Sword of Prophecy – Avery Maitland

Her legs ached, but stopping wasn’t an option. Her tears had frozen on her cheeks even as they had fallen. There was no time for tears. No time to process what she had seen. The healers were dead. The people who had been receiving their care were dead. Everyone who had stood to support her was dead… And now she ran from the only home she had ever known. From her own brothers. “Wait,” she hissed. Bersi, supporting Varin’s weight, was too far ahead to hear her, but Iri paused. “What?” The darkened forest was unfamiliar. She had ranged far from Skaro while hunting, but never like this. The thick forest that surrounded Iarund’s house seemed darker, colder, than anything she had experienced before. “I—” What did she want to say? What words could match the swirl of emotion in her chest. Fear.

Anger. Betrayal. Horror. All of it. She felt sick. The smell of the old healer’s blood lingered in her nostrils. “Stay here,” Iri said. He ran ahead to catch Bersi. Torunn leaned against a tree and pressed a shaking hand against her cold cheek. What happened now? What was she supposed to do? The men argued in muffled tones, and Varin’s groan of pain pulled Torunn from her frozen state.

She braced herself on the tree and turned her head to watch them as Bersi shifted the other man’s weight. Varin leaned heavily on his friend; the wound in his side was taking a greater toll than he wanted to admit. Proud bastard. Iri gestured at the trees that surrounded them. “We’ve come far enough for tonight. We should rest. It’s almost dawn.” “Not far enough,” Bersi growled. “We should be through the forest by now.” Varin grimaced.

“Just say I’m slowing you down.” “If you hadn’t gotten yourself injured—” Torunn pushed away from the tree and strode through snow-covered underbrush. She was cold, exhausted, and heartsick. “I need to rest,” she said sharply. “And Varin does, too. We need to stop.” “It’s not safe—” “And it won’t be any safer in a few hours,” Torunn snapped. “We can rest.” Bersi glared at her, and then Varin, before he nodded. “Fine.

But no fire.” Torunn’s mouth fell open, but Iri shook his head. It would do no good to argue with him. And he was right, she knew that much. The risk of being discovered wasn’t worth it. Hallvard would send scouts after them. She was still valuable, and Jarl Sigurd didn’t seem like the sort of man who would care that he had been given an unwilling prisoner as a bride. She shivered slightly at the thought of what she had avoided, and her hands tightened into fists at her side. “Fine.” She fixed Bersi with a fierce glare, but it was wasted.

The big man was surveying their surroundings, ignoring her. Bersi gestured ahead of them. “There is a clearing, but we’ll stay in the trees. Our path will be easy to find unless the snow starts again.” Although winter was fading, Torunn hadn’t realized how cold it still was until they had stopped moving. Varin groaned as Bersi shifted his hold on the old warrior’s torso. “Careful,” he croaked. “I have an invitation to Freya’s wedding that I don’t want to miss.” Bersi chuckled. “You’ll make a charming bridesmaid,” he muttered.

Varin’s answering laugh was strained, but Torunn tried to see it as a sign that the man’s wound was not too grievous. Only time would tell, but they would have to get him to a healer sooner than later. He would not survive the journey to— “Where are we going?” she asked suddenly. “You wanted to rest,” Bersi replied shortly. “We’re finding a place to rest.” Infuriating man. “No. Where are we going,” she repeated. “We need warriors, we need—support if we’re going to strike at Hallvard and Asgaut. They won’t stop treating Skaro’s people like cattle… and now that I’m gone—” Bersi stopped shortly.

“If you had stayed in Skaro, you would be leaving with Jarl Sigurd, and the people you claim to care so much about would be under your brothers’ rule regardless. What did you think you could do? Did you think your minor rebellion would end with you in the Jarl’s seat?” His eyes blazed, and Torunn’s breath caught. He wasn’t her slave anymore. But she had a distinct feeling that he never really had been. “I—” Torrun struggled for an answer. He was right. She knew he was right. Damn him. If she had stayed in Skaro, there would have been nothing she could have done to delay the wedding. Jarl Sigurd would have packed her into his ship like a bale of furs, and she would never see her home again.

Her house. Her servants. Her life before that day would be nothing but a meaningless memory. “Let me go,” Varin grunted. He reached for a low tree branch to keep himself upright as Bersi released his hold. “We’re stopping now.” “Just a little farther,” Bersi urged, but Varin shook his head and spat a mouthful of blood onto the patchy ice-covered snow at his feet. “I’m not moving from this spot.” Bersi’s expression tightened, but he helped Varin to slide down the tree trunk so that he could stretch out. Iri was silent as he set down the pack he carried.

