The Red Mother

Auga, a wandering sorcerer, follows his brother’s fate-thread into the village of Ormsfjoll, where he expects to deliver good news and continue his travels. What he doesn’t anticipate is that to meet his brother he must first contend with the truth at the heart of the volcano that wreaks havoc on Ormsfjoll.

 

 

A pall of ash turned my red horse roan as he and I ambled between tuffs of old lava. Basalt fields spread on either side, dotted with burnt-orange or gray-green lichen. Flat flakes of ash drifted past the brim of my hat.

We were crossing a big flow near the Ormsfjoll, and the reek of sulfur in the air left both Magni and me over-eager to complete our trip. It couldn’t be too much farther to the village. Magni’s ears were pricked. His walk tended to rush into a tolt. I knew he had scented or heard other livestock that was still too far away for me to detect.

He knew that where there was livestock, there was fodder. He was thinking of grain and grass and company, and I couldn’t blame him. It had been a long ride, and a lone horse is never comfortable. They’re meant to be in the company of their own kind.

Some would snipe that this makes my horse the opposite of me.

Fair enough. I felt no need for company. I did need supplies, however, and—if it were to be had—information to complete my quest.

My journey was for kin-duty. I had an obligation to find my brother and give him the news that his name was cleared, his honor restored, and his exile ended. To that end, I had spun the threads of his fate by sorcery, and was following them.

This was where they led.

 

The first sign of my return to civilization was a graveyard. The road passed through it, flanked on both sides by neat cairns. Some were marked with runestones; some stood uncommemorated. The lichen had grown over a few. But lichen grows slowly and most of the graves stood barren, sad heaps of brown-black rock with the sea in the distance behind.

Not long after, I came within sight of the village.

It wasn’t a big village, Ormsfjolltharp, and I was in among it almost as soon as I noticed it. Men and women working outdoors turned to watch me as I rode past the two dozen or so houses. Turf houses, some with goats or sheep grazing on roofs that looked more like low hillocks than dwelling-places. I had been corrupted by too much time spent in southern lands where exotic building materials like wood existed. Any trees that grew here would be for boats and bows and axe-hafts, not for houses.

A group of men stood around an open-fronted cattle shed not too far from the well, the baker and the blacksmith. They were doing what folk generally do in such circumstances: passing the time of day and pretending to work a little, in case their wives should check on them.

I fingered the ebony and bone spindle in my coat pocket. The thread on it was wound tight, and I was almost to the end of the roving. I’d followed the thread all the way here, woven my path along Arnulfr’s fate-thread. I’d soon need a new thread to follow. It would raise questions for a solitary man to buy carded wool in such a place, however.

I rode Magni to the hitching rail—not too far from the cluster of gossipers, but not too close either. There were five men: one black, one red, one dun, and two as nondescript in color as I had been before my hair and beard went to pewter.

They looked up as I swung down from the saddle. Magni stood placidly except for turning his head to glance over his shoulder, hopeful of a treat. He got a scratch instead and sighed in companionable disappointment when I didn’t loosen his girth. You never know when you might need to leave in a hurry.

“I know,” I said under my breath. “I’m a grave disappointment to you.”

I seemed to be a grave disappointment to the cattle-shed malingerers as well, judging by the scowls they turned on me. I forced my own face into a friendlier expression than I was feeling, stopped a healthy few paces back, and said, “I’m looking for a man called Arnulfr Augusson. Or his wife, Bryngerthr Thorrsdaughter. It’s possible they passed this way.”

“Be you a kinsman?” the black-haired one asked. His cheeks were suncreased above a thicket of beard.

I nodded. That sharpened their gazes.

One of the nondescript ones asked, “Would that make you the one they call Hacksilver?”

I tipped my head to let the question slide off one side. A weight shifted along the broad brim of my hat, but it was just all the ash piled there. We go viking or we starve; we send our sons off to settle the coasts and rivers of Avalon and the Moonwise Isles; we build our trade towns and send our mercenary bands almost to the heart of the Steppe. And still there aren’t so many Northfolk that a man can escape his reputation—or a lawsuit—with ease.

“Some sort of sorcerer, I heard,” said the black one.

“Right,” said the red. “They say he laid warfetter on a whole castle full of sentries. A double dozen of them, out in Avalon. Across the poisoned sea.”

“Little renown to be won in such work,” I remarked, conversationally. “Who’d sing a man’s name for butchering the blinded and limb-bound?”

“Womanish work, spell-weaving,” said the black-haired man. “Don’t they usually keep camp whores for that?”

He watched me with narrowed eyes.

I made myself sound as if I were not disagreeing. “A curious tale. From whom did you hear it?”

My voice gets a little more precise when I’m being Not Angry. I pulled my hand out of my pocket so I wouldn’t finger my spindle, and I didn’t place it on the hilt of my knife.

“There’s an old Viking up the cinder trail,” the red man said. “A Karlson. Supposed to have been a sea-king in his youth. Nobody here calls him nought but Half-Hand.”

A chill lifted the hairs on my neck. Behind me, Magni snorted and shifted, making the saddle creak. I knew a man with half a hand once, a man whose father’s name was Karl. A Viking, a sea-king, a giver of arm-rings. Yes, he had been those things.

I said, “I never heard of a sorcerer who could lay warfetter on as much as a hand of men all at once. The strain of more would kill the wizard…so they say.”

 

The skalds and the seers tell us we ought to love war. And somebody must. There’s enough of it.

Maybe Ragnar Karlson, called Half-Hand, called Wound-Rain, was still that man. Men get old—even sea-kings—and I hadn’t seen him in ten years or more. So I couldn’t be sure. He certainly wasn’t a skald, or a seer.

I might have passed for a seer, but as for the man who loves war…I didn’t think that was me. I was the man who didn’t know what else to do with himself if he wasn’t fighting a war that he hated.

Farming’s harder work and at least as uncertain as raiding. Because the world is not a fair place, farming doesn’t win renown. Extorting towns and ransoming priestlings and chieftains, that is where the glory lies.

Magni was less than pleased with me when I dusted the ash off his saddle and climbed back on. He’d hoped our walking was over for the day, and there might be hot mash and cool water before long. But after a longing look and a little drunken swerve toward a paddock across the square populated by a half dozen other horses, he cooperated.

Ragnar’s homestead was not too much farther. We crossed another finger of the basalt flow and came down into a second grassy valley. From experience, I knew that turf lay over soil no more than a fingerlength deep, comprised of dust, sand, and loess that had collected in this valley that was little more than a crevice between tuffs. Ragnar would have worked himself and his thralls hard to enrich it with dung and fish guts and make it bear the rich green grass that now poked forlornly through drifts of ash.

Cattle would starve this winter if the hay were lost. And if cattle starved, men starved as well.

Viking was an easier way to make a living. Until you weakened.

Ragnar’s homestead was more than a turf house in the village, and less than a sea-king’s hall. I saw its long shape against the hillsides that would have been green with the flush of summer grass. It was built of thatched basalt, not sod and turf, and it seemed to have been built over a stable dug into the slope behind it. The beam over the door was wood, carved with dragon-heads on the ends like a ship’s prow.

