An excerpt from Song of the Shieldmaiden
Svanhild swung the sword, hitting the practice pell right above its straw thigh. She cursed. It was not where she wanted the blow to land.
Sweat plastered her dark blonde hair to her forehead. As the night grew colder, her breath came out in clouds. Her body steamed like water vapor from a hot kettle, yet still she battled on.
Across the yard, a door was open to the longhouse. Light streamed out from the grand hearth within. Svanhild heard a cacophony of familiar sounds inside – the voices of her family, the sloshing of ale horns, the friendly taunts and laughter of the warriors just home from their latest journey across the sea.
It was the end of summer, a time of celebration.
The smell of roasted meat and fresh bread made Svanhild’s stomach growl. But she could not stop now. She still could not land a hard blow against the pell after spinning. Knowing that someday she would feel the surprise of an enemy behind her, she wanted to master this move.
She had to be prepared for anything if she was to be a shieldmaiden. She needed to prove herself. If she succeeded, skalds would sing songs of her bravery, and when it was her time to leave this realm, Odin would welcome her into Valhalla.
This time next summer, she hoped to go raiding with her father and his loyal warriors – if her family allowed her, of course.
She let out a battle cry, spinning with her sword outstretched. The edge of it lodged into the straw practice pell, but it was not enough force to stir many needles.
“Hold the sword tight to your body, until you are ready to strike.”
The familiar voice made her stop. She turned to see her father, Jarl Tove, standing between her and the longhouse, a horn of mead in one hand. He wore his best fur-trimmed cape tonight, his long brown beard knotted and adorned with silver rings. He made a formidable shadow against the light from within the hall behind him.
Even in the darkness, Svanhild saw his twinkling eyes. She smiled. Whatever revelries he had been enjoying with their family and his warriors inside, he was taking time to come and watch her train. As he always did.
“Show me,” Svanhild said, thrusting the sword hilt out to him.
They exchanged mead for training sword. Svanhild took a sip from the horn while her father got into position. The mead was sweet tonight, like berries and honey. As she watched Father swing the sword at the straw man, she took another gulp from the horn. She had not realized how thirsty she was until now.
“Do you see?” Jarl Tove asked. He demonstrated the move again, holding his sword upright before him as he whirled around to face the practice pell. Then, just as swiftly, he jabbed the sword directly into the stomach of the straw man. “Swords are made for slicing, not stabbing, but that is how we take the enemy by surprise.”
Though Svanhild would have enjoyed more mead, her fingers itched for the sword again. “Let me try,” she said, hurrying to return her father’s ale horn to him.
Once the sword was back in her grasp, she faced away from the training pell. She tried to mimic her father’s move, holding the sword flat in front of her face. Then, she twirled as fast as she could. The moonlit world of the training yard swirled around her.
“Hold the momentum inside your core,” Father said.
She held her breath as she spun. As soon as the straw man swam into her vision, she slammed her boot into the ground and lunged forward, sword pointing out from her waist. The tip of the blade dug into the straw with a satisfying crunch.
Her father whistled his approval. The sound made Svanhild glow inside.
“What are you two doing out here?” came another voice.
“Hello, Mother,” they both said at the same time, then laughed.
Svanhild’s mother, Helga, stood in the light of the longhouse door. She wore an embroidered red dress, her thick golden hair braided and swept over one shoulder so it hung in front of her. Despite her status as the jarl’s wife, she wore only a simple necklace set with a delicate green stone – not nearly as much as she could be wearing, given the treasure the men had brought back from their travels.
“Come in from the cold,” she called to her husband. “Your people dislike getting drunk without your example.”
Tove returned to her, giving her a kiss on the cheek. He stroked her braid, probably a little drunk already. “Whatever you say, my shieldmaiden.”
Helga laughed, shaking her head at him. “It’s been too many winters since I last held a shield.”
“You will always be a shieldmaiden to me.” The jarl kissed his wife again, this time on her long neck.
Svanhild made a face at them to get them to stop, though she didn’t really mind. Her parents were always particularly affectionate after her father returned from his summer travels.
As her parents headed back to the feast, Helga called over her shoulder, “You’re coming too, Svanhild.”
Sighing, Svanhild lay her training sword next to the pell and followed them into the building.
Inside the sprawling main hall, the air was thick with smoke and the smell of roasted meat. Wooden tables ran the length of the room, with benches and stools where men and women sat together, flirting and sipping their mead. Everyone feasted on plates of goat meat, roasted vegetables, and bread twisted into the shape of elaborate knots.
At the center of the festivities, a fire roared in the hearth, making faces flush and sweat form on the brows of those who had drunk the most. The smoke drifted into the rafters, disappearing out smoke holes in the roof. Svanhild glimpsed moonlight there. As happy as she was to be with her family now, she wished she could be out in the fresh air, sword in hand.
Shaking off the thought, she joined her family at the jarl’s table. Positioned at the end of the hall, it faced the rest of the longhouse so they could look upon their people. Jarl Tove and Helga sat together in large chairs at the center of the table. They were already flanked by their two other daughters, Svanhild’s younger sisters.
“How fast can you eat?” Svanhild teased Brynja, the youngest of the brood, whose plate was already empty.
Her sister peered at her through her curtain of shimmering brown hair. “It’s only my first plate,” she insisted, smiling a little. Though she was easily the most beautiful of the three sisters, Brynja hid her gaze behind her lashes and seemed overly occupied with her food.
Nearby, a group of warriors eyed Brynja, nudging each other as if to see who would dare approach her. Svanhild wasn’t surprised. Half the men in the village had been waiting for Brynja Tovesdotter to reach marrying age. Yet now that she had, no one seemed to have the courage to approach her – especially as she sat right beside her father, the king of the land.
“You have admirers,” she pointed out.
Brynja blushed and stuck her tongue out at Svanhild, making them both laugh.
Svanhild moved around the far side of the table to sit beside Haldis, the middle sister. Tonight, Haldis wore a hood to hide her all-white eye and red rash from company, even though everyone in the village had seen these features at some point. Her long, straight hair streamed out the sides of the hood, pale as moonlight. With her seeing eye she scanned the room, watching everyone, observing everything.
“How is the feast so far?” Svanhild asked.
Her sister glanced at her from beneath her hood. “I see you wore your best dress to sword practice.”
Svanhild laughed. Though Haldis’s high-pitched voice always sounded lost in dreams, Svanhild had learned to read when her sister was teasing her. The voice only made it more comedic to Svanhild.
“I always train in dresses,” she said. “This way, I’m prepared for anything.”
“In case you are attacked at a feast?” Haldis said.
“Are you still teasing me? Now I can’t tell.”
Svanhild saw the flash of a smile beneath Haldis’s hood. She returned the expression. Then, feeling flushed from her training, she lifted her dress at the shoulders and waved the fabric a few times, generating a breeze beneath the layers of wool and linen. The gown closest to her skin was stuck to her back and sides.
“Perhaps I should have changed into something lighter,” she admitted. At least tomorrow she was due for her weekly bath.
