A curse upon those deserving
Nothing was left of the fire but cold ash when Björg awoke. The infant, wrapped snuggly in her makeshift blanket, was a toasty little pocket of heat beneath Björg’s cloak and fur mantle.
“Time to go, littleling. You’ll be hungry soon and we must see to your parents before we find you a new home.”
Thank you, Sister Holly, for your wisdom and your aid.
The All-Father’s blessings upon you, good Ælv.
The trail of churned snow and blood drops went on for about half a mile before Björg found herself at the edge of the wood. Beyond the treeline stood a stout house of logs. No doubt the existence of the clearing was due in part to the lumber required to make such a fine little house. A cord of wood was stacked neatly along one side and smoke puffed from the river-rock chimney. The cheery, warm glow of firelight danced around the shuttered windows.
“How warm and bright is their fire,” Björg remarked, bouncing the increasingly antsy baby. “Perhaps they would share it with us? What do you think, littleling? Should we make them share their fire?”
The cabin’s door swung open, banging against the log wall. Björg shrank back into the trees to watch as a man left the cabin with an axe. He started away from them, but then stopped and turned just as the baby made a fussy gurgle. At first Bjorg thought he’d heard the baby, but then the man turned away, his shoulders set in a defeated slump. He dragged the axe through the snow as he set off into the woods.
“The man who cries.”
Curiosity cooled Björg’s rage. Once she was sure the man wasn’t coming back she made her way up to the cabin. She approach the window cautiously and was surprised by hinges made of cold iron. These Björg was careful not to touch as she pressed an ear against the shutters.
“Will the baby come back, Mama?”
“No my darling. Papa has taken her away to another family. They have many strong sons to help on their farm, but they have no little girls for helping with the mending or the cooking.”
“Will Papa bring back a boy? Is that where he went?”
“No, love. The family would never part with any of their boys. Papa just needs some time alone. It’s hard to part with a baby. Papa didn’t want her to go and he’s angry with me for convincing him.”
“Why’d she’d have to go?”
The mother’s tone changed, becoming sharp and cruel.
“Because two useless little girls are enough. We can’t afford to feed another one. Just be grateful it wasn’t you we sent away, stupid girl.”
“Yes, Mama.” The reply was quiet, strangled,
Björg had heard enough.
The front door had a shiny new latch made of iron that the Ælv dare not touch, but the hinges were leather, old and cracked. One solid kick sent the wood flying open opposite of how it should go. A woman still bedridden from childbirth, and two daughter between the ages of five and ten, stared at the sight before them, their mouths agape. The children screamed and huddled together. Björg noticed they did not run to their mother for protection.
Björg advanced on them, accompanied by an icy blast of wind and swirling snow. Blue eyes flashed with an otherworldly light. White hair continued to whip about the Ælv’s face even after the initial gust of wind had dissipated. She was terrible and beautiful, an avenging goddess. Without a word Bjorg threw her cloak and furs over her shoulder to reveal the babe tucked against her chest. The woman on the bed gasped, her face drained of color.
“You dare to throw away the gods’ most precious gift?”
“Please, my lady...”
“Silence!” The Ælv’s voice thundered through the small space of the cabin, hitting its occupants with physical force.
“You dare to throw away the daughter the gods saw fit to bless you with? You dare?”
The woman nodded helplessly.
“Then this shall be retribution upon you for the life you carelessly tossed aside!”
“But the babe lives!”
“By my will and life, the child lives! That I intervened with death on the child’s behalf does not change your crime. Murderess, I name thee! Murderess, I curse thee! Before the moon has set three times you shall breathe your last breath.”
Magic welled up in Björg’s words, slamming into the hapless woman and binding her with their power.
“For three days and nights you will freeze to death, alone in your own mind, unable to speak or cry out for aid. You will know what it is to be cold, and alone, and afraid. And then you will die.”
Björg turned to the girls, who cowered in the furthest corner of the one room cabin.
“You bear no guilt in this, dear littlelings. Come, come with me. We shall find you a place. A place where you will be cherished.” When they just shook their heads and hugged each other tighter Bjorg sighed and laced her next commands with a gentle compulsion. “Come, littlelings. Gather warm things and come with me.”
To their mother’s horror the girls obeyed. Each grabbed a warm wool cloak, thick wool socks, and sturdy boots before meekly walking out the door.
Björg turned her gaze once more on the mother, her eyes turning hard as ice.
“Losing you, who he clearly treasured you enough to commit your murder for you, will be punishment enough for your husband. He too, shall know cold, pain, and loneliness. But he will be spared his life, because he regrets. This I have seen.”
With that Björg turned and in a flutter of her cloak she was gone. The woman of the cabin fell back against the straw ticking of her bed. The tears upon her face were already frozen.
Björg walked with the girls till they reach a crossroads outside the village. They couldn’t go there, Björg knew, for they would be known and their father would find them. So she kissed them each upon the head, gave them a berry a piece, and set them walking upon the road away from the town. Her kiss was imbued with a spell that would turn steps to miles. The berries would fill them up as if they’d eaten an entire meal.
“When you see a house with a cat that sleeps with a rooster stop and take off your shoes,” she instructed the girls. “Then go up to the door and knock. The next person you see then is your mother. Understand?”
The girls nodded, tucked their berries in their pockets, and started off down the road in the direction the Ælv had pointed.
Björg was now left alone with the problem of what to do with the infant. Were she a common Ælv Björg might have found a quiet little cottage somewhere to raise the girl in seclusion. As it was, Björg was a prominent member of her brother’s court. People would talk if the king’s sister were to vanish for a couple of decades. Bringing the child home was out of the question. Her very existence broke at least three laws that Björg could name and probably several more she’d never even heard mention of. The baby would be killed and Björg punished.
The baby gave a hiccuping cry. Björg gave the infant a finger to suck while she pondered what to do next. Perhaps she should have sent the babe with her sisters. The Ælv walked while she thought, paying little mind to where it was that her feet were taking her.
A fire burned up ahead and to the right. It was tall, with orange and yellow flames that licked the black night sky. The wood of the fire popped audibly, sending sprays of sparks up to dance in the velvet black. A small group of people, most likely from a nearby village, stood near the fire with somber expressions. One young woman stood a bit apart from the others. Silent tears, glowing the in the firelight, traced the woman’s cheeks.
A sharp smell penetrated Björg’s sensitive nose. There, enmeshed with the rich scent of burning wood, was the smell of charring flesh. A funeral pyre. As the Ælv woman grew closer she could make out a sharp, still fairly human, amidst the flames. A few dark objects lying around him over the top of the pyre suggested modest burial goods. This was not a man of large means.
“Dag lived a good life, Unna. He will go to paradise. You shall see.”
The young woman with the tears could only nod while the old women prattled on about the wonderful life that awaited good men after death. Perhaps in time the knowledge that Dag was safe and happy would bring comfort to Unna’s wounded heart. For now it was a poor salve indeed. Everything had died with Dag. Her hope, her future, her security. Never again would he walk through the door with a smile after a hard day’s work. Never again would he hold her in his strong arms. Never would those same arms hold a child of their own. Another sob rose unbidden.
Björg watched the one the others named Unna from behind a hastily erected cloak of Ælvan invisibility. Her keen eyes bored right through the aching young woman to sift through the swirling emotions locked inside that frail human body. Pain, loss, regret, and yes, a little anger at the man so recently departed. All these Bjorg read in Unna’s heart.“I cannot heal your loss, young Unna,” Björg whispered to herself. She looked down at the babe who smiled back up at her with curious eyes. “But perhaps I can give you something very precious to fill the void left in your heart.”