Work Header

Blood and Ash

Work Text:

"Come out with me," Höskuld said to her in the morning, when the air was still cool, early in the first year of their marriage. There was a smile in his voice and on his face, merry as he often was. "Walk with me as I sow the corn, for the task is quicker and lighter with company."

She was not as happy by nature as he was, and yet as she looked up at him her heart sang at his happiness—not like a plucked harpstring, but like the strings that lay next to the one struck, that could not but hum a little to their kin's rhythm. "Surely you do not need to sow alone. You have plenty of carls to help you at your task."

"Yes," he said, "but I do not like their company half so well as yours."

When word came to Hildigunnur that Njal had been burned, and Bergþóra with him, and Njal's sons, and Kári Sölmundarson, and his son Þórð—when word came, Hildigunnur stilled her hands, put aside the cloth she had been working on, and smiled.

"You are pleased," said the messenger, Flosi's carl, "with what your uncle has done?"

"Tell him I am satisfied," she said, and she was. She had decided from the start—that morning in the field, by the fencepost where Höskuld had lain in the dirt, wet with blood—that there would be blood-price, that she would have vengeance for him. She had put her hand to the task, and though she had wielded no sword, nor lit the fire, still, her hand had put it in motion.

She went back to her work, taking the cloth into her hands (and how, in this moment, could she not think of the cloth of his cloak, wet with blood and worse, and then dry with it and stiff when she had cast it on Flosi her uncle?), and she could feel her smile small and fierce. She did not look up again until her carline Gróa, working with her, spoke.

"Are you not afraid?" Gróa asked. "For Njal was loved and loved well, and respected besides. It will not end with this."

She knew the words were true, but she had known them at the start, and she felt the edge of the same wild rage she had felt when she had faced Flosi with her husband's cloak. "Poor is vengeance when it is lamed by fear," she said.

The old woman did not contradict her in words, but her hands hesitated, her mouth tightened. And Hildigunnur felt her anger spark, that her satisfaction be tainted by worry. So she spoke sharp-tongued as she said, "See you an ill future for me, then?"

"What use is foresight?" Gróa asked, and her smile was weary. "It could not save Njal son of Þorgeir."

Hildigunnur loved best the clean light of morning, when all things were possible. Höskuld rose no later than she did—indeed, they cajoled one another from bed—but it was not his favorite time of day. To him, evening was preferable, when the carls and carlines lay aside their work and shared a meal in the farmhouse. Even those whose task it was to cook the meal were finished in time to take bread and barley, fish and game, in the light of the fire.

Hildigunnur loved the clean light of morning, but sometimes when she saw the house by evening, the meal laid out, she could see it through Höskuld's eyes—and not just it but the meals he had had before he became her husband, that had made him love this time so much.

When her uncle Flosi came to see her after he had done the burning, he came with a great weight in his eyes, and his shoulders low, as though he bore a heavy load.

"I have done as you said," he said. "Are you pleased now, niece?"

She had expected, if not triumph, then the rage she had seen the day she had urged him to vengeance and justice, his face dark with blood and his eyes wild. But he came tired and sad, and that put hesitation in her, where anger would not have.

"Yes," she said, and it was the truth, though she felt no joy in his joylessness, and no satisfaction in his sorrow.

"And is your honor appeased," he asked, "and mine?" She knew then, without works spoken, what he meant: did it suit her honor that Njal and Bergþóra lay dead, did it suit her honor that Kári's son had been burned?

She had not meant it to happen thus, and yet she knew it would be unworthy of her to say no. It would be unworthy, having started this avalanche, or at least contributed in her own way a stone to its making, that she should throw herself on ignorance and plead that it was not her fault. She had begun this, for good or ill, and it was her triumph and her tragedy, if triumph or tragedy it was. So she raised her chin and said nothing.

