All right. This book doesn't actually belong to anybody yet, and it'll probably morph even more by the time its done, so I am not too worried about doing this. What follows is the first two chapters of the revision of By The Mountain Bound in its rough draft form. I still have some work to do with Strifbjorn's voice in places (bone-dry Norwegian sense of humor is very hard to do in print, I gotta tell ya.), and it's not the book I would write today, of course, but you can never step in the same river twice.
This novel is set in the same world as All the Windwracked Stars and The Sea thy Mistress, and it takes place some 2300 years before that first one. Or, more precisely, it ends on the same day that AtWS begins. But then there's a two-millennium gap between the first chapter and the second chapter.
This whole thing is known collectively as "The Edda of Burdens." (I often refer to it as The Norse Noir Steampunk Cyberfantasy. Except BtMB is heroic fantasy, if it's anything, while AtWS takes place in a postapocalyptic feudal city under the rule of a heroic Technomancer.
It's Norse-ish, but it's not Midgard.
In fact, Midgard is five hundred years ash and ice by the time our story commences....
in bondage now bides
the Wolf, 'til world's end
Fear. I know the scent of old.
Einherjar sleep not, but I have spent the afternoon in the smooth fork of a copper beech in a sort of daydream, contemplating the curve of a crimson sun settling behind the wooded Ulfenfell. A chill gilds air raw with hanging winter, the nearby sea, the musk of leaves. And a woman's terror.
The scent lifts my hackles. A band--an old fetter half-broken--galls my throat when I stretch too far, breathe too deep. I am accustomed. There is more news on the wind. Mortal woman. And a mortal man. They prey on their own.
I run the length of a horizontal branch broad as a horse's back and drop to the leaf litter, steadying Svanvitr's hilt with one hand. The pack wakes, rolling from crackling leaves like wood-red and smoke-grey and tarnished-silver shadows. They shake earth and dry grass from agouti coats already silkening against frost, motes sparkling in slanting light. Milling around my legs, they grin.
Alas. Not my brothers, these, though I live among them in preference to the mead-hall, and the einherjar.
My gloves are in the hand I offer a bitch. She sniffs, allows the touch. Fingertips burrow through slick guard-hairs and dense undercoat to brush skin beneath. When I touch her flesh, I can speak to her, she can speak to me. You need not come. I take the shadowed road.
She laughs at me. I draw on my gloves. Bound for where Men are. Humans, I touch not.
Words for them.
Blood-scent soaks the air. There is a thing--an einherjar thing, not of wolves nor Men--the swanning. Knowledge granted, and a task to complete.
If I were another einherjar, it might swan me now: East--and quickly. I am not as they. I am unique, older, not exiled but not accepted among them as I am among the pack. I became as they are, starlight made flesh, when I swallowed a sun.
They have the words of the Light to guide them. I have the scent. Blood on the wind, and fear.
I step into the shadow of the ponderous beech. And out the other side.
The place between one shadow and the next is cold and silent, wrought of firefly lights and dancing beliefs. A breath of ice. A stink of char. A dead world left.
I cross quickly.
Even here, the fear-scent lingers. Or perhaps it hangs only in my mind, as if borne on unworldish wings.
The shadow of an oak is my gate back to Valdyrgard. I hold my step and watch. A flaxen-haired maiden in a cloak dyed with bloodroot twists away from a sour-smelling man of middling size and age. She has spilled her basket, bread and weedy late wildflowers. Her lip is split. He has blacked her eye.
I see no need to draw Svanvitr. Furling my cloak over my shoulder, I connect. One gloved hand catches the man's wrist, snaps. He releases the girl. She staggers. A knife into the other hand, and I take it, cast it to the cool waiting forest. It rings on stone, rustles through leaves.
I force him to his knees.
Now comes the Light. It streams from my eyes, my fingertips. Fills my mouth. The cord under my gray woolen collar clenches like a hand, but the Light is stronger than broken chains, and I was stronger than them too, when it mattered. The girl scrambles back, twig-crunch and rustle, too foolish in her fine wove cloak to run.
"I mark thee." I touch my gloved thumb to my tongue and draw the letter thorn on his forehead in silver-blue starlight. "With Thurisaz, which is the mark of strife. Do thou no more harm to innocents, or I shall know of it."
He whimpers. I squeeze. My braid falling forward strikes him across the face. "Is all plain between us?"
Frozen until he remembers to nod. Then I loose him. He falls back, scrabbling like a cat, pissing himself before he flees. The girl hunches between oak-roots.
She draws away, though I offer a smile.
Her mouth shapes words. "Who are you?"
"Mingan. Called the Grey Wolf. I am einherjar, a Child of Light." The name soothes her not. But I am not my warrior brothers: slight where they are broad; dark where they are fair, old where they are young.
I am not meant for comfort. I should have stayed a wolf in more than name.
I close the space between us, drop my hand upon her head. "This is my wood. I dwell here."
She draws herself closer and smaller. I turn and step back into the shadows that are my home. She does not hear me sigh.
I'd stay and see her home through the twilight, but she would thank me not. I have other business to attend in the morning, and work before. With my scent on her, the maiden will come to no harm in the wood.
The night is used in the hunt; when the sun rises the deer on my shoulder is a buck, three points--young and tender, caught with my own hands. I bring him to the wolves in apology: the next night, I will not run with them across the moon-soaked mountains. I am summoned.
They dine on well-bled meat while I take myself to Strifbjorn's mead-hall where the einherjar gather. I do not count the days among the wolves, but I attend when my brothers call. I walk the valley road, not the shadowed one, passing under trees in the short cold morn. Patches of frost linger in the shadows, but the mist coils off the land, burned by the sun overhead. I glance upward, some memory I cannot quite reconstruct raised by the tug of the cord about my throat.
Mountain-clutching trees break above a hillocked green meadow, which sweeps down a gentler slope south and east until the flank of the mountain plunges into the sea. Close to the lip stands the mead-hall. As long as two ancient pines stand tall, solid of seasoned logs and shingled bark. The sea lies at my right hand and before, the mountain at my back; the meadow gives way to birch and poplar to the left.
A pale form arrows across the sky, plunging furled by the turf-roofed mead-hall. A thing like a two-headed stallion stands in the midmorning light, tossing its horns and mantling those giant wings. A slender figure, clad in white, slides down his shoulder; she acknowledges my approach--but barely--with a raised hand, turns, and strides into the hall.
My brethren arrive for the feast and the council. For me, it is no homecoming.
