WILD ENOUGH AND FREE
Mona reached the top of the ridge, and marveled at the view of the fjord below. The Atlantic extended a crooked finger, aquamarine and speckled with flecks of sunshine, hemmed on three sides by cliffs, high, sheer, and velvety green. Trees huddled close by the water, twisted and broken by the cold winds. Deep in the fjord, where the water widened, dark smoke rose from a cook-fire. Near that was a house, and a tended field, with no neighbors but land and sea. Mona scrambled down the slope.
The sea breeze tossed her short blond hair, and she shaded her pale blue eyes against the bright Arctic sun. Down by the water she found a footpath, and fishing nets sprawled on the bank. Closer to the holding, she passed a stable, and caught the smell of an ox inside. She stopped and stood by the stamped-out fire, silence all around her. Suddenly, a copper-colored dog shot out of the house, snarling. She raised her staff, and the dog halted, barking loudly.
"I'm not here to hurt anyone," she said. She took a hard biscuit from her robes and tossed it. "See? We're friends."
The dog sniffed at the biscuit in the dust, then took it in a single bite. It snarled at her again.
"I don't have much of this," she said, laughing, and tossed another, larger one. "Where is your master?"
The dog settled in the dust to eat. The wind shifted around to the west, and she heard someone whistling far up the fjord. Mona sat to wait on a log near the embers.
Bare to the waist, golden hair browned with dirt, the man was huge. He stopped whistling when he crested the hill and saw her sitting far below. For ten minutes she watched him coming, and for ten minutes he watched her waiting. He carried his kill, a young seal, cast over his wide shoulders.
"So," he said. He halted by the door of his house and lay his load on a table standing there. He did not look at her, but stooped to clean his knife in a nearby stone basin. "I see you're cowering before my fierce guard dog."
"She's friendly," said Mona, smiling. "What is her name?"
"Leifa," said the man. "She's still young and trusting. I'll get her trained up properly soon." He stood and stretched his broad shoulders. "Speaking of young and trusting. Have you come here by yourself? That takes some courage."
"I have," said Mona. "But I can take care of myself. With God's help."
He grunted. "Oh. You're one of those. I should have spotted the cross on your necklace." Mona involuntarily fingered it. "Well, I'm not interested, so if that's all you came for, don't let me keep you."
"I am a missionary," Mona admitted, "but I've also come hoping for a roof and some food."
He glanced up at the bright sky. Greenland's weather never got better. "Well, you won't need a roof, I think. But you're free to use mine, if you want, and I'll share what food I have. I get few enough visitors here that I'm not likely to toss you out, even if you want to talk about your god all evening."
She laughed, and he looked startled at the sound. Then, slowly, he smiled.
Greenland was rich in those days. He lay out cod and grayling, goose and caribou, and of course seal, and simple brown bread drenched with honey from his beehives. Mona had eaten much better when she was a child, and even at the convent; but it had been a few days since her last full meal, and it looked like a feast.
She bowed her head. "Our Father, who art in heaven..."
"Stop that," he snapped. They stared at each other for a long moment. "I cannot eat without asking for a blessing," she said quietly.
"Not over my fire you won't," he said.
"Do you want me to go hungry?"
He looked as though he was about to bark back a reply, but stopped himself. Then he cocked an eyebrow and chuckled. "You're a fool, but a brave one. Say your grace out of my earshot."
The food was as delicious as it looked, and his mead was coarse but good. It was late summer, and the days were still long; and after dinner, Ulf -- that was his name -- fell to mending his fishing nets as Mona watched.
He told her of his Viking days when he was younger. He had once even sailed to Sicily. He'd had some legal trouble in Iceland which he refused to talk about, and come to Greenland five years ago. "I am doing well," he said. "Thor is kind."
"You're a follower of Thor, then?"
"Surely. When I was a Viking, I called upon Odin more frequently, but farmers need Thor's help more. The last time I called on Odin was right before I came here. I cast runes to see where I should go, and as you may know, he is the lord of the runes."
"And the runes sent you here?"
She nodded, and studied his face. "I was sent west by my God, as well."
He snorted. "I wondered when you would bring that up."
"You seem to believe strongly in your gods," she said. "But most Norse these days, even if they're loners like yourself, place no faith in gods or other men. What makes you different, Ulf?"
