Somewhere, past the edge of fear lies a land called...
by Erin Halfelven
Chapter 13 - Surprise and...
For all of being about two in the afternoon, the gloom outside seemed appropriate to near dusk. A cold drizzle reminded me why one of the nicknames of Britain in my time had been “Old Blighty.” The weather change seemed extreme but nothing compared with finding myself in the body of a fourteen-year-old girl.
Wrapped in furs, I trudged around melting snow banks between Rotgar ahead and Kilda behind me, with Lillakatye bringing up the rear. I had been relieved of carrying any burden by my companions, and felt glad of it as we made our way over rough ground between furry pines and some other kind of tree that seemed to just be budding out after the winter. My strength now was not up to struggling uphill through thickets with snow still lying in shadowed hollows and the north side of tree trunks.
A few hours ago I had been in Southern California, over six feet tall and male. And in the 21st century. A deputy sheriff with the authority, responsibility, and respect that went with that job. A different world now surrounded me, and I had yet to figure out just how different. The history here did not seem to match up to what I knew of England’s history.
Judging from the technology I had seen, besides what items I had brought with me, now must be smack in the middle of the Medieval Period. And yet…. Well, for one thing, no one had mentioned Jesus Christ, or a pope, nor had I seen any crosses used as religious symbols. On the contrary, people here spoke of the Norse gods as a matter of course. I shivered. Not that I had been a churchgoer but imagining the world to be in the charge of the gentle Lord of Bethlehem and Nazareth was much different than contemplating the quarrelsome, violent and vindictive kin of Thor, Balder, and Odin. Or as they called them here locally, Dunnar, Baldur, and Wedna.
And magic seemed to work, here and now. I had been summoned to take the place of Alenna, the fourteen-year-old sorceress, whose arranged marriage I was now fleeing. “Why couldn’t she have just run away like I’m doing?” I whispered to Kilda.
“She who?” she asked. Then the sense of what I had said penetrated to her, and she hissed a shush at me, shaking her head.
No one else knew I was Alenna’s doppelganger, and it had to remain that way, or I would face the Judgement of Wedna, dangling from a tall tree with a meat-rope around my ankle while carrion crows decided whether I lived or died. Not that Medieval Christianity didn’t have equivalent atrocities, I supposed. I shut up and trudged onward.
Rotgar seemed to know where we were going so we all followed until we finally broke through the screen of trees into a clearing where Borgifu and three men were holding the reins of several horses. “This one is for goods, I’ve put in some blankets and bags of fodder for the horses,” she announced. “I hope you brought food for yourselves.”
“We’ve got money; it’s not a wilderness between here and Lundenna,” said Rotgar. He looked around, counting. “Nine horses? Why so many?”
“Two of my men will ride off in different directions to help confuse your trail,” she said.
“And I am going with you,” said the third extra man.
We all sprang back from him, and Rotgar’s blade came half out of its sheath, Lillakatye dropped the duffel she had been carrying and drew her ax. And I put a hand inside my coat, searching for the slits Kilda had sewn into my gown so I could pull out the Glock.
“No! NO!” said Borgifu. “He’s going with you because otherwise, they will kill him.”
“Tahtie would never break guest-pledge,” I said sounding angry. Now where the hell had that come from? I snapped my teeth together against saying anything else and glared at everyone on general principles.
Zenner smiled at me. “Ah, but if you leave… it is you that took my parolay, not your father. And your brothers would cut my throat in a moment.”
I stared at him even harder. “Your Bloddish just got much better than before.” The word parole had come out in Reemish, but otherwise, he had only a slight accent now.
Rotgar snorted. “He is called The Fox. But why should we agree to save your neck, Zenner Lu Renart, you worthless sack of fart wind?”
Zenner shrugged. “The lady has already taken my pledge and I hers.”
“Well, isn’t that just wintered apple cider mulled with Lokki’s burning prick,” muttered Lillakatya. I blinked at the idiom, guessing it to be meant sarcastically. At least. It sounded pretty impressive.
“Dunkelikka,” said Kilda.
Everyone looked at me, and somehow I understood. If I repudiated him, broke gastfrey, Rotgar and Lillakatye would cut him down without a qualm. They hoped I would but somehow we all knew that I wouldn’t. I ground my teeth in frustration, but I did have some leverage.
“I’ll need a stronger vow from you or else you can ride into the woods as outlaw,” I said. Again, I wondered where that came from.
With no hesitation, Zenner dropped to his knees on the slushy ground and held both hands out to me, palms up. “By Apollo’s Light, I swear to be your faithful servant until we are all safe inside the gates of Lundenna where I can seek my own people.”
Kilda gave him a narrow look. “This Apollo? Is that your name for Baldur?”
