[Collaboration with Galien, featuring Solmund Bruknytta and Yngrid Bruknytta approximately twenty years in the past.]
She dreamt she was falling.
Her body parted a sea of clouds before plummeting towards the surface of a storm-tossed sea, but she didn’t find that she was afraid – only sad, that it all should end so quickly. She closed her eyes and waited for the waters to take her, to drag her down –
… and awoke to the sudden need to vomit, as she had every morning for the past month.
As she heaved up the contents of her stomach into a chamber pot, crouched beside the pallet she shared with her stirring husband, she promised herself she’d find time to consult her ma on this mysterious ailment. It seemed only to strike in the pre-dawn gloom, leaving her feeling wretched for all of a half hour; it was easy to ignore, but for the rude wake-up call that had left both her and Solmund sorely lacking for sleep.
A large hand shifted her hair away from her cheek, and her husband growled into the quiet between heaves – “You’ve been sick a while. Should go see someone. Your ma, maybe – or a priest.” The hand drifted from her hair to rest on her shoulder, and she glanced up wearily. “I haven’t had time. We’re awake now, though; might as well start the day.”
The barrel-chested man peered down at his wife, looking troubled, but grunted an affirmative. His hand fell from her shoulder, and the floors creaked as he rose to dress for the day’s work.
Yngrid wiped the back of her mouth with a rag and stood, tucking the pot in the crook of her arm to be emptied, and set about preparing herself for the rest of the day that would follow. Though they went to bed early, she still felt exhausted. He was careful to hide it, but she could feel Solmund watching her, and his brow seemed more creased and worried than it had been before.
Today, then, she told herself firmly. No matter how much better she felt by midday, she resigned herself to taking a few hours to visit her childhood home. Her stomach knotted in dread; whatever it was should surely have righted itself by now. Her jaw set grimly, and she finished tying her braids, pausing only to eye her pale, haggard looking features in the rust-flecked sheet of metal that passed for a mirror.
Even to herself, she looked worse than ever.
The sway-backed pony was a jolting and uncomfortable ride that left her sore and bruised all over. Worse still was the cold rain that seemed determined to soak her through, leaving the long track miserable with mud. Even so, she didn’t envy her husband; the Tern’s Beak would have a rough time of it today. Between the trees, she could catch glimpses of white-veined waves snarling and frothing, and there was a bitter wind blowing in from the north. She didn’t trouble herself, worrying for him. Storms came and went, but Solmund and Yngrid had weathered them before, and would weather them again, no doubt.
Through the sheets of bitter rain, she could barely make out the squat, broad cabin that was her family’s ancestral home. Smoke rose from the chimney– greasy looking smoke, but the cold sapped her sense of smell, which was probably a blessing. Her mother wasn’t Ma Blacktooth without reason, after all.
Sodden and jostled and inexplicably tired, she slid from the pony’s back and pulled open the gate, nudging the old beast in before latching it behind her. He half-heartedly began to tug at the beaten grass as Yngrid trudged to the door frame. Dread was an anchor weighting her stomach as she shouldered the door open and stepped into her mother’s house.
The stink of charred fish and her mother’s familiar voice snarling curses beneath her breath was as familiar a greeting as any, but Gwenaa was quick to set down the black metal cauldron that was causing her so much trouble. Within moments, Yngrid found herself being critically examined, pinched, patted, and hugged –
“You’ve come to visit your old ma in the middle of this storm? By Tsun, but you never do that anymore – look at you! All skin and bones, and those dark circles under your eyes, harrumph! Is Solmund keeping you properly-? Has something happened? Don’t just stand there like a blinking toad, speak already – and you’re dripping on my floors, tracking mud in no doubt, let’s fetch you a shawl and take off those boots!”
Yngrid felt as if she were eye of a terrible storm, as Ma moved about her, fussing unnecessarily. It was impossible to get a word in edgewise, as she was admonished and fretted over by turns, and at last she found herself seated in a chair by the fire, wrapped in a shawl with a mug of toe-curlingly strong mead in hand.
Gwenaa eyed her daughter with a hawk’s sharp gaze as she chattered on blithely, bemoaning the rain for coming too early and cursing the fish for being elusive – the fire had been at fault for her latest charred luncheon, of course, and how could she be blamed, worried sick over her husband’s safety in weather like this? But nothing escaped her keen eye, and at last, there was silence between them as she reached for her daughter’s cold, rough hands.
“… but enough about me. Yngrid, why are you so pale and wan-? You look poorly, child. Have you been sleeping?”
She couldn’t quite help the faint tug of her lips; at thirty and two, she was no more a child than Gwenaa herself. Yngrid studied the weathered lines of her mother’s features, the cool grey of her hair, and couldn’t quite set aside the memory of burying her face in her mother’s shoulder as a child. She’d smelled of leather and the sea and, yes, burnt things too. It was just how she was.
But not even memories could banish the dread she felt, as she reluctantly spoke her fears into the comfortable, if rare, silence.
