The woman didn’t look like much. That bothered Thorfinn. The family she had confessed to murdering had been torn to pieces. Six people, including an infant daughter and a near-grown son. He tried not to think of Freydis and Arnora, just the two of them alone on the farm.
The woman had been found naked outside the farmhouse, covered in gore. Even after she had been washed for the aetheling’s judgment, dry flakes of blood still caked her hair and traced the fine wrinkles on her face.
Thorfinn had had the ceorls gag her and tangle her fingers with wire. He had been tempted to have her fingers off and her tongue out. At the slightest sign of witchcraft, he told himself, he really would have. But she had been quiet and docile. Her eyes, when she looked up at all, showed only sadness.
Thorfinn watched unhappily while a pair of ceorls chained her to the execution post on the low hill at the back of the aetheling’s greathouse.
“Still uneasy, Hauld Thorfinn?” Aetheling Hallveig called as she approached from the greathouse. She was bundled against the evening chill in a quilted satin coat.
Thorfinn realized he was tapping his fingers on the hilt of his sword, and stopped. “She’s innocent or a witch, Aetheling,” he replied.
“If she’s innocent, then she confessed because she wishes for death. In that case, we’re doing her kindness. If she’s a witch, and guilty, then she must pay for her crime.”
A hard kindness, Thorfinn thought. Merciful Lord, he hated that post and all it represented.
Hallveig looked westward, over the thatched roofs of the greathouse’s rambling wings. The sun was sinking between the hills that framed the mouth of the fjord.
“Either way,” Hallveig said, “the dark will take her.”
The ceorls stepped away from the post. The murderess looked up at it, then to Thorfinn and Hallveig. Her bemusement was plain, but she did not seem fearful.
“If she’s innocent then we still have a killer at large,” Thorfinn said, then amended himself, “Another killer at large.”
Hallveig returned the chained woman’s scrutiny, a tiny furrow creasing her brow. “If there’s anything good to be said for our neighbors it’s that they’re tidy feeders. The scene that you described didn’t sound tidy. In which case you have further questions to ask, Hauld.”
“Yes, Aetheling.” If not this perhaps-witch, then what had killed that family? The woman’s accented confessions had said plainly enough that she was a foreigner. Had she brought some foreign demon with her?
Another foreign demon. Thorfinn shuddered, eying the dark forest further up the side of the valley. God knew the leeches were demons enough. The sun had touched the horizon, and the maids were already shuttering the last of the greathouse’s windows. “Aetheling, it’s time.”
At the same moment, the chained woman’s head came up. She sniffed the air, animal-like, then seemed to catch herself, wrenching her gaze away and hiding her face between her arms.
Thorfinn followed the direction of her stare. The gangling man-boy figure of Aetheling Hallveig’s son, Gunnbjorn, hesitated at the house’s nearest doorway. Disturbed, Thorfinn was already striding down the slope towards him before Hallveig said, “Send him back inside.”
Gunnbjorn must have heard his mother. He retreated back inside before Thorfinn had taken more than a couple of steps.
Still frowning, Thorfinn turned back. Hallveig stood barely an arm’s length from the murderess.
“Aetheling, we must go in,” he said.
“Remove her gag a moment,” said Hallveig.
“Aetheling, what if she is a witch?”
She smirked crookedly. “Oh, I think the quantity of iron the men have wrapped her in will be enough to blunt any curse she might spit out, don’t you?”
Thorfinn reluctantly stepped in to untie the gag. Close up, the murderess stank of blood and sour sweat, along with another, ranker, odor.
Her eyes flickered up to his face, then settled on Hallveig as he stood back. She was tense, distressed, yet still strangely unfrightened. Thorfinn closed his fingers on the hilt of his sword, ready to attack if she started speaking in tongues.
“You understand that you’re to be executed for your crime?” said Hallveig.
Regret washed across the murderess’s face. “I am sorry for that. I do not wish to harm anyone else.”
“It’s not for me to forgive you.” Hallveig’s tone was matter-of-fact. “You know my son?”
The murderess flinched. “No!” she said, almost pleading. Then, “Keep the boy safe.”
Hallveig pursed her lips. She seemed about to say more, then changed her mind. “Hauld, let’s go in.” To the chained woman, she said, “The dark will take you for your crime.”
Thorfinn saw the light of comprehension dawn as he stepped in to re-affix the murderess’s gag. The last sliver of the sun’s disc slipped away. The murderess sagged against the post, her body quaking.
He hurried inside after Hallveig, frowning as he set the bar and slid the bolts. The woman had seemed more like she was shaking with silent laughter than sobs of terror.
The commotion erupted while the ceorls were still dicing and drinking in the greathouse’s long hall. Thorfinn hissed for silence. There was a faint wail from outside, followed by a resounding roar.
“That was no leech,” said Styr.
Thorfinn didn’t give them—or himself—time to stop and wonder what was outside. “To arms!” he bellowed. “Check the doors!”
They lunged for swords, axes, spears and shields, racked at the side of the hall. Thorfinn charged down the corridor to the aetheling’s wing, Styr hard on his heels. The pair of ceorls on duty met them at the wing’s external door, Hallveig right behind them in her night robe.
Styr pressed his good ear against the wood. The door, one of those that faced out onto the execution post’s hill, was still barred and bolted. “Nothing.”
“It would seem your unease was well founded, Hauld Thorfinn,” said Hallveig, her voice tight.
“Whatever it is, it sounds like it’s gone, Aetheling,” said Styr. His hand moved to the bolts.
“Wait,” said Thorfinn. “Aetheling, please return to your chamber.”
“I will not.” Her tone left no room for argument.
Grinding his teeth, Thorfinn turned to the ceorls. “Fetch a prisoner from the cages.”
The ceorls clattered away, lanterns bobbing.
“What of Gunnbjorn, Hauld Thorfinn?” Hallveig asked.
“The ceorls are seeing to him,” he replied. Gunnbjorn’s chamber was on the far side of the greathouse. Thorfinn knew he should have gone himself, really, and left Hallveig to Styr.
“What do you think it was, out there?”
He exchanged a glance with Styr, then shook his head. “I can’t say, Aetheling.” Which is why I want you well clear before I open this door.
The ceorls returned quickly, towing a prisoner manacled at wrists and throat. Thorfinn recognized him as a villager from Ketilsdale, convicted of oathbreaking. He was pale but held himself erect.
