Chapter 1. Sigurd
Regin, Hreidmar’s son, was then come to Hialprek; he was the most skillful of men, and a dwarf in stature; he was wise, cruel, and versed in magic. Regin undertook the instruction and bringing up of Sigurd, and bore him great affection.
I held the firewood close to my chest with my left arm and walked down the path. The birds were calling to each other in the trees and there were rustling sounds and animal footsteps as I walked closer to the forge. It was three o’clock in the afternoon, and the clouds still covered the sky like a blanket.
Even though it was summer, Regin made me collect wood for his forge. The fire had gone down only a few hours ago, and he’d been forced to stop working on the mithril shirt he was making. Chainmail rings take a lot of work especially when they’re made of mithril, which is what elves call it. “Some people would literally give their eyeteeth for it.” he says. Humans call it dwarves’ silver. Dwarves call it silversteel. That’s what it translates to in English. It’s the same stuff in dragons.
I sighed loudly and swore. An old dwarven curse. “Motsognir’s ax!” Why couldn’t he do it? Then I’d have more time to practice archery. My aim was getting rusty. He said that because I was his son, I had to help him out. His idea of what “helping out” means is “have me collect wood every time he needed some.”
I guess I kind of understand why he does that, but it doesn’t make me want to do it any more than I already do. I’d rather practice archery or chess or languages or something else except gather firewood.
Now that I was about seven miles away from the forge, I could see the village in front of me. Most of the houses were made of sod or stone, with turf roofs and runes carved on the doors. You can tell who’s dwarven and who’s human by checking if there are runes on the door and a bottom staircase which looks like it doesn’t lead anywhere. Stairs leading further and further down, but no matter how much you look you can’t find where it ends.
Those stairs actually lead to underground rooms where valuable stuff’s stored and extra guests sleep. People hold ceremonies in there too. Dwarves love stone houses, runes and underground passageways. Men don’t really mind. Regin says the runes are for protection. Without them burglars think it’s easy to break into your house. “My old neighbor when I was a kid didn’t have any runes, and one day they found his house had been broken in and that he was dead in a field. ”
I tightened my grip on the wood as I got nearer to home. The stone door under the right window, directly beneath the roof, opened instantly when I pushed it, recognizing my touch. It’s carved with runes saying “This is the house of Regin son of Hreidmar of the House of Durin and his foster son, Sigurd son of Sigmund of the House of the Volsungs. A curse on strangers who enter without leave.” The fire glowed in front of me as I entered the hall. I adjusted the front of my shirt near the buttons and took off my shoes, placing them in front of the window.
“I’m back!” I yelled, rushing into the passageway. The dim light was just enough to see where I was going.
“Sigurd?” Regin said in Dwarvish. His voice echoed down from a few doors back.
I guessed he was either still working on whatever he’d started this morning before I left the house, or he’d started on something else. The mithril shirt lay half-finished next to him. Its rings gleamed in the dim lamplight behind the half-open door, making me think of great hoards of treasure in ancient halls under mountains. “That you?”
“Sure. Who else would it be?” I called back. Does he think someone would break in or something? By Sudri, he was suspicious of everything. Who’d come to a Dwarven village like Durin’s Forge? Or to a house like this? We’ve got nothing here except smithing tools and a money bag with just enough to live on. Maybe they’d want to steal the mithril though. It’s rare.
He laughed. “Ah, Sigurd, you’re funny. You make my life brighter. I’m here in the forge. Come in.”
I walked out of the front room and down the corridor to the big room opposite my and his bedrooms, and sat myself down on a stool, which was one of the only pieces of furniture in the room other than another stool behind the bench, which he was sitting on. There were parts on the bench including clumps of horsehair. Legs, hooves, eyes, bits of manes and tongues. From steam horses. They’re made of steel and body parts created in petri dishes, but they’re just like real horses with a difference. They have an “off” switch in their necks.
There isn’t much light in there. Just a lamp on the bench next to a pile of tools. It’s enough for him to work in. It’s like a dwarven mine. Even has the stone walls. The room is full of piles of stuff; metal, tools, little objects he makes to sell for extra cash like hair beads and boxes. Toys. He looked up from his hammering straight at me, his eyes peering out through his long black hair and the braids in his beard. His hair goes down to his shoulders.
