Mikael rubbed the sleep from his eyes as he exited their cabin. Though he supposed he could have taken the captain’s one instead of offering it to his father, it just did not seem right somehow. Technically, he might have more experience than Bjⱷrn, but this new order of things was more egalitarian.
Each brought to Njörður’s Captive that which they did best. He charted the course while Bjⱷrn cut deals with top restaurants in London and other cities for their best and freshest catches. Even Svein was beginning to come around. His expertise lay in the complexities of navigating the legalities: licenses, permits, customs, and even intricacies of relationships with other fishermen. It should make things easier for them all.
This trip, in particular, was wearing on him. Kirsty. She was nearing the end of her pregnancy, just six more weeks – if she made it that long. He found himself jealous of Svein, the time his brother got to spend with their wife now. There was nothing he wanted more at the moment than to spend hours in her arms, rubbing her fecund belly, feeling the babies move, and sucking those lush breasts, even if the reward was only a drop or two of the sweet pre-milk that his mother taught was called colostrum.
Instead, he was stuck at sea with his baby brother and father. They had lost Karl a couple of weeks ago. While Mikael understood the family pressures, he knew that it was a difficult choice for the young man to return to his brothers, where he would never be anything more than the most inexperienced, another back. He understood that feeling too well. But he also knew loyalty, especially since the plea came from Karl’s dying mother.
He needed to figure something out. While he enjoyed having his father with them again, he knew that the old man’s heart was back at The Holding with their mother. The Homdling, he corrected himself with a smile. No, he needed to give some serious thought to hiring another hand. The trouble was there was such finality to that. An admission that Svein would never return to the sea. He was not sure that he or his brother were ready to admit that truth just yet.
The smell of bacon drifted through the haze as he stumbled into the galley. Bjⱷrn stood by the stove with several pans on the various burners. “What’s for breakfast, lillebror?”
Bjⱷrn turned with a spatula in hand, “Pancakes, eggs, and bacon.”
Mikael inhaled and nodded, “Damn, sometimes I love Mama’s American roots. That beats the hell out of muesli, rye bread, and cheese.”
Bjⱷrn smiled as he turned back to the stove, plating up their breakfasts, before handing Mikael his and taking a seat across the table. “I have ulterior motives. I am buttering you up,” his brother held out the butter dish.
Mikael chuckled, “Let me guess. You want my help dragging Kirsty’s butt to Oslo when we get home.” He did not bother making it a question. He knew that if Bjⱷrn had his way, their wife would have never left the city when they took Svein home two months ago. He understood Bjⱷrn’s fears, but he also empathized with their wife’s connection to the Homdling. He had been trying to balance the two for weeks.
“Mama’s Thanksgiving is only three weeks away. How about we wait until after that? I know it would mean a lot to them both if we were all together for the holiday.”
Bjⱷrn shook his head, “If she even makes it that long. Twins most often come months, weeks early. We have waited too long already, Mikael.”
Mikael brought a bite of food to his mouth and chewed slowly, trying to buy some time as he once more pondered the dilemma, another one that he had been trying to avoid.
It was another irony. Greta could not wait to escape the Holding. Those final weeks spent in Bodo as they awaited Monica’s birth had been the only part of her pregnancy, his ex-wife liked. Shopping, restaurants, they had eaten out every meal. She would not have it any other way. Hell, she had even begged and pouted until he had taken her to the clubs one night, though he was careful to be sure she did not drink. Over a month in Oslo would have been like heaven to that woman.
But not Kirsty. She had been subtly hinting about keeping with family tradition. Babies were born in the same bed in which they were made. Mikael liked the idea. And if this were only one baby, he would take Bjⱷrn out to the fighting fields over it. But his little brother was right. This pregnancy was twins. And that meant more risk for the babies and her. He was no more in favor of risking Kirsty’s life than his baby brother.
“Alright,” he sighed as he brought another bite towards his mouth. “I’ll back you on this one, but you take the heat. Understood? And I suggest you have this same conversation with Svein and Mama. Kirsty is going to do everything she can to delay this one until it is too late. A united front is your only hope.”
His brother smiled and practically hopped from the table with glee as he began to plate up the rest of the food for his father. Mikael was reminded of the day that he had taken that little brat to see the ramshackle fort he had built out of leftover pieces of wood from their mother’s greenhouse.
He considered continuing this conversation; his baby brother was underestimating their wife’s resolve on this one. Mikael knew that this issue was not going to be as easily solved as Bjⱷrn thought. But he needed to get to the bridge and relieve his father. He had been reluctant as it was to allow Olaf to take his turn, captaining the ship overnight.
His father had not left him any choice, telling Mikael to get another hand if he did not trust him. It was not trust but guilt that motivated him. His father did not belong at sea anymore. Their mother needed him, and Olaf deserved that time with her. Mikael sighed as he stood, taking his plate to the sink.
He was back where he started this morning. What to do about crew? He knew that it was a conversation he must have with Svein. But like this one with their wife, it would not be painless. But almost three months after surgery and two of intensive therapy with Kirsty three times a day, Svein could barely manage with a walker. Crutches and a cane were out of the question.
Mikael was beginning to suspect that his brother would never be able to return to the sea. That was as hard to face as Bjⱷrn’s fears of losing her, and a much getter likelihood. No, he needed to face this one head-on, just as they must with their wife as well. Pretending and ignoring problems was what had caused so much trouble in the past. He did not want it marring this new future that their shieldmaiden was leading them towards. He would speak to Svein and Kirsty as soon as they returned to the Homdling.
Georgia looked out over the field. It was practically barren now. But in summer, when they had first arrived, it had been awash with color. Yellow. Red. Orange. Blue. Purple. Even the White Lace that she learned was Kirsty’s favorite held far more beauty and mystery than plainness.
A small brook ran through this back portion of their home. The Holding or Homdling as her charge Monica had redubbed it. It was that stream that had first drawn her to this place. It had been just too much like the ‘safe place’ she had created in her mind for her to ignore. And as with that ‘safe place’ she came here often, whenever her soul was troubled, she sought out its beauty and serenity.
But she had been avoiding this place for the past few weeks. Since that day. She still had trouble thinking about it. The way she had broken down. She did not even remember all of what happened. There were huge chunks of time missing. She remembered being here with Monica on a day like this, though a bit warmer, and there was still some sun then. The next thing she was truly aware of was waking in her bedroom the following day with Petrine fussing over her.
Since then, she had worried about what she might have said or done. But that did not seem to matter to them. While others might have fired her and sent her home for leaving her young charge vulnerable like that, they had shown nothing but concern for her. Concern that not even her own mother ever had. That bothered her, too.
She looked up at the sky. This was the lightest part of the day, and even that could hardly be counted as daylight. Winter was rapidly closing in now. Time was slipping away from her. The sand in the hourglass seemed to be moving faster now.
She had finally mustered the courage to broach the subject of returning with Mikael. But he had dismissed her, said that the seas were too rough. He had bargained for a few more months. With the holidays coming and Kirsty so close to delivering their babies, they needed her more than ever. He promised that he would keep tabs on her mother and pass along much of the money she made to her.
Was it the right thing to do? She was almost sure that her mother was giving it all to her father, who would only drink and gamble away their chance of escaping. It was guilt that motivated her. Somehow or the other, she hoped that the money would buy her mother a reprieve. That her father would be away with his friends more and perhaps, maybe not beat her mother as much. That was highly unlikely, though.
