“Damn damn damn damn!” Eirik seethed. “Who built this house? A race of dwarves?”
“Irishmen,” Sigrid sighed.
“I think it is that Murchad’s idea,” he grumbled. “Who puts a beam directly above a bed?”
“Anyone who doesn’t stand up on the bed to get out of it. And I believe the bed was put directly below the beam, Eirik.”
She tried to fling an arm around his waist and pull him back into the bed, but the heavy blankets pinned her down by the legs, and he easily slipped away. Nor had she truly meant to catch him.
“Damn!” he huffed, still prodding at the top of his head with his fingertips. “I think I got a dent!”
Sigrid snorted. “That’s no more than you deserve for trying to sneak out of here without saying goodbye.”
“I only wanted to shave first, and so!” he protested. “And stir up the fire for you, too, before you get out of bed. So!” He hastened to the fireside to make good on his good intentions.
Sigrid smiled wryly and leaned back on her elbow to watch.
Though he had shed all the ox-like, burly clumsiness of his youth, Eirik had not grown spindly either, as many other men of his height had. He was simply a man built on a grander scale than other men: tall and slim, solid in the shoulders and slender in the hips. And but for a few pink scars, his body was as white as a wax candle, and the burnished gold of his hair glowed in the firelight like a flame.
“Why don’t you come back to bed if the front of you is cold?” she teased.
He turned in a spiraling movement that started in his shoulders and twisted down to his hips and legs, and as he spun, the low light spilled across his waist, catching in the hair of his belly and groin like a second fire. From head to brows to beard, from chest to belly to legs, Eirik’s hair was all the same gold, as if he had been hallowed by the gods to go gilded among ordinary men, who only sprouted shades of lead.
“Cold?” he grinned when he saw where she was staring. “After last night, I have to cool off ‘the front of me’ by the fire.”
Sigrid fell back on her pillow and laughed until her belly shook.
She had known he would not come back into the bed: on the mornings of his departures he never did, though he did not ordinarily have to climb over her sleeping body to sneak out of it.
They might fight against sleep for hours, straining every last minute out of the night, but in the morning they surrendered to dawn without a struggle. It was the easiest way; stalling for even five minutes made the inevitable goodbye excruciatingly more difficult.
Eirik pulled on his underwear to prevent further scrutiny of “the front of him” and bent to take his borrowed razor and soap out of his borrowed bag.
“One proper shave before I go, Siri, in case that Murchad wants to kiss me goodbye.”
Sigrid giggled and ran a hand thoughtfully over her own chin. “Better let me have a go with it, too, in case that Cornwheel wants to kiss me goodbye.”
Eirik snorted. “I shall lend you the razor, but you won’t need the soap.” He held the blade against his throat at a menacing angle. “Up around the jawbone as far as the ear, if he tries,” he advised.
Sigrid had only been thinking of her imaginary stubble. “He won’t try,” she mumbled. Cearball knew what had happened to Osvald.
Eirik grunted and splashed with the soap in the basin.
Sigrid sighed again and pushed the blankets down past her knees.
She would have to hurry; she had to dress herself decently enough to go down and ask Synne to lend her warm petticoats to wear, and then she would have to dress herself a second time. Murchad’s house was well back from the sea, and there was no balcony where she might stand and wave. She would ride with Eirik to the shore to see him off, whatever Eirik or anyone had to say about it.
She sat up and pulled up her knees – and then she froze, as if by stopping her body she could stop time – stop everything that flowed. Still she felt a hot trickling between her legs, long and slow, as if she were being drained.
She yanked the blankets up over her knees again and then peeked beneath them. She saw red – vivid red, though Synne’s Irish linen was silvery-gray – vivid red, though the light was golden – vivid red, though the shadows were blue. Her thighs were smeared with duller red and brown: blood that had dried. She had been bleeding for hours.
Gingerly she slid her body back between the blankets, though now she felt the warm dampness beneath her. Perhaps if she lay flat, she thought… but she had been lying flat for hours.
Eirik rinsed and dried his hands, but he paused before picking up his razor.
“Aren’t you getting up?” he asked.
She whimpered, “Eirik…”
He was absurdly adorable with the soap on his chin – so white as to make his nose seem pink – and beneath it the merry grin he generously wore on such mornings to help her hold back her tears.
In less than an hour he would be gone. If she told him now, he would go away in anguish, blaming himself for being the cause of their child’s death, and fearing for Sigrid’s own life. Perhaps he would falter at some critical moment – perhaps he would fail. Perhaps he would not go at all, though he had so many terribly important things to do.
