Thyra didn’t like how kneading dough hurt her hands, but Mother wouldn’t let her stop. “Dig in deeper and work through the ache,” said Mother. “That’s what it feels like when muscles grow strong.”
Thyra didn’t especially want to grow strong–at least not back then. “Strong” was the word everyone had used for the men when they left on a viking. “Strong” meant those tall men, with those wide shoulders, carrying straps of leather over their shoulders as they talked too loudly on the way to the docks, and “strong” meant the occasional lash-out of a foot when the thrall dropped a crate that was meant to reach the longship, and “strong” also meant the stench that followed those big burly men when they returned victorious and fewer after some months.
“We all need to be strong,” said Mother with the muscles around her eyes drawn tight as she kneaded her own dough harder. “We don’t get to decide we don’t want to be strong.”
Want, Thyra understood, was unimportant.
Ulfhild was one of the daughters at the farm down the hill. Her family was poor enough that Mother didn’t want Thyra to make friends with Ulfhild, mostly on account of The Risk, something that Mother said with an air of grownup mystery. The Risk was something that had happened to Byggsen Farm before Thyra was born. The Risk was the reason that Mother was especially kind to her thralls, even pitying, and would let them sleep on the floor in front of her fire when nights were cold.
“Ulfhild’s farm is a few dead goats away from this,” said Mother, bobbing her head toward her thralls.
Thyra’s impression of the people who worked the fields was negative. They weren’t strong, but they were smelly, and certainly worth pitying. (“Odin’s least favorite,” Mother once said in Thyra’s earshot, and Thyra had understood that as well as she had understood anything else.)
Ulfhild was subject to The Risk, and it had something to do with thralls, but Thyra couldn’t imagine Ulfhild having anything in common with thralls besides two arms and two legs and a head with a face on it. Ulfhild had thick hair the same color of red as the cinnabar on a shield. It grew in loops that Thyra could wrap around her fingers. Ulfhild hated it, for some reason, just as she hated the dresses she was expected to wear. She complained a lot about the same things Thyra found most delightful in life.
“Working in the garden!” Ulfhild would complain, punching at a haystack until her face got red. “Livestock husbandry!”
“Would you prefer to go on a viking, then?” asked Thyra with a wrinkled nose.
“Maybe I would,” said Ulfhild.
Oh, Ulfhild was wild, and entirely unladylike, unlike any of the other daughters of the karls. Even the blacksmith’s daughter had never been known to rip off her dress and go tearing naked across the village, screaming, just to escape her nagging mother. When someone finally caught Ulfhild under his arm, she was kicking the entire way back, and laughing, and screaming, and biting like a complete wild animal.
“Strong boy you have there,” said the man, tossing Ulfhild at her mother’s feet.
The mother had been embarrassed, Ulfhild had been abruptly quiet, and Thyra (watching from a textile shop nearby with her hands in her mouth to stop laughing) found herself desperately smitten with Ulfhild for being such a nuisance.
One night Ulfhild appeared in Thyra’s bedroom when the moon was big and the fjord was bright because nights never got very dark when it was so warm. Ulfhild’s tanned-and-freckled face glowed. She had chopped all that pretty cinnabar hair off. She was crouching over Thyra’s bed, and she said, “I wanted to tell you, I’ll come back, and we’ll get married.”
Thyra thought it must have been a dream. None of this made sense. Why would Ulfhild come back, when she was already there? She was no more than an hour’s giggling, arm-pumping, foot-flying run away from Thyra’s home at any given moment. And how in the world could they get married? They were both girls. They had a duty to their families to marry well, and marry men.
Thyra liked the idea of marrying Ulfhild, in her dream, and she said, “Come back soon.”
It wasn’t the first time that Ulfhild curled up in bed next to Thyra. They used to do that all the time when they were small, when their mothers were still friends, and Thyra remembered well the feeling of cheek against cheek and mingling breath as they faded into sleep. But Ulfhild’s breathing was choppy and wet like she was crying a little bit. Ulfhild never cried. It was definitely a dream.
