With a basket of food from Hilda, a change of clothes, and a blessing, they walked back to Gardar’s forge together. He opened the door and hung up his cloak. Bregðask hung up his new cloak beside it and followed him inside. Gardar turned to him and watched the young man stand nervously in the foyer. Gardar snorted.
“Well, don’t act like you don’t know your way around!” Gardar said trying for a cheery voice, “You practically live here too.”
His head hanging, his eyes downcast, and the shadows from the fire so deep it looked as though half of him had been consumed by them. It seemed that Bregðask wasn’t prepared to sleep on it quite yet.
“Lad, you don’t have to apologize for feeling the way you feel,” he said, “You… aren’t the first person I’ve known to consider it the only option. Come sit with me for a bit.”
Bregðask followed him towards the main fire and sat down as Gardar hobbled into his kitchen. He poured two large cups of his best mead, hobbled back, and offered one to Bregðask.
“I think we could both use it.”
He took the mead from him as Gardar took a seat and took a healthy drink.
“When I was your age,” Gardar said, “The hilmir at the time, your grandfather, was sure that I was corrupting his youngest son and attempting to topple the very foundation of Calder.”
His lips twitched, “The intolerant tyrant. It was a different time then. Dragons, raids, the entire archipelago was in chaos. The grip of the goðar had been long cemented, and they heralded the ancient ways above all things. Men and women were meant to marry to produce the next generation no matter what. Your uncle and I’s romance was taken as a result of the stress of war, a temporary thing, a natural and normal thing so long as certain things were observed.”
He shook his head and drank heartily, “Your uncle was the youngest so the question of being able to lead or follow because of his bedding preferences wasn’t very important. It only became important when your eldest uncle, Vali, died in battle leaving no heir.”
Gardar blew out a heavy breath, “Hrungnir was captured during that battle and tortured. Your father and I went after him against the hilmir’s wishes, and we found him… That rescue mission is actually how I lost my leg.”
Bregðask’s eyes widened.
“You know well the very traditional Viking views about what was done to captured enemies, don’t you?”
Bregðask nodded stiffly. It was practically expected that the captured be brutalized in every possible way. He’d read the texts about the horrors committed against prisoners of war. It had made him sick to think that kind of blood was running through his veins. He’d read the letters of his own grandfather detailing such things and had wanted to scratch his own skin off if it would make the dirty feeling go away.
He tried to no avail and forced himself to take comfort in the fact that he was not that kind of man.
“When we brought him back to Calder,” he said and shook his head, “He was a broken man. Your grandfather, rest his soul, was a bastard. He married your uncle off to a random woman of Calder from the lower town, not even a week after he regained consciousness, and Hrungnir got drunk every night it seemed to sleep with her. They had kids.”
He’d never heard of Hrungnir having kids. He’d always assumed that Hrungnir had simply died before he and Gardar could leaver Calder.
Gardar nodded, “It was… some of the hardest years of my life, but not so hard as after his son and daughter, twins, died along with his wife in the raid after.”
“Even if I had both hands, I couldn’t count the number of times he’d very nearly succeeded. He was a creative and stubborn bastard, and rather than getting him some help, or at least being understanding, your grandfather kicked him out of the Harvard clan house. Your uncle was a proud man, so he left quietly, and your grandfather never made it public, but your uncle showed up on my doorstep less than an hour later,” Gardar chuckled, remembering his tight smile and his fake joy at seeing Gardar. “Because we promised to play Hnefatafl in the Great Hall that evening.”
They never made it to the Great Hall because Hrungnir had seen Gardar in the doorway, faked a happy greeting, and crumbled into a hysterical sobbing fit soon after. He hadn’t been able to separate what had been done to him, his father’s words and his love for Gardar.
I’m sorry. I don’t want it.
Gardar, help. I’m sorry!
Don’t touch me! I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!
Gardar had pulled him inside, sat him down, wrapped him in a blanket and stayed up with him from across the room until he could sleep. It had taken years for him to be comfortable in Gardar’s home. Though the man was terrified of sleeping alone, he hadn’t been able to be near Gardar. They’d barely begun touching casually again, making plans to leave Calder for good after the former hilmir had died and Svein took up the mantle years later. The night before the final raid on Calder, they’d shared Gardar’s bed, snuggled close, and Hrungnir had slept through the night. When the last raid had come, he was sure they would make it through and leave Calder, but Gardar lost his arm, and Hrungnir lost his life.