He grunted, and concentrated on his weaving for a few moments.
"You haven't had children," he said at last.
She didn't answer.
"My daughter was three years old," he said. "Her mother had died birthing her, so it was just she and I on the homestead in Norway. And she was growing up strong." Leifa trotted over and put her head on his lap. He stroked her head and took a deep breath.
"But in the winter a fever took her. She waits now, in Hel, with her mother, and one day I'll join her. For a while I thought I wanted to die in battle and be taken to Odin's hall, among the fallen warriors. I would be away from my wife and daughter, you see. I thought I wanted to forget them both. Too painful to remember. But I gave up trying to forget eventually. Now I look forward to a peaceful death."
He picked up his nets again. Mona studied him, watching his strong fingers dart as they wove the rope. "It's true," she said at last. "There's little enough in this world to live for."
He barked a laugh. "You're too young to say that! You can't be even twenty. And look at you -- married to a false god! You're too young to turn your back on the world."
"I've seen enough of it," she muttered. He looked at her sharply. She was staring at the remains of the fire, fingering her necklace.
"I see," he said quietly. "You've been hung from Yggdrasil yourself."
"Odin," he said, "hung himself from the world tree, Yggdrasil. He was an offering to himself. When he hung there for nine days, in terrible pain, he dreamed the runes. And he left one of his eyes at the base of Yggdrasil, so that he could see everything that happened in the world. The suffering gave him wisdom, you see. You've done your share of suffering, haven't you?"
She nodded, and said, "There was a Viking attack on our town. One of them caught me."
A silence fell that seemed to still the very waters of the fjord.
"My brother killed him," she continued after a moment, very quietly. "So vengeance was satisfied. But after that, I knew I could love no man. After the child died, I entered the convent."
"And you found comfort?"
He nodded. "Religion may be true or false," he said, "but a good one helps one bear the pains of the world."
"Yes," she said, almost whispering.
"But then you came forth to preach among the Vikings?"
"As I was called." She said it as a simple fact. "I dreamed I saw myself following the setting sun, carrying a cross on my back."
"That seems clear enough," he admitted. "Why do you think your god chose you?"
She laughed, and again he jumped as if startled at the sound. "God tests His servants. To spread the Word among the Vikings, I have to set aside my old anger. I have to fill my heart with love for all people, and forget what they may have done to me."
He shook his head. "And can you do it?"
"Sometimes," she said.
"Even to try," he said. "That is an admirable thing. And then to wander these lands alone, a girl your age -- are you even carrying a weapon?"
"God has protected me," she said.
"You must have had some trouble," he said.
"Well," she said, "there was that man in Reykjavik. Thorvald." She smiled at the memory. "I was staying for a few months at a tavern, and he came in every night to drink. I spoke to him about God, and over the course of a few weeks I converted him. I was very happy with that, but one night Thorvald became drunk. He said he intended to marry me. I tried to explain that that wasn't possible, but he said he was sure that God would allow me to renounce my vows, since his love for me was so true. He grabbed me, and I became afraid, but at that moment another man at the bar began insisting that I was his wife. He and Thorvald got into a fight, and I managed to escape upstairs. The poor man avoided me after that. I think he was embarrassed at how he'd acted."
"He avoided you?" cried Ulf. "You mean you sought him out after what he did?"
"I had to," she said. "I wanted to make sure he knew God would forgive him. I was afraid he might think God would reject him, and he might go back to the heathen gods. But I couldn't find him."
Ulf shook his head. "You are a brave one," he said. "Or foolish."
"What about you?" she said. "You live here completely alone, except for Liefa. That takes bravery. Or foolishness, if you like."
"Not so much," he said. "The Vikings don't raid here much. The weather is fine in the summer. The skraelings come every few months, to fight or to trade; I've been able to deal with them. I have what I need."
"The word means 'wretches'. I'm talking about the people who lived here before the Norse came. They are short, brown, with black hair and squinted eyes. They live barbarously."
"And you have to fight them off?"
"Sometimes. But they only come a dozen or so at a time."
"A dozen? And you fight them alone?"
"Yes, well, I was a bear-shirter when I was a Viking."
"A bear-shirter. Usually, when I fight, Odin enters me, and I fight like a bear. Weapons do not hurt me, and I can beat three men easily. The rest run away after that."
