After the Feast
– A Viking chamber play
The sharp clang of the iron skewer made Hilda wince. “Ailbe! By the gods, be quiet. We don’t want to wake him.”
“Yes, mistress.” Her slave bowed her head, and under the cap the young woman’s eyes squinted from smoke and tiredness. Exhaustion had let the skewer slip from her hand.
Hilda rolled her stiff shoulders and opened the door to the bedchamber. Sverrir lay splayed over their bed. She softly closed the door again and turned. “Has everyone left?”
Ailbe nodded towards the sleeping platform that housed those men who were too drunk to walk back. Half a dozen. Dawn would soon break. The girl’s feet dragged as she carried the remnants of food to the pantry.
Hilda rubbed her forehead. “It always takes too long.” Her limbs were heavy after never-ending duties as the hostess of their feast. Or rather, Sverrir’s feast. Her husband had gathered all the men that had helped him get the ship back home. A night of boasting and song, of eating and drinking too much. In the end she had feared the ale would run out and cause a dangerous outbreak from Sverrir. But the gods had made it last until most men shuffled home — or passed out on the platform at the other side of the room.
Poor Ailbe was collecting the mugs, horns, and bowls, sorting knives, spoons, and plates. Carried furs from the benches to the sleeping men. Their snoring made the beams rattle; they wouldn’t move for a long while. The air was cool and heavy, almost impenetrable. The fire a fragile orange glow that would fall apart and die if poked.
Rubbing her wrists, Hilda gave a deep sigh. “Put jugs of water on the table. Pile all items you can’t place in the porch. Then go to bed, too. We’ll do the rest in the morning.”
Hilda sat on the edge of a long bench and rested her head against the cool wood of the wall.
Ailbe came over to her. From atop a pile of plates she set down a glass of honey-coloured mead.
Hilda froze, blinked, then smiled. “You’re the best.” She patted Ailbe’s arm. “Good girl. Go to bed.”
“I’ll stay up until you’re tucked in, mistress.”
“I’m not joining him yet.” Hilda picked up the delicate glass and twirled it in her hand, relishing the golden sparkles. Sverrir’s feet wouldn’t ache as much as hers did. She could as well enjoy a last drink. “This.” Setting the glass to her mouth, she let the tip of her tongue touch the liquid. Warm sharpness. Oily sweetness. Her smile widened as the alcohol took its lazy path down her throat. “It’s been a successful night.”
“Yes, it was, mistress. Everyone was happy.”
“You don’t have to whisper, my girl. Look at them.”
Although they could see only vague outlines of the men, the ebb and flow of snores proved it: the men had enjoyed themselves and would go home with stories of a good feast. Sverrir would be content when he woke; and that was all that mattered.
Ailbe yelped, and as she jerked the plates slid to the ashen floor with a painful clatter. Hilda set down the glass too fast, spilling some of its precious content. “Ailbe!”
“I’m sorry, mistress.” The girl placed the remaining plates on the table and bent to retrieve the rest.
A tall figure appeared from the darkness.
“Is that —”
“Ormarr. Forgive me, lady.” The young man nodded a greeting and crouched with Ailbe as if it was something men did, help slaves collect household items.
Hilda lifted a trembling hand from her chest. “I thought … you had gone? Or would you like to stay the night? Where is your home?”
Ormarr looked up, long hair shining golden in the last gleam of the fire. She liked the way he wore it, held back in a half bun. She also liked the sound of his husky voice. It lacked a slur as he said, “That’s too far. I was outside, seeing off men. Would you mind …?”
Hilda sagged back against the wall. “Of course I don’t. There should be a place for you on the platform.”
Straightening, he exchanged a smile with Ailbe, who lowered her head to hide a clear fluster before hurrying away with the plates.
Hilda suppressed a chuckle. “Do you want a last drink?” She raised her glittering glass. “The good stuff?”
“I’d love that. He should have allowed you this earlier.”
“I agree. But as long as I can sit here, I’m fine.”
Without Hilda having to say anything, Ailbe brought another glass of mead, then retreated in the direction of the pantry.
