The pack of wolves huddling together for protection from the blizzard were at first puzzled by the sounds carried on the wind, but soon they caught the scent of smoke. The pack, a family of eleven, was near their den, which was on a steep rocky mountainside overlooking the frozen lake. There were three generations of the same family in the pack and as winter loomed the parents had been teaching the youngest pups to hunt. Soon, even though visibility was restricted by the snow, their yellow eyes could detect a flickering red glow from the direction of the lake. They were instinctively afraid of anything unusual, but when the first goats appeared, struggling through the snow below the den, they quickly overcame their fear and the pups got their first chance of a kill. Before long their hunt was a massacre.
While the pack’s territory was over 150 square kilometres, they tended to spend most of their time in the core of their territory to avoid disputes with neighbouring packs. They frequently roamed near to the small settlement by the lake in the hope of finding a stray goat kid or perhaps a chicken. But the settlers had surrounded their living compound with a tall fence made of sharpened poles placed vertically next to each other, to lessen the chance of this happening.
As the first millennium neared its end, the small settlement, in a fertile area of flat lakeside land protected by the high mountain behind and situated just inside the Polar Circle, had been lived in by four generations of the same family. The settlement had originally been started by a merchant from Birka, the main Scandinavian trading centre which was on an island in the lake west of what is now Stockholm. He had decided that instead of transporting iron goods a vast distance to trade with the nomadic inhabitants of Lapland, the Sami, for furs and reindeer antlers, he would produce the goods himself using the plentiful bog iron in the far north. Once a year he had made the long trek south-east with his goods to a small port where the trading ships from Birka gathered in the spring to trade for Sami produce.
He had learnt the specialised skills of iron production and the working of iron from his father in the south, before becoming a travelling merchant. In his new home, besides producing iron, he and his Sami wife had had to learn to be farmers as they lived in a harsh, unforgiving climate and had to be almost self-sufficient in food and clothing.
The current occupants of the simple wooden settlement buildings were the merchant’s daughter Agna, now a widow, her son Arvid and his Sami wife Ingir, and their four children. Gunnar, at twenty, was the eldest. Torsten was nineteen and his twin brother and sister, Finn and Birna, were seventeen. Birna’s name in Old Norse meant ‘she bear’. At birth she was weaker than Finn, but showed great determination to survive. According to Sami tradition she was honoured by being given the name of a dead relative of great character in recognition of her fortitude. Her ability to assert herself in competition with her three brothers confirmed that the name had been a good choice.
Ingir had all the typical Sami physical characteristics. She was fairly short, but sturdy. Her wide face, which was framed by long black hair, had high cheekbones and her eyes were slightly narrowed. These characteristics were to an extent carried by her children, though most noticeably by Birna. Her husband, though mostly of southern blood, was shorter than what might be called medium height, though his red hair and blue eyes marked him as the son and grandson of southerners. He was powerfully built and quietly content that though his sons had darker hair and high cheekbones, they had inherited his physique.
At this time of year it was hard to distinguish any physical characteristics, as even when they were indoors the family were wrapped in layers of clothes which made them all roughly the same shape. However, when they gathered round the fire in the middle of the main house and could take off their fur waistcoats it was clear that Gunnar was the bigger of the three brothers and not just because he was older than them and had been doing heavy work for that much longer. Torsten was just as tall as him, but not as broad and never would be. Finn was slightly shorter than Gunnar, but though very similar to his eldest brother in shape, he did not have the muscle build. Perhaps, one day, he might develop the enviable broad forearms and heavy biceps which marked Gunnar as a man of considerable strength. However, Finn’s most notable features, often joked about by his brothers, who had brownish-black hair and brown eyes, were his reddish hair and blue eyes.
Arvid had met Ingir when her family had come to the settlement to trade for iron. Her father approved of the match, partly because she had two sisters and so he would still be well looked after and would have one less mouth to feed, but also because he could see that he might have a trading advantage in the future. There was little alternative for Arvid to find a wife, as southern women did not travel this far north. In Ingir he had a partner who had the incredible, innate, ability to survive and prosper in this most inhospitable climate. She knew every food source, every natural remedy, and had learnt the practical skills to run a household and provide a home. Although the predominant culture of the family was that of the southerners, Ingir still wore the traditional dress of the Sami, the gakti, when it was practical to do so. This tunic with a high collar was made from reindeer skin, which after having been dyed green was embroidered with contrasting colours. She wore a long skirt and reindeer-skin trousers. Like the rest of her family she wore reindeer-skin shoes, though in the winter these were lined with the fur of a wolverine because of its outstanding heat retaining properties. Her tunic was gathered at the waist by a belt with a square buckle. The shape of the buckle and the square buttons indicated that she was married. She encouraged Birna to wear a gakti which she had made for her with round buttons to indicate that she was unmarried, but Birna was more inclined to wear a heavy colt, a cloak with a hood, over her shift. Both women wore their hair in a pigtail and the only jewellery they wore were leather necklaces, each with three bear’s claws. In Sami lore the bear was the father of the forest, possessing mystical power. Killing a bear gave the hunter the bear’s power, and its claws were said to ward off evil and to protect the wearer.
