Tonight is my first visit to Leika’s Bonfire. I was eligible last year, but we had just lost Ulf. It didn’t feel right to celebrate love when my heart was broken. This year, I’m excited by the prospect of matching with one of the village boys I don’t know very well. Whether or not the connection lasts, I’m looking forward to interacting with someone other than my brothers or one of the fishermen who share their vessels with me each summer.
Maiken has taken time out of her busy day to help me prepare for the big night. She gives the brush a vicious tug through a snarl in my hair, ripping me from my thoughts and jerking my head back in the process.
“I can’t help that you let rats build nests in your hair!”
I slap at her hands. “It’s funny, Mam never seems to have trouble brushing my hair.”
Maiken gives an impatient snort and drags the brush over my head again. “If you prefer our mother’s braids, I have plenty of other things to do with my time.”
I scowl at her reflection over my shoulder in the hammered-iron mirror. Maiken is an artist when it comes to braided hair, and she knows it. Especially tonight—the most important night of the Eostre festival—I need to look my best.
Once she’s finished attacking me with the brush, I breath a quick sigh of short-lived relief before her warrior’s-fingers twist into my hair. My teeth grind together and I remind myself—as I must every time she does my hair—the end result is worth the pain.
“Thank Gull you’ll never have a daughter,” I tell her reflection. It earns me an extra tug on my scalp, but Maiken smirks.
“What would I even need a daughter for, when I have my sweet Solvi to doll up when I feel like it?”
My smile is a half-grimace. I watch her fingers fly through my hair. I may be an expert at tying knots for the fishing nets, but it doesn’t translate into the braids I attempt on myself.
“So,” she says after a moment, “any boy in particular you’re hoping blessed Leika matches you with?”
I shrug. Between the fishing vessels and the training yard, Bendt is the only boy other than my brothers I spend any amount of prolonged time with. I’m just looking forward to the opportunity to talk with one of the other unattached young men in our village.
“Not even Aksel?” Maiken’s voice has taken on a teasing edge. I roll my eyes.
Everyone hopes to draw the stone that will match the chief’s eldest son. He’s handsome—if a little too pretty in my opinion—but I know very little of substance about him. In the training yard, he only ever spars with his brother Jannik. He mans his own fishing vessel and prefers to hunt alone rather than join our hunting parties.
“I wouldn’t mind someone a little more interesting,” I say.
Maiken laughs. “More interesting than the future chief?”
“It just seems like that’s all he is. I’d like a man with a lot of different skills and interests.”
“And how do you know Aksel doesn’t have these?”
“Fine, I don’t. But all the other girls will be clamoring for him. I don’t need to join in all the fuss.”
I think through the other boys of the village: Mogen, Carr, Mads, Halstein…. Young men I know more by sight or from sharing a longboat on the occasional expedition. None make my heart pound at the very idea of them, but isn’t that what Leika’s Bonfire is for? To open up a possibility with someone I wouldn’t have otherwise spoken with?
“Well, whatever happens, little sister, try to make the most of it. I found Dag through Leika’s Bonfire, after all.”
My eyes narrow at her over my shoulder. “Not because you were matched together.”
My sister had famously punched her match after only a few minutes with him and struck up a conversation with the armorer’s son—a difficult feat, since Dag is the quietest person I’ve ever met. Even six years later, their story is still brought up during Eostre. It’s become as much a tradition of the summer festival as Leika’s Bonfire or the celebrations of the midnight sun.
Maiken shrugs and tosses her long, blonde braid over her shoulder.
“If not for the bonfire, we both wouldn’t have ended up on that dock, on that night.” She smiles at me. “I have as much a say in my fate as the gods do. You should learn to live the same way.”
When we were younger, I’d hoped I’d be as fierce and brave as Maiken once I reached her age. But every year that I got older, so did she—her confidence growing with her. Mine remains static. I’m the same age now that she was when she sat down with Dag that night, but I’m not even sure if I want to commit to a life with someone else, much less who that might be.
For tonight, I’ll cast my lot in with the other unattached members of our village and let the gods determine my fate one more time.