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Authors: Rebecca Barnhouse

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BOOK: Peaceweaver
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She was glad she was wearing it, though. She and Garwulf must have looked impressive riding back from the farm together, he in his warrior’s garb, she in the red gown that drew attention to her dark hair. She had seen people watching, and she’d kept her back straight, her pace measured, as she’d asked Garwulf question after question about his raiding party, keeping the conversation going all the way
through the gates and back to the stable, despite his willingness to ride in silence.

At the stable, he had called a boy over to help her unsaddle Fleetfoot, then given her a low bow before hurrying off. As soon as he was gone, she sent the boy away, pulled out the comb, and considered her next move. When it was time to serve the mead again, she would follow precedent precisely. She’d forgotten that her uncle still considered her a child. Once she’d proven that she knew the rules, she could start to break them. If she was going to influence his opinion, she would need to go about it with greater subtlety than she’d shown that morning.

Her thoughts flickered back to Garwulf and she smiled.
He
approved of what she had done.

As for her uncle, she had time, and plenty of it, on her side. Unless the queen left her bed, Hild would be the only one to pass the horn in the mead hall. Not until her cousin Arinbjörn married would another woman take her place, and that wouldn’t be for years.

All his life, her uncle had been guided by others. His mother, the old queen, had advised him from the time he was crowned as a very young man. When he married, his mother stepped aside, making way for his wife, as was expected. “A queen must serve the mead to her lord first, and be ready with advice for him,” the saying went. But when the queen had become ill and people were distracted by their worry about her, Bragi had slipped into the king’s
confidence, taking the place that should be held by a woman. He’d elbowed out Ari Frothi, too, whose age brought him wisdom. It wasn’t right. And more than that, Hild told herself, it wasn’t good for the kingdom.

She laid her cheek against Fleetfoot’s neck, breathed in his horsey scent, and stroked his nose one last time before she left the stable, heading for home—and her loom. She hadn’t gotten there yet when she heard women’s voices. Her cousin Skadi’s unmistakable giggle pierced the air just as the group turned the corner and saw her. There was no escape.

“Hild, come and help us,” her mother said, giving her dirty gown a quick look of appraisal. Instead of remarking on it, however, she smiled, the lines around her eyes crinkling. “We’re going to the goddess’s house.”

Hild joined them, happy to be forgiven. Aunt Var’s expression was sour, but with Aunt Var, that was customary. Skadi’s smirk, however, was clearly meant for Hild, her dirty skirt, and her behavior in the hall. Skadi herself looked as beautiful as she always did, her chestnut curls and wide blue eyes making her the image of the elf-bright maiden in the old stories. She was insufferable.

Beyla’s little sister tagged along behind them, singing some private tune to herself. “Inga, come walk with me,” Hild said, holding out her hand. The little girl ran to catch up, slipping her fingers into Hild’s, and they swung their arms back and forth together, laughing, until they reached the wooden temple dedicated to Freyja. On the other side
of the lane, outside the larger temple to Odin, a puppy pawed the ground, inviting them to play, its tail a blur of wagging. When Inga dropped her hand and ran to greet it, Hild recognized it as Brynjolf’s dog.

“That hound had better stay away from me,” Aunt Var said, clutching at her skirt.

Hild caught her mother’s eye and smiled. Aunt Var, her father’s older sister, was as prickly as her chin and elbows were sharp, and her eyes were the same color as her iron-gray hair. Only her voice belied her features; it was low, warm, and melodious.

“I’m sure the puppy won’t come near you, Aunt Var,” Hild said. “And look, there’s Brynjolf. He’ll keep it under control.”

As the young warrior stepped out of Odin’s house, Hild lowered her chin and pouted in apology for getting him into trouble earlier. When he saw her, he laughed, then bowed to them all before kneeling in the dust to play with Inga and the puppy.

Aunt Var glared at both boy and dog before she entered the temple.

Hild followed her, ducking under the lintel, and paused, blinking, while her eyes adjusted.

