Third Knot

RASK ROWED INTO THE CHOP of Kattegat, the shallow sea off Sweden’s coast.  His sloop wallowed low, weighed down by twenty-four bushels of rye.  Not a breath of wind stirred to aid him on his way.

Rask would gladly row all day, clear to the shores of Denmark, with such a sight to feast on as the one perched in the stern.

The loveliest woman he’d ever seen sat daintily atop her cargo of rye.  Skin pure as pearls, eyes the color of evening sky, a brow like seafoam.  Silvery hair billowed, though no wind blew.  Her gown shimmered with blue-green hues, bright as fish scales.

Rask’s heart beat giddy with delight.  He grinned like an idiot, pulled at the oars, ignored one wise corner of his mind.  She had promised a fine fare, but had never said how much.

“Here,” the woman said at last.  “We’ve come to my home.  Please unload.”

Rask glanced around at the smooth silky billows.  No land in sight.  “Unload?”

“Yes.  Just toss them overboard.”

That wise corner of his mind shouted warning, but Rask heard none of it over the happy thrumming of his heart.  One by one he hoisted the barrels over the sloop’s edge to plummet into the depths.

The woman stood amidships, smiling at Rask.  “For your payment, come with me.  Take my hand and jump.”

“Fool!” screamed the tiny voice of sense.

Rask jumped.

Without even a splash, he found himself, still at the woman’s side, in a great hall beneath the sea. 

“Is that you, Daughter?” queried an old man sitting upon a whalebone chair.  His eyes stared, blank, sightless.

“I’m home with the rye, Father,” she answered.

The blind man’s nostrils flared.  “I smell the blood of a Christian,” he grumbled.  “Come over here, man.  Let me finger wrestle with you.”

The woman whispered to Rask, “Hand over an anchor hook instead of your finger.”

Rask did as told, and barely managed to hang onto the anchor with both hands as the fellow wrenched with a giant’s strength.  The old man chuckled in defeat.  “Not bad, not bad at all.  Daughter, pay this fine skipper his due.”

The lovely woman gave Rask a handkerchief in which three knots had been tied.  “When you get into a lull,” she told him, “you can open one knot.  And if you want to go really fast, untie two knots, but never untie the third.”

Rask found himself back in his sloop, handkerchief in hand.  A breeze tugged at the sails and soon swept him home where he told the tale to any and all.

Not long after, he found himself becalmed with a heavy load of wares and an urge to hasten home.  Rask untied one knot in the handkerchief.

The sail filled with wind.

He opened the second, and the sloop sped so fast it made the water hiss.

He must have opened the third knot too, for nobody ever saw him again.


Tale from Rolfstorp, Halland, Sweden

19th century painting of a small sailing ship at sea in a strong wind
untitled painting, 1850, by Marcus Larson (1826-1864)

text: © 2021 Joyce Holt

artwork: 17th century paintings: in the public domain, according to these sources:

wikiart: “This artwork is in public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.”

wikipedia: “This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.”

{{PD-US-expired}} : published anywhere (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before 1926 and public domain in the U.S.

Wind and Windlass

from the diary of an accidental world traveler

“I HEAR YOU PRAYING!” Frederick yelled over the roar of the wind. “I thought you didn’t believe in God.”

“That was in calm weather,” the sailor shouted. “In a hurricane like this, everyone’s a believer!”

The deck tilted to port then bucked like a rearing horse. The two of them staggered but regained their stance, feet spread to brace themselves as they heaved all their might into cranking the bilge pump’s windlass.

The sailor jerked in alarm then craned his neck to look back along the clipper’s deck. At the other pump, seamen gathered, frantically checking out the windlass. The gale swallowed their curses.

“What’s wrong?” Frederick asked.

His crank-mate grimaced. “We just lost the other pump.”

Frederick gulped. “Will one alone handle the task?”

The sailor spit to the side, swore, and shook his head. “Not at the rate the old lady is leaking.”

The bosun’s whistle announced shift change, and Frederick gladly gave over his crank to another seaman. He groped along the lifeline leading to the hatch down to steerage, but his mate pounded him on the back. “Come into the galley for a swig.”

“I don’t drink rum.”

“Then a mug of water. I’ve a question for you.”

Frederick gratefully ducked inside. The galley was cramped, but not so cramped as steerage, and not crowded. No cook bustling around, preparing drab meals.

“You been to the gold fields?” the sailor asked.

Frederick nodded. “My brother and I both.” He unwrapped his hands, checked for new blisters, swayed to the dance of the fickle ship.

“Had any luck?”

Frederick grinned. “We found our share of dust. And a nugget or two.”

“Rich then, are you?”

“I was. Spent a rather large chunk on passage.”

“Don’t take that big a fortune to sail on the likes of the Leaky Lady.” The seaman’s gaze turned sly. “Still carrying some, I’m guessing.”

“Truth is,” Frederick said. “I paid passage for several of the others in my group.”

“You’ve still got a stash, don’t you? A hidden stash.”

“What makes you think that?”

The sailor dropped his gaze to Frederick’s neck. “That cord don’t stay as hidden as you want.”

Frederick felt for the leather thong. “Sharp eyes you have. Yes, here’s my gold poke.” He drew out the small leather bag. “But no gold. Just a few keepsakes from my days on Australia’s coast.” He dumped out several shell disks, none any larger than a tuppence.

“Useless fripperies!” The sailor snorted and headed out again.

As Frederick slid the fossils into the poke, the seaman stuck his head back in. “Cap’n says it’s no use. We’re heading back to Honolulu.”

“But we’ve paid passage to San Francisco!”

“Not on this ship, leaking all up and down the belly, both sides!”

19th century painting of a hurricane at sea
Hurricane at Sea,” 1850, by Ivan Aivazovsky (1817-1900)

Down in steerage, Frederick huddled with his brother and the others in their company, discouraged at another setback in their journey. The clipper had been leaking all the way from Melbourne.*

Worse news was coming. When they arrived back in Honolulu, the ship was declared unseaworthy and sold for scrap.