The men also wore reindeer-skin tunics, but without the high collar. These were gathered at the waist by a leather belt. Their trousers were made of cloth woven by the women folk and were worn tucked in to the top of their boots. Both men and women carried a knife in a scabbard on their belts as well as a leather pouch in which, besides a wooden spoon to use at mealtimes, they carried small items needed for their everyday work.
Agna was now in her late fifties, though by dint of the considerable physical hardships of living and bringing up a family in harsh circumstances she was an old woman, racked with arthritis and other ailments caused by exertion and poor diet. Her father had met her mother while trading near the coast, and while she was still a baby they had brought her to the edge of the Polar Circle in search of suitable land, near to the traditional Sami nomadic paths, on which they could make a home. They needed to be close to a lake or a river so that they could be guaranteed good fishing, and they must have a flat area on which they could build. They also had to have a plentiful supply of timber for producing charcoal to smelt the iron and to heat their forge.
After a long trek north from the coast, late one early autumn evening they first saw the lake by which the family now lived. It was bathed in and reflecting the dazzling colours of the aurora borealis, the Northern Lights. Her father called the place Floga, or sea fire, after the mythical legend where a dragon was said to breathe flames onto a lake. The site was perfect for them. There was a narrow peninsula of flat land pointing out into the lake with a marsh on one side which would provide wild grass for winter fodder for their animals. The mountain behind the lake was perilously steep and rocky on the side nearest to them, but the other sides were covered with fir and pine, the latter being the preferred wood for charcoal making. And, importantly, there were two mountain streams which emptied into a peat bog. The pools of water in the bog showed streaks of oily film, a sure sign that there was bog iron buried near the surface of the peat. There was even a sandy beach which would provide the sand needed to mix with clay for building a kiln. It was on this peninsula that they made their home.
Their first priority was to build a hut to live in before the onset of winter, a winter which they barely survived. They lost the two ponies which they had used as pack animals on the journey. These had been tethered outside the hut and had been easy prey for wolves and wolverines. In the spring, as soon as the hard earth yielded enough to allow digging, they traded some axe heads with a group of Sami in return for which they got help to put up a palisade around their home. By summer they had built their first charcoal oven and had started the exhausting job of collecting bog iron from under the muddy peat at the bottom of the mountain. They needed a quantity nearly half a man’s weight to be able to start smelting. By the autumn they had produced a small quantity of iron and in the winter they forged their first arrow heads and axes. Iron was a very valuable commodity and nowhere more so than in the Polar Regions which, paradoxically, one day long in the future would yield iron in immense quantities.
But much of their time was spent in finding food and ensuring a supply of dried meat and fish for the winter. They traded their iron goods with the Sami for reindeer meat, but also for furs which in turn the settlers could trade on the coast. In the winter they added to their tradable supplies by trapping polar foxes for their fur. These hardy animals, which could survive on almost any food from berries to fish and carrion, bred widely in the mountains nearby and with their litters of up to ten cubs, were plentiful, though a wily quarry. Their furs were especially sought after in the south. Their winter coats which had turned from brown and white in the summer to the much sought after pure white in the winter gave status to the wearer. As, indeed, did the ermine pelts which they were occasionally able to barter from the Sami.
Two generations later the palisade had grown in size, but the living was just as precarious. The winters were long and savage, and as there were more mouths to feed it had become necessary for them to become farmers in addition to producing iron. As well as having to be almost self-sufficient in food they had to produce most of their own clothing. To this end they had a small flock of sheep and goats which provided wool for the women to weave cloth. They kept two cows for their milk and had a few chickens and geese. Grandmother Agna kept a small cottage garden during the summer to provide vegetables and fruit, some of which they preserved for the winter. But most of their food was provided by fishing and hunting reindeer and elk.
The elements were not the only challenge for the family. Outside the settlement in the forest clearings, where they had felled trees, the sheep grazed in the daytime, always watched over by one of the family. But they were also watched by covert predators. In summer the wolves were able to find other quarry, though they would take a chance at a kill of a stray sheep. But other eyes greedily watched the settlers’ stock. While a cunning lynx on the prowl could be very difficult for the shepherd to spot, a bear had no inhibitions and only a lucky arrow could stop an attack. The most cunning of the predators was the bear-like wolverine which in fact was neither wolf nor bear, but the largest of the weasel family. Although no larger than a medium-sized dog this animal was a ferocious and clever hunter, killing prey many times its size. At night all the stock had to be kept inside the settlement, and in winter they stayed in all the time and were fed on hay harvested from the marsh.