Not until I enter the door of the mead-hall, and an elk-shouldered shape steps over the fire-trench to meet me. My braid is silver-black where his is like winter butter, but his eyes are grey as mine and as full of starlight.
"Mingan!" Strifbjorn embraces me. His clasp is iron bands, fingers that would break mortal bones clenching on my forearm, his other arm falling around my back.
I return the clasp, looking up to see his smile. A bear-fur cloak broadens him that needs no broadening, the pelt grizzled silver over rich brown. It contrasts with the swan-white shirt and trews. At his hip, Alvitr's bronze hilt matches Svanvitr's.
Pine-scent rises from the strewn branches, mingled with the smell of cold fires and hot honeyed ale. Strifbjorn does not flinch from the heat of my hand through the glove.
"Strifbjorn, my brother. You are well?" I smile to see the light in his eyes flash, and he does not turn from it.
His voice drops. "Very." He leads me to a seat near his, at the south end of one of the long tables. On the left, below him along the bench. We will share our trencher. The great gilt chair on the north wall sits empty. Our Cynge is not with us.
He never has been, but I taught them to keep his chair ready, and the Lady's at the south end of the mead-hall.
The waelcyrge cluster at one end of the hall, around the bride. Menglad, who wears a red far more pure in shade than the muddy carrot-color of the blond girl's cloak.
One of them leaves her sisters and brings us mead in horns, bowing her head when Strifbjorn's fingers brush her hand. She is the little one, Muire, with the darkest hair, golden-brown as buckwheat honey. Her eyes also slide from mine, but it is not modesty that drives her to turn away. Strifbjorn is fair and handsome, his prowess unmatched in renown. As long as he remains unmarried, the Daughters of the Light vie for his regard.
Mine, they avoid--for I am Mingan the Grey Wolf, who walks alone, who acts alone, who does not hear the voice of the Light in his ear. The Children--except Strifbjorn and perhaps Yrenbend--fear me.
It is not their weird to seek understanding of things that shake the pattern of their days. Except perhaps Muire, who is a blacksmith and a poet, which are not such separated things as might seem. She writes history. I would she did not fear me. I would she might ask what I know.
I remember things--some shadowy, some crisp--that took place before the Children, einherjar and waelcyrge, were sung out of the starlight on the ocean and in turn sang the mortal creatures from the stones. I know of only three old enough to remember another world, and of those I am the one who walks among the Children of the Light.
I drain my nectar-scented mead, and the smell brings remembrance. A fetter, a sword, a scorching heat, the taste of blood. Pain, inside and without. The scent of a man I trusted as I have trusted none other, save Strifbjorn. The scent of a man who betrayed. I remember these things, but not with a man's understanding.
I recall them as a wolf might. But so my brothers name me.
"You are distant, my brother." It is not Strifbjorn speaking--he has turned to the side, listening to an einherjar who has come up on his right. It is the waelcyrge Muire, the chooser of the slain, who has returned with more mead.
She meets my eyes for a long quiet moment before she glances away, still not gazing at Strifbjorn. I witness the longing in how she refuses to look at him, and I see his denial of it in the stiffness of his shoulders as he bends closer to his welcome distraction. He is trapped, my brother, in the expectations of his role--and the mistakes we both have made.
"I sorrow, my sister," I say to her at last, continuing to examine her clear grey irises at an angle.
She is, I have said, an odd one, not so unlike the other waelcyrge as I am unlike my chosen brothers, but unlike enough. There is a thoughtfulness in her small nose and pointed chin that I am unused to seeing in the Children of the Light. She collects herself, and I am reminded that she fears me. But she speaks out around the fear. "Why do you sorrow?"
This softest and most exact among us--a sparrow-hawk. "You're the skald," I say. "You tell me."
Her face muddles. She stammers and flees to the cross-bench with her sisters, those who have so far arrived.
The hour is early still.
Menglad was married on a day late in fall in the five hundred and seventy-first year of my immortality; the five hundred and seventy-first year of the World. And the Grey Wolf joined us for the wedding. He was not a stranger in our midst, but neither was he a commonplace. Instead, he came like a raven on the storm, to festival, to weddings, to council of war when war came upon us.
I remember it well. I remember the night because I was the one who served him--him, and Strifbjorn, whom I loved. The other waelcyrge did not wish to wait upon the Wolf, so I walked the length of the shield-hung hall, a horn of mead in each hand.
I remember the night very well, for it was the beginning of the end.
Strifbjorn, disdainful as always of his sisters, barely turned when I brought his mead. The Wolf... after draining the mead horn, he studied me with that disconcerting gaze, A frown on a face one might more expect to see hewn from a mountainside. I could not make my eyes meet his. A mortal thrall, captive of war, brought me new horns of drink, and Mingan's gloved hand lingered on mine for a moment more than propriety demanded when I handed him the new one. His flesh burned hot as forged metal through the grey leather. I thought of sunlight on dark fabric.
There were stories, of why he burned. I stammered in answer to his question, the hot blush rising. He released my hand; I fled back to the cross bench, the trestle table and my sisters at the north end of the hall.
It was a long walk beside the fire trench, under banner-hung roof beams lost in the dark high ceiling. It seemed every eye in the hall watched my flight, although I knew from the murmurs that my brethren were engrossed in their gossip, renewing acquaintances. Nonetheless, I caught my skirts about me like the shreds of my composure and hurried to my place among the women.
Menglad, called the Brightwing, reached from under her crimson wedding veils and caught my mousy-colored braid. "Herfjotur says her steed says the Wolf desires you, Muire." She giggled, gesturing to the proud-nosed waelcyrge on her left.
They all were watching. I raised an eyebrow at the bride, amber-haired and fairer-skinned than I, her sword slung properly at her hip rather than across the shoulders as mine must be to keep from dragging. Skeold slid down the bench to the right that I might sit beside Menglad. I gathered my wide skirts, lifting them clear of my boots as I ascended from among the scented pine-branches littering the floor onto the step where the women's bench rested. Turning, I allowed the silk to flare, the snow-pale surcote contrasting the spangled midnight blue kirtle.
My clothing matched that of my sisters, taller and more golden. Gathered around Menglad in her crimson and gold, we resembled jays mobbing a cardinal.
The groom had not yet arrived, nor had most of the einherjar. Perhaps four hundred of my brethren. Twice that would all but fill this our largest hall. They sat along the benches or walked, chattering. Two extra trestles, running the length of the hall, held the overflow.
I leaned close to Menglad. "The Wolf could have his pick. He has no need of such as I."