Hallveig’s lips were pressed white together. “Do you expect that to be necessary, Hauld?”
Thorfinn sheathed his sword and adjusted the set of his shield, then took Hallveig’s lantern. “If there’s anything still out there expecting to be fed,” he replied, “I want it to have something to feed on that isn’t us.” The coldness of that calculation sat no better on his stomach than it ever had. He hated giving anyone to the leeches, even oathbreakers and murderers.
He met the man’s eye. The oathbreaker held his gaze for a moment, then looked away.
Thorfinn nodded to Styr. “Bring him out behind me.”
All was still and dark outside. Thorfinn stepped through the door. He took a few cautious paces. Nothing moved. The only sounds came from inside the house behind him. Hushed voices, frightened.
Metal clinked as Styr and the other ceorls followed him. Thorfinn took a quick glance up at the thatched roof of the house. Clear.
Scarcely daring to breathe, he made his way over to the execution post’s hill.
Styr raised his own lantern, then matter-of-factly walked a few paces to the side and vomited onto the grass.
There were bits of body—torn flesh, spilled guts, splintered bones and parts of limbs—flung all over the hillside. The execution post was snapped off a short distance below the point where the chains had been bolted on. The chains themselves were scattered in pieces around the base of the post
Bile rising, Thorfinn picked his way up the slope.
“No bloody leech did this,” said Styr, following him. “Begging your pardon, Aetheling.”
Thorfinn glanced back. Hallveig hovered at the doorway, much as her son had done hours earlier. She saw Thorfinn watching and stepped gingerly out beside the ceorls.
A nearby body part caught Thorfinn’s eye. He prodded it with the toe of his boot to turn it into the light. A jawbone, tattered flesh hanging from its sides. The incisors stuck up high above the other teeth, far longer than a person’s.
“This isn’t her,” he said, at the same moment as Styr said, up by the broken post, “There’s too many arms.”
“What?” said Thorfinn and Hallveig together.
“Too many arms, Aetheling.” Styr counted, pointing. “One, two, three.”
There was a roar and a sound of tearing wood. Shouts followed, and a man’s high dying scream, sharply cut-off. Thorfinn was already sprinting for Hallveig before he registered where the commotion had come from. It felt as if the bottom had fallen out of his bowels.
The far side of the greathouse. Gunnbjorn’s wing.
The door to Gunnbjorn’s chamber was open. Inside was a ruin. The window was gone, along with the logs to which its iron grille had been bolted. A tapestry was burning, a discarded lantern at its base, casting leaping shadows about the room.
A dead ceorl lay across the threshold. Or half of him, anyway. There were more bodies, and bits of bodies, inside.
“God’s mercy,” said Styr.
Thorfinn heard gasping breaths behind them and moved to block the doorway, catching Hallveig as she tried to push past him.
“Let me go!” She pummeled him with fists and knees.
He held firm. “He’s dead. Aetheling, he’s dead.”
Styr gave a yelp and lurched into Thorfinn’s back. “Leech!”
Thorfinn shoved Hallveig towards Styr. “Get her away!”
The leech crouched in the broken hole where the window had been. Its glamour made it hard to discern details. Thorfinn had seen leeches in daylight, knew the ragged, filthy reality. He kept his eyes down, watching its thin limbs for warning signs that it was about to spring. Not that that would do him much good. At night, it would be halfway across the room before he knew it was moving. His gaze flickered involuntarily up to the dark hollows of its eyes. It was an effort to tear away again from the hypnotic stare.
He looked at its mouth, instead, a red slash across its face, and thought he could make out pale wisps of a beard and moustaches that suggested the creature had once been male.
The leech spoke. Its voice sounded rusted, as if long unused. “Two of our number came tonight, to take blood for the nest, as the treaty provides. I have seen what became of them.”
“You killed my son!” snarled Hallveig from behind Thorfinn.
“The treaty is broken,” said the leech.
“It wasn’t us,” Thorfinn said, raising his voice. His heart hammered. “The creature who slaughtered your two did this, as well.”
“We will hunt it,” said Hallveig. “I will have its hide.”
“You know not what you would hunt,” the leech replied.
It still crouched on the edge of the shattered window, seeming reluctant to enter the chamber. Thorfinn was sweating, despite the chill night air.
“But you do,” he said.
There was a pause before the creature answered. Thorfinn risked a look up at its eyes. “It is the farkasember. The man who becomes a wolf.”
“Woman,” said Thorfinn. “She was chained to the post tonight.” She killed two leeches at night. What manner of witchcraft is this? “Can she be killed?”
“Not with your steel.” The leech began to rise, and turn.
“Then with what?” Hallveig demanded.
“Edge your weapons with silver,” the leech said.
And it was gone.
Thorfinn let out a long breath. Styr started to say something, then stopped. He reached past Thorfinn to touch a set of four parallel grooves, deeply scored in the timber of the doorframe by Thorfinn’s head. Thorfinn held up his hand, fingers wide. He couldn’t reach, thumb tip to little finger, from the top groove to the bottom.
A wolf? He looked around the room again. What wolf could do all this?
Freydis stopped in the warm sunlight that bathed the farmhouse’s front porch. The breeze brought the tang of the glacier and raised gooseflesh on her arms.
She stepped down onto the grass. There was a flicker of motion at the upper edge of her vision. Freydis reacted instantly, throwing herself backwards as a shadowy figure dove at her from its perch on the thatch
Her attacker hit the ground hard. It held a tattered shroud of shadows around itself to hide it from the sun.
There was something sticking up from its torso. A length of wooden post with broken links of chain bolted to its end. Freydis grabbed the post and leaned on it with all her weight. The leech shrieked and shuddered.
There was a yell from the house. Her daughter Arnora rushed out, with the wood axe raised over her head, ridiculously outsized on the end of the girl’s skinny arms.
“Stay back!” Freydis shouted.
She worked the post back and forth. The leech’s scrabbling fingers caught hold of her ankle. Its claws pierced her stockinged ankle above the top of her boot. Freydis clamped her teeth but didn’t let go of the post.
Arnora lunged in, missing her mother with the axe by a whisker. The blade struck the leech with a dull thunk, somewhere on the neck or head. Freydis swayed out of the way as Arnora swung again. This time the impact jarred the axe handle out of the girl’s grasp.
