My fingers freeze, hovering over the threads of my loom. Everything turns quiet again, but the scream hangs in the night air like an icy breath. Mother rises up in bed with another cry. The sound turns my blood to cold rushing rivers.
When she lifts her hands toward the firelight, they’re stained dark red. Frída runs to her, throwing off the covers. Mother’s legs are red. The linens are red. It reminds me of my first cycle, four summers ago. But Mother has the wild rolling eyes of a frightened cow.
Dear gods! I hope the baby inside her lives.
“Jón,” Frída cries, “get Old Aud.”
He stumbles to the door, but it’s too late for that.
Frída turns to me, the whites of her eyes shining like moons in the dark. “Anja, tend to your brother.”
Bikki cries in my bed. Hands shaking, I pick him up and give him my spindle to play with as I bounce him roughly on my hip. The sound of Mother’s sobs tightens something in my chest, making it hard to breathe.
“Get the soothing herbs and put them in a horn of beer,” Frída says. “The baby’s coming. Now.”
Mother’s only in her eighth month. I put Bikki back on the bed and hurry to the pantry to mix the herbs into the drink. My fingers shake, sloshing some of the potion on the floor. I haven’t taken the cords of protection off the baby’s tree yet. The black cord of death hasn’t even been burned or buried. Curses! I have to do it before—
I hand Mother’s horn to Frída and run out of the hall into the chilly night. The green rippling ribbons of light in the sky look like the swirling skirts of dancing Valkyries. The moon shines, waning, but it’s still large enough to see the birch grove and my unborn sister’s tree that Father dedicated to the gods for her. The three-colored cord hangs from its boughs. I hung it there to dry after I dyed it, just as Old Aud directed, according to her dream. I break off two branches and run back to the hall to light them in the fire, continuing the instructions I memorized from Old Aud. I try not to look at Mother’s bed and hurry back to the grove to complete the ritual of protection.
Blowing out one flame, I use the smoldering end to burn apart the black, white, and red sections of the cord. I stuff the white and red threads into my pocket and drop to my knees to burn the black death-cord with the other flame. As the flame consumes the thread, I scrape at the hard dirt under the tree with my fingers. It needs to be deeper. I grab a stone and dig into the ground.
Mother’s cry becomes one long howl, like the sound of Father pretending to be a wolf-man when he tells old stories from Norway. The noise usually makes the hairs on my arm stand on end, but this time it takes my breath from me.
I have to bury the black thread’s ashes before the howling ends. I slap out the flame and shove the cinders into the hole I made, pushing dirt over them as quickly as I can. As soon as the dirt covers the ashes, Mother’s voice breaks. The quiet that comes after it is louder than anything I’ve ever heard. My body shakes. I rise and stand on top of the little mound of dirt. Stomping on it, over and over, I want the thudding of my bare feet to drown out the unbearable silence. I drop to my knees and hit the dirt with my fists until they turn numb and my eyes swim in tears. Oh please, gods. Frey! Freyja! Slumping against my sister’s tree, I pull my knees up to my chest and clap my hands over my ears to drown out the quiet.
A sound like the bleating of a goat tears through the stillness. I loosen my hands and listen. A baby’s weak cry. Jumping to my feet, I run to the hall. Mother looks like a crumpled rag, her face ashen and slack. Her eyes flutter at me, but seeing the limp baby in Frída’s arms, she clamps her eyes shut and turns her face away.
Frída takes up the iron scissors. “I must cut it loose. Give me a thread to tie the cord.”
I pull Old Aud’s white thread from my pocket and tie the baby’s belly cord myself. Frída cuts the childfree. The baby’s blue skin is lightening to purple, but the infant’s not well. She’s too small and still. Almost dead.
No.“Rub her,” I cry. “Wash her!”
Frída won’t look at me and only whispers, “Fetch me a basket and linen.”
“Let me hold her!” I pull at Frída’s arms, but she turns her shoulders away.
“It’s come too early like the other one,” she says. “It’s too sickly—it doesn’t have the strength to live. There’s nothing we can do for it. Your father gave orders that if it was frail and came too early again, we couldn’t keep it. Fetch me the covered basket and linen. This is the way things are.” Frída’s voice trembles, but her body’s rigid as stone. “Hurry, Anja, your mother needs tending and the afterbirth hasn’t come out yet.”