Months here, and she still had no plan. No long-term idea of what she was going to do. Or, more importantly, how she was going to save her Mama. She had not even heard anything directly from her since she left London. Not a single letter passed to Roz or Mikael when they checked in on her. Georgia knew it was her Papa’s fault. His way of punishing her for leaving. And perhaps a feeble but surprisingly effective attempt to control her even from a thousand miles away across the sea.
Nothing had changed. Bruises that her mother could not hide but would never confirm. She knew that Mikael and Roz especially had done their best to convince her mother to leave. Mikael had even reluctantly admitted that he had offered to bring her to the Holding.
Georgia sighed heavily as she picked one of the few remaining flowers in what she had learned was also called the ‘fighting field.’ The place where it was brother against brother at times. She had been shocked as she listened to Petrine and Kirsty almost laugh about the struggles that had taken place here. Petrine said that the flowers grew so well in this place because they had been fertilized with generations of blood.
She supposed in some way that should have brought comfort. Solace. Perspective. To know that all families had their struggles. Their arguments. Their fights. But it did not. There was a vast difference in equals settling their disagreements with fists and the abuse that she and her mother had endured. That her mother still was.
She knew that going back there was the only answer. The only way. Whether that meant going back briefly on one of their regular trips to England on Njörður’s Captive or if she would return to stay, perhaps accept Roz’s offer that the woman seemed to press on her every time they spoke, Georgia still was not sure.
It all came back to one thing…hiding. She was hiding. Not just from her father’s punches but from everything. From an uncertain future. And an all too painful past.
Georgia slammed that door in her mind shut before it could open more than a crack. Even though she recognized that it was the key to unlocking the future. She must find the strength and the courage to throw open the door to all that ugliness that was hidden behind her ‘safe place.’ She must face the past before she could plan the future.
But after what had happened last time, that scared her even more. Not yet. Not today. She was not ready. She did not know if she ever would be. But she knew time was running out. Whether she wanted to or not, one day, she would have to face it all. If she wanted to save not just herself, but her mother – before it was too late.
Karl watched the girl from the other side of the stream. He felt a bit like a stalker. Though that had not been his intention when he came to this place that had been his refuge since he was little more than a toddler. And as the youngest of five boys, he had needed to escape from one or the other of his older brothers often enough.
It was a different type of escape he sought this time, though. She was dying. Their Mama. The woman who had not only cooked and cleaned for them but had been their advisor and guide since Papa’s death almost a decade before. He had not even been a teenager when their father succumbed to the vagarities of Njörður. Nils had not yet been a man of thirty, but he had taken the helm of not just Ægir’s Brew but the family. With the same iron fist that Papa had.
Karl shook his blond head as he pondered the decisions that faced him now. That faced them all.
Mama had been the glue that bound them together. A fractious bunch of testosterone that had been continuously vying for glory and supremacy. Karl had stood little chance in those games as the youngest and several years behind his next closest brother Dag. Overlooked and underestimated most of the time. Criticized and ostracized the rest.
As always, it was only Mama’s pleas that had brought him back this time. He had learned and accomplished more in the six months that he had worked for and with their hated cousins than he had the past seven years that he had spent working with his brothers.
He was happy there. At the Holding. With them. And her.
But Mama was dying – and everything was changing now. Her words ate at him, ‘They need you. Your brothers need you. We are family, not them. Come home,’ she pleaded.
Still, he had no answer. And time was running out. His cousins would be going back to sea soon. And as much as he wanted to be with them, to be near her, still, his sense of duty, honor, and loyalty called out with every one of his mother’s pleas.
“Karl, Karl, come quickly,” the dark look on Dag’s face told the man all he needed to know. If that had not, the tears on his brother’s face would have. Time, it seemed, had run out for him already.
He looked regretfully across the bubbling water as she picked a lone White Lace. He had even less to offer her now. The youngest of five. A fishing business that was on its very last leg. Karl had no place in this world to call his own. Nothing to offer the woman that he had come to love, perhaps had from that first furtive glance on Njörður’s Captive.
He knew that she needed someone strong and successful to protect her, and that was not him. “I’m coming,” he pushed the words past the lump in his throat. The tears that were already gathering in his blue eyes blurred his final vision of her.
“I am not going.”
Bjⱷrn was unsure whether to laugh or turn her over his knee and spank her like a child. Not that that would be easy given the size of her protruding abdomen, which was the cause of all this.
As far as he was concerned, they had left this argument for far too late anyway. With just five weeks left to go until her due date, he had been annoying his brothers and mother for over a month. If necessary, they must force her to keep her word to spend the final weeks of her pregnancy in Oslo near hospitals with the capability of managing a high-risk twin pregnancy.
But until now, his pleas had fallen on deaf ears. Having been through all this before with Greta and Monica, Mikael had a nonchalant attitude that irked him badly. It had taken their conversation a few days ago on Njörður’s Captive to sway his brother finally. While Svein shared his concerns, he also sympathized with their wife about city life, any city.
And their mother was completely and utterly hopeless. Bjⱷrn would have thought that given her own experience of his birth, and as what passed for the local ‘sea wife’ or herbalist and midwife, as the modern world would call them, the woman would have more sense. He had begun to fear that she would side with their wife’s completely irresponsible desire to have these babies the ‘old-fashioned way.’
There was no way they were taking the risk of Kirsty going into labor this far from the doctors and medical facilities that could prevent the type of disaster that had almost taken their mother’s life when she hemorrhaged after his birth. Even if this had been a ‘normal’ pregnancy, he would have been against the family tradition of babies being born in the same bed in which they were conceived.
He was glad, though, that even their stubborn mother had, in the end, stood with them. He knew that they were united in this one. “You will go to the apartment in Oslo. We are taking you there ourselves on Monday.”
Mikael reached his hand out for her, but Kirsty rejected the gesture as she crossed her hands over her chest and glared from one to another of them. As always, their wife’s penchant for going for the weak link shone through. “Svein needs me here. We are just beginning to make some real progress in his therapy. And Petrine, how can I possibly miss Thanksgiving?”
Bjⱷrn was glad to see his oldest brother sport that stern, broke no-shit Dom smile as he responded. “Do not worry, Kirsten. I am going with you. Someone has to take guard duty while these two keep things running.”
Kirsty then turned her pleading eyes to the shockingly weakest link, Petrine. “You know that this pregnancy has been textbook perfect. This is all ridiculous scaremongering. There is no reason whatsoever that these little girls can’t be born right here where they belong.”
He held his breath, knowing that his mother had used almost those exact same words just days before when he had broached the subject.
But he need not have worried as his mother rose and wrapped her arm about the younger woman. “If this were just one baby, Kirsty, you know I would stand shield to shield with you against these….” Their mother looked from one to the other of her sons with comical disdain as she shook her head, “…men.”
His uncle’s hand found his mother’s jean-clad bottom, and they all chuckled when Olaf growled, “Be good, woman.”
Yes, in this, at least their family was a united front. And slowly, they were coming together in other areas too. Olaf had returned once more to the sea with them, though begrudgingly. The man had been distracted with some big project that he kept safely hidden in his workshop.
It had been their only option, once Karl had given into his family’s pressure and his mother’s death bed plea to return to work with their ‘cousins,’ if those men deserved such a title. Bjⱷrn still had not forgiven them for the teasing or the attempted beating he had taken as a child. Even if he had gotten the better of it with what his ancestors would have called the ‘berserker rage.’ Old grudges died hard…impossibly so sometimes.
