(a novel excerpt)
My fingers freeze, hovering over the threads of my loom. Everything turns quiet again, but the scream hangs in the midnight air like an icy breath. My mistress rises up in bed with another cry. And sweet, holy Mary, don’t it turn my blood to cold, rushing rivers!
When she lifts her hands toward the firelight, they’re stained dark red. Dotta runs to her, throwing off her mother’s blankets. Mistress Sigrid’s legs are red. The linens are red. It reminds me of my first cycle, five summers ago. I was young and afraid, but Sister Fiona and the other nuns were by my side to calm me. This is different— Mistress is with child. She has the wild eyes of a demon-possessed creature. I have no love for the pagan woman, but I hope the poor baby inside her lives.
“Alf,” Dotta cries to her brother, “go fetch the seeress.”
He curses as he stumbles from his bed to the door, still half-fluthered from last night’s ale.
I know neither face nor place of this seeress woman, but ‘tis too late for her to be catching the child, I’m thinking. Mistress Sigrid turns to me, the whites of her eyes shining like moons in the dark.
“Dotta,” I say. “Your ma needs soothing herbs in a horn of beer.”
She glares at me. “Don’t tell me what to do, you Irish bitch. You’re our slave, not the other way around.”
“Am I, then.” My chin lifts in defiance. “But can’t you see the baby’s a-coming?”
Dotta slaps my cheek. “Then what are you waiting for?”
With my face burning but my chin still set, I scurry to the pantry to mix the herbs into the drink. My fingers shake, sloshing some of the potion on the floor.
I carry the drinking horn to Mistress’s bed and rest my hand on hers to calm her, but she pulls her hand away as if my body’s made of flames.
“Don’t touch me! I won’t have your filthy Christian paws all over me. Dotta, make Étaín go away. The pain worsens when I have to look at her ugly face.”
Dotta takes the horn from me and pushes me out of the hall like a dog, slamming the door behind me. I’ve managed to grab my feather cloak, but only one boot. I slide it on my foot and huddle against the side of the hall, shivering in the winter night.
Mistress’s moans issue from inside, sounding more animal than human now. I wrap my arms around myself to keep warm as I peer out into the darkness, lit by a half-moon. To the east I can make out the slope of the master’s ancestral burial mound. And don’t my skin be a-crawling at the thought of what’s inside! They opened it soon after I arrived, during the funeral for Master’s brother, so the dead warrior might join his family who had gone before him into the pagan afterlife. I try not to imagine his rotting body next to the bones of his kin and I turn away, to the west.
The hay yard in front of the hall stretches out cold and empty, blending into the night sky like one vast, lonesome sea surrounding me. Then ain’t I a wee boat, lost in it.
I gaze above me and am startled again at the green rippling ribbons of light in the sky. I’m still not used to seeing such a thing—like grand fairy lights in the heavens. They do be looking like the swirling skirts of dancing angels. I never saw such strange skies from the convent in my Éire land. Even though I have no family and the nuns didn’t love me, when I think of my homeplace, my eyes turn wet—but a home ain’t a home anymore once the people there have left it for eternity. I don’t have a home in the world then, do I.
The moon is just bright enough to see the birch grove and the small tree that Mistress Sigrid’s husband dedicated to their pagan gods for the baby on its way. I walk to the little grove where he performed the ritual before he went a-Viking across the sea.
If he were here, he’d not let them treat me so hard, I’m thinking. That day when he picked me from the captured slaves on the boat almost a year ago, he spoke in my own tongue—no one else I’ve met on this murderous island knows a word of it, and I’ve had to learn theirs. He said he wanted me to be a companion to his wife and daughter while he was away. He wanted a lass with “strong, quiet ways,” he said, who could help in times of trouble with little fuss. He said he chose me because I was the only lass whose eyes weren’t red and raw from crying. I remember being pulled from the belly of the boat and made to walk down the plank on wobbly sea legs to the cold, muddy beach of this dark Land of Ice. For sure ‘twas an ugly land, but I was ready enough to keep on living with my head up.
Mistress’s cry becomes one long howl, like the sound of Alf pretending to be a bear-man berserker when he tells old stories from Norway to scare me. The noise usually makes the hairs on my arm stand on end, but this time it takes my breath from me.