Like the other one? The world spins. That time before Bikki was born, when Mother’s swelling belly disappeared overnight—now it’s happening again. I was too young to understand then, too young to stop it. I lunge to Mother’s side. “Make Frída listen, Mother. Make her warm the baby. Make her give you the baby. She’s still alive. She’s breathing. Father wouldn’t want this.”
A sob breaks from Mother’s throat, and she turns her head away. “Go, Anja. Do as Frída says. You’re hurting me with these words—it’s so hard as it is. Go quickly. It’s your father’s order.”
I turn and stare at Frída, who’s found the lidded basket and linen herself.
“Get your boots and cloak.” Frída doesn’t even wrap the whimpering baby in the blanket before putting her in the basket.
But I can’t move. I stare at her like a stone statue.
“Now!” Frída’s voice sounds shrill and wild like a trapped animal, startling me into action.
I pull my boots on in a panic as Mother weeps. Frída, her jaw set and lips pursed, shuts the lid over the baby. How can she do this terrible thing, especially when she longs to have a baby with our other slave, Jón? But I already know the answer. It’s the same reason I slip my boots on and do what Frída says—Father. Father’s word is law; going against him is like blaspheming the gods. I have no choice. Father is the god of our home. He is quiet and cold like a snow-covered mountain, but when he is angry, he erupts like a fiery volcano, burning everything in his path. I sometimes feel sorry for his enemies in battle. The thought of disobeying him scares me more than a thousand malevolent spirits. Besides, if Father ordered it, it must be for the best, even though I can’t understand it.
I open my trunk with shaking fingers, feeling as though I’m moving through deep water. Is this what it’s like to be in a trance? My duty presses on me with the weight of an avalanche. But as I slip my feather cloak around my shoulders, I realize there’s still one thing I can do.
I find the silver bracelets with the green and red gemstones that Father brought back for me from one of his Viking journeys when I was a baby. The two arm rings are part of my bride’s treasure for when I marry. I slide one of them into my pocket. As I return the other to the trunk, I see the wooden Valkyrie that my brother Vali carved for me years ago. The warrior maiden’s arms and wings feel strong in my fingers. I place it in my pocket next to the wedding bracelet.
“Hurry, Anja.” Frída presses down on Mother’s stomach, trying to release the afterbirth. Mother still faces the earthen walls as she coughs and moans. Frída whispers to me so Mother can’t hear. “It’s sickly and the same as dead. It hasn’t been given a name, so by law, no child has been born here tonight. It must be removed—your father said so. Take the basket to the lava fields. Don’t stop, don’t open the lid. Leave it there and come straight home.” Frída’s eyes are red. “It must be done.”
I nod, though my heart resists. I lift the basket, no heavier than a bundle of linens, grab the blanket off my bed, and leave the hall. But I won’t go to the faraway wasteland of the lava field. I’ll fly, instead, to the rocks near Bjarta River where the guardian spirits dwell.
When I reach the place, the moon shines between the clouds and casts a silver glow over the stones. Setting the basket down, I pull the baby to my chest. “You are Björk.” My little birch tree. I clutch her closer, rubbing her tiny back, her legs. “You have a name. You have a tree. You have a sister.” I cry into Björk’s soft neck. Her skin smells sweet and new.
Resting my sister’s belly on my lap, I pat her back until she gurgles and coughs and starts to breathe more strongly. Her skin’s no longer such a deep shade of purple. I cradle her in my arms and stroke her wrinkled face and limbs. Taking the red thread from my pocket, I tie it around Björk’s right arm for protection. I slide the silver bracelet over her left arm, a gift for the nature spirits.
My voice cracks as I speak a prayer into the darkness. “Please accept this gift and take care of my sister. Oh gods, protect her.” I kiss the baby’s forehead and wrap her tightly in the blanket before laying her back into the basket. Water burns my eyes as I run home.
I make it to the hall about the same time Jón does; he couldn’t find the hidden path to Old Aud’s homestead in the dark mountain. After I help Frída bury the afterbirth under Björk’s tree, I crawl into bed with Mother like I used to do when I was a girl. I edge myself into the curve of her body, feeling the strangeness of her newly flattened stomach against my back. The rattling noise that escapes Mother’s chest every time she breathes in and out makes my own chest ache, and the sound of her quiet sobs draws tears from my eyes.
