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But in the hands of bestselling author Nancy Farmer, the direst of prospects becomes any reader’s reward. Soon, Jack, Thorgil, and the Bard are off on a quest to right the wrong of a death caused by Father Severus. Their destination is Notland, realm of the fin folk, though they will face plenty of challenges and enemies before get they get there. Impeccably researched and blending the lore of Christian, Pagan, and Norse traditions, this expertly woven tale is beguilingly suspenseful and, ultimately, a testament to love.
THE ISLANDS OF THE BLESSED
Sea of Trolls - 03
May we find the Islands of the Blessed together
CAST OF CHARACTERS HUMANS (SAXONS)
Jack: Age fourteen; an apprentice bard
Hazel: Jack’s sister; age eight; stolen by hobgoblins
Lucy: Jack’s foster sister; lost to Elfland
Mother: Alditha; Jack’s mother; a wise woman
Father: Giles Crookleg; Jack’s father
The Bard: A druid from Ireland; also known as Dragon Tongue
Ethne: Daughter of the Elf Queen and the Bard
Pega: An ex-slave girl; age fifteen
Mrs. Tanner: The tanner’s widow; mother of Ymma and Ythla
Ymma and Ythla: The Tanner girls; ages ten and eight
Brother Aiden: A monk from the Holy Isle
Gog and Magog: Slaves of the village blacksmith
King Brutus: Ruler of Bebba’s Town
Father Severus: Abbot of St. Filian’s Monastery
Sister Wulfhilda: A nun
Allyson: Thorgil’s mother; deceased
Thorgil: Olaf One-Brow’s adopted daughter; age fourteen
Olaf One-Brow: A famous warrior and Thorgil’s foster father; deceased
Skakki: Olaf’s son; age eighteen; a sea captain
Rune, Sven the Vengeful, Eric the Rash, Eric Pretty-Face: Members of Skakki’s crew
Egil Long-Spear: Sea captain and trader
Bjorn Skull-Splitter: Olaf One-Brow’s best friend
Einar Adder-Tooth: A pirate
Big Half and Little Half: Brothers working for Adder-Tooth
THINGS THAT GO BUMP IN THE NIGHT
The Bugaboo: King of the hobgoblins
The Nemesis: The Bugaboo’s second-in-command
Mr. Blewit: Hobgoblin foster father of Hazel
The draugr: Avenging spirit
The hogboon: Soulless being that feeds on life
The Shoney: Ruler of the fin folk
Shair Shair: The Shoney’s wife
Shellia: Their daughter; also known as the drauger
Whush: A fin man
Man in the Moon: An old god; exiled to the moon
Yarthkins: Also known as landvættir; spirits of the land
Pangur Ban: Large white cat from Ireland
Odin: Northman war god; lord of Valhalla and the Wild Hunt
The Mountain Queen: Glamdis; ruler of Jotunheim
Fonn and Forath: The Mountain Queen’s daughters
Schlaup Half-Troll: The Mountain Queen’s son
I and Pangur Ban, my cat—
’Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight;
Hunting words, I sit all night.
Better far than praise of men
’Tis to sit with book and pen.
Pangur bears me no ill will;
He too plies his simple skill.
’Tis a merry thing to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.
Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur’s way;
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.
’Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
’Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.
When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!
So in peace our tasks we ply,
Pangur Ban, my cat, and I.
In our arts we find our bliss;
I have mine and he has his.
Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.
Written by an unknown eighth-century Irish monk in the margins of a manuscript, when he was supposed to be copying the Bible.
Translated by Robin Flower in The Irish Tradition, Oxford University Press, London, 1947.
THE GATHERING STORM
Jack’s fingers ached and blisters had formed on the palms of his hands. Once he could have done this work without harm. Once his skin had been covered with comfortable calluses, protecting him from the slippery handle of the sickle, but no longer. For three years he’d been freed of farmwork. He’d spent his time memorizing poetry and plucking away at a harp—not that he’d ever equaled the Bard. Or ever would.
Sweat ran down his forehead. Jack wiped his face and only succeeded in getting dirt into his eyes. “Curse this job!” he cried, hurling the sickle to the earth.
