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Authors: Rebecca Barnhouse

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BOOK: Peaceweaver
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“I didn’t
suspect
him, I
knew
,” Hild said, then added almost under her breath, “my lord.” She hated what her uncle was saying, mostly because it was making her doubt herself. Why had she run at the man with her sword instead of
calling for the guards? Then she remembered. “He had a poisoned dagger. He was going to stab Arinbjörn.”

Her uncle flicked an eye toward a guard, who detached himself from the group and jogged from the hall, his head bent low. To find the Bronding’s dagger, Hild understood, to check it for poison.

“And because he had a poisoned dagger, you decided it was up to you to kill him?”

“I didn’t decide.”

Her uncle narrowed his eyes and cocked his head, as if he was puzzled. “What do you mean, Hild?”

“I—” She fumbled for words, trying to explain. “I knew more about those men than I did about myself. As soon as I knew they were going to murder Arinbjörn, it was like it wasn’t even me anymore.”

“Go on.”

“I was so angry I couldn’t see. I didn’t know what I was doing—I don’t remember doing anything. And then he was dead.”

Behind her she heard her mother’s sharp intake of breath.

The men around the king began to murmur, their voices growing louder, although Hild couldn’t distinguish their words. Bragi leaned forward to whisper into the king’s ear, but his eyes were on Hild.

“Mother?” Hild asked.

Her uncle’s voice cut through the noise. “Has it
happened before? Or is this the first time you have been possessed?”

Possessed?

Guards stepped to her sides. She could feel that one of them was Garwulf. But she could feel nothing else.

SEVEN

T
HE KING

S EXPRESSION WAS TERRIFYING
. I
N HER UNCLE

S
face, Hild saw a stranger, someone who felt no tenderness for her.

Her knees locked so tight that if the guard standing beside her had given her the slightest push, she would have toppled.

Bragi stepped forward. His eyes were on the king but his voice was pitched for everyone in the hall to hear. “The choosers of the slain,” he said, and Hild heard murmuring from someone near her. “The spirit women who decide men’s fates …” He paused.

Hild stood rigid, listening.

“They make their choices during battle, not on the practice field. The choosers of the slain are spirits, not living women.” Bragi looked from the king to Hild and she
stared back at him, unable to move. “They do not inhabit the bodies of living women. Only a malign force could possess a person with anger this way, taking control of her body, making her do its will.”

At the word
malign
, the king moved his fingers, and more guards stepped close to Hild, metal rasping as they drew their weapons, until she was caged by a bristling fence of spear points, daggers, and swords. When cold iron touched the back of her neck, she flinched.

There was a movement in the crowd around the king, and for a moment, Hild saw Arinbjörn’s face. Then people shifted again, and Ari Frothi, who had been supplanted by Bragi even before his voice had lost its strength, waved his arm for attention, making her lose sight of her cousin. She watched as the king motioned the old skald forward, and Ari Frothi, leaning on his little grandson’s shoulder as if it were a cane, shuffled out of the crowd. Age had dimmed his eyes, and Hild wasn’t sure whether he could see her, or whether he was deliberately avoiding looking at her. When she was young, Ari Frothi had always had time for her and Beyla and Arinbjörn, to tell them stories of heroes and heroines or test their wits with riddles. She didn’t think she could bear to hear the awful things he would say about her, and she tried to look away but found herself stiff, as if she were carved from wood.

Ari Frothi’s mouth moved, but no sound came out. He cleared his throat, then cleared it again. People leaned
forward to hear him. “Evil spirits may possess a person, as Bragi has told us,” he said, his voice hoarse. “But the gods may do so, too.”

Men standing near the dais turned to each other and Hild heard snatches of their whispers. Someone said something about Odin; someone answered with the name of the goddess. When Hild’s eyes strayed back to the dais, she saw Ari Frothi watching her. The gentleness in his face warmed her.

Bragi stepped closer to the king and gave a backhanded wave that dismissed the older skald. His voice rising over the crowd, quieting it again, he said, “That’s not a chance we can take. What if it were to happen again, here in the hall? Which of us might be attacked with no warning?”

The spark of hope Ari Frothi had kindled in her, a spark so tiny that she’d barely recognized it, sputtered out.

“She can’t stay here, my lord,” Bragi said. “She must be sent into exile.”

Exile
. The word hung in the air, sapping what little remained of Hild’s strength. She felt as insubstantial as candle flame, as if a summer breeze could blow her out of existence.

Then the Bronding nobleman pushed his way past Bragi. “Exile her? No!” His voice echoed through the hall. “We demand vengeance for our kinsman.” Other Brondings stepped forward to join him, their fur-trimmed cloaks thrown back to reveal their hands on their sword hilts.

The Shylfing warriors standing near the king threw back their own cloaks and began to draw their weapons.

The king raised one hand, stilling the crowd.

“The wergild will be paid,” the king said. “You will be compensated for your kinsman’s life.”

“You would offer gold for the life of Thorfinn of the Uplands?” the Bronding said. “Gold could never suffice. We demand the life of the one who took his.”

Nobody spoke. Gradually, Hild grew aware of her own breathing, the air forcing a ragged path through her throat.

Her uncle looked at the Bronding, his gaze unyielding. “We will pay the price in gold.”

The Bronding muttered something and looked at her through narrowed eyes. The air constricted in her throat and she felt caught like a rabbit, unable to look away from him.

“Skamkel, Hadding,” the king said. “Escort Hild to her quarters.”

The planks beneath her feet vibrated as the two guards stepped forward.

