We had waited through five years of misery for Good King Harald to come back from the wars abroad and save us from the depredations of his brother Eirik. We had hidden in the forests and staged raids on the tax collectors. We had poached the harts and the coneys and traded volleys of arrows with Eirik’s men for five years, knowing that the return of King Harald would set the land aright again. Some of us lived in the woods full-time. Others went back and forth to our families in the towns and on the manors in secret. We covered our tracks with spruce brushes and finger-snap spells, then the bigger spells that no one was supposed to know. We lived lean. So did the lawful, in those days.
In the long hot days that ended the sixth summer, our Good King Harald came back—on his pyre, his armsmen around him, their hair shorn close in grief.
In the woods, we too cut our hair. There now was no one left to come for us. No pardon would be forthcoming. We had broken the laws of the land, certain Good King Harald would see our reasons and pardon us when he returned; certain we could hold out for our king before the laws would break us. And we had lost that great wager.
When our scout Vigdis returned from the coast with the news of the pyre’s impending approach, six left our band that night, creeping back from the woods to their family’s farms, or what was left of them. They hoped they would not be recognized as the arms of the forest.
Only two of them made it.
The other four were hanged on the beach as Eirik’s men set King Harald’s pyre ship alight.
I went to watch. Not because I wanted to. Because one of us had to see it happen. What they suffered. What the rest of us would suffer, if we tried to leave the forest.
I stood and watched until they stopped kicking, Lasse and Kalle, Undis and Mats, four of my comrades for years. I kept my hood close around my face, in case my tears should betray me, but the wind and smoke from the pyre stung everyone’s eyes, and Eirik gave a speech about his brother’s goodness and bravery that would have excused another tear or two.
Now that he ruled uncontested, Eirik could afford to be generous in his praise for the king; though not, I supposed, generous with us.
I had worn skirts, as I often did to go to town, to go unobserved, and those who knew me spoke my name in greeting: “Sad day, Lovis,” they said, those two or three in the know and those who had no idea. I stood on the shore and watched the king’s pyre ship float out until the salt air drowned the smell of burning and I could pretend that the death in my nostrils was the ordinary life and death of the sea, the circle it held naturally, fish and sea birds and kraken and serpents eating each other and going on to be reborn.
I had brought no money to buy fish from the fishermen along the shore before I returned, to liven our forest diet—we had little to spare—and it was a long walk home. None who greeted me had any spare food to press into my hand either—they kept it close, at home. No funeral feast for the king except behind the tall walls, in Eirik’s keep.
The finger-snap spells I used to blur my way into the woods were second nature by now. The tiniest click. Five years ago, when I was the pampered daughter of a knacky noble, finding the way for the first time, it took a giant sweep of my arms and a great clap to accomplish such a magic. Now, though most of my comrades could perform no such feat, it was nothing to me, force of habit wearing away at the channels of magic until my passage was like slipping between the familiar branches. I had become the thing the laws warned against becoming: the habitual witch. Home in lawlessness, just as I was home in the trees.
When I got back to the cave in the woods, there was the homelike smell of roasted duck and wood fire, but my comrades were grimly silent. Vigdis and Ronia had tangled their limbs around each other for comfort, as they always did with each other, never with me. Per was scouring the pot. Borka held out a trencher of duck and smashed turnips that he had saved for me, without a word.
“All dead,” I said.
“As we thought,” said Vigdis. “Eirik’s men can’t let them go back when they could set an example.”
“You could go back,” said Ronia indistinctly from around a mouthful of Vigdis’s hair, its indistinct brown color turned to molten bronze by the firelight. “No one has seen you. You’ve never been caught among us.”
“Shut up,” said Vigdis, without any force to it.
“We could sail off to the south,” said Borka. “To the wars where King Harald died. We could fight in the wars.”
I shook my head. “Do you speak their languages, those southern languages?” I knew he didn’t. None of us did. “Who would take you, in the south? Or among the townfolk of the east? A foreigner with a strange tongue and a poacher’s skills? And that’s if we could get passage for all of us. We would need a full ship, to take all of us.”
“Go if you can find passage, Borka,” said Vigdis. “We’ll all wish you well. But it’s not our answer.”
“There is no answer,” Ronia muttered.
Per took the pot down to the stream to shake the sand out and rinse it, cutting off the despair in Ronia’s voice as sharply as if he had told her to shut her mouth. The crackling of the fire and the murmurs of the others, deeper in the cave, settling down to sleep, were our only noise until he returned.