Many in the group, which included whole families, had spent their last penny on this voyage. Frederick slit the lining of his pantaloons and took out the nuggets he’d hidden there. One thousand dollars** worth, enough to pay passage to the States for the women and children.

Frederick, his younger brother, and the other men waved farewell from the docks in Honolulu, fated to spend a penniless year stranded in Hawaii.


* As Frederick recorded in his journal, “After five weeks of indescribable kind of times we put in in distress at the Sandwich Islands, the vessel so leaky she could hardly swim.”

After seven days in port there in Hawaii, they set out again, “supposing the vessel had been sufficiently repaired… We had a fair fine wind until we were clear of the land, then we lay eight days in a calm expecting the wind to blow again. Then one night it began, and increased against our fore quarters. From sunset until midnight it became almost a hurricane. This strained at the vessel until she leaked both sides of her worse than before. They kept the pumps working all night. At last one of them broke, but they kept one of them giving the water, 13 inches per hour. It was then concluded that the vessel was unseaworthy. Accordingly we put back to Honolulu.”

** According to family lore. (Frederick was an ancestor of the author: born on the Isle of Jersey in the English Channel, grew up in New Zealand, earned a fortune in the Australian gold fields, crossed the Pacific to Hawaii, then eventually on to San Francisco.)

text: © 2021 Joyce Holt

artwork: 19th century paintings: in the public domain, according to these sources:

wikiart: “This artwork is in public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.”

wikipedia: “This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.”

{{PD-US-expired}} : published anywhere (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before 1926 and public domain in the U.S.

Crows and Riddles

There was one time a child named Aslaug Sigurdsdotter, the daughter of a king. After the death of her royal parents, her foster father took her with him on a journey around the southern tip of Norway. They stopped overnight at Spangereid, a lonely coastal steading farmed by Åke and his wife Grima.

Åke was a cruel, devious, and greedy fellow. He murdered the wealthy traveller in his sleep, and took his goods. Stingy, cold-hearted Grima took the little orphan girl for a servant, setting her to the hardest work around the farm in the winter, and by summer, to herding goats up in the heights.

19th century painting of  Norwegian landscape
Hestmanden,” 1834, by Knud Baade (1827-1879)

During her years at Spangereid — garbed in rags, surviving on crusts and scraps, dodging blows and insults — Aslaug grew more and more lovely. Envious Grima didn’t want anyone to see how beautiful the maiden was, so she forbade her ever to bathe or comb out her hair.

One summer the weather turned terribly hot and dry. Herding goats all alone in the pastures above the treeline, Aslaug longed for relief from the blistering heat. When a noisy troop of crows flew overhead, she called out to them, ‘Come back! Come back, and give me shade!’

To her surprise, the flock wheeled around at once and returned, cawing up a storm. More crows came in answer to their calls, and more and more, circling and wheeling until the sky vanished behind the sweep of black wings, blocking out the sun and bringing a blessed coolness to the air.

Aslaug marveled. Had they come at her call? None but royalty had such power over birds and beasts!

19th century painting of crows over a field
detail from “Wheatfield with Crows,” 1890, by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)

So much for Åke and Grima’s claims that she’d been cast off by thieves. She had wondered why the two of them laughed so hard every time someone retold the mystery of the missing princess.

The tremendous congregation of crows broke apart at last, scattering in all directions — and leaving behind them a sky-spanning blanket of heavy black clouds that burst into torrents of rain.

In the miraculous downpour danced one golden-haired maiden of royal descent, a great burden lifted from her heart. From then on she took the name Aslaug Kråke — Aslaug Crow.


One day while Aslaug Kråke tended flocks on the heights above the fjord, she saw many great ships coming to land not far from Spangereid farm. From the ship banners, she knew this was the fleet of Ragnar Hairy Breeches, King of Denmark, one of the mightiest kings in all Europe, who went raiding in England every summer. What was he doing here in Agder,  the very southern tip of Norway?

Aslaug hurried down from the heights. In spite of Grima’s decree, she bathed, then combed the snarls out of her hair. With golden tresses floating about her like a cape, she walked toward the house.

King Ragnar’s cooks had come ashore to bake bread. They had seen Spangereid farm, and now came and asked to use the cookhouse. Grima agreed, telling them she had a girl who could help with the baking. She sent another servant to set Aslaug to the task.

When the golden-haired maiden entered the cookhouse, Ragnar’s cooks forgot their baking, stunned at the sight. They returned to the ships with blackened loaves and tales of unparalleled beauty.

Intrigued, the king decided he had to see the lovely maiden. If she was as ravishing as the cooks said, he might even take her to be his queen. He summoned the noblest of his men and sent them to the farm with a message for the maiden. But he wanted to find out if she was as clever as she was beautiful, and so the message contained a riddle.

King Ragnar said, ‘She shall come to me neither naked nor clothed, neither fasting nor full, and neither alone nor accompanied by a single other person.’

The messengers went up to the farm and delivered the message to Aslaug Kråke. She solved the riddle at once, and bade them take a message back to King Ragnar. The next morning, she told them, she would come to the king’s ship in just the manner he wished.

Early next morning, Aslaug rose and got herself ready. She wound a fishnet round and round herself, then combed out her golden hair to fall over the netting like a veil. Thus she was neither naked nor clothed.

She took one bite out of an onion. Thus she was neither fasting nor full.

Aslaug Kråke lured the big billy goat from the herd to follow her down to the beach. Thus she was neither alone nor accompanied by a single other person.

When Aslaug walked down the strand to water’s edge, the king called to her to come aboard at once. She hung back until he promised her complete safety, then stepped into the ship’s boat. Once aboard the king’s ship, Aslaug sat and talked with Ragnar until the sun went down. He delighted in her courteous speech and wise answers, and asked her to travel with him to England.

Aslaug said no. She told the king he must go to England without her, since he might have second thoughts. But when he returned, if he hadn’t changed his mind after such a journey, he could send for her.

King Ragnar sailed out from Spangereid then and set his course for England, but he couldn’t forget the girl robed in fishnets. He raided and he looted, but his heart wasn’t in it. With the viking season only half past, he upped anchor and set course for the Norse coast and the little harbor near Spangereid.