When Mistress’s voice breaks, the quiet that comes after ‘tis louder than anything I’ve ever heard in my life. Slumping to the ground against the baby’s tree, I pull my knees up to my chest and clap my hands over my ears to drown out the silence.
Everything in me do be hoping for that poor babe to live. Babies don’t give a care if a person’s pretty or ugly, pagan or Christian. They don’t know the difference between slave or free. I’m thinking I could let that baby love me if it had a mind to.
I reach for the wooden cross hanging from my neck and squeeze it between my fingers. Holy Father, save that innocent babe.
Make a noise, child.
A sound like the bleating of a goat tears through the stillness. I loosen my hands and listen. Is it one of Mistress’s goats they keep in the hall over the winter, or the baby?
I hear it again.
A newborn’s weak cry! Jumping to my feet, I leg it to the hall. Mistress Sigrid do be looking like a crumpled rag, her face ashen and slack. Her eyes flutter at me, but seeing the limp baby in Dotta’s arms, she clamps her eyes shut and turns her face away.
I take up the iron scissors. “We must cut it loose. First we should tie the belly cord.”
Dotta holds the child away from her like ‘tis some strange, unearthly thing, fallen from the sky. I rummage through my pocket, pull out a thread, and tie off the baby’s belly cord myself, then cut the child free. The baby’s blue skin is lightening to purple, but the infant’s not well. Too small—just a doonshie thing—and so still. Almost dead.
“Rub her,” I cry. “Wash her!”
Dotta won’t look at me and only says in a wobbly voice, “No. It’s too late. Fetch a basket.”
“Let me hold her!” I pull at Dotta’s arms, but she turns her shoulders away.
“Get away from me! It’s come too early like the other ones,” she says. “It’s too sickly—it doesn’t have the strength to live and must be removed. It’s just another girl, anyway. Nothing to be done about it, now.”
The other ones?
“Stop gaping and obey.” She waves her hand at me to hurry. “Fetch the covered basket. We must take it from the hall—that’s just the way it is. Our ways are no different than any other family’s in the land. Iceland women are strong and can do what needs to be done. We aren’t weaklings like you Christian women.” Dotta’s voice trembles, but her body’s rigid as stone. “Hurry, Étaín, you half-wit—do as I say!”
“But your ma needs tending, and the afterbirth hasn’t come out yet.” I don’t fetch the basket, because my body has stopped working.
A sob breaks from Mistress’s throat, and she turns her head away. “Do as Dotta says, Étaín. And curses on you if you disobey me in this. Go quickly.” The pain in her voice makes something in my heart crack clear open, and I want to do whatever she tells me, just to ease her burden.
“I will.” But I can’t move. I stare at Dotta, who’s found the lidded basket herself.
“Get your other boot and mittens on.” Dotta doesn’t even wrap the whimpering baby in a blanket before putting her in the basket, though it’s Goa-month; snow and ice covers everything.
I stare at her like a stone statue.
“Now, you fool!” Dotta’s voice sounds shrill and wild like a trapped animal, startling me into action.
I pull my boot on in a panic. Dotta, her jaw set and lips pursed, shuts the lid over the baby. How can she do such a thing without even flinching?
My duty presses down on me like the weight of an avalanche. But as I slip my mittens on, I’m thinking there’s still one thing I can do.
I finger the woven bracelets around my wrist. My ma made them for me when I was just a doonshie thing, before she died and the nuns took me. She called the design The Angel Sisters because it looked like powerful wings overlapping. She prayed a blessing for me over them, that as long as I wore them, the angels, they would protect me. To them who don’t know, they look to be two unrelated pieces, but if you match the bracelets up next to each other, their edges fit together just like a puzzle.
“Hurry, Étaín.” Dotta presses down on Mistress’s stomach, trying to release the afterbirth. Mistress still faces the earthen walls as she moans.
“It’s sickly and the same as dead. It hasn’t been given a name, so by the law of Iceland, no child has been born here tonight. It must be removed. You do it—I need to tend to Mother. Take the basket to the lava fields. Don’t stop. Leave it there and come straight back.” Dotta’s eyes are red. “If you disobey, I’ll have Alf whip you till you bleed.”
