Chapter 2: Danger and desire
Wenja wasn’t really Ulfar and Sina’s daughter, she was the daughter of Ulfar’s sister Rutha who had left the valley and married a man from the coast. She had been gone for years and when she returned she had carried Wenja on her back and worn clothes nobody there had seen the likes off. Embroidered cape, long flowing skirts and a white blouse. The women had been jealous in spite of the fact that Rutha had been a widow, her husband lost at sea. Wenja had been a year old then and Rutha died when she was two, it was something in her stomach, something which grew and ate her from the inside. Ulfar did adopt Wenja and Sina and he loved her like their own flesh and blood. Wenja didn’t look like the villagers at all, she was taller than the other women there, and her body more slender too. Her hair was dark auburn of colour and her eyes bright green and she was of those who has skin like porcelain with not even a freckle. Ulfar was worried because of Wenja, he knew that she was smarter than the other village girls and now that she had passed eighteen she was more than ready for marriage but who deserved his little princess? None of the villagers, that was for darn sure. They would regard her as a ewe, used for breeding and hard work and that sparkle in her eyes would die out forever.
Sina made sure that everybody got some food, even Halda, she was only thirty years of age but looked older, her hair grey and thin and her skin wrinkled. She had four children and the fifth on the way but she had given birth to many more than that. She usually carried one baby a year but few of them had survived, losing infants was normal there and it had worn her out. Wenja knew that she had lost some pregnancies too and that had been extra hard on her. The only good thing about it was that she didn’t have to go to the village and face the vicious rumours more than once a year when they celebrated the winter solstice. Most women there had lost more children than they had seen grow up and it was just accepted, it was the way it always had been. Ulfar put his cup down and sighed. “Dagar came to me today, again!”
Sina swallowed, her hand trembling a bit. “And?”
Her husband tried to smile but his eyes were dark. “He wants the fields love, and he wants them bad. He thinks there may be ore underneath our land”
Wenja felt her throat tighten. “Is there pa?”
Ulfar shrugged. “I don’t know, I am a sheep farmer, not a miner. But he says that he can find it and he has offered me gold for the farm.”
Sina looked down. “You didn’t accept”
Ulfar shook his head. “No, this land has belonged to my family for many generations, we are older than Dagar and his kin and our claim to this land indisputable. Even he knows that. But he tried to tempt me, even though I have told him it doesn’t work”
Sina sighed. “Gold doesn’t last, without the farm, where would we go? We cannot be like the thralls, homeless and wandering about, looking for work and scraps of food”
Ulfar sent her a sad smile, her family was among those who had been regarded as nothing but filth. Owning land meant status there, being without a home meant that you were nobody.
But even with gold they couldn’t buy another farm, good farms were expensive and he was too old to buy land and build a new house and get new livestock. No, they had to stay and he had to ward off Dagar. He was the wealthiest man of the village and the most ruthless one, he seemed to be aiming to buy all the land in the area and become like a small king. Nobody liked him but many did fear him, some said that accidents had happened to those who had refused his generous offers.
Sina rubbed her belly. “Has he mentioned Mjorr again?”
Ulfar nodded and his face got hard. Mjorr was Dagar’s son and he was twenty two years of age and a terrible man the way this valley saw it. He didn’t leave any woman alone if she was attractive and rumours said that he had sired many bastards in the nearby valleys. It was a terrible shame but Dagar didn’t scold the young man at all, he seemed to believe that this did prove his son’s manliness and strength. “He told me that Mjorr is ready to give three cows for her”
Sina scoffed. “Three cows? Is he insane? We don’t sell our children and only three? Our little treasure here is worth three hundred cows”
Wenja grinned and blushed, she was glad Ulfar said no to all these attempts Mjorr did at marrying her. He had asked several times and was getting more and more bothersome. That very summer he had tried to drag Wenja in behind the old temple when they visited the village to trade and it hadn’t been hard to guess what he had wanted to do. He had tried to get inn under her skirts and she had grasped a fat pile of cow shit and smeared it into his face as she cried out for help. Mjorr was used to the girls fawning up to him but Wenja saw through him. If she married him he would cheat on her and leave her and probably treat her without even an ounce of respect. Ulfar leaned over and ruffled her hair. “I told him to go packing, my daughter is not some cow for sale, not something to mount and then forget.”