The settlement was roughly circular with two gates, one to the east next to the lake to allow easy access to water, and one, the main entrance, to the south. There were three wooden buildings, the largest of which on the western side was the lodging house. The family lived, ate and slept in this one-roomed building. They depended on the fire in the centre of the house for heat, for comfort and for cooking. Next to and east of this building was the fodder and wood store. On the far side of the compound was a storehouse where they kept animal skins stretched on frames for drying and cleaning. In part of this building they kept their stock of cured pelts and fresh furs which they would trade with merchants from the coast who came to visit in the early summer each year, for by this time they were well known as fur traders and they no longer had to make the trek to the coast themselves. In the centre of the palisade, well away from the other buildings, was a shelter with the forging kiln where they worked in the winter. The larger iron smelting kiln was outside the stockade on the land to the south.
It was when Agna went out in the dark to collect firewood that it happened. Carrying a tallow candle in a horn lantern to light her way, she limped out to the store. The men had just returned from a long, unsuccessful hunt and were resting in the house. Inside the store she stepped over some loose hay on the ground and lifted the lantern to locate the easiest logs for her to reach. At least she tried to. An arthritic pain shot up her arm and she dropped the lantern on to the hay. The candle fell out of the lantern and immediately ignited the dry hay. She knew that the most effective way of stopping the fire would be to smother it. She tore at her shawl with her painful fingers and threw it onto the spreading fire. The effect was dramatic. Through the weeks and months she had been wearing the shawl it had soaked up fat from animal skin scrapings, cooking and candle-making. The blaze soared and spread with terrifying speed in the fodder and wood pile. She screamed as much as her croaky voice would let her. It was not this that brought the family out of the house, however, but the noise of the panic which was breaking out among the livestock which had previously settled for the night, but could now see the fire through the open door.
The heavy snow was being driven by a strong easterly wind. The same wind made the wood store into a blast furnace. Ingir, Birna and the men raced to open the gate to fill their buckets with water. The ice had laid early on the lake that year, but there was a recently made hole where the ice had been broken in the afternoon to collect water and where the ice had not yet reformed very thickly. Gunnar worked feverishly, smashing a pole into the ice to reopen the hole, and then started to fill buckets and pass them back to the others.
Agna, with the foolishness of one distraught with guilt, was risking her life weakly and uselessly beating the flames with a broom. The flames scorched her long woollen shift and the heat seared her face. All too late she realised that rather than stopping the fire she had become part of it. She stumbled out into the mêlée outside with her clothes on fire. Through the snow by the ghastly light from the fire she could see the terrified sheep and goats actually climbing over one another to form a seething mass of wool and legs on the far side of the compound, on the same side as the family were trying to collect water to quench the flames. Their fearful bleating, the bellowing of the cows and the twin roars of the wind and the flames formed a dreadful cacophonous symphony. The two cows were tied up, covered with their reindeer-skin blankets. They were straining at their tethers with a force which looked as if they might decapitate themselves.
As Agna frantically tried to put out the flames on her clothing she saw the gate to the lake open as the others sought to bring the buckets of water in. The sheep and goats saw the same thing and with a furious unscrambling of bodies, first one, then all of them charged towards the gate which by now was wide open. The bucket bearers leapt aside to escape the tumultuous exit of the animals, dropping buckets and sprawling in the snow. Once outside, after initially heading off in different directions, the sheep and goats all turned and started plodding through the snow, keeping the wind on their backs.
Arvid ran in through the gate only to be met by the two cows running towards him with their head collars still attached to their tethers and these in turn dragging the stakes which had previously been deep in the soil. He caught sight of Agna in flames and ran to throw her, face first, into the snow. She lay there moaning as the heat of the fire gave way to the cold of the snow. But she did not feel it. She would not feel anything again.
The rest of the family came through the gates again with a new supply of water, but quickly realised the futility of their task. The flames from the store had carried to the roof of the main house. They could not reach up high enough with the water to halt the inevitable.
‘Get into the house and save everything you can!’ the father ordered. ‘First food, then clothes and tools.’
As ever, there was no dissent when Arvid issued orders. They ran in and out of the house several times, bringing out goods and piling them at a safe distance from the flames. Meanwhile, Arvid ran back out through the gate to see if he could recover any of the animals. When he returned, having realised that it was a hopeless endeavour, he was in time to see the roof of the main house collapse and Gunnar leap out of the door and throw himself into the snow to douse a shower of sparks which were covering his clothes.
