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Excerpt for Swords and Magic by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

SWORDS and MAGIC

S. B. Springer

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2018 by Scott Springer


All Rights Reserved.

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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.


Table of Contents

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

ONE

Too dizzy to close her eyes, a dark wave rising from her gut, Kari stared hard at the wash basin. Gripping the edge desperately, she clutched the stand, leaned over the basin, and spat. Olga gathered Kari’s hair, lifted it from the neck whose tender nape she rubbed, her fingertips massaging gently until the urgency passed. Kari recomposed herself somewhat, finger combed her long blond hair from her face and wiped cold sweat from her icy brow. She kneaded life into her hands until they pinkened with blood. Olga offered water, and Kari rinsed and gulped, revived but concerned. “We’re going to be late for practice.”

Olga was already cloaked in chainmail with her hair braided up. Kari’s nightshirt was damp and clung to her athletic form, muscles sleek as a salmon leaping, breasts small and firm, a warrior’s chest easy to contain within her armor. Olga said, “I’ll be quick about it, but we must get your hair under control.” Kari sat and drummed her blunt fingernails on her knees while Olga braided and tied Kari’s hair into tight bands. Olga’s fingers plaited the strands deftly; and all the while, her lips harped like a mother’s. “Did you mix mead with ale? You never should, you know. At least I hope you know. Raised on a farm, weren’t you? And you should always eat something before sleeping, bread to sponge the poison and fat to coat the stomach walls.”

Kari shook her head. “No, no, no. Nothing like that. Maybe it’s nerves.”

“About the dragon?” Olga rubbed her own stomach sympathetically. “I know what you mean. I’m scared too.”

Kari refrained from contradicting. True, they would be facing a mock dragon today in class, but that was a cause for joy because they were progressing in their training. Sick to her stomach over it? Not in the least. Kari was cadet in the king’s guard, so she counted on her body. Moments of weakness like this worried her, but she had no time for that now. She slipped into her armor, grabbed up her sword, and they were out the door and across the yard where dry pine needles swirled – a sign of rain to come. They sprinted onward toward the practice field.

The high breeze animated billowy wisps of white across a vibrant sky. A perimeter of jagged treetops walled off the meadow in which they gathered, the scent of pine mixing with sweet wildflowers. The group was decidedly male. Kari and Olga were two of only a few women warriors. Kari’s mother had attempted to dissuade her from joining the service, but the daughter was determined to follow in her father’s footsteps. She planned to reunite with him in the afterlife where they could again clash swords. Playing with him was her fondest memory of childhood before he left to raid and never returned.

The group had already assembled when the two young women ran into the clearing. While she was catching her breath, a large boisterous guy chided, “Ahh, I thought you might be late,” He held his index finger straight and curled the others of his left hand under, an unconscious gesture Kari tried to ignore. He had been a true male bully when she first joined the force two months back, but within a week he had introduced himself formally, saying his name was Garrett; and when he did, she shook his righthand, the one still intact. He had been an overblown chauvinist, but she settled the point one night early on, striking a blow with a hammer that bruised his finger and maybe even broke it. He had looked at the damage, red and swelling, and in that moment lay peril, the air still and charged, for he was ready to strike. But instead, with a laugh, he cracked the tension, defusing ions like a flash of Thor’s hammer. He rubbed the top of her head and she bent her neck, but then she stiffened and met his eyes. Again, he laughed, calling her daddy’s girl, words spoken without contempt as he stepped back. They had been warrior chums ever since. He still gave her crap but now in the way of comradery. As she caught her breath, he made his words sound spooky as a ghost story. “Willing to face the dragon, are you?”

Kari ignored his mockery because she was staring up at the dragon’s head, a wedge-shaped form that caused her to shudder even if it were only a rendition of the serpentine holdovers from ancient times. This model of a dragon’s head was the size of two men, a full-sized replica placed high upon a stick. The soulless slits that served as eyes drew her gaze, and the prominent mouth lined with razor-sharp teeth made the nape of her neck draw tight.

The instructor bellowed for them to form ranks. After calisthenics, Kari faced off with Garett who stood in the opposing line. Their swords clanked against shields, slowly at first as they warmed, but soon with fervent rhythm. This was just an exercise for strength and timing and not meant to be aggressive at all, but of course, Garret clanged his blade against her shield with more than necessary force, and she returned the favor. “You’re a plucky little thing,” he said.

She countered with a solid blow. He winced when she struck his shield, his injured finger still sensitive, but she wasn’t holding back and he’d never dare complain.

By the time they finished this drill, Kari’s muscles were warm and wet, and her breathing came deep and easy. Her hands stung from the vibrations, but she focused in on the pain, confronting her nerves rather than running from their signals, and in that way, she quenched the fire.

While they stood at attention in rank, the instructor faced them, and the dragon’s head bobbed behind him, propped on a pole carried by several of the king’s guard. “Fear of the dragon,” said the instructor with a crisp voice enunciating every sound with hard consonants and long vowels, an almost poetic rendering as he spoke, “is rooted within our primal self. Relying on instinct will get you killed because, when faced with a red glaring stare, the untrained will turn to stone, petrified with fear, becoming an easy meal for the beast. The shape is so engrained in our nightmares that even this toy head will have you tucked up like a mouse in a hawk’s shadow. The wedge-shape of the head is the essence of evil jagged with barbs. We must learn to soldier through the innate fright. And I will tell you now, tell you all, not everyone here will be back tomorrow morning. For some, the terror will prove to be overwhelming.”

From two lines, alternating one at a time, a cadet popped from the queue and ran toward the beast while its head—now lowered to eye level—dodged and bobbed and jabbed with menace. “Swing your sword at it,” yelled the instructor to a cadet that stood frozen before it. “Swing it.”

