BARELY have Ketil Gunnarson and the coastal raiding party he’s helping to lead landed on English soil when a stranger appears at their riverside camp with a message from the remote Norse settlement Orkney. Earl Thorfinn, no less, is requesting Ketil’s immediate return to the islands.
Struggling to cling to power in the midst of would-be usurpers’ relentless attacks against him, Thorfinn has welcomed the appearance of an influential religious delegation from Colonia in Saxony – a northwestern region of continental Europe that nearly a thousand years later will be part of Germany.
Ketil’s arrival back at the earl’s stronghold in Birsay a few days later is ill-timed, however.
With his Icelandic offsider, Lambi, he has scarcely had time to resume feasting in the familiar hall of Thorfinn and his wife Ingibjorg when a death is reported. A neighbour of Ketil’s childhood friend Sigrid has been found dead – and the presence of an axe protruding from his skill suggests it wasn’t accidental.
Suspicion is cast in a multitude of directions, not least of all at Lambi: a foreigner with an unknown past who has been accused of stealing a valuable drinking cup from a fellow Norseman.
Further complicating an already-uncomfortable situation, one of the Saxon visitors is an acquaintance Ketil had been hoping to avoid seeing again.
In the second instalment of her Orkneyinga Murders series, Scottish author Lexie Conyngham overlays a cast of complex characters on the real-life backdrop of 11th-century Orkney as described in detail in one of Iceland’s best known Old Norse sagas.
Both Thorfinn and Ingibjorg are documented historical figures, first introduced to Conyngham’s readers in Tomb for an Eagle, and the tumbledown-stone remains of their quarters and wider community at Birsay can still be visited, injecting an added dash of factual fascination to this fast-moving mystery.