"Then have your victory," he said, and held out his hands; she opened hers instinctively and then was holding something wrapped in a bit of cloth. She closed her fingers around it and did not open it until he had gone away, full of grief and wrath, and then her fingers picked apart the bit of leather thong holding closed—a kerchief, a woman's kerchief. Within she found ashes, and for one moment she thought of the dead—but no, no, it was just wood-ash, a floorboard or a lintel or a rafter-beam.

Flosi had paid her in kind, then. She put the ash away, in the same chest where she had held Höskuld's cloak, and thought about the smell of burning.

Höskuld was merry where she was not, and always had been—but of late she had seen strain in his eyes and his voice, and it seemed to her that he was hiding some trouble.

It was not her way to hide from things, or allow them to be hidden from her. So she said, "Something troubles you, husband. Tell me."

"Nothing," he said. His mouth opened, and then he set it, and shook his head. "Nothing."

"Not nothing," she countered. "I am not a man, but I am also not a fool. Tell me." Still he said nothing, and she let her exasperation out in her sigh. "Do you think I am a wife who would sit back and weave and make bread and ask no questions?"

He laughed, then, short and sharp. "No," he said. "No wife like that would have demanded that her husband be goði, and hold off the betrothal until it was true."

"Well, then," she said, and put her hand on his arm. "Speak to me."

She was no fool; she knew it could not be the end. She knew there would be no good to come of it when she heard that Þorgeir, Njal's bother's son, had lent his aid to Kári. She knew that Kári son of Sölmund would not accept settlement by law, and so she was not surprised when she heard of the battle at the Althing, and the deaths there, of Árna Kol's son and Þorvaldur and Eyjólfur and many others.

Flosi went away, then, over the sea, and still she knew that it would not end there—and though she was not surprised, she was wearied when she heard later of the deaths of Gunnar and Kol son of Þorstein. She kept her household, made bread, oversaw planting, put up cheese for winter, saw the weaving of cloth and the embroidering of cloaks, and all that time she thought on this, and brooded, and her spirit was unquiet, though her vengeance had been done.

"It is not well," she said, and she let her hands fall from the loom on which she had been working in the last light of day. "I can tell."

"It will be well enough," Höskuld said, "one way or another." She could see weariness in his eyes, but still he smiled, and put his hand to his brow, and said, "It has been long travel and a long day. I need rest, nothing more."

He turned then to slide his cloak from his shoulders, and it was then she saw it for the first time: richly dyed scarlet, embroidered from nape to waist. "My uncle gave you that?"

"He did." Höskuld turned, the cloak draping over his arm, and cocked an eyebrow. "What of it?"

"Flosi must think highly of you," was all she said, but her heart stirred like a pond full of great fish.

She felt the surprise sharp as if she had been struck by a thornbranch. "Kári is here?"

"Yes," Flosi said.

"And he lives?"

"Yes," Flosi said again, and his smile was tight. "We lost so many of those loyal to us, of our own blood, for those we've killed yet. Do you think that by slaying Kári we could stop it? Has that yet worked?"

"Mm," she said. "Still. It is courage or foolishness for him to come here. I do not know which."

"Perhaps," Flosi said. "But I think in his own mind it is neither. He does not fear us. He tests us."

"Ah," she said, and could see it then: Kári was fearless in his great loss, Kári was not circumspect. If he thought Flosi a threat, he would kill her uncle where he stood, or at any rate try. If he thought Flosi beneath his notice, he would not fare near him. But he had come, and without sword naked in his hand—and deception was not his way; he had not killed her kin in deception. "It is courage, then, at bottom."

"You approve."

"How could I not? You know I do not love faintheartedness."

"Good," Flosi said. "For I would have you marry Kári." He said it baldly and yet calmly, straightforward with her as always he was. "For peace's sake, and for our kin's sake."

She felt her spine tighten, her body as rigid in that moment as the trunk of a tree. It was not entirely surprise that struck her, but the way that possibility turned her world. It was like seeing the land from a low spot, and then walking high onto a hilltop and seeing it again: the same, yet irrevocably changed by perspective.

"Have I a say?" she asked, and her voice was sharp as broken pottery to hide the way the new vista dizzied her.