The leech thrashed, trying to get free.
“Die, damn you!” Freydis snarled. She gave the post a twist. The leech stiffened. It let out a rattling cough. Its heels drummed on the ground and, at last, it lay still. Its shadow cloud began to shred.
Breathing heavily, Freydis let go of the post. She stooped to pluck its claws out of her leg and stepped back from the body. Blood trickled into her boot.
“You killed it,” Arnora exclaimed. She had regathered the axe and held it, ready to strike, in case the impossible wasn’t true after all.
Freydis nodded, no less amazed. A strong adult could overpower a leech in daylight, but the damn things were near impossible to kill, short of getting the head off them—and that, as Arnora had demonstrated, was easier in word than deed.
The shadows had dissipated altogether now. Freydis looked down at the filthy creature at her feet. Its clothes were grimy rags, its skin the sick color of old bone beneath a patina of dirt. There were shallow cuts across its ear and jaw from Arnora’s axe blows.
Astoundingly, the splintered end of the post was stuck straight through the leech’s chest. Freydis’s twisting had evidently shifted it enough to pierce the creature’s heart. Even more remarkable, the post wasn’t the leech’s only injury. It was missing an arm.
She focused again on the dead thing’s face, frozen in an animal rictus, lips peeled back from its grotesquely outsized fangs. Her wonder drained away into horror.
“Oh, no. Gudrid.” she breathed, recognizing her eldest daughter.
Freydis brought the cart slowly up the road to the aetheling’s greathouse.
Arnora huddled beside her, still clutching the axe. Her sister’s abused corpse, wrapped now in a tarred pall in the back of the cart, was a smothering presence.
There was activity on the execution post’s little hill. As Freydis watched, a woman dashed down the slope and was noisily sick. A ceorl moved to comfort her. Not far from the pair, the silhouette of the execution post caught her eye. It ended in a splintered point. She urged the oxen to greater speed.
Around the front of the sprawling buildings, Styr and a handful of ceorls were struggling with a pack of the aetheling’s hounds. The animals slunk around their handlers’ feet, heads lowered and tails between their legs.
Freydis pulled the cart to a halt. “Styr,” she called. “What’s happened here?”
Styr bared his teeth to chase her off with a curse. With an effort, he gathered his composure. “Thegn Freydis.” He drew a deep breath. “There’s been killing here. Five of ours. Gunnbjorn’s one of them.”
Freydis felt sick in her belly. “Where’s Thorfinn?”
“Out on horses with half the men, riding the roads on the off-chance the creature didn’t just take to the forest. We’re supposed to be tracking it, but the bloody dogs won’t take the scent.”
He aimed an exasperated kick at one. The hound yelped and skipped out of the way.
Freydis frowned. “You don’t think it fled to the nest?”
“What? No, it wasn’t a leech. This is some new demon. A wolf-woman. It tore two leeches to pieces before it broke into Gunnbjorn’s chamber.”
Wolf-woman? Freydis had assumed that Gudrid’s injuries had been inflicted by the monsters that had made her one of them. “Styr, tell me all of it.”
She waited for a moment after knocking, then pushed Hallveig’s door open a crack. “Hallveig?”
There was a pause, then a croaking reply. “Come in, Freydis.”
She stepped into the chamber, unsure of what she would find. Hallveig was alone, standing by the window with the shutters thrown wide, looking out at the view of the fjord.
Freydis moved over to stand beside her. Hallveig’s eyes and nose were reddened. “Styr told me. I’m so sorry.” She meant it, but the words came out stiff.
Hallveig gave the slightest of nods, as if she were afraid to move her head too far. “I’ll have this creature’s skin.”
“Styr told me this wolf-woman butchered two leeches as well.”
Hallveig’s head turned a little towards her, but her eyes did not. “What of them?”
“One of them was Gudrid.”
Now the Aetheling’s eyes flickered over to her, just for an instant. “Gudrid? What are you talking about?”
“They didn’t kill her, Hallveig. They took her, made her one of them.” She had to say it through clamped teeth, otherwise she would have shouted it. They broke the treaty—your father’s treaty. They did what they swore they would not. They made my child into a monster.
It was an old argument. Hallveig made her side of it wearily. “What would you have me do, Freydis? I’m sorry for your loss, as you are for mine, as I was when Gudrid went missing. I can’t destroy the leeches, nor drive them away.” Her voice strengthened. “But I know how to kill this new demon.”
Freydis opened her mouth to respond, but Hallveig said, “Leave me to my mourning, Thegn Freydis.”
Freydis clenched her fists. With an effort, she bowed her head, then retreated from the room.
“Thorfinn,” Freydis said, a second time, before her brother noticed her.
He grunted. “Styr said you were here.”
Freydis and Arnora were sitting on one of the benches that lined the walls of the long hall.
Arnora flung herself at Thorfinn and hid her face against his chest. Thorfinn scooped her up and sat beside Freydis, lifting Arnora to his lap. He stank of horse and stale sweat.
“You’ve seen Hallveig?” he said.
“I have,” said Freydis.
His face was stiff. “How is she?”
“This wolf-woman is far gone from here.” Thorfinn stroked his niece’s back, his big hand spanning nearly the width of her slender shoulders. “We’ve coated the heads of our hunting spears with silver. If we find her, and the leech has told the truth, then we’ll kill her. But I fear won’t find her again, and Hallveig won’t rest unless we do.”
“Thorfinn,” Freydis said, “I have something to show you.”
“It’s Gudrid,” she said.
Thorfinn paused, his hand halfway out to catch the edge of the pall covering the body. Arnora was tucked under his arm, hadn’t let go of him on the way from the hall.
He threw back the pall from the ruined remains of his eldest niece. “I’d thought her long since dead.”
“They turned her,” said Freydis. He heard the edge in her voice, that said she would brook no sympathy. “They broke the treaty, Thorfinn.”
“So that’s where it got to,” said Styr, reaching out to poke the broken end of the execution post in wonder. “Put it straight through her. Who can do that to a leech?” He realized what he had said. “Damn, sorry.”
“This wasn’t my child,” said Freydis. “Not anymore.”
Thorfinn wondered about that. Direly injured, Gudrid had fled home, not back to the leeches’ nest. Something, at least, of the young woman had remained. Enough to know the monster she had become?
“What if it wasn’t because of the wolf-woman?” Freydis said sharply.
