Read an Excerpt
The smell reached Hild's nose, filling her with a sense of unease. Then a door shut--somebody letting a cat out--and she saw it was just smoke from a cooking fire, not the sulfurous fumes that had hung over the lake a few weeks back. Good. She wanted nothing to spoil this day, of all days.
Past the last houses, the lane narrowed as it neared the Lake Gate. Hild crunched over the gravel, increasing her speed as her excitement grew. At the gate, she raised her hand in greeting and watched in surprise when one of the guards waved back, his dagger flashing in a shaft of early-morning sun. It was Brynjolf, her friend Beyla's brother. He gave her a broken-toothed smile and called her name. Hild shook her head. How many times would Brynjolf forget that he was no longer a boy but a member of the king's army, required to stand silently at full attention? A more experienced warrior, menacing behind his masked helmet, stepped out of the guard tower to admonish him. Hild winced. At fifteen, a year younger than Hild, Brynjolf had been promoted to the men's troop only a week before, but knowing him, it might be years before he remembered to take all the rules seriously. If he remembered them at all.
Past the gate, Brynjolf's troubles behind her, Hild could see blue lake water glittering as the sun caught tiny wavelets in its net. A breeze carrying the faint smell of fish riffled over her eyelashes and lifted strands of her dark hair into flight. Was that a smudge over the water? No, just her eyes playing tricks on her, and the memory of the wind-driven cloud that had settled over the lake. Dragon smoke, Ari Frothi had insisted, but the old skald's words had been ignored. Not in living memory had a dragon flown over the land of the Shylfings, and Bragi, the new skald, had announced with smooth certainty that no dragon would dare attack the kingdom. The cloud was soon gone, leaving only an acrid odor and flakes of ash drifting down like dark snow. Most people had forgotten it--but Hild couldn't. Strange tendrils of smoke wove their way through her dreams, embroidered by words she could almost catch in a voice she didn't know, a woman's voice, harsh and commanding. They left her with a longing for something she couldn't identify, something just beyond her grasp.
She blinked the cloud away, reminding herself why she was out so early. She could barely wait to tell her eldest sister the news. Her exuberance returned, mirrored by the diamonds dancing on the lake, and making her want to rush forward like the waves. Surely, if anything would get Sigyn back into the hall, it would be the sight of Hild standing on the dais beside their uncle, the king.
When the path branched, she turned toward the group of dwellings clustered together on the shore, allowing her feet to skip a few steps. Small boats lined the beach, some of them right-side up, some of them upside down, a few with people gathered around them unloading their early-morning catch as the water shushed onto shore. Far out on the lake, boats bobbed, their bows winking in and out of view, and Hild stopped for a moment to watch them, shielding her eyes with her hand. Beyond the boats, on the lake's far shore, red and gold birches swayed, too distant to be more than a tossing blur of bright color.
Closer by, on the near shore, a boat sat waiting, eager to be out on the water. Hild gazed at it, memorizing its contours and the way the prow tapered upward, graceful as a drinking horn. It was just the image she needed for the banner she was weaving--the one that would someday hang in a place of prominence in Gyldenseld, her uncle's splendid mead hall.
A slave woman hurried by, lugging a basket filled with silvery fish so newly caught that some still slapped their fellows with their tails. Hild peered into the basket as the slave passed her, bound for the king's kitchens, where the fish would become part of the feast at tomorrow's harvest festival. When Hild reached the cluster of cottages where the fisherfolk lived, she stepped around a pair of little girls chanting a clapping game and nodded to the women and white-haired men who hunched in their doorways, mending piles of nets. A weather-beaten woman squinted up at Hild's approach. "Good harvest to you, my lady. Come to see your sister, have you?"
