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Authors: Rebecca Barnhouse

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BOOK: Peaceweaver
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“Come help me,” he said.

She looked at her loom, but her concentration was gone and she knew it wouldn’t return while her cousin was here. Spending time with him was a rare treat now that he was part of the boys’ troop. Still, she had to make a show of resistance. “I can’t, I’m busy.”

“Please?” He gazed at her beseechingly with his wide gray eyes, the lashes thick as a girl’s.

Finally, judging that she’d made him wait long enough, she turned to him and smiled.

“Hurry,” he said, standing and pulling her up with him. Laughing, they emerged into the light.

“Look how tall you are!” Hild said, making Arinbjörn stop so she could measure herself against him. “You must have grown overnight—you’re almost as tall as me.”

“But not as tall as Garwulf,” he said, giving her a sly
look, and she knew he must have seen them riding together earlier.

If he meant to embarrass her, it didn’t work. “Not nearly as tall as him. You’re no Garwulf, youngling,” she said, and tried to tousle his hair, but he ducked out of the way. “Where are we going?”

Without answering, he led her toward the path that wound behind the hall. They passed the smithy and the cheerful ringing of hammer on anvil as the blacksmiths shaped weapons of war. Just beyond the smithy’s well, Arinbjörn ducked off the path and headed down a weedy trail where rows of smelly sheepskins were stretched out to dry. Hild hurried to keep up with him as he picked his way around a trash heap. Her cousin could get anywhere he wanted to without using the stronghold’s main pathways; he had shown Hild and Beyla so many shortcuts over the years that they were almost as good at it as he was.

When they came to a wooden wall, Arinbjörn put his finger to his lips, looked both ways, leaned down to pick up something that had been hidden behind a rock, and then beckoned Hild forward. She stifled her laughter as he moved a loose board aside, stepped through the wall, and ended up on the dusty lane that led out the East Gate, the one hardly anybody used except farmers bringing their grain to the stronghold.

They could have gotten here directly in half the time, but Hild had to admit that her cousin’s way was more fun.
Once they were on the lane, she looked to see what he had picked up. A sheathed sword. “You’ve already got a sword,” she said, gesturing to the weapon that hung from his belt.

“But you don’t.” He looked back at her and laughed. “Hurry up!” His voice squeaked on the word
up
.

Although she was sorely tempted to say something, Hild pretended not to hear it. Instead, she ran to keep up. “Girls don’t fight, cousin.” She passed him and, walking backward, held out a length of her skirt. “See this?”

“It never stopped you before.”

“But that was when—” She stopped herself from completing her thought:
when you still needed my help
.

“When what?” he asked as she fell into step beside him.

“When I was young enough that it didn’t matter.”

“You mean, when you weren’t afraid Garwulf might see you.”

“Maybe,” she said, and this time, despite herself, she blushed.

“All right, you don’t have to. Come watch me instead.”

At the gate, the guard stepped out, his spear raised to challenge them. He stopped short, then backed up and bowed as he recognized Arinbjörn, who passed him without so much as a nod of recognition. For all that he was just a boy, Arinbjörn occasionally showed flashes of the ruler he would become, of the privilege and power and expectation of obedience from others. Hild knew it was hard for him to train with the other boys, almost all of whom were older
than he was and better with their weapons. She wondered if they resented him and used his weakness with the sword against him.

Not far from the stronghold’s wooden walls, a pile of boulders left over from some long-ago party of trolls sheltered a grassy spot where she had taken Arinbjörn on sunny days when he was a little boy. There they’d been away from the noise and dust and smell of town, but close enough that they could call for the guard if danger threatened. So often had they gone there that others recognized it as their private place, and Hild had seen farmers with their oxcarts taking the long way round it in deference to the atheling, the king’s son.

Flat farmlands stretched before them, and in the distance, a dark line marked the Wolfholt, the frightening forest that bordered the kingdom on the east. Closer by, on the far side of the grassy area, a stand of birches danced in the breeze, their leaves flickering red to gold to red. The same breeze tugged at Hild’s hair and she pushed it out of her eyes. A harsh
caw
announced a raven that landed on a high branch, flapping its wings to steady itself. Another flew in just behind it and settled lower on the tree. “Look.” She pointed. “Odin’s watching us.”

“Which one do you think is Thought and which one is Memory?” Arinbjörn asked, and Hild watched them for a moment, trying to decide. The birds’ black feathers shone in the red leaves against a piercingly blue sky. The scent of
hay from afar mingled with the odor of cow manure and the sharp smell of goat. Even if she’d had to leave her loom, she was glad she had come.

When she turned, Arinbjörn had dropped into a fighting stance. She sank into the grass and leaned against a lichen-covered rock. The cold of its surface crept through her gown. She shivered.

In front of her, Arinbjörn stretched out his sword. His footwork was fine, Hild thought as she brought a critical eye to his movements. But the way he held his sword … If
she
could see how bad he was, what must the other boys think?

“Try raising the point,” she called, and he looked over at her.

“Like this?”

She caught herself just before she started to frown. Her features blank, she said, “Elbow closer to your body—don’t expose your flank.”

He jammed his elbow into his side.

It was all she could do to keep from sighing out loud. Arinbjörn was far from stupid. Why was it so hard for him to learn the basics of defense?
Because he’s growing so fast
, she told herself. He was like a foal becoming a horse, awkward and ungainly. The moment his muscles learned a move, his bones grew again, pushing him off-kilter.
As soon as his body catches up with the rest of him
, she thought,
he’ll be fine
. She’d seen it with her cousin Skamkel. But still, it was hard to
believe Arinbjörn had forgotten everything she had practiced with him, the things her father had taught her. And had he learned nothing from his daily drills with the other boys?

