Thursday, December 12, 2013

Galdurheim Sample Chapters

Keep reading below for the first 4 chapters (roughly 23 pages) from my middle grade steampunk fantasy novel, Galdurheim.  This is draft three, and I'm currently putting it into shape for submissions soon, so I appreciate any feedback you have to offer.


by A. S. Moser


"'And waked the throng / of warriors all; / And on the masts the gallant men / Made fast the sails--'"
"Stop there."
Leif lowered the hand scythe and let his weary arms rest. 
"Reciting, not working," his uncle said from a few paces away.  The steady shoosh of his blade through the waist-high wet grass was as constant as the rain.
Leif hefted his tool and resumed hacking.  On a fair weather day, with a full belly and a fresh arm, reciting the Eddas while he worked alongside his uncle was one of the boy's favorite things in life, even if he never could match Uncle Magnús's tireless rhythm.  But it had been raining for three days, they'd been cutting tall grass for two hours, and they wouldn't get their breakfast until Leif made it through the entire First Lay of Helgi Hundingsbane without error.  The only thing he felt grateful for at the moment was his uncle's oilcloth coat; as usual when they worked in the rain, Magnús had insisted Leif wear it, saying he didn't mind a little damp.
"Where was your mistake?" his uncle asked.
Leif thought back over the last verse.  He sighed.  "I left out the red of dawn part."
"Hmmh," Magnús said in approval.  "Begin again."
"'The ship's tents soon / the chieftain struck,'" Leif began, starting at the beginning of the verse.
"From verse one," his uncle said.
Leif whacked a few more stalks clear, paused to remove one that tenaciously clung to his blade, and started again.  "'In olden days, / when eagles screamed, / And holy streams from / heaven's crags fell...'"  For Leif, it was a typical Icelandic summer day on his uncle's farm: demanding, cold, exhausting, but nonetheless pleasant.  It was all he ever wanted in life.
Twenty minutes later, his uncle nodded his approval, and with mingled feelings of pride and hunger Leif ran across the home field to put the fish on to boil.
It was the end of the day when, with a grateful sigh, Leif accepted his askur from his uncle, who had filled the wooden bowl with the day's second meal of fish stew with a side of rye bread.  His socks were steaming on the hearth stones, and his bare toes were kept warm by burrowing them under Æska, the sheepdog sleeping at his feet.  He was pleasantly weary, and he had his favorite bowl filled with his favorite food.  For once he'd forgotten to wonder if a letter from his father had arrived, and consequently he hadn't once been sad.  He'd even finished reciting clear to The First Lay of Guðrún by the end of the day.  What more could a young boy ask for?
Then he noticed the thick slice of smoked lamb resting on one side of his bowl.  His eyes grew round, and he looked at his uncle.
"Happy birthday, Leifur," Magnús said.  "Didn't think I'd forget your twelfth birthday, did you?"
The truth was, it hadn't occurred to Leif whether or not his uncle would remember his birthday, because he'd forgotten it himself.  Then Leif noticed his uncle hadn't sliced any lamb for his own bowl, and he tore his piece down the middle and made to pass it over.
"That's all for you," his uncle said.  "You've earned it."
"If it's mine, then I can do what I want with it," Leif said.  "And I want you to have some."  His uncle scowled mightily, but Leif could see the hint of a smile hiding around the corners of his bearded mouth.  Magnús accepted the offering.
"I've got one more surprise for you," his uncle said after a few minutes of quiet eating, then pushed back his chair and disappeared into the bedroom.  While he was gone, Leif tore a smaller piece of lamb and fed it to Æska under the table.  His uncle's smoked lamb was his favorite thing in the entire world, strictly reserved for special occasions, and yet any time he received some it never occurred to Leif that he might do anything other than share it.
As Magnús reentered the room, Leif bent studiously back to his bowl and Æska laid her head down and pretended to sleep; they were old hands at this game, as Æska's plump belly could attest.  Uncle Magnús set a coffee tin on the table with a heavy clank and pried the lid off.
"Go on," he said, "look inside."
Leif stood up and peered into the can.  It was filled with coins, more than he'd ever seen.  Most were Danish.  "Uncle," he said, "is this for me?"
Magnús laughed.  "After a fashion.  I've been saving that since you were young as a spring lamb. Now it's time to spend it."
"On what?"  Leif was imagining all the things he could buy with that much money: a shiny pocket knife, a pound of sugar, a big, meaty cow bone for Æska, a new oilcloth coat for his uncle, so they might both have one to wear.  Truth was, Leif had very little idea just how many things might be bought with the money; he had a farm boy's desires, and a farm boy's pleasures.  As a consequence, though he had very little, he was almost always happy.
"Tomorrow," Magnús said, "we'll walk down to Thingeyri."  Leif sat upright; Thingeyri was the closest thing to a town the valley had, and it was right on the fjord.  It only had a shallow harbor, but there were still a number of smaller fishing vessels, which Leif found endlessly fascinating.  Plus there were other boys in Thingeyri; they were usually good for a wrestle, or knew where to find interesting things like wild berries, shiny stones, and dead cats. 
"I'll exchange most of that," his uncle continued, "for banknotes, and then I'll be mailing it with a couple letters to Oakdale on Snæfells peninsula." 
"That's where you're going to school."
Leif frowned.  "But I don't want to go to school."  At least he didn't think so.  It did sound exciting, though.
"I expect you'll change your mind once you've been there."
"What if I don't like it there?"
"You'd better.  I'm paying two full semesters, and you'll see them through."
"What if they don't like me?" Leif asked, thinking of his future classmates.
"Make sure they do," his uncle said, thinking of his future teachers.  "I made a promise, and I aim to keep it."
"A promise to who?" Leif asked, knowing the answer but needing to hear it all the same.
"Your father," Magnús said, and just like that all the pleasant warmth of an end of day meal evaporated for Leif.
"I want to stay here with you," Leif said quietly to the table.
His uncle sighed.  "I know," he said, and placed a large hand on Leif's small shoulder.  "But you'll go anyway.  At the end, if you still don't like it, you can come home for good."  Something in his voice suggested he didn't believe that very likely.  "Now finish your stew."  He carried the coffee can back into the bedroom.
Leif put a spoonful into his mouth distractedly.  He was even forgetting the momentary pang at the mention of his father.  He was going to school.  To live with other boys.  To live without his uncle.  He felt a mixture of excitement and dread that left his food tasteless.  His hand crept up to his bowl to sneak the last of the lamb under the table, but from the other room his uncle arrested the attempt. 
"No more lamb for Æska.  Any plumper and the sheep'll be herding her."