Many froze, some did swing when yelled to do so, but not all. Upon their return to the line, the instructor would yell, “You’ve just died a coward’s death.”

Not everyone froze. Garret, on his turn, charged straight ahead with sword cocked back, and once upon the dragon, as the beast thrust its nose at him, Garret swung his sword and nearly caught the dragon’s snout. The instructor yelled to him, “Great job, cadet. You make me proud.”

And then it was Kari’s turn. You make me proud. The praise resonated. She would not admit it, but she needed to hear those words. She readied her sword.

Kari approached the dragon at a run, maybe coming too fast as she overcharged. The dragon’s head stared at her and its fangs glistened. She sprinted faster than her fear could rise within. The dragon’s head bobbed forward and back. She came to within a sword’s length of its snout when it thrust to the extent of its forward motion, and without hesitation or even planting her feet firmly, she swung her sword toward its snout. The dragon’s head retreated as her blade arched, she still running at full tilt as she sliced. The blade missed. The head rolled back, escaping the blow, and then it rose high. She had been fully committed to slicing her blade through its nose, so when it ducked away from her and her blade found only air, she lost her balance. She stumbled and pitched forward, landing on her knees on the meadow land and skidding over worn tufts of grass.

The beast rose high upon its staff. On her knees, she fought her desire to tuck her head and hide her eyes. Instead, she snapped to her feet in a flash, ready to commit; but when she looked up, the dragon had grown more animated. No longer simply a puppet’s head, it had sprung to life. Fire breathing life. Smoke bellowed from its snout, curled from its nostrils and rolled in huge clouds past its teeth. And its eyes, what had been dull slits, now glowed red.

Kari was on her feet looking up with sword rising, but this new composure of the dragon and this new reality of its living, smoke breathing animation overwhelmed her. “No,” she shouted to her legs, specifically to her knees, but they refused her will and weakened, bent, and forced her down. On her knees once again, this time the desire to cover her head and cower was nearly too much. Nearly. She fought against her weakness. She forced her chin high into the air so smoky everything around her, the instructor and her fellow cadets, the meadow and the trees and the sky above, all vanished. Now only the beast and she existed in her new reality.

Rise to meet a hero’s death, her father’s voice resonated within her.

She willed strength into her legs and rose, but she was too late. The dragon had quieted. Its eyes were again dull, its mouth quiet and no longer smoking. The head had pulled back and lowered and was not interested in her anymore. Then she heard her instructor’s voice bellowing. “Return to the line, cadet. You have failed miserably.”

“Failed,” she cried to herself. She would not. With that she raised her sword and charged the head. It was in repose and did not react to her advance in time. She swung the blade in a frenzy, crazy with her failure, slicing. The blade’s sharpness severed the snout easily, parted a piece of its mouth and one nostril, cleaved them away from its face and sent them toppling to the ground, she about to stab at it again when her instructor finally got her attention. He was in her face, between her and the dragon and about to take the blunt of the sword blow with his shield if necessary. Kari stopped when she saw she was about to hack him.

“Get back in line, cadet,” he yelled.

The reality of their training returned to mind, and with the realization emerging of what she had just done, her face flushed and she sputtered. He yelled again. “Retreat, cadet. Now.”

On her shameful walk past the line on her trudge to the back, she tried to hold her head high but soon gave up the effort, instead focusing through watery eyes upon her boots.

Once at the back of the line, Garret should have chided her for cowering like a girl but instead he studied his shield. That was the worst—no, not the worst.

Face the dragon, she told herself. It’s only death, no big deal. But no, what truly upset her was something more. As much as she coveted the privileged afterlife of the brave and yearned to be reunited with her father, another desire prevailed.

Self-preservation had won over. And the reason for this perceived selfishness wasn’t selfish at all.

TWO

In a level clearing half way up the hill, surrounded by pines and set under a sunny, cloud studded blue sky, the skeleton of a long boat was taking shape. The keel was set upon stands and the ribs rose from the spine and were supported by timbers propped in the earth. They would be removed once the pieces were held together by the top rail. Maybe in a week or so.

Erik pulled a sharp hew down the edge of a curved timber that would be fit to the spine, most likely by day’s end if the weather held, but he felt rain coming. Summers were short in the north, and he enjoyed the sunshine that warmed his back. His nostrils drew in the welcome tang of wood peel.

Erik was tall and had a Nordic broad face. His beard was a young man’s stubble. His fingers were well exercised, and his palms were flat and leathery. His fellow builder was a dwarf with a dark bush of hair about his face and head. He stood slightly shorter than Erik but was heavier with most of his bulk carried in his chest and shoulders and broad arms. He worked over in the trees, staying out of the sun as though it were a cancerous curse. His name was Fundin.

The two were working quietly at their tasks this afternoon when a man arrived on horseback. He dismounted and set his horse off to graze while Erik completed a pull of the hew and looked up from his work.

The man pointed at the boat. “A fine job.” His face was thin and wily and framed with a pointy beard. Erik, big and broad and honest like a working man, looked at this stranger and thought of the god, Loki, the shapeshifting trickster whose words of legalese where always double edged. But Erik knew looks were deceiving for in this meeting he planned to ply the trade of the shaman.

Erik wiped his face with a rag and dried his hands with it after. “How might I help you?”

“I understand,” said the man, “that this ship is not commissioned. That you are, so to speak, hoping, perhaps even praying, for a buyer to appear.”

“No. I’m confident a buyer will appear.”

“Well, that is a well-placed confidence, I’m sure, for here I am and interested, perhaps, in striking a fair price with you.”

