Bian -5- Duke Awful

Somewhere, past the edge of fantasy lies a land called...

by Erin Halfelven


Chapter 5 - Duke Awful

I sat on the cloth-covered bench while Kilda fussed with my hair. I had an astonishing amount of it, a pale waterfall with almost gingery streaks down to where I could have sat on it. Kilda worked with a long toothed comb and her fingers, getting snarls out and jerking my head this way and that now and then. It felt soothing somehow. So did the little Glock I had insisted on keeping in one hand.

Rotgar had lost interest in my old uniform shirt. Leaving it on the hangar, he sat on the bigger painted bench, or rather, sort of lounged on it, like a lion playing at being a housecat. He’d left the phone charger in the pocket after examining it and now had the little notebook, apparently marveling at the thinness of the pages and the precision of the blue lines.

“More Reymish writing with a few runes,” he commented. “Some of these marks I’ve never seen before.” He couldn’t seem to make anything of my cryptic notations, and I didn’t try to enlighten him. Mostly it was street addresses and names carefully spelled out to put in the Neverending Story that is police paperwork. Not only useless, once the papers had been filed, but also I can’t imagine anything more boring. But then, it was the paper itself that fascinated him.

He showed me a page with no writing on it. “So white!” he said. “And the lines are so straight.”

“Uh-huh,” I said since Kilda pulling on my hair kept me from nodding.

I noticed that he had dressed the cut on his arm and another on his cheek with a sort of salve. Bear grease or something, it seemed likely. He had eyes as blue as summer skies in a long, ruddy face that made him seem very German. His blond mustache and beard had gingery highlights, brighter than the ones in my hair, but they kept him from looking like the actor who played Legolas in Lord of the Rings. Viggo Mortensen? Maybe more like a younger Chris Hemsworth, the guy who plays Thor.

Or as they seem to call him around here, Dunnar. The Thunderer. I looked down at the Glock, which I still held in my hands. I shivered, even though I wasn’t really cold anymore. The fire popped and crackled a bit and made the gray light from the small windows seem warmer and friendlier.

Rotgar noticed me watching him and I may have blushed. He looked at me, folded the notebook up and put it down on the table. Neither of us said anything for a long silent moment. He smiled at me, and I suppose I smiled back.

I started to ask him who he was, exactly, but he spoke first.

“Three dead men,” he said. His expression turned serious. “They sent five. I killed two, and you killed Hustab with your lightning from a bell.” The Glock.

I felt a little sick. I had shot the man without knowing what the quarrel was about. I had intended to miss, shooting over his head but at the last moment before pulling the trigger, I had moved my aim down. It had seemed like the right thing to do at the time.

“The other two scampered off, so there’s no one to ask,” Rotgar said. “They must have meant to steal you.”

I had been about to blink at the image of ‘skamperen’ when his next sentence penetrated. “Steal me?”

He nodded. “Like a worthy cow, but not for the milk,” he said.

I glared at him because he glanced at my chest when he said that.

“He’s right, child,” said Kilda. “They will do anything to stay the bedding.”

Wait. Kilda, her name, and child are the same word? And, oh! Bedding? It was the same word as wedding. Wedding? “What wedding?” I asked. This language was going to drive me crazy.

“Your wedding, in sooth. It must happen before the Velkmote choose the Olkong, also.” Before the… the… Congress?… chooses the All King?

“What? Who? When?” I stammered.

“In three days, to Yuvil of Esvelk. Your bedding, that is. The Velkmote will be in the Haymoon, most like.” She reached around to turn me to face her and stared into my eyes. I had the feeling she meant to communicate something to me but I didn’t get it.

“Who’s she, I mean, he? Orville whosis?” I asked.

“Yuvil is Ondakong of Esvelk,” said Rotgar. “It will keep his vote with the Narthings, also.” Politics? Ondakong was something like a prince or duke, or maybe a general.

I felt sick at my stomach. I glanced at the Glock, lying beside me now on the bench. Married? Maybe I could shoot my way out of the wedding. I grasped at a straw. “I’m just a kid! I’m too young to marry.”

They smiled at me, possibly at my referring to myself as a baby goat, maybe that wasn’t a common idiom in this language.

“You turned fourteen three weeks ago, child,” said Kilda. “Old enough.” She patted my wrist. “Don’t be afraid, Alenna. Yuvil is a handsome young man, and your father chose him for you.” But she frowned at me where Rotgar couldn’t see and shook her head. That confused me.

How could I have enough history here in this shape that people knew me and had plans for me? Also, I had a father here? What was he like? The kind of guy who would peddle his teenage daughter’s ass to a neighbor for political advantage? Great! Fourteen? Fourteen!

And where was Alenna now? Back in Los Perdidos looking like Deputy Corporal Gus Gallant? But without a uniform because mine had come here with me even though it no longer fit!

I must have been making faces while I thought because Rotgar asked, “Are you well?” .

I shook my head. “I…” I looked at the Glock again. “What happened to my other stuff?” I asked. Unfortunately in English, so he just stared at me. “Vad gedit den mik odur effen onda buske?” I said.

“Vad odur effen?” he asked, helpfully.

