“And that over there is the bathhouse. After we meet with Hodon, we will head over there so the two of you can wash, and I’ve sent Viina to search for clean clothes that actually fit.” Logren snickered over at Finn, his amusement obvious from the glint in his eyes when Finn scowled.
“I don’t know how much longer I can wear these pants if I ever want to father children,” Finn grumbled. “I think they are cutting off the circulation in my…”
“I know I’ve already said as much, but you’ve built quite a city here,” Vilnjar changed the subject, taking in the vast city again.
Dunvarak was an overwhelming place, an unexpected surprise that could not possibly be fully appreciated under cover of darkness. He felt like some backwoods countryman seeing the world for the first time, even though he’d been as far into Leithe as Rivenn before his father was executed. He’d seen enough in his twenty-seven years that he’d come to know and love the hamlet he’d been raised in, but Drekne seemed almost pathetic when compared to Dunvarak.
Oddly, he did not feel near as homesick as he’d expected to in the depths of the tundra, and while they walked he took in everything around him.
Silver morning sunlight streamed through the invisible barrier that kept the city warm despite the frigid temperatures beyond their walls, making Dunvarak feel as warm and comfortable as the Edgelands in mid-summer. The people they passed on the streets as they made their way to Hodon’s hall wore light clothing, the fabric spun from a thin thread unlike any he’d ever seen before. Some of the children even ran through along the cobbled walkway without shoes, rushing through the four of them like obstacles as they chased one another in a spirited game of tag.
How different life might have been for him and his brother if they’d been raised in a place like Dunvarak, he lamented. Among such people, perhaps their mother might have even lived through the loneliness and grief and well into old age. Thinking of his mother always made him think of Ruwena. She would have faired well in a city like Dunvarak, a place where she was free to be herself. Perhaps there she might have even found a mate, if what he’d overheard Logren say during their travels were true. Barely an eligible woman over the age of twelve or under fifty. It was impossible to tell on first impressions if what he’d said were true, but the night before in the main hall he’d seen a lot of paired couples with small children, an overwhelming number of men and only a handful of maidens of marriageable age.
Though there had been that one beautiful young creature. The nervous muscles in his stomach twitched when he thought of her, wondering if he would even see her again in such a vast city, and if so what could he possibly say to her?
They were carefully scrutinized when they made their way through the streets, wary eyes watching them pass by with Logren, as if they expected the U’lfer to jump out of their skin and rampage through the city in beast form. A few of them even seemed to scoff with distaste, the way many of the U’lfer had been known to do when in the presence of their half-bred brothers and sisters, but Vilnjar didn’t let it get the best of him, even though he could feel Finn’s temper brewing beneath the surface.
Vilnjar had never bought into all that prejudice, and judging from the number of people that filled Dunvarak, neither had half the men his father had called shield brethren. Despite how rigidly his father had adhered to the ways of the U’lfer warrior, he had surrounded himself with U’lfer who’d taken human wives and husbands.
Rognar, for instance, had taken not one, but two human women as wives before he was executed, and had plans to reforge the U’lfer hierarchy to include those of half-blood. Men like Logren, Viln realized, turning a glance over in the other man’s direction. Had Rognar succeeded in his plan, he and Logren very well might have been sitting at a full council in Drekne, rather than stranded out in the middle of a frozen wasteland. In the end, his liberal attitude toward those of half-blood descent had been the very thing that turned the counsel against him and got him killed.
As much as he had resisted the unexpected change Lorelei’s sudden appearance in Drekne had brought to their lives, Viln thought he was finally starting to understand Rhiorna’s last words to him. They didn’t have to be a dying race, not if they banded together with those of the blood, no matter how thin the U’lfer blood that ran through their veins. And while he had no idea the extent of the task Yovenna had for Lorelei, it sounded as if there were a way the half-blooded could finally embrace their inner-wolves. A way his brother might be instrumental in bringing about.
“I really don’t get her at all, Viln. One minute she’s hanging on my every word like I’m the most important man in the world, and the next she’s in a huff with me and I don’t even know why.”
He glanced over at Finn, his eyes rolling as he realized his brother was still moping about Lorelei’s silent departure. As experienced as Finn thought he was with the fairer sex, he certainly had a lot to learn about women. “That is half your problem, brother? You really know nothing about women at all.” he nudged him with his elbow, but it barely budged the big ox.
“This coming from the guy who hasn’t been laid in at least two years,” he muttered. “I just don’t understand what I said that made her so mad at me.”
