The whirling wind blew new flakes of snow from the slate gray heavens, and brought with it whorls of snow from the rooftops of the houses and barns. The earth in front of the house had been trampled to mud from the traffic of many feet, and with this had been mixed the foul water from the kitchen. The mud froze to ice on her boots as she stood chopping wood, and as she began to sweat, that too froze…on her face, her back, and in her hair.
She grunted softly as she brought the ax to bear again and again, each time reckoning stonily how much more she would need to keep the fire going through the night. She could hear her son wailing inside, even while under the careful ministrations of her daughter. He would be dead before winter was through, that was certain. Josef could take no gold from the Saxons that would reckon with his child's sickness.
Tapping her boots with the ax to break them from their frozen mire, she started to pile the wood into her arms, feeling the muscles in her broad shoulders and strong back twist and ache with fatigue. Her skirts weighed heavily against her legs, as they too were stiff with ice. Cold, here, was the natural order; to be accepted, not fought. She had heard that England was warmer, and she hoped that Josef would enjoy it.
The thought was bitter.
In the house, her daughter's eyes were afraid, but resigned. Her son screamed again, face horribly flushed with fever, nearly choking on his violent tears. She tried not to watch as she stacked the wood by the hearth and went out again into the snow.
After the load was all in, her daughter helped her to a bowl of weak stew and a slice of stale black bread, thick with salt. She tore the bread into chunks and stirred them into the broth. At least it was warm. She and the girl ate together, ignoring the sounds from the younger boy.
There was a commotion in the village, near the harbor. Her daughter, from the doorway, cried that she could see the longboats! At once she was out the door, racing with the other children for the sea, while her mother, pulling her many shawls around her for scant warmth, waited by the door.
Cries and shouts of welcome thickened the air. Men's voices, huge and hearty, roared out greetings as bags of loot were swung onto the shore. Husbands embraced wives; children hugged their father's boots.
Cold as her heart was, even it beat faster at this scene of comfort.
She could not see Josef. Perhaps he was detained; perhaps he was still counting out his share of wealth. The sun was low in the sky, and for the first time that day, she shivered, bone deep.
They brought him to her on his shield. At least they had salvaged the body.
The next morning her son died.
When the child died, she sent her daughter to another's house while she prepared the body. Two bodies. Her husband's was none too fresh, and the smell, even to her blunted senses, was foul. She dressed him in his best armor, piling his weapons and the weapons of those he'd killed around him. The cracked stuff he had worn she put aside, vowing to clean off the blood later.
At noon, they came for the body, and placed it the longboat. Though it was not traditional, they did not question her when she placed the body of his son next to him, the small child wrapped in white cloth like a package of meat.
Shoving the boat onto the sea, a chunk of ice scraped the skin off the side of her calf. When the boat burned, it gave her no warmth, and as little sensation as the salt stinging her leg. She did not cry, but the tears froze in her eyes, in her throat, and in her heart.
Alone that night, drinking slowly from the barrel of sour ale, she faced Josef's share of treasure and polished his armor. The sound iron plates had been dented, but not broken, and though the strong boiled leather was pierced in one place (where the spear had slid through his side and into his heart) a heavy patch set it to rights.
More than a little drunk, her movements were clumsy and slow as she buckled the heavy armor onto her own broad frame. If she added a padded shirt, it would not slide that much. The broadsword was terribly heavy, even to one who spent her days in hard labor, but the spear was manageable and maneuverable, and the shield protected more of her than it had of him.
She imagined how she looked, weaving slowly around the room, skirts sticking out from underneath the man's armor, bracing herself against falling with the short spear, and banging herself in the knees with the shield. She collapsed, fully dressed, on their bed, and snored through the night.
Two months later, hunger and poverty forced another raid on the only slightly more fertile grounds of England. When she put her name among those to be considered, it caused only a small ripple of surprise to spread through the village. Everyone knew that, driven by a need for revenge or an expression of grief, she had been drilling with her husband's surviving friends. It was not common, but nor was it unheard of, and after an examination of her strength and skill, she was included in the party.
As she had helped her husband dress, so her daughter fastened on the thick padded shirt and the heavy leather-and-iron armor. Her daughter kissed her spear and shield, and helped push the boat away from the shore.
She took her turn at the oars with all the other men, her arms flexing and her back stretching, constantly. Though the seas were rough for that time of year, their pace did not slacken. Two weeks hard rowing would take them around the south of England, where they would find fertile fields and richer settlements. It was April now, and spring planting would have begun in the warm south. They slept under the stars, rocked to sleep by the sound of the oars and the motion of the waves.
When they made landfall, the unspoken opinion among the men was that she would hang behind, letting them do the majority of the slaughter. They should have seen more clearly. All through the voyage, ice was in her eyes: cold, frigid, and unyielding. As they approached their quarry, and viewed the resistance made against them, her eyes brightened, melting. No longer flinty and distant, they were brilliant, living…a scorching fire to burn all in her path.
Wielding her spear and the short sword that she had learned to use, she sprang from the boat, swears and curses pouring from her throat, killing two before they caught up to her.
The men of the settlement fled before her, a valkyrie with hair streaming, shrieking out her agonizing death knell and sweeping through the ranks of the defenders like a plague wind.
When the loot had been divided, and one of the oxen of the town had been butchered and spitted, the men of the boats sat around the blazing fire and spoke of her, the woman who now stood naked in the sea, hair unbound and arms hanging loose at her sides, while the blood, mud, and ice sluiced off her skin into the calm waters below.