Originally published 2005
His family had strict rules about interfering with the lives of mortals. They could watch. They could influence. They could use their powers to make life easier or more difficult. They could bless the house or curse it, causing peace or strife. They could not, however, directly confront or harm any human being. It was a rule set down long before he’d existed, and it governed the way he interacted with his humans over the centuries. Even as his house changed hands, changed families, he honored the way of his family. He bestowed joy and peace on those who deserved it, and caused anything from minor annoyances to outright disaster when it was required. He was, he thought, a rather easy-going wight; he didn’t even require that the humans believed in him or offered him gifts, as some of the older members of his family did. He simply required that they treat the house, the land, and one another in a respectful manner. He rewarded those who did and punished those who did not.
She changed all that.
Her family came to live in the old farmhouse when she was just a babe, after decades of the house being vacant. They made the house their own, taming the overgrown land, tilling the fields, rebuilding the barn. Domestic animals came to live on the land again: sheep, chickens, a family of goats, a few horses. He oversaw their management of the land and home, and he was quite pleased. They had no idea of their co-inhabitant and benefactor as he followed their tending of the farm, but his support was deeply felt. In their time on the farm, they prospered. Harsh winters fell upon the country, but they never lacked what they needed.
Of them all, it was the babe that he liked the best. With her shining eyes, her sprinkling of fine down hair, and her bubbly little laugh, she warmed his immortal heart and brought him joy.
It didn’t hurt that she could see him. Children could often see what their parents could not, and she would giggle and coo at him for hours while her mother saw to the spinning or the cooking or the cleaning. Her stone-green eyes followed him with an intensity that left him a bit unnerved. When she learned to walk, she followed him around, across the fields, around the yard, around the house. She watched with a sobriety that was uncanny for a human of such a young age. It became a joke in her family that Astrid could wander off and come back unharmed. She had a guardian, her parents would say.
They had no idea how correct they were.
She didn’t speak to him until she had mastery of her language, and when she finally did, her first question was, “Who are you?”
So, he told her. He explained to her of the spirits that lived on the earth with the humans, those who remained unseen, unheard, unknown. He told her of his own family, who lived in specific places, and had the power to protect and bless, or curse, as they saw fit. He told her of himself, of how the farmhouse and the farmland had been his for countless years, how he’d seen families come and go, and how he had helped those who had deserved his aid. She listened with those sparkling eyes of hers shining, until he was finished, and said, “I meant, what’s your name?”
“Oh.” He thought for a moment. “You may call me Halvard.”
She shared with him her food, never guessing that by doing so, she was reviving an age-old custom that he had not been a part of in a very, very long time.
They remained friends for years after, but he knew that such a friendship would come to an end, and, eventually it did. During her seventh year, her elder sister suffered an accident, and Astrid was sent to live with her and her husband, to help her sister take care of her children and home. It was a tearful good-bye, but Astrid loved her sister a great deal and was eager to be of help.
The farm lost some if its shine when Astrid left, but the remaining family was as deserving of his gifts as they had been before she left, and the familiar routine soothed his grief. Years went by. The family grew smaller as more children moved off and made their own families, until it was just Astrid’s parents and their few farm hands. Still the farm prospered. It was a miracle, they said, how easily Astrid’s father could tend to the land, despite his increasing age and decreasing strength.
Twelve or thirteen winters after she left, Astrid returned. He knew her the moment he saw her — she had the same sparkle in her eyes, the same joy in her being. With her came a man, and he was surprised to feel a tremor of rage at seeing the man’s hand on Astrid’s arm. Together they moved back into the farmhouse, to help her parents with its upkeep. He did not like the way Astrid’s man made himself at home about the farm. He did not like the way her man interrupted the work flow, trying to change routines that had worked for years. It happened slowly, at first, so that Astrid’s father didn’t even notice it was happening. And then, all at once, everything changed.
A farming accident, her man said the morning he came back with blood on his hands. Halvard, in his anger, caused the whole house to shake. Shutters fell from the walls, dishes danced across cupboards. They found her father, alive but barely, in the ditch where her husband had brained him and left him. They brought him back to the farmhouse and set about saving his life. He lived, but he lived on as a baby, with no sense in his head and no recognition in his eyes. He could not tell them how it had been no accident, and Halvard could not get Astrid to see him.
With Astrid’s father out of the way, her man made the farm his own in every sense of the word. What had once been a house filled with warmth and love became a home of fear and pain. Astrid and her mother withdrew into themselves. The weight of caring for her father and the farmhouse, and tending to a harsh master, bore down on the once-lively girl. The sparkle faded from her eyes, the bounce left her step.
