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Literature / Blood Feud

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"Danish tourists leave trail of destruction on Eastern European vacation"
Blood Feud is a 1976 Young Adult Historical Fiction novel by Rosemary Sutcliff.

Taken as a thrall in a Norse shore-killing, Jestyn the Englishman is sold in the slave markets of Viking Dublin to the Northman Thormod Sitricson. Freed after fighting at his master's side, Jestyn returns with Thormod to Denmark, only to find that two of Thormod's oldest friends have killed his father. Jestyn and his blood-brother will follow them across the Rus Lands to the Golden City of Miklagard, but before they can settle the score, they are swept up in the gathering of Khan Vladimir of Kiev's forces, sailing to the wars of the Byzantine Emperor Basil II, the Bulgar-Killer.

Blood Feud was adapted into the mini-series The Sea Dragon by Thames Television in 1990.


Blood Feud contains examples of:

  • After Action Patch Up: Jestyn and Alexia clean up their cheetah-inflicted wounds.
    "There in the bright heart of the lamplight, we washed off the blood and cleaned and salved each other's hurts — though mine was the merest scratch, and most of the blood on me was the leopard's — like friends after battle."
  • All First-Person Narrators Write Like Novelists: Jestyn looks back on his youth from the Framing Device of a contemplative spring evening in Byzantium thirty years later.
  • Aluminum Christmas Trees: Hunting with trained cheetahs. It was a thing, apparently.
  • Animal Motif: Wolf metaphors pile up: Jestyn is a "lone wolf" and a "wolf-cub", Anders and Herulf are "the young wolves", Sitric and Herulf Seniors are "the Old Wolves". Sutcliff also trots out her trademark hound similes.
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  • An Ass-Kicking Christmas: Jestyn finds Thormod in a spot of trouble in the streets of Dublin on the night of Yule. Thormod can't exactly say I Owe You My Life since he ends up having to defend Jestyn as well as himself, but Jestyn instinctively leaping to back him up is the act that cements their Undying Loyalty.
  • Band of Brothers: Jestyn gets to see the brotherhood of the Barbarian Guard from both inside and out.
    The Varangians were beginning even then to be a People unto themselves. Now, they have made one whole district of the city their own; they have their own church; they form all their bonds of friendship and brotherhood among themselves. It was not yet quite like that, but it was already beginning. If you were one of them, you were of the Tribe, the Family; if you were outside, you were on your own.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For:
    I wished again that I could feel this long-drawn quarrel as my own; that I could have the anger in my belly to warm the waiting.
  • Because You Were Nice to Me: Thormod isn't actually nice to his thrall, but eye contact and a momentary acknowledgement of common humanity is apparently all it takes.
    Thormod was not a particularly kind master, but I had never known much of kindness, and it did not greatly matter to me. After that moment at the slave-sheds when I had thought that he looked at me as a man looks at a man, he had whistled me to heel like a hound; and like a hound, I had followed. Still, I knew that I could live as a thrall so long as I was Thormod's, but to be anybody else's would be beyond bearing.
  • Birth-Death Juxtaposition: Alexia's pet gazelle Maia wanders off to give birth and is killed by the Emperor's hunting cat. She dies and Jestyn delivers her fawn by "the Caesarian operation."
  • Blind Musician: Thorn, a Wandering Minstrel who turns up for Sitric's Arval and prophesies the blood feud.
  • Blood Brothers: Thormod makes them blood brothers to reassure Jestyn that he won't leave him behind on his blood feud. This has the downside that Jestyn actually has to carry out Thormod's blood feud.
  • Burning the Ships: The Northmen who capture Jestyn feed him the meat of his own stolen cattle. This is apparently a no-no.
    "I could not go back. I had broken the Tabu, the unwritten Law of the Spirit, that binds all herdsmen, eaten the stolen flesh of the cattle I herded; I had done the Forbidden Thing. I threw most of it up again soon after, but that was merely the blow on my head. I had done the Forbidden Thing, and there could be no going back."