I nod, but my heart’s resisting like a mighty arm a-pulling at my chest. 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, will I. Nay, I won’t do it. I’ll fly, instead, to the sheltering rocks near Skógar River where the pagans say the guardian spirits dwell. ‘Tis a peaceful place with moss growing on the river rocks even in winter, and the comforting sound of the water rippling under the ice. If ever there be a place where the Christian God might deign to honor with His presence in this heathen Land of Ice, I’m thinking it might be there.
I fly like a night bird along the riverbank path, beside the frozen hayfield. The moon casts a shadow that follows me, creeping and a-lunging like a troll over the snowbanks after me as I run. I can’t stop shivering. My heart thumps a message like a voice in my ears, begging me to stop.
When I reach the rocks, the moon shines between the clouds and casts a faint, silver glow over the stones. Setting the basket down, I pull the baby to my chest. “You are Brigid.”
It means powerful. ‘Tis a name my people give to a girl child. I clutch her closer, rubbing her tiny back, her legs. “You do have a name. You have a tree. You have me—a sister.” Though not of my blood, she’s the closest thing I have to kin, because, like me, she has nothing and belongs nowhere. And hers is the only heart that hasn’t turned hard against me. I cry into Brigid’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 with more strength. Her skin’s no longer such a deep shade of purple. I cradle her in my arms and stroke her wee wrinkled face and limbs. I slide one of my ma’s Angel Sister bracelets off my arm and over Brigid’s for protection.
My voice cracks as I speak a prayer into the darkness. “Oh Holy Mother Mary, protect this lass, such a frail one, cast off in the great world and most alone. Remember her to your holy son, Jesus, and his heavenly Father. Do not forget her in this bleak land.”
But it don’t seem enough. Can the Holy Mother even hear me from this heathen place? I look around at the grand rocks, the pagans’ guardian spirits and, most suddenly, I feel I’m a trespasser on sacred ground. What if the pagan spirits direct their wrath on this child for my sacrilege? I swallow hard and whisper to them in the quiet. “Oh guardian nature spirits, I be but a stranger to you, but I ask you a humble favor. Please accept this gift of a precious bracelet and take care of my sister. She do be one of yourn, and her people know and love you. Oh spirits, please protect her.”
I think of the Norns, those pagan female beings who visit newborns and who spin and weave each child’s fate. Might their ears be turned to a beseeching Christian holding one of their own children on such a quiet, lonesome night? I almost imagine the Norns bent toward the infant, waiting to decide her future.
“Oh powerful maidens,” I plead. “Spin a garment of protection around my sister. Weave for her a kind fate, strong and good. Have mercy.”
I shudder to imagine what my own god might be thinking if He’s heard my plea to His enemies, but I don’t know what else to do. If neither gods nor spirits intervene somehow, then I’ll never be seeing my sister again.
I kiss the baby’s forehead and wrap her tightly in the blanket before laying her in the basket. Water burns my eyes as I leg it back to the hall.
By the time I return, Alf’s snoring in his bed once again, and I suppose the seeress has come and gone. Everyone’s sleeping. Dotta’s left the mess for me to tidy, of course. I take the afterbirth in the bowl beside Mistress Sigrid’s bed and bury it under Brigid’s tree, then I wash my hands and crawl into bed.
And don’t the dark thoughts plague me! Alf tells horrible stories 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.
The cover gets twisted around my legs as I toss in the bed. My ears strain for the sound of a baby’s cry, but the only noise is Mistress’s heavy breathing and Alf’s snores. May God or the spirits accept my prayers and care for Brigid before—? I try not to imagine a hungry beast lurking near the stones or that hunched-up old woman who was seen last month, a-wandering around the area, mumbling to herself. Alf called her a crazy hag. And the cold! How could I leave her out there in the freezing cold?
A sourness rises from my stomach to my throat, and don’t I want to heave my insides out. Brigid deserved more than my prayers and my bracelet. I just left her there. A babe. Alone! What have I done?
But ‘twas their doing, I’m thinking, not mine—I had no choice, did I. Ain’t I a slave, like Dotta said?
The night’s turned completely still.
The answer to my own question shakes me at the core.
My heart is no slave. ‘Tis free to do what it knows to be right. And that alone makes me equal or better than they.
I sit up in bed, a-shaking. Ain’t my heart beating like a battle drum. My breaths come so fast and hard, I feel dizzy. Everything inside me told me not to leave Brigid. I do have a choice.