The dog in question put her head down on her paws.  "Sorry girl," Leif whispered.  She let out an expressive sigh in that special way that only dogs can.  "Me, too," Leif said, reaching down to pat her head.  "Me, too."



Sunday, August 1st, 1897

The boy and his uncle followed the crowd down the gravel path.  Chipped rocks shifted uncomfortably underfoot.  The uncle carried a canvas sack that was only partially filled.  It held all the boy's possessions.  It had taken the pair several days to arrive, walking and sailing and walking again, and Leif felt overjoyed and hollow at the same time.  Today, for the first time in twelve years, he was leaving his uncle's protection.  Today, for the first time in his life, he was going to school.
"Step right up!" a man announced.  "Perfectly safe, astoundingly convenient. Experience the future, developed right here in Oakdale at our very own School of Heiturlurgy.  Be amazed, and tell your friends you've traveled the way others have only dreamed.  Please don't shove, ma'am," he added in a lower tone to an aging woman swaddled in an undyed wool sweater.  "There's plenty of room for all."
The woman sniffed loudly and clutched a canvas sack to her ample bosom.  The sack smelled as though she'd bought a pair of two day old fish and then walked in the sun with them all morning, for in fact she had.
Leif and his uncle followed the fishwife onto a sturdy wooden platform, the pine planks exuding the familiar smells of sap and seawater that lumber freshly unloaded from Norway always had. The wooden railings were peppered with wonderfully fresh splinters.  The boy picked up three without even trying, and with a grin displayed his new accessories to his uncle.  Then came a whiff of wet wood, and the hissing sound of escaping steam.
"Ever been on a steamwalk before?" the operator asked.  The boy shook his head.  "What's your name, boy?"
"Leifur," he replied.
"Well, Leif, hold tightly to the railing.  We don't get many falls," he confided to Leif's uncle, "but when we do, it's usually the little ones pitching under the rail."
"Hmph," his uncle grunted, as if the operator had just confirmed something for him.
"Mind the splinters," the operator added, much too late for any of his passengers' comfort.  "All set?  Everyone hold on.  Here we go."  The man reached for a large lever, winked at Leif, and cranked it down.  There was a rumble underfoot, a loud clanking of unseen gears grinding into motion, and the smell of hot, wet metal.
Leif had just enough time to look at Uncle Magnús and see the grimace on his face before the world dropped away.
No, that wasn't quite right: it wasn't the world dropping away, it was the boardwalk rising up.  With a clanking of gears and a hiss of steam, the entire section of boardwalk lifted into the air in a parabolic arc.
Leif was eye level with second story windows, then rooftops, several of which were still covered in turf in the traditional style.  Most roofs sported pipes wisping steam.  He pointed them out to his uncle, who did not appear to share his excitement.  The steamwalk rose higher, and over the roofs Leif saw the river, milky blue due to sediments carried down from the glacier crowning Snow Mountain.  Leif had just enough time to see what looked like a small forest to the east before there was another loud clank and a shudder, and the steamwalk began descending again.
Up came the roofs, the second floor windows, and then the ground level windows.  There was a roar as steam shot out from all sides.  The steamwalk jolted to a stop, pitching Leif under the rail and onto the dirt street.
He lay sprawled on his back, watching gouts of steam rise and vanish into the sky.  For once, it hadn't rained, else the street would have been a long ribbon of mud--yet another blessing in what was beginning to look like the most exciting day in Leif's young life.
"What's the matter, shepherd?" came a girl's mocking voice.  "Never been on a steamwalk before?"
Leif looked over to find a girl with her arms crossed.  She was near his age, and with her blonde hair, blue eyes, and smart dress and bonnet she looked an exemplar of a young Icelandic maiden.  Only the smirk on her face ruined the picture.  Several giggling girls stood beside her.
"I seem to remember seeing someone else fall from the steamwalk once, Ingveldur," a boy said.
"It's Inga," the girl said crossly.  "You know that."  The boy rolled his eyes at her.  He looked down at Leif and held out a hand.  Leif took it and got to his feet.
"I'm Ragnar," the boy said.
Unlike many Icelandic boys, Ragnar had brown hair and eyes. He was wearing tailored wool pants and jacket, with a badge that looked like a giant tree embroidered on the jacket's breast.  Inga wore a spotless, pressed dress and freshly starched bonnet.  The girls with her wore similar outfits, and Leif felt suddenly self-conscious about his homespun sweater and patched pants.  Ragnar smiled, as though aware of Leif's discomfort and trying to reassure him.
"Take care around here," he said. "You never know what new contraption the heiturlurgists will cook up next."
Just then Uncle Magnús appeared and put his arm around Leif's shoulders. "You all right, boy?" he asked.  Leif nodded, embarrassed. "I thank you for helping young Leif here," he said to Ragnar, holding out his hand.  "Name's Magnús."
"Ragnar Pétursson," he replied, shaking hands.
Magnús stopped.  "Your face is familiar.  Pétursson, you said?  Not from Reykjavik are you?"
Ragnar nodded.
"Pétur Jónsson is your father?  The merchant?"
For the first time, Ragnar seemed uncomfortable. He nodded, keeping his eyes on the packed dirt of the street.
"Well," said Uncle Magnús, finally letting go of Ragnar's hand.  "Well."  Ragnar flexed his hand, as though Magnús had squeezed it too hard.
"Pleasure to meet you," Ragnar said to Magnús, though he was looking at Leif.  "Sorry about my sister."  Then he turned and met up with Inga and her friends.  Sister? Leif thought.
"You know I hate that name," Inga muttered to Ragnar.
"And you know you're not supposed to be causing any scenes," Ragnar said back.  "We don't need any extra attention."  Then they were beyond earshot.
Leif looked to find Uncle Magnús watching them.  "Who is their father?" he asked.  "Who is Pétur Jónsson?"
"A wealthy merchant in Reykjavik.  Their ancestor, Jóhannes Jóhannesson, was one of the few Icelanders given trading rights under the Danish monopoly.  They grew rich as a draugur's treasure horde while the country starved."
"But that's all over now, right?"
Uncle Magnús nodded.  "Aye, the monopoly's over all right." 
But Leif knew there was more to the story.  "Then why don't you like him?"
"Nothing to worry about," was Magnús's reply.  "Just stay clear of those two," he added.  By now, the steamwalk operator had gathered another small crowd onto his section of boardwalk to travel back in the opposite direction.
"Hold on tightly, now," the operator was saying.  Leif heard Magnús mutter something under his breath about "infernal machines."  The steamwalk lifted into the air with a clank of gears and hiss of steam.
"Come on," Uncle Magnús said, steering Leif down the street.  "Let's go find your dormitory."
"That boy, Ragnar, said something about heiturlurgists," Leif said.  "What are those?"
