Shattered Land: Chapter Four

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The sun is setting behind the pines. Spears of shadow cross the clearing before Thorvald’s cottage, and ruddy light suffuses the white snow with blood. The day’s wind has settled and the sky is clear; it’s going to be a still, bitterly cold night.

Thorvald has not yet returned from the wood, although he is due at any time. Yuwen Blue-Eyes appears to drowse by the fire, stretched out as before. He doesn’t snore, but his eyes are closed and his lean body is still. His chest rises and falls with steady, if somewhat shallow breaths. Gritta remains a lump of fuzzy brown beneath the furs.

And so Sora is the sole watcher when, checking at the door for Thorvald, she sees a larger shadow swim out of the trees. Someone wrapped up in a traveling cloak and mounted on a brown horse that struggles through the snow, lifting and placing its hooves in sprays of crystal. The beast’s breath fogs the air.

The stew is bubbling, sending up tendrils of fragrant steam and the warmth of the homestead, at her back, coupled with not looking at Yuwen, at Gritta, is almost enough to lull Sora into a false, uneasy sense of security. But the sight of the rider sends ice water through her veins. Her heart seems to stop, her lungs freeze.

And then she turns and ducks back into the thicker air inside.

“Sir!” Urgency makes a hiss of this call as she hurries to Yuwen’s side, a hand out to touch his shoulder. “Sir, a man on a horse. He’s coming. It… it isn’t the master.”

The moment Sora speaks, Yuwen’s eyes snap open and he looks sharply at her. Clearly his sleep was not as deep as one might suppose. Briefly, concern lines the man’s fair features; then he smiles reassurance at Sora and reaches up to cup her cheek.

“That’s a lass,” he murmurs. “You see, we’ll be through this before anyone’s the wiser about your state.” The man touches her lightly on the lips, then sits up and stands smoothly, quietly. A glance goes to the sleeping Gritta, then to the door.

“Now just as we planned, Sora, make welcome and no mention of me. I’ll out the storage door and round the cottage, then find Thorvald. While I’m gone, you ply our guest with drink– strong drink, you understand?” Yuwen takes half a step towards the main door, thinks better of it, and leaps across the room to the leather hanging that shields the storage closet.

He pulls he hanging aside, then pauses on the threshold and looks back at Sora with a smirk.

“Thorvald will be a little late in coming tonight. Don’t let your mistress fret. When he comes, he’ll come ready. And our horseman will be anything but.”

Sora draws a breath to speak but under the pressure of his fingers, she finds herself silent instead. Nothing the man says fills her with a sense of confidence, that this will go as easily as he seems to believe. But does he believe it or is he saying so just for her own benefit?

And to be left alone here, with only Gritta to help…

She watches helplessly as Yuwen bounds away. “Sir…”

Whatever she might have said dies on her tongue, as surely as if he were right there to touch her mouth again. Instead, she mutely nods. Yes. Yes, let him think she meant to do exactly as he says. She turns away and goes to the front door again, hugging her arms around her and intending to be seen by the approaching rider. Let him know that someone was waiting for him.

In the meantime, she would hope that he might provide some way out of this mess.

The horse trudges on towards Thorvald’s cottage; it can make no better than a walk through the snow. As horse and rider near, Sora may fairly surmise that the latter is indeed a man. His frame, heavily cloaked though it may be, is clearly massive. The figure is easily as tall as Yuwen Blue-Eyes, perhaps a bit taller, and half again as broad. From one side of the rider’s saddle hangs a sack tied to the pommel and from the other, bouncing against the beast’s shoulder, a sword.

The rider draws up before Thorvald’s door in a cloud of horse’s breath. His face is hooded, but Sora catches the glint of eyes on her from the shadows beneath. For a long, uneasy moment he keeps his place, above her, watching her. Then, without greeting, the figure swings heavily down from the saddle.

“You are mistress of this house?” comes a stony voice from beneath the hood.

Beneath the weight of his regard, Sora lowers her eyes and wonders if the question is mocking– the answer, after all, is stamped plain on her face. “Slave, sir. My mistress rests inside and I cannot leave her side.”

She pauses there and glances up at his face again, rocked back a little on her heels to try to spy beneath the hood.

“But there is a stable and she would welcome you with guest right, once you have seen to your horse. There is mead to warm you,” she tells him. A sudden impulse leads her to say, “Or tea, if you would avoid spirits tonight.”

Before she can see how he might react to that, her gaze darts away again. If Yuwen were lurking, listening, he would suspect that offer after his instructions. Heart pounding, the slave girl decides to say no more and turns to slip back into the cabin.

“My stay will not be so long,” the man rumbles behind her. But he does tie his horse to Thorvald’s hitching post, and his boots crunch through the snow after Sora as he approaches the cabin. When she retreats inside, the man follows with a groaning of boards beneath his heels.

Once in the cottage, the figure takes down his hood to reveal a face of crags and angles, of stubble and narrowed grey eyes. Dark red hair tumbles in a mess of braids and loose tresses from the left side of his head. The right has been crudely shaved, and into the flesh above his right ear is scored a runic symbol in the fashion of the Lakelanders, the significance of which Sora cannot divine.

