IN DEEPLY religious 1686 it doesn’t take much to raise the suspicions of fearful Icelanders.
Simply being literate is enough to see a woman branded a witch and sentenced to die in the official drowning pool at Thingvellir, where Iceland’s parliament meets in summer; being caught reading runestones, mentioning the island’s troll-like huldufólk or referencing the old Icelandic sagas is punishable with even more brutal treatment.
After her bishop father dies, 25-year-old Rósa agrees in desperation to become the second wife of a stranger, Jón Eiríksson, the chieftain of a community many days’ ride to the northwest of her childhood home. After all, Jón will support her mother, Sigridúr, sparing the ailing widow an ordeal of starvation and freezing – the inevitable outcome for anyone without a provider to support them.
Jón’s original bride is dead, Rósa knows, overcome by a sudden fever, leaving him childless.
It will be Rósa’s duty to cook, clean, mend, spin, salt and dry, to help with farmwork and fishing, and to produce sons to carry on her husband’s legacy. Jón, for his part, will ensure Sigridúr receives a reliable supply of peat blocks and meat.
Although reluctant to leave her lifelong friend Páll, with no viable alternative Rósa arrives in the seaside settlement of Stykkishólmur willing to do her best not to displease her benefactor.
She quickly finds life is not as straightforward as she had hoped it would be, however.
Jón is absent from from before dawn until well after dusk day after day, leaving Rósa alone with orders not to speak to his subjects, and clearly prefers to spend time with his assistant, Pétur, rather than Rósa.
When mysterious noises and a feeling of being watched are added to the mix, Rósa’s nerves are soon every bit as fragile as the tiny glass figurine she keeps buried her pocket.