So, Njörður’s Captive was a man down crew-wise at the most critical and lucrative of their season. The winter months when they risked the most for the highest yield and gain. With Svein’s accident, this year was especially crucial as the competition, their cousins especially, looked to gain ground and take a bite out of their edge in this struggle against large corporations and their fish farms. With the ever-increasing regulations on the industry and the decreasing schools of fish, a poor season could be the end of the way of life that their family had followed for centuries. But they were not ready to give into modernity that easily.
No more than they would tolerate her disobedience in this one. Bjⱷrn stared her eye to eye, “You are going. End of discussion.”
To which their adorable wife dared to stamp her foot before turning to flee up the stairs, slamming the door to her room to emphasize her displeasure with them. “Guess none of us have to worry about who she is calling tonight,” Mikael chuckled, and they all broke out in laughter.
Kirsty tossed things into the suitcase without even noticing what they were. Two days…and two incredibly long nights alone, and she was still fuming. She had done her best to finagle them all. Well, except for Bjⱷrn. She knew he was utterly hopeless. But the others she had taken a divide and conquer approach, beginning with Petrine, the weakest link. But none of them had broken ranks. Not even one would stand with her against Bjⱷrn’s silly and unfounded fears.
“Damn them, damn them all to Helveti.” She threw the matching baby quilts that Petrine had sewn for the girls in the bag with goddess only knew what else. It would serve them right if she had forgotten half of what she should have packed. She smiled at the thought of all those late-night trips to the stores in Oslo on a wild goose chase for one thing or another. Oh, yes, she felt a brilliant plan for revenge coming on.
She grimaced and stifled a low moan as that catch in her back that had been bothering her the past couple of days started to act up again. She would have loved to share this monstrosity of a bed with one…two…or all three of them. If for nothing more than to have someone to massage her back when it hurt like this. But she was not giving in to their silliness that easily.
“Almost packed, sweetie?” The soft feminine voice intruded upon her plans for justice.
So, they had been so churlish as to send their mother to do a man’s job? Good. New ideas for their comeuppance blossomed in her fertile mind. As she turned with a frown to her mother-in-law, not even sparing the older woman, one of her stone-cold glares.
“Does it matter if I am or not? As Bjⱷrn said, they will carry me to the boat kicking and screaming if they must.”
Petrine just smiled and shook her head, “I know you are not happy about this, Kirsty. But please understand, my sons love you. None of them can stand the idea of something going wrong, of anything happening to you or those babies.”
Kirsty sighed as she clutched one of the girl’s little pink dresses to her bosom. “Petrine, you know they are over-reacting. I have not had a single problem this whole pregnancy. Not a single one,” she emphasized as she tried one final time to sway the woman.
Petrine closed her eyes and sighed as she nodded, “I know, sweetie. Honest, I do. But between what happened with me and the twins, can’t you bend just a bit? I mean, what is a couple of weeks in Oslo compared with the rest of your lives here on the Homdling as a family?” Her green eyes, which were so much like her youngest son’s, were pleading when she spoke again, “They love you so much, Kirsty.”
Kirsty blew out a deep breath as she saw her last hopes going up in smoke before her eyes. If she could not budge even Petrine, she had no chance against their united front. She turned to toss the tiny dress into the suitcase with everything else. Still, she must have moved too quickly or the wrong way because this time, that nagging pain in her lower back was more like red hot knives slicing through it and spreading around like fingers of agony to grip her lower abdomen. She could not hold back the cry as she clutched her belly and seized the wooden column of her bed until her knuckles were tight.
When the pain began to subside enough that Kirsty could focus again, Petrine was by her side. Her arms wrapped around her back and supporting her as she struggled to remain standing. “Was that the first one?”
Kirsty shook her head in confusion as she struggled to clear her mind, “First what, Petrine?”
The older woman chuckled, “The first contraction, sweetie.”
Kirsty shook her head in denial, “No, the babies aren’t due for another five weeks. That was my back. It has been bothering me the past couple of days. I must have turned the wrong way and pulled something.”
She was not prepared for the laugh that erupted from the other woman’s throat. “You may pull one over on my sons yet, darling,” Petrine replied before turning towards the open bedroom door and calling for them.
Kirsty was confused. None of what the woman said made much sense. What did this nagging backache have to do with anything? She was still trying to put all the pieces together when Bjⱷrn’s blond head appeared in the doorway, followed shortly by Mikael’s darker one. Svein had yet to conquer stairs, but she knew that those two would relay whatever was said to their older brother.
She glared at them both and placed her hands upon her hips as she felt some strange and unknown pressure between her legs burst. She stared in shock at the dark stain spreading on the rug at her feet. Her mind rifled through the possibilities. Over the months, she had become accustomed to female ejaculation. But she had not orgasmed. Then what? Had she wet herself? But it did not feel like she had.
Petrine was laughing even more now as she moved back to her side. “Sorry, boys, but it looks like she has bested you this time. Bjⱷrn, get me my medical bag from the cabin. Mikael, help me get your wife into the bed and comfortable so we can see how far along she is.”
Kirsty opened her mouth to argue with her, but instead, a scream erupted as pain ripped through her lower abdomen and spread upwards until she could watch her whole stomach tighten like something out of a horror film. All that registered was… ‘I’m in labor. I’m really in labor.’ For the first time, she wondered if Bjⱷrn might have been right as the pain, unlike any other, spread from her belly to her soul.
Bjⱷrn raced back to the Holding with the over-stuffed, heavily laden, multi-colored, flowery denim bag that had been his mother’s trademark as the herbalist, natural healer, and sometimes midwife in this community for almost three decades now. Logically he knew that she had delivered half of the children in the village.
But that was not how this was supposed to go. They had discussed this. Had it all planned. Kirsty had promised. She had sworn that if they came back here now, she would go to Oslo with its well-equipped and modern medical facilities to have their babies. She had assured him. And look where they were now.
Maybe they could still get her on the boat and make the trip safely. After all, labor took hours, sometimes days. Especially the first one. Yes, that was the solution. Bjⱷrn smiled as he threw open the door and rushed straight into Svein’s scowling face.
“What is going on up there?” his brother demanded.
Bjⱷrn would have laughed at the apparent distress written on Mister Cool’s face, as their wife had nicknamed his eldest brother. Except that he knew his own face was just as fraught with worry.
“How am I to know anything more than I told you five minutes ago when I came down the stairs? Kirsty is in labor. That is all I know. Now get the hell out of my way so I can go find out.” Bjⱷrn tried to shove his way past his brother and the new walking sticks that allowed Svein to get around with a great deal of effort.
“Damn it, kid. Those are my babies too. And I am stuck down here with no idea of anything that is happening to any of the people I love.”
His words stopped Bjⱷrn cold. Svein’s words of devotion irked him, too little, too late. Nonetheless, he empathized with his brother’s frustrations. He could only imagine how helpless the man must feel. “Okay, I understand. Just let me take Mom’s bag up there and find out what is happening, then I will come back and update you.”
“No, you will help me up those stairs now. I have every bit as much right to be in that room when those babies are born as you and Mikael.”
“Yeah, well, right now, I am hoping that they won’t be born in that damned room. I’m hoping like hell that we still have time to get her to the hospital in Oslo.” Bjⱷrn would have argued the point with him, but at the moment, his only thought was getting to their wife. Instead, he tried to barrel past Svein one more time, only to be greeted with a metal stick blocking his path.
“Enough, you two,” bellowed a gruff voice behind him. “Let the boy past, Svein, so he can take the medical supplies to your mother. That is our priority,” Olaf reasoned as he pushed the cane away. “Then, we will figure out a way to make sure you are part of this too. You have my word on it.”
Svein glared at them both for a moment but then nodded his head almost imperceptibly before stepping out of the way.