Thyra awoke to a single coil of cinnabar hair in her bed. She put it into a jewelry box of yew and ash, locked it, and hung the key around her waist.
Ellingboe Farm was empty after that night. Mother told Thyra, “You’re old enough now, you should know. Ulfhild’s father couldn’t repay his debts and he was beaten to death in his paddock. The jarl came overnight. The rest of the family was taken into custody to pay off his debt.” And now the jarl had more thralls. That had always been The Risk.
Although Mother didn’t say Ulfhild escaped the arrest, some of the men had left on a viking just that morning, off to join another raiding party in islands to the south, and Thyra remembered her dream. She somehow knew Ulfhild had gone with the men, because Ulfhild was strong.
“You have to be strong too, Thyra. We all do,” said Mother.
Thyra mastered kitchen and garden at her mother’s side, but only when winter came again did Mother decide Thyra needed to manage the thralls. “Keeping the thralls to work our land is the difference between us and them,” said Mother.
“Us and who?” asked Thyra.
“Them,” said Mother. Byggsen Farm and Ellingboe Farm, probably, although Mother never said it. She hadn’t even told Thyra when Father laid claim to both lands and extended their own farm to take the entire hillside overlooking the fjord, contentedly filling spaces vacated by tragedy.
Managing the thralls really meant managing the one given the most responsibility, who they called Foot. Foot used to be a farmer and the other thralls respected them. Mother took Thyra every time she gave instructions to Foot, and Mother lent Foot keys to accomplish various tasks around the farm, and Thyra learned how to speak with disdainful authority and point fingers and to pretend the smells didn’t trouble her. It unsettled Thyra to look at the thralls, neither boys nor girls, but simply Odin’s least favorite people, defined only by how much they deserved their fate.
Also, Father started showing interest in Thyra at this time. “You have gotten very tall,” he said, “and your hair is very long. You look a great deal like your mother at this age.” This Age was a special concept, much like The Risk. “The jarl wants to see you. Put on your prettiest dress, would you?”
Of course Thyra had been to the jarl’s longhouse a few times; many holy tides brought them to Halfdan’s bonfire for celebration or mourning. But Thyra had always been a shadow of Mother. At Father’s side, under the scrutiny of Halfdan, Thyra had become something else.
Thyra was presented in her prettiest dress, wearing some of Mother’s jewelry, and Thyra’s hair was braided in two long lines down her front.
The jarl looked over Thyra. He said, “Thirteen summers already?”
Father said, “Mother has loved her dearly and would keep her forever, if she could. Thyra has been a pleasure for our family.”
But now it was Thyra’s duty to be a pleasure to the jarl’s family. A contract was drawn, arranging for Thyra to marry the jarl’s younger brother, Skarde. “Younger” only meant that he was a man of some fewer moons; he was still a very bearded and very scarred fellow with a large brewery and the need for a wife to run it.
“I’m to marry?” Thyra asked of her mother later. She hadn’t entirely understood the contract process. Father had never explained it, and he was too happy on the journey home to answer questions.
“You’ll make a good wife,” said Mother. “You know everything you need to run Skarde’s household. He is rich. He is kind.”
Thyra despaired. There was a lock of cinnabar hair in her jewelry box which promised Thyra would marry someone else–though Ulfhild had never returned from her viking.
Perhaps Ulfhild hadn’t gone on the viking. Perhaps she was with the jarl’s thralls after all.
Thyra watched some of them working in the fields, backs hunched, clothing spare, heads lowered. She couldn’t imagine Ulfhild among them. Ulfhild wasn’t like them at all. Although Ulfhild wasn’t a boy or a girl either, much like the thralls. Ulfhild was simply Ulfhild. Thralls were simply thralls.
If Ulfhild hadn’t come back for Thyra, it was because Ulfhild was dead.
