Chapter 1

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            "I will not marry Jarl Austmadr!" Havi screamed.
            The flying, feathery dust slowed and stilled in the single bright beam of sunlight slicing through the dark paneled room. Mother and daughter glared at each other like berserkers.
            "How dare you!" Helga seethed. "Jarl Austmadr is chief of the wealthiest clan in the Skane, leader of the viking!"
            "And if I refuse ...?"
            "Women can't refuse marriage."
            "Why not?"
            "We don't have the right."
            Mother and daughter stared, irresolute, jaws set so hard that teeth drove into gums.
            "So ... I've been sold?" Havi sneered.
            "Consider yourself lucky," Helga scowled. "Jarl Hersir insisted that you be married ..."
            "What?" Havi shouted. "Austmadr wished me ... without marriage?"
            Worry-lines slackened; Helga lowered her eyes.
            "You'd give me to a man who'd use my honor as privy-straw?" Havi asked.
            "The decision wasn't mine ..."
            "Jarl Hersir decided this? Mother, how could you ...?"
            "Jarl Hersir is our clan-chief ...!" Helga shouted, but suddenly she faltered, choked, and grasped her throat.
            "Mother ...?" Havi hesitated, then she took her aged mother's hand and helped her to sit on an ornate wooden bench.
            "It's the same in every clan," Helga gasped, clearing her throat. "Lindisfarne! Lindisfarne! The men shout it as if it's Ragnarok."
            "What do you expect?" Havi asked. "What kind of fools hoard golden cups and crosses in a castle defended only by men wielding books?"
            "Lindisfarne was a monastery," Helga said. "Those were holy books."
            "Their gods are fools," Havi said.
            "They have only one god, and don't doubt his power," Helga warned. "France, Italy, Spain, Germany, and England have been conquered by this Christ. They thought that no one dared attack their holy men, these ...," Helga searched for the word, "... priests."
            Havi glanced about, lost in the unfamiliar extravagance. Jarl Hersir's mansion boasted more rooms than she had fingers, each more opulent than the last. The bed beside them was art, its fancy headboard and footboard exhibiting fantastical sea dragons, finely carved and painted, with fanned bat-wings and long intertwined tails encircling rows of spiral seashells. Thick, colorful quilts lay stacked upon the bed, vivid reds and bright yellows upon snow-white in intricate patterns, looking warmer than anything that Havi and Helga owned. The dark-stained doorways appeared as the gates of Valhalla, carved with ravens and wolves, their lintels in the shapes of swords. Even the sole window gleamed ornate, its oiled lambskin translucent, almost clear in direct sunlight. Its bright sunray fell upon a sea-chest of polished rowan bearing bearded faces capped with iron, painted amid intersecting wood-burned rows of magical runes.
            Havi bowed her head, wiped tearful eyes, and recited a charm against evil.
                        "Frigg, who beseeches flower and dew,
                        Baulder's blessing now prove true,
                        By Odin's secrets, living and dead,
                        Your protection on my head."

            Tightly they held each other. Outside of that decorated door, Havi would no longer be her mother's daughter; Havi would be the intended bride of Jarl Austmadr.
            "When must I ...?"
            "Tomorrow," Helga said. "It won't be so bad; you won't have to milk goats any more ..."
            "I'll have to milk an old codger's babies!"
            "Dry your eyes," Helga said. "You must look fair for your husband-to-be."
            Helga stood, then pulled Havi in front of a large copper mirror in an oval redwood frame carved with seals chasing dolphins in an endless race around the brightly-polished metal. Outside of the sunbeam, the copper mirror reflected darkly, but both knew how Havi looked: Havi stood tall, nearing her father's height, but she had inherited her mother's sharp chin, a heart-shaped face centered around an aquiline nose, eyes brighter than a cloudless midsummer sky, and cascades of sun-yellow hair spilling to her waist. Clearly Havi was her mother's daughter, although a finger's length taller, not yet bearing Helga's lines of age or her gray-white streaks. Helga brushed Havi's thick hair with her fingers, trying to straighten her obstinate curls.
            Handsome young men, fierce and brave yet kind and gentle, hollered protests from the depths of Havi's imagination; they'd never marry her now. The Norn witches had woven the thread of her life; Havi had seen too many tear-streaked brides to believe that she'd be rescued. She'd witnessed marriage vows frequently interspaced by pathetic whimpers and sobs, and once a fainting, yet those vows and speeches had always continued, and before the unconscious bride had awoken, the ceremony had been completed.
