In , the warrior culture of Iskryne forbids many things to women-and most especially it forbids them bonding to one of the giant telepathic trellwolves. But as her father was no ordinary boy, Alfgyfa is no ordinary girl. Her father has long planned to send his daughter to Tin, a matriarch among the elves who live nearby, to be both apprentice and ambassador, and now she is of age to go. We hope you enjoy this excerpt.
Even as a grown woman of fifteen, Alfgyfa never stopped thinking about the wolves she had encountered as a child. Sometimes she tried to speak to them, stretching out into the pack-sense as far as she could.
Once she thought she caught a whisper of mice-under-snow sometimes she was sure she caught the trailing edge of the wild konigenwolf’s thoughts. But if they heard her, they never answered.
And even as a grown woman of fifteen, Alfgyfa did not give over her visits to the trellwarrens. At first, Tin’s warnings and the almost-fate of the dog wolf had cowed her for a while. But Alfgyfa was not much-cowable by nature. And once discovered, the lure of those tunnels and their slick, shaped, twisted stone like the boles of ancient trees was beyond her power to resist.
She’d seen stone worked like this before, though it hadn’t had this twisting sense of otherness, of being a little dislocated in space between what her eyes told her and what her hands—or feet—felt. The aettrynalfar did something similar, in their caverns near Franangford, and Alfgyfa, who had treated Aettrynheim as every bit as much her home as the wolfheall, had frequently been permitted to watch the stonesmiths at work.
It had fascinated her then and it fascinated her now. She had watched the master stonesmith teaching her journeymen how to coax the stone to malleability, how to mold it as if it were soft clay, how to tease it into doing things clay could not. She had watched them spin a bridge one summer, delicate lacework that could support the weight of an entire troupe of cave bears.
Trellwork was different. The stone was twisted, gouged; she could see that it was worked with just as much care as the aettrynalfar stonesmiths used, and she came to recognize, if not to appreciate, the trellish aesthetics in the almost level floors, in the passageways that curved so subtly they looked straight, in the way that no corner was ever true.
She learned the corridors, the oddly shaped and angled rooms, and she tried to work backward from what was around her to what the working must have been like. The aettrynalfar had been disowned and exiled by their kin for shaping stone, and it was trellwork those long-ago svartalfar had feared.
Alfgyfa wanted to know why.
And not the reasons that the svartalfar gave her—and each other—about abomination and monstrosity and unthinkable perversion. That wasn’t how svartalfar curiosity worked.
It would make more sense, she thought, if the aettrynalfar had been exiled for their renunciation of weapons and war. Although that was another of their crimes, it wasn’t why the svartalfar had driven them out. They’d driven them out for smithing stone.
But Aettrynheim was nothing like the trellwarrens. There was nothing skew, nothing that deceived or betrayed. Nothing to make a person misjudge a doorway and bang into the wall, or fall flat, tricked by a new, undetectable angle in the slant of the floor. Alfgyfa always had excuses for bruises, being the only human—clumsy, awkward, too tall and yet with her arms stupidly short—among the svartalfar, but Master Tin and the other smiths would have been surprised to learn just how few of Alfgyfa’s bruises were gained in Nidavellir.
Sometimes she swore she could feel the trellwarrens twisting around her.
They frustrated her as much as they fascinated her, for there was only so much she could learn from observation alone, and there was no one she could ask questions of. Even if she’d been fool enough to try, no one knew the answers.
One of Alfgyfa’s earliest memories was tracing the trellscars on her father’s face. She did not want the trellwarrens inhabited again.
She just wanted to know.
If there was one thing Fargrimr Fastarrson hated more than another, it was waiting. Unfortunately for Fargrimr, lord-in-exile of Siglufjordhur, the Rhean invaders excelled at it, and so Fargrimr had spent all too much time since the fall of Siglufjordhur fourteen—nearly fifteen—years ago skulking through copses and behind bushes that by right of blood and birth were his.
