“Hmmm. Seat yourself and be comfortable, Wanderer. Interesting! Based on his clothes and accent, it would seem that he’s traveled quite extensively. Perhaps you can tell us what is happening out in the world, Wanderer. We’re a trifle isolated here. …You know, if I may, you seem to understand us quite well, at any rate, but I think you may have difficulties with pronouncing some of our words. Is that the case? If so, by all means, speak in your own tongue. I am quite conversant in a number of languages, and can follow along. And I’ll translate for my friend.
In any case, welcome to our home. Is it usual for someone so young to be an itinerant priest?”
“I don’t know about “itinerant,” but his mother and father shouldn’t let him wander around by himself. What is he, 15? WAH! Stop shouting at me! I still can’t understand you!”
“Now now. We should all be a little more patient and understanding and enjoy the evening.”
“Hmmph. Well, I still don’t understand him, but if he understands us when we talk, and you can talk to him, I suppose we can get by well enough. Anyway… perhaps a tale to speed away the night, while we all warm up and relax?”
“…Ahaha. I believe he’d like to hear your very favorite tale.”
“Bah. You want a guest-tale of Beowulf, do you, my friend? You mean that boastful young puppy who went out and murdered a poor marsh woman and her only son? Aye, that’s a fine hero you wish to hear the telling of.”
“Now now, that’s a bit harsh… There were some mitigating circumstances, were there not?”
“Hmmph. So you say. Anyway, who’s telling this tale? Well then, good sir, if you don’t mind, we’ll stir up the fire and drink while I tell a tale. Or mead? My partner here makes the best... All right, mead for you then. I have a better tale than the deeds of that doom-chased Geat: Ragnarr and the Trow Wife.”
“Quiet, you. It is a tale greatly famed in these parts for brave deeds of might and wonder of Ragnarr, sung by many a skald. Surely you’ve heard it before, Wanderer. No? Well then…”
A hundred lifetimes ago and an ocean away there lived a young warrior named Ragnarr Snorrason. Ragnarr was the younger son of Snorri the Lame, of… well, it doesn’t matter where he was from, but their freehold was on the edge of a huge, raven-haunted forest, with the nearest town a good half day away.
That didn’t prevent Ragnarr from spending a great deal of time at the town, and rather less time at the farm than he should have, perhaps. Ragnarr wasn’t cut out for the life of a farmer, or so he told himself, at any rate. And mostly his older brother took care of things, and that was fine with Ragnarr. He had other plans for himself, plans that involved going Viking and serving in a greathall as the thane of a mighty and gold-giving king. The whisper of the waves made his blood sing, and the sight of the square-sailed, dragon-prowed longships made his heart beat strongly in his chest, as tending the fields and flocks and herds on the family farm never had.
And so on the day of his fifteenth birthday Ragnarr sought the blessing of his older brother and departed the family farm to go a-Viking.
It was a hard life, but he learned much and sailed to far kingdoms: some locked in ice that rarely thawed even in the deeps of summer and where the women were grey-eyed and fierce as the winds that lashed the snow in the winter; and some where the earth was made of parched, powdery sand and the sloe-eyed women wore red and gold silk skirts that flowed like wine when they danced. When he returned to his village three years later he had not yet found a mighty and generous king, but he had become a man and a warrior. And he decided to give what wealth he had gathered over to his brother for his keeping –golden goblets with which to drink to the health of the hall, lovely silver coins from distant lands, jeweled brooches and armbands (the outcome of a very successful foray), and wonderfully soft and warm furs, all to enrich the coffers of the hold.
Things had changed during his absence. The town was still thriving but it was the temper of the folk in the town was different than it had been three years ago. Their glances, once proud and true, had become cowed and shifty. And when he went to visit his brother, treasure-pack over his shoulder, he crossed many an abandoned holding, some with the bones of sheep and cattle lying unclean and out in the open.
There was further evidence of something gone terribly awry: the earlier prosperity of the farms declined the closer he got to his family’s hold. Most of the rye and barley fields had fallen fallow, and the animals, which should have had their younglings dancing in the meadows, seemed to be barren. The thatched roof of the hall was bare in patches, and the family’s garden was overgrown with weeds. And as he approached the door of the greathall, he heard nothing: not the singing of the bondswomen as they worked, or the barking of the dogs. Probably the town had maintained itself as well as it had only because it had a decent harbor. The farms had no extra support on which to fall back in lean times.
Now, in the time that he had been gone a-Viking, Ragnarr had grown tall, straight and long-legged, with hair that burned like autumn bonfires and eyes like cherry amber.
Some said he was like Baldur, for his beauty and strength.”
“Mm. I’ve heard he was more like Loki, for his wily ways and silver tongue. And the red hair, of course.”
“Well, that’s possible. But be that as it may, it is true that the gods smiled on him, both with beautiful women and at tossing the bones. And also in war. Ragnarr had been blessed both with a mighty sword arm that had never known defeat. And a handsome face. A very handsome face. All the women wanted him, and probably some of the men, too. But despite his duty to his to his family and freehold, Ragnarr had not settled down or found a rich wife, what with him finding more of interest in the freedom of his Viking life, not to mention the wine and beer that freely flowed in the various towns he visited, or his goodly acquaintance with various women of uncertain morality.”
“He sounds like quite a reprobate.”
“Not a bit of it, he was just young, and sowing his wild oats as all young men ought to. At any rate, when he reached the family hall, he could see that it was beginning to fall into disrepair—nothing too bad, but decay was starting to set in from lack of proper maintenance. And he entered the great hall and looked around, and saw no one and nothing—not a stick of furniture or crumb of food, not a dog, not a cat, not even so much as a mouse could he find. He went to the outbuildings where the animals sheltered during the winter—nothing. But he heard something, a sort of sobbing sigh, and with his hand on his good ax he went to investigate, and there he saw his brother Dagvithr propped against the side of the building, looking out over his ruined land. He looked utterly lost and defeated, and something in Ragnarr recoiled.
His brother, his older brother who-- had more or less raised him, who had watched out for him and guided him as a child-- should never wear such an expression.
‘Hail the hall!’ called Ragnarr, kicking a stone out of his way. He’d meant only to get his brother’s attention, but Dagvithr whirled around with panting breath and wild eyes better found on the face of a madman.
‘Ragnarr!’ he gasped and grasped him by the shoulders with shaking hands, his head bowed in relief. Ragnarr felt his hands tighten, and then they sat on the stumps outside the hall and stared at each other for a bit.
‘You’ve changed,’ said Ragnarr’s brother, as if he could hardly believe it.
‘You needn’t sound so surprised.’ Ragnarr felt a twinge of irritation as well as a sudden and forcible reminder of why he had left in the first place.
‘No, no… I didn’t mean it in a bad way. Just, you look different, stronger. And truly, I thank the gods it’s you.’ He laughed bitterly. ‘I don’t know… I think I am near to losing my mind. I don’t know what to do anymore. Winter is coming, and we may starve. I can’t feed the animals, there’s no pasture fit for them to eat. We can’t bake bread: there’s no grain. Our garden is dying. The streams are dying. Our animals don’t bear young. We won’t have enough food to live. And now something is taking what few animals we have and leaving the gnawed bones behind, just to show us how weak we are.’
‘Brother, what in the name of Thor is happening here? This… whatever it is... tracks all the way back to town and as far as the eye can see. This isn’t even the worst of it, but it’s bad enough. Where is everyone?’
‘I sent them back to town, but we won’t have enough coin to stay for very much longer.’ Dagvithr laughed again, with the same bitter, lost edge, and Ragnarr’s fists (and heart) clenched to hear it.
‘Ah well. As to that. Here. It seems like the gods were looking out for us. I have gold that should keep everyone until we figure out what happened. Which… do you know what happened?’
‘Well… We cleared a bit of new land, built new fences and … and then just a few days later the crops were stricken and something began taking the animals. The milk from the cows and goats soured, and when the sows went to farrow, the litters were born dead and deformed.’
‘That’s it? This shit just started for no good reason other than you cleared some land?’ Ragnarr was unable to prevent a note of skepticism from entering his voice.
‘Do you doubt me?’ But Dagvithr flushed and his eyes shifted away. Ragnarr sighed and stared off across the tainted farmland.
‘It must be a curse,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘Perhaps have you offended a witch? They’re usually the ones who sour milk and make the animals barren. I suppose they could make land fallow as well.’
‘It wasn’t a witch,’ muttered Ragnarr’s brother finally, reluctantly. ‘It was a woman all right, but not a human. We saw her catching and eating one of the sheep one evening…’ he shuddered. ‘I don’t know, I never saw anything like it. But the priest said it was a Trow Wife, perhaps. Right before he left us alone out here. His blessing of the house and fields was useless, and so was he.’
‘A Trow! What in the name of Hel! Brother, what have you done?’
‘I didn’t know!’ cried Ragnarr’s brother. ‘I didn’t know! When she came from the forest—‘
‘When she came! Bah, never mind. The answer is simple, just go and kill her, the curse will end with her.’
‘I can’t! Do you truly think I haven’t thought about what needs to be done? There’s Gunnora, and the children, and what would become of them if I should fall?’
‘Gunnora… and children? So you have little ones now, eh. And I am an uncle. Huh.’ Gladness and pride swept through him. ‘That’s quick work, especially for you! The one thing I can’t explain is how you talked Gunnora into accepting you. She always seemed like such a smart girl.’ Dagvithr punched him hard on the arm and Ragnarr grinned. ‘It seems you’ve been very busy while I’ve been gone. But truly, I am happy to hear it… it’s good news in the midst of all this.’
His irritation faded. He had no idea why his brother needed to increase the size of the holding, and he didn’t really care. Also it didn’t really matter. No one attacked his family, especially not some Trow bitch. He thought on the matter for a while and weighed his options. His brother was a farmer, albeit apparently a doltish farmer, and he was a warrior who had never known defeat, after all.
‘Well then,’ he said at last. ‘I suppose it falls to me. If I fail-- but I won’t-- take the gold, it should keep you and the rest of the family for some time to come. I’ll go kill your Trow Wife.’
And with that, Ragnarr dropped his treasure at his brother’s feet and strode off into the raven-haunted forest.
It was late morning when he left his brother staring after him in shame and dismay, and he travelled through the woods the entire day, following deer trails from deer he never saw, and winding through the spaces between the trees. It was mostly quiet except for the calls of the ravens, and he could hear the silver gurgle of a stream off in the distance. The forest was cool and green, and smelled of earth and growing things, and sometimes dead and dying things as well. Every now and then he had to cut his way through tangles of vines, and he knew if his ax could talk it would be berating him for ruining its formerly sharp and lovely edge.
It was dusk when he finally stepped into a vast meadow in the heart of the forest, and came across the Trow Wife, sitting on the stump of a log outside a small wood house, spinning a pile of what appeared to be wool. She sat in the middle of a garden of flowers: roses and daisies, lavender and lilies, and their warm fragrance reached him from across the meadow. The thatch on the house sprouted a lush explosion of grass and pink clover, and a white goat stood on it, peacefully munching.
The Trow Wife looked up at him and smiled—and oh, that smile—a bit wicked, a bit saucy, a bit sweet, and all he could do was gasp.
Now, Ragnarr was obviously no stranger to beautiful women, but he had never seen a woman like the Trow Wife. He had expected, well, a Trow. But no. She was beyond lovely… she was beautiful, and perfect, and everything he never knew he desired—eyes as green and dark as the heart of the forest itself, with hair as black as a moonless night; and a tasty, luscious mouth of the softest rose. She was dressed all in green from her white throat to the pink toes peeping out from beneath her kirtle, and her hair fell loose and wild around her waist when she rose to greet him. She was almost as tall as he; Ragnarr was no small man, but that just added to her charm. Tall and straight as a willow sapling, and with no chest to speak of-- and who could have known that a woman with no chest could be so alluring?”
“He sounds as if he was quite smitten.”
“Oh, he was. He was. She was the type of creature that you see once in a lifetime. And he knew it too. But what to do, when he also had his duty to his family and kin? Things could not continue the way they were. But he no longer had it in him to simply slay her.
She smiled at him again as if she could read his mind, knowing and mischievous. ‘Well met, traveler…’ her voice trailed off, husky and soothing. ‘Are you hungry, perhaps?’ Her green, green eyes gleamed in the fading light. ‘I am. It’s time for my evening meal.’
Ragnarr regained something of his sanity. ‘My thanks, but no,’ he responded shortly, ignoring the Trow Wife’s mock-disappointed expression. ‘I am Ragnarr Snorrason, and I’ve come to make you lift the curse on my brother’s holding.’
‘Oh, is that all?’ she smiled, always smiling. But he was not mistaken, he saw sharp, white teeth that time, and her hands (shapely hands with long, long fingers, he couldn’t help but notice) clenched into fists. ‘Why should I lift it? It was your kith and kin who gave me first offense, when they began chopping and clearing my forest and killing my animals, and continued to do it despite polite requests to stop.’
‘Because I’ll be forced to kill you if you don’t,’ said Ragnarr, ‘and I don’t want to do that.’
‘Don’t you? Isn’t that why you came here, with your iron ax ready to chop down the poor defenseless Trow?’
Ragnarr frowned at that, because truth to tell, it wasn’t sitting well with him to strike at a woman, even a Trow woman, and one unarmed as well.
‘If you are not willing to remove the curse, then we need to settle this, one way or the other: there’s no other choice for me.’
The Trow Wife sauntered over, and Ragnarr tried hard not to notice how the grass of the meadow barely bent beneath her feet, and how the flowers in her garden had reached to caress her as she passed them by.