  • Bury Your Disabled: Averted. Dark Thorn, Hakon One-Eye, and Bardas Schlerus are partly or entirely blind, and the captured Bulgarian army who famously had their eyes put out by Emperor Basil get a mention. Cloe is hard of hearing. Jestyn acquires a severe limp after having his knee turned into "red mush" in battle in Thrace.
  • Cadre of Foreign Bodyguards: At the close of the campaign and the disbanding of Khan Vladimir's fleet, the Emperor Basil offers one thousand of the Northmen a place in a new Varangian Guard. Jestyn, Thormod, their shipmate Orm, and Anders take him up on it.
  • Call-Back: Sutcliff had evoked the glamour of the Emperor's bodyguard as an exotic destination for a young mercenary in Knight's Fee (1960) and Sword at Sunset (1963). It later featured in The Shining Company (1990).
  • Call to Agriculture: Jestyn first learns his doctoring as a cowherd. When he's out of a job in Constantinople, his prayer for guidance is answered by a damp wind that reminds him of the countryside and the employment opportunities of Alexia's farm.
  • Canine Companion: The late lamented Brindle, Jestyn's cattle-dog.
    They had killed my dog, the only thing I had to love, and I was going to kill as many of them as I could, in return.
  • Capital Letters Are Magic: Sutcliff's already strong tendencies in this direction perhaps reach their apogee in Blood Feud. Including but not limited to: Guest-Right, Viking Kind, Midwinter Fire, Farewell Gold, Holm Ganging, Red-Ship, Ship Summons, Ravens' Gatherings, War Host, Corn Fleet, Imperial Standard, Hearth-Companions, Horn-of-Gathering, Long Shadows, Healing Gift, Killing Time.
  • Career-Ending Injury: Bardas Schlerus ends his revolt against the Emperor Basil because he's going blind. Jestyn's right knee is smashed into pulp during an ambush in Thrace. He's invalided out of the Varangians and can't think of anywhere to go for a job but Alexia's farm.
  • Combat Medic: Jestyn starts his career as a cow doctor, then becomes a Viking and a mercenary, then becomes a physician's orderly who's vowed to kill somebody.
  • Conflicting Loyalties: Though committed to Thormod's cause, Jestyn has no personal inclination to murder Anders Herulfson until he kills Thormod. The heat of the moment past, he can't bring himself to do it, and resigns himself to being The Oathbreaker. Thirty years later, he's still not sure it was the right choice. He sometimes describes the Viking Jestyn and Jestyn the healer as two distinct people, or two separate lives.
  • Conveniently an Orphan: Jestyn's parents die when he's a child, which makes the decision to follow Thormod to Denmark and settle in Byzantium simple. He thinks that Alexia worries he's nostalgic for England, but he has no reason to ever return there.
  • Creator Provincialism: Blood Feud is one of Sutcliff's farthest-ranging novels, but it opens in the West Country of England, where she grew up.
  • Cycle of Revenge: Thormod returns home to find that his father Sitric has accidentally killed a neighbour, Herulf. Herulf's sons, Thormod's friends Herulf and Anders, have duly killed Sitric, and expect Thormod to hunt them down in Miklagard for a Duel to the Death. Jestyn's blood brotherhood with Thormod obligates him to carry on the feud, and the conflict with his beliefs as a Christian and a doctor is the ethical crux of the novel.
  • Died in Your Arms Tonight: Failing to murder Anders in cold blood or cure his raging infection, Jestyn watches over his deathbed. Anders half-heartedly accuses him of revenge via ignominious death.
    'You have a fine vengeance, but — the dagger would have been cleaner…'
    He seemed to be finding it harder to breathe; and I raised him and held him against my shoulder. The smell of his breath was like the smell of something already dead. I don't think he believed it of me, even while he gasped out the bitter words, for he turned his head on my shoulder, as on the shoulder of a friend.
