Torunn winced as the healer’s apprentice pierced her flesh with the bone needle again, but she didn’t move. It was her own fault that she’d been injured. Her head throbbed, and she hadn’t slept, but she was waiting for Iri to come careening through the door and demand that she be somewhere. That was all he was good for. She barely turned as the door of her father’s house slammed open and Iri stomped in. “What happened to you?” “You’re getting mud on the floor,” she said mildly. “Answer the question!” Torunn sighed heavily and shrugged. A mistake. The apprentice hissed something she couldn’t make out and she grimaced as the young man yanked on the thread he was using to stitch the wound on her shoulder. “You’re wounded!” “I know.” “What happened?” “Isn’t it obvious?” she snarled. “I wasn’t quick enough.” Her father’s youngest advisor pressed a hand to his forehead briefly and glared at her. “You should not be acting like this?” Torunn stared at him. “Like what?” He gestured wildly.
“Like… this! Drinking. Fighting. Every night! Your father left you in charge—” “He should have taken me with him.” Iri snorted and shook his head. “You’re late.” Torunn winced again as the healer tugged on the needle and then tied a deft knot in the stitches he’d made. She hated asking for help, and would have stitched it herself if she could have reached it, but the wound had been in an awkward spot, and she couldn’t just leave it to fester. The healer pulled a small stone vial from his satchel and smoothed some salve onto the cut. “You’re lucky it wasn’t deeper,” the man grunted. “So is Halle,” she said with a wry smile.
“Torunn!” She nodded to the healer and stood up. “Late for what?” Iri stared at her but she made no move to pull her tunic back up over her breasts. She knew what he was staring at, but she didn’t care. They had grown up together, wrestling in the mud, fighting in the river… She wasn’t any kind of sacred relic; she was tired, her head ached, the cut on her shoulder burned, and she was annoyed. The healer packed his bag and slipped past Iri who frowned in annoyance as he passed. “There are people waiting.” “Waiting for what?” “Waiting for you,” he said. His voice had taken on a desperate edge, and Torunn shook her head. Of course they were. She turned her back on him to gather her clothes.
She needed a bath, but that would have to wait. Where was her knife? She abandoned her search of the pile of clothing she had been sitting on and reached under her pillow. “Get out,” she said and then smiled as her hand closed around the braided leather that wrapped the hilt of the knife her father had given her so many years ago. “But, Torunn, you cannot—” In a smooth motion, she straightened, pulled the knife from under the pillow and whipped the blade out of its sheath. The edge of the blade touched the quivering flesh of Iri’s throat before he could back away. His bright blue eyes were wide with surprise— perhaps even a hint of fear. That was more like it. “I said, get out.” She lifted the knife away from Iri’s throat for just a moment and smiled at him. His eyes strayed down over her body before he looked away, and she suppressed the urge to drive the blade into his guts.
Luckily for him, Iri knew better than to linger in her bedchamber uninvited. The heavy wooden door of her father’s lodge creaked open and then slammed shut as he fled. Torunn slid the knife back into its sheath and secured it to her hip. Iri had always been so easy to intimidate. He had been a timid, watchful boy when they were children. Always following behind, always worried they would be caught and thrashed for their games and rule breaking. He’d never learned to lie properly, either, which usually landed Torunn and her brothers in more trouble than they had expected. As the noise of the village filtered through the fog of her headache, Torunn rubbed a hand over her face and pulled her tunic over her shoulders. The wound throbbed and burned and she gritted her teeth. Halle would pay for that.