He passed Torunn a waterskin, and she took it gratefully, sank down on a fallen log and pulled her cloak tighter around herself. She was still stunned that she had escaped with her life. Others who had stood up for her hadn’t been so lucky. Iri had not moved away, and Torunn could feel his eyes on her. “Thank you,” she said haltingly. “You did not have to—” “I did,” he said. Torunn regarded him carefully. Since they were children, Iri had always acted in his own best interest. If he could escape punishment or make himself appear as the hero of whatever story being told, he would do whatever it took to make that happen. Not much had changed except the scale of the games being played.

“The gods are watching you,” he said in a low voice. Tears pricked her eyes as she thought of her father. “Are they?” “I believe it,” he said firmly. “How else do you explain—” “She got lucky,” Bersi interrupted. He left Varin at the vase of the tree and pulled the waterskin out of Torunn’s hands. She glared up at him, but the words she needed wouldn’t come. “Hallvard would have gladly watched us all bleed out on the floor of that hall.” “But— the attack that had planned against Jarl Sigurd… Was that forgotten?” Torunn’s voice sounded strangled even to her own ears, and Iri grimaced as he shook his head. “The Jarl’s plans had not changed,” he said. “Don’t call him that,” Torunn snapped.

“My father was the Jarl, Hallvard isn’t fit to lick the mud from the heel of his boots.” Rage burned in her chest. Impotent, white-hot rage. It festered and clutched at her ribs and dared her to forget what she knew. Remembering kept her anger alive, and she needed every shred. Her brothers had caused her father’s death. She believed it with every bone in her body. She would make Hallvard admit it… aloud… Even if it was the last thing she did with her life, it would be worth it. Iri cleared his throat. “You took him by surprise, Torunn.

It is my guess that the attack would have come after the wedding ceremony was completed. At the feast.” She smiled grimly. It made the most sense. The old Jarl would have been drinking, relaxed, secure in his victory. It would have been the perfect time to strike. “I ruined Hallvard’s plans,” she snorted. “At least I accomplished something.” “You have accomplished more than you know,” Iri said. He might not be someone that she trusted, but Torunn had needed to hear words like that.

Some kind of affirmation that she hadn’t made the worst mistake of her life. Bersi held the water skin out to her, and Torunn snatched it away. She took a drink and wished that it was mead to wash away and blur the horrible images that replayed in her mind every time she closed her eyes—the children, slaughtered on the floor of the healer’s house… Iarund… She shook her head and passed it back to Iri. There would be time enough to drown her memories when they reached— “Where are we going?” she blurted out. No one had told her anything. They had just followed Bersi blindly through the forest with terror snapping at their heels. She didn’t want to think about what would have happened if her brother’s men had caught them. Bersi rubbed a hand over his beard, as much in frustration as exhaustion. He had needed to rest, too, she could see that, he just couldn’t admit it. “As far from Skaro as possible.

” Verin coughed and spat another mouthful of blood into the dirt. “Myrka. We’re going to Myrka.” The hair on Torunn’s arms prickled and her mouth went dry. “Why would we want to go there?” “You’ll be needing the favor of the gods to take back your father’s seat,” Varin choked out. “Myrka is where you’ll find it.” “You need to stop talking,” Bersi grunted. He grabbed the water skin from Torunn’s hands and went to Varin’s side. The wounded man drank gratefully and coughed again. “You know it’s where we need to go,” he said.

His eyes were glassy and Torunn hoped that it was just from the pain. She didn’t want anyone else to die because of her. “Myrka is a long way from here.” Iri’s voice was grim. “And the path will be difficult. The people are not expected there for another five years—the godsmen will not be expecting visitors.” “Then we will surprise them,” Varin chuckled. “Or not,” Bersi grumbled. Torunn looked at her hands, stained and crusted with dirt and dried blood. It had been a long time she had stepped foot in the sacred forest.

Her father had held her hand while the sacrifices were made. She hadn’t hidden her face like Asgaut. Her father had been proud of her. “You will be a warrior for the glory of the gods someday.” That was what the priest with the bloodstained smile had told her. She remembered that as clearly as if it had happened the day before. Her father had been so proud. The cross that had been taken from around her father’s neck felt heavy against her chest. “What if they reject me…” she murmured. “My father—” Two quick strides brought Bersi to her side.

“Trust that the gods can see who you are,” he whispered. She longed to take a moment to lean against him and take comfort in his steadiness. But she pushed her shoulders back and sat up straighter. As much as she wanted to believe him, her father’s blasphemy had been a grave one. He had gone to Valhalla under false pretenses—and probably against his own wishes. The priests had bought Jarl Arnd’s passage into Odin’s mead hall. The gods would know. Such an insult would not be forgiven easily. “I cannot be certain of what to trust anymore,” she said stiffly. Bersi’s hand hovered above her shoulder, but he did not touch her.

