- 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
Snow lay heavy on the ground around their shop, but the cold hardly touched them inside despite the cracked door. Ingrid sat in front of the hearth and warmed her hands while she stirred a bubbling concoction in the pot. As she worked, she hummed.
It was the first night of Yule. A fire was lit in the square, and flames licked at the white flesh of the yule log. Laughter leaked into their space and combined with men’s shouts as the boar for the feast turned over a fire. The midwinter solstice, the longest night of the year, was upon them, and there would be ale and food for all. Ingrid sighed happily and nestled into the fur-trimmed coat she’d chosen for the festivities.
“When will it be done?” Rionan asked. She’d taken a break from twisting holly twigs and evergreen boughs to glance out the window. No doubt she was as anxious for the announcement of dinner as Ingrid.
“Soon enough,” Ingrid decided after she sniffed the air. She loved the Yule celebrations.
The men hunted the boar yesterday and sacrificed it to Freya by midafternoon. Their wives prepared its carcass and stuffed it with different aromatic herbs to flavor the meat as it cooked for hours. Every household was expected to provide a part of the meal and to help decorate the square. Ingrid had settled on Wassail, something Rionan had spoken of with a fond tone.
With her brew almost complete, the only thing left was to wait for the call to eat. A chill breeze wafted the scent through inside, and the smell of fat and spices made her mouth water. It wasn’t only the meat she was excited for. Songs, mead, and stories of Odin and Freya would abound throughout the town before everyone retreated inside to escape the watchful eyes of Odin’s night hunt. For the next twelve days, there’d be games and feasting as people chased away the cold with merriment. It hurt that they hadn’t been able to rejoin her parents, but Yule was a tricky time to travel.
“Hurry and finish,” she warned Rionan. “We’ll need a few for the coming nights.”
Rionan nodded and tied the boughs in her hand together. A pile of holly, evergreens, and mistletoe waited by the chair. Ingrid had cut the branches and collected the heftier logs earlier in the day. While Rionan had been leery about participating in honoring Odin, she’d agreed to make the wreath after Ingrid had pressed. Her clever hands were perfect for bending and twisting the supple branches. The final product would be huge, almost bigger than Ingrid’s torso, the right size for games. She would hang up any remaining material inside to add to the spirit.
“God Jól!” A voice called out from their stoop. Its owner opened their door without waiting for an answer.
“God Jól, Gunnar!” Even the appearance of Gunnar Ragnarson couldn’t dampen her spirits, though they flagged as her most recent headache marched into their house, sparing a single disdainful glance at Rionan. Ingrid frowned as the girl ducked her head and shrank in on herself a little. Before she could reprimand him, he turned a winning smile her way and sidled over to their hearth to loom over her. Gunnar wasn’t a bad-looking man. He was as tall as his brothers, with the same dark blond hair. His face was even with sharp features that the firelight enhanced. It was his eyes that bothered her. He had his father’s piercing gaze that studied people the way a hawk would a puppy, as if to determine if they were big enough to carry off.
“It smells delicious.” Though his words were polite, Ingrid could only offer him a tight smile in acknowledgment.
Gunnar was a recent visitor to the island working on behalf of his father. He was the only one of Ragnar’s sons who had been missing when she’d arrived in his hall. It seemed he’d taken it upon himself to make her acquaintance. Not only had he been in an out of the shop, but he’d also trailed after her when she was in the market. He made it a habit to interrupt her while she assisted Rionan when she carved or strung necklaces. Despite the harassment, she couldn’t claim he’d breached propriety. Anyone looking at Gunnar, who kept his hair clean and beard neat, and whose clothes were always immaculate, would assume he was an upright young lord. But despite the dignified appearance, she’d noticed mannerisms that put her on edge.
His compliments for their work were especially patronizing. He’d taken one look at their beaded necklaces and bracelets and called them appropriate for the common folk. He especially criticized the carved beads and crosses Rionan insisted on making for the few Christians on the island. Whenever he appeared, her sweet assistant, who was finally comfortable with people, faded into the background, which irritated her.