When they were alone, Ormarr dropped his voice, “I came back to compliment you on the feast, Hilda.”
She smiled with gratitude as her tired eyes took in his attire: the thick cloak over his arm, the shiny sword-hilt at his hip. It was misplaced. All the other guests’ weapons still hung or leaned in the porch. She slid further on the bench, behind the table, to make room for him. “Do sit.”
Ormarr sat and reached for the glass.
She raised her own, and they clinked them together. “Skal.”
While swallowing, she noticed his eyes run over her body too. It seemed inappropriate, and she straightened. “How far do you have to travel?”
He turned the glass on the table between finger and thumb. “As far as Jórvík.”
“Oh. That is indeed a reason to remain here for the night. Take as long as you need. We’ll prepare provisions for you tomorrow.”
“Very generous, lady Hilda.” He raised his head. Their eyes met. “But I’m not in a hurry. There’s nobody waiting there for my return.”
“Is there not?” Hilda couldn’t believe it. He was handsome, strong, wore fashionable clothes.
“I’m sorry.” She hoped for a short story. His glass was empty. Was Ailbe still near to refill it? “Ailbe?”
No answer. Hilda sighed, shifted. She could not get out from behind the table with Ormarr blocking her path.
He got up to let her pass, moving just as stiffly as herself. She felt his eyes on her all the way to the kitchen table where she collected the mead jug and cut off a piece of cheese. As she carried both back to the table, every step sent a sharp sting of pain up her ankles. She bit it back and said in a low voice, “Everyone seems to be asleep. I’m sorry.” She put the drink and food in front of him without her usual elegance.
“That’s fine.” They sat down as before and he pulled out his knife.
She folded her arms, heavy arms, and watched him cut the cheese in neat squares. Her eyelids fluttered with the effort to stay awake and interested. Suppressing a yawn, she asked, “How did you meet Sverrir if you live that far away?”
He pierced one piece and ate it from the tip of his blade. “He was at my home once.”
For a friend Sverrir made such effort to visit, there hadn’t been much conversation between the two men.
“I went with him on the last two campaigns.” Ormarr squinted. Maybe the smoke. “I was loyal.”
“Thank you for making them successful.”
He twirled the knife in his hands before piercing the next piece. “Thank you for an abundant feast. You’re an excellent housewife.”
“Thank you. I have help.” Hilda glowered at the glasses. Where was Ailbe?
He was watching her intently. “A good wife is rare to find. I hope Sverrir appreciates you.”
She looked up. His gaze on her carried a tenderness as misplaced as his sword. She sat straighter, sending a jolt of pain along her tense back, and forced her eyes open wider. “I’m not sure what he feels. But we work well together.”
“I’m sure without you he would be lost.” His tone changed. “Like I am often lost.”
The atmosphere in the room shifted. Hilda knit her brow, moved away a bit. “Is that why you went on campaigns? To get away?”
A curt nod. His breath left his mouth slowly. “For a greater cause. And to be near Sverrir.”
“Hm.” She didn’t care to be close to Sverrir anymore.
A soft clang reminded them that Ailbe was still awake somewhere.
“Does he love you as much as I loved her? He should appreciate you. It can all change in a moment, can it not?”
“What do you mean?” She knew she looked grim, but could no longer smooth out the deep wrinkles on her forehead.
He emptied his glass with one long gulp. She didn’t want to get up and refill it. He must have had a good share tonight, and she didn’t want more of this love talk. But then — he sounded sober.
“Would you like me to —”
“No, no.” His hand shot out, missing hers by a fraction.
She pulled back, shivered. With the fire dying, it became too dark to see his face. “Ailbe! Bring us a light.”
Her slave must have had the same thought; she was already shuffling over with an oil lamp she placed between them.
Without him here, Hilda would have offered the girl to sit. “Go sleep. I’ll soon sleep too.”
Ormarr jerked up his chin. The muscles on his neck were tense, grief or exhaustion he wanted to gloss over. Light blue eyes stared at her slave, unsquinting.
“Is there anything else you want?” she asked warily.
“Yes.” He kept looking at Ailbe.