“Perhaps, indeed,” Erik said. “State you price.”

“I would like to hear yours first, of course,” said the man as he sharpened the point of his beard with his fingers. “You’ve had more time to think about it. As you pull the wood carving tools, what is it you imagine?”

After a moment of silence in which neither party dared venture an opening bid, the man said, “I see you have partnered with a dwarf. That’s a little odd, is it not?”

“We inherited our relationship from my father,” Erik said. “Together they built boats to sail the open seas. Now I carry on the tradition.”

“Oh, yes. The open seas.” The man looked in the general direction of the sea though the water could not be seen from the meadow. “I wonder why you chose to build the boat here, what with the water so far down the hill?”

“I like it up here better,” Erik said. “A nicer sun and breeze.”

“We simply sled it down the ravine,” Fundin hollered gayly from the shadows of the trees. “Not a big deal at all.”

“Very clever,” said the man. “Gravity is a free and willing assistant. And yes, your father was well-known. So, about your price?”

Erik walked to the man, stopped and stared at him face to face. After a moment, Erik reached out and stroked the man’s earlobe.

The man sputtered and stepped back. “This is quite unsettling.”

Erik released the man’s ear, and when he brought his hand back into view he held a gold coin between thumb and forefinger. He smiled. “Money is not so hard to come by, now, is it?”

“Oh, ha, ha,” said the man. “A coin trick. How cute.”

Erik waved the gold coin back and forth across the man’s vision, the edges catching the light and flickering. The man’s pupils dilated, becoming open windows to his soul. He seemed unaware of this, or maybe even willing.

Continuing to wave the coin, Erik said, “We would need many Kroners for our work, of course.”

“Of course,” said the man. “Many Kroners.”

“About what you could buy an acre of land for.”

“Yes, of course, an acre.”

“Of river bottom farm land, I mean.”

“Absolutely,” said the man.

“So you have agreed and the ship shall be yours. May you sail the seas in good health.”

Erik took the man’s hand and shook it. Then he pocketed his coin. The man stepped back and shook his head. “What have I agreed to?”

“Only a fair price for a hand crafted long ship. It’s all good and you won’t be sorry.”

“I no longer feel so agreeable,” said the man, “but alas, we have struck the deal already. So be it.”

“We will have it in the water by early next summer,” Fundin said happily.

“Maybe more toward autumn,” Erik corrected. He walked into the shadows and joined the dwarf. After the man called for his horse, he mounted and rode off.

Fundin slapped Erik on the back heartily. “You have quite a talent, my friend.”

“Yes,” Erik agreed. “Bending the mind is a finer thing than seducing wood to become a boat.”

“I’m not so sure of that. They’re both equal. Now, I know you have taken on your father’s craft without the complete commitment of you heart, but you do well at it, and the way you can strike a deal, we will all grow rich rafting upon the current of your multiple skills.”

“Thank you,” Erik said. “We can hope.” The breeze swirled about his cheek. “But right now, we’d best get to work. I fear we will soon be rained out for the afternoon.”

THREE

The sky darkened, and soon large drops splatted on the training field and up the hill at the boat yard as well. Everyone knew soon the large fat spats would become a rapid-fire onslaught. A little rain, or even a lot, was the sort of thing soldiers would simply muscle through, but when the crack of lightning brightened the sky, the instructor said, “No sense messing with Thor’s goodtime. Everyone find cover. We will convene tomorrow.”

Up the hill in the boat yard Fundin asked, “Join me at the tavern?”

Erik shook his head.

Fundin winked. “I didn’t except as you would, young man.” He whistled a lover’s tune with mockery, but of the gentle kind. “Time to ply another sort of magic, yes?”

While leaving the field, Garett invited Kari and Olga out for drinks as well. Olga looked at Kari with wariness and mouthed, “You better not.”

“Why?” asked the guy. “I have no designs on your virtue. I think of you as just another man, though one smaller and weaker and inclined to tears.”

Kari preferred not to explain, but the words found their way out. “I didn’t feel too well this morning.” Her whole defense mode was crumbling. She did indeed want to cry. “I need to get some rest.” She turned to Olga and nudged her shoulder with a fist. “I’ll be fine. You go have some fun.” She nodded to emphasize this.

“Okay then. If you’re sure.” Olga slapped Garett on the back and off the two went to join the boys while Kari returned to her room alone. She dried herself off, looked at her mattress, but stayed up. The rain beat against the window, but she felt compelled to leave her room and venture into the woods. She walked a well-worn path under a canopy of needled boughs and stayed mostly dry. She came to the tree where he had carved a heart and their initials into the trunk. Silly, juvenile stuff, but she had loved him for it. Remembering back to that day, a breeze had swirled her hair because she had let it down. He kissed her gently. Their legs grew weak and their bodies settled into the ferns.

She thought of that with tenderness as she stood and waited with her back pressed against the trunk where she stayed dry until he entered the clearing. “Hey,” he said to her. He always greeted her shyly, even though there was no longer reason for them to be shy with each other. She found this endearing.

He came to her, and all shyness aside, they embraced. He stroked her cheek as their lips met. She lost herself in the feel of him, and wanting to be free of all constraints, she wished she had let her hair down. The current of their love swept them away willingly, their connection stripping their flesh and freeing their souls to expand as one. This was a nice feeling, enchanted but never surprising because she had known right off he was a magical man.

They kissed, and she floated, but then her newest aggravation wedged into her consciousness and she grew heavy. Returning to her body, she let her anger out. She ceased to kiss him, her lips going firm, and then she pushed him away. He seemed surprised but let her go. He asked, “What’s up?”