Dark thoughts plague me. My oldest brother, Sverting, is married and lives downriver, but he used to tell of a troll who lives in a rock near Vík, a quarter of a day’s journey from our home. The troll longs for the flesh of young children. It only leaves its rock at night, but when it does, it can smell a lost child from twenty miles away. Sverting’s a trickster; everyone knows it. But our brother Vali said he’d heard serious men say the same and Vali wouldn’t lie to me.
The cover gets twisted around my legs as I toss in the bed long after Mother falls asleep. My ears strain for the sound of a baby’s cry, but the only noise is Mother’s shallow breathing. Will the guardian spirits accept my gift and care for Björk? I try not to imagine a hungry beast lurking near the stones, or that hunched-up old woman who was seen over the winter, wandering around the area, mumbling to herself. Sverting called her a crazy hag.
Surely Father couldn’t have wanted this. Why would he do this? A new thought rises in my mind. What if it had been me? What if I had been born frail like Björk? Father’s orders would have been the same—to let me diealone out in the cold night. A sourness rises from my stomach to my throat, and I want to heave my insides out.
Even if Father is the god of our home, I don’t want to obey him anymore.
Father was wrong.
The thought shakes me to the core. I can hardly believe the words have entered my head. I sit up in bed, shaking. My heart’s beating like a battle drum. Have the gods heard my thoughts? Do they know I don’t believe in Father anymore? My breaths are coming so fast and hard, I feel dizzy.
But I can’t un-think my thoughts. And now I am angry at myself for believing for so long that Father was always right. Everything inside me told me not to leave Björk. I do have a choice. Fury fills my blood and turns it hot. I toss the covers aside.
Trembling at what I’m about to do, I rise from my bed and creep to the door, not bothering to put on my boots or cloak, and slip outside. The night is cool. It raises the hairs on my arms. Sharp pebbles cut into my feet as I run toward the stones.
I’ll hold the baby in my bed until morning, giving her goat’s milk from my finger to keep her quiet. In the light of day, when Mother sees her new daughter alive, she’ll agree I did the right thing. We’ll beg Father to name the baby when he comes home. It won’t be so easy for him to demand that his ugly orders be obeyed when he’s looking at Björk and Mother instead of being far away at sea where daughters and wives don’t exist.
I fly like a night bird straight to the rock dwellers, imagining my sister’s pale round face shining up at me like a reflection of the moon. But as I approach the slabs of stone and stare at the spot where I left the baby, a bolt of lightning from somewhere inside my body strikes my heart and stops my breath. My legs buckle beneath me and my knees hit the dirt. I crawl on the rocky ground to the baby’s basket. It lies just where I left it. But Björk is gone.
The next morning, light shines down through the smoke-hole in the roof, making a round golden sun on my chest. I lie there for a moment, enjoying the feeling of warmth on my heart even though the rest of my body is cold. Then I remember Björk and what happened last night, and the warmth disappears.
I hurry out of bed and to the guardians’ rocks before anyone else rises. I don’t climb on the rocks, so as not to disturb the nature spirits, but move gingerly around each one. I look behind every stone and bush, but find no footprints, no animal tracks—nothing. The ground is hard by the place where the guardian spirits live. If a hungry creature had come here, it wouldn’t have left tracks when it carried Björk away.
Oh my gods, my gods! I shudder as I stand by the river, stricken at what I have done. I never should have obeyed Father instead of the voice whispering in my own heart. The day is sunny, and my feather cloak’s warm, but I shiver. From now on, however quietly the voice whispers, I won’t ignore it again. Ever. No matter what Father or anyone else says.
For days after my sister disappears, she is the only thing I can think of. What has happened to her? Did the spirits really take her? I wonder if they’ll ever return her to me. I come every day to the rocks and look for signs of change, but I see nothing. On Thor’s day, the cold stone of grief in the pit of my stomach weighs so heavily thatI sink to my knees, letting the tears come. A flock of gulls soar overhead, mimicking my cries.When I think I’ve emptied myself of an ocean, I walk to the river.
On the other side, the Christians’ hayfield has burst into bloom with flaming orange poppies. Their brightness rivals the sunlight that’s burning its way through the clouds. I’ve often longed to pick one of the flowers for myself, but when the Christian family arrived last spring, Father ordered me never to cross the river. I’ve never met a Christian before, though Sverting says they are invading Iceland like vermin this spring.
I stand on the bank and stretch my arms out from my sides, staring at my rippled reflection in the water. My frame’s small, but I look more like a grown woman than I did the last time I gazed into the water. My breasts and hips are almost as full as Frída’s, though not as round as Mother’s. But in my feathered cloak, I look more like a black bird, spreading its wings for flight.
