or so it seemed. Her head ached with tiredness, with the wrongness of where she was. What she now was.
In the morning Bebba opened the door, and the ground outside was thick with snow. Wilda gazed in wonder. What had seemed dark and drear yesterday seemed bright and new today. Long stretches of unmarred snow lay in swathes around and below them, broken only by small brakes of trees and huddles of farm buildings, until the snow reached the black waters of the fjord. Above the water the steep-sided mountains held scarves of snow that seemed to hang in mid-air, playing hide and go seek with lowering wisps of cloud. This more than anything brought home how alien this place was. She’d known snow but not as much as this, not such a thick blanket and from one night’s fall. She’d known hills but not the towering mountains or the brooding crystal stillness where she’d lived in the bustle of town and market, where all lived nearby for safety inside stout walls.
The air stung Wilda’s nose, but it was clean and crisp after the longhouse, which was steeped in sweet, heady smoke even when there was no fire. Bebba set her to clearing a path, feeding the pigs, then to breaking the ice and drawing water from the well, scrubbing and cleaning. All the thousand and one jobs that needed doing in any farm or household. Yet ones that Wilda had rarely done, as lady, for Bayen’s thralls had done them while she’d spun and sewn and woven, or tried to. Now she was thrall and Idunn was lady of the house.
The sun crept over the edge of the mountain before Bebba called her for breakfast, and Wilda was exhausted already, her feet and legs wet from snow and scrubbing, her hands chapped and raw.
Bebba gave her a bowl of warm buttermilk and some bread. “Make the most of this. Day meal they calls it. You get one other, night meal, at sundown. Today’s going to be busy. Snow came early, see, even for these parts. They don’t have enough fodder to overwinter all the animals, so tomorrow’s a slaughter day, and the days after that. The men’ll do the killing, Agnar and his thrall boys, and even Sigdir. It’s up to us to make sure it keeps. And if we’re doing that tomorrow and after, we got a lot to do today to get ready.”
Wilda had to force herself to not wolf down the meal. Her belly was cramping with hunger but she wouldn’t show it, or any hint, so she sipped and chewed with care.
Agnar came in, stamped snow off his boots, shook out his cloak and sat at the head bench. The two thrall-boys scuttled in after him and Idunn made an appearance, moving regally to sit next to her husband and watch Wilda with a puzzled gaze. Bebba served them, Agnar and Idunn getting extra, as well as dollops of butter and honey for their bread. Agnar sneaked a look at Idunn, for approval it seemed, because he didn’t speak till he had her cautious nod.
“Vetrnætr,” Bebba said when he was done. “Winter Nights. We got to get you learning their language. But Winter Nights is coming up on us. A blot, a sacrifice that is, and a great feast. Bausi’s asked for my ale to be served. We’re going to need a powerful lot of it to feed the thirst of the whole fjord. We’re all going to be working harder than horses for a while.”
When they’d finished the meal, the two thrall boys ran off under Agnar’s orders. After they were gone, and as Wilda was about to get on with the cleaning, Bebba had her stay.
“Agnar and Idunn, they wants to know a thing or two. You sit there and answer their questions. Truth be told, I got one or two my own self. Like how you can sit and be so calm when your husband was murdered in front of you, you taken as thrall and, when you talk of it, your eye is as dry as this fire.”
Wilda stared at her hands as they twisted in her lap. “What’s to say? I’m here now, and must do as I’m told. I’ve heard what they do to thralls, that a man can beat one to death here and it makes no matter, and worse. I will not die.