Before advancing into the room, the stranger takes the time for a hard-eyed survey of the space. His gaze lingers for a moment on the lump that is the sleeping Gritta, then passes on. Nostrils flare on a sigh.

“I’m looking for a man,” he announces. “A blonde man, wearing a green tunic adorned with two wolves of golden thread, facing. Has such a one passed this way?”

Gritta stirs and murmurs at the sound of the man’s voice.

It is easy for Sora to wear the slave’s mask she adopts when Gritta is in her foulest mood. It hides so much, gives away so little. She keeps that mask in place as she moves to the hearth, to fill a cup with steaming tea and cast a careful look at the mistress.

Her senses strain for any hint of Yuwen’s presence in the lodge under the guise of looking at the sleepy old woman. Nothing.

“No, sir. No man has come this way, not even a blonde one,” she says as she rises to her feet. The caution of that answer pays heed to the risk of eavesdropping– if Gritta is half-awake and listening she won’t tattle later if this goes badly. But as she turns to bring the tea to this new man, she lifts her eyes to meet his and nods once, slowly.

“To your health, sir.”

When Sora makes such a show of nodding, the stranger raises a ruddy eyebrow, clearly puzzled. Grey eyes flick down to the cup she offers, then back up to Sora’s face– measuring. After a moment, he takes the cup from her with a rough hand that envelops hers.

“Well for you that he hasn’t,” the man says hesitantly, before brushing past Sora’s shoulder and into the room. As he speaks– and as Gritta looks on, silently– the massive figure walks a circuit of the walls, looking into the rafters above, examining each pile of furs around the hearth. “He is fair to look upon and sweet of tongue, but very dangerous…”

The new arrival peels back the leather hanging before the storage room and peers into the shadows. “The man I seek has made a great waste in the House of Ulgern, and before that.”

That look of confusion prompts a moment of despair for Sora. She watches him closely, her heart turning to lead in her chest. When he brushes by, she hastens to step back and struggles to keep her meek expression in place.

“We would remember a man like that, if he had been here. What is it he’s done, sir?” she is quick to ask before Gritta can remember her tongue. Before Gritta can forbid him that look into the storage room.

Below, her hands twist in her shapeless shift, over the swell of her belly.

Having found no one in the little cottage but Sora and her mistress, the man studies the slave once more with half-narrowed eyes. His lips purse upon an unspoken thought. Then he crosses the room again– more lightly than one would expect from a man of his size– and sinks down before the fire, close to where Sora stands.

“Survivors say that the trouble began when this man left Jarl Ulgern’s wife great with child,” the stranger rumbles over his tea, then sips. “She was… quick to show. Some reasoned that it must be the Jarl’s child, but he had been stranger to her bed for some time. The Jarl flew into a rage and said that he would have the child exposed to sky and cold as the bastard it was.” He spreads a palm over the fire, continues calmly, “In the morning Ulgern’s wife was gone, fled into the ice fens. They found Ulgern in his own blood, dead of a knife across the throat.”

Sora’s blood runs cold as a new melt stream to hear that story. Was that how he’d intended to handle her master and mistress? Leave them in their beds with slit throats? And whose hand would he have insisted wield the knife?

Her restless hands work over her unnatural belly, outlining its shape beneath the thin shift.

“She didn’t flee with him?” she asks before realizing the question has left her lips. That question, of all the questions a person might ask after hearing a tale so grim. It was guilt and dying hope that brought it up, and she knows the echo of those emotions show in her expression too. So she looks down, realizing it’s already too late.

“What is your name, sir?”

“He was gone before. If Ulgern’s wife met him in his flight, I have not heard tell of it.” The stranger flicks a glance up at Sora beside him, which falls, more slowly, across the gentle swell of her belly before returning to the fire. He sips from the cup she has given him.

“Strange that you follow this man, who has done only as men do,” Gritta puts in, from her place across the fire pit. She’s up on one elbow, watching Sora and the stranger. “And not the slut who betrayed and murdered your Jarl.”

The stranger doesn’t look at her. “He is not my Jarl,” he says.

“Then what business is it of yours what befell him?”

“My business is with the blonde man,” the stranger answers curtly. “As my order demands.”

“And which order is that, sir?” Gritta says, with a rising note of trepidation.

“The Grey Order. I am Alaric, and initiate to the mysteries of our Lady.”

The matron spits into the fire. A tiny hiss sounds amid the crackle of the logs.

Sora knows enough to feel a chill of unease. She glances at her mistress, marks that expression of disgust– or superstition– but feels her eyes drawn back to Alaric all the same. What was growing inside of her was terrible, unnatural. Dark magic, to be sure.

Maybe it takes one sinister man to catch another. Or at least to provide her with answers.

So, instead of waiting for Gritta to provide another question, or to order the man out, the slave girl draws a breath and quickly asks, “Why does the Grey Order chase him, sir? Can you… undo what he’s done?”