“Everything you seem to say makes her mad at you.” He wasn’t falling for his brother’s goading. Instead he snorted a laugh and lifted his gaze in the direction of the smithy across the street. “Maybe you should stop talking altogether if you ever want to win her ov…”
Vilnjar’s voice trailed into stunned silence and he stumbled a little over his own feet as he watched the fair-haired young woman he’d seen at the gathering the night before bring the heavy head of the hammer in her hand down to strike the glowing orange blade she was shaping on the anvil in front of her. She had her hair drawn back and tied at the nape of her neck with a strip of leather, and the pale, loose locks around her face clung to the beads of sweat that decorated her soot-smudged brow.
She was breathtaking, making his heart thump a little harder in his chest until Finn’s heavy hand jerked him back to reality and the present moment.
“Are you even listening to anything I’m saying?”
“Yes, your back hurts and she doesn’t even care that you sacrificed a good night’s sleep to protect her virtue.” He muttered, craning his head over his shoulder to get one last glimpse at beauty before his brother wrenched him away again. “You should have slept in the bed with her last night if she invited you to do so. The two of you have slept side by side every night since we left Drekne. What difference does a bed make?”
“Are you kidding me? I’d probably have crushed her. She’s so tiny, I can’t even imagine what it would be like to… I mean, don’t get me wrong. I’ve imagined it, but the reality of it all would be a whole different story, I’m sure. She’d fit perfectly in my lap now that I think about it…”
Vilnjar shot him a disbelieving glare after he realized Logren’s nostrils were starting to flare. “The fact that she invited you to sleep anywhere near her after you kept the truth from her is a miracle unto itself. You were a fool to turn her down.”
Logren’s eyes widened with disbelief that they were having such a conversation about his little sister in front of him, and Vilnjar cleared his throat uncomfortably.
“All I’m saying is that her even still wanting to be near you after learning she is potentially stuck with you for the rest of her days is astonishing. Especially considering the fact that you weren’t honest with her from the start about it.”
“She is not stuck with him, not really,” Brendolowyn interjected, an arrogant tone in his voice that caused Finn to roll his eyes. “She has a choice in the matter of her future mate, even if he does not. And lying to her about that is certainly no way to win her over. Honesty is the only way to truly win a woman’s love.” He turned a smarmy smirk toward Finn and added, “Now she will doubt you as long as she knows you, always wondering if you’re telling her the truth, or keeping secrets from her. If you ask me…”
“No one did ask for your opinion, Elf,” Finn sneered. “You should keep it to yourself.”
“Enough, Finn,” Viln shook his head. “If you’re going to talk about what an idiot you are out loud, you need to prepare yourself for outside thoughts on the matter.”
“The seers have already spoken on the matter, as it is,” Logren said. “She is meant to choose Finn for her mate. Nothing can change what has already been seen.”
“That’s not true,” Viln disagreed.
“Much as I hate to say, I don’t think it’s true either,” Brendolowyn said.
“The gods give us paths to walk, and those paths are not always straight. Seers may guide us and instruct us with the wisdom of the gods, but even that I find to be rather doubtful. In the end it is a matter of choice which road we will walk.”
“That is blasphemy, you realize,” Logren cocked his brow, a smug, but playful grin tugging at the edge of his mouth. “Is that the kind of nonsense the council of the nine has been teaching the U’lfer since the War of Silence ended?”
“Did the War of Silence really ever end?” Finn muttered, but no one paid him any mind.
“I would think having been through all you’ve been through since the War of Silence, you would be more inclined to such beliefs yourself. Do you really believe the gods wanted any of this to happen? That Llorveth himself sat down with Foreln and planned for this?” Vilnjar held his hands up to encompass everything around them before dropping them casually at his sides again and stepping up to the doorway leading into Hodon’s hall. “That Llorveth hand-picked your sister to save us all from…”
“I don’t think Foreln and Llorveth could sit in the same room together long enough to plan anything, but I do believe that what is written is what is meant to be. My father died to uphold those beliefs, and so did yours. I thought you of all people would understand that better than anyone.”
“Is that what our fathers died for?” The indignant laugh stuck in the back of his throat was on the verge of spilling out. “I could have sworn it was…”
The doors to Hodon’s hall swung open before Vilnjar could finish those words, and when he saw the fire ignited in Logren’s eyes he realized it was probably for the best that he wasn’t able to complete his thought. Since they had reunited, their differences in point of view had brought both of their tempers to a head more than once. Perhaps it was for the best if he didn’t poke the beast while entering the hall of a man with the power to decide his fate, he realized. On the other hand, Viln had never been one to keep his opinions to himself.
“Come in, come in.”