"They," Uncle Magnús replied after a moment, "are the reason you're here."  There was something in his tone that meant he was displeased and trying to hide it, the same tone he used the few times Leif received a letter from his father abroad.    "They," Magnús continued, "are your teachers."
Leif and Uncle Magnús stood on the steps of a long, wooden building, one of those typical assemble-by-numbers buildings that were shipped from Norway. An official-looking sign beside the door read: ICELAND SCHOOL OF HEITURLURGY. Beneath that, in letters that had been somewhat less elegantly painted, it was amended: BOYS' DORMITORY.
"Here we are," Uncle Magnús said with a sigh.  Whether he was relieved or saddened, Leif couldn't tell.  He felt much the same himself.  Magnús set Leif's canvas bag down with a thump and grabbed him by the shoulders.  Leif found himself looking into the familiar face of the man who had raised him: the scraggy beard, the dark blue eyes, the windblown cheeks.  He must have leaned into the wind and caught some grit; he was blinking a lot, and his eyes were watering.
"Your poor mother wanted nothing but the best for you, rest her soul," Magnús said.  "And your Da, before he sailed for America, made me promise I'd send you to this school.  He's sent money over the years, a little at a time, and I've saved every króna and eyrir for this day.  I don't think your Da knows what happened to the place of late, but no matter.  A promise is a promise."  He looked down for a moment, gathering his thoughts.
"Anyway, here you are.  You'll see and learn a lot of things here, Leif, and your life will be very different.  That's fine, you learn everything you can.  But never forget where you came from."  He poked Leif in the chest with a thick finger, callused from work like Leif's own.  "Never forget where your heart is."
He hugged Leif then, crushing him against his chest.  Leif inhaled the familiar scent of dried fish and unwashed wool, surprised to find tears in his eyes.  He must have been hit with some windblown grit, too.  He wiped his eyes before Uncle Magnús could see.
"They'll teach you that not everything old is good, and they'll be right.  Sometimes things need to change to get better.  But remember that not everything new is good, either.  It's like when the snow melts: a little bit over time, and we have water for the house and fields; but too much, too soon....  You were just a little thing when the river broke the banks and flooded the home field.  We built the croft the old way, on a hill, but Sigfús Gunnarsson thought he knew better.  Do you remember?"
Leif nodded.  He and his uncle had slept on the floor while Sigfús, his wife, and their three children sheltered there.  Worst of all, Magnús had brought out his smoked lamb, normally reserved for special occasions, and the hapless crofters had eaten every scrap.  Leif remembered them all too well.
"Good," Magnús said, and with that he knocked on the door.
Almost immediately it opened to reveal a pale, reedy man in a black wool suit.  His thinning blond hair was cut short and slicked to the side.  Even stranger to Leif, he was clean shaven.  With his large, unblinking eyes and wan lips, he reminded Leif of a fish.
The man's eyes took in Leif's clothes, the canvas bag at his feet, and his bearded uncle with the wild hair.  "Ah," he said.  "You must be our little munaðarlaus.  Leifur..." he trailed off.
"Alreksson," Uncle Magnús supplied gruffly.  "After his father, Alrekur.  Who is very much alive."
"Yet not present."
Magnús glared at the headmaster, his heavy hands clenching into fists.  Leif shuffled his feet as the heat rose to his face; munaðarlaus was what children called him when they wanted to start a fight, and Leif generally obliged: it meant orphan.
"Yes of course," the headmaster finally said, breaking the silence with a smile that did not touch his eyes. "Leifur Alreksson.  I am Grímur Oddason, headmaster of the School of Heiturlurgy."  He looked at Magnús with obvious distaste.  "We do not allow parents--or... guardians--into the dormitory, and certainly not the school.  You will have to say farewell here."
"Remember what I told you, Leif," Uncle Magnús said, patting him on the back a last time.  He handed over the canvas duffle.  "Be seeing you in a few months."
"Actually--Magnús, isn't it?--we keep our pupils throughout the winter.  Why waste the long months of darkness at home when they could be profitably spent in study?  The school has the most advanced heating and lighting system in the country.  Young Leifur will doubtless be safer and warmer here than in your turf house.  We allow the pupils to return home for a few weeks beginning early summer, around the solstice."  Another smile twisted his lips, but it came across more as a grimace.  "Some traditions have proven harder to break than others."
"The summer solstice, then," Uncle Magnús said.  The idea seemed to reassure him, for some reason.  "Until then."   
Headmaster Grímur ushered Leif into the longhouse.  The portal closed behind him with a heavy thud, and, given his uncle's cryptic warning and advice, he couldn't help but hear something ominous in the heavy thunk of the closing door.


Leif followed Headmaster Grímur down a narrow corridor lined with paintings of respectably bearded older men.  Former headmasters, Leif thought.  There was something odd about the paintings, but he couldn't decide what it was.  There were also a few charcoal sketches of an enormous tree that resembled the badge from Ragnar's jacket. Leif wanted to ask about it, but Headmaster Grímur had paused and was staring at him with that unblinking gaze.
Escaping steam sighed somewhere nearby.  They had arrived at a hallway, and Grímur pointed left into a long, narrow room.  Beds lined the walls.
"This is where you will find the bunks for first and second year students.  Everyone shares a bed.  As you are the last to arrive, you're sharing the bed at the end on the right.  There is a chest underneath to store your belongings.  Farther down are the rooms for third and fourth years, fifth years, and sixth year students."  Next he turned opposite to another large room filled with trestle tables.  "This is where you will have breakfast before school and dinner after returning.  If you are the gluttonous sort who likes to eat during the day, you will not find sustenance here.  Dried fish and butter can be purchased at several places in town after you have completed your studies."  He looked at Leif pointedly.  "Your uncle left you with some money?"
Leif shook his head.  He'd never needed money before, and had only held coins once or twice in his life.
"Then it is a moot point," the Headmaster replied.  "I suppose you're accustomed to two meals a day anyway."
Leif nodded his head.
"Do you speak, boy?"
Leif nodded his head again.  Grímur raised a pale eyebrow.  "Y-yes, Headmaster," Leif stammered.
"Quiet and polite," Headmaster Grímur said approvingly.  "Perhaps we will be able to make something of you after all, despite your rustic upbringing."
"Y-yes, Headmaster."
"In the morning, after breakfast, you will follow the other first years to the dock where our boat will ferry you to the school."
"Boat?  This isn't the school?"
Headmaster Grímur snorted.  "Do you know anything about this school, boy?"
Leif shook his head.  "I've never been to school."
"That much is obvious.  But every Icelander surely has heard of this institution."