Bjⱷrn took the stairs two at a time as he left their uncle to calm his older brother. Not that he blamed the man. He knew that these past few months had been a living hell for Svein. At first, he had even thought that perhaps it was justice. The gods were punishing him for the stubborn way he had treated her and them – for all the pain he had caused everyone. But as he watched his brother’s struggles, Bjⱷrn had realized…no one deserved this living hell. Not even Svein. Especially not this.
He burst through the door to see her face red and sweat pouring down it. But when she opened her mouth and screamed, his knees almost gave way. Bjⱷrn gripped the door handle to remain upright. It was not that they had never heard her scream. Hell, they all quite liked it. But not this. This visceral and primal eruption of the soul ripped out his heart and shattered his mind. Especially when he realized that he was as utterly helpless as Svein.
“Bring me the bag, Bjⱷrn,” his mother crooned. How could she be so calm and undisturbed in this utter madness and chaos?
Somehow or the other, he managed to cross the vast sea between the doorway and bed. Petrine took the bag from his hands as he stared down at his wife collapsed against Mikael’s broad shoulders. “Good girl, elskling. My perfect shieldmaiden,” his brother kissed away the perspiration from her brow and brushed wet hair out of her eyes.
Bjⱷrn was frozen. All he could do was stand there and stare down at her. Every single one of his darkest fears was coming to life and playing on the widescreen in his mind. Losing the babies…or worse yet…her. He tried to swallow the fist that had lodged in his throat, but he could not.
When she looked up at him with tear-filled eyes, he almost crumbled again. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I promise. I thought it was just a backache. I’m so sorry. So, sorry,” Kirsty cried. “I didn’t mean for this to happen. Please forgive me… please.”
He could not even manage to force the words past the lump that blocked his throat even as much as he wanted to, as much as he knew that she needed to hear them.
“It’s okay, Kirsty,” his mother reassured their wife at the same time she was pulling on a pair of sterile gloves. “Bjⱷrn knows you would not do anything like that. But right now, sweetie, we all need to focus on getting these babies born. Especially you.”
He shook his head as his mother’s words reached some dark corner of his addled brain. “No, Mama, we need to get the boat started, her on it, and sail for Oslo as fast as we can.”
Without even looking at him, his mother shook her head as she rearranged the quilt. His befuddled mind could not even grasp what he saw when she did. “That’s not…No! Labor takes hours…days.” But he could not deny the evidence of his own eyes.
Petrine shook her head as she pulled their wife out of Mikael’s arms. “Get your brother out of here.”
Mikael reluctantly released his tiny burden with a nod as he bent and kissed Kirsty’s still damp brow. “I’ll be right back, lilla gumman. You’re doing just perfect. Always our good girl.” But the stony glare that he turned on Bjⱷrn was anything but reassuring, “Come on, kid. Let’s go update, Svein.”
Her face reddened as a deep guttural keening filled the silence. “Please, please forgive me, Bjⱷrn. I promise I did not do it on purpose,” Kirsty pleaded as Bjⱷrn felt the scalding tears slide from the corner of his eyes.
Mikael wanted to shake his little brother until Bjⱷrn’s head exploded. Instead, he whispered, “Tell her that you forgive her.” He gripped Bjⱷrn’s upper arm so tightly that there would be bruises.
But it must have done the trick because his brother shook his head as if waking from a bad dream. Mikael thanked the gods as the man forced a weak smile and took their wife’s hand that she held out for him. “There is nothing to forgive, sweetheart.”
Mikael sighed and loosened his grip a bit but did not release his brother. “We need to help Svein, elskling. You do exactly as Mama says, and I will be right back, I promise.”
He tightened his grip once more as he tugged Bjⱷrn towards the door. Not that he could blame his brother. He did not want to leave her side, either. But he also needed to talk or beat some sense into Bjⱷrn.
And maybe Svein too, he thought, as they reached the top of the stairs. His father was struggling to steady his oldest brother as he dragged himself up the steps. Half using his arms and the other half by sheer will and determination over his virtually useless legs. “What in Helveti are you doing?”
Svein did not even bother to look up. He probably could not risk breaking his concentration as Mikael noted that his brow was as damp as their wife’s. “What does it look like I’m doing? If the two of you won’t help me up these damned stairs, then I will fucking drag myself up them on my stomach if I have to. I am not going to miss my daughters’ births.”
Mikael looked over Svein’s shoulders to his father with pleading eyes as he maintained his grip on Bjⱷrn’s arm. Olaf nodded, “All of you settle down. None of this is doing that girl or those babies a damned bit of good.”
He looked from one of them to the other slowly, “Do you want to end up a bloody mess in the fighting fields or be there for her and those babies? Your fathers and I have done both. And trust me, it is much better to be there than angry and bruised.”
Bjⱷrn nodded his head slowly, and Svein paused, leaning heavily on the banister. “Mikael, what exactly is happening?”
“She’s having those damned babies,” Bjⱷrn blubbered, but the stern look from his father squelched any further outburst.
Mikael nodded, “Yes, Kirsty is going to have the girls. Here and now,” he squeezed Bjⱷrn’s shoulder, partly to keep his brother under control but mostly to reassure him. “Mama thinks that she has been in labor for a couple of days now. She’s been having back pains that Kirsty thought were normal, given this stage of pregnancy. Evidently, it was back labor.”
He left unsaid the guilt that he bore, that they all shared. They should not have allowed her to pout the past couple of days. If they had pushed her, demanded that she choose one of them, not left her alone in that cavernous bed, then perhaps they would have known. Could have spoken to Petrine about the back pain. And none of this would be happening. But they could think and talk about that later. Right now, she and those babies were all that mattered.
His father nodded his head, “So, it is too late to take her to Oslo then?”
Bjⱷrn turned white as the snow that blanketed the ground outside. Mikael gripped his arm tighter as he felt the weight shift, knew his younger brother was struggling to remain on his feet as much as his elder one. “Yes! The baby is coming now. I saw….”
Any other time Mikael would have burst out laughing at Bjⱷrn’s evident distress. And later, he would make sure to remind his baby brother of this. Often. But not now.
“Papa is right. She needs us. All of us,” he looked from one to the other. “But she does not need us angry at one another, blaming each other, or falling apart. She needs us together and united.”
“And strong,” Olaf added. “She needs her Doms to get her through this. All women do but especially a sub. When their world is turned upside down and torn apart. When they are afraid and don’t know what to do, that is when they need you the most.”
His father’s gaze was steely hard as he looked into each of their souls. “The question is…are you up to that job? Are you capable of putting your own bullshit aside and being there for her when she needs you the most? Or are you going to act like a bunch of little boys bickering and fighting still?”
Mikael nodded, “So, what do you say? Bjⱷrn, I know you are scared. But like Kirsty and even Mama told us, she is not the same. There is absolutely no reason to think that she will have any trouble birthing these babies naturally. And you know as well as the rest of us that even if she does, Mama is the best. Maybe even as good as those fancy doctors in the city. So, can you pull your head out of your ass and help me get Svein up these steps before we all miss our little girls’ birth?”
Bjⱷrn inhaled deeply; his logical brain tried desperately to grasp his brother’s words like a lifeline. His mind recognized their truth, but his heart knew only fear. She was his everything. He had waited half his life for her. As silly as Svein might find that, not only was he not ashamed of it, he was proud to have gone to her bed a virgin. The idea of losing what he had worked so hard to find was paralyzing.
But the alternative was to miss their daughters’ births. Worse yet to abandon her when she needed him the most. It was not an eventuality that he could contemplate. He closed his eyes, breathed deeply, and focused on just one thought: her. Being the man that she needed at that moment.
