This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2021 by John Gwynne
Excerpt from Son of the Storm copyright © 2021 by Suyi Davies Okungbowa
Excerpt from Legacy of Ash copyright © 2019 by Matthew Ward
Cover design by Bekki Guyatt
Cover illustration by Marcus Whinney
Map by Tim Paul
Author photograph by Caroline Gwynne
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First Edition: May 2021
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Library of Congress Control Number: 2020947123
ISBNs: 978-0-316-53988-3 (trade paperback), 978-0-316-53987-6 (ebook)
Chapter One: Orka
Chapter Two: Varg
Chapter Three: Orka
Chapter Four: Varg
Chapter Five: Elvar
Chapter Six: Orka
Chapter Seven: Elvar
Chapter Eight: Orka
Chapter Nine: Elvar
Chapter Ten: Orka
Chapter Eleven: Varg
Chapter Twelv; e: Orka
Chapter Thirteen: Varg
Chapter Fourteen: Elvar
Chapter Fifteen: Orka
Chapter Sixteen: Varg
Chapter Seventeen: Orka
Chapter Eighteen: Varg
Chapter Nineteen: Orka
Chapter Twenty: Varg
Chapter Twenty-One: Elvar
Chapter Twenty-Two: Orka
Chapter Twenty-Three: Elvar
Chapter Twenty-Four: Orka
Chapter Twenty-Five: Elvar
Chapter Twenty-Six: Varg
Chapter Twenty-Seven: Elvar
Chapter Twenty-Eight: Orka
Chapter Twenty-Nine: Elvar
Chapter Thirty: Varg
Chapter Thirty-One: Orka
Chapter Thirty-Two: Elvar
Chapter Thirty-Three: Orka
Chapter Thirty-Four: Varg
Chapter Thirty-Five: Orka
Chapter Thirty-Six: Varg
Chapter Thirty-Seven: Orka
Chapter Thirty-Eight: Elvar
Chapter Thirty-Nine: Varg
Chapter Forty: Orka
Chapter Forty-One: Varg
Chapter Forty-Two: Elvar
Chapter Forty-Three: Varg
Chapter Forty-Four: Elvar
Chapter Forty-Five: Varg
Chapter Forty-Six: Orka
Chapter Forty-Seven: Varg
Chapter Forty-Eight: Elvar
Chapter Forty-Nine: Orka
Chapter Fifty: Elvar
Chapter Fifty-One: Orka
Chapter Fifty-Two: Elvar
Chapter Fifty-Three: Varg
Extras Meet the Author
A Preview of Son of the Storm
A Preview of Legacy of Ash
Also by John Gwynne
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There comes the shadow-dark dragon flying,
The gleaming serpent, up from Dark-of-Moon Hills;
He flies over the plain, and in his pinions
he carries corpses.
The year 297 of Friðaröld, The Age of Peace
“Death is a part of life,” Orka whispered into her son’s ear.
Even though Breca’s arm was drawn back, the ash-spear gripped tight in his small, white-knuckled fist and the spearhead aimed at the reindeer in front of them, she could see the hesitation in his eyes, in the set of his jaw.
He is too gentle for this world of pain, Orka thought. She opened her mouth to scold him, but a hand touched her arm, a huge hand where Breca’s was small, rough-skinned where Breca’s was smooth.
“Wait,” Thorkel breathed through his braided beard, a cold-misting of breath. He stood to her left, solid and huge as a boulder.
Muscles bunched in Orka’s jaw, hard words already in her throat.
Hard words are needed for this hard world.
But she held her tongue.
Spring sunlight dappled the ground through soft-swaying branches, reflecting brightly from patches of rimed snow, winter’s last hoar-frost kiss on this high mountain woodland. A dozen reindeer stood grazing in a glade, a thick-antlered bull watching over the herd of cows and calves as they chewed and scratched moss and lichen from trunks and boulders.
A shift in Breca’s eyes, an indrawn breath that he held, followed by a burst of explosive movement; his hips twisting, his arm moving. The spear left his fist: a hiss as sharp iron sliced through air. A flush of pride in Orka’s chest. It was well thrown. As soon as the spear had left Breca’s grip she knew it would hit its mark.
In the same heartbeat that Breca loosed his spear, the reindeer he had chosen looked up from the trunk it had been scraping lichen from. Its ears twitched and it leaped forwards, the herd around it breaking into motion, bounding and swerving around trees. Breca’s spear slammed into the trunk, the shaft quivering. A moment later there was a crashing from the east, the sound of branches cracking, and a form burst from the undergrowth, huge, slate-furred and long-clawed, exploding into the glade. The reindeer fled in all directions as the beast loped among them, oblivious to all around it. Blood pulsed from a swarm of wounds across its body, long teeth slick, its red tongue lolling, and then it was gone, disappearing into the forest gloom.
“What… was that?” Breca hissed, looking up at his mother and father, wide eyes shifting from Orka to Thorkel.
“A fell-wolf,” Thorkel grunted as he broke into motion, the stealth of the hunt forgotten. He pushed through undergrowth into the glade, a thick-shafted spear in one fist, branches snapping, Orka and Breca following. Thorkel dropped to one knee, tugged a glove off with his teeth and touched his fingertips to droplets of the wolf’s blood, brushing them across the tip of his tongue. He spat, rose and followed the trail of wolf-blood to the edge of the glade, then stood there peering into the murk.
Breca walked up to his spear, the blade half-sunk into a pine tree, and tried to pull it free. His body strained, but the spear didn’t move. He looked up at Orka, grey-green eyes in a pale, muddied face, a straight nose and strong jaw framed with crow-black hair, so much like his father, and the opposite of her. Apart from his eyes. He had Orka’s eyes.
“I missed,” he said, his shoulders slumping.
Orka gripped the shaft in her gloved hand and tugged the spear free.
“Yes,” she said as she handed Breca his spear, half-an-arm shorter than hers and Thorkel’s.
“It was not your fault,” Thorkel said from the glade’s edge. He was still staring into the gloom, a thick braid of black, grey-streaked hair poking from beneath his woollen nålbinding cap, his nose twitching. “The fell-wolf startled them.”
“Why didn’t it kill any of those reindeer?” Breca asked as he took his short spear back from Orka.
Thorkel lifted his hand, showing bloodied fingertips. “It was wounded, not thinking about its supper.”
“What did that to a fell-wolf?” Breca asked.
Orka strode to the opposite end of the glade, her spear ready as she regarded the dark hole in the undergrowth from where the wolf had emerged. She paused, cocked her head. A faint sound, drifting through the woodland like mist.
Breca joined her. He gripped his spear with both hands and pointed into the darkness.
“Thorkel,” Orka grunted, twisting to look over her shoulder at her husband. He was still staring after the wounded wolf. With a last, lingering look and shake of his fur-draped shoulders he turned and strode towards her.
More screams, faint and distant.
Orka shared a look with Thorkel.
“Asgrim’s steading lies that way,” she said.
“Harek,” Breca said, referring to Asgrim’s son. Breca had played with him on the beach at Fellur, on the occasions when Orka and Thorkel had visited the village to trade for provisions.
Another scream, faint and ethereal through the trees.
“Best we take a look,” Thorkel muttered.
“Heya,” Orka grunted her agreement.
Their breath misted about them in clouds as they worked their way through the pinewoods, the ground thick and soft with needles. It was spring, signs of new life in the world below, but winter still clung to these wooded hills like a hunched old warrior refusing to let go of his past. They walked in file, Orka leading, her eyes constantly shifting between the wolf-carved path they were following and the deep shadows around them. Old, ice-crusted snow crunched underfoot as trees opened up and they stepped on to a ridge, steep cliffs falling away sharply to the west, ragged strips of cloud drifting across the open sky below them. Orka glanced down and saw reed-thin columns of hearth fire smoke rising from Fellur, far below. The fishing village sat nestled on the eastern edge of a deep, blue-black fjord, the calm waters shimmering in the pale sun. Gulls swirled and called.
“Orka,” Thorkel said and she stopped, turned.
Thorkel was unstoppering a leather water bottle and handing it to Breca, who despite the chill was flushed and sweating.
“His legs aren’t as long as yours,” Thorkel smiled through his beard, the scar from cheek to jaw giving his mouth a twist.
Orka looked back up the trail they were following and listened. She had heard no more screams for a while now, so she nodded to Thorkel and reached for her own water bottle.
They sat on a boulder for a few moments, looking out over the land of green and blue, like gods upon the crest of the world. To the south the fjord beyond Fellur spilled into the sea, a ragged coastline curling west and then south, ribbed and scarred with deep fjords and inlets. Iron-grey clouds bunched over the sea, glowing with the threat of snow. Far to the north a green-sloped, snow-topped mountain range coiled across the land, filling the horizon from east to west. Here and there a towering cliff face gleamed, the old-bone roots of the mountain from this distance just a flash of grey.
“Tell me of the serpent Snaka again,” Breca said as they all stared at the mountains.
Orka said nothing, eyes fixed on the undulating peaks.
“If I were to tell that saga-tale, little one, your nose and fingers would freeze, and when you stood to walk away your toes would snap like ice,” Thorkel said.
Breca looked at him with his grey-green eyes.
“Ach, you know I cannot say no to that look,” Thorkel huffed, breath misting. “All right, then, the short telling.” He tugged off the nålbinding cap on his head and scratched his scalp. “All that you can see before you is Vigrið, the Battle-Plain. The land of shattered realms. Each steppe of land between the sea and those mountains, and a hundred leagues beyond them: that is where the gods fought, and died, and Snaka was the father of them all; some say the greatest of them.”
“Certainly the biggest,” Breca said, voice and eyes round and earnest.
“Am I telling this tale, or you?” Thorkel said, a dark eyebrow rising.
“You, Father,” Breca said, dipping his head.
Thorkel grunted. “Snaka was of course the biggest. He was the oldest, the father of the gods; Eldest, they called him, and he had grown monstrous huge, which you would, too, if you had eaten your fill each day since the world was born. But his children were not to be sniffed at, either. Eagle, Bear, Wolf, Dragon, a host of others. Kin fought kin, and Snaka was slain by his children, and he fell. In his death the world was shattered, whole realms crushed, heaved into the air, the seas rushing in. Those mountains are all that is left of him, his bones now covered with the earth that he ruptured.”
Breca whistled through his teeth and shook his head. “It must have been a sight to see.”
“Heya, lad, it must have been. When gods go to war, it is no small thing. The world was broken in their ruin.”
“Heya,” Orka agreed. “And in Snaka’s fall the vaesen pit was opened, and all those creatures of tooth and claw and power that dwelled in the world below were released into our land of sky and sea.” From their vantage point the world looked pure and unspoiled, a beautiful, untamed tapestry spread across the landscape in gold and green and blue.
But Orka knew the truth was a blood-soaked saga.
She looked to her right and saw on the ground the droplets of blood from the injured wolf. In her mind she saw those droplets spreading, growing into pools, more blood spraying, ghostly bodies falling, hacked and broken, voices screaming…
This is a world of blood. Of tooth and claw and sharp iron. Of short lives and painful deaths.
A hand on her shoulder, Thorkel reaching over Breca’s head to touch her. A sharp-drawn breath. She blinked and blew out a long, ragged sigh, pushing the images away.
“It was a good throw,” Thorkel said, tapping Breca’s spear with his water bottle, though his eyes were still on Orka.
