The smithy was on the outskirts of the village, and it abutted a small fenced pasture with a few goats. The warrior followed his host out into a far corner of the field, gently shooing a doe out of his way.

“There are my teachers,” the smith said, with a small nod of his head.

“They are stones,” the warrior said, confused, as he followed the smith’s gaze. “Standing stones, well-hewn as any I’ve seen, but no more a teacher of braiding than my sword is a singer.”

“Ah, but I’m sure it does sing when you bring it through the air to cut down those that it will,” said Braidar. “These stones I have raised are also songs of a sort, for my teachers who have themselves been cut down as well.”

Falling into a respectful silence a moment, the stranger examined each of the six stones. “They are beautiful,” he said. “Tell me more of your teachers, Braidar.”

The smith ran a callused hand over the first stone. “This was my Alswith; she died bringing little Sigrith into this world. Her last words to me were an apology, you know, for not giving me a son to inherit the smithy. I told her that I wouldn’t trade my girls for anything, but by then she was beyond hearing.”

His guest could only manage a nod.

“Our oldest, Regnild,” the smith said, moving to the next stone. “She kept her hair long, and loved for me to experiment with new knots and patterns. She met a good man, whom I still see from time to time. Her first and only son, stillborn, lies at her feet. When the time is right, I have promised her Jon a place at her side.”

“There is…no nobler duty,” said the warrior.

His host did not seem to hear, having moved to the another marker. “Little Ingrith, the first to go. Taken by illness when she was just coming into her own. I braided her hair every day to keep the mud out, even when there was nothing but her sickbed.”

“Emma and Edeva,” the smith continued, at two stones set close together. “Twins. A miracle that Alswith was able to bear them and live. They would always insist on different braids, as different as I could make them, so they would not be mistaken for one another. Edeva fell to a putrefying wound from a scrape, and Emma wasted away without her.”

The penultimate stone, carved with the image of a woman and a dog. “Godgyth, and her pet Gilbert. An animal lover, it was her fancy that I braid the tails of the animals she brought home. Gilbert died in a scrap with a stray, and my Godgyth died of putrefying wounds, sustained trying to protect him.”

“And here is Sigrith, my youngest and last. Gone now only a handful of years. She was a fiery one, always willful. I was showing her how to run the smithy, and always gave her the tightest and most intricate of braids to keep the sparks away.”

The warrior touched his own locks, gently. “The forge in my home port has claimed many as well.”

“Indeed so, and here as well, though not my Sigrith.” Braidar looked into the middle distance, eyes cloudy. “She fell in love and married, despite my warnings. He was a drunkard, violent. I could stand the bruises, when she begged me not to harm him. But when he struck her the final time, and she did not rise…I brought her here. I used the tallow from his bones to run the fire, for a time.”

There was silence then, nothing but the gentle wind of an early spring beneath dour clouds. “I think we understand one another now, O Braidar,” said the stranger. “I will take my leave and consider the wager decided in your favor.”

“You are welcome here any time, as are your men,” Braidar replied, his eyes still fixed on Sigrith’s gravestone. “The village has endured worse than the depredations of a few men with swords.”

“Perhaps, but if they come, they will come as guests,” the warrior replied. “I would see your fate and theirs braided together peacefully, as this hamlet has clearly seen enough sorrow.”

He left then, quietly, while the smith remained at the site for some time, looking over markers etched by intricate braids of stone, the intertwining of what was and what had been, even as his latest living knots returned to the world beyond–messages both, writ in loops with love at their roots.

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