"Oh, berserker. Yes, I have heard of that. They told us in the convent that such men were possessed by demons."
He laughed. "Call Odin what you like."
"I didn't mean to cause offense -- "
"None taken." He lay aside the fishing net, stood, and stretched. His bronzed skin shone in the sunlight peeking over the edge of the cliffs around the fjord. "It is late," he said. "The sun doesn't set until honest men are asleep, this time of year. Look here, Mona, you're good company, and I haven't worked my jaws like this for a dozen seasons. Suppose we swap a story or two."
"We've been doing that," she said, smiling.
"I mean tales," he said. "I have heard a story about Thor that you might like. About how he once lost his hammer. If your god will allow you to hear a story about a demon, of course."
"I don't think I've heard that one," she said.
"It isn't well known," he said. "I picked it up in Iceland from a man named Snorri." He poured them each another jug of mead, and stoked the fire. The evening wind was blowing down the fjord, bringing seagull cries and the crash of surf. Mona's eyes were wide and bright, and her short blond hair tossed around her ears. "It seems one time Thor woke up and found his hammer missing..."
The story was crude, raucous, and hilarious. Loki was sent out to seek the hammer, and found it in the hands of the giant Thrym, who would not return it without the hand of Freya in marriage. Freya angrily refused the exchange, and Thor despaired of regaining the hammer; but Loki devised a plan. Thor would don a wedding gown and pose as Freya, and Loki as her bridesmaid. Thus they would enter Thrym's castle and trick the giant into releasing the hammer. The antics of Thor and his would-be paramour -- as the giant innocently inquired after Freya's whiskers and unnatural appetite -- had Mona laughing uncontrollably. At last Thrym offered Thor the hammer as a wedding-gift, and Thor roundly defeated the giants before returning to Asgard.
"And now you owe me a tale," he finished. "If you have one I haven't heard."
She bit her lip and stared at the sky. The sun was finally dipping behind the hills, and the upper airs were streaking with purple and gold.
"I think this story is true," she said. "A long time ago, in a far country called Judah, in a small town south of the city of Jerusalem, there lived a man named Elimelech; and he had a wife, Naomi, and two sons..."
The crops failed in Judah, so Elimelech and his family went to a nearby land with different customs called Moab. There Elimelech's two sons married two Moabites, Ruth and Orpah. But then, Elimelech and his two sons died, widowing Naomi and her two new daughters-in-law. Naomi determined to go home to Judah, and entreated Ruth and Orpah to go back to their families as well. Orpah agreed, but Ruth loved Naomi and would not leave her. "Where you go, I will go," she said; "where you live, I will live; your people shall be my people; and your God shall be my God." Ruth followed Naomi to Judah, and there she married again and became the mother of kings.
When she finished, the fire was nearly gone, and the Great Bear was turning overhead.
"I wonder," said Ulf after a while. "Even though I live here alone, at the edge of the world, still it seems to be a small place, a crowded place of people bound down and tamed by sorrows. Only religion releases us. Only the gods are wild enough and free."
"You are not like anyone I have ever met before," Mona whispered.
Dimly in the starlight Mona saw his hand reaching out; she did not flinch as his fingers brushed her lips, so gently.
She turned from him, looking away at where the sun had disappeared; then she slowly unclasped her necklace. She held the tiny cross in her hands.
"There are those," she said, "who renounce the vows of the convent. They still serve God, but they do it as other women do." She stared at the cross, and kept her eyes on it as she slowly stretched out her hand to offer it to him.
She heard his intake of breath. He did not move.
"I cannot accept such a gift," he said. "I cannot give up the gods who have guarded my body and my soul."
But before she could drop her hand, he twisted his ring off his finger and placed it in her palm. She took it gingerly and turned it in her fingers; it was of heavy iron, etched with runes.
She shook her head slowly, and gave it back to him.
He nodded and put it back on his finger. Then he stood up, stretched, and went into his house. She followed, and he gave her his own cot to sleep on, while he curled up on pelts on the floor. When he woke in full daylight, the cot was empty.