“I missed, though,” Breca muttered.
“I missed the first throw on my first hunt, too,” Thorkel said. “And I was eleven summers, where you are only ten. And your throw was better than mine. The wolf robbed you. Eh, Orka?” He ruffled Breca’s hair with a big hand.
“It was well cast,” Orka said, eyeing the clouds to the west, closer now. A west wind was blowing them, and she could taste snow on that wind, a sharp cold that crackled like frost in her chest. Stoppering her water bottle, she stood and walked away.
“Tell me more of Snaka,” Breca called after her.
Orka paused. “Are you so quick to forget your friend Harek?” she said with a frown.
Breca dropped his eyes, downcast, then stood and followed her.
Orka led them on, back into the pinewoods where sound was eerily muted, the world shrinking around them, shadows shifting, and they climbed higher into the hills. As they rose the world turned grey around them, clouds veiling the sun, and a cold wind hissed through the branches.
Orka used her spear for a staff as the ground steepened and she climbed slick stone that ascended like steps alongside a white-foaming stream. Ice-cold water splashed and seeped into her leg-bindings and boots. A strand of her blonde hair fell loose of her braid and she pushed it behind one ear. She slowed her pace, remembering Breca’s short legs, even though there was a tingling in her blood that set her muscles thrumming. Danger had always had that effect on her.
“Be ready,” Thorkel said behind her, and then Orka smelled it, too.
The iron tang of blood, the stench of voided bowels.
The ground levelled on to a plateaued ridge, trees felled and cleared. A large, grass-roofed cabin appeared, alongside a handful of outbuildings, all nestled into a cliff face. A stockade wall ringed the cabin and outbuildings, taller than Orka.
On the eastern side of the steading a track curled down the hills, eventually leading towards the village of Fellur and the fjord.
Orka took a few steps forwards, then stopped, spear levelled as Breca and Thorkel climbed on to the plateau.
The stockade’s wide gates were thrown open, a body upon the ground between them, limbs twisted, unnaturally still. One gate creaked on the wind. Orka heard Breca’s breath hiss through his lips.
Orka knew it was Asgrim, broad shouldered and with iron-grey hair. One hairy arm poked from the torn sleeve of his tunic.
A snowflake drifted down, a tingled kiss upon Orka’s cheek.
“Breca, stay behind me,” she said, padding forwards. Crows rose squawking from Asgrim’s corpse, complaining as they flapped away, settling among the treetops, one sitting upon a gatepost, watching them.
Snow began to fall, the wind swirling it around the plateau.
Orka looked down on Asgrim. He was clothed in wool and breeches, a good fur cloak, a dull ring of silver around one arm. His hair was grey, body lean, sinewed muscles showing through his torn tunic. One of his boots had fallen off. A shattered spear lay close to him, and a blooded hand-axe on the ground. There was a hole in his chest, his woollen tunic dark with crusted blood.
Orka kneeled, picked up the axe and placed it in Asgrim’s palm, wrapping the stiffening fingers around it.
“Travel the soul road with a blade in your fist,” she whispered.
Breca’s breath came in a ragged gasp behind her. It was the first person he had seen dead. Plenty of animals; he had helped in slaughtering many a meal for their supper, the gutting and skinning, the soaking of sinew for stitching and binding, the tanning of leather for the boots they wore, their belts and scabbards for their seaxes. But to see another man dead, his life torn from him, that was something else.
At least, for the first time.
And this was a man that Breca had known. He had seen life’s spark in him.
Orka gave her son a moment as he stood and stared wide-eyed at the corpse, a flutter in his chest, his breath quick.
The ground around Asgrim was churned, grass flattened. A scuffed boot print. A few paces away there was a pool of blood soaked into the grass. Tracks in the ground led away; it looked like someone had been dragged.
Asgrim put someone down, then.
“Was he the one screaming?” Breca asked, still staring at Asgrim’s corpse.
“No,” Orka said, looking at the wound in Asgrim’s chest. A stab to the heart: death would have come quickly. And a good thing, too, as his body had already been picked at by scavengers. His eyes and lips were red wounds where the crows had been at him. Orka put a hand to Asgrim’s face and lifted what was left of his lip to look inside his mouth. Gums and empty, blood-ragged sockets. She scowled.
“Where are his teeth?” Breca hissed.
“Tennúr have been at him,” Orka grunted. “They love a man’s teeth more than a squirrel loves nuts.” She looked around, searching the treeline and ridged cliff for any sign of the small, two-legged creatures. On their own, they could be a nuisance; in a pack, they could be deadly, with their sharp-boned fingers and razor teeth.
Thorkel stepped around Orka and padded into the enclosure, spear-point sweeping in a wide arc as he searched.
He stopped, stared up at the creaking gate.
Orka stepped over Asgrim into the steading and stopped beside Thorkel.
A body was nailed to the gate, arms wide, head lolling.
Idrun, wife to Asgrim.
She had not died so quickly as her husband.
Her belly had been opened, intestines spilling to a pile on the ground, twisted like vines around an old oak. Heat still rose from them, steaming as snow settled upon glistening coils. Her face was misshapen in a rictus of pain.
It was she who did the screaming.
“What did this?” Thorkel muttered.
“Vaesen?” Orka said.
Thorkel pointed to thick-carved runes on the gate, all sharp angles and straight lines. “A warding rune.”
Orka shook her head. Runes would hold back all but the most powerful of vaesen. She glanced back at Asgrim and the wound in his chest. Rarely did vaesen use weapons, nature already equipping them with the tools of death and slaughter. There were dark patches on the grass: congealed blood.
Blood on Asgrim’s axe. Others were wounded, but if they fell, they were carried from here.
“Did men do this?” Thorkel muttered.
Orka shrugged, a puff of misted breath as she thought on it.
“All is lies,” she murmured. “They call this the age of peace, because the ancient war is over and the gods are dead, but if this is peace…” She looked to the skies, clouds low and heavy, snow falling in sheets now, and back at the blood-soaked corpses. “This is the age of storm and murder…”
“Where’s Harek?” Breca asked.
Varg twisted to look back over his shoulder as he ran, stumbled, almost fell and carried on running. The rocky banks were giving way to black sand and shingle as the river widened, the dense trees and cliffs that had hemmed him in thinning and retreating as he drew closer to the fjord. Already he could smell the market town of Liga, a host of scents and sounds assaulting his senses.
Another look back over his shoulder: no signs of pursuit, but he knew they were there. He increased his pace.
How long have I been running? Nine days, ten?
He touched a hand to the leather pouch at his belt, sucked in the salt-tinged air and ran on.
His legs burned, lungs heaved and sweat trickled in a constant stream into his eyes, but he kept his pace, deep breaths, long strides.
I could run for ever, if only there were ground before me for my feet to tread. But the cliffs have steered me to the sea, and it is close. Where will I go? What should I do?
Panic fluttered through his veins.
They must not catch me.
He ran on, shingle crunching beneath his tattered turn-shoes.
The river spilled into a fjord, widening like a serpent’s jaws about its prey and Liga came into view, a market town and port built upon the fjord’s south-eastern banks. Varg slowed to a stop, put his hands on his knees and stared at the town: a bustling, stinking mass of buildings strewn along a wide, black-sanded beach and rolling back as far as the slopes of the fjord would allow. A stockade wall ringed the town, protecting the buildings and humanity crammed within. The town climbed the flank of a slope, a grass-turfed long-hall with carved, curling wooden beams built on the high ground, like a jarl in the high seat of a mead hall, looking out over his people. The sky above was thick with hearth smoke, the stink of grease and fat heavy in the air. Jetties and piers jutted out over the blue-black water of the fjord, a myriad ships rocking gently at harbour. One ship stood out among the others, a prow-necked, sleek-sided drakkar, a dragon-ship, looking like a wolf of the sea among a flock of sheep. All around it crowded slender byrdings and a host of knarrs, their bellies fat with merchant wares from places Varg had no doubt never heard of. He did not even know how old he was, but in his remembered life he had counted thirty hard winters and back-breaking summers that he had spent shackled to Kolskegg’s farm, only twenty leagues north-east along the river, and in all of those years his master had never taken him to Liga on one of his many trading trips.
Not that he wanted to go. The smells repulsed him, though the blending scents of fat and cooking meat were making his belly rumble, and the thought of being so close to so many people was incomprehensible to him. He took a few unconscious steps away, back towards the river-gully he had been running through.
But I cannot go back. They will catch me. I have to go forwards. I need a Galdurman, or a Seiðr-witch.
He rubbed his stubbled head and reached inside his cloak, pulling out a thick iron collar. Another search inside his cloak pocket and he drew out a key, unlocked the collar and with a shiver set the cold iron around his neck, snapping it shut. He locked it and put the key back in his cloak. For a few moments he stood and twisted his neck, grimaced. A shuddered breath. Then he stood straight, brushed down his mud-stained tunic and pulled his woollen cloak-hood up over his head. And walked on.
A wide, rune-carved gate stood open, two mail-coated guards leaning against one post. One grey-beard, who sat upon a stump, and a younger woman, dark hair braided tight, a seax hanging from the front of her belt, a spear in one fist. She eyed Varg as he approached, then stepped forward, barring his way.
“Your business in Liga?” she said.
“Finding rooms for my master,” Varg said, his eyes downcast. “I have been ordered on ahead.” He gestured vaguely behind him, into the river valley.
The guard looked him up and down, then over his shoulder, at the empty mouth of the river valley.
“How do I know that? Who’s your master? Pull your hood down.”
Varg thought about the answers he could give, and where they would lead, and what they would give away. Slowly he pushed his hood back, revealing his stubbled hair, his mud- and sweat-stained face. He opened his mouth. A cart rolled up behind him, pulled by two oxen; a fine-dressed merchant sat upon the driving bench, a handful of freedmen with spears and clubs in their fists.
“Let the man through, Slyda,” the grey-beard grunted from his stump.
“My master is Snepil,” Varg said, saying the first name that came into his head. Snepil was a man that he knew would not be following him soon, as the last time Varg had seen him Snepil’s eyes had been bulging and his last breath had hissed and rattled from his throat as Varg throttled the life from him. He couldn’t remember how he came to have his hands around the man’s throat, only remembered blinking as Snepil’s rattling death filtered through some red mist in Varg’s head.
She eyed him one more time, then stepped out of his way and waved him through.
Varg pulled his hood back up and slipped into Liga like lice into a beard, the scents and sounds hitting him as if he had dived into water. Timber-sided buildings lined wide, mud-slick streets, and traders were everywhere, clamouring, their trestle-benches edging the streets and laid out with all manner of goods. Bolts of dyed cloth, bone needles and combs, axe heads, knives, fine-tooled scabbards, bronze cloak pins and amulets, wooden bowls, bundles of linen and wool, tied bales of wolf and bear skins, reindeer hides, pine marten and fox pelts. Varg’s eyes widened at the sight of walrus tusks and ivory. Others were selling horns of mead and ale, bubbling pots of rabbit and beef stew steaming over pit fires, turnips and carrots bobbing, fat glistening. Quartered steaks of whale meat, smoked herring and cod hanging. He even saw a trader selling vaesen body parts: Faunir’s dried blood; a troll’s tooth, big as a fist; a bowl full of skraeling eyeballs; and a necklace made from the needled hair of a Froa-spirit. It was endless, and overwhelming.