A thrall brought her a plate of goat meat, vegetables, and a knot of seasoned bread. She bit into the meat with relish, famished after her training session. When the thrall returned with a horn filled with mead, she gulped it down as quickly as she could, without a thought for what the strong drink might do to her head in a few moments.
Haldis watched her. “Are you trying to pass out as an excuse to go to bed early?”
“That’s not a bad idea. If you see a thrall, let’s ask for another round.”
Haldis laughed. The sound was light as a feather drifting in the breeze – so different than the growl and crackle of the last village völva, who had died last year of old age. But that was what Haldis was training to become: someone who would commune with the gods, cast lots, and tell fortunes. Such work was of special benefit to a jarl, who needed to consult with the gods to lead his people well. But Haldis would also share her gifts with anyone in the village who sought to know the plans of the Norns, the female deities who wove everyone’s fate.
Svanhild downed another horn of mead. The sweet flavor was catching up to her, making her even thirstier than before. Still, the drink dulled the aches in her body where training had challenged her. Watching her father’s warriors celebrating, sharing stories of their bravery with their wives and children, she felt a pleasant tingling throughout her body.
This was true happiness. Family, friends, warriors home from battle.
And someday, she would be with those men, telling stories of her own.
A man’s voice interrupted her peace. “Good lady, may I share this drink with you?”
Svanhild looked over to see a man standing at her end of the table, ale horn raised to toast with her. He had a long red beard, ruffled and unkempt. On his wrist was a bracelet, a chunk clearly missing where he must have paid someone with the silver.
“What makes you approach the daughter of the jarl?” she asked. She was used to invitations from men who wished to woo her, but only during these festivities each summer – after weeks of travel and an abundance of ale – did men approach her quite this drunk and disheveled.
The man swayed a little. His cheeks were almost as red as his hair. “It would honor me to drink with the jarl’s daughter. And it would honor me to drink with a woman so beautiful as…” He lifted his horn even higher, raising his voice. “The great… fierce… Svanhild of Kaldvik!”
She heard a few chuckles from a nearby table, where several other warriors were watching this exchange. She wondered why this poor man had chosen to approach her over her sister Brynja. At least Brynja would have turned him away with a blush and a shy smile.
“If you wish to drink with me, you’ll need to entertain me,” Svanhild said. “Tell me, what is the most difficult battle you have faced so far? If it is grander than my greatest battle, I will drink with you.”
The man chugged from his horn before answering. “Well, once I faced…” His eyes seemed to go out of focus for a moment as he thought. “I faced a great black bear, in the forest beyond this village!” He sounded quite proud that he had thought of this story. “I know it was a test from the gods, for it sought me out while I was hunting…”
Svanhild lifted a hand to stop him. “If the hardest battle you’ve fought is a bear, then I am afraid we must part ways for the night.”
Haldis giggled beside her. She felt the eyes of her parents watching this interaction now, too.
“You fought something bigger than a bear?” the man said incredulously.
“Oh, I faced a far greater battle,” Svanhild said, “when I was forced, against my will, to weave the tapestry that hangs on that wall.” She pointed to a large tapestry nearby, taller than the man and draped across a large part of the wall. It depicted the god Odin leading the Wild Hunt, his horse Sleipnir proudly paving the way through a dark forest; above them, the sky was speckled with stars, and the shadows of two ravens could be seen soaring over the raiders’ heads. Svanhild shuddered to remember the weeks of torturous sewing, while their seamstress Ursula hovered over her and rapped her knuckles at every tiny mistake.
The man studied the fabric for a moment, then guffawed so loudly Svanhild nearly dropped her ale horn in surprise. Several people nearby turned toward the noise, and the men who had been watching all laughed along.
“I suppose I will have to try again another night, then,” the man said, bowing at the waist to Svanhild. The gesture seemed to unsteady him, for he staggered a step backwards, still chuckling to himself.
Svanhild inclined her head to the man as he took his leave.
Helga clucked her tongue at her daughter. “That was not your cruelest rejection. You must be in a good mood tonight.”
“It was not your cleverest either,” Haldis said.
Svanhild shrugged. “I am not trying to best Loki. At least it got rid of him. And look, he’s still laughing.”
“I think he’s too drunk to let anything bother him tonight,” said Haldis.
Svanhild nodded in agreement. “Everyone here is happy to be alive. That is what they say battle does. It brings pure joy that cannot be had with a simpler, less courageous life.”
Jarl Tove leaned forward to meet his daughter’s gaze. “We do not travel just to fight, Svanhild.” His amber eyes seemed to shift and flicker in the firelight. Svanhild, knowing this signaled the gods’ wisdom working in him, listened more carefully as her father continued, “We fight to protect one another and what is ours. That is the call of a warrior. But with cleverness, we can avoid most fights and gain a new treasure in the process.”
Svanhild took her father’s bait. “What treasure is that?”
“Respect,” said Tove.
Svanhild frowned. Though she had heard this wisdom from Father before, it rankled something inside her. Rather than thinking on it, she said, “It’s good I have many years before I become a jarl, then. Perhaps I could be a bodyguard. The more dangerous the post, the better.”
“That you would do well,” Father laughed.
Rising to his feet then, he called for attention in the hall. His deep voice resonated against the timbers of the longhouse, as though he was so much a part of this place, he was inside the walls. The chatter died down as everyone turned to listen. Tove took a moment to look over the crowd, a soft smile on his lips.
Finally, he said, “Nothing brings such a smile to my face as seeing all of you here in my hall. You are the reason I make this beautiful land my home.”
Several men and women lifted their ale horns to toast his words.
“When the gods first brought us to this land, it was cold and barren,” Tove continued. “But Kaldvik is a place with a secret magic. The All-Father’s ravens make their nests in these forests. Since we arrived here, Freyr has blessed this land with bountiful harvests year after year, for generations. Like me, you have all believed that the gods have a plan for Kaldvik. It is that belief, along with your loyalty and hard work, that has made our lives so rich.”
Several people cheered at that. Tove took his wife’s hand in his and lifted it in a show of unity. Helga watched him with bright eyes, a smile playing at the corners of her lips. When they lowered their hands back to their sides, Svanhild noticed they kept them linked.
“As many of you know, I met my wife on the battlefield,” Tove said. “I saw she had the swiftness of a raven, and I knew she would make a fine wife.” He glanced at Helga, smiling. “I was not wrong.”
Helga nodded demurely, but Svanhild caught the smile in her mother’s eyes at his compliment. Several people in the hall raised their horns and cups to toast the couple, for they knew their jarl had married in a love match and were happy for it.
“Now, I sense the same stirring in my daughter Svanhild. Many of you have seen how she trains with a wooden sword… and scares away marriage proposals.”
The people laughed, and Svanhild joined in, for it was true.
“My wish is that my daughter never has to wet her blade with blood, but I cannot ignore the whispers of the gods.”
Svanhild’s breath caught in her throat. Where was he going with this?
“The goddess Freyja has first pick of fallen warriors on the battlefield,” her father said. “As you know, the chosen ones will join her in Fólkvangr, while the remaining half join Odin in Valhalla.”
He turned to Svanhild then, his eyes dancing. She raised an eyebrow at him in question, her heart racing as she sensed where this was headed.
