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Spine of Steel

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You are but a newborn babe, a squalling thing of tender flesh, when your mother passes. She was weak, your mother, a small thing with fragile bones and a gaunt frame. Her lungs rasped, her heart fluttered, and her bones shattered. She should not have had you.

That is something you are not allowed to forget.

She should not have had you.

 

+

 

You grow up with your Papa, a tall, broad man with a hard face and a harsh personality. He pushes you to do well, to learn fast and calculate faster. He yells when you fall short, but only because you are slacking. You aren’t putting enough effort into learning, clearly; otherwise you would be doing better than you are and Papa would not have to yell.

 

He is not the one at fault, you tell yourself as you lay bruised in the dark of your room. It is your fault. You are not good enough.

 

You have to be better.

 

+

 

You are young, still, the first time Papa truly hurts you. It is your fault, you know, that he does it. You would not learn any other way.

 

You should not have failed that math quiz. It does not matter that fractions are difficult; life is difficult, as Papa tells you, and you just need to put the effort in.

 

Papa needed to hurt you, to wrench your arm back and leave bruises on your bottom where he hit you, so that you don’t make the same mistake again.

 

You should not have failed the math quiz.

 

+

 

You should not have muddled your languages. French and Russian are so different; how could you have mixed them up?

 

You should be better than that.

 

Papa leaves hand shaped bruises on both your arms and a knot on the back of your head where it slammed into the wall when he shook you.

 

You should not have muddled your languages.

 

+

 

You should not have missed such an easy shot. It is only a handgun; using it is simple, you little moron, how could you miss the target entirely? You didn’t even brace yourself properly, like Papa had taken the time to show you. Why should he keep spending his time on you if all you do is waste it?

 

You lay in the dark of your room, spread out on towels that line the floor. Blood soaks them, but that’s okay. These towels are okay to get blood on, you know. That’s why they’re black. It doesn’t stain.

 

You lay there for hours, moving your arms in and out of the position that Papa taught you for the handgun. You do not stop until it is ingrained in your muscles' memory.

 

The marks on your back from Papa’s belt pull every time you move but you know that you deserve them.

 

You should not have missed such an easy shot.

 

+

 

A scar, on your lip where Papa’s ring cut you open.

 

You should not have been born.

 

+

 

You are older, a not-as-young thing of seventeen, when something you’ve been dwelling on for years finally sinks in.

 

Papa is wrong.

 

Papa has unrealistic expectations and unfair punishments. You should not be covered in welts and scars, you should not spend hours after school learning and studying until letters blur and your eyes slip shut from exhaustion.

 

You are seventeen when you realize that what your father has been doing to you is wrong.

 

+

 

You leave.

 

You love your Papa, though now you are beginning to realize that you shouldn’t. If you stay, you will come to loathe him, or maybe yourself, for the slow moving feeling of smothering that accompanies his expectations. You turn eighteen in a month and a half, you have already graduated high school (as valedictorian; Papa would not accept any less), you are fluent in six languages and are passable in a handful of others.

 

You have your savings, all the money you stowed away in a bank account only you knew about that you earned from a job that your Papa didn’t know you had.

 

You take a Greyhound to a random city, take the train to an airport. You rent a car. You disappear.

 

+

 

You wait tables. You busk with your violin on street corners. You babysit. You walk dogs. You have a cheap gym membership and a duffel bag. You have no home.

 

+

 

Life gets better. You have an apartment. You have several jobs. You are okay.

 

+

 

You don’t stop learning. That is the one thing you keep from your time with Papa. He was right about one thing. Knowledge is Power.

 

You learn Dutch, your mother’s language, in addition to the Russian, Spanish, Chinese, French, Latin, and Arabic that your father crammed into your skull. You learn archery, how to hunt, how to live off the land. You learn and you learn because you will be better.

 

+

 

A thought:

 

Your mother should not have had you.

 

But she did.

 

It is up to you to make your life worth it.

 

+

 

You are twenty-four and weary down to your bones.

 

You have scars on your back, on your arms, on your thighs, on your face.

 

You make the choice not to care. You wear shorts and sleeveless tops and you see the lingering glances, see the pity that lines people’s faces at the sight of that poor, pitiful child, so young, so broken.

 

You choose not to care.

 

Because you may be a wreck but you are not broken.

 

You are so many things but broken will never be one of them.

 

+

 

You go to college, zip through a degree with the knowledge your father crammed into your skull.

 

You are not top of the class. You could be, you know, with a bit more effort, a bit more studying, but you aren’t. You look at these young people, most not yet twenty-three and their shiny faces, their happiness, their gleeful disposition and their surety that life will go well for them.

 

You look at these children, all of three years younger than you yourself are, with wounded, jaded eyes and know that you are not top of the class because it doesn’t matter. It means nothing to you, not like it does to that young girl, with long, tight braids and teeth that shone in a smile against her dark skin. She is practically exuding happiness and pride.

 

You are happy for her.

 

+

 

You are twenty-seven when you become the personal assistant to a Regional Manager at a technology company.

 

Your boss is lovely; efficient, stern, and kind in turns. You have a decent apartment. You have a cat. You have savings, and take an assortment of college classes in your free time, picking and choosing based solely on what is interesting at the time.

 

You are finally happy.

 

+

 

You are twenty-seven, a personal assistant with a nice apartment, a cat, and a healthy savings account when you see your Papa again.

 

+

 

You were finally happy.

 

+

 

Your life has always been a tragedy.