A spasm in his belly reminded him that a long time had passed since he’d last eaten. He was not sure exactly how long, but it was at least three days ago, or was it four, when he had been lucky enough to snatch a salmon from the river. He strode over to a trader who was standing behind a big stew-pot and using a cleaver to quarter a boar’s leg joint. The trader was a broad-bellied and wispy-bearded man wearing fur-trimmed boots and a fine green woollen tunic, though the tablet weaving around the neck and cuffs was dull and frayed.
Varg stared into the pot of stew, saliva flooding his mouth, the churning and twisting in his gut abruptly painful.
“Something to warm your belly?” the trader said, putting the cleaver down and lifting a bowl.
“Aye, that’d be good,” Varg said.
“A half-bronze,” the trader said. Then paused and stared at Varg. He put the bowl down and pushed Varg’s hood back, looked at his short, stubbled hair. His eyes narrowed.
“Away with you, you dirty thrall,” the trader scowled.
“I can pay,” Varg said.
A raised eyebrow.
“I’ll see your coin, first,” the trader said.
Varg reached inside his cloak, pulled out a pouch, loosened the leather-draw and fished out a bronze coin. He dropped it on the trader’s table, the coin rolling and falling, revealing the stamped profile of a woman’s head. A sharp-nosed profile, hair pulled severely tight and braided at the neck.
“A Helka,” the trader said, his beard twitching.
“Queen Helka,” Varg said, though he had never seen her, only heard snatched talk of her: of her hubris, thinking she could rule and control half of Vigrið, and of her ruthlessness against her enemies.
“Only calls herself queen so she can tax us down to our stones,” the trader grunted.
“No good to you, then?” Varg said, reaching for the coin.
“I didn’t say that,” the trader said, holding a hand out.
Faster than it took to blink, Varg snatched up the cleaver the trader had put down and chopped at the coin, hacking it in two. He lifted one half up between finger and thumb, left the other hack-bronze on the table.
“Where’d a dirty thrall come by a pouch of Helka-coin, anyway? And where’s your master?” the trader grunted, eyeing him.
Varg looked at him, then slowly put a hand out towards the coin again.
The trader shrugged and scooped a ladle of stew into the bowl, handed it to Varg.
“Some of that bread too,” Varg said, and the trader cut a chunk from a black-crusted loaf.
Varg dipped the bread in the stew and sucked it, fat dripping down his chin, into his newly grown beard. The stew was watery and too hot, but it tasted like pure joy to Varg. He closed his eyes, dipped, sucked, slurped until the bread was gone, then upended what was left of the stew into his mouth.
He put the bowl down and belched.
“I’ve seen hungry men before,” the trader said, “but you…” He whistled, gave a half-smile.
“Is there a Galdurman, or Seiðr-witch in Liga?” Varg asked, cuffing stew from his chin.
The trader signed a rune across his chest and frowned. “No, and what do you want with the likes of them?”
“That’s my business,” Varg said, then paused. “That’s my master’s business. Do you know where I can find one?”
The trader began to turn away.
Varg put the other half-bronze back on the table.
The trader looked at him appraisingly. “The Bloodsworn docked yesterday. They have a Seiðr-witch thrall.”
The Bloodsworn were famed throughout the whole of Vigrið, and most likely beyond. A band of mercenary warriors who hired themselves out to the highest bidder, they hunted down vaesen-monsters, searched out god-relics for wealthy jarls, fought in border disputes, guarded the wealthy and powerful. Tales were sung about them by skálds around hearth fires.
“Where are they?” Varg said.
“You’ll find them in Liga’s longhouse, guests of Jarl Logur.”
“My thanks,” Varg said. Then he dipped his hand back in his pouch and threw another hack-bronze on the table.
“What’s that for?” the trader said.
“Your silence. You never saw me.”
“Saw who?” said the trader, looking around, a smile twitching his thin beard, even as his hand snaked out and scooped up the coins.
Varg’s hand darted out, faster than the trader’s, and gripped the man’s wrist. He stared into the trader’s eyes, held his gaze a long moment, then let go; in the same movement he swept the cleaver from the table and hefted it.
“How much?” he said.
“You can have that,” the trader shrugged.
Varg nodded and slipped the cleaver inside his cloak, pulled his hood back up and walked into the crowd.
He made his way through the streets of Liga, past a quayside that heaved with activity, men and women unloading a newly docked merchant knarr. Its belly was wide and deep, sitting low in the water. Varg thought he heard the muted neighing of horses from deep in its hull and two more similar-looking ships were rowing into the docks. A group of strange-looking men and women were disembarking from the moored knarr. They wore caps of felt and fur and silver-buckled kaftans, with their breeches striped in blues and oranges, baggy above the knee, wrapped tight with winnigas leg-bindings from knee to ankle. Their skin was dark as weathered leather and they were escorted by a handful of warriors who wore long coats of lamellar plate that shimmered like scales as they moved. They had curved swords hanging at their hips, the men with long drooping moustaches, and their heads were completely shaven, apart from a long, solitary braid of hair. Varg paused and stared at them as they turned and shouted at sailors on the ship, gangplanks slamming down on to the jetty, pier-cranes swinging to hover over the ship’s belly.
“Where are they from?” Varg asked a dock worker who was hurrying past with a thick coil of rope slung over her shoulder.
“Iskidan,” she grunted, not slowing.
“Iskidan,” Varg whistled. The land beyond the sea, far, far to the south. Varg had heard tales of Iskidan, of its wide rivers and grass plains, of its beating sun and of Gravka, the Great City. Part of him had thought it just a tale, a place to escape in the mind during the cold, harsh months of winter.
Varg took one last look at the strangers and then walked on, turning into another street that steepened, climbing a slope towards the cliffs that brooded over the town, Jarl Logur’s mead hall nestled at their foot. The reek of fish lessened as he climbed, replaced by urine and excrement. Steps were carved into the street that led to a wide-arched gate, beyond it the thick-timbered beams of the mead hall visible. A press of men and women were shoulder to shoulder on the steps. Varg paused a moment, looking for a way through, and then slipped between a man and a woman, trying to thread his way up the steps.
A hand grabbed his shoulder.
“Wait your turn, like everyone else,” a woman said. She was dark-haired, her face hard and sharp, her eyes cold. A woollen tunic and fur-edged cloak were draped about her shoulders, a weapons belt around her waist with scabbarded seax and hand-axe hanging from it.
“I need to see the Bloodsworn,” Varg said.
“Ha, don’t we all?” the woman said. “What makes you so special?”
Varg looked at her, then at the crowd around him.
“All these, they are here for the Bloodsworn?” Varg said.
“Aye,” the woman grunted, “what else?”
“Why?” Varg asked.
“There’s an empty sea-chest and a spare oar on their drakkar,” the woman said.
“Empty sea-chest?” Varg frowned.
“Are you touched in the head?” the woman said, prodding his temple through his cloak-hood with a hard finger. Varg didn’t much like it. “One of the Bloodsworn has been slain, and they are holding a weapons trial to fill his place.”
“Ah,” Varg nodded, understanding blossoming.
“So, wait your turn,” she said, then looked him up and down. “Or are you in a rush to have your arse dumped in the dirt?”
Laughter rippled through those around them.
Varg just looked at the ground and waited.
The crowd shuffled up the steps. As Varg drew closer to the mead hall the sounds of shouting drifted down to him, punctuated with cries of pain. A slow, steady stream of bloodied faces filtered back down the steps, some groaning and supported by others. Others were carried unconscious.
Varg reached the top step and looked over the shoulders of those in front of him. An arched gateway led into an open space before Jarl Logur’s mead hall, a huge building of scrolled timber sitting upon thick stone footings. In the space before the hall the ground was trampled and muddied, dark patches glistening here and there. Warriors ringed the area, fifty or sixty of them, hard-looking men and women, some wearing brynja coats of riveted mail with swords at their hips. Varg had only seen a sword once before, when the local drengr had visited Kolskegg’s farm to collect the tax due to Queen Helka. Varg had suspected that sword was worth more than all the goods loaded upon a wagon and the chest of coin that Kolskegg had given the man. Varg’s eyes were drawn to a bald-headed, thick-muscled warrior, more grey than black in his braided beard. He wore a plain-scabbarded sword at his hip, a fine brynja of riveted mail over his broad frame and rings of gold and silver wrapped around his arms and neck. The sword and brynja alone were probably worth as much as Kolskegg’s farm. There was wealth to be had in death-dealing. The bald man was talking to a raven-haired woman, a pattern of blue tattoos across her lower jaw and throat. The Seiðr-witch. Varg blinked in surprise at the iron collar around her neck, and instinctively put a hand to his own throat. The old warrior was leaning upon a long-axe as he spoke, the butt stuck in the ground, the single iron blade hooked and cruel-looking. Varg was accustomed to axes, the callouses on his hand testament to long years of use, but this was not an axe made for chopping timber. This was made for killing. Varg looked away, the sight of it setting some uneasy feeling trickling through his veins. All of the warriors in the square bristled with a mass of assorted weapons hanging from weapons belts. Big round shields were slung across their backs, some propped against the wall and steps of the mead hall. A few were painted pale blue as a winter’s sky with a red sail upon it, Varg recognising that as the sigil of Jarl Logur, but most of the shields around the square were painted crow-black, each one with a splattering of red across the pitch-paint, as if someone had cast droplets of blood across each shield.
In the centre of the square two men were fighting. Or more accurately to Varg, a man and a tree were fighting. The shorter one was light on his feet, a round shield in one hand, dancing around the bigger man, who was stripped to the waist, woollen breeches tied with rope, with a red braided beard that dangled to his waist. He was thick bodied and limbed, muscles knotted and bunching like the roots of an old oak. As Varg watched the smaller man feinted right and then darted left, stepping in and slamming the iron boss of the shield into red-beard’s ribs. A hook from his right hand into the stomach. A grunt from red-beard was the only acknowledgement, one arm swinging, catching the smaller man across the back of the head as he tried to duck and leap away. He staggered, stumbled back a dozen steps, his legs abruptly loose. Red-beard stomped after him.
“Name,” a voice said. Varg blinked, tearing his eyes away from the spectacle.
“Name,” the man said again, leaning against the gatepost with his arms folded. He was roughly the same height as Varg and slim-built, red hair neatly braided and a trimmed beard oiled and gleaming. He was clothed in a well-cared-for brynja of riveted mail, fine scrollwork knotted along the scabbard of his seax.
“Varg,” Varg said. His natural response to a command was to obey unthinkingly. On Kolskegg’s farm anything other resulted in a thump or the lash.
The slim man sighed.
“This is the way it works,” he said. “I say name, you give me your full name. For example, I am Svik Hrulfsson, or Tangle-Hair, on account of my hair never being tangled. So, let’s start again. Name?”
“I don’t know,” Varg shrugged. “I never knew my father or mother.”
Svik looked him up and down.
“You are sure you want to do this?” he said.
“Fight Einar Half-Troll.”
“I don’t want to fight anyone,” Varg said, “and especially not someone with a name like Half-Troll.” He took a deep breath. “I want to hire your Seiðr-witch.”
“Vol is not for hire,” he said, glancing at the tattooed woman talking to the bald man.
“I must speak to her,” Varg said. “It is… important.”
