This far north, the nights are dark. The shadows grow long in the hall ofand her bloodsworn groom. The braziers burn down to smoldering coals. They may seem extinguished, dead—but even a fool knows not to grasp one with a naked hand. Even a fool.
He isn't much to look at, in truth. Tall, yes, and strong, but that dark hair that falls around his shoulders is flecked with gray. He does not look like a figure of myth and legend. Seated at the head of his table,looks like a man. His eyes are a flat green. Dull, like an animal's.
And yet I cannot meet them for long. I witnessed the rage they conceal, and it nearly took me as the ember takes the straw.
It happened in my first winter as battlemaiden to Ashe. I was young, brash, and very bored—my new life was not the adventure I once dreamed it might be. When she went to fight the northern raiders, Ashe had left me in the great hall, to watch over her bloodsworn. Tryndamere wasn't mustering war parties or howling with battle-lust, he was holding audience with a collection of envoys from local clans. Not even thanes or warmothers, but little men and women who believed the world turned on the precise numbers of cattle ranging in their pastures. The dullest of the lot happened to be talking just then, a doddering graybeard.
“Warmother Ashe has taken one in three of our warriors north to throw back the raiders of the Winter's Claw. That is one in three hands not tilling the earth, one in three eyes not watching the flock. I understand your people never raised crops or herded animals, but in more civilized lands…”
I wanted to see the elder's head parted from his shoulders. This was the warmother's bloodsworn he was addressing! From my silent post behind Tryndamere I glared up at him, hoping to see a flicker of anger under that passive mask; I already knew, though, that I would be disappointed. By the gods, I wanted him to show some of his legendary temper.
So young, and so foolish. I have never forgotten that: I wanted to see it.
“Allow me, bloodsworn, to educate you on the proper management of the lands west of the White Hills…” the graybeard went on.
I found my hand curling around the leather wrapping of my sword.
Before I could act on my rashness, the great wooden doors of the hall swept open. The braziers sputtered and hissed as wind and snow pushed their way inside—and with them came figures, half a dozen of them. At their head was a tall woman, silver braids peeking out from a traveling hood dusted with frost. As she pushed it back, I recognized the jagged white scar that crossed her face.
The warmother of my tribe fixed me with a cold stare. It was then that I noticed her followers, wrapped in furs and leathers and armor, pushing the great doors shut. Warriors, one and all, with weapons drawn and blooded. A war party.
Around the hall, the envoys had gone silent, staring nervously at the new arrivals. Tryndamere watched them, too, though if the presence of bare weapons in his hall irked him, I could not tell.
Heldred ignored me, starting for Tryndamere. I stepped in front of her. “Go no further, warmother.”
“Sigra,” she said, her voice ice. Cold as winter. “You do me honor, to still call me by that title. I am glad you haven’t forgotten your first oaths.”
“Why are you here, Heldred?”
“Step aside, child. If your new warmother was within my grasp, I would wet my axe with her blood. But blood must be shed, so her second will have to do.”
“Heldred of Three Rivers,” a voice echoed in the darker corners of the hall. Tryndamere. “You have come a very long way. Why do you seek battle?”
“Hail, bloodsworn,” she said. “I will tell you. Five days past, as the sun rose over our village, something else rode in with it. Raiders. Reavers. Killers.”
The words sunk into me like knives. “Winter’s Claw,” I whispered.
“Aye!” she barked. “Winter’s Claw. They came while the man you defend sat behind his stout walls, growing fat and slow, and did to us what the Winter’s Claw always does. Now, there was a time when we might have driven them off. But that was before Ashe called for warriors! Before she took one out of every three hands strong enough to swing a blade.”
Her voice became a bitter hiss. “We couldn’t hold.”
Speech would not come to me. I should have been there, I thought. If I hadn't oathed myself to another, I could have. I could have fought. “How many? How many lost?”
“Your elders hid in time, Sigra. For that, I am grateful. But many did not. Too many.”
Slowly, Tryndamere pushed himself to his feet. “I am sorry, warmother, for your loss. I… know what it is like to lead a desperate people. Bring your survivors here. They can share our food, our walls. You are welcome.”
It was a noble offer.
Heldred only spat on the floor. From her belt, the warmother pulled her axe. “I do not want your walls or your food, bloodsworn. I want blood for blood. The old ways say I am due a challenge, and so a challenge I make.”
“This is foolishness,” I said. “Think of our kin.” Think of my elders, I did not say.
“You forget your place, child. I will not say it again—step aside.”
Fury tightened my hand around the hilt of my sword. In one motion I drew it, the steel glowing orange in the firelight. “No, Heldred. I have forgotten nothing. I am a battlemaiden, sworn to defend this hall. On my oath, I accept your challenge.”
“So be it. If you are in such a hurry to die, I’ll make it quick.”
“Enough!” bellowed Tryndamere. “I will have no Avarosan blood spilled around this hearth. We have enemies enough without killing each other!”
The echo of his words shook the very timbers of the hall. Never had I heard him speak like this—I could not miss something dangerous just under the surface. But Heldred only sneered. “I do not fear you, bloodsworn. Life behind these walls has dulled your edge. Mine is still killing-sharp.”
I caught her first blow on my sword. The shock of it nearly dislocated my shoulder. I had barely recovered by the time Heldred swung again; I was quick, but she had experience and strength on her side.
Heldred's overhead chop missed my skull by inches, and buried the axehead in the floor. I lunged forward, thrusting for her, but with a ferocious grunt she wrenched her axe free, backhanding the flat end into my ribs. Pain shot through my chest and I sagged to one side, unable to keep my footing.
From the floor I raised my sword, pointing feebly at the woman who had once been my warmother. She struck it from my hand dismissively. “I will tell your kin you fought bravely, Sigra Battlemaiden.”
Heldred raised her axe to deliver the killing stroke, and I squeezed my eyes shut. But it never fell.
I looked up. Tryndamere had caught the axe—caught it, in his open hand. Blood dripped from the blade down his arm, onto the timbers below. “This is not our way. Avarosans protect one another.”
From the floor, I watched as the open wound on his palmitself shut.
He was speaking through gritted teeth, and that lurking danger I had sensed earlier now screamed in my head. Run, it said. Run now, while you can.
For a moment, I saw that Heldred heard it, too—but then, with a snarl, she swung her axe again, a mighty two-handed blow meant to cleave the man in half.
Tryndamere. It was an inhuman sound, a fury deeper than the roots of mountains, as bottomless as the deepest lake. He roared, and then he lunged for her.
That was two winters ago. Two winters, and I have not forgotten what I saw. Probably I never will. Probably I shouldn't. I am oathsworn still, bound to fight by his side. When I stand guard over my barbarian charge, motionless at his long table, I see Heldred's face twisted in agony. When the fires burn low in the long hall, I hear her screams. I have seen what lurks beneath those placid, dull eyes.
Every night, I pray to my ancestors that I will not see it again. Some things are better left in stories.
Some coals are better left smoldering.