Carter, Montana 1886.
Sissel Hemstad is the youngest sister in a family with a secret. An ancient Viking magic called the Nytte runs in their blood, and each of her siblings has inherited powers. Her sister Hanne is a Berserker, gifted with a supernatural ability to kill when someone she loves is in danger. Older brother Stieg is a Storm-Rend and can control the weather, while younger brother Knut is an Oar-Breaker, given extraordinary strength. Sissel herself has manifested no gift, and it’s a source of pain for her. It doesn’t help matters that she has a limp and suffers from poor health.
The Hemstad siblings, along with Hanne’s fiancé Owen, are living on a farm outside a small town, trying to stay out of trouble when Ransacker—the companion novel to Emmy Laybourne’s historical fantasy Berserker—begins. Read an excerpt from Chapter Two below.
The next day was Saturday. Sissel thought she would help preserve the rest of the tomatoes, but Hanne wouldn’t let her near the stove.
Her sister fished the empty, sterilized jars out from the boiling water with a pair of wooden spoons and filled them with the stewed fruit. Her shirtsleeves were rolled up, and her face was flushed and sweaty.
“I don’t remember last July being so hot, do you?” Hanne asked. “Owen says it’s good weather for the wheat. That may be, but it’s bad weather for kitchen work, and yet it must be done.”
“I wish you’d let me help,” Sissel said.
“Just sit, Sissel. Sit and rest and tell me about school to keep me entertained,” Hanne said. “Has Howie asked Alice to the dance yet?” There was a leading, playful tone in Hanne’s voice. Sissel knew where this was going.
“No,” Sissel said. “None of the boys have asked any of the girls yet.”
“What on earth are they waiting for?” Hanne said. “It’s just a few weeks away!”
Hanne wanted Sissel to talk about her beau, James Peavy. All her siblings seemed fascinated by him.
Maybe they were all wondering what James saw in their frail little sister. Sissel certainly wondered herself.
“Abigail Masterson has a new dress,” Sissel said. “It’s a coral-colored poplin with full hoop skirts. She looked like a great pink cloud. I suppose all the girls will now copy the fashion.”
“When the wheat comes in, we could make you a dress like that,” Hanne said.
“We’ll make you a wedding dress when the wheat comes in. And if you wish it to have hoop skirts, that’s your own mistake!” Sissel replied. Hanne smiled at that.
“We’re probably better off without them,” Hanne said. “I hear they are very inconvenient.”
“I hear just the opposite,” Sissel said.
“One can hide things under them… like a butter churn. Or a small child.”
Hanne let out a distinctly unladylike snort of laughter.
“I’d like to see that!” Hanne said.
“I bet you could fit a cannon under a full hoop skirt,” Sissel said. “Only how could you hold it between your knees?”
“Sissel!” Hanne said, laughing so hard she had to dab tears from her eyes.
That made Sissel feel better. Maybe she couldn’t help much with the chores, but at least she could make her sister laugh.
“You can make fun of hoop skirts all you like, little sister, however”—Hanne turned from the stove and leveled her wooden spoon at Sissel—“you need a new dress. The Ladies’ Aid dance will be here soon. And James Peavy is sure to ask you.”
“He hasn’t asked me, though,” Sissel said.
“I know. But he will,” Hanne said. “He wouldn’t come around visiting all the time, and bringing you candy from the store, and mooning over you—”
“Shhh!” Sissel said.
“What will you wear?” Hanne said.
“I will wear my church dress,” Sissel said.
“No. It’s too old.”
“Then I’ll wear yours.”
What would it be like to dance with James? Sissel imagined his hands set down low on her back, and felt a blush spreading across her face. She picked at the fabric of the white shirt she wore. It clung to her neck with a thin layer of perspiration.
“I’ll meet you in town after school on Monday. We can go to the Oswalds’ shop, and Alice will help us pick out a good fabric,” Hanne said.
Stieg strode in. He had four eggs in his hands.
“I found some eggs, Sister,” Stieg said, holding them out to Hanne. “Some of the chickens are hiding them near the cow’s bedding.”
“Set them in the basket, please,” Hanne said. “I’m in tomatoes up to my elbows.”
Stieg put the eggs down and went to the girls’ bedroom, where they kept the basin for washing hands.
