A Painted Map | Jessica Seymour

They didn’t plan to join a revolution.


A Painted Map

Jessica Seymour

THE QUEEN’S CRYPTOGRAPHER AWARD: PART 1


Awi watches the moon rise and his breath fog up in front of his face as he waits for the jarl to call them inside. His sword, Runanautr, is a comforting weight on his hip. Gerwar stands shivering at his side. The hall behind them is built from stacked logs and looks like it should topple over after years of the cold Danish wind beating it. There’s filthy snow at his feet and a song on his lips, but he doesn’t sing because he knows that it will just piss Gerwar off. Gerwar hates to hear singing when he’s anxious.

“How much longer will it take?” Gerwar mutters into his cloak.

“However long the jarl wants to take,” Awi replies.

He’s got his own cloak around his shoulders – aurochs skin, not as fluffy as Gerwar’s wolf fur, but warmer and heavier. He wants to share with Gerwar but the other man will just wave him away. Awi scratches his stubble and thinks that it is desperately unfair that Gerwar’s beard is longer than his. They got their first swords together. They trained together. And Awi is taller. But Gerwar’s is the thicker beard – if one could call that patchwork of red ‘thick’.

Awi tells himself that his lighter colouring makes his own beard seem thin next to Gerwar’s. Awi likes to tell himself little lies like that.

Behind them, the jarl’s hall is disturbingly quiet. The jarl, Solva, asked for them, and so here they are. But they were both completely bewildered. What would Solva and her men want with a couple of orphans who were planning to ship out in a few days? Awi has heard Anglo-Saxon traders call her a queen, but it doesn’t suit her. A queen sits on her throne and eats cake; a jarl fights and rules.

Finally, Awi and Gerwar are called into the relative warmth of the hall. There’s men all around, most clutching drinking horns and dabbing at the mead they’ve spilled in their beards. There isn’t a man among them who isn’t cut up or disfigured in some way, but Solva likes only the most battle-hardened men around her. The fact that the room is filled with at least thirty of her cursed fighters does not bode well for Awi and Gerwar.

He and Gerwar walk beside the long table to stand before Solva. Her bronze kransen glitters in the firelight, polished to such a fine shine that Awi can see his own face reflected in it like a mirror.

“Eskesen,” she says to Gerwar. Then she turns her eyes to Awi. “Hognisen.”

She’s easily twice Awi’s age. When they make eye contact, he feels like she’s gouging into his soul with her long nails.

Awi and Gerwar bow as well as they can with their knees frozen.

“Vali tells me that you are both planning to join his fleet?” she goes on.

“Aye, Jarl,” Gerwar says. He’s pitching his voice deliberately lower, trying to make himself seem more manly than he is.

“You wish to serve Guthrum, do you?”

Isn’t that the dream of every young Dane? To cross the sea and join Guthrum’s crusade against the English?

Awi and Gerwar nod.

Her lip twists into what Awi hopes is a smile. “If your jarl were to task you with a different mission, would you serve her with the same vigour?”

“Of course, Jarl,” Awi replies instantly, though he isn’t sure that he wants to. Gerwar tenses beside him.

“Good,” she says. She holds out her hand and Gerwar, who is closest, has no choice but to accept what she is offering. “This painted pendant was a gift from my mother before she fled Roskilde,” Solva tells them. “She told me that if I ever needed to find her, I could use it.”

Awi leans over Gerwar’s shoulder, intrigued. On the pendant is a long green outline. It curves and dips like waves, with blue pigment cutting erratically along the creases. The painting looks familiar, but Awi can’t place it.

“It’s a map,” Gerwar says, and Awi immediately remembers where he’s seen it. “It looks like one of the ones my da had.”

Solva nods solemnly. “It is, Eskesen. That much I know. What I do not know is where it leads.”

Gerwar frowns at the painting, clearly working to decipher it. Awi reaches around to grab his knuckles, turning the pendant in his hand, and they both suppress a gasp. Because the outline is clearer now and they can tell exactly what the map is of: Wieringen, the trading port. Awi’s spent hours staring at the damn thing – it’s stuck to the wall right above his bed.

But before he can mention it, Solva continues: “You lads are young, strong, and your fathers knew the waters. You will track my mother down. You will tell the bitch to give me what I seek.”

She says it as though it is a given. As though Awi and Gerwar weren’t planning to join a revolution. It’s on the tip of Awi’s tongue to point that out to her, but Gerwar elbows him in the side and gives a significant look to the men surrounding them. Some are cracking their knuckles.

“And what is that you seek, Jarl?” Gerwar asks, clutching the pendant in his closed fist.

She leans forward in her seat, looking at them both dead-on. “Sætarspillir. My father’s sword.”