"Sorry, Headmaster.  My uncle only told me I was going to school, and that this is where my father wanted me to go."
"And where is this mysterious father?"
"He went to America," Leif said.
"America," Headmaster Grímur said, working his mouth as though the word tasted dirty on his tongue.
Then Leif remembered the few letters he'd received.  "He was in Mexico.  Then Abyssinia.  And Egypt.  But that was two years ago."
Grímur paused, realization dawning.  "Your father is Alrek Eiriksson?"
Leif nodded.
"The archaeologist?"
"I don't know," he admitted.
"What does he do?"
"Something with old cities."
"And where is he now, this man obsessed with the history of all peoples but his own?"
"I don't know," Leif repeated.
"Never mind your father.  What do you know?"
"I know all about sheep."
Grímur shook his head.  "Can it be that you have come to the most famous school in Iceland, a school renowned in every civilized country of the world, and you know nothing of what we do here?"
"Sorry, Headmaster," Leif said, his eyes on his shoes.  "My uncle only told me--"
"That you were coming to school, yes, you said that."  He sighed dramatically.  "I don't suppose we can fault you for the shortcomings of your guardian.  Did he teach you about anything other than sheep and wool before dropping you on our doorstep?"
Leif nodded enthusiastically.  "We had a cow, too.  And in the long nights he taught me the sagas.  He knows them all by memory."
"No doubt he does," the Headmaster replied.  "And I bet he taught you all about the hidden folk, and trolls, and the people of the sea, too."
Leif nodded again, even more enthusiastically; those were his favorite stories.  Then he saw the look of disapproval on Headmaster Grímur's face.  The Headmaster put his cold hand on Leif's shoulder and led him to the bunk room.
"Your uncle is an independent man, isn't he?  Owns the plot of land he works?"  Leif nodded.  "Then he's a rare individual already, and must be a disciplined and hardworking farmer.  And no doubt he taught you many things that were useful for that life.  But you are here, now.  We do not concern ourselves with superstitions and legends.  Those are things for the past.  What you will learn here is how to create the future.  But first you must be able to relinquish the past."  He bent down and trained his large eyes directly on Leif's own.  "Can you do that, Leifur?  Can you let it go?"
That gaze was very uncomfortable.  It seemed to bore into Leif's head, to call out his rural upbringing and cast it aside.  "Y-yes, Headmaster," Leif finally said.
"Good boy," Grímur replied.  "Now go unpack your things, such as they are.  The other first and second years should be returning soon.  You'll meet your bedmate then.  Try to get along."
Headmaster Grímur strode back to the door before turning around.  "I don't know what plan or chance or fate has brought you to our school, Leifur.  You are utterly unprepared for this education.  But you are here now, and perhaps your simplicity can be used.  You know the phrase tabula rasa?  No, of course not.  It means blank slate.  Anything can be written on a blank slate.  That is you, Leifur, or at least it will be once you forget your uncle's superstitions.  At this school, we will ensure that the correct things are written on your slate.  You are a very fortunate boy.  Given time, I expect you will understand that."
"Yes, Headmaster," Leif said.  "I will try."
"Yes, you will," he replied.  Then he left.
Leif found his assigned bed in the back corner of the room and placed his canvas sack in the middle.  Every bed had two pillows, one at either end.  Like most Icelanders, the students slept head-to-foot to save space and stay warm.  It seemed that some of the boys had brought their own rúmfjalir, the decorative bedboards used both as guardrails and to tuck up the blankets and avoid drafts.  Several had traditional curved lines and knots, others had floral patterns or birds--one even had a quote from a favorite hymn.  Leif's bedboard was mostly plain; only the center was adorned, with the sigil of the tree he'd been seeing a lot of since arriving.
Looking around the room, Leif realized what had struck him about the paintings in the entrance hall, what stood out in stark relief in this room as well: he could see clearly.  There was no scent of burning peat or dried dung, no oily haze creeping along the boards overhead, which were not blackened by soot.  This dormitory had electric light!
Leifur finally noticed two glowing bulbs suspended from the ceiling.  The white hot filaments inside were too bright to look upon long, and left purple after-images in his vision--yet he couldn't help staring.  Electric light!
He'd never seen by any light other than torch, lamp, or sun in his entire life, and here he was at a school where even the bedroom had electric light.  Perhaps things weren't going to be so bad after all.
It wasn't long before the first and second year students returned.  Leif could hear them laughing and calling to each other on the street long before they arrived at the longhouse door. They burst into the bunkroom like a raucous wave sweeping over a seawall, and Leif was suddenly surrounded by a dozen faces at once.
There were Bragi, Steinn, Gunnar, and Valdi, who were fellow first years and happy to meet him; Viggó and Ólafur were second years and equally excited.  Two other second years, Pétur and Simon, were more reserved, as though the year between them was more than just a twelvemonth.  There was another first year, Jens, who didn't look up from his bootlaces, even when being introduced, and offered a limp handshake as though he'd been instructed to do it but someone had forgotten to show him how.  Ragnar was there as well, and Leif gave him a wave.  The brown haired boy nodded, but then turned back to his bed.
That's weird, Leif thought.  He was so nice before. Leif's thoughts were interrupted by a very large second year with red hair who introduced himself as Árni.
"Looks like you're stuck over here," Árni said.  "Seven new first years and only three empty beds.  The other six chose to split beds rather than bunking with me."
"I would, too," the second year Ólaf said.  "Great big Viking like you won't leave any room for the poor guy.  Good thing you're a little one, Leif, or you might be sleeping on the floor!"
"You're lucky you were already stuck with Viggó, or I'd come sleep over there tonight."
"Please no," Ólaf joked.  "Anything but that!  You'll want to stuff your nostrils with wool, Leif.  Árni catches fish just by sticking his feet in the river and waiting for them to float up dead."
"That only happened once," Árni said with a laugh.  "And it was after I borrowed your socks!"  He threw a pillow at Ólaf.  Leif assumed the other pillow was his, and placed his canvas sack on it to prevent it from being used as ammunition, too.
The boys began to settle down on their beds, but no one was ready to sleep yet.  They'd just come in from outside where, despite it being nearly ten in the evening, the sun was still above the horizon.  It was late summer, and the days of the midnight sun were falling behind them now, but there would still be light for some time yet.  It was always difficult to fall asleep when the sun still shone.  And then there was the fact that the first day of classes began in the morning.  The room was buzzing with energy.
"A story!" Ólaf cried.  "Someone give us a story."
Simon sighed.  "Do we have to do this every night?"
"Of course we do," Árni replied.  "What else would we do?"
"Study?  I seem to remember you struggling through thermodynamics last term."