“Watch out,” Skadi said, bumping into her as she came through the door, and Hild took a step forward. There was scarcely enough room for all four of them in the temple, especially when the slave girl who accompanied them came
in to hand them their tools. Hild grabbed the sheepskin before Skadi could get to it, leaving her cousin the whisk, while her mother and Aunt Var began to take down the summer tapestry that hung on the wall.

While Skadi stooped to sweep dust from the corners, Hild polished the small altar, starting on the edges and working her way toward the center, where a metal bowl sat in front of the stone statue of Freyja. As they worked, Aunt Var began to hum. She kept a vast hoard of lays in her head.
Women’s songs
, Bragi scoffed when he heard them. When he chanted in the hall before the king’s hearth companions, he chose the histories of the tribes and lays of feuds and wars and heroes. Aunt Var’s songs told the other side of things, the side that said there were no feuds or wars or heroes without women sorrowing in the background.

“Sing about the baby in the boat,” Hild said. “Please, Aunt Var?”

Her aunt made a coughing sound that was the closest she ever came to laughing. “I’ve sung that one so often for you the goddess herself is tired of it.”

“Don’t anger the goddess,” Skadi said, looking around in mock terror.

Aunt Var hummed again, but instead of Hild’s favorite lay, she began one about a woman waiting without hope for her lover to return from war.

Hild picked up the metal bowl from the altar and rubbed it until she could see the light from the open door reflected
in it. She was glad Siri wasn’t here—ever since Wonred had been killed and Sigyn had sunk into her grief, Siri had taken to creeping away whenever Aunt Var sang this song. Especially when her husband wasn’t home. It wasn’t the sort of thing Aunt Var noticed, but Hild did.

Her aunt shifted into a song about a woman who had been married to the enemy in order to bring peace between two feuding tribes. Hild shut her ears to it; she’d never liked this lay, with its emphasis on just how many kinsmen the lady had lost when the peace she’d been sent to weave couldn’t withstand the men’s hunger for vengeance. Her husband, her son, and her brother had all perished in the bitter swordplay. Hild wondered if there were any lays about successful peaceweavers. She’d have to ask her aunt to sing one of those next time.

For now, though, she was relieved when Aunt Var cut the song short and started a harvest chant. Hild’s mother joined in as the two women lifted the tapestry, with its images of Freyja blessing the sheaves—a tapestry Hild’s great-grandmother had woven—onto its hooks on the wall. Seeing its craftsmanship made Hild hunger for her own loom. Half listening to the chanting, half picturing the tapestry she was working on, Hild turned from the bowl to the stone figurine. She ran the sheepskin over its surface, brushing away dust from the carved features. As her palm covered the top of the goddess’s head, sudden dizziness made her sway. Holding on to the edge of the altar to
steady herself, she waited for the sensation to pass, but it didn’t. Instead, the light-headedness became an impression of warmth and power—tinged with something else. Then it was gone.

Hild stood unmoving. What had happened? It seemed familiar, like a memory that hovered just beyond her reach. She had felt comfort, perhaps, and strength—the kind of strength she’d experienced earlier when she and Fleetfoot had galloped across the field so fast her eyes had watered from the wind. Warmth, too; she’d felt warmth like a stone heated in the ashes and tucked under the blankets on a winter’s night. And light. Light like a stream of golden mead poured from the drinking horn, pierced by the glow of the hall fires. But snaking behind it all were the tendrils of smoke that invaded her dreams.

For an instant, the sensation returned.

“Are you finished?”

The words brought her back to the world. Hild looked up to see her mother handing the rolled-up summer tapestry to the slave. They were all watching her: her mother, Aunt Var, Skadi.

She looked back down at the statue and swallowed. “I’m ready.”

The others went out, but her mother lingered for a moment, giving Hild a searching look. Hild met her eyes, but she didn’t speak. Finally, her mother turned and Hild followed her out of the temple, emerging from the shadowy
interior into the afternoon sun. Momentarily blinded, she stepped directly into the path of a man walking down the lane.

