- The Grave of Valkyries – Part 1
- The Grave of Valkyries – Part 2
- The Evidence
- A Stopping Place
- The Storm
- Ragnar’s Hall
- Not Like Indiana Jones
- A Homecoming, A Gift
- Dragon Heads
- Dust and Misogyny
- Stone Walls
- The Vikings
- Circumstantial Truths
- Dance With Me
- Find a Question
- A New Home
- The King
- Three Springs
- Goodbye, Hello
- Unexpected Arrivals
- Bishop vs Rook
- Cause of Death
Rionan bowed her head for the end of Mass prayer. She tried to conceal her sneer when Gunnar did the same in the front pew. This was the third Mass she had to endure seeing him at. Each time, his demeanor was quiet, and he dressed in solemn colors. Once the bruises had faded, he’d started styling himself the way he had in Reykjavik. His blond hair was always brushed and braided, and his beard was combed neatly. He ordered new clothes from the tailer with expensive fabric that even Rionan would fear to touch. The congregation was taken with his handsome face, expensive clothing, and polite smile. She’d listened to enough women tittering about him between hymns to last a lifetime.
The priest said ‘Amen,’ and Rionan realized she’d been so annoyed that she hadn’t even listened to the prayer. She looked at the altar and silently promised to pray after Ingrid went to bed. The small church emptied as men and women bustled out into the light, chatting and tugging children and elderly parents toward home. While waiting her turn, she saw Gunnar approach the altar with his head bowed and a contrite expression.
Though she knew he was only pretending piety, the priests didn’t notice. She scoffed when Father Thomas patted him on the shoulder as the congregation milled out the doors. They spoke for a moment before the father led him through a doorway in the back of the church. Having spent time in the abbey, Rionan knew the church layout and where the priest’s office and sleeping quarters were located. She couldn’t understand why Gunnar wanted to go. She decided to ignore him for now and followed the townspeople into the sunlight.
Autumn had slowly crouched forward, and the days were becoming shorter. The chill air prodded through the knit of her new coat and raised goosebumps on her arms. Sigrid’s second pregnancy was more complicated than her first. Unable to do more than stir the occasional pot and knit in the comfortable chair by the fire, she’d started making everyone new winter clothes. Rionan was grateful. Her last set was too small.
It might seem vain, but she felt she’d gotten attractively plump over the last three years. The transformation of her face was shocking. In Dubh Linn, she’d caught glimpses of herself in the water at the ports or in the mirrors of jewelry sellers. Her face had been thin, and her eyes too large. She didn’t confirm her gaunt ugliness after her head was shaved because it seemed cruel. In the years since Ingrid, that hadn’t changed. It wasn’t until Helgi gifted Sigrid a bronze mirror that Rionan chanced a look.
The face looked familiar yet different. At nineteen, Sigrid was skin and bones. Her ribs had shown with each breath, and her cheekbones stood out like knobs. Now at twenty-four summers, her face was round and pink. Days of carving and farmwork in the sun, good sleep on Ingrid’s bed, and plenty of food did wonders for her complexion. She could sink her fingers into the healthy layer of flesh that stretched over her stomach and hips. Strength filled her arms and legs where they’d bulked with defined muscles. The wiry leanness she’d gotten used to before Ingrid steadily vanished. She now looked at herself in the occasional mirror with pride. Despite everything, her new family cared for her. Even her once-shorn hair laid over her shoulder in a fat braid, tied with a ribbon Ingrid had gifted her.
She once told Ingrid she spoiled her. Ingrid spoiled everyone she loved. Even her nephew, awash with infant wisdom, knew to approach his aunt first if he wanted a treat. Despite her protests, Ingrid continued to place more meat and vegetables on her plate at mealtimes and pass her charms and trinkets from the market. She ran her fingers over the bright red ribbon and smiled at the memories.
No amount of money could match Ingrid’s gift. The debt was insurmountable, but it weighed nothing. Just being at Ingrid’s side made her feel happy and safe. The Lord had truly blessed her. A radiant glow carried her through the churchyard.
“Red,” Ingrid called. Rionan jolted and looked around. She saw her on a bench by the well outside the church. Before one of her companions distracted her, she waved.
