(Cross-posted from the Queen’s Cryptographer Award held by NeedleInTheHay)
A Painted Map
Awi watches the moon rise and his breath fog up in front of his face as he waits for the jarl to call them inside. His sword, Runanautr, is a comforting weight on his hip. Gerwar stands shivering at his side. The hall behind them is built from stacked logs and looks like it should topple over after years of the cold Danish wind beating it. There’s filthy snow at his feet and a song on his lips, but he doesn’t sing because he knows that it will just piss Gerwar off. Gerwar hates to hear singing when he’s anxious.
“How much longer will it take?” Gerwar mutters into his cloak.
“However long the jarl wants to take,” Awi replies.
He’s got his own cloak around his shoulders – aurochs skin, not as fluffy as Gerwar’s wolf fur, but warmer and heavier. He wants to share with Gerwar but the other man will just wave him away. Awi scratches his stubble and thinks that it is desperately unfair that Gerwar’s beard is longer than his. They got their first swords together. They trained together. And Awi is taller. But Gerwar’s is the thicker beard – if one could call that patchwork of red ‘thick’.
Awi tells himself that his lighter colouring makes his own beard seem thin next to Gerwar’s. Awi likes to tell himself little lies like that.
Behind them, the jarl’s hall is disturbingly quiet. The jarl, Solva, asked for them, and so here they are. But they were both completely bewildered. What would Solva and her men want with a couple of orphans who were planning to ship out in a few days? Awi has heard Anglo-Saxon traders call her a queen, but it doesn’t suit her. A queen sits on her throne and eats cake; a jarl fights and rules.
Finally, Awi and Gerwar are called into the relative warmth of the hall. There’s men all around, most clutching drinking horns and dabbing at the mead they’ve spilled in their beards. There isn’t a man among them who isn’t cut up or disfigured in some way, but Solva likes only the most battle-hardened men around her. The fact that the room is filled with at least thirty of her cursed fighters does not bode well for Awi and Gerwar.
He and Gerwar walk beside the long table to stand before Solva. Her bronze kransen glitters in the firelight, polished to such a fine shine that Awi can see his own face reflected in it like a mirror.
“Eskesen,” she says to Gerwar. Then she turns her eyes to Awi. “Hognisen.”
She’s easily twice Awi’s age. When they make eye contact, he feels like she’s gouging into his soul with her long nails.
Awi and Gerwar bow as well as they can with their knees frozen.
“Vali tells me that you are both planning to join his fleet?” she goes on.
“Aye, Jarl,” Gerwar says. He’s pitching his voice deliberately lower, trying to make himself seem more manly than he is.
“You wish to serve Guthrum, do you?”
Isn’t that the dream of every young Dane? To cross the sea and join Guthrum’s crusade against the English?
Awi and Gerwar nod.
Her lip twists into what Awi hopes is a smile. “If your jarl were to task you with a different mission, would you serve her with the same vigour?”
“Of course, Jarl,” Awi replies instantly, though he isn’t sure that he wants to. Gerwar tenses beside him.
“Good,” she says. She holds out her hand and Gerwar, who is closest, has no choice but to accept what she is offering. “This painted pendant was a gift from my mother before she fled Roskilde,” Solva tells them. “She told me that if I ever needed to find her, I could use it.”
Awi leans over Gerwar’s shoulder, intrigued. On the pendant is a long green outline. It curves and dips like waves, with blue pigment cutting erratically along the creases. The painting looks familiar, but Awi can’t place it.
“It’s a map,” Gerwar says, and Awi immediately remembers where he’s seen it. “It looks like one of the ones my da had.”
Solva nods solemnly. “It is, Eskesen. That much I know. What I do not know is where it leads.”
Gerwar frowns at the painting, clearly working to decipher it. Awi reaches around to grab his knuckles, turning the pendant in his hand, and they both suppress a gasp. Because the outline is clearer now and they can tell exactly what the map is of: Wieringen, the trading port. Awi’s spent hours staring at the damn thing – it’s stuck to the wall right above his bed.
But before he can mention it, Solva continues: “You lads are young, strong, and your fathers knew the waters. You will track my mother down. You will tell the bitch to give me what I seek.”
She says it as though it is a given. As though Awi and Gerwar weren’t planning to join a revolution. It’s on the tip of Awi’s tongue to point that out to her, but Gerwar elbows him in the side and gives a significant look to the men surrounding them. Some are cracking their knuckles.
“And what is that you seek, Jarl?” Gerwar asks, clutching the pendant in his closed fist.
She leans forward in her seat, looking at them both dead-on. “Sætarspillir. My father’s sword.”
A Flying Cat
Awi ducks below the low, swinging branch before calling out: “Careful, I still want my face in one piece!”