Aslaug Kråke watched every day from her lookout in the summer pastures. Watched all summer, never knowing if he would return. Now at last she saw the fleet coming up the sound, banners flying, and Ragnar standing in the prow of the leading ship.

She left the flocks and scurried down from the heights, her golden hair trailing like a banner of her own. She ran past the outbuildings of Spangereid farm. She dodged the grasp of Åke and Grima. “Murderers,” she called back at them as she splashed out into the shallows to meet the ship’s boat.

Ragnar welcomed Aslaug aboard. He bade her join him on his travels — and on his throne. She took his offer with grace and dignity as befitted a king’s daughter, a rightful legacy she could claim at last. Only now did she tell him her parentage.

She took her place beside him in the prow of the largest ship. The Danish fleet rowed out of Spangereid’s harbor, then swung about to skim southwards toward Denmark, with a sea wind filling the sails, fluttering the banners, and combing through Aslaug Kråke’s golden hair.


“kråke” means “crow” 

The tale of Aslaug Kråke appears in Snorri’s Edda, the Völsunga saga and the saga of Ragnar Lodbrok.

text: © 2021 Joyce Holt

artwork: 17th century paintings: in the public domain, according to these sources:

wikiart: “This artwork is in public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.”

wikipedia: “This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.”

{{PD-US-expired}} : published anywhere (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before 1926 and public domain in the U.S.

Angry Mountains

19th century painting of the Columbia River in Oregon, USA
The Columbia River, Oregon,” 1862, by Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902)

WOULD THE ARGUING NEVER END? Five-Quills shook her head in scorn at the follies of bickering youth. Day after day during the course of the river journey, she’d had to block out the squabbles, turning her thoughts inward.

Until the moment a quivering silence fell. The young men paddling the canoe broke rhythm, and the craft slowed against the current. The old woman looked up and followed their gaze.

The great bridge loomed not far ahead. The natural rock formation spanned the gorge in a rugged arch. One foot stood on the lowest slopes of Wy-east on the south bank while the other planted firmly on the foothills of Pah-to to the north.

It wasn’t the prospect of paddling beneath all that towering rock that now daunted the oarsmen, though it terrified many passengers. These young men had grown up on the river and passed through that dark channel on every trading trip. Nor did Five-Quills shiver at the thought. She too made this journey twice a year.

No, the young men stared not at the impressive bridge but at the heights to either side. Both mountains smoked, and thunder rumbled.

“The spirits go to war again,” Five-Quills said.

The smooth waters of Wimahl rippled, roiled. Trees lurched and swayed on the north bank. A landslide roared down one flank of Pah-to.

“We should turn back,” said one oarsman.

“We should make camp,” said the other, “and watch until it’s safe to go on.”

“Keep going!” Five-Quills called. “The spirits of the mountains are angry brothers. Like you, they’re more likely to go to battle than make peace any time soon. Paddle swiftly, before their rage grows worse.”

“Yes, Grandmother.” The young men attacked the water with their paddles, propelling the canoe forward. Five-Quills shifted her seat upon her stack of blankets, watching both banks. Rocks and dirt showered from the great bridge as they shot into the darkness beneath.

The oarsmen chanted under their breath. Five-Quills joined them. “Not this day,” they begged, united for once. “Don’t let today be the day.”

Shamans had prophesied the great stone span would fall. Most passengers debarked before the bridge and trekked by foot to the far side in fear of the eventual collapse.

That would take too long.  Five-Quills never before took the fearful route, and certainly wouldn’t today. She and her grandsons needed to speed past this dangerous stretch.

The canoe burst out into daylight – daylight dimmed by thunderheads darkening the sky. The waters of Wimahl heaved and bucked. To the right, Wy-east quaked in fury. The mountain gave a great shout – and shot fire from its peak, bombarding Pah-to with a hail of hot boulders.

Five-Quills hunkered, covering her head as debris peppered the waters. Her grandsons rowed like madmen, and the dueling mountains slowly fell behind.

Now Pah-to erupted, aiming its wrath across the river at Wy-east.

“I think we should stay a moon or two among our upriver friends,” one oarsman said.

“No! Stay all winter,” the other argued.

Five-Quills looked back. Spears of fire stabbed from one peak to the other, veiled by roiling smoke and ash. “A moon or two,” she decided. “The whole winter? Perhaps.”

* * *

The trading went well. Five-Quills had brought thick, white dog-wool blankets from the Quinault tribe, and whale meat from the Tillamook. She gained a basket of the sharpest obsidian blades and pots full of the finest red and yellow ochers.

At last she and her grandsons set out on the passage downriver.

“We should have gone home sooner,” complained one grandson.

“We should have stayed the whole winter,” argued the other.

“Huddled inside a hide shelter during the bitter cold and snow? You’re a fool!”

“Better that than getting burned alive by quarreling peaks!”

“Hush!” Five-Quills ordered. “You two are as bad as the mountain spirits!”

“Speaking of mountains,” the first said, gazing around.

“Shouldn’t we be there by now?” asked the second.

“I see Wy-east!” one said, pointing to the southwest. The peak stood against the sky – but far from the riverside.

“And there is his brother!” said the other, pointing northeast. Even further away, Pah-to looked dim with distance.

“Torn from their roots!” Five-Quills marveled as the canoe approached the gorge. The foothills huddled barren and scorched and raw. They no longer upheld the ramparts of the great bridge – for there was no bridge.

Ahead the river roared. It leaped and dashed from bank to bank in a stairway of rapids, the waters churning around masses of stone that had once arched over a smooth current. The oarsmen whipped at the waters, veering from one peril to another. The canoe groaned and scraped and banged, taking on water. Five-Quills bailed, muttering prayers.

At last the gorge opened out and the roaring river quieted. Five-Quills looked back at the torn landscape.

“What happened?” one grandson asked, his voice shaking.

Five-Quills twisted her mouth. “I think the Great Spirit could stand the arguing no longer.” She gave each grandson a glance sharp as her new obsidian blades.