“Sissel, grammar awaits us,” Stieg said, returning. “I think we should review reduced relative clauses this afternoon.”
“English is a horrible language,” Sissel said.
“I thought you were trying not to complain anymore,” Stieg reminded her.
“I’m not complaining, I’m stating a fact.”
Stieg took his notebook, their grammar book, and Sissel’s slate from the shelf where they sat, along with his prized volumes of Ibsen, Dickens, and Shakespeare. Sissel made her way to the table.
“Say, I heard James Peavy is renting a buggy to take you to the dance!” Stieg said.
“Oh for goodness’ sake, he hasn’t even asked me!” Sissel said. “And if he does, who’s to say I’ll say yes?”
“I believe you dislike him because he’s so handsome,” Stieg said. “That’s not right. Even handsome men deserve to be taken seriously.”
“You are an unkind person, Stieg Hemstad. I refuse to study grammar with such a bully.”
Stieg was about to make a response when Hanne dropped a pot with a clatter. Tomatoes splattered onto the tidy plank floor. Sissel looked up to her sister’s face and found Hanne frowning toward the door.
“There’s something wrong,” Hanne said. She strode over to the doorway. Distracted, she wiped her wet hands on her spattered apron, only smearing them more.
Sissel came to look out over Hanne’s shoulder. To the south the sky was a strange color, as if a bright stripe of yellow and green gray had been drawn at the horizon line.
“What is that?” Sissel asked with rising alarm. Stieg hurried over.
“It’s a fire,” Hanne said. “Wildfire!”
Hanne ran as fast as she could toward the fields where Owen and Knut were working. “Stay inside!” she called over her shoulder.
“Dear God, no,” Stieg said. He pushed past Sissel and strode out into the yard.
“What do we do?” Sissel asked.
Hanne raced out of sight, over a rise on their land toward Owen and Knut. They were out in the beautiful, nearly ripe wheat fields, directly between the fire and the house.
Stieg began to pace in the yard.
“If we’re lucky, it won’t come this way,” Stieg said.
He pressed his fingers to his temples.
“What are you doing?” Sissel asked.
“I’m going to blow it away. It will take our wheat!”
“But if you blow it away from us, it will go toward the town!” Sissel cried.
“Damn it all,” Stieg yelled.
He pressed his head again and began to concentrate.
“What should I do?” Sissel cried.
“Quiet, now!” Stieg snapped. “I’m making it rain.”
Sissel watched him for a moment. The air to the south was thickening with sick green smoke. She turned around, feeling terribly helpless.
“I’ll go for water,” Sissel said to no answer.
The sky was darkening at an alarming rate. Now Sissel could smell the fire, not a smell like wood smoke from a stove, but the smell of green things burning.
Sissel took the buckets and ran to the gully near their house as fast as her bad leg would allow. She pushed through the scrub oak and dropped the tin buckets into the stream with a clatter. Bits of ash were landing in the water like snowflakes.
Sissel lifted the heavy buckets. The water sloshed in the pails as she limped back toward the farm. Much of the water spilled, and she cursed her lame leg.
As she neared the house she felt rain on her face. Stieg stood in their yard, hands pressed to his temples. The rain fell in a circle around the house and the barn as he tried to wet down the structures so the fire would go around them.
“Stieg, is Hanne back? The boys?” Sissel tried to shout. Her words were strangled as she choked on the dense smoke now rolling over them.
Sissel turned to the fields. She could see the fire itself now, a terrible orange and yellow streak, racing toward their farm. It was moving faster than she could believe, faster than a horse or a train. It was like someone was drawing a blanket of fire up across the prairie.
She started toward the rise with her half-full buckets as Hanne, Owen, and Knut came stumbling to the house.
Hanne had her shoulder under Owen’s and was half dragging him as he coughed and struggled to breathe. Daisy ran with them, barking at the fire and the smoke.
The heat was rising. It made everything in Sissel’s vision shimmer and boil.
Hanne dropped Owen at the house.
“Sissel!” Hanne shouted.
“I brought water,” Sissel said. She blinked, her eyes stinging from the smoke, and in that one blink Hanne was at her side. Hanne picked up the buckets, one at a time, and dumped the water over Sissel herself.
Sissel sputtered, shocked.
Hanne slung Sissel over her shoulder like a shepherd would a lamb and ran for the house. Sissel gasped for breath. Her belly and rib cage jounced against her sister’s shoulder.
