Disclaimer: I write for enjoyment, and certainly not for money.
Author's Note: I feel that I must urge all readers to disregard the numerous errors present in the text. My only excuse is that this is a personal piece, and I didn't feel the need to conform to fact.
In spite of this, it would be lovely to receive a review.
It was Harvest Moon, and night-time. The quiet was disturbed only by screams. Gudrun's mother was giving birth.
"Go to Ingibjorg," demanded Alfhildr. Gudrun watched the midwife as she washed her hands and rubbed grease into Mother's swollen belly. Her fingers lingered at the base of it, cupping the curve. "Ask to stay with her, and don't come back until I get you." Her mother's belly was gently lifted and weighed, the skin taught and slick.
"And if she refuses?" This was a genuine possibility, Gudrun thought. She sat unobtrusively to the side, away from all blankets and braziers. She understood very little of childbirth, and felt ill at the sight of blood; it would be best to stay out. The screams her mother gave made her want to claw her ears.
Alfhildr pressed an ear to the bulge and listened. Without lifting her head or opening her eyes, she said, "She won't. If she does, tell her to do it for Halfdan's daughter."
Fear stabbed Gudrun's heart.
Gudrun left with a last look at her mother. It occurred to her that this could be the last time that she saw her, naked and sweating on the furs. In a corner of the hut Alfhildr prepared teas, but Mother was delirious. She wouldn't need them. Gudrun thought about telling her not to waste them. Herbs and leaves were imbued with magic, and precious.
Gudrun would have stopped to give her Freya's blessing. The labour was hard, and the child sat wrong in the womb. She would need the goddess' mercy. It was known that a child born in the Harvest was considered good fortune. But not this child. This child was a bastard.
And because of this Gudrun's father no longer wanted them.
Halla gave birth alone; there were no sisters, no women or mothers to help her. If she died, there would be nobody to suckle the babe. Gudrun couldn't bear the thought. She would have done it herself, fed it, but she was unmarried, and still a girl, without her blood. Her breasts had not yet sprouted, and the flesh there was pointed, stubbornly, in both directions. Her ears began to ache.
Gudrun remembered happier times when she would have gone to her father. A fire in the hearth would have dried her clothes, because the walk from the birthing house was long and the snow hard. Then she had been part of a family. Now she was simply a pair of padding footsteps in the tall grass, ignored by everyone.
The rustle of foliage followed Gudrun into the longhouse. Smells, of cooking and drying hides, were strong on the wind, though Gudrun didn't stop to notice them, and they passed by indifferently. Her eyes were glued to her feet; her mind, elsewhere. She wasn't even sure where. She was caught up in a future with a sickly baby and winters without hot milk and food. How would she shovel a grave in the frozen ground? For that was bound to happen. They had no vegetable patch; Halla couldn't farm. There were no animals; the livestock and fowls belonged to Gudrun's father, and his new wife. There was no place for her there. Gudrun's own knowledge of agriculture was limited. She knew how to skin rabbits. But that was meaningless. She couldn't hunt.
With the grim realisation that they were helpless came a curious calm.
It was Harvest Moon, wasn't it? There was food yet. Death wasn't so close.
And, it was said Loki blessed all children born in the season. Was that not also true?
He was slippery, like an fish caught in sweet water, and was without the approval of Wodin. But he was a god. He would save the babe.
A shuffle under the trees awakened a lilting voice inside of Gudrun's head. Maybe it was not a voice, but there was something. An idea. It hadn't been there before. It told her not to go to the longhouse. It was an odd sensation, like a feather tickling not the outside of her head, but the inside of it. Instead, Gudrun knew that she must go into the forest.
She hoped there would be answers there.
Gudrun wondered if Frigg would miss her, and decided that she didn't care.
The forest pulled her. She felt it.
Gudrun needed no cloak; the night was warm. Up above the moon was bloody. A Harvest Moon.
There had been no villagers near the borders. Even the children had not approached it, keeping it sacred on the Eve of Harvest. It had been easy to creep close to the first bare branches of the trees, to stop, listen, and slip inside. When she had passed the first line of oaks she had turned back. Heart beating wildly, she breathed. Nobody had seen her. Nobody would come for her if anything went wrong. Would there be wolves in the woods? She hoped not.