His weeks were divided. Half his time belonged to those patient, infuriating Rheans: on the one hand, watching, and on the other hand, politicking to ensure that the men of the Northlands would not forget the Rheans, as time wore on, nor forget that their foothold at Siglufjordhur was just that—a foothold. The first step onto a foreign beach. Their waiting and garrisoning, Fargrimr was certain, was only a prelude to wider war.
He wished he knew why they waited.
His imagination supplied horrors aplenty: legions of soldiers; war engines; fell magics from beyond the sea. Strange weapons from places Fargrimr had never imagined, let alone visited. Ogres or giants in the Rheans’ horse-maned helmets.
It was a great comfort to him that the konungur, Gunnarr Sturluson, and Erik, godheofodman of Hergilsberg, took the danger seriously. It was a comfort, too, that they had sent south a complement of trellwolves and wolfcarls to form the threat of a new wolfheall (named to honor Freya), under the young konigenwolf, gray Signy—Viradechtisdaughter Vigdisdaughter—and her wolfsprechend, Hreithulfr.
The keep Fargrimr had raised in exile shared walls with the wolfheall, as no jarl’s keep had done before. Together, they commanded a riverine pass between two wooded fells, and protected a narrow but rich valley below, where his hastily relocated farmers managed to scratch fields and plant crops.
The other half of his time was thus devoted to the far more satisfying duties of a jarl with folk to house and cattle to feed: though the fortress and town at Siglufjordhur had fallen, and the farmlands and crofts sustaining it, the wildlands beyond were but patrolled by the Rheans—nervously, and in force. Fargrimr and his surviving thanes and carls knew those wildlands like the smell of their wives’ hair.
The first winter, they lost half a dozen people and a third of the livestock. Mostly the youngest and the eldest, always the most susceptible, but still more than a well-run keep should lose—more than Siglufjordhur-in-exile could afford to. The second winter, though they were all still scarred by grief, only two old men died, and a wolf in his thirty-first molting. They slaughtered meat and smoked it, and with the exception of a ewe lost to a gods-knew-what ailment peculiar to sheep, every other animal spared the autumn culling survived to spring.
In addition to Signy, the Freyasthreat also boasted another she-wolf, tawny Ingrun, wolf-sister to Fargrimr’s brother Randulfr. Ingrun was no konigenwolf, just a bitch of the ranks, and smaller than some of the big males—but she was still a wolf-bitch, still strength for a new pack. And though Fargrimr would never admit it, it comforted him to have his brother near
Fargrimr hated waiting, but he was good at husbandry. Well, the one sort of husbandry. For the other—being a sworn-son, he’d need help getting an heir. Which was another reason it pleased him to have Randulfr nearby, for Randulfr was equipped for heir-getting in ways Fargrimr was not.
The new heall and keep were a half day’s travel from the old. Fargrimr imagined the damned Rheans, safe inside his stone walls, and it made him itch and fuss and nag Randulfr about getting a few heirs. Randulfr—being a wolfcarl—couldn’t marry, but he could certainly beget, and Fargrimr lost no opportunity to suggest that he would be more than happy to adopt and foster his brother’s children as his own. Randulfr made excuses about not having found the right woman yet; Fargrimr offered to introduce him to a few. Randulfr made excuses about it being a bad time to bring children into the world; Fargrimr offered to eat his dagger in small bites if there had ever been a good one.
The bickering was an echo of childhood that comforted and amused them both. Fargrimr knew that Randulfr hated—as he had always hated—to do what tradition and custom expected of him, and that was a good half of how he’d ended up a wolfcarl and not a tattooed seacoast lord. But he had no more intention than Fargrimr did of leaving Siglufjordhur without an heir. He just needed to make his independence clear. Fargrimr might be Jarl of Siglufjordhur, but he was still Randulfr’s younger brother, and Randulfr would not dance to his piping.