Someone’s watching me from the outcropping. The tiny hairs on my arms rise as I slowly turn upriver to the grey jumble of boulders. I finally make him out, looking back at me from where he sits on the rocks. If he’s a human boy, he must be about my age, maybe a couple of years older, but he doesn’t look quite human. Mud streaks his white and yellow hair and makes it stand on end. He’s painted mud designs on his cheeks and forehead the way Vali and Svertingdo do when they practice their battle skills with Father. The bird in flight that’s painted on his bare chest rises and falls as he breathes.
Is he a guardian nature spirit, or a human, or one of my dreams? He climbs over the rocks until he reaches the low edge overhanging the river where he slips into the current and swims for the other side. A human boy might not have braved the frigid mountain water. Surely he’s spirit or vision.
When he climbs out on the Christians’ side, he walks straight toward the poppies and plucks one by the stem. Returning to the muddy bank, he stares at me. His gaze doesn’t frighten me, yet a quiver runs through me as if I’m the one who waded through cold water. His pale, wet body is taut and muscular like a wild colt’s. He stands near the water, twirling the orange poppy under his chin as he watches me. When he places the flower into the current, it floats down the river like a swift knorr, its flaming petals like little sails set ablaze.
The poppy moors in a pebbly bay at my feet. I lift it to my lips and taste the bead of water it leaves there. The wet, earthy tang of river and grass lingers on my tongue. When I slide the stem behind my ear, the boy smiles. Again, the quivering shakes me inside like an invisible spirit running its fingers across my soul. The boy turns and bolts away through the poppy field like a wild horse.
Who is he? What is he? Even when I can no longer see him in the distance, he doesn’t disappear from my mind. The next morning, I hurry to the stones, hoping the mud-boy might be waiting. I want to ask him if he knows anything about Björk. Maybe he will tell me she’s safe, that he found her and took her in. I still almost believe he’s a guardian spirit, and something inside me longs for it to be true for Björk’s sake. I wait for him until Frída’s voice finally rises over the meadow, calling me to tend Bikki. My heart sinks deeper and deeper with every step I take back toward the hall.
I fly to the rocks the next day and the next. Still the boy doesn’t come. But on the fourth day, I find someone’s made a bridge of stepping-stones across the shallowest part of the water. An orange poppy shines brightly atop each stone. My heart comes to life. Picking up the first flower, I step onto the rock and watch the water swirl and flow around me. Father’s rule against crossing the river seems to wash away downstream as my feet follow their own orders.
I bend to get the next poppy and almost lose my balance. Was that movement in the field? Stepping forward, I collect all the flowers as I make my way across the rocks to the far bank. My hand’s full by the time I stand on the other side.
The boy rises from his hiding place in the field and stands, watching me approach. But I’m wrong to think of him as a boy. He looks strong, as if he already does the work of a grown man, and he’s as tall as my brother Vali. His face is clean and he wears a linen shirt and homespun breeches, but his hair is the soft wild down of a thistle, and his eyes are full of sea and sky.
“Are you análfr?” I ask.
Handsome nature spirits are said to sometimes seduce young women who stray too far from home. My pulse quickens. The idea makes me nervous and curious at the same time.
He wears a thoughtful look and glances around at the field, the water, and the stones. “I don’t know.” His voice is solemn. He has the strange, lilting accent of the people of Írland.
“How can you not know what you are?”
He stares at the field of poppies. His face darkens as if he expected to find the answer there. He turns back to me. “Are you an angel?” His words gently mock me, but his eyes are kind. “Or a bird-girl?”
“I—” My words get lost on the way to my lips. I’m not sure what an angel is. The image of Vali’s winged Valkyrie rises to my mind. My fingers slide over the edges of my feather cloak. I do long to fly with the birds, and I’ve understood their language since I was a child. I smile and admit, “I don’t know.”
The young man’s intense expression dissolves into a grin.
Something flutters like wings in my chest every time he smiles. “I am Anja,” I say.
“I’ve heard your people call your name.”
“Who are you?”
The name sounds honest and strong. Kol. I glance at my flowers. “I thought maybe you were my guardian spirit.”
“Maybe I am.”
His voice sounds serious, but something in his eyes tells me he’s still teasing me. It feels different than Sverting or Vali’s jokes. My brothers aren’t gentle with their words like Kol, and they never make my face flush.