Hodon greeted them at the door, flanked by two intimidating hirdmen with seasoned axes dangling from their belts. Vilnjar squinted as he studied the one nearest the door before passing through it. Much like Hodon had, the man looked familiar and he found himself reaching back through his memories for his face.
“Welcome.” Hodon nodded first at Finn, then Vilnjar as they were ushered into the hall.
Much like the main hall they had feasted in the night before and Logren’s home, Hodon’s hall was vast and spacious. He led them into an open sitting room with a long dining table with an intricately carved wooden chair at the head of the table. Well-lit by a series of windows spanning the angles on each side of the roof, the ceiling seemed to touch the sky while also making Viln feel incredibly small.
“As promised to The Light of Madra, no harm will come to either of you while you are here in Dunvarak. I simply asked you here this morning to learn what news you carry from the Edgelands. It has been long since we have had word from beyond the borders of Rimian.”
Vilnjar curled his fingers around the back of the chair in front of him and watched Hodon ease his large body into the seat at the head of the table.
“Perhaps if you were awaiting word from the Edgelands, you might have let someone know you were here. Before we were intercepted by Logren Bone-Breaker, we believed there was naught beyond the borders of Rimian but trolls and goblins scattered admidst the endless miles of ice of and snow stretching all the way to the ocean.”
Logren was still annoyed with him over their disagreement just outside the hall; Vilnjar felt it when he turned a distasteful look in his direction before drawing his own chair away from the table to slide in on Hodon’s right, but Hodon himself laughed. His hearty chuckle echoed through the quiet, empty hall like thunder, followed only by the uneasy chuckle of the two hirdmen seated to his left.
“Wit like your father, you have, lad,” he guffawed, “and the bite of his sarcasm as well. Tell me, Vilnjar, did you inherit your father’s thirst for blood as well, for I fear we will need plenty of men with his heart and vigor before all that lays ahead of us is said and done.”
“I’m afraid my brother got all of Deken’s lust for blood and battle,” he conceded, a hint of apology in his tone. Among men such as they, he couldn’t deny feeling slight lament that he was not more like Finn, more like his father would have wanted him to be. “I spent the number of my days toiling among the historical and legal scrolls in Drekne.”
“Your days are still many, and the thirst for blood and battle within you will rise to the surface before all has been said and done. While you may not believe in what the seers have to say, Yovenna has seen your future, and you are destined for great things, Vilnjar the Strong, but much suffering will you endure before the end.”
“Surely she has mistaken my future for my brother’s.”
As arrogant as that sounded, Vilnjar had felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise, a tingling sensation rippling down the length of his spine. He had already seen enough suffering to last a hundred lifetimes. The prospect of more to come did very little to bolster his already ornery mood.
“She has seen great things for both of Deken’s sons, and though I have brought you here to talk about your future, I would like to know more about what has become of the Council of the Nine. Rumors drifting into our land from the sea tell me they have all but abandoned the old ways in accordance with Aelfric’s ruling. Is this true? Have all of our U’lfer brothers resigned to defeat?”
“Survival, not defeat,” Viln shook his head. “The council thought it best that we follow Aelfric’s decree to guarantee our survival as a race.”
Logren made a nasty sound in his throat, his face reddening beneath the patchy hair of his unshaven cheeks and creeping up in splotches toward his ears when he shook his head. “Then it is as we feared,” he said to Hodon. “They have given up hope and the old ways.”
“Given up?” Viln balked. “Had hope torn from our grasp is more appropriate, had the old ways decreed forbidden under penalty of death, like our fathers and brothers suffered. Though none of you would know that, as you fled to hide here in your magical city, leaving those you would call your brothers to fend for themselves while mankind thinned our numbers so severely we cannot even reproduce to revive them.”
Already incensed with him over their earlier argument, Logren started to rise from his seat, ready to tear into Vilnjar with a vengeance, but Hodon reached out a hand to stay him and keep him seated. Grinding his teeth and seething, the older man spoke before he was given the chance to let loose whatever spontaneous tirade he had planned.
“We did not flee to this magical city, as you so casually put it, Vilnjar.” Hodon kept his calm, but Logren was still fuming beside him, his fists clenched and knuckles white atop the table. “We were guided to this place by the Light of Madra and we built this city in accordance with Llorveth’s plan. You may not believe in divine intervention, or that the gods have chosen a path for each and every one of us, but I have seen firsthand the will of Llorveth, and it is his will that we work together to ensure that his sons and daughters do not go the way of the Dvergr.”
“And how do you know it is Llorveth’s will?”