Ragnar was cutting dried turf in the yard. His ropy, scarred back did not suggest that he had weakened. I halted Magni well clear of the gate and whistled, then dismounted once he turned. He would have heard the hooves, but it was polite to let a man know you were not a raider.

As I walked up, leading my gelding, Ragnar’s eyes flicked from me to Magni and back again. His face went through a couple dozen expressions before settling on incredulity.

“Auga Hacksilver, you old bastard. Making friends already, I imagine?”

I shrugged, and in attempting to brush some ash off Magni’s flaxen mane merely ground it in.

Ragnar shook his head at me. “I’d wish I’d known you were coming. I would have laid odds that you’d turn folk against yourself in the first half-day, and I would have cleaned up. I’ve never met a man like you for going to a new town and finding somebody who’s already mad at you there. It’s almost as if you make enemies on purpose.”

“Some would say that those who spread the tales make the enemies,” I answered easily.

“A man’s earned fame shall never die,” Ragnar replied.

I snorted loudly enough that I could have blamed it on Magni. It’s a comforting thing to tell ourselves, that the name lives on. And in my experience, it’s nonsense.

He continued, “Speaking of death, what are the odds that you’re still breathing?”

I laid my fingers on my throat. “Two to one,” I offered. “I’ll give you a better spread on it this time tomorrow.”

“Isn’t there some sort of ill-considered decision-making process regarding other people’s spouses you could be engaging in right now?”

“Hey, your wife came to me, Ragnar.” I waggled my hand noncommittally. “She wasn’t so great that I’d think it would be hard to keep her at home if you put in a little effort, though.”

He cursed like a piked bear, and I wondered if I’d overplayed. I’ve never had the skill of knowing when to walk away from a flyting.

It was safer to take the punch than to look at him. You had to seem like you didn’t care. Like you didn’t fear.

Nobody ever won a flyting by seeming a coward.

He surprised me, though. He didn’t swing. He glowered, and then he said, “What the hell brings you to the ass end of Ormsfjoll?”

“One thing and then another.”

Ragnar’s lips worked. “Stay in my hall tonight. Turn your horse in with mine. The wife won’t thank me if I let you pass without paying your respects.”

Does he have a new wife? I wondered.

I did learn a few things from the time I spent with Ragnar. One was that if you’re going to fuck a man, and fuck his wife, it’s better for domestic harmony if you make sure everybody involved is on board with the plan right from the beginning. Another was that no one ever got anything out of Ragnar Wound-Rain without paying for it—one way or another.

I untacked Magni and sent him off to the herd with a pat. Then I knocked the ash off my hat and followed Ragnar up the steps to the door.

 

The fire on the long hearth was banked low, to not overwarm the house in summer. The food was rye bread and ewe’s butter with stewed fish and onions. Ragnar still had the same wife, Aerndis, and somehow she’d kept everything from tasting of sulfur and ashfall. I was surprised at how warmly she greeted me. Perhaps Ragnar’s irritation was not without basis.

I sat at the trestle and washed my hands in the bowl she brought, drank her ale, and bantered with Ragnar while Ragnar’s tenant farmers filed in and found their places along the board. There was plenty of food, and Aerndis served me again before the bondi ate. Then she sat at Ragnar’s right hand, and a couple of women who might have been wives of the farmers present brought them their bowls and their ale. All three of us were stretching uncomfortably to ease our fullness by the time the tenants were fed and filing back out again for the work of the afternoon.

I watched them go, and watched the women clear the table, and thought that there should have been children about: grown and near-grown sons and daughters. I didn’t ask after their absence. It might have been that girls were married into nearby farms. It might have been that sons were away viking, or trading, or a little of both, but in that case you’d expect a young wife or two carding and spinning and tying off leading-strings to keep the babies out of the fire. You’d expect them in silks with silver brooches to hold their gowns up—or even gold, like the ones Aerndis wore—and not like the wives of the bondi with their bronze and pewter.

It might have been that they’d had ill luck conceiving, or ill luck in keeping children alive. But it’s hard on a couple my age to run a farm all on their own, even with tenants. Tenants have to be supervised, and thralls have to be driven.

Under most circumstances, Ragnar and Aerndis would have taken on a few oath-sons and oath-daughters, to everyone’s benefit. They might have elevated the best of their bondi, or they might have taken in the children of dead companions of the war-band.

Curiosity might seem insolent, and I take care never to seem insolent unless I mean to. It might cause grief, and that’s another response I do not seek to provoke unintentionally.

Ragnar had, it seemed, no such bounds on his inquisitiveness. He looked at me rubbing my belly and laughed at me. “So. What are you doing up in the bright country, so far between good meals? Running from a weregild yourself?”

“Might be looking for a place to settle,” I said noncommittally. My fingertips automatically reached for the spindle in my pocket. I eased them away again.

He’d taken me in and given me guest right. I knew, based on our history, that that probably meant he wanted something. We hadn’t parted on such warm terms that I would expect him to put me out in the ashfall. But…farm me out to one of the cottages of his bondi, maybe.

His giving me guest right in his own home meant he couldn’t take a physical poke at me. Nor could any of his men.

Perhaps it was unkind of me to provoke him with the threat of my continued presence. But kindness has never been a fault that much afflicted me.

“Can you buy land?” he asked.

I shrugged. Ragnar had to know that I had money unless I’d lost it—and he knew that by preference I diced with fate rather than for silver. My years of viking had been several and my needs while traveling were few. A path for my gelding; a mossy rock to lay my head on.

I could buy land. “It remains to be seen if I want to. It seems you’ve been spreading a great many rumors about me.”

“Your rumors spread themselves.”

I refrained from provoking him further. It took an effort when he handed me straight lines like that, however.

“I could just kill you for your money. Your brother being absent, there’s no one to pay a weregild to, and it’s not as if anyone who knows you would complain.”

“If I were fool enough to carry my money with me.” The money was in a bank twenty days’ ride south, or five by boat if the wind were favorable. “If I filled up my saddlebags with gold, Magni would waddle. And it would be bad for his back. And there would be no room for my food.”

Aerndis had always been a quiet one, but clever with it. She gave me a sly look. “As I judge from the crumbs in your beard, there’s been little enough room for that as there is.”

“Your cooking outshines mine, it’s true.” Especially when I was cooking up boiled soup-cake thickened with shreds of wind-dried fish.

I found myself reluctant to open the bargaining. When you want something from someone that you can’t just take, letting them know it exposes your vulnerability.

Still, I had to try.

And maybe Ragnar would be feeling generous with a full belly and his ale-cup to hand.

I said, “You weren’t far wrong when you brought up my brother being missing. The real answer to your question of what I am looking for is, ‘Arnulfr.’ Did you hear my brother was exiled for manslaughter?”

“Hm.” It sounded like agreement, around a mouthful of rye bread. Ragnar had gotten ropy with age rather than thick and I couldn’t imagine finding a corner into which to fit another bite of anything, but cutting sod is hard work.