‘Very well. You have offered me a challenge and I accept.’
The moon was starting to rise by this time, fat and full and white as it can only be in midsummer, and it was almost as light as day, even as the last rays of the sun vanished behind the trees. She reached down and began hiking up her kirtle up around her thighs, belting it tightly around her waist, then braided her hair and tucked it into her belt.
‘What are you doing?’ croaked Ragnarr, watching avidly despite himself. Her legs gleamed at him, long and pale in the moonlight, and maybe, maybe he wouldn’t have to kill her, maybe he could just, just... he didn’t know, disable her or take her prisoner, maybe.
‘Well, you issued me a challenge, and I accepted. I get to choose the form the challenge takes, I believe? I admit, I am not as conversant with human etiquette as I used to be.’
‘I suppose,’ muttered Ragnarr sullenly. This encounter was not going at all the way he had thought it would. ‘Although, generally a man would never bother challenging a woman, much less accept her challenge in return.’
‘Oh. Well, but if you back out now, I’ll never lift it. You were the one who invaded my home, were you not? It would be even ruder of you to refuse to humor me in this matter.’ Her voice was so smooth, polished silk, and he could have listened to it forever.
‘Fine. Choose, then.’
‘If you beat me at wrestling, I’ll lift the curse. If I beat you, then you owe me a forfeit, and I get to choose it.’
‘Agreed,’ nodded Ragnarr, and smiled to himself. Little did she know--but how could she—that his wrestling pins were unbreakable. The strongest of men were not able to free themselves of Ragnarr’s holds. Even a Trow Wife couldn’t be expected to beat them.
The two of them circled each other warily, and Ragnarr carefully watched her hands and her legs, so he was prepared and waiting when she darted forward to engage him. He wasn’t so prepared when instead of connecting with him, she leaped to the side and grabbed his outstretched arm, twisting it around and sweeping her foot behind his knee, flinging him over her hip. He landed hard, ass over shoulders in the grass with the breath knocked out of him, and still not quite sure what had happened. Surely nothing could move that fast?
Before he could rise from the ground – or really, before he could even so much as think about rising from the ground -- the Trow Wife was seated across his thighs with his wrists pinned above his head. He tried, but he was utterly unable to move his hands.
‘I wonder what forfeit I should choose,’ she said, and trailed a finger down the side of his neck. He could feel a trickle of blood dripping down into his hair in the wake of her fingertip. She leaned forward and delicately sniffed the air near his throat and smiled down at him, and he could see her sharp white teeth gleaming in the moonlight. ‘You’re very pretty. But probably disagreeably stringy. Most lanky men are. Also I like this kirtle and it took a long time to make, so I suppose I won’t eat you.’ She traced the tip of her tongue where she had scratched him, and he groaned helplessly and turned his head to meet her mouth, kissing her soft, rose-colored lips with all the frustrated ardor he could bring to bear on the situation.
His tongue slid into her mouth, her hips bucked against him, and it was about that point that Ragnarr Snorrason made a very important discovery about the Trow Wife. As if he cared by then: he was ensnared and entrapped and far more her…his… prisoner than he had ever dreamed of making of her. Him. He had fallen completely under the Trow Wife’s spell, you see.”
“Oh… She cast a spell on him, then? That seems rather base, and quite unlike her.”
“No, I didn’t mean that. But that’s what it was like… as if the Trow Wife was the entire world, and nothing else and no one else mattered but that moment. But it wasn’t just Ragnarr who was caught.
The Trow Wife’s fine features were astonished and shocked, and her-- his, dammit-- eyes were wide and wild. The two of them stared at each other for a moment, and then they tore at each other’s clothes and took their pleasure with each other in the sweet meadow grass, until exhaustion caught them and they fell asleep in each other’s arms.
And when the sun rose and kissed the tears of dawn, making the dew-specked grass sparkle like diamonds, Ragnarr woke to find himself entwined with the Trow Wife and the Trow’s head lying against his chest. He could hear the hum of bees searching for flowers, smell the wild roses in the meadow, and feel the beat of the Trow’s heart, and he bent down and kissed the Trow’s midnight-black braid.
The Trow stirred and Ragnarr watched him start to pull on his gown. ‘Why do you wear women’s clothing?’
The Trow stretched and shrugged, wincing. ‘It’s comfortable and keeps my legs warm. And it makes people underestimate me. It made you underestimate me. Also it’s easier to make than men’s clothing. I only have a limited amount of patience with the extra fitting and complex folds men’s clothing requires.’
Ragnarr smiled. ‘I won’t underestimate you again.’ He began drawing on his own clothing, trying not to grimace at his own bruises, cuts and sore muscles.
‘No, I don’t suppose you will,’ said the Trow Wife, and he smiled back, a genuine, sweet smile.
‘I’ll give the curse a respite of a year and a day. We’ll talk again then. Until then, I have a gift for you.’
‘A gift? What for?’ Ragnarr paused.
‘Isn’t that proper etiquette for a guest? And besides, I’ve had my forfeit.’ The Trow Wife’s smile was a little malicious then, but he handed Ragnarr a bronze sword with a blade shaped like a long, slim leaf. The pommel was engraved and filigreed silver, and the hilt was wood of a warm, dark rose color. It fit his hand as if it had been made for him, its weight and balance perfect.
‘Use it in good health, and meet me in a year and a day,’ said the Trow Wife. He leaned over and kissed Ragnarr on the brow, on both cheeks, and lastly on the mouth; when their kiss ended, Ragnarr had to force himself to release the Trow Wife. Then the Trow turned and walked away and entered his little house, and the door closed behind him with a sharp, final click.
Ragnarr walked back to the freehold of his family with the bronze sword over his shoulder, and greeted his brother. ‘Quit chopping her forest. She’ll stop for a year.’ And with that he continued on to town and joined the first boat out.’”
“This tale seems rather sad. And why a year and a day? How arbitrary.”
“Well, the parting of lovers is grist for the mill of many a tale. And the length of time is traditional, or so I’ve been told. You’d have to ask the Trow Wife why he picked that particular duration. Maybe he was a stickler for that sort of thing. It struck Ragnarr as somewhat silly as well, I am sure.”
“Mm. I suppose. But… They were lovers, after only one night together? Ragnarr seems quite the impetuous sort.”
“Ragnarr. Well, it is true, he didn’t know exactly what he wanted then, but he had a whole year to think about that.
In the meantime, he sailed west and fought against red-haired wild men and their black-robed priests (no offense meant, Wanderer), where the women were buxom and fair-of-face and charmingly free in their manners; then north to a land of ice where the rock itself spewed forth from the ground blazing and afire, and the women were tall and slim and golden as a morning sunbeam. Not that Ragnarr particularly noticed.
It was a long voyage, and he gathered much gold and treasure, but his heart was no longer set on finding a mighty and generous king to serve. He hadn’t found one he felt was worthy in any case, and he was beginning to wonder if there was such a thing. All of the kings he had come across in his travels were distressingly tight-fisted.
In every battle he fought he made use of the leaf-bladed sword. He had been skeptical at first: bronze for a sword blade? Yet the sword did not betray him; it didn’t bend when he struck, or shatter when he was struck, and its edge was as keen the last time he used it as the first. Most men could not afford even a poorly-made sword, and this blade was one that should have been wielded by a great hero to defend against the vilest evil. Not by some nineteen-year-old whelp who was barely dry behind the ears. …What’s that, Wanderer?”
“He said, ‘A great hero against vilest evil? Just like Beowulf, then?’”
“Yes, yes, just like Beowulf, Traveler. Hmmph.”
And every time he drew it, Ragnarr was reminded of the Trow Wife and of his promise to return and discuss their bargain, for he was ever mindful that the curse was due to renew itself within a year if he didn’t come back. He couldn’t bear that his family and kin should suffer so again, even if it had been kind of their own fault, a little bit.
In the past the song of the sails and the sigh of the ocean as the longship sliced through the waves had made his heart joyful and fearless, but now he found himself oddly unsettled and restless. So it was that he found himself turning towards home and hearth with a feeling of something approaching relief.
The walk from the town to the freehold of his family filled him with hope and pleasure. The fields once again were green and fruitful, and as he watched the young animals at play in the lush pastures, it seemed to him that the flocks and herds were more bountiful than he had ever seen them. It was true that some of the holds had not quite recovered—the damage from the year before had been too great to recover in such a short time—but as he walked he was happy to see men re-thatching the halls and women out in their gardens singing as they worked.
He briefly considered stopping by to see his family as he passed the near the freehold to enter the forest… but then again, maybe he wouldn’t come back from the Trow this time. He shouldn’t have last returned the last time, but the Trow was feeling generous, he supposed, although that didn’t exactly square with what he knew of Trows and other creatures like them. But it didn’t make much sense to burden or worry the family for no good reason, and he walked past the farm without looking back.
The forest was much as it had been the year before, but then again, the curse hadn’t affected it during his first visit, either. He could hear the ravens’ warning cries as he strode down the trails to the meadow at the forest’s heart, but he never saw them, or any other animal, although he knew they must have been there and could hear them at times. The forest was a lonely place, it seemed.
He pondered as he walked: he wasn’t sure what he should do about the Trow. It had been a lot easier to think about killing him when it was someone he hadn’t fucked. Also, well, it just didn’t sit right, mostly because of what his brother hadn’t told him about the Trow having requested that they stop. It wasn’t as if the Trow had gone looking for trouble to start with. And he seemed like a decent sort, apart from him eating people. And all right, taking him prisoner probably wasn’t going to work: it was true that Ragnarr had utterly underestimated him a year ago. But that wouldn’t happen again. Maybe. Maybe reasoning with him would work? The Trow didn’t seem irrational… quite the opposite, really.
It was dusk again when he came upon the meadow, and he could see the Trow Wife seated in the flower garden on the stump outside the little house, just as he had the year before. But the Trow was dressed in proper men’s clothing, and appeared to be whittling. Ragnarr could see a rack of fish and meat that had been set out to cool and dry off from smoking. The goat on the roof was also still there, and paused in its dinner to balefully eye him from across the meadow and bleat at him. The Trow looked up from his carving and watched thoughtfully as Ragnarr crossed the meadow.
Ragnarr looked at the Trow, wondering how he could ever have thought the Trow was a woman, delicate features or not. Shoulders that broad, and a jaw that square were not found on most women. ‘Hail the hall,’ he said. ‘Here I am, to make you lift the curse.’ He continued staring, taking in the Trow’s changed appearance. ‘You look…’ beautiful. Amazing.’…Well.’
He was dressed all in green again: dark green tunic with silver trim and buttons, lighter green trousers, and even leg wraps and shoes this time. Ragnarr could hardly believe it was the same person. And he looked so… young, almost the same age as Ragnarr himself: no lines around his eyes, no faint wrinkles over the high cheekbones or alongside the tempting mouth. Ragnarr knew that wasn’t possible; the Trow must be very old. Most of his kind were.
‘You’re two days early,” said the Trow, but he didn’t sound angry. He sounded puzzled.
Ragnarr froze. ‘I… Is it a problem? I didn’t want to be late.’ He could walk back to the farmstead, maybe. Probably. Although, the woods didn’t seem as if they’d be particularly hospitable at night. And there were probably creatures out there, but maybe not. Maybe the Trow didn’t like to share his woods with others of his kind. He certainly didn’t like to share them with humans. But there were definitely other things out there in the night, he was pretty sure. He took a couple of reluctant steps backwards towards the woods and looked over his shoulder into the darkness of the trees, and wondered if he could manage to kill a bear with his ax before it killed him.
But the Trow was rising from his seated position, and reached out his hand with a smile that was almost… shy, if Ragnarr had to guess what it meant. ‘Not at all. Are you hungry? I set some stew on earlier.’
‘Welp, I walked here from town, so yes, yes I am.’ Ragnarr continued across the meadow, and finally reached the little house and its owner.
Ragnarr hadn’t entered the Trow’s house the last time he had “visited,” so he hadn’t been sure what to expect, but whatever he had thought he might find it assuredly hadn’t included an airy interior-- most halls he had seen had been rather cramped and close-- and wildflowers, along with meticulous cleanliness. He could see a small room in the back—a buttery or stillroom, perhaps—an alcove off to the side with a bed, and the usual hearth and benches and a chest or two. The Trow had lit a number of cunningly carved soapstone oil lamps, effectively banishing the growing darkness.
Ragnarr had been half-dreading and half-hoping to find some evidence of something he might call Trow-ish: perhaps a pile of half-eaten meat, or some gnawed bones thrown in a corner. It might have made things a lot easier to figure out. But no. Everything was extraordinarily ordinary. Ragnarr found he was a trifle disappointed, but still, he didn’t inquire too deeply about the stew, even though it was really delicious and contained bits of recognizable vegetables.
He watched the Trow Wife out of the corner of his eye, and was surprised to find him eating in an utterly unexceptional manner, with perfectly good manners. ‘Is something wrong?’ asked the Trow, looking down at his clothing, perhaps in an effort to ascertain if a stain had dared to inflict itself on his pristine tunic.
‘Naw.’ Ragnarr could feel his cheeks coloring, but he met the Trow’s eyes. ‘It’s good, is all, really good. I didn’t think about you having to cook and bake and so on.’
‘Do you see any women around here?’ the Trow asked after a moment. His long, long hair pooled on the bench behind him, elegant hands carefully put down the painstakingly-carved soapstone bowl, and Ragnarr’s mouth suddenly went dry.
‘No?’ he wasn’t quite sure that question had any good answer to it, so he plowed on. ‘It’s just… I never met a man who knew how.’