“I have no desire for myself or my family to meet the gods yet,” Tove admitted, eliciting a few chuckles from the crowd, “but I would rest happy to know that someday, far in the future, my daughter will join Freyja in her hall. That is why, with a father’s pride, I announce that my eldest daughter will join us on next summer’s journey.”
A warmth spread through Svanhild’s blood as all eyes turned to her. This was what she had dreamed of, the moment her father would finally invite her to join him on his travels. She smiled at him, unable to keep the excitement from her face.
Jarl Tove lifted his ale horn. “This year will be a year of training for Svanhild. I expect all of you to help me with that. And should the day come when an enemy lifts his blade against my daughter, I trust that every warrior here will protect her, as you have protected me, and as I have protected you.”
Svanhild’s smile flickered. When a warrior pledged himself to his jarl, he swore to protect him with his life, knowing his jarl would do the same for him. She imagined it would be the same when she was a warrior, yet the way her father worded it, he clearly wanted to shield her from the bloodshed the men experienced.
Haldis leaned toward her and whispered, “Do not worry, sister. Every father is overprotective of his daughters.”
Svanhild nodded, keeping the smile on her face as the warriors raised their horns to make their pledge. Many watched her as they did so, smiling warmly. They had seen her grow up. They would protect her on the battlefield, too. Though she did not want any special treatment, she sensed their care for her – and for tonight, that would be enough.
“To Svanhild!” Tove shouted, beaming at his daughter. “May Thor grant you strength and Tyr guide your blade.”
Voices shouted, “Skol!” as men and women lifted their ale horns to toast the announcement.
Svanhild lifted her own horn to her lips and drank deeply. In the heat of the hall, filling herself with mead, she was starting to feel dizzy. Part of her longed for fresh air, but now she did not want to leave the feast. Not during such a happy celebration. Not when her dreams of being a shieldmaiden finally felt in reach. Not when her heart felt so full.
“Soon we shall have a song from our skald Valí,” Father continued, “but first, let us hear a song from our future shieldmaiden.”
Svanhild stood as several people whistled in anticipation. Ever since she was a child, she had been singing at these feasts. If she had not dreamed of being a shieldmaiden, she would have wanted to be a skald, for the gods had blessed her with the gift of song.
“Any requests?” she asked.
“I trust your taste,” her father replied.
Svanhild had memorized several songs, taught to her by their house’s skald. During a celebration like this, she would normally choose a tale of Thor’s bravery or a hero’s saga. But tonight, something else came to her: a song of the Valkyries, who flew over battlefields to send brave warriors to Fólkvangr and Valhalla.
“For those who have fallen in battle,” she said, and then began to sing.
The hall hushed to silence as her voice wafted into the rafters, the crackling hearthfire her only accompaniment. As she sang, her eyes drifted shut, her mind picturing the scenes as though they were happening in front of her. After a time, she no longer heard her own voice. The words simply flowed through her, a gift from the god Bragi.
Someday, skalds would sing such songs about her, as they would her father before her.
The game was that they had to die first.
As the celebration wore on, Haldis watched. While men drank mead and kissed thralls – some in full view of their wives – Haldis watched. While women flirted and cuddled close to their warriors, Haldis watched. While her older sister sang a song of the Valkyries, Haldis watched. While her younger sister hid her shy smile from several men who filled her ale horn, Haldis watched.
As a future seer, this was her duty. Yet at some point during her seventeen years of life, the people of Kaldvik had stopped seeing her. They did not want to look on a girl with only one seeing eye.
This invisibility made it easier for her to watch everyone else.
On one side of her face, she was a beauty: soft pale skin, with a brown eye so dark it was nearly black and shone like a polished gemstone. But the other side of her face looked like it had been burned in the fires of Muspell. Some called it the sign of a curse. A deep red rash ran down the left side of her face, where a white orb took the place of a normal eye. This all-white eye was supposed to connect her to the gods, allowing her to see their realm where others could not.
But she had never seen the gods. She was a stranger to Asgard, and she always would be. That, she believed, was her true curse.
Svanhild stirred beside her. Ever since their father’s announcement that she would join him on next summer’s travels, Svanhild had been flushed like a cat who just lapped up some buttermilk. “How are you enjoying the feast?” Svanhild asked her.
Haldis frowned. She wanted to congratulate her sister, but something caught her tongue. Was it fear? She needed to talk to Svanhild outside, away from the chaos of the hall.
“The smoke is making me dizzy,” she said. To prove her point, she issued a light cough into her fist.
Svanhild laughed. “Let me finish my bread and I’ll pretend to feel unwell too.”
Haldis glanced down the table and waved to capture Brynja’s attention. Her younger sister looked over, her face pink and dewy from all the rounds of mead. Haldis made a gesture – a fist to her mouth, feigning a cough – and raised her eyebrows. In response, Brynja grinned and nodded.
They would go together then, the three sisters. This was a game they played at almost every feast – escape the longhouse – though they had to be selective about when to complain of the smoke. Of the three, Svanhild was the one who most enjoyed these celebrations, but she took any excuse to be out under the open sky. And Brynja, the lady of them who always enjoyed seeing friends at such feasts, was secretly as free-spirited as her sisters; Haldis imagined that her little sister must be even more excited about their game tonight, if it meant she could evade the attention of all the young men staring at her. Haldis would make sure no one followed them out.
After finishing swigs of mead and bites of bread, the three of them stood and slipped out the side door of the hall. Tove and Helga cast them sidelong glances but did not stop them.
Haldis followed Svanhild into the training yard, Brynja trailing behind. When a drunk young warrior staggered toward the doorway, Haldis raised a palm to warn him away. It was enough; the man hiccuped and returned to his friends. Haldis found a gesture from a völva was always enough, even if she didn’t feel any magic in her fingers.
Passing through the doorway was like leaving a sauna. A refreshing breeze blew through Haldis’s hair. The moonlight cast long shadows behind the training pells, the weapons rack, and the wood fence that swept around the yard in a semi-circle.
Svanhild strode to a training pell and picked up the wooden sword there. “Can you believe I’ll be fighting with Father’s warriors this time next year?” she breathed, smiling.
“I am happy for you,” said Brynja. “Maybe you’ll find yourself a warrior to wed while you’re out on the battlefield, just like Mother and Father.”
“Be careful teasing me like that,” Svanhild replied. “If I wed, that means you’re next.”
Haldis listened to the two of them banter, a strange chill running over her skin. She knew she should be happy for her sister, but the thought of Svanhild in battle frightened her. She could almost taste the blood in Svanhild’s future, like cold metal in her mouth.
When her sisters grew quiet, Haldis said to Svanhild, “You should not go looking for battles, sister. Men who search for fights end up dead before their time.”
“I don’t intend to die,” Svanhild said. “I intend to win my battles.”
“That is not your choice. It’s the will of the gods.”
Beside them, Brynja hugged herself, shuddering in the cool night air. Or perhaps it was Haldis’s words that chilled her. Haldis would be glad if they did. More people should worry for Svanhild, if Svanhild refused to worry about herself.