I saw by the gleam in her eye that she was teasing me. "He's never offered for anyone," she said. "Perhaps he's waiting for someone to notice him back."
I chuckled. "If he fancied me, he would speak to Yrenbend. Or Strifbjorn--they're close as shield-mates."
The mocking Light was still flickering behind the storm-blue of her eyes. "Are you insinuating that all those waelcyrge who sigh over Strifbjorn must compete with the Wolf for his passions?"
"Strifbjorn is waiting for something. And the Wolf--either he prefers to be alone, or the one he wants is bound to another." I grew uncomfortable, shifting in my seat. "And strong as they are, they can do as they like. Who would dare censure them?" I wanted the subject changed. It was too close to mockery.
But Menglad always was rash, sharp and bright as a chipped glass blade. She shivered, her eyes on the Wolf, and kept talking. "Aye. But his prowess and courage aside, who could be truly glad to go to that wild bed, and share him with his mistress, Darkness?"
There was no answer to that. I watched the one black-brindled head among the golden as it bent close to Strifbjorn's. We dined only for pleasure: we slept only when hurt. We came together, my brothers and sisters and I, in the face of war or the cause of celebration: not as we used to, for the sheer joy of singing the world into being. Back before Men were made, and creation was complete.
But that night was a wedding, and there would be a feast in the hall. And after the feast, there would be fighting.
Oh, it would be fine.
"Are you nervous?"
Menglad gave me a sidelong look behind her veils. "Nervous?"
"About the wedding night." Her eyes behind the veil were more blue than grey. The starlight that filled them suddenly was nevertheless tinted silver.
She leaned aside and dropped her voice. "Shall I tell you a secret, Muire? Of all of us, I believe you can keep one."
"I am an historian, after all. The only secrets I whisper are those of the dead."
She pursed her lips; it smoothed her brow. "You are not like the rest of us, Muire. I do not envy you. But I do not know what we would be without your voice."
I brushed her strangeness away with my left hand. "You were about to give me a secret."
She took a breath, licking her lips moist. "I've been to Arngeir's bed," she whispered, leaning so her veil hid the shape of her words against my hair.
"In the mead-hall?" I couldn't imagine how she kept that secret. Despite the dark of night and the averted eyes of politeness, one notices such things as a shared bed. Especially when the beds are not often used for sleeping.
Tonight they would be, however. Used for sleeping, and for other things. I might spend the night in the field, or on the mountainside.
She shook her head. "We've met in secret. I'm sure Strifbjorn knows, but as Arngeir offered for me, there has been no scandal. He can be kinder than he seems--Strifbjorn, I mean."
I leaned closer, speaking so softly she must have strained to hear. "What's it like? And have you... have you shared the kiss yet?"
She shook her head. "We decided to wait. It seemed safer: what if something happened? Before we were wedded, I mean. We'd both be..."
...unmarriageable. Yes. It was one thing to marry a widow, knowing you would be taking on a bit of another as well. Another entirely to join with someone, expecting to find oneself half of a whole, and discover the taint of a third already woven into the bonding.
She picked up her thread after a moment of silence. "As for the other.... Well, it hurts. At first. But it's a... good sort of hurt. Not to be feared, Much less than a sword-cut."
I shook my head. "I am content with your reports." Over her shoulder, I caught a sneering glance from tall, fair Sigrdrifa, whom I knew also coveted Strifbjorn's hand.
I stood and excused myself with fortuitous timing, for as I took horns of mead from the thralls, more of the einherjar began to arrive--Arngeir's party, but not yet the groom himself. We seated them across the fire-trench from Strifbjorn.
My sisters scurried to assist me, leaving Menglad stranded on the cross-bench in her trappings of crimson and gold, with a wide divided skirt. She seemed small and alone when I glanced back; I wondered at her courage in the face of the great unknown--her marriage, her bonding, her future as half of a larger thing than herself.
I shook my head, and turned my attention to the task of carrying the honey wine.
Some time later, when the drinking and the revelry were underway, Arngeir arrived. I was still on my feet, distracting myself from the Wolf's stare and Menglad's attempts at merriment before the crude jests of our brothers. I met Arngeir with a horn of mead before he was well into the room.
My sister's husband-to-be was tall as any of my brothers, and more handsome than most. Clad in red like the bride, he strode in as if claiming the hall, a golden braid bobbing down his back. As I raised the horn, I heard the scrape of a bench. On the far side of the fire-trench Strifbjorn stood.
"Will you drink a guest-cup, traveler?" I asked.
"I will, maiden." Arngeir took the horn, drained it, and gave it back.
As warm horn slid into my curled fingers, Strifbjorn called out.
"Who comes to my hall?"
Arngeir winked at me. Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed the Grey Wolf rising, coming forward at Strifbjorn's left flank. On his right was Yrenbend, my favorite brother, lean and ascetic in his shirt and trousers of immaculate white.
"One who seeks a wife," Arngeir responded.
"There is a waelcyrge here who awaits a husband." Strifbjorn glanced down the hall at Menglad, who had risen from the cross-bench and stood surrounded by our sisters, a last red berry on a snow-covered bush. She swept the length of the hall, the train of her divided skirts and her veil rustling across the pine branches. "Sister," Strifbjorn said, his voice the essence of courtesy. "Will you have this man to husband?"
She drew herself up straight and proud, examining Arngeir with the critical eye of a shrewd farmwife about to purchase a stud horse. She looked along her nose at him, and I could see her fighting both a smile and a shiver. Strifbjorn stepped closer to me. I smelled the clean woodsmoke scent of his skin... and then the rank animal musk that seemed to hang around the Wolf like his grey cloak, that dark charcoal wool no other wore.
I held my gaze away from Strifbjorn, although his sleeve brushed my wrist and the heat of his body warmed my skin. I knew why Menglad shivered.
"How will you prove your worth?" Menglad's voice dripped hauteur.
"Rich gifts I will give, my sister, my intended," he said. "To each waelcyrge of your household and to all the Children of Light here gathered."
"Gifts are well, but they do not prove a man's wit or might. Which of those do you offer?"
"Might," he answered.
Strifbjorn stepped forward again, blocking my view. "You will strive with us for the privilege?"
"With words or swords, my brother?"
Menglad must have smiled; her voice lifted. "Let us feast, and then let this one who thinks to claim me stand and fight."