Flustered, I say, “Where have you been? I waited for you every day.” I didn’t mean to say it out loud, but the words tumble out before I can stop them. My cheeks turn hot.
Kol’s expression stays serious, but his eyes lighten at my words. “We had guests for a feast. My sister was christened.”
“Christened?” Then it’s true—he does belong to the Christian family who took the land west of the Bjarta River. Father spits on the ground in disgust after he speaks of them, though they’ve never even met.
“It’s a naming ceremony. She is Brigid.”
Kol’s words remind me of Björk. My throat hurts when I swallow. The memory’s too painful to speak of, but I have to ask him my question. “I left a basket at the rocks seven nights ago with a special gift for the guardian spirits who dwell there.” I can’t bring myself to say the horrible truth that I left my own sister there. I lick my lips. “Did you . . . see it?”
Kol shakes his head.
I sit down and hug my knees to keep the sharp pain in my heart from bursting it open. I wish I could cry and scream like little Bikki.
Kol sits beside me without speaking for a long time. Finally, he says, “When I first saw you come to the river a month ago, you weren’t sad. You lay in the melting snow and smiled at the sky.”
I remember the first day of spring, when I swept my arms up and down, making Valkyrie wings in the snow as I listened to the ravens bickering in the trees, slinging clever insults at each other. I didn’t even feel someone watching me.
“But lately when you come, I can tell you have a heavy heart. I wanted to speak to you, but I never knew what to say.” His words turn so tender they pull tears from somewhere deep inside me to the surface. “Why are you sad, Anja?”
Lying back in the poppies, I stare at the sky. So many images crowd my mind. Father and my brothers away at sea. Mother, silent and distant, curled into a corner of her bed. Old Aud, hidden on her mountain. Björk. Oh gods, Björk.
A hunger for something I can’t name eats away at my insides, and I don’t know what will ease it. I glance at Kol, who listens, waiting to hear what I’ll say. Then I realize what I yearn for: someone who understands me. Someone I can tell my secrets to. My secret about Björk, and my other secret that only Old Aud knows. But Old Aud hides away on her mountain where no one can touch her. She doesn’t care about me.
“I’m sad because I’m alone,” I say quietly.
Kol lies down on the ground beside me. I turn my face from him so he won’t see my eyes turn wet.
“No,” he says.
Is what I imagine about Kol true? I turn toward him. Yes. His eyes don’t just glance at mine as if all that can be known about me might be gathered in a moment. When he looks at me, his eyes catch on something in mine and linger there, like he sees something written in runes—a mystery he’s riddling out.
“You’re not alone here,” he says.
His words ease the hollow aching inside. I take a deep quavering breath. And another. The lump in my throat slowly melts until I can breathe without shaking. I look at the sunny poppies in my hands and smile at Kol.
He says, “I have five brothers and three sisters, but sometimes I feel alone even when they’re right beside me.” He gazes into the field. “They don’t know me.”
It’s strange to hear someone say his own family doesn’t know him, but I know exactly what he means.
“When I feel that way, I come here to the river,” he says, “like you do.” Kol glances around at the water, field and sky. “Maybe you and I belong here.”
“What do you mean?”
“Everything here grows and lives without being told how it should be done. Look.” He points to the sky at two hawks flying directly above us. They dip and swoop over and under each other and then fly side by side. “I want to be like that, free to fly wherever I want.”
His words are like my own thoughts. I’ve never heard anyone say such things. I smile up at the birds. “Sometimes I almost feel like I can.”
Kol grins and glances at my feather cloak. “Maybe because you have wings.”
I laugh. When his smile makes crinkles in the corners of his eyes, I wish I could capture the sight with a net and slip it in my pocket to look at again and again.
He rolls onto his side and props himself up with his elbow. A small wooden cross hanging from a cord around his neck rests for a moment in the hollow of his breastbone before sliding down under his shirt. I close my fist against the sudden urge to reach out and retrieve the amulet.
“What are angels?” I ask. “Do they have wings?”
“They’re spirit beings. They’re so bright and beautiful it almost hurts to look at them.” He gazes intently at me. “But a person can’t help themselves.”
My skin grows warm from his steady stare.
“Angels are powerful. Their voices make you tremble inside, and they leave the air smelling sweet long after they’re gone. Once you see an angel, you’ll never be able to forget it.”
My heart beats faster. The hawks cry as they circle back over the field. I glance up at the birds. “Angels sound like good spirits.”