“You should be careful, Svanhild,” Brynja finally agreed. “Remember what Father said about respect.”
Svanhild studied the wood training sword as though imagining it transforming into Hrafnblód, their father’s rune-covered blade. Her eyes glittered in the moonlight like pools of starlit water. “I will earn respect with my prowess in battle. That is what all good warriors do.” Then she turned to Haldis, her expression darkening. “Have the gods shown you my future? Will something happen to me?”
Haldis shook her head. “I have seen nothing from the gods. I only worry about you, sister. Brynja’s fate seems clear to me. She’ll marry a kind man, bake bread, and have children.”
She glanced at Brynja, whose cheeks grew red.
“If she can ever pick a husband,” Svanhild teased, nudging her little sister with her elbow. “Or perhaps you already have.”
“What do you mean?” Brynja exclaimed.
“The son of Torven and Ragnilde is growing very handsome, if you like dimples and that little dip in his chin,” Svanhild said.
“That would be like marrying my brother!” Brynja’s nose wrinkled in an expression of disgust that made Haldis and Svanhild burst into laughter. But their littlest sister stood her ground. “Do you really not understand our friendship after all these years? That makes me sad.”
Haldis placed a hand on Brynja’s shoulder. “Do not let Svanhild’s teasing bother you. I admire your friendship with Erik. It’s something I’ve never had.”
“You have us, though,” said Brynja.
Haldis smiled sadly at her younger sister, but before she could thank her, Svanhild tutted at them.
“You enjoy feeling sorry for yourself, Haldis,” she said. “But you could be so powerful, so revered, if you only embraced your gifts.”
Haldis wanted to snap back at her sister, but she took a breath to think through her next words. She had never shared her memories with her sisters – that night by the lake, abandoned as an infant – for she did not want to turn them against her father. But by now, they knew she did not wish to be a völva. So why did Svanhild always push her toward that path?
“You must let me find my way, sister,” Haldis said at last. “You may run recklessly toward your destiny, but I am not like you.”
“Father will protect me. I will travel with him, raid with him if he wills it. That is all.”
Haldis didn’t answer. Absently, she reached for the pendant that hung around her neck.
“What is that?” Brynja asked. Her green eyes grew bright with curiosity.
Haldis opened her palm to reveal a small silver coin stamped with the image of a raven. In the middle of the coin was a tiny hole so it could hang from a thin chain around her neck.
“You and your ravens,” Brynja said, grinning. “What is your obsession with them, anyway?”
Haldis tucked the coin into the front of her dress. “Thought and Memory, the ravens of Odin. They keep appearing in my dreams.”
Svanhild stared at her. “Do you think the gods are trying to tell you something?”
“Don’t believe everything you hear about me, sister. There is a reason I am alive right now, and it’s not because of any gift from the gods.”
Frowning, Svanhild lay down her sword and took Haldis’s hands in her own. Where Haldis’s hands were like ice, her older sister’s palms were warm as coals. “You shouldn’t speak like that, Haldis. I know it wasn’t your idea to be trained as a völva, but it’s a life of adventure. Communing with the gods, reading runes for important men…” Her eyes, a mixture of their mother’s green and father’s brown, danced as she spoke. “It’s an exciting life. And it’s clear the gods will this path for you.”
Haldis glanced at Brynja almost without meaning to, but she knew the reason her gaze betrayed her. Where Svanhild longed to see the gods, Brynja hid her face from them. That is why whenever Haldis needed someone to complain to, Brynja was the one who understood, who didn’t pester her for rune readings, who didn’t care if Haldis just wanted to sit and eat cloudberries and pretend Asgard didn’t even exist.
Before either of them could say anything, a rustling in the nearby trees drew their attention. Svanhild dropped Haldis’s hands, leaving them cold again. Beyond the training yard, a figure emerged from the forest. The shadows made it impossible to discern who it was, but from the heft of his cloak, he was an important man.
“He is surprisingly steady on his feet, for a feast,” Haldis said.
“Why was he in the forest?” Brynja asked.
Svanhild cocked her head. “Why do you think?”
They all laughed. Home from their voyage, half of the men inside were so thrilled to be reunited with their wives, they would have trouble waiting until they were home later to be alone with them. And the other half of the men – married or not – were already making eyes at the thralls who served their mead and meat.
“I do not envy the slave women tonight,” Brynja remarked.
Haldis agreed. She shuddered at the thought of having to warm a strange man’s bed. But her father’s warriors knew better than to grab at any thrall they liked anytime. The jarl only allowed his men to take his thralls to bed during celebrations like this – and he made it clear the women should be returned whole and unmarked in the morning.
A raven cawed overhead, swooping across the training yard to show off its majestic black wings. But something in the sound made Haldis shiver.
“Why is a raven here now?” she said.
A rustling sounded in the trees nearby, and a twig snapped. But no one emerged from the forest; instead, a contrived silence followed, as if whatever – or whoever – had made the noise was now being still on purpose.
Haldis froze. When she caught her sisters’ gazes, she put a finger to her lips. The three of them ducked into the shadows of the longhouse, watching the treeline for any sign of movement. If a forbidden couple was trying to hide their presence, Haldis would expect to hear a moan or giggle. Instead, there was an eerie silence. The only noise was the hoot of an owl and pine branches blowing in the breeze.
Perhaps she imagined the noise. Just as she was about to say this to her sisters, their father’s voice drifted from inside. “Where are my daughters?” He spoke loudly enough that wherever his daughters were, they would hear him.
Haldis exchanged looks with her sisters, and by silent agreement they returned to the feast.
As Haldis passed her father to sit down again, he caught her wrist. “Daughter,” he said, his voice low, “I have a strange feeling in my heart tonight. Will you read the runes for me?”
Haldis nodded. She wasn’t surprised; her father called her for readings every time some concern crossed his mind, no matter how small. Once, he had asked her to cast lots for him over a stomachache from foul fish. And though she did not enjoy it, this is what she had been trained for all her life: reading runes, telling fortunes, communing with the gods on others’ behalf. A jarl would make good use of a völva like her. It was this connection with the gods that spared her life when she was barely born.
If only it were not a lie.
Jarl Tove led her through a small doorway behind their table, to the family quarters. This part of the longhouse was partitioned off from the rest of the hall by a thatch wall. Just behind the wall, a great bearskin rug lay across the dirt floor, with two benches making an L shape. Feather-filled pillows and rugs were thrown on the benches, adding warmth and comfort to the small space.
This was the jarl’s meeting room. During any gathering, having this area so close to the throne and family table made it easy for Tove to invite a guest here for private conversation.
On the wall behind the benches hung a large tapestry depicting Odin hanging upside-down from the sacred tree Yggdrasil. The jarl studied it for a moment, lines of worry etched across his forehead.
“I am glad to have you with me tonight,” he said at last. “The All-Father sacrificed himself when he hung from the sacred tree. He wanted to prove his worth, and in doing so, he finally learned the secret knowledge of runes. I keep this picture here as a reminder to seek wisdom above all else.” He looked at Haldis then. “You are the knowing one in our family. The gods have chosen to speak through you, and for that, I am grateful.”
