Solvi – Leika’s Bonfire (Pt. II)

As the midnight sun paints the world gray, I make my way toward the temple and the evening’s festivities. Gunda waits for me outside her longhouse. My best friend has always been one of the prettiest girls in Torblirost, and tonight is no exception. Her silver-blonde hair is twisted into a braided crown around her head and threaded through with blue cornflowers that match her eyes. Dark sweeps of kohl point into her temples, giving her the appearance of elongated cat-eyes.

She smiles when she spots me walking toward her.

“I’d started to think you weren’t coming.” She takes my hand then steps back, her gaze sweeping over my braids—woven like a net over the rest of my loose blonde hair—the kohl smudged over my eyelids and along my lower lashes, my best linen dress cinched tightly with the braided leather belt Papa made me last jultide. “You look lovely, Solvi.”

“Nothing compared to your beauty, havdel sjel.” I hook my arm through hers as we make our way to the temple.

Most of the eligible young women from our village are already inside, clumped in groups of twos and threes. Several young men mill about, too. The chief’s sons are not among them.

Bendt is, though, and he makes his way over. His face is free of any kohl and his hair is thrown up in its usual topknot, but at least he wears a clean tunic and trousers.

“Vöder take me now if you two aren’t the prettiest girls in the whole village tonight.” He takes one of our hands in each of his to twirl us. With a shared eye-roll, Gunda and I oblige him, spinning so our skirts swish around our legs. “What do you say we three skip the matching and go off on our own?”

Gunda laughs.

“That would rather defeat the point,” I say.

“Ah, but Leika’s Bonfire is about celebrating the Lover of the gods. I can promise you, we would be doing that.” He taps my nose and throws a wink at Gunda.

She and I share another look from the corner of our eyes. I’m surprised to see a flush creeping into Gunda’s cheeks; she’s not usually so easy to tease.

“Are you drunk?” I ask Bendt.

His smile creases his cheeks. “It’s Eostre—of course I am.”

“In that case, I think we’d rather take our chances with the choosing stones.”

Bendt gapes at me in mock anger. “Who could possibly be a better choice than me?”

One of my eyebrows cocks upward. “Anyone, really.”

As if to punctuate my point, a commotion near the temple entrance brings us all around. A string of giggles floats around the space as Aksel leads his brother through the growing crowd. Behind them, my brother weaves towards us.

Tarben’s eyes are bright and his brown hair is barely held together with a loose braid—one that was a lot tighter when I tied it for him not an hour ago.

“What have you been up to?” I ask.

A smirk toys with his lips. “The business of the gods.” He gives my hair a quick tug and claps Bendt on the shoulder as he passes to the far side of the temple, where the young men congregate.

“If your brother’s here,” Bendt says, his eyes scanning the female side of the temple, “does that mean Sanne is choosing a stone as well?”

I shrug and join his search for the petite blonde. It’s no secret Tarben and Sanne have been spending more time together than is necessary for a healthy young man and the village healer. Tarben hasn’t made any indication it’s something serious, though.

Sanne enters a few moments later. Her hair is carefully smoothed in a single, golden braid down the back of her head. Her dress is immaculate and her expression casually interested in the proceedings, but her lips are very red, the skin around them flushed as well. I glance at Tarben again, but his eyes follow Brita, the shepherd’s daughter, as she makes her way past.

“I’ll see you ladies tomorrow,” Bendt says. His eyes are still on Sanne. “Wish me luck!”

“May Leika bless you this night.” I have to call it at his back, as he’s already scrambling for a place near the front of the boy’s side.

I shake my head and look at Gunda. Her gaze is focused across the room as well.

“They keep looking over here,” she mutters. “Do you think they’re talking about us?”

When I follow her gaze, it’s apparent Aksel has just turned away. Beside him, Jannik smiles at us.

“I’ve never seen a shadow smile before,” Gunda says and I laugh.

Jannik is our age, hardly more than a year younger than Aksel, but they’re so close it truly is as if Jannik is a shadow of his brother.

“Perhaps they’re scheming how best to pick your matching stone,” I say.

Gunda smirks. “Or it could be you they’re hoping for.”

That makes me laugh again. “Fortunately, only Leika knows who we’re meant for this night.”

