Everyone knows of the horses of Iceland, wild, and small, and free, but few have heard their story…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Sarah Tolmie’s hypnotic historical fantasy All the Horses of Iceland, out today from Tordotcom Publishing!
Everyone knows of the horses of Iceland, wild, and small, and free, but few have heard their story. Sarah Tolmie’s All the Horses of Iceland weaves their mystical origin into a saga for the modern age. Filled with the magic and darkened whispers of a people on the cusp of major cultural change, All the Horses of Iceland tells the tale of a Norse trader, his travels through Central Asia, and the ghostly magic that followed him home to the land of fire, stone, and ice. His search for riches will take him from Helmgard, through Khazaria, to the steppes of Mongolia, where he will barter for horses and return with much, much more.
Everyone knows the story of the mare Skalm. How she lay down with her pack still on, and Seal Thorir founded his farm in that place. It says so in Landnámabók. Skalm was wise. This is the story of another horse, one even more deserving of fame, though she has no name. This mare’s story proves that one can be famous without a name, a valuable lesson. She is the most famous of all the horses of Iceland.
She is all the horses of Iceland.
People tell many strange lies about the horses of Iceland. How they are made of fire that has leached into their bones from the fiery earth, or sky that they have sucked into their lungs from the tops of mountains. So there are sorrel horses, and horses with blue eyes. How a great stallion was once caught in a crevasse, caught by his near fore- and hind leg, while his off legs kept running and running, scrabbling on the ice for a foothold until he pulled himself out, sweating and steaming with effort. So ever after he ran using his legs first on the one side, then the other, and the tölt was born.
The truth about them is scarcely less strange. Every horse in Iceland, like every person, has ancestors who sailed here in a ship. What has a horse to do with a ship? In a ship, a horse cannot hold on. A horse cannot row or trim sail or bail out water. A horse has no business on the sea at all. Horses were carried here, cold and sick and protesting, in open boats, frost riming their manes, from Norvegr and the Føroyar, from Irland and Hjaltland and the Suthreyar. Their sturdy kin can be seen in all those places, long-haired in winter, working around farms and fjords. These little horses of the North, strong as oxen, carry tall men in their endeavours of work and pleasure and war, all the way to Garthariki. The mare of whom this saga speaks, she came from a land beyond even these, a great ocean of grass. Her journey here was long and the wealth she brought with her was considerable, but no rune stones speak of them. What are the most important words, after all, that rune stones record?
When Eyvind of Eyri left the island of Iceland in the prime of his life he was already an old man. He could not have children. It is not that he was impotent, but he could produce no offspring. He was also deaf in one ear. As a child, he had had the throat-swelling fever. It is seen that people who survive this fever often have such defects. But he was young and strong. He went as a crewman on a knarr trading, as he thought, to Grikkland. He hoped to see Miklagarth. But that is not what happened.
There are many tales of wide-travellers. Many are about war. Some are about trade. Many are about war, then trade. Some are about trade, then war. Eyvind’s tale is different. He passed through many lands that were at war: lands in which retainers were murdering their lords, lands being overrun by neighbours or by strangers, lands newly taken and rebellious, lands in which not so much as a single grape was left hanging on a vine. He saw villages in cinders. He saw rich towns in which men sat in comfort reading books with golden covers. Eyvind coveted the books, and not only for the gold. He understood that treasures also lay inside the covers, treasures that were hard to put a price on. While Eyvind never became a literate man, he saw as he went on that books contained words that could transform men into priests and kings and healers.
By now you may think that Eyvind’s story concerns his conversion, as do so many stories from the pagan time. And while it is true that the lands through which he passed were rife with priests of every kind, and that as he went on he encountered Christians and Sarks and Jews before any of these religions had been heard of in Iceland, nonetheless he did not convert. None of these faiths appealed to him and he died as pagan as he was born. I, Jór, cannot approve of this. Yet the fact remains that in the matter of religion he was no better and no worse than the rest of his countrymen during the period of the settlement. Many books here in the library at Skálaholt attest to this, even those concerning the behaviour of great men at the time of the kristnitaka such as Thorgeir Thorkellsson.
