by Liz Cox
a beaker of mead or horn of beer
Liv was sitting by the fire wrapped in her wolf furs. Outside the snow was falling steadily, its flakes silently covering the paths and buildings in the village. The weight of the packed snow was causing it to slip from the turf roof, making a whooshing sound as it hit the ground. Inside the atmosphere was fusty and sooty; too many bodies gathered in the warmth. She was huddled by the hearth with the other women of their household, as they tried to gather enough food to prepare for the festivities. Soon it would be Yul, but Gunnar was not home from the hunt yet; he had been away for three days and she was worried. The men were hoping to catch a boar to be sacrificed at the festivities and roasted over a spit for the feast. The howling of wolves echoed across the river, as they seemed to move ever nearer to the village. They were all hungry – men, women, children, and wolves. The winter had been hard, and their food stocks were running low.
‘Mother, please can I go and see if Father is returning from the hunt. Please Mother, please.’ A rangy flaxen haired boy ran up to Liv jumping up and down with excitement.
‘Yes Bjorn, you can go and watch for him. Please wrap up in your furs and put your hat on, it will freeze your ears if you do not and then they will drop off. Watch, but don’t go any further than the entrance to the village. I don’t want to have to search for you in the snow.’
‘Thanks, Mother.’ The boy ran off gathering his friends around him. The blast of snow as they opened the oak door caused the flames of the hearth fire to flicker.
‘That boy,’ Liv said to her friend Dagmar, ‘he’ll be the death of me, always needing to be on the move. He was disappointed when Gunnar would not take him, but he is still too young. What made it worse in his eyes is that Gunnar took Ulfr with him.’ Ulfr was their eldest son and could be trusted by his father to be steady and sensible. Bjorn was bright and energetic and one day would make a good leader, but he was too young and hot-headed. She thought of her daughter, Arna and her baby granddaughter Frida; she hadn’t seen them since the summer when Frida was born. Arna married when she was fourteen winters old and had been living with her husband in a village on the other side of the headland. She hoped they would visit for Yul if the snow allowed. Liv was looking forward to their visit and prayed to the gods, especially the almighty Odin and Frigg that the paths would be clear.
The men had already cut the magnificent oak for the Yul log. It had been carved with the runes of protection and was now lying-in state by the fireside ready for the celebrations. They had also cut mistletoe from the branches in celebration of Baldr’s return from the dead and his mother the goddess Frigg’s gratitude, just as the world returns from the dead of winter. Liv loved this time of year when the world began to move from darkness to light, and the twelve days of feasting gave the people hope that Spring would soon be around the corner, the snow would recede, and green shoots begin to break the earth’s crust.
‘Mother, Mother!’ Frantic shouts rang out although muffled by the snow fall. ‘Mother, please come quickly. Father is returned but Ulfr has been hurt.’ Bjorn flung the solid oak door open allowing the snow to enter in a flurry of white.
Liv ran to the door and held it open as Gunnar solemnly entered the hall bearing his elder son on a makeshift stretcher. She was rooted to the spot, as she saw the frozen blood which had seeped through the skins covering her boy. Through the open door she spied the carcass of a huge boar which had been killed ready for the feast.
‘Is Ulfr dead, Gunnar?’ she whispered as she reached out to touch the still body.
‘No, Liv, he is not dead,’ Gunnar replied in a gentle voice, taking her hand, and covering it with his. ‘Ulfr was gored by the boar, as he drove his spear into its side. Its tusk has ripped a huge gash in his thigh. He has lost a great deal of blood.’ He paused. ‘I fear that his life is ebbing away.’
‘How could you allow this to happen husband? Why were you not taking care of him?’ Tears had formed in her eyes and were about to spill onto her cheeks. Exasperated, she wiped them away with the back of her hand, as she glared at him.
‘He’s a man now, Liv, and he takes a man’s risks. He was so brave on the hunt. He flushed out the boar, but it was fierce and put up a valiant fight before he could sidestep its charge. Ulfr killed it with one blow, but he has paid the price. I am proud of the hunter he has become,’ he said defiantly.
‘It’s no good if he’s a dead hunter is it? Bring him near the hearth, so I can tend to his wounds.’ She reached out to take her husband’s arm and squeezed it. ‘I know he was brave, and you did look out for him. It cannot be helped.’
Gunnar smiled at his wife and beckoned to his men to bring his son nearer to the fire where they laid the stretcher down on the earth floor.
A silent Bjorn watched, as Ulfr groaned when the warriors moved the stretcher. Bjorn walked alongside his brother and placed his own fur jerkin around his shoulders.
‘Mother,’ he pleaded, ‘please make him well. I will help you.’
Liv ruffled the boy’s hair.
‘You can help me by fetching my herb chest from behind the woollen curtain. I can then make a poultice for his wound.’