Kol nods and watches the hawks. “Some angels are brave warriors and some are messengers. And when Christians die, the angels are the ones who fly them to Heaven.”
“We know beings like that.” I pull the wooden Valkyrie from my pocket and hold it out to Kol. When he takes it, his fingers brush against mine. The simple touch stirs something inside me like an approaching storm charging the air with Thór’s lightning power. Did Kol feel it too?
He runs his finger over the wings and muscular arms of the battle maiden. “What is she?”
“A Valkyrie. When I was little, my brother Vali carved her so I’d remember to be brave when I wasn’t.”
“She’s strong. And beautiful.” Kol fashions each word before handing it to me like a gift.
“Yes, she’s like a secret I carried—whenever I needed to find courage, I thought of her.”
Kol gazes quietly at the Valkyrie.
What’s he thinking?
When he finally hands the figure back to me, he rolls over onto his stomach and stares into the field of flowers. “I want to show you something, Anja.”
Whatever Kol wants to show me, I want to see. “What is it?”
He raises one eyebrow and smiles. “It’s a secret of my own. But the way’s too far for walking; we need help.”
Kol points into the field.
I roll over and look at the wild herd of small Icelandic mares grazing nearby. “Have you ever ridden one?”
“The white filly—I call her Svala.” He nods toward the horse. “Her coat turns silver in the sun when she runs through the shallows.”
“She doesn’t look easy to catch.”
“She likes me.” Kol stands up and walks slowly toward the horses. They raise their heads from the grass and stare at him, calm and serious, their nostrils flaring. Kol stares back at them with the same expression on his face. Finally, all the horses except the white one lower their heads and start grazing again. Svala blows air through her nose and tosses her head before walking over to Kol.
“How do you do that?” I whisper.
Kol grins over his shoulder. “Salt from the sea.” He pulls a small handful from his pocket and holds it up for the filly. “That’s why she likes me.”
I stand up and walk to them as quietly as I can and stroke Svala’s neck.
“Step up.” Kol makes a stirrup with his hands. I hold on to Svala’s mane as I step up and swing my leg over the horse’s back. Kol pulls a thin rope bridle from his breeches pocket and slips it over Svala’s head. Icelandic horses are small, and Kol has no trouble pulling himself up behind me. He reaches both arms around me and takes hold of the rope and Svala’s mane. The warm scent of his skin, his nearness, and the way his arms seem to gather me to him send a rippling current through my body like I’ve never felt before.
With a nudge of Kol’s heels, Svala gallops south through the fiery field of poppies toward the mouth of the Bjarta River where it empties into the sea. I raise my arms out to my sides like wings over Kol’s arms as we fly across the cove. I’m a bird-girl and he’s a nature spirit. The wind from the sea smells of salt, waves and wet rock; it whips the hair from my face. Before we reach the beach, Kol turns Svala to the river and we enter it through the shallows. When she splashes across, the spray flies around us like flakes of snow, and Svala’s coat glistens silver in the sun.
We gallop all the way to Skógafoss, the waterfall where Father sometimes leads the people in special offerings to Frey and His sister, the goddess Freyja. Worshippers go to the top of the cliff and throw gifts over the sacred falls so the gods will bless them. Kol walks Svala right up to the place where the cascade falls in great sheets of water, bubbling and foaming in the river. The sound of the crashing water thunders in my chest; the mist clings to my eyelashes and wets my lips.
We slide off Svala onto lush green grass. I follow Kol as he climbs a slippery path along the falls that stop at Skógafoss’ giant curtain of water. As we come to where the water spews over the path, Kol ducks into the spray and disappears.
Loki’s Beard! “I didn’t know—”
Kol reaches an arm back through the watery curtain and grabs my hand, pulling me in. I cry out at the shock of cold spray drenching my hair and shoulders. Laughing, I wipe the water from my face and look around. We’re standing behind the falls in a long cavern that stretches to the other side of the cliff. Water roars down in front of us, a thousand horses galloping across my heart. Sunlight shines on the water from the outside, turning it into a melting wall of bright sea glass. I shiver from the cold. “It’s beautiful.”