The thought killed whatever part of Thyra felt tempted to be a nuisance and refuse the marriage.
Skalde and Thyra formally met and married shortly thereafter. Thyra received the dowry and mundr from her proud, drunken father. “Those are for you,” Father insisted. “Hide them from Skalde, if he seems the type to take them away. Tell me if he is terrible to you as soon as you can. You are pretty. We can find you a kinder husband if this one is terrible.”
Thyra did think Skalde was terrible, though he didn’t hit her, or scream, like she’d seen other men do sometimes. He was very quiet for the most part. He spent a lot of time after midday thinking and smoking and coughing then smoking and thinking some more. She asked once what he was thinking about, and he wouldn’t tell her.
That wasn’t terrible, nor was it terrible to manage his household. Thyra’s hands didn’t hurt when she kneaded dough anymore. She was strong from shoulders to finger joints. She had grown powerful hips getting down to collect milk for Mother, and she used that strength to climb the many stairs and terraces of Skalde’s brewery–Thyra’s brewery–where most of her work involved the thralls on the farm.
The thralls brought out the worst of Skalde. He went from pensive to terrible when they were around. Nothing the thralls did could please him, though the thralls were many, and worked hard as any. He beat them often. The inhuman yelping noises made it difficult for Thyra to rest.
Beating the thralls always made Skalde want to come to Thyra for comfort, and that was terrible too. He smelled strongly of sweat. His body was heavy over hers. It hurt when he pushed himself into her, and he left her bed filthy.
Mother spoke to Thyra differently once both of them had belts filled with keys to their respective households. She no longer said things like, “You’re old enough to know.” That was more than evident. Especially because Thyra was growing a shapelier figure, breasts and long legs and all, truly womanly.
With this dramatic coming of age, information was conferred among peers instead. Simply, plainly, Mother said, “Your husband hates the thralls because they used to be Vinlings. The Vinlings killed his parents. Then these thralls bred the disease that killed his last wife in childbirth.”
For these reasons and more, Mother explained, the thralls were meant to be treated the way Skalde treated them, no matter how it startled Thyra.
“They’re thralls, after all. It’s not a terrible thing to do,” Mother said.
Thus Skalde was not terrible, and Thyra’s parents saw no reason to divorce when things were going so marvelously, and Thyra was still married when Ulfhild finally returned.
Several raiding parties returned at once and it was a time of great celebration. It brought everyone in the village and surrounding hills to the harbor, where they received many strong warriors, many bags of crates of supplies raided from enemies, and a few new thralls. The leader of the expedition gifted these thralls to Jarl Halfdan. The jarl was so delighted, he announced a feast to take the entire night.
Among the cheery crowds, standing at her husband’s side, Thyra spotted a familiar face and recognition struck instantly.
Ulfhild was among the returned men. She looked like a short man with small hands, and that was the only distinction. Matted with dirt and pitch, her hair was the color of charcoal beside a few bright-orange hairs stuck under her chin by sweat. Her cheeks had gotten thin. Her eyes had gotten shadowed. But it was Ulfhild, and Ulfhild recognized Thyra too, and they looked at each other for a long time across the bonfire.
Thyra’s soul soared to see Ulfhild, beautiful Ulfhild, dirty and freed.
She wondered what Ulfhild saw differently in Thyra. Did she notice Thyra had become a woman? That she was married, and buxom, and wealthier than ever? Was Ulfhild angry? Was she proud?
Across the bonfire, Ulfhild raised her pint in acknowledgment of Thyra. Skalde believed the gesture for him. He returned it. Thyra’s heart fluttered like a captive bird.
Ulfhild had been fighting Vinlings and she didn’t want to talk about it. “The Vikings see me as one of them,” she said gruffly, indicating the other raiders. Skalde was hosting some of the raiders at their house. This necessitated that Thyra tend them with food and drink, but Thyra had stolen away from the kitchen thralls to speak with Ulfhild behind the barn. “I acted like one of them, and I became one of them, and I don’t want to talk about it.”