It was the conversion of his captain, the merchant Ingwe Blakkr, that first drove Eyvind from his ship and companions. Ingwe, who was unscrupulous and beginning to be rich, accepted baptism in order to impress the chieftain Oleg, ruler of Helmgard, whose mother Olga was a Christian. Olga was powerful in Oleg’s house, and Ingwe assumed that her influence would prevail. In this he proved correct. Oleg converted and accepted baptism from a Greek bishop. Thereafter he declared he would trade only with Christians, putting Ingwe and his men in a favourable position. The majority of the men on the knarr agreed with Ingwe and declared themselves Christians, though only a few of them underwent the ritual. Eyvind would not do so.
“If your captain becomes a Christian, you become a Christian also,” said Ingwe.
“No,” said Eyvind. In this he was quite right. Any man of God will tell you that this is not how one becomes a Christian. God is greater than kings or captains. Nor should we seek to buy our way into his mercy. In Iceland, when the conversion came, it came to everyone at once as a matter of agreement and so that all Icelanders should remain under one law. Thorgeir the gothi lay flat upon the ground all the night through, meditating, and when he cast off his fur cape in the morning he declared in favour of the God of the Gospels. As he had been duly appointed lawspeaker, it was a binding agreement. God is not divorced from reason. What temptations Thorgeir might have endured, and what the divine voice might have said to him in the darkness of that night, he never said, though many priests since have attributed to him a mighty visitation, an epiphany such as was experienced by the first disciples. None have said that Ingwe experienced any such visitation.
“Then leave,” said Ingwe to Eyvind.
“I will,” said Eyvind. Ingwe paid him what he was owed. He had been a fellow in the journey, laying his money down with the rest. Three other men with whom Eyvind was friendly, none of whom had been baptized, stood with him as he received his payment. Eyvind thanked them and left the crew. He had no dealings with Icelanders after that for four years.
Eyvind went out alone into the city of Helmgard. It was high summer. He considered what he would do. He had money. He could buy in to another trading vessel. He went to the market square, where it was too hot and the meat was stinking. With a practiced eye he quickly found the stall of the most substantial merchant there, one who was selling leather and cloth, cord and ribbon, and many stoppered vessels of clay that he assumed must be filled with something or other that was precious. He spoke to this man, who was shorter than he and had black hair and black eyes. He was in his middle years, as his hair was greying. Young men rarely commanded so much wealth. The man wore a long dark robe with red stitching at the sleeves and a small fur hat. His hair was cut to his shoulders and fell straight, without a wave, and he had no beard. Nonetheless, he appeared authoritative. Eyvind asked him whither he was bound after this market. Did he trade on the river or elsewhere? How large was his operation? Had he any need of a man who could invest a small sum?
The merchant did not reply at once. He looked as if he were mulling things over. Eyvind wondered if he had spoken in the right language. There were many languages in the city, and Eyvind did not speak any of them exactly. He addressed the man using the river-language of the region, in words that were not precisely those of Iceland, nor of Norvegr, but that resembled that tongue except in having many foreign words thrown in. The words that Eyvind did not know natively he assumed came from the language of the other men of Helmgard, of whom there were many—indeed, the majority. These were large men with fair skin and pointed noses, with hair of various colours, who wore heavy furs. Some had blue eyes, some brown. They owned houses and docks and taverns and were part of the chieftain’s council. They were brotherly and went about together, speaking among themselves this language that Eyvind did not know, though they all spoke the river-language, too. They spoke it in Oleg’s house, for instance. The man to whom Eyvind was speaking did not look like these men at all. His skin was darker and his nose less prominent, its bridge not extending far beyond his cheekbones. Eyvind wondered if he had made a mistake. But he did not know any other languages and the man was here to trade. Traders have to talk. So Eyvind waited.
Finally the merchant said, “I am not a river-trader. Not primarily. Most of my destinations are far inland. We travel not by ship but by ät or tebe.”
