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Later, as Bera loaded up the vast tin bath with clothes and ran water from the hot tap into it, it struck her as odd that shape-shifters were always lumped into the same category as trolls and outlaws, snolfurs and other predators. But shape-shifters were so rare that no one – as far as she knew – had ever definitely been attacked by one. Maybe, if she could snatch five minutes on the Oracle later, she’d search.
She managed to turn the tap off before boiling water ran over the pan’s lip; at least – for all Hilda’s carping – there was no shortage of heat and hot water. It was a shame that, according to the Oracle, there was no longer the resource to tip Isheimur’s boundless low-level geo-thermal energy into full-scale vulcanism.
She was used to washing by hand. The farm had finally run out of parts for the antique washing machine when Bera had first arrived from the North, and the Norns refused to consider such parts life-saving, so their petitions via the Oracle for replacements had been useless. But she hated the way it chapped her hands, and the effort required to wring out the sopping clothes left her hands and shoulders aching. Still, she managed to wrestle the sodden blouses and shirts into the mangle, bolt the rollers into place, then turn the handle against a wall of inertia.
She jumped at the voice; “You want help?”
She turned. “Oh, Yngi, you startled me.” Isheimur only knew how Yngi the Halt with his club foot had managed to creep up on her.
His freckled face was as transparent as any window, so she saw his disappointment. She added hastily, “I know you didn’t mean to, but you should cough or clear your throat, or–”
“Okay, Bera.” he said. Ruddy features lit up:“You need help with that? I’m stronger than you are, even if I’m not as clever.”
She shook her head. “No thanks, Yngi. I’m almost done.”
He turned to go, just as Thorbjorg’s voice cut across them: “Yngvar Ragnarsson, get away from that whore!”
Yngi cringed, and Bera swung round at his wife, anger at one humiliation too many finally breaking her self-control. Before she could speak, a shriek from the courtyard interrupted them: “Grandpappi! Granpappi’s coming!”
Bera and Thorbjorg rushed out into the courtyard, Yngi hobbling behind. Both suns were now high in the sky, and Bera had to blink to focus. She followed the other’s gaze down the valley to west, and the men returning from a week at the Summer Fair.
The two men at the front of the group rode shaggy Isheimuri horses, which stood only chest high to a tall man, but were formidably strong. Ragnar liked to brag that his was the strongest horse on Isheimur, and the chunky buttermilk-coloured stallion needed to be to carry his owner and his belongings, which between them probably massed over a hundred and fifty kilos. Arnbjorn rode a slightly smaller horse alongside him.
Surprisingly the other two horses were riderless, and Ragnar’s tenant farmers walked beside their mounts, which were dragging something, but Bera couldn’t make out what it was. Bringing up the rear of the procession were the farmer’s eldest sons. Both had been unbearable ever since Ragnar had agreed to take them to the Summer Fair, and Bera suspected that they would be even more conceited now they had been, and would consider themselves too grand to mix with children. One had been flirting with Bera before she’d become pregnant, but had quickly lost interest when he learned of her condition, and probably wouldn’t even speak to her now.
“Come on, Bera!” Hilda interrupted her daydreaming. “They’re ten minutes away yet, so back to work for a little while.”
Bera resisted the urge to say “Yes, boss.” Sarcasm would only earn her a lecture.
Instead she returned to grappling with the sopping wet clothes until shrieks from her foster-nephews and nieces announced Ragnar’s arrival. His gravelly voice boomed, “What? No hug for your Grandpappi, then?”
She felt the puppy stir beneath her bulky jacket, then return to sleep, and prayed that Brynja would sleep a while longer.
By the time Bera had joined the others but watching from the sidelines, women and children were hugging men, the tenant farmer’s mousey wives had erupted from their own dwellings, and the whole group had aggregated into one swarming, shapeless mass. Only Ragnar stood slightly apart from the reunions, a sad smile on his face.
Then Yngi’s wife Thorbjorg threw her arms around him. “Welcome back, Pappi!” It might have been Bera’s imagination, but she thought she saw him grimace, before he made his dark, brooding features as impassive as before.
He looked across at Bera. She gave him a little smile which she tried to make welcoming, but he only scowled, and she looked away so that he wouldn’t see how hurt she was. All you have to do is give him the name of the father. Make one up if need be.
Except that whichever name she gave Ragnar would be signing a man’s death warrant, if such a name existed – and names were strictly bound by custom, like everything else here. Bera wondered how it would be to grow up on a world that had never splintered away from the rest of humanity, never been driven apart by a seemingly – to the rest of the Galaxy – insane urge to speak a different tongue and adhere to old ways. To call oneself what one liked, to dress how one liked, do what one liked…
“What’s this?” Hilda pointed to a travois, which was hitched to the two horses belonging to the tenant-farmers.
“You heard the noise last night?” Ragnar said. “A meteorite crashed near where we’d camped.” He continued, “We heard what we thought was a small volcano where it fell, so we rushed toward it for a look. It took us a half-hour. When we got there, we found only this character–” Ragnar pointed at the travois “ –lying in the snow.”
