When I awoke, I immediately searched the room for Elsie. She was sitting on her bed of blankets on the floor, staring off as she pulled a comb through her thick locks.
Sitting up, I grinned at her, my heart swelling inside my chest as I felt a rush of affection for the woman in front of me. "Hey there, beautiful."
Her head lifted and her eyes focused on mine, a smile dancing on her rosy lips. "Hello," she murmured shyly and stood, coming toward me with teasing eyes. "You fell asleep. I've heard men get very tired after lovemaking."
I chuckled and rubbed at my eyes, feeling refreshed. "It's true." Yawning, I stretched my arms over my head and flexed the muscles of my back.
She pressed her forehead to mine. "I love you."
I kissed her slowly, drinking in the sweet wine of her mouth. "I love you, Elsie."
"Your parents are back," she murmured and nibbled on my earlobe. "I wish they weren't."
"Once you are carrying my child, I will begin to build us our own longhouse. You will give birth in this house, and once our child is born, we will move into our longhouse," I explained. Elsie didn't understand all of our customs yet.
She cuddled into my shoulder and exhaled on my skin. "I would prefer to live in our own longhouse now and make a baby inside it."
I chuckled. "That would be nice, indeed. But that is not the way things are done here."
Sighing, she rose from my lap and tossed me my pants. "Put those on. Your mother nearly has supper finished."
"Yes ma'am." I smirked and dressed quickly. "I like it when you boss me around." I winked. She rolled her eyes.
We joined my parents for the evening meal, and mother tried to act like she didn't know what had just happened between me and Elsie. Father just smirked at me and clapped me on the shoulder. Elsie saw this and flushed red in embarrassment. I frowned at father and his smirk disappeared. Clearing his throat, he turned his attention towards his food.
We ate quietly, when suddenly a woman's screams pierced through the air. I winced, knowing what was causing those cries from her.
Elsie looked alarmed and jumped to her feet. I grabbed onto her hand to keep her from running out of the longhouse.
"Sit," my mother said to her with a gentle smile. "Those are the screams of a woman giving her child life. She's bringing a baby into the world."
"Oh," Elsie exhaled and sank back down beside me. "My God, she must be in agony to scream so loudly." Another high pitched scream cut through the icy night air, followed by a moan.
I looked down at the deer meat on my plate and suddenly wasn't hungry anymore. Elsie picked at her food as well. I stood and held out my hand to her, and she took. "Goodnight," I called over my shoulder as I led Elsie behind our curtain.
Together we washed our faces and combed our hair, and changed into our sleeping clothes before climbing into bed next to each other. Elsie's bed on the floor was now abandoned, and tomorrow I'd tell her to put the blankets and furs away.
Elsie pressed close to me for warmth, her head rested on my chest. I could feel her shivering against me. She tucked her feet between my legs and I gasped as her icy feet touched me.
"Are you sore?" I asked, my voice low and intimate.
She exhaled and I felt her warm breath through my shirt. "Yes," she admitted with a sigh.
I stroked her hair and kissed the top of her head. "Sorry, pretty one."
Her voice sounded sleepy. "It's alright...not your fault..." She was fading away into sleep.
The screams from the woman giving birth continued on through the night and I slept very little till they ceased a few hours before dawn.
When I woke up the next morning, Elsie was not in bed with me. I was a little disappointed about that, I wanted to awaken her with a kiss and make love to her.
I dressed and washed my face, then started rolling up the blankets and furs that had been Elsie's bed.
Someone cleared their throat and I looked up. There was Elsie, a newborn baby cradled in her arms. The baby was wrapped in a fur and whimpering like it was already half dead.
"Elsie..." I said warily and stood, coming toward her.
Her dark eyes glistened with tears. "Toki, I found her behind the bath-house, her little lips blue from the cold. I think that woman giving birth last night decided to let her baby die."
Sighing, I took Elsie by the arm and sat her down on my bed. The baby cries and turned it's head toward Elsie's chest, searching for food.
"Listen to me," I said and cupped her face in my hand, making sure she was looking me in the eye. "Families give up their babies for many reasons, whether it be because they already have too many children to feed, or the baby was born sick. As long as the baby hasn't been named and claimed by it's father, it isn't murder to let the baby die."
Tears streamed down Elsie's face and she pulled away from my hands, gazing down at the newborn in her arms. "It's a brand new life, Toki, and I will protect it."