‘Ah.’ The Trow sat back and regarded him, the tiniest hint of an impish smile curving his mouth. ‘The kirtle and shift make things easier.’
‘Why’s that?’ Ragnarr sounded a bit strangled, even to himself.
The Trow considered the question. ‘Hmmm. When you cut vegetables, you don’t use your war ax, even though it has an edge, and you could, and it would work fairly well. But it’s easier to cut vegetables with a good knife. It’s a matter of matching the proper tools to a task. Women’s magic doesn’t come easily to a man, so the proper tools help.’
‘So you wear it when you cook? And do women’s work?’ Ragnarr had to admit, it made a certain amount of sense. If you were a Trow.
‘And cursing,’ the Trow continued mildly. ‘Cursing is women’s magic.’
Ragnarr drew a deep breath. ‘I didn’t know that,’ he said.
‘Oh, yes.’ The Trow rose and gathered up their bowls. ‘Did you have enough to eat? I’d very much dislike to think I starved you.’ His eyes ran the length of Ragnarr’s body, and Ragnarr felt a surge of heat.
‘I’m good, my thanks.’ Ragnarr finished up the last of his ale. He was beginning to feel a little awkward.
‘We could play some board games?’ offered the Trow. He sounded amused, but his expression was still formal and serene. ‘And you can tell me about what you’ve been doing for the last year.’
Ragnarr helped set up the game board with its beautifully carved pieces. ‘Ah well, we went to Iceland and Dyflin and did some trading there for quite awhile. That was interesting. And entertaining. I learned a lot.’ He grinned. ‘And that reminds me. I brought you something.’ He reached into his pack and pulled out a small package he had carefully wrapped in colorful, embroidered linen, and handed it to the Trow.
The Trow took the small bundle with a smile. ‘What is it?’ He opened the package and carefully set aside the cloth.
‘A book?’ The was a long pause while The Trow Wife examined the leather cover with its embossed circled cross, and then the curve of his mouth began to have as much in common with a knife as a smile. His voice was very gentle indeed. ‘You dared to get me, me, a Bible?’ The air in the room grew close with the sharp, burning scent of a thunderstorm, and the flame on the little oil lamps flicked strongly. If the tension in the room got any heavier he thought he might be crushed by it, and Ragnarr wondered briefly if he should expect a bolt of lightning to strike him down.
He watched the Trow carefully, wondering if he was going to have to fight him now, after all. When the air changed, it was almost as if he could see two Trows, one layered on top of the other. One had the fine features with which he was familiar; the other was… different, a little, his eyes the dappled golden-green of the summer sun through breeze-teased leaves, his ears long and pointed, but still delicate and lovely. And the claws at the ends of the graceful fingers... well the claws were neither delicate nor lovely, but Ragnarr knew he was looking at a being who was every bit as deadly as white water rushing ice-cold and furious through the jagged rocks of a fjord, or the howling storms of driven sleet and blinding snows of deepest winter. Or, perhaps, more to the point, an enraged bear who had managed to get its tormenter pinned and primed for sudden and painful destruction.
Even so, he had a strong and sudden urge to run his tongue slowly up the edge of that long ear, and he wondered if Trow ears were more sensitive than human ears. He fought to bring his surge of lust under control.
‘No… I got you a book that had lots of colorful words and pretty pictures of plants and stuff,’ he managed to choke out, not looking at the long, clawed fingers clenched white around the edges of the book. ‘And little flowers along the edges.’ He could feel his cheeks burning. ‘It reminded me of you, a little.’
‘Oh,’ said the Trow in a more normal tone. ‘Oh.’ The stifling pressure eased, and Ragnarr breathed a little more easily. The Trow opened the book and read aloud in a language that Ragnarr didn’t know, tracing the words with a long finger.
‘You can read it? Is it… bad for you?’ Ragnarr bit his lip.
‘Oh, no. It’s about gardens. The person who owned this book was a gardener, I suppose. Did you kill him?’
‘I didn’t kill him.’ The Trow looked a trifle disappointed. ‘Don’t know if the fellow I bought it from did either. But I have his book, sure enough. I wager he won’t need it again. But what does it say?’ He leaned forward over the Trow’s shoulder.
‘Mmm. Something like: “And God says ‘Let the earth yield tender grass, herbs sowing seed, fruit-trees with seeds in it, making fruit after its kind, on the earth: and it is so. And the earth brings forth tender grass, herbs sowing seed after its kind, and trees making fruit with seed in itself after its kind; and God sees that it is good.” Interesting. I rather like the idea of their God as a gardener. I haven’t seen or heard much about that aspect of the Christian God.’ He flipped through the rest of the book, murmuring to himself.
Ragnarr sat back and sipped his ale, watching the Trow reading through the text. That had been unexpected. He couldn’t read a word himself; he had just liked the pictures and the colors of the little book. But it was a good view, keeping an eye on the Trow, and he didn’t mind. He was glad the Trow had enjoyed the book, although it had been a close thing. He hadn’t even considered that the Trow might have some strong feelings about those who followed the White Christ, but that made sense. He had been hearing a lot of tales lately about the black robes driving out the old ways-- and the old, hidden people as well.
It had been a long walk and a long evening, and Ragnarr found his eyes closing despite his struggle to stay awake. The book snapped shut, and Ragnarr looked up to find the Trow peering at him.
‘I apologize. There are some really interesting things in there… but I didn’t mean to be rude. Are you tired? I imagine you must be. It is quite a trip from the town.’ He stood and stretched, and Ragnarr watched with something like yearning, but he closed his eyes and emptied his mind. The Trow had given him no indication whatsoever that he wanted to take up where they had left off, and Ragnarr wasn’t the type to push where he wasn’t wanted.
The Trow reached down and pulled him to his feet, and stared at him, chewing thoughtfully on his bottom lip. ‘There’s a real bed in here,’ he said. ‘You can sleep in it, if you like.’
‘I wouldn’t want to put you out,’ Ragnarr said automatically. ‘If you can give me a quilt and a pillow I will do well enough out here.’
‘Oh,’ said the Trow. ‘If that is what you want, then of course…’ his voice trailed to a stop, and Ragnarr could see the pink tinge over the Trow’s high cheekbones. The Trow turned away, and Ragnarr grabbed his arm, warmth and long, lean muscles apparent even through the linen of his tunic.
‘Wait,’ said Ragnarr. He trailed the back of his hand down the side of the Trow’s face, and tilted his chin upwards with his fingers. He kissed the Trow lightly, an invitation rather than a demand, perhaps even a plea. But it was easily refused if the Trow wasn’t interested. Ragnarr didn’t know any more what to think. None of his rather vast experience was relevant to this particular situation. And Ragnarr had never had to actually court anyone. But he wanted to, very much.
His hands slid back into the Trow’s hair and the Trow didn’t pull away. ‘I don’t want to presume,’ said Ragnarr.
‘Do you think I do?’ returned the Trow. They both grinned.
‘I’ve thought about what I would do when we met again, thought about it for an entire year.’ Ragnarr slid his hands down the Trow’s front and around his hips and pulled him closer. ‘If I didn’t know you were a Trow, I might think you were one of those revenants who haunts people’s dreams.’
The Trow reached up and pulled Ragnarr’s head closer, his thumb tracing the edge of Ragnarr’s jaw. ‘An entire year of planning? Perhaps you should show me what you have come up with.’ His tongue flicked inside Ragnarr’s mouth, coaxing and tempting him. ‘Will you reconsider your sleeping decision?’ His lips traced down the side of Ragnarr’s mouth, and down to the delicate skin of his throat. He bit a little there, just a little nip, and Ragnarr gasped.
‘Oh, yes,’ he breathed, shivering. ‘Yes.’ He fell to his knees, his hands sliding along the front of the Trow, caressing him all the way down, and fumbled underneath the Trow’s tunic, freeing the drawstring of his trousers, and—“
“He said ‘Ahem.’”
“My thanks. That didn’t need a translation. Erm. My apologies, Wanderer.”
“…And wants to know if you intend to continue in this perverted style.”
“Hmmph. No, this story doesn’t have any more perverted parts. Not that any of it has been particularly perverted anyway.”
“Now, now. Not everyone shares your love of extreme realism and detail in storytelling.”
“Fine. Ragnarr and the Trow made it to the bed, and there they made love, yes love, and you’ll not get me to say otherwise. They were lovers, no matter how long they had known each other. Sometimes it just happens that way, and so it was with them. And they woke in each other’s arms, and did it all over again. Multiple times. Until they knew each other’s bodies as well as they knew their own.
The next day Ragnarr helped the Trow with some of his chores: chopping wood, fetching water, even chopping vegetables (but not with his ax). He hadn’t done that sort of thing in four years, but he didn’t mind. He wondered how the Trow managed alone, but he had some connection to the forest, and maybe that helped him. He certainly didn’t seem to want for fresh meat, or fish from the stream that ran through the back part of the meadow. And of course, he had some vegetables and fruit from his own tidy little garden. But regardless of how much food they took from the garden, it never seemed to run out.
The next day was midsummer, and they woke up together and played board games and talked all day until dusk, when the Trow stood up and beckoned Ragnarr into the meadow. He stood looking up into the sky and smiled thoughtfully.
‘Well, you have offered me a challenge again, and I, of course, accept. Hmmm.’ Ragnarr watched the Trow mark off a circle ten paces across; as soon as he finished, the grass inside the bounds of the ring began wriggling back into the earth. ‘Have you put that sword to good use since a year ago?’
Ragnarr nodded distractedly; he tried hard to conceal his shudder as the last bit of grass in the circle writhed happily of its own accord and vanished, leaving a cleared, even patch of dirt.
‘Good. I was hoping you would find it useful,’ said the Trow, and he smiled, wicked and sweet and all sorts of things that Ragnarr had been trying unsuccessfully not to think about. ‘Then I think we should see what you’ve learned since you left.’ The Trow unwrapped a bundle of rags, and drew out another bronze sword; this one was long and slender with a slight curve to the blade.
‘What are the terms?’ Ragnarr asked.
The Trow grinned, and Ragnarr caught a glimpse of fang. ‘Very good.’ He sounded genuinely pleased, and Ragnarr relaxed a bit. ‘We’ll make them the same as last year. If you win, I’ll permanently lift the curse. If I win, I’ll pick a forfeit, anything I like. The rules of the circle are, anything at all is permissible. If you step outside the boundary of the circle, you lose automatically.’
‘What about any of your abilities, your magic? I can’t compete against that.’
‘Oh, very well.’ The Trow waved a lofty hand. ‘I suppose that would be a bit much. I won’t use it. Anything else?’
‘I’d like to use my shield?’
‘That is quite acceptable to me. Are you satisfied with the terms?’
‘They’re fine. But I won’t lose to you,’ said Ragnarr, regaining some of his confidence. He had never been bested yet -- except at wrestling, obviously-- but definitely not with a weapon, and he suddenly realized he felt completely calm and certain of himself and his abilities. He hadn’t quite figured out what to do after he won, but maybe they could--
‘I am glad to hear it,’ said the Trow, interrupting his thoughts. He sounded completely sincere, and Ragnarr frowned, suddenly certain that the Trow was plotting something. But looking back over their conversation, he couldn’t see that he had overlooked anything about the terms, so he slung his shield over his arm and stepped into the ring, the leaf-bladed sword in hand.
Ragnarr watched while the Trow stepped into the circle, holding his sword in a two-handed grip in front of him. He smiled over the tip of the blade at Ragnarr.
Just as before, when they had been wrestling, Ragnarr observed the Trow, but this time he watched the Trow’s blade rather than his arms and legs, because it was obvious that the Trow was no novice, despite his not using a shield. But that made sense too, because the Trow was fast and light, and a shield would just slow him down. So Ragnarr would need to use his own strength and skill to keep the Trow off balance. It was that simple, and that was the key to this fight—making sure that the Trow never got a chance to properly use his agility.
‘Come on, what are you waiting for?’ mocked the Trow with a disdainful lift lift of his eyebrow. ‘Have you decided to forfeit to me after all?’ But he was scrutinizing Ragnarr’s stance and movements every bit as much as Ragnarr had been watching him.
Ragnarr let the Trow’s words flow over him, and began looking for a way past his sword, and he found it, just as the Trow swept down and flung a handful of dirt towards Ragnarr’s face. He dodged it, but the Trow was on him then. What the Trow didn’t know—but how could he—was that Ragnarr was as adept with a shield as with a blade or ax. He gave the Trow’s slight frame a tremendous bash with his shield and sent him careening back to the other edge of the circle. The Trow looked genuinely astonished, and Ragnarr felt a tiny, mean spark of joy at having put that expression there. He grinned, nasty and insolent. ‘Pfft. Is that all you have? I was expecting more than that little love-tap.’
He advanced then, circling the Trow, looking for another opening, and jumped forward, feinting with his shield. The Trow danced to the side, sword in one hand, and gave Ragnarr a tremendous kick with the heel of his foot, square in the middle of the shield. Ragnarr felt his shield arm go more or less numb. The shield cracked down the middle; it wouldn’t be of much use for a defense, but it wasn’t completely worthless either. He held on to it as best he could. The two of them glared at each other, and then Ragnarr grinned again. He was actually enjoying this, he realized. This was better, more interesting and more thrilling, than any sparring match he had ever had. This actually mattered.
They crashed together a couple of more times, Ragnarr managing to keep the Trow close so he wasn’t able to use his speed to good effect, and he thought one or two more passes might do it. The Trow was strong and agile, but he wasn’t meant for contests of endurance. He was like one of those racing horses that Ragnarr had seen in the southern deserts: beautiful, sleek, and blazingly fast, but unable to maintain that level of effort for more than a single race. All he had to do was to wait and wear out the Trow, and he’d win. Because he, Ragnarr Snorrason, could do this all fucking day.