Fargrimr, fair and lean and stubborn just as Randulfr was, fully understood, and knew better than to push when Randulfr was not ready for pushing. Randulfr would come around.
And meanwhile, Fargrimr knew the Rheans inhabiting his keep could hear the trellwolves howling on a cold, clear night. He hoped it kept those usurping bastards up till dawn.
Fargrimr and Randulfr ran through the woods as they had when they were children and they had shadowed their father’s carls on patrol—except this time, they both had different names than the ones their father had given them. That was not the only change. Now a buff-colored wolf-bitch with a gray nape paced Randulfr, and Fargrimr was a sworn-man rather than a girl with kilted skirts. Also, it was a stomping-in-unison Rhean patrol that they shadowed now, both men silent and light-footed as the ljosalfar of stories in these beloved woods. And the penalty for being caught was not embarrassment and being sent home to their mother.
They might be returned to Siglufjordhur. The Rheans did take prisoners, as the wolfjarl Skjaldwulf, called Snow-Soft, could attest. But it wouldn’t be a homecoming such as either of them would wish. There were still cells there, carved into the rock below the keep, and Fargrimr had no desire to spend the rest of his life rotting in one of them.
The Rhean patrol was ten men, and Fargrimr knew there were twenty more within a shout, ten before and ten behind. The Rheans had learned to their grief how to protect themselves in these woods. They stayed to the stone roads they had hewed and paved—Fargrimr mourned every healthy tree—and marched a neat circuit of the farmsteads they claimed as their own. They expected—and Fargrimr knew, bitterly, that they were right—that Fargrimr would not burn out his own people.
Could not burn out his own people. Could not make them pay for his family’s failing. It was his responsibility to drive the Rheans out again, not theirs.
He was glad that Randulfr and Ingrun ran with him, separated by enough distance that he identified the man only by the occasional rustling footfall, and the wolf only by knowing that she existed. That knowledge became even more comforting when the patrol did something unexpected.
Unexpected things were bad. Especially when it came to Rheans—those most regimented, predictable, and disciplined of soldiers. Their armies came in multiples of ten. Those decades ran in lockstep, and each man in them wore the same tunic, the same armor, even the same sandals—stuffed with the same straw during the bitter Northern winters.
Their patrols always followed the same routes, too. Where one of Fargrimr’s thanes might take his men any which way, and—dependent on treaties—come back with information or plunder or both, the Rheans ran along their roads and kept a schedule. This meant that if one of their patrols went missing, they noticed very quickly, but it did make it easier for Fargrimr and his brother and his brother’s wolf-sister to follow them through the woods undetected, avoiding the notice of any other patrols.
So when the ten men veered south to leave the paved road and run back toward the headlands of the fjord, Fargrimr felt a heavy gnawing worm of worry behind his breastbone. Nothing good ever came of Rhean innovations.
Apparently, Randulfr agreed with Fargrimr, because his occasional shadowy steps grew closer as Fargrimr turned to follow the Rheans. Fargrimr caught a glimpse of Ingrun through the ferns ahead, her laughing amber eyes turned back to him. She ducked into the shadows and was gone again just as the soft pad of Randulfr’s feet drew up behind Fargrimr.
Fargrimr stopped. He reached out one bare arm, swirled with muddy blue-green spirals of tattoos, and quickly clasped Randulfr’s unmarked wrist. The brothers shared a wordless glance, then slipped, silent and slightly separated, toward the thinning shade of the edgewood.
The Rheans were moving far more slowly now—their lockstep trot was not well-suited to travel through the Northern forests. They would break out into the clear meadows along the top of the fjord soon, though, and become harder to follow. Fargrimr supposed it was too much to hope that a Rhean or two might stumble on a loose rock at the cliff top and plunge to his death far below.
As he reached the tree line, he crouched into the ferns and brush. There was more undergrowth here, where the light reached. It sheltered him, and the ink under his skin made dappled patterns that helped to hide him in the shade.