He and I have dark complexions and long hair. He’s “much tougher than any human,” and is shorter and stockier than me, even though he’s tall for a dwarf. It’s more obvious now because of my growth spurt. His hair is much straighter than mine, with grey hairs, and his eyes are green and deep-set. “Nearly everyone of Durin’s line has them. Not my sister Lyngheid, however. She took after my grandmother, my father’s mother.” That’s what he said when I asked.
I have tight curly black hair, deep-set brown eyes and dark brown skin. When I was little, he sprayed it with water and combed it, then braided it the way his hair was done.
Since last month my beard has grown in. I’m going to tie it in the middle the way he does his. I’m a son of the Durin clan too, after all. The statues in front of the palace in Nidavellir all have beards tied in the middle to show their status.
I showed it to him when I first saw it. He got a bit weird for him. Sentimental. “So my little Siggy’s grown up! You’re a man now. A few years ago I was teaching you how to write and use a sword and tucking you in bed.” Then he looked at me really closely.
“I expect a lot more of you now that you’re an adult. You’d better not make any stupid mistakes and be a credit to me.” I promised him I would. “And you must take good care of your beard. Remember what I say. It’s—“
“ — a higher honor to have a short beard than none at all.” I finished the dwarvish saying. It’s one of his favorites.
“I hope you’re never in a situation where it could be cut.” His tone changed to the one he used when he was telling me something hugely important. “But if it does, call me and I’ll take you home. Better get ready for the feast.” he muttered.
The last I saw of him for a few seconds was his head poking around the front door before it shut and singing something in Dwarvish. Almost a second later thousands of dwarves were crowded around our table, eating and drinking. Everyone congratulated me on finally becoming an adult when I came in. I got a whole tankard of ale to myself. Hepti gave me a gold chain. A silversteel disc carved with runes hangs off it. Thekk gave me hair beads and a blessing that my beard would grow longer and thicker. I got a shortsword from Lit and had to put up with jokes about humans’ beards.
Regin threw a brand and small hammer into the fire and asked Motsognir to protect me. He poured a large bottle of beer into glasses and they all toasted me. “To Sigurd!”
“So, how are you, kid? Just put the woodpile down here.” He wore overalls over his long dark blue tunic and leggings with a black belt.
Dáin was there. He has long red hair and doesn’t braid his beard, just wears it loose.
“OK.” I said. I set the pile on the floor and the ax next to it, then wiped the sweat off my forehead with the back of my hand. For the next few minutes the only sound in the smoke-filled room was Regin hammering and Dáin pumping the bellows. He’d been doing that since I’d come in.
“Hey.” I said to Dáin.
No answer from him.
“Don’t worry, Sigurd. I had to wait five years until he talked to me.” Regin said.
I realized what he was saying. If a dwarven prince of The House of Durin has to wait, the heir of the Volsungs is no different. “You’ve got to prove yourself first. And that can take a long time. One day you’ll get something. Maybe even soon.”
“OK?” He suddenly got up from his chair, pushing it away to the side, against the wall. “Leave us, Dáin.”
After Dáin walked out of the room, Regin walked over to the door and gestured to me to follow him over to the bench. Then he made me sit down on the stool Dáin had sat on and looked around the room, opening all the drawers and closets and looking out the window, then gazing back inside the drawers. He knelt down, looking everywhere as if he thought someone was hiding in the forge.
I almost laughed. It would’ve been funny if I hadn’t known that he was completely serious. His face looked even more grim than usual. And that’s saying something.
He usually looks like that, but this look was different. He looked like he was going to battle. For a while I saw a flash of what he must have looked like when he was younger, before he had me to look after. I suddenly remembered a line about the lord of silver fountains coming into his own. It was from a book, something he’d read to me for the first time when I was three. He looked as if it reminded him of something. But when I looked at him he picked it up again and the look disappeared as he went on reading. He probably thought I hadn’t noticed. When he finally finished the book, he looked drained and tired and flopped down onto his bed.
“…answer my question.”
I stared at him and pushed away thoughts of the essay I needed to write. “What?”
He turned to me and looked me straight in the eye. “You haven’t been listening for the last five minutes, have you, Sigurd? You’re thinking about your assignment. ” I looked at him closely from the wooden stool. My feet felt cold on the bare floor. Of course I hadn’t. He hadn’t said anything beyond asking me how I was. “I told you to tell me if anything happened.” Again, when had he said that?
