Iron Bonds of Love Chapter One

The large wooden bucket would have been awkward for anyone to carry, least of all for a slight fifteen-year-old girl who heaved it with difficulty up the sloping street, her face red with exertion. Despite the dampness that hung in the air signaling the return of autumn, Coppergate was as alive with activity and noise as it was every market day making her progress doubly difficult. Shopkeepers shouted their wares from stalls or called to friends, delivery carts were pushed to and from the River Ouse, laden with goods and women chatted and gossiped as they weaved their way in and out of the crowds, string bags or wicker baskets over their arms as they headed out shopping. The people of Jorvik had better things to do with their time than waste a thought on one more scrawny girl doing a job badly and if anyone did notice Bera they shrugged and carried on past. Bera recognized the faces of other bondservants going about their business but she wasn't going to ask for help and she knew none would be offered.

As Bera passed the entrance to the cobbler's workshop, his stringy dog shot out yapping enthusiastically in pursuit of a rat. The dog ran full pelt into Bera, tangling between her legs and knocking her off balance. Bera cursed aloud as the bucket banged against her knee and water sloshed out adding to the slurry underfoot. She lowered the bucket to the ground and tried to rub feeling back into her calloused palms where the rope handle had dug in. Red wheals stood out brightly against the paleness of her fingers; no wonder Ulf always complained about this chore, she mused. She peered down at the bucket and saw that almost a quarter of the water had spilled. Her heart sank at the realization she would have to make the journey again.

"Worm ridden whelp, I hope it chokes you!" Bera yelled at the dog that had now caught his prey and was rolling happily in a pile of something foul looking.

The sound of amused laughter floated to Bera's ears and she turned to see Magnus the cup maker sitting the doorway to his house. He sat close to a small brazier where his thin knife lay heating in preparation for the branding. He cackled without malice at Bera's predicament then let the half-carved bowl rest in his lap and grinned at her.

"Good morning Bera, doing a boy's work are you now lass? Is Ulf taking his turn chopping the cabbages? You'll be having thumb stew for dinner tonight if that's the case." He laughed again at his own wit.

Despite the throbbing in her knee Bera grinned back. "Gunnar sent Ulf over to Haxby to deliver a new plough blade," she explained, "He'll be back tonight unless he gets lost."

"Well if he falls in the marsh Gunnar can have Ivar to train in the forge, it's about time my lazy son did a bit of heavy work. I'll buy you in return and you can keep my brazier warm for me," Magnus smiled at her with a silly leer.

Bera unconsciously reached to her neck, rubbing the thin torque that signaled her position, slightly resentful at the casual way the free man could joke about her status. She had known the old man long enough to know he meant no unkindness though and her bitterness died quickly.

"I think Hilde might have something to say about that," she said sweetly, nodding to towards the window. Magnus followed her gaze to where the figure of his wife could be seen moving inside the house. He scratched the graying thatch of his hair and grinned at Bera. He reached into a basket by the open window, threw a wrinkled apple to the girl with a whistle then picked up his bowl and knife and was soon lost in his work.

The apple was slightly floury but Bera munched it enjoying the sweetness of the fruit and watching Magnus at work. She had never really studied him before and found herself transfixed by the deft way the cup maker burned delicate swirls and flowers around the edge of the wooden bowl. She realized with a start that she had been standing in the street for almost ten minutes now and forced her mind back to her task, weighing up her choices as she finished the apple. If she walked quickly she'd no doubt spill more water and have to make another trip to the well by the river. She could probably save the rest of the water if she was cautious, but then she'd no doubt earn a box to the ears for dawdling. No, there was nothing for it but to make the rest of the journey as quickly as possible and hope for the best. Bera arched her back, feeling the sharp burning in her shoulders ease briefly as she rolled them back, earning a leering whistle from Magnus. She threw a volley of good-humoured curses in his direction, closely followed by the apple core. With her mood slightly restored Bera tucked the loose strands of hair back into the straggly braid that fell halfway down her back. Setting her jaw in determination she heaved the bucket off the ground and continued on her slow way up Coppergate.

The blacksmith's dwelling and workshop stood at the crossroads at top of the street. Like most of the properties in Jorvik it was a low single storey building surrounded by a low wicker fence, however owing to the occupation of the owner it spread out over a large plot of land covering almost the whole corner. With relief Bera half-dragged her bucket towards the main gate when the sound of low, tuneless singing made her pause again. She turned to see a cart lumbering up the hill from the direction of the river. Two figures sat on the bench at the front. The driver was large and hulking, a broad grin on his face as he sang. His companion was a stark contrast, wrapped in so many furs it was hard to make out any features and bent almost double. It could have been man, woman or child. The cart slowed to a halt outside the gate as the driver tugged firmly on the reins. Curious, Bera let the handle of the bucket drop once more to the ground and stood peering round the corner of the fence.

