If I recall correctly, this was the opener to one of the very early drafts of Liesmith. If you’re wondering “was Viking marriage really that complicated”, then yes. Yes, it was. (And so is the thing about the sagas predicting doom for fathers who forced their daughters into bad matches…)
Everything is true, especially the lies. That’s the trick.
Every story ever told, every hero, every god. Every tale to ever cross a mortal mind.
Imagination is a wondrous thing, the universe’s beating heart. A beat that takes creation’s blood and twists it into life, into stories. From the smallest daydreams to the very gods themselves, every single birth heralded with those most ill-fated words: once upon a time.
Once upon a time there lived a girl, the only daughter of a shipbuilder. Her mother lost in childbirth, her father not remarried.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. If you’ll ever hear it again.
The heroine of our forgotten tale is plain of face and bold of heart. She helps her father with his ships. Knows how to wield an axe. Is both feared and loved by local boys for both. They ask for her hand, every now and then, and so the girl’s father comes to her and says things like, “What about that Bjarni fellow, eh? I think he’s sweet on you.”
Bjarni, who goes a-viking. Bjarni, who spends many days away from home. Who brings back gold and slaves from raids upon the Saxon shores. What more could a father want for his only daughter than a wealthy, largely absent husband with the short life expectancy of one whose trade is violence?
But the shipbuilder’s daughter has no interest in handsome, wealthy, doomed Bjarni. “He is weak at wrestling,” she tells her father. “I beat him just last month, and now he seeks to shame me for his loss by taking me for a wife. Why would I want such a dull thing to keep my bed?”
The father knows he could make his daughter take the match. It would bring him a good bride-price, and sometimes things are hard, even with the strong back and clever hands of his only child.
The father knows this, just as he knows what woe the sagas say befall men who sell their daughters into sadness. What spite the great ásynjur, Frigg and Freyja, reserve for such dire things. And so the father merely tells his girl she has a heart to suit her name, and tells Bjarni to find a different wife, and prays the gods might send to him a man his daughter will accept.
In truth, the gods listen less to mortals than the latter like to think. But the spiral of the Wyrd—of fate, of stories—is a wicked thing. And so it is that, one day, the shipbuilder’s daughter is walking in the woods when she hears a most awful crash. The sound of screams and snapping branches, then an impact that shakes the earth.
Never one to shy from trouble, she hefts her axe and runs towards the noise. There, she finds a pack of wolves have cornered something on the ground. Something that’s fallen from the sky, judging from the broken trees and crater.
The wolves howl as the shipbuilder’s daughter strikes the haft of her axe against their sides. They don’t stand long before her fury, fleeing out into the trees. She doesn’t chase them, instead turns to where their prey flaps and writhes, bloodied in the dirt. It’s a bird, a large gyrfalcon, and its wings are broken. It’s what fell, though when the girl looks up at the devastation she perhaps thinks it too much for one single bird to make.
Perhaps her heart beats a little faster as she unclasps her cloak, throwing it atop the flailing, squawking beast. He cries and thrashes in the trap, then tries to bite and claw as the girl lifts him in her arms.
“Hush,” she tells him. “Enough of that, or I will leave you here for the wolves on their return.”
The bird quiets, and the girl’s palms begin to sweat.
They have stories that warn of things like this. The girl had never thought them true. Perhaps she still wishes she did not.
She brings the bird into her home. Cleans his wounds and binds his wings that they may not heal so crooked. Brings him meat and water, makes for him a bed of wool and furs. By day, he comes to sit upon her hand as she rides into the village, or watches her with poison eyes when she helps her father with his ships.
More suitors come, and still the girl spurns all of their attentions. Her father tries to plead that she should take a groom, but the girl has no care to listen. And so they fight, in the way that family often does.
After these fights, the girl confesses her desires to the falcon who now rarely leaves her side. For she is a shipbuilder’s daughter, who has grown with a head full of the tales of sailors and of merchants.
“I wish to travel,” she says. “To see the endless southern sea, to walk the tundras of the east. The deserts they say sit at Miðgarð’s edge. So many lands, and people. But if I am made wife, no matter that my husband be kind and handsome, I will never be more than his bride. The woman who keeps his home, who lives and dies upon these shores, as did my mother and hers before. I would not have this, not when I could have the world instead.”
The bird says nothing in return. Yet he listens, and in his heart he feels a kinship. The same thing he had felt when he was young. The same thing he paid such an awful, bitter price to keep.
Time passes. The bird’s wings heal, as these things have wont to do, and soon he knows he is in fit state to return unto his home. Perhaps this is a thought he doesn’t relish—a thought he will learn to curse more greatly yet—but perhaps also within his clever wicked mind he sees a plan.
And so, one day, the girl wakes to find the nest of wool and fur now emptied but for few feathers and a single strand of fiery hair.
Perhaps her heart is sad at the flight of her companion, perhaps she expected nothing less. And so she hefts her axe and goes to work.
It is a long day, doing chores both of a wife and of a son, and when she returns to her father’s house she is sore and aching, covered in dirt and sweat.
Her father waits for her by the fire. He has a look upon his face the girl has never seen.
The source of this is another man who stands beside him. A stranger dressed in gold and silk and furs, such finery as would put a king to shame. He is not tall, but fine featured and with the sun-dark skin of those hailing from the south. When he looks at her, the girl sees madness in his poison gaze.
His hair is fiery red.
Often do the gods ignore the prayers of mortals. Perhaps there is reason this is so.
The stranger has brought a bride-price: a chest filled with greater riches than the girl had ever thought to see. She looks at it, then at her father. Feels anger brew within her gut.
“I am not a thing that can be bought at market,” she tells the stranger.
When he laughs, she hears the very gods brought to their knees.
“This is not for you,” he says. “It is for your father, who will need to pay ten men to do the work he is used to from a single girl.”
“And where will I be?” the girl asks. Though, in truth, she thinks she knows. Thinks perhaps that she has always known, in the wicked way of Wyrd and tales.
And the stranger says, “Where is it that you wish to go?”
When he extends his hand, he holds within it morning-gift. A dowry for a bride, given from her groom-to-be.
It is a single golden apple.
This is a story no one tells. Perhaps that means it is a lie. A new scene, scribed over palimpsest. Something prettier, something to serve a better purpose than whatever ugly letters lie beneath.
Some stories are forgotten, overwritten. But nonetheless, everything is true.