The Trow fell back to the far edge of the circle. He was breathing hard, and he didn’t look confident at all. In fact, he looked quite worried, and that made Ragnarr gloat a little, too. So maybe he’d finish it now, force the Trow to surrender, and then they could talk.
Ragnarr calculated quickly. He was heavier than the Trow, and a little taller, and he could probably just bear him down at this point. He held his broken shield in front of him to knock away the Trow’s blade, his own blade lifted and ready, and dashed forward as fast as he could. He was set and prepared, waiting for the Trow to counter, which he easily could have. But what he did instead was hold completely steady until Ragnarr was almost upon him, and then he simply dropped the tip of his blade to the ground and stood there defenseless, with his eyes closed and face composed and serene.
Ragnarr didn’t even have time to curse, he was moving fast, so fast that the scenery around him was a blur of motion, and he didn’t know if he was going to be able… but he tried. He tried, and he somehow managed to drop his blade and heave his body to the side. His momentum threw him completely off balance, twisting his body sharply to the side and forcing him to fall hard on his shoulder and hip in the dirt. He came to rest in an ungainly sprawl on his damaged arm, but he barely felt it.
‘You stupid, stupid bastard!’ He curled up on his knees, trying desperately to control his shuddering breaths and shaking hands. ‘I could have killed you!” he raged. He could see tiny black spots whirling in front of his eyes, and nausea roiled his stomach. That was another gift he could lay squarely at the Trow’s door, he thought bitterly, trying not to disgrace himself by vomiting. He sensed the warm, comforting presence of the Trow crouching next to him, and a gentle hand began stroking and smoothing his hair and along his back, soothing and petting.
‘Oh, but isn’t that why you’re here?’The Trow’s voice was so very reasonable, and Ragnarr had to clench his trembling fists together to keep from striking him. He looked up from between his knees; the Trow’s forest-shadowed eyes regarded him solemnly, and his long, dark hair fluttered in the warm evening breeze. Ragnarr could barely hear the chirps of the evening insects over the terrified pounding of his heart.
He couldn’t think of anything good to reply to that. ‘You know why I’m here!’ he snarled at last. For some reason he was utterly undone. ‘If you ever do something that mad ever again, I’ll knock you into the middle of next winter!’
‘I know,’ said the Trow. ‘I won’t. I’m sorry I made you worry.’ He sounded almost meek, but Ragnarr knew better. There wasn’t a meek bone in his skinny body.
‘Why did you do that?’
The Trow straightened up next to him, but his hands, those magical, talented hands, kept stroking and soothing, moving just right, down the line of his spine. Ragnarr was beginning to develop a strong desire to fling himself over the Trow’s lap and just let the Trow’s clever fingers pet him like huge cat. ‘Well, it seemed like the best way to bring things to an end before either of us got hurt too badly, and at the same time to make sure you lost the challenge.’
‘I didn’t lose to you!’ Ragnarr sat up straight and proud and rigid as a birch sapling. ‘You lost to me! You dropped your sword and stopped fighting!’
‘Yes, but there weren’t any rules against that.’
‘I didn’t lose!’ Ragnarr insisted. His hoped-for plan of reaching some sort of truce was in tatters, though, that was plain.
‘Very well, but you’re outside the ring,’ the Trow murmured apologetically. Ragnarr looked down, and it was true: he had managed to fling himself outside the circle in his effort to avoid striking the Trow.
‘I hate you so much,’ seethed Ragnarr.
‘Yes, yes. I know.’ A light kiss settled on his head.
Another thought immediately occurred to Ragnarr. ‘You were wagering your life on my being able to pull my attack in time? You… that’s…’ His voice cracked.
The Trow shrugged. ‘Either way… if you killed me you would have gotten what you want, correct? If you didn’t kill me, we’d both still be alive and could proceed from there.’
‘That’s not what I want, quit saying that.’ “
“Have some more ale.”
“I don’t need—“
“Shhh, just drink it.”
“My thanks… oh, that’s good.”
“It’s my pleasure.”
“Anyway, Ragnarr’s arm ached fiercely by then, and he was skinned up a bit from where he had landed in the dirt. The Trow still crouched next to him, and Ragnarr felt comforted and leaned into his caresses, even though he was still so angry he could barely talk.
The Trow huddled closer to Ragnarr’s warmth and looked upwards at the sky; it was dark by this time, and Ragnarr could make out a band of white light traversing the heavens. ‘A thousand years ago the Greeks, that’s a people over the seas, said that that band of stars was caused by one of their gods throwing up his milk as a baby,’ murmured the Trow. Ragnarr snorted and tried to keep from smiling.
‘A thousand years ago, here, the people of the land would have sacrificed their most cherished youths or maidens, at height of their beauty and strength, to me at midsummer,’ whispered the Trow. ‘It was so long ago I can hardly remember it except in my dreams, but now they have sent you. It’s well enough, I suppose. I approve of their choice.’
‘I’m not a sacrifice to you,’ said Ragnarr flatly.
‘Aren’t you?’ said the Trow Wife, a skeptical lift to one elegant eyebrow. ‘Well, here you are. And here it is, midsummer. I wonder where your support is. I wonder where your brother is. Did you even tell anyone you were going off to visit the Trow to make him revoke his curse? I’ll wager not.’ He moved closer, his lips against Ragnarr’s ear. ‘Any one of them could have come here at any time. No one did. No one has. Just you.’
‘My brother is a farmer, and so is anyone else who could have come.’ The Trow laughed quietly, and Ragnarr felt a resurgence of annoyance, just when he was starting to calm down. ‘Why are you saying all this to me?’
‘You should know what I am, and what I have been,’ said the Trow, and his forehead dropped to Ragnarr’s shoulder. ‘I’m not human, and I’ll never be human. Even if I wished otherwise.’ His deceptively fragile hands clenched in the front of Ragnarr’s tunic.
Ragnarr rolled his eyes. ‘I know that already. As if I didn’t,’ he said. ‘I saw what you look like.’
The Trow’s fingers stilled. ‘But you’re still here… why?’
‘Yes, well. Every moth is drawn to a flame, I suppose,’ Ragnarr grinned ruefully.
‘Yes!’ breathed the Trow. ‘Yes. I wonder which of us is which?’ His fingers twined in Ragnarr’s hair.
Ragnarr huffed a laugh. ‘Does it matter?’ He leaned back on his elbows. ‘Can you fix the grass so we don’t have to sit in the dirt?’ He felt the grass moving beneath him, the ground growing softer and more fragrant as the meadow returned to its usual state. ‘Much better.’ He flung himself backwards, taking the Trow with him.
The Trow stared down at him and traced a finger over Ragnarr’s cheek. ‘You know, I have been thinking… It was my turn to underestimate you. That isn’t something I usually do.’ Ragnarr could barely see his face, but his voice sounded slightly perturbed. ‘I suppose, perhaps, that I have come to overly rely on my magic rather than my own skills.’
‘Pfft. My swordplay is astounding enough to bring tears to a maiden’s eyes.’
The Trow bit his lip to keep from smiling. ‘Perhaps your skills do bring tears to the eyes of maidens. I have no complaints, though, at any rate.’
‘Idiot.’ He laced their fingers together and lay back in the grass, looking up at the starry sky. ‘Look, a shooting star, isn’t that supposed to be a good omen?’
‘Well, an omen, anyway. Perhaps we shouldn’t invite trouble by presuming it’s a good omen.’
‘No, probably not,’ murmured Ragnarr. He sighed. ‘I wish we had met differently. I wish we weren’t enemies.’
The Trow laughed, a little maliciously, and something in Ragnarr thrilled pleasurably at that hint of darkness. ‘Is that what we are?’
‘Trying to figure this out makes my head hurt. Sometimes I think the gods set these sorts of situations up, just so they can laugh at us. I don’t know what to do.’
‘If you don’t know, mayhap you aren’t meant to do anything.’ The Trow rose and offered Ragnarr a hand up. ‘Come on, let’s sleep. It’s been a long day.’
Ragnarr followed the Trow back into the little house and drank a mug of mead, and slept the sleep of all unsettled souls. But he woke the next morning to find the Trow Wife curled around him like he was wyrm Jörmungandr and Ragnarr was his favorite bauble. He looked down at Ragnarr with his eyes half-closed and nearly black, and Ragnarr shivered, because no one had ever wanted—no, desired – no… treasured him like that.
It was like the exhilaration and freedom of standing on the beach in a gale, the wind whipping the spray into his face and stealing his breath, and the surf pounding around his feet, and him wondering in a sort of ecstatic recklessness if the waves would take him. It was just like that, and in the end he just gave in to the undertow and let the Trow have him, all of him, because that was all he could do, and all he wanted to do.
He was surprised to find, when he returned to himself, that he had not, in fact, drowned. And the Trow was dozing quietly next to him, his arms tight around him. Wyrms are jealous of their treasure, and apparently Trows are too.
He must have fallen back asleep as well; the next thing he knew, the Trow Wife was up and dressed, his long hair wet and clinging to his arms in winding tendrils.
‘I know what I want for my forfeit,’ said the Trow, and sat on the edge of the bed, smiling down at him. He looked carefree and light. Ragnarr wondered where he had put away all that passion and desperation.
But he sat up and listened, because now it was time to pay the skald for the tune he had sung. ‘Oh,’ he returned cautiously. Bargaining with the old folk required more mental ability than he usually had so early in the morning.
‘Yes, it is quite easy. I want a lock of your hair.’
Ragnarr tilted his head. ‘All right,’ he said at last. ‘For… for magic?’
The Trow’s mouth twisted, and for a second Ragnarr would have sworn he was disappointed, but he didn’t know about what.
But his voice was its usual smooth and pleasant tone, and he simply said, ‘Of course not. Besides, if I wanted to cast a spell on you, I have plenty of “material” from you to work with already, wouldn’t you say?’
Ragnarr flushed, but nodded. ‘Take what you want then.’ He wound his arms around the Trow’s waist and laid his head on his thigh.
He felt the Trow sigh, and then long fingers stroked slowly through his hair and over his shoulder, and began braiding. After a moment he started humming, some tune that Ragnarr didn’t know, and he drifted off again, waking when the Trow’s knife began slicing near his scalp.
‘That’s a lot,’ he said, eying the complicated creation in the Trow’s hands.
‘Indeed, it took more than I thought. But it will grow back; it’s just hair.’ He patted Ragnarr on the back and rose. ‘You should get dressed, and you can break your fast and then head out. I have a gift for you before you go.’
He left the room, and Ragnarr was startled at how bereft he felt already. He went outside and washed up as quickly as he could, sluicing the cool water over his body. The Trow was watching him, Ragnarr realized after a moment, his face grave. He dried off and got dressed as quickly as he could.
The Trow sat on the stump in his garden, surrounded by summer flowers and the sounds of the bees, and handed Ragnarr some strawberries and smoked fish on a delicate soapstone plate. He stared off into the distance. ‘You should visit your brother before you leave and do whatever it is you are going to do.’
‘Why’s that?’ Ragnarr took a bite of fish. He idly wondered if the Trow had worn his dress when he made it, and smiled.
‘Because he’s your brother,’ the Trow responded very gently, as if he were being a dunce. Maybe he was. ‘And you didn’t visit him on the way here.’
Ragnarr stopped himself from rolling his eyes, but it was a close thing. ‘All right, fine, I’ll stop there for the night.’
‘Good. I put some food in your pack if you get hungry along the way.’ The Trow rose and went into the house, and came back with something made of dark green cloth draped over his arm.
‘Hmmmm. I suppose I can suspend the curse for another year.’ He smiled. ‘Although you should meet me back here—‘
‘In a year and a day?’ Ragnarr grinned and stood, gazing at the Trow.
‘Yes. Here.” The Trow shook out the green cloth, and Ragnarr saw it was a full, hooded cloak, wool on the outside and lined with quilted yellow linen on the inside. White braided trim edged the openings and the hood. Ragnarr reached out and took it and pulled it on. It would be a bit warm, but it was beautiful and the Trow had made it for him.
‘I didn’t want to think of you being cold and uncomfortable on the deck of a ship.’ The Trow blushed, his high cheekbones flushed pink. ‘I made it last winter. I suppose being cold was on my mind.’
‘Thank you, I’ll wear it in good health.’ He took the Trow’s hands. ‘And I will be back in a year, I promise. Look for me then.’ He tilted up the Trow’s chin and kissed him, gentle and thorough; taking his time to make sure it said everything he couldn’t. He was no skald, to spin and weave words to say anything he wished, no matter how meaningful or empty. The Trow reached up, his fingers curled around Ragnarr’s cheek and tangled in his hair, and gave back every bit as good as he got, and when they finished Ragnarr dropped his forehead to the Trow’s shoulder, almost overcome with misery.
The Trow held him, stroking along his back, and after a few moments, he said, ‘You should go now.’ Ragnarr nodded jerkily and strode off into the trees, not looking back.
The trip through the forest seemed to go faster: the path was straight and smooth, and no vines blocked his progress. He supposed the Trow was helping him as much as he could, although he hadn’t last year, Ragnarr noted with a tiny spark of annoyance. The ravens were not as noticeable as usual, and although he could hear the stream—which he had never yet seen—gurgling in the background, he saw no sign of any other living thing, aside from the exuberant plant life.
