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THE HIGH KING OF MONTIVAL

by S.M. Stirling   <joatsimeon@aol.com>


 

CHAPTER THREE:

 

Nantucket Island
February 23rd, Change Year 24/2023 A.D.

 

Rudi grinned to himself, catching Mary Vogeler’s glare at her husband from the corner of his eye. All his party were assembled to greet the little armada that had brought the Sea-Land tribe from their village a bit west of here. Their boats were drawn up on the shore, eight craft shaped like long whaleboats, each with a single gaff-rigged mast a third of the way back from the prow. They’d carried a score of men and rather more women from the village further west along the narrow island’s coast.

One of the women had headed straight for Ingolf, beaming and waving. More than the damp chill salt wind flushed Mary’s pale cheeks red, and her single blue eye snapped. Ingolf spread his hands.

“Honey, that was more than a year before we even met,” he said desperately. “He’s nearly three, for... ah, Manwë’s sake.”

The young woman of the Sea-Land Folk held her child... and Ingolf’s... by the hand and beamed at them both; the toddler beamed too, showing gaps in his grin, and waved his free arm. The resemblance was unmistakable, down to the dark-blue eyes, though the plumply pretty mother was half-Indian, her cheekbones high and hair raven-black. Her little tribe were mostly similar mixtures in varying degrees, offspring of the time-displaced inhabitants of this ancient Nantucket mixed with a party of refugees from Innsmouth just after the Change.

“Well, introduce us,” Mary said, crossing her arms.

“Ummm... this is, ah, I think it means Dove,” Ingolf said tightly. “She’s, ah, the daughter of the chief here. The guy Rudi’s talking to. That’s her mother interpreting.”

The woman touched a gray feather woven into one braid; it had a tinge of pink along its edge.

“Doh-uv,” she said carefully, and then repeated it in her own tongue.

The language was like nothing any of the questers save Ingolf had ever heard, but you could pick out English words in it, like plums in a Yule cake. Nor did the situation need much in the way of detail to be obvious.

Mary snorted, dug a stiffened finger into her man’s ribs, then relented and went down on one knee. The boy came forward fearlessly and returned her hug. Ingolf put a hand on his head, smiling a little, a wondering expression on his face as he saw himself there.

“You don’t think...” he said slowly. “Or at least I didn’t...”

“... when you’re passing through and having fun along the way that there might be consequences?” Mary said, and snorted again. “Men!”

And to be sure, my brother-in-law has been a wanderer for many a year. Best not to mention that right now! Rudi thought. They’ll be easier when we’re gone and have left this little reminder behind.

The warriors stood gravely impassive, lean strong-armed muscular men; the hair was shaved off the sides of their heads, stiffened into a roach above and braided into a queue behind. They wore leggings and breechclouts, mostly covered by well-sewn jackets of sealskin or rabbit-pelts or woven mohair adorned with shell beads—a few pair of angora goats had come with the mainland refugees—and soft boots of folded and sewn leather turned fur-side-in laced up their calves with thongs. Their weapons were harpoons, spear-throwers for the darts held across their backs in hide quivers and knives and hatchets at their belts, but they’d obviously come in peace.

For that matter, those are tools of the hunt rather than made just for man-killing, Rudi thought. Though doubtless they’d be stout fighters at need. Ingolf said they’d beaten off raids by Eaters from the mainland. Nor do timid men hunt whale in boats like those!

The women wore leggings too, but under knee-length tunic-dresses, and their hair was mostly in long braids. They smiled and spoke and signed as they unloaded bundles from the craft; smoked and salted fish, jerked goat-meat, sacks of cornmeal and beans and potatoes, dried vegetables and edible seaweed, and the carcasses of deer and rabbits along with baskets of scallops. Rudi gave a mental sigh of relief; that would ease his band’s logistical problems considerably. His mouth watered a little at the thought, the more so as the women briskly stoked up the fires and went to work.

He nodded gravely to the chief of the Sea-Landers, in a gesture that was almost a bow.

“My thanks to you, Kills Orca,” he said sincerely to the stocky deep-chested older man.