“Why?” Gerwar replies, holding another branch dutifully out of Awi’s way even as he smirks. “It’s not as though you’re attracting any women with the face you’ve got. Maybe a few scars will work in your favour.”
“Some of us have charm,” says Awi. Not that he would know how to charm women. But it’s easier to banter with Gerwar than to admit the truth. That he’s a fuðflogi. “We don’t all have the personality of a dead aurochs.”
They push their way through the heavy woods, grateful for furs to keep them warm as snow continues to fall in heavy waves all around them. The fact that Gerwar keeps smacking Awi with snow-laden branches does not help matters. But they’d heard rumours of a strange old woman in these woods, and so they’d left their tiny ship tied at the docks and followed the dingy streets to the wood at the edge of town. Gerwar still bears the jarl’s pendant around his neck, though it had only led them as far as the Wieringen harbour, which had been thick with longships and foreign vessels that looked clumsy and broad next to their sleek Northern counterparts
Apart from the snow and the thick trees, it’s quite pleasant here. Peaceful and sweet-smelling, which is far better than the grimy, piss-stench of Wieringen where they’d languished for four days, searching for any news of Hedvig Grimsdatter and the sword that their jarl had sent them to collect.
Gerwar had been silent for the first hour of their journey. Once they rounded the fourth hour, he’d started to let the curses fly.
“This had better be the most blessed sword I’ve ever seen,” Gerwar mutters as he jumps over a frozen puddle. His breath is ragged and he looks over his shoulder at Awi to make sure that he’s following. As if Awi could do anything but follow Gerwar. “The gods had better have wept over it. Freya herself had better have personally kissed the hilt.”
Finally, after many hours, Gerwar stops in the middle of the path. Awi nearly runs into his back.
“What is it?”
Gerwar points. A ramshackle old hovel is buried in a copse of trees, almost completely hidden in snow and fallen branches, with bruised wood for walls and windows that look like festering cuts.
“That better be her,” Gerwar mutters, hitching his belt so that his sword glints at his side.
Awi opens his mouth, but decides that he shouldn’t speak. Instead, he sends a silent prayer to any gods who are listening as he and Gerwar follow the path through the snow. They pause at the door. Awi rests a hand on Runanautr. Then Gerwar knocks.
Before his knock stops echoing, the door swings open. A woman stands in the doorway, her hair a mess of blonde and white, her cheeks sunken and wrinkled like a corpse left too long in the sun, and her dress a mangy, ratty scrap of fabric draped over her bony form.
“What?” she demands, in heavily-accented Norse.
Awi clears his throat, because Gerwar seems to have frozen in front of him. “Are you Hedvig Grimsdatter?” he asks.
“Yes, yes, yes. You want healing?”
“We come on behalf of your daughter, Solva Hognisdatter,” he says. He elbows Gerwar, who mutely holds out the pendant that the jarl gave them, along with the letter of introduction that she wrote before they’d left.
Grimsdatter squints at the pendant, then at the note, before settling her eyes on the pair of them. Then she slams the door.
“Hey!” Gerwar shouts.
Gerwar shoves the door open and Awi only has time to take in a splintered table and the awful reek of boiled ale before Gerwar shouts a warning and Grimsdatter hurls a ball of fur at them. Awi ducks the hissing, writhing mass, and turns to see a black cat land in the snow. A pot breaks and he ducks again.
His first instinct is to draw Runanautr, but he can’t slay a woman – can he? Not when the worst she’s done is throw her cat at them. And there’s no glory in slaying an old woman.
“We just want the sword!” Gerwar shouts, his arms over his head as he half-crouches in the doorway.
That seems to do the trick. Grimsdatter pauses, a hunk of meat clasped in her fingers and ready to be thrown.
“Oh. I did not realise my daughter was taking such young suitors.” She lowers her arm.
Awi and Gerwar share a look. Awi curses the rising heat in his cheeks. “We don’t – that’s not –”
“Only one reason a woman would want her father’s sword, and that’s to get married.” Grimsdatter looks them both up and down and Awi has an uncomfortable feeling that he’s being sized up. “You are the prettier one,” she says, pointing at Gerwar.
“But if you want the sword, you will need to earn it.” She puts her hand on her scrawny hip, thinking. Then her eyes brighten. “You have to solve my riddle!”
It takes everything Awi has in him not to groan aloud.
A Glittering Spear
“We could… kill her?”
“We are not killing an old lady.”
Gerwar shrugs. “I’m just saying what we’re both thinking –”
“We are not both thinking that.”
Gerwar looks away from Awi’s hard glare and swings his axe down to split the firewood in two. They make satisfying thunks when they land in the snow.