Halvard itched to punish this thief, this scoundrel, but for Astrid he stayed his hand. The land did not flourish as it once had, but they would not starve come winter. He kept to Astrid, following her as she once followed him, hoping that she would see him, hoping that she would speak with him. She never addressed him out loud; he wondered if she even remembered her childhood playmate. Winter came, cold and furious, and as the months passed, Astrid’s belly grew. Halvard dared to hope that her child would see him, as she had seen him, but as the lean winter gave way to a bitter-cold spring, Astrid’s son slipped into the world and, just as quickly, out of it.
They buried him in the family graveyard without speaking any words.
That night was the first time her man raised his hands to her. Halvard became aware of it too late to spare her, as he was off across the land, tending to his own grief. He arrived as her man had finished with her, and found her out in the yard, barely dressed, bruised and bloody. Her left eye was swollen shut, and her skin was whiter than the white nightdress she wore. She shivered, hugging her arms around her body, and cried. Halvard stood by her, wanting to hold her, wanting to soothe her. She couldn’t see him; if she felt him now it would do her more harm than good. He stood by her, helpless to help her, as she staggered toward the barn.
She didn’t make it. Halfway there she fell facedown in the mud. He went to her, finally daring to touch her. He rolled her over, gathered her to him, and took her into the barn. Once inside, he lay her down on a pile of straw, fetched a few horse blankets, and covered her. Under his touch, the worst of her bruises faded. He healed her body, erasing her man’s touch on her, but he could not heal her spirit. She slept and he held her against him, and he realized as the night passed that he was in love.
Astrid awoke confused. He watched her from a safe distance away as she struggled to remember the events of the night before. She cried, thinking herself alone in the barn, until she cried out her grief, and then she put away the horse blankets, returned to the house, and set about her day.
Halvard stayed close to the house, after that. A moon went by before her man touched her again, but Astrid went to him willingly, and there was nothing Halvard could do. He made life as difficult for her man as he could, but he wouldn’t do much, for that would make life more difficult for Astrid.
Weeks passed, and then her man struck her again. The previous beating seemed to unleash something within him: his fists flew at the smallest provocation. Halvard saw to it that tools broke on the man and that the animals misbehaved. Plowing and planting were slow going, and Astrid’s man went to bed most nights too tired to do much but complain. Halfway through summer, though, the constant mishaps got to him and he snapped. He went for Astrid with his belt.
The house shook terribly. The wind howled. He was deaf to the warning Halvard was good enough to give him, and his leather belt caught Astrid in the face, the tip of it slicing open her cheek. She fell in her attempt to escape, but he seized her arm and pulled her to him. He wrapped the belt around her neck, using it like a collar to drag her from the house. Her mother, locked in her room at night, was helpless to stop him.
Halvard was not. Rules of his family be damned, he was not going to sit by and watch her be brutalized.
It took more effort than he remembered, more energy and strength than he thought he had. Halvard forced his way fully into the human world, taking on human flesh and blood and bone. He followed them from the house, picking up a hoe as they passed the herb garden.
“If you are going to act like an animal,” her man was telling her as he fastened his belt to a fencepost outside, “then you will be treated like one.”
“I beg to differ.”
His voice sounded odd, even to him. It was harsh and cold and hard, cutting through the wind that raced over the land. It held within it all the power he had at his command, and it was almost as physically tangible as he himself now was.
From where she was stooped, Astrid’s eyes went round with shock and then flashed with recognition. He saw the moment the memories flooded into her. A split-second later the tears came flooding out of her. “Halvard,” she whispered.
Oh, how he wanted to go to her, to soothe her, to give her comfort. How he had waited to hear his name on her lips again. But her man stood between the two of them, and he was foolish enough to look at Halvard and sneer.
“Go about your business, stranger,” her man said, “You’ve none here.”
“Here,” Halvard said, and he took a step forward, “is all my business. This land is mine. This land has always been mine. It does not belong to you, and you will not mistreat it any longer.”
The man released the belt and removed his knife from its sheath at his side. “Go on, now. I’ll not warn you again. Get off my farm.”
Halvard said nothing; he only raised the hoe. The wind howled. It screamed, it screeched. The man started for him. Halvard slammed the hoe into the ground. The ground trembled violently. The man was thrown off balance. Halvard raised the hoe again and, again, drew it into the ground. The soil writhed and rippled, drawing the man closer to Halvard. When the human was at his feet, Halvard bent over and smiled. It was not a friendly smile.
“I know your secret,” he told the man. “I know her father suffered no accident. You contaminate this land with your presence. I expel you.”
The ground shook again, rising up like a wave. It picked the man up and carried him off, casting him from the farmland. It took him toward the forest, at Halvard’s command, where his darker cousins lived. He would not be setting foot on the farm again.
When Halvard moved toward Astrid she screamed and tried to pull away. The whites of her eyes shone all around, and she pulled so hard that her skin tore. Halvard froze, feeling sadness and regret fill him.