 

+

 

You die to your Papa’s eyes burning into yours, a knife on your nice apartment’s kitchen floor, blood on the gorgeous tiles that you’d fallen in love with when you saw the place. You die to your Papa’s yelling, screaming face, eyes that you didn’t inherit glaring at you. You die to blood in your hair and spit on your face. You die with a knife wound in your chest and your Papa’s hands around your neck.

 

+

 

Your life has always been a tragedy.

 

Your death is no different.

 

+

Chapter Text

Esther, wife of Mikael, moans in pain, panting as she feels yet another contraction wash over her.

Her dear friend, the witch Ayana, runs her hand down her calf, eyes glancing up to Esther’s face from her position between her friend’s parted legs.

“You are almost there, Esther, I can see the baby’s head now,” Ayana encourages.

A smile lifts Esther’s lips, excitement building at the thought of meeting her new baby. As a witch herself, she had had the opportunity to use her magic to learn her baby’s gender, as she had for her other three children. She hadn’t, however, choosing to let this pregnancy come as a surprise as her first, her late daughter Freya, had been.

The contractions continue on for some minutes, Esther wincing and pushing until finally she feels her child slip free of her.

“Ayana, what is it? Another boy? A girl?” Esther pesters her friend, a smile splitting her face as she reaches for her newborn. “Ayana?”

Ayana is quiet, solemn, as she towels off the wee thing’s body.

“Ayana?” Esther’s voice becomes weak, still grasping for her baby as tears wet her eyes at the woman’s countenance.

She moves the towel, revealing an unmoving chest.

“NO!” Esther screams, her voice shrill and high as she looks upon her beautiful baby girl. Her husband bursts through the door of Ayana’s hut at her cry, only to falter at his wife’s distraught wailing, taking in the silent babe held tight to her chest.

Esther screams again, wordless, and a contraction surges through her.

“Ayana!” Esther gasps. “Something’s… Something’s wrong!”

Her friend moves back to the end to the cot, ducking down to peer between Esther’s legs. She gives a sharp gasp.

“Esther… There is another. A twin.”

“Oh!” Esther moves her legs apart, bears down on the next contraction. “Is… Is this one okay? Are they living?”

Ayana presses her fingers to the child’s chest, feeling a hummingbird quick pulse beneath the pads of her fingers.

“Yes,” She answers quiet.

This birth passes quicker, the baby boy slipping free easily after the birth of his still sister.

He is quiet for a moment, before he screams, piercing.

He shrieks, squirming against the hold his mother has on him, searching for his twin, his sister, the one he knows should be there, that he can just barely feel at the edge of his uncomprehending mind.

A second scream joins his from Mikael’s arms and his twin breathes with him.

 

+

Chapter Text

You’re dead.

 

Then…

 

You aren’t.

 

+

 

You don’t know what’s happened, at first. You can hardly move, only managing jerky motions that never accomplish anything. You can’t see, you can barely hear.

 

You wonder if you’re in the hospital. You wonder if maybe there was too much damage from Papa’s attack; maybe there was brain damage, you reason, and you begin to think that this will be the rest of your life.

 

+

 

Touch comes back first.

 

Ever since you awoke to the blurred dark that is now your existence you have been able to feel touch, so perhaps that is inaccurate.

 

Maybe it would be better to say that the first sense to fix itself is touch.

 

Eventually, pressure on your skin does not send you screaming. Eventually, the slightest breeze no longer sends you huddling into the warm thing that sometimes cradles you.

 

You do not know what the warm thing is, but you love it nonetheless.

 

+

 

There is no real sense of time, for you. You wake, gaze around the dark, struggle to hear.

 

You eat when something is placed in your mouth. You sleep when you can no longer keep your eyes open.

 

You dream of your death and the look on your Papa’s face as he bled you dry.

 

+

 

Hearing comes after touch, sounds fading in gradually, over the course of some interminable amount of time.

 

The first thing you hear, clearly, is the babble of a baby, just next to your ear.

 

You don’t understand.

 

Why is there a baby? Why would there be a baby in your hospital room?

 

There wouldn’t be.

 

You are not in a hospital. You are not dead.

 

Where are you?

 

+

 

Light bleeds into the darkness.

 

A ball of light flickers.

 

You squint.

 

There’s… a large blob? You can’t see much, still, but you see a light colored… thing move around you.

 

You open your mouth, you call out.

 

You need help, please.

 

You hear a high-pitched squawk. You call out again.

 

The squawk answers you.

 

+

 

Oh.

 

Oh, god.

 

+

 

You have not been one for denial in almost a decade.

 

[More than a decade?]

 

[Time confuses you, now.]

 

You will not deny yourself the truth that is staring you in the face.

 

You are a child.

 

You are an infant.

 

It does not make sense.

 

Reality, however, does not need to make sense. It will happen regardless of humanity’s opinions.

 

+

 

“-fara í veiði? Finnr er nógu gamall til að taka þátt í þér núna.”

 

Your hearing is improving; at this point, you can make out individual words, though you do not understand their meaning.

 

You listen to the conversation happening outside of your crib. Those you presume to be your new mother and father converse and while you do not understand their words, their tone comes across easily.

 

It seems even your new parents have issues.

 

You turn your attention away, letting your gaze drop to the other side of your crib.

 

There is another baby, here. A twin, you imagine, as they are just as tiny and squishy looking as you yourself feel. Brown hair falls across their forehead and their nose crinkles in sleep.

 

They are utterly adorable and you can already tell that you will love them.

 

Their mouth opens and they gurgle a little. It doesn’t convey any particular emotion audibly, but you can tell they are happy either way.