Geese nattered outside the walls of the lodge, mingling with the shouts of the menfolk that had remained in the village and the squalling of children echoed loudly as her head throbbed. If her father had listened to her pleading demands and taken her raiding with him, everything would be different. But he hadn’t, and now she was stuck in the middle of a dreary autumn that would turn to winter any day. She dressed with deliberate slowness—knowing that the people were waiting for her did not make her want to hurry. In her father’s absence, it was Torunn who had been tasked with the responsibility of sitting in his great wooden chair to listen to the complaints of villagers who were worried about the coming winter and the fact that her father’s raiding party had not yet returned to Skaro’s shores. “What am I supposed to do about it?” she muttered. She gasped as the cold water she splashed over her face ran down her naked spine. She should have been in Jovik with her brothers as they raided the shrines of the terrified monks and their impotent god. She should have been there. The bitterness of her thoughts was sharp on her tongue, and she spat into the washing water to drive the taste from her mouth.
She wrapped her cloak around her shoulders and took a moment, as she always did, to rub her fingers over the silver fur that tickled her cheek. She had killed the wolf herself last winter—a large she-wolf that had threatened their flocks under the cold winter moon. A small victory, to be sure, but if the village’s wizened healer was to be believed, it was a symbolic one. Torunn’s brothers had sneered, but Iarund had taken the skin and tanned it himself to be sewn across the shoulders of the fine wool cloak she had brought back from her first raid abroad. She had ripped the dark garment off the shoulders of a noble man with pale, pockmarked skin, an ugly nose, and a very pretty horse. Properly dressed for the cold, and armed to match her mood, Torunn gritted her teeth and strode through her father’s lodge with a purpose she didn’t entirely feel. She didn’t want to be there, and the people didn’t want her there either; at least, not in her father’s place. They wanted their Jarl to come home and answer their disputes; they didn’t want to speak to his daughter. She pushed open the door Iri had slammed behind him and squinted at the grey sunlight that filtered through the late autumn clouds. The snow would be flying soon, and if the ice closed over, her father and brothers would be trapped beyond their borders until the spring thaw came.
She vowed to sacrifice to Freja every day to keep that from happening. “—Torunn Arndottir sits upon her father’s throne in his absence from Skaro,” Iri said solemnly as the door creaked open. His voice echoed over the silent courtyard in front of my father’s house, and she stifled a groan as all eyes turned to her. “Bring her your disputes to be judged fairly and wisely” Fairly? Wisely? Oh, gods. Torunn was unsure if it was her father, or Iri, who had that kind of faith in her, but she didn’t like it. She tried to keep her expression neutral as she took her place on her father’s great chair. She hated that Iri called it a ‘throne,’ and she knew her father did, too. On the eve of her grandfather’s funeral, Arnd Reinnsson had taken that seat, and his title, at the age of fourteen. Youngest of her grandfather’s five sons, Arnd had ripped it from the new jarl’s hands, his uncle’s hands, only moments after his own coronation. Torunn’s father had defied the old customs to take what he wanted, and he’d ruled well.
But as time advanced and her brothers grew stronger, and more like him, every day, the great Arnd Reinnsson began to make strange requests of his kinsmen and shieldmates. Their raiding parties stayed away for longer than they ever had before, and he pushed them to travel farther each time. The people were not fools, and they were growing restless. “Come forward with your grievances,” Iri called out. His voice echoed over the gathered people, but the only other sound was the soft clucking of chickens and the plaintive bleat of a goat held by one of the women in the crowd. Halle grinned at her from one of the doorways and she glowered at him. The tall farmer wasn’t a warrior, but he was handy with a sword, and he was always ready for a fight. It would be a few days until she could challenge him again; but as soon as she could swing a sword without tearing her stitches he would be in trouble. “Stop talking, Iri,” she muttered. “Torunn—“ She waved an older man forward and ignored Iri’s awkward attempt to control the crowd.
