Astrid looked across the room at her son illuminated by the fire but obscured by the mist of its smoke. She hoped he wouldn't wake up and wonder what his parents were doing on the straw mattress opposite. Not that he wasn't used to the lovemaking Thorvald and she enjoyed together, especially after the long night of feasting that led to this moment of passion.
It never bothered Thorvald, of course. And it certainly wouldn't tonight after all the ale he'd drunk. It was Astrid's duty to give pleasure to him, hoping as always that she might be blessed by another son as a result of his exertions.
Thorvald thrust away, caring little as to how his wife might feel. In any case, it was unlikely he'd last very long until his passion was defeated by his inebriation. But this was their last night together for so many months and Astrid had been waiting for this moment for so many hours As she tended to the domestic duties of the hearth: spinning flax, gutting fish, and comforting young Hromund, she had wanted this moment of lovemaking to be special. When next would Thorvald cross the threshold and take his wife in his strong arms, carry her to their bed and thrust inside her?
She'd listened to the distant echo of the drunken carousing he and the other men enjoyed after the feast of venison and shark steak they partook together before it was time for the women to take their leave. It was only right that the men should so celebrate while their womenfolk attended to their domestic duties. After all, the men would suffer many days of privation until the longships reached their destination on the Hibernian shore. And now, along with the other women on the village, whose gasps of passion Astrid could hear carried on the chill spring air, she could enjoy the carnal passion of her husband. This was her moment of the evening, her last duty before the menfolk of the village launched their longships to sea to bring back the promised riches from the lands of those who worshipped other gods and spoke a different tongue.
Soon, and too soon for Astrid, Thorvald released his seed, his penis shrank inside her, and he collapsed on her bosom. His long hair and beard became a second comforting blanket under the elk-hide she pulled over their naked bodies. As Astrid lay on her back, her husband's arms around her and his body slumped on top, she hoped that this time Thorvald had blessed her with Freya's bounty and Hromund would at long last have a brother. She could still hear the passion of the other women of the village whose husbands had more stamina than hers and who had more good fortune than she in providing a reasonably sized family for her man.
The following day, when the menfolk had at last stirred from their slumbers, Astrid stood on the shore with the other women watching the longships set off across the ocean. This was what it was like every spring, as the men set off on the voyages that would bring the men back with many riches and tales of their exploits. She remembered with particular affection the golden cross that Thorvald showed her last year on his return, before it was melted and refashioned into less heathen form. The Hibernians were so rich in gold, just as they were in the grain, livestock and cloth the menfolk traded with the towns and villages along the shore.
She knew the cross was a symbol of the Hibernian religion, but she had heard that theirs was a faith that denied the true gods of Asgard and worshipped instead a Jew who had been killed in a particularly brutal way by the Roman savages who now worshipped him. There was little else she knew about Christians, but she thanked Freya that the land of the Midnight Sun had been spared the cruelties of a faith that denied women their freedom and whose men took from them the keys to the household that was every Norse woman's right. Surely there was something perverse about a religion that worshipped a dead man rather than the living and immortal gods who feasted in the great halls beyond the rainbow.
The menfolk waved bravely at their wives and affianced when they had at last rowed the longships out into the deeper waters away from the shore. Astrid focused her gaze on the distant silhouette of Thorvald whose eyes she was sure were equally on her and young Hromund.
"And that's them gone for another summer!" said Gudrun, who stood beside her and was no longer waving.
Astrid turned towards her neighbour, tears streaming from her eyes as they were from all the other wives. She was shocked to observe that Gudrun's eyes were not damp at all. Did she not miss her man? Or was it men, such was her reputation in the village. Gudrun was a woman who had no permanent man in her life, but was known to have enjoyed the attentions of many men, including, of course, the chief himself. Her hearth was hers alone. Her goats were her own and shared with no husband. The daughter she had borne had no father's name to honour. The flax she spun she exchanged for goods her smallholding didn't provide.
"The summer days will be long, hard and lonely!" wailed Astrid.
