Thorolf and the Peacock
Ellen Kuhfeld

When Thorolf Pike was outlawed from Surtsheim District because of some killings, he decided he would go live among the English. A number of his supporters were outlawed along with him. They loaded all their valuables onto Thorolf's knorr and sailed away in a great hurry, before their enemies could combine and come at them.

There were fourteen of them, all bachelors like the Jomsvikings, and the ship could have been very crowded. However, most had suspected the judgement of the Althing would go against them, and they'd sold many of their possessions. They wore lots of silver, and had more in their chests; otherwise, they travelled light.

They made port at Northlanding, a border town where the people were a mix of English and Welsh. Thorolf had traded there before, and knew quite a few of the merchants. He had a handsome assortment of furs on board, and sold them for a good profit.

They pooled their riches, with Thorolf providing the lion's share, and bought a strong warehouse with a greathall upstairs, and outbuildings in a fenced-in yard. It was in the heart of the merchant district, near the road down the bluffs to the docks. Then they all went to the cathedral and got themselves primsigned so good Christians could trade more comfortably with them.

The bishop apparently expected more from this polite fiction than most churchmen, and was grievously offended when Thorolf and the others failed to attend services. This disfavor in high places made some of the locals uncomfortable. Others set more store by the quality of Thorolf's wares.

Thorolf was a good businessman and a formidable bargainer; and one of his men, Otkel, was as sly as the King of the Foxes. By making lots of advantageous deals -- aided by the threat implicit in his exile for killings -- Thorolf was soon on his way to becoming one of the richest merchants in the town.

Though he took on some English manners, Thorolf kept many Norse ways: he was very hospitable, and gave rich presents to his friends and supporters. Many merchants guested in Thorolf's hall; ate and drank freely and emerged wearing gifts of silver. They often had been skinned in trade -- but that was business, which Thorolf kept strictly apart from hospitality.

One morning Thorolf and his men were riding along the bluffs when they saw a ship putting in to the docks below. It was brightly painted, and the sails were gaily dyed; banners flew from the masthead.

"That's a handsome ship," Thorolf said. "And it looks like it would carry cargo well. I wonder who owns it."

"The banners belong to Jonathan Draper," said Leif, who'd learned something of heraldry. "He makes clothing for wealthy nobles and merchants. He travels about, gathering up fabrics and furs and fashions, and gossip. He's a favorite of the court and extremely rich, and folk say he thinks himself one of the most important people beneath Heaven."

"That's a common enough sentiment," Thorolf said. "With his connections at court, it'd help our standing here no end if he stayed with us, and we might do business with him. There's fine ermine in our warehouse, and beaver and martin. Leif, go down there and offer him our hospitality."

By the time Leif made his way down the zigzag bluff road, the crew had begun to unload the ship. They were putting up an enormous pavilion tent in bright stripes of blue and yellow, in a nearby field reserved for such uses. Jonathan Draper stood watching, surrounded by six armed men.

Jonathan himself was slight of build, with a dissipated face and a tailor's stoop. He wore a riding houppelande of midnight blue strewn with embroidered flowers in gold. His shoes had points a foot long, held up by fine golden chains rising to garters of Morocco leather at his knees. The bodyguards were clothed in black silk and leather; they wore polished helmets, and shirts of silvered mail. Leif was dressed prosperously, but suddenly felt shabby by comparison.

He dismounted, and inclined his head courteously. "Have I the honor of addressing Jonathan Draper?" he asked.

The magnificent apparition looked at Leif, and sniffed. "You do have that honor," he agreed.

"Well then," Leif continued, "Thorolf Pike invites you to be a guest in his greathall, you and your men. Thorolf is one of the richest merchants in Northlanding, and his halls are much more comfortable than a tent this close to the water. We've fine furs in the warehouse beneath, which a man of your discrimination will surely want to examine at leisure."

"I know of Thorolf, and his furs," Jonathan said. "I'll be glad to see the furs in the marketplace. But why in the world should I want to share a large and smoky room with a killer barbarian who's been cast out even by the other barbarians? My fine pavilion will be more comfortable." He turned to shout instructions at his overseer, supervising the erection of the tent. It really was a beautiful tent.