“At least you have two hands,” said Thorgil, sweating and laboring nearby. She had to hold the bracken ferns in the crook of her arm and slice through them with her knife. Her right hand was frozen, useless, yet she didn’t give up. It both impressed and annoyed Jack.
“Why can’t someone else do this?” he complained, sitting down in the springy bracken.
“Even Thor does inglorious chores when he’s on a quest,” said Thorgil, stolidly dumping an armload of bracken into a growing pile. She turned to gather more.
“This is no quest! This is thrall work.”
“You’d know,” retorted the shield maiden.
Jack’s face turned even hotter as he remembered how he’d been a slave in the Northland. But he swallowed the obvious response that Thorgil herself had been a thrall as a child. She was prey to dark moods that rippled out to blight everyone around her. That was the word for her, Jack thought grimly. She was a blight, a kind of disease that turned everything yellow.
Nothing had worked out since she’d arrived in the village. It took the utmost threats from the Bard to keep her from revealing that she was a Northman, one of the murdering pirates who’d descended on the Holy Isle. Even as it was, the villagers were suspicious of her. She refused to wear women’s clothes. She took offense readily. She was crude. She was sullen. In short, she was a perfect example of a Northman.
And yet, Jack had to remind himself, she had their virtues too—if you could call anything about Northmen virtuous. Thorgil was brave, loyal, and utterly trustworthy. If only she were more flexible!
“If you’d shift your backside, I could harvest that bracken. Or were you planning on using it as a bed?” Thorgil said.
“Oh, shut up!” Jack snatched up his sickle and winced as a blister broke on his hand.
They worked silently for a long time. The sun sent shafts of heat into the airless woodland. The sky—what they could see of it—was a cloudless blue. It pressed down on them like an inverted lake—hot, humid, and completely still. Jack found it hard to believe that a storm was on its way, but that’s what the Bard had said. No one questioned the Bard. He listened to birds and observed the motions of the sea from his lonely perch near the old Roman house where he lived.
A rumbling sound made both Jack and Thorgil look up. The blacksmith’s two slaves had arrived with an oxcart. A moment later the large, silent men crashed through the underbrush to gather up the bracken. They tramped to and fro, never speaking, never making eye contact. They had been sold by their father in Bebba’s Town because they were of limited intelligence, and Jack wondered what kind of thoughts they had. They never seemed to communicate with each other or anyone else.
Even animals thought. As the Bard had instructed Jack, animals had much lore to impart to those who paid attention to them. What kind of lore did Gog and Magog, as the slaves were called, have to impart? Nothing good, Jack decided, looking at their brooding, averted faces.
When the oxcart had been loaded, Jack and Thorgil set off for home. Most of the time they lived at the Bard’s house, but now, during the crisis of the impending storm, they had returned to the farm Jack’s parents owned. It had grown a great deal in the last three years.
Beside the fields, farmhouse, barn, and winter storage shed was a new dairy Jack’s father had built. This contained three sturdy black cows tended by Pega, whom Jack had freed from slavery. She also cared for the chickens, new lambs, and a donkey. But she was not allowed to touch the horses. The horses were Thorgil’s domain and jealously guarded, particularly from the tanner’s daughters.
At the edge of the property, where the land was too stony for crops, was a hovel constructed of peat. This was where the tanner’s widow and her two daughters crowded together with hardly more room than three peas in a pod. They had arrived to help Jack’s mother the year before and had never gone home.
“I wish this storm would arrive,” cried Thorgil, throwing a stone at a crow. The crow eluded it. “The air’s so heavy! It’s like breathing under mud.”
Jack looked up at the cloudless, blue sky. Except for the ominous stillness, it could have been any early summer day. “The Bard spoke to a swallow from the south. It told him that the currents in the air were disordered and all the migrating birds were confused. Why don’t you ever talk to birds, Thorgil?” The shield maiden had gained this ability when she’d accidentally tasted dragon blood.
“They never tell me anything,” she said.
“Maybe if you didn’t throw rocks at them…”
“Birds are stupid,” Thorgil said with finality.
Jack shrugged. It was like her to ignore the gifts she had and to demand what she could never achieve, a glorious career as a warrior. Her paralyzed hand had put an end to that. She also wanted to be a poet. Jack had to admit that she wasn’t bad. Her voice was harsh and she had a fondness for bloody death scenes, but her stories held your attention.