A dog barking frantically. Harsh laughter and fire in the night. Ulf jumped up from bed and reached for his sword, but too late: his door smashed open and a monstrous figure was there, framed by firelight, filling the doorway with chain mail and leather and hair. The figure lunged -- Ulf saw the flash of a blade -- but Ulf's fingers were around his sword's hilt and he yanked it up over his head. The swords met and crashed, and he felt cold metal across his face. Now Ulf was up and could see the attacker, through a haze of blood: a Norseman. A Viking. Ulf snarled like a bear and lunged at the attacker with his bare hands. The Viking stepped back in surprise, and failed to raise his sword in time.
Ulf stepped over the body and surveyed his holding. The stables were burning; there was his ox, dead near the water. Hoarse cries came from his storehouse. In the moonlight he could see many men -- five, seven, a dozen, more -- walking here and there nearby, poking in his buildings and piling his belongings near the fires. A knorr with a high dragon's head sat in the fjord, its sails furled.
A man spotted him and shouted. Ulf knew he could never kill or scare off so many. But he could outrun them. He took to the path up the hill, stumbling a little in the darkness.
In the morning, two days later, he climbed over the ridge. He could see with only one of his eyes, but he was in time to spot the knorr disappearing into the mist at the mouth of the fjord.
He went down and walked among the smoldering buildings, each belching a haze of black smoke. His stores were gutted and stolen; he would never make it through the winter now. Even his ox had been carved up and hauled away. He sat at the edge of the water and put his face in his hands.
His knife was at his belt. He took it out and fingered it. It could finish the Vikings' work. It could send him directly to Hel, to his wife and child.
A whimpering noise stirred him. He followed the noise along the bank, toward a cluster of trees and undergrowth. There, hidden in the leaves, bleeding into the water, was Liefa.
He cradled her head. There was nothing he could do for her. It was amazing she had lived this long.
No -- there was one thing he could do. His knife was still in his hand. He gently smoothed the fur on her head.
When her ragged breathing stopped, he stood up slowly. Somehow this simple, terrible act of compassion drove away thoughts of using the knife on himself. Instead, he cut a stout branch from the tree hanging over Liefa, stripped it, and tested his weight on it. It would make a good walking staff.
He lifted his knife again to cut runes of good fortune into it. But he stopped, and stared at the knife for a long while.
Then he put the knife back in his belt. He took his iron rune-carved ring and tossed it far out over the fjord. Then he lifted his staff and set out over the ridge.
Mona was looking forward to this. She had visited this village about a year before, had made friends with the skraelings there, and even thought she had made some progress toward converting them. She had stayed with a young woman named Burning Hare whose husband had died in the endless wars between the Onondaga and their neighbors. Burning Hare had a young daughter, White Crow, who was very fond of nursing, and the two women would sit for hours as the baby fed, talking about their lives.
The village, called Genessee, nestled at the edge of a lake that was long, thin, and surrounded by mountains, like a landlocked fjord. It was far beyond the usual trading and raiding grounds of the Norse, and Mona liked that: she found that the less the skaeldings knew of Europeans, the easier her task was.
The path passed by a high rock that overlooked the lake. The sky was heavy with white clouds: snow was coming, the first of the season. The lake was iron-gray, decked on both sides with blazing fall leaves, and its far end was lost in mist.
Mona noticed that the path she was taking, which led down from the mountains, looked poorly maintained. The path had never been used much, anyway; perhaps the villagers had decided to let it fade back into the woods.
But she was very surprised to find that she was not challenged at the embrasure. She stopped at the gate.
"Hello," she called out in the trade language. There was no answer.
"No," she whispered to herself. "Dear God, it can't be."
She pushed at the gate, and it opened easily. Beyond, she could see all six long houses, as well as a large number of outbuildings. But there were no people. And no sign of anyone having been there recently. There was no smoke from cooking fires, and too many leaves lay undisturbed on the paths where they had fallen.
She crept here and there among the outbuildings, searching. At last she found the one that she and Burning Hare had shared. She softly pushed the skin flap door aside, and was relieved to see her friend sitting there, holding a toddler, who must be White Crow.
"Thank God," she said, but then stopped. Burning Hare had not moved. Now Mona saw that her face was covered with yellow splotches, and White Crow's eyes were swollen shut. A fly lazily landed on the child's face, and still, they did not move.
Mona screamed and ran. She crashed into walls and fell over logs and cold cooking fires. She ran until a bony hand grabbed her arm and halted her.
"Calm yourself, child," said an old voice.