Asta the priestess takes her place at the front of the temple and a hush falls over the crowd. As she begins the opening ceremony with a prayer to the goddess Leika, Gunda slips her hand into mine once more.

“I hope only for the best for you, havdel sjel,” she whispers.

I give her hand a squeeze. “And you, havdel sjel.”

Half of my soul.

When it comes time to choose, I glance over the young men gathered once more. Aksel hovers near the back of the men’s line while his shadow uncharacteristically surges to the front. Jannik’s eyes are closed and his lips move, as if with a last minute prayer. Bendt is behind him; he raises his eyebrows at me when our eyes meet.

I catch Tarben looking at Sanne, then Gunda nudges me forward. I take my stone from the women’s urn and move off to the side to wait for the choosing to finish.

“What are you waiting for?” A yell draws our attention to the male urn, where Bendt elbows Jannik. “It’s easy; you just stick your hand in and take one.”

Bendt waves the stone he’s pulled under Jannik’s nose with a grin. Jannik looks like he could murder Bendt as he fishes his own stone from the urn.

“There,” Gunda murmurs. “That face is much more fitting of the shadow.”

Once everyone has a stone, Asta returns to the front.

“Well, now that you have selected your destiny for the evening…” She spreads her hands wide. “May Leika bless you this night.”

Our two sides converge in the middle of the temple, each stone seeking out its mate. Voices rise over one another, filling the space with deafening chatter. Gunda and I hold tight to each other as we push through the crowd, glancing at upheld stones as we go.

“Which of you has only one line carved on your stone?” A voice calls over the chaos. I glance toward the front, where a boy stands in Asta’s place.

My eyes widen as he holds up his stone. Gunda is carried along by the crowd, but I’m rooted in place. My thumb traces the single hatch mark along the surface of my own stone as a nervous laugh bubbles in my gut. Leika certainly has a strange sense of humor.

His eyes fall on me as I make my way toward him, holding up my stone. His head tilts to the side and he blinks as if seeing me for the first time.

When I arrive in front of him, I sigh. “At least you don’t smell like fish guts tonight.”

I put my stone in Bendt’s hand.

Solvi – Leika’s Bonfire (Pt. I)

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.

“Ow!”

“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.

Writing Vacation

Last week was a crazy adventure. In the course of 9 days, I spent over 24 hours in a car, 3 hours on a plane, and traveled to 5 cities in 5 different states to see friends, family, and watch the St. Louis Blues bring home the Stanley Cup (#LGB!).

This came at a really opportune time, because I’ve reached my wits end with the current draft of my novel. I still believe it in, but I’m so, so tired of it. There are about two chapters waiting for complete overhauls that I have not been able to stir up the motivation to complete. I’m impatient for it to just be finished and out in the world, looking for an agent to represent it, but can’t bring myself to give those last couple chapters the attention they need to be done. I’m sure there’s some psychological phenomenon at work, a reluctance to polish the ending and admit “I’m finished”. Or maybe I just am bored with the story I’ve focused on for the past year. I’m ready to move on to one of the other sagas bouncing around my mind.

Whatever the reason, I needed a break. I’ve tried taking them before, binging TV epics with the Mr. or losing myself in a good (already published) book, but Solvi & co. always lurked in the back of my mind, mingling with a slight sense of guilt I couldn’t quite shake.

Last week, so much of my time was spent on the road or visiting with loved ones that all I could do was sleep in my free time. It was amazing and exhausting and best of all, it’s given me a truly fresh perspective as I return to my story. I’m looking forward to getting this draft polished!

The First Raid

Solvi:

Mam is buried beneath her blankets again. It’s been two days, but still she refuses to rise. Maiken burned the stew she reheated for breakfast—again. Now, it’s nearing dinnertime, and Mam doesn’t stir. Papa, Ulf, and Tarben will return soon, but the longhouse is empty of the scents that usually greet them.

No one seems to be very hungry, which is good because Mam isn’t cooking.

I wonder what’s wrong with me, then, that my stomach won’t stop growling. Why doesn’t my body understand like the others’ that now is not the time for petty things like food or comfort?

Kennet will never eat another meal.