The Reemish spy cocked his head a bit, “More or less,” he agreed. “God of light, and music, and medicine. And unbroken promises.”
Again everyone looked at me. “Ikka,” I said, reaching out to put my hands on his for a moment and then tap his forehead with a knuckle. I didn’t like knowing what I should do and how to do it, but there it was. I did the right thing just as if I were really Alenna.
“It’s a good oath,” Rotgar agreed, sliding his weapon back into its sheath. “Let’s get mounted up; we’ve less than three hours of daylight left.”
Lillakatye shook her ax at Zenner then stalked toward the horses, still muttering.
Zenner’s eyes went wide. “All the gods! It’s a woman!” He looked at me. “Is she one of the Valkure we hear about in Song Isle?”
“You better hope I’m not,” Lillakatye informed him. “Only dying men get to see the Choosers of the Slain.”
Rotgar explained. “She’s a Warwife. Sworn as bride to the Gods of Battle, Dunnar, and Tiw-vas and Frejr the Shining.”
“All three?” said Zenner, looking amused.
“They take turns,” said Lillakatye with a straight face. Then she closed her eyes and did a pretty good imitation of having an orgasm, moaning and panting. “Wait, that was just the first one,” she said, pausing before starting again.
I tried not to laugh but it came out as stifled giggles, and that was embarrassing. No one seemed to notice, too busy snorting and choking themselves, even Zenner. No one wanted to make too much noise since we were supposed to be sneaking away.
When everyone had stopped laughing, Rotgar commented. “Having Zenner along will be an advantage in one way; Adelvalt will first look to the southwest, toward Oxford and beyond that to Song Isle.”
Borgifu nodded. “A good thought. I’ve already sent another hand of men to ride that way.” Rotgar gave her a look of appreciation. As a conspirator, Borgifu did more than her part, but something about her still irked me. It couldn’t be that she was too pretty, with a womanly shape that I saw most of the men admiring.
Someone led a horse up to me, smaller than the others but bigger than pony-size. “This is Hunig,” said the man, one of Borgifu’s. “She is sweet and has a smooth gait but can run longer and farther than bigger horses.”
Hunig was the word for honey, and the horse had a honey-like color, golden brown all over except for one white stocking and an off-center stripe down her face. She had already been saddled, and I was pleased to note that stirrups were part of the equipment, too, even if the saddle did not look like the Western-style ones I had used in my own time. Time travel is dangerous enough without falling off your horse for lack of stirrups.
Not that I had done a lot of horseback riding, but one of my foster families had operated a boarding stable, and horses and I did get along well. I knew how much work it was to muck out stables, too.
The man who had introduced me to Hunig also handed me a shriveled-up apple which I held out to the horse on the palm of my hand, fingers carefully out of the way. The little mare took the treat and munched it then nosed my hand to see if I would produce another one. I laughed and petted neck. “We’re friends, right?” I said. She snorted.
“Do you need help getting into the saddle?” Rotgar asked at my elbow.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Am I supposed to ride wearing this….” I gestured down at my gown.
“Why not?” he asked then took me by the waist and with seemingly no effort put my butt into the saddle.
I made a noise in surprise. It sounded distressingly like a squeak.
“Swing your right leg over,” he commanded.
“Kirtle your gown up between your legs and under you,” Kilda advised. She was mounted on a slightly larger, rounder, browner mare and I could see what she meant about the gown.
I tried to do both things at once and almost fell off the horse but managed. It wasn’t the most comfortable seat, in particular, the feeling between my legs just seemed wrong. Things kept reminding me that I was not Corporal Gus Gallant anymore, and I resented it.
Rotgar made a face, and I realized that he was teasing me about the expression I was wearing, apparently a pout. Damnit. “Olla den Gotteren,” I said aloud, pulling my cloak around me.
After some discussion about routes which meant nothing to me, we were on the way, Rotgar in front, with Lillakatye riding beside me and Kilda and Zenner behind, each with a lead for a pack horse.
The warwife smiled at me and I smiled back.
“What did Rotgar say to get you to come with us?” I asked, curious.
“I’m charged with warding you,” she said. “Staying behind or fighting Rotgar would not be doing that.”
“You, uh, you could have gone to my father….”
“No,” she said. “I couldn’t. He’s the one who told me to stick with you and do what Rotgar said. Since that was what I wanted to do anyway, the choice was easy.”
“Thank you,” I said.
She laughed. “You’re welcome, kvinnikin.”
I wasn’t sure I liked being called, “Little lady,” but I let it go and smiled back.
“I didn’t look for you to be so funny; making jokes about the gods….” Again I trailed off. “It surprised me.”
Lillakatye put a hand over half of her mouth. “Our chief weapon is surprise,” she said, winking at me.
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