“Aye, to you, maybe. But to us,” Svik shrugged, “not so much.”
“I must speak with her,” Varg said, feeling panic begin to bubble in his belly.
“What is so important? You need a love potion? Want to hump some fine-looking thrall on your farm?”
“No!” Varg exclaimed. “I don’t want a love potion.” He shook his head. “It is more important than that.”
“More important than a hump?” Svik said, raising an eyebrow. “I did not know that could be true.”
Chuckles from the crowd behind Varg.
“I need your Seiðr-witch to perform an akáll.”
Svik frowned. “An invocation. That is a serious business.”
“It is a serious matter,” Varg said, fingertips brushing the pouch at his belt.
“The answer still is no,” Svik said. “Vol uses her talents for the Bloodsworn. No one else. She is not for hire. Even if Queen Helka herself marched up those steps and asked for it, the answer would be the same.”
Varg felt his hope draining away, a coldness settling in the pit of his belly.
A crunch from the square. Varg looked to see the huge warrior – Einar Half-Troll – punch the other warrior’s shield. The wood cracked, shattering and spraying in splinters.
“Why does Einar not have a shield?” Varg asked.
“To give the others a chance.” Svik shrugged. He leaned forward. “It’s not really much of a chance,” he whispered.
Einar grabbed his opponent by throat and crotch, lifted him squeaking into the air, then hurled him to the ground. There was a dull thud, the squeaks cut short, the man on the ground abruptly still. Men and women ran in and carried the unconscious warrior out of the square.
Varg looked at Einar, thick and solid and menacing, a few red marks on his body the only evidence that he’d already fought at least a score of fights. He looked back at Svik.
“I’ll fight him,” Varg said.
Orka walked alongside the wagon, the bodies of Asgrim and his wife Idrun laid out upon the wagon’s flatbed. They were covered with a coarse woollen blanket, blood seeping in patches. Orka sniffed and looked around. The trees were thinning about them, the ground levelling as they took the winding path to Fellur, the fishing village on the banks of the fjord.
Breca was leading the wagon, one hand on the lead-rein of a shaggy pony they had found in Asgrim’s stable, his short spear in his other fist, Breca using it like a staff. Orka had given him the task of leading the wagon, something to focus his mind on after the sights at Asgrim’s steading, and she wanted to watch the treeline either side of the path.
There are killers abroad in these hills.
They had searched Asgrim’s steading and found no sign of Harek. Thorkel had found tracks upon the path that wound down the hillside, the ground churned, but the tracks had left the path soon after, heading back into dense woodland. After a heated discussion they had agreed that Thorkel would follow the tracks while Orka and Breca took the bodies down to Fellur. Orka wanted to be the one to take the dangerous path, to track Asgrim’s killers, but they both knew that Thorkel was the better tracker. In the end Thorkel had given her a smile and loped off into the trees, quiet as smoke, for all his bulk. Orka had scowled at his back, her worry manifested as anger. Then she snorted her disapproval and stomped down the path, ordering Breca to lead the pony.
“Will Papa find Harek?” Breca asked, keeping his eyes on the ground in front of them. They had left the snow behind them in the high places, the path turning to puddles and mud where it had been snow and ice.
“Maybe,” Orka grunted. She looked back, up at the cloud-wreathed hills. Thorkel had sworn to her that if he found the boy and Asgrim’s killers he would return to her, not take them on single-handed.
But he is a liar. And it will tear at him to leave the boy in danger. If he still lives.
She was eager to hand the corpses of Asgrim and Idrun over to Fellur’s jarl and go in search of her husband, before he got himself into trouble.
Fellur appeared through the trees, the village a few dozen reed-thatched, wattle-and-daub buildings huddled close, a larger longhouse at its centre. A small stockade surrounded the village, though the timbered wall was rotten in places, and ended a long way short of the dark-sanded beach.
But they are safe enough down here. The vaesen prefer the quiet, dark places, where they can remain hidden.
Orka could see fishing nets hanging on the beach, drying out and waiting for repair. A handful of timber piers that jutted out on to the fjord were mostly empty, only a few fishing boats and byrding coasters moored there.
Goats bleated as the wagon rolled passed them, Orka lengthening the stride of her long legs to draw level with Breca.
A guard stood leaning against one of the gateposts, a man Orka had seen before, though she did not know his name. He nodded to Orka, not bothering to look inside her wagon. Whenever she and Thorkel came to the village it was with a wagon loaded with pelts for trade, so why would this time be any different? Orka nodded to the guard and passed through the gate, feeling a building pressure in her head and chest. She looked up at the gate’s crossbar that ran above her and saw the gleam of bone sunk deep into the timber: the knuckle-bone of a dead god, still beating with a remnant of its power, helping to keep the vaesen out of the village. The pressure in Orka’s head lessened as she moved into a muddy street, away from the gates. Though there were no guards on the gate the village was busy enough, people milling, moving in a stream towards the village’s longhouse. That was where Orka was headed, for that was where she expected to find Sigrún, Jarl of Fellur.
She led Breca past mud-churned pigpens, past the orange glow and hammer-thud of a forge, then past the tavern, the reek of ale, barley and urine thick in the air.
“What is this?” a man said as he emerged from the tavern, blinking at the daylight. Orka knew him: Virk, a fisherman she and Thorkel had traded with many times. He was a big man, broad-faced and straight-talking. He had injured his arm when his fisher boat had been caught out at sea during a storm, and so was letting his two sons ply the seas while he healed. He was blurry-eyed, red veins in his cheeks. Orka took a sniff and curled her lip. By the reek of him he was better off at sea.
“Asgrim and Idrun.” Orka nodded into the wagon.
Virk stared at the bloody stains on the wool blanket covering the two bodies.
“And Harek’s gone,” Breca piped.
“How?” Virk said, others gathering around the cart.
“Not of old age,” Orka muttered and walked on.
Virk followed them, others with him, word spreading.
The wagon rolled into a courtyard before the longhouse, where forty or fifty people were gathered, at least half of the population of the village, others still arriving.
A young man stepped out of the longhouse: Guðvarr, nephew of Jarl Sigrún and one of her drengrs, another three warriors behind him. Guðvarr walked with a swagger and stopped between two wooden pillars at the top of wide steps that led down to the courtyard. A sword was hanging at his hip, his red woollen tunic embroidered with swirling tablet-weave at the neck, cuffs and rim. A silver arm ring wrapped around one arm. His black hair was oiled and pulled back, tied at his neck with leather and a silver wire, the wisps of a first beard on his chin. A ball of moisture glistened at the end of his pointed nose. Orka glanced down at her son. By the light in Breca’s eyes, any man with a sword was enough to impress his saga-filled head.
“What is going on here?” Orka asked Virk, who had come to stand at her shoulder. He was a tall man, but he still had to look up to meet her eyes.
“Guðvarr came down the river on a snekke this morning. Word is that Jarl Sigrún has sent him ahead of her return.”
“Jarl Sigrún isn’t here?”
Virk looked at Orka like she was touched.
“Jarl Sigrún was summoned…” He coughed. “I mean invited, to Queen Helka’s court in Darl. She has been gone more than two months.”
Orka raised an eyebrow and nodded.
“I have news,” Guðvarr called out, the crowd quieting.
He let the silence grow, clearly enjoying his moment before the crowd.
“I am to tell you that Jarl Sigrún will be back with us within a nine-day. She bid me tell you that Queen Helka is just, and good and wise, and that we could do worse than swear our oaths to her. To be under her care would be a benefit to our village.”
“Care!” Virk muttered. “Not so long ago we were all freedmen and women in Fellur, and queens and kings were arseling-jarls who had grown too big for their boots.”
Orka did not disagree with him.
“You mean RULE, not CARE,” Virk shouted, others in the crowd adding their voices.
“Times are changing,” Guðvarr answered, glowering at Virk and the crowd. “Jarl Störr threatens in the west, the vaesen are growing ever bolder, murdering and stealing. We are better off uniting with the strong, and Queen Helka is the strongest.”
“When Jarl Sigrún returns, there will be an Althing, held on the Oath Rock, where all can have their say about these important matters,” Guðvarr called out, gesturing to a rocky island that stood in the fjord, green with moss and dense with bracken and wind-blasted trees.
Voices called out, protesting, asking questions.
“Save your moaning for my aunt and the Althing,” he growled. “That is all.”
Orka took the lead-rein from Breca and clicked the pony on, pulling the wagon through the crowd. People parted for her.
“Drengr Guðvarr,” Orka called out, her voice loud, cutting through the crowd.
Guðvarr paused and turned, looked down at Orka, Breca and the wagon. He wiped the drop of snot growing at the end of his nose.
A silence fell around her as she led the wagon to the steps of the longhouse, wheels creaking as the pony came to a stand.
“What is this?” Guðvarr said as he stepped down the first two steps and stood staring at the bloodstained blanket in the wagon. The three warriors with him, two women and a man, all came to stand behind him. They carried spears, axes and seaxes hanging at their weapons belts.
“Asgrim and Idrun,” Orka said. “I was with my husband and son, hunting in the hills. We heard screaming, went to look and found Asgrim and Idrun murdered in their steading.” She pulled back the blanket.
Gasps rippled around the square.
“You see,” Guðvarr cried out. “Vaesen doing murder in our own hills. We need the strength of Queen Helka.”
“Vaesen did not do this,” Orka said.
“Oh ho, and how do you know that?” Guðvarr said, looking suspiciously at Orka. The ball of snot was starting to grow at the end of his nose again. “Are you a Seiðr-witch to see the past?” He looked at Orka with a sneer on his face, as if he had won some great contest of wits.
“I don’t need to be a Seiðr-witch to know a sword wound to the heart when I see one,” Orka said. “Vaesen hunt with tooth and claw, not swords of iron.” She paused, looking at the sneer that twisted Guðvarr’s lips. “I would have thought Guðvarr the fierce drengr would have known that at a glance.” She regretted the words even as they were leaving her mouth, knew that they would only bring her trouble. But she didn’t like the twist of his smug, arrogant face.
A few sniggers around the courtyard and Guðvarr flushed red.
He scowled at Orka. “Loners, living in the wild, they were asking for trouble.”
“Asgrim and Idrun did not ask for this,” Orka said.
“And Harek, their son, has been taken,” Breca squeaked in his high voice.
“Children taken,” Virk said. He had followed Orka through the crowd. “That is not the first time I have heard this.”
Orka frowned at him.
Guðvarr walked down the longhouse steps and stood before Orka. She was taller and wider than him, but he had the hubris of the powerful in his eyes: that belief that one is better, faster. She felt a tingle in her blood, a sharpening of her senses. The herald of violence.
“If I say they were asking for trouble, then they were asking for trouble,” Guðvarr said, his voice a hiss, like a sword leaving a scabbard. “As are you.”
The three warriors on the stairs took a step closer, hands moving to rest close to weapons.
Orka stared at Guðvarr, felt muscles in her jaw twitch. Felt her blood pounding through her veins. Heard distant voices in her head, screaming, an image in her mind, an axe carving into a skull…
“You are shaking,” Guðvarr said. “Do you fear me? You would be wise, if you did.”
Orka blinked, saw there was a tremor in her arm, her fist, passing into her spear. She looked at Breca, who was looking from her to Guðvarr with worried eyes.
Orka took a deep breath.
