Sissel sat on a branch that swept low from an old willow, watching Stieg work his Nytte.
Her brother pressed two fingers to his temple and began, creating a little gust of wind at his feet. He made it puff, puff, puff, like a living pulse.
Then he made the gust grow and turn on itself, funneling it into a little dirt devil.
Watching it closely, Stieg made it whirl over to Sissel and pluck at her skirt.
“Don’t,” she said. “You’ll muss my clothes, and Hanne will wring your neck.”
The dancing funnel of air lay down at her feet like an obedient dog.
Stieg paused to remove his vest. He pressed his sleeve to his face to blot the sweat.
Stieg did exercises every day to improve his control over his Nytte—the ancient Viking blood-gift that ran in both sides of their family tree.
Her brother turned his attention on the hazy mountains in the distance, shrouded in thin, peevish clouds. His tall, lanky body was drawn ramrod straight, taut with energy.
Stieg pressed his head with both hands. Sissel saw lightning dance above the closest peak.
“That’s very good!” she said, clapping. “Even better than last time. There’s more lightning and it’s brighter.”
Stieg exhaled. He made a gesture as if doffing his cap to acknowledge the compliment.
He leaned forward to put his hands on his knees and breathed deeply for a moment, catching his breath.
With his daily practice sessions, Stieg had been able to put an end to the headaches that used to plague him whenever he used his Nytte. The exercises had been prescribed to him by their wise and trusted friend Rolf Tjossem, before Rolf had returned to Norway two and a half years ago.
Now came Sissel’s favorite part of the practice sessions. Stieg turned toward their sister Hanne’s small garden near the side of the house, to water it. At Hanne’s insistence, establishing the garden had been the first thing they had done after building the house, just over two years ago. It was a magnificent garden thanks to Stieg’s Nytte, but the Hemstads never drew attention to it when they had visitors. They wanted to seem plain and commonplace, and keep their ancient Viking gifts a secret.
The garden was abundant and lovely—a tangle of vines splashed with colorful produce. The tomatoes were colossal—huge, beautiful fruits, skins nearly splitting apart. Snap peas and wax beans grew in a tangle over the brace Hanne’s fiancé, Owen, had built. Fat purple cabbages grew next to and giant acorn squashes, which grew such thick rinds they had to be split with an ax.
Stieg stepped closer to the garden. He placed one fingertip on each temple and closed his eyes.
Sissel watched the air. She always tried to see it happen, but the cloud materialized in wisps so delicate the eye couldn’t perceive them at first. Then they were there—white filaments drifting in the air, like tendrils of wool, fattening by the moment. Under Stieg’s power, they floated together and began to swirl and dance.
A weight of gray gathered in the belly of the new cloud.
The top layer of the garden soil was bleached tan by the midsummer sun. Splat. Then another fat splat. Dots of deep brown appeared as Stieg let the raindrops fall from his cloud.
“That’s the way!” Sissel called. She breathed in deeply as the sweet smell of the rain spread in the dry air.
Once the cloud was nearly spent, Stieg released a great breath. He staggered a bit, holding his hands out to steady himself.
“You’re not supposed to hold your breath,” Sissel reminded him. The cloud dried up in the air and was gone.
Sissel walked over to where Stieg stood. “Rolf wanted you to keep breathing.”
Stieg brought his hands up to his forehead and massaged his temples.
“It’s difficult,” he admitted.
They walked to the house. Hanne was inside, preparing supper, and Owen and Knut would be making their way in from the fields to wash up.
“Why do you think it is so difficult to remember to breathe?” Sissel asked. “I’m truly curious.”
Stieg thought for a moment, looking back at the wet, glistening garden.
“Because it sweeps me up. I feel connected to a great source of power. When I use my Nytte, I rather forget I have a body to begin with.” There was a faint smile on Stieg’s face, and a stab of envy pierced Sissel’s chest.
Sissel’s sister and two brothers each had a Nytte. Stieg was a StormRend. Hanne was a Berserker, driven to kill to protect herself or anyone she loved. Knut was an Oar-Breaker. Knut had tremendous strength that would have been used in the days of the Vikings to row their massive ships.