“I fear I must be ill, ma… I thought you might help me. I don’t know what’s wrong, but… each morning, I wake at the crack of dawn to be ill, and each day, I feel heavy and tired and- not quite myself. I ache for no reason.” She frowned and glanced aside, pulling her hand away from her mother’s to look steadily into the fire. Yngrid’s thin lips grew thinner, and she bowed her head, a lock of damp brown hair escaping her braid to brush her cheek.
Gwenaa studied her daughter shrewdly, eyes narrowing. “Sick in the morning, hm? Tired, and tender?” Yngrid met her ma’s stare with a guarded frown; there was something in Gwenaa’s eyes that seemed perilously cheerful, as a smile might erupt at any moment, though her words were properly businesslike.
“It’s been happening for a month and some, now – I should be past this, I feel healthy otherwise. Are you familiar with this, ma? Do you know of a cure-? It’s getting in the way of Solmund’s sleeping, and my own as well.” It was hard to school her irritation in the light of her mother’s crafty expression. Whatever it was she seemed so pleased about, Yngrid felt little more than cold fear and exhaustion.
“Tell me, child – your monthlies, have you had them?”
Yngrid frowned severely at her mother. “That’s a private affair, ma… besides, you know it’s – unpredictable, with me.” She blinked. “But – no, I… I haven’t. It’s been at least two months, come to think of it…”
Gwenaa raised an eyebrow and her smile widened. Yngrid eyed her for a moment, puzzling… then blinked again as it dawned on her.
“What – you don’t think…?”
“About time, Gridie!”
“But for years – we’ve tried – we can’t! The priestess said we –“
“Well Mara changed her mind, now didn’t she? She’s a goddess, she can do what she pleases, can’t she?”
“Pregnant? Are you sure-? Do you really think…?”
And then her mother was up and sweeping Yngrid into her large, soft arms, and she still smelled of leather and ocean and burnt things. Her voice was loud, but her shoulder was soft, and she babbling away about names and whether it’d be a boy or a girl, where the child would sleep, how the cousins might play together. Yngrid felt her heart pounding and her throat was tight, her eyes were hot.
They’d expected a baby for years after they’d married; and year after year had passed with no child. A priestess had blessed them, but to no avail – no potions, no herbs, no magic spells could make fertile what was barren; not for them, anyway. Whose fault it was never came into question… one of them, both of them, did it matter? She’d consoled herself that perhaps someday they might raise a foundling, but… it had been twelve years, now. They’d resigned themselves to their strangely quiet way of life, to a family name that would spread no further than their small, empty household.
It wasn’t a bad life. Just not, perhaps, the one they’d envisioned together.
She blinked, and pulled away from her mother’s embrace. “I have to go. I have to tell Solmund – he… he should know.”
Her heart began to beat faster. She should have been happy, but she was too stunned for the words to really mean anything. Her hands trailed down to her abdomen, resting over where their child would grow.
It would seem more real when she told him, surely. She let her hands drop, and hurried for the door.
Yngrid’s dream was prescient in one way, at least: the sea was furious.
Its waves leapt out of the enveloping mist like the vengeful ghosts of its name; white-crested, charging, swelling, until all-too-real masses of grey seawater rose up to loom over the small cog and smashed down again, spraying foam over the deck. The Tern’s Beak’s bow cut each apart gallantly, but this was no ordinary fishing weather.
The solitary man on board remained nearly motionless, except for subtle shifts of his body, keeping him upright as the craft ducked sideways and cleared the crests. He was the dreamer’s husband and no stranger to this gamble. The sea was rough enough to stir up the big, lazy fish that kept to its floor on calmer days. When these swam forth to play, to feast on the small barnacles, crabs and other morsels freshly torn by the tempest from the rocks, it was a chance for some of the best catch in weeks, if you knew what you were doing. It had paid off before, and it would pay off this day.
Or so he believed, until he heard a loud crack near the stern. Or did he? The wind was singing endlessly, a mad dirge-wailer whose quiet, treacherous hiss became ragged whistling, which turned at whim to a roar that pressed into the eardrums, before receding again to sob with primal abandon high in the milky sky. The suspicion was enough for him; on the Sea of Ghosts, a hint of trouble was as good as proof, and he was not a man to coddle himself with wishful thinking.
He turned his head, ignored the earful of seawater from the latest wave and located the source of the report. Each of the ropes that secured the trawling net behind his ship had been looped around three horn cleats. One of these, on the left, gave way, and its remaining brethren were not equal to the increased load.
Solmund half-slid, half-stepped as quickly as possible along the low deck. Wide-legged, he caught hold of the threatened rope, looped it a few times around a gloved hand, gripped with the other and heaved back. The horn cleats relaxed, for the moment, and the fisherman’s feet found reliable points of purchase. When the cog cleared a wave and dove into a trench, he used his weight to fall back from the stern to the mast. He hooked his arm around the tall beam before regripping the rope and felt it dig into his chest when the bow rose again. He braced his thigh against it, too, for good measure. This could work. It would work.
