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  • Writer's pictureDom Whit

Valkyrie Fallen, Chapter 18

Finding Brenna slumped over the washbasin, pouring out tears over a dirty dress, tugged painfully on something in my chest. Since the moment I’d met her, she’d been a hard, confident, superior-acting woman who seemed as if nothing could ruffle her feathers. I realized in that moment it was just an act; bravado, showmanship, for her to behave that way. She pretended to be cold and unbothered, but there was more beneath the surface.

She came in for dinner with flushed cheeks and shining eyes. For someone who’d appeared in the depths of her despair just moments before, the sudden shift was remarkable. I observed her carefully for the rest of the evening, but her mood didn’t shift again. She was quietly neutral in demeanor, but something bubbled just beneath the surface… something good this time.

The following morning, there was a new light to Brenna’s eyes. Her past clearly haunted her, and yet something new existed in their stormy depths: hope.

She hummed a tune I didn’t recognize as we prepared breakfast and headed out to collect the oxen. We made our way to the highest field, the last one we needed to plow and sow with oats, and Brenna smiled to herself all the while.

I observed her more closely; there was a glow about her. Perhaps it was just a trick of the morning light, but her skin appeared to shimmer. Maybe it was just a few nights of good food and rest had restored her vitality.

She certainly looked healthier. If you compared this woman to the mud-soaked wretch that had appeared at our door just a few days ago, you wouldn’t believe it was the same person. Natural smile, hair and skin shining, eyes lit from within… even her presence felt different. Whereas before she was just a person, perhaps a little pathetic, now she seemed to radiate positivity.

I did not know what had wrought this change, but I doubted it was just that I squeezed some wet fabric for her. Something had happened, and she wasn’t saying a word. Perhaps I needed to ask.

“Brenna, you appear in good spirits today,” I commented.

“I am, thank you. It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” She grinned in my direction, squinting in the early morning light.

“Much the same as yesterday, if you ask me. Is the weather the reason for your good mood?”

“No, I guess I just woke up feeling more… positive than I did yesterday.”

“I’m glad.” I paused, choosing my next words carefully. “You seemed rather upset last night.”

“It was a long day.”

We’d reached the field now and set about hooking up the plow and oxen. Brenna took the first row with the beasts, cheerfully shouting, ‘yah!’ And encouraging them forward with a few slaps of the whip.

By the time I visited the barn and returned with the oats, she was already circling back on the second row. She must have been feeling extremely energized after her rest. I hurried to catch up, sprinkling the oats into the furrows and kicking soil over the top.

Brenna continued with the plow for the entire morning without stopping. Her brow scarcely broke a sweat, and she grinned every time she passed me. I’d long since given up catching her.

She was moving too quickly for that to happen.

When Yrsa came to call us for lunch, Brenna had already finished two-thirds of the largest of our three fields. I was sweating, my back aching, by the time I finished sowing the rows she’d dug, and she looked as fresh as she had at dawn.

I ate my lunch quietly, and Brenna joked her way through the meal with Signe and Astrid. She even drew a smile from Yrsa, my serious little bear cub of a sister. The instinct that things were happening in my home without my knowledge grew; a person didn’t just change overnight like that. From proud warrior to begging laborer to a distraught woman crying in a washbasin, to this… this glowing image of happiness and vitality.

It didn’t make sense, and my head hurt just trying to puzzle it out.

After lunch we finished the field; Brenna insisted on taking the plow again, leaving me the easier, and yet still back-breaking, work of sowing. Leif arrived mere moments after I’d set down my nearly empty sack of oats. He’d appeared much later yesterday, but at least he’d shown up to help for an hour.

Leif’s gaze stuck to Brenna as soon as she was in his view. The kid was not subtle; his entire face turned in her direction as she moved. Brenna greeted him with a warm smile, and his eyes were glassy as he stared back at her, clearly admiring. A tiny bubble of anger rose in my chest when she accepted his attention rather than telling him off.

I dismissed Brenna and pointed Leif toward the barn. As far as I was concerned, she could go help Signe and stay out of our hair—we didn’t need the distraction.

“If there’s more work to be done, I’m happy to help. I’m feeling very… restored today.” Brenna grinned as if enjoying a joke that I didn’t know.