At her words, others raised their heads; some greeted Hild, and some turned immediately back to their nets. A little boy peered around an open doorway with sleepy eyes, but when he saw her, he pulled inside again. There was nothing grand about these people her sister had chosen to live among, and they would feel out of place in the hall. They kept to themselves, to their boats and their nets, providing fish for the kingdom and receiving in return protection from enemy tribes. Yet despite their isolation from those who lived inside the wooden gates that surrounded the fortress, one couple had been different. Hild heard in her head Ari Frothi's lay about how the fisherman and his wife had seen their young son's talent for war craft and sent him away from boats and nets to be trained instead with sword and spear. And then, through his exploits, Wonred had risen high enough to become one of the king's hearth companions. So honored had he been that he was given the king's sister-daughter--Hild's sister Sigyn--in marriage. The lay ended with Wonred's death, but it didn't mention that he'd been killed in a senseless skirmish with a tribe the Shylfings weren't even at war with. Nor did Ari Frothi sing about the way Sigyn had barricaded herself in her mother-in-law's cottage, the two widows alone together with a third companion: grief. Two winters had passed since the old skald first sang that lay at Wonred's funeral, and the memory of his body's being consigned to the flames still brought Hild pain. For Sigyn, the pain was far, far worse.
Yet today, Hild was sure, her sister would throw off her mourning and rejoin the women who gathered in the hall. And Thryth, Sigyn's mother-in-law, would accompany her.
A shorebird shrieked and beat the air with its wings. Hild watched as it hovered, then dove into the waves. When it rose from the water with a minnow glittering in its beak, Hild turned and approached the dark cottage. It was larger than the others, and better built--Wonred had seen to that. Yet unlike the others, with their doors open to catch the morning light, it was silent and shuttered. She knocked on the door, two short raps followed by another, the signal that would let her sister know who it was.
But Thryth, not Sigyn, opened the door, just enough to let herself out. She put a fleshy arm around Hild and drew her close, peering up at her with dim eyes from under a wool cap. "It's a bad day," she whispered, shutting the door behind her and leading Hild away from the cottage and the people who might be listening. "She's still abed; won't see a soul."
"She'll see me," Hild said, turning. "When she hears my news, she'll get out of bed."
Thryth shook her head and gently pulled her back. "Come, dear one. Tell me instead." She led Hild toward the lake path, sharp-edged grasses sawing at their skirts.
Hild's shoulders slumped, and the bright promise of her news lost its luster in the shadow of Sigyn's grief. Her sister's bad days had grown worse, not better, as the seasons since her husband's death had faded into the past. Sometimes Hild wondered if the two women fed off each other's grief, growing more ravenous with the passage of time, yet she knew that wasn't fair. After all, here was Thryth, walking alongside her.
Hild looked down at the older woman, at the white curls peeking from under her cap, at her broad nose and the cloudy eyes sunk deep in wrinkled skin, and felt a rush of warmth for her. "Well, if Sigyn won't come to the hall today, perhaps you will," she said.
"So your mother thinks you're ready to serve the mead, does she?"
"How did you know?" Hild asked in surprise.
"How?" Thryth shook her head in amusement. "My dear, you've talked of nothing else since your mother started training you."
"That's not true." Hild stopped and took a step back. "I've talked about my weaving, and about my friend Beyla, and all sorts of things, I'm sure."
Thryth smiled and reached up to touch Hild's cheek with her rough fingers. "Of course you have, dear one." She started walking again and Hild, embarrassed by her childish outburst, fell into step beside her. Across the lake, hills rose in the distance, and beyond them, mountains swathed in mist. Giants walked there. Somewhere beyond the mountains lay the kingdom of the Heathobards, the warriors at whose hands Wonred had died. If Wonred had been from a noble family, the king would have demanded vengeance and the Shylfings would have gained yet another enemy. But Wonred's humble beginnings, and the fact that Sigyn hadn't petitioned the king for redress for her husband's death, had kept the lakeshore a place where Hild could walk without fear of enemy longboats plying the waters.
"Can you remember the days of the queen?" Thryth asked.
Hild turned her attention back from the mountains. She started to speak, then saw that no response was needed. The old woman's eyes were almost closed, as if she were watching a scene from days gone by, not the path in front of her.