"What -- who -- "
"Mona, isn't it? Come to see your handiwork?"
It was an old woman, her face splotched with yellow like Burning Hare's, skin hanging limply, but eyes still alive. Mona recognized her. "Proud Duck?"
"That's me," said the old woman. "You look surprised. I suppose you thought everyone would be dead by now. Almost, yes, almost."
"What's happened?" whispered Mona. "Some kind of -- disease?"
Proud Duck laughed. "Disease! I was the healer of Genessee, I know disease. This isn't disease, it's devilry. You've cursed us, you have, young lady. I don't know how, but -- "
"But I didn't do this! I -- "
"It started just a few weeks after you left. You with your talk about a son of a god, and people rising from the dead, and such nonsense! You're a witch, that's what you are."
Mona dropped to her knees. "I'm not a witch! I don't know why this happens!"
Proud Duck growled. "Why it happens? You've done this to other towns?"
"It's happening all around the places where the Norse go. The pale faces. The people near them -- the Beothuk, the Massachusett, and others around Lief's Bay -- it happens to them. Most of the Norse are pagans, and ruthless, and I thought maybe the demons they worship were causing the -- the disease, the curse."
"But you are the only pale face we have seen, here."
Mona nodded, speechless.
"Your god must be a demon too, then."
"No -- no -- "
"Use your mind, girl!" snapped Proud Duck. "You're a dreamer with your head in the clouds, as I said the first day I saw you. You come in here and make yourself friendly, with wild tales of faraway countries, and half the tribe gathers round the fire every night to hear you talk. And you fill their heads with things of no use to anyone, things that make no sense. Men riding on huge beasts! Boats as big as houses! Stone roads straight as arrows! Bah. You and your demon god were casting your spells. And after you left, the village fell sick. At first just a few, and then a few more... And then so many we couldn't keep up with the dead. A month or so ago, most of those that were left decided to leave the village and try to start over somewhere else. But it was late in the year to be traveling, and many of those that left were already ill. They won't have gotten far. Old Proud Duck is left, oh yes. I have just a few herbs that keep me breathing, for now. I stayed, because I'm too old to be walking when I die. When I die."
Suddenly the old woman crumpled to the ground, face in her hands. Mona quickly reached to help her, afraid that she was dying right then, but she was only sobbing.
"Leave me," she gasped. "You've done your work. Leave me in peace."
Mona slowly stood up and backed away, then turned and ran towards the embrasure. She was still running as she passed through the gate and up the path back towards the mountains. The snow was falling now. The silent woods smelled damp and musty. The bare limbs of the trees were white like bones. She ran until she could go no further, and fell headlong.
She lay there. The snow deepened slowly around her, but she did not feel cold. "God," she said, "God help me."
And then later: "God is no demon. No demon."
And still later, she found herself whispering, "Don't leave me. Don't leave me. Don't -- "
She saw movement out of the corner of her eye, and turned her head. About two dozen paces off was a huge animal, as large as a wild ox, but with absolutely white fur: thick and shaggy over its head and shoulders, thin and glossy over its hindquarters. Huge horns grew from its forehead. Was it some kind of buffalo? It looked terribly wild and beautiful. It turned to her with strangely human eyes.
Then it was gone, the snow was much deeper, and it was nearly dark. She must have passed out. Her head was throbbing. She had to find shelter, if only under some large pine tree... She staggered to her feet and went on up the path.
The storm disappeared in the night, and Orion climbed up the sky. Mona did not sleep, but sat on the rock overlooking the lake. Sometimes she looked at the stars, and sometimes at her necklace.
In the morning she was gone, and the necklace remained on the rock.
The old man reached the top of the ridge, and marveled at the view of the valley below. A thread of sapphire river twisted through between stony peaks, tall, shimmering, and barren. Scrub bushes dotted the slopes and bright emerald willows huddled by the water. The setting sun shot bolts of gold between the cliffs, scattering purples and reds over the rocks. Small wizened lizards darted among the dusty stones. Down in the deepest part of the valley, a quilt of cultivation lay between the river and the nearest hills. Smoke from a cooking fire rose from a small complex of mud homes clustered by the cliff. The old man scrambled down the slope, using his staff for support.
