Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. We only post links to sites and products that we use/believe in, and when you purchase through these links, we earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. “Shieldmaiden” is a short story written by Kate Hall with inspiration from Gwen C. Katz, whose amazing debut novel can be purchased here.
Hjordis did not particularly want to go to England. She had grown weary of the journey many trips before this, but her father insisted on going just once more, as he couldn’t go himself. She relented after much prodding, but she resolved to be bitter about it the whole time. The swell of the sea made her ill, and the constant taste of herring became bitter on her tongue. These were all just excuses she could come up with, but she couldn’t bring herself to say her real fear.
Her only reprieve was Audun, her flaxen grey stallion with a white mane and a black temper. When he was a yearling, stubborn and mean, her mother nearly slit his throat out of frustration, but Hjordis had asked for the summer to turn him into a proper cavalry horse. By the end of that summer, if he was unfit to join Hjordis on her first journey to England, her mother would prepare his meat for the oncoming winter months. Hjordis’s stubbornness eventually outweighed Audun’s anger, so he pledged fealty to her – nobody else could touch him.
They were nearing the end of their journey, and it wasn’t expected to be a long one. They were going to an outpost run by other shieldmaidens, and they would follow orders from there. All in all, Hjordis knew that she would be home again in a month, perhaps even less.
Audun was anxious, scraping his feet and splintering the deck, so Hjordis was asked to stand with him so that he wouldn’t destroy the ship. She was happy to take the time away from rowing, and she sang a song in his ear as she twisted his bristly mane around the fingers of her sword hand. His nostrils flared at the oncoming scent of land, and he wanted to toss his head and keen as they approached, but Hjordis’s hands steadied him.
Once she could see land, everything moved rather quickly. She had to ride Audun off the ship, his new saddle not yet broken in, so her thighs chafed against it. She expected that when she ventured into any towns, she’d have to don her usual linen chemise and wool tunic, but for now, she wore a pair of leggings and a men’s tunic, something common for women in her small village but unheard of in the more conservative land she was visiting.
The other women on the ship gathered supplies and tied the ship to the dock; her friend Jorhild added an extra leather bag to Audun’s saddle. “In case you go wandering,” she said knowingly. Audun craned his head around, his eyes white around the edges at the touch of Jorhild. Hjordis was known to go on long rides through the country, a small escape from the loudness of the women that flooded the camp in the late summer months. “One day you’re going to get into trouble that no one can get you out of.” Hjordis was offended by the comment, but Jorhild’s statement wasn’t false. A viking woman caught alone by skilled fighters would either be enslaved or killed, but more than likely both.
When the ship was finished docking, she clucked at Audun, and he leapt forward to exit the vessel as quickly as possible. He was always nervous on ships, or anywhere where his feet weren’t firm on the ground. Instead of riding to the makeshift stable, she called a farewell to Jorhild and held his reins tight to trot him to the edge of camp. Once there, she could feel him trembling beneath her and gnawing at the bit, so she released him from his hold. With what felt like the whole world ahead, Audun flew.
Hjordis screamed with delight, her hair flying behind her, some of her braids tight against her skull and some of her golden hair remaining loose. Her cloak flapped in the wind, and she delighted in the nearly warm air as it caressed her on her journey. Her light shield bounced against her back, reminding her of her purpose here. The leather strap holding it on dug into her collarbone, and she grinned as she readied her mind for what was to come.
When she felt Audun begin to slow, she pulled him up and lept off. He danced in place as he waited for her to find her footing, her legs unused to the solid earth beneath her feet. She breathed in the fresh air, which was still rich with salt but not as oppressive as it had been on the way. The familiar pines now surrounding her gave a certain sharpness to the air, but there was something else, too. Somewhere not far off, a hearth was burning.
“Well, Audun,” she said. “We did come here for war, did we not?” Audun didn’t understand her, but tossed his head at her low tone and furtive glance.
She let him drink from a nearby stream, removed his tack, and told him to stay – if it were anyone else ordering him around, he would have run off, but at Hjordis’s word, he planted his feet and turned almost into a part of the sprawling forest around him.
As darkness began to creep in, the sky turning golden with the setting sun, she snuck toward the smell of the fire, keeping low in the underbrush. She was now thankful that she was still wearing the grey-green tunic, as it helped her blend into the underbrush better than her yellow apron dress would.
It only took a few minutes of walking for her to come across the small home nestled into the trees, smoke wafting gently from its roof. It was still the time of year where night wasn’t cold, so there were still livestock in the yard, trapped only by a flimsy wooden fence.
