YTRE ARNA, NORWAY
Chapter One: “A Mountain of Fear”
Mari popped a currant into her mouth, then wiped the red juice from her fingers on the grass. She tossed her long brown braid over her shoulder, picked up a full basket of berries with each hand, and began making her way back to the path.
“Come, Odin, “ she called. “Time to go home. Leave some rabbits for next time.”
Odin rarely needed a second shout, even in the heat of a chase. This time, though, he stood riveted on the mountain trail, staring intently into the nearby treeline, thick with pines. What had gotten into him? Ever since Papa had tucked him in her arms three years ago on her eighth birthday, when he wasn’t much larger than a rabbit himself, he had been her constant companion. He followed her bidding even before he was old enough for training. Now, as large as he had become, he did whatever she said, even if her command was said in a whisper.
This time the dog didn’t budge, didn’t even seem to hear her.
As she took a step nearer to the path, she noticed rustling in the trees. Low pine branches swayed. Something substantial was shuffling through the dried needles on the forest floor, coming through the dense woods toward the trail. She reached for the scruff of Odin’s neck and buried her fingers in the bristled fur of his raised hackles.
“Come, boy, we’re not here to hunt,” she whispered firmly, tugging at his neck. It was late August and bears had been seen along the mountainsides, usually gorging themselves on ripe berries.
Odin’s Norwegian elkhound instincts had kicked in, and Mari anticipated a bark at any moment, alerting her that he was prepared to hold the nearby prey at bay. She tugged again, this time trying to drag them both away from the currant bushes.
That’s when she heard voices—speaking German.
Her already racing heartbeat escalated, pounding harder against her ribs. She bent lower and wrapped her arms around Odin’s powerful neck and shoulders, trying to drag him away from the trail and out of sight.
Odin dug in, rooted to the spot, as steady and solid as a boulder. His lips curled back from his teeth. She heard a low rumble deep in his chest, a sound she had never heard from him before.
Odin’s stare was locked on the treeline as two soldiers emerged. Both had their sidearms drawn, and one of the two was pointing his handgun at a third person: Mr. Meier, her neighbor from the village. The old man stumbled ahead of the two men with guns. Mari was shocked to realize her neighbor, his face drawn with fear, had his hands tied behind his back.
Odin growled, then quieted to that rumble deep in his throat and chest. His lips pulled back even further in a vicious snarl. Mari buried her face in the coarse scruff of his neck and gasped, realizing it was too late to run. They would surely be seen.
When she lifted her head, she saw that the second soldier had stopped on the trail just a few meters away. His gun was aimed straight at Odin.
This pair of soldiers often patrolled together in Ytre Arne, and they had nicknames among the villagers. It was “Scarecrow” who faced her with the gun, the tall, scrawny soldier who seemed impossibly loose-limbed and lanky. Mari had seen him goose-stepping in formation and wondered how he kept from tripping over his own feet. His thick blond hair stuck out from under the back of his cap like straw.
The other soldier, the short one, was “The Rat.” His dark bristly mustache and muddy brown eyes were unexpected, since most of the soldiers were blonde and fair, typical of the “superior” race Hitler so admired. The Rat kept his gun pointed at her neighbor’s head, then shoved him forward, causing the old man to stagger and fall to his knees.
“On your feet, stupid Jew!”
Odin’s rumble deepened, building toward a growl, but Mari stroked the dog’s side and tried to quiet him.
Mr. Meier leaned on his elbow and scrambled to his feet. When he limped forward, Mari saw blood flowing from his knee, soaking his ripped pants. Blood also trickled down the side of his face from a cut near his eye, spreading across his reddened, swelling cheek. Her gut twisted and she clutched at Odin’s fur to stop the trembling in her own hands.
“Move,” The Rat ordered, nudging the gun’s muzzle into her neighbor’s back. He muttered to Scarecrow with a jerk of his head toward Mari and her dog, “Find out what they’re doing here, and then bring the pack.”
Speaking German was no challenge for Mari, or for most Norwegians her age and older, but she followed the lead of her family and neighbors, pretending not to understand. It was the least they could do to show respect for their exiled King Haarold. She usually felt a smug satisfaction in forcing the occupiers to use Norwegian, watching them stammer and struggle for words at times.
Now it was she who was struggling, for breath, not words.
She tightened her hug, pressing herself into Odin’s side. Her body trembled uncontrollably against Odin’s rock-solid stance.
[Excerpted from the first chapter of Odin’s Promise, by Sandy Brehl, a middle-grade historical novel to be released early 2014 by Crispin Books.)