Strifbjorn and Arngeir clasped wrists. A delighted laugh broke out throughout the hall, and then each einherjar turned and walked to his respective place. Strifbjorn let his hand fall on my shoulder in passing and leaned to murmur, "Well done, little sister." He nodded once, not catching my eye, and walked away, the Wolf following as if at heel.
The shiver became a shudder as I watched him leave, and along his path I caught the look Sigrdrifa shot me--naked as a venomed blade. She stepped forward, but Yrenbend insinuated himself exactly as if he did not notice her. He caught me around both upper arms and spun me into the air. "Tonight, Muire, you must fight at our side." He set me in my footsteps as if I weighed nothing.
I sent a longing glance to Menglad and the others returning to the cross bench. "I will, Yrenbend. I'll stand by your side."
I pulled him down to me and kissed his cheek. "And I'll serve your ale tonight. If you expect Brynhilde to be busy."
Yrenbend cast about the hall, but did not find his wife. "She'll be attending Menglad during dinner," he sighed, "and then, of course, she fights with the valraven during the tournament." Brynhilde, like Herfjotur, was partnered with a war-steed.
And how like Yrenbend to make an offered escape seem like a favor tendered him. "Then I shall be pleased to assist."
Mingan glanced sidelong, folded his gloves, and tucked them into his belt, fastidious creature. He drew a small knife and sliced meat from the haunch on the trestle. The pieces, he laid on our plate. "You are troubled."
As he was looking at me, I nodded. If all went well, we'd solemnize a marriage tonight. It would only be a formality: I saw how Menglad's eye followed Arngeir while he drank and feasted in preparation for the coming battle. A lovestruck girl doesn't watch that way, all knowledge and amusement. If she thinks she's watched, she flirts. She preens coyly, and glances and giggles. Adults, confident in another's desire... preen differently.
So there was that to worry me. And, really, the least of my problems.
I watched my brothers and sisters eating and wrestling and laughing, trading ribaldry, and was watched in turn by two or three hopeful waelcyrge. At my left hand, Mingan tore his bread mannerly and dipped a morsel at a time in the juice on the trencher. He knew me well, to follow my thoughts with the line of my gaze.
"You must choose one eventually," he said, leaning in, his breath stirring the hair that escaped my braid. I turned enough to glimpse his profile. To say he was hatchet-faced would be a kindness; his nose sloped and broke, and his cheekbones made his eyes seem to sit glittering in caverns.
A quip died a-borning. "You know I can't."
He'd cut the meat. I pushed a morsel across the platter with the tip of my knife. A waelcyrge brought mead and I drained it, returning her the horn with my gratitude. A married woman, thank the Light. As if reading my mind again, Mingan chuckled.
"I'd rather you laughed with me."
His hand fell on my forearm. On the strength of the excuse, I turned to regard him fully, but he was watching something the length of the hall away. His voice came like a tickle inside my ear, like light caught on cleaved shale. Then choose one who will protect you.
Should I saddle some innocent girl with my secrets? The Children of the Light could not speak mistruth.
Silence is no lie. Some would count their luck to be asked.
Brother of my heart-- But he stared at me, and I faltered and turned away. I cannot. A physical liaison would be one thing. I won't pollute a marriage bed.
Then all your conquests are in vain. You will lose them one way or the other. He took his hand from my arm, leaving coolness where heat had been.
"Then I'll lose with what honor is left to me," I replied, and ignored the hurt I felt in the shifting of his frame. We knew each other well, truth be told.
But it often isn't.
If I could make him laugh, I thought he'd forgive me. And I tried through the afternoon, with about as much success as I expected. At least making the effort alone might buy me a little pity, later.
After what seemed a long time, Menglad stood in a column of crimson cloth, and accepted a horn from a thrall. The hall fell silent as she paced its length from North to South, walking alongside the seething fire-trench, her gown much the color of the flames.
She strode up the line of Arngeir's party and they stared ahead, silent, and dared no jest. Her reputation with the crystal blade at her belt, bronze hilt sparking, was unmatched. Even by such as me.
She'd stop before Arngeir and turn to him with the drinking horn. Her lover. I wondered if they had been foolish enough to share the vow and the kiss in anticipation.
It'd been a long time since such a scandal had haunted my hall. In any case, it'd be over by midnight. Let it end well for them, whatever risks they'd taken. Oh, let it end well.
My shield-mate still stared into the middle distance. "It's a time of celebration. Eat."
He turned haunted silver eyes on me. "For some." And then he quirked a smile. "Observe, brother. The drama begins."
Menglad paused and turned, raising the horn. I bit my lip; it was all very silly, but it wouldn't do to ruin the ritual with mirth. From the curve of her mouth, Menglad wasn't having it any easier maintaining a solemn veneer. "Arngeir, my brother says to me that you would have me to wife."
Arngeir deliberately turned from his quiet conversation with the einherjar next to him, placed both hands on the edge of the table and levered himself to his feet. "Your brother speaks the truth."
Where she declaimed, he answered in a calm carrying tone, sounding less like he was about to fall over himself.
"If you wish to drink from my cup this night, O Arngeir, you must best my sisters and my brothers. Stand you ready?"
Arngeir was her brother too, inasmuch as any of us were. We were all born together, of the starlight and the sea. But that mattered not, to how the game was played.
Silly, I think I said.
He laughed. "Bring them against me." He turned, stepped over the bench behind him, and strode from the hall. His warriors followed.
I stood, and didn't look at Mingan. "Ready?"
He nodded. Silent as a padded footfall, he was already on his feet, one hand resting on his pommel. He shot me a wolfish, sidelong grin, starlight pooling in the gray part of his eyes. "By all means, my dear Strifbjorn. Let us find us a war."
Except for Menglad, the waelcyrge had retired to their niches at the women's end of the hall. They emerged re-garbed, clad still in white, rectangular indigo capes swirled and pinned at the right shoulder with a brooch like a four-pointed star. For fighting, they wore split skirts or trousers, and tunics with bloused sleeves and open seams. Herfjotur and Skeold led them among us, their swordhilts and hair shining in the firelight. It gladdened my heart to see them.
We, the einherjar, retrieved our shields from where they hung among the rafters, iron-banded wood painted with brave colors and devices. In winter, the thrall-children use them as sleds.
One of the waelcyrge stalking me, Sigrdrifa, shot a look down the length of the line of einherjar--but chose another warrior to stand beside. I was relieved to see the little historian, Muire, stand with Yrenbend--laying her hand on his forearm and looking up at him with a brief, troubled smile. Herfjotur it was who came toward me, the blue silk of our pennant laid over her shoulder, the pole in her right hand--Herfjotur, widowed, was a valraven's rider, and seemed content with that partnership over seeking a new husband.