“Let’s go home,” one said.

“Yes,” agreed the other in meek harmony. “Home.”


Story based on legends among the Chinook, who held lands along the middle and lower stretches of the Columbia River (Wimahl, or “Big River”). The rapids in the gorge vanished beneath calmer waters after locks were built in 1896, and a dam in the 1930’s. White settlers renamed Pah-to as Mount Adams (in Washington state), and Wy-east as Mount Hood (in Oregon).


text: © 2021 Joyce Holt

artwork: 17th century paintings: in the public domain, according to these sources:

wikiart: “This artwork is in public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.”

wikipedia: “This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.”

{{PD-US-expired}} : published anywhere (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before 1926 and public domain in the U.S.

Three Gifts

JOHAN SAW FIRELIGHT on an island he thought uninhabited. He steered his skiff to shore, ready to barter with any hunter or hermit he might find. Everyone welcomes the traveling tinker.

19th century painting of a skiff offshore
Nocturnal Voyage,” by Marcus Larson (1826-1864)

A good thing for him the island’s resident had already finished supper. The old troll sat picking at his teeth, the bones of two seals and a walrus tossed aside. “You look a tasty morsel,” the ogre growled, “but for now I merely hunger for news. What do you hear from Smörkullen?”

Knees knocking, Johan raked his memory for gossip. “B-butter Knoll? The flocks and herds are thriving, I hear. Not losing so many to preda- preda- predators.” He gulped.

The troll grumbled. “Good mutton and beef. Miss that, I do.”

“They’ve finally finished walling in the graveyard behind the church.”

“Does that blasted ‘bell cow’ still ring at dawn and dusk and every hour in between?”

“Ah, ja. The church bell does toll many times during the day.”

The troll bared his fangs. “I hated that clamor. Drove me away, you know. Why they had to build that pile of stone in my neighborhood–” He growled and gnashed teeth.

“There’s to be a wedding.” Johan bit off that bit of gossip. Weddings happen at churches, after all, and would involve a great clanging of bells.

“Astrid?” bellowed the troll, lurching to his feet and scattering carcasses.

“Ja!” Johan cowered back. “You know her?”

“Know her? Know her!” the troll bellowed. “Should have been a wedding long ago. But she wouldn’t have me.” He stomped away, scuffed and knocked about in the dark.

Johan edged aside, glancing down the shingle to his skiff. Could he outrun the troll?

The ogre lumbered back into the firelight. “Take these,” he snarled, holding out a bag. “A necklace for Astrid. Give her my best wishes. A box to place on the church altar. And a small chest with seeds. Tell the folk of Smörkullen to plant them in their best field. Take them. Take them!” he roared.

Johan took the bag and pelted down to the beach.

Back at Smörkullen’s town green, Johan related the terrible encounter. He emptied the bag.

The glittering necklance he fingered for a moment. Give it to the bride? Not on his life! Johan tied it around the oak tree near the church.

The oak wrenched from the ground and flew up into the air, sailing off in the direction of the troll’s island.

Put the little box on the altar? Never! Johan set it on a stone at the top of Butter Knoll.

It burst into flames.

Johan planted the seeds in a weedy field at the edge of town.

Seeds sprouted. Up grew a hundred troll heads, with shoulders coming right behind. Everyone in the village took a scythe and cut them all to the ground.

Johan never again visited a lonely island, no matter how the firelight beckoned.


folktale from Skrea, Halland, Sweden, retold by Joyce Holt

text: © 2021 Joyce Holt

artwork: 19th century paintings: in the public domain, according to these sources:

wikiart: “This artwork is in public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.”

wikipedia: “This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.”

{{PD-US-expired}} : published anywhere (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before 1926 and public domain in the U.S.

Disaster in Delft

ANNA, COME SEE!” rang a voice from the attic.  “They’re trying to fly!”

Anna wiped a plate and stacked it with the other white-glazed crockery from dinner.  “They’re not old enough,” she called back.  “They’ve just fledged.”

“But they’re flapping like–”  Another roll of thunder drowned his words.

Anna hung her apron on a hook and scuttled up the steep stairs to the attic.

Wim hung half out the dormer window, craning to peer down onto the neighbor’s roof. 

Anna wedged in beside him.  The east wind whipped her face as she peered.  In a chimney-top nest, four large storklings jostled about, wings flailing.  “They’re afraid of the thunder,” Anna told her brother.  “When you were little, thunderstorms scared you to tears, too.”

They both clapped hands over their ears at another deafening boom.

“They need their mama,” Wim said. “Where is she?”

“Out visiting her neighbors, I suppose,” Anna said.  “Just like ours.”

17th century painting of Delft townscape beside a canal
detail of “View of Delft,” around 1660, by Johannes Vermeer (1653-1675)

The angry clouds stabbed a spear of lightning at the wooden steeple of New Church, just two canals away.  Both Anna and Wim shrieked at the blast that pounded their ears–and at the sight of flames bursting along the steeple.  Storm winds fanned the fire into a blazing fury.  In moments, sparks leaped to the next building.

Anna watched in horror as the fire devoured the steeple and spread across the town of Delft.

Wim gave a cheer.  “Mama Stork!  She came home for her babies!”

A great white bird sailed down from the tempest and settled over her lanky brood.  The stork’s long red beak clacked in alarm as she faced into the spark-laden east wind.

“She should carry them away one by one,” Wim said, “like the mama cat did with her kittens when it flooded.”

Anna shook her head.  “They’re too big to carry.  Too young to fly.  They’re trapped.”

“She won’t fly away and leave them, will she?”

Anna worried more about their own fate.  The firestorm had leaped over one canal.  Would it reach their own house? 

She cocked her head.  “Listen.  It sounds like Mama.”

Wim stretched out the window in the opposite direction.  “I see her, down on the street.  She’s running home!  I’ve never seen her run like that!”

Anna pulled him inside, thinking fast.  “Go get your coat and clogs.  I just remembered. Mama said something about visiting Opa at his farm.  Hurry!”