Flosi looked at her, and there was amusement in his eyes, for the first time in a very long time. "When, kinswoman," he asked, "have you lacked that?"

She smiled. She could not but smile. "I asked for what I wanted then, and I received it. I am not wholly without my own power."

"And will you make demands now? You sought more for yourself before."

"I loved him," she said, suddenly, and thought again of a body in the dirt, a bloody cloak—thought too of a smile as honest as sunlight, a husband's voice, touch, warmth. "And not because of Whiteness. I loved Höskuld."

"I know," Flosi said, and she was grateful that there was nothing but honesty in his voice.

"Give me a day's time," she said, "and I will answer you, and answer Kári."

She slept deep, and dreamed deep, but even later when she would examine those dreams for meaning and portent she could see nothing. She dreamed of baking bread, the dough beneath her hands, and then she dreamed of moving water, standing knee-deep in it like a child at play, laughing—she did not often laugh like that in waking life, but in the dream she laughed. And she dreamed of the flight of birds, the ripening of berries. She dreamed of many things.

She woke and turned, as time's habit had instilled in her, toward the warmth that should have been her husband beside her in the bed. It was pleasant to lie with him a while before rising, sometimes before he woke, beneath the coverlet where his warmth warmed her, and hers him. But when she turned in her bed, her shoulder touched only the rush-filled mattress, her searching hand reached only for the bedcloth. It was then and only then that she raised her head and opened her eyes, pushed her hair from her face, and saw in the thin morning light that Höskuld was not abed with her, but had risen early, and gone out.

"You will have me for your husband, or so says Flosi your uncle," Kári said. "Does he speak with your will, or against it?"

"With it," Hildigunnur said, for she was not known for dissembling.

"You are not known for being undemanding of your husbands."

"No," she said. "I do not think I am being undemanding now."

"And what are your demands, then, Hildigunnur, who was Höskuld's wife?"

"Let there be an end of it. Let there be an end of the deaths, my kin's deaths and yours. Let there be calm for a time, that we may lick our wounds, rebuild our houses, replant our fields."

His eyes flickered a little, and she knew why; she had not chosen those examples at random. (The house her kin had burned, the field in which Njal's sons had killed Höskuld.) "You regret the deaths," he said, and his voice held a question.

"I see no purpose in my own regret," she said. "I sought blood-price and was glad to have it." She met his gaze and did not look away.

His jaw tightened but he said only, "Then why?"

"Because I am tired," she said. "And I think you are tired. Otherwise you would not have come here. Otherwise you would not have tested Flosi's mercy, and in so doing proved your own mercy, that you did not meet him at the door with sword in hand. We are both—wearied. And this way we can make an end of it."

"So your demand of me," he said, "is that I put aside the deaths of those who were very like my brothers, and he who was very like my father? That I bow to you in this?"

"And that I put aside the death of he who was my husband, killed sowing corn in the field, who was of all men much beloved of Njal. Yes. I ask much of you, but not more than I give."

"Yes," Kari said, and put out his hand. "It will be as you say, and we will marry and your kin become mine, and mine yours, and make an end of this. For I loved vengeance as well as you did, but you speak truly: I am wearied of it. I would make my household in peace."

She hesitated only a moment, a breath, before she put her hand in his—his callused with sword-calluses, hers uncallused but no less set to violence—and sealed the pact, the peace, and the betrothal.

Hildigunnur loved best the clean light of morning, and so did Kári her husband. Sometimes she woke before him or he before her, but only rarely did one wake to find the other in bed, and yet it was also rare for one to wake before the other had finished breaking fast.

It was autumn, and slaughter-time. There was much to do: the animals who could not be fed over the winter to be slaughtered, meat to be smoked and fish to be smoked, the gaps in the house to be mended before the winds and snows rose again, cloaks and coverlets and mantles to be made or mended before the cold days and colder nights began. There was little time and much to do in it.

But for a moment Hildigunnur sat at table with her husband, and ate what remained of the good bread from the prior night's meal, and was content.