Part 3 of Jessica Seymour’s Painted Map Quartet.
A Glittering Spear
“We could… kill her?”
“We are not killing an old lady.”
Gerwar shrugs. “I’m just saying what we’re both thinking –”
“We are not both thinking that.”
Gerwar looks away from Awi’s hard glare and swings his axe down to split the firewood in two. They make satisfying thunks when they land in the snow.
Beyond the line of trees to his left, Awi can see the edge of the hovel where Grimsdatter lives – the hovel they’d spent all of yesterday cleaning, only to be sent back into the woods to sleep huddled together in the snow. Awi would never complain about pressed against Gerwar, but his nose is still running and he’s aching all over.
“We’re not going to get the sword like this.” Gerwar says, waving at the pile of firewood that he’s spent all morning chopping. “What kind of spear glitters but doesn’t rust? What does that have to do with Sætarspillir? Crazy old hag.”
“This crazy old hag has good hearing!”
Both Awi and Gerwar flinch when they hear the brittle sound of Grimsdatter’s accented Norse from the patch of darkened trees. She slides towards them like a spirit, spitting on the ground as she goes. Awi shifts without thinking, until he’s standing between her and Gerwar.
“Grimsdatter, he didn’t mean –”
“Shut up, the pretty one’s not the first man to think about killing me.”
She still thinks they’re there to retrieve the sword so that they can marry her daughter. She hadn’t even read the jarl’s letter. She’d just shooed them into the hovel, which was dingy and filled with the unpleasant scent of unwashed woman and cat shit.
“Sætarspillir is hidden, very well hidden,” she’d muttered, “like Thor’s hammer. Only the worthy may find it.”
“And we have to solve a riddle to get it?” Gerwar had asked, his nose wrinkling as he’d tried to avoid breathing through it.
“Yes, yes, yes.”
Then she’d stared into the distance until Awi had reminded her that they were still there.
Since then, he and Gerwar had spent most of their time cleaning and trying to understand what this had to do with riddle solving.
“You’re both idiots!” Grimsdatter says as she wanders over to the firewood stacked beside Gerwar, picking up a smaller chunk and chewing on the side like a rat. “You don’t understand my riddle. My daughter made a poor choice of suitors.”
“We’re not –”
“Hush.” She drops the wood and kicks it in Awi’s direction. “Speak when spoken to, Not Pretty.”
Awi bites his tongue until he can taste blood. He takes the axe from Gerwar’s hand and swings it into the stump, leaving it half-embedded in the wood. Gerwar makes an aborted movement in Awi’s direction, before straightening and rounding on Grimsdatter instead.
“How does chopping firewood help us solve riddles?” he asks.
She straightens up to her full height – which just barely comes up to Gerwar’s shoulder – and recites: “Glittering points with downward thrust. Sparkling spears that never rust.”
Awi and Gerwar share an exasperated look. “We don’t know what that means!” Gerwar says.
“And until you do, you may not wed my daughter. You may as well make yourself useful.”
Gerwar kicks the stump, barely wincing when his thin boot makes contact. Awi can understand why Gerwar is getting more and more frustrated. They have been in Wieringen almost a week, and every day they spend on this nonsense is a day they could be spending travelling to England to join Guthrum’s army, earning the glory they’d both been denied for so long. No one thinks much of a couple of orphans with no money and no prospects.
“When you’re done here you can come inside. There is mildew that needs scraping.”
And before either Awi or Gerwar can react, she twirls around – almost gracefully, which is a surprise – and disappears back into the trees. Awi can hear her muttering to herself as she returns to her hovel hidden away in the shadows.
They both wait until she’s gone before they speak again.
“You’re sure we can’t just kill her?”
“If we do, then how will we get the sword?”
“She’s probably got it underneath her mattress.”
“Then why give us a riddle?”
“Because she’s insane!”
Awi shakes his head, leaning over to pull the axe of out of the stump and handing it to Gerwar. Then he sits down and rests his elbows on his knees, thinking hard. What glitters and points down? What spear doesn’t rust?
“You’re not, you know,” Gerwar says.
Awi looks up to see Gerwar giving him a look that he can’t read.
“You’re not not pretty,” Gerwar says. “You look good. Don’t listen to what she says.”
Awi thanks every god he can think of that he can blame the cold for his flushed cheeks. “You’re prettier.”
Awi leans over and traces a spear into the snow at his feet while Gerwar starts piling up the firewood. He traces the edges of the spear tip, watching the way that the snow glints and shines in the low sunlight. A glittering spear… thrusting downward…
Awi stands up so quickly that Gerwar yelps and nearly drops the axe on his boot.
“I’ve got it!”