She got right to the point of the matter. She blurted out, “You got me pregnant.”

His response was filled with awe. “With child?”

She nodded, and he said, “That’s great.”

She took a deep breath, drawing slowly through her nostrils, before she responded. “No, no it’s not.”

He seemed perplexed. “I don’t understand. It’s a baby. It’s a family.” He studied her and then seemed to understand. “Don’t worry.” He touched her cheek with the knuckle of one curled finger. “I’ll marry you.”

Guys could be so thick. “This wasn’t the plan,” she said. “I am to be in the king’s guard.”

Erik rubbed his neck. “Oh, yeah. I guess it may be hard to do both. But, hey, sometimes dreams change.”

“Not this one,” she said. “Why’d you do this to me?”

He corkscrewed his lips. “You were pretty aggressive about it, you know. I’d have to say you impaled yourself on the sword in this instance.”

“No, that’s not it at all. You enchanted me with your Seidr magic, your mind control crap. You played your witchcraft on me to make me want you.”

“Hum, actually no. This was just good old-fashioned love. Everyone practices that spell, and willingly. As you were too, if I recall correctly.” He grinned wide like yes, he did recall that in some detail. He dragged the toe of his boot through the ferns. “Besides, if I were such a good witch, I’d enchant you to marry me and raise my child happily as my wife.”

He reached for her, but she pulled back. “You’re not that good. There’s no way I’m living the life of a boatbuilder’s wife, all dutiful and domestic. I’m a warrior. It’s my destiny, and one must fulfill their calling.”

“I don’t know but achieving destiny,” he said. “I never wanted to be a boatbuilder, and yet, here I am simply because my father was a boatbuilder who died half-way through a project. It’s not the worst life, I suppose.” He looked up to the boughs. “But with my calling, I could have been a leader. I should be in court as advisor to the king, or maybe as a lobbyist. Nice clothes, fat expense account, talking with those from all lands. You know, very cosmopolitan. Instead, I spend my days in a clearing with the essence of wood in my teeth and sawdust in my lungs.”

“Then you, especially, should understand why I’m not giving up my dream. You chose your father’s legacy as did I.”

“I do have compassion because I understand you are being asked to give up a childhood fantasy and grow up,” he said. “But, the truth of the matter —”

“I know the truth,” she said. “But I’m not ready to accept it. I rue the day I met you, you seductive Shaman.”

“I’m an innocent. Freya is the Shaman here.”

“Sure, blame the goddess. Why not?” With those words, she turned and stomped off into the woods. If he followed she would surely stab him, but he did not follow. And that made her mad too.

FOUR

The next morning, Kari stayed in bed while Olga slipped on her chainmail and tied up her hair. Then Olga sat on the mattress next to Kari and said, “Hey, I know yesterday was rough. It wasn’t fair how they made the thing blow smoke at you when they hadn’t done that to anyone else.”

“Oh, so the smoke was real,” Kari said. “I thought my seeing it may have been a manifestation of my fear.”

“No, it was real. They make it harder for the girls.”

“Yeah, no kidding.” She rubbed her belly. “But the problem remains. I was afraid.”

“You’ll get over your fear. Plenty are afraid at first. That’s why we train. If we weren’t rained out and you had a second chance yesterday, you’d be fine right now. You would’ve smashed it.”

“I did slice off its nose, remember?”

“I know,” Olga said with joy. “You were great. You would’ve definitely been fearless on the second go.”

“No, that’s not it. My fear is something I’ll never get over.”

“Kari? You aren’t making sense.”

“I appreciate your pep-talk, I really do, and it would work for me if I were thinking of only myself, but I’ve more to be concerned with now.”

Olga’s face was blank for a moment, but then she lit up with recognition. “Morning sickness. You’re with child.”

“Afraid so.”

“Oh, that’s great.” Olga hugged her hard. “I’m so happy for you.”

“Really?” Kari sounded glum. “I thought you of all people would understand that this isn’t great.”

“You mean because you can’t slay dragons anymore. Yeah, I guess. But, hey . . . I mean . . . done is done, am I right? And it’s a baby. A baby. How great is that?”

“I guess.”

“So, what are you going to do?”

“I suppose I’ll go be a dutiful wife.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. But he is cute and nice. You could do a lot worse than a boat builder.”

“Yes,” Kari agreed. “Just keep reminding me of that.”

#

After Olga left, Kari forced herself out of bed. She felt nauseous and leaned at the basin for a while. Then with resolve, she put on a dress and left her hair down after she brushed it. She went to the kitchen were the workers were starting to prepare the lunch for the cadets. She gagged a little as she faced food, but she found a corner to work in and made a nice lunch with bread and cuts of dried fish. After wiping down her workspace, she set off to climb the hill to the boatyard with a basket on her arm.

Erik was pushing a saw through a timber set upon stands in the center of the clearing. The noonday sun had risen to clear the trees and its rays shone down upon him. He had removed his shirt, and Kari stood at the tree line in the shade and watched his long and lean muscles glisten, his arm rippling with each stroke of the sawblade. He mesmerized her, the golden boy shining in the sun. Two butterflies flitted around him with joy and that was so cute and so annoying in its charm. She made no movement, and it was Fundin who finally spotted her from the shadows and cried out to Erik, “Your girl is here.”

Once called out, Kari left the trees and came toward the center of the clearing. Now it was his turn to stand mesmerized while she approached, but she came without confidence in the least. With the basket held in front, the handle hanging on both of her hands, she kept her eyes down and watched the tufts of grass as she walked over them. How could she be confident with a dress billowing around her body. She was practically naked, no shield, no sword, and her hair loose and flowing.

