Grimethorpe, Faroe Islands
Despair settled into the very marrow of Astrid Kambun’s bones. She’d spent the last few days feeling so profoundly cold with dread that even the blazing highday sun of the arctic summer could not warm her body. Astrid had slipped away from her parent’s home to come to the sea, the place she felt most alive. Usually, she came to dream about Ulf, the handsomest of her father’s warriors, but now, standing with her toes on the edge of the sea cliffs, arms outstretched, she lifted her eyes skywards towards Valhalla, and begged the gods with every fibre of her being to take pity on her. “Help me!” Astrid screamed into the wind, but her words didn’t go up towards the gods. Instead, they seemed to drop off into the great void of salty air below, rendering her mute. Could her heart feel more broken then it did right now? Astrid didn’t think so.
She’d never wanted to feel this way. Not even the threat of an attack from the Norman invaders had ever caused her to feel such despair, such was her trust and belief in the island’s warriors. But here she was, looking forward into a bleak future with no way to escape. Her father, the great Grimur Kamban, was king, and the most powerful man on the islands. He got what he wanted. Always.
Recently, he had called for her to stay sitting after the midday meal and she’d immediately sensed that whatever Grimur wanted to tell her, it would change her life forever. She had done as she was told, sitting quietly, but inside her belly was unsettled, like a thousand tiny fish were violently flipping and flopping on rocks as they struggled for air. Her father took a deep nasally breath. “Astrid, my daughter. Today you will learn of your future, and it will mean a move to the mainland.” Blood rushed to her face and pooled under the pale skin of her cheeks, turning them red. Her face burned and the heat rose up towards her ears in silent defiance to this gross injustice. “You will marry Knut Hardrada.”
“I understand,” she had said dully, for the matter was already settled. Now, near the sea, the thought made her shiver again, and she felt colder still.
Astrid moved her toes a little closer to the cliff’s edge and tried again, screaming even louder this time in case the gods simply hadn’t been able to hear her. “Help me. Please!” Like most women in her life, she was valued for her contributions to the family’s survival, but this respect was easily superseded by her usefulness as an object to advance the political aims of the king. Astrid had watched her older sisters be married off to strengthen various alliances, but now that it was her turn to be married, the idea made Astrid feel small and insignificant, like a single drop of water in the ocean below. Somehow she’d believed that her fate would be different. How foolish she had been. The wind swirled around her, skirt churning violently against her legs. Still no response from Valhalla.
She was near tears now, and appealed to Odin’s wife, Frigg, the god of femininity and beauty and fertility and fate: everything that she longed to be herself one day. “Please Frigg, don’t let them take me away!” For tomorrow Astrid would climb aboard one of her father’s sturdy langskip, heavy with the armor of war, and leave the home and the people she so deeply loved. She had no choice in the matter. This, Astrid thought, was entirely unfair, considering she had never even set foot on the mainland. “This can’t be what fate has planned for me!” But Frigg remained quiet. Like her words falling into the void, Astrid knew that her desires as a woman meant nothing, even though the longing she felt in her heart for Ulf Hollandson was clear and strong. The only reply came from the seabirds, screeching as they coasted along the air currents that surged above the cliffs.
Many moons ago, her family had lived on the mainland under the oppressive rule of King Harald. Having grown disgusted with the tyrannical king, her father had rallied a group of local farmers to join together in a daring flight for freedom. One night, under the cover of darkness, the men had stolen three of the king’s langskip and, packing their wives and children into the wood bottoms of the boats, had fled. The waves had crashed violently against the hulls of the ships and the rain had streamed down on Grimur’s group in a torrential and unending downpour, but they had prevailed, sailing westward towards a better life. At least, that’s what Astrid had always been told, as she’d been a wee unborn babe then, surviving the perilous journey in the warm safety of her mother’s womb.
While Astrid had always been drawn to the cliffs, lately she spent more time there than ever before, imagining what it might feel like if a gust of wind were to come along and unexpectedly knock her forward as she stood there with her toes right on the edge. What she did not have to imagine was that her father had bravely led his men forward into battle against inequality and the elements. She knew that he had won, safely bringing the group to the rocky islands and establishing a colony. By now, this story of Grimur’s leadership and bravery was near legend. The wind wasn’t so definite, however. If it were to come along in a massive gust at her back, she’d have no choice but to tumble, head-over-heels, screeching like the birds for a few moments before crashing into the rocks and cold, foamy water at the bottom. Terrible, yes. But Astrid couldn’t help but think that those few moments in the air would also be beautiful and exhilarating – the freest she’d ever be able to feel. For now that King Harald was dead, her father insisted it was time to heal the divide between the mainland and the colony, and that this could be accomplished through Astrid’s marriage to Harald’s grandson. It would be a fine alliance, as his family was made up of strong warriors and prosperous farmers.
She leaned forward to make a final plea to Valhalla. Astrid knew that she must obey her father’s wishes. She knew that the only things that could change his mind was divine intervention itself. “Please help. Please change his mind. Please let me stay here!” She raised her arms above her head, willing the frenzied prayer to lift upwards, to be heard by someone, somewhere who would help her.
Grimur had never had a son, and he was growing older; his eyes often looked tired and his beard had long ago turned gray. He no longer had the speed or stamina to go to war. He needed an heir. The husbands of his older daughters had never impressed him. He always seemed to find them inadequate in one regard or another, so his hopes rested on Astrid’s marriage to Knut, who was of noble blood. Just as importantly, the people of Grimethorpe, her people, needed the help of Knut’s warrior family on the mainland to protect them against the Norman raids that had been happening with an alarming frequency. Marrying Knut, this strange man from the mainland, was Astrid’s duty.
Even now, feeling the weight of such a terrible responsibility, Astrid tried to find hope, for she was not the sort of person to stew about in malcontent. But at this point, with nothing to show from her appeals to Valhalla but a hoarse throat and a dry mouth, it was clear that this hope was not going to come from the gods.