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He hesitated just an instant, but long enough for Thorn to club him in the balls with the rim of her shield.
Even over the racket of the other lads all baying for her to lose, she heard Brand groan.
Thorn’s father always said the moment you pause will be the moment you die, and she’d lived her life, for better and mostly worse, by that advice. So she bared her teeth in a fighting snarl—her favorite expression, after all—pushed up from her knees and went at Brand harder than ever.
She barged at him with her shoulder, their shields clashing and grating, sand scattering from his heels as he staggered back down the beach, face still twisted with pain. He chopped at her but she ducked his wooden sword, swept hers low and caught him full in the calf, just below his mailshirt’s flapping hem.
To give Brand his due he didn’t go down, didn’t even cry out, just hopped back, grimacing. Thorn shook her shoulders out, waiting to see if Master Hunnan would call that a win, but he stood silent as the statues in the Godshall.
Some masters-at-arms acted as if the practice swords were real, called a halt at what would have been a finishing blow from a steel blade. But Hunnan liked to see his students put down, and hurt, and taught a hard lesson. The gods knew, Thorn had learned hard lessons enough in Hunnan’s square. She was happy to teach a few.
So she gave Brand a mocking smile—her second favorite expression, after all—and screamed, “Come on, you coward!”
Brand was strong as a bull, and had plenty of fight in him, but he was limping, and tired, and Thorn had made sure the slope of the beach was on her side. She kept her eyes fixed on him, dodged one blow, and another, then slipped around a clumsy overhead to leave his side open. The best place to sheathe a blade is in your enemy’s back, her father always said, but the side was almost as good. Her wooden sword thudded into Brand’s ribs with a thwack like a log splitting, left him tottering helpless, and Thorn grinning wider than ever. There’s no feeling in the world so sweet as hitting someone just right.
She planted the sole of her boot on his arse, shoved him splashing down on his hands and knees in the latest wave, and on its hissing way out it caught his sword and washed it down the beach, left it mired among the weeds.
She stepped close and Brand winced up at her, wet hair plastered to one side of his face and his teeth bloodied from the butt she gave him before. Maybe she should’ve felt sorry for him. But it had been a long time since Thorn could afford to feel sorry.
Instead she pressed her notched wooden blade into his neck and said, “Well?”
“All right.” He waved her weakly away, hardly able to get the breath to speak. “I’m done.”
“Ha!” she shouted in his face.
“Ha!” she shouted at the crestfallen lads about the square.
“Ha!” she shouted at Master Hunnan, and she thrust up her sword and shield in triumph and shook them at the spitting sky.
A few limp claps and mutters and that was it. There’d been far more generous applause for far meaner victories, but Thorn wasn’t there for applause.
She was there to win.
Sometimes a girl is touched by Mother War, and put among the boys in the training square, and taught to fight. Among the smaller children there are always a few, but with each year that passes they turn to more suitable things, then are turned to them, then shouted and bullied and beaten to them, until the shameful weeds are rooted out and only the glorious flower of manhood remains.
If Vanstermen crossed the border, if Islanders landed on a raid, if thieves came in the night, the women of Gettland found blades soon enough, and fought to the death, and many of them damn well too. They always had. But the last time a woman passed the tests and swore the oaths and won a place on a raid?
There were stories. There were songs. But even Old Fen, who was the oldest person in Thorlby and, some said, the world, had never seen such a thing in all her countless days.
Not until now.
All that work. All that scorn. All that pain. But Thorn had beaten them. She closed her eyes, felt Mother Sea’s salt wind kiss her sweaty face and thought how proud her father would be.
“I’ve passed,” she whispered.
“Not yet.” Thorn had never seen Master Hunnan smile. But she had never seen his frown quite so grim. “I decide the tests you’ll take. I decide when you’ve passed.” He looked over to the lads her age. The lads of sixteen, some already puffed with pride from passing their own tests. “Rauk. You’ll fight Thorn next.”
Rauk’s brows went up, then he looked at Thorn and shrugged. “Why not?” he said, and stepped between his fellows into the square, strapping his shield tight and plucking up a practice sword.