“No thank you, we have it in hand,” I replied sharply, but regretted my tone as soon as I’d said it. There was no reason to be rude to her for offering to help.

“Well, if you want that ship to be seaworthy by the end of the week, I think you really need my help.”

My earlier regret disappeared immediately. “What did you say?”

“Your ship,” her head tilted to the side slightly. “It’s very good craftsmanship, but it still needs a lot of work. I’m impressed you could adapt the proportions so well. Did you design it, Bjorn?”

“That was all three of us,” Leif stepped in eagerly. “Soren had the concept. I helped sketch it out, and Bjorn figured out how we could build it.”

“Impressive,” she nodded. “I happen to be rather knowledgeable in the art of ship making, if you could use another set of hands.”

“Of course, we-”

“Is there anything you can’t do, woman?” I didn’t mean to growl at her, but the frustration was building and fit to boil over. It felt as if she had arrived in this town just to prove she was better than me at every task I prided myself on. Sword fighting, plowing, caring for my sisters, and now shipbuilding?

Brenna tilted her head in the other direction, as if thinking about it carefully. “No, I really don’t think there is.” Grinning, she added, “Thank you, by the way. That was quite the compliment.”

I did not mean it to be a compliment, but I didn’t feel the need to correct her. “Thanks for the offer, but we’re fine. We can take care of it ourselves.”

“Now just a minute,” Leif interjected. “Just yesterday, you and Soren were complaining about how far behind we were, and you want to refuse an offer of help? That seems foolish.” Turning to Brenna, he said, “We’d love your help, thank you. This way,” and gesturing forward, encouraged her toward the barn.

Sure enough, the room was almost too dark to see after the bright light of day. However, Bjorn found the shutters just fine, and once they were open, the room flooded with light.

Brenna made her way to the pile of curved planks still waiting to be attached to the exposed ribs of our ship. She studied the wood, and I studied her.

Something had changed. I did not know what it was, but it wrought the most magnificent change on Brenna. Yesterday she had been pretty, but today she was absolutely striking. I couldn’t pull my gaze from her, fingers itching to draw out my charcoal and sketch. The figurehead I’d imagined yesterday wasn’t nearly as beautiful as Brenna in real life. I’d need to sketch it all again, with the details I was currently memorizing.

She finished her examination of the work before us, and we got started.

If I had expected that she wouldn’t be up to the task, I would certainly admit to being surprised.

Brenna helped lift the heavy planks and hold them in place for hammering. She could also wield the ungainly iron hammer and nails, beating the rough metal pins through the hardwood with no more difficulty than Bjorn or myself.

And while we were pouring sweat and grunting—Bjorn more so than myself—with the difficulty of the work, Brenna seemed to handle the tasks with much more ease. A light sheen of sweat coated her brow, making her, impossibly, more beautiful. A few strands of silvery hair escaped the single braid, falling to frame her face and highlight the high cheekbones and narrow, rounded chin. The more I was around her, the more I saw her, the harder I fell.

I’d never seen such a woman; none of us had. Goodness and positivity practically shone from her, even bent under the heavy weight of oaken beams. My heart swelled with admiration in a wave I couldn’t possibly stop, and I felt it crest over and drown me.

I couldn’t say anything to Bjorn or Soren. They treated me like a silly younger brother, little more than a child, and I’d learned after pining for Gertrud, not to mention romance to either of them. Bjorn was far too concerned with taking care of his sisters, and Soren… well, Soren had his share of pain in his heart.

We finished building the ship in a few hours; Bjorn had expected it would take us at last two more days to complete, but with Brenna’s help, the work flew by.

“Do you have the materials for sealing? We’ll need to fill the gaps between planks with something—wool, moss perhaps, anything we can mix with tar and cram in.” Brenna wiped her brow, grinning with enthusiasm for the next task.

Every muscle in my body hurt, and I wanted to flop on a pile of hay, but I couldn’t show that weakness in front of her. Instead, I stood as straight and wide as I could make myself, crossing my arms over my chest. “Soren is bringing tallow to use for sealing. I’ll let him know we’re ready for that step, and I’ll collect moss tomorrow. I can be here at midday?”

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