I glanced toward the hearth-stone, as if fascinated by its ornate carved and dyed reliefs. “The line of Arnulfr’s fate led me here, and it ends here.”

Aerndis refilled my cup while Ragnar wiped ale froth from his beard. “What do you want with him?”

“I found the real killer. He can go home.”

Ragnar swallowed, washed it down with ale, and snorted. “Who’d you frame?”

“You wound me.”

He said, “In that case, you could have kept your father’s farm.”

“And what about Arnulfr?”

“Your brother’s got his patch of ground by now.”

I gestured to his rough hands, the whole one and the one the axe had split. “Farming looks like hard work.”

“I’ve half a hundred head of cattle and seven horses. Sheep and goats. Chickens and geese and a dog. Four bondi look to me for protection. I even managed to keep nearly all of them alive last winter, which wasn’t easy.” He waved vaguely at the doorway, through which the ashy dooryard was just visible.

So the eruptions had been going on that long. Perhaps that explained the number of new graves along the road. “Not a lot of Vikings this far north.”

“It’s a long swim to civilization,” he agreed. “You really cleared his name?”

I nodded, looking back toward my host, away from the fire.

Ragnar eyed me levelly. His eyes were light, for such a black-haired man. “So, when you say that someone else was to blame. In all seriousness: factually, or conveniently?”

I smiled.

“And if you can find him and tell him, you’re delivered of your kin-duty.”

“Yes.”

The sun had not set, would not brush the horizon for hours yet. Its rays crept through the vents beneath the roof. It lit the underside of the thatch and all the things stored in the rafters sideways, creating a bright and alien relief. The interior walls of the longhouse were plastered white with lime render and lime wash to make the interior bright in daylight, painted with coiling trees and flowers in ochre reds and yellows. I wondered why they hadn’t finished a ceiling under the thatch.

Ragnar rattled his fingertips on the trestle. “Why not take that land and farm it yourself? It’s an easier living down south than up here in the bright country.”

“I wasn’t lying when I said farming was too much hard work for me.” I decided to be generous. “So you don’t actually have to worry about me buying the next farm over, and my presence weighing on you the rest of your days.”

Ragnar frowned judiciously. “What’s news worth to you?”

“Curse you, Half-Hand. This is a kin matter—”

“Sure it is, and so you shouldn’t mind running a little errand in return for news of your brother.” He smirked. “And his wife.”

I weighed it. Ragnar always had known me a little too well. “Your word that you know where he is.”

Ragnar shrugged. “I know where he was, and where he was going.”

If he’d been lying, I thought, wouldn’t he have made a bigger promise? “What’s the errand?”

“Let’s go outside.”

He drained his cup and set it down. I did the same, standing as he stood. I nodded to Aerndis, then put my hat on as I followed him into the yard.

If Bryngertha had wanted me, I might have been content with the quiet and backbreaking life of a farmer. Might have made myself contented, anyway. But Bryngertha had wanted Arnulfr, and all Arnufr had ever wanted in truth was Bryngertha…and that quiet and backbreaking life.

Though my brother’s experience showed that even the life of a simple landed farmer was not without its risks.

Ragnar leaned on a stone fence and watched his seven horses and my single one brushing the ash aside to graze. I leaned beside him. I waited a long time, watching his expression from the corner of his eye, before I ventured to ask, “About that errand…”

“So,” Ragnar said by way of answer. “I don’t suppose you’re still a witch.”

His braids were down to his waist now, befitting a chieftain. If you ignored the bald spot they framed, impressive. He hadn’t bothered with a hat.

“Eh,” I said. “Are you about to claim I ever was one?”

He snorted. “You were a clever shit, anyway. Clever as Lopt and just as likely to get snagged on your own pretensions. How are you at volcanos?”

“I can ride away from them as well as any man. They say you ought to head upwind and keep to the high ground.”

He pointed at the thread of smoke that rose through the smoky sky. It was just discernable through fumes and falling ash. I could imagine the outline of a conical hill poking above the horizon if I squinted.

He said, “What about one with a dragon in it?”

“There’s no such things as dragons,” I said.

“Should be easy to slay, then.”

“No,” I said, wondering if it was Arnulfr’s fate-thread that ran out here in the bright country, or Auga Augusson’s. “What kind of naturalist would I be if I went and slew every strange beast I ever came upon?”

Aerndis sniggered, which was when I realized she had come out behind us. Woman moved like a cat.

Ragnar glared at her but spoke to me. “So now you’re a naturalist?”

“I’m not a dragonslayer.”

Aerndis spoke in a tone I recognized as the voice of sweet reason. “If you slay the dragon you stop the eruption, I warrant. He’s been digging around in that volcano with his great black claws. There was nary a rumble until he showed up, this time last year. We were lucky to get enough hay in for winter, and then the sickness came and a lot of us got a late start on planting this year. There isn’t much left, and people are going to be hungry when the dark comes again, especially with a dragon picking away at the livestock. Folks would be grateful to the man who saved this harvest. Grateful enough to give him a home. And they say dragons hoard gold…”

Ragnar glared at her.

“Darling of you to think of my future, sweet Aerndis, and to want to keep me around,” I said.

Ragnar glared at me.

“All right,” Ragnar said, when the glare was well out of his system. “Well, getting rid of that dragon is the only way you’re getting to your brother.”

Aerndis suddenly, abruptly, turned and walked away. Too far away to hear us, and then she kept walking. I had seen what her face did before she turned, and a chill lifted my hackles. “What do you mean?”

Ragnar cleared his throat and spat over the rail. “Arnulfr’s here.”

“…here.”

He tapped the earth underfoot with his toe. “Buried. Dead. His wife too. And my daughter and two sons.”

“I don’t—”

“They came. And they stayed the winter. And they never left.”

Ah, Auga Hacksilver and his famously glib tongue. I was struck as dumb as a stone when the sea washes over it.

“Aerndis understates. There was a great sickness,” Ragnar said, taking pity. “It was a hard winter. And the sickness was especially cruel. It fell hardest on the young and those in their prime.”

“Oh,” I said, because it was what I could think to say. I touched the spindle in my pocket, felt the wisp of roving at the end of the thread.

Ragnar drew a deep breath and shook himself together, turning his bright gaze back to the horses. The horses were calm, and I watched them, too. We stood together for a moment. Then he turned and grinned at me, gap-toothed, as I stared. “And that dragon, Hacksilver. That dragon’s man-long fangs drip venom. Eitr. So if you want to send your brother home, and his wife, you’re going to bring me the gall of that dragon, and you’re going to help me get my sons back, and my little girl.”

 

Eitr. There was a word I hadn’t heard in a while. A complicated word that could mean anger, or it could mean poison, or it could mean gall, in all the senses of gall—the sort that is spoken, and the sort that burns flesh less metaphorically. But eitr was also the source and the font of all life in the world.

Life and death are not so far apart, as it happens, and neither are venom and the truth.

“Have you turned into the cowardly sorcerer they call you, then? You’d leave your brother lying in his grave, and Bryngertha beside him, doomed to the meagre afterlife allotted those who die of pestilence?”