When he opened his eyes again, he met Mikael’s glare with firm resolve. “Let’s go meet our girls.”
He turned to Svein, wrapping his arm around his eldest brother’s waist, “We don’t want to miss this one.”
Svein nodded as he wrapped his arm around Bjⱷrn’s shoulder. Mikael took the other side. Working as the team, they should have always been; it took only seconds to cover the remaining distance. They opened the door to the room that had greeted generations of husbands, wives, and babies.
Their mother looked up as they entered. Her calm soothed Bjⱷrn as she took charge, “Mikael, since you know this routine, you help Kirsty kneel at the edge of the bed.” His brother nodded as he moved towards the bed.
“Bjⱷrn, find Svein a comfortable place where he can see everything. Then help Mikael move Kirsty into position.” Their mother smiled as she pulled on another set of sterile gloves and knelt next to her open bag by the bed. “We’re about to have some babies.”
His wife’s green eyes held pain, fear, and panic. It was always so easy to read her every thought and feeling in them. Olaf was right. She needed them. Needed them all now. He nodded as he dragged Svein across the room and lowered him to the mattress near where their mother knelt.
Bjⱷrn met his brother’s gaze. In that look, something shifted inside of him. Compassion and empathy overcame old hurts. He remembered the words of a book his mother read him each Christmas, “and his heart grew three sizes that day.” For him, it was not just caring or kindness, but responsibility. This was his family. This was his home. And these babies their future.
His gaze shifted as he smiled down at her; Bjⱷrn’s hand reached out to brush her hair back from her damp forehead. “You’re doing perfectly as always, sweetheart.”
He assured her as he reached for one arm. Mikael took the other as they moved her to a semi-sitting position on the edge of the bed. Her bottom hanging over the edge. Mikael knelt on his knees behind her, providing support. Svein was to her left close enough to hold her hand as her face contorted with another contraction.
A low guttural groan rose from her depths as he moved around their mother to take his place on her right, grasping her small hand in his. He feared that she might break the bones in his fingers as she squeezed. His eyes sought his mother’s for reassurance, but she was too busy.
What he saw tore the breath from his soul: a tiny grey-blue head extended from between his wife’s legs. His mother’s fingers worked quickly and expertly to clear thick goo from around the nose, looping her finger inside the tiny mouth and drawing forth more of the muck that fell to the plastic mat on which she knelt.
“One more push, sweetie, and we’ll have a baby,” their mother smiled up at them.
Kirsty was beyond words as she nodded. Mikael leaned forward and brushed a kiss across her forehead, “You’re doing just fine, lilla gumman.”
She turned to Svein, who he noticed squeezed her hand, “Our perfect little sub.”
When she turned to him, he knew what she sought. “Everything is just as it should be,” and he felt that to the depths of his soul. How could he have ever thought that the cold, sterile hospital with bright lights, antiseptic smells, and uncaring doctors was a better place to greet their babies than the warm, loving home in which they were made and would grow? “Just as it was meant to be.”
Kirsty started to smile, but it turned into a grimace as her fingers once more tightened like a vice around his. He was not sure whose screams were louder their wife’s or their daughter’s. The baby slipped quickly into the hands of her grandmother, who wiped more of the pink-tinged goo from that perfect little visage scrunched in anger at her abrupt entrance into this strange new world.
Bjⱷrn smiled as his mother’s tears unashamedly mixed with the goo on the baby’s body. “Bjⱷrn, hand me that towel,” she nodded towards a stack near the electric heater. He reluctantly released Kirsty’s hand, knowing that his brothers would be there. After all those months of just the two of them, alone in London, that too felt right on some visceral level. He quickly grabbed the towels and passed one to his mother.
She rubbed more of that goo from the baby’s chest, arm, and legs before wrapping her tightly in the towel. Petrine lifted her tiny burden to Svein, “Take your daughter. Your wife and I have some more work to finish.”
A tiny flare of that old jealousy once more raised its head. Why should Svein be the first one to hold the baby? But he quickly pushed it aside as her face once more contorted in pain. He moved quickly back to his place beside her.
It was not though another baby that emerged from her spread thighs but a dark red blob. “Good girl,” his mother pronounced as she placed the thing in a bowl he had not noticed before. “Now, we can get back to the real work. One down and one to go.”
Things moved so quickly then that in the years to come when he thought back upon it, Bjⱷrn was never sure what actually happened. It seemed that their mother was smiling at Kirsty one moment, and the next, he was holding another tiny bundle.
The little red face with its tightly closed eyes and mouth gaping wide seemed capable of producing a prodigious volume of noise. The tightness that constricted his massive chest as he pulled his daughter closer to his heart was unlike anything he had ever felt. Even when he had first laid eyes upon their wife. No, this was different. The same in some ways, an intense need to protect and nurture. To be a better human being. To be worthy of this gift. It was different, though — in some indefinable way.
He looked up, noting that Svein had begun to calm her sister to little hiccupping whimpers. Bjⱷrn emulated his brother’s gentle rocking and crooning, but that only seemed to irritate this one more. He tried bringing her to his shoulder as he remembered Monica liking when she was a baby. That, too, only met with louder cries.
Something inside of him seemed to speak. He was not sure what. An ancient instinct, something primordial. Or, as odd as it seemed, some psychic connection with this little human that seemed to communicate itself inside his mind and heart.
He turned his daughter so that her tiny head rested in the palm of his hand, her butt in the crook of his arm with a leg on either side of his arm. Her little face turned to the side so that she could observe it all.
She quieted. A bit more of that goo came up. A cough or projectile vomit cleared her lungs. She screamed once more but then relaxed. Her eyes seemed focused on her mother and grandmother.
Petrine smiled widely as another red blob slipped into that pan. Bjⱷrn wanted to protest as she reached up and seemed to grab hold of the mound of Kirsty’s tummy that had once housed their daughters. She seemed much too rough.
Out of nowhere, as if he anticipated her needs, had done this hundreds of times before, Olaf held out a mug of some steaming concoction. His mother smiled and passed it to his wife, “Drink this, sweetie. It will help the contractions to tighten your uterus, so you don’t bleed too heavily.”
“Mikael, help your wife back into bed. Svein, Bjⱷrn, take care of your daughters for a couple of minutes,” his mother commanded.
He nodded as he drew his daughter close to his body as the pulsating cord would allow. He grabbed another of the towels and wrapped it loosely about her body and his arm. Kirsty turned her head. Her eyes met his. And the whole universe was reduced to those intense spheres.
Perfect. Everything was perfect. Just as it should be. As it was meant to be. Bjⱷrn thought of his latest mental puzzle, the Fatum Project Experiment. The theory that all people exist within their own tunnel of reality, shaped by their qualities, habits, and perceptions. The project sought to disrupt that by introducing random experiences into that tunnel of reality.
But what if your tunnel was perfect just as it is? Did it really matter then if reality was nothing more than a narrow tube of limited existence? Hell, even if we were nothing more than brains in a vat as popularized by those movies, did he give a damn? Why would he want to disrupt a reality as perfect as this moment?
He began to discuss the complexities of the theories and the universe with her. Those blue eyes gazed into his as if as spell-bound with his words as he was with her.
Svein smiled down at Kirsty as his mother finished cleaning and straightening her and the bed. He could barely focus upon his wife’s face through the blur of tears that he did not attempt to hide as he held the small wriggling blanket in his arms.
