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Authors: Rebecca Barnhouse

Peaceweaver (10 page)

BOOK: Peaceweaver
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“Guards coming!” Beyla said, and Hild heard her scrambling to her feet. Then she was gone.

She lay listening, hoping Beyla would return, but instead of footsteps, she heard raindrops plunking tentatively on the roof before they built to a steady drumming.

When she finally crawled out of bed, Unwen scurried to help her dress. She was eating when her mother returned. “This rain is a good sign,” her mother said, shaking water from her cloak. “It shows that the gods still favor the kingdom.”

Despite what happened. Despite what I did
, Hild added silently.

Her mother crossed to the fireside and placed a cool hand on her cheek. It smelled of the outdoors, of the rain. “You’re cold. Unwen.” She gestured and the slave brought a shawl to drape over Hild’s shoulders.

Hild let them fuss over her; it was easier for everyone if she allowed her mother to expend her nervous energy. When Hild pulled the shawl more tightly around herself, she felt another one being settled over her, but it couldn’t take away the chill of the house, or the gloom. Nor could her mother’s funny stories about Siri’s boys. Hild did her best to smile about Faxi’s learning to dance at the harvest festival, but the tale, and the pleading look in her mother’s eyes, only reminded her that she hadn’t been allowed to witness it herself. Would her uncle ever relent? If only she could be in the hall to judge his mood or talk to him face to face …

Behind her, her mother whispered orders to Unwen, even though there was no reason for her to keep her voice down. And what could she tell the slave to do that she wasn’t doing already? When she finally left the house, taking her jittery anxiety with her, Hild was relieved.

•   •   •

Beyla came again the next morning, knocking on the wall and speaking Hild’s name. Hild was ready for her. She’d woken early and waited in the dark, words she wanted to say tumbling through her head. If she had a chance to tell Beyla only one thing, what would it be? She couldn’t decide. As it turned out, she didn’t need to. Whispering through the wall made real conversations too difficult. “This rain won’t stop,” Beyla said twice before Hild understood her, wasting words on something she already knew. She imagined her friend holding her cloak over her head, water dripping onto her face and her hair, which was probably falling out of its knot. Then Beyla said, “Guard,” and Hild heard her footsteps diminishing before the heavier tread of a warrior’s feet splashed through a puddle.

When she got out of bed, her mother helped her to dress, chattering brightly while she straightened Hild’s shift and worked at the straps that held up her gown. Then, as if she had just remembered it, she said, “The queen needs me,” and gave Hild’s shoulder a squeeze before she slipped out of the house and into the rain. Hild knew that her mother was trying to stay cheerful for her sake, and that it wasn’t easy for her. Nor was it necessary.

She found she was becoming more and more satisfied to be left alone with her thoughts and Unwen’s dark gossip. As the slave endlessly swept the spotless corners of the house, she told Hild what she’d heard people saying: some men feared that Hild would curse them or that she had the power to blunt their weapons and make their arrows go awry by merely looking at them. “Fools,” Unwen said, and it comforted Hild to hear the scorn in her voice.

She watched the slave for a moment, trying to work up the courage to ask the question that bothered her the most, the one she had no one else to ask. Finally, she said, “What’s the difference between being far-minded, like my grandmother was, and being possessed …?” Her voice faltered before she got to the words
like me
.

Unwen snorted and looked toward the door. She had taken to wearing her cooking knife at her belt, as if she were protecting Hild from the guards who always stood outside the house.

“You want to know the difference?”

Hild nodded.

“If a woman tells a man the gods favor him, everybody says she’s far-minded.” The broom halted mid-sweep and the slave turned to Hild. “But let a woman do what the gods tell her, without asking a man’s permission first? Then she’s possessed.” Unwen punctuated her words with her broom, jabbing it into a corner.

Hild wished she could believe her. The slave didn’t think
any malign forces were at work, and Hild had been grateful when she had said aloud, more than once, that if evil spirits were what had made Hild save the life of the king’s son, then she, Unwen, was a three-headed chicken. But Unwen had also told her that in the king’s kitchens, some people were saying it was Hild’s fault the queen had never had another child and never left her bed.