Bjorn ran off only too eager to comply whilst their mother unwrapped the wounded thigh. The gash ran from his knee to his groin and had only just missed the big blood vessel which lay there. As she removed the coverings, blood began to seep again and then as the trickle got faster, she had to cover it up again.
‘Dagmar, could you fetch some linen cloths so I can bind his wound.’ Liv called to her friend Dagmar who was hovering close to her. Dagmar ran to the storage chest to retrieve the bindings.
Liv examined the wound. She placed a basin of snow over the fire to melt, so she would have warm water to wash the dirt from the wound. She knew she had to purify the flesh. Dagmar arrived with the cloth and started to rip it into strips, handing each one in turn to Liv as she swabbed the gash with the warm water. The women looked at each other with concern. The wound was already beginning to fester around the edges. The leg was swollen and hot. The hunting party had been on the road for two days and the infection had taken hold.
‘There’s nothing for it, Dagmar, we will have to cauterise the leg. Heat this knife for me.’ Liv handed her friend her husband’s dagger which she had cleaned in the water. Dagmar held the shining blade over the fire until it was red hot and handed it back.
‘Hold him still, Gunnar, and you Kjartan, so he cannot move.’ The two men rushed forward and took hold of Ulfr’s legs and shoulders so he couldn’t struggle. As Liv laid the scorching knife on the wound, Ulfr let out a scream and then fainted.
‘It is a good thing that he is unconscious now. I will pack the wound with a poultice of dried moss and herbs and bind his thigh with the linen.’
Liv rummaged through the herb chest which Bjorn had laid down by her side. The boy was standing close to his brother and Liv noticed the tears were beginning to gather in his eyes. She looked up at her youngest son.
‘Don’t worry Bjorn, we will heal his wound and he will be able to enjoy Yul with us. You can hold the bindings, until I am ready to use them.’
Bjorn smiled wanly at his mother his big blue eyes full of worry and took the strips of material from Dagmar, holding them tightly.
Liv found the yarrow that she was looking for in the chest, and after mixing it to a paste with honey she smeared it over the livid skin. She then packed moss around the thigh and taking the bindings from Bjorn she proceeded to wrap the leg securely, fastening them with the gold pin she took from her own dress.
‘There, we’re all done now. We must speak to the gods to ensure his survival. Yul begins tomorrow, so you must all go and prepare. I will sit here with him tonight.
Daylight was short, and soon the darkness fell over the village. As Dagmar sat beside her son, she prayed to Frigg that he would be saved. Outside the hall she heard the shouts of the men as they prepared the boar for the spit. If her son died, she would not be able to take a morsel of the meat, even though she was hungry. She could not eat the beast which had caused her child to perish. All through the night she sat there, wiping the sweat from his brow. The herbs were doing their job, and his body was fighting the infection. She only hoped he was strong enough as she watched him writhe on the fur covered pallet.
Quiet had fallen over the hall. The last beakers of beer had been consumed and men and women were now sleeping. As Ulfr looked quiet and peaceful, she took her chance to get some fresh air. She pushed the solid door and stared out into the night. Leaning against the upright was Gunnar. He reached out his hand to her and together they looked out at the glistening snow which was now lying so peacefully on the ground; the storm had abated.
‘I could not sleep whilst our first-born was lying so ill,’ said Gunnar, ‘I felt helpless. Do you think he will recover?’
‘We can only wait and see Gunnar, he is a strong young man, but it is in the hands of the gods now,’ Liv replied.
In the village, the glowing of the embers under the spit as the thralls turned it, cast a soft red glow on the frozen earth, and the torches guarding the entrance to the hall flickered and flared. The soft murmurings and occasional laughter of the servants echoed in the frosty air. Gunnar and Liv noticed the cloud of their own breath as they stood there in silent contemplation and prayer. The night was clear and across the dark sky, a star shot over the horizon. The glowing tail of the celestial body was gold against the blue-black of the heavens.
‘Look over there.’ Gunnar grasped Liv’s hand tighter and pointed in the direction of the light. ‘It is a good omen, I’m sure, our son will be saved.’
Liv returned to the hall and took up her vigil beside the sleeping boy. He seemed quieter now, and when she felt his forehead the heat had died down.
Gunnar found them there next morning, the mother and son, both asleep by the fire. Liv opened her eyes as Gunnar touched her shoulder, and they both watched as Ulfr opened his eyes as well. The boy smiled.
‘Why are you so sad? I’m very thirsty,’ Ulfr complained.
Gunnar jumped up and summoned a servant to bring the invalid some buttermilk which the young man drank greedily.
‘Praise be to the gods, they have answered our prayer,’ whispered Liv, as she took her son’s hand in hers. ‘Let the Yul celebrations begin with a libation to Frigg. Today we begin the movement from the darkness to the light. Together they watched as the dawn rose on the horizon and the darkness receded.