It had broken his heart to be unable to arch for him, only deliver a eulogy and return home to the last place he’d slept peacefully and the bed they had only just begun to share again. Gardar had drunk himself numb for the next three days, lying motionless on the bed surrounded by the fading scent of Hrungnir. He’d considered drinking himself to death, but he knew if he was ever to see Hrungnir again with any sort of grace, he would have to die in battle. How could he end his life after years of coaxing Hrungnir into believing it wasn’t the answer?
“I tell you this story to say that I am no stranger to men wanting to end their lives,” he said, “I’m no stranger to helping them through it either.”
Bregðask took a drink of the mead and wrinkled his nose, “Somehow, I thought this would taste better.”
Gardar laughed, “It’ll grow on you.”
He finished the mug, and Gardar cheered, “Hopefully, you won’t regret that.”
“Do you think my uncle actually wanted to die?”
Gardar swirled his mead and finished it in a long gulp.
“Maybe at some point,” he said finally, “At the end, I think he just didn’t have another answer and a valiant death in battle was better than ending it himself.”
“Being an asshole runs in the Harvard line.”
He snorted, “At least a generation, though your great grandfather was a great man…”
“Who committed suicide.”
Gardar shrugged, “It isn’t the prettiest part of the Harvard history. He was a great man. He did so much for Calder, I shudder to think how you’ll top it.”
“You mean how Sigfrøðr will top it. He’s of the Harvard line as well.”
“You and I both know your father has too much of an ego to let the hilmir throne leave the Harvard clan, and if he did, he’d choose anyone else but the Renouf clan.”
He snorted, “Well, he should get to work on another kid then ‘cause I’m not interested.”
Gardar laughed, “Get some sleep, lad. We’ll talk more when you’re ready, hm?”
He nodded and stood, “For… what it’s worth, uncle Gardar, I think he appreciated you being there even though it hurt.”
Gardar smiled and nodded, “Thanks. I’ll see you in the morning, kid. Good night.”
Bregðask shuffled off to the little workshop where he often fell asleep sprawled across a bench or laying across the cot. As the door closed, Gardar sighed.
It hadn’t worked this time, but what about any other time? Bregðask wasn’t the type to break promises, no matter how many had been broken to him. Gardar remembered making him promise not to take weapons to his lookout point after the first time Bregðask had confessed to contemplating suicide. In all of his years, he still hadn’t found Bregðask’s little section of the island, though he was sure that others probably had.
Gardar shuddered at the memory of the long hours at Svala’s with Bregðask being patched up after a particularly hard day of hunting the runt and realized that the lad had always healed far quicker than a normal Viking. He remembered Eira being there too as she was usually the one to find him if not Kata or Dvalarr.
Gardar placed that thought aside as he stared into the fire. He shuddered every time he thought about the strong threads of fate tying Harvard men to suicide. He’d thought it would have taken Svein from the pressures of leadership or guilt about Valka, but the gene had seemingly skipped him entirely.
Once a generation it seemed, he thought and shuddered again.
Svein and Hilda’s grandfather had simply lost his mind from the horrors of war and saw fit to end it remembering all the blood on his hands. They said he’d looked into the heart of Hel and had never been the same. Their father’s youngest brother had killed himself for the same reason. Hrungnir had lost too much too quickly, and Bregðask had simply never had enough to lose.
Gardar sat in the main area of the workshop and watched the fire flicker as if it was his own son who’d gone running off a cliff. It pissed him off to think that Svein wouldn’t believe it and probably only cared in so far as it was a threat to his position.
Jörmungandr was the ocean, the world serpent, and it would never harm a skyldr. He hadn’t been completely sure because of how hard Svein fought against the notion, but there was no mistaking that Bregðask had inherited more from Valka than her hair color and a lithe build.
Resilience, quick healing, magic: the signs were there and had been growing stronger since he was a child. He knew it was impossible to do what Svein wanted, but he wasn’t sure if Svein would ever see that.
Asgard, please, show me the way.
He could almost feel Hrungnir’s hand on his shoulder, warm and comforting.
It will be alright, he whispered from beyond Midgard. He is a great deal stronger than you fear.
Gardar hoped he was right and wished more than anything that he could hear Hrungnir’s voice outside of these strange midnight moments. Svala told him that such a connection to the halls of the dead wasn’t necessarily a bad thing when it had first started and that he should keep it to himself.
Enjoy your blessing, she’d written on that little piece of paper and sent him off with nothing more than a gentle smile. It is not often that the gods show such mercy.
Asgard, help me.