He frowned at her. “What?”
“What if it wasn’t because she’s a demon, that she could put the post through Gudrid like this.”
Arnora whimpered and hid her face. Thorfinn scowled at his sister. “Have a mind for your living daughter, will you?”
“She tore the other leech to pieces,” said Styr. “And...” With a glance at Arnora, he indicated the stump of the corpse’s missing arm.
Freydis shook her head. “No. Strength wouldn’t matter. When the leeches first came, Aetheling Hafgrim caught one in daylight.”
“I was there,” said Thorfinn.
“Nineteen blows of an axe to take its head off,” Freydis said.
“And he broke an axe blade doing it,” added Styr, thoughtfully.
Thorfinn thought he saw a glimmer of where Freydis was going.
“Wood should have splintered,” she said. “Why didn’t it?”
They all looked at the broken post. Silver will kill this wolf-woman, Thorfinn thought. Wood. Could it be so simple?
“A leech will cut easy as a man, once it’s dead,” he said.
Freydis nodded. “Then there’s only one way to know.”
When Thorfinn met her gaze, he was disturbed to see the same fever light in her eyes as he had seen in Hallveig’s.
Wood should have splintered. He rapped his knuckles against the stump of the execution post.
Coal smoke plumed from the greathouse’s chimneys. Smoke rose from the forges down in the town, too. Forging every last scrap of silver from the greathouse and town into heads for spears and arrows. Thorfinn stood watching the sunset while he fretted.
A soft footfall sounded behind him. “Do not turn.”
He heard the foreign inflection in the words and froze.
“You are preparing to hunt me.”
Thorfinn’s mouth was suddenly dry. Freydis and Arnora were still in the aetheling’s house, and the only weapon he had on his person was his belt knife—good iron, but useless against a demon. “We know what you are,” he said
“Are you so certain?”
He half-turned his head. “If I had a silvered blade I’d be done with the task right now.”
“No,” she said, close behind him. “You would not.”
A trickle of sweat crawled down between his shoulder blades. What did she mean? Was the leech wrong? Had it lied? “Why have you come back?”
“I never left,” she said, from a little further away.
His stomach turned a somersault. Here all day? And Freydis and Arnora in the house...
“I would prefer no quarrel with the people of this domain,” she said.
“You’ve made your quarrel already,” he said, his voice thick. “People are dead. The aetheling’s only son is dead.”
“I am sorry for those. It was not my intent.”
That brought him up short. “You can’t control the beast.”
“Sometimes, I cannot.” The regret in her tone sounded real.
When you smell a virgin man. “Yes or no, the sentence is the same.”
“I know,” she said. “But if you must hunt me, do so without hate in your hearts.”
The sun’s disc was halfway past the horizon. The ceorls and maids would be locking down for the night. He had ordered the men to carry silver-headed spears. If only he had heeded his own advice. Keep her talking.
“Why did you come here?” he said. “Were you fleeing the crimes you committed in your homeland?”
“I am hunting the upiri,” she said. “The bloodsuckers.”
The leeches! The hair stood up all over his scalp.
Now he did turn. She stood a short distance away, halfway down the back side of the hill and hidden from the greathouse’s nearest doors.
“You laughed, when I left you at the post,” he said, his voice hoarse.
One corner of her lip rose, a sneer not quite suppressed. “You are like cattle making peace with butchers.”
The barb struck painfully true. Thorfinn covered the sting with anger. “In Einarsfjord they fought the leeches and were slaughtered.” Fought with iron, he thought. That wood should have splintered.
“Leeches?” She seemed amused by that. Then, “Better to die as men than live like cattle.”
“Easy words when you’ve no family to protect.” . He opened his mouth again to ask her, Is it wood that kills them?
But she said, so quietly that he had to strain to hear, “I did have a family. The upiri came through my homeland after they were driven from theirs. They killed my sons, my husband. I found a man who would share his curse with me. I swore to hunt the... leeches wherever they ran.”
Bootsteps sounded from within the house. She slipped further down behind the hill as Styr appeared in the doorway, a couple of the younger ceorls crowding behind him, all of them with silver-headed spears.
Thorfinn charged at him, wrenching the spear from his hand. He spun, the weapon leveled.
The woman was gone.
Thorfinn found Freydis and Hallveig sitting together in the hall, Freydis on a bench and Hallveig on her high-backed chair. Two stacks of arrows were on the table between them, one with iron heads, the other with silver, with a glue pot, twine and bowl of silver heads to one side. Discarded iron heads were scattered on the floor. Arnora was asleep on some furs by the hearth. “Aetheling, may I join you?” said Thorfinn.
“Of course,” Hallveig said, tersely. “Fetch yourself a stool.”
Thorfinn kicked one near and sat. He took a deep breath, checked the tremor in his hands, and said, “She was here all day. The wolf-woman. I just spoke to her outside.”
Hallveig was out of her seat before he had finished. He saw the slap coming an instant before it landed. “She was here? My son’s killer, and you spoke to her? The hauld of my house—our protector—and you spoke to her?”
“I had no silver weapon. I kept her talking until the ceorls arrived, but she fled.”
“Coward!” She thrust a silver-headed arrow at his face. The metal reflected orange and red in the lamplight. “Then we should be hunting her.”
“It’s dark, Aetheling,” said Thorfinn.
She raised her hand to strike him again.
“Hallveig,” said Freydis. “If she was here all day, she could’ve slaughtered everyone. But she didn’t.”
Hallveig lowered her arm. Her breath rasped between clenched teeth.
“She’s here to hunt the leeches,” Thorfinn said.
Hallveig’s chin trembled. She flung the arrow at Thorfinn’s chest and sagged where she stood. “Then why did she kill Gunnbjorn?”
“She can’t control the wolf.” Wolf. That still bothered him. No mere wolf could do what this demon had done. He thought, again, of those claw marks on the walls.
“Then we’ll hunt her tomorrow, like the rabid cur she is.”
“This is no ordinary wolf, Aetheling. You saw what she did.”
Hallveig’s lip curled. “Perhaps your courage isn’t up to this hunt, Hauld.”
He looked away. “My courage will suffice, Aetheling.”
“Thorfinn, what more did she say?” asked Freydis.
He collected his thoughts. “She said that the leeches were driven from their homeland, and driven from her country in turn.”
She made the leap immediately. “The people there knew how to kill them.”