These people weren’t poor, as his generation judged such things; their goods were well-made if simple, and they didn’t look as if they went hungry often. He didn’t suppose they would starve because they were feeding his folk from their winter stores either, though they numbered half as many as the whole tribe; but this food was something they would not have as a reserve against ill-fortune, and it had been won with sweat and effort and sometimes danger.

The first scents of roasting venison made his stomach rumble; it had been a while since he had fresh meat, and the mainlanders who brought the Sea Land tribe seed corn and spuds had apparently also had garlic and herbs along.

Kills Orca was what the man’s wife translated the name as; she was about his age, in her forties, and her gray-streaked braids had been yellow once. Her English came fluently, though a bit halting and mushy with lost teeth; she’d been nearly a woman grown at the Change, and now showed every one of the hard years and many children.

“Strong Man—“ she indicated Ingolf and went on as her husband spoke in his own sonorous tongue “—saved our son Frank... High Wave... when this was a place of bad magic. Now you’ve made that go away, so our homes are safe. You are friends. Friends help each other.”

“Indeed they do,” Rudi said gravely.

“Threefold return,” Mary said unexpectedly.

“For good or ill,” Ritva added. “Ingolf’s getting it, and we as well.”

Rudi nodded; that was the way the world worked... though it could be a very long time indeed before the Powers reckoned up the balance.

“As ye sow, so shall ye reap,” Ignatius said; which was another way of putting the same thing.

“Tell Kills Orca that I hope he will accept these gifts from us,” Rudi said, making a gesture with his open hand.

They were lavish, thanks to the Gisandu’s helpful cargo of salvage from the dead cities. Stainless-steel blades for knives and spearheads, hatchets and axes, fish-hooks and imperishable nylon cords and nets, woodworking tools, hoes and pitchforks and trowels, pots and pans and mirrors, cloth found sound in sealed locations.

He was fairly sure the locals would have extended the same hospitality even if he’d had nothing to offer, though the men looked pleased and the women enthusiastic. And... Graber’s men were helping the Sea-Land women unload the boats, and exchanging smiles. Kills Orca didn’t seem to mind. Ingolf had mentioned that the tribe had tried to get him to stay, the first time he’d come here. These Sea-Land folk were perilously few, in a world where they had no kin for neighbors; in need of men to work and fight, and of fresh blood to father children not dangerously closely related to their future mates. They didn’t seem to have any prejudices about those who looked different from themselves either, which put them a step up on some folk he’d met.

The major started towards his men, or former men; Rudi caught his eye and shook his head slightly.

“You’ve made your choice, and they shall make theirs,” he murmured to himself.

The words wouldn’t carry, but they didn’t need to. The officer of the Sword of the Prophet was nobody’s fool. He nodded in return, turned and stalked off along the beach, with his left hand making occasional movements as if to rest on the pommel of a shete that wasn’t there and his little tuft of chin-beard bristling.

“That may solve one problem,” Mathilda said.

She looked over to where the ex-High Seeker was doggedly dragging a long piece of driftwood towards the fires. Her eyes narrowed; he knew she found the five-year-old in the man’s body disturbing in a way that went below words. The more so because the child in the man wasn’t merely lost. You could see hints of a sunny-natured boy named Dalan, brave and willing. And you knew what had happened to him.

“Perhaps him too?” she said hopefully. “There would be worse ways for him to make amends. Father Ignatius thinks he’ll... mentally age... enough to do a man’s work. Eventually.”

Rudi thought, then shook his head, though he’d have been just as glad to see the last of the man as she.

“No. I have the feeling he may be... useful.”

Ignatius nodded. “Nor would it be safe to leave him alone, I think. He is vulnerable. The malice of the Adversary has been defeated here, but not destroyed.”

“No indeed,” Rudi said softly, his hand caressing the hilt of the Sword. “Not yet.”

 

@@@

 

“Bows out, y’lazy beggars!” Edain Aylward said.

“Shouldn’t we be getting aboard?” Hrolf Homersson asked, nodding towards the refitted Gisandu where she rested at her anchors with furled sails.