The words struck Haldis like stones, but she did not argue. Her father expressed his gratitude for her whenever he needed her, but it was not the same thing as love. He had never looked at her the way he looked at Svanhild, his chest swelling with pride when he announced his eldest daughter would join him on his travels. He would not ask the entire hall of warriors to protect her life with their own, the way he did for Svanhild. No, Haldis was more seer to him than daughter, and most days she felt like just another member of the jarl’s household staff.
He sat on a bench, leaning forward to rest his forearms on his knees. Haldis kneeled before him on the bearskin rug. She plucked her small leather bag of runes from around her neck, where they always hung.
“Why do you ask for a reading now, Father?” she asked. Sometimes understanding the other person’s concerns helped her complete an accurate reading, or at least leave the person satisfied.
The jarl stared at the thin wall separating them from the rest of the party. Hoots of laughter and boasting voices filled the hall outside. Following his gaze, Haldis peeked through the wall’s slats at the backs of her mother and sisters where they sat at the family table.
“I sense something tonight,” Tove said simply. “A taste in the air. Like blood.”
“You fear an accident? An injury?”
He looked at her then, his amber eyes darkening. “Or war.”
Haldis shuddered at the way he said it. “Why do you fear this tonight?”
“For weeks, I have been having strange dreams,” he admitted. His voice was lower now, and Haldis got the impression he had not shared this with anyone else – perhaps not even her mother. “They started when we were making our voyage home. I thought we would be ambushed. During our trip, a band of warriors came to steal the treasures we had fairly traded, so I worried they had sent for reinforcements and now followed us up the river.”
Haldis frowned. “But nothing happened?”
“Nothing. Yet I had such a nightmare last night.”
“What happened in the dream?”
As he ran a hand over his face, his gaze grew misty. Haldis thought he would begin to tell the story, but instead he shook his head as though flinging the memories from his mind. Steadying his gaze on her, he said, “I won’t trouble you with my dreams. Tell me what the gods know.”
From their leather pouch, Haldis spilled her set of wooden runes onto the floor between them. Someday, she would ingest potions that would help her see the gods, but for now she simply used these rudimentary carvings as divination tools and hoped no one would wonder too much at her connection to Odin, Thor, and Freyja. Each piece of wood was carved with a runic symbol. She took a moment to set her hands upon them, closing her eyes and praying that the gods would be with her, despite her doubts that they heard her at all.
Thor, Odin, and Freyja, she prayed, guide this reading. Guide my words. Speak to my father through me.
She picked up the handful of wood chips and cast them on the ground again, letting them fall where they may. Tove leaned forward to study them.
Looking up at the ceiling of the longhouse, she imagined she could see the sky above the rafters, where the gods watched her. Keeping her gaze lifted, she felt around and picked up the first wood chip her fingers touched.
“Thurs,” she said, reading the rune without looking at the chips still on the floor, “a giant.”
Tove frowned. “What does it mean?”
She ignored the question to reach for a second piece of wood. “Fé, wealth.”
“A giant seeking wealth,” her father guessed.
She pulled a third chip from the pile, which would complete the reading. “Naudr,” she read.
Her father’s face darkened, for it was not the first time Haldis had read this rune for him – and it never signaled anything good. Some would interpret it to mean need, but it could also indicate a threat.
“So we will face an emergency.” Her father wiped his hand over his face, a habit when he was worried. “Perhaps someone will come to steal from us. Or perhaps we should take care with our greed the next time we travel.”
Haldis nodded. “The gods clearly wish to warn you of something.”
“Can you hear them? Ask them what we must look out for.”
She decided honesty was best. She had read the signs as best she could, and perhaps the gods had spoken through her after all. Perhaps she wasn’t meant to feel anything as she performed her duties – just trust that she had picked up the chips the gods had intended her to read.
“I cannot tell you more detail now,” she admitted. “The gods have shared what they can with you tonight.”
As she palmed the last wood chip, the sound of flapping wings drew her attention. A breeze stirred her hair as a raven, black as night, swooped above her and landed in the rafters. It seemed content to stay there, watching her.
“A sign from the gods?” the jarl asked.
Haldis nodded. “An omen.” As the words left her mouth, she shivered. The hairs on her arms stood up.
Perhaps her father was right. There was something in the air tonight.
As she sat at her father’s table watching the celebrations, Brynja could not remember a time she had felt so happy.
After just two cups of mead and three dances around the fire, her body felt like it was packed with hot coals. Sweat beaded on her forehead and trickled down her back, but she didn’t mind. This was how the hall always felt after people had been feasting, drinking, and dancing for long enough. She associated it with her father’s return every summer, a night she always looked forward to.
The hall was noisy, the sound of voices mingling with the song Valí strummed on his lyre. Tables had been deconstructed to make room for dancing. Even the people sitting on the sidelines banged silverware or stomped their boots to the beat, making the hall vibrate in rythm.
In the midst of the crowd of revelers were Brynja’s parents, dancing with their people. Earlier, Father had disappeared to his meeting room with Haldis – no doubt for a rune reading – but when he emerged, she watched him cast the darkness from his eyes as he smiled at his people. He always put on a brave face for Kaldvik. And the first thing he did was ask Valí to start a song so he could dance with his wife.
A voice sounded nearby, startling Brynja. “You look like you could use fresh air,” said the young warrior, grinning at her from where he stood against the nearest pillar. “Care to join me for a stroll outside?”
Another time, the man might have looked friendly enough, but tonight Brynja trusted no man with an empty ale horn in his hand. Her mother had taught her such caution, especially now that she was of marrying age. A man could find a thrall if he truly desired someone to spend the night with.
Shaking her head, she tried to find the most polite way to decline the invitation. “I am waiting for someone,” she lied, “but I appreciate the offer.”
The warrior shrugged. “You are missing a great battle story, one that would rival even the exploits of Thor. Find me later if you want to hear the tale.”
He stood straighter then, broadening his shoulders. Brynja could see the muscles moving beneath his blue tunic, but this type of display didn’t interest her. She had yet to find any man who intrigued her in that way. In fact, most of the time she wished she could hide from all the lustful warriors behind her curtain of long brown hair.
“You might look more cheerful if you had a sewing needle in your hand,” came a familiar voice.
Brynja smiled as her childhood friend Erik Torvenson approached – the one boy she liked to be around. His wavy blond hair hung freely, skimming his shoulders. His skin had the sheen of so many others tonight – from drinking and dancing and sitting too close to the fire – making him look wilder than usual. Some would call him handsome, but to her, Erik was like the brother she never had.
“Well then, what do you say we get out of this stuffy room and sit by the fjord?” he asked.
Brynja clucked her tongue at him. “You know I love going to the water, but not tonight. We should enjoy the feast. I haven’t seen my father in almost three moons.” Seeing Erik’s pretend pout, she added, “I heard the cooks are heating more goat meat.”
His eyes brightened at that. Brynja’s mother had once told her that while a man won a woman with his sword, a woman won a man with her cauldron. And though Brynja had no intention of winning Erik in that way, she could see now how right her mother was.
“Did I really look so glum?” she asked, thinking back to his first words to her.