Ragnar was trying to get a rise out of me and coming perilously close to an insult I could not with honor ignore. But guest right stood between us. I crossed my arms the other way on the top course of the fence. A few of the horses, including Magni, decided it was a good time to amble over and see if we had carrots.

“Usually, one doesn’t have a lot of options, once a man is in the grave. Anyway, people pay more attention to what a man says than to his deeds, and even more than that to whatever lies others tell about him.” I pushed a soft, inquisitive horse nose away from my pocket. “It’s all spin. Maybe I can buy him a better afterlife if I write a few songs about him. Why don’t you go and get your own dragon venom?”

“Most folk are stupid,” Ragnar replied. “And I know the truth behind the stories. At least as far as you’re concerned. You’ve got a better chance of walking into a dragon’s lair and back out again than I do. Than any man I’ve ever met.”

“Simple. Kill the dragon, collect its gall. Raise a bunch of people from the dead and save the harvest. That’s what you want of me.”

“I’ll feed you breakfast first.”

Despite myself, when I met his gaze, I found myself smiling at the audacity in his smirk. That audacity is why I sailed with him. It’s why I did other things with him, too.

“I’d think—”

He rolled his eyes. “Nobody cares what you think. They only care what you do.”

I wished Ragnar to Hel in company with my brother. I stared him in the eyes and said, “Your word that everything you’ve told me is true.”

Without looking, he flicked his knife from its sheath and across the back of his hand. A thin line of blood formed, the wound-rain that was his byname. We’d spilled enough in each other’s company.

“My word of honor,” he said.

I sighed gustily, from the bottom of my lungs. Ash whispered past my forehead, swirling on my breath. I took my hat off and nodded.

“Sure,” I said. “I’ll need some jars with stoppers. And for you to give me your fattest horse.”

“What’s wrong with your horse?”

I stroked Magni’s neck. He hated having his face touched. “I’m not going to feed my horse to a dragon.”

Ragnar pursed his lips, making the moustache jut. Then he nodded, reached out, and gave Magni a scratch under his mane. “All right. But if you get eaten he belongs to me.”

 

 

We went back inside, and when Aerndis brought me more ale I caught her attention and said, “I have agreed.”

She brought me seed-cake, too.

They gave me a sleeping place on the bench along the wall. Sometime before the brief interlude that passed for sunset, we retired. I slept alone, and better than I had any right to in Ragnar Karlson’s house.

The sun was already high in the sky when we awoke, washed, and broke our fast. I followed him outside, still trying to reckon some way to avoid the task he had set me. There wasn’t any dragon, I thought—just the living land heaving beneath us. And there was no god I knew to pray to and no spell I knew to weave that could so much as delay the eruption of a geyser, let alone make a volcano stop smoking. We’d all be lucky if it didn’t decide to send out a tongue of lava to fill up this grassy valley nestled between its previous flows.

Ragnar grumbled some more, but he brought me the horse.

The dark gelding was fat, all right. He was shaped something like a mangel-wurzel, and his hooves were overgrown, and he limped in the off hind.

“This horse is lame.”

“You said fattest, not soundest. And you’d not expect me to give you a sound one, to feed to a dragon.”

“It’s far to walk.” I gestured at the smoking hill on the horizon. “And I can’t ride him.”

“Why not?” Ragnar cackled like a raven that has spotted an old enemy. “It’s not like riding him is going to impede his healing. His name is—”

“Don’t tell me his name.” I gave the horse a withered piece of carrot. “There’s no point in getting attached.”

 

Ragnar didn’t have a saddle that fit the gelding, round as he was. And I wasn’t going to hop on a strange horse bareback and try to get him to take me, all alone, to the den of some monster—or even to a fiery hole in the ground. So I walked, and led him. The basalt hurt my feet through my boots; it seemed to hurt his feet, too, because he minced along like a courtier in heeled shoes. It didn’t help that he tripped on his own overlong hooves with every third stride, and limped on that bad leg. Watching him try to move was a sad old comedy.

I lured him on with bits of turnip and carrot. He wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about the turnip. He grabbed at the carrot, and I knocked on his teeth. “Manners.”

I laughed at myself. Was there any point in civilizing this animal?

A sharp bit of basalt stabbed me in the sole as if my bootleather didn’t even exist. I stopped, leaned on the gelding’s neck, and inspected my foot. No blood, and it hadn’t gone through that I could tell.

I turned and glared at the horse. He put his nose in my face and blew carrot-scented breath over me. He had braced himself as if standing on tiptoe, the bad foot cocked off the ground so his weight wasn’t resting on it. I ran my hand down the leg. He didn’t like me handling it. But there was no swelling, heat, or sign of a fracture. No bulge of a bowed tendon. No sign of a bruise inside the hoof or any of the other thousand things that could go wrong with a horse’s foot.

Which meant the injury was probably a strained ligament, which might heal with a few months of rest, or might be with him for the rest of his life. If he were going to have a life beyond the next few hours.

He wasn’t badly made, if you didn’t mind the hooves and the fat and the fact that he might have been born dark as night but the long summer days had weathered him the same red-black as the crumbling lava underfoot. He was smaller than Magni but built sturdily enough to carry a grown man. The only marking on him was an ash-fall stippling of white hairs on the flat plane of his face, stretching from brow to muzzle but not defined enough to be properly called a blaze.

He had a pretty head with defined cheekbones and a tapered muzzle. Intelligent ears. I had his full attention as I stood back and looked at him.

He nickered at me.

I felt a pang for the basalt-colored horse. There probably wasn’t a dragon. But if there was a spirit of the volcano, it would want some kind of sacrifice, and if I couldn’t trade with a dragon for eitr to bring my brother and his wife back, maybe I could trade with the whatever-it-was to end the eruption and save the harvest. But one lame horse still probably wouldn’t be enough to fix anything.

…the basalt-colored horse.

I’d been going along for such a while without one that the tickle of an idea surprised me. I heard myself whistle.

The gelding’s ears pricked and he limped a step toward me.

“Don’t get your hopes up,” I said. “But if you get really lucky, maybe there will be a dragon.”

He took another step…and tripped again. Those feet were a disgrace. Long as a town woman’s pattens, and the pony couldn’t walk any better in them.

I pulled my hook knife from my boot. He looked at me suspiciously. I let him sniff it. He obviously considered it something of a disappointment.

“Sorry, boy. It’s not a weird carrot.” He had to be motivated, to get that fat eating lichen and silage and straw chaff and turnips and wind-dried fish all winter. Ragnar probably would have slaughtered him for horse-meat come the frost.

I bent to lift one foot. He leaned away from me, worried. Ragnar had never been much of a farrier, and I remembered that most of his horses were afraid of having their feet handled. He apparently hadn’t improved.

With the aid of carrots and some rye bread sweet with birch syrup, I got the hooves trimmed anyway. He was easier about the last one than the first one. He was still lame after, but at least he stopped tripping.

The trim made him even more footsore on the basalt. After watching him mince for fifteen or twenty steps, I sighed in disgust, pulled my hook knife out again, and cut a wide strip and a narrow strip off the edge of my oiled leather cloak. He fussed at me while I tied the crude boots around his ankles, but when he stepped out again he seemed surprised and pleased at the improvement.