“I brought them here because I thought Jarl Sigrún would wish to know there are killers and child-stealers in her hills,” Orka said, choosing her words slowly. Her heart was thumping, blood shivering through her veins. She chose to control it. Tried to control it. “And to see if Asgrim and Idrun had kin here. They should have a barrow raised over them, as is proper.”
A silence. Guðvarr stared up at Orka. She returned his stare, flatly. Felt the hot flush of emotion leaving her, replaced by a coldness filling her veins. Some deep part of her knew that was a bad sign.
“Mama,” a voice said, filtering through the ice-fog in her head.
“Mama, Papa is coming,” the voice said, something tugging her sleeve.
“Orka.” Thorkel’s voice.
Orka blinked, tore her eyes away from Guðvarr and saw Thorkel approaching, pushing through the crowd, spear in his hand, his nålbinding woollen cap damp with sweat.
“Is all well?” Thorkel asked, his eyes flickering from Orka to Guðvarr and the other drengr warriors on the steps. His black brows knotted, a thundercloud, his mouth becoming a hard line. He seemed to swell in size as Orka saw the anger fill him, the light in his eyes shifting from concern to some flat, dead-eyed stare.
“We were talking about raising a barrow over Asgrim and Idrun,” Orka said, blowing out a long, slow breath. She forced a smile of greeting on to her face and Thorkel’s cold, hard lines softened a little.
Guðvarr looked from Orka to Thorkel. She saw him looking at Thorkel’s spear, at his size.
“My husband has been tracking Asgrim’s killers. They took his son, Harek.”
“Did you find them?” Guðvarr asked Thorkel.
“No,” Thorkel said.
Guðvarr’s lip curled back into what Orka thought to be his permanent sneer.
“I followed their tracks to a river,” Thorkel continued, “one of the many that feed out of the hills into the River Skarpain. There were signs of three boats pulled up on to the bank. Whoever slew Asgrim and Idrun took to the river and disappeared.”
Guðvarr nodded. “We will look into it.”
Orka thought about pressing Guðvarr, of asking him how many spears he would take with him; would he use hounds; would he send people and boats up the River Skarpain.
Instead she looked from Thorkel to Breca.
This is not our fight. Not our problem.
“Home,” she said to them, then turned and walked away.
Varg walked into the square before the mead hall. He stepped over a pool of congealing blood and stopped.
His own blood was rushing in his ears, muting sound, though he could see smiling faces and mouths moving among the crowd lining the square, coin being exchanged. One woman with two wolfhounds at her feet watched him as she bit into an apple. She was lean-muscled with silver-grey hair knotted like rope, a white scar running through one ruined eye. She was clothed in a brynja, a spear in her fist, axe and seax suspended from her belt. She looked too old to be a warrior, with deep lines around her eyes and mouth. As Varg’s eyes met hers she smiled at him, but Varg saw no comfort in it. It was the kind of smile one gives a fool when they believe they can fly and leap from a cliff.
She dropped her apple and fished out a coin from a pouch at her belt, gave it to a man standing close to her.
They are betting on how quickly I lose, he realised.
Einar was bending to mutter something to the grey-bearded bald man and the tattooed woman. As he did so he wiped blood from his knuckles with a rag and passed it over to another warrior, a tall, blonde-haired woman, another of the Bloodsworn, going by her black shield and brynja. She took the rag and stuffed it in her weapons belt, then picked up a wooden shield that was leaning against the mead hall steps. Her eyes met Varg’s and she strode to him, offered him the shield.
Varg looked at it. Strips of limewood glued and bound with a rim of rawhide, an iron boss at its centre, a wooden handle riveted across the back.
“More useful if you hold it, rather than look at it,” the woman said to him. Her nose and chin were long and thin, sharp as a drakkar’s prow.
Varg shook his head. “Don’t want it,” he said.
“Don’t be an idiot. How long are you going to last against Half-Troll without it?”
Varg shook his head again. The truth was, he’d never held a shield before, let alone used one in a fight.
“It’s your life,” the woman shrugged.
“But look after this for me,” Varg said, taking his cloak off and folding it, holding it out to her.
The woman took it, curled her lip and dropped it on the ground.
“I’m no one’s thrall to be ordered,” she said. “What’s your name?”
“Varg,” he said.
“He has no name,” Svik called out to them.
“And no shield,” she answered Svik. She looked back at Varg. “And no sense.” Then she turned away.
“VARG NO-SENSE TO CHALLENGE EINAR HALF-TROLL FOR A PLACE IN THE BLOODSWORN’S OAR-BENCH AND SHIELD WALL,” she bellowed as she walked back to the bald man and Einar. A roar went up from the crowd as Einar stepped into the square. His brows knotted as he saw Varg had no shield, but he walked on.
Close up Einar was bigger than he’d first appeared. His face was all slabs of bone and red hair, his fists the size of anvils.
Varg touched the pouch at his belt, glanced at Vol the Seiðr-witch, who was watching with dark eyes, then he looked back at Einar.
For you, Frøya. I do this for you.
He drew in a deep breath and shook out his arms and hands, bounced on the balls of his feet.
Einar loomed over him, blotting out the sun.
“When you go down, stay down,” the big man grunted at him, and swung a right hook.
Varg ducked the hook, whistling over his head, and darted close, releasing a flurry of punches to Einar’s gut, the slap of meat. It was like punching a tree. Einar gave no visible sign that he had felt anything. Varg ducked and stepped right, avoided another hook that swept over his head, stepped in and kicked at Einar’s knee. The big man grunted, beard shifting as his mouth twisted.
You felt that, didn’t you, big man.
A huge hammer-fist came hurtling down at Varg, who swayed and stepped right, air hissing past his face, and threw his own punch at Einar’s groin.
Varg had fought before, many times on the farm. The first time had been before he could grow hair on his chin, fighting among the farm’s thralls for an extra bowl of broth for Frøya, who had been shivering with a fever. Then more frequently as he found it a sure way to secure a few secret coins or extra meals. And finally, for Kolskegg, once his master had heard about his fast fists, putting Varg to work in bouts against the champions of other landed men. He had earned Kolskegg a chest of silver, and in the process fought many men and women bigger and stronger than him, but he’d not fought any man that could stand after a blow to their stones, no matter how big or strong they were.
Varg’s blow was perfectly timed, a straight right, his legs well set, the power from his legs and hips channelled into his twisting arm, wrist snapping just before impact.
Pain exploded in Varg’s fist, shot through his wrist, up his arm and he staggered back a step. There had been no soft, squashing connection; instead Varg’s fist crunched into something hard as iron.
“Ha,” Einar grinned. “Little men have tried that before. Jökul the smith has made me some protection.” And then he swung a meat-hammer fist at Varg’s face.
Despite the pain exploding in Varg’s hand he managed to move, Einar’s fist connecting with Varg’s shoulder instead of his chin. The blow lifted him from his feet and sent him twisting through the air, crunching to the ground and rolling in the mud.
Einar strode after him.
Varg scrambled on to hand and knees, his injured fist clutched to his side. Waves of nausea pulsed from his gut. Then Einar’s boot connected with his ribs and he was lifted from the ground, weightless again, spinning.
The ground rose up to greet him, his head slamming into the mud. Stars exploded, his vision blurring, pain in his ribs screaming. He forced himself to roll, climbed to one knee, saw Einar closing on him again.
“I told you to stay down,” Einar growled.
A bloom of anger in Varg’s belly. The pugil-ring was the only place where he could not be told what to do. Where he had been free. Where the rage he always felt was unchained. It flooded through his veins now, white-hot.
Varg bunched his legs and leaped at Einar, snarling, rolled between the man’s feet and came up standing behind him. He punched once with his good hand to Einar’s kidney, then kicked into the back of the big man’s leg, sending him stumbling to one knee.
A silence from the crowd, as if everyone were holding their breath, then a huge roar.
Einar backhanded Varg, catching him on the side of his chin. It was a weaker blow, past its snapping point, but it still sent Varg to the ground. Einar climbed to his feet, face mottled with anger and raised a boot to stamp on Varg’s head.
Varg rolled, wrapped his arms around Einar’s ankle as his boot slammed into the mud, and pulled himself tight to the man.
“Get off, you little shite,” Einar grunted as he shook his leg, but Varg held tight. Pain was flaring everywhere now, Varg moving to a place beyond it. He opened his jaws and bit into Einar’s leg, through woollen leg wraps and breeches into the flesh of Einar’s calf.
Varg tasted a spurt of blood, bit down harder.
The scream shifted higher in pitch.
Einar was abruptly still and through one eye Varg glimpsed a fist hurtling towards his face. He bit down harder, grinding his teeth.
White light exploded in his head.
Pain. Like hammers in his head. Knives in his side. Deep-stabbing needles in his hand. He tried to open his eyes but found he couldn’t.
Am I dead? Is this Vergelmir, Lik-Rifa’s chamber? Or have my eyes been stitched shut by a mischievous fetch?
More pain, all over, but spiking in his head, his ribs, his hand. A sound, the murmur of water. He groaned, got a mouthful of grit for the effort and rolled on to his back, lifted his good hand to his eyes and felt something crusted and sticky. Dried blood. He rubbed and managed to open his eyes a crack.
The moon and stars above, a ghostly blur in a death-black sky.
I am alive, then.
For a moment he was memoryless: he had no idea where he was or what had happened to him.
He licked his teeth and scabbed lips, tasted salt and iron, spat blood on to the sand.
Not just my blood.
A fluttering sound recalled, a man bellowing in pain.
An image in his mind, a huge fist speeding towards him.
Then memory crashed in like a dam breaking.
Einar Half-Troll, the Bloodsworn…
He pushed himself upright, saw that he was sitting on a black-sanded bank, behind him wind sighing through the branches of trees. A thousand lights glimmered from Liga, a glow leaking into the sky above it like light from a dying fire, all locked tight within the town’s stockade walls. Ships creaked and swayed on their moorings on the fjord, the moon and stars turning the dark waters to molten silver.
He put a hand to those parts that hurt the most. His ribs, a hand over his woollen tunic. No broken skin, just painful to the touch. Probably a broken rib or two. He looked at his injured hand, the knuckles purple-black in the night, and swollen. He tried to make a fist, but the pain and swelling stopped him. Then he put his good hand to his face. A gash over his eye, blood crusted upon it, the whole side of his face swollen, his jaw throbbing. One tooth loose.
His fingertips brushed the iron collar around his neck.
The key. My cloak.
He staggered to his feet, ignoring the pain, checking himself over, a surge of relief that his pouch still hung at his belt. He fumbled at the leather draw, blew out a long breath when he saw the contents were still there.
But my thrall-collar…
And then he saw it, a darker shadow on the black sand: his woollen cloak, neatly folded. He bent, lifted it, checking the hidden pockets. Something heavy and cold: the cleaver he had taken from the trader; in the same pocket the bag of coin, by its weight untouched, and then he found the key.
A long, frozen moment, relief flooding him, and he put the key to the lock, fumbling with one hand, finally a click as the key bit. The collar creaked open on sweat-rusted hinges and he put it back in the cloak pocket, along with the key.
He walked unsteadily to the fjord’s edge, kneeled and cupped his hands, sipped the cold water. It was like slivers of ice in his throat and belly, painfully sharp and refreshing. He splashed his face and spent a while trying to wash the blood away, then shook his head, droplets spraying. Filled a water bottle from his belt. When he was done, he stood, shivering, and clumsily threw his cloak around his shoulders, pinned it and walked wearily towards the treeline.