After a couple of hours of walking, he stopped to sit and think, but there was no sense to be made of the whirl of his thoughts or emotions, and he gave it up as a bad job after half an hour or so. Instead he ate the flatbread, smoked fish and berries, and drank the beer in its little skin that the Trow had provided him.
He ate pretty well when he was with the Trow. It was amazing he didn’t get fat.
He reached the farmstead well before dusk; he could see people, both hired help and thralls, working at various places around the farm: some in the gardens, some in the fields, but everyone seemed cheerful. Some were even singing.
‘Hail the hall!’ he called, and went up to the great doors of the hall. A woman answered it; he didn’t recognize her at first, with long black hair caught up in plaits behind her back, her face thin and triangular, dark blue eyes showing both shrewdness and uncommon intelligence. The last time he had seen her, her hair had been unbound and she had been about a foot shorter than she was now. He and she and his brother had run wild over the farmsteads around. His brother had never even looked at the other local girls after he first met her; no one else would do but she.
‘Gunnora?’ he smiled, and reached out his hand, noticing the chain of keys dangling from her waist. Her thickened waist: he was to be an uncle again, he was happy to see.
‘Ragnarr?’ she returned, with a note of wonder in her voice. She smiled then, blindingly, and launched herself into his arms. ‘Why didn’t you send word… we had no idea you were coming. How long are you staying?’
‘Ah, just a short visit, I am afraid. I am between trips, you might say.’ He smiled and looked around. The hall showed signs on a woman’s touch; it was a far cry from the years he and his father and brother had lived without a mistress in the hall.
‘Then you should sit and drink and feast with us. I’ll send someone for your brother, he will be so happy to see you!’ She hurried out of the hall, and Ragnarr sat along the benches that lined the wall. After a few moments, he saw a couple of small heads peeking out at him from behind the cloth dangling from Gunnora’s loom. By the time Gunnora returned with his brother in tow, Ragnarr had the two children alongside him, and had begun telling them stories of his travels.
Dagvithr smiled at the picture, then held out his arms in greeting. ‘We should talk,’ he said, but he was smiling, and he looked happy, so happy with his wife alongside him and his children seated near the hearth, that it almost pierced Ragnarr’s heart. He knew then why the Trow had told him to visit his brother, and didn’t know whether to laugh or weep or curse the Trow in turn.
In the end, he did none of it, but he and his brother and his brother’s beautiful wife spoke long during the night and reforged their bonds. Because, just as the Trow had said, his brother was his brother, and that was something that would never change and could never change.
Every now and then, though, he caught Dagvithr staring at him, his expression more and more troubled, and Ragnarr knew there were questions in his head, but they were never asked, and Ragnarr didn’t wish to answer them anyway. It was too complicated, and how could he explain it? It made no sense, even to him.
‘I’m fine,’ Ragnarr told his brother, because he couldn’t bear the worry that had grown in his eyes since even a day ago. ‘I’ll be fine.’
He gave the family what remained of his treasure, and left for town.
Ragnarr hired on as a bodyguard with a fat merchant who had much to trade. They went to a land not so far away, with a great city of traders and merchants, where the women were blond and busty and blue-eyed, but he barely saw them. Although they noticed him quite well, you may be sure. He stood out in a crowd, did Ragnarr, even more than he had when he first went a-Viking. But it wasn’t that he didn’t sample the goods that were so freely offered… it was more that he no longer really looked for it or pursued it. And after the first or second—”
“No, not that many. Ragnarr was no fool (despite what some seem to think), and it didn’t take him long to realize his heart wasn’t in chasing skirts too much anymore, regardless of how well they were filled. All he could think about was forest-shadowed eyes; a tall, willowy body; and a not-so-nice laugh that sent shivers down his spine.
So he kept to himself mostly to himself through the rest of the summer, although he was glad enough to relieve others of their gold. His life seemed to consist of fattening his purse and keeping his merchant’s skin intact. It was easy enough work, and paid well. Sometimes, when he had a free day or two, he made a few stops along the countryside for a few items he thought might please the Trow.
The winter was mild, much more mild than back home, and every time he wore his dark green cloak, he wondered how the Trow was faring.
The spring came and went, and with it more trips to the countryside, and finally the merchant concluded his business and set sail for home. Finally, he was going back. It had been a long year, and he had had plenty of time to think. He felt as if he had been only marginally present during most of the last year: as if he had been standing back and watching someone else in his body going through the motions of day-to-day life. It had been too easy just to slip inside his head and think about how he had left off with the Trow: things he had done, things he hadn’t done, and things he wished he had done differently. He had never, ever missed someone, and wasn’t even sure if that was what it was. It was more like missing a part of his body: an arm or a hand, something familiar and necessary that should be there, but wasn’t.
But now, at last, he was happy, and content, and almost trembling with anticipation and longing.
So, of course, that is when the gods had their jest and made merry with his fate.
It was early evening when they landed, and actually dark out by the time he had managed to finally get off the damn ship. But still, he managed to bid farewell to his erstwhile employer and grabbed his pack. It was heavy with the goods he had accumulated over the past year, but despite its bulk and weight, it was nothing he couldn’t handle. Off in the town he could see a flicker of light here and there lighting up a window—probably marking the location ladies of uncertain morality he had known in years past. The town looked the same, smelled the same, felt the same. The gods (or the Trow, more likely) had continued to be kind to the local citizens. It was a good sign, he thought, leaving it behind him. He had been terrified that he would return to find utter ruination, that the Trow would make good on his threat to resume the curse if Ragnarr wasn’t there by Midsummer. The hidden ones sometimes weren’t particularly amenable to listening to excuses for failure, even though it wasn’t his fault he was so many months late.
The weather was cooler than usual for the time of year, and he could see his breath hanging in the air like smoke as he walked along. It was going to be a long walk; he wondered if he should stop by the farm and break his journey, but decided against it. He was in a hurry.
It was night, and hard to see, but the moon was fairly bright and he could make his way well enough. The farms he passed were in the process of putting up their barley and oats for the winter; some fields had been mown down to stubble already. He didn’t see any sign of any plants or animals having been affected: the cows and sheep all appeared healthy and fat, and the crops were hearty and plentiful. It had been very apparent when the curse had been working on the land two years ago.
Maybe the Trow hadn’t resumed the blighting curse? He wondered if, instead, the Trow had decided to do something worse, something more subtle than withering the farms and ruining the animals. He didn’t think-- wouldn’t think-- that the Trow would do such a thing. But his stride lengthened.
Eventually, he passed the family farmstead. A dog barked at him from across the fields, but he didn’t see it and it didn’t pursue him. All seemed as it should be, and he could tell even from a distance that the people of the hold were fast asleep. Not even a lamp twinkled in a window.
It was the deep of the night by the time he reached the raven-haunted woods. He couldn’t hear any ravens—they were all asleep, probably—but he could see enough of the forest by the light of the moon itself to tell there was something wrong with the trees. Closer to town, all the trees still had their leaves. But the woods here appeared oddly twisted, and the remaining leaves on the trees shivered in the breeze with an unpleasant whispery rustle. Something smelled wrong too, but he couldn’t put his finger on what. It wasn’t the clean smell of growing things, or even dying things, but more the smell of things that had been sealed away for too long and released into the world. It set his teeth on edge, and he kept firm grasp of the sword that the Trow had given him.
It was hard going, because despite the moonlight the woods were dark, and he couldn’t keep to any trails he found. His feet tripped over stones and branches that he should have avoided with ease. The landmarks he had used in the past—an outcrop of rock here, the burble of the river there—were missing. Finally he sat down, and rested for awhile. He might have fallen asleep, except that would have been a stupid thing to do. But he wouldn’t have sworn he didn’t.
It was dark when he sat down, and it was false dawn when he rose. It might as well still have been dark out; everything seemed to have a grey pall over it, including the wan light of the breaking day. He wondered if it was going to rain, but the air didn’t feel that way, even with the breeze soughing fitfully through the trees.
He continued on, hoping he was still heading in the right direction, trying to watch the trail ahead of him so that he didn’t break his leg. Now that he could see properly, he breathed a silent prayer to Thor for looking after him during the night—at least some one of the gods had clearly been guiding and aiding him, for the woods were almost more forbidding during the day than they had been at night. Clammy mist drifted among the trees, and he could hear odd creaking, slithery sounds to which he couldn’t put a name.
It was a little past dawn when he broke though the barrier of the forest and stepped into the meadow.
The Trow was seated on the stump in his garden with his legs crossed and hands in his lap, gazing off into space. The flowers that Ragnarr could usually see in such abundance were withered and brown, fallen over as if they had been scythed down. The grass of the meadow was wilted and sere, and it crunched underfoot as he walked across to the Trow. Off in the distance, Ragnarr could see the stream that ran behind the house had dried up; all he could see was a rocky, sandy ravine where it used to flow. There was no sign of the goat on the roof of the little house, perhaps because the clover and grass that had formerly covered the thatch were decaying.
The Trow himself also seemed the worse for wear, his face very thin and so pale that Ragnarr wondered he didn’t faint, his long black hair tangled behind his back. He looked tired and distracted in the morning light, the lines next to his mouth deep cut and harsh, dark smudges under his eyes. For a moment Ragnarr simply stood and gaped at the meadow’s rampant deterioration.
‘Oh, it’s really you,’ said the Trow, as if surprised.
‘Of course it is,’ said Ragnarr. He crossed the meadow and stood in front of the Trow. ‘Who else.’
The Trow, smiled, if it could be called that, a thin, grim line. ‘Well, you are late. It might have been a dream, who knows.’
‘I know… I’m sorry. I—‘ began Ragnarr, his hand out to touch the Trow.
‘Winter will be here soon, rather sooner than later, I think,’ said the Trow, looking around, as if just noticing that fact.
Ragnarr let his hand drop to his side, unsure of what to say, other than the obvious. ‘Thank you for not restoring the curse. It... it means a lot to me.’
‘I thought about it. I wanted to.’ The Trow shifted on his stump.
‘So why didn’t you?’ Ragnarr asked. He was getting tired of standing there, and wanted nothing so much as to go inside and lie down with the Trow and sleep (and fuck) for days. He hadn’t been invited though, and the chances of any of that, maybe ever again, were looking increasingly grim.
The Trow’s mouth twisted bitterly, and he stared off into the distance, away somewhere far behind Ragnarr’s back. ‘I never used to care about the consequences of my magic. And if I was angered, and someone suffered because of my vengeance, well, that was as things should be. As I wanted them to be. That I should come to care what became of a swarm of mortals, especially by my hand, came as quite a shock. I couldn’t bring myself to hurt those you love. I’ve made myself weak, and done it for you.’
‘I am impressed by your restraint,’ said Ragnarr said before he could stop himself. One of these days, he thought, watching the Trow slowly turn towards him, he would learn to keep his mouth shut.
The Trow looked up at him, and Ragnarr took an inadvertent step backwards. ‘Your sarcasm is not appreciated,’ said the Trow, his mouth distorted with barely suppressed violence. His green, green eyes tracked every movement that Ragnarr made, every twitch, every flinch; for the first time, Ragnarr realized deep-down what the Trow had truly meant by his comment that he could never be human.
‘I waited for you. And waited. And then I waited longer. After the first month, I was angry, I admit it, so very angry. At first, all I could think of was taking my vengeance. I couldn’t believe you would betray me, and yet it seemed you had.’ The Trow shifted, and the wind picked up in the meadow, stirring the parched grass in dusty little swirls. Rangarr crouched next to the stump, wishing he dared reach out to the Trow and touch him.
‘But I tried to have faith in you. It was so hard, you can’t know. It is not in the nature of my kind to trust easily. Or ever, sometimes, especially not mortals. But I knew you wouldn’t be forsworn, not to me. And so I knew something must have happened to you, and if that was the case, then there was nothing left for me but to mourn.’ The Trow’s voice broke, and his shoulders hunched. The wind howled through the branches of the trees and whipped up the fallen leaves until they fell about the two men like snow.
‘I’m so sorry,’ said Ragnarr. He could barely speak. He reached up and touched the Trow’s face. ‘But I’m here now. Let’s go inside, and you can rest. Please.’ He stood and helped the Trow up, trying not to notice how his hands shook against Ragnarr’s arms.
Ragnarr was shocked at his first glimpse inside the little house: there were cobwebs in the corners, the formerly immaculate packed earth floor was dusty, and he could have sworn he saw mice scampering amongst the thatch. Worst of all though, the hearth fire was unlit, and when Ragnarr felt the stones around the hearth, they were cold. It was obvious it hadn’t been lit in quite some time. It wasn’t freezing out of doors, but it was unpleasantly chilly, and Ragnarr wondered how long the Trow had been living like this.
‘Here,’ he said, giving the Trow a little push onto the bed. He pulled the quilts over him to warm him up, and sat next to him, stroking his tangled hair. ‘You should try to sleep. I am going to get some wood in here and start a fire.’
‘Don’t go. I don’t want to sleep. You won’t really be here if I do, I know.’ Ragnarr allowed the Trow to pull him down and into his arms.
‘Shhh, I am just going to do some chores. I’m not going anywhere,’ he said, making an attempt to disentangle himself. But the Trow’s arms tightened around him, and after a moment of struggling he gave up. ‘You’re such an idiot,’ he said, but there was no heat to it.
‘I know,’ said the Trow, curling closer and laying his head on Ragnarr’s chest. Ragnarr threw his arm over the Trow’s shoulders and relaxed his sore muscles. It was good and right that they should be like this; maybe they could both rest.
They lay like that until the Trow’s breathing settled into an even rhythm, and then Ragnarr slid out from beneath him and started looking around. He could tell from the first second he walked in the door that there were things that weren’t going to keep, regardless of how tired he was.
