Thora watches Hvitserk sail away, and it feels more like the end of something than she cares to admit.
He is brave, he is strong, he will return, she tells herself as his ship shrinks into the distance and disappears over the horizon. She can almost make herself believe it. And when he comes back, maybe he will finally understand there is nothing for him here, it will only ever be him doing Ivar’s bidding and swallowing one humiliation after the next, and they will go away from this place forever and start a new life somewhere else. She had not meant to talk of marriage and children before he left, but something had compelled her to speak. Because last night, when she had blown out the candles and curled up in bed beside him, things had felt so solid between them, so real, and then when the sun rose in the morning she had seen it was not so after all and she had only deceived herself.
The men always leave, her mother said to her when she was small. The men leave, and all we can do is watch. She did not understand it back then, but she does now. You can tie an anchor to a ship; a man, not so much. You can only remind him of home and the warm hearth that is waiting for him there and hope your words will be enough.
“You are Thora?” a woman’s voice asks from behind her, interrupting her thoughts. Thora turns to see Ivar’s queen standing there with one hand resting on her growing belly and the other extended out towards her. A pair of shieldmaidens wait a respectful distance away, observing them silently. “Won’t you come walk with me?”
It is phrased as a question, a request. It isn’t one. After a moment of hesitation, Thora takes her hand and they stroll arm in arm down the dock and back towards the town with the shieldmaidens following close behind. “It is an important thing that Hvitserk is doing,” Freydis tells her. “I know it is not easy to be separated, but it will not be for long, and it is necessary to secure our future here.”
Thora wonders whose future, exactly, she is referring to, but she does not speak that thought out loud. Instead, she asks, “Forgive me, Queen Freydis, but what is this all about?”
“Ivar tells me we may be sisters soon,” Freydis says with a smile. The queen is always smiling as though she knows some great secret, and you are the only one she will tell it to. “If that is so, I should like to know you better, as I have never had a sister. Or at least, no sisters that I know of.”
Thora resists the urge to pull her arm away, to disentangle herself from the other woman, to tell her, I don’t know you; you are no sister of mine. She cannot tell if this is some trick of Ivar’s, some trap that has been set for her now that Hvitserk is gone.
“Ivar did not send me,” Freydis reassures her, as though she has read her thoughts. “I come bearing no messages from him, no threats.”
“No threats,” Thora says incredulously. “No, Ivar has done that already. He left your bed in the middle of the night to come threaten me in mine.” She is angry; she knows she should be more careful, but she can’t seem to stop herself. “He said he would burn me alive; did you know that?”
Freydis keeps her expression neutral, and that in itself is answer enough. She will not feign ignorance of what her husband has done. “Were you frightened?”
The worst part of it had been the softness of his voice when he asked her name. The hint of a smile on his face. Yes, of course I was frightened—that is the real answer. Instead, she says, “I am not afraid of him.”
“You are brave,” Freydis murmurs soothingly. “But there is a time for bravery, and a time to consider one’s position and retreat.” The queen slows her steps as they pass by the fruit sellers in the marketplace. She fishes coins out of her pocket in exchange for a small basket of apples. She offers one to Thora, who declines, and she shrugs and passes the basket to her shieldmaiden to hold.
Retreat to where? This is my home. Thora feels the first raindrops fall on her head and she gazes up at the darkening sky. Somewhere in the distance, she can hear the low rumble of thunder. She gathers up her courage and looks the queen in the eye. “You could put an end to this, if you wanted,” she says quietly, so the shieldmaidens cannot hear. “This business of Ivar calling himself a god. I know it is not true, Hvitserk knows it, we all know it. You know it. I imagine Ivar must know it too.”
Freydis raises an eyebrow. “I understand it is difficult, sometimes, to accept a new way of thinking.” Then she reconsiders and shakes her head. “Not new, I should say—Ivar always was a god; he simply needed to change his perspective to understand that. As must we all. The world is changing around us all the time, and I would not want you to be left behind.”
“If you are here to threaten me after all, then you should say what you mean,” Thora snaps, her patience growing thin. She wants this conversation over with; she is tired from her disrupted sleep, though she cannot say yet whether she will ever be able to sleep peacefully in her own bed ever again.
“This is not a threat. Consider this sisterly advice,” she tells Thora as they continue on, and when she says that, Thora thinks about slapping her. She wonders what Freydis would do: would she hit her back, or would she stand there and smile? “When the time comes—and it may be sooner than you think—you will want to speak your mind to Ivar as you are speaking to me now. Don’t.”
“You want me to tell him whatever he wants to hear.”
“It will not sit well with you,” Freydis answers. “But yes.”
“I will not lie for the sake of his feelings,” she says flatly. The very thought of doing so makes her want to vomit. To kneel before that man and flatter him, worship him…
Freydis nods. She seems neither surprised nor upset by Thora’s refusal, only curious. “Why does this trouble you so much?”
