Leif held his breath as the latch moved, and the door was opened by a man wearing a slave’s collar. The tired eyes, the tall build, the short mousy hair that had once been fawn-colored—yes, he was the same man Leif remembered, only older.
The slave looked up, and his eyes widened. “Master Leif?”
Leif embraced Othinn. Aye, it was the same man—a good friend, a trusted servant, and not quite a father figure for him. Leif hadn’t realized how much he’d missed him.
“Master Leif, you aren’t dead!”
“Of course I’m not.”
Leif thought. Why had he gone to Scotland in the first place? He’d been on a raid with Konar, injured, and not given a second thought as the longships sailed away. Aye, everyone here had good reason to think him dead.
“How have things fared here?” Leif asked.
“Well—all’s well here. Come inside, Master—warm yourself, break your fast. Should I wake your brother?”
“You’re brave to offer,” Leif said softly. Drostan wiggled, and Leif tightened his hold on him. He’d be awake for good now, until his nap at noon. “I’d rather he sleep as long as possible.”
Drostan nearly squirmed his way out of his father’s grasp, and Leif let him stand on the dirt floor. Othinn might as well meet him; he’d already served three generations of Leif’s family. “Da, I’m hungry,” Drostan said.
Othinn’s eyes grew even wider, and for a brief moment Leif worried for him. Too much of a surprise at once was never good for the heart of an elderly man—but how old was Othinn? Sixty? Seventy? He looked old.
“Sorry, Othinn. This is Drostan. I’ll be taking him back to his aunts and uncles on the next ship to Port Ellyn.”
Othinn blinked, then knelt next to Drostan and tidied his hair. “Master Drostan,” he murmured, “it’s a pleasure to meet you. Be in no hurry to leave.”
Drostan hugged Leif’s leg. “Nay,” he said decisively. “Da. Hungry.”
“The skouse will be ready in a moment,” Othinn said. “Come—sit. Welcome home, Master Leif.”
Leif took Drostan into his arms again and stepped into the longhouse--his longhouse—inhaling the scents of wood and fire and food. Aye, this was home. No one in Scotland made skouse, or at least good skouse, and even the soft cheese skyr sounded good to him. And stockfish—they’d stockfish in Scotland, but none so good as fresh stockfish, eaten on the same shore it was caught and dried on. And come Althing in summer, there would be Leif’s favorite dish of puffin.
Leif looked up to see Karl, the slave who’d served his family since they were both thirteen. He’d have made a very good friend, if Leif hadn’t been so caught up on his high status as the son of the chief. What had he been thinking? Karl was a good lad—and certainly a good man, now that he was in his mid-twenties. Perhaps they would be friends now.
“I always thought you were too good of a swordsman to die in a raid,” Karl said. “And your son—I will serve him just as I have served you, and your father before you.”
“I have no doubt you will,” Leif said, embracing Karl. “It is good to be home.”
Leif felt another pair of arms encircle him—and there was Hallbera, the youngest of the slaves, with a smattering of girlhood still left in her at eighteen. She’d been a mere child when she’d first been brought into the house. “I’ll make beef with greens tonight,” she said, remembering correctly Leif’s second-favorite meal. “What will the boy eat?”
“Ockkish,” Drostan said.
“Stockfish,” Leif translated. “He loves it.”
Hallbera smiled, then took Drostan into the workroom to feed him. Leif felt strange not having Drostan near him, but at the same time, it was marvelously freeing.
The door to the closed-in portion of sleeping platform opened quickly, and a strange woman stepped out. She looked at Leif, then covered her nightshift-clad chest with her hands and hurried into the workroom to dress.
“That’s Hildegaarde,” Karl whispered to Leif. “Konar married her after Thordis died.”
“Thordis died?” Leif asked. He’d liked Thordis—a kind sister-in-law, a good cook and prolific maker of fabrics. Strange, how both he and Konar had been widowed so young.
Another figure emerged from the paneled portion—heavyset, strong, bearded and brawny, with red hair that streamed to his shoulders and a piercing, cold gaze that could freeze water.
Leif took a breath. “Konar.”
Konar stood still, staring at Leif. What was in his gaze? Wonder? Questions? Anger? The love any decent man had for his brother? Or was there only emptiness, coldness, the apathy that had characterized Konar since his birth? The only thing Leif saw was a cold light that could have been anger or compassion, or some strange mixture of both.
Konar’s voice broke the silence. “You were dead.”
Leif blinked. “I never died.”
“Then why did you stay?”
“I met—” The words didn’t want to come out, but Leif forced his grief into a masculine, angry huff and exhaled it. “I met a girl and I married her.”
“Your place is here, Leif. You had a job. I hired two people to take care of the tenant farms.”
“Well, I’m back.”
Konar gave Leif a friendly shove in the shoulder. It was the closest thing to a hug Konar was capable of. “You’d better stay here this time. You’re too valuable to lose.”
Konar pulled on a pair of clothes and left to fill the woodpile. Leif looked at Drostan, happily eating a bowl of skouse in the workroom while Hallbera watched him. He borrowed Konar’s comb to brush his son’s hair, then his own hair and beard.
It seemed that Konar would let him tend to his family’s land again. That was comforting. Maybe he could put in a few hours with the shipwright, too, so he could do something with his hands. He’d never enjoyed sitting still.
It takes work to make a home, Leif realized. And no matter where that home was, there would always be work. There would always be reality to deal with, whether that reality was Adelaide’s grave or Konar’s temper. There would always be farms to tend to, ships to build, sons to raise. There would be little joys in the everyday, and the little grievances that outweigh them to a person with a wrong perspective.
There was no use in chasing the comfort of memories at the expense of tomorrow’s glory. And that, Leif decided, was why he would stay in Diaparn. At least until the future called him somewhere else.
M. J. Piazza is a Jesus-loving, dog-walking country girl who just so happens to write books.