“What!? You didn’t ask me anything.” Damn dwarf. He looks at you and expects you to figure out his thoughts as soon as he figures out yours. Even when he doesn’t say anything. Like some sort of mind-reader. Odin, it was so frustrating.
“By the beards of Motsognir, Nordri, Sudri, Austri, Vestri and Durin… “ He shrugged. “Never mind. I thought I did. Anyway, did anything happen out there, child?” There was a concerned expression on his face. He glanced at me and held on to the hilt of the dagger at the side of his belt, without taking his eyes off my face.
What was he talking about? I hadn’t gone near any Orc strongholds. He’d warned me enough about them to put me off ever going near one. He said you could recognize one by the symbol. Orcs have different symbols depending on what tribe they’re from and who they work for. “You know there are other ways to be hurt.” The tone of his voice was one I almost never heard except when he talked about his past. He’s obsessed with the thought of me being hurt.
“Did you go near the building with a white handprint? You need to watch out for Andvari’s Orcs. His power’s waning, and he’ll do anything to get it back and hold on to what left of it he’s got.” His voice was almost a whisper as he said Andvari’s name.
I pulled my jacket closer around myself. “He could destroy both of us.”
Andvari breeds Orcs. Regin says he’s knowledgeable about ring lore. “Before he got to where he is today, he was a miner. Not too bad as a smith either. Makes mining much easier. I’ve discovered a lot of information about him ”
”Nuh.” I said. It was true. “Nothing like that happened. No Orcs, no giants or trolls. Now can I leave? I’ve got homework to do. Which you set me. If you don’t let me do it...”
He looked away for a bit, then looked back at me, holding my gaze for a few seconds. It seemed like longer. His expression changed. “Aye, I don’t like the idea of you in a stew pot, because you wouldn’t taste all that good.” He laughed, but it sounded slightly bitter.
“Talkin’ of stew, go to your room and do your work. Come out in a few minutes. I’m getting dinner ready.” As I left the room, he walked into the kitchen and opened a cupboard, then picked up a steel pot with his left hand and a ladle with his right.
I got up and dashed out of there into the second-largest room at the back. My bedroom. It’s the fifth and last room in the house, with a shelf for all my stuff and a lamp on the wall next to my bed and table and chairs. I sat down on the chair after taking my pencil case and my workbooks, notebooks, and textbooks labeled with my name off the shelf. I’m tall enough to reach it, even if it’s inches above the bed.
On one wall there’s a number of baby pictures of me; mostly of me in a cradle and playing with toys Regin had made, and one of Regin holding me. I was wrapped in a white blanket and sucking on a sugar tit, a pacifier that’s basically a lump of sugar tied up in a rag. Lóni, one of the women, must have taken it. He made a chest for the toys and moved it against the wall, under the pictures. A piece of black string attached to a bronze horn trailed down to the floor.
The horn had been a birthday present when I was three. He watched me looking at something on TV and called my name. Then he called me again and I toddled closer. “Your birthday’s coming up in two months. You’re going to be big. Three years old. What do you want for a present?”
“A horn.” I said.
“Alright. I’ll make you one.’’ On the day, I found a little package on the table after breakfast.
I ripped off the tape and wrapping and found a small horn carved from bronze hanging on a black rope at the end. I put my mouth into the hollow bit and blew hard, sending a few loud blasts through the room. “Ah, guess I don’t need to ask whether you like it.”
I pulled the rope over my head, wearing the horn on my neck.
“Try it when I’m in another room.”
“Why?” It wasn’t like I didn’t want him to leave me alone. But how come he couldn’t watch me play it in the kitchen?
“To see if it works properly.”
“Because things don’t always work, Sigurd.”
“Why don’t they always work?”
“People make mistakes.” His voice was strained. “Just do what old Regin wants you to. Play your horn again where I can’t see you.”
“Okay.” He opened the door, closing it as he walked down the corridor. I lifted it up and blew softly. Then he came back in. “This horn will help me find you if you get lost.” he told me. “I won’t have to keep calling you.”
“It’s fun.” I said. “Look, I can make it sound different.” I started playing a number of low notes, then some high ones. “See?”
