An Exclusive Excerpt From When We Were Vikings

Read the first chapter from the latest selection of the Reader’s Digest Book Club.

Cover of When We Were VikingsSimon & Schuster Canada

Chapter One

The Viking my brother got me for my birthday was tall and had muscles. Even if you were not an expert on Vikings and had not read Kepple’s Guide to the Vikings, you would say, that is a Viking. He looked like he could defeat hordes of villains and commit acts of bravery, like Beowulf, the most famous Viking, who defeated Grendel, who was not only a regular villain but also a monster.

But since I am an expert, I noticed many incorrect things. For example, the Viking’s sword wasn’t made of real metal, and his outfit was plastic instead of brynja, which is an armor made of rings to protect warriors from being cut with swords. His blond hair was not really blond. I could see that it had actually been colored.

After seeing the Viking, I chose a new Word of Today. The word ended up being gargantuan, a way of saying something, or someone, is amazingly large. It was a word that I had written on my list, with the help of my best friend, AK47, and since I remembered the definition, and since the Viking and the word went together, I decided I would put my other Word of Today (eloquent) away and make gargantuan the new Word of Today.

The Viking boomed through the door of our apartment, past Gert, and stood holding his sword. The first thing he said was: “WHERE IS ZELDA?”

He looked around the room, which was empty except for the couch, Gert’s chair, the lamp in the corner, the coffee table, and Gert’s TV, the most legendary thing we owned.

Gert pointed at me and made a sound with his throat.           

“You,” the Viking said, waving his plastic sword at me. “Are you Zelda?”

The Viking had already broken three of the rules that Gert and I have posted by the door to make sure our apartment stays clean and orderly and a good place for us both to live:

  • Take off shoes to stop outside dirt from going all over the apartment.
  • Do not stand in the doorway instead of closing the door and locking it as soon as possible, since people will try to rob us if they see the chance.
  • Do not drop bags and things by the door, instead of taking them to the right place in the apartment.

The rules are written in big block letters that say: RULES OF COMING IN AND OUT, and there’s a picture of the door and a person walking in that Gert and I drew together using the box of crayons I borrowed from the Community Center.

The Viking didn’t see the rules, but when Gert made a noise and pointed to his own shoes, the Viking said, “Oh, shit,” and kicked them off. “Sorry,” he said.

(Even though swearwords are allowed, one of the House Rules is that we should at least try not to use them, which Gert finds harder than me.)

“The door too,” Gert said, smiling.

The smiling was not a rule that we wrote down, but something we did for each other to show that we were happy with what the other person was doing without actually having to say, THANK YOU FOR DOING SOMETHING SMALL THAT I LIKED. That way we could save our Big Thank-You’s for more gargantuan things.

“I have come to wish you a happy birthday,” the Viking said to me. When he came closer he smelled like oranges sitting on the counter too long.

“Góðan dag!” I said to the Viking. 

“Excuse me?” the Viking said.

“Góðan dag!” I said, louder and making sure that every sound of the words was clear and enunciated (Word of Today, June 4).

Góðan dag is the traditional Viking greeting, according to Kepple’s Guide to the Vikings. Kepple’s website has a video guide to pronouncing Viking phrases and words. Góðan dag is pronounced “go-than-dag.” When you say words in Old Norse, you should sound like you’re spitting. One of the things I did when I started trying to speak Viking was hold my hand in front of my mouth, so that I could tell if I was saying things properly by how wet my hand got.

He looked at my brother. “What’s she saying?”

“Góðan dag, I repeated, then said: “Ek heiti Zelda! Hvat heitir þú?”

Which was me telling him my name and then asking what his name was.

“Tell her what I told you to say,” Gert said to the Viking.

Gert was sitting on the arm of the couch, wearing a cone birthday hat with wrinkled fingers coming out of the top. The wrinkly fingers waved around from the balcony wind.

The Viking stared for a second, not knowing what my brother was talking about, and then his face got big with understanding. “Oh, right. One second.”

The Viking closed his eyes and cleared his throat, like he was the President about to tell the world something very important. Gert turned down the drum music, which I had him download specially off the Internet from Kepple’s website.

“Ack anne there,” he said, stopping after each word and looking at me the entire time. “Ack anne there.” The Viking turned to Gert. “Am I saying it right?”

“Is he?” Gert asked me. 

“Ack anne there,” I said.

It sounded like Old Norse, or sort of like Old Norse, only with less spitting. “Can you say it again, please? With more spitting?”

“Ack anne there.” He coughed and took out a sheet of folded paper from his plastic underwear, which was shiny and gold (something a real Viking wouldn’t be wearing). He handed me the piece of paper.

The words were in Old Norse. I sounded out each letter. “Oh,” I said. “Ek ann þér.”

Gert smiled. “Right?”

It was not perfect, but I told Gert that I liked the Viking very much with my smile.

Excerpt of When We Were Vikings courtesy Simon & Schuster Canada.

Find out why When We Were Vikings is our March Book Club selection.

Join the conversation: Visit Reader’s Digest Canada on Facebook to share your experience of reading When We Were Vikings with fellow Reader’s Digest Book Clubbers. Comment on plot twists, speculate on who should play Zelda in the (forthcoming?) movie and post photos of yourself in a Viking costume (sure, why not!).