Gudrun shivered. Sticks and leaves cracked under her shoes, poking her feet. She could hear the snickering of animals, low sounds, distinct but not lupine. She couldn't see them, eyes mired in near-darkness. There was no path to follow, no trail; Gudrun's feet were forced to step over rocks, jagged and sloping, and into little pools that soaked the soft skin of her legs. If she died here tonight, surely Loki would help her? Erase her wrongdoings and give her rest. She was young, only fourteen. She hadn't done anything wrong.
Gudrun was trying to save a baby.
Somewhere, miles behind her, Mother was pushing it into the world. Gudrun muttered a prayer for deliverance. For both of them. Babies died frequently, whether during birth or after it. Sometimes the mother's milk was bad. Ragna said that sometimes the gods took them back because they wanted them; they would have grown into beautiful women or fearless warriors, worthy of honour. Some god or another would want the girl-child for a lover, or the boy-child for a page. Gudrun thought that the gods were cruel beings, if that were true.
As if in answer to the bitter thought she tripped and almost fell, saved only by her skirt catching onto brambles. Gudrun began to cry.
You can't stop now, said the voice. A man's, deep and warm. Keep going. Just a little longer.
I will try, she replied, and immediately felt stupid for it. She was imagining things, spinning non-entities into life, giving them shape. And now she was talking to them!
She heard the croak of a raven.
And then, as she looked up to see it, she entered into a clearing. Her eyes swivelled to and fro, expecting a sleek, dark shape. There was none. There was instead a rock in the middle of the dell. A mouldy leaf litter. Gudrun fell short, and then stared up, seeing millions of stars. Were the gods up there? She thought maybe they were.
The moon was close to Earth here. It was very beautiful.
Sitting on the rock was a man, not much older than herself. Gudrun stared, and blushed. He was very handsome.
Loki said, "I have waited for you."
"I...need you. Your help," said Gudrun. He did not look unkind, Gudrun mused. Sly, but not evil. Perhaps the stories were wrong.
"Do you know who I am?"
"Yes," she replied. Gudrun discovered with surprise that she was not frightened. "You are Loki."
"And you are Gudrun," said the god, and a breeze blew, gently, raising his black hair. It is like a raven's wing, decided Gudrun. "Why have you come here, Gudrun?"
"I need help," she repeated. " My mother...' She paused, unsure. How should she say it? "I don't think a midwife can help her," she said finally. "You can. I am sure of it."
"I can." It was not a question, but a statement. It was firm, and sure, and she wasn't. It brought hope.
He didn't continue.
"Will you save them?"
"I will," Loki said, eyes bright black pebbles in the moonlight. "For a price, Gudrun. If you offer a fair price, I will save the child."
But not the mother.
Tears came, but she didn't let them fall. If he saw she was weak, maybe he wouldn't help her. The gods valued the strong.
"I have nothing to give you," said Gudrun. "If I had known, I would have brought something. An offering."
"But you do," said the god. He appraised her strangely, Gudrun saw. The black eyes lingered, here and there. Too high and too low. She felt a weight on her chest. "You do have something to give me."
"What do you want?" She swallowed spit into her dry throat. Not that. Please...let me be wrong.
In a lithe movement, so swift that Gudrun couldn't follow it, Loki unfolded his legs, and stood. He was tall, taller than a man. And he was beautiful. She was mesmerised by his beauty; dark hair. Pale skin like moonbeams. And those eyes... He strode to her, and stretched out his arms, and Gudrun stepped into the embrace and allowed herself to be held. There was a heartbeat against her head, a smell of woodsmoke under her nose. Under that, there was metal.
"Think, little one," he said. He stroked her hair, caressing her in long, soft passes. "Think before you answer. If you accept, I will take what is mine." In his embrace, Gudrun felt sleepy; there was a strength in him that she had never known. Not in a mortal man. She wanted to lift her hands, and touch him, but she did not dare.
Gudrun did think. She thought that if the baby died, she would not live. This child, a bastard borne of treachery to an adulteress, would live. Gudrun would give it life.
"I accept," she whispered.
The god smiled, tenderly. And then he touched her lips, traced them with a gentle thumb. He felt her nose, and her eyelids fluttered.
Then there was only air, and a gaping void between them.
He was perched on the stone again, knees bent.