“Watch where you’re— Oh! Forgive me, my lady,” the man said, and she looked up to see one of the Bronding noblemen, the one who had offered her his hand in the hall.

She curtsied to him and his companions and felt the other women dropping into curtsies, as well. The Brondings responded with curt bows before they resumed their conversation and walked on. Although the Shylfings were at peace with the Brondings, the queen’s illness had made their alliance fragile. Hild’s mother had told her the Brondings wanted their interests expressed in the hall, which was why they’d sent the queen’s kinsmen to Gyldenseld. Few Shylfings agreed that the Brondings should have any say in the kingdom’s affairs. And although the queen was well liked, her kinsmen, with their ostentatiously fur-edged cloaks, were not.

“Ugh, no mustaches,” Skadi said.

“Hush, they’ll hear you,” Hild’s mother said, but Hild heard the amusement in her voice.

Skadi ignored her. “It makes their lips look like slugs. Can you imagine kissing that?”

Her cousin irritated her beyond all bearing, but Hild had to admit that she could be funny. She and her mother laughed, and even Aunt Var looked like she was suppressing a smile as the little party broke up, Skadi and Aunt Var
heading in one direction, Hild and her mother in the opposite.

Now that the two of them were alone, Hild steeled herself for what her mother had withheld in the presence of the others. If she didn’t scold her for the dirt on her gown, she would at least ask her questions about what had happened in the temple. But Hild was wrong.

“I must attend the queen,” her mother said, touching Hild’s arm lightly before she turned down the path that led to the royal quarters.

Relieved, Hild headed for home. It was past time for the midday meal and she was hungry. Now that the flurry of attention to her behavior in the hall had died down, she could eat and weave in peace.

But peace, it turned out, had to wait until Unwen had made known her opinion about the condition of Hild’s gown. Although she didn’t say a word, her expression made up for Hild’s mother’s silence on the matter.

“It will come clean,” Hild said as Unwen fastened the brooches on her everyday gown.

Unwen grunted her disapproval so low that if Hild hadn’t grown up hearing it, she might not have recognized the sound.

Finally, having eaten the bread and salty cheese Unwen prepared for her, Hild sank onto the stool in front of her loom. Images from the lay she had tried to get Aunt Var to sing, the story of the baby in the boat, were beginning to
emerge in the threads. In the weave, the top of the mother’s head was just coming into view: she was running from danger, her infant in her arms. On the left side, enemy warriors with spears were already beginning to threaten her, and in the foreground, the boat rocked on the waves. Hild recalled the boat she had seen earlier, out at the lake. Yes, she decided, running her fingers over the fabric; she could make those same graceful curves appear on her boat’s prow.

It was still too early to tell, but Hild thought this might be the best tapestry she’d ever made. And that was saying something.

She bent to her work, a ray of sun turning the cloth to gold under her fingertips.

FIVE

A
SHADOW FELL OVER THE LOOM
. H
ILD FROWNED BUT SHE
didn’t stop working. Freyja was with her, guiding her hands, taking the threads places she wasn’t aware she wanted them to go until she got there. She didn’t want to lose her concentration.

The shadow moved, this time blocking even more of her light. She looked up in irritation—which turned to laughter.

Her cousin Arinbjörn leaned against the doorpost, smiling.

“What are you doing here? Why aren’t you at training?” Hild asked.

“My father granted us a holiday for the rest of the day.”

His father, the king.

“Well, not a holiday. We’re supposed to be helping get
a bonfire ready for the festival, but there were too many of us.” He sank to the floor beside her loom, wrapping his arms around his long legs. For an instant, Hild was transported to an earlier time, before her cousin had begun training with the boys, when the two of them had been inseparable. After his mother had fallen ill, Arinbjörn had spent most of his time with Hild. She might be three winters older, but he was good company. He could listen quietly while Aunt Var wove stories and Hild wove threads, but he was always ready for fun, too, joining in their adventures when Hild and Beyla allowed him to.

BOOK: Peaceweaver
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