Disclaimer: I do not own any of the characters depicted herein.
"Barnakarl" is a byname, recorded in the Landnamabok, that means "friend to children"; though in this case it's only one child.
In Old English/Anglo-Saxon, the th in his name would have been written as ð, making it only eight letters.
Thanks to Mel for the reading and encouragement.
One phrase edited 27 January 2014.
She hears him wake in the middle of the night sometimes.
When he first arrived he did not sleep a night through, rising in the morning as worried and pale as when she'd gone to bed. Though she had been wary of him at first, with his strange accent and funny hair and the rope around his neck, it had not taken long to see that he was as likely to hurt any of them as was a newborn lamb. He had eyes like a sheep hearing the howl of a wolf, eyes wide and wild with terror, and she could not fear him. She listened to him shake that first night, and heard the sobs that escaped muffling, and her heart ached at the sound of someone so lost.
Eventually exhaustion forced him to sleep, and fitful nights gave way to regular slumber. But sometimes now he wakes, though not for any reason she recognizes. She does not hear the noise of predators among the animals outside, or the crackle of an unchecked fire, or a threatening storm, or any of the things to fear in the night. Still, he wakes. She guesses it is just after midnight when he shuffles to kneel next to his pallet, mouth moving silently, hand clutching the pendant he wears. Sometimes he leaves the house and she thinks she can hear his voice murmuring rhythmically into the darkness. She does not understand what rouses him, whether it is some thing within him or an external force, and she does not know what his actions mean. (She understands men little enough at her age, and this foreign one, this priest to a singular god even less.) For a moment she is afraid that he will escape and it will be her fault, that she has watched him slip away and done nothing. But then she fades back into sleep, fretting lost to the night.
When she wakes in the morning he is there.
Ragnar does not sing, which means that Bjorn does not, either. Her mother had sung her lullabies when Gyda was a baby, or when she had woken screaming with nightmares; but now that she is grown, she does not need her mother to sing to her. Besides, despite her family's many strengths, music does not come naturally to any of them. So whenever she is out-of-doors Gyda listens for songs in the air and the trees.
But he sings.
When he thinks no one hears, or when he is too absorbed in his chores to realize what he is doing, he sings. His voice is fine, like her mother's best gold jewelry. Like that gold, it seems too precious for their farm, for the mud that covers her shoes, for the straw he must pick out of his hair. It is wasted on this place (she tries her best to imagine a place where such a voice would sound at home, and manages nothing more than a hall greater even than the earl's and full of light); it is wasted on the pigs; she fears it is wasted on her. All the same she listens intently, like she is stealing a treasure.
He catches her watching and listening and he blushes, ducking his head and muttering an apology. It is another thing she doesn't understand, for if her voice sounded so lovely she would hardly ever stop singing.
"Will you teach me a song?" she asks, and then adds, "Please," because though he is a thrall he is also a good man. He cocks his head to look at her, the quietest member of the family he now serves, though she meets his eyes steadily.
He pauses for a moment, his expression distant, and she wonders if he is going to refuse. But she is patient, willing to wait for his response and for his attention to return to here and now, and her reward is a kind smile. "I will, if you teach me one in return," he bargains, eyes now twinkling at her. She nods in agreement, smiling herself as he sits down beside her.
He sings slowly in his language—one of his languages, though she thinks it is his mother-tongue, from the way his mouth curls around the words like they taste sweet, like honey cakes. She marvels at how clever he is, to speak three languages and to be able to read. She repeats after him, line by line, stumbling a bit over the strange words, but he smiles encouragingly.
When it is her turn she teaches him a counting song, holding up her fingers as she sings; he listens hard, frowning a bit. Though when he repeats the song he makes fewer mistakes than she had made with his song, she still giggles at his tripping tongue. Later she hears him humming the song to himself as he scours the cooking pot, and she smiles, proud and fond and happy.