I fingered the spindle in my pocket. Dammit, Hacksilver. Don’t you go getting attached to your bait.

 

After several more painful hours of walking, the basalt was replaced by a steep slope of cinders. The air stung my lungs and we both grunted and leaned forward, pushing up the slope, cinders crunching. I started to notice the bones. Not complete skeletons, or scattered limbs. But here the skull of an ox; there the pelvis of a horse. Big bones, with scraps of meat cured on them by the hot, lifeless air.

The horse didn’t like the smell.

Unease pricked through me, sourceless and unsettling.

I was not, as I mentioned, really expecting a dragon. The basalt-colored horse was apparently smarter than me. He stopped halfway up the cindery slope, ears pricked, head craned, neck tense. A steady fellow: he was spooked and snorting, but he stood his ground and inspected the way ahead instead of skittering or trying to bolt.

I stopped also. Strained every sense, as the horse was straining his. The air reeked of brimstone. My eyes teared; wreaths of smoke obscured what vision I retained. But as I held myself still, my bones and the soles of my boots were shaken by a low sound. One that seemed to emanate up from the burnt ground underfoot as much as propagate through the air. It felt like the rumble of a geyser gathering itself to explode.

I pulled the spindle from my pocket and inspected the thread wound around it. Gray, scratchy, thin as wire and as like to cut you. The measure of a kinsman’s life.

I’d spun fine to spin long. Long enough for my purpose, maybe.

It would have been better woven into a net—a net to catch the vision and imagination. But even the long summer days were not long enough for that. So I found a rock about the right height, dusted the ash off it to be certain it wasn’t a desiccated pelvis, and sat down. A silver coin from my pocket had already been clipped and shaved a fair bit in its travels. I used my hook knife to shave it a bit more, dulling the edge but collecting a pinch of silver dust in a fold of my trousers. Silver like mirrors and silver like tongues.

I put those tools down and picked up the spindle, dipped my finger in the silver, drew a loop across my open hand, and gave the spindle a twirl. It dropped, and I rubbed metal dust into the chain-ply of my brother’s life, making the thread into yarn that could be unwound from the spindle without unraveling.

I supposed it didn’t matter, really, if the thread unwound itself—assuming Ragnar was telling the truth and Arnulfr and Bryngertha were dead. A poor omen perhaps for Arnulfr’s legend, but Arnulfr’s legend was the tale of a quiet man quietly damned for a crime by treachery. There are a lot of sagas about lawsuits. There aren’t too many about the losers of lawsuits.

Being born again by dragon venom would be the most songworthy thing that had ever happened to him.

Was Ragnar telling the truth? Well, I had known Ragnar to be sly, to misdirect, like any good warlord. I had not known him to betray his word of honor.

Getting eaten by a dragon was a death worth singing. Maybe that would be enough of a legend to gain me admittance into one of the better heavens. Or maybe the End Storm would blow up while I was plying, and I wouldn’t have to worry about legends or kinsmen anymore.

Having thought of songs, I sang to myself as I worked. As the ash fell around me. Songs for the goddesses who measured every man’s life, and then measured him for his coffin. Songs for the spinners. Warlock songs, seithr songs. Women’s songs, but there was no one to hear me except the basalt-colored gelding, and he was in no position to impugn my masculinity.

At last, I was out of silver dust and all the yarn was plied. Gray, scratchy. Smelling faintly of lanolin and lye. I stretched it between my fingers and let it twirl into a skein. If there had been any sunlight beneath the ash plume, I might have detected a subtle sparkle in the twist.

The basalt-colored horse dozed disconsolately at the end of his lead rope. I’d bored him to sleep.

I hoped it wasn’t a comment on my singing.

I let him sniff the skein, which he did with curiosity but no apparent concern. That was a relief. Some animals will not abide the smell of sorcery.

I started by braiding his mane, working the fate-cord into it as I went. I wound the line around his chest and shoulders like a girl binding her wooden horse with thread to make a play-harness. He stood for it, remarkably still and even-tempered. I braided traces back on themselves without cutting the line and let them trail, then bound the whole thing off just as I ran to the end of the thread.

The horse craned his neck around to watch me, ears alert, eyes bright and expression dubious. I wished I had a walking stick or a long bone from which to make a whiffletree, but it would only drag on the ground. And probably spook even this horse. So I just draped the traces over his rump and tied them in a little bow.

It was, after all, the symbolism that mattered.

“Well, buddy, I hope this works,” I said.

He blew a warm breath over me. We resumed climbing the cone.

 

The slope leveled as we came close to the top of the volcano. We stopped to drink at a spring that bubbled up from a cluster of stones, clearing some of the ash from our throats. I splashed water on my face. It was lukewarm and fizzed like surf, full of bubbles. It reeked and tasted of brimstone, but at least it wasn’t boiling. The horse drank, snorted to clear the fumes from his nostrils, and gave me a look before drinking again as if to say, “Yeah, I’ve seen worse.”

When I lifted my head, I realized we were nearly to the vent. The horse grew increasingly restive as we came up the final slope, and with a couple furlongs to go he planted his feet in their ridiculous leather bags and refused to walk another step.

I chirruped to him and shook the lead. He planted his hind feet, rocked back, and reared. Not a dramatic, sky-pawing rear, but a clear declaration that he was not moving.

It was honestly surprising we’d made it this far. “Good lad,” I told him, and turned him around to face downhill. I wound the fragile-seeming traces around a head-sized piece of pumice and tied them off.

Careful not to loop the lead rope around my hand, I stepped up beside the twitching horse and unfastened his halter. I stroked his sweating, ash-gritted shoulder as I slid the straps off his nose. He stood harnessed in sorcery, fate-threads, and kin-duty, leaning against the yarn-spun traces as if against a plow stopped by thick turf.

I stepped away and tossed the halter onto the cinders before turning back uphill. I cupped my hands to my mouth and used a little twist of luck, a scrap of thread wound ’round my fingers, to shift the wind so that my voice would carry. I took the deepest breath I could, tightened my diaphragm, and bellowed.

“Here, dragon, dragon! Nice fat pony. Lame, too! An easy dinner!”

For a long moment, nothing. The reek of fumes swirling on the breeze I’d conjured up; the steam rising from the cinders. The vast silence of the lifeless mountainside.

Then came a rumble, and a long hard clatter like a bag of armor bits and chopped-up candelabras dragged over stone. The scraping of stone on stone. I levered my neck back, peering through streaming vapors, blinking away the fume-begotten tears.

A great head that only seemed small because it was on a neck as long as a ship’s mast poked over the rim of the crater. The head was hammer-shaped, and scaled, and horned, and fanged. I could have called it red or orange in color and not been wrong, but the rough scales seemed translucent, and refracted rainbows in their depths, like the planes of light struck within an opal. Even under the dim overcast of smoke and the haze of fumes, it dazzled.

The owner of the head—and the neck—sniffed deeply. Once, twice. Then it reared back and struck with surprising speed.