A finger of fear twisted around her spine. There were plenty of problems in the kingdom she could be blamed for. And if people didn’t think of problems on their own, she suspected Bragi would help them.

If only she could talk to Beyla about it, ask her what the women in the hall were saying. She could just hear her friend arguing with anyone who tried to make accusations against Hild.

The next morning, she was awake long before she could expect Beyla to show up. In every small noise, every creak of the house, she heard footsteps. Not until she’d finally dozed off again did real footsteps startle her awake.

“Beyla,” she whispered, rising to her elbows.

The footsteps stopped.

“Beyla?” she said again, louder this time.

There was a noise outside the wall, and then the footsteps receded. What had happened? She strained her ears, but silence met them.

Then a goat bleated and another answered. A boy called them by name and led them past the house, probably taking
them out the Lake Gate to graze. Beyla must have been avoiding him.

The sound of the goats faded, but nothing took its place. Hild kept listening. Finally, when she’d almost given up, she heard the patter of footsteps, followed by the three-part knock. Hild felt weak with relief. She hadn’t realized how much she counted on Beyla’s visits.

“Hild,” Beyla said.

Hild knocked in response. Now that Beyla was here, the questions she had wanted to ask faded in importance. It seemed enough to simply know that her friend was on the other side of the wall.

“You there!” a man called.

“Goat’s breath!” Hild heard Beyla say, and then there was noise Hild couldn’t discern, followed by Beyla saying, “Ow! Let me go!”

A second man said, “Stop struggling and you won’t get hurt.”

Hild covered her eyes with her hand, but it didn’t keep her from picturing Beyla scuffling with the guards.

A third voice said, “Bring her along. Bragi’s waiting.”

“Hild!” Beyla cried, and Hild could hear the noise of her struggling as the guards dragged her away. To Bragi. She listened until the sounds died out, then lay heavily on her mattress, darkness weighing her down.

She didn’t have to be told to know that Beyla wouldn’t be coming again.

TEN

H
ILD PICKED LISTLESSLY AT A THREAD IN THE PATTERN
her fingers were unweaving. She couldn’t remember how long it had been since Unwen had hauled the loom over by the fire. She’d meant to do it herself, but that was before torpor had overtaken her limbs.

As the days had gone by and nobody had told her what was to become of her, Hild had lost her appetite for food, for news, for company. All she wanted to know was what would happen to her. Was she to be exiled? Or had her exile already begun? Were the four walls of this dark room her future?

She tugged at another thread on her loom. The head that had been coming into view—the woman putting her baby into the boat—had disappeared, a victim of her nervous hands.

Her eyes lost their focus and the tapestry became a surface for images of her past life, before her imprisonment. She saw sun and bright sky above brown earth; grain standing in tall shocks; the faces of Beyla, her sisters, her nephews, a laughing Arinbjörn.

The face of Garwulf.

Fleetfoot.

Were the Brondings taking good care of him? Surely they recognized his value, his spirit. She hoped they were currying him regularly, because he loved to be curried. She pictured the silly faces he always made when she and Beyla brushed him. She closed her eyes, feeling her horse’s nose against her cheek, the warmth of his flank. Then, with a great effort, she blinked away the emptiness that tugged at her heart.

It was dark, as it always was now, the room lit only by the fire on the hearth. Wasn’t it time to sleep? Unwen wouldn’t let her into the bed if it wasn’t evening, but Hild no longer knew whether it was day or night. Laboriously, like an old woman, she rose from the stool and dragged her body to her cabinet bed.

“Not yet, my lady,” Unwen said, taking her arm and leading her back to the fire. “You haven’t eaten anything today.” She lowered Hild to the stool again. “I’ll get you something from the king’s kitchens. What would you like?”

Hild forced herself to look at the slave, but speaking
took more energy than she could muster, despite the desperation she read in Unwen’s eyes.