Stepping among the trees he threaded his way up a gentle slope through the pine, maybe thirty or forty paces, until he could no longer see the shimmer of the fjord behind him. Moonlight filtered down from above, silver dappling the ground as branches swayed. Dropping to his knees he scraped the woodland litter away until he had cleared a circle of hard-packed earth, then set about finding something that would burn. He returned with an armful of dead timber and set it down on the cleared space, reached for his kindling pouch, pulling out a stone and striking-iron, and a handful of dried kindling, and then set to sparking a fire. Soon he was blowing gently on the first sparks, fanning the flames into life.
Keeping busy was good, because a wave of despair was building within him.
He had failed.
Sitting back, he held his hands out to the fire, trying to chase the ice from his bones, and stared into the flames.
Frøya, I am sorry.
He felt the grief welling, that he had kept shut tight somewhere deep in his mind, in his heart, walled in tight. Despair like ice clawed and cracked at those walls. He put his head in his hands, a sob building in his chest, writhing up into his throat, unstoppable. Tears rolled down his cheeks and memories of Frøya filled his mind. His sister. His only friend.
He had no memory of his father or mother, only what he had been told by Kolskegg, who had bought him and Frøya when they were bairns. Kolskegg had told him that Varg’s parents had sold him and Frøya for a loaf of bread and a dozen duck eggs when Varg was five winters old, Frøya four. All their lives spent as thralls, each other their only solace, their only comfort. He rested his hand on the pouch at his belt.
And now she is dead, and I don’t know how to avenge her.
After a while Varg looked up, rubbed his eyes, winced at the pain.
This is not the end, he told himself. I have come too far to just give up now. There must be a Galdurman or Seiðr-witch somewhere in all of Vigrið that will help me, for coin. I will find them, wherever they are. And if I cannot find them in Vigrið then I shall travel the whale-road sea to Iskidan, and search all of the Shattered Realms until I have found someone to help me.
I will go on.
He sucked in a long, ragged breath, pushing his memories back, somewhere deep and dark.
A twig cracked in the woods.
Without thinking he scrambled to his feet, kicked at the fire, sparks exploding. Stood there, listening, staring into the shadow-black.
A low, rumbled growl.
A figure burst from the undergrowth, a man dragged by a hound on a leash, more shapes behind him. The hound leaped at him.
Varg stepped to the side, snapped his left arm out, shoving the leaping hound away. The force of his blow sent him stumbling into a tree, and sent the hound crashing on to the fire. More sparks erupted, the hound yelping, fur igniting.
“Thought you could run from us for ever,” a voice snarled, coming from a woman that stepped around the houndsman, a spear levelled at Varg’s chest.
Varg pushed off the tree, reaching inside his cloak, the spear stabbing into bark. He fumbled the cleaver out and chopped at the spear shaft, splintering it, ducked as the woman still clutching the haft used it like a club attempting to cave Varg’s skull in. A slice of the cleaver as Varg stumbled away; a scream; the woman clutching her ribs and dropping to her knees.
The hound was rolling, yelping and whining, flames in its fur, the houndsman tearing his cloak off and wrapping it around the animal, trying to put the flames out. Other men appeared from the gloom: three, four more at least, it was hard to tell in the murk, but Varg saw all had spears in their fists. He looked wildly around and ran for a gap in the trees. A crack to the back of his legs and he stumbled, tried to right his balance but tripped over a root, fell to one knee, put a hand out to save himself and yelled, pain shooting through his injured hand.
Another blow across his shoulders, sending him face first to the ground; a mouth full of pine needles and dirt. He rolled, lashed out with the cleaver, felt it bite into someone’s leg, heard another scream. A man dropped to the ground beside him, tearing the cleaver from Varg’s grip.
A foot kicked Varg in the chest as he tried to rise, another man stamping on his wrist, pinning him. Varg snarled, tried to roll and a spear butt clubbed him across the forehead, sent him crashing back to the forest litter. Blood in his eyes. A spear hovered over his throat, another man standing on his other wrist, pinning him wide.
Varg stared up, breathing hard, blood pounding in his head.
“You thought I wouldn’t find you,” the man looming over him said. His face was lit by the stuttering fire, shadow and flame. A broad man, black-bearded, a scar running through his lip that twisted his mouth into a permanent sneer.
“Leif,” Varg spat, “you should not have followed me.”
“Ha,” Leif grunted. “You’d have to run faster and further to hide from me, after what you did to my father. Butchered like an animal. I only knew him by his chain.”
Varg did not remember. It had been a red-tinged haze, only coming back to his senses as he choked the life from Snepil. He had sat back, then, dazed, blood and carnage all about him.
“You’ve lost your collar, Varg the thrall,” Leif said.
“I am no thrall,” Varg grunted. He pulled in a breath through his pain. “Your father cheated me. I earned my freedom and your father broke his oath. I am a freedman, no different from you.V One of the men pinning Varg kicked him in the face. He spat blood.
“You are Varg the thrall, and you are my thrall, now. My property. You belong to me. Leif Kolskeggson; son of the man you murdered.” Leif glanced at one of the men beside him. “Put a collar and chain on this dog.” He touched his spear tip to Varg’s chest, traced it over his torso, then slowly slid the blade’s edge across Varg’s ribs, a line of blood welling. “I am going to bleed you, but death would be too much of a kindness to you,” Leif said. He stabbed his spear into the ground and squatted down beside Varg, checking him over for weapons. There was a chink of metal as Leif reached inside Varg’s cloak and pulled out the bag of coin.
“Stolen from my father, no doubt,” Leif said and spat in Varg’s face. “I am going to chain you to my horse and drag you all the way back to my farm-steading,” he said slowly, taking care over his words, anger putting a tremor into them. “Once there you will have the lash, until you can no longer stand. Until I have seen your bones. And then I shall put you back to work. For me. Making me coin for the rest of your stinking, miserable life.”
Varg twisted and writhed, heaved one hand free. Booted kicks rained in, curling him up. He lay their gasping.
“My leg,” a voice whimpered close by, the man Varg had struck with his cleaver. The blade was still embedded in his leg.
“Bastard thrall’s cut me, broken my ribs,” another voice wheezed: the woman, sitting propped against a tree, one hand pressed to a black glistening wound in her side. Leif stood, walked over to the man and leaned down, grabbed the cleaver’s wooden handle and wrenched it free of the injured warrior’s leg, eliciting a high-pitched scream. “Orl, tend to their wounds,” Leif ordered the man still sitting close to the fire, patting his hound down. The flames were out, patches of fur blackened, the hound whining. Orl stood and moved to the injured man and woman, giving Varg a dismayed look. He was old, his grey hair thin and lank, and he wore an iron collar around his throat.
“You hurt my old girl,” he muttered at Varg as he pulled a knife and kneeled beside the wounded woman, began cutting at her tunic and cleaning her wound. The hound limped after him.
Leif hefted the cleaver.
“Murdered my father,” Leif said, and slashed the cleaver through the air. “Slew three other freedmen.” Two more slashes of the cleaver, air whistling. “Now you injure two of my hird.” He pointed the cleaver at Varg. “I’ll give you part of your punishment now, I’m thinking. One for you to think over on the journey back to my steading.” He looked at the two men standing over Varg. “Pull his arm out; hold him tight.”
Varg stared at Leif, then at the two men as one gripped his hand, the other twisting his other arm up behind his back.
He’s going to cut my hand off.
Varg hurled himself against the men, straining and thrashing, but the man behind him held him tight, a white-hot pain lancing into his shoulder, his arm close to breaking. He collapsed, gasping.
“Don’t worry. When we get home, I’ll have Orl carve you a hand of wood, so you can still work on the farm,” Leif said, his lips twisting.
A sound behind Leif, of branches snapping. Leif paused, all of them staring into the darkness.
A man stepped out of the woodland, tall and broad, with a bald head and grey beard. A coat of mail shimmered in the moonlight. He held a bearded long-axe in both hands. Like a staff. There were shadows behind him, patches of deeper darkness. The silver-haired woman appeared, two wolfhounds at her side. They were snarling, hackles raised.
“Let him go,” the grey-beard said.
Leif raised the cleaver high.
The grey-beard moved, faster than Varg could track, and then Leif was doubled over, the cleaver falling to the ground. The men holding Varg burst into motion, reaching for their spears, stabbing at the grey-beard as Leif coughed and retched on his knees.
The wolfhounds leaped forwards, jaws latching on to the arm and leg of one man, dragging him to the ground.
A cracking sound and trees ruptured apart, Einar Half-Troll emerging, a punch sending one of Leif’s men hurtling through branches, disappearing into the darkness. Another figure darted past the grey-beard: Svik, the slim, red-haired man who had first spoken to Varg. His face was twisted in a snarl, his seax in his fist, cold iron gleaming. He swayed around a stabbing spear, stepped in close and ran the seax-blade along the spear shaft, slicing. A scream and severed fingers fell to the ground. The spear dropped and the slim man grabbed the screaming warrior by his woollen tunic, dragged him forward and headbutted him. He fell with a gurgle.
Silence in the clearing: just heavy breathing, the wind in the trees, Leif groaning. Varg stared at the fallen men, too stunned to move. Leif was still on his hands and knees, one hand cupping his groin. Saliva dribbled from his mouth. Orl sat against the tree, eyes wide. His hound growled at the newcomers.
Svik strode towards Orl and growled at the hound, a deep, animal sound, and the hound tucked his tail between his legs, whined, and pressed tightly into Orl.
Svik laughed as he wiped blood from his forehead and braided hair.
The grey-beard stepped past Leif and stood over Varg.
“He’s… mine,” Leif spluttered. “My thrall, and mine by right of weregild. He must answer for… murder.”
“No,” the grey-beard said, his voice like gravel. “He’s one of the Bloodsworn now.”
“ROW, you niðing bunch of gutless troll-turds!” Sighvat bellowed as he beat time on a barrel with a knotted lump of rope.
Elvar gritted her teeth and dragged on her oar, the muscles in her back and shoulders screaming. A swell lifted their drakkar high, her dragon-prow pointing at the slate-grey sky and Elvar’s oar breached the water. She felt a weightlessness in the pit of her stomach as she lost her balance and almost slipped from her sea-chest, then the prow was surging down, cutting into the ice-flecked waves. An explosion of sea spray crashed over the bows, the wind whipping it across Elvar’s back like hailstones. She cuffed sleet and a strand of her blonde hair from her face, corrected her oar, found her rhythm and bent back to the rowing, losing herself in the motion, muscles contracting, extending, a burning deep in every fibre. In front of her Grend’s broad back filled her vision, the grey streaks in his hair made dark with sweat and salt-spray. Beyond him, glimpsed through the rhythm of Grend’s lean and pull, was fat-bellied Sighvat beating time, and behind him in the stern stood Agnar, her chief. He was laughing like it was his name-day with a belly full of mead, his blond braid of hair whipped by the wind. His hands gripped around the tiller, wrestling the steering oar as he fought to guide the Wave-Jarl between the arms of two curving promontories, the open sea and glowering clouds behind him.
“ROW!” Sighvat yelled again and fifty oars dipped into the white-frothed sea, backs bending, straining as the Wave-Jarl carved her way through the waves.