“We’ll see how it looks in the morning,” he said.
It would look the same in the morning. Vigdis and I would still be the safe ones, the ones who were not known for outlaws, the ones from good families. The ones who could go back. The rest—they would still be cornered. But we murmured noises that could have been assent, and we banked the fire and settled into furs and cloaks and blankets.
We were used to the noises of the dark forest now, the small nocturnal animals foraging, the birds calling to each other or hunting in the night depending on their ways. We had our own night noises, our sentries on patrol to make sure Eirik’s men didn’t find our cave.
How it looked in the morning was how it always looked. We had a little leftover duck, some porridge from the barley Borka’s mother had left us. And then Turre, who was on scout, brought word of Eirik’s men entering the far west reaches of the forest, and we all fell into our usual ways. We gathered our arrows and quickly worked out who would fall upon them from the north side of the path and who from the south. In name we took orders from Per, but we had grown so accustomed to each other that we scarcely needed a nod from him.
They shot at us. We shot at them. There was shouting from the trees, shouting from the path. There were arrows lodged in trees, arrows whistling through bushes.
None of us took a wound, none of them. We scared one into dropping a bag of oats from the tribute they were bringing back to Eirik’s keep. It was a small bag, must have been from one of the small holdings, possibly even one of our relations—I mean, of course, the relation of someone poorer than I.
And Eirik’s men made it out of the forest, and we made it back to our cave, and King Harald was still dead, still not coming back to save us. The nuthatch still trilled its descending wippling notes in the trees, unconcerned by the arrows.
“Lovis,” Borka whispered to me as we drew water from the brook.
“Something must be done.”
“I know,” I grated back at him. But I waited until one of the young ones who slept deeper in the cave, one of the skinny spotty ones whose names I could never keep straight, had finished skinning the coneys, before I spoke out loud. “Per.” He did not raise his head. “Per.”
“I hear you, Lovis.”
“It won’t do, Per.”
Still, his shaggy head, more grey than blond now that I saw it in the sunlight filtered through the trees, did not lift up. He was scraping away at an arrow shaft, more slowly than he needed to given all the arrows we had made over the years. Scrtch. Scrtch.
“I said I hear you.”
“Well then.” I could feel my voice too loud in my skull, too loud echoing into the back of the cave, and everyone was looking at me. We always had two or three side conversations going, and a few more people off in their own thoughts. Not this time. “What are we holding out for? The king is not coming. He’s dead.”
“Go home, then, Lovis. You can. You and Vigdis, you can go. Maybe a few of the boys. The rest of us—you saw yourself what happened.”
I stepped enough closer to Per that he finally looked up from his arrow shaft. “Do you really think I would—”
“Lovis.” His voice softened. I could see what was coming, ahead of the rest of them, and I stumbled back against it. “You at least should go home safely. You could turn us in. Tell them where we are—where we were—not this place, of course. One of the smaller ones, one where they’ll see the signs we’ve been there. Our ashes, our coney bones, our—” He brandished the arrow shaft, the knife in his hand. “Our wood shavings.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Because if you say you saw us, they’ll know you’re not one of us,” said Ronia, disentangling herself from Vigdis. “We will live as we can—try to survive—but you will have bought your safety.”
“Bought it with you!”
“Bought it with one of our outposts,” said Per.
I turned my head away.
Vigdis spoke, to my relief. “They won’t believe it. If there’s no one there, they’ll think we were conspiring with you. It’ll turn on you.”
She crept to me and took my hand. I clutched it gratefully, probably too hard.
“Give them me,” she went on. “They won’t hang me—”
“They might!” cried Ronia.
“They won’t. My mother won’t let them.”
“But they might torture you,” I said.
“They won’t.” She met my eyes with a steadfast look, a look I knew from being in the tops of the trees with Vigdis waiting on parties of Eirik’s men with supplies. From helping her divide too little food among too many, scrupulous and careful, always able to find something more to add to the pot. Vigdis was no more ready to listen to Per than I was. Vigdis and I, I knew from the set of her jaw, would make a plan together.
But for the moment, we had to feign agreement with his.
Ronia wanted to have their last night together. Ronia wanted it to be beautiful and tragic and perfect. Having Vigdis huddling off at the edge of the trees with me was no part of Ronia’s vision, and neither of us wanted to hurt her. We kept our voices low and swift.