The man named Alaric looks up at Sora again, and the stubble at one corner of his mouth creases with half a smile. “Myself?” he rumbles. “No. But maybe the Grey Lady can help.” He drains his tea and puts the cup down.

“I do as the Lady commands.” It seems for a moment that he will leave his explanation there, but then he adds, more softly, “This man’s progeny are a blight. The sooner he’s put down the better.”

“Lord Moon defend us from the business of your ‘Lady’,” Gritta snaps.”We are simple honest people here, sir, and you see no such wanderer among us as you seek.” She shifts to a sitting position, furs slumping around her stout hips. “Finish your drink and then leave my husband’s house.”

It’s a slim thread of hope offered but still enough for Sora to grasp at. She knows she risks everything by speaking up.

She does it anyway, avoiding looking at Gritta as she says, “He isn’t among us because he went to fetch the master from the woods. To bring him back, to kill you. He has worked some sorcery on the master’s mind to make him do as he bids and he has worked his magic on me.”

Her slender, calloused hands stroke her belly again and she feels tears sting her eyes. Sora blinks them back.

“I don’t want the master and mistress dead in their beds, sir, and I don’t want to bear whatever it is he’s put in my belly. Please. Help.”

“Sora… !” Gritta barks. Her mouth hangs open. Muddy eyes swim between the slave and the stranger. “You–” But again the enormity of what the girl has uttered sticks in Gritta’s craw, snarls the modest gears of her thought until they grind to a halt. The matron struggles to her feet. “Your master…”

If Alaric is surprised by Sora’s admission, it doesn’t show on his face. The big man closes his eyes and sighs.

“I’ll do what I’ve come to do,” he rumbles. There’s no heat in his assertion, only a touch of weariness. “One cottager’s life more or less is no concern of mine.”

“For shame!” Gritta hisses. It’s unclear whether she’s chiding Sora or the brute sitting at her feet.

“As for you, girl,” Alaric says, “we will see what my Lady has in store for you.”

Sora sweeps to a crouch on the floor, curled low to avoid Gritta’s heavy hand should she choose to wield it. But nor does she look away from Alaric, her dark eyes narrowed in pleading. “They are of concern to me! Please. Free them. Free me.”

It isn’t until she’s said the words that she realizes how it might sound to the mistress– a plea to be taken away. And it isn’t until that moment that Sora realizes how badly she wants that.

She shuffles forward, almost on her knees, to pluck at the hem of his tunic with icy fingers.

“Whatever your Lady needs, if it means they live and I don’t have to bring this thing into the world.”

Gritta totters around the fire pit towards her slave. She raises the back of her hand, almost by reflex given the bewilderment that’s painted in every twisted wrinkle of her face. But she stops when the stranger looks a warning at her through narrowed eyes.

“Sit you down, mistress,” he grates. “And pray to Sun or Moon, as you please, that you live out this night.”

Gritta’s lips work on what might be a curse, but no sound comes out. Finally she presses them together and sits just where she’d stood. Her expression settles into a queer sort of patience– alert and wiry, like the rabbit watching the fox pass by.

Alaric reaches out and takes Sora’s wrist in his hand. He closes his grip until the girl’s delicate bones ache. As if removing a feather or a tuft of hair, he flicks her fingers free of his clothing and places her palm flat on the ground. “Stay there,” he says.

Releasing her wrist, he cups the back of the slave’s head in his palm, thick fingers thrust into her hair. The gentlest of pushes lowers her gaze to the ground where he’s placed her. Then she feels him rock forward and stand over her, pushing off just a little against her head and shoulders.

“You say your master is in the stranger’s thrall.” Alaric crosses to the door and cracks it, peering across a snow field now purple with the last fingers of twilight’s gloom. “How do you know this? Tell me how it happened.”

Sora makes a small sound, she the unwary rabbit snared by that passing fox. But she doesn’t protest the ache nor the way he arranges her. As she’s bid to stay, she does, bent over, huddled in her curled misery. She can feel her belly jutting before her like some unwelcome seed pod.

The girl beats down her desperate impatience, however.

“He touched him,” she almost whispers. Then, thinking maybe the man wouldn’t have been able to hear, she clears her throat and speaks more loudly– though still soft enough that anyone outside would hear only a murmur. “He touched him and there was… something in the air. A push, maybe. I don’t know how it happened the first time, when he came on my master in the woods. But I saw it here, at the fire, when they came back.”

Sora wets her lips with the tip of her tongue, and cuts a sidelong glance through the stringy wings of her downswept hair. “He touched the mistress too. Her fingers. I don’t know if he did the same then or if he just… used his words.

“He’s very good at talking,” she finishes, and there’s heat in her cheeks to remember how she herself was swayed by those same words, later in that night.

“He must be,” Alaric observes. After a moment, he closes the door again and turns to consider Sora where she kneels. “Moreso to women.” A flutter runs through the muscles beneath the man’s ruddy jaw. Then he draws a deep breath and lets it out through his nose.