They stood and looked for a while as the remains of their home were slowly, but inexorably, consumed by the flames. Arvid was silent, shocked by the triple loss; his home, his livelihood and his mother.
Ingir spoke. ‘Fire is a good servant, but a bad master.’
The boys looked shiftily at each other to see if anyone was going to dare to suggest a course of action to Arvid. Gunnar plucked up the courage.
‘Let’s get what we can into the fur store and see what we have saved.’
Arvid grunted in agreement and they started to clear some space in the store and move their goods in. Meanwhile, on what used to be the floor of the wood store, where the permafrost had not yet penetrated, Arvid was using a wooden spade which had been hanging near the gate to dig a hole long enough for his mother and deep enough so that, when covered, the wolves would not disturb her.
They assembled in the fur store. It reeked of the scrapings from the furs, but it was the only shelter they had. When Arvid came in Ingir put into words what they all knew. ‘We cannot stay here. Death will come by starvation or from the cold.’
‘Shut up woman,’ growled Arvid. ‘I will decide in the morning.’
The boys knew better than to comment. They should wait for his proclamation in the morning. They fashioned some sleeping arrangements and used the plentiful supply of reindeer skins to ward off the cold.
Each of the three young men knew what they wanted to do. They had never been to the trading post on the coast, but their imaginations were fired by the stories they had heard from the merchants, who visited them once every year, about the towns in the south. Stories of wealth, comfort and, of course, women. But the distance to the coast was fifteen or sixteen days’ walk in summer, though it was quicker to take a boat down the great river as far as the massive rapids over which no boat could travel. But in winter, could it be possible to reach the trading post?
Gunnar whispered to his brothers, ‘Wait until father is asleep and then come outside to talk.’
By the early hours the snow had abated, but the cold was bitter in the fresh wind. The three of them huddled outside in the shelter of the fur store. Gunnar assumed his usual dominant role, taking it for granted that as the elder brother he was senior.
‘I know what mother will want. She will want us to travel to Jokkmokk and spend the winter with her relatives. We will be reduced to being beggars in the Sami village. We can’t speak their language and we’re not used to their ways. Then in the spring we will have to start rebuilding this place. I have had enough of spending my days up to my knees in mud looking for iron, being eaten alive by mosquitoes. And when we are not doing that we are slaving over a charcoal oven. No, I have had enough.’
Jokkmokk – quite literally meaning in Sami ‘river bend’ – was the site of traditional winter quarters for some wandering Sami. It was on the bank of the great river and just two days walk from Floga in summer. The Sami were known for their courtesy and hospitality to outsiders: even though they were not full-blooded Sami, the family could be certain that they would be accepted and supported in the settlement.
‘We must persuade father that we can travel to the coast on skio. It will be possible if we take enough provisions with us and make a tent with the reindeer hides. The three of us can pull a sled loaded with the tent and our food.’
The use of skis had been known for almost 5,000 years, but the style and shape of them varied through time and place. The settlers’ skis, or in Old Norse, skio – meaning ‘split piece of wood’ – were similar to those used by the Sami. The settlers were proficient skiers as during the seven months of winter there was no other means of transport apart from sledges.
‘But father will be furious if we argue with him,’ said Finn.
Torsten mumbled agreement, though half afraid of invoking his elder brother’s fury. Both younger brothers had experienced Gunnar’s violent nature and his ready use of his fists. But Torsten recognised the merit of Gunnar’s proposal. He too wanted to get to the coast and find another occupation, and maybe, who knows, become wealthy.
‘I will deal with father and you will support me,’ said Gunnar. ‘Now go to bed.’ The other two knew that the discussion was over and they should do as they were told.
What they did not realize was that Arvid was very much awake, wrapped in furs, sitting in the far corner of the store. He had heard the boys go out and though he could not hear what they were saying, he had some idea of what might be going on. When the boys came back in and he was sure that they were asleep he crept to the door and slipped out into the yard. There he groped around in the dark and eventually found the spade he had used to bury Agna. He went over to her grave and started digging. He was careful not to disturb the body, leaving a thin layer of earth over the corpse. He undid his coat and the belt round his tunic. With fingers which were by now really suffering from the cold he slipped his leather purse off of his belt. Fumbling with the contents he took several small pieces of silver and put them into the pouch on his belt and put the belt back on. He placed the leather purse on the soil which still covered Agna and then heaped the rest of the pile of soil over her grave.
He was well content that he had hidden most of his silver in a place where no one would ever dare to look. He knew it would be safe from robbers, and indeed from his sons, until he could recover it next spring. He quietly went back inside and slept.