Randulfr dropped down beside him, silent as a fawn in its bower. “What are they doing all the way out here?” he asked, beard whisking Fargrimr’s ear.
“Going down the old sea-road, it looks like,” Fargrimr said.
“What would they want there that they can’t get at Siglufjordhur?”
And that was an excellent question. The sea-road Fargrimr had noted ran along the cliff top of Sigluf’s Fjord, the fjord for which the surrounding country was named. A half mile farther on, it dipped down through a convenient break in the palisade and descended the precipitous wall at an angle impossible for carts, treacherous for horses, nerve-racking for men, and well within the capabilities of most well-trained asses. Fargrimr knew from childhood experience that at the bottom of the trail was a fine sandy strand a quarter mile long. He also knew from childhood experience that it was forbidden to the children of the keep for good reason: it sloped appealingly under the green glass of the fjord’s salt waters, but on the seaward edge, where the ocean currents wore at it, there was a precipitous drop-off to water so deep even the oyster divers didn’t brave it to the bottom. It would be easy for a child to wander or be washed the wrong way and be drowned—and in truth, more than one had so died.
“Maybe their commander sent them for a bath,” Fargrimr muttered. “They probably need one.”
The Rheans had assembled themselves in the clear now. Trotting more slowly—but still in lockstep—they began their two-by-two descent of the sea road. Speaking personally, Fargrimr would have gone down single file. At a walk. Without trying to match paces with his neighbors. But then, he wasn’t a Rhean, either—thank all the gods for the small mercies they offered.
Still in a crouch, he scuttled forward, using his fingertips to steady himself against the ground. Randulfr followed. Ingrun held back, crouched, another shadow in the tree-shade.
Careful not to silhouette himself, Fargrimr inched close enough to the cliff edge that he could hear the leather-creak and footsteps of the Rheans below, descending. The smell of salt and the combing of the waves rose on the warm air. He lay down on his belly, hid his face in the straggle of long grass, and peered cautiously over the edge.
He saw—a ship. Three ships, bobbing with the waves, anchored in the deep water south of the beach. They were not like the familiar boats of Siglufjordhur. They were larger—wider, deeper—and each had three rows of oars rather than the familiar one. Where a proper boat should have a dragon prow and a broad striped sail square-rigged, these had eagles carved into the forecastle and triangular sails, with a slanting yard running from its lowest point at the front, lifting to aft far above the top of the mast.
Fargrimr had seen smaller ships like these busy in and out of the harbor at Siglufjordhur for ten long years. These, he realized, would draw much deeper than any Northern ship, which was probably why they were out here, rather than up at the keep and the port. They seemed able to carry a great deal of cargo, but their drafts would be too deep for a channel built for dragon-boats, which, even fully loaded would draw only a few inches of water.
Randulfr touched Fargrimr on the shoulder, calling his attention to one of the ships. The crew—from this height, like so many beetles scurrying on the deck—were lowering some long, broad, wooden device that had been pivoted over the side and dropped through a gap in the railing. The device looked like a boarding plank, but much broader—or perhaps like an odd outrigger, since it floated on the tossing surface of the sea.
Then Randulfr’s touch grew rough. He squeezed Fargrimr’s arm until Fargrimr winced and tugged away. He might have snapped, if there had not been enemies within earshot, if sound had not carried so well over water.
Rather than simply opening a hatchway, someone had ripped up a third of the planking on the ship’s deck and stuck a ramp up out of the hold. Fargrimr thought with a warming sense of superiority,Now, there’s a very good reason not to bother with decking in the first place.
It didn’t occur to him that it might be nice to sleep out of the rain onboard ship. And before he got around to that thought—which happened two days later—he was entirely distracted by what came out of the hole thus inflicted on the Rhean ship.
It might have been a furry, ambulatory hillock. A hay pile with walrus tusks poked into the front. A great northern bear, three times bigger than such a bear should be, with a pile of shaggy cattle hides heaped on it. Anything at all, in fact, as long as Fargrimr wasn’t expected to have a name for it.