“Yes, I see. Keep it on your neck. Don’t take it off.”
“It’ll stop you losing it. I worked very hard to make it for you and it will take me a long time to make another one. If you don’t have it on I mightn’t be able to find you.”
For the last few minutes I worked through all my homework, starting on my essay that he’d given me. It was about the components of a blacksmith’s forge. I’d just finished the first paragraph, when something made me look up at the window. I put aside my homework.
The air felt kind of cold. There was a nuthatch on my windowsill. Chills suddenly ran down my spine. It had blue-grey feathers, a yellow body and beady eyes. And it was looking at me. It looked as it wanted to tell me something, but I couldn't understand what it. I picked up my pencil again and went back to my work, but then dropped it. What’s the use? That bird spooked me out so much I wouldn’t be able to concentrate. There’s no point doing work if you can’t concentrate.
In the kitchen across the passageway, Regin was stirring something in the pot. I could see him in my mind, stirring as hard as he hammered to make horseshoes and nail them to hooves, as hard as he worked on gates and grilles in the forge opposite the kitchen.
The noises coming out were louder and sounded ominous even though I’d heard them all before. They were as familiar as the sight of smoke and smell of burning iron from the forge, where I spent almost all my life.
When I was five, I played with the hammers whenever they happened to fall down the shelf until he told me not to. “Because they’re dangerous. You’re not old enough to use them yet, kid. They ain’t toys like the ones I made you. Y’know, when you’re older, I’ll show you how to use ‘em.” He put his hands on my shoulders then hugged me. “My Sigurd. I love you. If you just paid a little more attention to your other lessons, you could do even better than how you’re doing now.”
And when I got to be about ten and wore long pants for the first time instead of knickerbockers, I started helping him out. He showed me, or tried to, how to make swords, daggers, nails, horseshoes and cutlery, and how to shoe horses and trim hooves. About the only things I remember from those sessions of hitting metal into shape on an anvil are how to use a hammer, reforge broken items, and shoe a horse. He wasn’t upset about it at all, which surprised me.
Why would he teach me if he didn’t want me to be good at it? He home-schools me because I‘m gifted. “Ah, but what else can you expect of a Volsung? That brain of yours is like a sponge. It soaks up everything.”
Later on, just a few months ago, he decided that I should start training in blacksmith skills. I have to help him in the forge once every day. It isn’t something I’d do by myself. “Because,” he says, “you need to learn how to cope with problems when they turn up.”
The sound from across the passageway had changed. He was taking down the pot. But it sounded louder than usual and gave me the same uneasy feeling as before. My mouth watered; I’d gone without lunch because of collecting wood.
It was difficult to walk down the passage to the kitchen. First of all, the lamps along the wall seemed to make me think of how bright it was in my room in comparison to the hallway, which was dark and looked like the inside of a tunnel.
When I finally entered the kitchen, the heat from the stove was so intense I felt like I was inside an oven. The room was tiny, but now the bars on the window made it look like a jail cell. Regin pushed the pot slowly up the top of the stove. “Are you hungry?”
“Just sit down and I’ll get us some food.” I did and so did he. It was roast chicken with carrots and mashed potatoes. Just as I ate my third spoonful, he told me to get up and close the door. We ate the rest of our meal in silence.
In the middle of dinner, I pushed my fork into the carrots and mashed potatoes and chewed for a few minutes. “Regin?”
“What?” He swallowed his food. “Don’t talk with your mouth full, lad.”
I swallowed and remembered the way he’d gazed out of the window as if he thought he was being stalked or there was something or someone out there. It was creepy. He’s always protective of and worried about me. But this seemed weird. I couldn’t explain it. And then there was the way he’d acted back in the forge.
It was his “I want to tell you something” look, which I knew meant “something serious.” And that could be anything.
I remembered what he’d said about the world being “full of hidden dangers.”
He warned me about them often. “You’d better be careful goin’ out at night. There’s lots of dark things out there, sleeping in deep places.”
“What’s going on?” There. It was out. I wasn’t talking with my mouth full now.
He was silent for about five minutes. “What do you mean?”
“You stared out the window in the forge. Why?” I looked at him and waited for him to close up suddenly, his way of saying Discussion over.
