“Get away from that animal, Asa. You’ve all been warned that the ram doesn’t let anybody get near it except for big men, and even they have to watch their backs. Just last week little Gytha was knocked down, and still has a bruise on her forehead.” The woman spoke as loudly as she could without yelling. She shook her head and waited for the tall girl with flaxen hair, standing in a fenced-in enclosure with the willful beast, to get away from it.
Asa looked over at her aunt, but she didn’t move. “I’m already as big as the ram, and I wanted to see how close I could get before it showed any anger. If a man can approach Old Loki without fear, I can do the same.”
The woman let out a deep sigh and walked back towards the hall. The girl had been warned, and Sigrun had better things to do with her time than repeat a clear warning to a stubborn child. A short time later, after a slow and careful approach, Asa was actually able to stand next to the ram, close enough to rest her hand on the head of the irascible animal. Nobody witnessed that success except the girl, but she didn’t care. She thought she’d learned something about her aunt—and about herself.
Asa was aptly named. Although some children in the land of the Svear retained the names they were given when they were born, embodying the hopes of the parents that their young would be strong or pretty or fierce in battle, some earned their names as children. Ketill’s daughter came to be known as Asa, meaning “trouble-maker.” She frequently had a way of doing things which made her family and neighbors uneasy. She chose her own path as a child, and maturity did nothing to diminish her independent will.
Early on an unusually warm morning, the girl and her brothers Grettir and Brisi went exploring in the woods just north of their home. Trees had just started to bud, with the late spring finally upon them, and signs of life were emerging everywhere. The children had seen a thickly-furred red fox and a tiny young one in the distance. However, as soon as Brisi stepped on a dead branch, the snapping sound startled the animals, and they fled into the morning mist.
The trio began searching for rabbits or quail or something else they could contribute to the stew pots, although Asa knew that there was little chance that they could trap or kill anything. Armed only with simple seax knives that their father had made for them, nothing but a careless animal was likely to fall into their hands. However, Grettir, the oldest son, was confident that they could be successful, so the others let him lead the way. A tall boy with pale blond hair, he typically acted on the unshakable belief that even a dark situation would somehow turn out for the best.
The sun shone brightly through the starkly bare trees as it rose in the sky. The children could see far into the distance and, at virtually the same instant, Asa and Brisi saw some movement in the middle of the forest. As they got closer, they saw one large form and a few smaller ones. Soon they recognized a wild boar and three little piglets rooting among the brown leaves on the ground.
Asa was instantly alarmed, and she whispered an urgent warning to her brothers. “We need to leave those animals alone. A boar like that can kill a grown man. In fact, I heard that a hunter from north of us died after facing one. A mother with babies is even more dangerous than a male.”
Grettir was unconcerned. “There are three of us to deal with one fat animal. We’ve got blades and we’re smarter. Let’s bring some juicy meat home and let everybody fill their bellies.” He was certain that they could handle a single boar.
Nodding his head, Brisi pretended to agree with his brother’s idea. The youngest of the three, he had a thatch of reddish-brown hair, and he frequently did things which were intended to earn praise or notice for himself. He’d actually decided to take some action on his own regarding the animals, but he wasn’t going to share his intentions with the other two.
“This is a bad idea,” Asa muttered. “We have to have a better plan than just going after the boar. Let’s back away and think about this.” Neither of the brothers took her warnings seriously, and they walked closer, with Asa reluctantly following behind. All of them had their knives out.
Whatever the animals had found to eat was so delicious that they paid no attention to the approaching children—until they were no more than a long spear’s throw away. Then the sow looked up and saw them. The hair on the top of her back stood up, making her look bigger, and she made a loud squeal. Then she planted her feet, ready to charge. It looked much more menacing close up than it had before.
Suddenly, Brisi started running toward the sow, bellowing loudly—having convinced himself that he could frighten her away. Unfortunately, his tactic had the opposite effect. Rather than being intimidated, the beast shook for a moment and then started running toward the boy, squealing even louder. There was nothing the other two could do.
When the boar was within a few yards of Brisi, the boy realized too late that it wasn’t going to stop, and he braced himself, with his blade in front of him. The beast instinctively lowered its head, intent on ripping the boy open with its tusks. Relying on his own instincts, the boy leaped to one side, and avoided the worst of the attack. At that point, the other two children ran at the boar, which chose to veer away, return to its young, and flee with them deeper into the woods.
Brisi had not escaped the attack unscathed. Blood was coming out of a deep gash on one side of his upper leg, and he lay sprawled on the ground, weeping and holding his bloody limb.
Asa believed that she knew exactly what to do, having watched men react to a similar injury while some of them were training with weapons not far from the family stead. She pointed to Grettir. “Put your hand against the wound, and press down hard. I’ll find something nearby to help us.”
She saw a large patch of moss next to a tree trunk, tore a chunk of it out of the ground, and returned to her brothers. “Hold the green side of this tightly on the injury to stop the bleeding. Then we need to get him home and find the iron smith.”
Fortunately, Brisi himself was able to hold the moss firmly where the boar had done its worst and limp at the same time. Otherwise, getting the boy some help might have been beyond the strength of the other two children. They hurried him along in the direction of home, all three of them splattered with blood.
The sounds of metal pounding metal made it easy for them to walk directly to the workshop of Hamarr, a short man with massive shoulders, whose parents had named him hoping that he would become a fierce warrior. Seeing Brisi’s limping walk and his bloody leg, he needed no explanation, ordering the boy to sit on a bench with his leg extended and resting on a wooden barrel. Without a word of warning, he grabbed a flat piece of iron that he’d been working and applied it directly to the wound. The smell of burning flesh soured the air, and the boy’s screams sounded like those of an animal being torn apart.
After Brisi had finally regained his senses, Asa and Grettir walked with him to the sea, where the salt water washed over the seared wound and gave him fresh agony. They hoped that would prevent it from festering and killing him. Both of them had the good sense to say nothing about the fact that Brisi had wet his breeches when the glowing iron burned his skin.
His sister tried to comfort him a little. “Some girls are going to be impressed by that new scar you’re wearing. They’ll think it looks like the wounds that they’ve seen on battle-tested men. You should start thinking of a good story to tell them.” Brisi liked that, and he couldn’t resist trying to smile despite the throbbing pain.
Although Asa made no comment to her brothers, the incident with the boar forced her to begin seeing them more clearly than she’d ever done before. Grettir wasn’t harmed by the beast, but he thought nothing of the obvious dangers of approaching it. Their younger brother had been so concerned about looking brave that he was willing to risk everything, and he remained burdened after that with a small limp. When she thought about his future, she feared that Brisi might someday eagerly embrace a danger that he couldn’t survive.
The girl had never felt so close to dying before, but she’d already seen the reality of death in her family. Their mother Hilde had died trying to give birth a few years earlier, a fairly common happening in those times, and the eagerly awaited baby brother had been choked by the birth cord. Asa was the only one of the three who’d chosen to see the body of her mother and the baby before they were buried. There was nothing peaceful about the woman’s face, and the blood on her bedding would haunt Asa’s thoughts for a very long time. She didn’t eat for two days. However, the passing of years would finally diminish her darkest memories. She still had dreams sometimes about her mother singing softly to her at night.
She cared for both of her brothers deeply, and would have given her life for either of them, but she now knew better than to rely on them to keep themselves safe. Further, they certainly couldn’t be trusted to help defend her against future dangers, so she needed to learn how to protect herself.
About one thing she was very clear: she was not finished with that boar.