 

You do not understand.

 

You also don’t have to, you think to yourself as you reach out a chubby, uncoordinated limb and grab their hand in yours.

 

You fall asleep.

 

For once you do not dream.

 

+

Chapter Text

+

 

You learn your name is something that sounds like Maya. You turn it in your head, over and over, thinking it through. You don’t mind the name Maya, honestly, and you can’t imagine going by your old name in this new life.

 

Your old life was shit. You will keep the knowledge, the memories and wisdom that comes from it, but you will not allow it to haunt your steps when you have a chance to start over.

 

Maya, you think.

 

You could get used to it.

 

+

 

Your twin babbles at you, eyes bright on your face and tiny, chubby hands grasping at your cheeks. His name is Cole, you’ve learned. You aren’t certain of the spelling, of either your name or his, but that isn’t very surprising.

 

You do not know the language spoken here, though you can narrow it down to something European. North Germanic, most likely.

 

You’ve never learned a North Germanic language. The closest you have is the Dutch you learned for your oldMother and you know that to be West Germanic.

 

You wish you had taken that class on Swedish, but wishes are useless, you know.

 

You will learn this language as you have learned everything else.

 

+

 

Life goes on.

 

+

 

There are other children who scurry around your crib, who peer down at you and coo.

 

You have more siblings than just Cole, you realize, and joy lights your heart.

 

You have a big family here. You have a mother. You have a second chance at having a father.

 

Following this realization, you are obnoxiously happy. Your mother murmurs to you with a smile on her face and you give a gummy smile, hand stretching up to tangle itself in her long hair. Your father appears, speaking softly though his face never changes. You babble at him, giggle and reach out, wanting him to hold you, give you a bit of affection.

 

He smiles at you, brushes his hand through your hair.

 

Walks away.

 

Curt, then. Well, you decide, you can work with that.

 

+

 

Your senses clear further and you realize that this is not a modern building. You’ve been able to see for a while now, obviously, but you hadn’t really taken in your surroundings.

 

You live in a small house. A hut, really, with one room. It held a cooking fire, a table with thick chairs. The family sleep on furs, one large pelt for Mother and Father, a couple of pelts near the fire where your brothers slept. Clothing is made of leather and wool. The men keep their hair long, a sword on their belt, a knife in their boot.

 

You don’t know when you are.

 

+

 

Time passes and you come to the conclusion that when you are doesn’t particularly matter.

 

You cannot go back to your old life. You would not want to, even if you could. Whatever happiness you had found in that life was soured by the appearance of your Papa.

 

You settle in to this life, settle into being Maya. You realize that you can feel something in the back of your mind, a spot where it feels different. It’s more of a feeling than anything, but when you rationalize it to yourself you think it feels like glee and warmth and neveralonealwaystogether.

 

It takes an embarrassing amount of time before you realize just what it is.

 

It’s Cole.

 

Your twin dwells in the back of your mind and you relax into it, relax into the knowledge that you will never truly be alone.

 

You have always been alone.

 

Being able to feel that that is no longer the case, even if you had logically known that as soon as you realized the number of people in your new family, is so goddamn relieving.

 

+

 

[You do not realize it, not yet, but that is when your determination to save your siblings crystallizes. Becomes an unbreakable thing, something that will never crack under pressure.]

 

+

Chapter Text

Your first word comes when you're about a year old. Your family has gathered around the cooking fire, eating food from Father’s last hunt. Finnr has been old enough to join Father on his hunts for a while now, if you have gotten the language and context correct, though your father seems reluctant to take him along.

 

 [Finn, you think would be the modern version. You go back and forth, thinking in your struggling Old Norse and modern English.]

 

Cole’s sitting on Mother’s lap as she feeds him some sort of mash. You’ve just finished yours and are sat on little Finnr’s lap, watching his hands avidly as they clap gently in front of your face. He’s about six, you think, and though he is so young he handles you with care, talking to you in slow, patient Norse.

 

Finn pauses, looking at you before he says something you can tell is a prompt. You babble at him, smiling and tugging slightly at his ear.

 

“Maija,” He says, “You segir hello við Cole, yes?” You don’t know all the words, but you can make out some of them and you are so happy in this moment, this simple moment of doing nothing with a family that is talking back and forth, relaxed around the cook fire.

 

You want to make them proud.

 

So you smile up at Finnr, gummy and drooling a bit, before you wrap your fist in his tunic and turn, looking toward your mother and Cole.

 

You open your mouth.

 

Close it.

 

You shouldn’t be so nervous, you scold yourself, resolving not to let anxiety get to you now when you haven’t let it get the best of you before.

 

You lean forward, toward Cole, and babble a bit more, getting more of a feel for how to make your tongue cooperate.

 

Finn calls to Mother, something you can’t understand, but you don’t pay them any mind, your eyes locked on Cole’s who has turned his head to look at you as well, likely feeling your determination through the bond the two of you share.

 

“Kol!” You say, high pitched and as clear as you can make it, leaning farther forward even as Finnr juggles to keep you on his lap. “Kol!” You make sure to say it as close as you can to how your mother says it, a long ‘o’ that almost sounds like it has an ‘h’ behind it.

 

His eyes seem to light up and he leans toward you as well, arms stretching out toward you as he talks at you, gibberish sounds that don’t really have a meaning, but you can feel his happiness in the back of your head and you are radiant right now, you can feel it, a smile splits your face and you prod at the bond, thinking that maybe he’ll be able to feel the sensation too.