Kol’s wet hair and damp clothes cling to his skin. His cross amulet shows plainly through his shirt. Father would be so angry to know I came here with him, especially since Kol is a Christian. But Father’s far away across the sea, and Kol’s right here, standing near enough to touch. Besides, Father’s wrong about the Christians. Kol isn’t a foul, weak-witted fool like Father claims all Christians are, and I can’t bring myself to leave. Surely there’s no harm in staying with Kol a little while longer. Being with him somehow eases the heavy burden I’ve carried the last several days. I watch him gaze at the blue and green world flashing through the gaps in the water-wall.
“I come here to think,” he says. “Or when something troubles me.”
I imagine him alone at the cave with a dark look on his face. “It’s a good place to think,” I say. “And a perfect secret—I never knew it was here.” I run my hand over the wet rock. “They say a man once buried a great treasure at these falls, but it’s never been found.”
“I’ve heard that tale.”
“Have you found it?”
He laughs. “No, but this is a good place to hide a treasure.” Turning to the wet rock, he squats and runs his fingers over the slick surface of the cave to a cleft near the ground. “Look.”
I peer inside, but the hole’s too dark to see anything. Slowly, I reach into the crevice, feeling the slimy wet rock until my fingers brush against a smooth object. I take hold of it and pull out a wooden box with knotted cross designs carved over its surface.
I draw in my breath. Turning to the light, I pry off the lid of Kol’s box and look inside. A black raven feather’s the first thing I see. When I hold it to the light, its blue sheen warms me. It’s mine, fallen from my cloak. Did Kol save it because it belonged to me? I smile as I lay it aside and pick up a pebble with a hole in its center. It looks like a miniature of the large heavy stones I use to weigh down the yarns in my loom. I lift it to my eye and squint through the opening.
At once, everything in the world disappears except for Kol’s earnest face framed in the tiny stone. His wet tangled hair hangs in his eyes, and fine beads of water coat his skin like dew. I place the image, the moment, into the treasure box of my memory. Whenever I raise it to my mind’s eye, I’m certain everything else will vanish just as it does now.
I set the pebble back gently into the box and my eyes fall on a solid horn-shaped object the color of bone. When I lift it from the box, its heaviness surprises me. “What is it?”
“A whale’s tooth.” Kol’s eyes grow wide.
I often see the giant sea creatures from shore. As I imagine a whole set of such teeth, my eyes widen too. “How did you get it?”
“My oldest brothers, Sam and Lambi, helped my father and his men kill the whale off the coast of Éire, the land of my mother’s people. My father brought us here last spring. Iceland’s his homeland.”
“Éire.” I try saying Írland’s name the way Kol does. “Your mother must miss her people.”
“Yes, but she brought their stories with her. At night she tells them to us so we won’t forget. Her sad stories turn the coldest men and women into crying babies, and her gruesome tales make warriors shiver. But the ones she likes best are the tales of romance. Her love stories wring people’s hearts and iron them out new.”
“I like her already.” I smile. “You must miss your Éire land.”
“I do. The rivers, especially.”
A stream of water trickles down the wall of the cave, and I trace its course. “Tell me about them.”
Kol gazes out at the tumbling waterfall and speaks a poem that sounds like music. It tells of the blue and crystal rivers, lovely as a fair white swan, that carry sons of Éireto the sea. Kol’s poem leaves me breathless. The lilting words sound lonesome and beautiful and so different than the battle poems my uncles recite at feasts. What had it been like for him to sail on a longship so far away from the land he loved? I run my fingers over the whale’s tooth. “Kol, how could you bear to leave your home?”
“I’d always wanted to sail with my father and brothers and I wanted to see a new land—this land of fire and ice.”
I wonder what his family’s like. “Your brothers and father must be fine shipmasters.”
“Yes, and Lambi’s a skilled ship builder. When he paid homage to King Olaf of Norway, the king praised his work, and Lambi built him a longship as tribute. The king honored all of my older brothers because he was so pleased, and they were pledged into his service. King Olaf filled Lambi’s ship with fine timber as a gift, and when Lambi returned to Iceland, he carried the king’s missionary with him.” Kol’s eyes shine with pride.
“Lambi’s teaching me to take over the trade now that he’s a warrior for the king. One day I’ll travel across the sea on my own longship even farther west than Iceland. Lambi says there are new worlds out there for those who are brave enough to go. A man from Reykjanes told him that a huge white bear as big as a knorr floated into his bay on an ice floe from one of the those lands.”
I smile, imagining a shipmaster bear. “Think of all the stories from those strange lands that the bear carried with him to Iceland.”
Kol grins at me. “If I’d met the bear, we would’ve had a long talk. I might have signed him on as my first shipmate.”
