‘The Little Horse’ by Thorvald Steen: An Excerpt

Snorri Sturluson was an Icelandic politician, writer and historian living during the twelfth century. He was a man of great political influence, and his writings are still researched and valued today. Snorri was killed on September 22, 1241, in Reykholt, where he lived the last years of his life, and The Little Horse is a novel about his final five days.

Snorri, knowing his end is near, begins to write a saga of his own life. He wants to refute all those who oppose him in Norway and Iceland, and defend himself against rumors that he is power hungry and a deceitful womanizer. He is haunted by the fear that his son Orækja will turn against him, and waits to meet Margaret, the woman he loves, who challenges him in every possible way. Meanwhile, assassins in the distance prepare to carry out their orders to end his life.

Translated by James Anderson

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An Excerpt

Most people have no idea how many days they have left to live. He believed he had many years before him. What he would say at the moment of reckoning hadn't occupied his mind at all. He dressed himself, combed his hair and drank a ladleful of water from the bucket by his bed. There was no one to be seen outside. He gazed up at the sky, that ancient parchment on which the sun and moon sketch day and night.

Snorre Sturlason had five days left to live.

The thought of Orækja came suddenly, as it always did. Although you've brought up your children, it doesn't mean you understand them. His sole surviving son was a mess of a man. He would rather think of Margrete, who was going to visit him the following day. He imagined her, those intense eyes, that hair, her quick movements, long fingers, the smile, the hips. He wondered what it would be like to kiss that small mouth.

On that same morning, a day's ride away, it was decided that Snorre should die on Saint Maurice's eve. Nobody breathed a word of this to him. He had his enemies, of course, but at that moment he had no inkling that anyone would be prepared to hack him to death on his own estate. The killers made their plans in the knowledge that they had King Håkon's full support.

Snorre opened the door and looked out at Reykholt. The wind was blowing. The light fell softly on him. Morning filled the yard with light. He was incorporated into the day. By the rising ground, just behind the anvil where Torkild fashioned arrowheads, he could see the toolstore. Torkild was a great, broad-shouldered, useful man who was always a boon when anything had to be repaired or adapted. Snorre wanted a word with Torkild. As he crossed the well-trodden turf, he felt his toes being squashed together in his leather shoes.

A little way off, the sheep waded through the golden-brown field spreading out, enveloped in silvery grey light. Sheep, he thought, had the long faces of martyrs. But why had they come so close to the farm?

Snorre walked over to the cart in front of the toolstore. He ran his forefinger over its shaft to see if the dew had left any traces of moisture. He let his finger brush once, twice along the woodwork. What was that sound he could hear? It came from the toolstore. Was Torkild shaping horseshoes on his anvil? Snorre went closer. They weren't hammer blows. But what were they? He gazed out across the gentle contours of the land beyond the estate, across the nearby stream and the river behind it that had its source in the mountains and glaciers on the horizon.

There was always something that needed repair or attention on the large farm. On several occasions, Snorre had begged Torkild to stop work earlier than was his custom. Torkild had smiled and said that Snorre oughtn't to poke fun at him. He continued to work just as feverishly in the evenings and was the last to turn in. And the next morning, it was always Torkild who was up first. The work of the forge was important to his self-esteem, Snorre realized. Torkild was the same age as Snorre, in his early sixties, but much lighter on his feet. Now Snorre wanted to wish him good day and thank him for all he'd done. Then he would ask Torkild if there was anything he wanted.

A little friendliness wouldn't hurt. Snorre nodded and mumbled to himself. Things hadn't been entirely easy between them ever since Snorre had enjoyed Torkild's wife night after night three years ago. She ran away from the estate, and no one had set eyes on her since. Surely Torkild had got over that by now? Occasionally, Torkild had complained that his earnings were too small. Snorre had replied that poverty was a step on the way to happiness in the next life.

Like the modest man he was, Torkild would doubtless reply that he neither needed nor wanted anything. So Snorre would leave a silver coin on the cask inside the door.

Was it the wind that made it impossible to pinpoint where the sound was coming from? The door to the toolstore was shut and bolted. When he walked round to the rear of the store he saw it was the back door that was banging. Snorre grasped the door. ‘Torkild!’ he shouted.

No one answered. The anvil in front of the door had four straightened nails lying on it. He opened the door wide. The tools were arranged neatly along the walls. Hammers, awls, axes, spokeshaves and saws hung on the side wall in order of size. An upset wooden cup yawned on the cask just within. Snorre entered. The room was empty. The door banged shut behind him, leaving him in inky darkness.

‘Torkild,’ he said in a low, hesitant tone. He kicked the door open again, lumbered across the yard and called. Nobody answered.

Snorre walked up the slope. His eyes wandered over the plain, searching for sheep in the distance. He glanced at the bare ridge that rose to the north of the estate. His gaze ran over the dry, almost sand-coloured patch of ground beneath the summit. The earth was puckered like old skin after the parching summer, full of cracks and ragged clumps which felt like stones beneath the soles of his shoes. He called Orækja's name and cursed. For an instant, he conjured up Orækja's mother. They'd only been together a few nights. When he'd visited her some months later, she'd put on weight. The last time Snorre had seen Orækja, at the house of his nephew Tumi, the atmosphere between father and son had been congenial, for once. Snorre wiped the sweat from his brow and went back inside, seated himself on the long bench, rested his elbows on the table, folded his hands and stared straight ahead.