“You look like you always do, pretty and perfect.” Erik jerked his chin toward a pair of warriors nearby. “They looked like they were about to come over and ask you to dance, so I thought I’d save you.”
“Well, it’s true I’ve danced enough for tonight,” Brynja said.
She had chosen the safety of dancing with Svanhild, then her parents, and finally an older warrior she knew to be married. Now, she was happy to have a moment alone to catch her breath.
Erik slid into an empty seat next to her.
“You are bold to sit at the jarl’s table uninvited,” she joked.
Erik shrugged. “I never liked waiting around for invitations.”
Brynja shook her head at him, laughing. Erik had not changed much since they were children. They had grown up together, picking berries in the forest, playing with wooden swords, swimming in the lake, sitting on the pier under the moonlight to gossip about everything and nothing. Though Brynja’s parents sometimes frowned to see their daughter spend so much time with a boy instead of other girls, in time they grew to enjoy Erik’s dimples and jokes. He had even slept in a spare room in the longhouse, on those nights he and Brynja stayed up too late playing for him to safely walk home to his farm.
Now Tove and Helga returned from the dance, their faces flushed from exertion. Both were smiling, casting glances at each other that made them look like they were Brynja’s age again. She wondered how they must have acted when they first met. Of course, her mother had been more like Svanhild then – a shieldmaiden unafraid of battle. Still, she could picture her parents’ youthful romance.
She wondered why she had never craved such a flirtation herself.
Jarl Tove studied Erik for a moment with narrowed eyes, but Brynja caught the grin at the corner of her father’s mouth.
Erik looked innocently back at him.
Finally, Tove said, “I could have sworn I had only daughters. Who is this new addition to the family?”
Erik laughed like bubbling water. Brynja smiled to hear the familiar sound. Even as everything about Erik aged – his voice deepening, his hair growing longer, his shoulders expanding – his laugh remained the one truly boyish part of him.
The tension broken, Tove asked, “Will you be joining me on my travels next summer, Erik? You’re old enough.” He slapped Erik’s shoulders as though testing their strength. “Big enough, too.”
But Erik shook his head. “You know my family. We’re farmers, and there’s nothing I enjoy more than working the land.”
The jarl smiled. “A good answer. Kaldvik needs good farmers like you and your father. I hear your mother lends a strong hand, too.”
“Some think she would have made a good shieldmaiden,” Erik remarked with a laugh. “But I think her tongue is sharper than any sword.”
Brynja giggled at that. His mother, Ragnilde, was known for her brutal honesty. During one feast, her harsh words had even made a warrior cry – albeit a very drunk warrior.
Standing, Erik inclined his head to Jarl Tove, then Helga. “I should go,” he said, “but don’t be afraid to send a thrall my way when the goat meat is ready.” As he strode from the table, he glanced back and shot Brynja one last grin.
Rather than taking his seat, Brynja’s father remained standing and lifted his ale horn to call for attention in the hall. Valí stopped strumming his lyre, and the stomping of boots thinned out until everyone was quiet.
When Tove began his speech, his voice carried without effort, as naturally as water rushes down a river. Brynja listened in awe, as she always did when her father spoke. He commanded attention without trying, a respect that was earned.
“I am happy to see you all so full of joy tonight,” he said. “You honor the gods with your appreciation of life’s treasures.”
Several people picked up cups and horns to toast the gods.
Father continued, “Tonight, we celebrate the success of our summer travels. Forty of us, men and women, sailed across a savage sea to the kingdom of the Franks.” He nodded to several of his warriors, including a scarred woman wearing a shield across her back. “We saw foreign lands and met foreign men. They admired our craftsmanship, our curiosity to travel so far, and the strength of our will.” He named several of the village’s craftsmen, including the blacksmith Balder and the tailor Revna. He even called the name of their household seamstress Ursula, a thrall. “They paid us for your goods, and they now see the skill and stature of our people.” He smiled then, giving a nod to his housecarl Alf. “And they paid us in gold.”
Alf, who stood along a nearby wall, pushed open a chest to reveal a pile of gold coins and ingots inside. Brynja gasped at the sight, as did several others in the hall. It was like opening a door to pure sunlight.
“With this gold, we will adorn our homes, create beautiful jewelry, and continue our trade when we travel each summer,” Tove went on. “And this year, we brought back many foreign-made treasures.”
On cue, Alf opened a smaller box and pulled out a few items one at a time, holding them up for everyone to admire. As Father’s right hand, he had the honor of briefly explaining what each one was, eliciting excited chatter from those in the hall. First was a comb carved in the shape of a creature called an elephant, which was made from the animal’s tusk. Next was a shimmering fabric called silk. There was ornate pottery, sparkling jewelry, and glassware in shapes Brynja had never seen before.
Finally, Alf approached the jarl’s table and extended the box toward Helga.
“Please, choose something for yourself,” Tove said, his voice quieter now, so it only reached his family’s ears.
Helga held a hand to her chest for a moment, as though her heart were beating too fast. Only after Tove nodded encouragement did she reach into the box and pull the ivory comb from the pile. Brynja hid a smile at this; it was just like her mother to choose something with a practical purpose.
“Thank you, husband,” she said, inclining her head to Tove. Then, she combed a few strands of her hair in an exaggerated manner, as though showing how it worked. Several people laughed, cheered, or whistled.
“And for my daughters,” Tove said.
Brynja watched her sisters choose their items first. Svanhild paused for a long moment, biting her lip. Brynja sensed her sister’s hesitation at choosing such a luxury for herself, not out of any humility but out of a preference for battle. If her father had presented Svanhild with a sword, she would have grabbed it out of his hands. Finally, Svanhild plucked an amber pendant on a gold chain from the box and put it on.
“One of Freyja’s tears, which I will keep close to my heart.”
Cheers filled the hall at her words. Brynja caught her sister’s eye and smiled. Of course Svanhild would find something that connected her to the gods.
Next, Haldis chose a black gemstone, roughly shaped and almost as big as her fist. Brynja thought it an odd choice, until her mother said, “The perfect adornment for your staff someday. May it garner the gods’ attention.”
When Alf finally brought the box to her, Brynja held her breath. She tried not to appear too eager as she leaned forward to peer at the treasures inside. They were a jumble of sparkling gemstones, necklaces, rings, combs, beads, and bits of silk and leather. She wanted to wade through them so she could be sure to make the right choice.
Gingerly, she placed her fingers into the box and began sorting through the items. After digging for a moment, she heard a few chuckles. Looking up, she saw her father grinning down at her.
“Can you tell which of my daughters most enjoys these luxuries?” he teased, drawing more laughter from the crowd.
Brynja’s cheeks grew hot, but she smiled. It was true. Sometimes she wondered why she seemed to be the only one of her sisters who acted like a lady. Not that she didn’t enjoy playing with swords like Svanhild and running through the forest like Haldis – but she enjoyed finer things, too. There were benefits to being a jarl’s daughter, and this was one of them.
Not wanting to take too much more time sorting through the goods, she spotted a thin gold band set with an emerald in the center, which reminded her of the gem hanging from her mother’s neck tonight. She pulled it from the box and studied it a moment, trying to decide if it was an arm ring or a neck ring.
