Ringerike, Norway. 806 CE
As Freydís watched from the doorway, her older brother knocked his spear against the bottom of his boot, dislodging snow, and her mother stood unconcerned at the loom near the hearth, placidly beating down the weft. The soft, familiar staccato passed through Freydís’ ears unheard. She imagined throwing her hands around Björn’s ankle and letting him drag her along the packed snow as he had done when she was smaller, and she hated herself for it.
“Take me with you today.”
His eyes rose to her waist. “Close the door. You’re letting in the cold.”
Without hesitation, she shut the door behind her back but ignored his narrowing eyes at seeing her remain on the wrong side. “I’m dressed. My bow is strung. You don’t have to wait for me.”
“I can see that, but Mamma needs you for spinning.”
“How am I going to learn to hunt if you don’t take me?”
“Just do it on your own. Like I did. You don’t need me.”
Freydís clenched her teeth. “I’m coming.”
In answer, Björn shoved his feet into the withe rope of his wide birch skis and bent to secure his heels with the leather straps. Frosty breath billowed from his nostrils, obscuring his profile, and he tightened the final knot with a sharp exhale.
Heat crept up her neck and flicked at her ears. “Pappa taught you, but he’s not here to teach me. You never had to teach yourself.”
Instead of responding, he pushed the butt of his spear into the ground and set off at a sliding walk. Freydís snapped into action, grabbing her own skis from the snowdrift and hurrying to follow. Within moments, he was out of sight, his tracks disappearing into the forest.
Through the underbrush and down the hillocks, she forced herself to double her brother’s pace, but by the time she crossed the valley floor, he had nearly reached the foot of the neighboring mountain. Freydís paused to catch her breath, closing her eyes against the mid-morning glare and glitter of fresh powder. In her ear, she heard her brother hiss, “See? I knew you couldn’t keep up.” The thought propelled her forward, and she shoved her stick viciously into the snow at her side.
For the next several hours, up the slope and down the gullies, Freydís hunted the hunter. When his snaking tracks left the top of the tree line, she leaned against a scrawny aspen to rest. Her eyes scanned the mountain, and like embroidered chevrons, his skis marked a clear path up and over the summit. All thoughts left her head as she turned her feet out to push one leg after the other along the incline, thankful for the fur lining the bottom of her skis, keeping her from sliding. Her heart expanded and her lungs burned as she gulped the frigid, thin air.
When she reached the top, elation filled her chest, and for a moment, she imagined she was Skaði, goddess of skiing and the bow, renowned for her beauty and wisdom, her bravery and perseverance. No wild animal could escape her arrow. What trouble would an arrogant brother be to her? None.
Below her, she saw Björn resting on a boulder, a tiny dot within her hawk-eyed sight. Her mouth twisted, and her eyes glittered, all pain forgotten. She inhaled, prepared for the exhilarating drop in her stomach, wiggled her boots in her skis, and launched herself over the side. As she flew, she leaned her weight farther back over her heels and dug her stick into the drifts, turning herself with it like a rudder. The wind whipped her cheeks, and her eyes teared, but she whooped and then roared like a berserker from the sheer freedom of it. If she stretched out her arms, would she soar?
As she approached the bottom, she crouched, a diving falcon intent on its prey, and when she thrust her skis out for a sudden stop, powder curled in a beautiful arc to cover her brother. She bared her teeth at him, expecting anger and prepared to meet it.
Slowly, he bent double and shook out his cap. Though his jaw ticked, after a moment, he said in a low voice, “You sounded like a troll’s wife screeching down the mountain like that. Probably scared all the game. You know that, right?”
She cast her tongue about for a tart reply but could only stare back at him. Finally, she said, “I would know that if you’d bother to teach me.”
“You already know that.”
It was true. She did, and a seed of embarrassment sprouted in her gut, making her angrier with him. “Well, I’m here now.”
“Indeed.” He stood and brushed off the snow covering his shoulders, chest, and legs, then stuffed the remains of his lunch into his bag. When he sipped from his water pouch, Freydís swallowed, surprised at her dry throat.
“May I have a sip?”
Björn wiped his mouth and handed the pouch to her.
Rather than respond, he glanced over her shoulder, and she followed his eyes as he searched the landscape. “See those tracks?” he said. “It’s a red deer I’ve been following. A big one. He should wear out soon.”
Freydís slid beside him as he approached the deer’s trail. Björn removed a leather mitten with his teeth and pointed at distinctive features in the snow. “He’s stumbling. Getting tired. A fresh deer would leave tighter tracks, tighter draglines.” He circled a mark with his index finger. “His knee fell here.” When he peered up at her, she nodded.