She lifted the indigo banner, showing the silver stars embroidered across its surface: only the banner of our hall. The Raven Banner hung behind the Lady's chair, a stark white sweep of cloth from hoist to fringe, no black bird marring its surface to portend war.
"Won't you ride your steed?" Only she knew his name.
She pouted 'no.' "He does not approve of ritual combat."
"Ah. I didn't know the valraven disapproved of things."
That made her laugh, which made me glad. I had to be so careful, with so many of them, but Herfjotur... she was all right. She didn't require an armored and impervious warleader; just one with a will and a plan.
She checked the hang of the banner one last time. Then she came and took my arm, leading me forward into battle.
We arrayed on the greensward, in the light of the setting sun, pair and pair. The Grey Wolf stood lean and solitary in his gray wool and leathers. No one had come to fight beside him. He went shieldless also. Arrogance; it worried me.
He caught me watching. Thin red lips parted in a deadly smile. "Do not worry so, Strifbjorn," he called over the jesting and taunts traveling back and forth between the lines. "It will make you old."
Herfjotur braced the banner-stave at her belt and through the loops over her shoulder, drawing her sword Solbiort into her right hand.
I hefted my shield. "It's my nature. But by the Serpent that bears all Burdens, get yourself killed and I'll come across the river after you and drag you back by your hair."
He thought and then he said, "Agreed. I shall hold you to that."
Menglad Brightwing came out of the mead-hall and lifted a silver-chased horn in her hand, light sliding like oil along the filigree. The banter silenced. The sun slid down the sky, the cold north sea hissed against the flank of the mountain far below, and silence reigned.
The crimson-clad bride raised the horn to her lips and sounded it, deep and long.
Like ocean falling into ocean, the battle was joined.
Of course we let them win. Several of our brothers and two of our sisters had to be carried inside, bandaged, and laid to bed, but there weren't any deaths. A--fortuitous--omen, supposedly.
I would have had to think back many years to the last time one of the Children died in a game, though we still died when we rode to war. And rest would heal the wounded within days, but they would miss the party.
The waelcyrge carried mead around again while the einherjar found their seats. I crossed the hall diagonally. My place was on the step before the Cynge's empty chair, and Arngeir and Menglad came to stand before me.
I looked over my brothers and sisters, einherjar and waelcyrge, chosen and choosers. They were a brave array, even wearied and bloodied from the fight--Sigrdrifa, with all her wounded pride and the swiftness of her blade; Ulfgar smooth-voiced and sharp-tempered, Herewys who thought no-one knew when he slipped injured birds inside his shirt.
Mine. I swallowed too much pride.
Arngeir'd healed the wound across his breast that Herfjotur had delivered him, but the bloody rent in the red of his shirt remained. Menglad looked cool and dignified, but I read excitement and perhaps a little fear in the toss of her head. I wanted to reassure her, tell her that what was coming would complete and not constrain her.
But I wasn't supposed to know that.
"Menglad," I said, when the murmur of voices dropped away, "Take your husband's hand."
A seat of status, a post at table?
The gods shall never grant you.
Something stirs in my breast. An old hurt, an old heat. The bride and groom walk the hall in parallel, separated by the fire-trench. They stink of dread, hope, joy.
They stop before Strifbjorn, who stands where the Cynge would stand. If we had a Cynge. I lean forward on my bench, the better to see, queue falling over my shoulder again. At the foot of the hall, the waelcyrge rise, their swords naked in their hands. Flickers of starlight run the dark edges of their blades. Little Muire fidgets out among them, nervy as if she can feel her own difference. I glance away, back at Strifbjorn.
And the couple he will bind into one.
He is laughing silently, as he does. He flicks a glance toward me, then down before I catch his eye. So be it, but the searing in my chest flares, fades, although it never quite all vanishes.
Strifbjorn speaks quietly and Menglad reaches through the fire and places her hand on Arngeir's. The flames trace around them. Fire cannot harm us. Strifbjorn smiles now without guile.
"Arngeir." A louder voice, one that carries throughout the hall, "what say you to Menglad, sister of my heart?"
"That I will have her to wife," Arngeir replies, and turns to her through the flames. "Menglad, wilt marry me?"
A cheer rocks the high, smoke-scarred beams of the hall, beams hung with the tattered banners of enemies who trouble us no longer.
"Menglad," Strifbjorn says, "what say you to Arngeir, brother in the Light?"
"That I will name him husband." Her voice breaks. "Arngeir, wilt marry me?"
He hesitates a moment, stretching our nervous chuckles. And then, "I will, I will," he cries, and another cheer greets them.
"Then you must kiss," Strifbjorn tells them, "and seal the bargain." He laughs; I know he laughs, though only I can see.
The pyre in my chest flares hotter, more terrible. Strifbjorn's gaze could be a weight, but I train my eyes on the couple about to be joined. I stand and draw Svanvitr as all around me my brothers rise.
Arngeir and Menglad turn face to face. He leans forward, steps into the flames that cannot burn us, draws her into his embrace. Coals glimmer dark at the edges of their boots, doused by the pressure of their feet. I see him whisper something to her, and I see her close her eyes. Tears of silver Light leak down her cheeks, staining her ember-colored gown. Arngeir lifts her veil with hands that can be seen to tremble, even at such a distance.
He takes a breath, drops her veil among the coals--where it sparks and is consumed--and draws her into his arms for the ritual kiss.
Their lips touch, mouths open. We all know by instinct how it is done. She seems to swell as he breathes into her open mouth. I hear him moan, see the white-knuckled grip of his fingers on her shoulders. Her arms link around his neck. I can not smell them.
I smell only the fire.
The pain beneath my breastbone is impossible, sharp as the thrust of a sword. Light--pure, simple, white as the feathers of a swan--flares in my eyes, shudders the length of my upraised blade. A third cheer rises from hundreds of throats, a Light blazes from eyes and swords and open mouths, filling the mead-hall with starlight until the flames seem like shadows.
I would throw back my head and howl, but instead--blood filling my mouth, the sweet white Light flaring about me, surrounded by the company of those I cannot touch--I cheer with the rest of them as Menglad's fingers knot in Arngeir's hair, and a blue flare rises about them, eye-blinding. The Light of the bond taking hold, of two souls forged into one, left hand and right, will and action. The band at my throat is tight, tight, tight.
Forbidden me by fate and my own mistakes, forever.