Beyond the line of trees to his left, Awi can see the edge of the hovel where Grimsdatter lives – the hovel they’d spent all of yesterday cleaning, only to be sent back into the woods to sleep huddled together in the snow. Awi would never complain about pressed against Gerwar, but his nose is still running and he’s aching all over.
“We’re not going to get the sword like this.” Gerwar says, waving at the pile of firewood that he’s spent all morning chopping. “What kind of spear glitters but doesn’t rust? What does that have to do with Sætarspillir? Crazy old hag.”
“This crazy old hag has good hearing!”
Both Awi and Gerwar flinch when they hear the brittle sound of Grimsdatter’s accented Norse from the patch of darkened trees. She slides towards them like a spirit, spitting on the ground as she goes. Awi shifts without thinking, until he’s standing between her and Gerwar.
“Grimsdatter, he didn’t mean –”
“Shut up, the pretty one’s not the first man to think about killing me.”
She still thinks they’re there to retrieve the sword so that they can marry her daughter. She hadn’t even read the jarl’s letter. She’d just shooed them into the hovel, which was dingy and filled with the unpleasant scent of unwashed woman and cat shit.
“Sætarspillir is hidden, very well hidden,” she’d muttered, “like Thor’s hammer. Only the worthy may find it.”
“And we have to solve a riddle to get it?” Gerwar had asked, his nose wrinkling as he’d tried to avoid breathing through it.
“Yes, yes, yes.”
Then she’d stared into the distance until Awi had reminded her that they were still there.
Since then, he and Gerwar had spent most of their time cleaning and trying to understand what this had to do with riddle solving.
“You’re both idiots!” Grimsdatter says as she wanders over to the firewood stacked beside Gerwar, picking up a smaller chunk and chewing on the side like a rat. “You don’t understand my riddle. My daughter made a poor choice of suitors.”
“We’re not –”
“Hush.” She drops the wood and kicks it in Awi’s direction. “Speak when spoken to, Not Pretty.”
Awi bites his tongue until he can taste blood. He takes the axe from Gerwar’s hand and swings it into the stump, leaving it half-embedded in the wood. Gerwar makes an aborted movement in Awi’s direction, before straightening and rounding on Grimsdatter instead.
“How does chopping firewood help us solve riddles?” he asks.
She straightens up to her full height – which just barely comes up to Gerwar’s shoulder – and recites: “Glittering points with downward thrust. Sparkling spears that never rust.”
Awi and Gerwar share an exasperated look. “We don’t know what that means!” Gerwar says.
“And until you do, you may not wed my daughter. You may as well make yourself useful.”
Gerwar kicks the stump, barely wincing when his thin boot makes contact. Awi can understand why Gerwar is getting more and more frustrated. They have been in Wieringen almost a week, and every day they spend on this nonsense is a day they could be spending travelling to England to join Guthrum’s army, earning the glory they’d both been denied for so long. No one thinks much of a couple of orphans with no money and no prospects.
“When you’re done here you can come inside. There is mildew that needs scraping.”
And before either Awi or Gerwar can react, she twirls around – almost gracefully, which is a surprise – and disappears back into the trees. Awi can hear her muttering to herself as she returns to her hovel hidden away in the shadows.
They both wait until she’s gone before they speak again.
“You’re sure we can’t just kill her?”
“If we do, then how will we get the sword?”
“She’s probably got it underneath her mattress.”
“Then why give us a riddle?”
“Because she’s insane!”
Awi shakes his head, leaning over to pull the axe of out of the stump and handing it to Gerwar. Then he sits down and rests his elbows on his knees, thinking hard. What glitters and points down? What spear doesn’t rust?
“You’re not, you know,” Gerwar says.
Awi looks up to see Gerwar giving him a look that he can’t read.
“You’re not not pretty,” Gerwar says. “You look good. Don’t listen to what she says.”
Awi thanks every god he can think of that he can blame the cold for his flushed cheeks. “You’re prettier.”
Awi leans over and traces a spear into the snow at his feet while Gerwar starts piling up the firewood. He traces the edges of the spear tip, watching the way that the snow glints and shines in the low sunlight. A glittering spear… thrusting downward…
Awi stands up so quickly that Gerwar yelps and nearly drops the axe on his boot.
“I’ve got it!”
A Riddle Solved
Glittering shards of ice thrust down from the roof of the cave as Awi and Gerwar make their way inside. It took some time to find it. Awi’s father used to tell him stories about caves that glittered like crystals because they were so full of ice. He was starting to think that he had gotten it wrong until they’d found the entrance hidden in a steep wall of boulders, about half an hour’s walk away from Grimsdatter’s hovel.