“They think you’re a man?” asked Thyra.
“They will,” said Ulfhild stubbornly.
There were other girls among the fighters, all like Ulfhild. Strong enough to survive a harsh journey by longship. Ferocious enough to put the torch to Vinling houses. Willing to swing an axe blade at Vinling throats. And when Ulfhild was doing these things, she was as good as a man.
“There’s no telling the difference between us when we fight,” said Ulfhild. “Nobody cares what I am if I can fight. And I can. I’m good at it, Thyra.” She said it like it haunted her, even when she promised she would always fight to keep this privilege.
Ulfhild didn’t belong back in a village of farms and shops and houses run by women–proper women, like Thyra, married shortly before the start of her catamenial phase to usher her into womanhood, wearing dresses, bearing keys, and feeding guests.
“There is talk of a trader who wants protection through Vinling lands, and I will go with him,” said Ulfhild. “He is hiring boys like me.”
Thyra cupped her old friend’s cheek in her hand and said, “You promised to marry me.”
Ulfhild said, “You didn’t wait.”
“My heart waited,” said Thyra, and they kissed.
The trader didn’t leave for a few weeks. Thyra stole time away from her duties to be with Ulfhild. Ulfhild slipped into her bedroom at night, like when they were children. Whenever Ulfhild appeared, she was dressed like a beardless young man, hiding her frustratingly delicate features under the furtive brim of a cap, more afraid to be seen as a woman of marrying age than as a man visiting a married lady too often.
Ulfhild’s body had changed from small but lanky into square with muscle, scarred from battle. She touched Thyra too harshly sometimes, but never as harshly as Skalde. Thyra loved that their kisses didn’t burn from a beard. She wished she could have remained curled in bed with Ulfhild forever.
One full moon after Ulfhild left again, Thyra realized she was pregnant with child. It had to be Skalde’s. He was the only one who could perform the “husband’s duty,” as Mother used to say, in just the way that made a woman capable of bearing an infant. But Thyra imagined that it was Ulfhild’s child.
Thyra gave birth to two of Ulfhild’s children before Ulfhild returned again.
The Vinlings were restless; Jarl Halfdan called up levies for battle. Skalde was going to command one of the longships and its company of warriors himself. “A Vinling raid struck the village to the north, and we’ll be next if we don’t send them back to their miserable pit,” said Skalde.
Thyra prepared him for travel in all the ways that her duty demanded. She had learned to leave most work to the thralls when she was pregnant; she had found a new Foot of her own to position as their leader. Thus Thyra only needed summon supplies to be stocked in the vessel that Skalde had built, and Thyra offered Skalde tender womanly comforts in his bed the nights before he departed.
Calling the levies had also brought in others looking for coin, and Ulfhild returned with a group of mercenaries. She had gone from working for one trader to working for another, and another, and another, until reputation sent her to work for an allied jarl, who rewarded Ulfhild handsomely for the bravery of her axe. Ulfhild was becoming wealthy in her own way. She had finer armor, weapons of her own, and arms strong enough to carry Thyra behind the barn to kiss her forcefully.
“I will be on Skalde’s ship,” said Ulfhild.
“Then you will be with him when metal strikes metal,” said Thyra.
They only called her Ulf now. Ulf, the wolf, a fearsome fighter despite her slightness of form, and she had become harder while Thyra became softer. Ulf worshiped Thyra’s hanging belly and drooping breasts. Ulf inhaled the oils Thyra put behind her ears, just so that Ulf could smell them.
Ulf got the last kiss from Thyra before the longship set out. Thyra waved to them from the harbor, and Skalde thought the gesture was for him, so he returned it.
Already, Thyra was pregnant with Ulf’s third child.
It was luck that they brought Skalde’s body back when he died. Most bodies couldn’t come home. Thyra looked over it with her children to one side, her mother to the other side, and she felt the certainty of Skalde’s death sink into her bones.