“Because,” Thora begins, slightly astonished that this requires explanation, “because Ivar is not a god, and it will make the gods angry when they see him worshipped as one. People will die because of this—people have already died because of this—and you will have allowed it to happen. No, you will have encouraged it. Don’t you care about that? Doesn’t it bother you?”
Freydis does not, in fact, look particularly bothered. She tilts her head to the side, considering Thora with a raised eyebrow. “You have been a free woman your entire life, yes?”
Thora frowns, thrown off by the change in topic. “Of course.”
“So you have never been bought and sold like cattle? Or starved and denied water? Or beaten for no reason at all? You have never received a visit in the night from your master and been told to smile at him the next day?” She is still smiling, but it doesn’t quite reach her eyes. “No, of course you haven’t. As a girl, you grew up playing games with your sisters and learning to weave at your mother’s side. You also grew up seeing the things that were done to slaves, and you learned to look right past. You would not have spared a thought for me back then. None of you did.”
“My family never mistreated any slaves,” Thora protests, but even as the words leave her mouth, she realizes she cannot say for certain if that is true. “I did not know you when I was a girl. I am sorry for what happened to you, but surely you cannot hold us all responsible for the actions of a few.”
“The actions of a few.” Freydis lets out a small mirthless laugh, and Thora sees it makes no difference to her. In that laugh, she hears her say, you may never have hurt me with your own hands, but you never did anything to stop it either—so if I am complicit in whatever happens to you next, it is because you were complicit in what was done to me before.
“You think there is some difference between Ivar and those who were king before him,” Freydis continues, her steps quickening. The rain is falling steadily now, and the fat raindrops are soaking into her hair and her clothes. “You believe he is a tyrant, and I am sure that is true for you. But I was a slave when Ragnar ruled Kattegat, and Aslaug in his stead, and then Lagertha, and in those days I did not care who sat on the throne, I cared only about the man or the woman holding the whip.”
“It was Ivar who made you a free woman,” Thora observes.
“Yes, and he did so without conditions or expectations; without, I think, knowing why he did it,” Freydis says. There is a slight edge in her voice that Thora had not noticed before, almost a hint of defensiveness. “I know it is not important to you that he did this. I know it is not important to anybody else in Kattegat. But it is important to me. And because he did that for me, I decided I would do something important for him.”
Hvitserk had once confided to Thora his suspicions about Freydis: that she did not actually love Ivar, that she was only using him for her own ends, that the child in her belly could not possibly be his. He had been drunk that night, words slurring, head drooping down onto her shoulder—"Who is this girl anyway? Just a nobody, just some slave,” he said, and then, without prompting, he had launched into a lengthy tangent about his younger brother’s sex life at a level of detail that, in Thora’s view, was frankly unnecessary. It had shocked her a little to hear him speak about his own brother so crudely, even laughing at times, so eager to share Ivar’s secrets, his shame. Hvitserk had never been anything but kind to her, but now she sensed a kind of cruelty in him too, not the same as Ivar’s cruelty, but also not so different. They will bite and scratch at each other like wolves until they are both dead, until maybe all of us are dead, she had thought, and she tasted despair like ash in her mouth.
Then Hvitserk had blinked at her slowly and shook his head. “But enough about Ivar; I do not wish to speak of this anymore,” he had declared, and he pulled her close and kissed her and she forgot all about it.
She remembers now, though. And she sees also that Hvitserk was wrong—Freydis does love Ivar, or at least some part of her does. It will kill her in the end. She should have run when she had the chance.
“You think you are safe,” Thora says in a low voice. “You are a free woman, you are a queen, you are carrying a child.” A child, not his child, she is sure to say. She watches Freydis’s face for any wavering, to see if she will give herself away, but she will not do it, and again Thora wonders if Hvitserk was wrong about that as well or if she is simply that good of a pretender. “Perhaps you are safe, for now. But do you really believe it will last? One morning, you will wake up and you will find the ground has shifted under your feet while you were asleep. You will turn and look at the man you married and you will finally see him for who he really is. And I will pity you when that day comes.”
Freydis stops, finally, and Thora looks up and realizes that their path has led them directly to the great hall without her even noticing. The queen untangles her arm from Thora’s and turns to face her with that same placid smile. “Be well, sister,” she says. “Save your pity for those who need it.”
She plants a kiss on her cheek and heads into the hall, leaving Thora standing outside in the pouring rain.
“You went to visit Hvitserk’s woman,” Ivar says to Freydis later, almost as an afterthought. “What did you speak about?”
“Oh, nothing,” Freydis tells him with a smile, wrapping her fingers around his, and she sees he takes this to mean women’s things, which he translates in his mind into nothing important. He does not inquire further; he leans back in bed and closes his eyes, content.
And Freydis sits there and watches him, and she waits for the ground to shift.