Bera wanted to scream her grief at the night, but that would rouse the farmyard dogs. That would in turn wake the sleepers. She already felt so raw that she might as well have been scoured by sandpaper, and a public lecture from Hilda was more than she could face, so she clamped her jaw shut until it ached.
The farmyard was so cold that her breath threatened to freeze solid in the midnight air – not that Isheimur’s midnight-sky was like other worlds, she gathered:. It would be another five weeks until the equinox, when the Mizar quartet would line up together on Isheimur’s far side, with only the twin moons, Stor and Litid, to illuminate the true-dark for a few hours. Until then, though Gamasol and Deltasol had set within a few hours of one another, the further pair was still high in the sky.
That she could see where to put her feet on the rocky slope up to the grave made the act of mourning her dead son easier, and at least Ragnar had allowed her to bury Palli here, rather than in open ground. The graveyard was in a pocket of such boulder-strewn land that it was good for nothing else, unlike the rest of the valley. Its rocky border at least protected the bodies from burrowing marauders. Snolfurs were another matter – only a precious bullet or arrow would deter one of them.
She clambered past a tapped-out steam-vent which no longer gave its energy to the generator, the metre-wide pipe to the water tank down the hill now disconnected. Putting the sprig of lavender on the unmarked cairn was a pathetic little token, but it was all she had. At the thought of Palli’s little face turning blue, the tears started up again, half-blinding her, freezing on her face as they trickled down.
She crouched, offering prayers, to Wotan, Yahweh – any of the old ones who might exist, just in case – to take care of Palli. Assuming that there was an afterlife, rather than just mouldering in the dirt.
Wiping her eyes, she glimpsed something streak above the top of the Reykleif hills in a flat curve, so it couldn’t be a shape-shifter; nor did any troll ever move that fast. It was fiery bright, so it was most likely a meteor, she decided.
Standing again, she winced. Moving sent slivers of pain shooting through her cramped-up feet, numb even through the fur-lined house-shoes. Taking outside boots would have meant stumbling around in the boot-room, perhaps falling over one of the sleeping farmhands. She didn’t want that. Better her feet froze than to admit to the other women that she still grieved for her beloved bastard.
If her body didn’t give her away: ten days after burying him, her breasts were still swollen and sore, her blouses sodden even through the wadding that she’d shoved into her bra. The others must have noticed, but if they had, for once – in a rare show of restraint – they had said nothing.
Bera turned back, looking down the slope to face Skorradalur. Farmhouses crouching into the hillside formed three sides of a square round a courtyard, with the lake Skorravatn beyond the barn the fourth side. On the far side of the lake, antique wind-turbines hunched in the lee of the valley slope, their blades turning slowly in the incessant wind, the open grassland between them peppered with sheep, grazing on the last of the late-summer long grass.
She descended the stony, treacherous slope to Ragnarholt, the biggest farmhouse, passing the water-tank which took the excess steam from the newer geo-thermal vent; what wasn’t needed to heat the house was allowed to condense inside its bulk to provide fresh water, so that the settlers didn’t need to venture down to Skorravatn in winter and risk ambush from lurking creatures. It wasn’t the halcyon days of when the farm had fusion power, but it was better than nothing.
Even in the thickening twilight she had to be careful not to turn an ankle on the stony ground. But if its aid in finding her way was a blessing, when the deep boom echoed from the west, waking the farm-dogs into a barrage of barking, it was a curse. Any onlooker could see her picking her way back. She speeded up, and twice nearly fell in hidden dips in the grass. Looking up, the shadowy bulk of Thorir perched in the watch-tower atop the farmhouse hadn’t moved. Hopefully, he was asleep. Thorir was good at that, even though, if he were caught, it would mean a flogging.
The breeze strengthened, the wind-turbines’ blades speeding up.
Brynja caught Bera’s scent and yapped.
“Hush!” Bera hissed.
But instead the puppy redoubled her efforts to slip the leash, where she was tied to the court-yard water-tap. Droplets from the tap had frozen so that Brynja’s feet slipped and skidded on them.
Reluctantly, Bera fondled the little dog’s ears. She was as white and fluffy as the rest of the litter, but they’d all found homes. No one wanted the little runt, though, so Ragnar had banished her to the courtyard, saying, “We can’t afford to throw away what resources we have on animals that aren’t viable, however cute they look now.” If Brynja survived on the scraps that she could scavenge, she would live, but she was already skin and bone.
Desperately, shivering, Brynja tried to climb inside Bera’s coat and nuzzled her blouse.
Still thinking of Palli, and of Ragnar’s ruthlessness, Bera undid the leash, her jaw clamped. Freed, the puppy scrambled inside her coat in a flurry of paws. Brynja nuzzled and nuzzled at her blouse, until Bera sighed. She reached in and undid her bra.
Teeth like needles clamped onto her nipple. The pain made Bera draw her lips back from her teeth in a silent scream, but in a perverse way she welcomed it. However bad it was, it was real, and for a few too-short moments it obliterated memories of a tiny face turning blue and silent.
Finally, the needles grew too fierce, and she prised her bloodied breast away from the seeking mouth. Rocking her furry cargo, humming an almost soundless lullaby, she crept across the farmyard to the back door.
Looking up again, she saw a faint glow to the north-west between the hills.
It’s not any of the suns, she thought, and if that’s a fire, then someone’s farmstead is burning.
But she couldn’t think of any farmhouses in that direction. Too many trolls likely to midnight-raid the settlements, if the old records were true. And if were a fire, then Hilda and the others would already be spilling into the courtyard to answer the distress calls.
She lifted the latch carefully, and ducking to step down into the lobby shut the door behind her.