I toss the covers aside.
Trembling at what I’m about to do, I rise from my bed and put on my things, creep to the door, and slip outside. The sharpness of the air raises the hairs on my arms 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 Mistress sees her new daughter alive, she’ll agree I did the right thing, to be sure.
And don’t 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 her, 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 snow. I crawl on the rocky ground to the baby’s basket, lying just where I left it.
But, oh my heart! Brigid is gone.
All the way back, as I run past the river, past the mound, I’m making a solemn vow. When Nuns make oaths, they place their hands on gilded Latin Bibles, but all I have is the cross around my neck. As I reach for it, I’m thinking I have something more sacred than a man-made wooden thing. Don’t I have the beating heart God gave me? So I run with my hand on my heart, saying these words in my mind over and over: never again will I ignore the voice inside my own self telling me what is right. Never again, never again—no matter what others might say I should do.
I’m out of breath when I return to the hall. My chest aches from holding in the silent sobs that rack my ribs. ‘Tis like I’m in a trance, moving through deep water. The long fire has burned down low and the room is full of shadows. I stumble over a sleeping goat on the floor and it bleats out in annoyance. I make my way to my bed, but a figure rises up in my path.
Alf. His nightshirt’s manky smell of sweat and ale makes me wince. I fight the instinct to turn and run back out into the fresh night air.
“Let me pass,” I whisper. “I do be tired.”
“Where have you been?” He reaches for my arm to steady himself.
“The stones of the guardian spirits.”
“Why? It’s our sacred place, not yours. You don’t belong there.”
“’Tis none of your concern.” I move to pass by him, but he pulls me closer.
“I’ll say if it’s my concern or not. What? A little slave bitch keeping secrets from her master? I think you need to be brought down low where you belong.” His fingers tighten around my arm like a manacle. “This is down where you belong.”
He drops backward onto his bed behind him, pulling me with him. I tumble forward, into his lap.
“That’s it. Right down there.”
I struggle to get out of his grip. “Please let me go.”
He grabs my hair near the scalp “My father paid good silver for you,” he whispers in my ear. “If it had been me, I would have picked out a pretty one, but I don’t really need to look at your face.” He laughs and pushes my head down into his bared lap. “Have some of that.”
“I won’t!” I cry as loud as I can, to wake his ma and sister. I dig my nails into his naked thighs, dragging them through his skin.
Alf cries out, too, waking them both.
“What is this?” Mistress Sigrid bolts up in bed.
Dotta throws off her blankets and runs to Alf’s side. “What has she done to you?”
I’m still on my knees with my hands on Alf’s legs, trying to lift myself away from him.
Alf says, “She came at me while I was sleeping, to seduce me. I thought she was a witch trying to murder me, the ugly thing!” He knees me in the stomach as I pull away, shoving me to the floor.
“When she saw her charms weren’t working, she stuck her claws into me and tried to rip me to shreds.” He gestures to his bleeding thighs.
“By the gods! Maybe she is a witch!” Dotta cries. “Let me get you some strips of linen to wrap your wounds.”
I struggle to a standing position. “’Tis a lie.”
Dotta halts on her way to fetch the linens. “What? You say it’s a lie that you’re an ugly thing? Have you seen yourself? Well, let me tell you—a truer thing was never spoken. Or do you say it’s a lie that you cut him with your own claws? Look at the state of his wounds, and the blood under your very nails. It’s clear as water that it’s you who’s lying.”
Mistress holds her stomach as she watches Dotta tend to the gouges I made in Alf’s thighs. “How dare you accuse my son when you’re to blame? I can’t bear to be in the same room with you for another minute.” She waves me away with a sweep of her hand. “Open the mound and shut Étaín in with all the rot. Perhaps by morning she will have learned her lesson.”
Mistress lies back down and pulls the covers up to her chin.
Alf laughs. “Yes, that’s a perfect idea.” He brushes Dotta away from him as he stands and pulls on his trousers. “Go remove the bolt—I’ll bring her out with me.”
Dotta smirks as she puts on her cloak and boots, lights an oil lamp from the smoldering embers of the long fire and leaves the hall.
I can’t speak for the shock of it.