He was one of the Norrheimers they’d picked up at Eriksgarth to replace casualties; a very big man with a braid in his brown beard, whose favorite weapon was a four-foot ax with a war-hammer’s serrated shape on the side opposite the broad blade. He handled it like a willow-switch.

“We’ve a few hours yet till sundown,” Edain said, and grinned. “And what better way to spend them than practice with the bow? We’re off on the morning tide tomorrow.”

He heard muffled groans, and a voice that muttered: Sleep? Food? Beer? from the background, and he didn’t try to see who. It was the sort of cold dank day in the Black Months when your thoughts turned naturally to a chair and a crackling fire; and hot cider, and apples and nuts roasting on the hob while you worked on a bit of harness and yarned with your friends and smelled supper cooking.

“So back to work!” he said, putting a sergeant-major’s snap into it that he’d learned from his father.

It worked, too. He paced up and down the line, his own longbow in the crook of his arm, watching critically.

Asgerd Karlsdottir was off a farm near Eriksgarth too, tall and lithe, with the ends of hacked-off hair the color of fresh honey sticking out from under her knit cap; she’d been trying stubbornly to use the longbow he’d tossed her, but her string-arm gave a betraying quiver at full extension.

“This stave’s too heavy for me,” she said bluntly, glaring at him. “I’m over-bowed.”

“No, you’re not,” he said. “I made that one with Ritva in mind, and you’re as tall, and near as strong. You’re drawing from outside the bow, sure and y’are. That’s the problem.”

Another glare, raw and belligerent. He’d noticed that Norrheimers were touchy, and she had extra reason—her affianced man had been killed by tribes allied to the Cutters. She was here because she’d taken a vow before the Gods of Norrheim, what her folk called a bragarfull, to take ten lives for his one, or die in the attempt, and sworn service to Rudi for the accomplishing of it. Edain intended to see that she did so and lived.

It would be an offense against the Lady of the Blossom-time to let a lass that fair die unwed.

“What does that mean?” she said. “Outside the bow?”

“Gather ‘round, ye infants!” he said.

They did; the Norrheimers and the men of the Southside Freedom Fighters—who’d been savages in the Wild Lands of Illinois, until the Chief and he had picked them up last year. The Southsiders nudged each other. They found the asatruar folk of what had been northern Maine a bit heedless and arrogant. Also they’d had him drilling and bully-damning them into shape considerably longer.

“The folk who taught you archery were hunters before the Change,” he said. “Or they learned from such.”

“So?” Ulfhild said.

She was the sole other woman in the war-band the original questers were building, dark and built like a barrel, and she’d been having the same problem. The Norrheimers were good shots; their people depended on wild meat for a good bit of their diet. But they weren’t battle-archers as the Clan thought of it, and they tended to think of fighting as mainly an affair of cold steel at arm’s length.

He’d seen fights won where the enemy never got to within twenty yards of a longbow harrow-formation, and that was the way he liked it best. Against horsemen particularly, which the Cutters mostly were in their home ranges.

“Hunters can make do with light staves,” Edain said. “And take their time about a shot. Me dad practiced all his life with the war-bow, yes and made ‘em too, for all they had those gun weapons back then. As pastime, and because it’s old in my family, the Aylwards. He taught me—all us Mackenzies—how you draw from inside the bow.”

They looked blank. He took his own weapon and tossed it to Hrolf. “Draw that, big man, and yourself so strong and hearty.”

The big man did; his eyes widened as he pulled it to full draw, grunting a little.

“Heavier than mine! A good deal heavier!”

Edain nodded; he was thick in the shoulders and arms himself, and deep-chested, but of no more than average inches. Asgerd was tall for a woman, and within a finger-width of his height; their eyes were level with Hrolf’s chin. He took the bow back and held it before him, elbows out, one hand on the grip and one on the string.

“This is outside the bow,” he said, pulling.

Then he shifted to a real stance. “This is inside. Push at it. Like you were in a doorway and pushing on the jambs from the inside. Bend your whole body into it. Feel the curve from left hand through your body to your feet and out your right. The bowstave is a spring; make your body a set of levers and springs to push it. Inside the bow, and sit into the draw.”

