Rionan knew how it felt to be an outsider. From the church to the market to the masters she’d served, there had been no place ready-made for her. No hearth had ever welcomed her without a struggle for a seat. She’d long gotten used to being last in line for food or affection. She wore loneliness like an old shirt with holes she could poke her thumbs through when bored. Being in Ingrid’s home was a new kind of lonely.
At least in Dubh Linn, she’d spoken the language well. She knew what insults were being hurled at her by the tanner and the fishmonger. She could tell who’d had babies and who had passed on. Even separate, she wasn’t apart from the crowds that milled around outside the doors.
For three days after she arrived, she followed behind Ingrid like a calf after its mother. She’d butted into her more than once and had been shooed away. The older woman, Yrsa, would talk to her occasionally, only to roll her eyes when Rionan failed to understand. When that happened, Rionan’s hands were stuffed with wool, and she was placed in front of the hearth, treated the same as a fool, and left to spin for hours. The girl wasn’t much better. She barely noticed Rionan was there at all, only pausing for a moment when they crossed paths before she bounded off to follow Ingrid around the longhouse. When evening fell, she curled up on one of the cots near the fire.
There was a room for Ingrid’s parents to sleep at one end of the longhouse. Ingrid, her sister, and Rionan settled into the cots built into the wall. Because there were only two, and Ingrid had brought her, Rionan was once more tucked into her owner’s side. Each evening she drifted off to Ingrid’s light snores, and in the morning she was shaken awake by the blonde. Time took on a pattern that was at least predictable, while underwhelming. After a week of mindless spinning, Ingrid told her she was leaving.
It was a quick trip to the market to deliver the last of her merchandise from Dubh Linn. She’d be gone for a few days at best and a fortnight at worst. Rionan tried to hold onto that thought as the ship vanished.
“Spin.” Yrsa pushed a drop spindle towards her as soon as she entered. Rionan had at least learned that word. With a sigh and a last glance out the door, she sat to begin the task. The knob twirled as she twisted the fine wool into thread. Yrsa and Sigrid both sang as they did the same. It was similar to a jig; the sound bounced between notes at a quick pace that invited a listener to bob their head. Each twist of the spindle followed the rhythm of the tune. Rionan wasn’t talented enough yet to do the same, but her thread was less lumpy than it had been after her first try. She wished she knew the words. It had been a long time since she’d sung anything, even hymns.
As Rionan continued to wrap the thread around the wood shaft she drifted. Her gaze caught the hot tongues of orange flame and turned dreamy. The crackle soothed her and lured her into a peaceful daze as the thin fibers of wool rubbed across her fingers. She didn’t realize she was humming until the others stopped to look at her. Yrsa looked at her shaft and nodded.
“Good.” Yrsa dragged her finger over the bundle of off-white yarn. “Tighter.” Rionan watched as Yrsa demonstrated the technique she wanted Rionan to use instead of trying to explain it as she had the first few times. Once her spinning was up to Yrsa’s standards, she nodded and started to sing again.
“Song helps,” Sigrid whispered. Ingrid’s sister had also learned not to use too many words with Rionan. She nodded as the teen sidled up next to her on the bench. Between the three of them, they had a hefty bundle of thread that Ingrid had informed her would be turned into cloth or clothes. Yrsa had already set aside a few balls for dying. None of Rionan’s bundles had been included.
“It will make fine socks,” Ingrid had encouraged her.
They spent most of the day spinning, as they had since she’d arrived. They only stopped to take care of the few sheep and chickens in the yard and prepared food for the morning and evening meals. Boredom gnawed at her heels like Sjór with at a chicken bone. At night, alone in her cot, Rionan found herself lying awake. She felt cold despite the coals that put off a little heat and shrouded the room in softened darkness. The blankets that bogged down her body were less welcoming without another’s warmth to fill them.
She twisted against the straw pallet. The cot frame creaked, splintering the silence and making Sjór’s ear twitch where she rested by the warm stone of the hearth. Rionan twisted again. She’d kept a tally of the weeks Ingrid had been gone, and it was approaching a fortnight, with no sign of the ship returning over the horizon. She grumbled to herself about unfilial Vikings as she curled into a tight ball under the blanket. As if to make her more uncomfortable, her bladder announced a need to relieve itself.
With a scowl, she kicked the blanket off and shuffled through the house and out to the privy. The air curled around her ankles, dipped into her boots, and flirted up her skirt. Rionan cursed and jogged inside the small outhouse where at least the wind was barred even if she had to put up with the smell. Ready to return, she darted out into the night.
It was a low building set between the house and the workshop Ingrid’s father vanished into for hours at a time. As she passed the door, the light flickering underneath caught her attention. A quick peek showed Bo glaring at a large piece of bone as he rubbed his wrist. Despite being much younger, Rionan knew the pain he must be feeling. Sometimes, when winter storms rolled in, or the air became too damp, the achy pain invaded her wrists and knuckles as well. Bo must have had an even worse time of it than she did, given his swollen joints. Taking a gamble, Rionan stepped inside.
Bo spared her a glance before turning back to his carving.
“Inside,” he grunted. “Sleep.”
Rionan pretended not to understand and shuffled closer. The bone had come from the whale carcass she’d spent weeks cleaning after finding it. One of the ribs, as long as her arm, sat on the worktable. Bo had bleached it so that the length almost glowed. The top, where the rib would have joined the whale’s spine, had been roughly hewn down to resemble a dragon, the type she’d seen on ships. That hadn’t been what was giving Bo problems.
At the tip of the rib bone, he’d started carving intricate designs, curls, and twisting vines that, based on his sketch, would go up half the length of the rib. Above that, a showy triskelion was marked out in charcoal before more vines would be added to lead up to the dragon’s head. Rionan’s breath caught at such fine detail. She glanced at Bo with admiration and pointed at the bone, then at herself.
“Help?” It had become the most helpful word in her repertoire. Yrsa understood what she meant and would let her do the task she’d indicated or shake her head. Sigrid was always happy to nod and shove whatever it was into her hands. This was the first time she’d asked Bo.
He scowled and scooted the rib away from her. Her shoulders sank. Finally, something she could be good at, and it was being taken away from her. Bo didn’t seem to know what to do with her crestfallen expression.
“Inside,” he repeated. His voice was barely above a whisper, but while kind, his tone made it clear he didn’t want an argument.
With slumped shoulders, Rionan walked over to the door, stopping when she saw a discard bin filled with bone fragments and small pieces of soft wood. A piece barely bigger than her hand sat on top. Without thinking, she grabbed it and tucked it into her dress before leaving and closing the door behind her.
Once back inside, she sat near the coals and stoked them just enough to see the piece she’d taken. If Bo didn’t trust Ingrid’s estimation of her skills, Rionan would have to show him. The segment was curved and rounded. It probably came from a shoulder blade of a sheep. Rionan bounced it to gauge the weight and checked the thickness. It would do for what she had in mind. She grabbed a stick and set it in the coals. Once the tip turned black, she got to work. It wouldn’t be a dragon’s head like Bo’s, but as the lines came together, and the design became more detailed, she hoped it’d be enough.