The baby had an impossibly fine sprinkling of blondish-red down upon the top of her tiny head and the most piercing blue eyes that seemed to stare directly into his soul – and found him wanting. He had not released her since his mother had wrapped her in the blanket and passed her to him before turning back to deliver her little sister.
He was not sure if it had been minutes, seconds, or hours before he heard the lusty cry of her sister join the chorus of whimpers that had begun to quiet as he rocked her gently in his arms. The passage of time had meant nothing then. It reminded him of that thing his mother had tried her best to teach him – something about relativity, but all he had been interested in then was the sea.
But everything was changing now. As Svein stared into those old eyes of their newborn, he knew it was time that he did too — past time, in fact.
The three of them had barely made it back to her bedroom before this tiny bundle had made her surprise entrance into the world. It had taken everything inside of him to allow Mikael and Bjⱷrn to practically carry him up the stairs with one on either side and his arms wrapped about their shoulders. His legs, despite all these months of therapy under her less than tender care and supervision, had been virtually useless as they dragged behind them.
He bent and kissed the fuzzy head as his eyes met Kirsten’s. The lump in his throat felt the size of a fist as he had trouble swallowing around it. But he forced a reassuring smile for her anyway.
It was more than just his legs that were broken, and he knew it. Those steps had broken the pride that had been his warrior’s shield against the perversities of this life. But sitting there holding his baby daughter, surrounded by all the people that he loved and loved him, he knew that it was worth it.
He might not know where he went from here, how he would overcome the insurmountable challenges that loomed over him like the cliffs of the fjord that surrounded the Holding. But he knew that those same cliffs were what had protected this land from invasion and kept it safely in their family’s hands for hundreds of years. And he was determined that it would remain that way for these little girls too.
“I know they are not the sons you wanted, Svein.”
He shook his head and laughed as he reached for her hand, “It doesn’t matter. You are safe, and they are healthy.”
She smiled and nodded with that all too familiar look that he had come to know meant she was drawing a line. “I am glad you see that. Because some things are changing around here. This family has three daughters, who will grow into three strong shieldmaidens, Ran’s daughter.” She paused for just a moment as she held out her arms for the baby.
He did not want to release the tiny package that weighed heavier than ever upon his shoulders. But he was coming slowly to realize that it was not just his shoulders anymore. That this was a family. A team. Together they would make a way through the turbulent waters.
He kissed the baby’s head one more time before surrendering her to Kirsty’s arms. His mother lifted the bowl containing the flesh that was half his daughter’s and half Kirsty’s. She smiled at Svein before holding out her other arm to take her sister from Bjⱷrn. Another bowl nestled nearby. His heart stopped when Kirsty nodded to Mikael to sit with Monica on the other side of the bed. Her little eyes were still half-closed in sleep, having been suddenly woken by her grandfather.
Their wife looked from one brother to the other, “This is not just a new decade or new century. It is a new millennium, a new world. And these girls have as much right as any sons we may ever have to choose their destinies. Njörður’s Captive and the Holding are their heritage too. If they want to fish, that is their right.”
She looked him directly in the eye when she spoke again. “And no more primogeniture. Who captains the boat is decided on ability, not age. Leadership and responsibility are shared. Not just for them but for us too from now on.”
She smiled at Petrine then, “I think one of your countrymen said it well. ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ From now on, this family fights to save our way of life, not against one another. Am I understood?”
Bjⱷrn was the first to nod. Just as he had been the first to see this one’s potential. Mikael smiled as he too nodded, “Ja, lilla gumman.”
Svein tried his best to use his sternest Dom face when he replied, “Seems to me, someone forgets again who is the sub and who are the Doms.”
She shook her head and sighed, “No, that I shall never forget. But I am not that shy, confused, and inexperienced girl you met in that café in Tilbury anymore, Svein. Time, experience, and your loves, most of all, have crafted her into a shieldmaiden.”
“And while in this room, she will always be yours to command, to dominate, she has become so much more than that. I am your wife, the mother of your children, and your partner. Your full partner in all that life throws at any of us.” Tears spilled from the corner of her eyes as they pleaded with him.
He would have continued the teasing, except that he recognized she did not realize that was what he was doing. Instead, he too nodded as he bent and kissed her softly on the lips, “And I would not want it any other way.”
“Now, you figure this out?” It was her turn to tease him. “Oh, and one more thing. These girls are ours. All of ours. Monica too. Children are meant to be loved, not claimed like luggage at an airport. There will be no more…mine or yours in this family. Only ours. Do I make myself clear?”
Svein considered her words carefully. For the first time in history, they possessed the technology to painlessly settle the argument of who’s your daddy. There was no need to look for eye or hair coloring, signs of paternity that were tenuous at best among brothers. A simple swab, and there would be no doubt.
But she was right in this too. It just did not matter. Biology and DNA mattered less than love and responsibility. Shared as one. “Yes, Kirsten.”
She laughed as more tears slipped down her cheek, “That was easier than I thought. Only one thing left to decide. Names.”
Monica jumped up and down excitedly on the bed next to them. “Elsa. Elsa. Elsa and Anna,” she cried out.
“Oh, no,” the three brothers sighed in unison, knowing they had all been bested by a five-year-old.
Mikael kissed the top of Monica’s curls and looked over it firmly at Kirsty. “I blame you. It’s all your fault for teaching this one to talk. Now she never shuts up.” Since that day, the little girl had made huge strides when she found the courage to help her friend.
Svein chuckled as he fought back the tears of laughter and joy. He tried to remember a time when he felt closer to his brothers, his family. But he could not.
She had done this for them. In the space of a year, she had taken three shockingly different and damaged men…brothers…and united them as a family. Her understanding, patience, and especially love had healed them all, even their mother. She had brought them together as nothing else ever could.
He leaned in and kissed her again, “Æ ælske dæ.”
She smiled as both girls began to fidget and cry louder, “Æ ælske dæ. You too. All of you. But I think right now, I need to feed these babies.”
Petrine stepped from behind her sons’ shadows with tears streaming down her cheeks, “Yes, and then get some sleep.” She began to fuss, arranging the pillows, blows, and babies to make Kirsty comfortable as she shooed them all away.
Petrine watched the blues and greens dance across the blanket of the black sky. She had performed her final duty as midwife, burning her granddaughters’ cords and burying their placentas beneath the same ancient Yew that was home to generations of guardian angels. The goddess tree held such deep meaning for the peoples of Northern Europe, the Norse, and the Druids.
Fylgjur were guardian spirits in Old Norse literary tradition. The term apparently came from the Old Norse verb fylgja, to accompany. It was also the word for ‘afterbirth.’ The idea of the placenta as guardian spirits was a common one around the world in many cultures. Petrine had no idea how long ago this family tradition of burying the placentas beneath the sacred tree began. But it had always resonated with her spirit.
She wrapped herself tighter in the thick quilt that she had brought with her. Petrine knew that she ought to go back to the cabin with Olaf. But after hours of checking on Kirsty and the babies, making sure that her sons knew what to do, and, of course, cleaning up, she was just too wired to rest yet. So, as she had for over four decades, she had climbed the fjord at the back of The Holding.
It had been perfect. The birth was textbook. One of the easiest in her quarter-century as the local sea wife. That was not the problem. The problem was her. She did not belong here. Not any more. As she had told them, she was not the bride any longer.
Where had the time gone? Wasn’t it only yesterday that she met Anders at that small café in Amsterdam? She had been traveling for over two years. Her money from the sale of her grandparents’ farm was running low. She was tired of drifting from place to place with no real home, nowhere to call her own. Between steaming hot kisses, she had shared her thoughts with her new friend.