“I’m worried, that’s all. I’ve got something important to talk to you about, but it can wait until we’re done and washing up.” His warm deep voice echoed in the room. If it was so important, why wait?
I picked up another forkful of roast chicken and stuck it into my mouth. It tasted like rubber now. “Can’t you just say it now? What’s so important?”
After a few minutes, he sighed and said, “Do you still want to eat that?,” looking over at my plate, which was half cleared.
“No! You aren’t answering my question!” I cried. I pushed my plate away.
He sighed. “Alright. I can’t tell you the whole thing in one breath. It’s too long. Do you remember anything about the story of how I came to take you in?”
I nodded. “Yeah. Bits of it. My mother’s name was Hjördis, she died. My father’s name was Sigmund, he died in combat. Why?”
“Well,” he said, “I ever tell you how she died?”
I shook my head and swallowed my last spoonful of food before the spoon clanked down over the bowl again.
“I think I should.” He picked up his spoon, scooped up more food and chewed it for a while. “You’re old enough to hear the whole story. I saved telling it to you until you were old enough.”
I waited. After another gulp of his ale, he began.
“One fall afternoon fifteen years ago, I came home to this village with a wallet stuffed with coins after a summer in the west wandering from town to town as a blacksmith along with a few cousins and friends. I’d slept in an attic for a good portion of the last month. Some folk pay a fair price for dwarven-made items. That’s the only thing we’re good for in human eyes. We’re made for it after all. Dwarven genes were designed —- planned, arranged and rewritten by scientists hundreds of years ago.
Others shortchange. This man, a farmer, happened to be fair, so I was satisfied to get such a good deal for my hard work. He’d paid me to work on his gates, shoe and look after his horses’ hooves, mend his knives and make toys for his children. At the end of my contract, he invited me to celebrate the autumn blót with his family. I went and drank my own toast to Motsognir. At the end I asked for my pay. Lofnheid, my younger sister, needed some money for food for my nephews and nieces; she’d married Frár Oinsson from the Iron Hills. Frár worked as a tinker, but he earned hardly anything.
It was a relief from what had happened the year before when I’d returned home empty-handed from one job. That employer was no different- he made me a promise to pay me for the best work. But he withheld my pay for months long after . I spend a lot of time on my work to ensure that it fits the highest standards. Eventually I realized it wasn’t coming and left.” His eyes flashed and narrowed in anger. Then they were back to normal again.
“One of my nieces died that spring. No milk. My sister nearly died too.” he said in a monotone.
“When I got to this house with the money hidden in my belt, I took out the pouch and put some of it away in a little carved box. You know, the one on the mantelpiece with a carving of Motsognir at his forge?” He paused for me to take it all in.
I nodded. It was the box where he kept his savings. He was very proud of his work, even checking and working on it several times to ensure it was perfect. No surprise that he’d never forgotten the man who cheated him.
“That’s one of the few things I took when…” his voice trailed off. “we left. Along with Rithil and my tools.”
He paused and then continued. He doesn’t like to talk much about his life before he lived in Durin’s Forge. I knew enough to realize that before fleeing to the Misty Mountains, his life had been very different. Bits and pieces told me that he and some of the older people once worked in forges in Nidavellir, in the Black Mountain, and that they had had everything there. It was like a dream. Gold, silver, iron, fertile land. Everyone had money because nearly all of them could sell the things they made. But now they had to wander around like beggars and work for every little coin they had, doing what work they were offered. He actually said “wander about like beggars.”
"Then the phone rang. I picked it up and heard a woman’s voice on the end of the line. It was higher than a dwarf’s, hoarse and choked, as if she was trying not to cry.
I recognized her but didn’t know who she was until a second later. “It’s Hjördis Vol—Anderson. You know, of the Lofdungs. I- I need help. I’m pregnant. I found…house on a map.”
When I heard that name, I knew I had to help her out. She and I knew each other back when she was about your age. Her father, Eirik Anderson Lofdung, gave me a pouch full of coins for some work I did on his horse. It was hard rearranging the code, but relatively easy finding enough ”
And she didn’t mind that I was a Dverg. Nor did her parents. In fact, her family was quite well-known in Durin’s Forge. Their relationship with Nidavellir stretched back centuries, starting from back when it wasn’t its own country but part of another one.