I gritted my teeth, knowing nothing I could say would change her mind. She pulled down the front of her dress and let it bunch around her waist. Carefully, she unwrapped the baby from her blanket and settled her between her breasts, skin to skin. She pulled her dress up again for extra warmth.
I watched her rock the baby gently, tears still rolling down her cheeks, shaking her head at the injustice of my people's custom.
"We can't keep the baby, Elsie," I said softly and joined her on the bed. The baby's skin was red and wrinkled, her eyes still swollen from being born. It did seem cruel that her chance at life had almost been taken away.
"I know," she whispered and sniffed. "What are we going to do? We cannot put this baby back out in the cold to die."
We stayed silent, neither of us knowing what to do or say.
Then an idea dawned on me. "My aunt Halla," I said, breaking the silence.
"What?" Elsie sniffed, her eyes red from crying.
"My aunt Halla with take him, come one."
Aunt Halla cradled the baby girl in her arms, her eyes welling up with tears. "Of course I'll take her and care for her," she said and kissed the baby's forehead. "I heard the child's mother screaming last night. I know her. She has thirteen children already and is worn thin."
Elsie just shook her head. "I do not care how worn thin you are, it is murder to put your baby out in the cold." Her hands trembled as she stroked the baby's foot. It was easy to see that she was shaken from the experience.
Halla just pressed her lips together and didn't respond. She laid the baby in a basket lined with blankets and then pulled Elsie into an embrace. "Thank you for bringing the baby to me."
Elsie squeezed her tight, and after I said goodbye to my aunt, Elsie and I headed back to our longhouse. Snow flakes drifted down from the sky but didn't stick to the ground. Snow never lasted near the coast.
"Halla had two children," I said to Elsie and wrapped my arm around her waist. "She had a daughter first, and then Gunnar."
"What happened to the daughter? Is she married off now and living elsewhere?" Elsie pulled her cloak tighter around her shoulders and waited for my answer.
"Aesa, her daughter, died a few years ago. It was during the winter." I paused, my throat feeling tight. "That's why this time of year is hard for my aunt."
Elsie shook her head and closed her eyes for a moment. "There's too much pain in this world." Her voice was soft and I had to lean towards her to hear. "Too much to bear."
Reaching out, I took her arm and brought us to a stop. I covered her mouth with my own and kissed her with every ounce of love I felt for her. "God gives us ways to numb the pain," I whispered against her lips.
"Mmm," she murmured in agreement and kissed me. Her mouth tasted salty, like unshed tears. I could taste her sadness. She shivered with cold, so I pulled her inside the longhouse and we disappeared behind our curtain.
Our lovemaking session didn't last long, and soon I was dressing for my day. I smiled as pulled on my tunic and cloak.
"I have to tend to the animals." I leaned down and kissed her slowly.
"If you must," she sighed and winked at me. God, my love for her grew every moment I spent in her presence.
"I must," I chuckled and kissed her again. Turning, I rushed from the room before she could seduce me any further.
The weather outside was bitter and my face felt frozen by the time I reached the barn from the icy winds that blew so strongly.
First I milked the cows and goats, fed them, and cleaned their pens. I left the horses for last, as they were my favorite. They called to me as I feed the other animals, and I grinned when they bumped me with their noses.
After I finished with the animals I went to the docks and bought some fish for my mother. She thanked me when I gave them to her, but I was distracted by my lovely wife who sat at the loom, weaving a thick blanket, perhaps for our bed. She ignored me even though she knew I was in the room. A kerchief was tied around her head to keep her luscious hair out of her face.
My father came up behind me where I was standing in the doorway. "Toki, come with me. A man needs assistance building his longhouse."
I sighed and pulled my gaze away from my wife and followed my father. "Strange time of year to decide to build a house," I grumbled to my father.
"Shut up, son. I know you just want to be home with your wife," he chuckled and clapped my back.
I shot him a look. Shaking my head, I groaned and mumbled to myself. The cold air blasted and I wished for the warmth of a thicker cloak. Or better yet, the warmth of my wife's soft body cuddled up to mine.
"Don't fret, Toki, you'll be home in a few hours to love on your wife. You'll have all night to have a go at her." He smirked at me and my irritable mood melted away.
I nodded and smirked back at him. "You would know, old man. Still treating mother like you're both still young and virile."