He did, twisting and sinking down a little.

“You look like you’re drawing with the weight of your arse,” Ulfhild said, and laughter barked.

Edain grinned himself. “But it works.”

“Maybe with an arse like yours.”

“Ah, well, y’need a heavy hammer to drive a long nail,” Edain said cheerfully, and there was another laugh.

The Mackenzie bow-captain put the snap back into his voice: “Try it! Right hand past your ear, past the hinge of your jaw. Open your chest right out, that uses your back muscles—they’re stronger than your arms.”

They did, and Asgerd’s eyes went wide. “I can hold it! Long enough to shoot... but it makes aiming harder.”

“Don’t aim! Aiming’s for beginners. Don’t look at the arrow at all. Look at where you want to hit. Think the shaft home—and once it’s clear of the bow, don’t think of it at all. Shift to your next at once. You only get one try at a deer, and then it runs away. Men are different. They come at you.”

He turned... and suddenly a shaft was in the air. Two more followed before the first hit in the driftwood log a hundred and fifty paces down the beach: tock-tock-tock in the hard sea-bleached wood.

His great half-mastiff bitch Garbh looked up at him to see if he wanted her to fetch the arrows. He dropped a hand to her head and she leaned into him, showing her long yellow man-killing fangs as she grinned and lolled her tongue.

“No, girl, not yet. That log will be an unhealthy place for a few hours more.”

Under his determined cheerfulness ants seemed to be crawling under his skin. They were needed at home, and home was a continent away.

 

@@@

 

Kalksthorpe, Norrheim
(Formerly Robbinston, Washington County, Maine)
March 12th, Change Year 24/2023 A.D.

 

“Kalk, how long have we been arguing?” Heidhveig said sharply.

“Off and on, since we met!” the old man said, his seamed face pushing towards her like a snapping turtle’s.

Somehow the resemblance was greater for the fringe of white hair around his bald skull; he’d been bare on top when they’d met, twenty-five years ago.

Aesir witness, he’s older than me.

They were sitting in her loom room—mostly used by her daughters and granddaughters and their apprentices these days, and for seidh. The pale winter sunlight washed over the vertical frame from tall windows on two sides. Also over a scattering of hanks of spun wool, and a stuffed tiger (made of real tiger-skin) with one ear chewed off by a great-great-grandchild, a horse on wheels... The room smelled of wool, faintly of ash from the fires that had run wild during the corsair attack on the town a few months ago, and strongly of cod-and-onion stew and baking ryebread from the kitchens. Always a little of the sea, out where the Greyflood met the Atlantic. Noises too; someone singing, children’s voices, a dog barking. Her household here had started out large, and grown more by births and weddings and simple accretion than it had lost by youngsters moving away.

“No, when we met, you persuaded me that the Change was about to happen, which is why I moved my family here from California,” she said.

He nodded. “It was good advice.”

“And I took it. I’ve given you good advice since, haven’t I? As a friend and a seidhkona.”

His nod was a little more grudging; her fame as a seeress was nearly as important to Kalksthorpe as its trade and crafts.

“So believe me when I say Rudi and the others will be back soon. I’ve seen it.” She sighed. “Care to bet? Say, that long table with the carved edge against... oh, four bolts of woolen?”

“Done,” Kalk said.

And a child of seven ran into the room, her unbound maiden’s hair swirling like black mist beneath a fur cap with ear-flaps and the rosy flush of the day’s chill still on her cheeks. A tiny gold horse hung on a linen cord around her neck, the sign of Gná, Frigg’s messenger.

“Sails, Amma!” she said, her voice crackling with excitement. “A ship! A big, big ship!

“Njord sink me, I should know better by now,” Kalk muttered. “Take the table, take it!”

“Feet!” Heidhveig said sternly to the girl, hiding her smile and pointing.

“Yes, Amma. Sorry, Amma.”