When her parents are across the seas Bjorn is sulky, thinking himself man enough to raid with them. He snaps at her and pinches her arms when the priest isn't looking. She knows better than to squeal or cry; and she knows that the man meant to be protecting them will get nothing but scorn from her brother should he try to enforce any kind of discipline. Their stranger is many things, but a terror to young boys he is not. When she is already snug with her favorite woolen blanket pulled up to her nose, Bjorn makes it clear that he is going to bed because he chooses to, not because any lowborn Christian has told him to. She hides a smile as the man holds in a weary sigh.
When she wakes to make water, he is sitting near the hearth, something cradled in his hands. He looks up, startled—a fine watchman he makes—when she creeps back into the house. Instead of returning to her bed, she joins him in front of the fire. And because it is night and the fading fire casts weird shadows and she is not as brave as her mother the shieldmaiden, she huddles close to his side. He looks from his precious book to her by his side, surprised and something else, some grownup thing, but not scared, and she is glad. He gently shifts the book to rest half in her lap. With a tentative finger she strokes the edge of the pages, the skin scraped smooth and clean, the writing dark and strong. He leans until his mouth is near her ear and begins to read. She understands none of the words he murmurs, low and fervent, his own finger following the ink on the page; she does not even know which of his languages he is speaking. It doesn't matter. The voice soothes her until her head drops to his shoulder.
She wakes up in her own bed, feeling cold.
Her parents are like a storm, her brother like a snapping wolf cub. She has never feared them, wild and fierce though they are; they are her world and she loves them in all their fury. But they are not like her, or she is not like them, and sometimes she is lonely for someone else like her: like a cat curled in the sun, like the North Star.
Then he comes, and he is like the hearth fire.
He is drawing with a stick in the dirt, a hall above the waves. "That was my home," he says quietly, only for her to hear, "for nearly as long as I can remember. We thought we were safe there. We never dreamed..."
They never dreamed that the ships arriving would carry some of them away from that home. They never dreamed of a man like her uncle, the cruelty that would crash against their shores. She has tried to imagine being taken far from her family, across the waters to an unknown land, and the thought alone makes her heart quake within her. His heart must be stronger than hers, for all that she is Lagertha's daughter. Though she wishes to hear of what it was like, the place where he grew up and learned so many things, she will not demand he tell her of the past, his home. Instead she slips her hand into his free one, hoping to comfort him. The contact catches him off guard and he looks down sharply; she watches his face, the surprise that has tightened his mouth and eyes slackening, becoming a smile. He squeezes her hand and then crouches, dropping the stick and casting about for a smaller one. There isn't one—it is her job to collect the kindling, and she does it well—so he extends one finger and in the dirt he draws unfamiliar shapes, lines she cannot decipher.
"There is your name," he tells her, glancing up. "G-Y-D-A." To her the shapes, rounder than the sharp-angled runes, mean little, but she believes him. So she joins him and draws the letters as like his as she can. She cocks her head, inspecting the finished product critically.
He's watching her when she looks up. "What does your name look like?"
He laughs. "Must I write it out? It is so long. Gyda is only four letters." His name is twice that. After she copies it she stares hard at the lines of his name and then hers again, trying to memorize the look of them.
Some days later she finds a piece of wood the size of her palm on her bed. It has been carefully smoothed; on one side a blooming primrose is carved, and on the other the four figures that make her name. The carving is unskilled and rough; the craftsman was no master, but there is art in it all the same. Reverently, she wraps the gift in a scrap of cloth and hides it away, so it will be something that is only hers, something no one can take from her.
She dreams of knots in red and gold on the pages of a book, of biting cats and birds with twisting necks twined around letters, of fingers stained with ink instead of dirt or blood. She dreams of a hundred voices singing in an airy hall above the waves, songs in languages she will never know but that she understands all the same. She dreams of a lamb in the midst of snarling wolves, and she fears for it, though the lamb stands steady. She dreams, and then she wakes to the sun and his voice singing.