Three years earlier...
Annbjorn winced at the sound of her father slamming his fist against the heavy wooden table. She turned her head away, offering the woman sitting at the far end a sadly embarrassed smile instead. Fortunately, Ulf Sigurdson didn't notice it. His focus - and anger - was clearly focused on his sister. But Gertruida Sigurdsdottir - now Trudie Sigurd - gave her niece a brief, appreciative nod for the support.
Annbjorn bit back a cough, the peat smoke filling the longhouse irritating her throat (again) as much as her family's arguing. She shot a glance towards her brother Peder, who made no attempt to hide his coughing. Four years younger than her, the willow-thin boy was a far cry from the stereotypical burly Vesten warrior. A bout of pox as an infant had left him weak and sickly. Still, Peder's face was etched in the very same scowl towards Trudie their parents shared. Annbjorn's gaze then darted over to her mother, Idona. Idona chose to pace slowly behind Ulf, watching Trudie like a vulture.
"Ulf," Trudie answered quietly, unflustered by her brother's outburst. "I just don't want to see you waste your potential - waste your life out here! There's so many opportunities in Kirk..."
Ulf snorted in disgust. Annbjorn shook her head. She didn't know why Aunt Trudie kept trying to reach out to them. The answer was always the same. Of course, she didn't know why her father kept letting her sister in to try. Both were stubborn in their own right. And I get my hopes up every time she comes over...
Annbjorn looked around the darkened longhouse and grimaced. The way Trudie had always described Kirk sounded utterly magical. Clean and bright! Fresh air that doesn't stink of fish and smoke and stale mead all the time! Indoor bathhouses - with privacy! The longing to just leave and follow Trudie herself was getting stronger with each visit, but still Annbjorn hesitated. She didn't know if it was love and respect for her family that held her back - or fear.
"...and I can't keep covering for you and Idona, brother. Protecting you-!"
"Wyrm's teeth, what the hell is THAT supposed to mean?!" hissed Annbjorn's mother. Her steel-blue eyes narrowed sharply at her sister-in-law. Trudie's own eyes briefly hardened towards Idona, then she focused on Ulf. Annbjorn felt a lump forming in her throat, the uneasiness already clouding her brow as she anticipated what her aunt was talking about.
"Brom the Bloody-Fisted," It took all the Vendel woman's self-control not to spit the name out right then and there. "Ulf...there's rumours going around you've been seen with him and his crew."
The lump in her throat now fell right into the pit of Annbjorn's stomach. Brom the Bloody-Fisted liked to brag about how he was distant kin to Red Thorfild and how he claimed he once was part of Yngvild Olafsdottir's crew before striking out on his own to raid Vendel ships. Whether it was true or not, Annbjorn didn't care. The few times she had had the misfortune of being in Brom's company (thankfully not alone with the man) had made her skin crawl, what with his constant leering and sniffing at women without ever actually directly talking to them. It didn't help that her mother not-so-subtly hinted about how Brom "would make a fine husband" to Annbjorn for the past few months.
But Ulf's eyes just burned with cold pride at his sister's words and at the mention of Brom's name, Peder's face held a mixture of awe and envy. "And what business of it is YOURS, sister?! Who I choose to drink and talk with has NOTHING to do with you!"
"The Seeadler, out of Wische...it was attacked by Brom two weeks ago. The Merchant Marines found it wrecked off the coast north of Vasteras. No survivors..." Trudie's voice sounded hollow, then her eyes glinted with a fiery intensity that matched her brother's. "It was an Eisen ship, not Vendel. There were children on that ship, Ulf! Refugees from the War..."
"Grumfather's eye..." Annbjorn's voice was barely a whisper, but her father just shrugged, a faint smirk on his face. He leaned back in his chair and folded his arms across his chest as if to challenge his sister's accusations. "When other countries do business with the enemy, they become the enemy too!" Ulf's smirk curled into a low snarl, matching his sister now glare for glare. Annbjorn became acutely aware of how dry her mouth was.
"Children..." Trudie hissed, a shaking hand clenching into a fist by her side. "Not even the Valkyrie kills children!"
"You Vendel killed them!" spat Ulf. "You hid behind them like cowardly dogs!"
No denial... Annbjorn shivered. No claim of Vendel lies... She looked over at her parents. Idona patted Ulf's shoulder and he squeezed her hand, but there was an emptiness in their eyes and souls - and they were proud of it.
"...madness..." Trudie shook her head. "Is that what you see me as too, Ulf? The enemy?"
"Yes," sneered Idona.
"I was not the one who abandoned and turned his back on our traditions - our FAMILY, Gertrudia!"
"Oh, that's rich, coming from you, Ulf..." Trudie's teeth gritted with anger. "If anyone turned their back on our family, it was YOU!"
"Hold your tongue, woman!"
"You want to talk about abandonment, you cur?! Our father laid dying in his sickbed and you LEFT us! You thought he was an embarrassment to you...well, it was the other way around! All your wild ways, all the fighting... You were a disgrace to his name! And that's why he chose to leave his lands and property to me..."
"YOU STOLE IT!"
"...because he KNEW you'd rather play around with a depraved trollop than actually do your duty and bury him!"
"Filthy Vendel WHORE!" Idona screeched. She suddenly lunged for Trudie, a large knife clutched in her hand. But Annbjorn was already moving. She wrapped one arm around her mother's neck in a tight vise while grabbing hold of her wrist with her free hand, trying to force her to drop the blade.
"Mother, please!" Annbjorn begged as Idona thrashed in her grasp. "You insult the gods with this madness! Stop it!"
"You know nothing of the gods' will, daughter. Now let GO of me!" snarled the older woman. A grunt of frustrated pain escaped Idona's lips as the knife dropped finally from her hand. Peder's eyes widened in shock, frozen at the scene unveiling before him.
"Poisoning my own flesh and blood against me..." Ulf's face twisted in hate towards his sister. "...you will PAY!"
As he lumbered towards Trudie, an anguished Annbjorn suddenly propelled her mother towards him with a desperate shove. Her parents collided into each other as she scrambled towards her aunt's side. Trudie grimaced, slowly drawing a pistol from her coat.
"Listen to your daughter, Ulf. I don't want to use this..." She readied a finger on the hammer. "...but I will defend myself if I have to."
"I'm not his daughter," Annbjorn shook her head, the words spilling out of her. "Not after tonight! Not anymore..."
Trudie looked at her niece for a moment in surprise, the sadness clear in her eyes. Her mother howled and screamed incoherently, staining her cheeks with tears of rage as her father clung to Idona.
"Then GO! BOTH OF YOU!" Bitter spittle flew from his lips. "TRAITORS!"
Annbjorn had been expecting to cry as she ushered Trudie out of the house, but instead felt a guilty sense of freedom. No tears fell from her eyes, just the barest pang of regret...
...for her brother. As she turned back to face Peder, the plea to get him to come with her was already forming in her mind.
And they died in her throat as the jagged piece of rock struck her in the forehead. The impact shook her more than the actual pain. Peder had never shown great accuracy or force. But her younger brother now trembled with cold, wild disgust towards her.
Just like that, what little regret Annbjorn felt for leaving him was gone. In its place was a hardening heart. "...so be it..." she spat.
And finally turned her back on a house that never was a home.