By the time he came to the cultivated fields, the sun was gone, leaving streaks of watercolors in the sky. He saw irrigation rivulets running through the rich fields of beans, squash, and corn. Firelight and merry laughter drifted through the dry air. He was close to the mud dwellings now.
A woman was sitting outside the largest house, making a basket. She was not old - - mid-fifties, perhaps. She had the reddish skin and jet-black hair common to most of the people in Vinland. She smiled as he came up.
"Welcome, friend," she said in the trade language. "You look tired. Sit a moment with me here till the light is gone, and then we'll go in and give you something proper to eat."
He sat gratefully. "You are kind," he said.
"You must have traveled far," she said.
"Very far," he said. "And my path has not been straight."
"You must have many tales."
"Oh yes," he said. "My only treasure. I give it away wherever I go, and yet I always seem to gather more."
She laughed. The light had nearly failed now, and an ice-cold breeze was blowing down the valley. "Come on inside," she said.
The interior was large and warm with firelight. He saw some things he expected to see: a large family gathered around a long stone table, weavings hung on the walls, clever basketwork, Zuni-style pottery and silver on the table and turquoise in women's hair. But other things amazed him. On one wall was a huge tapestry done in the European style, showing a woodland scene. Fine glassware and wrought-iron plates were set around the table. And bound books stood on a low shelf to one side.
The people were a little strange too, now that he looked at them more closely. Their skin varied from ruddy red to almost as pink as his own. Many of them did not have brown Vinland eyes.
"Come, grandfather!" they called. "Sit down and eat, and tell us your stories."
Maize, squash, and beans, flavored with peppers and a little meat. He had not eaten so well in too long.
"My name is Wolf," he began.
At that moment, another person entered. This was not strange, because people had been going and coming from the room all evening, bringing more food or clearing away dishes. But this person was an old, old woman -- nearly as old as he was -- supported on either side by younger women. Her hair and skin were whiter than snow. Her eyes met his.
"But some call me Ulf," he said.
She smiled at him, but did not answer.
He tore his eyes away and turned to his audience. "I come from far away. Far to the east of this desert is a great flat land, where the bison herds stretch for miles in every direction, and the birds darken the sky when they pass. East of that are the forested mountains, where people live in long wooden houses and hunt deer in the trees. East of that is a wide ocean, and beyond that is the land where I was born."
He told them a little of what Europe was like, and they were not as incredulous as he expected. He told them what had happened to his little family, and some of his adventures as a Viking. He told them of being exiled from Iceland for murder, and his years alone in Greenland. He told them how Vikings had destroyed his holding, and his years of wandering since then -- wandering slowly westward, always alone, telling tales in exchange for food and lodging.
When he finished, it was getting very late, but he insisted that they tell him a story in return. The old woman never said anything, but her eyes shone. One of the young women took up the story: this old woman -- her name, it seemed, was Moonlight -- had come to this land years ago, and decided to make it her own. She brought friends who had traveled with her out of the east, and gathered others from nearby villages, and together they built this very house. Moonlight knew many strange things -- how to blow glass, how to make parchment from skins, how to bind parchment into books. People came from far away to buy her goods, and the crops grew well, so they prospered. She married and had many children. Most of the people in this room were descended from her.
Ulf saw Moonlight whispering to the woman next to her. When the story was ended, Ulf said, "Thank you for the story! This is a fine rich holding, and you kind to travelers."
As the others began to clear the table, the woman next to Moonlight stood and came over to him.
"Our grandmother wishes to speak to you alone," she said, smiling.
"I would be delighted."
She led them both to a side room, a simple place with space for two to sit, a single candle, a clutch of desert flowers in a pot, and a window looking at the night over the valley. As she left, she drew a skin across the doorway.
"So," he said. "Your name is Moonlight."
"The Anglo-Saxon name is Mona," she whispered. He could tell that her voice was very weak. Still she smiled, and her eyes glowed.
"Yes," he said. He fumbled for something else to say.
"You have seen all of Vinland," she whispered.
"It is a magnificent country," he said. "Wide and open. Wild."
"Wild enough," she said.
"And free," he whispered.
She touched his hand. "No ring," she said.
"No necklace," he answered, smiling.
She lifted her withered hand and touched the skin under his empty eye socket.
"You have been hurt."
"One grows used to it," he said. "There is pain. But there is also beauty." He touched her cheek in return.