The hog snorted at the two young trespassers in his pen. He kept his massive flank pressed to the oak beams of the fence, staying as far away from them as he could.
The girl, Hanne, kept her eyes on the boar, hiding the knife she held against the folds of her skirt. It was a long, slender blade; old, honed often, and very, very sharp. Her milky-blond hair was plaited in a crown around her head. She wore her oldest work dress and a coarse homespun apron stained rust at the hem. Though she was two years his senior, her brother Knut dwarfed her. He was six feet six inches tall. Barrel-chested but, at fourteen years old, barefaced.
Behind the siblings stood a large round tub, empty and waiting, and a long-handled wooden spoon. Hanne was glad for the cold October air. It tamped down the stench of the pig’s mud.
The boar shifted his weight, pawing at the ground. With a sudden scrape and a bang, the door to the old farm cabin swung open.
The bowlegged farmer hurried toward the pigpen.
“Stop!” he called. “Girl! Get out of there!”
Hanne kept her gaze fixed on the hog.
Their father, Amund, came hobbling out of the farmhouse behind the farmer. “Hush now! You’ll startle the pig!”
Their father’s part in the butchering was to keep the farmer inside until the work of killing was finished. He always brought a jug containing a few pulls of apple wine to share. Neither Amund nor his children wished to be found out by their neighbors, for they were Nytteson.
“Calm down,” Amund called to the farmer. “You’ll spoil the kill.”
“I didn’t know you meant to have a girl aid in the butchering,” the farmer protested, his face red with fear and anger. “I never would have agreed to it!”
“She’s just there to help collect the blood. Don’t worry.”
The hog snorted and fretted. He did not like this commotion, and he did not like the two silent blond siblings staring at him from inside his own pen.
Amund caught up to the farmer. He raised his right hand, the hand with only two fingers and a thumb remaining, bidding the farmer to slow down. The sight of Amund’s deformity was enough to still the man for a moment.
“You won’t be sorry you hired us. Now come, let’s go have a drink,” Amund told the farmer.
“He’ll kill her—he mauled my son,” the farmer said. “That’s why I hired the work out in the first place.”
Amund began to speak again, but the farmer changed tactics, calling to the girl, “Young miss, come out of there! Don’t be foolish. I’ll not let you be killed, not on my land.”
But Hanne continued to ignore him. She could feel the anger of the hog growing, his irritation at the farmer’s voice edging him toward action. His breath was steaming in the air.
“Knut,” Hanne said. “The pig’s taking too long. You’ll have to provoke him some.”
“I don’t want to,” her brother said softly. Hanne knew Knut would have liked to hold her hand. The bigger beasts scared him. But he wouldn’t dare reach for her hand in the sight of their father.
“Get on with it, children,” Amund called.
“Come out, I say!” the farmer shouted.
The boar snorted and wheeled around. He was becoming confused.
Hanne didn’t want that. She wanted him mean and focused. “You’ve got to make him charge you,” she hissed to Knut. “Come on, now! He must attack you.”
Knut made a weak movement toward the hog.
“You must do better than that! Hey!” she yelled. She picked up a clump of mud and threw it at the animal’s head.
The boar snorted and pawed the ground.
“Yell, Knut!” she ordered.
“Yah! Pig!” Knut yelled. He feigned a dart forward, startling the animal.
The hog lowered his head and, finally, charged Hanne’s brother.
A cry went up from the farmer, who rushed forward to help. Amund held out his crutch to restrain him, smacking the man across the chest.
Moving as fast as a lightning strike, Hanne put herself between the hog and her brother. The reek hit her as the beast’s tremendous bulk bore down on her. She threw herself forward, grabbing the pig around the neck. Her body was yanked parallel to the ground by the momentum, and her legs snapped up. The hog swerved around Knut, trying to run away from Hanne, but she hooked a leg over the pig’s side.
Her sense of the animal’s anatomy sharpened, as it always did before the kill. Her pupils were fully wide, as if she had black eyes, not blue; and she knew without looking where the jugular vein lay.
With one arm clutching the pig’s neck, she used her other hand to sink the thin blade into the flesh under the pig’s ear. The knife seemed to move on its own, slicing through the fatty meat until Hanne’s wrist was buried deep in the pig’s throat. There. The jugular was severed, and the blood began to fountain. Hanne’s hand was pushed out by the geyser of hot, slippery liquid.