"Yah," Árni said dismissively.  He grabbed Leif's pillow and hit Simon in the head with it. "We've got all year to study thermo this and water that and forced induction thingamabobs."
"A score for entertainment," Ólaf crowed. "Education is slain."
"It's your turn," Viggó said to Árni.
"Is not.  It's Pétur's turn."  They looked at Pétur, who rolled his eyes and shook his head, causing Árni, Viggó, and Ólaf to burst into laughter.
"I think Leif should tell a story," Ragnar said.  Leif had almost forgotten he was in the room, but there he was staring back with a curious smile on his face.
"Hey, why not?" Árni said, clapping Leif on the back so hard he stumbled.
"I don't know," Leif said.
"Sto-ry!  Sto-ry!  Sto-ry!" Ólaf chanted, stomping his feet on the floorboards.  Árni and Viggó picked it up, pumping their fists in punctuation.  "Sto-ry!  Sto-ry!  Sto-ry!"
"OK, I'll do it," Leif said, laughing.
"What stories do you know?" Árni asked.  "It better be a good one.  None of this, 'there was a great warrior, he killed many people before the king of Denmark slew him in battle, the end,' kind of thing.  We want details."
"Um...  What about Helgi Hundingsbane?"
"No poetry," Árni groaned.  "We start school tomorrow, not tonight."
"I know 'The Tricking of Gylfi.'"
"We want an Icelandic story," Ólaf said.
"What about a story from your part of Iceland?" Ragnar asked.
Árni followed that with, "Hey, where are you from?"
"My uncle's farm is at Hawkdale, a half day's walk from Thingeyri."
"The West Fjords," Árni said in amazement. 
It was a region of the country where few people lived, and fewer still were those who could claim to have visited.  The West Fjords were cut off from the rest of the country by ice and snow for much of the year, and most Icelanders knew more myths than truths about the people who lived there.  These boys, like most Icelandic children, had heard many stories of sorcery and witchcraft, and most of those stories took place in the West Fjords.
"Yes!" Ólaf said enthusiastically.  "Tell us a story from the West Fjords."
Leif was unsure; he knew a great many stories about his region--tales of sorcerers, and trolls, and creatures of the sea.  But he had arrived last, and his clothes were not as nice as everyone else's, and now he was the only one from a mysterious corner of the island country.  He already stuck out like an old fish; he didn't want them to think he was any stranger than they already did.  Ragnar solved his dilemma.
"Hawkdale is the valley near Dýrafjörður, isn't it?"  Dýrafjörður, or Door Fjord, was one of dozens of fjords in the region, but it had attained its own notoriety, a fact Ragnar seemed aware of.  "Wasn't Gísli Súrsson from that same valley?  Didn't he settle on a farm in Hawkdale?"
Gísli Súrsson was the hero of a long story, known as Gísla saga, which included all the great components of a classic adventure: murder, betrayal, and outlawry, with some sorcery thrown in for good measure.
Árni's great red head swiveled to Leif, his mouth hanging open.  "I love that saga!  You have to tell it."
"It's so long," complained Simon.
"Then stuff wool in your ears and face the wall," Ólaf said.  "Come on, Leif, tell us Gísla saga."
Leif looked around the room uncertainly.  Most of his life had been spent with only his uncle for company, traveling to Thingeyri once every month or so for coffee and sugar and other items they couldn't make on the farm.  He'd wrestled with boys from neighboring farms on occasion, but had never truly had any friends his age before.  Headmaster Grímur had told him he had to forget his past, but he desperately wanted to be friends with these boys.  Telling Gísla saga was not keeping with the headmaster's instructions, but it was just a story, one that most children already knew.  If he refused to tell it, they might think he was boring and dull, and treat him as they did Pétur and Simon.  Plus, even if he refused, Árni would probably tell the story anyway: nothing gained, and a lot lost.
"All right," Leif said.  "I'll tell the short version."
Árni and Ólaf cheered, and Simon groaned.  Across the room, Leif once again noticed Ragnar and the curious smile which seemed to only touch half his mouth.


Gísla saga

"Once upon a time," Leif began, "many years ago in Norway, there lived a man with a daughter and three sons."
"Aw, skip the Norwegian part," Ólaf complained.  "Start when they land in Iceland."
"You can't skip the Norway part," Árni said.  "Then you won't know who is who."
"We all know already," Ólaf said.
"I don't," Jens said quietly.  Everyone turned to look at him.  He was the withdrawn first year who shared a bunk with Ragnar.  He had kept silent so far, and though he shrank under everyone's gaze now, he looked hopefully in Leif's direction, his gaze rising all the way to Leif's sweater this time.
"The daughter, Thórdis," Leif continued, and Jens' eyes snapped back to the floor.  "Was very beautiful, and many men sought her company.  One of the sons was fostered away.  Of the two remaining sons, Thorkell and Gísli, Gísli was the stronger warrior, and also the most protective of their sister.
"Thórdis had many suitors, but one man in particular, Kolbein, came often to their house.  He was a friend of the older brother, Thorkell, but their father did not like him.  Several times Gísli warned Kolbein away from calling on Thórdis, but he did not listen.  One night, they argued, and in the ensuing fight Gísli killed Kolbein.
"This sat well with their father, but Thorkell was very angry at his friend's death.  He would not fight his brother himself, so he convinced another man, Skeggi, to fight him and woo their sister instead.  Skeggi and Gísli fought each other, chanting battle songs, their swords singing and shields shining.  The fight raged until, with one chop, Gísli cut off Skeggi's leg.  After that, Thorkel forgave Gísli and they went home together.  But meanwhile, the sons of Skeggi were angry, and they soon came with fifty men to attack Gísli at his father's house.
"They set fire to the house three times, and each time Gísli put out the flames with whey, thus earning the name Gísli Súrsson.  But eventually the flames caught the roof, so the family slipped through a secret passage and escaped into the night.
"In retribution, Gísli and Thorkel tracked down Skeggi's sons and killed both them and Skeggi.  To escape outlawry and evade a continuing blood feud, they decided to leave Norway and set sail for Iceland."
"Finally," Ólaf said, but he was smiling.
Árni rolled his eyes.  "Ignore him.  Just keep going."
"They were at sea more than one hundred days, and finally spotted land near Hornstrandir in the north west.  They followed the coast west and south, and beached their ships at Door Fjord. There they settled, in Hawkdale.  All three took spouses there: Thorkell was married to Ásgerd; Thórdis was married to Thorgrímur; and Gísli married Aud, sister of his best friend, Vésteinn.
"So many names," Simon complained.
"I thought you weren't listening," Árni scoffed.