They fall to their knees amid the embers, flames rising over their heads almost invisible in the starlight that fills up the hall, our blades, our bodies.
At last, they part. Arngeir stands amid the scattered coals, extends a hand to Menglad Brightwing, leads her from the hall and to his waiting mount--a mortal horse, a dapple gelding--as the cheers renew.
I walk from the darkened mead-hall. Strifbjorn finds me at the border of the forest. Even here, the wind brings sounds of laughter, and softer sounds occasionally, too.
I turn to him as he comes up, towering over me--a kind dangerous bulk like a well-mannered stallion. "Herfjotur," I say. "She would understand. Or the little one, the clever one. Muire. She will shatter into wisdom."
"I'll not marry," he says--the old argument.
And I am supposed to answer, But thou must.
Not tonight. Tonight I cannot bear it. Tonight there was the girl flinching from my voice, and the waelcyrge's hand retreating from my touch, her longing for the man beside me so powerful I felt it clean as a blade. Despite the gloves.
Tonight there is the Light, and the shadowed darkness, and the stricture of my collar, and the sting beneath my breastbone of a gulped sun.
I take Strifbjorn by the sleeve, draw him into the shadows of the ancient trees.
He does not struggle. The need in him tingles my fingertips as I lure him on. Soon we reach the bower of a scholar-tree old as the mountain we stand on, old as this young world we made. His body is a bow: strung tight, yet it twists to my touch. I take his face between my hands and, drawing him down in the shadow of the tree, I kiss his mouth.
This is wrong.
The wrong is done, I answer.
He pulls me close. At first he teases. We kiss like mortals, tongues and lips and groping hands. His cool mouth, wet, tastes of hops and honey. I press him to the trunk, hauling on his plait like a rein. No decent rider would manage a horse so. He goes willing, opens the smoke-smelling bearskin to enfold me. I cast my cloak over our heads. My hands on his back, broad with knotting muscle. His hands are gentle where mine pinch and maul.
I bring him to the earth, tangled in cloaks, pull him over me like a shelter. He rests his elbows on the ground and cups my shoulders on his palms. I scratch his neck, his shoulders, bite his mouth when he kisses me softly again.
We take each other always in my domain, under the cold staring sky, never under roofs, in beds. Another night, I might shed my garb, strip his. We might take our pleasure skin to skin, lingering over moans and murmurs. The overture, only, for the kiss.
Tonight, I bloody him. His hands pin mine, but I still clutch his braid. It hauls his head down, twists his neck, holds his mouth where I can reach. I strain up, elbows planted, and lick red from his lips. His weight on my wrists creaks the bone.
We move in rut. He presses between my thighs; I hook my heels and thrust against him. Sharp things in the hard earth stab. He binds me. I trap him. Rocking, sliding, hard prick against hardness, separated by cloth and leather. He is cold to my touch.
Naught but fire and sunlight feel warm to me.
He bites my mouth this time. Hard, on a diagonal, tenderness fled. I take his mark, reply with a tongue sharped between his teeth. He welcomes.
I release his plait, break his grip, leave shreds of skin under his nails. And then my nails drive hard behind his ears, down his nape. I lift my shoulders from the earth, hang from his swearing strength. He says my name into my mouth. My name. A breath. An offering.
I take it. Hard and fast. Arched to his stone strength, not the slow sharing he thought to offer but driving, sucking, taking, rough and deep and without reserve. Alvitr jabs my ribs, and I pull the sword from his harness, lay it blindly aside, unbuckle my own belt so he can slither it and my blade out of the way.
He breathes out and I pull him in. His substance, his core. Light flares, dazzling, muffled by our cloaks, showing his bones through the flesh. Sharp. Sweet. Perfect agony, except it is delight. My name becomes a moan, the moan becomes a growl. He sucks, bites, panting, and every breath I breathe in and give back. His hands on my waist. His weight is an anchor. He fumbles my trousers open and jams his hand inside.
My own breath tangled in his, saying his name into his mouth as his hand works between us. He nurses my tongue, stopping my breath when I would push it into his lungs again. I'd cry out, but his mouth seals mine, tongue and palate working in pulses, cruel deferral until he breathes me in again and all starlight blossoms. Him. Me.
Us. Elbows and knees and rough palms in the shattered darkness, mouths locked as I arch against him, a tiny irritating pleasure lost in the sea of the kiss. Blinding. It hurts. It's splendid. He wrenches my mouth to his, fingers sticky in my hair, still kneeling between my feet as I squirm and kick my trousers down until they catch on my boots. The cloaks suffocate, trap the blazing against our skin. I pull them tighter, pin the edge under my shoulder. They cannot slip.
The kiss broken, rejoined as we fumble his fly. He tries to make it easy and I won't wait. Teeth, nails, blunt striving as he presses my legs up and then together and I drag his mouth open with my hands and breathe into him, hard, matching his rhythm, giving back everything I get as he bucks. Making him feel it, take it. Owning him owning me.
I mean to leave directly after, back to the wolves and the mountain, but there's a voice. A woman's voice, and weeping. So softly, and I know her grief is private, but I am drawn. Perhaps the flayed ache under my heart cries for proof that it is not the only pain in the world.
It is Muire. I pause, ferns about my knees, and watch: she is lost in her grief. She must have taken her hair down to brush it, for it falls about her shoulders in ripples from the braids. Darker and smaller than her sisters--as if distilled. She's stuffed her fist into her mouth to smother sound, leaned her forehead against the rough bark of an ash. Moonlight reveals the marks of teeth on the knuckles.
She still wears white, though she has left her cloak behind. She is barefoot. Something sent her running from the mead-hall half-undone. I watch, voyeur as always, consider going to her. Her grief is private, though, and I suspect her rivals as the source. And she flinched from me.
Until I step back into the darkness and scent her backtrail. She came from the direction of the scholar-tree.
This is a story that begins and ends with a kiss, I thought, watching Mingan vanish through shadows cast by tree boughs in a waning moon. I sighed, tasting him on the outflow. I felt rawness inside. A fragment of me had been lost to our kiss, or given to it. The unbearable, forbidden kiss.
He'd returned a splinter of his own soul, paid the debt in the secrets of his heart. His fierceness and craft fluttered in me like a banked flame, spreading warmth and will. All his wild old strength was there, and all the love he bore me. Shadows of his temptations and truths and the choking sorrow he rarely spoke. I would not share him.
I wouldn't be shared.
We'd find a way. I had half a plan, though it all strung on Yrenbend.