“So your master and my quarry are coming here to kill me, and you would have me spare one and take off the other. A neat trick, I would say.” He pauses. “What was your role in this scheme, girl?”

Shame causes Sora’s shoulders to roll forward, making her smaller. She no longer strains to see the man but adopts the posture he’d insisted on wholeheartedly, head low and hand pressing fast to the ground.

“I was to… make you welcome. To make you think all was well and bid you rest awhile. To make you think that he wasn’t here, while he fetched the master. But I couldn’t.” Behind the wings of her hair, those tears which had threatened earlier now spill free.

Sora can only pray she doesn’t make a child of herself and restrains her sniffling. She realizes she’s scared. More scared than she can ever remember being.

“I knew something was wrong with him. I felt it, sir. I… couldn’t. I couldn’t stop him but I couldn’t let him do this either. Will you help us? Please?”

Alaric stalks back to Sora’s side. He bends just enough to get his fist knotted in her dark hair, then hauls her to her feet with little concern for the pain this might cause her.

“So far as my Lady’s business joins with yours,” he says tightly, dragging Sora by the hair across the earthen floor and back to the door. “Watch you here,” he commands her, with a final thrust to the door’s edge. “When your master and Yuwen Blue-Eyes return, you will tell me so. If words pass between you and the stranger, then say you’ve done all he asked and I am at my ease within.”

The big man paces away from the door, shaking out his hands. After a moment, he adds, “Are you armed? Do not look to your mistress, she will sit mouse-quiet until this night’s business is done. Answer me true.”

Sora swallows her yelp as she’s yanked upright. She can’t keep her hands from lifting to clap over the fist snarled in her hair but she can keep herself from crying out– or at least from doing so too loudly. The push that sees her fetched up against the frame of the door leaves her eyes watering with something other than guilt, and in its way that’s a relief.

Brutality she can understand and if Yuwen was charming, maybe it’s a good sign that this new man is harsh.

She does, however, sniff once as she applies her eye to the crack opened in the door. The chill of the air tingles against her exposed face. The girl hardly dares blink, however, lest she miss the menfolk’s approach and looking over at Gritta seems impossible, so strong is the tension in her shoulders and neck. Sora couldn’t turn her head if she wanted to.head.

“No sir,” she whispers through her tight throat. “I have a little knife. Sometimes. For working. But it’s by the hearth.”

“Mm.” Steel grates on stone, followed by the sound of Alaric’s boots returning to the place where Sora stands. Watching the gloom beyond the door, she feels rather than sees him; there’s a warmth and thickness in the air, above and around her. Then his strong fingers encircle her wrist– without pain, this time– and he slips the handle of her work knife into the girl’s pale hand.

“When the time comes, do what you can,” he says, curling her fingers around that grip. Alaric backs into the corner by the door; when it opens, he’ll be hidden from the view of anyone entering. “Or you can do as your mistress intends–” he jerks his head her way, with a bob of braids– “and wait to see who wins.” The stranger smiles thinly.

Gritta’s blank expression doesn’t change. There’s no shame in the look she gives Alaric. Only quiet anticipation of the event to come.

Try as she might, Sora can’t keep herself from jumping at that touch. She expects pain, not to find herself with a weapon in hand. Surprised, the girl cranes her neck– she imagines she hears those tendons creaking past the stiffness of fear– to try to steal a look at his face. She blinks, just the once.

There’s no need for her to look at Gritta. Nothing about the woman surprises her.

“She’s going to beat me or worse for this if he doesn’t kill her,” she says softly, without meaning to. That’s become her habit today and privately, she wonders if it has to do with the babe in her belly, or the strangeness of the past days, or if it was something she had inside of her all along. Whatever the cause of it, it leads to truths she’d never imagined speaking before this. “I will do all I can, sir. What I can.”

And, steeled by her own assurance, she puts her eye back to the door. To wait, and watch, and ready herself. Around the knife’s grip, her hand blanches where she grips it, pressing the blade flat into her shift to hide it there at her side.

The stranger nods at Sora and puts a finger to his lips. Then his hands fall to his sides, with fingers slightly spread and curled, and he waits.

Beyond the door, night has gathered on the snow. Fierce white stars shine down between the needles of the pines; the moon has yet to crest the mountains above the cottage. The snow itself seems to give off a feeble glow in the gloom. Bitterly cold air stings Sora’s cheek.

After a time, she can make out two figures approaching the cottage: one taller, the other more broad. The latter, which must be Thorvald, carries his woodcutter’s axe. A glint near the other figure’s hand suggests that Yuwen is armed as well. He pauses for a moment beside Alaric’s horse, then leads Thorvald towards the door.

It is the cold that keeps Sora alert, long past the time when stinging eyes want to close against the drying chill, when she might be tempted to draw back enough to scrub her numbing cheeks and the tip of her nose on her sleeve. It steels her until, after a time, she feels as hard and keen as the knife still clutched tight in her fist.

When those moving shadows coalesce into figures, the hitch and hiss of her breath serves as warning. That she rocks back on her heels and turns her head on a stiff, creaking neck to look that Alaric marks this as no false alarm.