“How long does it take? To exhaust a deer?”
She waited for him to elaborate, but when she realized no further reply was coming, she asked, “Today? Tomorrow? Next week?”
“It takes as long as it takes.”
Behind his back, she rolled her eyes, and they continued on in silence, each lost in their own thoughts. For a long time, neither spoke as they traversed the mountainside and small valleys, and the sun crept across the azure sky. The rhythmic shushing of their skis drained her temper and left her content to follow where he led.
Björn broke the silence first, turning to whisper to her. “We should watch for bears. They’re waking up.”
“I know. I’ve been watching.” She hadn’t, but now she peeked through the trees, scanning for movement and skinny, brown, ravenous creatures. Bears didn’t frighten her, but she thought it might be prudent to load an arrow and did so.
Björn glanced behind him. “Don’t shoot me in the butt.”
“I won’t shoot you in the butt.”
At her tone, he added, “Don’t shoot me anywhere.”
Freydís giggled, sorely tempted to draw the string to her cheek and tell him to turn around.
“I’m not kidding,” he said, face firmly ahead.
“I’m not going to shoot you.” She followed him as he slid down a hill, her tracks tracing his. As their pace slowed on level ground, she called to him, “I would never shoot you.”
Björn stopped, then turned, leaning on his spear. His gaze jumped from her eyes to her mouth and back again. “I know.”
Freydís listened. In the distance, she heard a strange wheezing and snorting but knew instantly it was their quarry. A thrill ran through her body. Her eyes must have rounded because Björn nodded at her expression, then placed a finger over his lips.
Slowly, he slid forward toward the sound. Freydís gripped her bow, sweat dampening the inside of her mitten. As they neared, Björn veered away from the deer and then circled back, returning head-on. He halted, and she slid up beside him.
“Quiet your mind,” he said. “Be calm.”
Freydís breathed through her nose and out through her mouth, clearing her mind of all thoughts.
“The gods are watching,” he added, which didn’t help and only made anxiety flood the pool of her mind.
The deer, huge and powerful, struggled in a drift that reached to its chest. His antlers tossed to and fro as he fought against the very mountain itself, and his tongue curled in overheated agony. With each wheezing bellow, a frosty cloud drifted skyward.
Björn bent his head to her ear and whispered, “Since he is forced to keep his head up, you can take a direct shot to his heart. Aim where his neck meets his chest. Do you see?”
Freydís concentrated on the point he indicated as it churned up and down in the snow. “I see,” she said.
“We wait,” he said. “Let him calm down.” With that, he squatted in place, and she mimicked him. When he closed his eyes, she closed hers.
After a time, the deer settled, though its breathing still labored incessantly. Björn touched her shoulder, and when she turned her attention to him, he nodded. Arrow still loaded, she drew the string to her cheek and imagined her heart connecting with her target, just as Pappa had instructed her years ago. When she released, her hopes sank, knowing it would miss before it did so. The arrow struck the deer a glancing blow on the shoulder, which only renewed its panic.
Björn grunted beside her and shook his head.
She ducked and peeked at him from the corner of her eye. “I’ll get him with my next shot.”
“No, I’ll do it. You must kill on the first shot.”
Freydís’ cheeks burned, and she held back the tears that threatened. She sensed Skaði’s disdain, the goddess’s fierce presence searing between her shoulder blades, and she sniffed as discreetly as she could, turning her head away.
As if he could sense her distress, Björn said, “Don’t fret. I didn’t make the kill on my first hunting trip either. Just practice more at home.”
She gazed down at the hand on her shoulder, surprised at his tenderness. She couldn’t recall him ever touching her. Punching her? Yes. Kicking her? Yes. Wrestling her into obedience? Yes. Comforting her? Never.
The moment ended as quickly as it had happened, and he drew his arrow from his quiver, took aim, and sunk the point deep into the deer’s beating heart. A final puff of steam blew from its nostrils as it slumped forward into the snowbank, the only signal of its death.
They stood as one and slid toward the body. Now, the true work would begin. Freydís had helped with butchering farm animals before, many times, and they moved in sync as they cleared away snow and carefully sliced the thick fur to remove the cape. When it was free, she laid it out, flesh side up, and the tang of blood hung heavy in the air. Björn cut the backstrap loose and handed it to her to lay on the skin. Section by section, they worked, adding meat and organs to the growing, steaming pile.
“I plan to go raiding with Pappa this summer,” Björn said. “It’s good for you to have had some hunts before then.”
Freydís snorted. Björn’s downy cheeks testified otherwise. No crew would take a youth his age when a man could fill the oar-seat. It was on the tip of her tongue to tease him when she realized what he had said and choked on her words. “Yes, I think that’s a good idea.”