"Long, I agree. But hard and lonely, not at all," said Gudrun, with a smile. "They are my favourite days. The birds sing. Nature is bountiful. The gods rejoice. Fair recompense for the long cold nights of winter."
"By the great tree, Yggdrasil, do you not miss the menfolk?"
"Not at all, sweet Astrid. And why should I worry about them. They'll have fun: pillage, murder and rape. It's what the men like to do most and what they like to sing about."
"Rape?" said Astrid aghast. "My Thorvald? Maybe the younger men, but not Thorvald."
"And why not? Do you think he honours the chastity of the women of Hibernia any more than he does the lives of the men he slaughters, the farms from which he brings back the grain and livestock, or the pagan shrines he desecrates? Men are beasts when they have their sword unsheathed and ale in their stomach. Your Thorvald is no different from other men. Indeed, as an older, experienced warrior he has to set the example."
"Not my Thorvald!" wept Astrid.
Surely Gudrun's words were said in jest. Her husband assured her that no heathen woman had tempted him in this way, although he was often rather coarse in his description of their freckled, red-haired beauty. Although Astrid had no great love for Hibernian women, who were mere chattels to their men and worshipped the god of Charlemagne and Rome, she had no wish that they should suffer from the brutish passions of the village's menfolk, and most of all from Thorvald.
Astrid returned to her home, knowing that until the longships returned she and the other wives would have no one to help them in the duties of the hearth or field. It was true that Thorvald, like most men, was of only marginal use in this capacity. When he wasn't away in summer bringing back Hibernian bounty, his main preoccupation was hunting reindeer, elk and boar, whose meat, though very welcome, provided only occasional variety to a diet mostly of fish, mushrooms, goats milk and hare.
The summer days were indeed long. Soon the sun would never set and night become as much day as day became night in winter. These were the days when Astrid gathered together the food that kept hunger at bay in the long night, when it was sometimes too cold to venture far from the hearth for many days, and when a goat might need to be sacrificed to satisfy the clamour of the belly. The long nights when the men were most reluctant to hunt and snow piled high against the walls of their home.
In these summer days, however, when the only men left in the village were the very young and the old and feeble, Astrid came to know the other women more closely and intimately than was possible when the menfolk strode the village paths. The women formed a community of support and comfort: often visiting one another in each others' homes and exchanging gifts and gossip while the sun refused to descend beneath the horizon.
It was in these months that Astrid saw more of Gudrun. Before, she had been very wary about associating with a woman of such easy virtue, even though she was blessed by the favours of the chief, but Gudrun showed sympathy for Astrid's concerns for Thorvald.
One day, she met Astrid weeping by the river when collecting water. While her daughter, Matilda, played with Hromund in the shadows of the trees, Gudrun so entertained Astrid with her wicked jokes and sly observations that Astrid forgot all her worries about her distant husband.
"It can't be," said Astrid when Gudrun speculated again on Thorvald's assault on the virtue of the Hibernian wenches.
"You don't know men as well as I do, Gudrun, do you?"
"I've known one man only and one man is enough for me," said Astrid sternly.
"If only that fidelity were so true of Thorvald!" said Gudrun, but refused to elaborate.
Astrid measured her wait by the phases of the moon, high in the sky and sharing the heavens with the ever-present Sun. There were normally two full moons before the men returned and life would return to normal and the days became shorter. After that, there would be the threat of winter when the autumn equinox heralded the difficult long nights to come. However, it was with alarm that Astrid observed the moon creep through all the phases of death and renewal, much like her own stubbornly consistent menstrual cycle, and the longships still hadn't returned.
The wait extended beyond one moon and through the entire cycle of the next. The subject of the men's delayed return was the only topic of conversation the women of the village ever discussed. What was delaying them? How long could it take to sell the riches they had taken from the Hibernians? It surely couldn't be that they had been bettered in battle? Or had the gods of the sea claimed the menfolk for their own?
It was better to hope that the men had perished in battle, if they were not merely delayed, than that the men had died a less than heroic death. Perhaps they were now dining in Valhalla with the immortals: laughing and joking with Thor, Baldur and Odin in the kingdom beyond the rainbow.