Wenja made a grimace. “He cannot have liked that”
Ulfar shrugged. “No, he didn’t, but I don’t care. Not even Hodan likes him and I heard Bagir tell that he refused Dagar entrance to a ceremony last week, claiming that he was impure. I bet that Adrai and her little school of gossipers loved that”
Bagir was a local herder and he was extremely skilled with the sheep. He and Ulfar had been friends since childhood and Wenja liked Bagir, he was very smart and cunning and he didn’t like Dagar at all. He was said to have let two of Dagar’s best rams drown in a flash flood two years ago. Wenja chewed her meat slowly, it was hard on her teeth but she didn’t care, at least she got food. When everybody was done eating they put the children to bed, they shared one bed and Wenja shared bed with Halda. The three beds they did have were small and short and hard and Wenja was glad she was tired most of the time, then at least she did sleep.
The next morning came with sleet and wind and Ulfar did go outside to feed the sheep, the last two years many sheep had died in this valley because of a new plant which spread like wildfire and for once Dagar was smart for he paid a copper coin to everyone who managed to keep it away from their land. The seeds did poison the sheep and cattle and the chief had agreed upon the plan. Karkar was the chosen leader of this valley, a very wise elderly man with a large family and a very powerful wife who always had something rather crass to tell Dagar whenever they met. And she did despise Mjorr and didn’t stop telling the young girls that a pretty face meant nothing unless the interior was just as fair. Karkar had a man working for him, his name was Marhan and he was a former soldier and very large and strong. The sole reason why Dagar hadn’t openly tried to seize power was said to be Marhan for even though Dagar had some thugs working for him as well they were valley boys and they had rarely ever held a sword.
Sina was preparing wool to make felt and Wenja helped her, it was hard work which required hot water and soap and they had been boiling soap earlier that autumn and Sina had some bars laying in a shelf, prepared with perfume. Sigunn, Karkar’s wife wanted to buy it and Wenja knew it was out of pity and compassion. The soap wasn’t that good, but it was at least able to make things clean and Sigunn had money and she wasn’t of those who hated Sina for having married her way up in life. By buying her soap she showed support and the other women of the village wouldn’t dare to go against her since she was the chief’s wife and high priestess of the local temple. Sina and Wenja were half done with the bone breaking work when there was a knock on the door, Sina did look nervous right away, she wasn’t used to strangers and she was wet and her clothes worn thin. Wenja opened, it was Sigunn and she smiled and bowed her head. “The gods bless this house, my oh my Sina, you look like a balloon”
Sina sighed with relief, Sigunn wasn’t dangerous, far from it and the woman placed a small basket on the table. “I have come for the lovely soap of yours Sina, and I brought some snacks for the children.”
Farkur did grin from one ear to the other as Sigunn gave him a piece of rock candy and Idah curtsied as a real woman. Surun got some too and started wailing for more right away. Halda got a large lump and thanked with a wide grin and shining eyes. Sigunn got the bars and put them into her cloak, she did look half drenched and Sina tilted her head. “It is a long way up here from the valley in such nasty weather.”
Wenja knew what her mother meant, Sigunn hadn’t come all this way for just some soap. She opened the basket and took out some bread, a bottle of wine and some packets wrapped in linen. “I thought about you and your delicate condition, I know you have little food but this ought to strengthen you dear”
Sina blushed. “That is too much, just the wine…”
Sigunn shook her finger. “No protests little one, you need it. You are right, it is a long way to go, but I had to come here, I have some news which cannot wait”
Sina blinked and sat down, slowly. Her intuition told her it was bad. “Yes?”
Sigunn opened one of the packets, it was a sort of cheese Wenja hadn’t seen before, it looked creamy and soft and the elderly woman cut a large piece out of it and handed it to Sina. “Try this dear, it will do you good”
Sina took the piece gently but her eyes were large. “Tell me, what is wrong?”
Sigunn sighed. “Mjorr, cursed be his bones, that is what’s wrong. He is furious, and he has sworn that he will marry Wenja, with or without Ulfar’s consent”
Sina gaped and Wenja felt cold all the way inside, like there was a cold claw grasping at her guts. “No, that isn’t possible? He cannot do that?”