Bera eased around for a look, and gasped. The man lying unmoving in the travois was stark naked, his skin a copper so dark as to be almost purple. His massive chest rose and fell irregularly, but apart from that he didn’t move. His eyes were closed. Bera had never seen such muscle definition on a man; corded, sinewy, he took her breath away. The face below the shaven skull was equally striking, with its chiselled zygomatic bones and almost inhuman symmetry. Bera looked down, then away, blushing, then glanced at him again. He was certainly impressive. She made her self focus instead on the splints on his legs.
“Cover him up!” Asgerd said, Ragnar’s older daughter-in-law reaching for a blanket from one of the horses. “He’ll scare the children!”
Ragnar reached out, and his daughter grew still. “You don’t cover burns like that.” He pointed to the man’s lower torso, and clearly broken legs. His legs would have been long, strong and muscular before they were broken.
Bera dragged her attention back to Ragnar, who said, “He was screaming, rolling around in the snow. We couldn’t leave him like that. Either I killed him and I’d no stomach for cold-blooded neck-snapping, or we brought him home.”
“Can we spare the food?” Asgerd said, her thin lips when she closed them giving her opinion: No, we can’t.
“You tell me, ladies.” Ragnar opened his arms to include Hilda and Thorbjorg in the question. “The management of the household is your responsibility, after all. I wouldn’t dream of interfering in your desmense.”
Not much, Bera thought. Ragnar didn’t hesitate when he felt it necessary.
“Of course we can, my lord.” Thorbjorg sensed as always which way the wind was blowing, and said what she guessed he wanted to hear.
Ragnar’s face split with a grin. “Then that’s settled.” He rubbed his hands together.
“How do you know that he’s not a vagrant?” Asgerd said.
“We thought that initially,” Ragnar said. “We were ready to leave him to die, until Bjarney pointed out that a trespassing vagrant can be indentured, if he recovers.” He shrugged. “If he doesn’t recover, he won’t eat, anyway.”
“Hmmph,” Hilda said, but didn’t argue.
“Funny,” Ragnar said, “the snow was stained blue.” Whether it was the colour or simply the fact that the snow was dyed, but it seemed to Bera that Ragnar sounded uneasy. It was so rare that Bera couldn’t help staring.
He caught her looking and straightening, returned to his normal forceful manner. “Here’s someone who can help. Bera, I need someone to safeguard our new investment. You can nurse our new worker.”
Bera looked down, bobbing her head in assent.
Ragnar must have mistaken her shyness for reluctance, or his next words would surely never have been so cruel (at least, she thought, not before you got pregnant): “Well, come on girl! Look to it! You should be grateful – it’ll give you something to think about, take your mind off that dead bastard of yours.”
She felt tears sting her eyes, and lunged toward the travois.
But Ragnar must have seen her well up, for she heard him half-groan, and mutter, “Well, you shouldn’t have brought shame on my house by opening your legs to the first man who ignored your plainness. My darling Gunnhild would spin in her grave if she could see what you’ve turned into.”
Bera wanted to shout that, but for the eruption on Surtsey, she would have gone home as soon as she was pregnant, but that was pointless. Her family was dead, and now she just had to get on with living.
So she didn’t answer, but instead wrestled the stranger off the travois. But in so doing, Bera scraped the stranger’s back on the stones, and he roused screaming from his near-coma. Ragnar shouted, “Yngi! Thorir! Give her a hand with that!”
The two men helped ease the stranger back into the travois and unhitch it. Thorir called, “Where do you want it?” He stood far too close to Bera for her liking.
“Put it in with the animals,” Ragnar said.
Grunting with effort the men picked him up, and staggered toward the stables. Bera shadowed them into the warm, odorous darkness. She gazed at the horses, three of which were hers. But the web of debts incurred had bound her too tight to indulge any fantasies of flight while she was pregnant.
Ragnar appeared in the doorway. “Mind you take good care of him.”
Bera didn’t answer.
When she was sure that Ragnar had gone, she took Brynja from under her furs. Weeping quietly, she let the puppy nuzzle the other nipple from the one she had suckled the night before. “Like Romulus and Remus,” she said, “but in reverse.”
“Let’s hope it doesn’t end in tears,” Ragnar said, making her jump at his unexpected return. Luckily, he was so busy staring at the stranger lying on the hay that he didn’t notice the puppy, instead assuming her reference was to the man. He kept staring at the man, barely able to conceal his repugnance. “It’s an Icelandic tradition, to fear the stranger, but even so, this hairless stranger bothers me. His presence means trouble… we’ll call him Loki. It seems fitting.”
“I’ll do my best for you,” Bera said, shielding Brynja by turning away slightly.
Ragnar roused himself. “You will,” he said. “We’ve a critical time coming. Once the crops ripen fully, it’s a race to get them in. We’ll need every able-bodied hand we can get. He can repay us our hospitality – if he recovers.”
“If he doesn’t? Or he recovers, but stays an invalid?”
“That won’t happen,” Ragnar said. The feral look on his face chilled Bera. “He’ll have an accident before that happens. Clear?”
Bera nodded, swallowing.