It was taller than a wyvern, though not as long, and it looked considerably more massive. It was colored a kind of reddish-brown with streaks of gray and straw in the topcoat. It had small ears like cabbage leaves on the side of its high domed head, and it walked on legs as big as mature tree trunks. At the front were those tusks—walrus tusks, but far bigger than any walrus ever wore. Longer than two human beings, Fargrimr thought, lying feet to feet upon the ground, and thicker than his thigh. Also at the front end, something protruded like a long tentacle or a prehensile penis—fleshy and firm-soft looking. As it climbed onto the deck, the monster twisted and stretched the appendage, first to one side, then to the other, as if looking to the men around it for reassurance.
It did not like walking out on the boarding bridge at all.
At the first step, the creature hesitated. The boat pitched and the bridge pitched, and neither one pitched exactly the same. And as far as the creature could tell (Fargrimr imagined), it was being led down a wooden trail into the sea, for sudden death and drowning.
It raised the appendage on its face, turning it this way and that as a hare turns its ears to locate a sound. Fargrimr realized with a start that he was looking at the thing’s nose, and that it was scenting its surroundings. It did not wish to proceed.
One of the men stepped forward—the handler, Fargrimr assumed, because the beast dipped a knee as if making a bow. The handler stepped up onto the knee, grabbed a handful of the long red fur, and slung a leg over the thing’s neck so he was riding astride, just behind the ears. These flapped, but apparently this was what the creature had needed for reassurance, because with only a little more fussing, it walked down the bridge into the sea.
It floated and swam surprisingly well. The whole beast submerged beneath the waves except the prehensile appendage, so Fargrimr could see its back only when the troughs between the swells revealed it. The handler floated off his position on its neck and swam along beside, guiding it gently through the waves. He seemed to be suffering more than the monster, because the waves kept ducking him.
There were longboats already in the fjord. They stayed well clear of the gigantic monster—Fargrimr would probably have stayed even farther back, honestly—but seemed to guide it and its handler toward the sandy shoal. A few moments, and the creature’s domed head broke the waves, streaming seawater like a kelp-shagged boulder. It moved forward, walking up the beach, looking even bigger with the waves breaking against its implacable belly and legs.
On the ship, another monster emerged up the ramp from the hold. The sea wind lifted its rusty pelt. It peered about myopically, as if looking for its stablemate.
On the shore, the first beast stamped sand. Its handler took cover behind his arms as it shook like an enormous dog. Fargrimr could hear the laughter from the boats all the way up the cliffside—in fact, he had to bite back his own.
Then the first beast raised its nose and made a sound like Heimdallr winding his horn to mark the world’s end. It rang and resounded, up and between the cliffs of the fjord, rattling small pebbles from the walls. Fargrimr ducked instinctively, flattening himself in the grass, as if the sound could find him out and reveal him to the enemies below. He felt Randulfr flatten beside him.
When they peered at each other through the long grass, Randulfr jerked his head back the way they’d come. Fargrimr nodded.
They crept back to the tree line, where Ingrun crouched, awaiting. Her ears were pricked, her eyes sharp. She’d been guarding their backs.
Conscious of the fact that their voices might carry on the wind, Fargrimr leaned close to his brother’s ear and spoke low. “What are those things?”
Randulfr shrugged. “Some Rhean monster. Does it matter what they’re called?” He took a breath and held it in as if savoring or considering it, let it out, took another.
“Do you think they’re beasts of war?”
Randulfr deflated. “Hard to imagine what else they’d be using them for, isn’t it?” He shook his head. “Somebody needs to tell Franangford about this. That’s one thing for sure.”
Her name had once been Aebbe, though they called her Otter here. She has been born Brythoni and made a Rhean slave, but almost fifteen years past, she had come to save the life of a Northman and he had come to save hers. So she had been made the daughter by oath of Skjaldwulf Marsbrother.