Hild’s knees collapsed, unable to support her. Her cousin Skamkel, Skadi’s brother, took her by one arm, lifting her, while Hadding Oxfoot, a warrior she barely knew, gripped her other arm painfully, his fingers like shackles. Another guard moved out of their way. Garwulf. Below his helmet, his expression was so twisted with distress that she
barely recognized him. Why didn’t he defend her, or at least make Hadding loosen his grip on her arm? Why didn’t he do something,
anything
? When he saw her looking at him, he averted his eyes.

Garwulf!
Hild cried silently as he moved out of her sight.

Then her guards turned her around and the crowd parted. Hild saw faces—faces she knew—but she could recognize none of them. They blurred together like dark leaves—leaves with eyes, watching her, judging her—as Skamkel and Hadding took her on the long march through the hall, Hadding’s rolling gait from his clubfoot pulling her down and then forcing her up again with each step.

They passed the fire pit and the tables lined with benches; they trod the board that always creaked. Banners floated above them; beams carved and painted with stories of the gods lined their path, but always the door seemed so far away, hidden in the shadows of the hall. Hild didn’t think they’d ever reach it. If it weren’t for the pain where Hadding held her arm, tugging it whenever his foot forced them downward, she would have thought she was lost in a nightmare.

Finally, they made it to the door. She stumbled on the threshold, stubbing her toes on the doorstep. Dark had settled around the hall while she’d been inside, but a crowd still lingered near the steps. Another guard fell in alongside them, holding a torch high. It lit first one watcher’s
face, then another’s, the wind-tossed flames distorting their features. They looked like the dead waiting in Hel’s underground kingdom.

Hadding tightened his hold above Hild’s elbow and it was all she could do to keep from crying out.

“My arm,” she said, hating the whimper in her voice.

He didn’t loosen his grip.

“Hadding, please,” she said again. “It hurts.”

If he heard her, he didn’t show it. He stared straight ahead, his fingers like talons.

She closed her eyes, then opened them again, a sob forming in her throat. She swallowed it back, but she couldn’t stop the shaking in her jaw, her shoulders, her chest.

The people lining the path murmured when Hild drew near. She heard the hissing of the word
possessed
as the news slithered from one mouth to the next.

The torch flared, turning the face of a slave woman scarlet as she spat into her hand and glared at Hild, looking her in the eye in a way no slave should do. The guards must not have seen the slave’s action—surely a capital offense against the king’s sister-daughter—because they didn’t react. Emboldened, the slave woman made a sign with her spat-upon hand, some heathen gesture only her gods would recognize.

Hild stumbled. Neither guard—not even Skamkel, with whom she’d played when they were children—showed her any kindness as they pulled her to her feet again. The guard
with the torch brandished his spear at the crowd, and they backed away to let the group pass, then closed round again menacingly.

Just when she thought she could bear it no longer, they reached her house. Hadding yanked the door open and shoved her inside. As Skamkel let go of her other arm, she lost her balance and fell to the floor. She tried to brace her fall with her hands, but they collapsed under her, dead from her arms being gripped so tightly. She went all the way down, her forehead hitting the wood, and lay in a crumpled heap.

Behind her, the door slammed shut.

•   •   •

Hild wrapped her arms around herself and stared into the blue flames. She flinched at the feel of a woolen shawl being settled over her shoulders, but she didn’t look up at Unwen.

The sound of voices outside—her mother arguing with a guard—didn’t make her move, nor did the creak of the door.

Behind her, she could hear her mother and the slave whispering their worry to each other, but she didn’t move from where she crouched in front of the fire. If she could have crawled into her sleeping cabinet and pulled the doors shut without having to face them, she would have, but her body had turned to ice and stone.

She stared at the flames that couldn’t warm her, trying to block out everything else, every memory of the day’s events, especially the looks on people’s faces. On Garwulf’s face.

Just this morning, she had thought she might live a long and happy life with him. Now she didn’t know whether he would ever speak to her again.

A gentle hand touched her back as her mother came to sit on the floor beside her. Hild dropped her face into the comforting shoulder and wept while her mother rocked her back and forth, back and forth, as if she were a child.

When the tears were finally spent, her mother helped her stand, Unwen rushing to her other side, the two of them as gentle as the guards had been rough. Together, they got Hild to her bed, undressed her, and put her under the blankets. The sheets were as icy as her heart, and she knew she would never sleep.

Possession. Exile
. The words swirled round in her head, mingling with images of Garwulf’s face, of her uncle’s, of Arinbjörn’s when she’d killed the Bronding. Exiles were sent from the kingdom, left to wander alone as outcasts, hoping to find another king to take them in—if they survived the sleet and hail, the ravenous wolves and bears. Or worse, the giants that roamed the mountains, the trolls and hags and spirits that lurked in the forests. Yet who would take her in when doing so could bring the fury of an entire tribe down upon them? She could almost laugh at the irony of it. She, who had been so eager to bring feuds to an end, might have started a new one between the Shylfings and the Brondings.

She shuddered at the memory of the Bronding’s weight falling against her, the smell of his blood.

If only she’d never left her loom, if only she’d never gone with her cousin, none of this would ever have happened. But if she hadn’t been with Arinbjörn, she realized, he would have been killed.

Yet she had had little to do with it. Something had taken over her body to kill the Bronding. Maybe Bragi was right. Maybe something evil had possessed her. What if it happened again, but this time to someone she knew and loved?

She rolled over, shivering.

The movement brought her mother to her side. She pulled the blankets up to Hild’s chin as if she were a little girl again, laid her palm on her forehead, leaned down to kiss her cheek, then closed the bed doors, shutting Hild into darkness, away from the rest of the kingdom.

EIGHT
BOOK: Peaceweaver
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