"Be careful out there," Sigrun's mother had told her, when she'd first left her village in search of adventure and glory out in the wider world.
Of course, she hadn't left it at just that; Sigrun's mother was nothing if not thorough. The lowlanders didn't live like their little mountain tribes, where people were valued based on their merits and nobody batted an eye at the sight of a girl with a sword. No, they lived in a different world, with their fancy castles and well-dressed nobles and churches that kept themselves separate from the world, but whose word in that world was law. People took advantage, promised you something you wanted right up until you gave them whatever it was that they wanted, and then left you hanging. Trust, out there, was a thing that had to be earned.
That Sigrun had, by eighteen, yet to show any interest in sharing her bed—with anyone, man or woman—had not stopped her mother from warning her about men.
"This is not to say that there are no good men in this world—as a matter of fact there are many," Solveig said, as she and her daughter warmed up on the training grounds by practicing sword drills side by side, their movements perfectly synchronized. "Nor that women are not capable of doing ill. In that world, though… boys, especially those of high birth, or of high military standing, are taught from an early age that if they want something, it is within their rights to simply take it. The girls are taught that they must always give. Lowland men are not used to hearing no—nor, in my experience, to respecting it."
Sigrun did not ask how her mother knew any of this. Instead, she filed away the advice, and promised that she would be careful, and left for adventure with her sword in hand.
Personally, Sigrun did not have much trouble in spite of her mother's warnings. As a matter of fact, most of the people she met could not even tell that she was a woman—when you wore a man's clothes, and were armed with a man's weapons, and carried yourself with a man's confidence, most people assumed you were a man in spite of your suspiciously clean face or higher voice or those mysterious lumps on your chest. Sigrun, for her part, was perfectly fine with that—she knew who she was, and if it saved her some trouble, let them assume whatever they wanted. As a matter of fact, it was quite entertaining whenever she met someone new to see how long it would take before they figured out the obvious.
Of course, some people just had to go and ruin it.
"Interesting choice of occupation you have," the farmer's oldest son commented as he stitched up her arm after an unfortunate encounter with a small but sneaky troll—she'd been hired to take care of a colony that had been picking off their livestock. "Most women your age are occupied with finding a husband, not killing trolls—that is, if they're not already married."
Sigrun scowled, and not just because of the pain. "So you can tell, huh?"
"It is fairly obvious, to be honest. If passing as a man was your intention… let's just say your disguise could use some work."
"It was not," she protested, and then hissed as he stuck the needle in her yet again.
From then on, she made it her mission in life to surprise him.
"Nice to see you again, Sigrun," he commented when she tracked him down to the outskirts of a small village after he'd left the farm.
"Fancy meeting you here," when she accosted him from an alley in the city.
"I was wondering when you'd show up," when she tried to get the drop on him as he was journeying down the road.
One day. One day she would manage to make him jump.
She wished she could say that the rest of her encounters with other people had ended as well.
The girl, she thought, was afraid of her. That wasn't unusual; she'd been told she looked intimidating with her exotic furs and leathers and the piercings up and down her ears that marked her achievements in battle, and she'd long ago learned that the lowlanders had no name for her people, only "barbarians". Still, though, the girl had been traveling alongside their small mercenary band ever since one of the men had picked her up in a village they'd passed through, and Sigrun had never once harmed her or indeed even spoken to her; one would think she'd have learned better!
Apparently, she hadn't. Worse, she was now in a situation where she no longer had the choice.
When they'd packed up to leave that morning, Sigrun had noticed the girl was no longer with them. When she asked the man with whom their tagalong had been sharing a tent, he only shrugged.
"Oh, her? That's over." Some of Sigrun's feelings must have shown on her face, for he only raised an eyebrow at her silence. "I never made her any promises. Did she really think I was going to whisk her away and take care of her for the rest of her life?"
Apparently, she had.
"You want to tell me about it?"
She'd never seen a human jump so high before. Oh well, it was an improvement over the sobbing her eyes out she had been doing when Sigrun had come up behind her. Though backing away from her with a small gasp was going to get irritating quick.
"Look, I don't know what stories you've been telling each other down here, but we don't eat people or hunt children for sport or whatever it is you think we do. So you might as well tell me what's up, because right now, it looks like I'm all you've got."
It eventually did come out, in a series of hiccups and sobs. That soldier had not only claimed that he loved her, he'd been her last chance at getting out of her life of poverty. Now, instead of the dreams her lover had promised her, she was alone, lost, penniless, and ruined for marriage.
Sigrun was disgusted. She'd trusted that man with her life.