While I stayed at her parents’ house, she used to talk to me and offer me food occasionally. I knew she was genuine. Some people treat you well to your face, but behind your back they insult you. A man I met in a bar called me a maggot once. I had to restrain myself from throwing a punch at him or taking out my knife or battle-axe.”
Nearly every dwarf I know has been called a maggot. It’s the worst insult you can throw at them.
He went back to the story. “A few minutes later, there was a knock on the door. When I opened it, your mother limped inside. I was shocked at her appearance. How by great Motsognir’s hammer could someone look so drained and still manage to find their way here? How had she managed to make the journey? There was sweat all over her face, and almost all the brown color had been drained from her skin. I helped her into my bedroom, and she collapsed when I lifted her onto the bed. She winced in pain under the covers. “How did this happen?” I asked.
She mumbled, “Hunding… Sigmund.” I hadn’t meant to say it out loud, and I cursed again for not remembering that she could hear me or preparing myself for an answer, then said, “What happened to Sigmund, Hjördis?”
“Killed by an arrow.” She struggled to get her words out. “Lyngvi. He had so many wounds in him.”
I’ve seen many things in my life that are impossible to forget. You know so little of the world. Of course you’ve heard the stories, but that’s different. I hope you never see some of them. What she’d said was nothing compared to what I’ve seen. Men pierced by spears and used as catapults, heads decorated with enemy slogans and names.
Her forehead was like a corpse under my hand. I got two poultices, one hot, one cold, from the cupboard and placed the hot one on her forehead. Turning her over onto her back revealed that she had large gashes and bruises everywhere. There were some holes in her skin. Probably caused by arrows. Not human ones. Elvish, probably.
They’d found their mark quite accurately. Those arrows were fired by a quick-thinking Grim thoughts.
She protested, moaning in pain as I put my hand under her leg to look at it and rubbed ointment on her injuries. I boiled some water in a pot, got out a pile of rags and bathed and dressed her wounds.
She washed herself with the leftover water which I poured into the tin bath. I made some soup and gave her one bowl, which she managed to drink. As I covered her with a blanket, my thoughts turned to the hall under the mountain.
I could barely believe that I was a king in exile now that my father and grandfather were dead, a king due to my father’s choice who had a human woman in my house, and that she was with child.
Then I realized, noticing that she was now quiet, that I was in need of some help. I had no experience in this sort of thing beyond knowing a few spells and the uses of some herbs, which I’d learned in lessons long ago. It pained me to admit it, but if I didn’t do anything she might die. The injuries were manageable but the birthing was not. There was no choice between caring for her myself and risking the life of both her and her child—you.
I rushed to the phone to call Hepti. All my words ran together, but she knew what I meant. She’s experienced in midwifery, and knows how to brew potions, cast spells and carve runes.
She told me she would be there right away. While she prepared for the visit, I entered my bedroom to check on Hjördis. I touched her forehead and was relieved to find that there was no change. The little I could do was working. It seemed like a second later Hepti came in, looking around like she owned the place.”
I knew who he was talking about. She’s an older dark haired woman with coal black hair and a beard flecked with silver and dark brown eyes. I sometimes called her Amma- grandmother in Dwarvish- , which Regin insisted on me learning, even though very few non-dwarves had learnt it. It was old and they’d kept it secret for a long time. She wasn’t my grandmother in any sense. Not even in the way Regin was my father.
“Sire, how is it that Lady Hjördis came to be in your house?” she asked. She still addresses me as a king. She’s never been the kind of person to ignore rank, even in exile, as you know, and technically I‘m king. I’ve never been crowned, though. And your mother was a chieftain’s daughter.
I told her the whole story starting from the call. She listened without making any sounds except the occasional gasp and muttered comment. “Can I see her?”
“That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? Yes.” I walked out of the room, rounding the corridor and stopping at the open door of my bedroom. She followed me over to the bed and watched as I pulled apart the covers.
Her eyes were unreadable as she took in your mother’s paleness and the way she lay sprawled on the bed, her hands near the top of her head. As I looked over her shoulder, she questioned me on what I’d done before she arrived. She nodded at each of my answers and opened her bag. A knife, a basin, a pouch full of herbs (I could smell them),a pile of flannels and a few bottles including a small one of laudanum and another one containing rum landed on the table next to the bed.
