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  • Writer's pictureDom Whit

Valkyrie Fallen, Chapter 13

That night I slept even better. A full day of work, warm, comfortable clothing, and a full belly really worked wonders on a person’s neurosis.

Once again, Bjorn shook me awake at dawn and we set to work, stoking the fire and preparing porridge for the family. I slipped away to put on my work dress, that was already looking distinctly shoddy from wear compared to my finer garment. With a vow that I would wash it well after I changed this afternoon, I strapped on my belt and tried to ignore the itch of dried mud on my legs.

This time Bjorn didn’t waste energy taunting me; clearly, we’d achieved a level of understanding yesterday. And while I was sore from the hard labor, I was certainly not about to let him know.

Besides, I’d experienced far worse.

This time we hauled the ard up to the rye field, and working together made quick work of hooking the oxen to the plow and beginning the furrows. Bjorn handed me the seed and took the first shift at the plow.

Our day went much the same as it had yesterday, with the two of us occasionally switching roles to allow for a break from the more arduous work, and Yrsa collecting us for lunch.
I was on the plow, and Bjorn was seeding when they arrived.

My back was to the path, and the noise of plow cutting through hard soil and the grunts of oxen were more than enough to disguise the sound of men arriving on foot.

I didn’t realize Bjorn wasn’t behind me until I reached the end of the row and turned the plow, only to see him at the edge of the turned soil, speaking to two other men.

It was the men from the night I’d met him, I’d be willing to bet. I monitored them while the oxen continued forward, but the closer I came, the more convinced I became.

The taller of the two was more slender, with shiny, pale golden hair that was cut just over his shoulders, tied back with a strip of leather that left a few strands swinging to frame his face.

And it was an exceptionally pretty face, with high, full cheekbones, a square jaw, and lush lips that curled up at the edges. A neatly cleft chin, straight nose, and elegant brows over cornflower blue eyes completed the package. Clearly the youngest of the three, as I’d imagined, Leif would have put Parisian catwalk models in tears.

The shorter man, more muscular, was older than the other two. His face was unlined, but definitely more weathered. It wasn’t the age of his skin, so much as the wisdom he wore on his brow. He was the clever one in the fight, and everything about him said ‘danger’ in flashing neon lights. His darker sandy hair was shorn below the ears, braided back from his face down to a thick tail that reached his mid-back. Low, sharp brows that angled up at the edges were barely set above piercing, predatory eyes. His nose might have once been straight, but someone had clearly broken it more than once. The sharp cheekbones were prominent above a neatly sculpted beard, trimmed close to his jaw. The moustache did little to disguise his thin upper lip.

As I watched them talking, the shorter man’s sharp, hawk-like green eyes turned in my direction as if he knew I was watching them. The other two turned their faces in my direction also, and now I knew they were talking about me.

Of course it made sense; I just hoped I wouldn’t need to make a mad dash to the longhouse to retrieve my sword. I hadn’t picked it up since I hung it on the wall that first night.

I continued my slow trajectory toward the three men, occasionally whipping the oxen or issuing a command to keep them in line. Their conversation was heated with stern expressions and sharp hand gestures, but I couldn’t make it out over the sounds of the animals and the ground breaking before me.

The closer I came, the more concerned I became that Bjorn’s friends were making a case to get rid of me. I certainly had done little to endear myself to them when we met, and Signe notwithstanding, I had little standing between me and the door as far as Bjorn was concerned.

A few dozen arguments formed in my mind to combat his prospective reasons for telling me to leave. Clearly, these men were his partners for raids, and they were used to fighting together. I knew Bjorn recognized my ability to protect his sisters while he would be away during the summer… I had no doubt he blamed himself for being away when Signe was injured in the first place.

I just had to get him to trust me. Trust was the missing element here. I was a stranger who showed up with nothing but a really nice sword, and the first thing I did was get into a fight and stop them from killing someone they believed deserved it. I had no basis for establishing trust.