“Maybe the gods will mistake you for dead and take you along with them to the other side. Don’t forget to tell my Uncle Grimolf hello for me. You might not even have to go to the other side to tell him so. Several times since we put him in, I’ve seen ravens flying above the mound that just suddenly drop to the ground, dead—some say that the presence of a draugr in a mound will do that.” He takes my arm. “You do remember what the draugar are, don’t you?”
I do, to be sure! For don’t he frighten me every chance he gets with his dark stories about the undead who haunt such mounds, searching for flesh to devour. I shake my arm to free myself from his grasp, but he only clenches his fingers more tightly around me.
“Please don’t put me in there!” I cry, causing more moans to issue from Mistress’s bed.
She looks at me. “Stop shouting, you wretched girl. Why my husband ever thought to bring such a lily-livered Christian into our home, I’ll never know. You must be made to learn your place and strengthen your pitiful nature—seduction, deceit, and cowardice might be accepted among your people’s women, but such weaknesses won’t be tolerated here.”
“Please, Mistress Sigrid! I’ll sleep out in the empty goat shed. Or beside the hall! Please, don’t put me in the—”
“Enough of your noise! Take her to the mound.”
“Nay!” I shout. “I won’t go!”
Mistress’s eyes grow large as platters at my words of resistance. My heart swells
with this new boldness flooding my heart, and I do resolve to go all out. I yank my arm from Alf and shove him hard. “I don’t belong to any of you—I belong to my own self!”
But Alf lunges right back at me, locking me in a vice grip. His smooth, mocking voice has turned to gravel and sharp blades. “You’re going in the mound if I say you’re going in the mound.” He yanks me toward the door and out into the night. I writhe and thrash in his grip as he pulls me toward Dotta’s flickering lamp.
She’s unbolted the thick, low door on the side of the mound and, as we approach, she pushes it open. It squeaks on rusty hinges, sending quivers through me. I stare at the dark gap beyont it, and don’t my body start a-shaking like a rabbit’s!
Dotta thrusts the lamp into the opening and peers in, pinching her nose against the smell of rot. I be smelling it from here. I make out the carcass of a horse lying on the floor, saddled and bridled so its spirit can carry its master’s spirit to the other side. The human carcass can’t be far beyont. Lord o’ mercy! They dare not throw me into such a foul place as that.
But they do! Alf shuffles me toward the door and forces my head to bend under the low entrance. I scream and kick, to be sure, but I ain’t nearly as strong as him. With a laugh like the devil’s, Alf thrusts me into the dark chamber and slams the door behind me.
I scream a banshee cry that rips a path from the deep part of my lungs, all the way up my throat. I fall against the door and beat it with my fists.
“Please open up! Let me out!”
Surely they’ll release me, now that they’ve had their way and terrified me to my very roots. The blackness surrounding me is pure cold and damp like something hanging in the air. A blackness that could slide over my skin and slip inside me. Another scream shoots from my chest, scraping my throat and shaking my bones.
What if Alf’s Uncle Grimolf did turn into a draugr and is in this room with me right now? Oh, don’t the thought of it make my breath come fast and hard! Can draugar see in the dark like night beasts? Even if he can’t see me, I fear he’ll hear my heart banging like mad in my chest and follow the sound straight to me.
I clutch my wooden cross pendant and hold it out in front of me into the blackness, my back against the door.
Oh Mary! Oh Jesus and all the saints and angels!
But just as I feared, the blackness slips inside me and before I know it, it steals me clean away.
When the blackness delivers me back to myself, I open my eyes and here I am in my own bed like the tail end of a dream. 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 warmth on my heart even though the rest of my body is cold. Then I remember Brigid and the burial mound, and the warmth disappears, for ‘twas no dream.
My body’s stiff and aches like I’ve had a beating, but I hear voices near the long fire—one of them Mistress Sigrid’s and the other a stranger’s—so I stay still as a dead man, the better to be earwigging their conversation. But ain’t it the voice of Mistress’s brother, Bröndólfur Godi, the local chieftain. I don’t like the goði one bit, for all the high words and the low looks he do be handing out wherever he goes.
Their talk is all about me and what I done.
“Look at her—she’s been out of her head all morning despite the shaking I gave her and she can’t be made to do a thimble-sized amount of work in such a state. She’s no use to me. My husband should have bought a boy to help Alf with the farming. I don’t understand why you’re forbidding me to sell her.”