            They could not avoid the dark-stained doorway forever.

            Every eye turned as Havi emerged from the mansion's front door into the bright sunlight. Spring had come early; birdsong cheeped and twittered from every blossoming tree, chipmunks darted nervously around Law Rock, and the sky stretched blue and wide, dotted with towering, billowy clouds. Villagers stood about, enjoying the first warm day without the thick, heavy cloaks that they'd clutched tightly about them throughout the bitter winter. Cloakless, Jarl Hersir waited on his doorstep, tall and broad-chested, with wide, muscular arms, his left hand missing courtesy of a Saxon axe when he was a boy. Jarl Hersir possessed friendly eyes and a hooked nose, but the rest of his face was hidden by shaggy black hair and a beard so thick that a shadowy bush seemed to have grown atop his shoulders. His rich scarlet raiment, rare, coarse auroch fleece with a pine-green hem, collar, and cuffs contrasted his rugged appearance. Havi spied many familiar faces furtively watching her while pretending to be busy attending chores or gossiping in small groups; why couldn't Jarl Hersir have talked inside rather than parade her on his doorstep?
            "You honor us, the whole Hersir clan," Jarl Hersir spoke softly to Havi, his deep voice reminiscent of her dead father. "You're too young to understand, but someday you'll bless this union."
            "Why me?" Havi asked glumly.
            "Havi!" Helga snapped.
            "Peace, Helga," Jarl Hersir nodded knowingly, his large hand reassuringly comforting Helga's shoulder. "Girls Havi's age don't marry old men willingly. Havi, I hope that no other holds your heart, for Jarl Austmadr was smitten with you yesterday when he saw you pass by. His wife died a month ago, and for him to ..."
            "A month!" Havi exclaimed. "One month?"
            "It's never too soon to remarry," Hersir said. "Dearly the Austmadr clan has earned its wealth; all of the clans need tall, strong sons ..."
            "Is that why I was chosen?" Havi demanded. "For my height?"
            "And your beauty and youth," Jarl Hersir finished. "Havi, we need this marriage. Clan Hersir barely has enough food to endure a mild winter."
            "Is that what I am being traded fo...?"
            "Havi!" Helga scolded.
            Jarl Hersir bowed his shaggy head.
            "What would you have, Havi?" Hersir asked. "Don't you want to marry?"
            "I ...," Havi fell silent, uncertain. She didn't not want to get married, but ...
            "Your friends will all be married before the first snow, if enough men live," Jarl Hersir said. "Jarl Austmadr just hastened your ceremony. You'll be happier than your friends; you'll be the chieftess of clan Austmadr. You'll have servants and a house that dwarfs mine ..."
            "What about Mother?" Havi demanded.
            "Helga will also marry," Hersir said, and Helga nodded obediently. "As an older woman with her own ranch, she'll have first pick of those who come home alive, assuming that she hasn't chosen one before they leave ...?"
            Jarl Hersir glanced at Helga questioningly.
            "Three months make little difference in men," Helga said. "I can't afford another dead husband, no one to teach my sons to fight, and I've no desire to spend the winter bearing a dead man's infant."
            "Very well," Hersir sighed, "but I want every maid birthing before this time next year."
            "You do your tasks, and come home, and we'll do ours," Helga promised.
            "We need sons, not daughters ..."
            "We'll chant the proper charms and prick the women with nettles, but Frigg alone chooses the fruits of the womb."
            Jarl Hersir nodded resignedly, then slowly and deeply, he bowed to Havi. Havi stepped back, shocked by his gesture of respect.
            "Tomorrow you'll be Chieftess Austmadr," Jarl Hersir smiled. "You'd better get used to it."
            Jarl Hersir and Helga walked away in silence, although Havi knew that they'd start discussing her wedding as soon as they stepped out of earshot. Havi considered eavesdropping, but then she heard fast-skipping feet and a repressed giggle.
            Volu ran up, yellow-brown eyes wide, dark-red pig-tails flopping and swatting her head, freckled cheeks glowing like roses, barely-concealed laughter about to burst from her tightly-grinning lips. Havi blushed, grabbed Volu by the arm, and hauled her off at a run around the other side of the building, stopping between a large herb garden and an empty horse pen. There Volu exploded.
