Mother of Kings

Poul Anderson

Tor Books

Wind snarled and skirled. Smoke from the longfire eddied bitter on its way upward, hazing lamps throughout the hall. Shadows flickered. They seemed to bring the carvings on pillars and wainscots to uneasy life. Nightfall came fast at the end of these shortening days. Soon there would be nothing but night.
“Go find the knife before high tide bears it off,” Father told Seija. “It’s a good blade. I’d hate to lose it.”
“I—maybe no can,” she said in her broken Norse.
Father grinned. “You can try. Don’t you Finns have witch-sight?”
Already his mood was better. He had cuffed the thrall who forgetfully left the tool behind at sunset after having cleaned some fish down by the water. With kicks he had sent the wretch stumbling toward the byre, where bondsmen slept among cows. That cooled his wrath.
“I try,” Seija muttered. She could ill say no, a mere woods-runner lately brought to Ulfgard for Father to bed.
Nonetheless, new and strange, she had caught Gunnhild’s eager heed. “I’ll go too!” the girl cried.
Mother half rose from the high seat she shared with Father. “You will not,” she answered. “A child of seven winters? A granddaughter of Rögnvald Jarl, trotting after a Finn? Hush your witlessness.”
“I would know better,” said brother Eyvind loftily. “Unless, of course, a foe was upon us.”
Gunnhild stamped her foot on the clay floor. “I will; I will.”
Özur grinned anew, wryly now. It’s not worth a fight, as headstrong as you are,” he deemed. “Take a warm cloak and keep dry, or I shall be angry. Yngvar, watch her.”
The man nodded and went for his own cloak and a spear. Kraka leaned back with a sigh. She was a haughty one, whose husband mostly let her do what she wanted to, but she had learned not to gainsay him.
The three passed through entryroom and door. Gunnhild stopped on the flagstones. Wind yelled. Astounded, she let go of her woolen mantle. It flapped back like wings. “O-o-oh,” she breathed.
The sky was a storm of northlights. They shuddered and billowed, huge frost-cold banners and sails, whiteness streaked with ice blue, flame red, cat’s-eye green. Their silence scorned every noise of earth. A few stars glimmered low and lonely southward.
Seija stretched forth an arm from her wrap. Her fingers writhed. Through the wind Gunnhild heard her sing, a high wailing in her unknown tongue.
“What’s that?” asked the girl. Chill bit. She gathered her garb close.
“I make safe. Ghosts dance. Many strong ghosts.”
Gunnhild had seen northlights before, though none like these. “I heard—Father told us—it’s the watchfires of the gods.”
“Troll-fires, I think,” growled Yngvar. He drew the sign of the Hammer.
Seija stilled her spellcraft and led the way down the path from the hall and its outbuildings. While no moon was aloft, one could see almost clearly. They reached the strand. The woman walked to and fro, hunched, head bent so that the cowl made her faceless, casting about. Maybe she whispered. Tide had washed away the fish guts and scales that would have helped. Only a narrow stretch of cobbles was left, sheening wet. Kelp sprawled in swart heaps and ropes. The wind scattered its sharp smell.
Gunnhild stayed beside Yngvar. Awe rolled over her.
Behind, the bank lifted steeply to where the roof of the hall loomed black, with ridges and crests hoar beyond. On her right the wharf jutted alongside the ship-house, two darknesses. Nighted likewise were the heights across the inlet. Even here, waves ran wild, spume blowing off their manes, stones grinding underneath. They broke a ways off. The water then rushed at the land, poured back with a hollow roar, and came again, farther each time. Peering past this as the wind lashed tears from her eyes, she saw the open fjord gone berserk, outward to the sea. Northlight shimmered and flashed over it.
A thrilling passed through Gunnhild. The mightiness!
Seija halted. She took off her cloak, weighted it with her shoes, raised her skirt, and waded out. The flow dashed halfway to her knees. Spindrift flew, a salt rain. She bent down to grope. After a little, she straightened. Something gleamed in her hand. She went ashore. Drenched, her gown clung to a short, sturdy frame. Running to meet her, Gunnhild saw that she held a bone-hafted knife, surely the knife. “We go home,” she said.
Gunnhild stood wondersmitten. Witch-sight indeed? Yet the woman shivered with cold and the night dwarfed her.
A fire-streak lanced into the sea. Gunnhild gasped. She had never beheld a falling star so lightninglike ablaze.
“There Odin cast his spear.” Yngvar’s voice was not altogether steady. Did he believe what he said? At the end of the world, all the stars will fall from heaven.
Seija sang a stave. What did she think? She made for the path. At the top waited warm earthly fire. Gunnhild lingered till Yngvar urged her along. She wanted to show the Beings who raved abroad that she was not afraid. She would not let herself be afraid.
Copyright © 2001 by Trigonier Trust