He stretched out his blade again, and once again, his position left him open to attack. Unable to restrain herself any longer, Hild rose and stood behind him, holding her arm parallel to his, making him mirror her moves. “That’s it, good,” she said.

“It’s easy when you’re standing there, but when I have to spar with someone—”

“Don’t move.” She walked to the boulders, where he’d set the other sword, and unsheathed it. “Point up,” she said, looking back at him. “Don’t let it waver.” She took her place in front of him, knees bent, her own blade just touching his. “Ready? Go.”

He hesitated, so she attacked, hoping his arm would remember the defensive position. Instead, his blade came under hers, and before she knew what had happened, her own sword was spinning out of her grasp. She watched in astonishment as it landed in the grass a spear’s length away.

She looked back at Arinbjörn, who caught her eye, then pounded his thigh with his shield hand as he staggered with laughter.

Comprehension dawned. “You—you planned this, didn’t you?”

He gulped for air and wiped at his streaming eyes, but he was laughing too hard to answer.

Her hand went to her mouth; no need to let him see that she was laughing, too. She picked up her sword and strode back to him. “Get in position.”

“Girls don’t fight,” he managed to say as another fit of giggling overtook him.

“In position. Now.” She raised her sword.

Trembling with amusement, he raised his own sword. The point was barely in the air before she attacked. It took him two exchanges this time to send her blade flying. Even the ravens in the birch tree cawed with mirth as she picked it up, and she couldn’t help laughing along with them.

“So you’ve learned one trick,” she said. Grinning at him, she took her position again. “Let’s see if you know any more.”

His smile was still broad, but she could tell he was concentrating, watching her as carefully as she was watching him. He was coming
under
her blade and she couldn’t let him do that again. “Ready? Go.” As fast as she could, she slipped her point underneath his and advanced. He backed up, eluding her easily. She kept her eyes trained on the point of his sword, feeling the way he was leaning forward, letting everything her father had taught her, and all her experience from years of practicing with her cousin, guide her hand. He’d always been hesitant for fear of hurting her, and she would capitalize on that. Again, she advanced, keeping her weapon below his, but instead of retreating, he stepped forward, his blade moving so quickly she couldn’t follow it.

And there she was, again, walking across the grass, laughing, to retrieve her sword. He’d learned to fight. She didn’t know when or how, but he had, and she was glad of it.

She leaned over to pick up the sword, shaking her head in amusement at the way he’d fooled her, wondering how she would get him back for it. And how had he done that with his blade? Was it something they taught all the boys, or was it a special move of his own? Whatever it was, she’d make him teach her.

She stood, pulling a long piece of grass from her sword hilt, and looked back toward Arinbjörn—just as three men stepped out from behind the boulders. The Brondings.

Arinbjörn was watching her, laughing; he hadn’t seen them yet. They moved toward him, smiles on their faces.

Then he heard them and looked at them, his lips slightly parted, in surprise or speech, she wasn’t sure. A wave of dizziness made her catch her footing. As she steadied herself, the sky seemed to brighten, and she blinked. The odor of smoke, acrid and burning, bit at her throat, and in that moment, she knew without knowing the why of it that the Brondings’ smiles were fox grins, far from friendly. The man closest to him raised his hand toward Arinbjörn.

Within Hild, something snapped. White-hot fury filled her, and without realizing what she was doing, she grabbed her skirt in one hand, her sword in the other, and ran blindly toward her cousin. In less time than it takes a hawk to plummet from the sky after its prey, she was across
the practice area, shouldering Arinbjörn aside and pushing with her sword. Her arm jolted as the weapon met resistance, but she shoved back against something she couldn’t see, then shoved again, pushing her blade in front of her as it buried itself in something solid.

Everything stopped. Insects in the grass quit their chirring mid-note, the breeze in the birches held its breath, the bright autumn sky blanked into white—

—and then a weight was on her sword as the man standing in front of Arinbjörn staggered.

Now her own lips were parted and she stepped back, taking her blood-spattered hand from the sword, which was still embedded in the man’s guts, and looked over his shoulder at Arinbjörn. A tuft of her cousin’s hair was sticking up on one side, she noted incongruously. It gave him a comical appearance.

A raven cawed, unlocking the stillness, shocking the world back to life.

“Hild, what have you done?” Arinbjörn said, and his voice sounded different than she’d ever heard it before. Then his face caught up with his voice, and he gave her a look of such horror snaked round with contempt that she didn’t think she could bear it.

He was going to kill you
, she meant to say, but no words came out before the man crumpled to the ground, almost taking her with him.

He was dead.

SIX

H
ILD COULD SCARCELY COMPREHEND THE FLURRY OF
action around her. Shapes and colors rushed together. Her knees gave way and she found herself sinking to the ground, but someone grabbed her elbow and hauled her up. Men came running—guards, she thought, but she couldn’t seem to focus—and a hand took her other elbow, squeezing it so tightly she would have slapped it away if the world had still been real. But it wasn’t, and the pain in her arm was just another sensation she couldn’t interpret, any more than she could comprehend why her body wouldn’t stop shaking.

She knew enough to recognize the gate when they marched her through it. When she next opened her eyes, she was in the hall, surrounded by images that resolved themselves into people, a whole group of them. She felt as if she were a small child trapped in a press of grown-ups, their
wool garments cutting out light and sound, or as if she were lost in a forest so thick that fir branches pressed into her body. Only fir branches wouldn’t reek of blood, would they?

There were voices, voices so loud they hurt her head, and then a finger pointed at her, jabbing toward her face. She sank to the floor again, and again she was yanked upward. Why was she here? She couldn’t remember.

BOOK: Peaceweaver
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