Eyvind did not know either of the words the man used to express how he travelled. Ship he could understand. “Ät?” he said. “Tebe?”
“Ät,” replied the man, and he neighed most accurately.
“Horse,” said Eyvind, nodding. “Tebe?”
The man opened his mouth and made a groaning roar that conveyed nothing to Eyvind at all. It might have been a cow or a woman in labour. An ox, perhaps? He shrugged his incomprehension. The man made a slight, dismissive gesture, flicking his hand as if to ward off flies.
“Where do you go by horse? Inland? How far? Which way?” asked Eyvind.
“South,” replied the man, “and east.”
“Beyond Sarkland. To the steppes. Men there are not Arabs, or Persians, or Khitans, or Khazars. They speak a language unlike others.”
“I do not know all those peoples,” admitted Eyvind. “For what items do you trade in this place?”
“Horses. Hides. Herbs. Butter of mare’s milk.”
“How long is the journey?”
“Between one hundred days and a year. It depends.”
“On what does it depend? Weather?”
“War. Our caravans must pass through Khazaria, a great land, an empire with many clients, many peoples. We—Khazars—control many of the trade routes in this region and exact tolls. We have been warring with the Rus now for many years. We began to lose ground in the time of my father. The father of Oleg, Vladimir, he crushed two of our cities in the year of the rabbit—Samandar and Balangar. No matter. We are building a great fortress at Sarkel. The Khazars are far from subdued. Much of their land is laid waste but much is still fertile. There is a saying among Khazars: ‘a man with three horses is an army.’”
“We would say much the same in Iceland,” observed Eyvind.
“There is a land of ice?”
“Yes,” said Eyvind, “an island beyond Hålogaland but not so far as Groenland. There are farms round the edges, ice on the heights, and a fiery plain in the middle. An island of black rock and independent people.”
“In the north of the steppes where the tribes of Tungusk live—they breed good horses—it is cold enough to freeze a man’s eyes. Your breath falls solid ice from your mouth. Is it as cold as that?”
“Yes,” said Eyvind, proudly.
“What is your name?” asked the black-eyed man. It was appropriate for him to ask this, as Eyvind had asked him for work.
“What does it mean?”
The merchant looked at him with growing interest. “I am David,” he said.
Eyvind looked back at him. “Christians have that name,” he said.
“Christians have that name because Jews had it before them,” replied the man, David. “Christians steal everything.”
“To whom do you sell your horses?” asked Eyvind.
“Khazars,” said David.
“And here you sell hides and cord?”
“And mare’s butter,” replied David.
“When do you depart?” asked Eyvind.
“This market lasts five more days,” the man replied. “I never stay in Helmgard longer than necessary.”
“I will go with you if you need a man who pays his way and expects return. I can ride a horse—ät,” said Eyvind.
“Can you ride a tebe?” asked David.
“We will have to see,” said Eyvind.
David had said that he was not a river-trader, but still he and his party journeyed for many weeks along the great river that he called the Itil. They carried with them a cargo of iron bits and bridle fittings, arrowheads, wheat flour, and strong brandy. Eyvind saw that he was angry at having to pay tithes to Rus lords along the way, but still he did so. He said to Eyvind, “Soon enough it will be Khazars we pay, the closer we come to Itil, the great port that controls entry to the Khazar Sea. These flyspeck towns, Aldeigjuborg, Helmgard and the like, they do not deserve the name of city. In Itil, you will see a true city. Indeed, it is three cities, stretching right across the river at its widest point: one for the merchants, one for the nobility, and the sacred city of the king.”
“The king has his own city?” said Eyvind.
“Yes,” said David. “No-one ever sees it, or him. He is holy.”
“How then does he rule, if the people never see him?”
“He is holy,” repeated David. “It is best that holy things not be seen.”
“Has he his family with him, then? His women? Servants?”
“Oh yes, there is a great household. His kin and wives and servants, and many of his guards from Khwarazem. They live in a palace on an island in the centre of the river. A most holy place. Only nobles ever set foot there, at certain prescribed times, to check on him.”