“BEACH!” a voice cried from the drakkar’s bow, and Elvar felt a burst of new strength at that cry, a hope that the toil and muscle-burning would end. They had found Iskalt Island easily enough, marked by the red veins of fire that glowed within the mountain that dominated the island, but finding a beach to land upon had been harder going. She bent and pulled, bent and pulled.
Somewhere behind her torn fragments of Kráka’s chanting drifted back to her, the Tainted thrall singing her dark magic to keep the serpents and other sea vaesen from their drakkar’s hull.
A black-granite spur of rock appeared to her left, seals and puffins upon it regarding the dragon-prowed ship as it slipped past them. Elvar felt the sea calm about the Wave-Jarl, as if obeying some rune-cast spell. The rowing became easier as they swept into a natural harbour, waves gentling, a white-flecked wake rippling wide behind them. Agnar barked a command at Sighvat.
“HALF-TIME!” Sighvat bellowed and decreased the rhythm of his barrel-thumping.
Elvar slowed her strokes and felt excitement bubbling, melting her exhaustion.
We are here.
Another shouted word from Agnar.
“OARS IN!” Sighvat yelled. He ceased his beating on the barrel and strode along the deck, passing Elvar and heading to the prow. Elvar dragged her oar back through the hole, hearing the clatter of wood as oars were laid in their racks, and swivelled the oar-hole plug into place. There was the crunch of timber as the Wave-Jarl ground along a wooden pier and then Agnar was tying the tiller and striding along the deck, yelling orders.
Elvar stood, stretched, hearing bones click in her neck and back, then threw open her sea-chest. She unrolled a strip of sheepskin, pulled out her brynja, the riveted mail glistening with oils from the sheepskin that protected her precious mail from rust. With long-practised ease she lifted the coat of mail, threaded her arms through it, then heaved it up over her head. A wriggle and shake and it slipped over her shoulders and down her torso. A thin belt buckled tight to take the weight of mail from her shoulders, and then she was reaching for her weapons belt, sword, seax and axe suspended from it. She drew her sword a handspan to check it hadn’t snared, then let it drop back down: a habit she had learned from Grend since the first day she had laid her hands around the hilt of a sword. Last of all she reached into her chest for a nålbinding cap of coarse wool, pulled it over her head and then lifted her helm, polished plates of banded iron, a curtain of riveted mail to protect her neck, adjusted it so that her vision was good through the spectacled eye-holes, then buckled it tight. She flashed a grin at Grend as he went through the same process, the warrior rolling his shoulders to settle his brynja. He gave her a flat stare, his face creased and dour, which only helped to broaden her own smile, then she was reaching for her shield that stood wedged into a rack along the top-rail, tugging it free and slipping her hand around the wooden grip, fist settling into the boss. She moved to a rack of spears, took hers and waited for Agnar’s orders, eager to disembark.
Agnar was calling out names, ten or twelve, those ordered to stay with the ship and guard it, then he was shouting for the rest to disembark and they leaped from the top-rail on to the wooden pier Sighvat had moored them to, Elvar and Grend among them.
Flecks of snow drifted on the wind among the sleet, the clouds above swollen and bloated. Elvar looked around and saw that the pier led on to a shingle beach. Nets were hanging upon poles, drying or ready for repair, crab-catching willow-baskets piled together, sat before a cluster of smokehouses. An old, rotted hull lay abandoned, terns and herring gulls perched upon it, eyeing these newcomers. The beach rose sharply, shingle shifting to earth and, upon a ridge overlooking the beach, a few dozen buildings huddled close together, lines of thin smoke rising, disappearing into the snow-laden sky. Beyond the buildings there was a treeline of aspen and birch, more buildings squatting beneath boughs. The land rose into foothills, turning quickly into towering, granite-faced cliffs as sharp as jagged teeth that rose towards the peak of the island’s mountain of flame. Thin, red tendrils dissected the cliffs, glowing within the dark rock like forge-fire.
There was movement in the village, fur-draped people emerging from doors, staring. Some running, others clutching spears and hunting bows.
I hate bows, Elvar thought and spat on the pier, curling her lip. A coward’s weapon. How can a warrior earn their battle-fame killing at a distance?
She hefted her shield, painted red with a sword, axe and spear crossed upon it, the weapons lined in swirling knotwork.
“By the dead gods, but it’s cold,” Biórr muttered. He smiled at her as he said it, shield slung across his back, stamping his feet and blowing a cloud of misted breath into his palms.
Elvar just looked at him, saw the interest in his eyes and looked away.
“It’s a fine day,” she said. In truth she was feeling the corpse-cold seeping into her, now her muscles were cooling, silent as death. Beside them the Wave-Jarl creaked, rising and falling on the swell, the blue-black sea glistening and sluggish with ice. Spring was just a distant word, this far north.
“Elvar, Grend, with me!” Agnar shouted and warriors parted to let her through. Elvar held her head high, knowing the honour Agnar was showing her, youngest of his warband.
Youngest, and fiercest, she thought, and that was no easy claim, looking at the grim-eyed warriors she passed, all of them battle-scarred and heavy with sharp iron. She glanced over at the deck of the Wave-Jarl, saw the warriors left to guard it staring at her, and Kráka slumped across the prow, her sweat and sea-drenched black hair plastered to her head, like the collapsed wings of a crow. She shifted as Elvar passed her, turning to look at the young warrior, her thrall-collar and chain rattling. One of the ship-guards gave her a kick and she flinched, raising her hands. Elvar looked away.
Agnar stood waiting. A black bearskin cloak was cast over his mail, silver torc around his neck and rings thick upon his arms, shield in one fist, his other hand resting upon a sword at his hip. At his belt hung a tattered, blood-crusted strip of wool. A thick band of his blond hair ran down the middle of his head, tied into a warrior-braid, the rest of his head shaved to stubble. He pulled on and buckled his helm as Elvar approached him.
Sighvat glowered at Agnar’s shoulder, mail stretched tight across his bulk, a bearded axe hanging at his belt. He held a hemp sack flung over one shoulder, and in his other fist he gripped a chain. At the chain’s end a man squatted, shivering and cowering, hair long and lank, eyes sunken to black pits, a tattered sealskin cloak wrapped around him.
“With me,” Agnar said to Elvar as she reached him, then he turned and strode along the pier, Sighvat dragging the chained thrall, Elvar and Grend striding behind them. The pier shook as the rest of the warband thumped along after them.
Agnar lifted a horn to his lips and blew, the sound dragged by the wind, ringing mournfully across the beach.
Shingle crunched beneath Elvar’s boots as they stepped from the pier and strode up the beach, a crowd forming before them.
“We are the Battle-Grim,” Sighvat bellowed in his deep-bellied voice. “We are the slayers of the vaesen, hunters of the Tainted, the reapers of souls. If you have not heard of our battle-fame, then we will gladly teach it to you.”
Grunts and laughter among the warriors at Elvar’s back.
The crowd before them milled, muttered among themselves, maybe sixty or seventy villagers wrapped in sealskin and fur, some children clinging to legs, others peering from doorways. Among the crowd spears were held ready, some levelled. Elvar saw arrows nocked. She could see the question in their eyes. Saw them hovering on that knife’s edge of violence. They outnumbered the Battle-Grim and were lean and hard-looking. Elvar knew only the strong could survive this far north, where the world seemed to unite against the living and the vaesen were bolder. But as tough as these villagers were, they were not the Battle-Grim, steeped and honed in war and blood, and among those facing them Elvar could only see a handful holding shields, and none wore mail.
“Watch them with your hawk eyes,” Agnar muttered to Elvar as he halted on the beach, Elvar, Grend and Sighvat behind him, the rest of the warband spreading wide.
“SHIELDS!” Agnar called out and behind her Elvar heard the crunch of linden-wood slamming together, the shuffle and grate of boots on shingle as the line tightened.
“There is a man among you,” Agnar shouted. “Berak is his name. Tall, wide as a barn. Scars down one side of his face. A woman and child are with him. He would have arrived here maybe two or three days gone. Give him over to us, and your blood will not stain this beach.”
Elvar watched faces, saw fear in some, saw pride, animosity, anger in others.
Agnar pulled the tattered strip of wool from his belt and lifted it high.
“I will find him with or without your help. My Hundur-thrall has his scent. He will not escape me.” Agnar dropped the blood-crusted rag to the man at the end of Sighvat’s chain, who looked at the rag as if it were a poison.
Sighvat yanked on the chain around the thrall’s throat.
“Hlýða,” Agnar growled and a ripple of red veins tremored through the thrall’s collar.
The thrall whimpered, then picked up the rag and buried his face in it, snuffling and snorting.
“Your choice is to help or hinder,” Agnar continued. He looked at them all, pulled a pouch heavy with coin from his belt and cast it on the beach in front of him.
“Your choice is to prosper or die.” Agnar shrugged, as if he cared not which of those choices they made.
A tall man stepped forwards, wrapped in fur and sealskin, a spear in his fist, a long knife at his belt, the hilt carved from walrus ivory. His beard was braided many times and bound with bone rings.
“I am Hrut, Jarl of Iskalt,” the man said.
Jarl! Elvar thought, looking him up and down. Where is your gold or silver? Where is your sword, your mail? You would not be allowed in a jarl’s outhouse on the mainland.
“And I know of no Berak living upon my island,” Hrut said.
“You do know him,” Agnar said. “But you may not know that he is TAINTED!” He bellowed that last word, spittle flying. “He is gods-touched and will bring only blood and slaughter upon you. Do not protect such as he.”
Elvar saw movement towards the back of the crowd. A tall man with a spear and a cloak of stitched white-fox pelts draped across his shoulders was stooping to speak to a young girl at his side, surely little more than seven or eight winters. She nodded and scurried away across the beach, threading between the huts.
“There,” Elvar said to Agnar, pointing with her spear at the speeding child.
Agnar strode forwards, stepping around Hrut, but the jarl took a step to his right, placing himself in front of Agnar.
Agnar stopped, looking over his shoulder at Elvar.
“Follow the girl,” he said, then drew his sword and there was blood in the air. It was a move Elvar practised every day, turning the draw into a diagonal strike, from left to right. Agnar disguised the manoeuvre behind his shield, realisation dawning in Hrut’s eyes only as he saw the glint of steel. He had a moment to move his spear and stumble away, but Agnar’s sword sheared through the spear haft and on, the sword tip cutting into Hrut’s beard, slicing through his chin and lower lip. Blood sprayed, teeth flying.
Hrut bellowed with pain and rage and Agnar stepped in, his shield raised, sword stabbing.
The crowd behind Hrut yelled their outrage, many of them lowering spears and leaping forwards. Arrows hissed and whistled through the air.
Elvar burst into motion, bounding around Agnar and Hrut even as the Battle-Grim behind her yelled a war cry and advanced, weapons thumping on shields. There was a crunch of gravel behind, booted feet following her, and Elvar didn’t need to look to know it was Grend. She sprinted around the fringe of the crowd, all of them focused on Agnar and Hrut, rushing to defend their jarl. A man with a nocked bow curled around the flank of his kinsmen, drew and loosed at the Battle-Grim. A scream from the beach. Elvar swerved, the villager seeing her only a fraction before she slammed into him. Her shield boss crunched into the side of his head and he dropped like a cut sail.