Gundridh Thorvinsdottir was actually a great-granddaughter, but that was what all the youngsters called her; the half of Kalksthorpe under sixteen mostly did, for that matter. The child hopped from one foot to another, taking off the muddy overboots she had forgotten and holding them in one hand; there was mud on the hem of her thick burgundy sumach-dyed wool skirt too. Her eyes still glittered; Kalksthorpe was a fishing town and a port in a not-too-small way by today’s standards, but a strange vessel this early was still a rare break in routine.

“I wonder what ship that could be?” Heidhveig said dryly to her old friend. Then: “Well, fetch me my staff, girl!”

Gundridh did, grinning again. She carried the staff carefully, though: it had a brass knob on the end, with carvings of a raven, cat and bear below, set with amber and garnet and a small compass. Her boots were tucked under one arm—which wouldn’t do her dress any good either. A brindled tabby jumped out of a basket of wool and onto the warm spot on her chair as Heidhveig walked down the hall to the stairwell and descended with a thump and grunt for each tread. She was well for someone with her years; you were well or dead, at her age and in this time and place. But her joints hurt in cold weather nowadays.

Before the Change someone had told her that you started groaning like that when you were past prime breeding age—it let the predators know you were old enough to be safely culled from the herd. She grinned a little at the thought as she came to the big hall that ran the length of the house on the ground floor and gave on the front-door vestibule. There were two hearths blazing, and it had a multitude of uses, from ritual to storytelling. But the family’s arms were also racked on the walls, and now people were bustling about quietly; the menfolk of the house and more than a few of the women were donning nose-guarded helmets and war-sarks of metal-studded leather or mail shirts, and handing out spear, shield, sword, bow and axe. Even the dogs caught the mood and waited quietly. Everyone was still of a mind to be cautious after the corsair raid last year—though it was very unlikely they’d be unlucky so again anytime soon.

“Don’t count any man lucky until he’s dead,” she said to her son Thorleif, when he said that. “But this time you’re right.”

He grinned back at her, showing blocky irregular teeth, and lifted his seven-foot spear to demonstrate that he wasn’t taking any chances; he was well into middle-age himself now, silver in his receding dark hair but still strong, a bold-featured man with a square jaw and beak nose. Then he thumped the ashwood shaft of the weapon against the boss of a round shield painted with a black raven on a red field. The loud dull boom caught everyone’s attention.

“Carefully!” he said. “I don’t want anyone stabbing someone in the ass because you’re hurrying needlessly. Chances are it’s nobody hostile. Keep good order and keep the points up. Karl, you’re still not fifteen—door-guard for you.”

Heidhveig thumped her staff on the floorboards in turn. “It’s Artos Mikesson and his folk, returned with the Sword of the Lady, as the High One foretold. I felt it when he drew the blade. Everyone on this continent with the Sight did! And a good many others.”

“I didn’t,” Kalk observed sourly.

“You saw the Change coming,” she said. “How often since?”

Kalk grunted wordlessly.

“Right, mother,” her son said. “We’ll still turn out. Practice never hurts.”

He turned to his wife. “Though if we’re to have guests...”

“We slaughtered that pig just the day before yesterday,” she murmured, her eyes going distant. “We haven’t started on that. Plenty of potatoes... I’ll start some tortiere and sausage thawing, get out some apple pies we froze last fall, and put more dough to rise... you get going!”

Heidhveig donned her padded coat and a long dark-blue cloak fastened with a valknut, pulling a knitted cap over her braided white hair. Her household’s fighters crowded out the door, joining the others of the town; everyone had their assigned place. For the Heidhveigssons that meant down by the docks and boatyards. The alarm bell tolled from the stave-hof, the temple, but paced slow and steady. That meant the others could suit their pace to hers and Kalk’s determined stump rather than dashing; the old asphalt and new cobbles were slippery under a layer of wet slush, and she picked her way cautiously. Falling and breaking a hip was not a good idea these days. Breath misted white in the damp air, and edged metal gave a watery gleam. They passed half a dozen construction sites littered with tools and sawdust and chips, where houses wrecked in the raid were being replaced, solid fieldstone-and-log structures replacing old pre-Change frame for the most part.