He glanced at her out of the side of his eye but otherwise didn’t comment further.
To ease the strain on her back, Freydís stood straight for a moment and tilted her head toward the sky. The sun would be dipping behind the mountain soon. Though the deer had taken a meandering path, they had a more direct route home, but they would need to hurry if they wanted to outrun the descending darkness.
As Björn started on the last section of the carcass, Freydís felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise. They were being watched. Her first thought was a bear. She should turn and look, but couldn’t make herself. Instead, she forced a word from her lips. “Björn?”
“What?” When he lifted his eyes, he froze. At the same moment, two wolves stepped into view in front of her. Freydís’ breath caught, and she swiveled her head. Three more wolves approached her back. “They want our kill,” he said. “Not us.”
“Do we give it to them?”
Björn spit on the ground and reached for his spear. Slowly, Freydís stretched her body and arm for their bows where they leaned against a tree, but they were well out of her grasp. As she moved, she heard the largest wolf growl, a soft rumble deep in his chest. The others joined him, punctuating theirs with an occasional whine.
Her brother spun the shaft of the spear in his hand, and his head turned left and right, noting each wolf’s position in his view. Freydís took a hesitant step toward their bows, and the growls increased. She froze again, unsure how to proceed. There were too many of them. Yellow eyes drilled into her, and tongues lolled from drooling mouths. One yawned in agitation, looked to their leader, and returned its lethal stare to her face, jaw clamped.
The leader took a step toward Björn, and when Björn lunged at it, the wolf skipped back out of reach. The growls escalated beyond all proportion until it was the only sound Freydís could hear, as if it was the only sound she had ever heard. Terror coursed down her spine from her scalp to her heels. Every muscle in her body shook. Undeterred by Björn’s previous thrust, the leader approached another pace, and the other wolves tensed, ready to spring.
Freydís dove her hands into the pile of meat, held up the first pieces she could grab, and tossed them as far as she could throw. With several of them distracted, she ran for her bow, then tossed Björn’s near his feet. Still terrified, she felt marginally better to have a familiar weapon in her hand. She drew an arrow from her quiver and inhaled to calm her mind.
“Toss the wolf at my back a piece,” Björn said.
Carefully, Freydís bent to retrieve another chunk of meat, but the wolf chose that moment to coil for an attack. Without thinking, she nocked the arrow she still held in her bow hand and released from her chest without aiming as the wolf soared toward her brother. The arrow struck its lower spine, and with a sharp whimper, it dropped to the ground, its front legs digging at the snow while its back legs hung uselessly in the drift behind him.
Unaware, Björn drove forward with his spear toward the leader, but it sidled away. Freydís turned, nocking another arrow, and aimed at one of the three wolves fighting over the meat behind her. Her first arrow sailed harmlessly over its neck, but her second arrow sunk into its rump. The wounded wolf bounded off into the trees, but the two remaining wolves saw nothing but the meat in front of them. She took a third shot but missed just as the smaller of the two wolves managed to get the better of his packmate and swallowed the entire piece of meat whole. Freydís’ fourth arrow struck him in the neck, killing him instantly. The loser of the tug-of-war leaped backward at seeing his companion fall, then shot off into the forest.
When she turned back to Björn, he was pulling his spear from the paralyzed wolf’s chest, and the largest wolf was nowhere in sight. Her legs gave out from under her at that moment, and she sank to the ground. The macabre image of the surprised wolf desperately clawing at the snow suddenly struck her as humorous, but her laugh verged on hysterical. Björn turned his face toward her, and she sobered.
With deft precision, he removed a claw from the wolf she had killed with one shot and handed it to her. “Good shooting,” he said.
Freydís studied the bloody token in the palm of her hand. Skaði had seen her bravery and would be pleased by her marksmanship. For a moment, she felt taller than her brother. “Glad I was with you, huh?” she asked, and braced for a retort.
Her chin drew back at his simple answer, and she searched his face, but when his eyes remained serious, a warm glow sparked in her chest, and her cheeks hurt from her broad grin.
“Let’s get this meat home,” he said. “We can try to come back for the wolf pelts tomorrow.”
They finished their work in silence, both cold and ready to be home by the hearth, eating their mother’s cooking. When all was ready, Björn wrapped the rope hauling the bundle of meat around his waist, then handed her his spear. At her quizzical look, he held out his hand to trade for her ski stick.
“You should get used to the weight of a spear,” he said. “We’ll make you one tomorrow. I’ll also show you how to load arrows faster.” Without another word, he set off for home.
Copyright Jennifer Marchman 2022