Downstairs, Anna and her mother gathered the family’s few treasures while Wim chattered happily about going to grandpa’s farm.  Anna noticed smudges on her mother’s gown, and a burn on her arm.  Had she run through the fire to get home to her children?

As they scurried down the canal-street, Anna snatched one last look up at the chimney-nest.  Mama stork had spread her wings to cover her fledglings.  Ashes and soot speckled her feathers as she hunkered down to wait out the firestorm, risking her life for her young ones.


Based on a disastrous event in Delft, Netherlands, on May 3, 1536.

text: © 2021 Joyce Holt

artwork: 17th century paintings: in the public domain, according to these sources:

wikiart: “This artwork is in public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.”

wikipedia: “This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.”

{{PD-US-expired}} : published anywhere (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before 1926 and public domain in the U.S.

Watery Waste

KELLINGIN GLANCED AT STARS OVERHEAD.  “Better hurry,” she told her husband.  “Night half-gone already.”

Risin grunted but picked up his pace, sloshing through chest-deep water.  He carried an immense coil of rope over his hulking shoulder.  The loose end trailed along behind him, bobbing on the waves as if dancing with his hairy tail.

Kellingin carried a bag of cattle for their dinner.  She trudged along in Risin’s wake.  “What you muttering?”

“Iceland be big enough for all us jotuns.  Why do chief-trolls think we need more islands?”

Kellingin rolled her eyes.  “Remember tribal war-cry.”

Risin shuffled through memory.  “More, more, more,” he rumbled at last, then snorted.  “More cattle, ja.  More ale, ja.  More walk, walk, walk?  Gives me sore foots.  We lost yet?”

Kellingin peered across the watery waste.  She pointed.  “There be islands.”

The two jotuns hiked another league through the sea.  The closest spit of land jutted northward like the prow of a monstrous ship.

“Now what?” Risin asked.

“I see knob for tying rope,” Kellingin said, looking up the cliff.  “There.  On top.”

Risin followed her gaze. “Hunh,” he said, scratching his chin. 

Kellingin waited, tapping her toe, sending a tidal race up the nearby waterways.  Must tow this island back to Iceland under cover of darkness. Woe to any troll grazed by the sun’s deadly beams.

Risin’s gaze remained blank.

“Pah!” Kellingin gusted at last.  She snatched the rope from Risin and clawed her way up the cliff.  Around the highest spur of rock she looped the heavy rope made from walrus hide.  She cinched it tight with all her strength.

Stone cracked.  The knob broke off and fell into the sea, narrowly missing Risin’s head.

Kellingin lashed around another spur, then tossed the coil of rope back down to her husband.  “Pull!” she yelled.

Risin hauled on the rope.

The spit of land groaned, but held fast to the seabed.

“Yank left, then right!” Kellingin called down.  “Break it loose!”

Risin howled with his efforts, but the island refused to give way.

“You brag you strongest of Iceland’s jotuns,” Kellingin hooted.  “Can’t move one itty bitty spitty?”

“Itty bitty spitty with big fat troll-wife sitting tops.”

“I do climbing.  You do pulling.”

Risin snarled and threw his weight into the rope.

The island lurched, then settled back into place.

Kellingin rolled her eyes in disgust, then whirled to face east.  The sky was growing light.  “Morning comes!” she shrieked, and scrambled down the cliff.

19th century painting of a wild seascape at dawn.
The Ninth Wave,” 1850, by Ivan Aivazovsky (1817-1900)

Risin dropped the rope and staggered about, staring at the brilliant colors rising from land and sea.  “Hurry!” he barked.  “Back to Iceland.”

“No time, you lackwit!” Kellingin cried, leaping to his side, each step sending a gout of water into the air.  “Into shadow of cliff!”

“Iceland!” he roared.

“Cliff!” she shrieked, yanking on his arm.

Risin broke free and took a step away from the island.

The sun slithered up from the edge of the world, stabbed shafts of light, and turned the two trolls to stone.


A tale from the Faeroe Islands, about the origins of the seastacks Risin and Kellingin (Giant and Wife) below cliffs at the north end of Eysturoy Island.

text: © 2021 Joyce Holt

artwork: 19th century paintings: in the public domain, according to these sources:

wikiart: “This artwork is in public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.”

wikipedia: “This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.”

{{PD-US-expired}} : published anywhere (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before 1926 and public domain in the U.S.

Peril in the Alps

BERNARD de MENTHON LED THE MULE through the hospice courtyard back to the stables. Its newly-shod hooves left crisp crescent shapes in the snow.

Brother Giroldus trudged out to meet him, cloaked against the cold.

“Where are those Italian travelers?” Bernard asked, glancing around. “They were chafing to be on their way. I thought they’d mob me as soon as I reappeared.”

The other Augustinian monk wrung his hands. “They left. I tried to stop them, but–“

“What?!” Bernard cried.

“They said they would follow the path-poles over the pass. They said their first crossing had been easy enough — they could surely find their way back on their own.”

“In July, yes, but not now in September!”

“That’s what I told them.”

“When did they leave?”

“At noon.”

Bernard studied the heavy clouds overhead. A couple hours of daylight left. They’d departed at noon. Time enough to get to the travelers’ shelter near the summit.

If they knew where to find it.

If they kept out of the path of avalanches.

Poeninus Pass bore an evil name here in the high Alps. It was safe for crossing only a month or two out of the year, and that window had already closed for this troupe of inexperienced travelers from the sun-blessed south.

Bernard thrust the mule’s lead rope into Giroldus’ grasp. “Stable him. Bring out the horn-sled. I’ll fetch a lantern and my skis.”

“You can’t go after them alone, surely!”

“There’s no time to gather a search party. I’m their only hope. And I won’t be alone.” Bernard whistled.

A big shaggy mastiff lumbered from the stables.

“If tragedy has already befallen those foolish southerners,” Bernard said, shaking his head at the likely prospect, “Vitellius here will track them down.”