In the end, she took the girl back to Dalsnes because she didn't know what else to do with her, and because she couldn't justify leaving her out there by herself. It took her some time, but she eventually settled down, and found a spouse who actually cared for her.
The next one was worse. The next one had been pregnant when her lover had gotten bored with her.
"Whatever I might have told you in the past, I can assure you that childbirth is not catching. It is perfectly safe to uncross your legs."
"I'm comfortable like this, thanks." As she spoke, Sigrun crossed one thigh even further over the other, and wrapped her arms around her stomach just for good measure.
"Suit yourself." Mikkel returned to cleaning his hands, but when she still had not untwisted her body a few minutes later, let out a sigh.
"Sigrun, you can hardly blame the poor girl for wanting another woman with her—especially someone she knew she could trust."
"No, I don't suppose I can." She rubbed her wrist, where deep purple bruises were already forming on her skin. "But," she growled, "I can blame the man who should have been holding her hand instead of me."
"Yes. Well." Mikkel tossed the last of the bloodied rags into the washbasin. "I suppose that that's fair."
That had been the first time. It was far from the last.
Every time she returned to Dalsnes, it seemed, there was a larger gaggle of children running up to her and delightedly screaming "Aunt Sigrun! You're back!" It wasn't all bad—she liked the kids and not all of them were illegitimate; many had been born after their mothers had settled down and married, and Sigrun had made a career of training the girls in swordplay alongside their mothers. She'd also managed to avoid attending any more births—a girl was carrying a child, Sigrun made a point of getting her to Dalsnes well before her time, because damned if she'd be stuck dealing with that again.
That didn't change the fact that she was sometimes too late.
Sigrun knew that there were good men in this world—her father, for one. Mikkel, also, had proven himself, much as she wanted to strangle him at times. Still, it was hard to remind herself of that when she found herself serving as the only source of comfort for a teenager who'd miscarried after several months of trying to scrape together enough to eat by begging through her shame, or when she found a body in the woods with her throat brutally slit, a body she recognized as a living, breathing human who'd run off with a man only the day before.
What had those girls done to deserve any of it? Only made an error in judgment, and trusted the wrong people—yet for this, their own people judged them more harshly for letting their guard down than they did those willfully committing the crimes against them.
She looked up. She'd been sitting against a wall with her arms wrapped around her knees in a posture more suited to a little kid than a hardened soldier of twenty-four years, but for once in her life she didn't care about looking tough. Her mother's face swam into view above her.
"Sometimes, these things happen," her mother continued as she lowered herself to the ground next to her and Sigrun returned her gaze to her knees. "You did the right thing in bringing her here, but there's nothing more you could have done."
Sigrun glared out over the training grounds. The practice target she'd been attacking ever since the midwives had told her they'd lost both mother and child was now sporting near twice the number of scars it had had before, and wood chips lay scattered all over the ground. "What is wrong with lowland men?"
"The same thing that's wrong with criminals everywhere. They know they can get away with it." An arm wrapped around her shoulders. "I'm afraid you've been seeing the worst of humanity—but that's not because there are no good lowlanders, or no good men. It's because the ones who don't need help don't ask for it, and so you simply haven't noticed them."
She tried to notice them, for her own sanity. Now, whenever she joined up with a new band of mercenaries, Sigrun made a point of watching her comrades, checking which ones were willing to stick their neck out for someone else and which cared only for their own satisfaction. She would be going into battle with these men. It was important to know which of them she could trust to watch her back.
Some were indeed decent people. Sometimes, they really did end up fulfilling their promises of love and security. Others… well, others, Sigrun once or twice tried to warn a few village girls away before the members of her band got their paws all over them. Once in a while, the girls even listened.
When she'd first managed to track down Emil, she'd been caught up in too many other things to really think the situation through—relief at finding him, for one, along with worry that she'd end up having to deal with another pregnancy (never again!). When things had finally calmed down and Emil had settled in to Dalsnes, though, she took to nudging him in the ribs every chance she got just to remind him of how lucky he was.
"You hold onto that one, Emil. Not every day you find a catch like him."
"Sigruuuuun!" he protested, his face turning red. She only grinned, and continued to tease him mercilessly.
She'd never shared with Emil any of the darker thoughts she'd had when Mikkel had first called on her to track down a runaway noble girl, and she didn't intend to now that they'd been proven unfounded. Still, though, that would not stop her from reminding him what he had.
Even if she thought he already knew, it never hurt for him to be reminded as often as possible. A reminder never hurt, when some things were far too easy to forget.