The towering roof-upon-roof of the hof was in the center of the town’s only open square, with its gilded carvings and dragon-heads snarling from the carved rafters. Folk mostly followed their trades in their own homesteads these days, but past the temple lay the part of town down by the Greyflood and the piers which held businesses smelly, smoky or requiring more space; fish-salting works, renderies that turned whale-oil into soap or candles, foundries, worksheds, tanyards, timber-yards. The half-built ribs of a ship rested on a slipway.

A low palisade with gates marked off the town from the docks proper, much lower than the double log wall that ringed the town elsewhere. Most of the seaward defenses were out in the water, a sunken pattern of great logs set in the harbor bed tipped with steel blades waiting to rip out the belly of any ship that didn’t know their pattern. Blockhouses at either seaward end of the wall held catapults that could smash boats trying to row foemen ashore. The fishing boats were mostly hauled up in long sheds, but the larger salvage craft rested at their moorings, the long slender bowsprits reaching over the cobbled roadway. The savage figureheads below were dismounted and stowed; no sense in risking the landwights’ anger.

Nearly anyone who could walk at all was behind the fighting levy, peering past shoulders and shields and spears. Thick patches of mist lay on the estuary’s ruffled gray water this morning; warmer water was coming in from the south, meeting the still-strong hand of winter. Then the tips of two masts appeared, ghosting slowly forward under the slight onshore breeze.

“Schooner,” Kalk muttered, peering; his sight was still keen for distant things. “Big one... Moorish-built... no, it’s not that one we captured and Artos took south! Close, but not that one... looks like she took some damage somewhere...”

The crowd tensed, then broke into a hum as a flag appeared at the mainmast; blue, with a green white-topped mountain, overlaid with a longsword whose hilt was the crescent moon. Anchors rattled and splashed, and the ship swung steady, pitching slightly with the waves. A tall man sprang to stand on the frame of the bow-catapult, standing easy as a cat on the slippery moving metal. Red-gold hair hung to his armored shoulders, a bright dash in a world of gray and brown and dark-green.

Then he drew his sword. A low murmur of awe went through the watchers at the silvery flash of blade and pommel.

“Hail!” someone shouted, and in a moment the crowd had taken it up: “Hail! Hail!

Heidhveig shivered a little and drew the cloak closer with her gloved hands. There was a glitter to the steel that was like music—like trumpets and drums, like the silver chime of bells on the bridles of destriers, a song that could seize the hearts of men and transfigure them.

More potent than Tyrfing, forged for the hand of a King,” she quoted softly: those had been the High One’s words, spoken through her while she was in trance on the seidhjallr, the Chair of Magic.

“What do You plan now, old man? Your daughters will bring you many a hero, before this is finished.”

The rhythmic shouting broke apart in cheers, and boats set out to shuttle the crew ashore. Heidhveig waited, leaning on her raven-headed staff until Artos came through. Gundridh was riding on his shoulders, yelling shrilly and waving his flat raven-plumed Scots bonnet in the air, and the same frank grin she remembered was on his face. It died as he swung the child down and faced her, bowing his bright head for an instant.

“Merry met again, Lady Heidhveig,” he said gravely, and put the back of his right fist to his forehead for a moment.

She met his blue-green gaze and then bowed herself, more deeply.

Come heil, Artos King,” she said, using the formal greeting from the old tongue.

Some buried fragment of her wondered what the young woman she’d been a lifetime and an age ago in Berkeley would have thought if she could have seen this moment. The rest of her was entirely grave.

His mouth quirked a little. “Not King in this land,” he said.

“But King indeed,” she said. “You’ve changed.”

A matter-of-fact nod, and the soft burring lilt went on: “That I have, Lady. For a man must suit himself to the work fate and the Powers give him. I led a band of friends to find the Sword. Find it I did; and now I must raise a host, win a war, and found a kingdom!”

“Hopefully you won’t need to fight a dragon as well,” she said dryly.

“That too, Lady. That too—though not one with scales or wings, perhaps.”