The Trow’s home was a mess, and Ragnarr was just as shocked to note it then as he had been to see it the first time. Nevertheless, he tried to set things as much to rights as he could, sweeping the floors and bringing in a few sticks of what was left of the firewood. It was the general air of the house having been abandoned that had him dismayed, as if the Trow hadn’t really lived in it for some time.
He dusted off as many surfaces as he could, started a fire to burn off the chill and damp, and then tried to find some water. There was none in the house, which rather horrified him. He hadn’t been able to see it earlier, but the stream, when he checked, was down to a tiny trickle of water flowing way down at the bottom of its bed. It took him ages to fill up his bucket, and he decided to dam up the stream. Maybe by tomorrow there might be enough water for the household to use.
That took him an hour or two, and he realized he was getting hungry. He had a bit of food in his pack, some beer and some trail rations, but that wasn’t a lot for two people to eat. A search of the stillroom didn’t yield much, and the dried foodstuffs – the fish, smoked meats, fruits, vegetables-- were likewise nearly nonexistent. He went out and looked at the remains of the once-orderly fruit and vegetable garden. He’d have to deal with that tomorrow. There might be some things he could salvage from it later. In the meantime, he scrounged enough to throw a few handfuls of meat, vegetables and water in a pot, and set it over the fire. He was never going to be more than an indifferent cook, but it wouldn’t kill anyone.
And then he sat and thought, because it wasn’t as if he had anything better to do. He was very tired; he hadn’t slept in almost two days. And there was probably a lot more to do if he put his mind to it, but he wasn’t thinking quite straight anymore.
He couldn’t understand why the Trow hadn’t been preparing for the winter—that was something even the most careless housewife took great pains with. Running out of food at the end of winter had taken its toll on more than one family, and starvation was not a pleasant way to die.
And then the reason came to him, and he put his fist through the beautifully woven wattle wall of the stillroom.
After he bandaged up his hand and repaired the hole as best he could for the time being, he sat and thought some more, resisting the urge to wake the Trow up and have a few choice words with him. Instead he settled back on the bench and curled up under the cloak the Trow had given him.
He was awakened by the smell of the stew he had thrown together: it didn’t seem half bad, and he dumped some in a bowl, set it down on the bench, and went into the Trow’s room.
‘Wake up, you,’ he said, and sat next to the Trow, resolutely resisting the urge to bend down and kiss the Trow on his too-thin cheek. ‘You need to eat something. And then we’re going to have a long talk.’
‘That sounds ominous,’ said the Trow, but he didn’t sound as if he minded much. He sat up, the quilt wrapped tightly around him.
‘The food or the talk?’ said Ragnarr, but he couldn’t help but smile despite himself. ‘Let me help you up. Keep wrapped up, it’s still a bit chilly.’ He guided the Trow to the rough table near the hearth and handed him his stew or soup or whatever it was, then threw a couple of more logs on the fire and got himself a bowl.
He watched the Trow eat, and silently got him a second bowl when he had finished the first. The Trow looked rather wilted still, and Ragnarr sat down next to him and let the Trow slump against him while he ate. It was the Trow who broke the silence first.
‘So what did you want to say to me?’ asked the Trow as he finished his meal, with a tiny, sweet smile that lit up his pretty face. His pretty, thin, starved face. Ragnarr reminded himself of his various grievances to keep from melting like spring snow at the Trow’s feet.
‘I came here as fast as I could, as best I could, and I find you starving and half-dead, and having done nothing to get through the winter. If I had been much longer – which wasn’t my fault, by the by—I would have come to find your skinny corpse stinking up the place. Some homecoming, that.’
The Trow appeared to ponder. ‘It takes a lot to kill one of us. I have become increasingly unsure that I could have done it like this, by simply not eating.’ He gestured at his bowl of stew. ‘The plants help me stay healthy, and there are too many trees in the forest to do an adequate and quick job of starving. I did think the winter might do it, though. The plants sleep then, so I actually have to eat food, most of the time.’
Ragnarr’s body stiffened. ‘You know, I told you last time that I would knock you into the middle of next winter if you did something that stupid again. But now I think that’s not far enough away in time. Why is it you seem to think your life is something so valueless that you can just afford to cast it aside?’
The Trow shrugged. ‘Well, you were dead, what else was I to do?’
Ragnarr gritted his teeth to keep from saying some he’d really regret. He had tried to maintain his composure, really he had, but that was simply too much to bear. ‘What were you to do? What sort of question is that? How can you even ask me that? Do you think, even if I were dead, which I clearly am not, that I would want this?’ He set down his bowl of stew untouched, too angry to eat.
‘Mmm. It’s my understanding of that particular state that the dead like a lot of things that they didn’t much like while they were alive.’ Ragnarr clenched his fist, and the Trow hurried on. ‘I like being alive, most of the time, I assure you. But you were dead, and I thought perhaps I could go looking for you and find you, no matter how long it took.’
Ragnarr sat silent for a long time, then growled and dropped his forehead to the Trow’s shoulder. ‘I am so angry at you, right now. And then you say something like that, and I am shattered.’ He put his arm around the Trow, his fingers tight against the Trow’s shoulder.
‘But still. It would be hard for you to find me if you’re feasting in the Halls of Mist with Hela Lokadóttir, and I am up in Valhalla drinking with beautiful shield-maidens.’ He tried hard to match the Trow’s oh-so-reasonable tone.
‘Do you think so?’ The Trow rubbed his chin thoughtfully. ‘Hela is distant kin of mine. She’s half-giant, you know. I expect I might be able to talk her around, eventually.’
‘Assuredly. I am quite sure she and the rest of Hel would be glad to see the back of you at that point, too,’ scowled Ragnarr.
‘She’s very fond of me, actually. So tell me about your bid for the glory of Valhalla.’ The Trow traced his finger across Ragnarr’s lips. ‘What happened?’
‘Don’t try to change the subject.’ Ragnarr bit at the offending finger, and the Trow smiled.
‘I wouldn’t dream of it. But really. What happened?’
Ragnarr sighed. ‘After I left here last year, I hired on with a merchant. We went to Jorvik, did some trading. It was interesting there… much milder than here over the winter. And there were many other merchants there and in some of the other towns we visited, some from far in the east with the most beautiful things.’ His voice picked up in enthusiasm. ‘Gold, amber, rubies, spices. Books even. It was amazing. You would have loved it, all sorts of different things to see and do. But then it was time to wrap up, and we were ready for our return trip, running a bit late, but nothing that should have caused a problem. Merchants… they always are on the lookout for a deal, and the one who hired me on was no different from the rest of them. He got a bit distracted by the possibility of a big transaction, and then we were running a lot late. But we still could have made it home if we hurried and got underway. So we set sail along with some other ships and it was going well.’ Ragnarr looked down and smiled a little bitterly. ‘And you know how when things are going too perfectly, and you just wait for the rest of the dice to be thrown? It was like that. I knew, absolutely, that something was going to happen to just fuck everything to Hel and back. And so we got caught in a storm, and blown off course. I didn’t think we would survive it, if I am honest. I could hear the sides creaking, trying to come undone, and the mast cracking, and the keel twisting beneath us. Somehow we made it through that, although we finished it all up by having to row after the storm blew over us. But we made land away and far to the south, I am not sure where, but our navigator could tell. Somehow. So we made it to land, and I still don’t know how. The sail was in shreds, the mast was broken, and we had taken on so much water that we couldn’t bail it out fast enough, no matter how we tried. We lost some men, swept overboard by the waves, but most of us came through it all right, and we even managed landfall with a couple of the other ships we had set out with.’
‘So, there we were, lost, somewhere far south. Way far south, where the women were dark of skin, black-eyed and long-limbed, and wore dresses of bright and swirling colors. And we managed to find a forest a bit inland, and started chopping wood and repairing the ship as best we could. And then the local people started attacking us. I am not sure why. Perhaps they didn’t like Vikings showing up on their shores.’ He grinned wryly. ‘Who knows, revenge maybe for past attacks? So we had to fight. And fight. And fight. We lost more men from that. But after we killed five or six of their men to every one of ours, they slowed their attacks, and we were able to get the ship repaired enough to limp north and to safe harbor. And I caught another ship home. You know the rest.’
He rose and fetched his pack. ‘I have some things for you, but I won’t swear that none of them are ruined. I hope not, but I don’t know.’ He took out several lengths of brightly colored cloth. ‘Some silk, some linen, other things. Unwrap them, maybe you can tell.’
The Trow unfolded the cloth and took out the multitude of little packets hidden in their depths, opening them and looking inside. ‘Seeds! We’ll have to plant them next spring.’ For the first time since Ragnarr had arrived the Trow looked as if he was really happy.
Ragnarr smiled. ‘I don’t know whether they will grow or not, but there were a lot of different things. Some herbs, some flowers. Some vegetables. I tried to make a little drawing of what it was so you could tell. Not much of an artist though. But maybe you can make it out.’
‘Well. That was unexpected. Thank you. That was very thoughtful.’ He pulled Ragnarr down onto the bench between his legs. ‘You’re a bit backwards, you know. Aren’t I supposed to be the one who feasts you, and gives you gifts?’
‘Yes, well.’ Ragnarr tried to look stern, and the Trow smiled and wrapped his arms around Ragnarr’s waist, easing him backwards.
Ragnarr tried to gently push him away, and the Trow frowned. ‘Don’t you want this?’ His fingers moved restlessly under Ragnarr’s tunic, and Ragnarr fought not to squirm against the Trow’s knowing touch.
‘Of course,’ he managed, grabbing hold of the Trow’s hands, and holding them still. ‘But you’ve been ill-- you are ill-- and I don’t want you to hurt yourself further--’
The Trow resumed his relentless advance to the ties of Ragnarr’s breeches. ‘Ahaha.’ He looked down at Ragnarr, seemingly amused. But his eyes were fierce and more than a little wild, and Ragnarr’s breathing went shallow. The Trow smiled. ‘I’m going to do absolutely unspeakable things to...with…you, and you’re worried about me.’ The tiny thread of threat in that silk-smooth voice made Ragnarr shiver pleasurably against the Trow. ‘You really are quite adorable. But I think your concern is entirely misplaced.’ He bent down and kissed the corner of Ragnarr’s mouth, teasing it open with his tongue.
Ragnarr’s cheeks colored and he turned his head away. ‘All right, I’m adorable, but still, you—‘ the Trow’s hands moved, and Ragnarr’s voice trailed off into a husky moan. His knee slid up the side of the Trow’s thigh to his waist.
‘Oh, yes. Do that again,’ he gasped.
The Trow huffed out a laugh. ‘I am quite happy to follow your excellent suggestion,’ he said, but as Ragnarr reluctantly struggled to sit up, and finally managed it, the Trow sprawled, straddling his lap. Ragnarr rested both hands on the Trow’s hips and grinned.
‘Wait, I have a better idea,’ he explained, pulling off the Trow’s shirt and tracing his tongue over the elegant, delicate line of his collarbone. ‘Let me do all the work, you just hold on, relax and enjoy.’
The Trow looked intrigued and paused in his efforts to divest Ragnarr of the rest of his clothing.
‘And tell me if you get tired. I mean it.’ Ragnarr gave a warning nip on the Trow’s neck, and the Trow moaned and swayed against him.
‘I’ll tell you if I do,’ said the Trow, leaning down and tangling his long fingers in Ragnarr’s hair. ‘But I won’t. I’ve waited too long.’ He kissed Ragnarr on the mouth with such gentleness and yearning that Ragnarr trembled against him, completely routed.
‘Me too’ he said. And that was really all he had time for, because the Trow smiled at him, all sharp teeth and leashed threat and paradoxical tenderness, and he knew with every fiber of his being that when the Trow gave him that look-- his eyes smoky-green and soft, his mouth kiss-swollen and dark pink, his high cheekbones flushed-- he wasn’t going to be the one who had to hold on.
Ragnarr was so weak against that particular erotic attack. But, he tried, valiantly, to keep the general drift of their skirmish unhurried, almost dreamlike. But that made it all the easier to fall under the Trow’s spell; he was tricky like that. And he probably planned it that way. He was tricky like that, too. It made it especially difficult for Ragnarr to continue to hold a grudge, because how could he, under the circumstances. He had better things to think about. Or feel about. Probably both.
And anyway, somehow, despite his best efforts, he ended up completely naked with the Trow’s legs tangled up with his own, and the Trow’s tongue ravishing his mouth, and the Trow’s talented fingers holding their cocks together, stroking and squeezing and petting them both into a bilateral surrender.’”
“Oh, have you finished? That’s not the end, is it?”
“No… I was waiting for you to make a comment. I was certain one would be forthcoming.”
“Oh… no… no comment. I think I was caught up in the moment. Perhaps I should have some more ale as well. I feel quite warm.”
“Hmm, me too, a bit. I wouldn’t mind another drop as well. Thank you kindly, a splendid batch, as always. Anything for you, Traveler? No? A pity, my partner here makes the best ale you’ll ever find as well as the best mead. He’s quite talented. Pfft. No need to keep quiet about that! I am just speaking truth.”
“Ahaha. The Traveler wonders if there is a point to this tale. And also how much more perversion he’s going to have to listen to.”
“Anyway, yes, there IS a point to this story, Traveler, I am quite surprised you would ask such a thing. And I don’t know why you keep going on about perversion. I take a bit of insult. If you collect my meaning.”
“Now now… we’re all friends here. Let me top off your ale.”