            "Did ...? Are ...? Do ...?"
            Havi frowned. "Austmadr claimed me."
            Volu shrieked with childish delight, an effusive, piercing note of unbridled joy.
            "Close it!" Havi muted her, smothering Volu's round mouth with her hand. "Are you daft? Do you want everyone to know?"
            Volu pushed aside Havi's muzzling fingers.
            "But ... everyone knows!"
            "The whole clan knows; probably both clans!"
            "You can't keep this secret!" Volu laughed. "The plans for the wedding started this morning, and everyone knew that Austmadr wasn't here just to negotiate for sailors."
            "Why didn't you tell me?"
            "Why didn't you insist that the sun would rise?" Volu argued. "Besides, you've been with your mother all morning, and when she took you into Hersir's house ... well ... it wasn't hard to guess. Havi, you're going to be rich!"
            "Women are property no matter who owns them," Havi retorted. "You'll know that soon enough."
            "Well, I'd rather ...," Volu began, but then she startled. "What ...?!?"
            "All of the maids will be married before the first snows," Havi said. "Hersir said so."
            Volu squealed, but her delight was mixed with worry.
            "Who ...?"
            "That depends on who survives the viking," Havi said. "But I wouldn't get your hopes up. Widows like Mother, women with land, will get first choice, and there may not be enough men to go around."
            Volu paled. "I-I could get ... left out?"
            "Don't you get it?" Havi shouted angrily. "You'll be married to whomever ...!"
            "I get it!" Volu defended herself. "Whomever Hersir chooses! I'm not stupid! Just because I don't have your big ...!"
            Volu's insult never leapt past her lips; without warning, Sleitu came around the corner of Jarl Hersir's house.
            "Is this a private conversation?" Sleitu asked, a wry, sarcastic smile on her boney face. "If so, then why are you shouting so loudly that all of clan Hersir can hear?"
            Taken aback, Havi and Volu swallowed hard; how loud had they been talking? Sleitu grinned smugly. Of all the girls in clan Hersir, Sleitu alone matched Havi's height, but she was skinny as a steel needle, blueberry-eyed, her strawberry-gold hair long and straight, her thin face pointed like a bird's, and her long nose resembled a sharp raven's beak. She seldom spoke to anyone, bumptious, aloof, and in a crimson pouch on her belt Sleitu always carried a hickory frame holding a palm-sized tin mirror, which Sleitu claimed was silver but which she polished twice a day to keep from rusting.
            "Chieftess Havi!" Sleitu chuckled. "How droll! Well, you are moving up in the world, aren't you? What will this make you: Austmadr's fourth wife? You know how old men get; after three real, wealthy wives, he probably just wants a demure plaything."
            "Loki-cursed harridan!" Volu screamed, but Havi seized her shoulders and held her back.
            "Austmadr wants live sons," Havi sneered, and Volu let out a little shriek and cupped her mouth. Sleitu glared, but evidenced no other sign of discomfiture.
            "Don't worry," Sleitu hissed, narrowing her eyes. "I'm sure that you won't end up like Austmadr's last wife ... or be his last wife."
            With a murderous glare, Sleitu stormed away, gone in an instant. Volu gave Havi an equally-deadly stare.
            "Are you mad?" Volu demanded. "Do you want Frigg to curse you?
                        Baulder's weakness, blind Hod's cast,
                        By entrails of Loki held fast,
                        Serpent's poison, ground quakes,
                        Bind this evil and all it makes."

            Havi said nothing as Volu recited her charm three times, then spat on the ground. Blessed Frigg, Odin's wife and goddess of mothers, cursed women with infertility for far less than she'd said, but Havi couldn't help it; Sleitu had tormented all of the clan-girls with her early marriage to Mikli, a large, handsome youth, only a year ago. Sleitu had already been pregnant by spring when Mikli sailed off on his first viking, but Sleitu had miscarried shortly afterwards and Mikli had been slain by an arrow on his first raid.
            "Let's get out of here," Havi said.
            They ran along the thin wooded trail, avoiding as many clansfolk as they could, but Havi noticed that everyone that they passed eyed her and smiled widely. They circled the millwright's, slipped through the loud, open smithy, getting yelled at only once, and then reached the trail around the fjord, ignoring the boys who called to them as they polished clan Hersir's three sleek dragonships. They ran past several more startled people, almost caused one man to spill two buckets of fresh water, and then dashed toward the sandy dunes between tall brown weeds whose spring-green leaves were newly-budding.