Rachel chuckled as she wondered how that young woman would have felt if she knew that he ran straight back to his three brothers with her every confidence. That her secrets were what had been the deciding factor for them. No one to miss her. No family. Nowhere to go. Adrift. She had been adrift.
Now, she was again. Sure, this place had been her home for most of her life. She had born her sons here. Buried their placentas beneath that same tree. She had loved and lost her husbands here. Made a place for herself and her family here among the high, rocky peaks, deep waters, and this stunning light show of nature. But what now? What did she do now?
Tears trekked down her weathered cheeks. Kirsty had adjusted so much better than she had. Stood into her role as wife, shieldmaiden, and sub. The young woman had almost from the first recognized her destiny and grown into it, pulling her sons together as a real family, healing the old hurts that she and their fathers had unwittingly inflicted. No, the young woman no longer needed her. She would just be an encumbrance.
So, what now? It was the question she had been pondering for over a year. Indeed, from the moment the younger woman had arrived. Of course, in those months when their family was divided, when it seemed that family strife was destined to tear this generation apart too, she had done what she could to stand in the gap once more. To make Svein see the truth, to support Mikael and even Bjⱷrn with their struggles. Oh, how she had missed the closeness she had once shared with Kirsty.
But none of that mattered now. Tonight was closure. And a new beginning. One that did not require her.
Of course, she had Olaf. But even he did not need her. When he was not at sea with Mikael and Bjⱷrn, he was holed up in his workshop. Some big project that he would not share with her. Four decades and they were back to secrets between them. She sighed as she hugged the quilt tighter against the bitter cold of the winter night.
Olaf stood in the shadows as he crested the rock. He chuckled beneath his breath. Where else would he find her? Over forty years and Rachel still ran to the same place every time. Not that he could blame. This place was unique; it always had been. You could see for miles, past the fjord to the open ocean. The years melted away. Time stood still.
Of course, time never really stood still. That was their problem. Too much time. Too much pain. But he would not trade a moment of it.
Rachel’s pain rolled off her like turbulent waves of a gale. He could feel it. Indecision. Unrest. Uncertainty. But there was something he could do about all that. “I knew I’d find you here, old woman,” he joined her on the rock that jutted out at the top of the craggy peak.
She held open the quilt, offering him refuge within her warmth. Just as she had for so long. Just as she had his brothers, but it was just them now. Time had moved on. It was their sons’ turn now. And they did not need the old folks hanging around. She felt that too. He knew that was what had sent her running once more to this place.
He snuggled beneath the covering, wrapping her in his still-strong arms. He placed a tender kiss on the top of her grey hair as he hummed. “There’s so many ways your sweet love made this house into a home. You’ve got a way of doing little things that turn me on. Like standing in the kitchen in your faded cotton gown. With your hair still up in curlers, I still love to lay you down.”
Rachel swatted at his shoulder, “You know I don’t do those damned torture devices, old man.”
He chuckled as he tried to picture her with a head full of curlers. “You hit your Dom again, old woman, and you will. Sounds like the perfect punishment.”
She only laughed as she snuggled closer into his embrace. “When a whole lot of Decembers are showin’ in your face. Your auburn hair has faded, and silver takes its place. You’ll be just as lovely, and I’ll still be around. And since I can, I know that I still love to lay you down.”
She smiled as she turned in his arms, “What would I do without your horrid singing?”
He watched the shadows cross her still beautiful visage. He could almost read her thoughts. Of them. His brothers. The other men that she had loved. And lost. But he was not going down that road now. There would be time for that later. He had not come here tonight to reminisce about the old but to build the new.
He took her small hand in his, noticing for the first time the deep wrinkles about the knuckles, the thinner skin through which blue veins mapped their course, even a slight swelling of the joints. Yes, they were getting older. But they weren’t dead yet. And he intended to have many more years with this incredible woman. Beginning now….
“Come with me,” he tugged gently.
Rachel shook her head, “Not just yet. I promise I won’t be much longer. But…”
How could she explain it? Even to him. The man that had always been the best friend she ever had as well as her lover and husband. She had not felt this restlessness in her soul in over four decades. Not since the moment she stepped off that boat onto this place.
Her granddaughter was right when she redubbed this place, Homdling. It was the only real home she had ever known. So, why this sudden feeling that she no longer belonged?
That was not completely true; the feeling had been growing for a while. At least since they brought Kirsty here. To some degree, even before that – since Stig’s death.
Seven years. Long ones. She felt the unshed tears burning at her eyes and brushed them aside with the back of her hand. Just as she had tried for so long to brush this uneasy feeling aside, it was not working. Not anymore. She did not belong.
She was not the bride. Kirsty was now. This was not her home anymore. It belonged to them now. To the new generation. And that was as it should be.
Where did that leave her? Where did she belong now? Oh, sure, they had Olaf’s cabin. That afforded them some privacy, but it did not feel right either. She was not sure what the answer was.
It was unlikely that she would magically find those answers sitting here for another hour or two, watching the Northern Lights dance across the black blanket of the universe. Perhaps she would try to capture its essence in a quilt. But not even that was bringing her the solace it once had.
No, she was at a complete loss for answers. Like a ship without its rudder. No compass or even stars to guide their way. But as futile as it probably was, this was the one place she had come to think for four decades. And she was not ready to leave. Not just yet.
“In a bit, I promise,” she added as she brushed more tears away.
Olaf tugged harder on her hand. She had no choice but to stand. His other hand landed with a solid whack on her butt. “That was not a suggestion, Rachel. It was an order. You keep forgetting what those are, old woman.”
She felt her ire rising. She was in no mood for more of his games. “I told you….”
But before she could complete her sentence, his mouth covered hers. His tongue swept away all resistance. All thoughts. And she lost herself in him. In this man, as familiar as her faded denim jeans, and just as durable and comfortable too.
The kiss went on and on. He did not attempt to take it further, never touching her anywhere else. Just his arm about her waist and his lips upon hers. It was as intimate, mundane, and natural as breathing.
She loathed when he finally broke it. Whimpers of need, not sexual, somehow more profound, escaped her throat. Another of those firm spanks connected with her other butt cheek.
“I am going to have to retrain my sub completely, it seems,” Olaf smiled. “Good thing we will have plenty of time and privacy where we are going.”
Rachel shook her head, “Going? Who said anything about going anywhere, old man?”
“If you can stop moping long enough to follow an order, then I have something to show you, old woman. So, get that still sexy butt in motion like your Dom told you, or it will be fifty with Forseti.”
Her eyes widened, and she swallowed back the knot of trepidation, “Fifty with Forseti?”
He smiled, but it was not comforting. “Yes, that way, you will remember who is Dom and what it means to be a sub, old woman. So, I suggest you start moving before you discover just how serious this old man is.”
Rachel looked at him. Examined the set of his shoulders, the stern way his forehead crinkled, adding even more wrinkles to his still handsome face, but it was the steel grey of those eyes which their son had inherited that forced her to put one foot in front of the other.
“This better be good, old man,” she mumbled.
Another even firmer blow landed on her bottom. “It has always been good between us. Now, head to my workshop.”
She chuckled, “What? You are letting me into the inner sanctum? After all this time?”
He smiled, and this time, it softened that grey to a molten silver that heated her right down to her toes. “You have always been my most inner sanctum, Rachel. And you always will be. Hopefully, more now than ever before.”
His words stirred her curiosity to life as she quickened the pace down the side of the fjord. They completed the ten-minute walk in silence. That was the beauty of a lifetime of love; you understood that sometimes words were simply not necessary.