They remained locked in their contest, man and sea, for many long minutes. With his back to the bow, Solmund judged his progress by the waves he left behind. The Nord’s black hair was pressed into pointed clumps, flat against his forehead, and the brown eyes were ringed bright red from the sting of seawater. He stared through the spray into each trough, and began to surrender reluctant, unheard grunts of pain whenever the bow climbed again and the mast threatened to cave in his chest. Slowly, very slowly, it seemed as though the fury of the sea were waning. The mist still revealed nothing, but the Tern’s Beak was approaching a sheltering cliff, according to plan.
And yet, as soon as he allowed the thought to comfort him, the cog dove once more, and the Nord’s innards bounced more violently than before and not quite in the right way. He watched the stern drift sideways. With no hand on the steering oar, it would not take long for the vessel to turn its side to the waves, risking a capsize. It would not take long, but maybe it would take long enough to reach calmer waters.
There was no maybe on the Sea of Ghosts.
Without further hesitation, Solmund let go of the rope and put all his weight on the steering oar. The cleats gave out promptly, as he knew they would, and both ropes slithered into the mist. The victorious sea took back its bounty and his fishing net as trophy. It was over.
An hour later, when he spotted his wife returning home down the path from the forest side, he was already seated on the long bench outside their house, with the weaving rack in front of him. They had spare nets, but Solmund believed in fixing his mistakes immediately. His fingers felt twice their normal size, and his hand seemed made of iron and yet the crosswise knots kept forming, one after another.
“I lost the good net and the catch!” he called out to Yngrid as soon as she was within hearing range. The plain truth, at once, with no excuses to follow. It was his way.
As she approached, he yanked violently several times on the rope he was using for weaving the net. It unspooled from its capstan, making it rattle on the pebble-covered ground. When he got enough, he severed it with a chop of the bearded axe that rested beside him.
She stood over him and was looking at him weird. He was too tired to care.
“Whatever it is, I don’t want to hear it.” He threw the fresh length of rope onto the other end of the bench. “Get going with the other side when you’re ready.”
He looked rather worse for the day’s hardships, his back bent and his hands moving stubbornly across the netting. His features were twisted, and she could just by the set of his shoulders that he was angry with something.
She felt little about the net, or the fish; couldn’t even seem to find disappointment for the fact that the day’s work was lost, or that they might be a bit lean for it. She moistened her lips, and shifted from one foot to the other uncertainly, before at last settling down at the other end of the netting.
Her hands took to the task deftly as she bent her head over the coarse rope, but her thoughts were elsewhere – she felt as though she were floating, somehow. She shook herself, and watched her husband from the corner of her eye.
Several minutes passed in silence, before she abruptly set the rope down, blinking to herself.
“I found out what was wrong with me.” Her tone was conversational, almost as if she was going to chatter about her day – but Yngrid was not one to chatter about anything, let alone trivialities. She peered at him expectantly.
Solmund stared at the calming sea through the rope-lines on the rack, vertical like prison-bars, a defeated pugilist plotting the next round.
“Steel brackets, that’s what the thing needs,” he muttered. “None of that carved cleat shite.”
He spoke his reply before he really heard his wife. After a moment’s silence it came to him, and he gave her the corner of his own eye.
“Did you? Out with it, then.”
She continued to watch him, hands idle, before calmly turning her gaze to the sea. A very small smile tugged at her usually solemn expression.
“We’re going to have a baby, Solmund.”
It was as if she was commenting on the weather. Absently, she picked up her end of the netting again, but – couldn’t seem to quite find the strands to knot.
It did seem more real, now. She let her smile settle; her bewilderment had ebbed, leaving satisfaction in its wake. It was as if the anchor had dropped from the pit of her stomach, and the ground was stable beneath her once more. She’d told Solmund, and that made it all the better.
His lips opened dumbly and his eyes bulged wide. In truth, for all too long a moment, the fisherman looked like nothing more than a fish out of water, himself.
“Gods be praised!” he shouted, leaping up from the bench, all the day’s fatigue gone and forgotten. “Gods be praised, woman!
He whirled around and drove his axe ferociously into the side of the house. Both arms free, the big Nord bent to his seated wife and seized her about the small of her back and shoulders. Her rear flew from the bench and her toes left the ground when pressed her to himself, and she let out a startled grunt of surprise.
“Gods be praised,” he said once more, quietly, as he buried his stubbled cheek in her neck. He shut his eyes and the wide grin stretched his face in an unfamiliar, even frightening way, using muscles so unseasoned they threatened to snap with effort. “I believed it, always. They clucked their rotten tongues, didn’t they? They said we were cursed, didn’t they? Well, we showed them, like we always do. You showed them.”
He let her go, and kept opening and shutting his hands, as if looking to do something about the news.
“Sod the net. No more work for you,” he finally decreed. “And I’m getting started on a crib.”
For all the days she lived, she would treasure that unaccustomed smile which stretched across his weathered jaw – it was infectious, and she startled herself with a bark of laughter, shaking her head.
As if the Gods themselves had actually had a hand in the affair, the clouds abruptly broke, revealing the pale autumn sun at long last. Yngrid was sure she’d never seen so beautiful a sight in all her life.