Sissel, the youngest, had no power. This was not uncommon. The Nytte often skipped children in a family—in fact, it was unusual that three of the four Hemstad siblings had received a gift, and one of them a girl.
Still, it rankled Sissel. It was hard to forget how different she was. It did not help that her siblings were healthy and strong, while she was thin, underdeveloped, and had a limp from an old injury. Her leg ached after her daily walks to and from school with Stieg, but she would not admit it. She had spent her childhood complaining, and now, at sixteen, she had made up her mind not to bring the habit into her adulthood.
“We should write to Rolf and tell him of your progress,” Sissel said. “He’d be proud of you.”
“He’d be proud of you as well.”
“Your studies. Your English is nearly better than mine.”
Sissel set her foot down wrong, and a shock of pain seized her calf. She bent and took hold of it to calm the spasm.
“I wish you would let your beau drive us home from school in his wagon,” Stieg said.
“No,” she said through gritted teeth.
“It’s cruel to him, actually. He wants to spend his every waking hour with you, but you hold him at a distance.”
Sissel did not want to talk about her beau right now. And not with her brother.
“The walk is good for me. It’s making me stronger.”
“If you say so,” Stieg said.
Sissel straightened up, and Stieg searched her face, concern etched on his features.
“Please don’t worry about me,” Sissel said with irritation. “It makes me tired.”
Stieg offered a smile. He exhaled, and a puff of wind toyed with the hem of her skirt.
“Don’t,” Sissel said. She held her skirt down with her hands.
“I will never worry about you again, I promise.”
He blew the wind at her more strongly.
“Stop it!” Sissel said. She gathered her skirt away from him and walked ahead.
“I was only teasing,” he said.
“I know,” Sissel said, not turning back. “I’m going in. Hanne might need my help.”
They came around the side of their pretty timber house. It had two rooms—a large living area with a loft above for the boys, and a small bedroom, which Sissel and Hanne shared. The living room had a cookstove in the center that served to divide the room into two halves—a kitchen, with cabinets built along the walls, and a cozy space with a table and chairs.
The brothers shared the loft with their future brother-in-law, Owen Bennett. Owen had hired on to serve as their guide when they had first come to Montana. That journey had turned dangerous and bloody, when a Norwegian Baron sent a bloodthirsty Berserker to track them down. Owen had learned the truth about the Hemstads and their powers. By the end of the ordeal, he and Hanne had become sweethearts.
Hanne and Owen were waiting to marry until the harvest was in, so they could afford a wedding and to add another bedroom onto the little house.
Their first winter in the United States had been cramped and difficult. They had spent it in an abandoned homestead cabin that a friend of Owen’s had told them about, provisioning themselves from a town ten miles away. During those long months Rolf had taught them everything he knew about the Nytte.
In the spring the Hemstads had traveled east to the small, burgeoning railroad town of Carter. They had used the remainder of the money they had brought from Norway—some cash and two ancient Viking gold coins—to purchase the land and the building materials for the main house.
For now, the family’s only income was Stieg’s salary from his teaching work, but soon the wheat would be harvested and then there would be enough for lumber, and a wedding feast and a cake.
The door to their house was open, and inside, Hanne was humming to herself. Hanne set a large loaf of brown bread on the table, and a slab of her homemade cheese beside it.
“You look like a happy young wife,” Sissel told her as she came limping through the door.
Hanne gave Sissel a smile. She had on a clean apron over her faded blue work dress. Hanne wore her blond hair in a plaited crown, though few young women wore their hair that way in America.
She placed a large platter of sliced tomatoes floating in a pool of fresh cream on the table.
“It was so hot in the house today,” Hanne said. “I couldn’t bear to cook a hot meal. I hope the boys don’t mind.”
Sissel sank into a chair that had been placed near the door.
“Are you all right?” Hanne asked.
“Yes,” Sissel said. “Fine.”
Stieg came in, followed by Knut, sweaty from his work in the wheat fields.
“Hello!” Knut said. “Is supper ready?”