But just as quickly, she puts her face to the crack again, to mark where they are, how quickly they come.

“Both come armed,” the girl whispers. “The two of them.”

And then, before Thorvald and Yuwen are near enough to be in range of hearing, she cracks the door open wider and huddles in that sliver of inside warmth. She needs no great acting skills to make her expression one of concern, of outright fear.

Her voice, lifted softly, quavers. “He sleeps by the fire, sir. I… I didn’t know when you would be back, so pressed drink. Drink on him.”

Yuwen’s smile brightens the gloom; the loveliness of it could almost make one forget the murder he intends. Gently he cups Sora’s cheek, his palm blood-warm despite the depth of the cold. “That’s a lass,” he murmurs. “You’ve done well, Sora. You see? Soon our troubles will be over. Keep you apart, and safe, and let Thorvald and I finish this ugly business.”

The tall man places a hand on the door and pushes it further open, so that he can move past Sora and into Thorvald’s little cottage. The woodcutter follows.

And then everything seems to happen at once.

Gritta, who has knelt quietly across the fire pit, suddenly squawks, “Beware, husband! The stranger lies in wait!”

But even as her raven’s caw shatters the silence, Alaric is moving from his place behind the door. He makes a great fist and brings it down on the base of Thorvald’s skull, where it joins his sturdy neck. The woodcutter staggers towards the fire, jostling Yuwen’s shoulder as he struggles to keep his feet; his axe tumbles to the ground.

Finding only empty furs where he expected a sleeping man, Yuwen’s mouth drops open. He turns back towards the door only to be shouldered aside by the stumbling Thorvald.

It is the heat in Yuwen’s hand that finally makes Sora shiver. She recognizes it as unnatural, even if the nerves of her body crave that warmth. Rolling her shoulders in and dropping her head forward, she murmurs something. In that moment, even she doesn’t know what words escape her.

Gritta’s rough call provides a different sort of chill.

Sora can taste ashes as she startles back a step and stares at the chaos. Staggered Thorvald, reeling Yuwen. Big, moving bodies, all of them barring the way from darting inside and finding a corner to hide in.

“Don’t let him touch you!” she cries out. And then, “He’s trying to get away, sir!” A fact that leads the slavegirl to plant herself in the doorway, her little knife held at the ready. Instinct or reflex, some part of her whispers that this is unwise but the move is already made.

Alaric weaves his fingers together, making a club of both fists. He swings at the back of Thorvald’s head, and there’s a meaty crack where flesh meets bone. The older man grunts and falls to one knee, but his own scrabbling fingers find and grasp the haft of his axe. Thorvald brings the weapon up and back in a crazy arc, flailing behind him, and his arm tangles with Alaric’s; the axe flies free with the force of his swing, tumbles and slides across the dirt floor, and ends up fetched against the door.

Yuwen looms over Sora now. His pupils seem to dilate, then spread and swim like oil until the entirety of the man’s eyes are black.

“Kill the stranger,” he says.

It’s as if the words are a hand inside of Sora’s body, curled around her spine, firing nerves in her thighs, her upper arms; she feels suddenly, uncontrollably on the verge of motion. But then the feeling passes, and she is left staring up at a man whose grave expression shows every expectation that she will leap to obey.

The moment is a reflection of her childhood, Gritta expecting obedience and Sora left with only her own thoughts and the choice there before her. Both, she believes, are as steadfast in the belief that she will do as she’s told. That she has to.

Before it can seem like hesitation, she bends to close her hand around the axe handle.

Then she rises and makes as if to step by Yuwen– only to pivot at the last second, gripping the weapon in both hands and swinging at his back as if it were one of the trunks Thorvald downs every day. Fast and strong, a sturdy swing as she is sturdy, honed by her labors all of these years.

But what springs from her lips is not a slave’s cry. “I am not yours!”

Yuwen doesn’t move, except to follow Sora with those pitch black shark’s eyes. In the moment before she swings, he smiles at her.

The blow lands with enough force to shiver the axe-haft in Sora’s grip. The blade bites deep into the base of Yuwen’s spine; she can feel the flesh give way, then the sudden shock of bone beneath. There’s blood on the blade, spatters on the hafts she holds, warm, ruby twinkles on her fingers and knuckles.

Yuwen drops where he stands, dragging the axe out of Sora’s grasp. It seems he’s lost all control of his legs; they’re a crazy tangle beneath him, like fallen twigs. Moaning, he rolls into his stomach and digs at the earth with his fingers. The back of his green tunic is black.

Alaric swings his balled fists again and that club of flesh connects solidly with Thorvald’s temple. The man tumbles forward and then rolls onto his back, dazed, staring without focus at the rafters.

“Husband!” Gritta screeches. She’s on her feet, dashing past the crackle of the hearth-flames towards the fallen woodcutter.