He stood by his work as she approached, but then he shook his head as if to clear his mind, set down his saw and came to her. He freed the basket from her hands and took the weight upon his own arm. She looked up from the grass, her eyes grazing over his torso, chest, and neck. She lingered upon his lips, stopped short of his eyes. Her voice was soft. “I brought you lunch.”

Silently, he took her hand and they walked from the boatyard heading along a trail through the woods until they came to a spot where a delightful spring of water bubbled from the rocks. Ferns and moss grew lushly about them in the tree-filtered light. He set the basket upon a mound of stones and washed in the water, splashing his naked torso, water streaming along his sinewy arms, over his face. When he returned to her she was sitting on the rock with her legs together, knees touching and feet lying lightly upon the ferns. She had opened the basket and was pulling out a slice of bread for him.

He said, “In this web of sunlight, your hair sparkles.”

They ate quietly for a while. After he finished, her hands were folded in her lap, and he placed his upon hers. He said, “This is nice, and it can be nice always.”

“You mean my bringing a picnic lunch to your work.”

He squeezed her hand. “I do mean that, yes.”

“You are quite beautiful,” she said, and in the moment, she meant it, but her mind had been squirming with thought as she had been preparing the food, an idea formulating then and maturing while she walked up the hill with basket in hand. She had forgotten about it temporarily while she watched him saw wood in the sun with butterflies flittering about him, but now the thing was ripe.

She slipped her hands from under his and placed hers on top. With a crooked pointer finger she stroked the backside of his hand pressed into her lap. When he looked at her, his eyes were big.

She was hesitant to express herself to him, but she was nothing if not brave, so she soldiered on. “I’ve been thinking,” she said.

After a moment, he asked warily, “Yes?”

She looked to him beseechingly. “Can’t you do something with your magic?”

His eyes remained largely open, but the pupils dulled. “Huh?”

“About this.”

“This?”

Apparently, he was going to make her spell it out. Placing her idea into words was wicked, but so much depended upon it. “Can’t you make it go away? You know, with your witchcraft.”

His eyes slowly narrowed as recognition found its way into his brain. “You don’t mean?”

“It should be easy, no. Just a wave of the hand. A magic incantation perhaps. Something with herbs and potions. Can’t you . . . just make it all go away?”

For the longest time he said nothing. She kept her eyes upon him, hoping to will him to see her way. He never returned her gaze, but then again, his sight was turned inward, his eyes gone white. At last, he hummed and hawed to get the sputter out of his voice as his pupils rolled down and met her eyes. “I can’t. My magic doesn’t work that way.”

“Can’t or won’t?” she challenged him while disappointment rose and a sense of loss fell through her, taking her stomach down a snaky drain while smoke filled her head. “Can’t or won’t?”

He pulled his hand from under hers, placed it on top, and squeezed her hands together. “I think it’s best if we just forget you ever had this idea.”

A tear burned her eye, but she nodded with understanding. Can’t or won’t didn’t matter. The results were the same.

FIVE

The next week progressed slowly. Every day, she rose after Olga left, draped herself with a modest dress, and brushed out her long locks left free to cascade over her shoulders. She prepared food, and with basket in hand she visited her betrothed at the boatyard. He talked of wedding arrangements. She was not up for all that and simply wanted to visit a magistrate quietly and discreetly, preferably in the middle of the night because being cloaked in darkness seemed appropriate. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Most people get married because they’re with child. It’s the normal and natural way and there’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

“It’s just never how I imagined it to be,” she said.

On Saturday, while the cadets were engaging in a half-day workout before the weekly break, Kari went to Erik at his home, arriving early and empty handed. He and Fundin were taking the day off Erik embraced her with joy. His excitement entered her, but her pit of despair was large enough to soak up anything happy.

He stroked her lips softly with the tip of one finger. “Such a downturn of mouth.” He dabbed a tear from the corner of her eye. “Oh, dear, but not to worry. Today I will do the cooking, and my sister shall be along shortly. You can find solace in her company, I’m sure.”

Kari found a seat upon the porch, and Erik was starting up the outdoor fire in preparation of roasting some meat when his sister arrived, coming onto the small farmstead in a carriage drawn by a single horse, sitting next to her young daughter on the bench and crooking an infant on her arm.

She introduced herself, “I am Brita,” and presented the youngster, Magdalena, with big round cheeks and oversized eyes, all framed by curls. Kari warmed to the adorable little girl.

“Ask her how old she is,” Erik suggested to Kari. Magdalena held up four pudgy fingers.

In the moment, overcome, Kari reached out and touched the girl upon her chubby cheek. “You are so precious.”

Brita took Kari by her elbow. “Come, let’s find a quiet spot and allow the men to do the cooking. If we stay they’ll have us fetching them things without end.”

Fundin brought forth a hind leg of oxen and declared they would be eating well in a few hours hence. He was at the party alone because, like most of his kind, he was a single man. He had a soft spot in his heart for the goddess Freya, often saying so with a gleam in his dark eyes. But most dwarves had a spot in their heart for the Vanir goddess of love, as did most of the giants in Jotunheim.

Brita wore her hair in a single long braid pulled over her shoulder and clutched to her breast while her fingers stroked the plaits as she spoke. On her other arm rested the infant. Their group of four found a fallen log in a pleasant clearing. Kari sat next to Brita on the log. Magdalena chased after a dragonfly once they assured her it would not bite.

“You mustn’t be afraid of bugs,” Kari told her. “Even the big old ugly ones you should be willing to confront.”

Brita asked, “I wonder, do you mind?” She moved the arm with the baby, demonstrating its heaviness.

“Oh?” After a moment’s hesitation, Kari reached for the infant.