 

He does and then there’s a clumsy push in your skull, a press of what best boils down to awelovetogether and then Cole opens his mouth and –

 

“Maí!”

 

+

 

You’ve never learned a North Germanic language. What you did learn about was the history of Germanic languages, including examples of their alphabets and writing styles.

 

It should be mentioned that your memory has always been good, if a bit hard to keep straight.

 

So when you are three winters old and your mother sits you and Kol down next to the fire and scribbles the alphabet into the dirt with a stick, you recognize the letters, though you don’t remember what they mean.

 

Futhark.

 

A fucking runic alphabet.

 

It’s Younger Futhark, at least. That narrows it down a bit. It was mainly in use from the eighth to the twelfth century.

 

Vikings, then.

 

Fascinating.

 

 +

 

It takes a fair amount of time, and even more practice, but you finally get runes down.

 

You learn your twin’s name is Kol, not Cole. You learn to spell your siblings’ names. Finnr, Elias, Niklas. Your mother, Ester. Your father, Mikael.

 

Your name is not Maya. You are Maija Mikaelsdóttir.

You love the spelling, you love how your name looks, a line of scrawled runes in the dirt.

 

You write it over and over.

 

ᛙ ᚭ ᛁ ᛆ ᚭ

 

Your mother, now heavily pregnant with a new younger sibling, finds it adorable. She doesn’t understand, naturally, but she still indulges you, charring sticks in the fire and clearing a space for you to write to your heart’s content.

 

You rarely see your father, who has proven to be even more taciturn than you had expected. You ache at that, a little, because you thought that in this life at least you could have a relationship with your father that wasn’t awful. And he loves you, you can see that, but he says nothing, barely stops to speak to you if it does not include a scolding of some kind. It is not just you, he is like this with your brothers as well, but it still stings when he brushes you off so that he can go and do whatever he does when not on a hunt.

 

He is worse, with Niklas, you can see, a bit firmer when speaking to him. When any of the children need to be punished, he is the one who does it, taking the transgressor behind the house and hitting them with a harsh hand. That happens to all of the children and does not surprise you – this is not the twenty-first century and you did not expect childcare to be the same – but when Nik is punished it seems like less of a punishment for trouble-making and more of a punishment for existing. You watch them interact and are painfully reminded of your relationship with your Papa – harsh words, a harsh hand, returned with desperate attempts for affection and praise.

 

You watch them and know that Father will never love Niklaus, not as Nik should be loved, and that Nik will always plead for Mikael’s love.

 

Now, you can do nothing for it. You are not yet four winters old, a small girl who cannot do anything on her brother’s behalf but take his mind off of it.

 

You have had Niklaus’ childhood and it very nearly ruined you – nearly turned you completely harsh and cold, ruthless with no capacity for caring. You do not wish to see that happen to him, to sweet little Nik who draws pictures on the cave walls and plays with you when you are bored. You do not wish to watch as Mikael ruins him.

 

+

 

[That crystalline resolve in your chest hardens a bit more.]

 

+

Chapter Text

Time passes, and with it the solstice. Your family practices forn sið, the Olde Ways, as opposed to Christianity, which is still winding its way across the Old World. You bring in the spring by dancing nude around the large bonfire your brothers and father have prepared, chanting prayers to Freyr in hopes that He might grant a healthy crop.

 

Father kills a boar, removing its head and mounting on a tree branch above the small altar that you and your mother have prepared. It is skinned, the still-bloody pelt laid atop the altar, filling the carved runes with warm life’s blood, and the organs are removed, tossed into the fire so that they might burn and please Frey with their sacrifice. Your mother begins to chant, then, a low murmur of a spell as she dips her fingers in the boar’s sacrificed blood. She doesn’t stop, speaking continuously as she moves about the family, tracing the Old Runes that she learned from her mother and her mother before her and so on, going back centuries.

 

You think that perhaps you should be disgusted, disturbed by this ritual, the blood on your bare skin, the head dripping slowly on the altar.

 

You aren’t.

 

You are not even four years old yet but you feel more settled in this life than you ever did previously.

 

You see nothing wrong with this ritual, with how your family chooses to worship, and so you watch as your mother paints out runes on your siblings’ faces and hands, over their hearts, not pausing even as her voice becomes hoarse and cracks from dryness.

 

Your mother finishes Kol’s paint, reaching him last as he is the youngest for now, before straightening, dipping her fingers in still more blood and dragging her fingers over her round stomach, painting runes for the baby not yet born. Her voice rises, reaching a crescendo as she covers her own face and the spell seals with a flare of blue-white light.

 

The blood dries on your skin and you reach grab Kol’s bloodstained hand, listening as he chatters to you cheerfully, energetic as always.

 

+

 

Mother goes into labor mid-summer, a bright, sunny day where the weather is neither hot nor cool and the birds sing. It’s a surprisingly long labor, apparently lasting longer than yours and Kol’s, even though this is Mother’s seventh child.

 

Night falls, a waxing crescent lighting the sky, and you stand by your mother’s side, letting her clutch your hand as she groans and moans and tries to push your sibling into the world. Mikael stands at the foot of her bed, silent and watchful as his wife struggles, though you can see warmth lighting his eyes in the way it does so rarely.

 

Esther pushes again and you, Ayana, and Father begin to pray, asking the goddesses Frigg and Freyja to smile upon the mother and babe, granting them luck and health and a speedy recovery.

 

The prayer ends and your mother pushes and a strong wail sounds.

