Ragnar’s hall was splendid, as always. The great fireplace roared while mead filled every cup in the vicinity. The heavy table, covered in fresh bread, smoked meats dripping in fat, root vegetables, and the last fruits of the season, catered to Norsemen from every cardinal direction. Women and men ate with gusto and drank like fish while Ragnar himself presided over his guests.
In his chair at the head of the table, he’d outfitted himself like a king. Long fur robes lay against a silk shirt, and a gold hammer of Thor, the size of a chicken egg, rested on his chest. Ingrid’s fingers itched when she considered its value. Still, none of the fine garments could hide the calculating look that hid behind Ragnar’s bland expression. Nor did they conceal his pallid complexion and the silver dotting his temples. She wasn’t the only one who’d noticed. His three sons eyed their father’s place from all corners of the hall.
Ragnar had financed many of Ingrid’s expeditions. After leaving home and joining a crew for three years, she purchased her own ship. Ragnar’s town had been a necessary stop on the first of many trips to Dubh Linn. Whatever he’d seen in her when she’d first stayed in his hall had been enough to ensure that her last four years of travel stayed eventful. He beckoned her closer with a clawed hand adorned in heavy rings. At least two of them had been gifts from Ingrid’s ship.
“I hear that you’ve brought something interesting?” He said once she’d settled in a free chair by his side.
“Just bones,” Ingrid deflected. From here, she could see throughout the hall, including where her men were carousing with a few of Ragnar’s warriors. One or two had women in their laps. She frowned, hoping none of them were married.
“I speak of the þræll with the kerchief.” Mead splashed onto the white hair of his beard as he lifted the horn cup to his lips. “It’s not like you to take on a slave. I’m curious.” He fixed his beady gaze on her, and Ingrid shifted uncomfortably.
Ragnar was called The Shrewd, but most referred to him as The Weasel when they were away from his shores. His hall was filled with riches stolen from others, and his shores were lined with raiding vessels of Icelandic, Dane, and Norse origin. He hoarded information and anything else he deemed useful, including people. Being indebted to him was a mistake many made and lived to regret. He would chain you to his service for however long it took to pay back the debt. Many clans resented doing business with him. If not for the location of his hall and the access to the waters leading south, few ever would. It didn’t surprise Ingrid that he already knew of Rionan. She’d never kept much for herself beyond the standard cut owed a Steersman.
“She has good hands,” she admitted. “I intended her as a gift for my family.”
“Gifts ease the way back into our father’s hearts,” he agreed, surveying the feast. “My own would not acknowledge me until I brought ten ships to his doorstep and gifted him his sons’ heads.” Ragnar guffawed as if he’d told a hilarious story, while Ingrid could only grimace. Everyone knew how Ragnar, the bastard son, had slain his brothers and taken his father’s hall.
“I think the gold I bring will be more than enough to ease my way,” she countered. “The slave is just a bonus.”
“Retirement will not suit you, lass,” he chuckled. “You think like a warrior, like a Viking. You are always welcome in my hall should the life of a fishmonger prove too uneventful. Any of my sons would welcome you.”
Ingrid’s gut clenched at the thinly veiled offer. Being married into Ragnar’s clan would be a nightmare. All the wealth in the world couldn’t make living alongside a man that garnered such resentment from others bearable.
“I think I would like to go home for now, but I will remember your offer.”
Ragnar nodded and dismissed her, letting Ingrid return to her original seat halfway down the table. A young woman in a finely embroidered green dress took her place and leaned against Ragnar with a lover’s affection. Probably one of his mistresses. Using her knife, she speared a piece of venison stewed in a sauce made from berries and devoured it. The tang of the berry and the rich cut of meat lessened the tension in her belly, but she didn’t feel at ease. She wanted dawn to come sooner so they could leave, but it would be rude to their host not to spend at least one night. She put the conversation out of her mind and focused on enjoying the feast. Fruit and fresh meat would be a rare sight until she returned home.
The thought sparked an idea. Ingrid grabbed a plate and loaded it with bread, cheese, meat, a handful of small apples, and preserved cherries. Once it was sufficiently filled, she shuffled away from the table, only stopping to let Bjørn know where she was headed. He nodded and returned to the rumors the visiting sailor spewed. Ingrid slipped out the hall like a thief, heading back down to the shore and her ship.