“Go to bed, I said.”
Ailbe inhaled, but reluctantly retreated.
Could it be that the girl had some interest in this young man, since he helped her? Or had he come back for her, their flirt having started long ago?
Hilda coughed. “Ormarr. I don’t want to sound impolite, but we’re all exhausted.” She placed both palms on the table, pushing back. “Maybe we can continue in the morning —”
His hand caught her arm. Too tight.
She jerked free, hissing, “I’m not some slave. Do behave yourself.”
The muscles along his jaw worked as if failing to formulate an answer. In a slow, precise movement, his palm went from her arm to the knife and flat over its handle. There was nothing left to do with it; the cheese was eaten.
“I want you to understand, Hilda.”
With a confident nod she sat back down and turned to face him. “What if you tell me the story? Without touching me.”
Their gazes locked. Their breathing became audible.
The corner of his mouth twitched. His hand on the knife didn’t move; long fingers making the blade invisible. “So listen.”
She slid back an inch to escape his solid frame. “What did you come back in for?”
He sat rigid as an oak. “You.”
A jolt to her heart. “Me?” This was ridiculous. He surely didn’t mean it. She was older than him, and unavailable. They had just met. He could sort out his desires elsewhere. “Now you listen —”
His hand slid down a fraction, the heel of it resting on the knife’s handle. His tone was too level. “I want to tell you about the day I met your husband. It happened at exactly this hour, after a feast, more modest than yours, I must admit. I had gone to sleep much like Sverrir now, drunk, oblivious. They broke into our house. All our weapons were outside, like in your porch there.” The thumb of his free hand pointed to the exit she couldn’t see or reach. “The door burst open. They hit my wife in the face, made her bleed. Her scream woke me. The only weapon she had available was the skewer in her hand. So she drove it into one man’s thigh before she was felled by a long knife, a sax.”
“Oh, by the gods.” Hilda’s breath came ragged. “Poor woman.”
He gave a slow nod. Two of his fingers ran up and down the handle; they were trembling, as was his voice, “I stumbled into the room, saw them shoulder a trunk and spit my wife in the face. Too late. The next blade nailed her to the beam of our porch. She stood there, dead and upright, cold eyes glaring at me with disgust. Me, the shameful, useless husband.”
The fire crackled and hissed.
“I’m so sorry.” Hilda struggled to draw more breath, icy hands clamped around the bench either side of her thighs.
“This,” he turned the glass in his fingers, “is my first good drink since that night. The night I swore revenge.”
Hilda was suddenly wide awake. “Did you see who did it?”
His eyes bore into her. Silence thicker than the smoke descended on the room.
“The guy was gone without answering my call. More eager to get the trunk with our belongings to the ship than to stay back and fight me like a man.” He looked down, concealing his expression. “He’d have won easily.”
Her hands flew to her heart. “I see.”
“No, you don’t.” His gaze was colder than her hands. “I found out his name, his homestead. Relocated to join his endeavours, be close. He didn’t recognise me. We talked about such attacks, this raid he had been on. One night on our campaign together I asked him, didn’t he feel regret, shame even, at having killed a woman once?” Ormarr grimaced, and his voice came out sharp and loud, “He said no!” The words hit Hilda like punches in the gut. “He said it was a raid; and that she was armed.” He leaned in, much too close to her face. “Armed! With a skewer dripping with pig’s fat.”
Fear grew in Hilda’s chest, swelling to pure terror. Rooted to the bench, she shuddered violently. “And that man was —”
She closed her eyes as Hel’s icy winds blew right through the walls and through her body. The hearth gave a last hiss as its ashes fell apart, dead grey. “Please, Ormarr.”
The hand on the table moved.
“I memorised the exact place where his knife entered her chest.”
Her own eating knife dangled uselessly from her brooch. Her hands couldn’t grab it. Her knees didn’t obey. She wanted to rise, flee, scramble over the table. Instead, she sat rigid, watching as his hand closed over the handle. The room swayed; her sight blackened. She pleaded with him, “Please!”
He lifted the blade to her face. “I want Sverrir to recognise the stab. He needs to see who it was. And why.”