 

+

 

The child, born with thick blonde hair, is a girl. Nine days pass and Father sits in the chair at the head of the table, a tall thing, larger than the others with thick armrests carved with runes. He sets her on his knee and accepts her into the family, naming her Rebekka with a stern face and a smile in his eyes, his lips quirking the slightest as he sprinkles her with water.

 

+

 

Rebekka grows into a gorgeous little thing, all light blonde hair and bright blue eyes. She takes after Niklas the most, in view of coloring at least, though her attitude is all her own. She is three when you and Kol are six and begin learning your mother’s craft.

 

Magick.

 

+

 

You and your twin are the only children to embrace learning magicks from Mother. Finnr didn’t inherit the gift, though your dead first sister, Freyja, did. Elijah has some magick but learns nothing, claiming that he is not interested and that his magick is weak regardless, useful only for small things. Niklas too did not inherit, and shows no sadness for it. It is too soon to know if Rebekka has been bestowed the gift, though you privately believe she has.

 

And so you and Kol are the only children to train in seiðr, in the magicks of your mother and her family.

 

Your father does not particularly approve, though if he disapproves of Kol learning what is often times referred to as a ‘woman’s craft’ he does so very quietly. You cannot be certain, but you believe that Mikael does not care for the aspersions cast upon the men who take up seiðr. He is a very… pragmatic sort of man and a talent is a talent, regardless of what society’s beliefs are.

 

Sometimes, when you get particularly introspective, you are so very grateful that Father accepts Kol’s instruction. If he had spoken down to him, if Father had done his best to ruin Kol’s love of witchcraft, then…

 

Well.

 

Your temper may not be quick, but that does not mean you are weak. There is nothing you would not do for your other half.

 

Even if that meant going against your father. For Kol, you would take a thousand lashings.

Chapter Text

Soon after you begin learning magick, you realize that you are not, nor will you ever be, as good with it as Kol is. With Kol, something just seems to click, all the different teachings and variables coming together easily while you muse and puzzle and muddle your way through. Oh, you both get results, undoubtedly, but Kol always does better, ekes out that extra bit of effectiveness, or strength, or what-have-you.

 

You’re a bit ashamed to say that you’re envious.

 

First off, Kol is your twin. You can no longer imagine life without him, regardless of the fact that you lived a decent life before you knew him. Second, you are a grown ass woman, in spite of what your appearance suggests. You’re somewhere in your early thirties and you should not be upset because a child is better with magick than you are.

 

Shouldn’t be. But you are.

 

A year passes, then two, and you do your best to hide it, to shove the envy down where it can be ignored, you try to stifle it enough that it never leaks across the bond.

 

+

 

Eventually though, you discover that your efforts were useless.

 

It starts small. You notice that it takes Kol longer to understand things that you know are easily within his grasp. Then, it escalates. He fumbles spells, he misspeaks during important incantations.

 

You don’t understand.

 

So, one day, after a long day where you practiced incantations and the uses of herbs, you grab Kol’s hand and pull into the forest. You don’t particularly know where you’re going, but you follow a tugging feeling in your gut through the thick trees. You aren’t particularly worried about becoming lost; you still remember how to follow track through the woods and you and Kol aren’t being especially stealthy.

 

Kol protests, of course, because at heart Kol’s a mischievous, contrary little brat, but he doesn’t try to pull away, letting you tow him through the forest.

 

You really are stupidly fond of him.

 

Finally, you break through the treeline, into a small clearing that you and Kol both immediately fall in love with. It butts up against a hill, an offshoot of the creek pouring down rocks into a fairly large, crystalline lake. A tree hangs over the pond, a gnarled, ugly thing with scarred wood and a thick trunk, dropping leaves into the water below. You think you can see some blackberries on the bushes that rim the base of the hill. All in all, it’s perfect.

 

You move forward, not pausing when Kol stumbles at the abrupt movement, and plop down at the base of the tree, tugging at Kol’s hand when he takes too long to follow.

 

Kol opens his mouth, no doubt to question why his sister’s dragged him to some random [beautiful] clearing in the forest with no explanation. Instead, you cut across him, speaking in stern Norse.

 

Kih,” You say, ensuring his attention snaps to you by using the nickname you gave him as babes. “What is going on?”

 

He plays dumb, as you thought he might, and shrugs. “What do you mean, sister? A great many things are going on.”

 

Your magick, Kih. You are not doing well,” You pause, thinking that over, before you correct yourself. “Well, not as well as you can. You forget I know you, tvíburinn minn, and something is amiss.”

 

Kol’s jaw works and you sit, silent, as he works through his response. He is so young, still, a boy of nearly nine winters, but he is so intelligent, and funny, and you can see his future in his face – the dark hair and eyes that he shares with you and Elias, the nose he shares with your mother, the strong jaw that mirrors Finnr’s.

 

You wonder how he will grow, who he will be, and tamp down a grin at the thought. You have no doubt he will be wonderful.

 

Your musings end when he finally speaks.

 

Do not worry yourself, tvíbura. It is nothing.” He looks, and feels, resolute, but you cannot help but prod further, hoping it is not what you think.

 

Kol…” You say, drawing your lip between your teeth. Oh, how you hope you are wrong, but you can take no chances. Not with this. “Has… Kol, has Faðir said something to you?

 

Kol’s brows lift and you can see surprise bloom across his face. “Wha-? No, systir, he has said nothing!” But you can feel apprehension come across the bond and it takes but an instant for your vision to fill with red.