Laughing, I return the tooth to the box. I try imagining Kol as a grown man like Father, master of a great ship. “You make me want to see such a land myself.”
“Well, I could probably make room for a brave Valkyrie on my ship. I don’t think the bear would mind.”
I like the way Kol’s voice sounds serious at the same time his eyes are laughing with me. I pull a piece of flat rock with seashells carved into it from the box. Some are rounded and some are only imprints, as if shells have somehow been pressed into the hard stone and then removed. “Who carved this?”
“I broke it loose from inside a cliff face. I think my god made it.”
“I’ve never seen a carving like this. Its beauty is so strange.” I run my finger over the stone shells. How did the Christians’ god hide His carved shells into the cliff? Did the god know Kol took them? I place the stone gingerly into the box.
The last item is a long piece of soft juniper bark. Turning it over in my hands, I discover runes on the other side. I wrote these signs myself! The morning Old Aud taught them to me, I practiced making the runes with a chalky rock on a juniper tree by the river. Kol must have found them later that day.
“Anja,” he says, “I’ll trade one of the treasures if you’ll teach me how to read and write your signs.”
My fingers come alive as I trace the familiar shapes. Perhaps it’s my heart that’s come alive and every part of me feels it. No one else has asked about my runes. They don’t know that I will need rune knowledge to become a seeress like Old Aud. They don’t even know she dreamed the gods told her she must pass her gift of seeing on to me, even though she is so old that I am afraid she will forget everything before it is too late. Frída complains I write when I should be working, and Mother doesn’t seem interested anymore in what I do. Jón only shakes his head as if it’s a waste of time. They don’t understand how it makes me feel to write out my thoughts—thoughts that someone can read only if they ask me how. I smile at Kol and nod.
His eyes light up. “Which one do you want?”
I move aside the whale tooth, the sacred shells, the bark and the feather until I find what I’m looking for. Then, rummaging in my pockets, I pull out a piece of yarn, thread it through the pebble’s tiny hole and lift it to my neck. Kol takes the ends from me, and I hold up my hair as he ties the necklace behind me. As I let go of my hair, it falls over Kol’s arms like a curtain. He gathers it gently and lets it run through his fingers, his hands slowly trailing down my shoulders as if he doesn’t want to be done with his task.
I close my eyes, wishing I could feel it all over again. When I turn back to him, I don’t feel the dampness of the wet cave or the chill in the air or even the dark thoughts that haunted me earlier that morning. Everything seems different now that Kol’s seeing-stone rests over my heart.
I don’t want to leave Skógafoss, but a nagging voice that sounds like Frída’s in the corner of my mind won’t be still. I sigh. “I must go. Frída needs me to help make the cheese, and if I’m not home soon, she may never let me out of the hall again.”
Kol nods. “My father sent me to repair the wall around our western hayfield. He’ll think I’m a lazy fool if I’m gone much longer.” He doesn’t move. “But I don’t want to leave.” He reaches out to catch the spray from the falling water. “What if I wake in the morning to find that I dreamed you up and you aren’t real?”
I smile. “If that is so, then poor me.”
“It would be a poor situation for us both. I would just have to go back to sleep and keep dreaming.”
I laugh and dart under the falls, out of the cave. As the water drips down my shoulders, I gaze at Kol through the curtain of water between us, and he stares back at me. His blurry shape does look like something from a dream. The dream parts as Kol steps through the water and becomes real again.
“Come with me tomorrow, Anja,” he says, brushing the wet hair from his face. His eyes are clear and deep like pieces of sky.
“I don’t care. Wherever you want to go.” His wet skin catches the sun when he moves and looks like the sleek glistening hide of a seal emerging from the sea.
I want to run my hand over its smoothness. “I know a place that’s like another world. I doubt you’ve seen such a place in Írland.”
Kol raises his eyebrows. “Another world, hidden right here in this one? That’s where I want to go.”
“What about your wall?”
“What about your cheese?”
I laugh. “I’ll just have to go early so I won’t be missed.”
Kol laughs too. “Then I’ll be at the river before the fish wake up.”
Gods! What would Father do if he found out?
But Kol’s smile quiets the tremors that rumble through me when I worry about Father exploding like a volcano. His gentle words fall over my sad thoughts of Björk, too, like rays of sunlight after a bleak winter. Kol makes the whole world more peaceful and bright. And as I feel the darkness inside me slipping away, nothing else matters.