Elvar stood over him, searched for the girl, saw where she had disappeared among the huts on the beach. She ran on.
There was a movement to her right and instinctively she ducked and swayed, twisting to bring her shield around.
A spear blade grated across her brynja, a spark of steel, then Elvar’s shield rim was slamming into the spear shaft, sending the woman wielding it stumbling away. Elvar chopped with her sword, cut deep across her attacker’s shoulder and back, slicing through fur and leather. Blood spurted and the woman yelled, staggering forwards, dropping to one knee. She swung her spear, the intent to hamstring Elvar, and then her head exploded, Grend’s axe crunching into it. The spear dropped with a clatter to the shingle. Grend snarled, ripped his blade free, blood and brains spattering his face. A shared look, then Elvar was running on. She glimpsed Sighvat and the thrall following behind Grend, and also Biórr.
Then Elvar was among the buildings, searching for any sign of the girl who had run from the beach. She stopped, holding her breath to listen. Screams drifted on the wind from behind her, the clang of iron. She shut it out, heard whispered voices, one deep, almost a growl, and she ran on. Twisting through a snarl of buildings, swerving around fishing nets hanging for repairs, she came to a door swinging on a hinge. A timber-framed hut to the rear of the village, the walls caked with clay and wattle and daub. It looked like it was only big enough for one room. Elvar slowed, hefted her shield, peered through the open door into shadowed darkness, glimpsed the soft glow of a fire. Grend skidded up next to her and Elvar gestured for him to circle around the back of the hut. A silent nod and then she was moving, kicking the door hard, to slam into anyone standing behind it as she burst into the room, shield raised, spear high, twisting to defend against any lurking attacker.
The hut was empty.
A fire pit had been scraped into hard earth in the centre of the hut, flames flickering. A pot hung over it, suspended from an iron chain. Fish stew bubbled. A table, three chairs, two straw beds. Elvar stabbed into the straw, then saw light leaking into the hut. A hole, low in the back wall, wide enough for a large man to crawl through.
Grend’s booted feet and grey-wool leg-wraps appeared.
Elvar kicked the wall, wattle and daub crumbling loose. Kicked again, more hard-packed clay falling, revealing the hazel rod wattle core. Grend’s axe swung and a section of the wall crumbled.
They stood there, staring at one another.
She heard heavy breathing and the clank of chains behind her. Sighvat and the thrall appeared, Sighvat pushing through the doorway, his bulk blocking out the light. The thrall dropped into a crawling squat, nose to the ground, snorting.
Biórr appeared, face flushed with battle and the sprint up the beach.
“Is it him?” Sighvat grunted at the thrall. The man on the end of the chain crawled over to the cot and buried his face in the straw, sniffing deeply. He looked up at Sighvat and nodded.
Footsteps. Agnar appeared in the doorway, his sword red to the hilt, warriors thick as smoke behind him.
He looked from Sighvat to the thrall.
“Where is he?” Agnar grunted.
Elvar pointed through the hole in the wall. Grend was searching the ground for tracks.
“That way,” the dour warrior said, straightening and pointing with his bloodied axe, towards the treeline and shadowed woods, Iskalt’s mountain of fire dark and brooding.
“After them,” Agnar said.
Orka woke with a gasp. For a moment she did not know where she was, could only see a vivid picture in her mind, of blood and battle, bodies falling around her, the roar of the sea, the sounds of violence. The battle cries and death screams were sharp and as clear as if she were standing in the middle of the bloody conflict, rather than lying upon a sweat-soaked mattress of straw in her own steading. She stared at the timber beams above and took a long, ragged breath as recognition seeped into her. As the tension eased, she loosened her white-knuckled fist around a clump of her mattress.
The grey of dawn crept through shutters. Thorkel slept beside her, his hairy back to her, one foot out of the woollen blanket. His chest rose and fell in slow, gentle rhythm, a rumbling snore deep in his throat. Orka reached out to touch him, fingertips hovering over his skin.
Let him sleep. Why burden him with my weakness.
She withdrew her arm and swung her feet over the side of the bed. Sat there a while, head in hands, allowing her body to settle and the sweat to dry. She wished there was a jug of mead or ale at the bedside, felt the need for it in her bones. To dull the memories, the pain. She felt a flash of resentment towards Thorkel, as he had asked her to drink less. Then she pulled on a pair of woollen breeches, leather boots and a linen tunic, and padded across the room, opening the door slowly so as not to wake Thorkel. Her thought was to start a hearth fire and then wake Thorkel and Breca with some porridge, honey and cream, but as she walked into the hall of their cabin, which took up most of the building, apart from hers and Thorkel’s bedchamber, she knew something was wrong, like a tingling in her blood.
She looked to his cot, close to the burned-out hearth fire, where he liked to go to sleep with the blurred glow and crackle of embers in his eyes and ears.
It was empty, the woollen blanket thrown off.
A trickle of ice in her veins; worry fluttering like wings in her chest.
“Breca,” she called as she searched the hall, quickly looking behind tables, piled blankets, in cupboards. There was a sound behind her as Thorkel emerged from their chamber, barefoot, with breeches on and a blanket wrapped around his shoulders. He was blinking, the muscles in his face not yet caught up with the fact that he was awake.
“You’re making enough noise to wake the dead gods,” he muttered.
“Breca’s not here,” Orka snapped, a coil of dread in her gut putting some bite in her words.
“Outside?” Thorkel suggested. “Fetching water, firewood?”
“I do that in the morning. He sleeps until I wake him,” Orka said.
“You do? He does?” said Thorkel, frowning.
Orka scowled at him. “This, from the man who usually sleeps like a bear in his winter’s cave until the smell of porridge wakes him.”
“Fair enough,” Thorkel shrugged. “Still, he might be outside. Something might have woken him, like his bladder.”
“He’s not an old man, like you. He can hold his piss.”
Thorkel opened his mouth, clearly thought better of it and disappeared back into the bedchamber. He re-emerged, boots on and tugging on a woollen tunic as Orka was reaching for her spear in a rack, throwing open the doors and striding out into daylight.
She stood on the first step that led down into their courtyard, scanning the steading. The woodshed, forge, charcoal kiln were all clearly empty and undisturbed.
“Breca,” she cried as she hurried down the steps, mud soft under her boots. Past the herb and vegetable patch and beehive. She peered into the barn as she passed it, where their shaggy pony stood with his head over the stable door, regarding a hay bale with a two-pronged fork stuck in it, just as Orka had left it last night. Striding on, Orka stopped at the stream that flowed fast and clear through the steading, crouched beside a moss-slick rock. She stuck the butt-end of her spear into the icy water, jabbing it beneath an alcove under the rock.
“Spert, wake up,” Orka grunted.
A dark shape appeared, as long as Orka’s arm and wide as one of Thorkel’s tree-stump legs, uncoiling from beneath the rock and spreading into the stream. Its chitinous, segmented body straightened, tapering to an oily sting, sharp as a needle that curved over its back. A multitude of long legs clawed into the stream’s bank and it crawled towards Orka, its head breaking the water.
“Food,” the Spertus croaked, its voice like scratching dry skin. It looked up at Orka with a too-human face, bulbous eyes under grey sagging skin, and a mouth full of too many sharp-spiked teeth.
“Have you seen Breca?” Orka asked the creature.
“Spert sleep until food,” the creature muttered. It looked around, searching for Breca, who usually brought it a bowl of porridge mixed with blood and spit each morning. “Hungry,” it complained.
“I should kill you, you useless creature,” Orka grunted as she stood.
“Ungrateful,” the creature grated, a hiss of scraping skin. “Spert work hard. Spert protect you from vaesen.”
“If you protect us, then where is Breca?” Orka snarled.
The Spertus blinked.
“Can’t watch everything, everyone, all the time,” it grumbled. “Have to sleep sometime.”
“Orka,” Thorkel called from behind her.
She stood and turned, and there was a splash and ripple of water as Spert submerged and returned to his chamber beneath the rock.
Thorkel was kneeling by the single gate that was built into the larger gates that were only ever opened when taking their pony and cart to Fellur with goods to trade. Otherwise they came and went by this single door. It opened with an iron latch-bolt. Orka ran to Thorkel, fear pounding in her head like a drum.
“He was here,” Thorkel said, pointing at a clear boot print in the mud, half the size of hers. “And he has used this gate.” The iron bolt was drawn, the gate just pulled to. Thorkel pushed it open, looking out on the glade beyond their steading, bordered by woodland. There were more boot prints in the mud.
Panic, like a viper’s venom, flushed through her veins.
Virk’s words from Fellur village whispered in her head.
Children are being taken.
“Others?” Orka asked. She was too full of anger and anxiety to read the ground. Her eyes searched the glade beyond their walls, tried to pierce the shadows beneath the woodland. “Has he been taken, like Asgrim’s boy, Harek?”
“No signs of anyone else,” Thorkel said, rising. He passed through the rune-marked gates and turned left, Orka following. Thorkel had buckled on his weapons belt, seax and hand-axe hanging from it, and Orka had her spear.
Enough to look after ourselves, if it comes to blood.
They padded across an open glade, a few patches of snow left among the grass that was wet with dew starting to steam as the rising sun washed the glade. Then they were passing beneath high boughs, moving north-east from their home, into a twilight world. Orka followed her husband, knew Thorkel was the better tracker. He loped along, every few heartbeats his eyes scanning the ground then flitting up ahead of them. Their path curled to follow the stream that flowed through their steading, moving steadily upstream, climbing a gentle slope. Orka looked above and to their flanks, searching for the tell-tale movements of vaesen or other predators, but saw nothing. The woods were silent and still, as if holding their breath.
Where is he? If someone or something has hurt him, I will…
An image in her mind of an axe falling, blood spraying.
She sucked in a deep breath, feeling the rage building, the ice in her veins tingling, with an act of will pushing it back down. Her son needed her, and all that mattered was finding him. A white-blinding anger would not help that.
The ground levelled and they crested a ridge and saw a pool spreading before them, its cold waters black and still. The stream that fed into their steading ran from here.
“Breca,” Thorkel cried. A shadowed form crouched at the pool’s edge.
“Papa,” Breca said, looking up at them, his small voice loud in the stillness.
Orka sped up, passing Thorkel and running to her son, a flush of relief and joy melting the icicles of fear in her chest. Breca was crouched by the poolside. White lilies floated, pale as winter. Orka dropped to the ground and skidded up to Breca upon her knees, wrapped her arms around him, crushed him so tight in an embrace that he grunted and gasped.
She kissed his cheek, blinked tears from her eyes, stroked his unruly black hair.
“Come away from the water’s edge,” Thorkel said as he reached them, eyeing the water suspiciously. He sniffed. “Smells like Näcken to me.” He drew his seax and stabbed it into the soft loam. “Move away,” he repeated.
“Why are you out here?” Orka breathed as she pulled Breca away from the water’s edge.
The thought that a Näcken should not be this far from its mountain river entered her thought-cage, but it was pushed aside by her worry and relief at finding Breca.
“I heard a sound,” Breca said as Orka released him. He looked down at his cloak, which was folded in his lap, and pulled it open.
Orka gasped, fell back on to her backside.
A creature lay curled in Breca’s lap, maybe half the length of one of Orka’s legs, if it stood upright. It had arms and legs with thick, pointed