Rain pelted the house and the barn. Stieg was clutching his head with both hands. He fell to his knees as Hanne knelt and deposited Sissel on the ground.
“Are you all right?” Hanne asked Sissel.
Sissel could only cough, nodding her head. Her eyes streamed with tears, some from the smoke and some from her anger at being so useless. Daisy came to lick at Sissel’s face, and Sissel pushed the dog away.
“It’s coming closer!” Knut cried. He was pacing within the circle of rain Stieg was holding.
The smoke and heat assaulted them.
Owen appeared from inside the house. He had their good wool blankets, which had been stored for the winter.
“We can beat it back with these!” he shouted.
“Come, Knut!” Hanne shouted. She grabbed a blanket and threw one to Knut.
The fire was upon them. It ran at the house, crackling and streaming in flaming runners around Stieg’s circle.
Hanne, Knut, and Owen beat at the flames, trying to defend the edge of the circle. Daisy barked at the fire, as if she could chase it away.
Sissel lay there, good for nothing. Struggling just to breathe.
Stieg let out a cry of effort. The rain was evaporating in the terrible heat of the fire. Steam rose in great clouds.
“The house!” Owen shouted.
Fire licked at the house, sending black lines of scorch up the planks. Soon flames surrounded the two front windows, beautiful glass windows Owen had set with pride. They exploded outward in a shower of shards that caught orange and yellow.
“Into the barn!” Hanne shouted. Hanne tried to lift her again, and Sissel pulled away. Sissel struggled to her feet, holding her arm across her mouth, trying to breathe through the fabric. They all hurried to the barn. Owen dragged Daisy by the collar. She continued to bark at the fire, fiercely trying to scare it away.
Inside, the usual smells of hay, manure, and sod mingled with the terrible smoke.
Only a half dozen of their chickens were inside, the rest gone. Their cow, Buttermilk, was out to pasture! She was lost. And what of Owen’s horse, Pal? Pal would have been yoked to the harrow…
“Owen!” Sissel said, her voice croaky. “Is Pal all right?”
But Owen was on his hands and knees, coughing, coughing until he vomited up black, tarry bile. He did not hear her.
Knut shut the great wooden door to the barn, dragging it along the rut in the earth.
Outside there was a roar and a crash from their house.
Hanne knelt next to Stieg, who was also on his knees. His eyes were fixed toward the ceiling, commanding the elements outside.
The temperature in the barn kept climbing. It was like being in an oven. Sissel sank down near the cow’s stall. She struggled to breathe, drawing in painful gasps of the scorching air.
There were two narrow, empty slots high in the walls—glassless windows near the roof, set there to let in fresh air. Sissel saw flames licking at them.
Yellow light also shone through the cracks and chinks between the sod bricks. It looked like a scene from hell, all of them smeared with char, the harsh light from the dancing flames making their faces into hideous masks of shadow and light.
They did not have long now.
“Ásáheill,” Hanne began to pray in Norwegian. “Hear me, Odin; hear me, Freya. Strengthen our brother! Great Thor, lend us your strength.”
She knelt next to Stieg. Knut came, too, putting his large meaty hands on his older brother’s thin shoulders.
“Ásáheill!” Knut said. “Father Odin, help my brother!”
Stieg began to tremble. He gave a great roar, as if spending all his remaining strength at once.
Sissel felt something hit her neck. Like pebbles. She looked over her shoulder, and there, coming through the high window in the wall—hail!
“You’re doing it, Stieg!” Sissel cried. “It’s working!”
The heat was still fierce, but the crackle of flames receded. The sound of the fire moved past them, racing north.
Then the yellow glare through the cracks went dark.
“Hail the Gods!” Hanne cried.
The fire had passed them by.
Stieg fell back into Knut’s arms. Hanne collapsed onto them, weeping, embracing them both. Owen staggered to them and threw his arms around them all.
Sissel could not rise to join the huddle of bodies. She could not get her breath. More hail spattered through the window. One bit landed near her face, and she looked at it.
Ice. Ice in a wildfire.
Her brother had magic. Powerful magic. His gift had saved them—the Nytte had saved them.
And she had helped not one bit.
Excerpted from Ransacker, copyright © 2019 by Emmy Laybourne.