“The Vinlings are angry,” one warrior told the jarl. “They fight with the rage of ghosts.”
So when they buried Skalde at sea, Thyra offered a pair of the Vinling thralls to go with him as an apology. The same Vinling monsters who had taken Skalde’s parents took Skalde too. It was wrong by everything that Thyra had been taught. The thralls deserved it.
She poured drink down their throats until the two of them could no longer stand upright. Her mother dressed and anointed them. The thralls were seated to either side of Skalde, pushed out to sea, and set on fire from the shore with arrows. The thralls screamed when they burned. The screams were even worse than when Skalde used to beat them. One of Thyra’s children started crying, but she silenced him with a hand on his shoulder and a few whispered words. “Thralls are Odin’s least favorite. This is how it’s supposed to be.”
Thyra continued to manage the brewery, now her own. She still had the jarl’s support. She still had a child in her womb. She had the knowledge and power that she did not need to marry again, and when Halfdan suggested that Thyra wed another of his brothers, Thyra had the authority to refuse.
She was unmarried when Ulf returned from his viking regarded as a man. There was no doubt in those who followed him. He had proven himself a fierce warrior by killing a Vinling jarl. He was dripping with Vinling jewels, which he delivered to Thyra, holding them up in his hands, a glittering mountain.
“I came back,” said Ulf, his scarred features still delicate and rimmed by cinnabar curls. Somehow he had managed to grow a few hairs off his chin. He was old enough he should have had a full beard, but even those few hairs were a miracle of truth upon Ulf’s face, and Thyra fell upon him with delight to pet Ulf’s beard and kiss Ulf’s lips and know the comforting home of Ulf’s hands.
They married at last. Nobody talked about how Ulf had been born, or what had become of his family, or the name they used to call him. He was simply Ulf. A fearless conquering warrior with wealth made off the hides of his enemies. He had put three babies into Thyra’s belly. He was the man of their home.
Very seldom did they sleep in their separate rooms.
Thyra thought all of this was just right.
She had her man, her house, her wealth. She thought that she deserved it.
Ulf was unrestful. He was often quiet but unhappy in the daymark after midday, smoking his pipe and thinking hard, staring out at the fields. He didn’t get up to beat the thralls the way Skalde did. Instead, he stared in the direction of the jarl’s house. “We have been invited to spend Midsummer with them,” said Ulf gravely.
Thyra and Ulf alike had many duties to fulfill in this, divided among woman and man, and both were capable of doing their duties. Thyra found joy in the preparations of supplies to take to the jarl. Ulf seemed unhappy.
He remained unhappy as they paid homage to Halfdan, who greeted them warmly. “Shield-maiden become brother,” said Halfdan fondly in greeting to Ulf. Halfdan embraced Ulf as he would have embraced Skalde. They had battled together against Vinlings. They were family.
At the jarl’s home, Ulf stood outside, watching the thralls work and smoking his pipe and looking troubled.
“Come to bed with me,” said Thyra, embracing him from behind, her cheek pressed to his back.
“Did you know I felled Skalde?” asked Ulf, facing into the darkness. “He would have survived his battle-wound, but I finished him.”
Thyra hadn’t known that, but that was what she expected, and she was happy for it. “His death was meant to happen as such,” said Thyra with the peaceful, mysterious calm that Mother had always said such things.
Ulf said, “My brothers and mother died in these fields as nameless thralls alongside Vinlings because they were poor. How could those have been their preordained deaths? How is our victory intended, but theirs not?”
“That’s the way of life,” said Thyra. She squeezed her eyes shut. They pricked and burned with tears.
“Our deaths are destiny, but our fates belong to us. Our fates are dark. We aren’t meant for success.”
“You’re frightening me.”
Ulf apologized. He carried his pregnant wife to bed, as she had asked him. He made love to her the way only warriors could. He was gentle as his muscles were strong. It was an honor for Thyra to feast herself between his legs, servicing him with pleasure as she used to with her head under Ulf’s skirts in the fields.