“I’ll be right back. Just you wait and see what I’ll bring with me.” Without bothering to throw her cloak over her shoulders, Unwen hurried away.

As the door opened, Hild shut her eyes against the stabbing light. It wasn’t even bright out, but compared to firelight, daylight seemed harsh and threatening.

Her mother still brought her tales of her nephews, and Unwen still whispered the latest gossip, but Hild had stopped even pretending to pay attention. None of it seemed real anymore. None of it mattered.

Being enclosed was the worst of it, and never seeing the sky. It seemed like it must already be the darkest part of winter, when the clouds encase you and the sky is as white as the snow. She felt as if she had been buried in a cave. And why not, when it seemed as if she were already dead?

The door rattled and opened, letting in light again. Hild held her hand over her eyes and ignored the sound of feet against the wood.

“Look who’s come to see you,” her mother said.

A visitor?
Despite herself, Hild roused herself enough to look up.

Ari Frothi stood by the door, leaning against Hild’s mother’s arm, a fur-lined cloak over his shoulders, a small harp under his arm. “May I?” he asked.

Manners Hild had forgotten she possessed suddenly
returned, and she rose from the stool so quickly that she staggered from light-headedness. “Please, sit,” she said, gesturing.

Her mother smiled at her, not quite meeting her eyes, and led the old skald to the seat beside the fire.

Hild sank onto the floor before the hearth, her legs shaky from the sudden movement. Briefly, she wondered how the skald had gotten her uncle to allow him to come in. Then her torpor returned and she withdrew into herself, watching the old man as if she were seeing him from the bottom of a deep pool.

Ari Frothi reached for her hand and held it in his own, chafing it as he gazed at her.

It was too much work to look at him. Her chin dropped and she closed her eyes.

As she did, he let go her hand and settled his harp into his arms, plucking notes and tuning the strings. He stopped when the door opened.

Hild’s lids fluttered, but it was only Unwen.

“Bear meat, my lady,” she said triumphantly, crossing the room to hand Hild a wooden bowl filled with thick stew.

Hild held up her palm to refuse it.

“But, my lady, it’s
bear
meat!”

Hild shook her head and kept her eyes from Unwen’s disappointed ones.

“If she doesn’t want it, I’ll eat it,” Ari Frothi said, and reached for the bowl.

Unwen pulled it back. “You will
not
,” she said fiercely. “It’s for my lady.”

“Let him have it, Unwen,” Hild said. She didn’t think she had the strength to listen to them argue.

Angrily, Unwen shoved the bowl toward the skald so hard that a dollop of stew lapped onto the floorboards. She wiped it vigorously with her apron, then huffed her way across the room.

Ari Frothi dipped the spoon into the stew and brought it to his mouth. “Mmm,” he said, closing his eyes with pleasure. He took another bite and smacked his lips, murmuring, “Bear meat.”

The stew’s aroma wafted to Hild’s nose, and to her surprise, her stomach growled. Maybe she could have eaten it after all—if Ari Frothi hadn’t gotten to it first.

“A meal fit for the gods,” he said, and set the remainder on the hearth. “If I hadn’t just eaten in the hall, I’d clean that bowl for you.” He picked up his harp again and plinked one string, then another. “Young was I once, and wandered alone,” he chanted, his voice husky and frayed.

And naught of the road did I know
.

Rich did I feel when a comrade I found
,

for a friend is our heart’s delight
.

As Hild listened, her eyes strayed to the hearth. The bowl was still half full of thick broth, and she could see lumps of
meat in it, too. Before she was aware of what she was doing, she had reached out to pick it up, brought the spoon to her lips, finished the stew, and scraped the bowl clean.

When she set it down, she saw a furtive movement from the corner of her eye as her mother and Unwen turned away, pretending they hadn’t been watching her. The meal gave her enough strength to be amused by their studied lack of concern and the twisted lips, a semblance of a smile, that Unwen couldn’t hide.

BOOK: Peaceweaver
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