“It’s okay,” the sister said. “You’ll do fine.”

“I should probably get used to this.” Kari took the weight of the child in her hands and pulled it to her chest.

Brita helped to settle the baby on Kari’s shoulder. “Just pat him on his back like this.”

Kari was tense, her spine rigid, her legs and feet held still. The baby had a sweet milky smell about it that Kari found unpleasant.

“Where’s your husband?” Kari asked Brita.

She tugged at her braid. “He’s gone to war.”

“Oh,” Kari said this sadly, but she thought, how lucky for him.

For most of the day, Kari held the baby. When the meal was ready, she ate with one hand.

“She’s always fought sleep,” Brita confided with good-humored aggravation. “I can’t just lay her down or she’ll scream to the gods.”

Kari held the baby because she knew the mother needed a break. Essentially, she must be holding the child all the time and doing her sweeping or stirring with one hand only. Not an easy task. Kari held the child because she felt a need to help the mother, a woman-to-woman thing, but as for any joy of attaching herself to new life or of caring and providing, well . . . she’d best get used to it she supposed.

After they ate, they lounged on the porch of the farmhouse, and when Kari sat back in her chair, the baby tense, squirmed, and turned red in the face. Kari struggled to keep him from falling while his arms and legs flailed and his mouth puckered and let loose with a long wail. His body wriggled violently and Kari clutched him firmly, her fingers digging into soft baby flesh and the infant crying louder.

Brita jumped from her seat, but Erik was quicker. “I’ve got this,” he said. He pried the baby from Kari’s grip and placed it upon his shoulder, arched his back, and skipped about the porch with a rocking horse lope to his gait. All the while, he patted the baby on the back and sang to him. His was a soft voice, gravelly on the edges but sweet in the center. He sang a folktale of a magic swan that gave the gift of love to children. “The land is warm and bright, little one. Feel the love. Feel the sun.” The child stilled immediately, losing himself to the swaying, soon dropping off to sleep, his pudgy cheek squished into its eyes while he rode Erik’s shoulder.

Brita said, “Nothing more wonderful than a sleeping baby.”

Kari looked at the precious innocence and something stirred her. “Wow,” she said to Erik, “you really are a magic man.”

“Isn’t he though?” Brita agreed. “You’re so lucky.”

At last, after Fundin hitched the horse to the carriage and Brita and Magdalena sat up high, Erik lifted the infant to its mother, and even though he had been carrying the sleeping child, when the mother pulled her son close, it was Kari who felt the relief of a burden lifted as if from her own arms.

Fundin was off in the tree line to stay away from the dreaded sun and he was enjoying an after-dinner mug of ale. Kari stood with Erik holding hands while they waved to the carriage and watched it round the bend. When it was lost to the trees. Kari sighed and said, “We need to talk.”

They found their way out to the clear and clean spot in the woods and sat upon the fallen log.

#

Erick waited patiently for her to speak, and the cold crept into him. They lived too far north for the sun’s radiant heat to permeate the shadows, and as such, the chill in the air was so common he never noticed usually. Usually, but as he watched Kari cross her arms over her chest, placing her hands on the points of her shoulders as if for warmth, he too acknowledged the chill. She paced the length of the log while Erik sat with both feet on the ground and his hands folded together and tucked between his knees. He waited for her to speak her mind and he could tell she was working herself up for that.

He had noticed early in their relationship she was quiet and reserved about sharing her feelings with words as if they seeped through a multi-layered filter, her thoughts expressed after long pauses with eyes half-closed. He figured that was the soldier in her, an occupation rewarding the hive mentality and discouraging individualism. She could shout the mantra of attack. Soldiers, when attacking a dragon, were better to advance as an organized squad, each filling a role relative to the others, each acting to the script. The lone hero was a discouraged myth; and yet, Erik saw early that the Brave Hero was who his new love strove to be, her expression of this percolated stutteringly.

He sat on the log and waited while she paced. She had asked him to come here so they could talk, and now, he would have to wait until she was ready.

At last, she paused her walking and rubbed the back of her neck, slipping her hand in under long strands of golden hair that glittered even in the filtered forest light. Her lips parted, started to speak, hesitated, stuttered, and then the words came forth. Erik leaned forward, wanting to catch every nuance on the first rendition, not wanting to stall her further by asking her to repeat herself. Sometimes when she talked, the words rolled around in her mouth but didn’t make a clean escape, coming out more as conversation heard from the other side of a wall, an apt metaphor for her perhaps, speaking from the other side of the wall.

She said, “I noticed how good you are with the baby.” She paused, and he was about to say something to encourage her to speak further, but she waved this off and continued, soon gaining her flow. “You are good with children, Erik, and I’m not interested in this calling. Raising them, burping them, changing their swaddling clothe: none of this is my desire.”

She started to speak more but instead drifted off to thought with mouth agape. Erik was about to interject, but she waved him off. She was ready. Erik braced himself because whatever burned her to say would surely scald him to hear.

She got to the meat of it, enunciating deliberately. “If we are to have this child then I think it would be best if it were to stay with you.”

Erik made no deceit of his confusion. His mind was dull. “What?”

“Here on the farmstead and with you in the boatyard, your life is of the land and fertility, you are good with children, great with them actually, and I have seen this so clearly today, as you cooked the meat and then rocked the baby.”

“These are just things that I do,” he said warily. Where was she going with this?

“I need to go to war.”

He noticed heavily the emphasis on the word need. “But you are with child.”

“And in a few months I won’t be.” She stared at him earnestly with the blue of her eyes radiating. She was so pretty. His heart melted whenever she looked at him that way, the same inflection that drew him to her bed in the first place. Her words came measured. “I want to leave the baby with you.”