 

You had thought that Mikael was decent, that he would say nothing of Kol learning a so-called woman’s craft, but it appears that you have overestimated him. You wish you were older, that you were tall enough to truly be a threat, that you could handle a sword as your elder brothers could, but no matter.

 

For this, you will rip him apart with your bare hands.

You stand, swirling around to face where you entered the clearing, thoughts of slaughter the only imaginings dancing in your head. You will have to take him off guard, away from your móðir and her seiðr, the power of which will keep you from giving your father a proper maiming. Lure him away with something, a tale of Kol having hurt his ankle in the forest… no, you decide, that won’t work, Rebekka would be a better damsel for you know that he loves his youngest daughter more than he will ever love your twin.

 

You are torn from your fantasies of revenge and blood and maybe even death, it would be tricky to manage but hunting trips can go wrong easily, by the feel of your twin’s hand on your wrist.

 

He turns you and you can see him looking at you worriedly, no doubt feeling the murderous rage pouring down the bond, so overpoweringly intense that you could not block it for the life of you.

 

Systir! Wait!” He says, and you can hear worry and concern in his voice but you find you cannot spare it a thought at the moment.

 

Yes, Kih? I have a father to slaughter, what is it?” His eyes go wide, as though he cannot believe that you would go against Faðir for him. You wonder at that a bit, for have you not shown him your loyalty already? You have taken lashings for him, just as you have for Niklas and you have no doubt that you will take pain for Rebekka in time as well. Then again, you know that you are the only child of Mikael’s that will truly go against him, so perhaps Kol’s surprise isn’t as wondrous as you believed. Oh, Elias will try to pull attention away if one of his siblings is in trouble, but he would never speak against your Faðir, not openly.

 

“Faðir has said nothing, I vow it!” Kih cries.

 

You ground yourself, forcing the all-consuming rage to pull back. There are many things that you and Kol share between yourselves, only between yourselves, and vows are one of them. Swears can be broken, as can promises, but if you vow something to each other you will not break it, not for anything.

 

If Faðir has said nothing, then why are you holding back when Móðir teaches us of her seiðr?” You ask, unable to keep the accusatory note out of your voice. You know that you are being pushy but you do not stop, will not stop, because something is keeping Kol from utilizing his full potential, keeping him from going as far as he can with something that you know he adores and you will not stand for it.

 

You had not been joking, before, when you said that you would slaughter Faðir for hurting Kol. You would. You may regret it, later on, when you saw your Móðir’s heartbreak and the pain of losing a parent tear your siblings apart, but you would have done it.

 

You are not hiding as well as you think you are, systir.” Kol responds, voice and mind and eyes all solemn and reluctant.

 

You don’t understand, and you say as much.

 

“I can feel all that you feel, you know this. Did you think that you were hiding your envy well? I have been able to feel the jealous longing that comes from my adeptness with magick. So, I fixed it. I’m not doing as well, you are no longer envious. Problem solved.” Kol smiles lightly, as though there is actually something to be happy about here. Tears well in your eyes as you stare at him, open-mouthed.

 

You… You knew that Kol loved you. That has never been something that you’ve doubted. Even if you could not feel it in the back of your mind you would have never doubted that. With the bond, there is no room for questioning.

 

[A spark. Awelovetogetherforeverneveralone washes over you. A prod. AmazementaweI’llneverleavetillthedaywedie washes over him.]

 

However… You had not realized that he would do something like this for you. Would hold himself back from excelling in an area he adored just so that he wouldn’t hurt your feelings.

 

You throw yourself at him, dark brown hair swinging in its braids with your momentum. Kol catches you with a startled umph and wraps skinny arms around your waist. You stay there, safe, for a minute, trying to force your overwhelming emotions under control. Kol, lovely twin that he is, lets you, says nothing even though he must feel the storm of your feelings over the bond, especially with the concern that he is practically exuding.

 

You pull back eventually, sniffling. Your cheeks are wet and you know that if it was anyone other than Kol in front of you now they would be heating in a blush. You despise crying, especially in front of others. You swipe at the tears, brushing them off and you can practically see Kol’s worry rise. Taking a deep breath, you bring yourself back under control.

 

“I was envious, yes. But, Kih… I was hiding it because I was so ashamed of it. Seiðr is a passion for you and I never wanted such stupid feelings of jealousy to keep you from enjoying it as much as you can.”

 

Kol frowned at you, confused. “Systir, why would you be ashamed? It is normal to be envious of those who excel. I am jealous of Finnr’s skill with a sword and I am jealous of your skill with a bow – even if you do not use it often.”

 

“I am older than you, tvíburinn minn. I should not have such feelings about something you cannot help. Something you love!”

 

“Tvíbura, you are still human. Even you cannot constantly control your feelings, as much as you seem to try.”

 

Kol’s voice lowers, going sterner. “Now. Why did you seem so surprised when you learned why I was doing it? Why did you cry? You know that I would do anything to make you happy, don’t you?” His voice rises again at the end, his youth and insecurities shining through. You move closer to him and tug his head down a bit so that you can plant a kiss on his brow.

 

“I know that you would. And I would do no less for you, bróðir. But… It is different to know something and to experience it. Do you understand what I mean?”

 

“You… knew that I loved you, but you did not… expect me to show it?” His words are slow and careful, confused by your surprise.

 

You smile at him, having one of those moments where you are taken aback by how fond you are of him.

 

“Yes.