“Fine. Well, this is an epic tale about a young man taming a Trow Wife... a Trow! I can’t speak for you, Traveler, but it seems to me that that’s a lot more worthwhile than if Ragnarr had somehow managed to kill him. Doesn’t your White Christ teach ‘Thou Shalt Not Commit Murder?’ And something about turning the other cheek? Where was that belief, when your bloody Beowulf was murdering Grendel and his poor mother?”
“Ahahaha. Taming the Trow. Is that what he did.”
“Heh heh. That was a what-do-you-call-it. Hy… hyber… hyperpo... Dammit. I didn’t mean it, all right?”
“Heh heh. Um. Well. Anyway. So there the two of them were, both worn out from grief and worry and excess, but well on the way to mending.
‘Just so you don’t think your hopeless attempt to seduce me has succeeded, I am still really angry with you,’ whispered Ragnarr, lying sated and facing the Trow. But he clutched at the Trow’s shoulders and buried his face in the Trow’s neck. He couldn’t stop smiling, light-hearted and happy, as he hadn’t been in a year and a quarter.
‘That is quite all right. I am still really angry with you as well.’ The Trow threw his arm around Ragnarr’s waist and held him tightly. ‘I suppose we’ll just have to determine some way of diverting our mutual animosity.’
Ragnarr snorted and arranged the quilts over them both. He had nearly fallen asleep, but there was something he had to say, something nagging at him from the back of his mind. “Oh,’ he murmured finally. ‘I am sorry I made you worry.’ He wasn’t sure if the Trow was awake to hear it: his breathing had evened out, but after a minute or so the Trow squeezed his hand and kissed the palm, lacing their fingers together and holding it over his heart.
‘There’s something I have been meaning to ask you, Ragnarr,’ whispered the Trow. Ragnarr couldn’t recall that the Trow had ever called him by his name, so he struggled to stay awake and listen.
‘Aye?’ he responded after a moment or two. The Trow had started getting fidgety. Ragnarr wondered how he had the energy, but there it was. Some things just couldn’t be explained.
‘You’ve never asked, but… don’t you wonder what my name is?’ Ragnarr could see the Trow’s face as a pale blur in the light of the hearth fire.
‘If you’d wanted me to know, you’d have told me.’ Ragnarr shrugged and began to drift back into sleep.
The Trow squeezed his fingers. ‘I knew... knew! I wasn’t mistaken in you,’ he breathed. ‘Wait… Ragnarr, wake up.’ The Trow grabbed his shoulder and shook him hard. Ragnarr sighed and jerked back into awareness.
‘Listen, this is important. You see… it isn’t that I didn’t want you to know, really, it’s just… quite difficult, for one of my kind to tell someone. Sometimes even our own kin doesn’t know our name, they just know a byname. So you see, when one of us tells someone our name, it’s not an easy thing to work up to. Trust comes so hard to us. Sometimes I think… well, never mind that. I do trust you, with all I am. And I want you to know.’ He took a deep breath and said in one fast exhale, ‘Albrandr. It’s Albrandr.’ His thin body shook against Ragnarr after he spoke as if he was terrified, and Ragnarr pulled him closer.
‘It’s a good name, I like it,’ he whispered, stroking the Trow’s--Albrandr’s—hair, as if he was soothing and comforting a wild animal. He supposed he was, in a sense.
After a few moments, Ragnarr was sure he had gone to sleep, and he followed him shortly afterwards.
He woke shivering early the next morning with the quilt half off. The Trow snored gently next to him. He got out of bed carefully so as not to wake him, but the Trow slept as thought he didn’t plan to wake any time soon, and Ragnarr made sure he was comfortable and warmly covered. He would have liked to linger, but there was much to be done, and not a lot of time in which to do it. He cleaned himself up as best he could—not a lot of water left from last night, and what there was was unpleasantly cold-- and lit the long hearth from the last coals of the fire to warm the hall.
That was pretty wasteful of the limited amount of wood, but Rangarr couldn’t be sorry. He wondered if the Trow would be angry at him if he chopped down a tree, and decided to hold off on that idea for awhile. That’s what had caused problems in the first place. The hidden ones were sometimes funny about that sort of thing, and Ragnarr had no desire to push his luck. He didn’t mind going looking for trouble, but not when that trouble could eat him if he got angry enough. That sort of thing tended to engender a certain healthy respect in anyone, even Ragnarr.
He grabbed the yoke and buckets and checked on the dam he had made last night. There was a pool right enough, maybe even large enough to bathe in, although he hadn’t intended that. Chilly water spilled rapidly over the top of the dam. A few decent-sized fish swam gracefully around in the clear, cold water. That certainly brought him up short, because yesterday there hadn’t been enough water in the tiny trickle that had remained of the stream to support any fish, much less fish large enough to eat. Whatever it meant, it had to be a good sign, he thought, though he wasn’t quite sure of what, and he filled up his buckets and returned to the house to set them by the hearth to warm.
He checked on the remains of the vegetable garden and the fruit trees, spade in hand, and tried to determine what he could salvage out of it. There was a lot more stuff available than he had thought there would be, and they’d have to start chopping and drying and preserving and the very idea made his head spin with panic, because what did he know about all that?
And what about meat and fish? He could catch a fish or two, but that wasn’t going to be enough for the winter. Maybe some game out of the woods? Hadn’t there been some chickens? He couldn’t remember, he hadn’t been paying much attention, but there didn’t seem to be any now. How did you dry and preserve that stuff anyway, he had never paid attention to that sort of thing—it was women’s work and not his. Onions, he could braid onions together, he knew that. And carrots, beets, turnips and parsnips could be left in the ground if they were well covered up over the winter. He had tried hard to forget all that farming lore, but it was coming back to him despite all his previous efforts.
He didn’t know if the Trow could help him with any of the work that needed to be done, but maybe he could give directions. He seemed good at that. But Ragnarr didn’t want to worry him too much either; they had a little time, not much, but a little, before things became dire.
Fortunately, the Trow interrupted his brief moments of dread, when he stumbled out of the little house with the quilt wrapped around him, apparently oblivious to the edge dragging in the dirt. He blinked and squinted in the bright light of the morning, reminding Ragnarr of a mole that had been evicted from its underground tunnels. The sun was pale and not yet warm enough to burn the lurking mist from between the trees, but the day promised to be fair and maybe even balmy.
‘Hey, you. I warned you it was too much for you last night. It’s a very sad day when I am the one able to control myself.’ Ragnarr leaned on his spade and bit his lip to keep from grinning. ‘You should sit here on your stump in the sun while I do some chores.’
‘Yes, yes,’ yawned the Trow, adjusting the quilt and lifting his face to the sun. He sat on the stump with his legs folded; at first glance he looked just as he had the previous day. It seemed longer ago than that. But the Trow was definitely in a much better frame of mind than he had been yesterday, relaxed and cheerful. ‘What are you doing?’
‘Trying to figure out what needs to be gathered up and processed.’
‘Oh… I guess I do need to think about that, now. Hmm.’ He pulled a hank of tangled hair over his shoulder and looked at it, a little disgusted. ‘I need to wash,’ he said, eying himself critically.
Ragnarr bit his tongue on an adverse comment, but said with as much neutrality as he could manage, ‘Well, the water should be warmed up a bit. I put a couple of pails by the hearth.’
‘How thoughtful of you.’ The Trow beamed. ‘Perhaps I’ll take advantage of your kindness, and then we’ll decide what to do. In the meantime, if you could gather some vegetables and some more water and bring them in, I would appreciate it.’ He hopped off the stump humming, and wandered back inside, the quilt still dragging behind him.
Ragnarr did so, and actually picked more than he thought they’d need for a meal, and set it all next to the hearth. He thought he might as well get started on cutting stuff up for drying. There was no sign of the Trow in the house, so he went looking, and found him lying on his stomach next to the dammed-up pool, his black hair lying in wet, wavy strings on his back.
‘Shhh,’ the Trow whispered. One elegant hand trailed lazily in the water with its fingers up, looking bizarrely like some sort of exotic flower. Ragnarr sat down and watched as the Trow slowly, easily moved his hand towards the peacefully swimming fish. He gently tickle-tickled his fingers up the length of his prey’s belly, and Ragnarr was not surprised when the fish gave a shiver and then stopped moving, allowing the Trow to grab it in a fierce and implacable grip and flip it on the bank. He understood exactly how it felt.
But his moment of unexpected sympathy didn’t prevent him from knocking it on the head, and then a second one that followed shortly after.
The Trow stood and dusted off his shirt and pants. ‘Well, that should suffice for dinner and breakfast tomorrow.’ He picked up the two fish and started back towards the house. ‘It was a good idea to dam up the stream. It certainly makes catching them easier.’
Ragnarr spent the rest of the afternoon cutting vegetables into slices and strips and arranging them along the long hearth to help them dry out. The Trow joined him, humming cheerfully as he chopped. It was disconcerting and not a little disturbing to watch him wield his knife with an ominous combination of glee and mania, so Ragnarr stayed out of his way and braided onions together. He had to admit, though, that the Trow chopped a lot faster and more thoroughly than Ragnarr did.
They cleaned up and ate fish soup for dinner. The Trow stretched pleasurably, and Ragnarr had to wrench his eyes away. ‘I think it will rain tonight,’ he said. ‘And perhaps tomorrow as well. I suppose we’ll have to stay indoors and play games.’ He smiled, and Ragnarr couldn’t help but smile back. ‘Still, we got a lot accomplished today, don’t you think?’
Ragnarr did think so. Even though he had done women’s work. He tried to think of a way of expressing this sentiment, but couldn’t think of a good way to put it.
The Trow’s smile went a bit evil, as if he could read Ragnarr’s thoughts. ‘Maybe you could wear my green kirtle,’ he mused. ‘It would look quite good on you.’ Ragnarr choked on the mouthful of ale he had been in the process of drinking, and the Trow’s eyes swept up the length of his body as if measuring him.
‘I don’t think so,’ Ragnarr wheezed, his face blazing. ‘Green is your color, really.’ But the Trow had started something stirring deep within his unruly brain, no matter what he did to make it stop. An image of him dressed up in that damned dress, the Trow having his way with him, him having his way with the Trow, and it got worse (and a lot more detailed) from there. The one thing that he could see, to his horror, was that just as the Trow had said, he looked good in that dress, his hair falling in red waves over his shoulders, the length of the dress outlining his long legs. He’d want to fuck him. And Oh Hela’s frozen tits, why did his brain do these things?
‘Ah well, if you change your mind, do let me know.’ The Trow watched him, his smile still wicked, and Ragnarr wondered again if the Trow could tell what he was thinking. But the Trow didn’t say anything else, just got out the game board.
Eventually, Ragnarr heard the patter of a good soaking rain hit the roof, and sighed. For some reason, rain always made him feel melancholy. At least they had a warm room, a fire to light them, good food, and good company.
The Trow raised his eyes from the game board and looked at Ragnarr, his brows raised.
‘It’s just—“ Ragnarr began. ‘What are we going to do? Is there anything I can do to make you stop the curse? Are we going to keep having contests once a year forever?’
‘Oh no, I think not.’ The Trow returned his attention to the game. ‘The traditional number is three contests. I suppose I’ve already won two of the three, so maybe it shouldn’t matter, but for some reason it always seems to come down to the last contest.’
‘You didn’t win the last one,” Ragnarr said flatly. ‘You cheated.’
‘I am sorry you feel that way.’ The Trow looked earnest, even sympathetic, but Ragnarr had the sense he was suppressing a smirk. ‘Hmmm. I wonder what we should do this time. I don’t want to fight with you.’
‘That’s good to hear. Because I’m not going to fight you anymore,’ Ragnarr said, moving his pegs on the game board.
‘Oh really!’ The Trow glanced up at him through his lashes. ‘Then we’re in agreement. Still, it does make it difficult.’
‘We could play one of the board games?’
‘We could, but that wouldn’t really be much of a contest, would it?’ retorted the Trow sweetly.
Ragnarr laughed and rose. ‘Funny. We’ll see. Set them up again, I am going to go get some more ale.’
‘No, I have been thinking,’ the Trow continued when Ragnarr returned, as if he had been sitting there the whole time. ‘Let’s let the last one come down to pure chance. No fighting each other, no risk taking, just two friends throwing the bones.’
‘It’s your challenge, so it’s your choice, I suppose,’ said Ragnarr, fighting to keep his voice steady. He was glad the wood cup from which he was drinking concealed his face, because all at once, he could actually see the three Norns—the weavers of the strands of the fate of all men, and all gods-- overlaid against the smoky air of the little house. All three of them were standing near a loom, and had the threads of their weaving in their hands.
Once had hair as pale as the first snow of the year, and looked at him sympathetically, her mouth downturned a little. One had hair colored from the dark of starless winter nights, and she smiled at him, as if encouraging him. The third had hair as red and flowing as lava, and it swept the ground as she laughed so hard she grabbed her middle and had to clutch the arm of her sister to keep from falling over.
Bitch, he thought, both terrified and furious. It was always the redheads you had to watch out for. He could almost see the threads of his fate and destiny tangling and unraveling as the three Norns pulled and yanked at them, the strands stretched overly taut in the fabric they were weaving. And he knew then that he was doomed to lose.
A wave of panic swept over him and threatened to drown him, because if it was his weird to lose, how could he possibly end the curse, forever? He set the cup down, and rose, accidentally knocking the board to the floor.
‘Ragnarr?’ The Trow watched him, his expression and voice grave, almost dispassionate.
‘I need,’ he began. ‘I need to… walk.’ He could barely breathe. ‘I’ll be back in a bit.’