It was not until they reached the old wooden barn that Olaf had converted into his workshop that she spoke. “Okay, Old Man, what is so damned important you have to drag me away from my quiet place?”
He chuckled and shook his head, “Quiet? What do you know about quiet, Old Woman? Since the day that Anders met you in Amsterdam, you have not been quiet for more than five minutes unless you’re asleep.”
“Well, if that’s how you feel, I’ll just go back to the Homdling and check up on Kirsty again,” a subtle smile creased her face as she turned to leave.
Olaf grabbed her upper arm and dragged her against him, “Did I say that I minded? That loud American mouth of yours was the first thing that attracted me to you. I, we, always knew exactly where we stood with you.” His features softened as the fingers of his other hand caressed her weathered cheek, “I would not change a single thing about you, Old Woman.”
Rachel smiled as she wrapped her arms around his shoulders and drew him down for a kiss. It still amazed her how perfectly they fit together. She had learned long ago not to compare them, her husbands. Each brought something unique and special to her life. But this man – this man with his teasing that hid such pain always touched something deep inside of her.
She drew back slowly, “So, are you going to show me whatever it is you brought me here for? Or should we head over to the house so you can lay me down and softly whisper tender love words in my ear?” She hummed the words of his favorite song.
He tossed back his silver head; the deep, rich baritone of his laughter danced off the walls of the fjord, filling her heart and soul. ‘Please, sweet goddess, let me keep this one for a nice long time,’ she sent her silent entirety to whatever deity was or was not out there. She knew too many to name and truly believed in none. You made your own Fate, and she would never regret hers. She had found her place and purpose in this world the moment she stepped off that boat and onto the Holding.
His roughened hands, the knuckles slightly swollen with arthritis that she knew bothered him more than he let anyone know, covered her eyes as he spun her around. She stumbled a bit as he guided her towards the door. She smiled when they stopped for a moment as she heard Olaf open the door. Perhaps that was a metaphor for the life they had shared for over four decades. He and his brothers leading her, sometimes blindly, forward.
She was not sure what she expected to see when he dropped his hands from her face, but the vision that greeted her took her breath away. “Oh, my goddess, it’s beautiful. No, magnificent.”
He stood in the doorway as she walked over to the boat that practically filled the barn to capacity. She ran her hands lovingly across the smooth, shiny wood of its hull. It was the most masterful combination of a traditional Norse longboat and a modern sailboat. She was awed by the craftsmanship he had put into it. It certainly justified all those long hours he had spent hidden in here.
She walked along it, her hand feeling the love that went into curving and shaping each plank. There were no nails or screws, only the wooden pegs that his Viking ancestors would have used. At the bow stood a Valkyrie; she laughed as she recognized those bare breasts. “They have not looked like that in a very long time, Old Man.”
Olaf chuckled as he covered the short distance to stand behind her. His hands rose to cup her breasts, “I’m not complaining.”
There were tears in her eyes as she turned to face him. “It’s remarkable. You did this? You built this all by yourself?”
“What? You don’t think I’m smart enough to design and build her?” She saw the teasing in his eyes. “There’s more.”
He led her to the stern, where a canvas sail hung across it. “Remove it.”
Her fingers were trembling; her eyes held his gaze for a long moment. The love she saw there still took her breath away after all these years. She tugged gently, and the canvas fell away. Tears scalded her eyes, “Rachel’s Dream.”
When she turned back to him, his own eyes glistened silver with unshed tears. “You never did finish your around-the-world tour.”
Her throat tightened, and the tears ran faster down her cheeks, “No, but as you said, I wouldn’t change a thing, Old Man.”
He stepped forward and brushed a tear from her cheek. He brought it to his lips and tasted her joy and pain. “I thought maybe we could finish it together?”
Her mind filled with hundreds of excuses. Who would be here to guide Kirsty, help her with the babies, do the housework when she was too tired from another sleepless night.
Then she stopped. It was not her job to raise the next generation. She had done her part, raising the last, helping them to find their One, seeing them through the roughest spots, and now assisting in the birth of their future. But this was not her place anymore. Not her home. She would only be in the way. Wasn’t that the very truth that had driven her to her quiet place?
And didn’t they deserve this? Time. These final years, alone, just the two of them. Time to laugh and love and live. Time to heal the hurts of the past. He was just the man to do it with, too.
Olaf’s throat was tight. He had planned this moment for over seven years since the day that they had scattered Stig’s ashes over the fjord. He had thought of at least a thousand ways of saying what he wanted. But all of them seemed to flee him at that moment.
“Of course, we can’t leave just yet. I need to help our sons through this season. Maybe help them find another crew member or two. And I know you want to be there for Kirsty and those babies.” She nodded her head slowly as he spoke again.
“But in the spring? Maybe early summer? We could set sail.” He brushed the rest of the tears from her face, “We could start to plan it now, though. Give us something to do when I am home. And we could even talk about it while I am at sea. These sons use that tablet thingy to speak with their wife every day. We should try that, too, Old Woman. I miss you.”
Her hand caressed his cheek, tenderly. “Jeg savner deg så mye min Old Man.”
His heart beat faster. This was the hardest part. He had pondered it for months. Was it the right course? At times, it seemed a betrayal of all they stood for. Of the brothers he had loved. The men he had fought with and for. But they were all gone now. Just memories. Memories that slipped deeper into the recesses of time with each new dawn. It felt right. That was the bottom line. No matter how many times he turned it over in his head, it just felt right.
So, with a deep sigh and a wince as pain shot through his joints, reminding him that the sands in their hourglass were running low, he dropped to one knee. He reached into his jacket pocket and brought out the small, black velvet box that he had picked up on their last trip. He slowly lifted the lid to reveal the ring.
He had designed it, too. In the shape of a flower were various stones, the birthstones of her husbands and sons clustered around the perfect pearl. That said it all about this woman who had loved and lost four husbands, brothers that she had fought and loved for over four decades. She was their pearl, their precious jewel from the sea.
His now. His alone. But never truly alone. They would always carry pieces of the others with them, wherever they went. As it should be. But this was a new chapter. A new beginning. And this seemed fitting.
“Rachel, will you do me the honor of being my wife?” The words came out far stronger than he imagined. Not that he had any doubt. Not from his end anyway. But hers?
He waited. And waited. Fresh tears streamed down her face as she looked from the boat to him to the ceiling and back again for long moments.
Maybe this had been a mistake? Perhaps she considered it a sacrilege to the memory of the others? He considered what to do or say next. Had he spoiled everything?
At last, after what seemed an eternity, she dropped to her knees in front of him. Her hands, the lines around her knuckles more pronounced now, the skin thinner, a few age spots glistening in the fluorescent light, grasped the hand that held that little box in both of hers.
“I made that decision forty-three years ago, Old Man. I see no reason to change my mind now.” She leaned in and brushed her lips over his, “But if you’d like to reaffirm or renew or whatever those promises before we leave, I think that would be a beautiful beginning to this new chapter. Helveti, the new book we will write together.”
“Yes, Olaf, it would be my pleasure to be your wife.” Her face beamed, the years dropped away, and the natural beauty of that lost hippie woman/child alone and adrift in the world shown through. She was more beautiful now than she had been then, at least in his old heart.
He sent a silent prayer of thanks to Anders in Valhalla for picking this woman, for finding their One.
There were regrets, of course. So many mistakes. They had all made them. But he had meant it, the one thing he knew beyond all else in this world – this was the only woman he wanted or had ever wanted to spend his life with.
And whatever was ahead, calm or stormy seas, he looked forward to every single moment that he still had left to give her. Be they hours, days, months, or another forty-three beautiful years together.