“No!” Hilda’s scream tore through the house with a dull echo that should have woken everyone on the platform.
But not a man moved.
No man other than Ormarr.
He stood, grabbed her collar, pulled her in hard. So close she could smell the mead and anger on him. His spittle hit her lips. “I’m taking revenge for her. You’ll go to the realm of the good women. Meet my wife there.”
None of her thrashing helped. In the lamp’s light, the knife glinted one last time as he lifted it, aiming.
Hands over her face, she screamed like a pig on the slaughter stump. Her body gave. They said one doesn’t feel a wound immediately. She sagged onto the bench and slid straight through to the floor, unable to lift a hand to retrieve the knife.
Lying in the dust, she saw gnawed-off bones and pieces of fat. Then feet. A second scream, higher-pitched, tearing through the walls, shaking the house awake. Ailbe’s worn shoes, within reach. Her slave’s voice a yell of terror as she became a witness of death. Death by revenge. Revenge she had nothing to do with took her from this house, this life, from Sverrir. The bastard. His temper once again fatal; and this time, she was his casualty.
A dull thump. Ailbe’s knees hit the floor in front of Hilda. She was still screaming as she reached out for her mistress one last time. Poor girl, thought Hilda. Why did she have to see this?
Men’s shoes appeared around them. The turmoil swelled. Kicked-up dust settled on her face. There was no pain. She touched her cheek. Wet with tears, her mortal despair. Her smile distorted. She felt regret. A swell of love. Her breathing stopped.
The final moment.
Ailbe fell forward. Hilda jerked. “No! Ailbe!”
Palms cradled faces; foreheads touched in frantic search. Kissing wet cheeks, the women clung to each other.
“Ailbe. My good girl.”
The wetness of Ailbe’s hands had the texture of mead.
It had to be blood. Her own blood? Or Ailbe’s?
Through the blur, Hilda recognised Sverrir’s voice. She covered Ailbe’s and her own face with her arms.
“She killed him!”
“He is dead.”
Hilda sagged against a table leg, with Ailbe splayed over her lap. Rasping sobs tore through the girl’s slender frame.
“She stabbed him with that skewer. The skewer we just ate from.” Men’s drunken laughter, hissing, murmurs.
Shuffling, shifting, a body was lifted and carried past.
Hilda’s breath came in rasps as short as Ailbe’s.
Peeking through their entwined limbs, she saw Ormarr’s arms hanging limp, an iron tool in his back.
Someone bent to the floor. “That’s his knife there. He had no weapon.”
Men grabbed them hard, pulled them out from under the table, one after the other.
“His … knife?” Hilda rolled onto her back and stared at the woman slumped limp in front of her. She touched Ailbe’s chest. Then her own. Both were dry.
The blood-mead was only on their faces, and on Ailbe’s hands.
“Ailbe?” Hilda screeched. Hot hands wiped the blood off her slave’s face. “You did that? You killed him for me? We will live?”
“She’s as good as dead.” Sverrir’s hands were like iron, pulled them apart.
Ailbe wailed. Hilda thrashed.
Sverrir waved his sword with drunken swaying. “By the gods, she killed him. She killed my friend.”
Ailbe sagged into a heap on the floor, whimpering.
Sverrir raised his sword, the only sword in the room, with that look only Hilda recognised.
It made her find her eating knife.
She stood, aimed, and drove it into Sverrir’s chest at the exact moment he aimed the blade over Ailbe’s neck.
Her voice wasn’t her own. “You,” she roared, “killed them both. And us!” She watched him stagger then buckle as his legs gave under him. “Look at me one last time.”
Instead, Sverrir stared at the handle in his chest.
The pool of blood between them widened.
Men retreated. Drunken stares, shocked grunts.
Hilda grabbed Ailbe, and they made for the porch. Crashing through abandoned weapons, Hilda grabbed the first sax she stepped on. They didn’t look back. The latch gave, the door flew open. They stumbled across the threshold.
Outside, the crisp air of a new morning hit their blood-spattered faces.
In the distance, rays of purple light.
Dawn. A path.