The Tree at World's End

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Seven

The first thing that Åsa ran out of was meat. She could hunt, of course, but hunting took time and she was reluctant to leave her husband alone.

She checked the nearest traps and found a single duck snared in one. By the fifth day she ran out of eggs and barley, which she needed to make bread. The dwindling of other provisions meant that a trip to Fyrka would soon be unavoidable.

On the evening of the seventh day she made up her mind.

She woke early the following day, milked the lactating goats, put out food for the herd, but did not release them to forage for themselves.

She then prepared some food for Fjiorn and sat herself down next to her husband to help him eat. She explained what she was doing in patient tones, though she was unsure whether he could hear her, and then left the house, taking two of their goats with her.

Walking briskly, she set out for her sister’s house.

Gunnel lived near a fjord, in a gully that overlooked the water while still retaining some shelter from the prevailing westerlies.

It was nearly noon by the time she arrived within sight of the large holding that the couple shared with several others, and was relieved to see smoke seeping through the thatch.

“Knut, Gunnel, it is I, Åsa,” she announced in a loud voice as was customary, as soon as she was within calling distance.

Two barking dogs came bounding towards her from the far side of the house.

Åsa stopped, held the goats close by their tethers and gripped her walking staff before her like a weapon. The dogs stopped at a safe distance, baying and growling.

A door opened and people emerged, Knut amongst them. Her sister’s husband surveyed the scene, squinting as though he had just awoken.

“What is happening?” he asked. “Who … is that Åsa?”

Knut was tall and blue-eyed like Fjiorn. But where her husband’s hair was the colour of golden hay, his was black like a raven’s wing. As was his beard.

“What are you doing here?”

“Pull these dogs off of me and I will tell you.”

Knut straightened and smiled a little.

“They are all wind, you should not let them frighten you.”

He was enjoying her predicament.

“Knut, call off the dogs or I promise I will crush their heads,” Åsa warned.

He laughed, but whistled soon enough and the dogs ran back to him, tails between their legs.

“That is no way to speak to your sister’s husband, Åsa…” he started with mock disapproval.

She ignored his comment.

“Is Gunnel home?” she asked sharply.

Knut did not answer, instead he asked a question of his own.

“Where is Fjiorn? I’ve not seen you two apart since your wedding feast. So, unless you’ve left him and are here to…”
“Fjiorn has fallen ill,” Åsa cut in quickly. “And I’ve come because I need Gunnel’s help.”

“Oh? Ill, you say? I am sorry to hear. And you need our help?”

Åsa swallowed her pride, but stared at her brother-in-law hard before answering.

“Yes. I need your help.”

Just then Gunnel appeared, climbing the path up from the fjord, and her presence brought the exchange between the two to an end.

“Your sister Åsa was just telling me how she needs our help.”

Gunnel’s look turned from incredulous to calculating.

“What has happened?” she asked.

Åsa told her what she had told Knut, that Fjiorn was ill; but then realised that, reluctant or not, she would need to elaborate if Gunnel was to know what to do for him.

“He has been struck by the lightning. The side of his face is burnt as is his right foot. He is not himself and needs to be fed and … looked after.” She decided to say naught of what Stigr had said to her.

“I need someone to go stay with him while I go to Fyrka’s market to get supplies. I cannot leave him by himself for two whole days.”

Gunnel looked at the goats.

“Are these for the market?”

“Yes, but one is for you, if you will help me,” Åsa informed her promptly.

Husband and wife exchanged a long glance.

“I will go,” Gunnel agreed. “Do you want me to come with you now?”

“No, I need you to go straight to our house. I will go to Fyrka from here and return as quickly as I can.”

Gunnel nodded.

“I’ll go and get myself ready,” she said.

“Thank you, both of you,” Åsa said, handing the tether of one of the goats to Knut.

Then she turned and walked away.

Though everything had unfolded smoothly enough, she had a foreboding that she was making a terrible mistake.

She swallowed the premonition and focussed on walking as fast as she could.

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