Leif's face turned red as his beard. He reached for his sword, but the six guards closed ranks about Jonathan. Leif hooked his thumb in his belt as if that were what he intended to do all along. The guards snickered, hands on their sword-hilts, as Leif remounted and rode away.

As he left, he saw Brother Maynard, the Bishop's chief clerk, heading towards the camp-grounds.

Leif explained all this to Thorolf, who swore by Odin and Thor that the clothier would regret his words. "But maybe the best god of all for this revenge is Loki," he said. "Otkel, find that man's weak spot."

Otkel smiled crookedly, and left.

He returned late that evening. Most of the men had made up their beds and were getting ready for sleep when they heard a crash downstairs, and the door slammed. Slow uneven steps came up the stairs, and Otkel staggered into the room. He was drunk as a lord, and grinning. He collapsed, one joint folding at a time, onto a heap of furs.

"Got'm!" he said, as Thorolf came out of his room and hurried over. "Got one of his cooks drunk, 'n how he did talk!

"He's almost out of absinthe. He gets awful mean when he runs out. An' we c'ntrol th'only merchant in town what sells the stuff!" Otkel lay back.

"Absinthe -- " Thorolf said to himself. "Drink enough of that, and it'll rot your mind. No wonder he's so unpleasant."

Otkel lifted his head. "Oh, som'thn else. Bishop's man came with invite, and Jon'thn sent him packing too!" His head fell back on the furs, and he began to snore.

Thorolf laughed, it was so strange to find himself and the bishop cast adrift on the same seas.

* * * * *

Two men dressed in black, with polished armor, came trotting down the road and stopped to speak with an unkempt peasant lounging nearby.

"Where can we find the best doctor in Northlanding?" one of them asked. "Our master has been taken suddenly ill."

The peasant scrambled to his feet. "If you be in a hurry, this be the shortest way." He set off down a barely-visible side trail. The two guards followed.

As they were going through a patch of thick bushes, half-a-dozen ruffians leaped on the guards. A few swift blows, and they were unconscious; the peasants began to strip them. A length of rope, some sailors' knots, and the naked men were trussed up like geese and rolled into the bushes.

Soon a litter, carried by four men in livery, arrived at the pavilion. A mounted man, in a more elaborate version of the livery, called out. "Hello! Is this the camp of Jonathan Draper?"

A servant came out. "It is, but he's dreadfully ill, sir."

"Why yes, that's why my master, the physician Jeremiah, sent me. Tell me, did he start sweating first? Was this followed by vomiting, and stomach cramps?"

"Why, yes, m'lord. He'd just had lunch, and was complaining about the quality of the local absinthe, when it started just like you say."

"Then there's no time to waste. He's got the green-sickness, and needs sweating and fumigation. My master is having the steam bath prepared at this very moment. Bring your master out -- we brought a litter for him."

Two servants half-carried the clothier out of the pavilion. His hair was damp and plastered to his head; his skin was pale, and he moaned. He'd soiled his houppelande. The servants lifted him onto the litter, and he flopped back against the cushions.

The bearers adjusted the weight on their shoulders, and started up the road at a trot. The guards came along, two on either side of the litter, and the rider followed.

As they were going among some isolated bushes, one of the bearers stumbled. The litter lurched and swayed, and the clothier moaned and retched as he held on for dear life. The guards swiftly reached for the litter to save their master from a fall; and as they were occupied, a band of peasants leaped on them and overpowered them before they could draw their weapons.

Truncheons flew, and the guards and the merchant fell unconscious. They were stripped and tied up; their goods and clothing were loaded onto the litter. One of the peasants tried to get on the litter with the goods, but the bearers tilted him out onto the ground. The bunch of them laughed heartily, and carried the litter and its load off.

* * * * *

Thorolf Pike and six others were going down to the docks with a wagon full of cloth when they saw several men lying on the ground beside the trail, naked and all tied up. A couple were writhing about, furiously cursing as they tried to undo their bonds; two were unconscious. The fifth was sick, and moaning; he scarcely fought the ropes at all.

"What's this?" Thorolf said. "Untie them!" He himself went towards the sick man, knife in hand, and cut away his bonds. "What's happened?" he asked.

