As Åsa held on to Osku during the ride back from Fyrka, her anxiety about what Gunnel may be getting up to in her absence heightened intensely.
She cursed herself for turning to her sister in the first place, but what other option did she have? There was no one else that would even consider helping her. And in any case, what was done was done; still, she worried about it until they came within sight of the house.
She saw Gunnel instantly.
Her sister was sitting on one of the tree stumps that circled the dead firepit. She slumped there, looking listless, staring at the cold ashes.
Seized by a sudden panic, Åsa dismounted so hurriedly that she nearly fell.
She cried out as she rushed towards her sister.
“Gunnel, is Fjiorn…?” but she could not speak the words that her fear had birthed.
“What has happened?” she stammered at last.
Gunnel lifted her head slowly and stared uncomprehendingly at Åsa for a long moment.
This was not like Gunnel; something had happened, something bad. But when she finally answered, her words contradicted Åsa’s fears.
“Nothing has happened, sister. He’s inside, sleeping.”
Åsa ran to the door.
Fjiorn was lying on the bed, much as she had left him.
She clasped his hand and for a moment could not say if it was warm or lifeless. She stroked his forehead and knew then that he was still alive.
The fern-like markings on his cheek had faded and were almost gone. The burns on the side of his face and foot had been tended to and there was food and mead beside the bed. Gunnel had indeed looked after him, and had not done any harm after all.
It made no sense, but Åsa was grateful.
She released Fjiorn’s hand and headed outside to thank her sister but nearly ran into Osku as the giant stooped to enter.
“How is he?” he enquired.
“He seems fine,” Åsa replied sheepishly. During the ride here she had filled his ear with all the reasons for her mistrust of Gunnel, relating many of the treacherous happenings that had marked their relationship since they were girls.
She had been so certain that Gunnel had hatched some terrible plan. Was it possible she had misjudged her so badly?
“I need to thank my sister…”
“No need for that,” Osku said. “She’s gone.”
Nevertheless, Åsa looked outside, as if she could not bring herself to trust his word.
“Aye, gone. But let me tell you one thing about your sister: she may not have harmed Fjiorn as you had feared, but that woman was filled with terror. It was in her eyes; believe me, I know terror when I see it. She could not get away fast enough. Something happened here, something that frightened her almost to death.”
Åsa nodded and walked over to her husband.
“Fjiorn, can you hear me?”
She saw his eyes move beneath the closed eyelids, like when one is dreaming.
Osku prepared some supper for them and brought it over to where she sat vigil at Fjiorn’s bedside.
“His condition has hardly changed and it’s been eight days,” she said, taking the bowl he offered her. “What can I do?”
Osku took the question seriously and pondered for a time.
“Do you know any seiðmenn?”
“I do, Stigr is his name. I called on him soon after Fjiorn came home with his injuries.”
“Maybe you can ask him to help Fjiorn.”
“Well, I already did that! All he said was that Fjiorn had been singled out and chosen by Thor, and that the god undoubtedly had a task for him to complete.”
“Well, then what are you worried about?”
“Well, Stigr also said that the only other case like this that he’d ever seen ended up with the ‘chosen’ dead at the bottom of a cliff!”