"We are both still young," he scoffed. But then his voice softened. "There's still a chance she could carry another child."
I stopped and turned to face him. "Are you and Mama trying to make another baby?"
Father shrugged and glanced at my face. "It would be nice, and I think your mama wants to grow another little one."
I thought about that for a moment, then smiled. I grasped his shoulder. "Well, I hope that works out for you."
"Thank you, son," my father said gruffly and we began moving again. "I also hope your wife will conceive a child."
I grinned at the image of Elsie heavy and round with my child. "Me too."
We continued in silence for awhile, until my father finally spoke up. "Let me give you some marriage advice. Always be faithful," he said, his voice deep and serious.
I laughed. "Yes, that's quite obvious, father."
"Don't laugh. I was unfaithful to your mother and broke her heart. It's a miracle she ever forgave me."
I turned to face my father, anger bubbling inside me. How dare he shame my mother in such a way. I simply stared at him, too furious to let anything pass my lips. Without responding, I shook my head and headed back toward the longhouse.
"Toki!" He shouted after me. "That was many years ago, when she was carrying you inside her."
I roared in fury and spun around to face him. "You slept with another woman when she was bringing life to your own child." Angry tears welled up in my eyes and I turned from him again to hide them. "I have nothing to say to you, father. Except maybe that you aren't the man I thought you were."
On my way back to the longhouse, I fought my tears, but lost the battle. They rolled down my cheeks and were dried in the freezing wind.
Before I entered the longhouse, I wiped my face and took a deep breath. Elsie and my mother sat around the fire as they prepared our dinner.
"Hello, my ladies," I said with forced cheerfulness and Elsie rose to greet me with a kiss.
"Hello," she answered and examined my face. "You are upset. Tell me why."
I shrugged and squeezed her hand, urging her back to her work. "Later, my love. Help my mother."
Slipping behind our curtain, I sat on the bed and buried my head in my hands.
How could my father have hurt my mother like that? Yes, it happened years ago, but the pain caused by his actions would linger forever, even if she did forgive him. Only a man with low morals and a hardened heart would do a thing like that to the woman he loves.
I raised my head. Elsie stood by the curtain with concern in her expression. She started towards me but I held up my hand to stop her. "I told you to help my mother." My voice was clipped and harsh.
"I already did," she murmured and came to kneel before, taking my hands in her own. "Why are you troubled?"
"Do not worry about it, pretty one," I answered and forced a smile. "Seems like the people who love us most are the ones most likely to break our hearts."
That night I lay beside Elsie in our bed, my mind swirling with thoughts I couldn't rein in, thoughts that did not even fit together. I was so tired I couldn't remember anything I had already thought about. All the words going through my mind just bumped against each other and turned circles.
Elsie moaned and rolled over in her sleep. I noticed her face was wet in the moonlight coming through the window and leaned closer, frowning.
She was crying in her sleep. "No," she whispered and more tears slipped out from behind her closed lids.
I stroked her hair back from her face. "Hey, calm now. Elsie, wake up."
Her eyes opened, red from crying. "Toki..." More tears welled and she covered her face with her hands and her shoulders shook as she sobbed.
I pulled her into my arms so her head was on my chest. It pained me to see her in distress like that. She sobs came harder.
"Why are you crying?" I whispered and rested my chin on the top of her head. "Tell me, love."
"It was a nightmare...My mother was in our home again, and so was my father. He was happy and kissed my mother, and I hugged them both." She paused and took a shuddering breath. I winced as I imagined how it would feel for her to dream about those things. But she steadied herself and continued. "But then you broke down the door and pulled me away from them. I tried to break free of you, but couldn't. The thing I know I'm in a ship, my hands tied in front of me. Then I wake up."
Silence fell between us as I soaked in her words. What I had done, stealing her from her home, gave her nightmares that made her cry in her sleep.
Shame on you, Toki, I scolded myself. "I'm sorry," I murmured and let my eyes drift closed. If I couldn't kneed myself in the balls, I would have done it. "I wish I had never hurt you."
I felt her shrug. "It cannot be helped. I am happy I'm here. What did I have in England? Nothing. But at the same time, I find myself missing it. Missing nothing. How is that possible?"
"I don't know," I said softly and my heart ached for the poor girl. The world had been so unfair to this beautiful woman, who did not deserve any of the things she'd suffered through. It was my responsibility to make her life better and give her a taste of what it was like to dream of something greater.