I threw myself to the side, cinders bruising my palms. The horse, being nobody’s fool, took off. I winced for his bad foot, because I am a soft, womanish fool of a sorcerer. He galloped down the slope with all the alacrity and focus of a horse running Hel-bent away from a dragon, the boulder bouncing behind him in its traces. The glamour that I’d spun and sung and knotted around both horse and stone caught on the weave of threads and mirror-bright silver scrapings and made it seem the whole mountainside was collapsing into a vast horseshoe depression. The basalt-colored horse was just one more boulder bouncing along in the midst of the rest.

I was rather proud of the effect, and the way the sound of hoofbeats was lost in the simulated rumble of the rockslide.

I turned my attention back to the dragon as it pulled back again and took a long, slow sniff. Red nostrils flared darker in the fire-faceted muzzle. The upper lip drew back to move air across the palate and a forked tongue flickered.

Steam hissed from its nostrils. My vision swam with acrid tears. The head swung down again, falling toward me like the hammer it resembled.

If I’d been some hero out of sagas I’d have swung up a sword, or had a venomed spear at the ready. I just raised my empty hands as if that could somehow fend off an avalanche.

The blow stopped before it fell, the dragon’s enormous head so close that the heat of its hide and breath curled my hair. I smelled the ends scorching.

The dragon spoke, and despite the shape of tongue and mouth it surprised me by uttering words I could understand completely. Its phrasing was archaic, its voice as deep and hollow as caverns.

“I smell a horse,” it said. “But much closer, I smell a witch. Hello, little witch. That was a clever thing, for a wisp such as you.”

Well, I had been hoping to impress it. And I’d lured it out all right.

Now what?

It sniffed again. “Have you come to slay a dragon?”

A bead of saliva gathered along the edge of the dragon’s lip. I stepped to the side as it dripped, stretching a long thread behind it. The venom looked like honey glowing in the sun, but when it touched the ground it sizzled on the ash. The spot smoked slightly.

I thought about the jars in my pack and felt as cold as if the blood were draining from my body.

I gulped down the lump in my throat. “I came to bargain with one. You see I carry no spear, no harpoon—”

The rumble of the dragon’s words shook my diaphragm. “If you wish gold, I will not give it. If you wish ancient and storied weapons, there is nothing you can give me that I could not take. If you wish to die gloriously and be remembered in song, you should have brought a poet. You reek of sorcery. ”

“As long as I don’t smell like a snack. ”

“Hmmm.” It tilted its head to one side. “You smell pickled and stringy.”

The wings rustled as it shrugged.

Perhaps it was not strange that the dragon’s verbal jousting made me feel as if I had come from the wilderness into a safe and familiar hall. I was comfortable in an argument. The fear and tension drained away and in their place a manic energy buoyed me.

I crouched and held my hand over the smoking eitr. I turned my face up to the dragon. I was gray with ash and streaked with tears.

I felt the warmth of the poison and the warmth of the ashes on which it rested as if I held my hand over gentle coals. “I’ve come to bargain for this.”

The great head tilted and drew back. The lambent eyes with their shattered planes of iridescent scarlet and vermilion blinked lazily. “I could give you more of it than you wished for, little witch.”

“Your presence here, your awakening of the volcano—they’ve brought a blight upon the land. Men and women have died of illness and hunger. The cattle will die as well, if the grass is buried under ash and pumice, or they will choke on the poison fumes of the volcano. I have been asked to win your eitr to bring back those who have died.”

“Cattle die and kinsmen die, little witch. If they cannot live in a place, then they should go.”

“Look,” I said bluntly, “what can we give you to leave this place and not return?”

“What can you offer me? A fat horse is all very well, but I can fetch my own when I want one. I have…commitments that will keep me in this lair.”

“For how long?”

“Not long,” said the dragon. To my amazement, it placed first one and then the other enormous talon on the rim of the vent. Having done so, it settled its head between them, bringing its eye level down to mine. I could see the great humped shoulders, the leathery folds stretching back from its forelimbs. Like a bat’s, they seemed both wing and foot to walk upon. Unlike a bat’s, they shimmered with all the colors of flame.

It tilted its head and rippled the taloned fingers as if counting. “Hmm. Perhaps a hundred seasons more.”

Well, twenty-five years of active volcano and dragon occupation would certainly put paid to the village—and all life within miles. I rose to my feet and discovered that the air was slightly better up there. Apparently the fumes were heavy.

“Assume for a moment that I can get you whatever you desire,” I said. “If you will only leave this place, and give me some of your venom.”

The dragon curved its sinuous neck like a goose and glanced over its shoulder, back down the length of its body into the vent. I wondered if it were assessing a hoard I could not see. I wondered how anything remained unmelted, down in the hot mouth of the earth.

It turned back. With a sigh, it said, “I have no need of human treasures.”

“This obligation you mentioned—is there a way I could help you fulfill it?”

If you have never seen a dragon throw its head back and laugh (and I suppose very few have), it is a sight not easily described. I hastily tugged my hat down as a fine mist of caustic venom descended around me. A few invisible drops smarted on the backs of my hands.

“You are not boring, little witch,” the dragon said. It looked this way, and then that. To my amazement, it seemed to be making a show of casualness, of reluctance.

“Hmm,” it said. Then: “Do you like riddles, little witch?”

I closed my eyes.

I hated riddles.

“I have played at riddles a time or two.”

“Well then.” The dragon shifted its weight, settling into the mountainside like a great jarl settling into his broad, bearskin-adorned chair. “Come up a little closer, witch, and choose a stone to sit upon, and we can play at riddles for what you wish. But if you win, you must grant me a boon.”

How under the Wolf Sun of my fathers did I keep getting myself into situations like this?

But I was a man on kin-business, blood-bound to do what I could. Damn my brother anyway, for being a simple farmer, for being the victim of a brutal scheme, for dying of a dragon’s miasma, for getting me into all of this.

I walked up to the smoking crater as if I had not a fear in the world—certainly without any cringing as I came under the shadow of the dragon’s wings—and while I was selecting a rock of the correct height for sitting, could not resist a peek over the edge into the vent.

I almost fell in.

I had expected the vent to contain…shining masses of gold, perhaps. Seething masses of lava.

Not a careful circle of boulders each as big as a cart, and a claw-raked ground of soft ash within, like a giant’s campfire ring. Upon that, dead in the center, lay three enormous mottled eggs like the last remaining embers.

The dragon, it seemed, was not an it but a she.

“Well,” I said. “I see what you mean by ‘obligations.’”

Have you ever heard a dragon chortle? I have, and it was in no way rendered less unsettling by the knowledge that this was a female with young. For nothing on the waters and the wide wide world is fiercer than a mother.

I found a rock, as directed, and as directed I seated myself upon it. I swung the pack with the jars down between my knees and set it gently on the stones.

“So, little witch,” said the dragon. “Shall we play?”

“You go first,” I said. “Best two out of three?”

The dragon stretched and sighed, settling itself. “I believe it is traditional. As for that boon—”

“As long as it’s not my stringy hide.”

She sniffed. “I dislike the taste of woad, and I see from your forelimbs that you’re pricked all over with the stuff.”