“She is your husband’s property, not yours. I will not be responsible for causing a rift between him and me over this matter. You must wait until he returns to obtain his permission.”
“But she’s a liar and can’t be trusted. I’ve already told you what she did to Alf while he was sleeping, but there’s more. Alf says she trespassed into the guardian spirits’ dwelling place last night. And wouldn’t you know it—our goat gave no milk this morning, and Alf says a small avalanche buried our western field during the night. She’s disturbed the nature spirits. Who knows what else they will do because of her blasphemy?”
“That is a grave concern. Why didn’t you tell me this earlier? Have Alf whip the deceit and mischief out of her.”
“She has a hide of leather and a disposition to match—his thrashings fail to wet her eye.”
Bröndólfur Godi makes a deep rumbly sound in his throat as if he do be thinking the matter over. “Here is my advice. This Christian wench needs to be brought low and kept there in her place. And our neighbors should be made aware of her dangerous nature. Let me settle this as goði in an official, public manner. We don’t want any of her shameful behavior to end up on your husband’s shoulders if the nature spirits continue to shower their displeasure upon the farms in the area—it must be shared publicly so all will know that our family is addressing the matter.”
I hear him rise. “I’ll return within the hour. Have the fire hot.”
When they have gone and the hall has turned quiet again, I sit up carefully. Carefully because my bones ache like Lazarus’s must have ached when he found himself risen from the dead. I had been out of my mind all night as my body lay stunned and rigid in the cold, dank burial mound—my legs and arms do be forgetting how to move. But my bladder’s full to bursting and I need to use the pit, so I force myself up and wrap my feather cloak around me for a quick trip outside.
Alf’s repairing the far west wall and Mistress’s gathering peat for the fire. As I turn the corner of the hall toward the pit, Dotta crashes into me, going the other way.
“Loki’s Beard!” she cries. “Get out of my way, you lying witch.”
She pushes my shoulder and means to pass me, but something rises up inside me like a draugr, something that had been sleeping like the dead until this moment when a disturbance frees it from its crypt. And don’t it make me push Dotta right back!
“I’m not a liar!” I say as Dotta falls to the ground from my unexpected shove. I keep walking to the pit, hike up my skirt, and squat.
I hear her scramble to get up and hurry off. She’s got her ma with her by the time I’m done, and I see them approaching the hall as I stand up.
Ain’t Dotta’s face red as apples as she blubbers to her ma. “She pushed me down and said—”
“Dotta, I told you and Alf not to go near her. She’s not worthy of your notice. Neither of you are to mix with her.”
And I hardly know the words I will say before I open my mouth and shout across the hay yard, “They are not fit to mix with me!” And before she can respond, I turn and run for the meadow, where the snow is deep but soft from the sun. When I get to the middle, I fall and sink down into the softness, hidden, and turn over onto my back, breathing hard.
I gaze up. No pagan hall, no ugly black mountain, no beatings, no enemies, no dank mounds or rotting bodies, just a sea of blue sky with hardly any dark clouds in it at all. I wish I could fall up into it and swim away to Heaven where all the saints do dwell.
Mistress, Alf and Dotta leave me be for a time, and ain’t it a relief to be alone. For once, I do feel something like peace, and soon drift into sleep.
‘Tisn’t long, though, till Alf’s smug voice calls me back to the world.
“Étaín! Come.” He gives a sharp whistle as if summoning a pet. “You’ve been a bad dog, not obeying your masters. Bröndólfur Godi is here to teach you some new tricks. Come here, little bitch.”
I stay where I am. The blue sky has turned grey, and black clouds shroud the Eyjafjöll Mountains. Maybe Alf will think I ran off.
But he’s seen my footprints and is already stomping through the snow, making a path toward me. He’s getting closer.
I won’t be waiting around to be scooped up and taken to the goði—who knows what he plans to do to me. I bolt up and away, legging it in the opposite direction, but before I’ve gone three paces, I’m yanked backward, a world of hurt bruising my middle.
‘Tis Alf’s goat rod, hooked at the end to catch them that run off from the herd. Once he’s hooked me, he yanks me backward and I fall to the ground. He laughs as he forces my hands behind my back and ties my wrists together. He pulls me to my feet.
“No more playing around. After today is over, I think you’re going to want to be a good girl from now on.”
I stumble over my feet as he pulls me by my hair back to the hall yard.