“With wood?” said Thorfinn. “Or did they become demons themselves, as this wolf-woman has?”
“I know you think the treaty is a devil’s bargain, Freydis,” said Hallveig, standing over them. “And it is. But sometimes there’s no better choice.”
Cattle making peace with butchers, Thorfinn thought.
“It was the demons we treat with that took my child,” Freydis said. She held up a silver-headed arrow. “Silver for the wolf-woman, iron for a witch. Wood for a leech. What if the price of any dark gift is that it must have a weakness? What if the leeches fled here because we didn’t know?”
“And it’s only our ignorance that makes us weak,” murmured Thorfinn.
“Your conversation with the murderess didn’t broach this topic?” said Hallveig, acidly.
Thorfinn kept his voice level. “The men arrived as I was about to ask it.”
“We have to find out,” said Freydis.
“The wolf-woman dies first,” said Hallveig.
Freydis drew in a deep breath, let it out slowly. Thorfinn could all but see the thoughts buzzing around inside his sister’s head. “Aetheling,” she said, “perhaps it doesn’t have to be a choice.”
Hallveig frowned. “Explain.”
“Why did she hide here? She can’t track them. The leeches leave no spoor.”
“She doesn’t know where the nest is,” said Thorfinn.
Hallveig looked from one of them to the other. Her lips curled into an ugly smile. “We do.”
In truth, Freydis told herself, the ravine looked no different than any other cleft in the mountains. The pine trees that climbed its steep sides were twisted to orient themselves to the sun, stunted by the sparse soil between the rocks. Their branches plaited together, casting the base of the ravine in deep shadow. There was nothing sinister about it.
Perhaps it was just the knowledge that the leeches’ nest was in there that cast the place in dread. Her mouth was so dry her lips felt glued together. Her palms, by contrast, were slick on her horse’s reins and the grip of the strung bow laid across her lap.
Thorfinn reined his horse in beside her and Hallveig. “Let me go, Aetheling.”
“It must be me,” Hallveig said, as she nudged her mount forward.
Thorfinn grimaced unhappily, then dragged his horse’s head around. His eyes roved the surrounding forest. “No sign of her,” he muttered.
“Perhaps she doesn’t trust us,” Freydis replied. It came out as a croak.
Hallveig raised her voice. “Zsuzsanna! I am Hallveig Hafgrimsdottir, Aetheling of Herjolfsfjord. Zsuzsanna, I would speak with you.”
“Zsuzsanna?” Freydis repeated.
Her brother shook his head. This was the aetheling’s secret.
“Hauld!” barked Styr. “Here they come!”
It took Freydis a moment to see. The darkness was thickening beneath the trees inside the ravine. It spilled out, separating into shrouded figures, each wrapped in its own cloak of shadows. The men stirred. A couple of horses whinnied nervously. Freydis noticed Thorfinn letting his spear slide down through his grip until the butt rested on his foot. He twisted the silver head between his thumb and forefinger. She hissed at him to stop.
The foremost leech stopped just short of Hallveig’s horse. The shadows drew back, revealing a girl’s pale, filthy face.
“I am Zsuzsanna,” the leech said. “My bargain was with Hafgrim Gunnarsson.”
Freydis stared. How could that be? The leech looked barely older than a child.
“My father’s dead,” said Hallveig. “I am aetheling.”
“So be it, Aetheling. State your purpose here.”
“There’s killer in our domain, a wolf-woman. It has killed my people and yours.” Hallveig’s voice was like flint.
“The farkasember is known to me,” said the leech.
“We would hunt it,” said Hallveig. “We have the means to kill it, but our hounds won’t track its scent.”
“You wish us to find it for you.”
“It threatens us all.”
“We are not threatened here.”
Freydis felt a little thrill. They don’t know. Her plan might work.
“But we won’t feed you here,” said Hallveig.
“Then the treaty is broken.”
Fredyis watched the other leeches, motionless inside their shadow shrouds. Thorfinn loosened his silver spearhead a little more. On her other side, Styr rested his hand casually on his sword hilt. The blade inside the scabbard was wooden, a practice sword hastily bound into a proper crossguard and grip. Freydis thought of the wooden-tipped arrows in the quiver on her back. If the leeches charged, she would barely have time to reach for one.
“We uphold the treaty,” Hallveig said.
There was the briefest of pauses, then the leech inclined its head. “As you say.” It turned and gestured to its followers. Half a dozen glided forward. “These will assist you.”
Freydis saw Hallveig’s face as she wheeled her horse, her eyes roaming the trees as Thorfinn’s had. But the aetheling’s expression was eager. Hallveig wanted the wolf-woman to attack now, while she was there to strike her down.
One of the leeches held up a hand. Hallveig copied the gesture as she reined in, the rest of the column bunching up behind. Moving through the forest, the leeches had retained only a faint mist of their shadow shrouds, exposing their tattered skeletal frames. They looked like nothing so much as lepers, Freydis thought. Was it no more than a disease, she wondered?
The one that turned to speak had wisps of beard along its jaw. Styr grunted behind her. “It’s the same one that came to Gunnbjorn’s chamber.”
“The farkasember passed this way.” The leech pointed. “It went north-east.”
“She’s headed up towards Blaserk,” said Thorfinn.
Freydis could glimpse the bare, bluestone peak between the branches of the pines.
“She’ll have to pass over the saddle between Blaserk and Knustskjaer,” said Styr. Freydis caught the edge in his voice and understood what he was hinting at: a chance to split the leeches up, get some of them out into the open and away from their fellows.
We should do it now, she thought, with a thudding heart.
“Perhaps,” said Hallveig, impatiently. “Lead on.”
One of the leeches was kneeling on the trail, though, sniffing, most of its fellows gathered around it. The one with the wispy-beard barked a query at them in a language Freydis didn’t know.
The kneeling one answered over its shoulder, sounding uncertain. The response was followed by a flurry of debate.
“What’s the matter?” asked Thorfinn.
Wispy-beard gave another bark, silencing the rest. “Nothing. The trail is clear. Our quarry lies ahead.”
Thorfinn cast a glance at Freydis. She shook her head slightly, trying to put her thoughts into her expression: Don’t lose courage, now, brother.
He scowled. She knew very well he hadn’t wanted her to come. Think of your living daughter! he had said. I am! she had spat back at him.