He was a cruel one, and skillful. Not near as strong as Brand but a lot less likely to hesitate. Still, Thorn had beaten him before and she’d—
“Rauk,” said Hunnan, his knobble-knuckled finger wandering on, “and Sordaf, and Edwal.”
The glow of triumph drained from Thorn like the slops from a broken bath. There was a muttering among the lads as Sordaf—big, slow and with scant imagination, but a hell of a choice for stomping on someone who was down—lumbered out onto the sand, doing up the buckles on his mail with fat fingers.
Edwal—quick and narrow-shouldered with a tangle of brown curls—didn’t move right off. Thorn had always thought he was one of the better ones. “Master Hunnan, three of us—”
“If you want a place on the king’s raid,” said Hunnan, “you’ll do as you’re bid.”
They all wanted a place. They wanted one almost as much as Thorn did. Edwal frowned left and right, but no one spoke up. Reluctantly he slipped between the others and picked out a wooden sword.
“This isn’t fair.” Thorn was used to always wearing a brave face, no matter how long the odds, but her voice then was a desperate bleat. Like a lamb herded helpless to the slaughterman’s knife.
Hunnan dismissed it with a snort. “This square is the battlefield, girl, and the battlefield isn’t fair. Consider that your last lesson here.”
There were some stray chuckles at that. Probably from some of those she’d shamed with beatings one time or another. Brand watched from behind a few loose strands of hair, one hand nursing his bloody mouth. Others kept their eyes to the ground. They all knew it wasn’t fair. They didn’t care.
Thorn set her jaw, put her shield hand to the pouch around her neck and squeezed it tight. It had been her against the world for longer than she could remember. If Thorn was one thing, she was a fighter. She’d give them a fight they wouldn’t soon forget.
Rauk jerked his head to the others and they began to spread out, aiming to surround her. Might not be the worst thing. If she struck fast enough she could pick one off from the herd, give herself some splinter of a chance against the other two.
She looked in their eyes, trying to judge what they’d do. Edwal reluctant, hanging back. Sordaf watchful, shield up. Rauk letting his sword dangle, showing off to the crowd.
Just get rid of his smile. Turn that bloody and she’d be satisfied.
His smile buckled when she gave the fighting scream. Rauk caught her first blow on his shield, giving ground, and a second too, splinters flying, then she tricked him with her eyes so he lifted his shield high, went low at the last moment and caught him a scything blow in his hip. He cried out, twisting sideways so the back of his head was to her. She was already lifting her sword again.
There was a flicker at the corner of her eye and a sick crunch. She hardly felt as if she fell. But suddenly the sand was roughing her up pretty good, then she was staring stupidly at the sky.
There’s your problem with going for one and ignoring the other two.
Gulls called above, circling.
The towers of Thorlby cut out black against the bright sky.
Best get up, her father said. Won’t win anything on your back.
Thorn rolled, lazy, clumsy, pouch slipping from her collar and swinging on its cord, her face one great throb.
Water surged cold up the beach and around her knees and she saw Sordaf stamp down, heard a crack like a stick breaking.
She tried to scramble up and Rauk’s boot thudded into her ribs and rolled her over, coughing.
The wave sucked back and sank away, blood tickling at her top lip, dripping pit-patter on the wet sand.
“Should we stop?” she heard Edwal say.
“Did I say stop?” came Hunnan’s voice, and Thorn closed her fist tight around the grip of her sword, gathering one more effort.
She saw Rauk step towards her and she caught his leg as he kicked, hugged it to her chest. She jerked up hard, growling in his face, and he tumbled over backward, arms flailing.
She tottered at Edwal, more falling than charging, Mother Sea and Father Earth and Hunnan’s frown and the faces of the watching lads all tipping and reeling. He caught her, more holding her up than trying to put her down. She grabbed at his shoulder, wrist twisted, sword torn from her hand as she stumbled past, floundering onto her knees and up again, her shield flapping at her side on its torn strap as she turned, spitting and cursing, and froze.
Sordaf stood, sword dangling limp, staring.