I waved vaguely, distracted by the fact that ‘effen’ meant stuff or unnamed things. Where was my effin’ stuff? “Clothes, boots, leather, another hammer-bell….” I trailed off, what would happen if someone like Hustab got hold of the other Glock? “Uh…. Can you go get anything that’s there—under the cedar tree—for me? It’s kind of important.” Important equals muckelfack. I suppressed a nervous giggle.

He seemed to take my expression for extreme distress and while grumbling about it, he headed out the door, pulling on his armored hat and some gloves on the way. The cold came in as he left, even though from what I could see, that was a hallway outside the room.

“I thought he would never leave,” said Kilda. “But you have him wrapped around your ear-finger.”

I looked at her in surprise. She meant little finger and the image of someone sticking their little finger in their ear and twisting it back and forth to make squeaking noises came from some old slapstick comedy. It made me smile then I thought about what she had said and stopped smiling. Wrapping Rotgar around my finger was a completely different image and implied something I didn’t want to think about.

I’m fourteen, I reminded myself, still not smiling.

“Ikka,” she said, also not smiling.

Now I didn’t know what she meant; ikka was sort of an all-purpose word. Literally, it meant “to add”, but could mean “so”, or “also”, or “even”, or “sure”, or “else”, or “another.” Just an instant translation didn’t always help me know what people had in mind.

“So you are my lady’s doppelganger?” she went on. “You must be, with the klabbernosh you spout betimes.”

Well, I hadn’t expected anything like that! Distracted again because doppelganger was the same word as in English and klabbernosh sounded like buttermilk drunk as a snack. And the word that meant lady sounded like queen but didn’t mean queen which was another word, entirely. I pushed it all away and tried to think. My mind buzzed with so much strangeness that I had a hard time focusing.

A thought penetrated. Kilda expected me to not be who I looked like. Foreknowledge implied planning. In cop-speak, premeditation.

Suddenly angry that someone might be responsible for my predicament, I snarled at her, “What in Hela’s name do you know about it?” I’d meant to say “what the hell” but here, apparently, Hell was a person, not a place.

She surprised me again by cringing. The woman was several inches taller than me, at least thirty pounds heavier, and ten or more years older than I seemed to be but she looked afraid. It wasn’t pretty; no grown woman should act like a whipped dog at an angry word.

I took advantage, realizing that I must have status over her. After all, I seemed to be scheduled to marry an ondakong, which was sort of a prince or duke, maybe. I stood up and stepped forward, trying to look menacing. “Woman,” I said, in the deepest voice I could manage. “You will tell me all that you know.” It came out a lot daintier than I intended, like a kitten growling. But it worked.

“Wikkening,” she said, almost falling to the floor in an awkward bow. Wisdom? Witchcraft! “That’s all I know. Alenna wanted to avoid this wedding, so she used the power of the Norns to escape and leave someone else in her place.”

“Norns,” I said, sounding stupid even to myself. I knew what Norns were without the meaning supplied by whatever made the language understandable. Norns were the Viking equivalent of the Fates. I think I remembered that from reading Thor comics when I was a kid. Vikings?

Kilda nodded vigorously. “Alenna was fledged in the wyrd of the Norns by her mother. “She… she had a bend for working spells.”

“A knack?” I asked.

She nodded again. “It came to her in dreams, sometimes waking dreams. She would dream and then she would know how to work the spells.”

I made a leap into the illogic of the situation, and a little physical leap at the same time, a nervous jump. “And she used spells to bring me here to take her place… And a spell to make me look and sound like her?” I paced the width of the room, angry but full of despair, too. Still, it was better than the confusion I had been feeling.

“I reckon it must be so,” she said, sounding fearful. Vikings reckoned?

I sat back down. “She… This is not my world, not my time,” I said. “She has stolen from me my place and even my body.”

Kilda said nothing, holding her breath as if waiting for an explosion.

I glared at her. “I was a man. A warrior. A keeper of the peace in the middle of my…my years.” I looked down at myself, small, slender, female. “And now I am this? A girl-child?”

“Baldur’s death, you were a man?” she exclaimed and almost fainted. “Wicked, wicked child,” she muttered after catching herself staggering into the furniture. Since her name was the same word as child, I didn’t know if she meant herself or the original Alenna but I assumed the latter.

“We’ve got to find a way to undo the spell,” I said. “Send me back where I belong.”

She shook her head. “There is no way; you don’t have the wikkening to do it.”

“You helped her?” I asked.

“She was my kvinna; I had to.”

“Am I your kvinna now?” She nodded, looking confused. “And I have this,” I held the Glock so she could see it. Her eyes got wide.

“I have wisdom of my own, too,” I said, not sure just what I meant by that. “We have to find a way.”

“But the wedding is in only three days, heart,” she said. “There’s no time. It took her most of a month to work her spell. And at the end, three days and two nights without sleep.”

“What if I refuse to marry this Duke Awful?” I said.

“Yuvil,” she corrected me. Her eyes got wider, “You think you have a choice? In sooth, you’ve been pledged to him for six years; this is just the bedding night.”

I did not like the way that sounded.

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