One of the guards spluttered out a story about peasants and robbers, and their master being ill. Thorolf stood, lifting the sick man like a feather. They quickly rearranged the cloth in the wagon, making it into an impromptu bed. They lifted the men in, and covered them over.

"Let's get these men back to the greathall. Leif, ride ahead and fetch a doctor for them."

One of the guards raised his head. "There are two more of us," he said. "I don't know where. The robbers may have gotten them, too."

Thorolf detailed two of his men to search for the other guards. They drove the wagon ahead until they reached a wide spot in the road, and turned it around; then they headed for their hall as rapidly as they could.

Servants gathered about, and carried the men inside. They quickly lay out bolsters in the greathall, and covered the invalids with warm furs to rest. Thorolf took the merchant into his own room, and put him down on his own bed of precious white bear-furs from the land of the Finns. He set a silver basin by the man's head, just in case, and brought him soothing herbal wines until the doctor could arrive.

The doctor gave the clothier a tincture of poppy to make him sleep, then spread unguents on the bruises and abrasions of the guards. "They should be fine, with a good night's rest," he said. Then Thorolf's men brought in the remaining two guards, and the doctor ministered to them also before he left. Soon, all were resting comfortably.

Thorolf slept that night in the greathall with his men and with the merchant's guards. He was up early, making sure the cook prepared a good meal for his guests; and he took broth and bread into the merchant with his own hands.

After Jonathan had eaten, Thorolf said, "Now, we found you and your men naked, and I can't have that. I want you to take your pick of my finest clothing." He went to his chest and held up his best clothes for the merchant's inspection. None of them were the silk Jonathan loved, but they were woven from soft wool of excellent quality. There were decorative bands at the neck and hem and sleeves, brightly-colored animals with long legs and necks intertwined in intricate knotwork.

Jonathan was a master of his craft. He could recognize these as fine work, even in a style he didn't favor. He picked a cream tunic with red animals outlined in couched gold thread, and bright yellow breeches. Thorolf gave him a red belt and boots to go with it, and a pouch with a dagger in a worked-in scabbard. When he was dressed, Jonathan suddenly realized he felt fine, without a trace of illness.

"You've had a hard time of it," Thorolf said to him. "Tomorrow is soon enough for you to get back to your work. You should rest in our solar. It's on the south end of the greathall."

They went together into the hall, and Jonathan was surprised to see his men up and dressed. They were all wearing white linen, with embroidered stags in black. They had black breeches and boots, and a black belt. The captain of his guard was going through an intricate sword-drill, while everybody watched from a safe distance. The blade flickered and gleamed in the morning light coming through a window.

"My lord!" he called out, when he recognized Jonathan in the strange clothing. "Look how they've outfitted us! They've given me a very good sword, and the men too!" His sword danced into a salute, and he bowed to Jonathan and Thorolf, who were standing together.

"Maybe these swords will serve you better than the ones I bought you," Jonathan said sourly. His memory of the previous day was coming back. "Get down to the pavilion, and see what's happening there."

Thorolf and Jonathan were in the solar, swapping tales of unusual merchant ventures, when the captain returned. "Terrible news, m'lord!" he said.

"I talked with the other encampment in the Merchants' Field, and they said we guards had been there about sundown to break camp. The bandits must have taken our clothing so they could impersonate us.

"Then the servants returned, saying the doctor's man had come back an hour or so after you left and told them you would be gone overnight. They said you and the doctor sent instructions to spend the night on the ship, because with green-sickness in camp it wouldn't be safe to sleep close to the ground. They were as surprised as we were to find everything gone.

"But at least all our merchandise is safe on board, and we're all alive." He bowed his head.

Before the merchant could erupt, Thorolf broke in. "That's terrible! You must stay here until we can work this out!" And Jonathan contented himself with sending one of Thorolf's men up to the castle to notify the bailiff of the theft.

Thorolf held a great feast that night, in Jonathan Draper's honor, and many merchants attended it. There was rich food in plenty; there were musicians, and jongleurs, and ale. Jonathan was very full and quite merry when he sank into his bed of furs that night.