“I see,” Awi replies, following Gerwar’s gaze anyway to the many icicles hanging above them.
Gerwar holds a torch before him, sending dim light ahead of them. The cave reeks of moulding mushrooms, and the further they go the worse it smells. A fly lands on Awi’s shoulder and he smacks it, wiping what’s left on his cloak.
“Smells like her hovel,” Gerwar says. Awi can hear the disgust in Gerwar’s voice as he pushes forward, his shoulders brushing the sides of the cave. “Without the cats. This must be it.”
They walk further along the narrow passageway until it starts to grow wider. They’re so focused on avoiding the dips in the ground and the icicles hanging down from the ceiling that Awi nearly misses a sudden turn-off to his left: a corridor of rock nearly hidden from sight.
“Gerwar, bring the light – the smell is worse down here.”
The opening leads to an antechamber piled high with stinking rags. Tunics, dresses, and bed sheets – all festering with maggots and flies. Awi and Gerwar have to breathe through their mouths as they get down on their knees to search the pile. There’s a crevice in the wall that seems to have been carved out by human hands, and Gerwar rests the torch there so that his hands are free.
“Here!” Gerwar says, pulling a long package out of one corner.
Awi joins him in an instant. Gerwar holds a scabbard in both hands, a polished, double-handed hilt reflecting in the torchlight. He draws the sword and they both take a moment to admire the craftsmanship. It is a damn fine weapon.
“Sætarspillir,” Gerwar says. Their eyes lock over the blade.
“You’ve solved my riddle.”
They both flinch and turn. Grimsdatter stands behind them, the torchlight making her wrinkles seem deeper and her eyes wilder. Her hand is wrapped around a rope that rises up into arc of the entrance.
Something in her tone sends Awi’s instincts into a frenzy.
“I’d hoped to see my daughter where you are,” Grimsdatter continues. She gives the rope a tug and, above her, the ceiling trembles. Awi squints at the network of ropes strapped to the roof, holding half the ceiling in place. “She wouldn’t come for the sword, but maybe she’ll come when her precious suitors do not return for her.”
Grimsdatter jerks the rope down. Awi is moving before he realises what he’s doing – sprinting towards the entrance. He hears the clash and crumble of rocks falling, feels the sudden shift in the wind, and then he’s hurling himself across the entryway just as the walls disintegrate inwards. The icicles rattle and fall, spraying him with cold. He hears Gerwar grunt when he hits the ground beside him.
Ears ringing, Awi is frozen on the ground. Then Grimsdatter shrieks high enough to make him wince. He turns to see her tackling Gerwar, who is still prone on the ground, and wrestling Sætarspillir out of his grasp. Gerwar seems too dazed to fight back. Within moments, Grimsdatter has the sword raised above her head, straddling Gerwar’s hips, aiming the point at his neck.
And Awi is moving again, moving like his life depends on it – and it does. He catches Grimsdatter around the waist and together they tumble away from Gerwar until Awi’s back hits hard stone.
Grimsdatter swings the blade around, her twisted, wrinkled face contorted. Awi only has time to register the glint of steel in firelight and his arm is moving without his conscious will.
Grimsdatter buries Sætarspillir into the flesh of Awi’s forearm.
It was enough to hit bone and Awi can feel the blood oozing down his arm in a hot trail. He tightens his jaw; he doesn’t scream. Across the hall, Gerwar is scrambling to reach them and looking panicked. Grimsdatter pulls on Sætarspillir’s hilt, but the sword is too heavy and too deep. Awi sees her eyes squinted in concentration before Gerwar’s blond hair flashes and a rock wrapped in a fist slams into the side of Grimsdatter’s head. She crumbles to the side.
It isn’t until he feels fingers on his face that Awi realises Gerwar is speaking to him.
“– Woden-dammit, Awi say something! Talk to me, Awi, come on –” Gerwar is kneeling in the dirt next to Grimsdatter’s crumpled body. Awi can see her chest moving erratically but her eyes are closed. The torch still burns behind Gerwar’s head, and the firelight pours through his hair, turning it the colour of a sunrise. Gerwar’s eyes fall on Sætarspillir, still buried in Awi’s arm, and his face twists into a pained expression.
“I’m fine,” Awi says.
Gerwar gaze bores into Awi’s, and Awi feels exposed, almost naked, which is ridiculous because he’s been naked in front of Gerwar before, when they were changing or swimming. But it never felt like this.
“That should have been me,” says Gerwar.
Awi replies without hesitating: “Never.”
Gerwar doesn’t speak. He just clutches Awi’s arm to stop the bleeding.
PS – I love writing and I love eating! If you want to help with the latter (and ONLY if you want) you can buy me a coffee 🙂