  • Due to the Dead:
    'Yet for the old wolf — blood may give him the better right to sit with his head high in Valhalla.'
    I was a Christian of sorts. I had thought of the Blood Feud as a matter of vengeance. It was not until that moment that I understood that for Thormod and his kind, it was a matter of a dead man's honour.
  • Duel to the Death: Thormod and the Herulfsons make polite arrangements for a Holm Ganging when they meet in Kiev – a one-on-one knife fight between Thormod and Herulf, then Anders and Jestyn, until one side or the other is dead. Thormod kills Herulf before Khan Vladimir puts a stop to it until his War Host is disbanded.
  • For Want of a Nail: Bardas Phocas is killed and his rebellion ended when an erupting quail startles his horse. Jestyn makes two life-altering decisions based on, respectively, the direction and smell of the wind.
  • Friendship Trinket: Thormod wears an amber amulet of Thor's Hammer, which Jestyn is trying to return to him the night he comes to Thormod's rescue. It's also connected to his boyhood with Anders and Herulf. It falls off Thormod's body at his death and Jestyn still wears it thirty years later.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Jestyn and Thormod, at one point compared to legendary mates Achilles and Patroclus's Tragic Bromance.
    The Viking Kind meant nothing to me, and surely I owed him nothing because I was his thrall, bought whether I would or no. I had answered because it was Thormod in need of help, and I was Jestyn. Thormod and Jestyn. Nothing to do with Dane and English, master and thrall. And Thormod knew it also. There has to be a first time for everything; for friendship as well as love; and first friendship, once given, can no more be given again than first love.
  • Historical Domain Character: Khan Vladimir of Kiev; Emperor Basil II the Bulgar-Slayer, and his siblings co-Emperor Constantine and Princess Anna; Byzantine rebel generals Bardas Phocas (Phokas) and Bardas Schlerus (Skleros).
  • Inconvenient Hippocratic Oath: Inversion. Jestyn wants nothing more than to apprentice as a physician with Demetriades, but he can't commit to medicine while he's still sworn to murder a dude.
    No man can give a whole self to serving life, when the thing that comes first with him is the death of another man.
  • Intrepid Merchant: Jestyn and Thormod work their way to Miklagard aboard the trader Red Witch, under the Ship-Chief Hakon One-Eye.
  • It's Personal: For Thormod, Anders, and Herulf, but Jestyn's taste for the blood feud is lukewarm before Thormod's death.
  • Loophole Abuse: Though he's put off his Inconvenient Hippocratic Oath for just this moment, when Anders staggers to his door to assassinate him, Jestyn can't bring himself to murder a guy who's already dying of tuberculosis. He does his best to save him, but assures Anders that he'll still get to Valhalla because Thormod killed him in battle when he stabbed him in the lung and pushed him into the river – it just took longer than usual.
  • Made a Slave: Jestyn is taken as a thrall by the raiders who steal his cattle. Thormod impulse-buys him while window-shopping in the Dublin Slave Market. Anders is taken prisoner by the Bulgar army in Thrace and barely survives two years as a captive labourer.
  • The Medic: Demetriades the Physician, Alexia's father, takes note of Jestyn's healing touch with livestock and drunks, and offers him a job and an apprenticeship.
  • Mr. Exposition: Thormod's brother Sitric Sitricson delivers the bad news about their father. The captain bearing Khan Vladimir's Ship-Summons outlines Emperor Basil's war on two fronts against the Bulgars in Thrace, and his rebel generals Bardas Phocas and Bardas Schlerus. Hakon's Kievan patron Erland Silkbeard explains Vladimir's decision to adopt Christianity and marry Basil's sister Princess Anna.
  • Never Learned to Read: Jestyn speaks Cornish, English, Norse, and Greek, but can't read Demetriades's medical texts, so Alexia teaches him with The Iliad as setup for an Achilles and Patroclus metaphor.