He urged his mount forward, now. “Aetheling, something is amiss here. Please, take Freydis and return to the greathouse.”
Hallveig regarded him coolly. “We’ll continue,” she said. “I’ll see this beast dead.”
Thorfinn remained where he was.
Damn you for a fool, brother! Aloud, Freydis said, “Aetheling, if she crosses the saddle, that will take her down to Ketilsdale.”
Thorfinn glared at her, his face thunderous. Freydis glared back. I don’t need you to protect me from this, brother.
Hallveig gestured for her to continue.
“Some of the men could circle ahead. It’s a quicker path around the foot of the hills in open country. We might catch her between two claws.”
“A good suggestion, Thegn Freydis,” said Hallveig. “Ceorl Styr, choose some men and accompany the thegn.”
Thorfinn’s face was purple with the strain of keeping his protest inside.
“Your pardon, Aetheling,” said Styr. “If the beast gets past us, we might not know without one of these leeches to tell us.”
Hallveig turned to the leeches. “You’re right, Ceorl Styr. Perhaps one of our allies could accompany Thegn Freydis’s party?”
Wispy-beard looked from one of them to the other. Did it suspect? Had they given themselves away? Freydis’s heart raced.
Hallvieg leaned forward in her saddle. “I want this demon’s hide, leech. It must not evade us.”
“Two will go,” the leech said at last. It pointed out the one who had sparked the debate a moment earlier and another beside it.
Hallveig looked expectantly at Freydis.
Freydis cleared her throat. “With me! We ride fast.”
With a last glance at Thorfinn’s furious expression, she turned her horse downhill and put her heels to its ribs.
Thorfinn watched Freydis’s party until they were out of sight, ignoring Hallveig’s command to resume riding until she drew her silver-edged sword and jabbed him in the chest.
He swatted the blade away. “Damn you. She still has a child to live for.”
“Remember your place, Hauld.” “One way or another, you owe me a life.” She urged her mount forward, forcing him to turn his horse out of her way.
The ceorls threw him uneasy glances as they passed. Grinding his teeth, Thorfinn fell in at the rear. Damn Hallveig, he thought, and damn Freydis for putting herself in harm’s way. She was tough as boots, his sister, but she wasn’t a warrior. When the moment came to kill a leech in cold blood, would she see a demon in front of her, or would she think of Gudrid, running home, and wonder if there was still a person inside?
There was nothing he could do about it but pray that Styr and the rest would keep her safe.
The trail continued to skirt along the lower slopes of Blaserk. Thorfinn began to fret. What if he had guessed wrong? What if the wolf-woman hadn’t followed them to the nest? If she wasn’t circling back there? What if she really was aiming for Ketilsdale—aiming to flee—and Freydis ended up in her path?
The afternoon shadows lengthened. Thorfinn’s anxiety grew. Perhaps the wolf-woman was waiting to ambush them. He urged his horse back up to the head of the line. Hallveig offered no acknowledgement of his presence.
Abruptly, the leeches stopped again. The leader of the group made a slow turn, then took a few steps, angling a little way from the direction they had come, higher up the slope. One hand rose. The fingers twitched, then the arm dropped back to its side.
“It has changed direction,” the leech said, uncertainly. “It is doubling back towards the...”
Nest, thought Thorfinn, unable to stop himself from sagging with relief.
“It has tricked us!” another leech cried.
“To the nest!”
The leader whirled, stabbing a finger at Hallveig and Thorfinn. “Call back the rest of your warriors! We must return to the nest, the farkasember is there!”
Thorfinn made no move towards the horn hanging at his hip.
The leech screamed, “Call them!”
Its fellows were already racing away between the trees.
“Do it, Hauld Thorfinn,” said Hallveig.
The leech dashed after the others, gathering in its shadows as it went.
“The plan is to let them tear each other up,” Thorfinn said.
Hallveig rounded on him. “To Hell with your plan!” she spat. “I want to see the life go out of that beast’s eyes.”
She kicked her horse hard. With a whinny of alarm, it sprang after the leeches. The ceorls followed. Thorfinn swore under his breath and lifted the horn to his lips.
Once out of the woods, Freydis and her party made faster time, skirting around the base of the ice-cracked knob of Knustskjaer. The two leeches held their shadows tight about them as they skimmed along ahead.
She sipped from her waterskin as she rode, but her mouth remained stubbornly dry. She wasn’t afraid for her herself—not much. But the questions refused to leave her mind: Are they really just demons? Or is there still a person trapped inside? The monster that had once been her daughter had still remembered home, had run there for... sanctuary? Healing? Forgiveness? And Freydis had killed her.
She shook herself. It did not change what had to be done.
Styr was evidently thinking along similar lines. He said, “We’ll be round into Ketilsdale soon, in sight of the saddle.” He drew an arrow from his quiver and laid it across the bow on his lap. It had a barbed wooden head. They had made them during the night, coring the heads with lead beads to give them weight.
It had to happen before they came back in sight of the leeches still with Thorfinn and Hallveig. God’s mercy, Freydis thought. She wasn’t ready for this. Just demons, she told herself. But it was still killing in cold blood.
If it even works. If not, then they had a fight on their hands.
She felt over her shoulder for a notched shaft that meant a wooden head, not silver. The leeches seemed to have their attention on the landscape ahead. Her breath didn’t seem to want to come as she laid the arrow across her bow. Her ribs felt too tight to expand.
Styr threw her a glance. Ready?
She nodded. Immediately, he raised his bow. Freydis raised hers, sighting down the shaft.
The leeches broke right and left. Reflexively, Freydis tracked her target, even as she heard a curse from Styr. She loosed. The moment seemed to slow, drawing out the heartbeat between the arrow’s release and its impact. She watched it flex in flight, watched it intersect the leech’s path, and knew before it did so that it would strike true.
Even having seen what the wolf-woman had done to Gudrid, she was still surprised at the result. The wooden point hit beside its left shoulder blade and went straight through its chest, impaling the creature’s heart. The leech’s shadows fragmented. Its back arched, arms flinging up, and it stumbled on legs gone suddenly limp. It took a few more wobbling steps and sprawled face down in the grass.
The other leech wailed. Styr’s shot had struck it low in the back but not killed it.
“The wood, boys!” Styr shouted. “Catch it!”
The ceorls urged their horses past. The sun caught on tumbling silver as they shed the tips of their lances, revealing wooden points beneath.
