said slowly. “Tall. Very tall. So it’s no wonder you are.”
“You know she was.”
“I know. But when you talk about her, you make her alive to me.”
“Siri . . . Always so alive.”
“She’s still alive for me.” Solveig hesitated. “I like the way you say her name.”
Halfdan put a plum in his mouth, drew the juice from it, and spit out the stone.
“I was telling you about how Harald escaped,” he said, “and how I led him east over the mountains. Mile after mile, me limping, Harald wearing a broad strap to hold in his guts.”
“Before you left,” Solveig said, “Harald took both my hands and swung me around and around. Until I was giddy. ‘Your father,’ he told me, ‘your hamstrung father, he’s still worth double any other man. Don’t you ever forget it.’”
“Is that what he said?” asked Halfdan, grinning.
Solveig tilted her head to one side, and her eyes shone.
“On the third day,” Halfdan went on, “Harald told me it was time I turned back. Time I went home.
“‘Nothing matters more than loyal friendship,’ he said, ‘and by Thor, you’ve come farther than you needed to. But in the end, Halfdan, each of us has to stand on his own.’
“Then Harald delved into his cloak, and he drew out a wad of bog cotton.” Halfdan paused, then reached into his own bag. “Like this,” he said, and he gave the wad to Solveig.
Solveig’s eyes widened.
“Loosen it,” her father told her.
As soon as she did so, Solveig could see gold, gleaming. Then she saw the whole brooch. She gasped.
It was almost as long as her little finger and as tall as the distance from the main joint to the tip. Incised on it was a boat with an oblong sail, much the same shape as the brooch itself. Two people were sitting in the boat, both facing in the same direction. The one in the bows was certainly a man, a man or a god, but the smaller one in the stern . . . both arms outstretched . . . Solveig couldn’t be sure.
A huge snake ribboned out of the waves, over the boat, and down into the water again, and he was biting his own tail. Solveig examined him. He was much thicker than the whippety smooth snakes she sometimes surprised on the hillside.
“It’s so—kingly,” said Solveig. “So heavy.”
Halfdan turned the brooch over in her hand. “Harald scratched two pairs of runes on the back:
. Harald Sigurdsson and Halfdan son of Asser.
“‘I owe my life to you,’ Harald told me. ‘That’s why I’m giving you this.’”
“You’ve never shown me,” said Solveig accusingly. “You haven’t even told me.”
“I’ve never told or shown anyone,” her father replied. “You’re the first and only.”
“Where do you keep it?”
Halfdan narrowed his eyes and smiled. “It’s as precious as my own blood. It’s worth more than our farm and all our animals.”