Rauk lay propped on his elbows on the wet sand, staring.
Brand stood among the other boys, mouth hanging open, all of them staring.
Edwal opened his mouth but all that came out was a strange squelch like a fart. He dropped his practice blade and lifted a clumsy hand to paw at his neck.
The hilt of Thorn’s sword was there. The wooden blade had broken to leave a long shard when Sordaf stamped on it. The shard was through Edwal’s throat, the point glistening red.
“Gods,” someone whispered.
Edwal slumped down on his knees and drooled bloody froth onto the sand.
Master Hunnan caught him as he pitched onto his side. Brand and some of the others gathered around them, all shouting over each other. Thorn could hardly pick out the words over the thunder of her own heart.
She stood swaying, face throbbing, hair torn loose and whipping in her eyes with the wind, wondering if this was all a nightmare. Sure it must be. Praying it might be. She squeezed her eyes shut, squeezed them, squeezed them.
As she had when they led her to her father’s body, white and cold beneath the dome of the Godshall.
But that had been real, and so was this.
When she snapped her eyes open the lads were still kneeling around Edwal so all she could see was his limp boots fallen outward. Black streaks came curling down the sand, then Mother Sea sent a wave and turned them red, then pink, then they were washed away and gone.
And for the first time in a long time Thorn felt truly scared.
Hunnan slowly stood, slowly turned. He always frowned, hardest of all at her. But there was a brightness in his eyes now she had never seen before.
“Thorn Bathu.” He pointed at her with one red finger. “I name you a murderer.”
In the Shadows
“Do good,” Brand’s mother said to him the day she died. “Stand in the light.”
He’d hardly understood what doing good meant at six years old. He wasn’t sure he was much closer at sixteen. Here he was, after all, wasting what should have been his proudest moment, still trying to puzzle out the good thing to do.
It was a high honor to stand guard on the Black Chair. To be accepted as a warrior of Gettland in the sight of gods and men. He’d struggled for it, hadn’t he? Bled for it? Earned his place? As long as Brand could remember, it had been his dream to stand armed among his brothers on the hallowed stones of the Godshall.
But he didn’t feel like he was standing in the light.
“I worry about this raid on the Islanders,” Father Yarvi was saying, bringing the argument in a circle, as ministers always seemed to. “The High King has forbidden swords to be drawn. He will take it very ill.”
“The High King forbids everything,” said Queen Laithlin, one hand on her child-swollen belly, “and takes everything ill.”
Beside her, King Uthil shifted forward in the Black Chair. “Meanwhile he orders the Islanders and the Vanstermen and any other curs he can bend to his bidding to draw their swords against us.”
A surge of anger passed through the great men and women of Gettland gathered before the dais. A week before Brand’s voice would’ve been loudest among them.
But all he could think of now was Edwal with the wooden sword through his neck, drooling red as he made that honking pig sound. The last he’d ever make. And Thorn, swaying on the sand with her hair stuck across her blood-smeared face, jaw hanging open as Hunnan named her a murderer.
“Two of my ships taken!” A merchant’s jewelled key bounced on her chest as she shook her fist toward the dais. “And not just cargo lost but men dead!”
“And the Vanstermen have crossed the border again!” came a deep shout from the men’s side of the hall, “and burned steadings and taken good folk of Gettland as slaves!”
“Grom-gil-Gorm was seen there!” someone shouted, and the mere mention of the name filled the dome of the Godshall with muttered curses. “The Breaker of Swords himself!”
“The Islanders must pay in blood,” growled an old one-eyed warrior, “then the Vanstermen, and the Breaker of Swords too.”
“Of course they must!” called Yarvi to the grumbling crowd, his shrivelled crab-claw of a left hand held up for calm, “but when and how is the question. The wise wait for their moment, and we are by no means ready for war with the High King.”
“One is always ready for war.” Uthil gently twisted the pommel of his sword so the naked blade flashed in the gloom. “Or never.”
Edwal had always been ready. A man who stood for the man beside him, just as a warrior of Gettland was supposed to. Surely he hadn’t deserved to die for that?