Becoming the daughter of a wolfheofodman of the North, it turned out, was not the easiest thing in the world. “Daughter” meant many things, and it came with complicated gifts.
She was not obliged, Skjaldwulf had said awkwardly when he described the work of the heall that was usually done by wolfcarls’ lovers and kinswomen, but Otter much preferred work to idleness, and there was work in plenty to be done. She had been content at first merely guiding herself—finding a task that needed doing and seeing it through, then finding another task—but there was a gap where the housecarl Sokkolfr was simply spread too thin to cover, and Otter was too good a housewife to bear that sense of the household unraveling at one corner.
She had been surprised almost speechless to find that the wolfcarls would let her tell them what to do.
Because Thorlot—who was what Otter in her childhood would have called the headwoman, being as she was the lover of the Franangford wolfsprechend—was busy with smithing and tinkering—weapons, buckles, pots, pans, hinges, bits, chains, mail, nails (endless nails!), tongs, axes, gates, latches, scissors, pails, candlesticks, pins, needles, chisels, pruning hooks—most of the work of managing and running the household of the heall came to fall to Otter. There was bread to be baked and stalls to be raked and goats to be milked, roofs to be thatched, sick to be nursed (a task Otter particularly loathed), the pantry to be managed and kept in inventory, cloth traded for, candles to be dipped, saddles to be mended, meat to be smoked and salted, fodder and wood and food to be stockpiled against winter and against the threat of war. Of course she did not need to do all these tasks with her own hands; there were thralls and hirelings and women and heallbred children and wolfcarls aplenty. But those persons needed managing, too.
It was worth taking up the responsibilities for what the heall provided in return. Otter never would have believed it until she experienced it, that this was a place where, surrounded by trellwolves who could rip her throat out as soon as look at her, she could live in safety and security, with enough to eat, with work for which she was respected, with no one to care that the double-headed eagle branded on her cheek was a Rhean slaver’s mark.
At least until the Rheans gathered their forces in Siglufjordhur and marched north. Otter did not believe that when that happened, the Northmen could stand against them, wolves or no wolves.
She had seen the Rheans roll over Brython.
They had sent their expeditionary forces north once already—the sortie that had started her toward Franangford. Encountering more resistance than they had expected, they retreated to the coast and retrenched. They settled in, building their fortifications and roads, turning their toehold into a foothold, the captured keep of Siglufjordhur into a Rhean outpost. They were waiting, but it was nonsense to think that they were satisfied. Otter lived in constant fear of the day they decided they were ready. She knew that when the Rheans at long last came to pluck the Iskryne, this time of safety would be nothing but a pleasant dream. They were patient, and they were not inclined to miss a single berry in the bramble, once they made up their minds that the harvest had come due.
But there was nothing she could do about that truth, nothing she could do about the Rheans. She set them aside and, as best she could, did not think about them.
Instead, she enjoyed what she had while she had it. She enjoyed the food, the work, the warmth. She enjoyed the fact that no one raised a hand to her. She enjoyed that wolfcarls flirted rather than forced, and that when she chose not to lie down for them, they backed away and apologized. It was a while before she believed she had this privilege: there were not so many women in the heall that any went unclaimed for long, except by choice.
And she came to enjoy the wolfheofodmenn, as well. Skjaldwulf was a storyteller, a skald in their tongue, a scop in hers, and she trusted him as she had trusted no man in all her life. She noticed, too, that when she came to sit by the long fire, as often as not his stories had some element of the heroism of women in them—he told tales of Knowing Freydis, of Lagertha Battle-oak, of Ragnvæig Householder, who managed the defense of the keep at Jomsa after the deaths of her husband and her father. He gave her women being brave, when she badly needed soil for her own bravery to take root in and grow. Perhaps, being a true skald, he knew how much it meant to her.