She felt her forehead then turned to me, picking up a flannel. “Regin, get some frozen vegetables from the kitchen cupboard.” she said briskly. “I’ll make up the beds myself.”
I hurried out of the room and found a couple a handful of onions in the icebox in the kitchen. Luckily I’d left them uncut – onion rings wouldn’t work. I tried not to think about the possible irony. Back home, if things had been different, I would be giving the orders- or I usually would, but you can’t do that with someone like Hepti. She was one of the only people who could get away with ordering my father around.
Hepti took the onions from me and covered them with another flannel. She took a rope out of her pocket, hacked off a piece with her dagger and tied it to the edge of the cloth.
She placed the poultice on your mother’s forehead, tucking the blankets around her, looking at the rise and fall of her chest as she breathed. “She’ll be alright for now.” Her voice was lower. “I’ll give her a drink of water when she wakes.”
“We could take it in turns.” I said. “You’ll help with birthing and I’ll take care of her sickness and injuries — I know about that, at least, even if I’m not the healer you are.”
She nodded. “You must watch her during the night. We’ll each sleep when our shift is done.”
“You’ll do it first, I think.” I told her. “You know this better than me.”
She nodded again and pointed to the bed she’d made up on the couch. “You can sleep here. I’ll take the mattress.”
A minute later, Hjördis stirred and looked straight up at Hepti. “Who are you?” Her voice was hoarse and huskier than how it usually was; it was normally low but now she cleared her throat as she spoke. It was as frayed as a piece of old cloth. Poor thing.
“I am Hepti, daughter of Kíli, of Clan Ironfist of Durin’s folk.” Hepti introduced herself in dwarven style. She poured a glass of water and held it to Hjördis’ lips. “Drink this.” She took four gulps, swallowing it quickly. Her next cough was less harsh and sounded muffled. Hepti wiped her lips with a rag- a handkerchief embroidered with a boat pattern. “Rest a while. You’re safe in Durin’s Forge.”
We both kept a watch on her through the day and night, convincing her to eat, giving her water, adjusting her blankets, soothing her. Hardly got any sleep from being on alert into the evening. I got so tired I had to stop myself yawning in the middle of my sentences and could barely walk. Eventually Hepti told me to sleep and not to get up until it was my turn to look after Hjördis. “You’ll do it tomorrow. She’s been asking for you.”
“Alright. How is she?”
“Stable. Her fever’s down. I managed to get the potion down her throat.”
She called me ten minutes to seven the next night. I staggered off the couch and made my way over to the bed. Hjördis rolled around on the mattress and made a few noises to herself. Soon, though, she opened her eyes and said my name.
“Thank you,” she said. “For taking me in. I didn’t know of a place to go where I was. I could only just get out to come here.”
My face felt hot. I didn’t need to be thanked. I’d only done what any decent dwarf – or Man- would do. Who would just leave a person out in the cold like that?
“You’re…welcome. How did you get here?” My curiosity about that matter hadn’t gone away since the last night.
She didn’t say anything for a while. Finally she said, “I was at Fort Bjørnsgard in Mirkwood near Western Harbor, where the Geatish troops were stationed against Lyngvi and his men. They chose an ideal location for ambushes. We’d just gotten the message a week or so ago. It wasn’t really unexpected. Sigmund had been planning for this for a long time and I was on scouting duty, keeping an eye out for any suspicious activity at their base. I’d assigned myself the task.
I nodded. Western Harbor was four leagues away, bordered by Mirkwood on its southern edge. On its northern edge it was surrounded by sandy beaches and dunes.
She went on with her story. ”Flew southeast from West Gotaland to Askheim with my cloak on and detected lights in the ground. I got to their storehouse fairly easily. My cloak made me almost invisible, like a swan.
Probably because it was made of swan feathers and skin. No-one notices a swan in the night. There are duck ponds on their property, so I landed in the water and lived on scraps of bread thrown in the pond for weeks. Then I flew in through the storehouse window and scanned the room. They’d increased their arsenal. Bombs and assault rifles were piled on a heap of straw in the corner.