            The wide, long beach lay deserted save for the crashing waves and seagulls. They ran out into the open, reveling in the commodious free space, the strong briny wind, and the constant thunder of the sea. Havi kept running.
            "Havi, come back!" Volu shouted. "Don't you want to talk?"
            "No!" Havi shouted. "Married women can talk! I want a strange ship to sail up and take me away!"
            "You'd flee?" Volu gasped, running after her. "You'd disgrace our whole clan?"
            "If I had somewhere to go I would."
            "You'd end up a servant or a whore! You'd be raped and left to starve!"
            "Why do you think I'm not jumping into that ocean and swimming away?" Havi stopped and lowered her head, breathing hard from running. This wasn't a bad dream. This wouldn't be forgotten in a week. "I'm ... I'm going to be married, aren't I?"
            "It won't be so bad," Volu tried to calm her. "You'll be rich, and we ..."
            "You'll be here," Havi said. "I'll be on the other side of the inlet."
            "We ... we'll still see each other ...!"
            "It's not that far! Men travel from clan Austmadr all the time!"
            "Right: men travel."
            "You'll be chieftess! Surely ...!"
            "Volu," Havi said softly, "we'll never see each other again."
            "I won't let that happen!" Volu said fiercely.
            Havi suspected that Volu was wrong, but said nothing. Tomorrow Havi would no longer be part of clan Hersir; her place would be across the inlet.
            "What happened to Jarl Austmadr's other wives?"
            Volu frowned.
            "Sleitu was right," she admitted. "Austmadr's wives have always been wealthy."
            "Until now."
            "His first wife died during the gasping sickness; that was when we were only four. His second wife he divorced; Austmadr had to fight a war to keep her dowry. Austmadr's third wife never bore any children and ... well, she just got sick and died. Some said that she was poisoned, but no one dared accuse Jarl Austmadr."
            "Daughter of Loki!" Havi exclaimed. "What manner of man owns me?"
            "You're getting married, not purchased."
            "The distinction is as tiny as a baby flea," Havi scowled, and she picked up a smooth stone and cast it into the sea.
            "There you are!" cried a squealing voice, and Havi and Volu startled to find six girls almost upon them, racing across the sands, their bat-pitched laughter carried off by the strong wind. Thongull led them; she was the oldest and swiftest of the unmarried village girls, followed by five younger cohorts. Orrabein trailed slowly behind; Orrabein had fallen down a rocky hillside as a child and limped ever since.
            "Congratulations!" Thongull shouted, and the other girls chorused her merriment.
            Havi accepted their congratulations and oaths of envy, but Volu quickly told them about Jarl Hersir's plans to wed every man who returns from the viking, and the squealing girls virtually forgot about Havi, gossiping about their own impending marriages. Volu kept them jabbering for almost half an hour, and then she over-spoke them all.
            "Sleitu!" Volu shouted. "Frejya's necklace! Sleitu doesn't know!"
            "We should find her!" Thongull shouted, and the other girls agreed.
            "Go ahead!" Volu urged. "We'll catch up!"
            As quickly as they'd appeared, the laughing girls ran off, slapping feet kicking loose sand in every direction as they raced back toward the dune-trail, their giggles quickly lost in the gusty wind.
            "Good luck, Havi!" Orrabein shouted as she hurriedly limped after them.
            Havi eyed Volu slyly ... and then thanked her profusely.
            "You deserve to enjoy your last free day," Volu said. "Besides, Sleitu irritated me ... and we might as well send one set of irritants after the other."
            Laughter erupted from both of their mouths, and suddenly Havi crumpled onto her knees on the gritty, dry sand. Havi wept unabashedly, Volu's comforting arms tight around her.
            "Come, let's get you home," Volu said, although no comfort tinged her voice. "Dry your eyes; we can't get to your house without passing through the village ... and you don't want Jarl Austmadr seeing you weep before your wedding."
            "What ... what if I begged him ... to set me free?"
            "Then Jarl Hersir will marry you to a poor man before the snows and you'll bed the winter in a barn under poorly-cured goat-skins," Volu said. "Some girls will get stuck with Dala and Halmi, who're older than Jarl Austmadr. I know that it seems impossible, but you're better off suffering now than later."