“Because she has heard it spoken.” It was Brendolowyn who said those words, his voice inspiring a long silence in the hall that lingered for what felt like an eternity after. At last he went on. “Yovenna the Voice has heard this and many other things. Llorveth speaks to her.”
“Through the Light of Madra?”
The scoff that followed that question evoked a dark, bitter look from Logren. “You may not believe she is who we know her to be, but the Light of Madra saved our people, and she could save yours too if you would just swallow your stubborn pride and let her do the work Llorveth has deigned for her.”
“I have spent enough time with your Light of Madra over the last week, and I can tell you there is nothing divine or magical about that girl.”
For the first time since they’d sat down to table, Finn spoke, his deep voice bringing unexpected truth to the conversation at hand. “I feel what is inside of her, Viln. When we were at the exiling there was a god inside of her. It was no trick.”
“Tell me of this exiling,” Hodon instructed.
Finn told the story from beginning to end, Rhiorna’s death and the great passing of light from her body into Lorelei. When Vilnjar glanced over at his brother, he swore the young man’s large hands were shaking.
“And then our people cast her out,” he finished. “That is why we have come here. When the U’lfer learned who she was, that Rognar was her father, they couldn’t get rid of her fast enough, and when the god was inside of her the elders were terrified. They cast her out and sent hunters to finish her off so no one in Drekne would be the wiser.”
“That would indicate to me that the U’lfer do not wish to be saved by your Light of Madra,” Vilnjar sighed.
“And what about you, Vilnjar?” Logren challenged him. “Are you too good for her to save you as well, or did you just come along for charming weather?”
“The Council of the Nine would have the U’lfer believe she is a villain,” Brendolowyn interjected before another argument could break out. “If your people knew who she was, what she is capable of…”
“They think her a curse like the one her father brought to our people,” Finn muttered, leaning forward across the table and folding his trembling hands together.
“My father brought freedom to the U’lfer.” There was no keeping Logren in his seat anymore. “It was your precious council that destroyed that freedom, handing him and his men over to King Aelfric and signing the order of execution on every living U’lfer in Leithe.”
“I’m not disagreeing with you, Logren,” Finn looked up at him, the oily tendrils of his hair clinging to his face even after he unfolded his hands to try and brush them away. “My father was also named a curse, and our mother was never allowed to forget the hardships our fathers brought to the U’lfer.”
Viln had never heard his brother speak with such dignity, a serious quiver in his voice when he cleared his throat to go on.
“I never knew my father, or yours, but Eornlaith told me everything I need to know about Rognar and his men, about their cause. I was already bonded to Lorelei when I found her, but when Rhiorna told me who she was, the things she was meant to do, I knew in my heart that I would do anything to stand beside her and help her raise our people from despair.” He paused for a moment, turning a very serious eye to every man at that table before finishing his thought. “All of our people.”
“You are as noble as the seer said, Mad Finn the Reckless.”
“No,” he shook his head, the hair he just pushed away falling back into his face again. “I’m not noble.”
Viln rolled his eyes, but a part of him couldn’t help feeling a hint of pride at the stand his brother was willing to make, even if it was for all the wrong reasons.
“I am only doing what I know to be right. My heart and soul belong to your Light of Madra, and I will walk beside her on whatever path the gods have chosen.”
Glancing across the table, Vilnjar’s gaze shifted toward Brendolowyn, whose mouth had tightened around the edges into a scowl he seemed to be trying desperately to hide. He had noticed the half-elven mage’s obvious affection toward the young woman in question; his brother had noticed too and the possibility of anyone else paying attention to the object of his desire burned him like fire.
“Rhiorna gave me very specific instructions before she died,” Finn went on. “I am to guide and teach her the old ways, pass onto her everything my mother taught me. She will make the old ways new again.”
“This has been seen,” Hodon nodded agreement and stroked his fingers through the long plaits of his beard. “If our people are to survive the coming darkness we must return to the old ways. All of us must embrace the beast within, even those who do not know how.”
Vilnjar was about to protest further, claiming there was no way for the half-blooded bastard sons and daughters of the U’lfer to embrace the beast spirit they were obviously not born of, but before he could speak Hodon cleared his throat and continued as if he already knew everything Viln was preparing to say.
“When the Light of Madra came to Yovenna the Voice she spoke of a way.” He looked almost nervously toward Logren, then Brendolowyn and then he shifted his watery eyes toward Viln. “The Horns of Llorveth hold the power to awaken the beast within us all, allowing us to band together and stand against the sons of Foreln to take back what is ours, but only the Light of Madra can retrieve them.”
“Of course,” Vilnjar shook his head in disbelief. “And where are these horns to be found? In the stars? Is she to walk Madra’s river of tears, or sift through Dvergn’s scattered jewels?”