"Anyway," Leif continued, "as it turns out, Thorkell's wife Ásgerd was once the lover of Aud's brother, Vésteinn.  When Thorkell heard his wife mention this, he was very upset. He took his wife to live with Thórdis and Thorgrímur, where the two men discussed what they learned.
"Gísli tried to warn his friend, but he never found the right opportunity. One night, while staying at Gísli's house, Vesteinn was murdered with a spear plunged through his chest.  The murderer was never discovered, but Gísli suspected Thorgrímur in the crime. He swore vengeance for his friend's death, snuck into his sister's house, and killed Thorgrímur in the same way--by plunging a spear through his chest.
"Gísli escaped into the night, but his sister, Thórdis, raised the hunt for him.  As a result, Gísli was declared an outlaw and forced into hiding...."
"...But when he awoke," Leif continued, an hour later, "his hunters had caught up with him at last.
"There followed a mighty battle, hard pressed, and Gísli struck straight and true. His wife Aud fought by his side with a club, causing Gísli to cry, 'Long ago I knew I married well, though I never knew how well until this day!'
"Four men Gísli slayed before his belly was opened by a spear thrust and his entrails spilled out.  Undaunted, Gísli gathered them up in his shirt, tied it tight with a rope, and fought on.  He soon had so many wounds and lost so much blood that he knew his end was at hand.  So he leapt off the crags and struck his final blow, as strong and true as his first, and cleaved one of his hunters from his head to his belt.
"Gísli saw his slain enemies around him, and three more men who would not long survive him, and he smiled. Then he lied down atop his foe, and died."
There was a moment of silence, followed by a loud rushing of air as eleven boys, unaware they'd been holding their breath during Gísli's final moments, exhaled as one.
"That," Árni said, "was a story!"
"It was all right," Simon said, and this time it was Ólaf who threw his pillow.  "All that mess about revenge seems like such a waste to me."
"A waste?" Árni asked, incredulous.  "What would you do instead?"
"I don't know," Simon shrugged.  "I'm just saying, there are more important things in life than honor."
"Or family?" Árni pressed.  Simon shrugged.
Just then an older boy thrust his head into the room.  "You little girls done chatting yet?"
"Oh, come on, Ásmundur," Ólaf said.  "We're just having a last night of fun."
"Who's Ásmundur?" Leif whispered to Árni.
"Fourth year. He's responsible for making sure we don't burn the place down."
"Fun?" Ásmundur laughed.  "You call telling stories of dark, stuffy rooms and muddy, bloody fights fun?  What about harnessing the power of the earth itself and bending it to your command?  What would you call that?"
"Boring!" Árni scoffed.
"Heiturlurgy," Ragnar said reverently.
"We'll see who's bored tomorrow during intermediate thermodynamics, Árni.  I have the period off, so I'll be sitting in on your lesson."
Árni groaned. 
"Lights out, ladies," Ásmundur said.
There was a scurry for the covers as all twelve boys settled into their six beds, and a clonking of wood as six bedboards were lowered into place.
"And for you new first years, one last thought to send you off to dream land: tomorrow we introduce you to the world of the future."
With that, Ásmundur flicked the switch and plunged the room into darkness.


The sun rose around four thirty in the morning, after barely six hours of darkness--but Leif was already awake.
He hadn't slept the night before.
A room full of snoring boys might have been a distraction to others, but Leif was used to his uncle's loud snores--and the sounds that the sheep, horse, and cow made in the undercroft at night.  Part of the reason Leif couldn't sleep was his bed partner, Árni, who was by himself already too big for the narrow mattress.  Part of it was also Árni's feet near Leif's face; as Ólaf had warned, they stank.  But mostly Leif was excited about the next day.  Excited and nervous.  He'd never gone to school before, and the few things he'd heard about what he'd be studying were completely unfamiliar to him.
His uncle's idea of education had been a mix of farm labor and literature: helping out with the birthing and herding and shearing of sheep through the spring and the long days of summer; reciting the ancient poems, the Eddas, or learning the stories of the sagas while fulling and spinning wool during the long nights of winter.  His Uncle Magnús was part poet, part farmer, and an entirely independent man; as far as Leif was concerned, he was the Icelandic ideal.  But now Leif would be expected to learn a wholly different curriculum, to become a different type of person.  He didn't know what type of person that would be, or if it would change how he felt about Uncle Magnús--or how his uncle felt about him.  And so he was nervous.
Luckily, Árni preferred to sleep on the wall side of the bed.  Leif slid the carved bedboard up as quietly as he could and slipped out from under the blanket.  He pulled a pair of pants on over his long underwear, shrugged into his jacket, and tip-toed out of the room carrying his boots under his arm.
Already there were sounds coming from the rear of the dining hall, as the cooks began heating up the ovens and checking on the skyr set aside to cool the night before. Leif knew he should have been hungry, having skipped dinner, but he was too anxious.  What he really needed was a good long walk to help clear his head and calm his nerves.  He was accustomed to long days under the open sky, walking with the sheep as he recited the Eddas back to his uncle, and he craved that sense of familiarity now.  He laced his boots up in the entrance hall, unbarred the door, and stepped out into the street.
The weather in Iceland was known to change dramatically on a moment's notice.  Growing up in the West Fjords, Leif was accustomed to seeing a warm spring day turn into freezing rain in minutes.  Snow was not unheard of in summer.  First frost had come in early September a couple of times back in Hawkdale.  Because of this, Leif always kept a wool cap and gloves in his jacket pocket just in case.  So as he stepped out into a mist-enshrouded town, there was nothing unusual or frightening about it.  In fact, the mist served to soften the edges of things, to diffuse the golden glow of the sun, and to deaden sound.  It made the town quiet, peaceful, even beautiful.
Leif slipped his cap on his head and stuffed his hands in his pockets.  Then he turned toward the river.  Partly he wanted to see where he'd be going later with his schoolmates, but mostly he was curious if he could get closer to the forest he'd seen from the steamwalk.  Trees were very rare in Iceland, owing to the extreme weather and poor soil, and most of the forests had been cut down long before.  Leif had only seen a few trees in his life, and never a forest.  He quickened his pace.
He found the river mostly by the growing dampness of the air.  The mist was thicker here, and he nearly stepped off the bank before he realized he was there.  The water was a flat grey in the light and milky with minerals, like dirty bathwater after the soap has been rinsed off.
Leif climbed down to the water's edge and put his hand in the river.  It was frigid, and ice rimed the banks in a few places.  Off to the west, hidden by the mist, was the massif of Snow Mountain; the glacier on top fed this river, and many others in the area.  Snæfellsjökull, or Snow Mountain Glacier, was rumored to be magical.  It was famous in other countries because Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth began by descending into the dormant volcano, but it was famous in Iceland for other, more mystical reasons.  Even in the secluded West Fjords Leif had heard of it.  There was the saga about Bárðar, who had walked into the glacier and disappeared, and was rumored to live there still as its spirit guardian.  There were other rumors, of witches and sorcerers who lived in the ice caves, seeking to use the glacier's magical powers. There were less fantastical stories, too, about how drinking the water would keep you healthy for a year and a day.