The hog came to a skid, body jerking, legs still trying to charge.
“Get the bucket!” Hanne called to Knut. The farmer wanted the blood collected. If it wasn’t stirred while it was hot, much of the sweetness would be lost and the sausage wouldn’t taste as good.
Knut wiped tears away from his eyes with his sleeve as he hustled over. He was shaken by the killing—he always was. But he brought over the blood pan and set it down.
Hanne pushed off the hog’s slick back. She dropped the knife into the wide front pocket she’d sewn in for this purpose. She wiped her hands on her apron.
Knut now did his part. He grabbed the boar by its hind feet and lifted it up. He grunted and strained, his face becoming red as he angled the beast’s head to send the blood into the waiting tub.
“Ah!” the farmer cried out in wonder. To lift a hog that way was impossible for most men. Even two or three men would have to drag a beast that size on the ground. How could this boy lift it?
The farmer began to recite the Lord’s Prayer. Amund snorted. “You’ll see,” he said, waving his stump at the pan of blood. “Best blood sausage you’ll ever make. And the meat! Delicious.”
Hanne knelt in the dirt beside the tub. She brushed off her hands and reached into the tub to locate the spoon. She pulled it out and began to stir. The blood splashed, then slowed to a steady flow. It ran like syrup, but the width of the stream swelled rhythmically with the final heartbeats of the swine.
The pig’s eye was glossed over, even though his forehooves still twitched.
Knut’s muscles strained and shook. He was sweating freely now, steam rising from his broad back like mist off morning waters.
Hanne became aware of the hunger building in her belly. Her father had brought her two loaves of brown bread and a half round of cheese in an old gunnysack. He knew the price she would pay for using her Nytte, her gift.
Knut hefted the boar up again, resettling his grip on its hocks.
The stream of blood was thinning now. Soon Knut could rest the hog, and then the butchering would begin.
Hanne saw the carcass begin to stiffen. Sometimes, when her father was not watching, she would sing to the beast as it died. This made Knut feel better, and if Hanne allowed herself to admit it, it comforted her as well.
Today, their father watched, leaning against his crutch. He had an eye on his children while the farmer brought a cauldron of boiling water outside with shaky hands. Amund spoke to the farmer quietly, promising a discount if the farmer kept Hanne and Knut’s working methods to himself.
Today the hog went without a blessing.
* * *
THEY HAD TRAVELED to Norheimsund by foot. The road was nothing but a cart track, and the journey had taken them two hours.
Their path homeward to Øystese was downhill, but Hanne felt so tired. It was as if she were wading through mud with leaden skirts. By the time they reached the outskirts of their town, the light was beginning to go blue, and Hanne tucked her hands into her armpits to warm them. She ought to have brought her mittens. The lanolin from the good lambs’ wool would have soothed her chapped fingertips. The mittens were the last thing her mother had made for her, and she was trying to preserve them. They wouldn’t last forever.
Hanne was thinking of what she might barter for some nice, soft yarn. Her sister, Sissel, needed mittens, and Knut needed new socks. She could send Knut to work for the Pedersens one morning early, before their father awoke. Amund didn’t like loaning out the services of his children, unless the coins came directly to his pocket. But Knut’s work as a farmhand was what was keeping Hanne and her siblings fed for the most part. The stingy allowance Amund gave Hanne to cover groceries and dry goods was never enough. Never half enough.
Her older brother, Stieg, could use another pair of socks as well, to take with him to America. He said there was no more room in his bag, but Hanne could fit in one more pair of socks. Stieg was planning on taking his books with him and Hanne thought he wouldn’t need books as much as he would need socks.
Hanne was thinking about Mrs. Pedersen’s good black wool when they walked around the bend of a hill and came upon another party. Climbing up toward them were three students returning to their homes. She remembered them from school. Oskar Oleson, his little brother, and Linnea Solberg.
Oskar’s bright eyes sparked as he recognized her, and he grinned that old, side-cracked grin she had loved to see at school.
“Good evening!” he said to them.
“Yah, yah,” Amund said. “Give us the path. We’ve been working all day.”
The three students stood to the side.