Injured though it was, the leech was still accelerating, and it seemed at first that it might escape them. Freydis started to draw another arrow. But the ceorls’ horses found their stride and overhauled their quarry. The leech was still crying out, a horrible gasping keen.
“Shut the bloody thing up!” Styr bawled. Freydis felt a clutch of fear—would the sound travel?
One of the ceorls lunged in. His wooden lance hit the leech under the arm. The creature sprawled, the spear snapping, its wails abruptly cutting off. It wasn’t dead yet, though, flopping on the ground, gouging up the turf as it tried to raise itself.
Styr dismounted beside it. He drew his wooden sword and stood over it.
“Wait!” Freydis cried.
She urged her horse over to them and scrambled down from the saddle. “Wait,” she said again. “I want to ask it something.” She leaned over the leech. It gnashed its teeth, eyes rolling around before it focused on her. “What was it that was strange about the wolf-woman’s trail?”
The leech tried to snarl. It coughed up blood over its face and chest.
Styr pushed Freydis aside. He leaned a boot on the leech’s forearm and drew back his sword. Freydis cringed, looking away, as he brought the wooden blade down with all the force he could muster.
The leech gave a gargling wail. Its severed hand spasmed in the grass. Somebody’s child, once, Freydis thought, sickened.
Styr thrust the bloody swordpoint up under the leech’s chin. “Answer, and die easy.”
Its eyes rolled, mad with pain. Styr put his boot on its other wrist. “Answer!”
“It did not smell like wolf,” the leech gasped.
“What did it smell like?” said Freydis
Freydis drew back, her thoughts roiling. Not a woman who changes into a wolf, a woman who changes into a bear... Dear Lord in Heaven.
Styr raised the wooden sword again and lopped off the leech’s head. “Demon wolf or demon bear, does it matter? We’ve seen what it can do.”
Freydis shook her head. “They knew.” Wispy-beard had been at the greathouse, had seen the destruction, would have smelled the bear’s scent. “The leeches knew. Some of them, the leaders. They were expecting her.”
Styr looked around at the other ceorls, opened his mouth, reconsidered, and opened it again. “They knew we’d led her to the nest. That we meant to trick them.”
Freydis nodded slowly. “They mean to trick us the same way.” She felt icy cold in the pit of her stomach. “Hallvieg won’t leave the beast to them. The leeches know.” She should have seen it, too. “We have to warn Thorfinn.”
Styr was still a moment, his gaze distant. A vicious smile spread across his scarred face. He raised the bloody wooden sword. “But they didn’t see this coming.” He laughed. “Wood. Who’d have thought?” He raised the sword above his head. “No more treaty, boys. We’ll be rid of the damned leeches at last!”
The ceorls responded with a cheer that sent a shiver down Freydis’s back. She felt weak, wrung out.
The sound of a war horn silenced their jubilation.
Thorfinn! “They’ve found her!”
Styr held up a hand. “No, listen.”
The horn sounded again, three short blasts and one long, a pause, then a long, rising note. That last signal she knew—a call to hunt.
Styr was running for his horse, bloody sword still in hand. “They’ve turned about,” he cried. “They’re chasing her. Find those silver lance tips, boys!”
The ceorls scattered, searching in the grass.
Damn you, Hallveig!
Styr was already urging his mount past her.
The leeches were quickly lost from sight between the trees in the deepening dusk. Between the branches, bright crimson sky glowed to the west.
“Aetheling!” Thorfinn cried. “It’s nearly dark! We must turn back!”
Hallveig ignored him, pushing her mount onward at reckless speed.
Thorfinn swore. At this pace, they’d be lucky if they didn’t break half the horses’ legs—not to mention their own necks.
There was a roar from up ahead. Cold washed over him. No wolf made that sound.
It was too late. They had reached the entrance to the leeches’ nest. Thorfinn glimpsed a gigantic, dark form before it vanished into the blackness of the ravine.
“Hold back!” he cried and waved his arm frantically to the men. “Aetheling, stop! Let them beat each other, we’ll deal with whichever emerges.”
“Coward!” Hallveig cried in response. She wheeled her horse at the mouth of the ravine, raising her silver-headed lance. “With me!”
She put her heels to her mount’s ribs. The terrified animal whinnied and lunged forward, the darkness of the ravine instantly swallowing horse and rider.
Thorfinn piled curses on Hallveig and all her ancestors. He was tempted to leave her to the consequences of her folly. The men watched him with frightened faces. They were moments from following without him; duty and honor would drive them past their doubt.
From inside the ravine, the beast roared again. Thorfinn gave a wordless bellow in response. He hefted his lance. “Defend the aetheling!”
He saw relief, mingled with pants-pissing terror, in their expressions. No more time to think. He kicked his horse hard, then let it slow as soon as they entered the ravine. It stumbled on some obstacle hidden in the pitch-black shade. Thorfinn spied a lesser darkness ahead and urged the animal to more speed.
The ravine widened out and split into several directions, all of which ended in sheer walls. Caves pockmarked the rock. Thorfinn saw movement at the top of the cliff—a leech briefly lit by the sunset as it pulled itself over the edge before gathering its shadow shroud around itself.
Double-crossed our double-cross, he had time to think, before another roar brought his attention to the shadows below. A huge shape unfurled.
The shapechanger rose up on her hind legs, far larger than any natural bear Thorfinn had seen, his worst fears confirmed.
Hallveig faced the beast, spear point raised, the shaft tucked under her arm.
“Aetheling! Let her pass! It’s a trap!” A trap that perhaps they did not need to spring.
Hallveig lunged. Her silver spear pierced the bear’s hide. The bear roared. One enormous paw swept across. The head of Hallveig’s horse snapped limply over, its neck broken. The other paw swung down as the horse collapsed. Hallveig was pummeled from the saddle and crashed to the ground beside her mount.
“Shoot!” Thorfinn screamed at the ceorls.
Silver-headed arrows flew, striking the shapechanger in the neck and chest. The bear staggered, then dropped onto all fours and charged, bowling aside men and horses, bellowing as they stabbed at her.
Thorfinn found himself directly in her path. Frantically, he urged his horse aside, but in the confined space there was no way to get clear. He set his spear as the bear reared over him, its jaws gaping to tear him apart.
The roars had ceased by the time Freydis, Styr, and their party had picked their way through the darkening forest to the ravine. Freydis looked around apprehensively.