Ingrid was sitting between two older men, sailors that had come over on Gunnar’s ship and owed their lives to Ingrid. The pipe in her mouth smoldered as she argued over a game that involved small men on a board. Rionan inched closer to see what it was.
“I captured your king, Colm,” Ingrid insisted. Removing the pipe from her lips, she pointed the stem at the man on her right and then at the board. He sputtered and cursed while his companion laughed and handed Ingrid a few coins.
“Gambling in front of a church,” Rionan admonished playfully. “How brazen of you.”
Ingrid grinned. “The Lord has blessed me with a coin on this fine day,” she said, raising her hand to her heart. Rionan smiled at her tone of mocking sincerity. She looked far too pleased with herself. Ingrid loved games, especially when she won.
“Shall we go home with your fortune?” Rionan asked. Ingrid sighed and stood. Her joints popped loudly as she stretched. Rionan wondered if Ingrid had been in the same spot since Mass began. An idea formed as she looked back down at the board.
“Sorry, lads,” Ingrid said to Colm and his companion. “My lady insists on being home for Sunday supper.” She waved cheekily and wrapped an arm around Rionan before escorting her to the road where their donkey cart waited. Rionan blushed at the loud chuckles that followed them.
“How was mass?” Ingrid asked as they untied the donkeys from their post.
“The same.” Rionan waved at a few women who returned her greeting with stiff nods.
Ever since Ingrid had released her from her thrall status the day after Gunnar’s shipwreck, Rionan had been receiving odd looks from the villagers. It was as if they suddenly didn’t know how to treat her. Her status was familiar to many before the wreck. They ignored her or treated her like a servant, barely speaking more than a few words to her that weren’t barked commands. A month after Gunnar’s arrival, they were finally warming to her.
Now she accompanied Ingrid to their stall and took orders for carvings personally. Ingrid forced the customers to deal with her, refusing to answer their questions. Adjusting to her new status as a freedwoman took time. Now that she regularly attended Mass, they seemed to accept her more. When the priest was exceptionally boring, some of the younger women had sat with her and shared small, hidden pouches of nuts. Ingrid beamed when she told her this.
As they settled into the cart, a mother and daughter talking loudly passed by.
“He’s giving almost all he saved to the church,” the younger woman said with a dreamy look. “He said he couldn’t bear to hold on to such things when God had so mercifully saved him.”
Ingrid and Rionan listened to the pair as they walked by. Ingrid gripped the reins until the leather creaked.
“It’s only proper,” the mother said. “Only the Lord could have kept him and his men safe in that brew.”
“He said he wants to settle here for a time.” The girl twirled a strand of hair around her finger. “Do you think he’ll take a wife?”
“I think I should tan your hide for eavesdropping in the house of God,” her mother hissed and swatted the girl on the hip.
As their voices faded from view, Rionan glanced at Ingrid. She was stiff on the driver’s bench as she stared at the reins. She reached out and placed her callused fingers over Ingrid’s and squeezed.
“Let’s go home,” she said.
Ingrid sighed and flicked the strap. With a lurch, the donkey started down the road. The trip back was silent. Rionan wondered at Gunnar’s end goal. There was nobody else for the women to discuss. Why settle here far from his father’s lands and influence? She didn’t understand, and not knowing made her nervous.
They heard shouting before they saw the house. Helgi ran out to greet them, ash-pale and waving his arms.
“Bab-baby,” he wheezed.
“What!” Ingrid’s voice cracked, and she leaped from the cart and charged at him. “What happened to the baby?” Rionan followed Ingrid and rushed to join her. Blood pounded in her ears, and cold sweat gathered on her forehead. What could have happened to Erik in the few hours they’d been out for Mass?
“It’s coming,” Helgi forced out. “The baby’s coming. The midwife, she’s here and needs help.”
“It’s early,” Rionan breathed out. Ice filled her lungs. The baby was coming far too early.
A scream echoed from the house.
“Sigrid,” Ingrid roared and plunged inside, leaving Rionan and Helgi behind. Rionan stared at the open doorway, fear crawling through her insides. What would she see on the other side of that door?