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  • Writer's pictureLaurel Knight

Valkyrie Fallen - Chapter 9


Brenna

*

I don’t know if they thought I wouldn’t be able to hear them from outside, but their voices carried loud and clear through the wooden structure.

“She is not staying,” Björn roared. “You can’t just invite any stranger into our home. You know nothing about her!”

“You have to leave, and it will leave us with no one to protect us. She is a far better option than the men here who aren’t going on the raids.” Signe’s voice was thick with implication. “Would you leave us at their mercy? Or the mercy of our neighbors?”

“Of course not. I will stay.”

“You can’t stay, you have to earn gold and favor with the Jarl. It’s our only hope of keeping this place. If you don’t serve him, he could take away our home and give it to someone else.”
“That’s not going to happen; he wouldn’t be that stupid. The entire village would revolt.”
“You don’t know that, and he has the power. Whether he should do it is a different matter. And don’t count on the village to take care of us; you haven’t done a good job of ingratiating yourself with the chieftain or his family. You should try to make friends with the right people.”
“I have no interest in Åge’s daughter. He only wants me to take her because he figures a man caring for three girls would have no trouble with a useless wife. I will not marry someone who would expect my sisters to wait on her hand and foot. He raised Åse to think she was a princess hoping to shunt her off on the Jarl’s sons, and none of them would have her.”

“You don’t have to show him how much you dislike her. You can at least be friendly. Go on some raids, drink beer with Åge, make friends.”

“No,” the reply was stubborn. “My responsibility is to take care of you three, and that is what I will do.”

Signe’s sigh was audible. “Brenna is exactly the answer to our prayers. Why can’t you see that? Frigg must have seen how much we would need a shield maiden and sent her to us, and you sneer at her gift.”

“She will not set foot in my house.”

“This is our house, not your house. And we outnumber you three to one. We need someone to protect us, and you need to go on the raids. The decision is made, and you have no reason to argue against it. Do you?”

The silence was long and painful. Would Björn actually admit he hated me because I’d already beaten him in a sword fight and spared his life? Or was that just too humiliating for him?
I could just picture the fierce, proud face of Signe staring down her much larger, much older brother without mercy. The girl was a force, to be sure. Despite her injury, or perhaps because of it, she was as hard as the granite walls of the fjord.

“Fine,” Björn sighed, breaking the silence. “I will allow it, for now. So long as she pulls her weight and gives me no reason to doubt her honor, she can remain here until the autumn.”
Their voices lowered, and I could not make out what was said anymore. A few minutes later, the faded wooden door creaked open, and Björn strode out. He closed the door behind him and marched in my direction.

The shadows had stretched with the setting sun, and it grew quite chilly as the damp clouds of mist rose from the water below. I stood to meet him, intent on not revealing any weakness.
Björn stopped a few feet away and crossed his thick arms over the barrel of his enormous chest. “We will not pay you, but you can stay and eat, as long as you work. Understood?”
I nodded solemnly. “That is the agreement I had with Signe. I don’t want handouts, I will earn my keep.”

He grunted and nodded by way of agreement.

“And I will protect them. You have my word. After last night, you should have no doubts of my skill.”

At that, his eyes flashed, and he moved in until he was mere inches away, bending down to place his angry visage nearly nose to nose with mine. His voice was deep and deadly serious when he said, “Neither of us, not you nor I, will speak of last night, ever. Do you understand me?”

I nodded, my hand tightly wrapped around my sword pommel. This man was begging me to take him down again, but right now, I needed to be smart, not strong.

And the smart play was to let him have his way, so long as it didn’t cause harm to anyone.
Apparently satisfied that I understood, he straightened and sighed, then held out one massive hand. “I’m Björn, as Signe said. Your name is Brenna?”

I accepted his shake. “Yes. It’s nice to officially meet you Björn.”

“That remains to be seen.” Withdrawing his hand from mine, he waved toward the house. “Go on inside and help Signe with supper. I’ll be in when I’ve finished.” He strode off toward the barn without elaborating on what he needed to finish.

Relieved that I had a place to stay and, hopefully, a warm meal ahead of me, I headed for the house. I wasn’t sure whether to be pleased or insulted that he’d just addressed me like one of his younger sisters, but I was in no position to do something about it either way.

The irony—that this man offered me shelter after I beat him in a fight—was not lost on me. I knew it had to burn his pride, knowing I could have killed him and instead let him live. Now my presence here would remind him, constantly, of that fact.

However, some part of him had to be grateful that I was a capable fighter, and not a predatory man who might harm his sisters while he was away.

Now it was just up to me to prove how useful and honorable I could be.

I stepped up to the door, and feeling awkward, unsure of how to handle it, I knocked.

Signe’s voice rang out from inside. “Come on in, Brenna. This is your home now, you are not a servant.” I pulled the rope handle and let myself inside.

Heat from the fire in the hearth immediately smacked me in the face, chasing the chilly dampness from my skin. The timber longhouse was neat, clearly well-kept by Signe and, to some degree, Yrsa. Solid wooden platforms lined the walls, topped with stuffed cushions and pillows. In the center of the room, a stone fire pit contained a carefully constructed fire, with an iron kettle suspended over it on a three-footed structure. Various household materials were hung from racks around a doorway, through which I could make out another sleeping platform. That must have been the parents… perhaps Björn slept there now?

A rough wooden table was at the far end of the room, and Yrsa was busily setting it for five. Immediately inside the door to my right appeared to be the location to drop weapons, as several shields hung on the walls like decoration, and pegs for hanging swords were partially filled with the two I’d already seen and one I hadn’t: a slim, decorative blade, obviously made for a woman, was among the others. I hooked my sword beside it and searched for Signe beyond the glowing fire.

