Part 4 of Jessica Seymour’s Painted Map Quartet.
A Riddle Solved
Glittering shards of ice thrust down from the roof of the cave as Awi and Gerwar make their way inside. It took some time to find it. Awi’s father used to tell him stories about caves that glittered like crystals because they were so full of ice. He was starting to think that he had gotten it wrong until they’d found the entrance hidden in a steep wall of boulders, about half an hour’s walk away from Grimsdatter’s hovel.
“I see,” Awi replies, following Gerwar’s gaze anyway to the many icicles hanging above them.
Gerwar holds a torch before him, sending dim light ahead of them. The cave reeks of moulding mushrooms, and the further they go the worse it smells. A fly lands on Awi’s shoulder and he smacks it, wiping what’s left on his cloak.
“Smells like her hovel,” Gerwar says. Awi can hear the disgust in Gerwar’s voice as he pushes forward, his shoulders brushing the sides of the cave. “Without the cats. This must be it.”
They walk further along the narrow passageway until it starts to grow wider. They’re so focused on avoiding the dips in the ground and the icicles hanging down from the ceiling that Awi nearly misses a sudden turn-off to his left: a corridor of rock nearly hidden from sight.
“Gerwar, bring the light – the smell is worse down here.”
The opening leads to an antechamber piled high with stinking rags. Tunics, dresses, and bed sheets – all festering with maggots and flies. Awi and Gerwar have to breathe through their mouths as they get down on their knees to search the pile. There’s a crevice in the wall that seems to have been carved out by human hands, and Gerwar rests the torch there so that his hands are free.
“Here!” Gerwar says, pulling a long package out of one corner.
Awi joins him in an instant. Gerwar holds a scabbard in both hands, a polished, double-handed hilt reflecting in the torchlight. He draws the sword and they both take a moment to admire the craftsmanship. It is a damn fine weapon.
“Sætarspillir,” Gerwar says. Their eyes lock over the blade.
“You’ve solved my riddle.”
They both flinch and turn. Grimsdatter stands behind them, the torchlight making her wrinkles seem deeper and her eyes wilder. Her hand is wrapped around a rope that rises up into arc of the entrance.
Something in her tone sends Awi’s instincts into a frenzy.
“I’d hoped to see my daughter where you are,” Grimsdatter continues. She gives the rope a tug and, above her, the ceiling trembles. Awi squints at the network of ropes strapped to the roof, holding half the ceiling in place. “She wouldn’t come for the sword, but maybe she’ll come when her precious suitors do not return for her.”
Grimsdatter jerks the rope down. Awi is moving before he realises what he’s doing – sprinting towards the entrance. He hears the clash and crumble of rocks falling, feels the sudden shift in the wind, and then he’s hurling himself across the entryway just as the walls disintegrate inwards. The icicles rattle and fall, spraying him with cold. He hears Gerwar grunt when he hits the ground beside him.
Ears ringing, Awi is frozen on the ground. Then Grimsdatter shrieks high enough to make him wince. He turns to see her tackling Gerwar, who is still prone on the ground, and wrestling Sætarspillir out of his grasp. Gerwar seems too dazed to fight back. Within moments, Grimsdatter has the sword raised above her head, straddling Gerwar’s hips, aiming the point at his neck.
And Awi is moving again, moving like his life depends on it – and it does. He catches Grimsdatter around the waist and together they tumble away from Gerwar until Awi’s back hits hard stone.
Grimsdatter swings the blade around, her twisted, wrinkled face contorted. Awi only has time to register the glint of steel in firelight and his arm is moving without his conscious will.
Grimsdatter buries Sætarspillir into the flesh of Awi’s forearm.
It was enough to hit bone and Awi can feel the blood oozing down his arm in a hot trail. He tightens his jaw; he doesn’t scream. Across the hall, Gerwar is scrambling to reach them and looking panicked. Grimsdatter pulls on Sætarspillir’s hilt, but the sword is too heavy and too deep. Awi sees her eyes squinted in concentration before Gerwar’s blond hair flashes and a rock wrapped in a fist slams into the side of Grimsdatter’s head. She crumbles to the side.
It isn’t until he feels fingers on his face that Awi realises Gerwar is speaking to him.
“– Woden-dammit, Awi say something! Talk to me, Awi, come on –” Gerwar is kneeling in the dirt next to Grimsdatter’s crumpled body. Awi can see her chest moving erratically but her eyes are closed. The torch still burns behind Gerwar’s head, and the firelight pours through his hair, turning it the colour of a sunrise. Gerwar’s eyes fall on Sætarspillir, still buried in Awi’s arm, and his face twists into a pained expression.
“I’m fine,” Awi says.
Gerwar gaze bores into Awi’s, and Awi feels exposed, almost naked, which is ridiculous because he’s been naked in front of Gerwar before, when they were changing or swimming. But it never felt like this.
“That should have been me,” says Gerwar.
Awi replies without hesitating: “Never.”
Gerwar doesn’t speak. He just clutches Awi’s arm to stop the bleeding.