A light snapping on blinded her, though it was only dim. Her vision cleared to reveal Thorir standing with sword in hand and an evil grin on his face at his cleverness in sneaking down from the watch-tower.
Behind him, his wife Hilda stood with folded arms and bulging eyes: “Bera Sigurdsdottir! What on Isheimur are you doing? Have you lost your wits?”
Nothing Bera could say would spare her from a scolding, so she just slumped.
Hilda said, “Go back on watch, darling, while I sort this out.” She snapped off the light. There were the noises of Thorir leaving, then Hilda hissed, “Stupid girl!”
“Sorry,” Bera said quietly.
“Pappi took you in when his old friend died – you repay us by disturbing our sleep while he’s away?”
Even after six years, you haven’t forgiven me? Bera thought. I don’t want his attention!
As self-appointed surrogate mother, Hilda didn’t hesitate to “correct” Bera whenever Hilda felt it necessary, which was frequently. “We thought you were an outlaw – or worse.”
“Did you hear the sound?” Bera said, in a desperate attempt to distract her foster-sister. “Like muffled thunder.”
“Never mind that,” Hilda said. Although she hadn’t distracted Hilda, Bera’s trick had at least robbed her rant of momentum. “Go back to bed. Try not to fall over the others on the way through.”
Bera wondered how much of Hilda’s anger was that Bera had shown her husband, and therefore Hilda, for the fool he was. If Bera could slip out without him noticing, then raiders could do the same in the opposite direction.
Or whether Hilda thought he hadn’t been sleeping, but that Bera had had paid him in kind to look away. Bera couldn’t tell Hilda that she’d sooner drink acid than go with Ragnar. Hilda wouldn’t believe her, would instead point to the cairn as proof that Bera would go with anyone.
Next day in the kitchen no one spoke to Bera over breakfast, but that wasn’t unusual. She had managed not to bump into the cots of the sleeping children and Farm hands, so no one was angry with her – at least, no more than usual.
All ten of Ragnar’s grandchildren, from the youngest toddler to eight year-old Toti, Hilda’s eldest, sat around the vast table, assembled by nanobots centuries earlier to resemble oak, now stained and pitted with age.
Bera and the other women shuttled pots and plates to and from the vast stove, while the men, were out checking the flocks as always
Except Yngi, of course. Bera had seen him at first sunrise, as Gamasol stained the horizon with its searchlight glare. She had snuck out again and clipped Brynja back to the water-tap, where a few shards of ice had half-melted in the direct sunlight, staining Brynja’s white fur with muddy streaks. The puppy yapped as Bera walked away, but she hurried and was back indoors before anyone noticed… she hoped.
Now she waited her turn for the porridge bowl, and when the others had taken their fill, scraped out the dregs of the weak, watery liquid. She got the last few bits when Thorbjorg said, “Why don’t you lick the pattern off the plate?”
Her face burned, but she didn’t answer Ragnar’s younger daughter-in-law. Thorbjorg was only four years older than Bera, but she was as pretty as Bera was plain, and used her voluptuousness like a weapon on the men. And besides, she was married, so respectable.
“Well?” Thorbjorg challenged.
“There is no pattern,” Bera mumbled.
Thorbjorg’s laugh was a caw. “No there isn’t, is there? You must have licked it off yesterday. Maybe if you weren’t such a greedy pig, your teats would dry up – it’s not as if you need the milk.”
Bera shut her eyes, dug her fingers into her palms.
Hilda must have seen how intense the pain was, and if any of them would understand, she would – now the medic had said that any more pregnancies would pose a life-threatening risk. “That’s enough,” Hilda said. “Save your wit for later, Thorbjorg.”
Bera slid into daydream, her usual refuge. Maybe there was some kind of payback. Bera had felt sorry for Hilda when she’d heard the others talking about it: barren at twenty-seven, with only two children to her name.
“How will we fill this big empty world if we can only have two children?” Thorbjorg had asked, smug in her brood-cow status. Bera had hated her for Hilda then: five children at twenty-one. Yngi might have been addled in the head, but his seed was potent – if it was his. Thorbjorg was always flirting with old Ragnar, always possessive with her hugs and touches.
Bera had wished that it was Thorbjorg who had miscarried instead of Hilda. When the others had gone, she had slipped into Hilda’s room and asked, “Is there anything I can do, Hilda? I’m so sorry to hear about…” and trailed off, not sure what to call it. Loss? Too tame. Miscarriage? Too clinical. So she had left the sentence unfinished.
But Hilda had seemed to understand. She shook her head. “I just want to be alone.”
That had been the last half-civilized conversation between them. They had never been friends, but as long as Bera was duly deferential to Ragnar’s eldest child, they had been civil. But a month later, two months after the Spring Fair, Bera had missed her period, and soon after, she knew that she was pregnant. Refusing to name the father meant that no bill of settlement could be made to another house, and as good as admitted that Bera would sleep with any man.
“Bera!” Hilda’s cry snatched her back, to the other’s amusement.
“Daydreaming again,” Toti said. Like most children, he could spot a legitimate target for teasing. “Bera’s daydreaming, Bera’s dreaming of her boyfriend!” he sang.
“That’ll do, young man!” Hilda said. “Enough of that or you lose your time at the Oracle!”
“Sorry.” Bera went without prompting to the sink to rinse the pots.
“You’re washing clothes today.” Hilda lowered her voice, “I’ve not said anything to the others about your star-gazing, but I will if it happens again. We can’t afford to heat the countryside.”
“But I closed the doors straight away!”
“And we’d have to send out search parties if raiders spirited you off. Bera, you’re so selfish!”
Bera managed not to snap back that she’d be the last person they’d send out rescue parties for, if outlaws, trolls or shape-shifters struck.
Copyright Angry Robot Books, used with permission.