I glanced down at the old and faded ropes of tattoos. They were meant to be for protection, to ensure the forbearance of the gods.

First time in my life that the damn things actually worked.

“If you get a boon if I win,” I said, “I get a boon if I lose.”

“It can’t be the same as the stakes,” she said cagily.

“What forfeit will you have of me if you win?” I pushed my hat back as she thought about it.

“Have you a hoard?” she asked, finally.

I thought of gold and silver and jewels of great store. The wealth of a lifetime spent riding the whale-roads, reaving and trading. The price of my retirement, when I found a place I wanted to retire. All safe in a vault down in Ornyst, where there were bankers and banks.

I thought about kin-duty. I thought about my sister-in-law.

“Not on my person,” I said.

“Wager your hoard against my venom, then,” the dragon invited.

“Don’t you even want to know how much I have?”

She hissed a laugh. “It’s enough that it’s valuable to you. That’s what makes a wager interesting. That, and the story that attaches to it. That someday I may say to my children, yes, this is the gold I won riddling with a sorcerer, while you were yet in the shell.”

It was a dragonish way of thinking, and not so alien to anybody who had gone a-viking. I touched my arm-rings, fingering them until I found the one that had been a gift from Ragnar when he was a sea-king and I sailed at his command. When we had been bright and young and too naïve to know any better.

I said, “If you will wager both your venom and your leaving, I will add my adornments to the pot. Those mean more to me than any hoard.”

None of it was the richest that I owned, but it was enough—ear-rings and arm-rings, the brooch that closed my cloak and the clasp that pinned my hair—to lend me dignity. I felt a sentiment for each object. Especially since I had so recently won it all back from a murderer.

At least it wasn’t my coat and boots this time.

“Your folk should move on, not me. This land is far more suitable for me than…”

There are few things more eloquent than the dismissive flick of a dragon’s talon, it turns out.

“That’s likely true,” I admitted. “But you have to understand that the people of the village have built houses and barns and planted crops. Our lives are short. They won’t have time or resources to up stakes and build those houses anew someplace else.”

She said, “There are far more suitable places for your sort to live than there are for brooding eggs. I won’t be the last to come here, so long as the earth stays hot.”

“I can’t wager for my folk any more than you can speak for yours.” I hoped she wasn’t a dragon Queen, or something, who did have the power to bargain for the whole. Anyway, the future wasn’t my concern. She was right; this was a stupid place for a settlement.

She huffed at the back of her throat, not hard enough to spray venom—but hard enough to cause a mist of it to curl from her nostrils and ignite into a transparent lash of flame. She tilted her head to regard me, and I got the oddest sense that her interest was more in the bargaining and the company and the game than in who lost or won.

Sitting on eggs must be extremely boring for a creature with wings to span the open skies. I’d only had the broad sails and swift rowers of a dragon-boat to carry me, and although now my joints ached even in good weather and my feet hurt every day, I could not bring myself to settle into a farmstead and raise cows. Though I was no youth to harden my muscles on an oar without injury, I could not see myself raising a hall and draping a big throne-chair with wolf-hides and bear-hides to cushion my ass and seem fierce at the same time. No matter how much the saddle galled my behind.

I might have more in common with this dragon than I did with Ragnar or with my brother.

Damn Arnulfr.

“Done,” the dragon said. “I shall begin.

I am the shrill singer

Who rides a narrow road.

With two mouths I kiss hard

The hot and pliant maidens.

I blushed, because I hadn’t been expecting racy double-meanings from a dragon. But I knew the answer to this one, when I thought about it a little. “Hammer,” I said. And then, “Smith’s hammer. The road and the maidens are the metal to be forged. The mouths are the two ends of the hammer.”

The dragon snorted another curl of fire, slightly larger than the last one. How good was the word of a dragon, anyway? Especially when exposed to a little frustration?

Perhaps I should have been surprised that the dragon knew about hammers—but the dragon knew about treasures, and steel for swords and gold for gauds alike must be refined, then hammered pure.

I hoped there were other human things the dragon knew less about. I said,

I am the black horse.

On eight legs I bear my rider.

 He holds no rein.

At the end of the journey it is he who is left in the stall.

I am not sure dragons frown. Their scaled foreheads are not designed for furrowing. But I could not shake the sense that the dragon was frowning at me.

After a little while, she responded calmly, “A coffin and its bearers.”

I sighed. “You can’t blame me for trying.”

The tongue flickered. “Can I not? Here is my next one.

We are the old women

Who walk on the beach

We braid the shells and seaweed

In our white hair.”

“Damn,” I said.

“Do you forfeit?” The dragon leaned forward eagerly. Its talons tensed as if already imagining raking through treasure.

“Not so fast!” I held up a hand and tried to ignore the warmth of the dragon’s breath ruffling my hair. Unless that was just the wind off the volcano. What walks on a beach…? Crabs. Birds.

“Waves!” I said suddenly, as it came to me. The word burst from my lips before I could second-guess myself. “It’s waves!”

“It’s waves,” the dragon agreed, sounding slightly disappointed.

“My next.” Of course, because I was looking at a dragon, I could only think of one riddle.

Hoping she wouldn’t be offended, I said,

I am a dragon with only one wing.

But of limbs I have a score.

I fly to battle.

I grow more fearful when I shed my scales.

“Really?” the dragon said.

I spread my hands. The rock was making my backside ache. I tried not to fidget. It would only make me seem nervous.

Of course, I was nervous.

“A long-boat,” the dragon said. She yawned before she continued. “The limbs are oars. The scales are the shields hung over the gunwales and retrieved when the men go to fight.”

“You’ve seen that?”

“I’ve destroyed a few. Sometimes they’re full of livestock. Or treasure.”

If dragons didn’t frown, did they smile? Or had she always been as toothy as she seemed now.

“What do we do if it’s a draw?” I asked.

She chuckled. “A sudden-death round? By which I mean, then I eat you.”

I couldn’t tell if she was joking and I didn’t want to ask. It might be better to let myself lose. I could always find more treasure, after all. Never mind that it would take a desperate Viking indeed to give a berth to a man as old as me, and those were the sorts of raiders who did not come home with their ships wallowing with gold.

“Last one,” the dragon said cheerfully. Did they play with their prey, like cats?

A stone on the road.

I saw water become bone.

How on earth did that happen? It was a metaphor, of course—riddles always were—but what was water a metaphor for? Blood that clots? A stone was hard, and so was a sword…brigands? Something that could stop a journey?

No. No, of course not. The water wasn’t the metaphor. The road was the metaphor. The whale-road, the ship-road. The sea. What was a stone on the sea?

“An iceberg,” I said.

“Brave little witch,” the dragon remarked. She lifted one talon and waved idly. Her opalescent eyes seemed to enlarge until I felt as if I were falling upward into them.

I’m not sure how long I gaped at her, but I was startled abruptly back into my skin when she said, “Hurry up, then. Let’s see this done.”

My mind went blank.

My wit ran dry.

I could think of not a single riddle.

