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Young and alone on a long road,
Once I lost my way:
Rich I felt when I found another...
The hall was empty.
Jessa edged inside and began to wander idly about, pulling the thick furred collar of her coat up around her face. She was early.
It had been a bitter night. The snow had blown in under the door and spread across the floor. A pool of wine that someone had spilled under the table was frozen to a red slab. She nudged it with her foot; solid as glass. Even the spiders were dead on their webs; the thin nets shook in the draft. She walked to the great pillar of oak that grew up through the middle of the hall. It was heavily carved with old runes and magic signs, but over them all, obliterating them, was a newer cutting: a contorted snake that twisted itself down in white spirals. She brushed the frost off it with her gloved fingers. The snake was Gudrun's sign. A witch's sign.
She waited, grinding the ice to white powder under her heel.
Light gathered slowly. Corners of tables and tapestries loomed out of the shadows; a cart rumbled by outside, and the carter's shout echoed in the roof.
Jessa kicked the frozen fire. Why hadn't she come latesauntered in sweetly when the Jarl was waiting, just to show him that she didn't care, that he couldn't order her as he wanted? It was too late now, though.
Five slow minutes slithered by.
Then a hanging was flipped back; a house thrall came in and began to take down the shutters. Frost cracked and fell from the empty windows; a raw wind whipped in and rippled the tapestries.
He hadn't seen her. Jessa was annoyed. She shuffled, and watched him whirl around, his face white. Then the terror drained out of him. That annoyed her even more.
"I'm waiting to speak to the Lord Jarl," she snapped in a clear voice. "My name is Jessa Horolfsdaughter."
It was the voice she always used with servants, cold and rather distant. Old Marrika, her nurse, used to say it was the voice of pride. What was Marrika doing now? she wondered.
The man nodded and went out. Jessa scuffed the floor impatiently. She hated this place. Everyone in it was afraid. They were littered with amulets and luckstones; they glanced around before they spoke, as if someone was always listening. Gudrun. The Jarl's strange wife. The Snow-walker. They said she knew what you thought, even as you stood before her. Jessa shivered.
The man came back and kneeled at the hearth. She saw the welcome flicker of flames and hurried over, warming her hands and rubbing them against her face until her cheeks ached. The thrall propped some logs on the blaze and went out. Jessa did not speak to him. People said all the Jarl's servants were dumb. Whatever the truth of that, they never spoke.
Crouched over the fire, she looked down the high hall. The trestles and stools were toppled here and there on the straw. At the far end was a raised platform; here the seats were piled with red cushions, the tables littered with half-empty plates. Jessa went over and picked up a pewter jug. The wine in it was frozen. She put it down with a bang.
As she turned, one of the tapestries behind the dais was drawn aside and an elderly man came in, with a boy of her own age behind him. She knew the boy at once. Thorkil Harraldsson was her first cousin; they'd brought him here about three months ago. His clothes were very fine, she thought scornfully. Just like him.
The other was Jarl Ragnar. He was still tall, but his shoulders stooped; the splendid blue quilted robe hung loose on him. He looked like a man dried out, sucked dry of all life, his eyes small and cold.
She made him the most careless bow she could.
"You have your father's manners," he said wryly.
Silent, she watched Thorkil drag up two stools and the Jarl's chair; he caught her eye and gave her a brief, wan smile. She thought he seemed uneasy, and very pleased to see her. No wonder. Prison was prison, even with fine clothes.
They sat down. The Jarl stared into the flames. Finally he spoke, without looking at them.
"Your fathers were two brothers. I had thought they were loyal to me, until they joined that last foolish march of the Wulfings. All my enemies together. It was a pity they both died in the snow."
Jessa glared at him. "Your wife's sorcery brought the snow. She won your battle for you."
He was angry, but Jessa didn't care. "The Lord Jarl has always come from the family of the Wulfings. That's why they fought you. You have no right to be Jarl."
She caught Thorkil's nervous, warning look, but it was done now. She had said it. Her face was hot; her hands shook.
Grimly the Jarl stared at the flames. "The family of the Wulfings are almost all gone," he said. "Those that are left lurk in farms and steads and byres, their women and children disguised as thralls, hurried indoors when riders come by. Gudrun knows. She sees them. One by one, I am hunting them out. The leader, Wulfgar, was taken two days ago; he's in a room under your feet, with ice and rats for company. And now there's you."
His hands rubbed together, dry as paper.
"I left you alone. I left you on your farms, fed you and let you be, until now. Now you are old enough to be dangerous."
Jessa watched his eyes on the leaping flames. She wanted him to turn and look at her, but he would not.
"Your land will be given to men loyal to me, and you will have somewhere else to live."
"Here?" Thorkil asked.Snow-walker. Copyright © by Catherine Fisher. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.