“It is for your head,” Father said, tapping his brow.
She placed the ring on her head. Her mother reached over to adjust it for her, until it nestled into her hair at the edges of her forehead.
“Tonight, my youngest daughter is a Frankish queen,” said Tove, making a few people whistle.
Brynja blushed. Now she realized she had chosen a tiara. She tried to explain, “The gem is like Mother’s,” and pointed to Helga’s necklace.
Mother smiled. Touching her necklace, she explained more loudly to the crowd, “My daughter has chosen a gem that matches my own.” Turning to Brynja, her green eyes dancing, she said, “Now we are linked.”
Brynja smiled back at her mother. She had always pictured her future much like Helga’s, and she especially admired the way her mother ran the hall. Helga commanded servants with the perfect blend of authority and generosity, her set of housekeys jangling on her waist, a sign of her authority. She placed loving hands on the shoulders of the thralls who served her, making them feel at home while accepting only their best work. She foresaw problems and planned for them, as if the gods had granted her visions of the future. She practiced womanly arts such as cooking and weaving, yet she enjoyed walks in the forest and time spent by the fjord just as much. This was how Brynja hoped to be one day, running her own home with the unique grace of a Norsewoman.
Of course, she would have to be married first. If only she could find someone she desired.
“You have seen that my family has good taste,” Tove said with a chuckle. “Now, allow me to bestow these gifts on all of you. For those who joined me in battle, an arm ring to mark your bravery and your loyalty. For those who joined me in these journeys, a jewel to honor your curiosity. And for those who stayed home…” He eyed several of the community’s most well-loved farmers, craftsmen, and elders. “For you, only pure gold can honor the work you do to make our village a success.”
The longhouse erupted in cheers. Voices shouted, “Skol!” as men and women lifted their ale horns to toast their jarl.
A few thralls emerged from the back of the longhouse then, carrying glass jugs of red liquid. They began pouring the drink into empty cups around the hall. Several people emptied their horns and extended them to the thralls to try the strange drink, their brows furrowed and eyes bright with interest.
“This is Frankish wine,” Father explained to the crowd. “It is a sweet, pungent drink the nobles enjoy.”
A few people tasted the wine. Brynja giggled at the mixed reactions. A man nearby wrinkled his nose at the flavor, while others sipped and smiled politely. Meanwhile, a red-haired warrior – the same one who had tried to share a drink with Svanhild earlier – downed the wine in a single gulp before calling to the thralls for more.
One of the servants came around to fill Brynja’s cup. Her stomach flipped at the idea of drinking more tonight. Her head was already spinning. “Is it strong?” she asked her father.
He smiled gently. “A little.”
She made a gesture for the thrall to serve her only a small amount. Once her cup was half-filled, she took a sip. The rich berry flavor made her pucker at first, but as she swallowed, it settled on her tongue like fresh soil. She sniffed the liquid, enjoying the dark scent, before taking a deeper drink.
“Do you like it?” Father asked.
“Very much,” she said, smiling. “It’s not as sweet as mead, but it makes me feel like a woman.”
This comment made both her parents laugh.
Her father turned back to the crowd then and announced, “Tonight, we drink like Frankish kings.”
A round of cheers rose to the rafters, and Brynja asked for her cup to be filled with more.
By the time the moon had shifted to the other side of the night sky, Brynja had a sewing needle in her hands.
Most of the revelers had gone home for the night, leaving the hall strangely quiet as the last flames sputtered in the hearth. Aside from Brynja and the small group now gathered around the fire, the only people who remained in the hall were a few particularly drunk men who had passed out and now snored where they lay.
As a servant added fresh wood to the central fire, Brynja watched the flames spit and spark as they accepted the new kindling. She sat on the packed earth floor, leaning her back against Svanhild’s legs. Her oldest sister sat behind her on a stool, gently braiding her hair, untangling it, and then re-braiding it. Brynja enjoyed the tension and tingling of her scalp as Svanhild worked her hair. In every gesture, she sensed her sister’s excitement over the night’s events; now that she would travel as a shieldmaiden with her father next summer, she could not sit still.
Meanwhile, Haldis sat on the floor beside Brynja while their mother braided her hair. On Helga’s other side sat their father, then their housecarl Alf, then an elderly couple who sold eggs in the village market, and finally Erik, carving shapes into a block of wood with a pocket knife.
The red wine left Brynja feeling long and loose, like thread unraveled from a loom. A fine-spun fabric was stretched across her lap, dyed the pale blue color of the summer sky. She knew it was her mother’s favorite shade. Though she had not told anyone yet, she sewed this dress for her mother, stitching a swirling pattern in yellow thread around the hem. The minute movements of her bone needle soothed her as she listened to her father’s deep voice. He had regaled them with tales of his travels, and now he spoke of the gods.
“Just as Odin sought wisdom, the goddess Freyja sought beautiful things. She appreciated luxury, and she knew quality when she saw it.” He winked at Brynja. “We have someone like Freyja in our midst tonight.”
Everyone laughed. Brynja stopped sewing to lift a hand to her tiara, which still rested on her head – albeit lopsided from Svanhild mussing her hair. “I don’t mind being compared to Freyja,” she admitted with a shrug, making everyone chuckle again.
“Tonight we will hear a story of how Freyja sought a necklace, not unlike the one Svanhild now wears,” Tove continued, nodding to his eldest daughter. “As you know, the dwarves are the finest craftsmen in all nine realms, and so Freyja found herself drawn to their forges. There, she saw the dwarves creating the most beautiful golden necklace she had ever seen. Naturally, she wanted it for herself.”
“Not naturally,” their mother jumped in. “Freyja gets into trouble over her greed.”
“Come now, when we married you promised you would let me tell the stories,” Tove teased.
They all laughed as Helga mimed stitching her lips shut. Everyone knew the story by heart anyway.
The jarl continued, “Seeing this beautiful necklace, Freyja offered the dwarves all of the silver and gold she had in exchange for the jewelry. But they had another form of payment in mind, for Freyja was the most beautiful goddess in existence. Do you know the secret desire each of those four dwarves held in their hearts?”
“I don’t think the desire was in their hearts,” Svanhild said. “They wanted to take her to bed. And they called her the greedy one.”
“Perhaps,” Father said with a shrug, “but Freyja agreed to spend a night with each of them. At the end of those four nights, she got what she wanted: the beautiful necklace called Brísingamen. Everyone was happy, you see.” His eyes sparked like fire as he glanced around at each of them for their reactions. “Of course, she intended to keep this a secret, as she was Odin’s lover and did not wish to upset him.”
“She was not even his wife,” Svanhild argued. “Why would he care if she slept with another man?”
“Or four?” Haldis added.
Brynja giggled. “Or dwarves?”
Chuckling, their father continued, “The trouble was, Loki had followed Freyja and witnessed the whole scene. He knew her secret. And you know Loki…”
“The god of mischief,” Haldis said softly.
Tove nodded. “To cause mayhem, he went and told Odin everything he had seen. Odin was outraged. He ordered Loki to steal the necklace Brísingamen from Freyja.”