The men continued their terse conversation as I approached, the occasional pair of eyes darting in my direction.

My heart pounding, I finished the row and turned the beasts to begin the next row, then set the plow and whip down, and marched toward the men with an outward confidence I didn’t feel.

Wiping my sweaty, sore palms on my dress, I decided to play the ‘misunderstanding’ angle.

“Hello, I’m Brenna. I didn’t get the chance to introduce myself the other night. You’re Leif, right?” I approached the younger one first, whose name I already knew, hoping he’d be too surprised to deny my outstretched hand.

Leif stared at me as if unsure of what he was seeing. “Hello… it’s nice to meet you, Brenna.” He accepted my handshake, but continued to wear a confused expression when his eyes darted to Bjorn.

Pulling in a breath, I turned to the other man. “Hello, it’s a pleasure to meet you.” I knew it was oddly formal, and perhaps not how they introduced themselves, but for the life of me I couldn’t remember how I was supposed to do this after so long and I figured better to err on the side of being polite.

His predatory green eyes narrowed, searching my face for something, before he slapped a thick, rough palm in mine.

“Soren. What are you doing here, Brenna?”

“Plowing,” I answered simply. “And planting, and cleaning, and any other work Bjorn or Signe need me to do.”

“I can see you are plowing. But what I want to know is why you showed up here in the middle of the night, in our village, looking for work.”

My eyes darted to Bjorn, but he’d crossed his arms over his chest and waited as if he wanted answers as well.

I swallowed, running my tongue over my lips to wet them. God, I missed chapstick.

“I’m not a criminal, if that’s what you’re wondering. My… chieftain liked to take advantage of my skills to force me to do work for him I didn’t want to do.” My mind spun rapidly, trying to spin my issues with Odin into something non-celestial. “He held me hostage to his whims. My only escape was to leave my life behind in the middle of the night, and hope to find a place to start over.”

Soren’s shrewd eyes examined my every move as I spoke, and I did my best to appear embarrassed but honest.

“So how did you get here?”

Shit. I still did not know where I was. On foot was not likely, most of these villages were remote and they likely knew most of the people in the next village over. There was clearly a storm the night I arrived…

“I had a small boat, but I got caught in the storm and crashed it. I only managed to save my sword and make it to shore. I don’t know how long I walked until I reached your village.” My heart beat against my ribs as I waited to see if he bought my story. 

Soren’s eyes narrowed again, then he nodded. “That storm was rough. I know many whose fences or homes got damaged near the water.”

I stopped myself from breathing the deep sigh of relief my body wanted, allowing only a slow breath instead as I tried to calm my racing pulse.

“So what is your plan, Brenna? You’ll stay here and help Bjorn for the summer, and then what?”

I needed to tread carefully here. If I erred on the side of caution and didn’t mention my plans of joining the raiders, they would likely never think of me again and they would safely relegate me to household duties. But if I admitted to having some plans, perhaps they could help me…

“I plan to help Signe here, as agreed. I hope by autumn I will have secured a place in your village, and that by next spring I can join a raiding party. I can work, and I don’t mind it. But I’m a warrior, and that is where my talents lie.”

Soren’s eyes darted to Bjorn, who scowled, and Leif glanced between the two of them. When Soren’s gaze returned to me, his eyes held a sparkle of challenge. “I wish you the best of fortune in that endeavor.” He nodded, then turned his focus on Bjorn and gestured for the barn. When all three of them started walking in that direction, I realized I’d been dismissed.

If I wasn’t more concerned about having a meal in my belly and a place to sleep tonight, I might have been annoyed by his rudeness. Then again, I was still digging the memory of customs from this era out of my mental archives. In their minds, I was a nameless, penniless wretch, barely above a slave. No doubt they’d witnessed my skill with a sword as I’d bested Bjorn, but I had no power or influence to back it up. 

Sighing, I returned to my plow.

One step at a time.

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