It took Gudrun a moment to understand. He wanted to watch.
She untied her girdle slowly. She folded it, and put it down on the ground, and pushed it aside. She put her shoes beside it. Her stockings came off, and Loki shifted when she lifted her skirts to ease them free. It was cold; she felt the night-time air on her thighs, slithering into her bodice. She forced herself to stop shaking. Gudrun undid the ties to her dress as slowly as possible. All too soon, she peeled it from her chest, pulling out her arms, and folded it up. She left her undershift on.
Loki's glittering eyes never left her.
"I-can't," she said. "I'm sorry-"
She blinked, and he was behind her, hands on her neck. "You can," he said. He spoke so simply that Gudrun knew it was the only thing she could do.
A palm stole down to cup a breast. The other eased the thongs of her braid free. Gudrun's hair fell about her.
"Golden hair, like corn," he said, in a tone that told her he was pleased. "And so young..."
The undershift vanished, and then she was on the leaves, breasts rising. She heard whispering linen, and steel buckles. She smelled leather. Fingers moved between her knees, parting her thighs, so that Gudrun felt exposed - naked and ashamed. The god groaned, and huffed, fisting heavy shirts out of the way.
"You are very beautiful," he said. His breeches came away.
Gudrun saw it, and her hand moved toward it, and held it. Soft, it was, and hard. Dangerous.
He told her to put it against her.
"Where?" she whispered.
His fingers showed her.
She obeyed, and he eased it in. Gudrun felt pain, and then terrible tearing inside. He stretched her, achingly slowly. Loki moved, above her and within her, and stilled. He touched her. Stroked her breasts, and her lips. She gasped, made noises that she didn't understand. She sounded like an animal - a wounded doe.
He moved for a very long time. And then he stopped.
Warm water was in her.
Her insides were runny, Gudrun realised. Runny and sticky.
Loki lifted her up, her tiny hand in his, and plucked twigs from her hair. He gathered her up and kissed her. Gudrun felt his tongue in her mouth, slippery like an eel.
He spoke words in an old language, rough, hard words, and left her to dress. She turned to thank him as she drew up her stockings, but he was gone. She was alone.
The voice in Gudrun's mind said,
Go home, child.
Halla was dead.
"Blood loss," said Alfhildr. "And terrible pain." Again, she was washing her hands. This time, she was cleaning them of blood. "Your mother was very brave. You should be proud." The life's blood stained the water dark, settling in patterns that swirled.
Gudrun could not think. The pain down below, under her skirt, was dim with grief. "And the baby?"
Alfhildr was grim. "A boy. A small boy. You'll be lucky if he survives the winter." She sighed, cast her eyes to the body of Gudrun's mother. She had washed it, braided its hair and perfumed it. Now it was swaddled and laid on the bedding, a discreet pile in the shape of a woman. Gudrun turned away from it. Her mother's beautiful face was hidden in a shroud. It would never smile again. The infant, a boy named Eyvindr, was behind Alfhildr in a wrapping cloth. Gudrun could not hear it cry; the bundle did not move.
She did not begin to weep until Alfhildr held her, strong arms binding around her. Gudrun wondered if she could smell what she had done, on the leaves in the forest, just as she could smell the midwife's spicy hair. She prayed that Loki would keep his promise. Odin help me. Odin help us.
She felt pain everywhere in her body; in her belly and her breasts and her head. Blood rushed through her limbs, pooling in her middle, and Gudrun could not breathe. A sense of great despair filled her chest. Was she dying?
After a while she stilled, helpless in Alfhildr's arms. Gudrun was still alive.
"May I hold him?" she asked.
Alfhildr wiped her cheeks. "Be careful. There has been no milk."
"Give him to me," Gudrun said.
The boy was laid in her arms, and Gudrun looked down upon it, and she felt love as she had never known it. The black dread was replaced by warmth, all pain by joy, and Gudrun felt the child in her own belly stir. And grow.
"Eyvindr," she said. A good name, for a man. She touched a fingertip to his nose.
My promise to you, Gudrun.
Thank you, she said, in her heart.
She reached a hand into her dress, and bared a breast, and with tender fingers, she offered it to the babe.
Milk, sweet and thick, rushed into the child's mouth.
It's satisfying to complete a story, isn't it?