They bustled him and his folk back to her house; the talk went on through the afternoon and into the early dark. By then the dinner trestles had been set up, and besides her own family others were drifting in to hear the tale, and of course you couldn’t refuse hospitality. She winced slightly at the expense as plate after plate of basted ribs and sizzling pork-chops came out, piles of sausage and platters of French-fries and round rye loaves and butter.

This wasn’t the mead-hall of a godhi, a ring-giving drighten chief; it was just a big house. A godhi was expected to be open-handed to all comers, but he had his own lands and the scot from his yeoman followers to supply the means. And this had been a hard winter in Kalksthorpe, with their losses from the attack; late winter and spring were the hungry times in Norrheim anyway. Her family’s share of the corsair ship’s cargo would help, but in a country as thinly peopled as theirs it would take time to translate it into things they could eat and use.

Her mouth quirked a little. She’d loved the old stories even before she came to the old Gods, but the people in them had seemed a little crazed for booty at times. It wasn’t until you’d lived in something like their world that you understood how thin the margin could be between comfort and desperation, and how important it was to build up a reserve. Nor would anyone who’d survived the first Change Year ever take food for granted again.

Though most of her neighbors were at least bringing along a dish, fish casseroles, a ham, loaves, butter, cheese. Another thing you learned in these times was how much you depended on other folk, for all that Norrheimers boasted of their independence. Artos-Rudi and his companions tore into the dinner with the thoughtless voracity of the young and active who’d also been on short commons for some time.

“The winds were against us much of the time,” Artos finished. “With the ship so crowded we were weary and no mistake, by the time we made the Greyflood! And hungry!”

A hammering came at the front of the house. The buzz of conversation died down. The lanterns and candles guttered in the sudden draught; someone had pushed through the inner vestibule before the outer door closed, spilling heat. Her heart hammered, almost painfully.

She didn’t recognize the man; from the cut of his clothes he came from far inland, in the farmlands where most of the Norrheimer tribes dwelt. He was young, just old enough for a downy show of brown whiskers on his cheeks and chin, the hood of his parka thrown back to show longish hair held by a leather headband. Youngster he might be, but a sword and seax-knife hung at his belt, and a round shield over the pack on his back. His boots had the raised toe of the type you wore on skis.

It was the arrow in his hand that drew everyone’s eyes, and brought shocked silence. It was painted blood-red from tip to fletching. That was shown for one thing only; to call out the full levy of Norrheim against a foe who threatened them all.

“War!” he shouted, shaking it in the air; his voice cracked across, and that made him pause, swallow and continue with a little more calm: “The Bekwa have come through the north woods and crossed the border, thousands, killing, burning. A trollkjerring leads them, a sorcerer in a red robe, and the terror of him makes brave men run; the troll-men swear they will eat our hearts and lay all Norrheim waste. Godhi Bjarni Eriksson calls the fighting-men of all the tribes to rally to him—in Staghorn Dale, at the Rock of the Twin Horsemen—or we will be overrun piecemeal. Every true man. And he asks you, holy seidhkona, to come as well to battle the red-robe.”

The young man stopped, gulping, swaying on his feet; someone gave him a cup of hot cider, and he drained it eagerly, a little running down his chin as he gulped and half-choked. When he looked up his blue eyes went wide.

Artos stood, and the mild good cheer had left his face altogether, leaving it a thing of angles and planes. He had hung his sword-belt over the back of his chair. Now he took the scabbard in his right hand and set his left—his sword-hand—on the long hilt. The crystal of the pommel caught the light of fire and lamp, breaking it back in shivers of red and orange.

“Bjarni Eriksson and I swore blood-brotherhood on the golden oath-ring of his folk, in the name of his Gods and mine,” he said. “And the Threefold Herself gave me this Her Sword for just such tasks as this. Your chief shall have the help he sought, and more besides.”

The great blade flashed high suddenly. “War!” Artos shouted, his voice a huge silver peal in the long room. “War!

Men stood, and women; fists and drinking-horns and knives flashed in the air as they took up the chant.

Heidhveig shivered a little in her chair, suddenly alone and a little lost in this her home.

War, she thought. War indeed.

 

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