Reading the boxes gave me a good idea of where they were from. I landed on the straw and worked the radio transmitters on the wings of my helmet to send a broadcast to Sigmund back home. Then I thanked Odin that I was a Valkyrie. If I hadn’t made the decision to go to Valhalla when I was ten, I’d have been in a fix. I almost laughed to myself at the thought of not being a chooser of the slain. Maybe now, I thought, I can send this message to my husband quickly.
I came in through the hall’s front window and looked ahead to the northern wall. After taking off my cloak and pulling my hood’s red-black under layer off my mouth, I pulled my shawl together to protect myself from the cold. “Hjördis!” Sigmund cried, white hair flying behind him as he threw his arms around my neck. “What news?” I felt stress under his casual tone. His Swedish accent was thicker as he spoke.
Lowering my voice, I told him everything I’d seen at the storehouse. His eyes widened, looking bluer than ever. They were the same color as the sea outside sometimes. “We must start preparing right away.” He called Sam, his chief commander on the protection squad, to the front of the room and ordered him to tell the men to polish and prepare their weapons while he contacted our allies. They rarely polished them—half the shields in the weapons room were tarnished. He asked me to prepare protection spells for him. I spent almost an entire month weaving my best enchantments and reinforcing my galdr knowledge.
Last month Sigmund deployed with the Vinlandic National Guard, leading a regiment to Mirkwood.” She yawned.
“Go on,“ I encouraged her. “If you can.”
She yawned again. “I went with him, of course. A good Valkyrie always follows the camp to keep a watch on the warrior she’s bound herself to and serve as reinforcement in his fight. Like Sváva. Now,” she said, her voice getting hoarser, “I need to sleep.”
“Goodnight, friend.” I said, putting out the light. She muttered to herself then closed her eyes.
The next day, she stirred again. I climbed off the couch and felt her forehead. She felt more normal than before although her hands were still cold. But my heart told me it was the calm before the storm.
When she awakened, she continued her story. “Four weeks ago I discovered I was pregnant. I was supposed to have had my period three days before, on Sunday the 15th. I thought I was just late, but when I checked my calendar I knew. Not to mention the cramps.“ She clutched her stomach.” Just then I remembered something Hepti had told me. “Get her some pills if she starts cramping.” The shelf behind me was large and made of newly-polished redwood imported from the west. It was also groaning under the weight of numerous medicine bottles and boxes.
I reached up and took hold of one box. It had words written on it in black, in the letters of the common tongue. After breaking the seal on the pills, I filled the mug with water and pushed the pills back inside, closing the box. Then I approached the bed with a pill in one hand and the mug in the other.
“Here.” I crouched down, holding out the pill and mug. Her hand slowly rose from the blanket and plucked them out of mine. I couldn’t avoid gasping in horror as I touched her palm. Her hand was clammy. The sweat trickled off her brown skin. “Are you cold?”
“Yeah,” she answered. Her teeth chattered, the sounds echoing in the room as she slowly pulled the blanket around herself, covering the nightgown she wore, a white robe belonging to Hepti. She popped the pill into her mouth and took a gulp of water.
“Do you feel better now? Since you came here?”
She nodded and let herself flop back onto the pillow. I watched her close her eyes and looked away from the mass of black curls covering each side.
“Regin?” Her voice was so soft that I had to strain my ears to hear it.
“Check my leg.”
Durin, I’d forgotten. I steeled myself as I gently pried the bandage off. The wound was a mix of healed and still fresh. The healed bits had turned gray, but there were still flakes of skin and dried blood. It was as though an Orc was slowly possessing her and draining her life. I ripped a paper towel from the roll Víli had left on the bed.
The crack in the half-open door sent Hepti's noises to me. She was taking something out of the cupboard with a clatter. It made me jump a mile. “I’ll cook.” she’d said. Outside it was getting darker. I was longing for something to eat—I think the last time that had happened was when I’d been on patrol in the Eastfarthing Rangers. I don’t usually get hungry after I’ve had some food, no matter how long and I’d already eaten two hours ago.
I went back to brushing the skin flakes off my hand and reached for a roll of bandages and a pair of scissors. “Leave the dressing on for four more days and dab ointment every five minutes.” The long strip fell into my hand. Holding onto it with my left hand, I shoved the scissors back onto the shelf. She didn’t make a sound as I wrapped the bandage around her wound with one hand. I was getting used to doing things one-handed.