‘I see,’ said the Trow, and gathered up the board and pieces. ‘Be sure to take your cloak, it is raining out.’ But Ragnarr was already out the door, slamming it behind him and running as if the hounds of Odin and the Wild Chase were hard on his heels.
‘Let’s do this now,’ said Ragnarr when he got back. He had a few vague memories of running through the woods, tripping over roots and stones, sliding on grass. He was covered with mud and was soaked to his skin; he knew he must have fallen down because his legs and side were bruised, but he couldn’t remember it. He couldn’t stop shivering, either, regardless of how close he sat to the fire.
‘I have to admit, I didn’t think my choice would distress you so,’ said the Trow, rubbing at Ragnarr’s hair with a towel.
Ragnarr shrugged and looked away. ‘It doesn’t matter what I think, does it? This challenge is what you want. And it won’t matter anyway. I can feel the Norns pulling at my threads.’ He settled his head in his hands and stared at the floor.
‘We don’t have to do this right this moment,’ frowned the Trow. ‘At least dry off and warm up.’
‘It’s just like on the ship, when I knew that things were about to go wrong. It isn’t going to matter what I do. At least before, if I won or lost, it was because I failed, or I won. If I lost, it simply meant I wasn’t good enough and deserved to lose.’
The Trow sat next to him on the bench, lost in thought.
‘I sometimes wonder if we would ever have met in the ordinary course of events,’ he said at last.
Ragnarr looked up through the long, red strands of his hair. ‘Probably not. I’d probably be in Iceland or Greenland, or someplace warm right about now. Maybe Jorvik or Dyflin. Those were pretty nice winter spots.’
‘Well then. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing that the Norns are pulling at your strings?’
Ragnarr shrugged. ‘One can’t go against one’s fate. So find your dice and let’s roll them. Might as well get this over with.’
The Trow sighed, and for some reason Ragnarr felt as if he had kicked a puppy. ‘Ragnarr. Words are important. How one says things is important. If you don’t want to do this… then you should go.’
‘No… I am here now. We’ll do this. And who knows, maybe my weird isn’t fixed after all. I will beat you, and then…!’ He tried to smile, but knew he had failed when the Trow’s mouth twisted.
The Trow rose and opened a small chest, and withdrew two cups and a handful of dice. ‘You know how to play Mia?’
Ragnarr’s spirits rose for the first time. ‘Of course.’ What the Trow didn’t know – but how could he – was that Ragnarr was more than a dab hand at gambling, having passed many an idle hour both at sea and ashore tossing dice with likeminded fellows. And also very possibly engaging in various other vices that weren’t pertinent to that particular situation. Mia was a game of bluffing and counterbluffing, and he could sling bullshit with the best of them. Even though he knew his fate was already written, maybe he had a chance to at least acquit himself with some sort of honor.
He slouched back on the bench and smirked at the Trow and accepted the cup and dice. ‘You’ll have to work hard. I fleeced better men than you in my cradle,’ he said, shaking the dice. ‘Three lives?’
‘Oh good,’ said the Trow. ‘I was quite afraid this was going to be an easy win. Three lives.’ He rattled the dice, dropped the cup to the table, and glanced under the edge to peek at his dice. ‘Two threes.’
‘Bah.’ Ragnarr stared intently at the Trow, his brows knit. Usually he could read the nuances of the Trow’s expressions, but not now. All he could see was a face so sweetly virtuous that it would not have looked out of place on a statue of one of the White Christ’s saints. He hoped his own face was equally unreadable, and grinned.
They bluffed back and forth, both of them lying through their teeth to each other. Ragnarr felt he was giving a decent accounting for himself, and he had to admit it was more interesting—and entertaining—than he had thought it would be. He would have thought the game very enjoyable indeed were the stakes not so high.
But the time came, as he had known it would, when his last life was lost.
‘Well, at least it’s all over,’ he said at last. ‘I have to admit, I am not sure what to do at this point.’
‘I can’t see there’s really anything for you to do,’ said the Trow. He swept the dice and cups up with an air of finality.
Ragnarr rose and then sank to the ground and knelt in front of the Trow, his head bowed.
There was a long silence.
‘Get up off the ground, Ragnarr. You are not a thrall, to grovel at my feet,’ said the Trow at last. ‘If I had wanted you as a slave, I could have had that well over two years ago.’
He paused, and his voice, oh, sent shivers down Ragnarr’s spine . ‘Unless.’ Ragnarr looked up, startled, and the Trow regarded him thoughtfully.
‘If you were, I could do anything to you, and you couldn’t stop me.’ The curve of his mouth was merciless, and his eyes were dark. ‘I could tie you down. I could tie you up. I could keep you on edge with lust and need the entire day, and then take my ease of you until I was sated. I could make you wear my dress while I fucked you through the floor. The possibilities are… endless.’
And Ragnarr’s unruly mind supplied other images to go with those the Trow had so helpfully provided, and he moaned, caught up despite himself. The Trow’s smile widened and his eyes... ‘I wouldn’t stop you, anyway,’ Ragnarr croaked, bracing himself against the Trow’s thigh.
‘Oh, I know that, Ragnarr,’ purred the Trow. ‘Hmmm. Perhaps later. But for now, get off the floor, and let’s talk.’ And just like that, his voice was back to normal. But his eyes were still the deep of forest-shadows, and Ragnarr moaned again.
It was hard to think; despite trying to banish his unwanted imaginings from his mind all he could conceive of doing was to plow ahead, regardless of the howling tempest of his thoughts and emotions.
‘If you don’t want me…’ the Trow snorted derisively, ’…or my fealty… I’ll do anything. I swear it, just please. I am begging you, don’t renew the curse.’ He sat next to the Trow and rested his head against his shoulder, and the Trow sighed, toying with locks of hair that looked like streams of blood spilling over the long, elegant fingers.
‘You don’t need to beg me, Ragnarr. Or make that sort of open-ended promise. You should really be more careful of what you say to one of my kind.’ He sounded very tired. ‘I’ve tried to tell you, to explain to you, that words have meanings.’
What the fuck did he mean by that? Ragnarr already knew you had to be careful what you said to the hidden folk, but the Trow wasn’t like most of them, was he? He thought back, to all their interactions and conversations, trying to look at them as if he were the Trow. Back to their first meeting, where the tenor of everything that had followed had been set, as if carved in stone. And maybe, to the Trow, it had been.
But, he realized with a sudden flash of insight, it wasn’t as if he had actually ever tried anything different with the Trow than he had at that first meeting. And he had failed grievously, right from the first, he could see that now, especially since he now knew that his own kin had been far more at fault than the Trow had. It hadn’t mattered to him back then. But it did now. And maybe, if he treated the Trow as the Trow had always treated him, with respect and politeness…
‘Albrandr. Please, as a favor to me, will you not resume it?’ he said. ‘I know, all right, I know, my kin was at fault. And I know that you were far more restrained with them than you could have been. And far more restrained than you had to be with me, for that matter. I apologize, on their behalf. I… apologize on my own behalf, and if--
‘Ragnarr, stop, stop. All of that is quite sufficient, I assure you.’ He sighed, and to Ragnarr it sounded like relief. Then the Trow laughed, and he looked so radiantly joyful that Ragnarr couldn’t help but smile back. ‘I’ve already told you I can’t hurt the people you love, in any case. You should pay more attention.’
They sat in companionable silence, watching the flames flicker in the hearth. There was something sublimely comforting there, something that he had never known, even in the hall of his father.
‘What happens now?’ asked Ragnarr.
‘Well, tomorrow’s another day, and you’ve accomplished your goal, haven’t you? I suppose you should head back,’ said the Trow. He tilted his head back and stared hard at the ceiling, and his long, dark hair flowed over his shoulders and pooled on the bench behind him.
That wasn’t what Ragnarr had expected to hear, at all, and suddenly everything he had thought he understood was amiss. His stomach twisted. ‘Don’t you want me to stay?’ He tried hard to keep his voice even and rational, but he knew he hadn’t succeeded.
‘That you can ask me that… Well.’ The Trow rubbed his head. ‘It doesn’t matter what I want.’
‘Fine!’ Ragnarr had had enough of the Trow’s cryptic comments. He didn’t give a fuck about hidden folk customs and was tired of trying to decipher them. His head throbbed and his heart pounded so loudly he was sure the Trow could hear it. ‘Fine,’ he said in a more careful tone. ‘Then I’m not leaving. I want to stay here. If that’s is all right with you?’
The corners of the Trow’s mouth quirked up. ‘Quite all right.’
‘Yes,’ continued Ragnarr, with an air of getting something off his chest, ‘despite your subtle hints last year, I was not able to find a pretty, plump, rich girl who wanted to have my babies once a year, so I suppose I should make do here.’
‘Oh… didn’t you look for one?’ The Trow sounded utterly shocked, so shocked that Ragnarr had to laugh.
‘I made my choice.’ He shrugged. ‘It’s a good choice, and I don’t regret it, not a minute of it.’ He laced their fingers together. ‘We should wish on the stars or something. Leap over a bonfire together. Something.’
‘No, I rather think we should go to bed. It’s been a long, long night.’ The Trow yawned. ‘And, it’s raining anyway.’
‘That sounds good to me,’ said Ragnarr. There were things they needed to figure out, things they needed to do, plans they needed to make, but they had time now.”
“There was a point to this story, I believe you said?”
“Of course there is. Stories have many points. All right, all right, no need to get your black robes in a twist, Traveler. For example. Traveler, you probably think the point of the story of Beowulf is that a righteous Christian warrior killed a monster that threatened a righteous Christian king. But think about it… Grendel had been peacefully and happily living in his swamp until Hrothgar and his warriors made him cross by keeping him awake for days at a time. Anyone would have been annoyed after that. But anyway, to you, Traveler, I expect the point of Beowulf is that he is the champion of the White Christ, and so triumphs over the old ways and the hidden people. I expect Grendel and his poor mother may have been hidden folk. Maybe to you another point is that if your faith is strong enough, you can defeat any evil. But to me, the story of Beowulf might represent that the followers of the White Christ talk a good talk of love and acceptance and turning the other cheek, but frequently don’t follow their own teachings. Where was all of that for Grendel?”
“You never cease to surprise me. Although our guest says he is not surprised, just disgusted.”
“Thank you. I think. I am sorry you are offended, Traveler. It’s just my way to say what I think. You can think whatever you like about Beowulf, of course. As for my own tale, I would say that the point of it, from my own view, is that sometimes you find what you need most, even if you aren’t looking for it, and wait, what the fuck are you doing? WAH! That’s fucking COLD. What in the fucking FUCK?”
“Water? Ragnarr, wait...”
“Throwing fucking water at me!”
“Is that holy water? How… quaint.”
“Here’s what you don’t know, Traveler-- but how could you? You probably think I am shielding him because he’s weak to your black-robed charms. Actually, I am shielding him because the blood that would splash on him when I separate your stupid head from your equally stupid black-robed body would make him cranky, and since you wouldn’t be here to deal with him at that point—“
“Ahaha. Ahhhhh. How droll. ‘I adjure thee, Albrandr, Trow and abomination to leave this place. I adjure thee, Albrandr, to release thy human concubine in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost; I command and bind thee, in the name of Michael, the Sword of Heaven and slayer of demons; in the name of Gabriel, the Bearer of Truth; and of Uriel, the Fire of God—‘ You know, Ragnarr… I have to say, that in my opinion, this shows a decided lack of respect for the laws of hospitality.”
“You stupid shit. First of all, I am not a concubine. I think I made it pretty clear he didn’t want a thrall. I’m a con… a con…”
“Yeah, that’s it. A consort. Second of all, when he trusted me with his name, he trusted me not to blab it to every fuckhead that blunders up here with a burr up his ass. Get lost. Your water didn’t work except to make me wet and annoyed, and your pitiful magic spell didn’t work either. Fucker.”
“Well. I suppose he’s gone now, and he didn’t mention any news whatsoever. How rude.”
“I know… Some people.”
“No… you. I meant you were rude, Ragnarr. The fact that he acted in an ill-bred fashion doesn’t mean you should as well.”
“Pffft. As if I care. I thought I was going to have to draw him a fucking picture to get him to leave. I hope the bears eat him alive.”
“Better the bears than me?”
“Heh heh. Well… it did occur to me. Besides, if you feel like chewing on someone, chew on me a bit.”
“Ahaha. You are incorrigible.”
“I know. You make me that way, though. Are you all right… that water and his spell really didn’t bother you, did it?”
“No… but I have to wonder if someone with a little more zeal and faith would have a different effect if they had tried to exorcise me. I think… I think the world is growing smaller, and the old ways are giving way to the new. Sometimes I wonder if Ragnarök happened while we were both hidden away here, unaware. We see so many travelers of the new faith, lately. It rather makes me wonder if the townspeople are sending them up here to “deal” with the Trow.”
“Ragnarök. Well, it would be annoying if we missed out on the battle at the end of times. Oh well.
…We’re going to have to leave here, aren’t we?”
“Yes, I think so. Rather sooner than later, at least.”
“It’s our home. We’ve been happy here. It isn’t right.”
“Things change… that’s the way of the world. This is just a place. There are other places. We can go anywhere, really.”
“Hmmph. Well, we’ll have to think about that, I guess. Someplace with a lot of plants and trees for you. And I think I’d like someplace warm in the winter, for a change.”
“Mmm. An exacting set of parameters.”
“Yeah. But you know? As long as we’re together we’ll be fine.
…Look there! A shooting star.”
“So it is. A good omen, I think.”
“Yes, I am sure of it. The very best.”