“Sora,” Yuwen groans, his voice shuddering with pain, “Sora, help me… don’t let him kill me…”

The proof of her actions laid stark and vivid before her leads Sora to retreat, numbed hands pressed to her mouth. It was one thing to chop a tree, or take the head off of a chicken. But this…

The girl fights a swell of nausea, spit gone bitter copper in the back of her throat. Fighting against that also pits her against the apology that wants to spring to her lips, the deference she’s been so trained to show. Neither comes but it’s at a price that leaves her with complexion chalky and eyes swimming like black coals in her face as she looks for Alaric.

“Help.” Without meaning to, Sora finds herself echoing Yuwen. “Help me,” she calls, though she can’t say whether her plea is meant for Gritta or Thorvald or Alaric.

Alaric steps over Thorvald, breathing heavily. “Back, girl,” he grates.

He takes hold of the axe and wrenches it out of Yuwen’s back. Raises it high over the fallen man’s skull. Brings the blade down in a shattering arc.

But Yuwen has turned his head, cheek to the earth, and one black eye catches Alaric standing above him. “Stop,” he groans, then struggles for breath. “Stop..”

Muscles tense all along Alaric’s arm. He brings the axe blade quivering to a halt, just before the bloody steel strikes bone. And there he remains, trembling, waiting.

“Bring… bring the slave girl over here,” Yuwen says. “Her face. Put… her face, down here, by my face. Do it.”

Alaric straightens, wheels to face Sora where she’s retreated towards the wall. There’s a queer distance in his grey eyes, a distraction out of keeping with the dire events unfolding around him; it seems as if he’s trying, and failing, to remember something almost thoroughly forgotten. But his gaze fixes on Sora, and he takes a step towards her, then another, until his shadow looms over her. The bloody axe dangles from one hand.

Sora reels. How could Alaric succumb when she had slipped that compulsion so easily? Was he not a man grown, and compelled by whatever goddess it was that he worshipped?

“Nooo,” she moans, scrambling back and away from even the touch of the man’s shadow.

One of her small hands flicks out, warding the warrior away. The sight of him, the blood that drips from that axe, proof of her own attempt at murder.

“Fight it!” In her own ears her voice sounds shrill and panicked. “By your Lady, don’t let him tell you what to do! He tried to make me do his bidding and I didn’t, and I’m only a girl. A slave. Fight him, sir, don’t let him make you as I am, he’s all but dead now, you’ve all but taken him. Please. Please.”

As Sora speaks, the fog in Alaric’s eyes lifts. He’s seeing her as she is, hearing her exhortation, her plea. And her rebuke.

The man’s eyes darken like a stormy sky. His jaw clenches.

He lifts the back of his hand and cracks Sora’s cheek with it hard enough to send her reeling. Then he turns his broad back to her and stalks back to the place where Yuwen lies.

The blonde-haired man tries to drag himself towards the door, leaving a smear of blood behind him, but his progress is painful and slow. “No,” he breathes. “Go back. Go… back and get her.”

Alaric’s shadow falls across him.

“I told you to go–”

And that is when Alaric splits the back of Yuwen’s skull with the axe-blade. There’s little blood; only a wet, stomach-turning crunch, followed by a dance over the dirt as Yuwen’s arms and torso spasm. He makes something like a choking sound. Then the body lies still.

His eyes– open, staring at nothing– return to their beautiful dark blue.

Gritta kneels over Thorvald, who rolls onto his side with a groan. The sound seems to summon Alaric, who snatches the axe out of Yuwen’s head and half-turns on the woodcutter with lip curled.

The slap sends Sora spinning to the ground, a hand pressed to the side of her face and a fresh groan on her lips. It means she’s dazed throughout the final act of Yuwen’s life. She doesn’t see and that’s a small mercy, given what her senses return to.

Though the room spins around her, she finds her feet again and staggers between the stranger and her masters.

And though they won her a blow from Alaric before, she finds words spilling out again. “Please, sir. Please. He was under a spell. He didn’t know, he had no control of himself. You know how it feels. We didn’t know and you said… you said…”

Had he said he would spare the woodcutter’s life? It feels as if her thoughts are trying to wade through a bog. The girl honestly can’t remember.

She stares up at Alaric, trying to entreat him with eyes as well as voice, for all that one of them is threatening to swell from where he struck her. Tears make his immense figure swim before her sight. If he raises the axe on her, she’ll never have time to get out of the way. Yet still she begs, “Please, leave him. Leave her. They didn’t know.”

The man’s shoulders rise and fall with the violence of his breathing. The muscles in his massive frame are wound taut; his knuckles whiten on the axe-haft, and for a moment it seems that he means to spring upon Sora and dash her aside.

Then, with a grunt, he tosses the bloody axe down and jabs a finger at Gritta. “Keep you your husband there,” he warns her, rough-voiced. “If he stands again it will be the last time.”

Gritta, watching the stranger carefully, nods. “You’ll have no more trouble from me or mine, sir,” she says softly. “Only leave us to our lives.” One arm snakes around and catches Thorvald’s, holding the dazed man beside her on the ground.