A dark-skinned young woman with wild hair tended to the chickens, and Hjordis’s breath caught in her throat. She watched as the woman gently tossed seeds along the ground, and the chickens flocked around her. There was no man in sight, which could explain why the woman was only wearing a light linen chemise, the collar loosely falling off her bare shoulders.
When she had her back turned, Hjordis strode silently up and wrapped an arm around the young woman’s neck.
“It’s dangerous out when the sun sets,” she whispered threateningly, her lips brushing the woman’s neck.
The woman spun around, her eyes wide.
“Hjordis,” she breathed.
“Ara,” Hjordis greeted, leaning down and brushing her lips gently against the woman’s.
Ara sighed at the touch of her lover’s lips before resting her head on her shoulder. After a few minutes of this gentle embrace, she asked, “How do you always manage to smell so lovely?” She ran her slender fingers through Hjordis’s long blonde hair.
“It’s Monday,” Hjordis responded with a small chuckle. When they first met, Hjordis had explained that she had to bathe every Saturday, as was traditional. Ara still considered that to be a strange, unnecessary practice, yet she was always pleased by how clean Hjordis was. She’d found Hjordis bathing in the river a few years ago, and rather than alerting her husband to the presence of the shieldmaiden, Ara had joined Hjordis in the water. Since then, they spent every spare moment they could together, and Hjordis’s cavalry – the only viking cavalry in the country for now – knew that the lonely home in the woods was off limits.
Hjordis trailed behind Ara into the house, their hands loosely intertwined. She wanted to lift Ara’s hand to her lips, and the moment the door was closed, Ara said, “My husband shouldn’t be home for two days.”
The bed was merely a pile of wool blankets and sheepskins draped across the earthen floor, but it felt like the bed of a king when Hjordis and Ara were in it together. Hjordis knew that she had to be back to the encampment, but she couldn’t bring herself to be further than the reach of Ara’s arm. She shivered at each kiss along her neck and collar, and Ara arched her body with pleasure at Hjordis’s gentle touch. The night was long, but they didn’t think of sleep until the moon had almost completed its trek across the night sky.
“I missed you,” Ara whispered, her head resting over Hjordis’s heart. Her speech was slurred with sleep, and it didn’t help that Hjordis was brushing her fingers gently along her scalp.
“I almost couldn’t return,” Hjordis admitted. “I was afraid that you would not remember me.” Her heart twinged at the thought, and Ara must have heard it skip a beat, because she sighed and pulled herself up so that her body was draped completely over Hjordis’s. The weight of her was enough to ease the anxiety, and Hjordis’s eyes fluttered shut as she wrapped her arms tightly around Ara’s back, tracing soft patterns along her spine.
Just as she was falling into the emptiness of sleep, Hjordis heard a soft, whispered, “Take me with you.”
Hjordis stirred just enough to reply, “I will.”
Hjordis awoke with a jolt at a frightened keening. The early morning light was streaming in through the tiny window, shining on Ara’s soft mane of raven hair. Ara didn’t stir at the sound, but Hjordis heard it again.
She dressed as quickly as possible, and Ara begun to turn as Hjordis rushed out the door.
“Audun!” she called, searching the woods for her beautiful stallion. He called again at the sound of her voice, and she ran to the sound, her sword drawn.
What she found made her blood boil.
Audun was standing, his eyes wild as he tried to rear up and jump around the three men surrounding him. They had whips and chains and ropes and were trying to capture him, but anyone who got too close was struck with a hoof or bitten by his vicious teeth. Still, there were lines from a whip lining his flanks, and he was trembling with exhaustion.
Hjordis called to him, a high-pitched call that was usually used for cattle, but he recognized the specific sound as something she would make. In a moment of surprise, the men turned to see who was making the noise. That was their mistake, of course. Audun wasn’t just a regular cavalry horse – he was a weapon, a creature of vengeance and fire, and they just opened themselves to an attack.
The first man screamed when Audun’s teeth sunk into his bare forearm. A horse’s teeth were not made to make a man bleed, but Audun was determined, so he held on, tossing his head and shaking the man like a piece of wet cloth, and blood stained his maw and splashed red along his grey coat. While the second man tried to save his comrade from the attacking animal, the third set his eyes on Hjordis. His jaw went slack with surprise at seeing a woman in men’s attire and carrying a sword and shield, but Hjordis’s defensive stance caused him to set his jaw and rush toward her.
It wasn’t a fair fight, really. The man was huge and lumbering and carrying a heavy chain, and Hjordis was small and lean. It was too easy for her to block his chain with her shield, and when it hit the ground, she stepped on it and thrust her sword into his stomach, dragging across to open his insides up to the world.
The only real threat to her now that he’d been gutted was the second man – the first was pale and bleeding heavily, and Audun was stomping down on him, throwing most of his weight on the man’s torso while he bared his teeth and pinned his ears back.