Hilda sat alone on the peak listening and looking for signs of Valka on the horizon. When she heard the sound of fabric, she looked up as Valka seemed to fall from the sky as graceful as a feather, but Hilda didn’t know what to say as she lowered her face covering and hood.
“You’re here…” Hilda said.
Valka kneeled and embraced her tightly, “I was close enough to make the trip easily. Are you okay?”
“I’m so sorry,” she said, “I– He almost–”
Valka pulled back and tilted her head up so their gazes met, “You need not apologize for anything. It was a risk I was aware of. How is he?”
“I don’t know!” She sobbed, the gravity of it making her head spin, and her hands shake as tears streamed down her face, “I thought I knew, but I don’t. A-All this time, I thought– I couldn’t–”
Valka pulled her close and rocked her as she cried. Valka squeezed her tightly and rubbed her back gently.
“It’s like Hrungnir all over again,” she said, “Like grandpa…He’s hurting so much, and I couldn’t see it. I see him every day. Talk to him, but I couldn’t see it.”
She had tried so hard for her brother, for Gardar, but neither of them had made it easy. While they wore their grief outwardly, they hadn’t let her in. Her nephew had hidden it well beneath sarcasm only letting intermittent breaks in his armor show.
It doesn’t matter, she thought. She should have known. She should have felt something, sensed something before it came to this point.
“Hilda, you can’t blame yourself for machinations beyond your control.”
“What do you mean?” Hilda asked, her voice panicked even in her own ears, “You’re not making any sense!”
“The goðar,” Valka said, and Hilda’s breath caught in her chest. She looked up at Valka.
She remembered the tension in his shoulders when they’d come. The strange sense that something had happened. He’d been passed out when she’d been allowed back in the house, there had been finger-sized holes in the floor, and the distinct feeling that something had gone wrong hung in th air.
“I’m not sure what their goal is,” Valka said, “But it isn’t news that they’re up to something.”
“What do I do?” she asked, “How do I protect him?”
She chuckled, “You don’t need to. Soren is from my family line. The goðar’s tricks are paltry compared to his instincts. When it is time, I will explain it all to him.”
She smiled at Hilda, “To give you peace of mind, the ocean would have only ever returned him to the shore.”
“I’ve told you this. Jörmungandr,” she said with a grand gesture, “The world serpent, the ocean, will never harm her own children.”
Hilda’s eyes widened, “Is… Is that why he’s always loved swimming?”
She laughed, “That and I’m pretty sure he was hot. Calder clothes are too thick.”
Hilda shook her head, “It’s so we don’t freeze to death.”
“We run hot from the time that we’re children through old age.”
“It’s always been obvious, hasn’t it?”
“Yes, but Svein will never see that.”
“Will it get any better?”
Valka stood up, “It will.”
Hilda nodded, “What do we do now?”
“The same thing you’ve always done: be there.”
“It wasn’t enough.”
“This wasn’t the first time,” Valka said, “I can almost guarantee you that.”
Hilda’s eyes widened, “How do I keep him from hurting himself?”
“You won’t have to. Unless Svein has suddenly ordered an arsenal of magic-forged weaponry, there isn’t a weapon on Calder that can kill him, and he will never have a reason to fear the ocean. By now, he knows that there is nothing on the island that will kill him, he’ll feel the difference and sort through his emotions, and the urge will leave him as he does so.”
“How can you be so sure?” Hilda asked.
“It is true of every skyldr without guidance to seek as substantial a connection with magic as possible,” Valka said, “It is an instinct that is confused with the urge to die when in isolation like one would feel in Calder.”
“Why leave him here?”
“Better an urge than murder,” Valka sighed into the bright sky, “And I never imagined that Svein would do this”
Hilda snorted, “My brother is just like our father.”
“I am learning that, and that is a regret I will have to bear and hope that Soren can one day forgive me for.”
“He will understand,” Hilda said, “Given time. Given answers.”
“I hope so,” Valka turned to the horizon, “I should head back before I’m missed.”
Hilda stood and clasped arms with her.
“Soon,” Valka said, “Soon.”
Hilda nodded, “I trust you.”
Valka lifted her hood and face covering while walking over the edge and higher into the air.
“Don’t kill your brother.”
“I make no promises!”
Valka laughed and flew off to join the large creature waiting for her in the clouds, and Hilda turned back to the Harvard house. She rubbed her eyes trying to fight the pull of nóttleysa. Feeling a little more at ease, she climbed the stairs, went to her room, drew the blackout curtains, and crawled into bed. For the first time in years, she opened a jar of Ketill pudding and enjoyed it.
Somehow, it was better than the cups of mead she’d originally planned on having.