In the Wilderness

by Sigrid Undset
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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1187

Olav Audunssøn has little desire to stay on at Hestviken through the summer following his wife’s death. When the sons of the English armorer in Oslo ask him to be shipmaster of their boat on a trading voyage to London, it is plain that the idea pleases him. Eirik, Ingunn’s son by the Icelander, also wants to go on the trip, but Olav tells him nay—he must remain at Hestviken and be companion to little Cecilia, the daughter Ingunn bore in her last years.

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In England, two adventures befall Olav. At evensong in the Dominican’s church, he sees a woman so much like dead Ingunn that for a moment his breath fails him. She resembles Ingunn completely, and yet she is young enough to be his daughter. With her is a blind man, apparently her husband. Olav sees her again, at mass and evensong, and after a time they begin to exchange glances and smiles. One night, her serving woman stops him after the service and leads him to a great house outside the walls. The strange woman is in the garden, her only dress a thin silk shift. For a moment Olav feels that he is about to clasp Ingunn again. Then he realizes that she is only a wanton wife seeking sport with a stranger. Thrusting her from him, he runs away.

At another time he goes with his shipmates to a famous shrine north of London. Separated from his companions, he wanders in the woods until he encounters some men beside a brook. That night they attack him for his rich dress and jewels. While Olav fights with the robbers in the dark, he feels the battle surge he knew in his outlaw youth. Later it seems to him that he was tempted by pleasures of the flesh and of violence, sent to lead him away from the path of redemption he must follow to atone for the secret slaying of Teit, Eirik’s father.

When Olav sails home in late summer, he finds Eirik grown taller and strong for his age and Cecilia fairer than ever, with promise of great beauty. Resolving that Liv, the slatternly serving woman, is unfit to train the daughter of Hestviken, he weds Liv to Arnketil, his housecarl, and sends the pair to live at Rundmyr, the farm he manages for Torhild Björnsdatter, who bore him a son out of wedlock two years before. One day he goes across the fjord to Auken, where Torhild is living, to discuss his arrangement. Seeing his son and Torhild again, he thinks of asking the woman to return and keep his house, but he sadly puts the thought out of his mind.

After Liv and Arnketil move to Rundmyr, the place begins to have a bad reputation because of the dicing, wenching, and worse that goes on there. At last Sira Hallbjörn, the priest, warns Olav to keep Eirik away from that thieves’ den. Olav is of two minds about Eirik. He wants to like the boy whom he claimed as his heir, yet he cannot abide Eirik’s insolence and boasting. He realizes that he should give more time to his training but shrinks from that duty because of the old clash of wills between them. Urged to marry again, he wants no other wife beside him at table and bed.

His problem is solved in part when Asger Magnusson, an old friend, dies in Tunsberg after asking Olav to foster his daughter Bothild and provide for his mother-in-law, Mærta Birgersdatter. Lady Mærta is grim and gaunt but capable. Never is Hestviken better kept than when it is under her charge. Cecilia and Bothild, close in age, live as sisters. Lady Mærta dresses them well, and people say that in the whole southland there are no fairer maids than those at Hestviken.

Eirik sets himself against Lady Mærta from the first, and Olav is always angry when he is drawn into their rows and is forced to rebuke the boy. In the winter of Eirik’s sixteenth year, they quarrel after Olav finds him in rude sport with a serving girl. That night Eirik leaves Hestviken without farewell. There is no report of him at Rundmyr or among Olav’s distant kin, but at last word comes that he is in Oslo, among the men-at-arms who serve Sir Ragnvald Torvaldsson. Knowing that Sir Ragnvald is a gentle knight from whom Eirik will learn the skills of weapons and courtly ways, Olav is satisfied. He goes to Oslo and gives the runaway money and a squire’s gear. There is much kindness between them when they part, Olav almost in envy for Eirik’s youth.

Three years pass more quietly than any Olav knew since boyhood. Cecilia is his great delight, with little in her nature to recall her weak-willed, sickly mother. One night some men from another parish come to Hestviken. After drinking in the hall, one of the men tries to seize Bothild and Cecilia. Bothild is terrified, but Cecilia draws her knife and slashes at the man until the blade is red. Olav believes that she should be the boy of the house.

Olav, beginning to grow restless, is often in the company of Sira Hallbjörn, a priestly lover of falconry and hunting. One night, while they sup at a wedding feast, Olav’s ancient Viking ax, Kin-fetch, rings. For a moment they see in each other’s eyes old pagan stirrings that neither can speak aloud. Riding home later that night, Olav goes into the graveyard and calls to Ingunn to arise. On another day he goes to Auken, where he finds Torhild married to Ketil, a young man on the farm. Olav asks her to send Björn, their son, to live with him. She refuses.

The snows are deep that December when Duke Eirik crosses the border from Sweden to lead his troops against his father-in-law, King Haakon. Torhild brings word of the invasion to Hestviken one frosty dawn. After sending Cecilia, Bothild, and Lady Mærta to Auken for safety, Olav rides off to warn his neighbors. When the franklins try to ambush the Swedes, they are routed by the mailed horsemen. Olav and Sira Hallbjörn are among the few who make their way to the manor at Sundrheim and spend the Yule there. Meanwhile, the Swedes occupy Oslo and besiege Akershus, the royal fortress. Olav is in that great fight at Aker church and at Frysja bridge, where there is hard fighting to keep Duke Eirik from taking the castle. Sira Hallbjörn is killed at the bridge, and in the press a crossbow bolt shatters Olav’s jaw.

Olav lies in fever for days. After Duke Eirik withdraws from the siege, a merchant takes Olav into Oslo and cares for him there. One day he looks at himself in a mirror. His cheek is furrowed and scarred, and his hair is gray. When he goes back to Hestviken in the spring, Olav feels that he is an old man.

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