As the midnight sun paints the world gray, I make my way toward the temple and the evening’s festivities. Gunda waits for me outside her longhouse. My best friend has always been one of the prettiest girls in Torblirost, and tonight is no exception. Her silver-blonde hair is twisted into a braided crown around her head and threaded through with blue cornflowers that match her eyes. Dark sweeps of kohl point into her temples, giving her the appearance of elongated cat-eyes.
She smiles when she spots me walking toward her.
“I’d started to think you weren’t coming.” She takes my hand then steps back, her gaze sweeping over my braids—woven like a net over the rest of my loose blonde hair—the kohl smudged over my eyelids and along my lower lashes, my best linen dress cinched tightly with the braided leather belt Papa made me last jultide. “You look lovely, Solvi.”
“Nothing compared to your beauty, havdel sjel.” I hook my arm through hers as we make our way to the temple.
Most of the eligible young women from our village are already inside, clumped in groups of twos and threes. Several young men mill about, too. The chief’s sons are not among them.
Bendt is, though, and he makes his way over. His face is free of any kohl and his hair is thrown up in its usual topknot, but at least he wears a clean tunic and trousers.
“Vöder take me now if you two aren’t the prettiest girls in the whole village tonight.” He takes one of our hands in each of his to twirl us. With a shared eye-roll, Gunda and I oblige him, spinning so our skirts swish around our legs. “What do you say we three skip the matching and go off on our own?”
“That would rather defeat the point,” I say.
“Ah, but Leika’s Bonfire is about celebrating the Lover of the gods. I can promise you, we would be doing that.” He taps my nose and throws a wink at Gunda.
She and I share another look from the corner of our eyes. I’m surprised to see a flush creeping into Gunda’s cheeks; she’s not usually so easy to tease.
“Are you drunk?” I ask Bendt.
His smile creases his cheeks. “It’s Eostre—of course I am.”
“In that case, I think we’d rather take our chances with the choosing stones.”
Bendt gapes at me in mock anger. “Who could possibly be a better choice than me?”
One of my eyebrows cocks upward. “Anyone, really.”
As if to punctuate my point, a commotion near the temple entrance brings us all around. A string of giggles floats around the space as Aksel leads his brother through the growing crowd. Behind them, my brother weaves towards us.
Tarben’s eyes are bright and his brown hair is barely held together with a loose braid—one that was a lot tighter when I tied it for him not an hour ago.
“What have you been up to?” I ask.
A smirk toys with his lips. “The business of the gods.” He gives my hair a quick tug and claps Bendt on the shoulder as he passes to the far side of the temple, where the young men congregate.
“If your brother’s here,” Bendt says, his eyes scanning the female side of the temple, “does that mean Sanne is choosing a stone as well?”
I shrug and join his search for the petite blonde. It’s no secret Tarben and Sanne have been spending more time together than is necessary for a healthy young man and the village healer. Tarben hasn’t made any indication it’s something serious, though.
Sanne enters a few moments later. Her hair is carefully smoothed in a single, golden braid down the back of her head. Her dress is immaculate and her expression casually interested in the proceedings, but her lips are very red, the skin around them flushed as well. I glance at Tarben again, but his eyes follow Brita, the shepherd’s daughter, as she makes her way past.
“I’ll see you ladies tomorrow,” Bendt says. His eyes are still on Sanne. “Wish me luck!”
“May Leika bless you this night.” I have to call it at his back, as he’s already scrambling for a place near the front of the boy’s side.
I shake my head and look at Gunda. Her gaze is focused across the room as well.
“They keep looking over here,” she mutters. “Do you think they’re talking about us?”
When I follow her gaze, it’s apparent Aksel has just turned away. Beside him, Jannik smiles at us.
“I’ve never seen a shadow smile before,” Gunda says and I laugh.
Jannik is our age, hardly more than a year younger than Aksel, but they’re so close it truly is as if Jannik is a shadow of his brother.
“Perhaps they’re scheming how best to pick your matching stone,” I say.
Gunda smirks. “Or it could be you they’re hoping for.”
That makes me laugh again. “Fortunately, only Leika knows who we’re meant for this night.”
Asta the priestess takes her place at the front of the temple and a hush falls over the crowd. As she begins the opening ceremony with a prayer to the goddess Leika, Gunda slips her hand into mine once more.
“I hope only for the best for you, havdel sjel,” she whispers.
I give her hand a squeeze. “And you, havdel sjel.”
Half of my soul.
When it comes time to choose, I glance over the young men gathered once more. Aksel hovers near the back of the men’s line while his shadow uncharacteristically surges to the front. Jannik’s eyes are closed and his lips move, as if with a last minute prayer. Bendt is behind him; he raises his eyebrows at me when our eyes meet.
I catch Tarben looking at Sanne, then Gunda nudges me forward. I take my stone from the women’s urn and move off to the side to wait for the choosing to finish.
“What are you waiting for?” A yell draws our attention to the male urn, where Bendt elbows Jannik. “It’s easy; you just stick your hand in and take one.”
Bendt waves the stone he’s pulled under Jannik’s nose with a grin. Jannik looks like he could murder Bendt as he fishes his own stone from the urn.
“There,” Gunda murmurs. “That face is much more fitting of the shadow.”
Once everyone has a stone, Asta returns to the front.
“Well, now that you have selected your destiny for the evening…” She spreads her hands wide. “May Leika bless you this night.”
Our two sides converge in the middle of the temple, each stone seeking out its mate. Voices rise over one another, filling the space with deafening chatter. Gunda and I hold tight to each other as we push through the crowd, glancing at upheld stones as we go.
“Which of you has only one line carved on your stone?” A voice calls over the chaos. I glance toward the front, where a boy stands in Asta’s place.
My eyes widen as he holds up his stone. Gunda is carried along by the crowd, but I’m rooted in place. My thumb traces the single hatch mark along the surface of my own stone as a nervous laugh bubbles in my gut. Leika certainly has a strange sense of humor.
His eyes fall on me as I make my way toward him, holding up my stone. His head tilts to the side and he blinks as if seeing me for the first time.
When I arrive in front of him, I sigh. “At least you don’t smell like fish guts tonight.”
I put my stone in Bendt’s hand.