She wanted him to, but she also wanted to push him away and scream in his face that he had been wrong. He had been wrong about everything. What if Hallvard had not planned to kill Jarl Sigurd at all? Would he still have allowed her to be taken from Skaro? She knew the answer to that. Hallvard wanted her out of his sight. Out of the sight of the people. They would forget her, and everything she had done for them. She was the last reminder of Jarl Arnd… the last reminder of her mother. Their legacy would disappear with her absence. Varin grunted and tried to sit up against the tree trunk, and Torunn’s jaw tightened as Bersi moved away to help his friend. They were an unlikely pair.

A rebel and a warrior of the old ways… A partnership that should never have formed. Much like her and Bersi. An unlikely pairing that would never have borne fruit. But everything was different now. She had made sure of that. Iri had made sure of T that. “You should rest,” Iri said. He hovered nearby, but his gaze darted around the woods, seeking shapes in the darkness. They were vulnerable here—but they would be in danger’s path until they reached the sanctuary that Myrka provided. “We must move again before dawn breaks,” Bersi said firmly.

“Myrka, if that is our destination, is beyond this forest… and we must hurry.” “It is our destination,” Varin said with a grimace. “It is our only refuge.” “Sleep while you can, old man,” Bersi grumbled. Varin chuckled and said nothing more as his eyes closed. Torunn knew that sleep was dangerous when men were wounded so gravely. She could only hope that Varin was right—and that the gods were watching them. Sleep seemed like an impossibility, but exhaustion threatened to take away the last shreds of her resistance. Her mind and body had been on high alert for too many hours, and the refuge of sleep was tempting… Bersi straightened and nodded to Torunn as she eased herself to the ground and gathered her cloak around herself. “I will keep watch,” he said.

“And I,” Iri chimed in. “Do not kill each other,” Torunn said absently. Bersi chuckled, but Iri’s eyes widened slightly. They moved away through the trees, one watching the other warily as Torunn settled herself against the fallen log she had been seated upon. She was reluctant to close her eyes, but she had demanded rest, and she would have to take it—there was no way to know what lay ahead, or when she could sleep again. he trees closed in around her. Naked trunks and sharp branches. Rough bark and pungent needles. They tugged at her cloak, struck her face, and made her cry out in pain as the rough bark scraped over her palms and made them bleed. She ran.

Endlessly. The air was choked with smoke and ash rained down from the burning branches above her head. The crackle of wind and fire echoed through the trees and she pushed herself to run harder. Faster. But roots and fallen logs made her path almost impossible to navigate. She tripped, stumbled, and her eyes ran with tears of frustration and stung with the acrid smoke. The trees were unfamiliar, but they were all the same. Trunk after trunk with the same patterned bark. Her cheek scraped against the bark as she pushed herself away from the tree she had fallen against. Keep going.

Keep going. Run. Run! But she was tired. So tired. Shouts echoed in the trees behind her. All around her. Men. Women. Calling her name. Laughing.

The sound sent terror streaking through her body, and Torunn pushed her legs to move. But the underbrush was thick and tangled, and she felt trapped and betrayed by her own body. “No,” she whispered. “Torunn! Torunn, where have you gone!” “Come out, little sister!” Hallvard. Asgaut. Calling for her. Chasing her. Taunting her. She was ten years old again, running from her brothers as they pretended to hunt her through the trees. “Where has the little deer gone?” Her throat felt tight, and she tasted acid in her mouth as she pressed herself against a tree.

Smoke stung her eyes and filled her nostrils. She shook her head and rubbed at the tears that streaked down her face. Her breath came in panicked gasps as she looked for somewhere to hide. Anywhere. Through the trees she could see a fallen log, braced on a pile of rocks that had no business being in the middle of a forest… Ferns and moss dripped over the log to create a hiding place—just large enough for her to fit. With a grateful sob and a whispered prayer to Freya, Torunn ran for the rocks. She stumbled and almost fell as the underbrush clung to her breeches and pulled at her cloak, but she forced her way through and dove beneath the log. If you cannot see them, they cannot see you. She pressed herself against the damp rocks and relished the cool wetness of the moss under her cheek and fingertips. The stinging cuts on her hands were soothed by its cushion.

She closed her eyes and tried to keep her breathing steady. The ferns hid her from sight. The rocks were her shelter. Freya, protect me… Keep me hidden. The thunder of her brothers’ boots echoed on the hard ground as they ran after her. Confused shouts rang through the trees as they realized she had disappeared. “She can’t have gone far!” “Look over there!” Torunn held her breath and pressed tighter against the wet stones. The scent of the fire was gone. Only the wet moss and decaying leaves of her hiding place. The soft scuttle of insects whispered against the rotting wood.