Sokkolfr, the housecarl, treated her as a partner from the beginning, so polite, as he was polite to every woman of the heall, that it was some time before she realized that it was genuine respect he showed her, and even longer before she dared to offer him friendship in return. She was surprised by her grief when his wolf-brother Hroi died—an ancient of a wolf, truly, for he had been old when he had taken Sokkolfr as his brother. And he died softly, in his sleep, in the cold of late winter when the old so often failed.
It is a wolf! she had scolded herself, rubbing angrily at her eyes. Not a man! But she had lived among the wolves and wolfcarls for almost five years at that point, and she had known, even as she told herself she was being foolish, childish, soft, that she would miss Hroi—and she proved it for weeks after his death, as every time she came into the kitchen, she looked, as reflexively as breathing, to find him in that warm, perfectly wolf-shaped spot between the bread oven and the hearth. It hurt, almost as much as it hurt watching Sokkolfr working and bartering and building walls, and yet all the time a man without his shadow, as in an old, old story her mother’s mother had told her when she was a child.
She said nothing, for there was nothing to say. But she took it upon herself to see that Sokkolfr had food to eat that was easy and appetizing and required no thought—even though that took creativity, it being winter. And she listened, when he found it in himself to talk.
When Sokkolfr took a new brother, a gangly wheaten-coated pup of Viradechtis’ whelping—clearly Kjaran’s get by his odd eyes, palest blue and gleaming gold—Otter was surprised by her own delight, by the warmth it gave her to see them together, Sokkolfr and Tryggvi, a man and his shadow, and she found herself smiling more readily at Sokkolfr, even as she laughed at the way Tryggvi leaned into her legs to ask to have his ears rumpled.
Vethulf was a shouter and a stormer. Vethulf-in-the-Fire some of his shieldmates called him, and it suited him, with his blazing red hair and his blazing temper. No one could be more unlike Skjaldwulf or more unlike Isolfr. At first, Otter had been afraid that he would hurt one of them—or that he would take his temper out on the nearest convenient woman, as she was long accustomed to men doing. But no matter how loudly he shouted, or how inventively he cursed, he never raised his hand to his lover or his wolfsprechend … or to Otter herself. Slowly she came to believe that he never would, although she still did not like to have him between her and the door.
Even more slowly, she came to understand that Isolfr did not resent her for her share of Skjaldwulf’s affection. He was hard to read, his face marked—she had been told—by the claws of a trellqueen. And he didn’t talk to her, not as Skjaldwulf did or Sokkolfr did—or even as Vethulf did when he wasn’t yelling.
She had assumed at first that he scorned her—a Brythoni slave woman, why should he not? But some months after Thorlot had made friends in her forthright fashion, she had remarked, “I would not have approached you—many women do not care for the company of a woman smith and I haven’t the time to waste on them—but Isolfr said I should.”
“Isolfr?” Otter had asked, blinking over the bucket in which she scrubbed shirts. She could blame the lye soap, surely, for the sting of her eyes.
Thorlot was a big woman, her eyes very blue in her forge-roughened face, her ginger hair streaked at the temples with enough gray to show that she was older than Isolfr. Isolfr was not much older than Otter, though the scars on both Otter’s face and the wolfsprechend’s hid their youth. Thorlot gave Otter a bright, thoughtful look and said, “Isolfr worries.”
“You are Skjaldwulf’s daughter, and you are far from your home. Of course he worries. And Isolfr knows what it is to be the white raven.”
She met Otter’s eyes steadily, trusting her with this truth—a truth that turned Otter’s understanding of Isolfr upside down. Not resentment, but shyness; not contempt, but concern. And Thorlot the shieldmaiden guarding his back.
Isolfr had worried, and Thorlot had extended kindness. She would have died for them that afternoon. As she thought of what the Rheans would do to them, she that her fear was not for herself: the Rheans couldn’t take this away from her, because she knew it was only a respite. But they could take Isolfr and Thorlot away from each other.
That was a bad day. That was the day Otter realized she had begun again to care.
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