Knut was six foot six, a giant of a man, even though he was only seventeen, with a broad, wellmuscled torso and huge, strong arms. His blond hair was plastered to his head in the shape of the crown of his wide hat.
Owen slipped in the door behind Knut. He was of medium height, with wavy brown hair and kind-looking brown eyes. He went straight to Hanne and pecked her on the cheek. Daisy, Owen’s cow dog, followed him in. She paused to lap at the water bowl set inside the door.
“Did you have a good day?” Owen asked Hanne. She began to answer but Knut interrupted.
“No meat?” Knut said as he looked over the table.
Sissel felt bad for him. The food was intended to feed five, and he probably could have eaten it all himself.
“It was a very hot day,” Hanne said, irritated. “I thought a cool supper would be best.”
Knut shrugged. “I’m hungry.”
“We’ve got plenty of tomatoes.”
“I’m hungry for meat,” he said.
“There’s some roast chicken in the root cellar,” Hanne said, relenting. “Go fetch it up and I’ll cut some slices.”
A smile broke over Knut’s broad face.
“Thank you, Sister.” He ambled out to fetch the ham.
“I look forward to when the harvest comes in so we can afford some beef,” Hanne said.
“The end of summer term is but a few weeks away,” Stieg said.
“And the wheat is coming along real good,” Owen said. “The heads are nice and fat. Everyone says we had just the right amount of rain this spring.”
“Say,” Stieg said. “The evening is so fine and still. Shall we bring the table outside to eat?”
“That’s a lovely idea,” Hanne said.
So the newly set table was un-set, and Owen and Stieg carried it outside.
Hanne lifted the platter with the tomatoes, and Sissel reached forward to take it.
“It’s a bit heavy,” Hanne said.
“I’m fine,” Sissel answered.
“I think it’s too heavy for you. But you could bring the plates.”
“Please, Hanne. Don’t baby me. I can carry a platter of tomatoes!”
Hanne bit the inside of her lip. “Very well.” She released it into Sissel’s hands, and Sissel turned for the door.
It was too heavy. Sissel knew it instantly.
She took two steps toward the door. Her arms began to tremble. She gritted her teeth.
Sissel lowered the platter slightly and inched out the door, as Stieg bounded back into the house, coming to fetch the chairs. Sissel shifted the platter to avoid him, but too late . . .
The edge of the platter slipped from her hands, and the beautiful red slices of fruit slid onto the ground, the cream raining down around them.
Then the platter tumbled out of her hands and fell. It broke in two pieces over a half-buried rock.
“Oh!” Sissel cried.
“Sissel!” snapped Hanne, coming to the door.
“It was my fault,” Stieg said quickly. “I bumped her.”
Tears welled up in Sissel’s eyes.
“It wasn’t your fault,” she said. “It was my fault!”
“Come, come. It’s all right.” Stieg bent over and scooped the tomatoes back onto the larger half of the broken platter. “We can eat a little dirt. It’s all right.”
Sissel turned back into the house, pushing past Hanne.
“Don’t run off, Sissel,” Hanne said. Her voice was thin and tired. “It’s all right.”
Sissel limped to their bedroom. She wanted to be alone.
“I’m sorry,” Sissel said over her shoulder. “I should have known better.”
She was weak, too weak to carry a platter of tomatoes. She cursed herself as she lay down on her bed—that she should be so feeble, that she should be so prideful, and that she should cry over it all.
Sissel went to splash her face with water at the washbasin, and instead she stopped, gazing into the looking glass nailed above it. She saw her thin, peaked face; her limp hair, so white blond as to be colorless; her pale eyes too large and rimmed with red. It was not a face she liked much.
She lay down on her bed and closed her eyes, hoping to compose herself for a moment.
When Sissel woke, it was dark. Hanne was in her own bed, across the narrow gap. Her sister’s shoulders rose and fell with sound, steady sleep.
There was a slice of bread topped with cheese waiting on the crate they used as a bedside table, along with a covered dish containing a pretty slice of tomato in cream sauce.
Excerpted from Ransacker by Emmy Laybourne. Copyright © 2019 by Emmy Laybourne. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Click the button below to find out how you can read the first 4 CHAPTERS for FREE!