There was nothing skew, nothing that deceived or betrayed. Nothing to make a person misjudge a doorway and bang into the wall, or fall flat, tricked by a new, undetectable angle in the slant of the floor. They frustrated her as much as they fascinated her, for there was only so much she could learn from observation alone, and there was no one she could ask questions of. She did not want the trellwarrens inhabited again.
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If there was one thing Fargrimr Fastarrson hated more than another, it was waiting. Unfortunately for Fargrimr, lord-in-exile of Siglufjordhur, the Rhean invaders excelled at it, and so Fargrimr had spent all too much time since the fall of Siglufjordhur fourteen—nearly fifteen—years ago skulking through copses and behind bushes that by right of blood and birth were his.
His weeks were divided. Half his time belonged to those patient, infuriating Rheans: on the one hand, watching, and on the other hand, politicking to ensure that the men of the Northlands would not forget the Rheans, as time wore on, nor forget that their foothold at Siglufjordhur was just that—a foothold. The first step onto a foreign beach. Their waiting and garrisoning, Fargrimr was certain, was only a prelude to wider war. His imagination supplied horrors aplenty: legions of soldiers; war engines; fell magics from beyond the sea. Strange weapons from places Fargrimr had never imagined, let alone visited.
It was a great comfort to him that the konungur, Gunnarr Sturluson, and Erik, godheofodman of Hergilsberg, took the danger seriously. It was a comfort, too, that they had sent south a complement of trellwolves and wolfcarls to form the threat of a new wolfheall named to honor Freya , under the young konigenwolf, gray Signy—Viradechtisdaughter Vigdisdaughter—and her wolfsprechend, Hreithulfr. Together, they commanded a riverine pass between two wooded fells, and protected a narrow but rich valley below, where his hastily relocated farmers managed to scratch fields and plant crops.
The other half of his time was thus devoted to the far more satisfying duties of a jarl with folk to house and cattle to feed: though the fortress and town at Siglufjordhur had fallen, and the farmlands and crofts sustaining it, the wildlands beyond were but patrolled by the Rheans—nervously, and in force.
The first winter, they lost half a dozen people and a third of the livestock. Mostly the youngest and the eldest, always the most susceptible, but still more than a well-run keep should lose—more than Siglufjordhur-in-exile could afford to. The second winter, though they were all still scarred by grief, only two old men died, and a wolf in his thirty-first molting. They slaughtered meat and smoked it, and with the exception of a ewe lost to a gods-knew-what ailment peculiar to sheep, every other animal spared the autumn culling survived to spring.
Ingrun was no konigenwolf, just a bitch of the ranks, and smaller than some of the big males—but she was still a wolf-bitch, still strength for a new pack. And though Fargrimr would never admit it, it comforted him to have his brother near. Fargrimr hated waiting, but he was good at husbandry. Well, the one sort of husbandry. Which was another reason it pleased him to have Randulfr nearby, for Randulfr was equipped for heir-getting in ways Fargrimr was not. Fargrimr imagined the damned Rheans, safe inside his stone walls, and it made him itch and fuss and nag Randulfr about getting a few heirs.
Randulfr made excuses about not having found the right woman yet; Fargrimr offered to introduce him to a few. Randulfr made excuses about it being a bad time to bring children into the world; Fargrimr offered to eat his dagger in small bites if there had ever been a good one. The bickering was an echo of childhood that comforted and amused them both.
But he had no more intention than Fargrimr did of leaving Siglufjordhur without an heir. He just needed to make his independence clear. Fargrimr, fair and lean and stubborn just as Randulfr was, fully understood, and knew better than to push when Randulfr was not ready for pushing. Randulfr would come around. And meanwhile, Fargrimr knew the Rheans inhabiting his keep could hear the trellwolves howling on a cold, clear night. He hoped it kept those usurping bastards up till dawn. That was not the only change. Now a buff-colored wolf-bitch with a gray nape paced Randulfr, and Fargrimr was a sworn-man rather than a girl with kilted skirts.
Also, it was a stomping-in-unison Rhean patrol that they shadowed now, both men silent and light-footed as the ljosalfar of stories in these beloved woods. And the penalty for being caught was not embarrassment and being sent home to their mother. They might be returned to Siglufjordhur. The Rheans did take prisoners, as the wolfjarl Skjaldwulf, called Snow-Soft, could attest.
There were still cells there, carved into the rock below the keep, and Fargrimr had no desire to spend the rest of his life rotting in one of them.
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The Rhean patrol was ten men, and Fargrimr knew there were twenty more within a shout, ten before and ten behind. The Rheans had learned to their grief how to protect themselves in these woods. They stayed to the stone roads they had hewed and paved—Fargrimr mourned every healthy tree—and marched a neat circuit of the farmsteads they claimed as their own.
They expected—and Fargrimr knew, bitterly, that they were right—that Fargrimr would not burn out his own people. Could not burn out his own people. It was his responsibility to drive the Rheans out again, not theirs. He was glad that Randulfr and Ingrun ran with him, separated by enough distance that he identified the man only by the occasional rustling footfall, and the wolf only by knowing that she existed. That knowledge became even more comforting when the patrol did something unexpected. Unexpected things were bad. Especially when it came to Rheans—those most regimented, predictable, and disciplined of soldiers.
Their armies came in multiples of ten. Those decades ran in lockstep, and each man in them wore the same tunic, the same armor, even the same sandals—stuffed with the same straw during the bitter Northern winters. Their patrols always followed the same routes, too. So when the ten men veered south to leave the paved road and run back toward the headlands of the fjord, Fargrimr felt a heavy gnawing worm of worry behind his breastbone.