19th century painting of a snowy landscape in the Alps
Rückkehr Vom Wald,” 1890, by Giovanni Segantini (1858-1899)

Brother Bernard, founder of hospice and monastery, set out with a swish of skis, towing the blanket-laden horn-sled behind him. Vitellius plowed ahead, russet-brown against the snow, tail wagging, heavy jowls flapping with every bound.

The monk sped swiftly along. After all the times he had guided pilgrims and traders across the treacherous pass, he hardly needed to watch for the guiding poles that jutted up out of drifts which grew ever deeper.

No sign of the Italians. Fresh snow covered their tracks.

Mountains reared to one side. A gorge fell away on the other.

The trail grew ever more dangerous as daylight dimmed. Wind knifed in the monk’s face, threatening death for anyone stranded in the open, whether naive pilgrim or experienced mountain-man.

Bernard slowed where a wall of snow blocked the path. An avalanche had just swept down from the heights, its fringes still tumbling. Had it swept the Italians to death? “Find, Vitellius!” Bernard cried, voice cracking in despair. “Find!”

The mastiff leaped and scrambled up the slope and across, head low, eagerly following a fresh scent. Near the end of his strength, Bernard struggled after, dragging the horn-sled, holding aloft his lantern with one shaking arm.

Somewhere ahead, hidden by gloom and whirling snow, Vitellius woofed.

Moments later, Bernard skied into a dell where the Italians huddled, faces pale as frost as they showered the tail-wagging mastiff with welcome.

Utter relief shone in their eyes when Bernard skidded to a halt in their midst. “You’re a saint, signore!” they cried to the weary monk.

“Come,” said Bernard, shaking with cold. “Shelter ahead. Follow me.”


19th century painting of a snowy landscape in the Alps
detail of “Death,” 1899, by Giovanni Segantini (1858-1899)

High in the Alps between Switzerland and Italy, Poeninus Pass (so called in Roman times) later came to be known as Great Saint Bernard Pass.

The first St Bernard dogs didn’t join in rescue efforts at the pass until the 1660s, much later than AD 1050, the setting of this tale.

The name “horn sled” refers to the shape of the runners, curling up at the front like a ram’s horn. Meticulous sanding and waxing of the wooden runners enables them to skid smooth as an otter across crusted snow.

text: © 2021 Joyce Holt

artwork: 19th century paintings: in the public domain, according to these sources:

wikiart: “This artwork is in public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.”

wikipedia: “This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.”

{{PD-US-expired}} : published anywhere (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before 1926 and public domain in the U.S.

Vile Eileiv

FOUR DARK TALES from TELEMARK, NORWAY

1: Bewitched

NEAR MIDNIGHT, when everyone else in the Finnish wisewoman’s tent heaved the heavy breath of sleep, Eileiv rose. Silently he dressed. Silently he took from hiding his pack. Silently he made his way outside into bitter cold.

He took his skis from the wall, strapped in, headed off by starlight. He exhaled a cloud of triumph. He had what he’d come for, after two long years of toiling for the reindeer-folk, winning their trust, gaining the promise of a bride.

Eileiv sniggered. They had believed him! Who in their right mind would want to marry hulking, wobble-cheeked Snaefrid? A chieftain’s daughter, indeed she was – but in a puny tribe of nomads. Strong and healthy – but old enough to be his aunt. Wise in the ways of the Finns – but uglier than Eileiv himself.

They had believed him.

She had believed him.

He laughed to remember her blush at his flattery. She never wondered why he asked so many questions about spells and enchantments. He had learned so much more from her, the silly woman, than from the cautious wiseman of her tribe.

He had learned enough magic to make himself an enviable position back home. What power he could wield over proper, God-fearing Norse-folk! His laugh rang over the tundra.

19th century painting of a snowy mountain scene
Stedind in Fog,” 1864, by Peder Balke (1804-1887)

The snowy trail quivered underfoot. The world whirled around Eileiv. Stars spun in the sky. His ears rang with the sound of a chant, Finnish words, thunderous sorcery befuddling his mind. Terror flared in his heart, spurring him to leap ahead and ski with wild abandon. He’d thought himself safely out of reach. He must escape!

Skimming over the crest of a slope, he saw torchlight in the dale below. Refuge, perhaps, from these demons of the night. Eileiv sailed down the last hillside, skidded to a stop, and fell to his knees, legs so weak he could no longer stand.

He gazed up – into the face of Snaefrid.

She glowered down at him. “Where are you going?” she asked, her voice softer than moss but thrumming like a waterfall.

“Home!” he bleated before he could command his tongue to lie.

“This was to be your home. Why are you leaving?”

“To set myself up as a wiseman in the south.” Eileiv clapped a hand over his mouth, too late to stop the truth from spilling out at her bidding.

“And how wise do you think you are?” Snaefrid’s wrath rose like smoke. Her eyes shone in the night.

“Not half so wise as you, my love!” Eileiv cried, suddenly aware of the doom poised to crash down upon him.

“Half?” She swelled against the stars. Snaefrid the crafty, the wise, powerful beyond his imagining.

“Not a tenth, not even a tenth!” How foolish he’d been to challenge her! In desperation, Eileiv promised never again to betray his betrothed.

His silken words brought Snaefrid back from the brink of vengeance. She released the magical bridle, but corraled him back into the daily tasks of her tribe.

Eileiv knew that if he valued his life and sanity, he must keep that promise – at least until he became her equal in witchery, until he learned all she knew. And that, he vowed, he would do however many years it took.


years later, back home in Telemark…


2: Reek

EILEIV CORNERED HIS PREY in the cookhouse. “You’ve been avoiding me, Anna,” he scolded.

The serving girl kept sweeping. “Ja, that I have. I need this job.”

“You don’t serve Old Gunnar every hour of the day. In the evenings, you are mine.”

“No more, I’m not! I’ve heard stories—”

“Stories!” Eileiv scoffed. “Many stories follow me like echoes, and many more to come.”

“I hear the law was after you. For sorcery.” Anna backed away, shaking her head.

“You knew I dabbled.”

“Didn’t know the lensmann had dragged you to court for it!”

“That’s past. I watch what I say these days. Choose my customers more carefully. The sheriff has nothing on me these days. Come. Give me a kiss.”