 

He nods, face clearing though he’s still confused. He moves to pass you, heading in the direction you came from but you pause. You haven’t told him that you are reborn, that you had a life before this one, with its own experiences and traumas. You’ve wanted to, of course you have, the two of you have no true secrets from each other besides this one… massive thing. It is one thing you hope does not change as the two of you grow older. You want to tell him but you hold yourself back; your old life was a tragedy and he should not have to be exposed to it when he is so young.

 

That truth does not make keeping it a secret any easier.

 

Kol pauses too, when he sees that you’ve stopped. He turns and just looks at you, knowing that you have something else to say, knowing that you are hesitating and debating.

 

He knows and does not press.

 

Perhaps that is what makes you decide.

Chapter Text

Things stay the same.

 

It’s baffling, really, just how ordinary life is after that. You finally tell your twin about how you remember a past life, one set centuries in the future, and things stay the same.

 

If anything, you and Kol are closer than before, something you can tell baffles your family. You’d already been attached at the hip before – you don’t think they realized that you could be any closer.

 

+

 

Of course, not everything is wonderful.

 

Kol had been accepting, something you had wished would happen but hadn’t dared hope for, but you knew him well. He didn’t take it as well as he wanted you to believe. You could feel the dizzying confusion, the bewilderment that his twin could have kept something like this from him for years, the concern that washed over him as he thought of just how she had described her relationship with her first father. The bone-deep anger that came after that.

 

You could feel how things clicked into place in his head, quirks and ticks and annoyances slotting into place as he worked out just how his view of his sister was affected by having a past life.

 

You’d nearly dropped from the relief when he greeted you with a smiling hug and resolve in his chest.

 

+

 

Life moves on. You and Kol grow closer as the two of you find yourselves ever more distant with the other children in the settlement. They think you odd, you know, and perhaps that should bother you more than it does but you have Finnr to tell you stories and Elias to teach you how to handle a knife (You already know, of course, but it has been a long time now and you appreciate the help nonetheless.) and Niklas teaches you to carve animals from wood and draw with fired sticks and you weave flowers in Rebekka’s hair and you and Kol are two people with a single soul.

 

With that, you find it hard to care for what those other children think.

 

Kol takes it harder, more of an extrovert than you are by far, but eventually he makes friends with some of the children in the Natives’ village, just over the crest.

 

You like them, even though they’re a bit annoying for you to want to be around them for too long. So loud, but you don’t complain. Kol needs friends and you aren’t going to mess this up as you did with the magick.

 

Your father doesn’t approve of your friendship with the Natives. You know why. Faðir believes them to be savages, beneath his notice. He finds them untenable, particularly so for believing Fenrir’s Blessing to be a curse. They turn into wolves once a month, unable to control themselves, driving everyone in the Norse settlement into the large cave system that runs alongside the village. You all cower there overnight on the nights when the moon is full, knowing that the wolves cannot reach you there, not with the enchantments that the seiðkonur have laid across the entrance.

 

They cannot reach you but you all fear them regardless.

 

Mikael despises them for that.

 

+

Chapter Text

After Rebekka is born, you gain one more sibling, some six summers later. A baby boy, with dark hair and dark eyes, who your father names Hinrik. Quiet and solemn, he adores Kol, though he doesn’t seem to care for you quite as much.

 

Leaving him and Kol be, you end up spending more and more time with Bekka, who has just turned ten and is endlessly fascinated with flowers. Now thirteen, your magicks come to you more easily than ever, though you will never have Kol’s flair. You entertain her with flowers, feeding magick into the soil and urging them to bloom though it is not their season. You twine them into crowns, braid them into Bekka’s golden hair.

 

There is rarely a day that passes without your fingers in your sister’s hair, your fingers perpetually covered in soil from dragging them through the earth.

 

Once, on a day when Rebekka is particularly fussy and unimpressed with everything you have to show her, you call up an image of your favorite flower in your mind. A frangipani would never have bloomed in the New World, not now, but you feed your magick to the earth and ask for the blessing of the gods. And then you force that crystal clear image of the flower through your hand and into the ground. Your eyes close at the effort of imposing your will on the world like this and you pray to Freyr to lend you strength.

 

Your sister gasps.

 

+

 

There is now a gorgeous shrub of flowering frangipani in the woods just behind your family’s house. The flowers are white-pink with a dusting of bronze along the edges and Rebekka constantly demands you pluck a bloom from the bush so that it might be braided into the crown braid she now favors.

 

Your mother is surprised by it, these odd flowers that look like nothing she’s ever seen, and you have to lie through your teeth about just where you saw them.

 

I… I dreamt of them, móðir. These flowers and sunlight and warm waters that look like nothing I’ve ever seen. Do you – do you think it meant something?

 

It takes weeks but eventually she backs off, deciding that it is an odd way of your magicks expressing themselves. Her own magicks drew her to a perfectly round pearl, when she was your age and crossing the seas to journey to a new settlement. She carries it with her, even now, a bright opalescent thing that she wears in a large silver broach.

 

Elias takes one of the flowers to gift to the woman he is currently courting, a woman with bright copper hair and deep brown eyes named Dagný who is currently training as a shield-maiden.

 

You tell Kol the truth, of course. He thinks the flowers are pretty, but that is not what interests him.

 

The season changes from late summer to the time of the harvest to early winter. The leaves fall from the trees and the settlement prepares for winter – Ayana predicts that it will be a harsh season and so the preparations are more frantic than usual. You wake one morning to a heavy frost.

 

All the plants are dead or dying and yet –

 

Your frangipanis still bloom.

 

Now that? That is what interests Kol.