But for now, Mingan had evaporated in that way of his. And I? I turned and walked away. Not to the mead-hall. I had to wash off his scent, rinse his taste from my mouth before I went back, and I wanted it a little longer. So I picked my way down the cliff path, overlooking the sea.
He'd wrapped me in his cloak to hide the Light that flared around us, cocooned us in thick woolen folds. He was in me still, and I held that trace like an ember in cupped hands, blew across it, studied the resultant glow.
He didn't know himself if he only argued me towards marriage to save face, when he knew that it was futile, or if he really thought that he intended to protect me. Or if his own longings--oh, I knew, I knew I wasn't enough for him, I knew he wondered about others--drove what he said about Herfjotur, about Muire, all the women he pressed on me. If you want something you think you can't have, the next best thing is to talk a friend into it.
In truth, to stay warleader I needed to marry. In truth also I couldn't, for the kiss would reveal our tryst to a wife. And what woman, even if she didn't repudiate me in the wake of such a betrayal, would care to be linked to the Grey Wolf? It'd be--basest treachery, unworthy--to so deceive someone.
They feared him. I knew what that fear cost him.
Better to risk my place in the Light, than inflict that on two I cared for.
The greensward lay wet with dew under my boots; the moonlight turned each drop to cold pewter. Below, the ocean rolled in, stately. I scrubbed my fingers on my thighs, my bruised mouth swollen. I couldn't bear to heal it yet.
Sore everywhere he touched me, and glorying in it. I savored the thought for a minute, then ruined the mood laughing at my own melodrama.
It was foolishness. I knew the price the first time I kissed him, and had decided even then that no one would ever make me regret it. The assignations could be forgiven: a small enough transgression. Something that would not be spoken of. No one would insult two warriors, so long as we showed no other weakness. Even if our brethren suspected, and I didn't think they did.
The rest--the kiss--was anathema.
We were expected to marry, Mingan and me. Expected to bond a wife with whom we might get a child and replenish the Children of the Light. But even long marriages among us proved fertile only rarely, and the ones that did were notable in the strength of the bond between the pair.
The bond of their kiss.
I owed my brethren children, if I could get them. As did Mingan. Damn us all.
I slid down the path as much as walked. Rocks and scree skittered from my boots. It was all broken shale, and tricky, edging on a sheer drop, strewn with boulders and bits of rock. The moon was falling, and the strand glimmered pale when I achieved it, littered with seaweed and shells that crushed under my steps. I skipped a stone, counted bounds. Seven. With the sea so smooth, I should be able to do better.
As I stooped for a flat rock, a glitter of crimson and violet caught my eye--foreign colors in the moonlight monochrome.
Her skin was white as the strand, the long wet gown that draped her more beige or golden, her hair pale and matted with salt and sand. She lay still as a ridge on the beach: I never would have seen her if not for the moonlight caught on the collar of jewels and golden wires that cinched her throat.
I stared at the shadows and outline for seconds before I realized what they meant.
A woman. On the beach like so much flotsam, dead or unconscious, her pale hair twisted with seaweed.
Hand on Alvitr's hilt, I sprinted across the wet sand to where she lay, her fine pleated gown waterlogged and drifting about her ankles as the tide rolled down her body.
She could not possibly be alive.
I dropped beside her, knees digging furrows by the force of my fall. As gently, as swiftly as I could, I turned her. My hand under her nape, I straightened her neck and arched it. She was not breathing. Something littered the sand beneath and around her--a tangle of sodden swan's feathers, stripped and broken by the tide.
I pressed my fingertips under the line of her jaw and held my breath. Her skin was clammy and grey, but a moment's patience rewarded me with the slow, staggering thread of a heartbeat.
I did not know her: a mortal woman, not one of the waelcyrge. I could breathe for her without fear.
I drew her mouth open and bent over her, probing down her throat with my fingers, straightening her tongue, remembering Mingan's rough fingers prizing my jaw open. But his mouth was hot; hers tasted briny and cold when I pressed my lips down, pinching her nose shut. Salt in the tooth-marks reminded me to will them healed, so only the first breath stung.
The force to fill her lungs surprised me. There was muscle under that silken gown. Lapping waves wet my calves and knees, round stones buried in the sand bruising as I breathed for her, out and gasp and out again. I had no hope of saving her, this mortal woman with her body battered by the sea, but the thread of her pulse grew stronger under my hand cupping her jaw, and at last she gagged around my breath.
I turned her on her side and let the water trickle from her mouth as she convulsed. She retched and purged, and when she was done she lay quiet, breathing on her own, moonlight threading the jewels of her necklace.
I had torn the skin of my right hand on the wires. I healed it with a thought, all the remaining bruises and scrapes and the hard marks of Mingan's loving hands. And I scooped her into my arms.
Leftover blood smeared the sand-colored cloth of her ruined gown. Her eyelids didn't even flutter as I carried her back up the treacherous cliffside path to the hall.
I hurry from the mead-hall in the meadow, the mortal town below it. Away from my sisters, my brothers, and into the dark. I run into the night's embrace. Already I draw my gloves off, loping up the mountain amid the leaflorn oaks and beeches. Farther, they give way to conifers, and above that, meadow, and above that finally bare gray rock and ice. I will not run so far. The wind floats a wolf-howl to my ear. That ear felt as if could almost perk and swivel.
It is not yet time to return to the pack. While the hurt is fresh and sweet, while my body still aches with unwise passion and wiser pain, I climb to a high knoll screened by pine and spruce. There, the wind is colder. It carries a scent of woodsmoke and the sea, the scent as well of wolves, of the distant human town, of bucks in their autumn rut. I turn to the ridge of Ulfenfell, flickering in the moonlight with a cool blue gleam. There is a sharp wind from its peak, and another scent on that.
"Imogen," I whisper into the wind, "come to me."
She is swift and all but invisible. Even to me. Her wings are feathered soft as an owl's. Her eyes are paper lanterns. She settles before me, furling her pinions close as a cloak about her naked form.
"My Lord," she whispers.
His mistress, Darkness. Oh, I hear what they say.
But she is my sister. Half-sister. As old as I am, in a world too young. She is my sister, and she obeys me.
Hunger would not kill her. Nothing can kill her. But how can I leave her to starve?
She steps closer, velvet black fur slicked with light. The moon is setting: some of that light shines from me. She comes like a gnat into a candleflame, her red mouth an open gash in her face, showing teeth pointed as thorns. She mews, hungry. Always hungry.