“Mm.” Alaric turns away, running a hand through his ruddy mess of braids and tresses. There can be little doubt that Yuwen Blue-Eyes is dead, but Alaric still studies the corpse as if he half expects it to jerk back into motion. After a moment, he draws a deep breath and blows it out.

“So there is most of the business done,” he says. He turns his head just enough to catch Sora in the corner of his eye. “Most.”

Sora sags with relief and lets out a breath she hadn’t been aware of holding while Alaric made his decision. With Thorvald safe– and Gritta too, though if she’s honest it was the woodcutter whose welfare she cares most about– she bows her head, feeling all of the aches and pains of the past two days come to roost. Pains that run both inside and out.

It isn’t until Alaric speaks again that she remembers what curls in her belly. Her hands flatten over that curve and again she feels her gorge rise.

“I thought… I thought it would be gone with him,” she whispers, stealing only the briefest of glances at the corpse in their midst.

Her eyes lift to find Alaric’s profile. “Can you… stop this?”

“This–” Alaric nudges Yuwen’s body with his foot– “was just a vessel. As you are now. What grows in you has a life of its own.”

“What grows in her?” Gritta snaps. Her eyes flick between Sora and Alaric; confusion mingles with dread in the twist of her mouth. “Girl, what have you been about?”

Alaric ignores Gritta’s scolding. He turns back to regard Sora where she kneels, his features set like stone. “But it needs a host,” he says. His large hands turn within his palms, as if he were washing, but he succeeds only in smearing Yuwen’s blood more finely over his skin.

“Kill the host…” Alaric leaves the rest unsaid. There’s no remorse in his voice, only a touch of weariness for the path he sees ahead of him.

“I couldn’t say no to him, mistress.” The words are a scant whisper from the girl. She can feel the blood leaving them, feel them growing numb, as the impact of what Alaric has said sinks in. Sora wants to claw at her belly and pull out whatever this thing is but instead, she flattens her palms against the swell of it.

The look she gives Alaric is miserable. “He said he would take me away…”

But she stops herself there before that line of thought can thicken into tears. The slave’s breath hitches. She draws a fresh one and blinks away the moisture in her eyes.

“Do you… do you swear you won’t kill them? After I’m dead. Swear on your Lady.”

Talk of killing Gritta and Thorvald shuts the matron up again. In her small animal fashion she watches Alaric for his response. She hasn’t moved from Thorvald’s side but there’s tension in her body, as if some part of her is poised for flight.

Alaric narrows his grey eyes upon her. For awhile he says nothing; his brow furrows and that furrow deepens slowly. Finally he says, strangely annoyed, “Why do you care? Why do you care what happens to this old woodcutter and his old wife?”

He stares at Sora again, unmoved by her tears– or perhaps pushing his anger past them. “You’re no Lakelander. Like as not this man stole you from your home and made you a slave. Why spend your last living act on this… squab?” Alaric gestures at the crouching Gritta.

The girl’s attention slinks to the pair at the hearth. Briefly her eyes meet Gritta’s but soon, she looks at Thorvald, and Thorvald alone. Even as she answers Alaric, she looks at her stricken master.

“He was kind to me. He never had to be but he was always kind. He never touched me,” she whispers, her hands sliding over the taut curve of her belly. “And I wouldn’t have her murdered for not being able to be anything other than what she is.”

Her diamond-bright eyes swing back up to the stranger. Her brow creases with worry.

“Please. They’re only simple people. Let them live. You won’t ever have to see or think about them again once you leave here.”

Alaric frowns at Thorvald. “That was his folly,” he grates. “You’re a woman made to be touched.” His attention shifts to Gritta; he snorts. “Well. I give him joy of the squab.”

The stranger turns his back on cottager and wife. He surveys the empty pegs in the shadows behind the door, which stills hangs open, now a rectangle of black night and cold wind. Then he wheels and stalks across the floor to Gritta, looms over her, thrusts a finger under her chin so fiercely that the matron’s head jerks back and she stares up at him in terror.

“I named the Grey Order and you spit in the dirt.” His finger touches her chin and slowly pushes the old woman’s gaping mouth closed; she trembles visibly at the contact. “Keep this saucy hole shut in future, and thank your Lady Sun that you had a slave to plead for you.”

Gritta’s lips work together. She doesn’t seem to know whether to thank the stranger or stay silent, and decides on the latter.

Alaric glances at Thorvald, then barks, “Off with his fur cloak. I’ll be taking that, and your slave.” The woodcutter is still too dazed by Alaric’s blow, and the strange unfolding of events, to protest or move from his place on the floor.

For a moment all Sora can do is stare. And the slave? She had expected to be slain right there. But to be taken, and still with her womb filled…

She might still die. But if so, Alaric’s choice means she will do it away from here.

It’s that thought which melts her stillness and sees the girl into action. While Gritta gawps, Sora scrambles up and hurries to kneel with her at Thorvald’s side. Her hands are small but sure as they shift to obey the command. The man’s fur cloak, with gratitude that the body beneath will go untouched.