The driver let out a hoarse shout, "Hoy there! Blacksmith!" When there was no answer from within he muttered under his breath then sat back scratching his belly. Bera unlatched the gate and lifted her bucket once more and as she did so the cart-driver spotted her. "You, girl," he called. "I'm looking for Gunnar Geirsson, the blacksmith. Is this his dwelling?"

Bera nodded. Finding her voice she said, "But if you're delivering something you've come to the wrong side of the house. The entrance to the workshop is round the other corner"

"I didn't ask your opinion girl," the driver said sharply. "Go find your master quickly unless you want a whipping. I haven't got all morning."

Bera turned to walk towards the building but her task was cut short as Gunnar himself appeared through the door at the side. Naked to the waist and red faced from the heat of the forge he paused for breath as the cold air hit him. He ran calloused hands across his sweaty brow and through the close-cropped bristles of beard then wiped them down the front of his leather apron. He stamped to the gate and stood with feet planted apart and arms crossed, glaring at the cart driver. "Well?" he asked gruffly. "Who shouts me from the street in such a manner?"

"I've come from the port," the driver answered. He tipped his head at his companion. "I've brought the boy."

"So soon!" Gunnar barked, his face flushing with irritation. "I thought another moon at least before he'd arrive!"

The driver shrugged indifferently and returned to the task of excavating his naval. Bera had been standing silently throughout the exchange. Now the day had suddenly become more interesting. She threw a glance at the mysterious collection of furs that still sat hunched and unmoving alongside the driver. A visitor, and one that was not expected or Edyth would have had the whole household cleaning and washing for days. Come to that, he was clearly not too welcome from the look on Gunnar's face.

"Well, get the lad down then," Gunnar barked.

Finally the silent passenger moved. He pushed the hood back to reveal a pale face and ash blonde hair that fell limply over his face. With painful slowness he climbed down from the cart and shuffled round the back, dragging his feet until he came to a stop outside the gate. He bowed his head and stood with shoulders slumped. Bera drew closer to the fence, overcome with curiosity. Gunnar strode to where the child waited and stopped a pace away. He put his hands on his hips and looked the boy up and down slowly, then snorted with disdain. At the sound the boy raised his face for the first time. Now she could see him better Bera realized the boy was not as young as she had first supposed. He was about her age, or older if the light growth of hair that covered his jaw and the angry spread of spots across his forehead were any indication. He looked ill though; his cheeks were hollow and dark shadows circled his eyes. His skin had an almost yellow pallor to it.

Gunnar took a step back at the sight. "He looks half a corpse. Does he have the fever?" he asked the cart driver anxiously. The driver looked round from unloading a heavy box and shook his head scornfully.

"Sick on the river all the way from Grimsby, and for most of the journey before that I imagine."

"What's your name, boy?" Gunnar asked, addressing his guest with his customary gruff bark.

The boy looked around, down to the floor and finally back to Gunnar's face. He licked his lips before speaking in a low voice that Bera could barely hear. "Torrad, uncle," he whispered. His accent sounded thick, the words almost unrecognizable to Bera's ears. "Torrad son of Egil," he repeated.

"Yes I know that, and of Thora, my sister," Gunnar said, his voice catching slightly. "Well," he said, patting Torrad on the shoulder and almost knocking him flying, "it seems like we're the only family each other has now, boy. Welcome."

The boy merely nodded. Deciding anything of interest was probably over for now Bera bent to up her bucket. The movement caught Gunnar's eye and he turned and stared at her. "How long have you been time wasting there, girl?" he asked suspiciously. Bera opened her mouth to make an excuse but at that moment the cobbler's dog bounded joyfully up, the rat in his mouth, its head hanging part off. To Bera's dismay he recognised her as his previous playmate and hurled himself through the open gate towards her, blood flicking from the carcass. She stepped backwards, letting out an angry shout that caused the dog to run off in joyful, lolloping circles. Bera looked up to see Gunnar, his expression angry and next to him Torrad smirking at the sight. She glared at him and the boy let out an unexpected snigger. Hearing the sound, the dog stopped his circling and ran to the boy. He dropped the mangled rat at Torrad's feet where its head flopped across his boot. The boy's expression changed abruptly and he doubled over, vomiting wildly. Gunnar grabbed the dog by the scruff of his neck and dealt it a sharp slap on the rear that sent it scuttling off down the street. He picked up the bucket with ease and sluiced down the vomit before depositing empty vessel at Bera's feet.

"Well don't just stand there Bera, go get some more water before the Ouse dries up." He turned his back and with a shout to Torrad to follow him, stalked back into the smithy. The boy stood up, wiped his sleeve across his mouth and looked at Bera. His mouth turned up into a wan smile but remembering his laughter she stared back haughtily. His shoulders sagged again as he turned to follow his uncle into the building.

Sighing heavily Bera picked up the bucket and headed back down the hill towards the well for the second time that morning.