It didn’t bring him peace. They clutched one another in love and slept drunk under the midnight sun.
The Vinling raiders came behind a wave of fog, when none of the look-outs knew they were coming. They brought allies and mercenaries. They brought vengeance with them. Generations of rage borne upon longships. Armed with gifts from the Dreggsen clan, who hated Halfdan.
Thyra awoke alone to screaming and smoke. She bolted outside. The eldest of her children was dead upon the stairs, a spear through his chest, and her screams joined others.
She raced in search of her other child, but could not find her.
Instead, Thyra found Ulf outside, handing small axes to thralls.
“What are you doing?” asked Thyra.
The thralls fled with their weapons, going for the hills, and Ulf said, “I had to free the ones the Vinlings would kill.”
“They killed our son!”
Oh, and how Ulf was filled with rage at this. He no longer looked so small and hard when he shifted into the mindset of battle. He became a wolf unlike the other wolves.
He took his axe and he said, “Our deaths are predetermined, Thyra.” He kissed her again. A last time. Then he gave Thyra a knife.
Vinlings fell swarmed the jarl’s lands. The village burned on the coast, blackening the sky, and it turned the invaders into faceless shadows as inhuman as any thrall.
The wolf devoured them.
Ulf howled and roared and swung, cutting through his enemies to create a path safe for Thyra. But he was only one man. He was destined to kill two Vinlings–four of them–six Vinlings and a Dreggsen–and it was much more than any other solitary warrior could have hoped–
But the jarl’s longhouse burned and too many warriors were still too drunk to pick up their blades before they died.
Like his son, Ulf took a spear through his heart.
He struck his knees with the spear wedged halfway through his chest, and he looked to the sky, and he howled one last time before he died.
Ulf died along with Halfden and his family. Most from the other visiting houses died too.
Thyra wasn’t killed.
Strong hands beat the terror out of her heart and the fight out of her limbs. She was dragged past Ulf’s body, blankly gazing at the sky from the mud, and Thyra felt herself become all-empty. She was reunited with her daughter in an enemy longship. Both of them were stripped of their jewels, keys, and cloaks. “They don’t need them,” said some strong man standing overhead. “And my wife will love these jewels.”
Piece by piece, womanhood was taken from Thyra and her daughter.
They sailed to the Vinlings on the ship with three others from the village and twenty happy warriors.
The village of their home stayed behind them.
Thyra tried to tell her daughter, “We will fight, sweet girl,” but she was kicked into silence. They weren’t allowed to speak as they willed, any more than they were allowed to wear the adornments of womanhood. Thralls were not permitted those sorts of things.
Jarl Ødger and his wife Yrsa held a great feast when the first of their army returned victorious. “A great day!” Ødger said joyously, holding his wife in his arms.
“Revenge against those cursed Haggenlings,” agreed Yrsa.
Ødger felt himself in a generous mood, surveying the great wealth delivered in his honor. They had brought pieces of Halfdan’s longhouse. They had brought thralls from among his people, who wept on the ground the way most thralls did, at first. And they had brought every scrap of jewelry that they could find.
“None survived to stop us,” said a warrior proudly.
Yrsa and her daughter Revna received the bulk of the jewelry as a gift. Revna received Thyra’s jewelry box, which was carved with an elaborate wolf on the lid, and contained an elaborate lock that must have been opened by one of many keys included with it.
Revna had only just found the key to open the jewelry box when Yrsa came to get her.
“You’re old enough now, you should learn to handle the thralls,” said Yrsa. “You should see how they are acclimated to service here.”
“I’m coming, Mother,” said Revna. She tried on one of Thyrsa’s necklaces and liked it. Underneath the large stone, she found a curl of cinnabar hair tucked away, hidden like a secret. Revna paid barely any attention to it. She slapped the box shut and followed Mother onward for their womanly duties.