The serving girl brandished the broom. “Never again. Look elsewhere for your thrills, you troll. I’ll have no more of you.” She strutted out the door.

Eileiv fumed. Jilted by a fluttery-minded wench! He stomped out after her, but she’d already passed through a cluster of other hired laborers near the pigsty, and many of them now gazed his way. His voice, he realized. He hadn’t bothered to keep it low. They’d all heard the quarrel, and her scathing words.

“This farmstead reeks,” he growled. “Pigs and muck and fools and all.” He blustered into the haybarn, bundled his belongings, knocked over all tools within reach, and thundered outside.

In the barn’s lee sat a row of wooden shoes, ready for muck-work. Eileiv recognized Anna’s clogs. His cheek twitched. “‘No more of me,’ eh? We’ll see about that!” He muttered under his breath words he’d learned from the Finnish wisewoman far in the north, then spat into Anna’s wooden shoes.

As he turned to leave, not bothering to give his employer notice, he caught sight of those idlers still loitering in the farmyard. “Tell Anna farewell for me,” he bellowed. He set out on the path through the forest, seeking his fortune elsewhere.

19th century painting of a woodland path
Woodpecker,” 1900, by Theodor Severin Kittelsen (1857-1914)

Not tonight, though. Perhaps he’d seek a position tomorrow. He had other plans for this evening.

Soon enough Eileiv heard what he expected: footsteps pattering after him, breath panting with desire. He chuckled. The silly fool was in his grasp. No escaping this enchantment. The sorcerous spittle bound her to his wishes. He set down his bundle, turned and opened his arms, ready to take Anna’s embrace.

From a veil of undergrowth pelted a pale shape, snuffling joyously to have traced this glorious scent. A pig. A large, muddy-bellied sow.

Those oafs had seen him spit! And had given Anna’s clogs to the pig! The grunting creature licked its blubbery snout with delight.

Eileiv dodged and darted, frantically chanting the Finnish words that would break the spell. The sow at last halted her charge, and shuffled in the path one way then another, befuddled and blinking her squinty eyes.

Eileiv stormed out from behind a tree, cursing and yelling. He smacked the pig across the face for good measure. “Slink off home,* you wretch! You’re not the one meant to come!*”

* dialogue taken straight from the folktale; tale from Bø, Telemark, Norway


3: Knack

AS THE JUDGE SETTLED HIMSELF behind the table of judgment, the local clerk said, “Welcome to the province, Your Honor. You look in fine fettle today.”

“A good morning it is,” said the judge, his jovial voice booming from the walls of the packed chamber. Circuit court was always welcome diversion out in the remote fringes of the provinces.

19th century painting of a distinguished gentleman
Sketch to Portrait of Georg Brandes,” by Peder Severin Kroyer (1851-1909)

The judge surveyed the respectful faces arrayed around him. “A few cases to settle, peace to restore — perhaps even a little amusement before we get started with the business of Ting. You there, burly fellow at the back, I know your ugly face. What’s your name?”

Eileiv swaggered through the crowd and gave answer.

“The Enchanter,” someone jeered.

Eileiv bowed as if at a compliment.

“You were up last year, weren’t you? Ah ja, that case of spreading false rumors.”

“I was found not guilty,” Eileiv stated.

“Only because your victims let slip about their criminal intent.” The judge aimed a finger of blame. “A man of any worth speaks truth at all times.”

Eileiv shrugged. “I only lie to despicable characters, those so greedy that they’ll believe anything I say.*”

“Old Halvor could have pressed charges, what with you sending treasure hunters onto his property.”

“He knew it was all a joke.”

“All a joke? Even the part about your knack for–” the judge hunched forward and waggled his fingers in mockery– “seeing the unseeable?”

Eileiv shrugged one shoulder, knowing better than to fall into this trap. He’d learned the hard way. Practicing witchcraft was a crime.

“Was there truly buried treasure in the old mound?” the judge persisted.

“If there was, I’m sure Halvor dug it up as soon as Ting was over.”

The judge snorted in ridicule. “You claimed to spy hidden treasure from afar. Charlatan! If you truly have such a knack, then tell me my fortune. Special dispensation. Go ahead. Work sorcery here for all to see. There will be no penalty.”

Bystanders snickered.

“Your fortune,” Eileiv repeated. “What is to come, or what has already passed?”

“Either one.” The judge sat back, crossing his arms and smirking.

Eileiv leaned on the Ting table, probing the judge with a stare that made the man squirm despite himself. At last the Enchanter spoke to the crowd, though he still gazed eye to eye with the skeptic. “The judge laid with his serving girl before he set out today, and they agreed to meet back at the same place when he returns home.*”

Whoops and catcalls echoed from the chamber walls while the judge’s face turned crimson.

“Is it true, old man?” someone asked, pounding the judge on the back.

The fellow sat there, lips growing tighter and tighter.

“A man of any worth speaks truth at all times,” Eileiv said, feeding back to the judge his own words.

“I don’t answer to you!” the judge hissed so none but Eileiv could hear, then he roared, “Ting in session! Bring forth the first case.” He slammed his hammer.

Eileiv backed away, grinning his hideous grin. The judge would never again make him the butt of any joke.

* dialogue straight from the folktale


19th century painting of a snowy farmyard
Winter on the Isle of Stord,” 1890, by Frits Thaulow (1847-1906)

4: Under the Snow

ALL THE LONG WAY TO SAUHERAD, Knut Rauland thought his heart would break. He’d never before known such piercing distress.

At sundown he skied into the farmyard of the man he sought, took off his skis, and knocked on the door.

Eileiv the Enchanter took his time in answering, then looked down his nose at the visitor.

“Please, I beg you, will you scry for me?” Knut said. “My little boy went out skiing three days ago, and we can’t find him anywhere. The wind blew away all tracks. We’re frantic! Please help us!”

Eileiv grunted. “Not today. Come back tomorrow and I’ll do it for you.”

“I’m a stranger in your parish,*” Knut said. “I don’t know where I can find lodging overnight.* May I stay here at Sauherad?”