As she works, she keeps her head down, the raven dark swing of her hair partially obscuring her face.

“Thank you,” she whispers as she pulls the last of the heavy fur free of Thorvald’s weight. “Thank you both.”

And then she stands, clutching the cloak to her chest. It spills over her arms as she pads back to Alaric and offers it up wordlessly.

“Put it on,” Alaric commands her. “The night is cold and it’s a ride back to the cave where I sheltered last.” Without waiting for her to do so, he puts his palm between Sora’s shoulders and shoves her towards the door. It doesn’t seem a violent gesture, but the strength of his arm is still enough to send the girl a few steps forward, despite herself.

She ends up standing by Yuwen’s head, his vacant, sidways stare, the blood that trickles into the earth beneath him.

“I trust you can clean this up, my lady?” Alaric says to Gritta, nudging the dead man’s leg with his foot. “Good householder that you are.” Gritta flicks a glance at the body and then nods. If the prospect disturbs her, she gives no sign; balanced with Alaric’s departure, the task must seem a fair trade.

Then the stranger turns to follow Sora into the night, nudging her bodily before him if he must. He raises his grey hood as he goes.

Normally a graceful girl, Sora’s stumble is made worse by the shift of her center of gravity and by the sight of Yuwen’s empty eyes. The nudge that comes from Alaric will be needed because she’s caught by that dead stare. Staring back and hugging the cloak to her as if it could shield her from whatever malevolent spirit such a man might possess.

It takes the push of the stranger’s body to launch her into action again. She fumbles the cloak around herself.

Its hem brushes Yuwen’s hair when she steps forward, through the cottage’s door for the last time.

The cold hits her like a slap but Thorvald’s cloak is a welcome and novel barrier between herself and the night. She burrows her face into the soft fur, marvelling at how different it is. Warm. And more than that, free.

To an extent.

Alaric is behind her so she can’t look at him as she stumbles in the direction of the horse he’d tied in the yard. But she can ask, with a reeling sort of curiosity, “Am I to die, sir?”

Alaric follows her towards the hitching post and the horse waiting there. The first, flat rays of the rising moon between the trees are enough to limn the creature’s outline and silver the cloud of its breath. “You might yet,” he says.

Then his hands go around her waist, and he lifts her as easily as a bundle of kindling wood until she hovers over the man’s saddle. Thorvald’s too-large cloak dangles past her booted feet.

“I see three roads before you,” Alaric explains. “There’s a quick death, that would snuff out the thing inside of you. No shame in that. Any death hurts, but I could promise you a short hurt.” He cups the girl’s bottom through the cloak and gives her a push up. “You could birth the damned thing and we’ll fight it then; I can’t say what that would do to you.”

Alaric takes a breath. “Or you could appeal to the Grey Lady to drive it out. And that, Plains Girl, means pain. More pain than you’ve felt, and maybe a slow death after all.”

The horse seems larger now that Sora must be lifted to its back. Her breath hitches as Alaric lifts her from the ground, and she hates how slow, how clumsy she feels, as she scrambles to throw her leg over. The color in her cheeks is not just from the exertion though but the echo left in her rump from the cupping of his hands.

She settles and hopes that flame is invisible in the cooling silver of moonlight.

Her thighs clamp against the horse’s side as it shifts beneath her and she leaves off gripping the cloak to snatch at its mane. Not just for the beast’s swaying but also to steady herself against the options before her. None of them appeal. But some… less so than others.

Her eyes are made wholly black by the gloaming as they turn to find Alaric’s. That line of worry remains deeply etched between her brows and her choice is spoken in a question. “Will the Lady answer me if I’ve never prayed to her?”

“Who can say?” Alaric puts his boot in the stirrup and swings up behind Sora. The horse steps sideways and hooves out a quarter turn in the snow, adjusting to his weight. He takes the reins in one hand and Sora’s waist in the curl of his other arm, pulling her back against him. The firmness of his stomach through his coarse woolen shirt makes for a steady seat.

“The Grey Lady is not impressed by prayers,” he says, leaning and nudging with his knee to turn their mount towards the forest. “You can show her that you want her help, that you’re… serious. And leave matters up to her choice.” He pauses. “It isn’t easy. It’s not painting some stone with mead, or burning a little grain, or bleeding out some poor rabbit as you might for the false gods. The Grey Lady is real, and she makes real demands.”

Again Sora’s breath catches but this comes of a memory– Yuwen behind her, his hands, the pressure of his body. So similar, the way they’re perched on the horse, but so different as well.

Those differences leave her silent, seeming to listen even as her heart becomes that poor rabbit in the center of her chest.

Enough makes it through that she’s able to tell him, after a time, “I used to pray. To our gods, theirs. All of them. No one ever answered, even when my mother and I would pray together. If your Lady can and will then I’ll do as she wants. I don’t want to die, sir, and I don’t want to birth this… thing.”

And so saying, she pries her fingers from the horse’s mane, clutches fistfuls of the cloak around her and lets her layered hands rest atop the one he’s slipped about her. The choice is made.

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