The next day, after breakfast, Thorolf took Jonathan into the solar. "I'm afraid the word isn't very good," he said. "The bailiff hasn't found a trace of your property, or of the thieves. And I had a messenger at daybreak: a dozen of my relatives are going to be in town tomorrow, and expect to guest with me. They're my relatives -- I can't refuse -- but they're not the sort of Northmen a man of your refinement would find companionable."

"That is unsettling. You've been a wonderful host; I can't find words enough to thank you. But my pavilion is gone, and my ship is crowded. Where can I stay?"

"Well, I have a very good pavilion in my warehouse," Thorolf said. "As merchants, we should be able to come to some sort of accomodation."

They set to bargaining furiously. Thorolf had the upper hand, and the deal was very expensive for Jonathan. Eventually they reached an agreement, and Thorolf had the pavilion loaded onto a wagon, with several more wagons to bring back the merchandise in trade.

As Jonathan and his men were preparing to leave, Thorolf snapped his fingers and one of his men came forward with a wooden chest. Thorolf opened it, and said, "Your visit didn't start under the best auspices, but despite that I wouldn't want you to feel you've been slighted in any way. Among Northmen, it's the custom to gift honored guests as they are leaving." And he gave a silver ring to each of the guards, and personally put a silver torc around Jonathan's neck.

"Think of me, when you wear this," Thorolf said. The drover cracked his whip, and the little caravan got under way. After a while, the wagons returned with a rich load of merchandise.

They'd no sooner gotten everything into the warehouse, and the gates closed, when Jonathan Draper came storming up the street at the head of his men, their swords drawn. All the neighbors slammed their doors and barred their shutters.

Jonathan beat on the door to the warehouse with ineffectual fists. "Come out! Come out, you pirate!" he bawled. His men brandished their swords.

Thorolf opened the shutters on his second-floor window, and leaned out. "Eh, Jonathan? Back so soon?" He smiled benignly down.

"You sold me my own tent! You had it dyed green so I wouldn't recognize it, and you sold me my own tent! I knew it as soon as it was pitched!"

"I suppose I had new fittings made, so you wouldn't recognize the ironwork while you were examining the merchandise?" Thorolf waved his hand in dismissal. "I got that tent from a circus that came through here recently. The clown was in charge of the circus -- isn't that strange? But there you have it. I got that tent from a clown. He certainly wasn't a master merchant like you, to judge by the bargain he drove."

And then Thorolf's men all took turns looking down at the peacock and his crew, in the Northern finery they'd been given, until the peacock's guards realized they were well outnumbered and quietly urged their master to leave. One of Thorolf's men mussed his hair and leaned out of the window to point, saying "if you be going to the docks, that be the shortest way" in a coarse voice.

Jonathan went straight to the Baron, of course, and swore out a great thundering complaint against Thorolf and his men for assault, and theft, and swindle. But they didn't have any really solid evidence. The only witness they could think of was the town dyer, and he and his workers had left on a sudden trip to buy cochineal.

When he was summoned to answer the complaint, Thorolf pointed out that he'd treated Jonathan and his guards very well, as anybody could see by looking at their clothes and as many prominent locals who'd been at the feast could testify. Furthermore, Jonathan's men had been milling about his residence waving swords and frightening the neighbors. Thorolf wasn't at all sure but what he should swear out a complaint over that.

Several good friends of the Baron had been hurt by court gossip started by Jonathan Draper, so he was already inclined against the man. When the bishop came and swore that he knew exactly the clown Thorolf meant, the Baron sent Jonathan packing.

On the voyage home, he eased his sorrows with absinthe, but immediately had a terrible attack of green-sickness. That was when he realized the wineseller might have had something to do with his troubles -- but of course, by then it was far too late to re-open the complaint with a new witness.

* * * * *

Leif stood in the cool shadows of the cathedral, talking with Brother Maynard. "Thorolf would like it very much if you and the Bishop could come to a feast in our greathall soon."

"What?" said the Brother. "Eat in a smoky room with a killer barbarian?"

"It's really not a bad idea. Look what happened to the last person who refused the opportunity. We'll even let the bishop bless the occasion."

And the two men leaned on each others' shoulders and shook with laughter.


Version of January 27, 2005 Ellen R. Kuhfeld