Oddo hated cutting down trees. It looked so easy when his father did it. Stroke after stroke in exactly the same place; a steady chop, chop, chop and the trunk would split right through.
But when Oddo tried to use the axe, it was heavy and awkward. Every blow landed in a different place. It took him ages to fell a tree, and all the time he was terrified that he would miss the trunk altogether and lop off his own leg.
He lifted the axe now and tried to swing it the way Bolverk did. But, as usual, it was too heavy for his thin wrists and the blade just skittered along the trunk of the tree.
Oddo’s arms and back were aching and his hands were covered in blisters, before at last, with a creak and a groan, the tree slowly keeled over. Oddo felt a burst of satisfaction, until he remembered that he still had to chop the tree into chumps for the fire and carry them to the house. He grasped the axe again and tried to lift it; but he couldn’t. His arms were shaking with exhaustion. Tears prickled his eyelids. His father would be so angry if he came home without the logs.
‘Oddo, you’re a feckless dollop!’ he would shout.
Oddo looked up anxiously at the sun, now low in the sky. His mother would be waiting for the firewood so she could do the cooking. Oddo slid the axe into his belt and bent to grab hold of a branch. It was only a little tree. He could drag it closer to home. Maybe then his arms would be rested enough to do some more chopping.
He stumbled awkwardly, the axe bumping against his leg, the branches catching on other trees. He heard his mother’s voice calling, as he reached the edge of the wood. She was watching for him in the doorway. Her bronze brooch pins glinted in the glow of the setting sun and the white coif on her head looked pink.
‘Here I am!’ said Oddo, letting the tree fall to the ground.
At that moment his father’s burly figure appeared round the side of the house, an empty bucket dangling from each hand. Hairydog trotted at his heels. Her mouth opened in a grin and her curled bushy tail waggled a welcome. Bolverk dumped the buckets on the ground and stared at Oddo.
‘What on earth are you doing, boy? Where are the chumps?’ he bellowed.
Oddo hung his head and kicked at the tree.
‘Oddo, you’re a feckless dollop!’ Bolverk strode over to the tree. Hairydog followed and pushed her dark, wolfish nose into Oddo’s hand. ‘Well, hurry and chop them up now. Your mother’s waiting.’
Oddo shook his head.
‘I can’t,’ he croaked. ‘My arms are too tired.’
‘Your arms are WHAT?’ Bolverk stared at his son in disbelief. ‘I can’t believe I fathered such a weakling,’ he snorted. ‘Give me the axe and I’ll do it, then. You take the buckets and milk the cows. Or is that too irksome for you too?’
Oddo didn’t answer. He hurried to pick up the buckets, his cheeks burning. A light drizzle began to fall and he was glad of the coolness of the first gentle drops on his face. Loud, impatient moos were coming from the barn. The two cows were ready for their milking, and the calves, who spent the day in separate stalls, were bawling for their supper.
‘All right,’ called Oddo. ‘I’m coming.’
This was a chore that Oddo enjoyed. All animals were his friends and always seemed to understand what he was saying. When the cows heard his voice, they calmed down. Each cow stood still for him as her warm milk foamed into the buckets. But their calves bellowed with jealousy.
‘Don’t worry!’ called Oddo. ‘I’m leaving some for you.’
He let the calves out of their stall and they hurried across to their mothers, poking their noses anxiously at the milky teats.
The rain began to pelt down just as Oddo left the barn and headed for the dairy. In seconds, his hair and clothes were soaked. The rain ran down his face and into his eyes. It pattered into the buckets of milk. Hairydog, trotting beside him, looked shrunken, with her long hair plastered flat. The ground underfoot turned to slush. Oddo stumbled in a puddle and some of the milk spilled out of the buckets.
‘Go away, rain,’ Oddo grumbled.
As soon as he spoke, the rain stopped. Oddo bit his lip and looked guiltily over his shoulder to see if anyone had heard him. Bolverk and Sigrid had warned him never to order the weather around.
‘Don’t even think about the weather,’ his mother had said.
It wasn’t normal to be able to control the rain and wind, and Bolverk never let Oddo meet other people in case they found out about this strange power. Sigrid had told Oddo how much trouble he caused as a baby. Oddo would cry or babble and the next moment their house would be filled with a downpour of rain or a whistling wind. The rain would drench the bedding and turn their dry floor into a sticky mire. The wind would blow their possessions all over the room and make a terrible muddle. The only way to stop this happening was to tie Oddo’s mouth shut. For the first few years of his life, Oddo had not been allowed to speak inside the house.
This evening Bolverk kept complaining about Oddo being a weakling and a burden. Sigrid fussed about his drenched clothing, making him change into a dry tunic and breeches she warmed in front of the fire. Then she rubbed his wet hair so hard his head hurt.
After supper, Oddo escaped from the house and ran across the paddock, his feet slap, slapping on the wet, young grass. Several times he slipped and nearly fell, but at last he reached the shelter of the wood. He breathed in the smell of damp earth and pine needles. Listening to the rustles and snuffles, he wished he too could snuggle into a burrow in the ground or a cosy nest in a bush.
Suddenly, there was the glint of lights bobbing through the trees. Oddo felt a quiver of excitement. Was it the people from the house-over-the-hill coming out to do some magic? He crept towards the lights, his heart pounding. Three hooded figures were heading for the burial mound at the edge of the wood. He slipped behind a tree to watch. At the top of the mound, the three figures were framed by the black twisted branches of the birches. Their flickering lamps cast eerie shadows on their half-lit faces. Oddo held his breath. Would they notice him? Would they send him away? Would they cast a spell on him?
He could recognise the figures now. The stooped one was the old witch, Granny Hulda, and the others were two sisters from the house-over-the-hill. Granny took a stick from the younger girl and showed her how to draw a big circle around the grave. As the stick scraped along, little flames sprang out of the ground. Oddo had to press his hand over his mouth to stop himself crying out with excitement. It was happening! He was seeing some real magic!
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