The night air brushed across her sleeves, tugging at the thick fabric as she hurried past houses lit from within as families settled for the evening meal. Under the stars, a few boys tussled as they fought for a ball in a game of knattleikr. Shouts from the children and their parents were the only things that broke the quiet evening. Ingrid smiled as a gap-toothed boy shouldered a larger child away and dashed back to his team with the ball caged in front of him. She wasn’t allowed to play such games as a girl, but the sport seemed fun.
She continued until her ship loomed in front of her, beached in a clear spot where the light of a waxing moon painted the well-worn wood silver. Ingrid hadn’t named her ship. At first, it was because there were no accomplishments to distinguish it, then because so much time had passed, naming it seemed pointless. Still, her ship was her pride. She caressed the wood as she climbed the plank and looked for Rionan. She found her quarry bundled up at the dragon’s head, staring into the water.
“It’s a long way back to Dubh Linn,” she said by way of greeting. Rionan frowned.
“I hoped to get a glimpse of Ulaidh.” Her voice was soft. She didn’t talk often, hardly ever speaking above a whisper, but her words were straightforward and blunt. Rionan had only learned a handful of Norse on their journey, but Ingrid was near-fluent in Irish and didn’t mind switching languages. She settled beside Rionan on the rail and dangled her legs over the side.
“Here.” She passed the plate into Rionan’s hands. “Ragnar’s feasts are something to behold.”
“It’s a shame he doesn’t allow slaves into the hall.” Her small companion picked up a drumstick and began nibbling at the meat. Ingrid winced.
“Are you from Ulaidh?” She asked, changing the subject.
Rionan nodded. “There used to be a small abbey near the Bann. I lived there as a child.”
Ingrid mulled the information over. She didn’t know much about the Christian god, but she saw his images and crosses in various places, even around the necks of her kinsman. Some claimed he was a giant, others that he was a man. A few lords had allowed priests to speak his message on their shores, while others had them slaughtered on sight and their bodies hung out for the birds. Ingrid had no love or hate for this god, but she preferred the world as she knew it.
She’d grown up on stories of Odin and Freya. The legends told around the hearth were of Loki’s exploits, not the Christian saints and their god. Rionan finished her drumstick and picked up an apple. It was a small hard thing, likely one of the last of the season. She ate like a tiny animal, hunched over her food as if Ingrid would take it away at any moment.
“How did you end up in Dubh Linn?” The question had been sitting on the back of Ingrid’s tongue.
Rionan stopped chewing. All of a sudden, her shoulders tensed until she seemed to decide something.
“Vikings attack churches all the time,” she said. “Why are your people so obsessed with gold?” Her voice was bitter, and she refused to look at Ingrid when she asked the question.
“Everyone obsesses over gold,” Ingrid replied. “Even your god. After all, his altars are covered in it.”
“Because we give to Him in worship.”
“A god that needs money is a poor god indeed.” Ingrid took a cherry from the plate and chewed thoughtfully. “I’ve never liked gold that much.” Rionan glared at her, eyes flashing.
“Then why steal it?” she asked hotly.
“If you are starving, it does not feed you. If you are cold, it does not clothe you. However, it can buy you grain, a cloak, and tools to build a house, so I suppose it is good to have.” Ingrid chuckled and leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. The breeze off the ocean bit at her cheeks. Summer was leaving.
“My god is not poor,” Rionan said, her mouth set in a puckered frown. “It’s you heathens that covet gold who are poor.”
She smirked. “I need to pay my debts and crew, but I don’t desire it for more. Doesn’t your god help the poor? Would he begrudge us the gold he doesn’t need? Should I not take it if I see gold lying around serving no purpose?” Rionan crossed herself and muttered in Latin. Ingrid grinned, enjoying needling her.
“You will go to hell,” the girl finally said. “Unless you repent.”
Laughter bubbled out of Ingrid’s throat. “Or I will go to Valhalla!” She continued chuckling as she looked at Rionan. “I am not afraid of your god and his hell, little one. I’m not afraid of the wrath of the gods or the men who look at me strangely for sharing their tables. And I am not afraid of this.” She reached over and tugged on Rionan’s kerchief. Under the cloth, stubble had grown in thick and coppery red. It was a bad omen to some, it was senseless superstition to Ingrid.
“Tell that to your god, Little Red.” She didn’t care if her grin was savage. Rionan could call her a heathen all she wanted. It would change nothing. Ingrid had and always would live by her own code, and her little passenger would have to bear it. They finished their meal in silence under the stars, away from the lights and noise of Ragnar’s hall.
Bjørn – pronounced Byorn
þræll – pronounced thrai-sh, a slave
knattleikr – pronounced Kuh-nat-lie-kyr, a ball game similar to hurling