Anger rose within him, but he quelled the destructive force before it possessed his tongue. Now it was his turn to talk evenly and deliberately. “The baby will stay with me. And you too. As my wife. We are to be a family. You may not want this.” Here he had to pause and regroup himself. “But you will do it. It is ordained. You are with child. I am the father. We are to be together to provide for the child as best we can. It is our duty.”

“My duty is to my king.”

Hot breath slowly exhaled from his nostrils. “No, your duty now is to our family.” Feeling a loss, he hurried his words to fill the hole before he sank into the confusing emotion. “I have a nice home and an occupation—” He did not plan to follow through with his next words, but in the heat of passion he was unrestrained. “—and it is a good occupation that is ample for the three of us; but true, I understand where you are coming from because I too had bigger plans. I was to be a lobbyist and be at home in the court, dressed splendidly, eating savory, partaking of the finest mead, aged in oak. I have the skills of persuasion required so this was not simply a pipe dream, a way to while away the hours on the farm or under my father’s tutelage in the boatyard. This could have happened. The Norn had decreed so at my birth. Don’t you believe in the Norn?”

“I do, and I am to be a warrior. And you are a boat builder because if your dream was real you would have traveled to the court and taken up residence there, but you didn’t because this was only a fancy and nothing you had the fortitude to make into a reality.”

He burned, and she must have noticed because she quickly changed her tone. “Listen, honey, the reason you did not go to court is not a bad one. You stayed here because this is where you belong in the destiny of things. You are a wonderful builder of boats, and as we have seen this afternoon, you will be a wonderful care provider to our child. This is your true destiny, and surely you must know that you are meant for these roles that are more . . .” Here she hesitated as if searching for the word. At last she realized it. “Sensitive. You are the more sensitive. And surely you must be aware of this because you have been gifted with the magic of Seidr, which is also called witchcraft, which is also called . . .”

She didn’t say it, but he knew the word to follow. Feminine. He was sensitive, yes, and he was versed in the ways of the witch, true, but he was not effeminate. He wanted to cuss but held his tongue until better words could be found.

“It’s just,” she ventured, “I’m actually doing something about my dream. And that’s because, my dream is actually my destiny.”

“A mother leaving her child to go off to war? And then to die in battle, for that is the goal, is it not? You think life will be better when you’re dead because why?”

She tugged at her dress. “Playing house is cute, but after the baby, I’m donning my chainmail once again and hoisting a sword. The baby can play in the dirt while you hew wood. It’s a good plan.”

Erik’s jaw was too tight to allow words out. His eyes burned with fury and betrayal.

“Thank you for the lovely day,” she said. “I’ll walk myself back home. I need the time to clear my head.”

Erik had nothing to say, or at least, that he could say. Though, once she was out of sight he did speak. He implored to the chilled air, “Don’t go.”

#

On her way down the hill, while she tried to empty her mind and emotion by absorbing the rhythm of step, Kari suddenly pulled up short. Her nostrils twitched with an acrid smoky scent. Something pulled her back into the moment. And that something was a dragon.

SIX

At the crest of a knoll, Kari stopped because just on the other side was a huge set of dragon wings spread out before her blocking the way. In the middle of these wings was the dragon standing upright on its hind legs with its foreclaws scratching the air high above her. Even higher for this thing was gigantic, on the end of a serpentine neck, the head bobbed and a forked tongue flickered past sharp teeth.

Kari’s hands were too light and flew up easily, too light and too easily because they held nothing when they should have been carrying a sword and shield. Her hands flew up in supplication and her face contorted with fear. She stepped backward, rocking onto her heels and her spine tilted away from the beast. Here she was defenseless with the hem of her dress impeding her movement and her long hair falling over her eyes. In this helpless moment she was straight up a damsel in distress, and this pissed her off immensely. She stopped her retreat and pulled her locks from her face ferociously. She recalled how her knees had weakened when facing off with the replica at practice earlier, so she willed herself to stay upright and not to cower. The training session had done some good and thanks for that.

The eyes of the beast high above her glowed red, and curls of smoke drifted from its pronounced nostrils. Kari had lived the full extent of her young life without ever seeing a real live dragon before. In fact, she had often wondered if dragons were indeed real or simply a myth and manifestation of collective fear, or in the least, were beasts that had lived ages ago but no longer. The acrid stench and the glow of the eyes gave her every reason to accept the reality of the moment. Maybe she was dreaming or in the trance of Seidr magic and experiencing a very good hallucination—maybe Erik was doing this to her with a spell cast from afar—but the way all her senses were engaged made her believe this was the real deal. She was facing a dragon and she was unprepared.

When confronted with a dragon, according to conventional wisdom, she was not to cower but was to rise to full height and spread her arms wide to counter the beast’s aggression with a firm stance of her own. And so she did, and she growled, doing a good job of maintaining presence; but really, in this matter, conventional wisdom was a joke. The dragon did a much better job of intimidation, being better suited all around, larger, sharper, its edges jagged and its skin scaled. And when it came to waving appendages, the dragon had six including the wings, seven if adding the head on the long neck, and why not? Seven appendages to intimidate its quarry with. The beast was superior in every way, but Kari vowed not to falter. If she were to die she would do so bravely and hope to see a woman riding a winged horse on the other side. Maybe the baby could come too, but this was a dim thought she had no time to consider further because this was the moment of Do and damn the consequences.