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Nothing good ever came of Rhean innovations. Apparently, Randulfr agreed with Fargrimr, because his occasional shadowy steps grew closer as Fargrimr turned to follow the Rheans. Fargrimr caught a glimpse of Ingrun through the ferns ahead, her laughing amber eyes turned back to him. Fargrimr stopped. The brothers shared a wordless glance, then slipped, silent and slightly separated, toward the thinning shade of the edgewood.
The Rheans were moving far more slowly now—their lockstep trot was not well-suited to travel through the Northern forests. They would break out into the clear meadows along the top of the fjord soon, though, and become harder to follow. Fargrimr supposed it was too much to hope that a Rhean or two might stumble on a loose rock at the cliff top and plunge to his death far below. As he reached the tree line, he crouched into the ferns and brush.
There was more undergrowth here, where the light reached. It sheltered him, and the ink under his skin made dappled patterns that helped to hide him in the shade. Randulfr dropped down beside him, silent as a fawn in its bower. And that was an excellent question. A half mile farther on, it dipped down through a convenient break in the palisade and descended the precipitous wall at an angle impossible for carts, treacherous for horses, nerve-racking for men, and well within the capabilities of most well-trained asses.
Fargrimr knew from childhood experience that at the bottom of the trail was a fine sandy strand a quarter mile long. It would be easy for a child to wander or be washed the wrong way and be drowned—and in truth, more than one had so died.
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The Rheans had assembled themselves in the clear now. Trotting more slowly—but still in lockstep—they began their two-by-two descent of the sea road. Speaking personally, Fargrimr would have gone down single file. At a walk. Without trying to match paces with his neighbors. Still in a crouch, he scuttled forward, using his fingertips to steady himself against the ground.
Randulfr followed. Ingrun held back, crouched, another shadow in the tree-shade.
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Careful not to silhouette himself, Fargrimr inched close enough to the cliff edge that he could hear the leather-creak and footsteps of the Rheans below, descending. The smell of salt and the combing of the waves rose on the warm air. He lay down on his belly, hid his face in the straggle of long grass, and peered cautiously over the edge. He saw—a ship. Three ships, bobbing with the waves, anchored in the deep water south of the beach.
They were not like the familiar boats of Siglufjordhur. They were larger—wider, deeper—and each had three rows of oars rather than the familiar one. Where a proper boat should have a dragon prow and a broad striped sail square-rigged, these had eagles carved into the forecastle and triangular sails, with a slanting yard running from its lowest point at the front, lifting to aft far above the top of the mast. Fargrimr had seen smaller ships like these busy in and out of the harbor at Siglufjordhur for ten long years. These, he realized, would draw much deeper than any Northern ship, which was probably why they were out here, rather than up at the keep and the port.
They seemed able to carry a great deal of cargo, but their drafts would be too deep for a channel built for dragon-boats, which, even fully loaded would draw only a few inches of water. Randulfr touched Fargrimr on the shoulder, calling his attention to one of the ships. The crew—from this height, like so many beetles scurrying on the deck—were lowering some long, broad, wooden device that had been pivoted over the side and dropped through a gap in the railing. The device looked like a boarding plank, but much broader—or perhaps like an odd outrigger, since it floated on the tossing surface of the sea.
He might have snapped, if there had not been enemies within earshot, if sound had not carried so well over water. And before he got around to that thought—which happened two days later—he was entirely distracted by what came out of the hole thus inflicted on the Rhean ship.
It might have been a furry, ambulatory hillock. A hay pile with walrus tusks poked into the front. A great northern bear, three times bigger than such a bear should be, with a pile of shaggy cattle hides heaped on it. It was taller than a wyvern, though not as long, and it looked considerably more massive. It was colored a kind of reddish-brown with streaks of gray and straw in the topcoat.
It had small ears like cabbage leaves on the side of its high domed head, and it walked on legs as big as mature tree trunks. At the front were those tusks—walrus tusks, but far bigger than any walrus ever wore. Longer than two human beings, Fargrimr thought, lying feet to feet upon the ground, and thicker than his thigh. Also at the front end, something protruded like a long tentacle or a prehensile penis—fleshy and firm-soft looking.
As it climbed onto the deck, the monster twisted and stretched the appendage, first to one side, then to the other, as if looking to the men around it for reassurance. At the first step, the creature hesitated. The boat pitched and the bridge pitched, and neither one pitched exactly the same.
And as far as the creature could tell Fargrimr imagined , it was being led down a wooden trail into the sea, for sudden death and drowning. It raised the appendage on its face, turning it this way and that as a hare turns its ears to locate a sound. It did not wish to proceed.
One of the men stepped forward—the handler, Fargrimr assumed, because the beast dipped a knee as if making a bow. These flapped, but apparently this was what the creature had needed for reassurance, because with only a little more fussing, it walked down the bridge into the sea. It floated and swam surprisingly well. The whole beast submerged beneath the waves except the prehensile appendage, so Fargrimr could see its back only when the troughs between the swells revealed it.
The handler floated off his position on its neck and swam along beside, guiding it gently through the waves. He seemed to be suffering more than the monster, because the waves kept ducking him. Alfgyfa is the daughter of Isoflr, the legendary wolfcarl. She was promised in her infancy to apprentice as a smith with the svartalf, the elves of the title. The svartalf are ground-dwelling matrilineal creatures with a harmonic language humans are incapable of mimicing. Alfgyfa struggles with the physicality of the smithing, with the foreignness of the svarlalf culture.
She and Isoflr act as parents to Alfgyfa in many ways, each working from their own rigidly gendered cultures, with their own stories and expectations. That Alfgyfa ends up as an unexpected blend of the two backgrounds, breaking all the rules she can find, is maybe not as unexpected as it might seem. He would not brook such small-mindedness; neither does she. No one is simply one thing in An Apprentice to Elves , the ways no one is simply one thing in this hard life.