FEW things of note ever happen on quiet little Shapinsay, one of the lesser islands of the Orkney group off the north-eastern tip of Scotland, known for the quality of its sheep and little else.
This lack of genuine news doesn’t prevent Beinir, the community’s designated scribe, inundating Earl Thorfinn with detailed accounts of Shapinsay’s trivial comings and goings, however. As one of the few fully literate men in Orkney, Beinir is exceedingly proud of his ability to present handwritten parchment records to his master at the Norse stronghold on Birsay.
Now Beinir is about to have something of true interest occur in his otherwise-routine life: Thorfinn has despatched the widow Sigrid, a renowned wool-worker, to Shapinsay on a reconnaissance mission. Her assignment is to weigh up whether she can see herself settling there as Beinir’s wife.
The timing of Sigrid’s arrival is unfortunate: no sooner has she unpacked in her temporary residence than a neighbour’s longhouse catches alight.
Fire is one of the worst things that can happen to an 11th-century dwelling, constructed from timber clad with strips of turf and fitted out with wooden furniture, furs and straw. So careful are householders in Orkney that a single blaze is unusual; that a second hut should burn less than 24 hours later is unthinkable.
And as two bodies are being pulled from the smouldering remains, assuming themselves to be under attack, the surviving residents do not hesitate to trigger the signal beacon that summons help from Birsay – help in this instance in the form of Sigrid’s childhood friend Ketil, newly engaged without his consent to Thorfinn’s only daughter, Asgerdr, and thankful for the hastily forced separation.
What – or who – could be responsible for such a rash of ill-luck in a small out-of-the-way hamlet where the half-dozen households are all closely inter-linked?