The dragon lunged at her, springing forward from its back legs with its mouth open. The only good thing, the dragon was upon her so fast she had no time to react, not even to scream like a girl. Its foreclaws dug into her shoulders, and with a wide sweep of its wings, the beast lifted Kari from the ground. With sharp pain jabbing her shoulders and her feet dangling helplessly and flailing in vain hope of finding something to perch upon—but there was only air about her now—together they rose to the sky. Terror consumed her, and her mind fell into her body, all her senses going black and submissive to the mighty force that overwhelmed and controlled her.

When she came back to her body, trembling as if waking from a nightmare, and looked through her eyes once again, she found herself crumpled into a heap and nestled in amongst a bed of straw. Pain pierced from many points about her shoulders. Her spine was stiff and complained when she raised her arms to gather her hair and guide it back behind her ears. Her vision was at first short, taking in only the straw, but then she looked further and the first things she saw were the eggs. Trying to get her mind back into working order, she forced herself to count them, and there were one, two, three eggs, each longer than she was tall, their skin leathery and light blue.

The dragon was not to be seen, and after taking in the eggs she looked up to a canopy of broad leaves sheltering her. She was about to look over the edge of the straw heap but a voice stopped her. “I wouldn’t look down.” The voice was deep and male and resonant. She turned her attention and took in the large muscular frame of a giant. He was maybe ten feet tall, not a mythical giant, but an actual Frost Giant with blue skin and no shirt to cover the bulge of his muscles. She had always believed Frost Giants were the enemy, tasked to end the world in joint force with the army of the dead, but now that she found herself lost and confused in a dragon’s nest, she resigned herself to accepting any port in a storm. She asked, “What’s happening?”

He pointed at the eggs with his own resigned look upon his face. “When they hatch we are to be their first meal.”

“Nice,” she said, noticing for the first time the cracks upon the shells. “Won’t be long now, huh?”

SEVEN

The sun was low on the horizon when the Light Elf appeared to Erik. Erik was sitting on the porch with his feet propped on the rail, but despite his relaxed appearance he was unsettled within, thinking about Kari. She wanted him to raise the child while she went off to war. He, raise a child alone? Nonsense. He was a man and unequipped for the task. What was he supposed to do if the child cried? He couldn’t very well hew it as if it were a stubborn piece of wood unwilling to fit with the others in the boat, now could he? True, he had proven he could simply place the child on his shoulder and quell its distress, but in his aggravation, he chose not to recognize this.

When Erik noticed the Light Elf standing in the yard before the porch he wasn’t sure if he were seeing something real or an apparition. Light Elves, with their nearly translucent skin and blond to the point of white hair could easily be either of flesh or spirit. This elf before him, like all the elves, looked nearly human expect for his skin tone and pointy ears. Elves were a distinctly different creatures from fairies and pixies and such. No wings, weren’t small, didn’t sparkle. They glowed though, and were freakishly beautiful, even the males as was this one that had appeared in Erik’s yard.

Strange and unsettling, especially the way these alluring males could stir unwanted feelings in heterosexual men, but best to get to the point. He pulled his boots from the rail and planted them firmly on the deck. He leaned forward and asked the elf, “Are you real?”

“As real as anything.”

Was its voice disturbing the air or were the waves transmitted silently and vibrating only in the mind? Erik wasn’t sure, and this was another unsettling thing about elves. Noticing his own agitation at this uncertainty, Erik reminded himself that it didn’t matter. Of the flesh or of the spirit, elves lived on the boundary of two realms, were bi-worldly, so to speak. So, upon accepting this, Erik asked what mattered most. “Why are you here and what do you want?”

Erik had never been visited by an elf before, and he was aware not being visited was a blessing because elves seldom appeared to humans except in times of dire trouble. Erik waited for the elf’s response anxiously.

Without apparent movement, the elf shifted and now stood on the porch with his hand placed upon Erik’s shoulder. When touched, Erik saw the vision the elf shared.

Kari’s face was troubled with her brow knitted and her mouth corkscrewed. Next to her was a Frost Giant. That couldn’t be good, and worse, the giant looked scared too. What could cause a giant fear? Oh, that. Yes, that. So not good. A baby dragon’s head peeked out of a cracked shell. Erik shuddered at the vison, but he did not push the elf’s hand from his shoulder to break the connection because he needed to see. Kari was in trouble.

Erik never doubted the validity of the vison the elf projected. Erik sought the dark eyes and beseeched them. “You must show me the way.”

Before following the elf, Erik grabbed the best weapon he could find. With his ax over his shoulder, the two walked along the forest path. Erik was worried about Kari, sure, but he was also strangely happy. This should work out well, he thought. He would slay the dragon with his ax and save Kari. After that, she’d have to calm the crap down about running off to war. She’d have to stay on the farm and raise their child and be his wife. How dare she try to effeminize him with her stupid suggestion he be the one to raise the child. So what if he knew the Seidr magic, a mostly woman’s art? These things were not absolutes but simply a point along a continuum. Men could know magic. Women could be fighters. But there were limits to how far from the norm they should slide. With a good old-fashioned ax upon his shoulder Erik was about to set them right.

They began to climb a steep hill with more rock outcroppings than plant life other than moss and lichen. Except, when he looked up, Erik saw at the peak a large tree standing alone, its branches spread wide and silhouetted against the twilight. Erik couldn’t believe the dragon’s nest was so close to his farm. They had just walked there in fifteen minutes—or what seemed like fifteen minutes at the time, but now the sky was growing dark. The elf must have done something weird with time and the perceptions associated with its passing. Time and space—the separation and melding of the realms—was the elf muddling and manipulating these relationships? That was some serious magic if he were, certainly more than Erik was capable of with his psychological tricks and misdirection induced with the wave of a hand or a babbling incantation. But for those of the boundaries, elves and gods, maybe this bending of the path was simple.


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