“That seems cruel,” Brynja said, mulling it over. “He should have confronted her about her betrayal, but stealing the necklace helps nothing.”
Beside her, Erik grinned. She interpreted the smile as him patronizing her, so she stuck out her tongue at him.
“I believe the necklace held magic,” Haldis said. “Perhaps that is why she slept with the four dwarves, to imbue the necklace with some special power.”
“A fine idea,” Father said.
But Brynja didn’t like that. She had never been one to pray to the gods anyway, and imagining a goddess not only stealing a necklace, but stealing a magic necklace just went too far. But she bit her tongue. Between Haldis who trained as a völva and Svanhild who prayed to Odin as often as she drew breath, there was no point in debating about the gods with them.
Instead, she continued sewing, enjoying the sound of her family’s voices as they shared their interpretations of the story. She focused her own attention on the pattern she was stitching. The yellow swirls were growing larger, which she had not intended. Perhaps if she let them grow from one side to the other in an even manner, to make it appear purposeful…
A thud sounded behind her, and a gust of cold wind blew into the hall. Her father’s voice stopped. Everyone froze. Brynja looked up in time to see her mother’s eyes shoot open, staring at something behind Brynja.
“Girls, run,” she said. Her voice was strangely low and still.
There was a growling behind Brynja, followed by the clatter of metal. The sound was unmistakable.
“Brynja, hurry!” Svanhild shouted.
She grabbed Brynja’s wrist and yanked her toward the back of the hall.
Brynja’s heart pounded in her chest. She forced her feet to move, but she could barely think.
Her father stood and pulled his sword from its sheath. His eyes were set on whomever was invading the hall.
Suddenly Svanhild threw her hands over Brynja’s back and pushed her down. Brynja nearly knocked her chin against the floor. She heard a swoosh and felt a breeze stir her hair as a massive axe swung over her head.
Then she was up again, running with Svanhild for the back of the hall. Haldis was already there.
She had no idea where Erik was, or the elderly couple who had been with them, or their housecarl. There was no time to think about all that.
She had to keep moving.
Her feet moved without conscious thought.
Once they had made it to the back of the hall, Svanhild shoved her into their father’s meeting room. Haldis was already crouched there behind the wall.
“Stay here,” Svanhild snapped. “And stay quiet.”
Svanhild ran back into the main hall, taking position behind the head table beside their mother.
Brynja tried to control her breathing, but it was no use. Her heart thumped too hard in her chest, nearly drowning out the sound of clashing blades in the hall.
And so she stayed there with Haldis, watching the battle through slats in the wall.
There was Svanhild, standing behind the head table, a knife in her hands. She looked unsure of what to do, but Brynja knew her sister would not hide from something like this.
There was her mother, standing guard in front of the table, sword in hand. Even in her red dress, she looked poised for battle. Though she did not join the fray, Brynja thought she looked like a bear guarding the entrance to her cave. Helga would not let anyone come near her daughters.
But where was Erik? Brynja looked around until she spotted him standing with the elderly couple. They huddled together in the shadows behind a pillar, Erik with a battle axe in his hands. She had never seen him with a weapon before. In his thin tunic, he did not look like a warrior. But there was no time to worry about him now.
A drunken warrior had awoken and stood at the ready beside him, blinking the sleep from his eyes.
There was her father’s housecarl Alf, rushing into the fight, his sword flailing in the air.
Then she laid eyes on the enemy. A man like a great bear led the charge. In a blur of fur and heavy axes, he let out a roaring battle cry and dove straight for her father.
Tove flew to meet him with the swiftness of a raven. In his hands, he raised his silver sword Hrafnblód. It glittered like a jewel in the dimming light.
Brynja stifled a gasp. She reached for Haldis’s hand, seeking comfort. Her sister’s fingers were smooth and icy to the touch, but they gripped hers and squeezed.
She watched the ensuing fight through the slats. The small openings gave her an odd view, like watching a shadow show playing against a firelit wall.
Behind the leader who charged in like a bear were several other enemy warriors. Like the bear, they wore heavy furs. Wielding a mix of axes, swords, and short spears, they clashed with the warriors remaining in her father’s hall.
But there were far too many of them. She counted nine bears.
On her father’s side were Erik who stood helplessly with an axe, the drunken warrior still waking up, the housecarl Alf, and the elderly couple. The old man’s hands shook as he clung to his heavy sword with both hands; his wife stood defiantly beside him, glaring at the intruders though she held no weapon.
That made five against nine, and those five were too old, too young, too inexperienced, or too drunk to be of much use.
They would all be in Valhalla soon. Too soon.
The intruders lunged at them, slicing through the old man and woman with their swords like knives through butter. Brynja’s heart beat so fast, she had to shut her eyes and lower her head to keep from fainting.
She felt cowardly, hiding here behind a wall. But what could she do? She was no warrior. She was still a girl.
Haldis’s grip on her hand tightened. At least they were together.
When she opened her eyes again, she spotted Erik shrinking into the shadows behind a pillar. Two enemy warriors approached him like wolves circling prey.
Standing nearby, the drunken warrior howled and waved his sword like a wild creature. The oncoming warriors halted and dodged awkwardly to avoid his weapon.
After a moment of chaos, one of the enemy warriors plunged his blade into the drunken warrior’s stomach. Brynja winced as he crumpled to the ground.
The two warriors ignored Erik then, turning to watch the main fight. Brynja was thankful they saw he was still just a boy and no threat to them.
She watched her father battle the bear in the center of the hall. They danced around the hearth, barely avoiding the fire. When they accidentally knocked the kindling, the flames roared in anger.
Her father spun, faster than lightning. As he came to a halt facing the enemy, he swiped his sword using only his wrist, quick as a bee sting.
It should have at least nicked the man’s side. But he missed.
Brynja could barely watch. She felt sick with terror.
The enemy was much bigger than her father, and his axe looked heavier. Every move he made was like a great boulder rolling toward the jarl.
But there was a reason their family’s symbol was the raven. It was why Brynja and her sisters had escaped the bear’s axe just now.
They did not just run. They did not just fight.
Again and again, Jarl Tove dodged the enemy’s axe. He was swift. At times, the enemy had to stop, looking for where the jarl had dropped or slid.
The others in the hall had stopped fighting to watch too. This was no longer a battle of warring clans, but a holmgang between two great men. As in any duel, only one would come out alive.
Brynja held her breath. She was sure that at any moment, her father would slide into the bear’s weak point to deliver the killing blow.
The enemy moved to one side of the fire, Father at the other side. The enemy’s axe hung low in his hand, as though he were resting. His shoulders pulsed with his heavy breathing.
He was tired. That was good.
Her father circled the fire. With the tip of his sword he nudged the wood, sparking fresh flames.
His opponent growled at the distraction.
As Father came around to the bear’s side of the fire, he raised his sword to prepare for a heavy blow. But before he could deliver it, the bear sliced his axe straight up into the jarl’s abdomen.
Brynja shut her eyes against the sight.
Find out what happens next in Song of the Shieldmaiden…
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