Dotta and Mistress stand there, flanking Bröndólfur Godi, with a small group of people gathered about them. I recognize them as members of pagan families of the district. Except for a pale lass with long white-blonde hair, standing in the back. I don’t know who she be, but she came down from the mountain once before, to sing the funeral lay for Master’s brother. She looks to be several years older than I, but tall as a man. All the rest of them seem quare antsy and eager to watch what happens to me, but with her ‘tis different. It feels like her solemn eyes do be boring a hole through my ribcage to my heart.
Bröndólfur Godi holds what looks like an iron rod with some strange attachment at the end of it. Does he plan to beat me with that? It doesn’t like any weapon I have known. Reminds me of the rods that farmers use for marking their sheep on the rumps as belonging to their clan. A shiver runs down my spine.
But as Alf and I approach, the goði hands the rod to his eldest son, Ketil, who takes it away and into the hall. I let out my breath in relief.
Bröndólfur Godi’s grey eyes gander freely up and down my frame, as if I am a heifer at auction. He turns to Mistress. “She’s a slight thing, and not much to look at. How many years is she?”
“Seventeen, if one were to believe a thing she says. We’ve had her these last nine months, though she has made them seem the longest months I’ve ever known.”
The goði turns back to me. “Étaín.” His eyes are stern. “Do you know who Loki is?”
I nod my head. I’ve heard the stories around the fire.
“And do you want to be like Loki?”
Mistress Sigrid’s eyes do be popping from their sockets. “See, she doesn’t even deny it!”
The goði crosses his arms over his chest and takes a glance over his shoulder at the people murmuring behind him. He squints at me. “And why would you want to be like the trickster Loki?”
I find the serious eyes of the tall lass in the back and I speak clearly and loudly so she and the rest of them can hear and know that I’m as sound as they. “The gods did not want Loki in their home and thought him beneath them, but wasn’t he pure clever and smart as ever a lad was. Smarter than they, to be certain. Sure, he did be getting into fixes, but didn’t he always find the craftiest way of getting out of them and mending the problem in the end?”
I see the hint of a smile on the lass’s face.
But the rest of them look sour as vinegar.
“It is your Christian ignorance that makes you talk so. Loki was a dangerous liar and mischief-maker. He didn’t deserve to call the house of the gods his home. Because of the lies that filled his throat, people called him Lygnhals, the lie-necked.”
I open my mouth to respond, but the goði raises his hand to shush me.
“Étaín, answer me truthfully: have you been an obedient slave, worthy of your master’s investment and this good woman’s care?”
No answer for such a question rises to my mouth, but Mistress answers it for me.
“Étaín has been a burden these nine months, not a help to me and my family as my husband intended. Her heart is stubborn and does not bend with whippings, yet she hasn’t the strength of nature to do what I have told her is right and good. The worst of her faults are also her most dangerous: she is deceitful and loves to make mischief.”
Mistress turns to the neighbors gathered around us. “I let her sleep in my own home and eat the same food as if she were family, yet not only did this wench try to seduce my son under our very noses, she attacked him while we were sleeping in our beds, wounding him severely, and then she lied about it!”
Oh, don’t my nostrils flare like a bull’s when I hear such falsehoods said about me to these folk!
Bröndólfur Godi shakes his head, and the neighbors frown at me. I blink back at the pale lass’s calm, steady gaze. I wonder if she can see the truth between the lies.
“But her dangerous behavior reaches beyond our hall,” Mistress continues. “Just last night, this Christian secretly trespassed onto one of our sacred places and disturbed the nature spirits who have shown their anger by distressing our goats and pulling an avalanche down on our field.”
This lights a flame under the people’s arses and don’t they get antsy! Their frowns turn into scowls and they raise a clatter of noise against me. But the pale one says not a word, and what a strange look she do be giving me.
I cannot stand to have that quiet lass think ill of me, I don’t know why. My rage at Mistress boils up within me and don’t it erupt like steam from a kettle!
“As God be witness,” I cry, “you’ve never treated me like family, though I sleep in your manky hall and eat your nasty food. But I would sooner eat dirt than be one of yourn.”
“How dare you say such things!” Mistress Sigrid screeches.