I open the collar of my shirt, the heat in my center cresting, flaring, burning under my heart. My fingers brush the too-tight silken ribbon clinching my throat. Droplets of pale light leak. I touch the knot that cannot be loosened, brush tender bruises where I strained against the fetter when I lay down for Strifbjorn.
I bare my breast to the demoness.
"Feed, then. I shall be a feast for thee tonight."
Her nostrils flare as she leans forward, ducking her head to taste my skin. Her tongue rasps a little, softer and wetter than the tongue of a cat. Her wings fold around us, a shelter or a cage: I pinion her wrists gently, protecting my shirt and my flesh from her small, sharp claws.
She finds a place over my heart and leans into me, breath and feathers tickling as she nurses like a babe, straining for a moment against my grip, claws flexing.
Relief. All the grief, the sorrow of the night and all the nights before flow into her, drawn from my body like a stain. I straighten, will and strength returning, release her right hand from my left and stroke her head. Copper sweetness--my own blood--fills my mouth; the scabs have broken. I raise my eyes to the heavens, bask in the light of the stars. False dawn glows on the horizon. Her claws scratch as she lays the hand against my chest, but--settled now and feeding--she restrains herself, dainty as a sparrow, and does no harm.
When I can bear the grief again, and I am staggering with tiredness, I whisper, "Enough." The Imogen raises her head with a faint high whine.
Always hungry, but if I permit it she will eat me to a husk, and then fill me up with sorrow again. She is a weapon--born and bred for nothing else.
She is my sister, after all.
After the Imogen leaves me on the mountainside, I find my way back to the wolf-lair at the copper beech. They have not returned from their run. But though the carcass of the foolish young buck is much gnawed, there will be enough for tomorrow. They are not hunting, merely running for the sheer joy of it. I am about to climb into my favored perch when I notice something odd at the margin of the clearing: straggly last-wildflowers, tied with a red ribbon, set beside a checked cloth bundle.
I crouch and touch the bundle haltingly with a fingertip. A scent of spices arises. I unwrap it.
Gingerbread, with cloves and cinnamon laced through it, redolent of molasses and brown wheat flour. A rich gift.
There is a trace on the red ribbon other than the flowers--the girl in the russet cloak.
An offering? Or simply thanks? And who tracked the wolves to our lair? The girl? Perhaps.
The pack returns, surrounding me, snarling at the reek of woodsmoke and ambergris clinging to my cloak. The red bitch rubs against me, at last, coating me with her scent; her mate, dark as old bronze and dusted with silver across the hackles, soon follows. I laugh as they take my forearms in wolf-gentle mouths, press me down, wrestling and yipping and marking me their subject, their pack, theirs.
Later, I try to share the spice cake with them, but only the red bitch and a ghost-pale two-year-old will touch it.
The mead-hall blazed with torches when I returned from weeping in the wood, picking my way barefoot across the turf. Herfjotur's steed raised one of his twin heads to watch me. He half-unfurled snow-white wings in greeting, and then lowered the antlered head again, to crop the summer's last long grass.
The great doors stood open, and I stepped inside, dirt and leaves staining the hem of my trousers, pine needles tangled in my hair. I braced for attention and whispers: I had expected to return to a quiet hall.
No-one noticed me.
My brothers and sisters were clustered in the southeast corner. Worried murmurs reached me as I walked beside the rekindled fire-trench. I drew even with them, crossed before the Lady's empty chair and came up beside Yrenbend.
"What has transpired?" I stood on tiptoe to reach his ear until he hunched to accommodate me.
"Strifbjorn has rescued a drowned mortal girl on the beach," he said. "We're annoying him." He raised a wry eyebrow and smiled at me from the corners of silver eyes laced with a cast of green. His queue was a dark golden red. I wanted to reach out and yank it.
"Will she live?"
He turned away from the crowd and laid a companionate hand on my shoulder. "She is breathing on her own. Come. There's still mead to be had." He led me back down the hall and served us both from the cask near the Cynge's chair--in round-bottomed bowls that could be sipped and set aside, not the horns that must be drained at a draft. "She has not awakened."
We sat together at the end of the trestle table, and he watched me drink. I pulled a knife from the sheath on my thigh to cut some scraps of the cold roast that still lingered on the table, and gave him my best attempt at a smile.
He reached out and touched a lock of my unbound hair, pulling a swag of pine needles from it. He smelled of leather oil and salt sea-spray. A silver flute hung in a case at his belt: a flute I had made for him. "You look unwell, sister."
I sighed and glanced around the hall, leaning across the table closer to Yrenbend once I saw that no-one was near us. There was no privacy, in a mead-hall. "I'm troubled, Yrenbend." I poked at the venison again, cutting a hatchwork of lines in the side of the roast with the point of my knife.
Something as dark and ravenous as the legendary sun-eater raved in my breast. Hope. And what a terrible thing hope can be. "What else? I had myself all but convinced that there was no chance. I'm not the bravest or the best of us, by any means... and plain as a sparrow, I know that too. But I went walking tonight, after Sigrdrifa teased me...." Yrenbend would know the details. Word passed quickly from the women's end of the hall to the men's. Yrenbend's wife would have told him what Sigrdrifa said, regarding Strifbjorn and whatever feelings I might have for him. And the likelihood of those feelings being returned.
I realized that my voice had trailed off only when Yrenbend prodded me. "And...?" He sipped his mead, both eyebrows rising in an expression that never managed to make him look surprised.
I stuck my knife into the mutilated roast, tip grating on the bone. "I heard something I shouldn't have. The Wolf and Strifbjorn, speaking in the shadow of a tree."
He retrieved my knife and carved a bit of meat, which he pleated meticulously before tucking it into his mouth. He watched my face while he chewed.
"Mingan--the Wolf--was counseling Strifbjorn to marry. And quickly." I took the knife away from Yrenbend, attacking the roast so that I would not have to meet his eyes. "And me."
Not the whole truth. But not a lie either. And whatever else I'd overheard--was not mine for the sharing.
"Really." Yrenbend did not sound astonished, but then he never did. "Naught else?"
I risked a glance. He seemed thoughtful. "I walked away. It seemed indecent to eavesdrop." Not a lie, not a lie, not a lie. But as close as I had ever come.
"Your honor does you credit." He finished his mead. "Let me see what I can learn." Standing, he dropped his hand on my shoulder again and turned away, back toward the dispersing knot of our brethren at the far end of the hall.
The next morning, I left walking southward, to make myself useful in the world.