Sigunn nodded. “I am afraid he is desperate and stupid enough to force the girl, so Wenja, stay here. Do not leave the farm unless your father or Bagir is with you. If Mjorr has his way with you the laws demand that you get married, be it with or without your consent and blessing”
Wenja almost panted, rape was the ultimate sin among their people, and few would even use the word. The mere idea of being forced into a marriage thus made her shiver to the bone. Sina was hoarse. “He cannot truly believe that he can get away with such a crime? His father is powerful yes, but he isn’t the high priest”
Sigunn nodded. “Mjorr thinks that his father can fix anything on his behalf. I fear that he already has. Wenja here is too beautiful for her own good, that is the sad thing”
Wenja swallowed. “There is nobody in the village I like, and nobody I want to marry”
Sigunn smiled gently. “I know sweetheart, but you have come of age and I fear that Mjorr wouldn’t stop even if you were betrothed to someone. He wants you, and he wants you bad. And a man who is used to get what he wants is a very dangerous thing indeed. “
Sina groaned. “Oh by the goddess, I am so grateful you warned us Sigunn. What are we to do?”
The woman laid a hand on Wenja’s, the hand was warm and worn. “Keep her safe, and when summer comes go south, into the larger valleys. Seek out the markets, I am sure a maiden as fair as Wenja can find a good husband there, someone who cares and knows how to take care of a woman. The men here are no good, no, forget about them”
Sina giggled and Wenja tried to smile. Staying indoors the entire winter, it would be tough but doable, if the alternative was to be forced into becoming Mjorr’s wife. Sigunn took some coloured yarn out of her basket and walked over to Halda, “Here dear, some nice things for you, one day you will embroider the gowns of every bride in this valley for sure”
Halda blushed and took the yarn with trembling hands, Wenja saw that her hands were shivering more than they had previously and she felt a terrible feeling of sorrow building up inside. Sina ate some cheese and had some wine and Sigunn grasped the bag again. “I must take my leave of you so I return before it gets dark, but remember my words. I fear that Wenja may not be safe from that idiot, even as a wife to another man. That lad is not right in the head you know, his mother should have smothered him with his diapers”
Sina nodded. “He is an only son, that is too bad. He has been allowed to roam free for too long”
Sigunn pulled her cloak on again. “Yes, and his sister is living in his shadow completely. The poor lass is a mere shadow of a person”
Wenja made a grimace. She had seen Mjorr’s sister Prina, she was a thin pale girl with blonde hair and a pair of enormous eyes which always looked terrified. Dagar didn’t care about his daughter, he rarely mentioned her at all and she received no love from him. She was a burden, a mistake. Dagar’s wife had died two years after Prina was born and Dagar had never remarried for if he did he would have to stay true to his wife and he didn’t care that much about that notion at all. He was almost as bad as his son, and everybody knew that rather well.
Ulfar did return from the barn when Sigunn had left and Sina told him everything, he sat down and made a grimace. “That is bad, that is very bad. Wenja, you know of the cave with the old drawings?”
Wenja nodded. “Yes, it is high in the mountains, by the dark lake?”
Ulfar smiled, it was a very thin smile. “One can live there, and only I and Bagir know of it. I showed it to him years ago. If it comes to it I will send him there with you and you will be safe. It will be a cold winter for sure but Mjorr won’t find you”
Wenja closed her eyes. A winter alone, in a cold dark cave, away from everyone she loved, away from the light. No, she wouldn’t make it, that was too much to ask for. “I cannot do that father, please, I…I would die”
Sina nodded in despair. “She is right, it is too dangerous. We can keep her safe, tell Bagir to keep an eye on our farm, ask him…ask him for a dog.”
Ulfar stroked his beard. “You are wise wife of mine, a dog, yes. Mjorr cannot trick a dog, it may warn us if someone comes here with ill intent”
He got up. “I will go to Bagir now, I can reach his hut and get back before it becomes too dark”
He grasped his hat and cloak and took off and Wenja swallowed the taste of bile. If only Mjorr could go and drown in a bog or something like that. Sina was nervous and Wenja even more so and when Ulfar did return very late both had gone to bed. Ulfar had borrowed a dog from Bagir, a very large black long haired one with kind eyes and a set of very impressive teeth. “This is Bjarkad, he is very kind but will guard our house!”
Ulfar did go to bed too and the lights were blown out. Wenja lay there shivering, what sort of future would she face now? She was going to have to watch her every step until she got so old and ugly nobody would want her. It wasn’t a life, it was like being a prisoner and she just prayed that they could go to the markets early the next summer, so she could get away with her honour intact.