 

+

 

You are laying half under your frangipanis which have grown into what is practically a tree, now. The flowers are still heavy with scent, still blossoming their pink and white and bronze and you lay under the tree and marvel at what you have created.

 

You’re prodding at the flowers with your magick, trying to figure out just how you managed to make an exotic flower live through freezing weather when you feel footstpes reverberate through the earth. It isn’t Kol, you can feel him somewhere off to the west where he’s on a hunting trip with Elias and Finnr. Niklas is with Bekka, pouting after Father refused to let him join the others on the trip and these footsteps are too heavy to be Mother’s or Hinrik’s. You swirl up to your feet in one smooth movement of body and magick and turn to look.

 

“Hello, faðir.”

Chapter Text

You do not tell your family of your conversation with Father. You resolve yourself not to tell them of the ultimatum he has issued you, though you know that Kol can feel something from the bond. He’s been giving you odd looks, lately, and you know he is concerned.

 

Of course, he is concerned, you are concerned. You aren’t dealing with the problem, you aren’t planning, you’re doing your best not to even think about it.

 

You’re being stupid.

 

You put promises [threats] out of your mind and focus on making plants bloom beneath shaking fingers.

 

+

 

See, the thing is, you and Kol are fifteen now.

 

[You are forty-two, now.]

 

And that isn’t particularly noteworthy, not for Kol, whose only real change is how he is brought along on hunting trips longer and more significant than those in the past.

 

But for you? You, a female in the Viking Age? You can marry, now.

 

You can marry, now.

 

You.

 

+

 

“You will be considering courtship, dóttir.”

 

“What? But, faðir, I – “

 

“No!”

 

+

 

Gods. You have never considered marriage.

 

Perhaps that is not surprising, that you never thought of it Before. But this isn’t Before. And here and now, marriage is a fact of life.

 

Somehow, you’d never considered that.

 

+

 

You fall silent because you’ve learned that faðir is not just curt and taciturn; he is strict, often to the point where you can’t tell if he’s being strict to be strict or strict to be cruel. You thought you learned with Papa. Evidently not.

 

“You are fifteen, Maija. You are old enough to marry now, and while your móðir has argued for you to make your own match, make no mistake - you will marry.”

 

You keep your mouth shut. You have already had one lashing this week; you do not care for another.

 

+

 

You wonder if there’s something wrong with you. You wonder if it’s wrong that you don’t think of romance with longing, that you have no dreams of marriage, that you do not dream of children as your sister does. If you could find a way to escape marriage and all its obligations you would be happy.

 

You do not lust after men. You do not even lust after women. You can take in their features, can note that others would find them attractive but that is all. You do not fantasize. Your hormones are a temporary inconvenience and you treat them accordingly.

 

+

 

“You will bring me your match by summer’s end. I will arrange a temporary courtship, to be followed by contract negotiations.”

 

“And when will I be wed?” You keep most of the bitterness from your voice with sheer force of will. Only most, though.

 

Mikael’s eyes narrow and you don’t move.

 

[You want to though.]

 

“I will see you wed by your eighteenth winter, dóttir. I will ensure it.”

 

+

 

You should tell Kol. You should.

 

You don’t.

Chapter Text

There are not many prospects in the settlement. You are the youngest eligible female, the next youngest being seventeen year old Tatia, who recently became both a mother and a widow. She won’t be able to search for a new husband until her year of mourning has passed, however, so at least you will not be… competing with her.

 

The problem is that all the men close in age to you are unsuitable matches for one reason or another. Four are your brothers, who are not acceptable for obvious reasons. The Agnarrsons have six children, all of whom are male, but Mikael hates Agnarr for reasons that have never been explained to you. Bjorn ‘Brandr’ Dagrson is an awful bastard, literally as well as figuratively, who tries to compensate for being an illegitimate child by being a fearsome warrior. The problem, then, is that he is a cocky prick in his efforts while simultaneously being a subpar fighter. 

 

Egill Fróðison, Brynjarr Geirrson, and Gunnarr Hrafnson are all decent to you but you will not marry those who are unkind to Kol. He is your other half, someone who will frequent your dwelling once you wed, and you will not marry someone who would make him feel unwelcome.

 

+

 

You ponder your choices. Happiness is out of reach, now, just as it always is. You wonder if being content is too much to ask for. Your siblings may still be happy though; that will have to be enough.

 

+

 

You walk with Kol, strolling through the village toward the woods. The two of you are headed to that clearing you found, years ago now, where you told him of being reborn. It’s become something of a sacred spot for the both of you, now, a place where you have no worries and can relax with the person who knows you best. Kol likes it just as much as you do, being particularly fond of the ugly old tree. You’ll float, on your back in the pond, while he lays in the grass at the trees base, not bothering to talk, content in the silence.

 

You and Kol are nearly seventeen and you’ve felt conflict over the bond for weeks, a hesitant fear that normally only appears as Mikael does, but after the first time you haven’t pressed. Kíh hadn’t pressed even when you know that you were practically flooding the bond with conflict – you will not press him now. The one time you had asked – the spike of fear had made you nauseous, sick to your stomach. 

 

[The way he felt brought to mind your Papa’s hands around your throat, the fear you felt as your vision darkened, before the resignation sank in.]

 

So you say nothing and you don’t press and if you are more affectionate than usual – if you press kisses to the top of his head and lock your arms around him in a hug, well. It’s unrelated. 

 

Obviously. 

 

+

 

You’ve heard rumors, recently, about Kol. You haven’t mentioned them to him. 

 

[You haven’t mentioned your impending courtship to him either and you try not to feel guilty.]

 

+