Leif cupped some of the chilly water in his hands and tasted it.  It just tasted like water to him, perhaps a little dirty or metallic.  But he didn't feel any different.  Maybe it took longer to take effect.  Or maybe it was just a story.  Disappointed, he let the rest drain through his fingers.
He thought the trees he'd seen should be nearby, so he walked down the river bank a few minutes, but he didn't find any, and he kept walking.  The mist was beginning to lift a little, and he could almost see across the river now. He was just about to admit defeat and turn back to the dormitory, when he noticed a girl watching him at the river's edge.
Leif stopped walking and stared at her.  She was wearing an outfit much like his: wool hat, jacket with the collar turned up, pants tucked into high boots.  Unusual as it was for a girl not to be wearing a dress, that wasn't the most unusual thing about her.  Perhaps it was just the strange morning light, but there was something otherworldly about her eyes as she stared at him, something that made Leif's stomach flutter.
Unsure what else to do, he waved at her.  She did not wave back, and continued staring.
Now Leif was getting irritated.  He had just as much a right to walk along the river as she, and he at least was trying to be polite by waving hello.  Who ever heard of someone that just stared all the time?  He wasn't going to let her get away with it.  Though he had wanted to turn back, it suddenly became very important that he continue walking right past the strange girl.  That would show her.
The girl didn't stop staring as Leif trudged closer.  What he did notice was how her hair was not braided, but swept wildly out from under her wool cap; how her hands were not gloved, her fingers pale and slender; and how her eyes were an odd shade of blue, almost violet.  It's just the light, he told himself.  He squared his shoulders, stared right back at her, and kept marching.
Then, just as he was about to pass her, the girl stuck out her hand.  Leif stopped in his tracks.  He looked at her hand, uncertain what to do.
"Fjóla," the girl said.
Leif looked at her hand, confused.  A fjóla was a type of flower, but there was nothing in her hand.  The girl laughed, and it was like silver bells tinkling in the wind.
"I'm Fjóla," she said.  "That's my name?"  She stuck out her hand even farther.  "And you are?"
"Oh," Leif said.  "Sorry, I'm Leifur."  He grabbed her hand and shook it.   It was surprisingly warm.  Probably mine were just cold from the river, he thought.
"Why are you sorry to be Leifur?"
"You said, 'Sorry, I'm Leifur.'  Why are you sorry for that?  If anything, you should be sorry to shake hands so long when yours is so cold."
Leif took his hand back with a start. "I..." he said, sputtering to a stop.  "I--what are you doing here?"
Fjóla put her hands on her hips.  "What am I doing here?  I live nearby."  She waved breezily over one shoulder, away from town, toward the hills.  "You don't, or I would have seen you before.  So what are you doing here?"
"I go to the School of Heiturlurgy," Leif said, glad to be able to use what was supposed to be an impressive name on this strange girl. But rather than being impressed, she snorted.
"That place?  You?  You're not exactly the normal student for them these days."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Look at you."  She did just that, her eyes traveling from his muddy boots, to his patched pants, to his fleece-lined jacket.  "You're not a lawyer's son or doctor's son or merchant's son.  You look like you just stepped off the farm."
"So do you," Leif shot back.
"As I should," she rejoined, "because I have.  I'm not the one pretending to be something I'm not."
"I'm not pretending," Leif said indignantly.  "I am a student there.  A new first year.  My Uncle Magnús brought me only yesterday."
"First year, huh?  That makes us the same age."
"So I could go to school if I wanted."
"All right."
"I just don't want to."
Leif shrugged.  In his limited experience, saying he didn't want to go to school had made no difference in the outcome.  The girl continued, as if his shrug was a challenge.
"I don't need to go to school.  Even without it, I bet I know more than you do."
That got Leif's attention.  "I bet you don't."
"Do so."
"Oh yea, like what?"
"Do you know Bárðar saga?"
Leif rolled his eyes.  "Everybody knows that one."  Bárðar saga, like Gísla saga, was one of the more exciting and popular sagas.  It was also one of Leif's favorites.
"But do you know all the poems from it?"
Leif nodded.  "My uncle taught me."
"Prove it."
"I'm not going to recite for you.  You recite for me."
"I said it first."
Leif stamped his feet in irritation.  "I don't have to prove anything to you."
"Fine, I'll go first if you're scared."
"I'm not scared," Leif said indignantly, but Fjóla had already begun to sing Helga's lament.
"Soon I shall seek to leave.
My passion abates not at all
for the spender of treasure.
I shall die pitifully.
For I loved the treasure-embracer
with passionate, warm emotion.
I cannot conceal my sorrow.
I sit alone and recount my misery."
Leif listened to the last note trail away.  "Yeah, that was pretty good," he admitted grudgingly.
"Of course it was," Fjóla said.  "Now it's your turn."
"Fine," he said.  He chose the final poem of the saga, because he liked it best.
"No one thought
of the veterans of battle,
iron-wielder, that it was not the gods
who were passing by--"
"Wait," Fjóla interrupted. "That doesn't count."
"Why not?"
"Because it's not part of Bárðar's story.  It's not even part of his son Gestr's story, because he's already dead, too."
"It's from the saga," Leif said irritably.
"Doesn't count."
"Fine. I'll do another one."
"Pick a better one this time."
Leif thought for a moment, then smiled.  He had the perfect poem, recited by the warrior Thorir after he slays the ogress Kolla.  Leif decided to change the troll's name to match the occasion.
"A troll is Fjóla of Oakdale.
Hardly loose as these words I say.
I met the foolish monster
in a wrestling bout this day.
The troll lost her ill-won glory
when I bent her neck this way."
He smiled at her, demonstrating how Thorir had broken Kolla's neck.  He'd changed the words to keep the rhyme because he always found that funnier.  Surely calling her a troll and claiming victory would make her angry.  But to Leif's surprise, Fjóla threw her head back and laughed.
"Not bad for a school boy," she said, wiping tears from her eyes.
"I'm not a school boy."
"Sure you are, you said so yourself."
"I don't need that school to be smarter than you."
"No?" Fjóla asked.  "Then if you're so smart, what do you know that I don't?"
"I know Gísla saga," he said.
"I know which types of grass the sheep can't eat."
"Learned that when I was five."
"I know Grettis saga."
"Even easier."
"I know what to do when a ewe is in labor and the lamb won't come out."