“Ain’t they true, then? Who had me locked in the mound with her dead kin? And who tells her cruel, eejit boy to beat me for no reason, just because she don’t be liking the look of me? People think you’re a good woman, but ‘tis you who be the lie-necked one, not I! And don’t I hate all of your pagan, heathen souls! I’ll never forgive you for what you done.”
And oh! How that riles them all. Here come the angry words like stones thrown in my direction.
The goði raises his hands, and the hurling of the word-stones stops.
All turns quiet except for the thunder a-rumbling over the Eyjafjöll Mountains into the valley.
“You, Étaín,” he says, “are a trickster like Loki, trying to untangle yourself from your web of falsehoods now that you have been found out. You are a dangerous wench, and all will know it from this day forward.”
He turns to the hall and calls his son, “Ketil, we are ready.” Then he nods to Alf, who takes hold of my arms again.
Ketil opens the hall door, holding the iron rod. The strange-looking piece on the end glows red hot.
Lord o’ mercy! I try to bolt, but I’m locked in Alf’s troll-grip.
Ketil hands the branding iron to his father and joins Alf. Before I know what’s happening, they push me to my knees and force me over Ketil’s knee, holding fast my head and shoulders.
Bröndólfur Godi raises the iron as he steps toward us. “As goði of the district, I mark this blasphemous slave with the sign of Loki, the lie-necked, branding her as a liar and dangerous mischief maker, so that all who see it will know to be careful and on their guard, and not to mix with her.”
He brushes aside my hair. With one hand, he pins my head to his son’s knee, and with the other, he presses the hot branding iron to my bare neck.
I scream as a flash of white glory-light blinds me, and my soul jumps up into my skin. I can’t tell the difference between my spirit and my flesh anymore because my whole being is lit a-fire, inside and out. The air smells of smoke and burnt meat, and I am sick, for ain’t it my own flesh a-cooking? I throw up on Alf’s feet, and he makes a disgusted noise and pulls away.
My body turns limp. Hands release me and I collapse, folding up into a crumpled rag.
I don’t go out of my head this time; I go deeper into it. My senses turn pure numb, and I’m sinking into myself. My body feels heavy like it don’t belong to me anymore. When the goði’s young sons throw their dirt clods at me, I hardly feel a thing.
The people’s voices sound like the buzzing of flies. I keep my eyes shut against them so I don’t have to see their arrogant heathen faces. If I lie here quietly, maybe they’ll all go away.
And when the sleet starts a-falling, they do.
The neighbors scatter to their homes, and Mistress, Alf, and Dotta hurry inside. The clank of the bolt means they’ve locked the door against me for the night.
That moment before the hot iron had touched my neck, when I faced Mistress and delivered my truth-words—I felt the bonds around my heart had broken and I turned light as air. My heart had ascended the Eyjafjöll Mountains, above the clouds. ‘Twas glorious, like Christ must have been a-feeling after rising from the grave and ascending into Heaven.
But now, ain’t I fallen back to earth, feeling lower and more bound to it than before. I could go begging pardon from Mistress Sigrid, but then wouldn’t she despise me the more. What’s done is done, and the burning wound on my neck will be a constant reminder of why I’ll never forgive her.
My whole neck feels swollen and raw. I do be afraid of touching the wound, but I want to know how bad it is. I hug my knees up to my chest and hang down my head to let the cool sleet fall over the burn. Soon I’m drenched through and pure shivering from the cold. The thunder echoes the rumbling of my empty stomach.
I know I should be picking myself up and go sleep in the empty goats’ barn, but I can’t find the strength to make my bones move.
“Please, Heavenly Father,” I pray. “Don’t let me die here like a pig in the mud! I heard about that time you sent your angels to rescue the apostle Peter from his prison cell, and though I ain’t no apostle, I do be a prisoner in this Heathen land, and needing some rescuing. If it pleases you, sir.”
The angel voice at my side nearly makes me jump from my skin.
The angel is the tall, pale lass with broad shoulders and grave eyes. She holds a wooden staff and wears a hooded fur-lined robe, which must be hiding her wings.
The apostle Peter thought he’d been having a vision, not knowing if what his angel did was real. But my angel’s robe feels warm from her body as she drapes it around me.
“Étaín, stand,” she orders. “Come with me.”
And like a miracle, the strength returns to my bones, and I do.
by Christy Lenzi
Young Adult Winner, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature