The Shadows of Winter

[Set in the northernmost reaches of Asgard, as described in Black Wolf: The Binding of Loki.]

Bitter winds buffeted the turf walls of Sigyn’s modest house, whistling across the smoke hole as Sigyn stoked the longfire that had burned down to little more than embers in the centre of the elongated pit. Sigyn preferred to be conservative with firewood, especially this early in the winter; already there were signs that the ocean waves were turning to icy slush near the shore. The autumn equinox had passed weeks ago, and the days had grown short while the shadows had grown long. This far north they would be lucky to see signs of warming before the spring equinox. It would do them no good to run out of fuel early on account of wastefulness.

So, the flames were kept low except beneath an old iron pot that hung from the ceiling in the centre of the narrow, one-room house. That part of the fire was well-fed so their food would cook, while the two smaller pots that held melted snow for drinking or washing sat at the edge of the coals to stay warm. One was barely half full, so Sigyn emptied it into the cooking pot, pulled her wool shawl tight, and braced for a blast of icy air.

The old house, inherited from her miserable lout of a first husband, had two doors: the main entrance the family used and a second entrance by the pen so the animals could be led outside. Sigyn used this second door as she felt no guilt disturbing the animals. She opened the door just wide enough to reach outside and dip the pot into the snowbank that had crept up the wall of her home overnight, then yanked the door shut. The horses shuffled and snorted as the cold wind touched them, and one indignant sheep bleated in discontent, but with the fire blazing again, Sigyn could see that Vali and Narvi had hardly moved.

She set the little pot and a flat iron pan on the coals, mixed millet with dried apples in the cooking pot, and began mixing dough for the flatbreads that would keep the boys full for the day. They weren’t quite grown—her elder son, Vali, was barely showing his first beard—and yet they ate almost as much as their father. They had not inherited Loki’s imperviousness to the weather nor any of his other peculiar talents, but they had been gifted his handsome features and voracious appetite.

The thought of her husband made Sigyn’s stomach clench. It was not like Loki to return to the Northlands so late in the year after his annual journey south. That had always been part of their marriage agreement: he would stay with her and the children during the hard, lean northern winters but would be free to travel south during the relative comfort of the summer months. Loki always came home with stories of his adventures with Thor, and his ability to change shape made him a most entertaining storyteller.

Now that the boys were older, they sometimes asked if their father’s stories were true. They had visited their uncles and cousins in the capital only once many years ago, so they could not imagine such wild tales could actually happen. But she believed them. Loki’s stories were very real to her, and she wished he were home to tell them.

Sigyn tried not to feel the knot in her belly as she laid the first thinly rolled flatbread on the hot pan and stirred the porridge. Wiping her hands on a linen rag she hung over her belt, she walked around the long hearth to the low bench on the other side.

“Vali, wake up,” she whispered, shaking the lump beneath the warm layers of wool and fur. When Vali grumbled, she shook him harder. “Wake up. It’s your turn to do the milking.”

Sighing with resignation, Vali threw off his blankets and grimaced at the cold, then nearly kicked his brother as he wriggled to the edge of the bench. He reached for the ladle that hung near the hearth and poured himself a cup of warm water before slouching off to the pen. His grumpy pout and bleary-eyed stare made Sigyn smile.

When Vali came back, Sigyn ladled some milk into the porridge while Vali woke his brother by stripping his blankets from him without warning. Narvi mewled at the rude awakening.

“You cold, little brother?” Vali teased.

Narvi responded with his father’s tongue. “The cold doesn’t bother me, but you smell like sheep shit.”

Sigyn stifled a laugh as Vali smacked his brother’s leg, then handed her elder son a bowl of millet and the first flatbread. While the next flatbread cooked, Narvi poured himself a cup of milk and Sigyn prepared a bowl for him. The boys were too tired and hungry to snark at each other over breakfast, so Sigyn quietly admired her growing sons by the firelight.

Once the boys had each eaten a flatbread and at least two bowls of porridge, Vali tucked his axe into his belt and the brothers wrapped themselves in their heavy wool cloaks, hats, and mitts to shepherd the animals out into the blustery dawn. By the time they had goaded the animals outside, they had let in a small snowdrift and let out a half-dozen curses between them. Shivering, Sigyn pulled her woollen shawl more tightly around her shoulders and finished making the rest of the day’s bread before finally preparing herself a cup of milk and bowl of porridge.

The house was suddenly silent except for the crackling fire, but the quiet did not bring any peace. Sigyn’s mind constantly turned over and over again, thinking and rethinking all the possible reasons Loki had not come home yet. Maybe he had stayed in the city for the harvest assembly, even though he did nothing there but eat and mock the highborn; he may have gotten himself (and probably Thor, too) into trouble in Jötunheim, and not for the first time; he might have been searching for possible wives for his sons the way Odin had done for him, but she couldn’t imagine that the nobles would deal with him at all, and he always complained that farmers who tried to sell their pigs and marry off their daughters often got the two confused. Perhaps he was dallying with his mistress and their strange daughter, the daughter Sigyn hadn’t been able to give him.

She knew about Angrboda. Loki kept no secrets from her, and though he didn’t talk openly about his other family, Sigyn knew that they were the main reason he travelled to Jötunheim every year. But she did not complain. That, too, had been part of their marriage agreement. As long as Loki cared for his children with her, she would willingly turn a blind eye to his wanderings. Still, the knowledge of his second family cut through her like a sword. For all Loki’s faults—his wicked tongue and bad temper—she loved him, and waiting for him to return was like bleeding to death slowly.

Sigyn’s shoulders slumped. No longer hungry, she set down her bowl of half-eaten porridge. There were still chores to do before she visited her father, and she hoped the work would help clear her mind. She scraped the remaining porridge into another bowl and cleaned the pot with some warm water, which she hastily tossed outside before filling the pot with snow. Her frozen fingers hung the pot over the fire then retrieved a hunk of dried, smoked beef that hung down from the rafters.

When her small seax wouldn’t cut through the toughened flesh, she took the family’s other axe and hacked most of the way through it, finishing with her seax so she wouldn’t damage the wooden bench. She hung up one half of the meat and then cut most of the rest into large chunks, which she tossed into the pot with the melting snow and some dried vegetables. The thinnest hunk of meat she wrapped in a clean linen towel with two of the flatbreads and a dried turnip. Gently, she place the last bowl of porridge into a leather sack, making sure the bowl settled nicely at the bottom, then covered the bowl with the package of food, the flatbreads settled neatly over the steaming millet.

Sigyn pulled her fur-lined hat over her hair, draped her cloak around her shoulders, and cradled the sack of food in her mittened hands. The biting wind greeted her at the door and escorted her on what felt like an unbearably long walk, whipping at her face and blowing snow into her eyes. She clutched at the food and cursed at herself every time she slipped or stumbled. The last thing she needed was to be covered in her father’s breakfast.

When she finally arrived at Calder’s empty house, she was surprised to see the fire roaring. Her father’s withered body could hardly move anymore, and she had been forced to relinquish a bucket for him to use when he couldn’t get to the outbuilding. It seemed that he had gotten up earlier and was all wrapped up in his blankets again, a wet rattle emanating from his throat as he tried to sit up.

Sigyn set the food down near the door and rushed to Calder, helping him sit upright and wrapping one of the heavy blankets around his shoulders.

“I see you haven’t forgotten to feed me, as you said you might,” the old man wheezed.

“I was tempted,” she said, retrieving her father’s breakfast, “especially given the weather. I wish you would stay with us.”

Calder’s bony hands shook as he took the bowl of tepid porridge from his daughter. His rheumy eyes brightened as he caught the scent of the cooked apples, his favourite. He took a spoonful of the porridge and chewed it thoughtfully as Sigyn looked on. Every day she asked him to stay with her family, and every day he politely ignored her plea. He was tired of evading her questions, tired of being a burden, tired of being alive.

“You’re a good daughter, my girl, but I’ve wasted my life and yours. I’ve nothing left to look forward to, and you’ve got sons who need you. Let me die here, out of your way.”

Calder stared into the fire and raised another spoonful of millet to his lips. Sigyn turned away, wiping tears from her eyes.

“No, I won’t just leave you, and it would make my life a lot easier if you would just come live with me.”

Calder sighed. It certainly would make her life easier, and he wondered if maybe he should just give in. Still, he was a proud man, and as much as he would like to see his grandsons every day, he did not want to see them stare at him with pity. All they would see was a pathetic old man who could not even live in his own home.

“I know, Sigyn, I know,” he grumbled. “But it’s not like I’ll ever see Valhalla. I’ll be in the cold and dark until the end of days, and then … who knows. I’d at least ask for the dignity to die in my own house.”

Not wanting to fight with her father about where he should die, Sigyn smiled back through the tears, wishing that at least one of her sorrows would take flight and never return. “Very well. If you want to die a stubborn old man, there’s nothing I can do about it.”

The old man smiled appreciatively and patted his daughter’s arm.

Choking back a flood of tears, Sigyn nodded.  “Let me start your dinner,” she said, once again eager to have work to do. She stood and looked into the pot that hung over the fire, pleased to see that her father had finished yesterday’s stew. He hadn’t been eating well lately, but perhaps this was a good sign. She poured some drinking water into the pot to cool it a little and wash out the dried food before collecting some snow and dumping it and the turnip into the pot.

Sigyn looked at the tough, dried meat and had second thoughts about how well it would cook as one piece. Her father’s teeth were bad, and if the beef didn’t soften up enough, he wouldn’t be able to eat it. However, his axe was not hanging by the door, where he usually kept it. It hadn’t fallen and it didn’t seem to be lying anywhere.

“Father, where’s your axe?”

Calder finished chewing a bite of his flatbread and cleared his throat. “Loki took it. Said he’d cut me some yule boughs if I let him borrow it.”

The sound of her husband’s name made Sigyn’s heart jump, but only for a moment. Loki and Narvi looked so much alike that Calder often confused them, calling them by each others’ names. He must have meant Narvi. She couldn’t see any reason for Loki to come here before going to her home, but why would Narvi need an axe when Vali had taken one with them?

“What did he need the axe for?” Sigyn asked, not bothering to correct her father.

The old man shrugged. “Didn’t ask. None of my damned business, but I don’t know what kind of man doesn’t have his own axe. Every man needs an axe. If he hadn’t given you such fine sons, I’d wonder why you even married him.”

Huffing, Sigyn drew her seax and went to work on the meat. She needed something to take her frustrations out on. Every day that Loki was gone felt like another arrow in her chest, and now her dying father was sitting here criticizing him. A fine jab considering the drunken brute he’d chosen to be her first husband.

But Sigyn did not voice such harsh thoughts. Instead, she tried to think of all the reasons she had married Loki and stayed married to him despite his failings. He was handsome, yes, and spirited; the foster son of Odin, no less. When Odin had found her, she was a childless widow and her father’s only surviving child. The stories of All-Father’s most difficult son were not terribly appealing, but it was hard to say no to Odin, especially when the possibility of marrying his son meant that she could give her father the grandchildren he craved, children who would always be cared for and protected.

But Sigyn did not say this either. Instead, she very plainly stated “I married him to confound you, old man.”

Calder laughed through a mouthful of bread but began to cough as his breakfast got caught in his throat. Sigyn dropped her seax and rushed back to her father, thumping him on the back as his hacking turned to wet gurgling. After a moment, Calder managed to clear his throat and catch his breath, much to his daughter’s relief.

“Well then,” the old man said, his milky eyes twinkling, “you couldn’t have picked a finer man.”

* * *

Sigyn finished preparing food and cleaning for her father, then made sure he had enough drinking water for the rest of the day. Once she was sure he would be comfortable, she left to finish her chores at home, fighting the winds all the way. Even the sounds of the pounding ocean waves barely more than a hundred feet away could not be heard above the howling wind.

The rest of the day was all work and worry for her as she cleaned and weaved and sewed and tried not to wonder where Loki might be. The boys each took a turn coming in from the cold to warm themselves by the fire, always leaving with some of the flatbread to share. The meagre light stopped shining down through the smoke holes in the roof before they finally returned, their ruddy cheeks cold and windburned and their bellies empty. The horses snorted and the sheep huddled together in their pen, relieved to be out of the winds.

“Is the stew ready, mother?” Narvi asked, shaking the snow off his cloak and hat before laying them on the bench to dry.

Sigyn pursed her lips at Vali, who was already eating the stew right out of the pot. He hadn’t even bothered to take his cloak off yet. “I think you should ask your brother.”

Vali finished slurping up a spoonful of hot broth before sheepishly filling his bowl with steaming stew. “It’s good,” he assured them.

The family ate together, happy to have the warmth of the fire and good, hot food. The boys finished off most of the stew and the remaining flatbreads, but Sigyn struggled to empty her bowl. Her stomach was still twisting from the day’s worries.

“Narvi, did you borrow your grandfather’s axe today?” she asked cautiously.

The brothers looked at each other then back to her.

“No,” Narvi said, shaking his head slowly. “Why?”

Sigyn nearly dropped her bowl. “My father said Loki borrowed his axe, but I thought he meant you. If that was your father, then where is he now? Ymir’s blood, what is that man up to?” Practically throwing her dinner aside, Sigyn stood and began pacing in front of the fire, one hand on her clammy forehead and the other on her aching stomach.

Concerned, the boys rushed to their mother, and Vali wrapped his arms around her tightly while Narvi hugged them both.

“It’s okay, mother,” Vali whispered. “If that was our father, he can take care of himself and I don’t think he’s fool enough to cause trouble with the villagers. Well, at least, not with an axe.”

Sigyn sniffled, trying to control the sobs that rose in her throat. “He said Loki was going to cut him some Yule boughs, but that was this morning. That couldn’t possibly take him all day.”

Narvi squeezed her. “You know how he is. He probably got distracted, and it’s not like the cold slows him down any. I just hope he remembers to bring the axe back.”

Sigyn chuckled and wiped her face on her sleeve. “You’re right, I’m sure he’s fine. But maybe … what if it wasn’t Loki?”

For a brief time, the house was perfectly silent as Sigyn’s sons shared dark looks. A moment later, Sigyn began to sob.

“Oh, mother, no,” Vali cooed, rubbing Sigyn’s heaving back. “I’m sure Father is fine, wherever he is. And if Grandfather is giving things away to strangers or losing them and imagining visitors took them, then he’s just going to have to come stay with us whether he likes it or not.”

Both boys were relieved when Sigyn’s crying finally subsided. She wiped her eyes and squeezed them each in turn, which made them smile.

“We will be fine, Mother, we always are,” Narvi said as Sigyn stroked his coarse, curly hair. His father’s hair.

Sigyn was about to speak when a noise made them all turn to the main entrance. No one was quite sure they had actually heard anything until it came again, a loud thumping. Sigyn raced to the door, the boys close behind, and snatched the key that hung from her belt. Her hands fumbled nervously but eventually slipped the key into place and turned the lock; when she threw open the door, there stood Loki in the shadow of the doorway. The icy wind lashed his dark curls across his tanned face and rippled his heavy cloak, but he minded the wind no more than if it were a summer’s breeze. His pale eyes sparkled in the dim light, a lopsided grin bringing boyish charm to his dark, angular face.

“What are you doing out here?” Sigyn cried, grabbing a fistful of Loki’s cloak and yanking him into the house.

Loki laughed as he stumbled inside. “You locked me out. Again.”

In a flurry of frustration and pain, relief and joy, Sigyn slammed the door shut and began pounding Loki’s chest with her palms before throwing her arms around his neck and kissing him desperately.

For his part, Loki took his wife’s outburst in stride, returning her kisses enthusiastically, though he hugged her awkwardly with his elbows. Sigyn was a passionate woman, full of lust and fury, though he’d never have known if from the way she ran her household. It was one of the things he loved so much about her, and nothing pleased him more than to rouse the she-wolf.

“Mmm … I’ve missed you, too, my love,” he growled in his deep, husky voice. That mischievous grin returned to his face with a lusty twist.

Sigyn pulled back a little and stared at her husband, touching his face and hair and shoulders just to convince herself that he was really home. Her hands glided along his arms and over his wrists, but when she touched his hands she squealed in distaste and drew back, pressing her fingers together and feeling them stick. She grabbed Loki’s hands again and turned them over to inspect his palms in the firelight.

“Loki, what is all over your hands?”

“I’ve been cutting pine boughs and hanging them in your father’s house. I have more for you just outside the door.”

Sigyn looked at her husband strangely. “So you were at my father’s house this morning. He said you’d been there, but I thought he was talking about Narvi.”

“He called me by name? Really?” Loki asked, cocking his head. “He called me Narvi the whole time I was there. Gave me an earful for not having my own axe.”

“Well, you know he gets confused sometimes,” Sigyn replied, beaming with joy at having her husband home and knowing her father had not lost all of his faculties. But she still had some questions. “So, where have you been? I was expecting you back weeks ago and going mad with worry.”

Loki kissed his wife’s furrowed brow. “I am so sorry, my love, I was helping Thor get out of some trouble.”

A sceptical look clouded Sigyn’s eyes. “What kind of trouble?” she asked, certain that it was the kind that Loki had gotten him into.

Shrugging uncomfortably, Loki averted his eyes. “Oh, he got into a scrap with Geirröd.”

“Geirröd? Geirröd’s a brute, but I’ve seen Thor handle worse. Why would he need your help?”

Loki huffed. “He forgot his belt and hammer, that’s all.”

Incredulity widened Sigyn’s eyes. “Is that so? And how might he have ‘forgotten’ such important items on his travels?”

Exasperated and more than a little embarrassed, Loki grunted loudly and crossed his arms over his face, being careful not to touch anything with his hands. “It’s a long story, Sigyn. Just let me hang the boughs and have some dinner and I’ll tell you everything,” he said, lowering his arms and gazing pleadingly at his smirking wife.

“We’ll hang the boughs, father. You clean up for dinner,” Vali volunteered while Narvi nodded in agreement. They were eager to hear this story.

“Thank you, boys,” Loki said, hugging each with his elbows before they dashed outside to retrieve the cut pine.

Smiling, Sigyn reached opened Loki’s cloakpin and lifted the heavy wool garment off him, gently shaking the melted snow from it. “I’m afraid we’ve eaten most of dinner. There’s only a little stew left, but I can make some porridge nice and quick to fill you up.”

“Yes, I would like that,” Loki said, grinning at her like a lovesick boy.

Sigyn couldn’t help but return the smile. She could smell him on the cloak—perhaps a little too much, but he’d been travelling and needed a bath. As she laid his pungent cloak on the bench to dry, she thought about giving him a thorough wash in the morning once the boys had left for the day. Even when he was dirty, she loved the smell of him, his earthy musk and smoky clothes and … and what was that terrible burning smell?

Sigyn looked up to see Loki’s hands on fire. “What are you doing?”

The yelling startled Loki, who extinguished his flaming digits and pulled them close to his body. “I was trying to burn the pitch off my hands.”

“Go do that outside. It smells awful.”

Sigyn tried to wave away the wisps of acrid smoke as Loki slipped past his sons and out the door.

Narvi set his armful of sticky pine on the nearest bench and wrinkled his nose. “Something stinks, and it’s not Vali this time,” he complained, earning a swat from his older brother.

“That was your father trying to burn his hands clean,” Sigyn said, scraping the remnants of the stew into a clean bowl, grateful that her husband was home to chase away the shadows of winter.

This post is part of the Renaissance holiday blog roll! Find out what it’s all about here!

For more on Sigyn and the role of women in the Viking Age, see “The Writing of Black Wolf: How I came to Understand the Norse Myths and the Woman Behind the Destroyer of Worlds“.

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