Fjóla faked a yawn.  "You know all the things that every farm kid in Iceland knows.
Leif frowned.  "I know all the stories of the Poetic Edda.  And I have the first hundred verses memorized."
Fjóla waved her hand dismissively.  "Norse stories."
"You sound like Ólaf," Leif muttered.
"Nobody.  Forget it.  You think you're so smart, what do you know?  You haven't shown me anything yet that I don't know."
Fjóla smiled mysteriously.  "I know where to find Galdurheim."
"Galdurheim?  What's that?"  The name meant home of magic.  It wasn't anything Leif had ever heard of, but the sound of it struck something within him, deep and resonant, causing his stomach to flutter again.
Fjóla laughed, and it was like a tinkling of bells once more.  "See, school boy--I know something you don't know."
Leif grabbed at her arm, but she danced out of his reach.  "What is it?  Tell me."
"Maybe later--if you're lucky."  She shot him another smile and then dashed off, still laughing.
Leif started after her, but the mist was lifting and he'd been gone from the dormitory for a while.  "I'll find you!" he shouted at her retreating back.  "And you'll tell me then!"
"Good luck!" came her reply carried on the wind.  Then she was gone.
Leif kicked at a loose rock along the river bank.  What a strange girl, he thought.  Nothing like this ever happened to him back in Hawkdale.  On his uncle's farm, he could go an entire week without seeing anyone besides Uncle Magnús, the horse Blesi, the dog Æska, the cow, and the sheep. Here in only half a day Leif had already met a dozen other boys, a creepy headmaster, and two girls.  Neither of the girls seemed very nice, but between Ragnar's sister, Inga, and the strange girl, Fjóla, Leif would much rather see Fjóla again.  Just to find out about Galdurheim, he told himself.
Leif felt how hungry he was now, and he turned back toward town hoping it might be time for breakfast.  The mist continued to lift, baked away by the rising sun, now at his back.  Snow Mountain lay directly ahead of him, and this close to the mountain's slopes it dominated the entire western horizon. But it wasn't the awe-inspiring sight of the mountain or its glacial cap that caused Leif's jaw to drop.  It was what he saw in the middle of the river.  What he'd walked right past in the mist without even realizing.  What he'd thought he'd seen from the steamwalk, what he'd thought was a small forest.
A single, massive tree.
It rose from the middle of the river.  No, that wasn't quite right, Leif realized as he drew closer.  The river split around the tree.  Its trunk had to be at least sixty feet wide, maybe more.  It stretched a hundred feet, two hundred feet into the air, and its canopy spread over much of the river.  Other than the mountains, it was the single largest thing Leif had ever seen in his life. He'd seen cows, and seals, and minke whales, and walruses, and once even a humpback whale breaching the waves.  But this was bigger than any of those, much, much bigger.
And that wasn't the strangest thing about it.  There were odd lines that crisscrossed the massive trunk, and lights dotting it and several of the enormous branches.  Leif drew up next to the school's dock and boathouse without realizing it.  He had eyes only for the tree.
Now, across sixty feet of river, he could see that the lines crisscrossing the trunk were stairs and walkways, even entire rooms that had been lashed onto the boughs.  The lights were windows, some of them carved through the trunk itself!  And most bewildering of all were the pipes that stuck at every angle from all over the tree: Long, thin pipes, and short, fat pipes; hooded pipes, straight pipes, curved pipes, and zigzag pipes; red pipes, silver pipes, rusted pipes, and pipes wrapped in cloth.  A hundred pipes--more!--and all of them ejecting steam: some of them puffed only a little, in evanescent wisps, while others blasted steam in great gusts.  From afar, the tree looked like it was on fire, there was so much steam coming from it.
"Impressive, no?" said a dry voice, startling Leif.  He jumped around to find Headmaster Grímur in his customary black suit.  The headmaster indicated the large tree, and Leif gratefully turned back to stare at it.  "This is our school, Leifur.  This is your school now.  What do you think?"
"It's--it's... amazing."
"Yes it is.  Amazing, and more."
"How--what--where do we...?"
Grímur smiled.  "As you said, it is an amazing tree.  It has many wonderful properties.  But there will be time enough to see it later.  I will take the first years on a brief tour before the day's first class.  For now, run along back to the dormitory.  You won't want to miss breakfast."
"Yes, Headmaster," Leif said, but he was rooted to the spot, still staring at the tree.  He felt a hand on his shoulder, pushing him none too gently away.
"Run along, Leifur."
"Yes, Headmaster," he repeated, his daze broken.  "Sorry, Headmaster."  He took off at a run, afraid if he walked he'd be mesmerized by the tree once more.
"Eat well, young Leifur," Headmaster Grímur called after him.  "Growing minds need nourishment.  And you have a lot of growing to do."
Leif continued running until he hit the dormitory door.  He opened it and was hit by a wave of warm air, the sound of dozens of boys eating, and the smell of freshly baked bread.
"Out for a walk?" a small voice asked, and Leif was surprised to find Jens standing in the hallway to the bunk room.
"Couldn't sleep," he admitted.
"Today is a big day," Jens said quietly to the floor.
"Yeah, I guess it is," Leif replied.
"What were you doing out there?"
"Like you said, just out for a walk."  Leif noticed that Jens's boots were tied, and wet with dew.  A blade of grass stuck to his laces.
"I'd stick close to the school, if I were you.  You never know who you might run into.  Or who might be watching."
With that, Jens disappeared back into the bunk room.  Leif wanted to follow him and ask what he meant, but the smell of bread and the sounds of people eating were too much for him.  It had been nearly a full day since he'd last eaten, so he decided to ask Jens about it later.
He stumbled into the eating hall, still out of breath, to find all the students--not just first and second years, but the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth years as well--eating noisily.
"Hey Leif," Árni shouted above the hubbub.  He waved Leif over.  "Better eat quick before Ólaf finishes everything."
"Me?" Ólaf asked.  "I'm just trying to get half as much as you so I don't starve before you inhale it all."
Leif sat down between Gunnar and Steinn, his fellow first years.  Ragnar sat across from him, wearing his coat and a woolen cap, glistening faintly with morning dew.  When he saw Leif he pulled the cap off, stuffed it in his coat pocket, and turned his attention fully onto his breakfast.
Leif tore off a large chunk of bread, and heaped his bowl full of skyr.  He poured fresh cream over the skyr and then--and his eyes dropped open now--fresh bilberries and crowberries to top it off.  There was strong coffee, and more cream, and little cubes of sugar to suck while they drank.
"What do you think?" Árni asked, his mouth full of hot bread.
Leif took a big bite of skyr and cream and berries.  "I think I'm going to like it here."   

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