She was sitting on a padded bench to my left, attempting to bathe a wriggling Astrid. Of course the child thought it was a fun game, and Signe struggled to remove the mud from her hair, occasionally wincing as her injured ankle took a blow from a tiny foot.

“Would you like me to help?” I offered. I knew little about caring for children, but I had a few tricks I knew distracted them.

“You don’t have to,” Signe replied quietly. “We need your help with the farm, and with protection, not babysitting.”

“I just thought I could get her to sit still for you. I know nothing about bathing a child,” I laughed. “That’s on you.”

Signe smiled. “It couldn’t hurt, thank you.”

I sat in front of Astrid and pulled a silver piece from the pouch at my waist. “Astrid, do you see this silver?” Little girls like shiny things, and she was immediately entranced. “Do you want to see me make it disappear?”

“Yes yes!” She clapped her little hands, ignoring Signe, who sluiced water over her corn silk hair and scrubbed to remove the mud.

“Okay, watch carefully!” I did several complicated hand motions, waving the fingers with the silver piece in front of her face repeatedly before slipping it into my other hand when I formed fists. I hit both hands together three times, then opened the fist she expected to contain the silver, showing her it was empty.

“Where did it go?”

Signe had finished cleaning Astrid’s hair and was scrubbing her back, but had paused to watch my magic trick as well.

Astrid pointed to my other fist with a chubby finger.

Slowly, I opened the hand to reveal it was also empty. 

The shock on her cherubic face was adorable. Signe frowned, trying to puzzle it out.

“It disappeared!” I grinned at their matching expressions, then glanced at Signe and schooled my features to confusion. “Wait a minute, what is this?” Reaching behind Signe’s ear, I retrieved the chunk of shiny metal. “Now, how did that get there? Signe, I think you need to wash better behind your ears.”

Astrid erupted in peals of delighted laughter, and Signe chuckled. Yrsa had crept up behind me to watch, and now reached over to look behind Signe’s ear for more treasures.

“Very clever.” A deep male voice came from the doorway behind me. I hadn’t realized there was even more audience for my performance. “Where did you learn this trick?”

I turned to meet Björn’s eyes. “It’s magic, Björn. I learned it from a witch.” 

Returning my gaze to the girls, I gave Astrid a wink, and she giggled. Signe had finished cleaning the child, and was sliding her into a clean dress. She pulled the girl onto her lap and started combing her damp hair.

“Signe, is there… something else I can do? Check the food, or prepare something?”

She shook her head. “No, it’s all done. But you should go wash up for supper. There’s fresh water and soap outside.”

“Okay.” I headed for the door and squeezed past the giant, who apparently didn’t feel it was necessary to make room for me. Just to the right of the door was a barrel with a large ladle and a brick of soap laced with lavender on an attached wooden shelf. I pushed my sleeves back and poured water over my arms and hands, then splashed some on my face and soaped up with the hard bar. After a rinse I was definitely refreshed, and the night had almost completely fallen. When I let myself back inside, the entire family was already seated at the table, waiting for me.
“I’m sorry, you didn’t need to wait.” I hustled to the spot where an empty bowl and full mug waited.

“Of course we did,” Signe answered. “You are our guest, and basically a member of our family now. Family eats together. Yrsa?”

The younger girl collected the bowls and carried them to the steaming pot suspended over the fire. Some instinct in me cringed, watching the child handle the scalding iron lid and spoon the bubbling mixture into the bowls, carrying them carefully back to the table. But she performed her job perfectly, proudly executing it without spilling.

Once everyone had a bowl, Yrsa took her seat, and everyone tucked into their food. Signe drew small spoonfuls from her own bowl, blowing on them to cool the stew and feeding it to Astrid. It made me sad to see this girl who’d taken over as a mother when she was still essentially a child herself.

I turned my attention to my own bowl. The steam rising from it was fragrant with fennel and onions, and there was clearly meat and potatoes as well. A hearty meal, although I didn’t want to know what kind of meat it was specifically. I chose to believe it was beef. My stomach rumbled in appreciation, and I realized it had been over a day since I’d eaten. Skarde had been generous with the beer, but he hadn’t offered me food.

Aside from the chattering of a happy three-year-old, the ensemble was quiet. The loud crackling and popping of the fire was the most prominent sound, the scraping of wooden spoons on bowls the second. Mixed with the scent of stew, the smoky fragrance of fire combined with an earthy pine fragrance from the longhouse and created a warm, homey atmosphere.

I’d become so accustomed to living alone in my sparse, modern ‘pretend’ lives that I’d forgotten how comforting these rustic homes could be. I didn’t want to think too deeply about the lack of sanitation, or the likelihood of critters living in the cushion I’d be sleeping on tonight. It would be better for me to just shut down all memories of the lives I’d lived over the last millennium; this was exactly the torture that Odin wanted for me and I was determined to deny him the satisfaction of seeing me long for the future that was so far removed.

But perhaps I didn’t need to close it all out. The magic trick I’d learned from a street magician had been helpful. Perhaps there were things I knew, things I’d learned, that could help people now. Nothing too crazy, of course. But some things…

My thoughts drifted to Signe’s ankle. Maybe I could help her with that injury? I’d spent several lifetimes as a nurse. I knew human anatomy intimately and if the bones weren’t shattered, I might be able to set it. Likely, anything I could do would cause her a good deal of pain before it healed, but she was already living in so much pain anyway… and what if I could end that for her?

I scraped the bottom of my bowl, claiming every drop of nourishment I could get. It was probably best to table that idea for now. I would have to earn her trust first, and there was so much work to be done.
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