“It is said the horns were hidden by Foreln himself in northeastern mountains of Leithe.”
“Good luck finding them there. Our kind are not welcome in Leithe, and are to be executed on sight upon entry into Aelfric’s lands as per the proclamation.”
“Damn the proclamation, Viln!” Finn started to push his chair away from the table. “If finding Llorveth’s horns means giving the people here what they need to embrace the wolf spirit, we could stand up to Aelfric and take back what should be ours.”
He could never say how much it startled him when he looked upon his brother then. So much like their father, his brilliant eyes shining with the pure white fire and unyielding willingness to go all the way for a cause that should not have been his to take on. And for what? The promise of a young woman that might not even choose him in the end?
“Before you damn the proclamation, little brother, perhaps we should learn more about what has been seen for you.”
“If you kept your mouth shut long enough for anyone else to speak, Vilnjar, perhaps we could talk more with your brother about his purpose.”
“We’re calling it a purpose now, are we?”
“Viln, shut up.” Finn growled, turning the fire of that stare upon him when he snarled. He had been indignant before, even rude, but never so righteous. “I didn’t even ask you to come into exile with me. You chose to come along and I’m not going to have you hovering over my shoulder every moment for the rest of my life dictating all my actions as if you have the right.”
From the corner of his eye, he swore he saw the corner of Logren’s mouth twitch with a grin beneath his mustache.
“You have seen only eighteen years…”
“And in that eighteen years I have seen more than you could imagine, been places and done things… I am not a child anymore, Viln. I don’t need you looking after me like I’m some pup still toddling around in a shitty swaddling cloth.”
Vilnjar winced at those words, and turned his gaze down at the table in front of him as if the carvings along the edge were the most important thing in the world at the moment. He had promised their mother… had sworn on his own life to take care of her baby boy. Why didn’t Finn understand how much that promise meant?
Swallowing hard against the ache in his throat, Vilnjar pushed his chair away from the table and coughed. “It seems I’ve no purpose here,” he said with as much pride as he could muster. “I will wait outside until you’ve finished your meeting here.”
The sound of his boots was the only thing he heard as he made his way out the way he’d come in, their echoing steps carrying him away from the one responsibility in his life that had ever really mattered to him.
Mid-morning sun streamed through the clouds and nearly blinded him when he stepped through the doors of Hodon’s hall. A gust of cold hair blasted across his face as he lifted his hand to shield his eyes for a moment and glance across the street toward the smithy. The beautiful young woman at the forge was still hammering away at the blade on her anvil, the smudged soot decorating her pale skin the most enticing thing he’d ever seen. He didn’t even notice his own feet moving of their own accord, across the cobbled street, away from Hodon’s hall and toward the smithy. They didn’t stop until he was standing under the awning’s edge, transfixed by the constant thunk of hammer to steel, the fluid movement of her body and flex of her tight muscles. Tilting his head in awe, he watched a bead of sweat drip down her temple and soak into the fabric of her apron.
“Can I help you with something, U’lfer?” There was just enough bitterness in the deep male voice that spoke those words to startle him from his daydream.
Vilnjar’s gaze snapped right, toward the gruff looking man in an ash-stained apron, the golden hairs of his beard and the skin beneath dusted black with so much soot his blue eyes seemed to shine against that darkness.
“I am always on the lookout for a good blade.” He had to stop himself from blurting out that he was just admiring the beautiful young woman at the forge. The look in the man’s eyes told him his advances would not be welcome. “How is your steel?”
“We don’t arm or outfit beasts,” the man grumbled, but his daughter had glanced up from her work, her brilliant eyes meeting with his, her stare lingering and the edges of her mouth lifting ever so slightly when she saw him there.
“That is a shame,” he took a step back. “If all your seer says is true about the task of the Light of Madra, the people in your city will be without armor and blades.” Still walking backwards, his gaze flitted from the beautiful young armorer’s daughter then back to her father. “Good day, blacksmith.”
“That was very rude of you, Father,” he heard her say just before he turned back toward Hodon’s hall.
“Are you finished with that sword yet, Frigga?”
“No, Father, but…”
“Perhaps if you spent more time on your work, and less time ogling strangers…” The man’s words trailed into the bustle of bodies passing behind Viln on the street.
Frigga. Her name was Frigga.
He didn’t turn around again until he’d arrived in front of Hodon’s hall again, but when he did, she was watching him, waiting for him to see her, and when he did she smiled and Vilnjar felt the heavy darkness that had been weighing down upon him begin to lift.