  • One-Steve Limit: Averted. The Princess of Byzantium and Alexia's elderly maid are both named Anna – for a 50% Anna rate among women whose names are mentioned.
  • Pelts of the Barbarian: Thormod is introduced as "the man in the wolfskin cloak", which he ends up trading for Jestyn. Herulf the elder is wearing a wolfskin cloak when Sitric mistakes him for a bear.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: Blood Feud was adapted into a 1990 mini-series called The Sea Dragon, a British and Scandinavian co-production. The scenes in Greece and Russia were revised to take place in Scandinavia.
  • Prophecies Are Always Right: Thorn the harper sings at Sitric's funeral of a blood feud of two brothers against two brothers – a fairly safe prediction, except that one "brother" turns out to be Jestyn, who has no real stake and at one point no idea how to find his opponent or whether he even lives.
    Thormod: Now the sign of the Blood Feud is on your forehead also, as Dark Thorn saw it, and my road is your road, to Miklagard and beyond.
  • Replacement Goldfish: Alexia names her dead gazelle's fawn after its mother. Alexia reminds Jestyn of Thormod – they share their most emphasized characteristics, quietness and self-control.
  • Rescue Romance: When Jestyn meets Alexia, he doesn't just save her from a marauding cheetah, he proceeds to deliver her pet gazelle's fawn by caesarian section. She then takes him in off the street when he's out of a job.
  • Shout-Out: Orm's rowing-song with the chorus "A long pull for Miklagard!" is a riff on Rudyard Kipling's "Thorkild's Song" in Puck of Pook's Hill.
  • Slave Liberation: When Thormod's ship makes ready to sail from Dublin in the spring, he has the Slave Collar cut from Jestyn's neck and offers him a place on their rowing-benches.
    Thormod: I am not minded to leave a man who's fought shoulder to shoulder with me, sold off in a strange land with a thrall-ring round his neck; that's all.
  • Stern Chase: Anders and Herulf kill Thormod's father and set off for Miklagard. Thormod and Jestyn take the next ship after them to pursue them across the Baltic, down the rivers of the Rus and through the Great Portage, and catch up with them in Kiev, where all ships moving up or down the Dnieper are caught in the net of Khan Vladimir's gathering war fleet.
  • Supporting Leader: Khan Vladimir, Erland Silkbeard, Emperor Basil.
  • Tranquil Fury: Thormod's usual levelheadedness extends to his thirst for vengeance.
    I come of a people who do not howl and cast ashes on their heads for the death of kinsfolk; but this was something that I had not met before.
    And then in the same level, fact-stating tone, he added, 'Herulfstead shall burn for this.'
  • Unfriendly Fire: Jestyn and Thormod are caught in a Bulgar ambush in Thrace. Anders arrives just ahead of The Cavalry and cuts Thormod down with a throwing axe as he defends the fallen Jestyn.
  • Vodka Drunkenski: Khan Vladimir selects the faith of "the White Kristni" as the Rus's new national religion because Islam's requirement of abstaining from alcohol was obviously out of the question for the Northmen.
  • We Used to Be Friends: Herulf and Anders were Thormod's closest friends, who grew up together on travellers' tales of the road to Miklagard.
  • What You Are in the Dark: Jestyn is left alone to watch over Anders, who is near death anyway...
    Alexia: I knew you could not; but you had to find it out for yourself.
  • You Are Worth Hell: Before the War Host departs Kiev, Jestyn wrestles with the decision to swear his oath of loyalty on Thor's Ring with the rest of his crew.
    Now I had prayed to strange gods, and so in all likelihood I was damned. But I wasn't wasting time regretting that, it was just a fact. I was Thormod's shoulder-to-shoulder man, Thormod's follower wherever he went; and I supposed I could face damnation with Thormod if I had to; assuredly I could not leave him to face it alone. It was simply, as I had explained to my own God, that there wasn't any other way.