The second man looked to his two fallen compatriots, then to Audun, who was just turning his head toward him, and then to Hjordis, who had her bloodied sword pointed directly at him.
Horses were not supposed to be predators, but Hjordis suspected that Odin had made Audun as a special gift. Instead of letting the man escape, as he was no longer a threat, Audun pursued. As he ran by, Hjordis grabbed his saddle and leapt on his back, swinging her sword once to liberate the man’s head from his body.
Rather than returning to Ara, Hjordis went back to the encampment. She’d been gone far too long. When she rode Audun in, Jorhild was shooting targets along a makeshift course from the back of her buckskin mare.
“Hjordis,” she called, putting an arrow back in the quiver and sheathing her bow. The mare reared up a little after being prompted to turn around, but she loped toward Hjordis and Audun when she saw them.
Hjordis pulled Audun around, and he pranced a little as she swung his body toward the buckskin mare.
“How is Ara?” Jorhild asked, her voice hushed despite them being mostly alone. They rode together toward the makeshift corral.
“She seems well,” Hjordis replied. “I think…” She paused, unsure of her next words, but Jorhild had always been her confidant. “I think I’m going to steal her away.”
This didn’t surprise Jorhild. She’d been coming along on these raids for a year less than Hjordis, and she knew everything about their secret relationship. She knew about the long nights away, and the days waiting for Ara’s husband to leave, and the bruises that Hjordis always kissed as if that could take away the pain and fear. “What of her husband?”
Hjordis had considered this. She didn’t want to kill Ara’s husband, as, despite the abuse, Ara always came to his defense. Still, she didn’t want any trouble from him.
“I have a proposition.”
It was early the next morning when the silence broke over the small woodland cottage. One moment, Ara was cleaning out the pig pen, and the next, a stampede of women on horses was surrounding her home. Her heart raced, and her first instinct was to scream, but then she noticed a familiar grey stallion, and, although his rider’s face was painted with red war symbols, she knew the woman astride him.
“Please,” a man’s voice begged. Suddenly, a body was thrown to the ground in front of her. She recognized him as the blacksmith from the nearby village – when her husband wasn’t looking, he liked to grab her and whisper lewd things in her ear, his breath hot on hers. “Don’t kill me.”
“Take that one,” an unfamiliar woman’s voice said. Her face was painted with blue and white stripes, and she sat atop a buckskin mare. Ara looked to Hjordis, and she wanted to ask what was going on, but Hjordis didn’t turn to her. Two tall, muscular women began to collect the animals, bagging up the chickens and the piglets before tossing them on a pair of riderless horses.
Another woman, short but stout, tossed Ara over her shoulder, and it was then that Ara cried, “What’s going on? Hjordis, please!” But still, Hjordis did nothing. Ara’s hands weren’t bound, and she wanted to fight back, but she’d been hidden in the woods and seen the way Hjordis had singlehandedly defeated the men who’d tried stealing Audun. She could only imagine what these women could do to her.
Yet another woman, astride a light grey mare, nocked a flaming arrow and aimed it at Ara’s home.
“No!” Ara cried just as the arrow flew through her window.
In moments, her home was going up in flames. She didn’t have any sentimental belongings, but this had been her home since she was seventeen, and now it was destroyed, and she didn’t know what was going to happen to her.
The women all guided their horses away, and Ara had to desperately hold on so that she didn’t fall. She turned to watch her home burn, and an arrow landed just next to the blacksmith, just missing him.
The ride was long, and she didn’t recognize the area. It was a place she’d always been told to avoid, and now she saw why.
There were tents and wooden structures stretching all the way along the cliffs that lined the sea, red and blue and yellow flags flying in the wind. She could see women tending to chores, but she also noticed something she never could’ve imagined – a large number of the women, rather than doing laundry or cooking or caring for animals, were sharpening weapons, sparring, and shooting targets.
While she was overwhelmed by these sights, the cavalry stopped just outside camp, and she felt herself being pulled off the horse she’d been thrown on.
“Please – ” she said, but she was cut off by a familiar pair of arms wrapping around her.
“I’m so sorry,” Hjordis whispered, pressing her forehead against Ara’s. “Please forgive me. It was the only way to ensure you weren’t followed.”
Ara’s husband wasn’t rich, but he was well-liked, so Ara was sure that he could gather some sort of army to find her if he wanted to. It all made sense now. If the blacksmith saw her being taken by an impenetrable force of warriors, then perhaps she wouldn’t be followed. She wrapped her arms around Hjordis’s neck and kissed her, the greasy red paint smearing along her own face.
“How do you still smell so nice?” Ara asked rhetorically as she folded herself into Hjordis.