That should be enough to strip me of my appetite. We lit his pyre yesterday, and all I could think as the smoke carried his soul to Fallne Hallen was how much the air smelled like roasting pork, and how hungry I am. It’s the time of year when the leaves turn vibrant and the animals are fat and sleepy, but not yet hidden away. Normally, we eat best this time of year.

Except no one seems to be very hungry but me.

The men take their time returning tonight. Maiken keeps glaring at the door as she slices vegetables at the rough-carved table. Usually, she makes me help—and I offered two times already—but tonight she just stands and slices and glares, not doing anything worthwhile with the growing mountain of carrots and onions piling up beside her.

The baby starts to cry. Ib is always crying. There’s a rustle from the blankets; Mam adjusts her hold on him and he quiets. At least one of us is feeding.

I reach for a carrot and—quick as a viper—Maiken raps my knuckles with the flat of her knife. A thin line of blood wells up on the back of my middle finger. I pop it into my mouth with a glare of my own directed straight at her.

She ignores me.

That’s nothing new.

A sudden cry in the village brings both our heads around toward the door. My eyes drift to Maiken, but she remains alert, like a forest cat who has sensed a barn mouse. If she had a tail, it would twitch behind her.

Finally, she blinks and returns to her task. “Must’ve lost another one.”

As if Torblirost is a forgetful child spilling its toys in the forest. As if the plague that has gripped us these past weeks is not stealing lives it has no rights to.

The door bursts open. I jump. Maiken already has her knife in a warrior’s hold, the vegetables forgotten.

Mam doesn’t move.

Tarben pants in the doorway. “Maiken! Papa sent me…” He gasps for air, his eyes wild with terror, and my stomach goes hot. “Night Raiders.”

Maiken moves from behind the table before I’ve registered our brother’s words. She shoves a spear in Tarben’s hands and reaches for her sword. I follow them to the door, but Maiken spins on me.

“Stay here, Solvi.”

“I want to help!”

I’m ten, for Vöder’s sake. It’s time she sees me as a warrior.

Perhaps she reads defiance in my eyes. Her jaw works but her tone is confident when she wraps my fingers around her knife. “You need to protect this house. If anyone but us comes in, you know where to stick this.”

“Between his legs if I can’t reach his throat.” It’s one of the first lessons she taught me.

One side of her lips lifts and she claps her hand against my cheek. Then she’s gone, chasing Tarben and glory into the sinking sun.

From the door of our longhouse, I can hear a shriek here and there. Half-hearted and bitter. Torblirost has lost so many to the plague, what more damage can a band of mythical terrors do?

This logic doesn’t stop my heart from drumming like an execution song. What’ll I do if one of those demons shows up here? I know what I’ve told Maiken, but it’s another matter entirely to actually stab a man. My hand is hot and slimy around the knife. I switch my grip and wipe my palm against my thigh, but it doesn’t seem to help.

“Mam?” I whisper, backing away from the door. “Mam, did you hear?”

She must not know we’re under attack. I don’t want to take my eyes from the door, as if by watching it will keep anyone from entering. I back up until my legs bump the bench where Mam sleeps.

With a deep breath, I rip my gaze from the entry to Mam. She lies on her side facing me, Ib wriggling in her arms, her eyes open but as unseeing as Kennet’s were. My stomach lurches.

She blinks. Focuses on me.

“Solvi,” she says. I wait, but she doesn’t rise. She doesn’t demand a weapon or take charge.

“Mam.” Horrifying tears crowd my eyes. I blink them furiously away. I’m too old to cry, no matter how helpless I feel. “Mam, you need to get up now. We’re under attack.”

Her eyes slide closed. I want to shake her. I’m terrified to touch her.

“Take your brother,” she says, her voice little more than a breath. “Take your brother and hide.”

My heart still thrums that killing beat, but my breaths come easier. If she’s telling me to hide, it’s because she’ll protect us. I offer her the knife, but she shakes her head.

“Take your brother. Then let them come.”

My body flashes hot then frozen and I take a step back. “But Mam…”

“Solvi.” Her voice is broken, like the rest of her. “Solvi, I can’t…”

The knife is still slick in my palm, but my fingers tighten around the handle.

“Someone has to.” I don’t know if I say it for her or myself, but I know it is truth. I move back to the door to wait.

I am a warrior of Torblirost, and I will not let anyone harm my family.