“You know as well as I that Per’s plan has a slim chance if any, and even if it worked, it’s no way to end the life we’ve had,” I said.
“A bandit’s life,” she said, and for once her head was bent close to mine instead of to Ronia’s. I could hardly breathe for it. Her breath smelled of coriander and lemons, though we had neither of any such thing, hadn’t for years, not since the ships stopped coming four years ago.
“A bandit’s life won’t last,” I said. “But a rebel’s life...”
Vigdis drew back and looked at me, and I wanted to weep for losing her closeness. “A rebel’s life won’t last either.”
“Not unless that rebel wins.”
She relaxed back close to me. “Ah. Ah, Lovis, what are you doing?”
I told her, very close in her ear. How we could be a rallying cry. How the town supporters of the brave bandits might take heart and rise. She relaxed against me as I spoke, and then I let her go to Ronia, to that more boneless and thorough relaxation that was not mine. I could be generous with the night when I would have the day that followed.
The morning was shatteringly lovely, the sky such a clear blue that it hurt to look at it. We had nothing out of the ordinary to eat, no farewell feast. We would have had nothing to eat at all, but Borka’s mother had kept giving us barley in secret, so there was porridge, cooked in water, and a few of the tiny golden berries that grew in the bogs. Vigdis and I clasped hands with each of our comrades silently, except for Per, who gave each of us a hearty bear hug, and Ronia, who clung to Vigdis and wept.
We looked around us as though it would be the last time we would see our caves, our trees, our fireside. And then we walked out of the woods together, the two of us, and the nuthatch sang, and we said nothing.
When the trees began to thin and we found a path that the villagers might use, we stopped and made sure, by silent assent, that we were in proper order. Each checked the other’s hair for knots and twigs, to see that the braids were pulled smooth and tight. I wanted to say something to Vigdis. I wanted to say everything. But the way that we were not speaking was what we had.
Eirik’s men let me into the keep with my prisoner immediately. I was a respectable young woman of a good family. I had made sure of it. But then, so was she. They checked us both for weapons. Vigdis had nothing they could find. I handed over a small knife with a nod, expecting this. It was an ordinary little knife.
Eirik was in the great hall, on the dais that belonged rightly to the king. I spoke in a low voice, as if shy: “I bring to you, my lord, this neighbor of mine, who goes at night to cavort with the rebels of the woods.”
As I hoped, the usurper did not hear what I said, but his hangers-on passed the words forward to his ears. He motioned me up to the dais so that he could hear me better. “Lovis, is it? Come forward, Lovis, don’t be afraid of your king.”
I pushed Vidgis ahead of me, and we joined him on the dais. Close. So close.
So close that the finger-snap spells would do the work that would have taken so much more from someone with less practice. And I gutted him like a coney, with my outlaw spell.
Vigdis and I put the usurper’s dying body to our backs and faced his court together, shoulder to shoulder.
“Take them down,” cried the usurper’s chancellor, “quickly, for who knows what else they might essay, if they will kill the king.”
“Stop to consider,” I called in my clearest voice. “Who among you trusted Eirik? Who trusts each other? Good King Harald is dead. We were kingless already. I but confirmed what nature had given us.”
“We had a king, and now we have nothing,” said one of Eirik’s armsmen, but he paused, he did not nock an arrow to shoot me.
“You had nothing,” I said. “Now you know it. Give my friend and me safe passage out. We are of good families, you knew that already. If you slay us, certainly you may say it was because we slew Eirik, but I doubt our mothers and brothers will listen to that.”
Vigdis tossed her head and waited, letting them consider the clan from which she had sprung—the clan whose protective influence she had convinced Per would shelter her from Eirik’s wrath. The beating of my heart felt infinite, and I was half-sure that I would have to use my practiced spells to take as many of them down as I could before they killed us.
But after a moment one of them stopped looking at us and looked... across the room at his fellows instead. And then another, and another.
“It’s working,” Vigdis whispered.
“Shh,” I replied.
“The spell she used,” said one of Eirik’s men. “Spells are not used for—”
“Never mind that,” said another. “Lovis’s own clan can deal with her misuses of sorcery. It’s none of our affair. The question is who will rule in Eirik’s stead? He and Harald left no sons, nor brothers.”
“There is a cousin in the north,” said another voice at the back of the room.
“Slowly,” said Vigdis to me from the corner of her mouth. “Quietly.”
“Yes,” I breathed.