“Come, friend, what do you bring to my father’s seat?” she asked. The man stepped forward nervously, but his eyes held anger and fear, two things no jarl wanted to see in his people. “I have heard whispers,” he said. “Speak up,” Iri interrupted. Torunn glared at him, and her father’s advisor stepped back behind her seat. The man cleared his throat and cast a nervous eye at Iri before meeting her gaze again, but only briefly before turning his focus to the rough boards under his feet. “There is talk in Laxa that the jarl has been away too long.” “Laxa? This is a song we have heard before,” Iri interrupted again. “There is always dissent when your father is away, Torunn, you should not worry—” “I’ve already warned you to keep your mouth shut, Iri Hundolfrsson,” she said evenly. “If I have to do it again, you’ll regret it.
” She pulled her knife out of its sheath and laid it upon her thigh meaningfully. Iri swallowed thickly and stepped back again. Torunn blamed herself for how he was acting. For every other audience she had been called to, Torunn had allowed him to take control, but this day was different. On that day. Torunn was the Jarl’s daughter, acting in his stead. Her father had been gone too long, and she should have known that something would be lurking in the shadows as the days stretched into months. She turned her eyes back to the white-bearded man who stood before her. He didn’t look like a warrior—a farmer or a farrier, surely. “What is your name?” “Knut.
” “Knut,” she repeated. “Tell me. What is happening in Laxa?” “Bersi Athulfsson,” he replied. “He believes that Jarl Reinnsson has been tainted by the god from across the waves. Our crops have failed, the lambs are weak, and all the signs point to an early winter… and a hard one.” The man kept his eyes on the ground as he spoke, and each word chilled Torunn to the bone. “And what does Bersi Athulfsson propose to do about it?” she asked carefully. The man shook his head, and his clouded eyes flickered up to hers for just a moment before he looked away again. That moment was long enough for her to see the fear in him. “We have seen these troubles in Laxa before,” Iri said.
“Troubles that are easily solved—” “Easily solved by a visit from my father,” Torunn interrupted him sharply. “A feat that can hardly be accomplished with any haste.” “Patience,” Iri said. “The grumbling in Laxa will fade away when the snow begins to fly. They will have other things to worry about.” Torunn looked at the old man who stood in front of her and grabbed a loaf of bread out of the basket at her feet. She stood up from her father’s chair and pressed it into the man’s gnarled hands. “Thank you for your warning,” she said softly. “It will not go unheeded.” The old man nodded and turned away, and Torunn looked out over the people who had gathered.
They were worried, that much was clear enough, but she felt helpless and unsure of what she should do. Her father had sailed away with her smug brothers and left her with no instruction. He trusted her, but she knew it had been a long time since the jarl had had any thought for his own people. Though he would deny it vehemently, Arnd Reinnsson had become a fool in his old age. Complacent and arrogant in his position. Now she would have to act in his stead and take the place of the leader he could not, or would not, be. She pressed her lips together and wished that her headache would go away. It would be so much easier to think if her head was not throbbing. Damn that mead. She fell back into her father’s chair, closed her eyes, and pressed her fingers into her temples.
“I hope you will heed my advice,” Iri said tersely. Her headache flared. “As with all advice, I will consider it carefully.” “Your father instructed me—” Her eyes flew open. Iri might have held a position of power in her father’s circle, but if he had a mind to take any kind of control for himself… “My father instructed you to act as my advisor,” Torunn snapped. “Do not presume to tell me how I should govern in the Jarl’s stead.” “I did not—” “You did.” She narrowed her eyes at him and he looked away. They had played together as children, and she had thought, for a time, that Iri might have made an offer of marriage. But they weren’t children any longer, and her father would never have agreed to the match.
She wouldn’t have agreed to it, either. Iri cleared his throat and called up the next penitent. Torunn listened carefully to the woman’s complaint, but her mind was on Laxa, and the thinly veiled threat that Bersi Athulfsson represented. She had not heard his name before, and that wasn’t a good sign. Familiar dissidents emerged every season, the same men making the same complaints. But a new face could be dangerous. Unpredictable. As much as she hated to admit it, Iri was right. Patience had saved her father from many perils, and they would all have more to worry about when winter arrived… But she could not shake the feeling that something had to be done.