The days were long in the camp, and Ara couldn’t keep herself from looking out into the fields and toward the distant forest where her home was, fearing that her husband would come for her any time. She tried to reason to herself that God couldn’t be mad at her for leaving, that she really had been taken against her will, but sometimes, when Hjordis fell asleep at night, Ara lay awake, haunted by what she was doing.
She wanted to believe Hjordis’s stories of her god – Odin, they called him. One of the women, Jorhild, told her other stories, of Thor and Loki and Freja and many, many other gods that they worshipped, and she found herself hoping that they were true.
When the leaves turned to the colors of sunsets and blood, Ara told herself that, surely, she could be happy, that all was well.
She awoke on a foggy morning, the air stagnant with a quiet sea that whispered to her of other lands. Hjordis was already gone, and Ara could hear swords clanging and horses hooves digging into the frigid earth outside their tent. The sound of thunder rumbled through the land, and she felt sick at the threat.
She walked outside, and the day was chaos. Some women were trying to put saddles on their horses, and others were already riding out.
An army was coming across the field, some of them on horseback, some on foot. The shieldmaidens were forming organized lines, bows drawn on the third line, spears in the second, and swords in the first. Ara hadn’t seen all of them prepared at once – the most she’d seen in a cavalry at a time had been the group of five or so women who’d taken her from her home – this was a proper army, over a hundred women baring their arms to the approaching men.
She held her breath.
Hjordis was at the head of the lines, shouting commands at the different commanders. The approaching group could hardly be considered an army – half the men had pitchforks and other assorted farm equipment, and the rest were either too old to fight or too young, their armor ill-fitting or nonexistent.
This would be a short battle.
The archers took out a quarter of the army in one shot – there couldn’t be more than a hundred men, so the fifty archers didn’t even have to aim well to hit so many. Still, they kept coming, and Hjordis recognized the red-faced leader as Ara’s husband, who, until this point, she’d only ever seen from hiding in the woods. Now, he was coming toward her, ordering his men to attack. Those on horseback came first, so Hjordis called for her shieldmaidens to charge.
Hjordis had her sword and shield out, and she tied her reins to the head of Audun’s saddle. He was mad enough to make his way into a battle without her prompting, so she just had to take out as many men as she could. Those who were versed in battle, she killed. They were like straw figures, falling apart at the touch of her sword. She stopped thinking about anything around her, destroying any who dared to face her, her vision tunneled by her gleaming helmet.
She must’ve killed five men, but then, she heard the keening call that she always used to bring Audun back to her.
Audun’s ears pricked at the sound, and Hjordis twisted in her saddle.
Ara was standing at the edge of the battlefield, and her husband was there, mere steps away.
The call came again, and Audun twisted around in one swift move and ran toward her.
She wouldn’t get there fast enough. She knew it. Although Audun was fast, Ara’s husband was too close to her. Hjordis yelled in anger, hoping to distract him, but he didn’t even flinch as he raised his sword.
Ara didn’t even think. There was a sword sheathed in a belt that was hanging on the corral’s fence, so she took it in her hands.
“If you do not come home with me,” her husband said slowly, walking toward her, “you will go to hell.”
Ara whispered a quick prayer, hoping that Odin was real enough to hear her, and swung the sword that her husband hadn’t batted an eye at. She used every ounce of anger that she had pent up, a guttural yell forcing its way out of her as the blade arced. Ara wasn’t skilled with a weapon, but she was strong from her years of farmwork, and she was angry at her husband for being allowed to harm her.
The storm broke, and rain fell at the same time as her husband. He clutched at his stomach, but his hands were unable to hold everything inside him. She’d always thought that a man’s death would be fast, especially something so gruesome, but he was still alive when he hit the ground, and she could hear him praying for his soul as his intestines lay beside him.
Lightning crashed ahead of her, the flash of light blinding her, but then she was in Hjordis’s arms, and sound returned.
“You’re alright,” Hjordis crooned, patting her hair and kissing her forehead. “Everything will be alright.”
Ara’s eyes focused on her husband, and she realized that he was no longer speaking.
Ara had never been on the sea, but three days of it and she was done with it. She spent most of her time rowing. Hjordis insisted that she didn’t have to, but she enjoyed the work. It kept her mind off the swaying of the ship, and wore her out enough to sleep well at night despite the cold.
The morning of the third day, Hjordis took her away from the oars to drag her toward the front of the ship as it approached land. Mountains towered over small towns, and everything was covered in a soft, quiet blanket of snow. Hjordis laid a fur and wool cloak over Ara’s shoulders as a shiver ran through her.
“Welcome home,” Hjordis whispered, wrapping her arms around her.