MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
The Gothi nuns will not travel to remote places, so when the snow sickness sweeps through the forgotten mountain hamlet, or the secluded steading, or the lonely, isolated Hall, we burn our own.
We bury our own.
* * *
We thought we were safe, another dark winter behind us. The festival of Ostara had come and gone. Spring had arrived, jade-green buds, emerald-green grass, bright blue skies.
Our steading was in the Middlelands, remote and quiet, far from any sea, far from any major town, far from any jarls with their Great Halls and shifting laws. Here, in the region of Cloven Tell, the soft green Ranger Hills rippled across our horizon, and cold, clear lakes marked our landscape like sparkling jewels.
My sister, Morgunn, and I had spent our childhood running wild and free, without a thought to the world beyond the hills—it was no more real to us than the stories of the Green Women of Elshland or the tales of Frey and the giant Logafell. We were isolated. We were happy.
Aslaug, our cook, used to tell me I had too much happiness in me. She said only witches and Fremish wolf-priests were truly happy, because they cast spells and drank poison, because they made pacts with the gods in pursuit of their own joy.
I’d heard of these magic pacts from the sagas and the songs. I’ve never stolen an infant, or tricked a jarl into marriage, or slain a sleeping Elver, or burned a village. I’ve never taken to the air, floating across the night sky, fingers cupping the stars. I’ve never made all the children of Vorseland scream, as one, in the middle of the night. Yet I’ve been happy. Happy as a witch. Happy as a wolf.
I’d shrugged off Aslaug’s warnings as I’d shrugged off the warnings of Elna, our pretty, apple-cheeked servant, who used to say that the moon was the eye of a great dragon and that one day he would look down and see us and burn our world to ash.
Now Elna was burning to ash, her body on the pile in the east field.
The snow sickness struck a few Middleland villages each winter. It would blow in with a storm and stay as long as the white flakes fell from the sky. It would start with sweating and a fever and end in death. Some people lived, and most people died, and only the gods knew why.
Snow had come in the night and turned the world white again.
At supper, my mother began to shake and sweat until she fell from the bench and lay writhing in pain on the floor beside the hearth fire. The servants began to scream. They knew that only the snow sickness could do this, only the snow sickness could take down such a strong Vorse woman.
I dragged my mother to her bed and awoke at dawn to find her dead in my arms.
The servants died in the night as well. I carried their bodies to the field and set them on fire, gray smoke floating up past the trees.
Gray was the color of the winter sky. It was the color of a pair of cooing mourning doves, my father’s beard, and the thick wool tunic my mother used to wear on feast days.
Gray was the color of Viggo’s eyes.
And now gray was the color of death.
I took a half-empty jug of Vite from a table near the main doors of the Hall and drank. I wiped my hand across my mouth and took another sip.
I had two more bodies to see to, and these I would not burn.
I dug two graves by the rowan trees until blisters wept across my palms, stinging, bleeding. I straightened, pressed my hands to my aching lower back and then to my heart.
My heart pushed back. I was alive.
Blood from my palms seeped into the front of my tunic. I wiped my hands on my leather leggings and picked up my shovel. I needed to finish this task before the morning’s sorrow could sear itself so deeply into my mind that it would be the only thing I would ever think about. The only thing I would ever remember.
I returned to the Hall, propped open the main doors with two large stones, and then walked slowly to her chamber. My mother had been six feet tall, sinewy, broad-shouldered, made of muscle and steel. I pulled her body out of the bed, strong limbs woven between furs, fingers in tangled hair. Panting, muscles straining, I carried her past the central hearth, past the long feast table, out of the building, into the fresh air.
The Hall smelled of thick smoke—sour, acrid sickness and sweet, rotting death. The air outside smelled of sun and wet earth. It smelled of life.
I glanced toward the five rowan trees in the northeast corner of our estate.
Mother was Elsh. She would go in the ground, not the fire.
The bright sun had melted most of the snow, and my boots were soaked through. Sweat blurred my vision, and my bones ached with my mother’s weight.
I set her in the first grave and picked up the shovel. The hole filled slowly.
I’d found the shepherd collapsed outside the Hall at dawn, his tunic covered in blood.
His body should have been in the east field, burning alongside Aslaug and Elna and Ivar the field hand and old Haftor the woodcutter.
The shepherd wasn’t Elsh, but I would bury him by my mother all the same.
I tossed the first shovel of half-frozen dirt onto Viggo’s body. It fell on his hair, a black clump that would never be washed clean.
I dropped to my knees and howled like wolves on the hunt, crying to the moon.
I yelled my voice into dust … and then I rose to my feet and finished burying him.
I knew it was selfish to keep Viggo here with me on the steading, to not burn him in the way of the Vorse. But then, the living are selfish.
When it was done, I threw the shovel into the snow between two of the rowan trees. Let it rust. I would never use it again.
I wasn’t full Vorse, and I didn’t believe that life was simply a long journey toward a good death. All the same, Viggo had been more than a shepherd, more than my lover, more than a wise, quiet Vorselander who ran across the Ranger Hills with the strength and grace of a young god.
He’d had the heart of a hero, noble, wise, and brave. He deserved a hero’s life and a hero’s death. Instead, he died alone, in the night, a victim of a passing plague.
I would not let the same fate claim me. If I had a speck of heroism in my heart, then I would find it. I would honor it. I would sacrifice for it.
A memory surfaced. I was a child, ten or eleven, out in the hills with my mother, collecting green winterberries by moonlight for Elsh frost-brew. We stumbled upon a white arctic bear—it came roaring out of a nearby cave, jaws wide, teeth the size of my fist, white fur stained with old blood.
I hid behind my mother and shook with fear. She leaned over slowly, eyes on the bear, and pulled a knife from its sheath on her right calf.
“Fortune favors brave women,” she said. “We rise up, while the meek women cower.” She ran forward and sank her dagger into the bear’s throat.
She slept under that bear’s snow-white hide for years. It still lay on her empty bed. Each time she caught me looking at it, she reminded me that I had cowered while she killed the bear, that I had flinched when she took its life. It didn’t matter to her that I’d only been a child.
“You have a soft heart,” she’d say whenever I hesitated to wring a hen’s neck or slit a lamb’s throat. It wasn’t a compliment. “You take too much after your father, Torvi. Your sister is the true Vorse.”
I wiped my bleeding palms on the front of my tunic, and then I walked to the cold, fast-moving stream that wove through our farm, down from the Ranger Hills. I tore off my tunic and boots and underclothes—there was no one to see, no one to care. I slid my naked body into the water, feet slipping over stones, limbs pressing into the silky current. I let it wash away all the blood, all the dirt, all the death. I let it cleanse me of my old life.
When I climbed out of the water, I was numb with cold. I ran to the line of laundry strung behind the Hall, near the vegetable garden. Elna never had a chance to gather the clothing before the storm hit. I beat the blood back into my thighs with my palms, and then I grabbed a large wool cloth, wrapped it around myself, and went inside.
I crossed the Hall, leaving a trail of wet footprints. I walked down the east corridor, stopped at the second door, and knocked.
The door opened slowly. “Is it over?”
I nodded, and my sister grabbed me. Her face pressed into my shoulder, and her fingers clenched my tunic at the waist, squeezing the cloth into her fists.
Copyright © 2020 by April Genevieve Tucholke