The women's misery was compounded by the shortening days and the worsening weather. Soon, the first flakes of snow arrived, not, thankfully, to settle, as the strong winds and rain that followed drove away the thin coating of white. But a later snowfall was more permanent and the isles were now adorned in their winter coat. Without the men to comfort them, the prospect of the night that never ended held a particular dread.
Although Gudrun mourned no man, she was clearly as anxious as Astrid of a winter where the village was run only by women, without the excitement of the men preparing for their hunting expeditions and the welcome meat with which they returned, although Gudrun commented that the reindeer they found were more likely stolen from the nomads of the inland plains than hunted down with quite the valour recounted in the tales they regaled their grateful womenfolk.
"Where is Thorvald?" Astrid wailed. "Where are the longships? They honoured the gods before they left. Surely the gods would protect them!"
"Perhaps they've been having a more fruitful time in Hibernia than on earlier expeditions," Gudrun speculated. "Perhaps they'll return next year, when the sun appears on the horizon again."
"I hope so. Oh! I hope so!"
"That's if they haven't settled down with freckle-faced Hibernian wives..." Gudrun muttered bitterly.
Astrid stared at her friend, totally aghast.
"I don't believe you said that! Our menfolk, especially not Thorvald, would never abandon a good Norse wife for heathen chattel."
Gudrun smiled. "I'm joking, Astrid. There's every chance the gods will bring them back eventually. Remember the women of the southern isles. Their men returned the following spring bringing back bounty from distant Andalusia ruled by the men of the camel."
Astrid smiled. She nursed the same hope that the expedition had merely taken the men further south to the mythically rich lands where even the winters were warmer than the Norse summer and the natives had permanently sun-darkened skin.
Gudrun and Astrid spent much more time together, not just through the day when they helped each other in their domestic duties, but at night when they kept each other company. Their children had become such good friends. They played together in the claustrophobic confines of the hearth when the blizzards were most intense. To stay warm, the two children slept together under the same hides, as did, on the other side of the fire, their mothers.
Most women of the village shared their homes in much the same way as did Astrid and Gudrun. It was one less fire each night to tend and domestic chores were less burdensome when the work was divided between two or more women. It was natural for the womenfolk to express their solidarity for one another and it kept at bay the privations of the long sunless days just as it lessened the agony of loneliness and anxiety.
"I miss Thorvald so much!" sighed Astrid one day as the two women sat together around the fire, whilst outside their two children were playing in the dusk of the few minutes of midday sun that heralded the end at last of the worst days of winter.
"I miss the men too," agreed Gudrun. "I miss their company. I miss my lovers. I miss the richer meat than hare and lemming they bring back from the hunt."
"It's not men I miss. It's Thorvald!"
"And why is that?"
Astrid raised her skirt to reveal the thick triangular bush of blonde hair between her thighs. "It's here I miss him most," she said, indicating the rich flesh that swelled through the knotted strands. "There is not a night I don't wish Thorvald could satisfy the itch I feel."
"You want a man's cock inside you again?"
"Yes," said Astrid, blushing at the strange intensity of Gudrun's stare and hastily rearranging her skirt. "But not any man's. It's Thorvald's I want!"
The question occurred again when Astrid and Gudrun settled for sleep beneath the hides piled over them. In these winter nights, people slept and rested for many more hours just as in summer they would often forego sleep altogether. When Astrid slept she did so with a depth that escaped her in summer, but she would also often simply enjoy the warmth of her bed. She felt no more guilty at her idleness in winter than did any other woman. There were fewer chores to attend to in the months when no crops were to be tended or gathered, and good reason to conserve what warmth there was.
"It's here you most miss Thorvald?" asked Gudrun, placing her hand over the linen-covered mound of Astrid's crotch.
"My womanhood itches too," said Gudrun, pressing Astrid's hand on her own crotch which she was shocked to find was not covered by thick cloth. Gudrun had pulled up the linen so that Astrid's fingers were pressed against a thick tangle of hair. "It burns. Feel the heat it gives. If only I could use the warmth of my cunt to warm my toes. At best it can only warm my fingers."