No, not true. I could think of a riddle. But it was a children’s riddle, and not one worthy of a dragon. I needed something better. Something clever. Something I stood a chance of stumping her with.

She sighed a slow trickle of flame.

Dammit.

I said,

Fat and full-bellied

Welcome and warm

I rise with joy

Though my bed is hard.

A loaf, of course. A loaf, puffing up and baking on a flat hearth-stone before the fire.

No sooner had the words left my mouth than I thought of half a dozen better ones. The onion riddle with all the dick jokes in it…anything. Anything at all would have been better…

There was the end of my chance to save my kinfolk. There was the end of my chance to put this obligation to rest—

I was so engaged in flyting myself that I thought I must have missed the dragon’s answer. And indeed, when I lifted my eyes again, she was staring at me quizzically.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t hear you.”

She snorted rather a lot of fire this time. “I said, I don’t know. I don’t know the answer.”

“What?” I said, foolishly.

“Little witch, tell me the answer.”

“Bread,” I said. “A loaf of bread. It rises when you cook it on a hot stone.”

“Fascinating.” The tip of her tail twitched like a hunting cat’s. “Fascinating. Is that where bread comes from?”

She sounded genuinely excited.

Dragons, it seemed, knew about death and war. But not so much about baking.

Her wings folded more tightly against her sides. “Well, you’ve won. That’s the end of the riddles, then.”

“I have another one for you,” I cried, struck by inspiration now when it was too late. “As a gift. No wager.”

The dragon definitely had facial expressions, and this one was definitely suspicion. “No wager?”

“None.”

“What do you want if you win?”

“Just the joy of winning,” I said. “Here.

Alone I dwell

In a stone cell

With a gray roof.

Though kept captive

None holds the key.

I am not soaring above the halls of dawn.

I do not see the sun rise.

What creature am I?

She stared, tongue flickering. Moments passed, and I worried I had misunderstood her—or worse, offended her.

When she burst out, “Me!” she nearly incinerated me with the spray of her venom. “It’s me! Oh, sorry…”

“I’m fine. It’s fine.” I remained standing, so I could dodge faster if there were more outbursts. And to get away from the eyewatering, sinus-stinging smoke curling from the cinders where the eitr had fallen. “Unscathed.” I held out my hands to demonstrate.

“Good,” she said. “How odd it is that a small, frail, temporary person like yourself should make me feel so clearly seen.”

Well, from her point of view, I supposed I was all of those things.

She had been lying along the edge of the vent, just her head and forequarters poking over. Now, with a motion that was half slither and half chinning herself, she crawled up to the rim and stretched out. “Did you bring vessels?”

“Jars,” I said, lifting the pack.

“Cheeky,” she said.

“What’s worse?” I asked. “Preparing too much and not using everything, or needing a thing and not having it to hand?”

“You swore to grant me a boon.”

She had me there. “I did.”

“I’ll give you the eitr. You won the wager honorably. And I will leave this place and take with me my two children. We shall make our nest further from human habitations, though I must complain that there are more and more of you with every passing season. If you cover the whole damn landscape and keep breeding even when you encroach on other people’s nesting grounds, I don’t see how you can complain about a little volcano.” She sighed. “And here I am helping resurrect your whelps, who will probably just make more of you.”

They weren’t my whelps, but I was more concerned with something else she’d said. I snuck a sideways glance over the rim of the vent. Yes, three eggs. “Wait. You and your two children?”

“Yes,” she said. “That’s the boon. Don’t worry, I’ll leave you plenty of eitr for feeding the whelp on. And I will come back every season or so to be certain the whelp is well-taken-care-of and replenish your supplies.”

That sounded less like reassurance, and more like a threat.

“You want to raise a brood of your own.”

“Not I,” I said. “A friend.”

“Well, if I save his children, let him care for one of mine. But you, little witch—you must see that the care is good. Yourself.”

“Why me?”

“Because,” she said. “Because I have tested your word and your mettle. And because I’m giving you the foster of my whelp. I have seen what you will do for the bonds of kinship. And because you understood me and gave me a gift, so I know you understand how bound to this boring rock I am.”

“But I…I don’t want to stay here either.”

“Once a turning should suffice,” she said, relentless. “As I said, it’s only another hundred seasons or so. The egg will hatch in…twelve more seasons. Make sure your folk know that if they don’t take care of my little one, though, I will come back and eat them.”

I imagined the little whelp—perhaps only as large as the horse—looking up at the giant creature before me with wide, adorable eyes and begging, “Mama, can I eat him?”

“What about the volcano?” I asked. “My people cannot survive it. Doesn’t the egg need its heat to incubate?”

“Oh, a lone egg will do well enough if they bury it in dry ground near a hot spring,” she said.

“Like baking a loaf of bread,” I mused.

“You,” she said, “and your baking.”

 

The dragon said she would give me time to return to Ragnar’s farmstead before she flew the egg down and delivered it. My backpack sloshed with jars of eitr as I walked, the downhill steep and full of rocks that stubbed my toes through my boot leather. I’d be lucky not to lose a nail or two.

I was lucky that was all I seemed to be in danger of losing. Unless I tripped and fell and broke the jars, in which case the venom within would saturate my clothes, melt my flesh, and then probably catch on fire for good measure.

I walked very carefully and kept my eyes where my feet should be going.

It was a good thing, too, because the glamour I had cast on the little horse was strong enough that it even fooled me until I tripped over one of the spell-spun traces.

I had been singing to myself as I walked, songs more fitting for a warrior this time, and I had not been fingering my spindle. My hands, being free of my pockets, flung out and smacked into the horse’s warm flank.

The glamour fell away in the face of concrete evidence, and I could see that the boulder he was dragging had gotten jammed into a crevice and was stuck there.

I slipped off my extremely caustic load and set the pack down carefully before going to unwind the string from around the boulder. Then I had some extra string and a horse that was already wearing a conjure-ish harness, so it only seemed fair that the horse carry the pack. That was what horses were for, after all, among other things.

I lashed it on over his withers. He was a convenient size, not so tall I had to reach up to tie things across his back. While I worked, I thought about getting back to town and explaining to Ragnar that he could have his children back, and all it would cost him was to spend his dotage babysitting a dragon.

I would get out of town before my brother and his wife woke up, I decided. It would be preferable to watching their teary reunion. Or having to endure either their thanks, or their lack thereof.

I finished my harnessing and patted the horse on the shoulder. He nickered at me under his breath, friendly. Or hoping for carrots.

I draped an arm over his withers. He was a good height for leaning on. I made up my mind that I was taking him with me when I went, in addition to Magni. I would have to find someplace easy for him to recuperate, assuming the leg could—and would—get better. That would mean a winter off the road, which was probably wise for a man my age anyway, even if it griped me.

Anyway, if I left him here, Ragnar would probably eat him. I felt after using him to bait a dragon, I owed him better.

I scratched under his mane. He leaned into me, lip twitching in pleasure.

“Good lad,” I said. “I think I’ll call you Ormr.”

 

“The Red Mother” copyright © 2021 by Elizabeth Bear
Art Copyright © 2021 by Gregory Manchess

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