“No. Go away. Come back tomorrow.” Eileiv turned to go in.

“May I just sit on a chair by your hearth?*”

“No.” The door slammed.

Knut shivered. The sun had gone down. Twilight wouldn’t last long. He saw the curtain twitch at a window. The Enchanter was watching.

Knut strapped on his skis and set off downhill, out of the farmyard, his hopes as cold as the night wind. He slowed, stopped. Up a side path lay Sauherad’s cowbarn, its rear entry out of sight of the cabin. Knut halted a moment, debating.

The topic of an outbuilding hadn’t come up. Eileiv hadn’t forbidden him to shelter there. “He won’t even know,” Knut told himself and made his stealthy way to the barn. He knelt and poured out his sorrows in prayer, then dug himself a nest in the straw and curled up for the night.

A shrill whistle woke him. Knut sat up and looked through a chink in the logs at the farmyard lit by starlight.

Eileiv stood in his doorway, hands on hips, his breath smoking. After a long silence he whistled again.

A faint echo answered from far away, followed by a terrible whining and roar in the air. Out of nowhere, a stranger appeared, standing beside Eileiv in the doorway.

“Why didn’t you come the first time I whistled?*” Eileiv complained.

“There was a murder in Copenhagen I had to help with.*”

“There was a man here today, asking after a little boy who had gone missing a few days ago,*” said Eileiv. “Tell me. Where is the brat?”

“He’s lying under a snowslide, a rifle-shot west of the house.*”

“Fine. I’ll tell the fellow in the morning.”

“No need to wait. The man lies down in your haybarn and hears each word we speak.*”

Knut gasped. How could he know? Must be some kind of demon!

Eileiv growled. “Ja? Go down and tear him to bits immediately!*”

Knut froze, terrified at thought of the horrible death about to strike—

The stranger shook his head. “I don’t have the power to do so.* He has laid himself down in God’s name, not in the devil’s name!*”

Knut shook out all his limbs, leaped for his skis, and slid swiftly into the night.

When he reached home, he dug into the snowslide west of his house. There he found the crumpled body of his son, right where the demon had said.

*dialogue straight from the folktale; tale from Raulandstrond, Telemark

19th century painting of skiers in the snow
Skiers,” ca 1886, by Frits Thaulow (1847-1906)

text: © 2021 Joyce Holt

artwork: 19th century painting: in the public domain, according to these sources:

wikiart: “This artwork is in public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.”

wikipedia: “This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.”

{{PD-US-expired}} : published anywhere (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before 1926 and public domain in the U.S.

By Gosh

19th century painting of Wind River Canyon, Wyoming
Wind River, Wyoming,” ca 1870, by Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902)

“Hey Ken, look!” I dumped my end of the cedar log and pointed downhill. “Someone just pulled up behind your truck.”

Wind River Canyon sloped so steeply we had a clear view of Ken’s rusty old Ford hundreds of yards below us. A sedan had angled to the side of the road. Now the driver got out and circled Ken’s truck.

“He better not be stealing my tires!” Ken growled.

We both took off running. I was six years younger and a bit faster. I pelted downhill, darting around sagebrush, skidding down gravelly inclines.

The guy behind the truck heard my approach. He didn’t take off in guilt, though. He crossed his arms and glared. It was the game warden.

“I spied you two up there,” he barked. “Poaching a deer. Caught you red-handed.”

“Deer?”

“Hah! Don’t play innocent with me, young man. I saw the carcass you were hauling along.”

Ken arrived, out of breath.

I turned to him. “He thinks he saw us hauling a mule deer carcass!” I burst out laughing.

Ken grinned. “Howdy, Joe. Got another carcass in the back of the truck, under that tarp. Take a look.”

The warden lifted a corner, grunted, and spat in the dusty road. “What you want with old twisted cedar trunks?”

“Fetching ’em down for Norval here. Supplies for his business.”

The warden scowled at me. “How old are you, boy?”

“Fourteen.”

“You got a — business?” He leaned hard on the last word.

“Yup. I make bowls and lamp stands out of cedar wood. I sand ’em and wax ’em, and they turn out pertier than anything you can buy in town.”

The game warden stared.

“I got a lathe,” I went on. “I turn wood. Make buttons and beads, too.”

Joe snorted. “That’s the stuff your brother Phil has for sale in his service station?”

“Yup.”

“Where’d you get a lathe? I thought you folks were hard up.”

“Made the lathe myself. Whenever Dad takes a load of firewood to town, we scout the town dump. Surprising what people throw out. All it took was an old bed frame, a bicycle tire, and a motor from a broken washing machine.”

The warden’s eyebrows shot up. “By gosh and by golly!” He snorted a laugh. “I’ll let you get on with your, ah, poaching.” He jerked a thumb toward the hillside and turned for his car, calling back over his shoulder, “By the way, you better tell Phil his electrical is failing at the service station. It was blinking up a storm last time I was in. Don’t want to start a fire.”

He slammed the car door, started up the engine, then cranked down his window. “Wait a moment. I never saw no power lines running along the canyon road. Where’s Phil get his electricity?”

I shrugged. “Dad salvaged a Pelton wheel from an abandoned mine, and rigged it in the creek to generate power for us and those five cabins by the station. We gotta be careful with it, though. Two people can’t run washing machines on the same day or it’ll trip the old electric range burner that serves as regulator.”

“By gosh!” The warden arched his brows, shook his head in wonderment, and drove off.


A dramatized account from the life of the author’s father, who grew up in rural Wyoming during the Great Depression. His own father, while a true son of the Old West — horse and buggy, Long Tom shotgun, cowboy drawl, and all — was a certified steam engine operator (large farm machinery) and a clever mechanic whose ingenuity, skills, and makeshift inventions eased the difficulties of those disastrous years.

text: © 2021 Joyce Holt

artwork: 19th century painting: in the public domain, according to these sources:

wikiart: “This artwork is in public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.”

wikipedia: “This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.”

{{PD-US-expired}} : published anywhere (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before 1926 and public domain in the U.S.