Her eyes squeezed tighter as the sound of footsteps drew closer. “Come out, little deer… You are wanted for the feast! Our father commands it!” She could hear the sneer in Hallvard’s shout and gritted her teeth. His mouth always twisted when he spoke to her, as though he was constantly trying not to laugh. She hated him. “I can’t see her!” Asgaut’s shout sounded far away, and hope flooded her. Perhaps she would escape after all. Torunn dared to open her eyes just a little, but all she could see was the emerald green of the ferns that surrounded the entrance to her hiding place and the dark gray of the rock she clung to. Her lungs ached for air. Slowly, she exhaled, pressing against the rock as Hallvard shouted again to their brother. “She’s here… We’ll find her and bring her back to father trussed up and ready for the priests to sacrifice!” Fear streaked through her again, and the pressure on her legs built to a painful stiffness.

Shifting slightly, she readied herself to run again. Suddenly, an eerie calm settled over the forest and Torunn froze. She hardly dared to hope that her brothers might have given up their terrible game. Last time they played like this—she had told their father about it, but he had not been angry with them. Not angry enough. If they brought her back tied to a stick like a stag—maybe then he would be angry enough to beat them. Shame them in front of the village like they deserved. Her boots scuffed against the damp dirt as she pushed herself closer to the entrance. If she was alone, she would run—back in the direction of the village and the safety of her father’s presence. Heldi’s stern glare would keep her brothers away, but only for a short time.

She edged closer and blinked away the last of the stinging tears that blurred her vision. The air was damp, and the smoke wasn’t as thick… she couldn’t remember how the fire had started. Only that she had to get away. A quick breath, and then she reached for the stone to haul herself out from her hiding place. “Got ya!” Hallvard’s triumphant voice rang in her ear as his hand clamped down on her arm and jerked her forward. “I found her!” But the voice was unfamiliar, and Torunn’s scream of anger was cut off as she was dragged forward. “I found her! You! Keep looking for the others! The rebel cannot be far away! He would not leave her alone for long!” Torunn struggled against the iron grip on her arm, but the fingers dug deeper into her flesh. Her eyes flew open as she was yanked bodily from her dream and into an actual nightmare. A pale face peered down into hers. Dark eyes, black as night, bored into hers.

The smile on Ragna’s face was cold and predatory. Just like Hallvard’s always had been. “Let me go!” Torunn shouted. She spun away and tried to pull her arm out of the woman’s grasp, but Ragna held on like a dog and dug her heels into the soft dirt. Her laughter was piercing as panic coursed through Torunn’s mind. Where was Bersi? Iri? They were supposed to be keeping watch— Warriors crashed through the underbrush, swinging swords and spears against tree trunks as they went. The noise was deafening and Torunn reached for the axe she had worn on her hip, but it was gone. “Looking for this?” Ragna taunted her. She held Torunn’s axe in her free hand and waved it mockingly. Torunn lunged for it, but Ranga held it just out of reach and pulled her off balance.

She fell to one knee and grimaced at the jolt of pain that rippled up her thigh. “You’ll pay for this,” she hissed. “Oh, no, my lady, it is you who will pay for your betrayal,” Ragna snarled. “I will be rewarded, and I shall watch your execution from a seat at the Jarl’s side.” “Do you think you will be spared?” Torunn cried. “Hallvard is cruel, he has always been cruel. Soon it will be your head—” Ragna’s mouth twisted, and she slammed the flat side of the axe into Torunn’s head. She tumbled forward into the dirt and lay there, stunned, as shouts from the men filled the air. “Nothing?” Ragna shouted angrily. “How could you have found nothing?” “They abandoned her,” one of the warriors replied.

Torunn rubbed a hand over her face and felt wetness on her fingertips. “Take her,” Ranga snapped. “One prize is better than none.” Torunn struggled weakly as they hauled her to her feet, but her knees buckled and strong hands caught and held her upright. “Carry her, you fool,” Ragna shouted. “The Jarl will celebrate our speedy return.” Torunn groaned as they lifted her up and slung over the shoulder of one warrior. Her vision was blurred by blood and pain, and she struggled to keep her wits about her. She tried to scan the forest for any sign of Bersi and the others, but she could see nothing. “There’s blood here,” one man shouted.

“What?” Ragna crashed through the underbrush to see what the warrior had found, and she knelt in the dirt to inspect it. “The wounded warrior—the old man. Varin. They will move slowly.”

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