He might not return for weeks. She could tell him then – tell him it had happened only a few days before, after a long, lazy, happy time spent with her sister. Then he would only say, as he had said before, that the Lord must have had an urgent need for a new angel with such beauty as hers.
Perhaps he would never return. Then he would never know at all.
Or perhaps he would know at once – perhaps the urgent need had been real, and a little angel with such beauty as hers had been called ahead of time to meet him at the Bridge. Perhaps the Lord knew Eirik would not stay willingly in Heaven for anything less.
“Do you know what I want to do?” she said weakly, trying to sound merely dreamy. “Since I can’t wave goodbye, I think I want to stay in bed and pretend you are only going out to check on something. And when you return, I want you to come at dawn and wake me, and climb into bed next to me, and it will seem as if you had never gone at all. Won’t you?”
Eirik had slowly lifted his razor during this speech, though it still had far to go if it was to reach his face. Even against the soap his face no longer seemed so pink.
Suddenly he winked and said, “I shall try, but if I arrive at midnight I can’t promise I shall wait until dawn.”
“I suppose that would be acceptable,” she said, smiling painfully. “But if you try to sneak in beside me, be sure to watch your head.”
He looked up at the low beam and laughed. “That is a lesson I shall not soon forget.” He rubbed his head with his free hand and then applied it to his face, drawing his cheek up tight to be shaved.
“I told that Murchad to take care of you,” he said, his words coming weirdly past his taut lip. “But so, I should tell you to take care of him, too, since Synn will be too busy with her own babies, and he’s such a big baby himself.”
“I shall take good care of your beloved Brother Murchad, don’t worry,” she said.
He shaved the rest of his face in thoughtful silence, and meanwhile Sigrid slipped her hands beneath the blankets to examine her belly.
She felt no heat; she felt no hardness. After only two months of pregnancy there could have been nothing to feel anyway, she told herself… but she felt such nothingness that even her mother’s heart seemed to have died silently in the night along with her child.
Eirik splashed his face with water and swished his razor clean in the basin. “And take care of you, too,” he mumbled as he dried it on the towel. “I don’t know that I trust that Murchad to do it, but so. He’s all we have for now.”
“We shall be fine,” she said firmly.
He turned to her with that doubly fond, doubly bright smile she only saw when she was holding one of their sons in her arms. She realized he had thought she meant herself and their baby with her “We,” and she bit her upper lip only in time enough to make a choke and sniffle out of her sob.
Eirik looked away and briskly dried his face before the mirror. With his customary generosity of the mornings of his departures, he would pretend he had not noticed her weakness.
At that moment she hated him for his generosity, and she hated him for his blindness. Could he not see? And yet she was trying so hard to hide it! She hated herself, too, for hating him, and she bit both lips between her teeth and closed her eyes.
How she longed to tell him, and feel his strong arms around her, and be comforted as she always had!
“You shall stay with this Murchad until I return,” he said gravely as he began to dress.
While she had been squeezing her eyes shut, his voice had dropped into a low bass, as far below its usual tone as a man’s voice was below a boy’s. He seemed to have become a man on a still grander scale. Sigrid opened her eyes and was almost surprised to see that he still fit beneath the low ceiling.
“Whatever happens, whatever you hear, you shall not come after me again, nor go in search of aid. If I am wondering all the time whether Siri is safe with Murchad or whether she is in danger, or on the open sea or… so, then I shall never manage to do anything. The best way for you to help me is to keep yourself safe here. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Eirik,” she whispered.
Then she knew she could not permit herself to tell him. More than that: after he had gone, she would tell Murchad that even if she herself died that day, he must lie by letter and call her hale and hearty until Eirik and the boys were secure.
“And if you learn that I shall certainly never return…” He paused with his arms in his sleeves before pulling his shirt roughly over his golden head. “Then you shall see what you can save, and decide what’s best to do. You may stay with this Murchad until the boys are grown, and let them be near the sea. He said you may.”
“And if you can save the island and the ships, and want to fight to keep them for our boys, then let Skorri help you. Tryggve can – ”
“Eirik, what are you saying?” she cried.
He pulled the knot on his belt savagely tight. “I am trying to tell you whom you can trust – ”
“But we already talked about that last night!” she said. “With Skorri! Why again now?”
“Last night we said which men love me,” he said gravely. “Now, Sigrid, I tell you which men love you.”