“I’d expected you to return to your father for Yule,” she said casually. Without waiting for an answer, she grabbed a cloth and wrapped it around the pot handles before pulling it off the fire. Gunnar stumbled back as she thrust the piping hot metal between them, using it to ward him back outside.
“I like to be gone more often than not,” he muttered. “The less time I spend with him, the less he can nag me about finding a wife.” She hummed.
“Miss Ingrid,” a third voice joined them from the doorway. Sweet little Helgi, their errand boy, and helper, hesitated at the sight of a large man in the house.
“What is it, Helgi?” Rionan asked. Ingrid thought she was grateful for the distraction from Gunnar.
“The meat’s cooked,” he declared. His cheeks appled as he grinned. “Everyone’s gathering.”
“Perfect!” Gunnar beamed at Ingrid. “Shall we join them?”
She gave in to her annoyance and gave him a fake smile.
“Of course,” she declared with false cheer. “Please take this for me, will you? There are still a few things left to do.” She shoved the pot into his hands, not caring if he burnt himself or managed to grab the cloth holders. She hoped he’d have at least one scorched finger. When he stopped fumbling, she rushed him out and drew Helgi inside.
“We’ll wait a while before joining everyone,” she declared. There was no way she would spend her evening with Ragnar’s son hounding her. If they waited for a while, he’d be dragged into a conversation or a drinking game that would keep him occupied and out of her hair. Helgi looked at her expectantly.
“Did Lord Gunnar come to court again?” Helgi asked.
Ingrid scowled at him. “He came to be a nuisance. Help Rionan with the wreath. As soon as it’s done, we’ll go.”
The boy joined Rionan on the floor by her chair with a smile and handed her foliage for binding or held things in place while she looked for twine. Helgi was their best acquisition since arriving in Reykjavík. He set out at fourteen as an apprentice boatswain. The poor lad quickly found that the seafaring life didn’t suit him. When she’d met him on the docks while visiting an old acquaintance stuck in port for the night, he’d been eager for any work that didn’t involve going back on the water. He lived with them, couriered their requests for larger jobs to her father, gathered goods, and ran deliveries. They liked having him about to help. He also adored Rianon.
When Rionan finished with the final frond, Ingrid declared it safe to go. The festivities were in full swing. People gathered at the bonfire and stroked the yule log that bore runes carved by multiple hands or sang and ate. A few started to play music. Numerous children sang and clapped along. The town lord ordered a heavy table be dragged to the square and covered in plates filled with the best of the harvest. The boar, when alive, would have had trouble turning a circle in her shop, sat in the middle of it all as a proud centerpiece.
They all rushed to take a seat and started to glut themselves. Ingrid was fast offered ale, as was Helgi. Rionan wasn’t, but Ingrid demanded the third mug anyway. The folk here considered her odd for letting a thrall join her or for allowing Rionan to get away with being cheeky and making demands. Most had gotten used to it, but some still preferred the thralls to know their place and remain quiet shadows of their masters. Ingrid saw a few who surrounded the group and stared at the table.
She knew they would not enjoy any of it unless someone was generous enough to offer them leftovers. Though a few had copper skin tones like Spaniards or Turks, most were Irish or from the highlands. Many glared at Rionan with avid jealousy at her treatment. Two women thralls, both heavily pregnant, sat together under an awning. Ingrid sighed and stabbed at another piece of meat before offering it to her companions. She disagreed with abusing slaves, but she couldn’t do much for any except hers. She’d become more of a friend than a thrall in the past months, and it pleased her to see Rionan happy and warm.
“God Jól!” Someone called out, and many voices responded. Ingrid raised her cup and toasted the gods and her fellows. A lanky, dark-haired man brought out a lute and began to play. One by one, women and men got up to start dancing. Helgi dragged Rionan away from the table and started spinning her in time to the music. He kept up well for being a head shorter than his partner. Rionan laughed as he lifted her into the air.
In only a few hours, the sun would set, and everyone would retreat inside for a long sleep but for now, the mead flowed heavy with honey, and there was plenty of merriment to go around as the sun finished its midwinter journey. Ingrid raised her mug and toasted her ancestors with another whispered, “God Jól!”