“We were friends once, you and I. I have no wish to harm you. I mean only to untie you.”
She wouldn’t let him. Impatience and anger touched him, but he schooled himself. He recalled her as an infant, as a child, and reminded himself that his anger was not truly directed at her. So, he went into the house, unlocked her mother’s door, and said, “Go help her. You are both safe.”
He dropped the flesh, the bone, the blood, and retreated into the barn. Surrounded by the animals, he rested.
With the man gone, everyone breathed easier. The farm hands were more than happy for things to return to normal, and Astrid’s father’s man was glad to manage the farm at Astrid’s request. Once again they knew the ease and prosperity that they had known in the years gone by.
Slowly, the weight of the tyrant’s memory lifted. Slowly, the sparkle returned to Astrid’s stone-green eyes.
Halvard ceased following her. She remembered him, knew he was there, and though she still couldn’t (or wouldn’t) see him, she seemed aware of when he was about. Her shoulders would droop, her breath would quicken, and she would shiver. She was afraid of him, of what he was, and he couldn’t bear to see her afraid. He avoided her, giving her a wide berth, and put his energy and time into the land.
The summer after he had driven off her husband, she sought him out. She traveled the whole land, calling for him by name. He followed her, curious, but still hurt enough to deny her an audience.
She left a plate of fresh bread, slathered in honey, and a jug of goat milk in the far northern edge of the farm, in the place where they had picnicked together years ago. She seemed more than half-afraid as she did this, so he did not reveal himself to her then.
Eight days later, she left another feast for him: cheese and mead and fruits. Still he remained hidden, watching.
At sundown five days later she came again, carrying a blanket, a basket of food, a lantern, and a book. She set the blanket on the ground, removed some food from the basket, dimmed the lantern, and sat, waiting for him.
He hovered in the edge of the shadows, peering at her. She couldn’t see him, he knew, but she could feel him. She didn’t speak for hours, just sat and waited. It was nearing midnight when she exhaled, slumped her shoulders, and made to leave.
He cursed himself over for being a fool, and stepped out of the shadows.
Her eyes flew to where he stood and for a moment he thought she saw him, but her eyes searched past him. He inhaled, drew upon his power, and stepped closer.
Now she did see him. Startled, she choked out a half-scream, and flew a dozen paces away.
Frustration filled him. What, in the name of all the gods, did she want of him?!
He turned to go.
“No, wait!” Astrid raised her hands toward him, imploring him to stay. “I’m sorry. I’m . . . I’d forgotten so much. Please, don’t go.”
“I brought food. I . . . remember doing this, before. It was so long ago. I thought I’d dreamt all of it. I didn’t mean to forget. Is this right? We have done this before, haven’t we?”
He closed his eyes, awash with the memories. “Yes,” he said. “We’ve done this before.”
Astrid returned to the blanket, taking small, unsure steps. She knelt and, with trembling hands, poured him some of the water she had brought with her. “It still doesn’t seem real, in my head. But, I’ve known you. I’ve known you as long ago as I can remember.”
“We were friends,” he said, sitting down on the blanket. It hurt to be so formal, so stiff, with her, here, in their spot. “Once upon a time.”
“Friends.” She sat with her fists on her thighs, her fingers squeezed so tight they were white. “But you’re not human.”
“No,” he agreed.
“And I knew that, too. You told me all about your family. I remember that now. I didn’t mean to forget. I don’t know how I did. There was no one like you at Helga’s home, and between caring for her children and helping her get around, I forgot. Erland was her husband’s younger brother. He wasn’t like that, when we lived with them. He wasn’t like that when we first wed.” She closed her eyes, hiding her grief from him.
He wanted to lean forward and make her share it with him, but he sat still.
“I’m sorry,” she said again. “I’m sorry how I reacted last year. I didn’t mean to be afraid. I remembered you, though, that night, and . . . you didn’t look, that night, like how I remembered you. I had never seen you look so angry.”
“I was not angry with you,” he said, remaining very still.
“I know,” she said. She lifted her eyes to meet his. “I remembered, too, what you said, years ago. About the in-between times being easier to see you in. For other people, I mean. I don’t know why it’s hard for me to see you now. I’d like for us to be friends again. Somehow, without even remembering, I know that I’ve missed you. Do you think we could be friends again, Halvard?”
He inhaled, held his breath, and then exhaled very, very slowly. “Yes,” he said, picking up the offered water.
“Good.” Her smile lit up her whole face. Astrid offered him a plate of good. “I remembered, too, that you especially liked lemon-poppy seed cake. Would you like some?”
He took the plate of cake from her, marveling at his control. He wanted to reach across the blanket and pull her to him. He wanted to hold her in his arms and shelter her from the world. He wanted to do a number of things to her, and eating dinner with her was not high on his list.
But it would do as a start.