“Tryggve is a good man, and he will help you fight for everything we have, but he has a son, and always he will be fighting for him first. Dublari, too. Skorri can have no sons, so I think he will take good care of mine. And of you.”
“He said he would,” he murmured, staring over her head at the treacherous beam. “He said he would die for you. So you see, Siri, that is two men’s lives defending you – ”
Sigrid howled, “Eirik!” and smacked her hands down on the bed on either side of her shaking legs. “Why are you talking like this? You never talked this way before!”
His head swooped perilously close to the beam as he leapt at her, but he came clear and caught her fast.
“You started it, Siri!” he sobbed. “Why don’t you get up like every time? You make me think you know something I don’t know!”
He had almost guessed! He had known something was wrong!
“Get up, Siri,” he pleaded between hungry kisses. “Get up and get dressed and come down to breakfast with me, like every time.”
All his weight was on the bed, and his arms were so strong that his mere embrace sufficed to draw her up towards him, to slip her slightly out from beneath the blankets. She could feel her hip sliding over the blood-wet linen, streaking her further.
She tipped her head away from his mouth and pressed her face against his. His beard was coldly damp from his shave, his cheeks warmly wet from his tears. She whispered, “Eirik…”
“Or let me come in with you!” he moaned. “We have an hour!”
His mouth found hers again, and once he had her head held fast in one hand, he gently dragged the nails of the other down her spine and farther down across her tailbone. She knew he loved to feel her back arch against his hand like a cat’s, but her spine was rigid with panic – any farther and she feared he would find blood.
She squealed in his mouth, and when that did not suffice, she bit his tongue.
He drew his head back, and she cried, “Eirik, no! You know the rule!”
She only saw his startled, tear-streaked face for an instant before he turned it away and pretended to cough loudly into his hand. Generously she ignored this sign of weakness.
“I am only acting differently because we are in a different house,” she explained.
Already she was taking advantage of his exaggerated fit of coughing to slip herself below the blankets again. Down slid her hip across the damp sheets.
“If we could go down and eat a proper meal with our boys and our friends, then I would go,” she babbled. “But why would I want to go down to eat that horse fodder the Irish call a breakfast, and have to sit across from that Cornbin and his purple eyes besides? I prefer to stay here and wait for you to return.”
He wiped his mouth on his sleeve and smiled weakly at her. “I didn’t think of that, Siri.”
She mussed his golden hair and straightened his rumpled shirt. “Stupid pig-dog,” she purred.
He sniffed and kissed her contritely. “But you love me anyway?” he whimpered.
A sob of her own fluttered over her, almost breaking free. They two were still too shy to often say the words, and never on such mornings as these. Eirik always departed with some carefree remark or reminder and went away whistling, and Sigrid left to the likes of Guthrun storms of tears.
They two had always found the words a little grim. Nevertheless she said, “I love you. Anyway.”
“I love you, al-ways,” he whispered. He kissed her forehead as if they had been standing. “So,” he said, taking a deep breath to help him make up his mind, “now I go like a good boy. Anyway.”
He stood abruptly and cracked his head on the low beam.
Sigrid flopped back onto her pillow and burst into laughter and tears both. She was grateful to have each to help her bear the other.
Even while she was laughing, she heard Eirik heft his bag and say, “So, I kiss Skorri for you, and Cartwheel, too, and all the men. Damn!”
She felt a hot drop slip down her thigh. “All of them?” she giggled painfully. Now that he had drawn away from her, she too felt a wave of heat shimmer over her such as even a fire would cool.
“Well – not on the lips,” he admitted. “I blow a kiss!” He blew a kiss at her and grandly bowed. “Farewell, fair Sigrid. I don’t forget we are lord and lady now,” he winked.
“Kiss the boys for me,” she begged. Her head was beginning to grow dizzy with warmth and her eyes dim. The headboard no longer felt so very solid behind her head.
“A thousand and a thousand times,” Eirik promised as he turned away.
“And, Eirik,” she added weakly, “please ask my sister to come up to me as soon as she has a moment.”
He had already begun whistling his customary tune, so he only raised two fingers as a sign that he had heard – just at the moment that the golden flame of his head was snuffed out by the shadows of the hall.
The sheets were so damp by now that each drop puddled for an instant on the surface before soaking between the threads. Sigrid could almost feel herself shrinking up and sinking in.
Perhaps, she thought dimly as Eirik went stomping and whistling down the stairs, the angel the Lord was calling to wait at the Bridge was herself. She and He knew Eirik would not remain an hour in Heaven for anything less.