“Where are they?”
“They must have gone in,” Styr replied, teeth bared.
Merciful Lord, thought Freydis. Thorfinn. “Perhaps they went back to the greathouse,” she said. “We should, too.”
The light of the sunset was almost gone. She thought of Arnora, back at the greenhouse. The darkened land yawned between them, leeches abroad if the plan had gone awry as she feared. Leeches or the bear.
“Too late,” said Styr.
Pale figures drifted among the trees. More leeches were closing in, encircling them. They had cast aside their shadows and wore instead their awful nighttime luminescence, like a sickly reflection of moonlight. Freydis set her jaw. The glamour made them ready targets.
She drew a notched arrow from her quiver. Styr did the same, muttering commands to his men. The ceorls backed their mounts into a circle, discarding their spears and drawing wooden swords.
Styr’s bow creaked as he drew it back. “They’re faster in the dark,” he said.
“Wood still works,” added Freydis. She drew her own bow.
One by one, in rapid succession, the leeches vanished. Freydis almost loosed the arrow in surprise.
“Are they gone?” one of the ceorls asked.
“They’re still there,” said Styr. “If a shadow moves, hit it. They can jump.”
Freydis was surprised to find that her heartbeat had slowed. Her arms felt heavy, holding the bow. So close, she thought. We were so close.
She saw the shadows moving, flickering between the trunks, too fast to aim at. Twigs crunched under the leeches’ feet, the sounds trailing behind them as they circled closer.
Suddenly the forest went still.
A solitary figure emerged from the darkness. Freydis recognized wispy-beard.
“Two went with you,” it said. “Where are they?”
“Styr called them ‘leeches’ one too many times. They left us behind,” she answered, the lie that they had planned for a contingency such as this. “What has happened here? Where are our people?”
“Liar!” The leech’s gaze fell on the wooden arrowhead she aimed at its face, then the wooden swords in the hands of the ceorls. “So the treaty is broken.”
The shadows moved once more, closing in. Freydis began to straighten her fingers, feeling the bowstring slide across her skin.
New sounds cut the night. Something was emerging from the ravine. The leeches froze. Wispy-beard’s eyes swiveled around to see. Freydis dared not turn.
The sounds resolved into the clink of shod hooves on stone and the jangle of chainmail.
Thorfinn emerged from the ravine, steering his horse with his knees. He cradled Hallveig’s limp body in his arms. The rest of the ceorls followed him, fanning out when he stopped, still with the silver heads screwed onto their spears. Several were obviously injured. Some led second horses. The spare animals all had one or two bodies tied over the saddles.
Thorfinn took in Freydis’s party, with their horses backed into a defensive ring and their wooden weapons drawn, and the solitary leech confronting them. He looked around at the darkened forest.
“Zsuzsanna!” he called. “It’s done. The shapechanger is dead. Show yourselves and let us pass.”
Dead, thought Freydis, sagging with relief, but at a price we did not intend to pay. Damn your vengeance, Hallveig.
The voice of the leeches’ leader replied from the night. “The treaty is broken. Your people have slain mine. You will not pass.”
“Show yourselves and stand aside,” said Thorfinn. “Or more of your people will die.”
Wispy-beard began to back up. Freydis stretched her bowstring so that it creaked. The leech stopped.
“We are stronger than you, in the dark,” said Zsuszanna.
“We are more than you,” said Freydis, although how many of those who had emerged from the ravine were still fit to fight, she was uncertain. She looked at Thorfinn as she added, “And we know how to kill you.”
His eyes were already on her. With great deliberation he drew the wooden practice blade from its sheath. Behind him, the ceorls let their spears fall beside their horses’ feet and did the same.
“We will pass,” Thorfinn said. “And then you’ll leave this domain.”
He nudged his horse into motion. Freydis carefully eased off her bowstring, holding wispy-beard’s eye as she did, and turned her mount to follow him. Wispy-beard didn’t move. Styr and the other ceorls fell in behind.
“Light some torches,” said Styr.
Brands were lit by those that carried them and passed along the line. Freydis peered uselessly into the dark.
“Are they letting us go?”
“I believe they are,” said Thorfinn, looking straight ahead.
“Are you letting them go?” she asked.
“I believe I’m doing that, too.”
Thorfinn’s face was cast in shadow with the light of the torches behind him, so she couldn’t see his expression. Hallveig’s head flopped loosely in the crook of his arm. Her hair glistened in the torchlight with clotted blood.
“Is the shapechanger really dead?”
She could hear the strain in his voice, keeping his feelings in check. She fell silent. The only sounds were the soft steps of the horses and the occasional snort of one or other of them, the gentle clink and creak of tack and amour.
Thorfinn didn’t speak again until they were clear of the trees. “We’ll send messages in the morning to the neighboring domains. Word will spread. There’ll be nowhere left for them to run.”
“They must know,” said Freydis. “Why did they let us go?”
“You saw Zsuzsanna,” he said. “She made the bargain with Aetheling Hafgrim when we were children.”
“Yet she hasn’t aged,” Freydis said. “Are they immortal?”
“Or just long lived. Either way, it’s too precious for them to risk.”
Her gaze fell again on Hallveig’s broken body. “It wasn’t just a double-cross to make us fight the bear. They were too afraid. If you’d failed...”
“They would have run,” Thorfinn finished.
“You’ll be aetheling, now,” she said.
“Me?” Thorfinn harrumphed. “I’d see to it that the thegns elected you, sister, but you must have a mind for your living child. Arnora needs you.”
“I...” she began, but stopped, unsure if she meant to argue his presumption that she should be aetheling, or that her daughter needed her, or that she could not be both aetheling and the mother Arnora needed.
He was right on all counts. She would make a good aetheling, but it would be at Arnora’s expense. Vengefulness had already clouded her sight, she realized, as it had Hallveig’s. It could as easily have been her body that Thorfinn was carrying back, now. Or both of them, slung across the saddles of their horses. And then where would Arnora be?
But it wasn’t that way, and would not be.
All was dark ahead, except for faint slivers of yellow light around the window shutters of the greathouse. The sky was clear, the stars a bright sweep across the sky with the Moon yet to rise. Freydis let go a breath that she hadn’t realized she was holding.
She turned her gaze upwards, to the stars wheeling across the sky.
It was done. They were free.