Hanne kept her eyes on the ground. Amund hobbled past them. Hanne saw Linnea’s soft, pale hand clutching Oskar’s arm. Two sets of books were bundled together, hanging from a book strap in Oskar’s hand.
Knut lumbered past them, giving them a nod and a shy hello.
Oskar’s little brother skipped ahead, his smile happy and carefree.
“Are you well, Hanne?” Oskar asked as she walked by him.
Hanne glanced up, startled, meeting his eye. She saw Linnea’s nose wrinkle in distaste. Hanne realized how she must smell. Raw pork and offal.
“I’m well enough,” Hanne said. She did not ask after his health.
“We see your brother Stieg at school. And Sissel, but you and Knut do not come. Why is this?” he asked.
Oskar’s eyes followed her father’s retreating shape. Amund’s wretched, bent form did nothing to deny his bad temper.
“I’m needed at home these days, and Knut is not much for book learning,” she said.
Oskar placed his hand on Hanne’s arm. She jerked away from his touch. He dropped his hand to his side and spoke in a low voice. “But, Hanne, are you all right? Are you … treated well?”
Hanne darted her eyes to her father, hobbling down the darkening path. She didn’t dare stop any longer.
“I am fine, Oskar. Thank you for asking.”
She looked up at his face, his brows knit with concern for her, and remembered how he had hung around in the schoolroom at recess instead of playing with the other boys outside, how he used to bring hawthorn leaves into the schoolroom and stick them in her braids, just to tease her. He was a kind young man and smart.
And out of reach for her, now until forever.
Linnea tightened her grip on Oskar’s arm.
Hanne tore her eyes from Oskar’s face and stumbled behind her father and her brother.
“You’re slower than me, for heaven’s sake,” her father groused when she had caught up. “The next time we work, as soon as the door to the farmhouse closes, get the animal moving! What were you waiting for?”
“I’m sorry, Father,” she said.
“You want people to know what we are? To come hunt us out with pitchforks the way they did our ancestors?”
She must have scowled or made an unpleasant face because her father stopped and pointed his walking stick at her.
“I didn’t make you a Berserker, girl,” he snarled. “It’s not my fault Odin ‘blessed’ our forefathers with the Nytte.”
Hanne did not like to speak of the Nytte at all, much less outside and so close to town. She nodded, keeping her head lowered. After a moment, her father resumed the slow walk home.
The Nytte was an ancient blood-gift, a pagan, Viking gift, from Odin to his three favorite kings, to be carried in their lineage. A child with the Nytte on both sides of his or her family might manifest one of six eerie powers at puberty—or might receive no Nytte at all.
Odin had bestowed the Nytte upon these kings, Hanne’s aunt Aud had told her once, to create unstoppable raiding parties. Shipwright, Oar-Breaker, and Storm-Rend—these gifts were meant to help the Vikings cross the seas. Once ashore, the Berserkers and the Shield-Skinned warriors were nearly undefeatable. They massacred the enemy while the Ransackers found and looted any treasure to be had.
What good was it now, to be one of the Nytteson? They were not Vikings. They did not sail to foreign lands to plunder and pillage. They were just commoners, trying to hide their differences and earn a living.
Hanne looked back over her shoulder. She saw the silhouettes of her former schoolmates approaching the top of the hill.
Pity how that family’s gone to seed since their mother left, Linnea might be saying to Oskar. You’d think Hanne would be able to keep up with the laundry, at least. I’d never be seen in a dress that dirty!
For one moment Hanne allowed herself to imagine what it would be like to be Linnea Solberg. To have a head full of history or mathematics and be walking home arm in arm with Oskar. She imagined how it would feel to be striding over the hill to a fine, strong home and not down to a dark, damp stone house that was slowly falling to pieces.
Linnea would sleep on clean sheets and, in the morning, put her feet into stockings that would be mended with elegant darning, if they had any holes to begin with. As for Hanne, her heel was scraped raw where her sock had worn through.
Hanne walked on, hating her dirty dress; her old, mended shoes; her coarse wraps. She hated her jealousy, and she hated who she was, for her Nytte, her “gift,” was the reason their mother had finally given up and gone away.
Excerpted from Berserker by Emmy Laybourne. Copyright © 2017 by Emmy Laybourne. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.