Part 2 of Jessica Seymour’s Painted Map Quartet.
A Flying Cat
Awi ducks below the low, swinging branch before calling out: “Careful, I still want my face in one piece!”
“Why?” Gerwar replies, holding another branch dutifully out of Awi’s way even as he smirks. “It’s not as though you’re attracting any women with the face you’ve got. Maybe a few scars will work in your favour.”
“Some of us have charm,” says Awi. Not that he would know how to charm women. But it’s easier to banter with Gerwar than to admit the truth. That he’s a fuðflogi. “We don’t all have the personality of a dead aurochs.”
They push their way through the heavy woods, grateful for furs to keep them warm as snow continues to fall in heavy waves all around them. The fact that Gerwar keeps smacking Awi with snow-laden branches does not help matters. But they’d heard rumours of a strange old woman in these woods, and so they’d left their tiny ship tied at the docks and followed the dingy streets to the wood at the edge of town. Gerwar still bears the jarl’s pendant around his neck, though it had only led them as far as the Wieringen harbour, which had been thick with longships and foreign vessels that looked clumsy and broad next to their sleek Northern counterparts
Apart from the snow and the thick trees, it’s quite pleasant here. Peaceful and sweet-smelling, which is far better than the grimy, piss-stench of Wieringen where they’d languished for four days, searching for any news of Hedvig Grimsdatter and the sword that their jarl had sent them to collect.
Gerwar had been silent for the first hour of their journey. Once they rounded the fourth hour, he’d started to let the curses fly.
“This had better be the most blessed sword I’ve ever seen,” Gerwar mutters as he jumps over a frozen puddle. His breath is ragged and he looks over his shoulder at Awi to make sure that he’s following. As if Awi could do anything but follow Gerwar. “The gods had better have wept over it. Freya herself had better have personally kissed the hilt.”
Finally, after many hours, Gerwar stops in the middle of the path. Awi nearly runs into his back.
“What is it?”
Gerwar points. A ramshackle old hovel is buried in a copse of trees, almost completely hidden in snow and fallen branches, with bruised wood for walls and windows that look like festering cuts.
“That better be her,” Gerwar mutters, hitching his belt so that his sword glints at his side.
Awi opens his mouth, but decides that he shouldn’t speak. Instead, he sends a silent prayer to any gods who are listening as he and Gerwar follow the path through the snow. They pause at the door. Awi rests a hand on Runanautr. Then Gerwar knocks.
Before his knock stops echoing, the door swings open. A woman stands in the doorway, her hair a mess of blonde and white, her cheeks sunken and wrinkled like a corpse left too long in the sun, and her dress a mangy, ratty scrap of fabric draped over her bony form.
“What?” she demands, in heavily-accented Norse.
Awi clears his throat, because Gerwar seems to have frozen in front of him. “Are you Hedvig Grimsdatter?” he asks.
“Yes, yes, yes. You want healing?”
“We come on behalf of your daughter, Solva Hognisdatter,” he says. He elbows Gerwar, who mutely holds out the pendant that the jarl gave them, along with the letter of introduction that she wrote before they’d left.
Grimsdatter squints at the pendant, then at the note, before settling her eyes on the pair of them. Then she slams the door.
“Hey!” Gerwar shouts.
Gerwar shoves the door open and Awi only has time to take in a splintered table and the awful reek of boiled ale before Gerwar shouts a warning and Grimsdatter hurls a ball of fur at them. Awi ducks the hissing, writhing mass, and turns to see a black cat land in the snow. A pot breaks and he ducks again.
His first instinct is to draw Runanautr, but he can’t slay a woman – can he? Not when the worst she’s done is throw her cat at them. And there’s no glory in slaying an old woman.
“We just want the sword!” Gerwar shouts, his arms over his head as he half-crouches in the doorway.
That seems to do the trick. Grimsdatter pauses, a hunk of meat clasped in her fingers and ready to be thrown.
“Oh. I did not realise my daughter was taking such young suitors.” She lowers her arm.
Awi and Gerwar share a look. Awi curses the rising heat in his cheeks. “We don’t – that’s not –”
“Only one reason a woman would want her father’s sword, and that’s to get married.” Grimsdatter looks them both up and down and Awi has an uncomfortable feeling that he’s being sized up. “You are the prettier one,” she says, pointing at Gerwar.
“But if you want the sword, you will need to earn it.” She puts her hand on her scrawny hip, thinking. Then her eyes brighten. “You have to solve my riddle!”
It takes everything Awi has in him not to groan aloud.