“Where is Khwarazem? He is protected by foreign guards?” To Eyvind this seemed unwise.
“A Persian land near the Sea of Islands. They are great horsemen, newly converted to Islam. The bäk draws his elite guard from there. He pays them in silver. It is safer than relying on the nobility.”
His nobles will be the ones to kill him. Eventually, at the prescribed time. But perhaps some of them might want to get it done early, and choose another king.”
Eyvind found this baffling. “You mean to say, there is a scheduled uprising? And high-born men kill their own chieftain?”
“Not an uprising. A sacrifice. The bäk serves the people for a prescribed time. Then he is killed and replaced by another. His body is buried with great ceremony under running water. It is then, to speak truly, that he is at his most powerful. Every bäk so buried is a bulwark to his people, an ancestor to call on and a protector of the homeland.”
“This is remarkable,” said Eyvind. “And the bäk agrees to do this?”
“Indeed, he chooses the number of years for which he will rule. Or so it is said. I would not know. These secrets are known only to the noble rank, the king-tribes. Those who can approach the island.”
“Who runs the army of the Khazars, then? This strong army of which you speak, that fights the Rus?”
“The qagan-bäk, the lieutenant king. Today this man is Alp Tarkhan. The bäk is Nisi Ben Manasseh. That is a Hebrew name.”
“Things are marvellous in Khazaria,” said Eyvind. “You told me that this is the language of Jews? I thought they lived far from here, in southern lands? In Sarkland, as a subject people? Are there not Jews in the Christians’ book?”
“There are Jews in the Jews’ book,” said David, shortly.
“Your bäk is Jewish, then?”
“He is,” replied David, “and so is his court. Many nobles. Some merchants. Myself, for instance. But not everyone in the empire, by any means. Not even Alp Tarkhan. There are many religions here. We in Khazaria are caught in a trap of God: Christians to the north and west of us and Sarks to the south. Those of us who prefer one God have chosen the God of the Hebrews. He is very old and we prefer old things. I have heard old men say that the God of the Israelites, whose name is not to be uttered aloud, is like the ancient Kōk Tengri, the god of the blue sky. He is widely worshipped here and right across the steppes, as far north as Bjarmland.”
“I despise gods,” said Eyvind. “I see no need for them. Men, animals, ghosts, and luck. That is what the world is composed of.”
“But who makes the luck?” asked David.
“The interactions of men, ghosts, and animals.”
“Then why are there priests of one kind or another wherever you go?” asked David.
“I have often wondered that. Some men are good talkers. Some men are good at solemnity. People need this as much as food. They admire such men as much as they admire warriors. It is odd.”
“In many lands hereabouts the priests are women,” said David. “Or so you might call them. Magicians. Among the Bulghurs and the people of Tungusk and many other tribes, women are healers and travellers to the spirit world, along with the men. In the far land towards which we are going they are known as udugan.”
“It is even more ridiculous when the priests are women,” replied Eyvind. “It is so in many places in Iceland and Svealand and especially in Gotaland. Women who carry distaffs—all women carry them, so what?—and perform seithr. It is unmanly nonsense.”
“There are no women priests in Judaism,” said David.
“That makes sense, at least,” said Eyvind.
Eyvind looked forward to seeing the wonderful city of the Khazars. But when they were five days’ journey from Itil, they were stopped by war. Boats flying back upriver carried men who shouted in many languages that a huge army had marched out from Sarkel and engaged a combined force of Greeks and Rus (as both were now Christian) that had been heading for Itil. All the plains between were fields of slaughter. Armies had burned crops and towns and taken many slaves. The final result was not yet known. David prudently unloaded his cargo at the first settlement he came to and bought a train of packhorses. He sold his boat casually, without ceremony. Eyvind was shocked. He got on the gelding that David gave him—a roan with a drooping ear and a smooth gait—and he and David’s party, twenty-six men in all, rode east, away from the river and the battle.
Excerpted from All the Horses of Iceland, copyright © 2022 by Sarah Tolmie.