"Back then, before she fell ill, she'd serve the mead horn to the men." Thryth's voice took on a singsong quality, as if she were chanting a lay. "I don't think half the warriors in the hall noticed how much she guided them, but the women did, you mark me."
"Did they?" Hild asked, even though she knew the answer. She never tired of Thryth's stories about how things used to be.
"We'd watch from behind the beams while the queen said, 'I know you want to end that feud,' or some such--she had a way with words, she did. And then she'd hold out the mead to a warrior"--Thryth held out her own hands, pantomiming the passing of the horn--"and he'd hardly know that when he accepted it, he was pledging to carry out the queen's words. But we women knew."
Hild nodded. She could remember the queen moving about the hall, speaking to the king and his hearth companions, even if she'd been too young to pay attention to the words that passed among them.
"It wasn't just the warriors she counseled. The king listened to her, too. Of course, she had Ari Frothi to help her. He'd pull out his harp and sing something that went right along with what she'd said, some lay about a feud that had ended, or whatever it was the queen was talking about." Thryth shook her head, making a tsking noise with her tongue. "But now it's that younger skald, Bragi, who counsels the king. With him it's always power and fighting and war. His words make all of us unsafe."
The sound of honking made them both look up to see skeins of wild geese stitching seams across the sky. They watched until the birds' melancholy calls faded into the distance. Hild had always liked Thryth, not just because she was so comfortable and comforting, but also because there were many things they agreed about. Hild's mother, who had taken over the queen's duties, was far less willing to try to influence the men than the queen had been. "It's not my place; I'm not the queen," she protested to Hild whenever they talked about it. But as bearer of the mead, it was her place, Hild argued. Someone needed to counter Bragi's influence. Ever since the queen had fallen ill, the atmosphere in the hall had changed. Feuds were prolonged; raiding parties went looking for fights, not just gold and slaves; boys became warriors too young, before they were ready; and far more times than they should, funeral pyres sent their greasy smoke spiraling into the sky. The last funeral hadn't even been a full season past--the grain whose harvest would be celebrated at tomorrow's festival had already been tinged with gold when Harr's pyre had been lit. Hild hadn't known him, but she'd recognized the grief on his widow's face all too well.
It had to stop. And it would, Hild vowed to herself. Starting today, she, not her mother, would be serving the mead in the hall, and as she did, she would find ways to break Bragi's hold over the king. She'd show both the king and the skald--and all the warriors, too--how the women of the kingdom saw things. She would make things like they'd been before, when the queen still served the mead.
They came to the bleached skeleton of a boat, long since abandoned, one side buried in sand. A bird sheltering behind it took flight at their approach. They stood looking out over the lake for a moment. When a fish leapt, slapping the water, they turned back toward the cottage, walking silently, each sunk in her own thoughts. "Will you tell her?" Hild asked when they neared the door.
Thryth nodded. "Of course I will, dear one." She stopped at the herb bed, reaching down to pick a sprig of mint, its late-season leaves curled and brown. As she handed it to Hild, she squinted up at her. "But don't look for Sigyn in the hall. Not today, anyway."
Hild rolled the leaves between her fingers and brought them to her nose, wondering how such a withered plant could hold so firmly to its fresh scent. She gave Thryth a quick hug, then headed back to her uncle's fortress, her head down, weighted by Thryth's words.
At the Lake Gate, she looked up and smiled. Brynjolf stood stiffly at attention, square-jawed and resolute. Hild knew she shouldn't speak to him, or even look at him--it would be far too easy to get him into trouble a second time. But at the last minute, she couldn't help herself. Glancing quickly to make sure the other guard wasn't watching, she made a pig face. When Brynjolf's lips quirked, she did it again, this time sticking out her tongue, too. Before the other guard turned, Hild had wiped all expression from her face and passed through the gate with a queenly bearing. Behind her, Brynjolf snorted with laughter, and she hurried onward, trying not to snort herself. It was just like Beyla always said, grinning, every time she led her brother astray: "Someday Brynjolf will make a fine warrior. But today is not that day."