We did not make it out of the king’s hall unmolested. That was too much to ask. But the man who seized my shoulder recoiled at my suddenly bared teeth. “I will do you no harm, Lovis,” he gabbled hastily.
“And you will get me my knife back,” I said.
He did. “But I wanted to say. You—this thing you have done here. It won’t be forgotten, but—that’s not good or ill. It’s both, it’s neither.”
“Do you think we don’t know that?” said Vigdis. “We have not fought Eirik all these years to ignore how the people see us. We know that the good name of the folk of the woods rides up and down like the tide.”
His breath huffed out like a bellows. “Then you—you actually are the folk of the woods, it was not merely a ruse your clans cooked up to destroy Eirik?”
We looked at each other, Vigdis and I. That was one idea we had not considered, that we could pin this on our families and keep our friends safe. Our brothers would hate us for it. If they had meant to do anything but keep their heads down, they would have joined us in the woods. Neither of us had sisters.
But in that moment of unspoken understanding—so sweet, to have grown to the point with Vigdis where we could understand each other at a look—we had shown our true nature and thrown that all to the winds.
“You may decide what you like,” said Vigdis airily. “Are we of the folk of the woods? Was this a ruse of our clans? You don’t know. We could tell you something, and you still would not know. You will have to determine it for yourselves. You can send a runner to confer with our mothers and see what they say. I will be interested in the answer.”
“Will that runner find you there?” asked the man breathlessly, as if the one he had let out had been his last and he was only waiting to die.
I shrugged. “Who knows?”
And indeed I did not. For though the nuthatch sang in our ears, though we sang with it, and laughed, and chattered as though we were going to a festival, on our way back into the woods we had kept so long as our second home, I did not know in truth what the future would bring. I had not known we would survive that day, and anything further I could not plan for.
Per had sent one of the youngest lads as a spy to the court. That I had not planned for either—Snip, I think it was, some little name like that, barely a name at all. And he was breathless at Per’s feet when we arrived, and they all stared at us, but not with the joy I expected them to show at seeing Vigdis alive, no; not even Ronia.
“You fools,” spat Per. “You little fools.”
I met his gaze without flinching. “You were the fool, Per.”
“You think this wins our freedom? It will be nothing but strife and open warfare, and where will we be then?”
Vigdis was standing beside me, her hand on my shoulder. Where it had ever belonged. “Where we were before. Where we have always been,” she said. “Standing against the tyrants wherever they are.”
“But where is that now?” asked Borka. “Which of the lords who will battle for the crown are worthy of our enmity? Which our loyalty?”
“Why can’t we say a pox on all of them and go our own way and let them go theirs?” I asked.
“You have created open war in our land!” Per shouted. “We will be torn apart by factions!”
“We can create a faction,” said Vigdis softly.
They all looked at her. I looked at her.
“You should have seen Lovis there. They never expected magic to be used that way.”
“No,” said Ronia coldly, “nor should they have.”
“To save my life? To save all of us? She looked strong. She was not hiding. Nor should any of us hide. I say, if there will be factions in the land, let us be one of them. We have known what was best for the people for years. And the people have supported us. I say, it is time to say what we do and do what we say. And Lovis has shown us how.”
I stared back at Vigdis, who was grinning in triumph. She slipped her hand into mine. I felt her wild grin spreading to my own face. I reached my hand out to the others, to all the others, any of them. To whoever would take it.
And Per, our leader, our friend, the one we had looked up to all these years, Per said, “No.”
I could feel my face fall slack.
“We waited for the return of the good king. And we lost. Now we must pay.”
It was Vigdis’s turn to say, “No,” and mine, and our words were a bare heartbeat apart.
No one slept in our cave that night. The camp was divided. Neither side wanted to be the true side. But as they claimed the land would be split, so were we too split. For Per and Ronia and some of the others were insistent: we had waited for the rightful king, and he had failed. And Vigdis had said what I felt secretly in my heart: we must make our own way. That we knew the way and must show it to the others. But the days of us being one band, one people in the woods, were over.
We slept among the trees, scattered but not lonely. For though we did not kiss, not yet, Vigdis curled around me this time. I was the one she warmed until morning.
This time I could ride out openly, under my own name.
I would hide in the trees and the caves, before it was all through. I would live on the flour the neighbors gave us, and coney we had caught for ourselves. But under my own name, and I would wait for no good king to return to save me. I would save myself, or perish.
So would we all.