            Sleitu stood in front of Jarl Hersir's house, Thongull, Orrabein, and the younger girls surrounding her, as Volu escorted Havi through the village. Several wives and widows stopped and congratulated Havi, who politely thanked them for their blessings, deferring to their elderly status; discourtesy was unforgivable in clan Hersir. Volu stood by silently, then escorted Havi home.
            Havi and Helga lived with two surviving grandparents, Jorgen's father and Helga's mother, who'd bedded together since before Havi was born. Gamli, Jorgen's father, had slowly ceased talking over the years, and would've died if Hlodu hadn't taken care of him, seen that he ate, and put him to bed. Gamli watched over their flock of goats, or so everyone assumed. Hlodu dressed him and led him out onto their hillside every morning, although he seemed as uninterested in the goats as in anything else. Every day Gamli stood silently on their hill, rain, snow, or shine, until Hlodu brought him back into the house.
            Jorgen had built their home in the traditional longhouse style like the barracks that he'd grown up in. Their home wasn't decorated with ornate furnishings like Jarl Hersir's magnificent mansion: their low, sod-roofed longhouse was half-buried, which made it warmer in winter, with a wide trench around it to direct the rainwater away. Floored with clay, down its center ran seven feet of sturdy table, built into its frame, with benches on both sides. Five kegs and three wash barrels pressed against the wall to the right, a stone fireplace and four polished chairs to the left. Four small chests of clothes and six shelves of curing cheeses lined the walls before the two great beds, one for Gamli and Hlodu, the other for Havi and Helga, over which their winter cloaks hung on pegs. A large sack of flour sat under the cheeses, a regular gift from Jarl Hersir; Helga made the best goat-cream pie in the clan, and she always made an extra for Jarl Hersir. Behind the beds, a thick curtain hid the goat's pen, the second half of their house, where the beasts sheltered when winter ice buried everything.
            When they reached her door, Havi begged Volu's forgiveness but confessed that she wished to be alone. Volu tenderly kissed her cheek, then made Havi promise that she'd comfort her in the fall if she got stuck marrying Dala or Halmi.
            Helga arrived soon afterwards and broke the news to Hlodu, but unlike Helga, Hlodu frowned at her granddaughter.
            "That's why she's so sour!" Hlodu said. "Came home with that red-headed girl an hour ago and hasn't budged from that bench since."
            "Leave her be," Helga said. "Some girls take longer to get used to being married."
            "Married!" Hlodu spat the word like a curse, then leaned over and hugged Havi. "I remember what being young was like. Havi, have you even talked to Jarl Austmadr?"
            "Ever seen him?"
            "Yesterday ... from a distance."
            "Well, you're better off than I was," Hlodu said. "I was pushed up beside a man whose name I didn't even know: your grandfather."
            "It's not fair," Havi said.
            "Fairness is a dream," Helga said. "Life's real."
            "Young girls need dreams," Hlodu said.
            "Dreams are insidious," Helga retorted. "The bigger one dreams, the harder they're crushed."
            Havi whimpered while Hlodu scowled.
            "Jarl Austmadr's a wealthy clan-chief," Helga said derisively to Havi. "Did you think that you'd marry a young prince?"
            Only Hlodu's glare answered Helga, who lifted their black cauldron, still shiny from a recent oiling, set it under a water-keg, and turned its tap. The sound of splashing water mixed with Havi's muted sobs. Havi wiped back her tears, knelt down before the fireplace, and picked some kindling out of the box.
            "I'll do that," Helga said.
            "But I always ..."
            "I don't want you dirty ..."
            "I wash before supper!"
            "Leave her alone," Hlodu said. "Let her have one last night of peace."
            "Mother, go bring in Gamli," Helga said sharply.
            In a huff, Havi started the fire, ignoring her mother's objections. Helga boiled gruel in goat's milk, added cubes of cheese and flour to thicken it, and then surprised everyone with a large loaf of fresh bread, a gift from Jarl Hersir, which proved tasty when dipped into the gruel. Nonstop Helga and Hlodu discussed Havi's wedding and what it meant to their family and clan, but Havi ignored them. Only her fear of rape and starvation, or of being hunted down and carried back, kept her from fleeing into the night.

End of Chapter 1