Bavo woke to the odd scent of freshness and Desdemona’s persistent “Bored, bored, bored.”
He blinked, and rolled over.
“Morning, Bavo,” his bunkmate Njal said. “We’ve sighted land. We should be in the city by midday—maybe get something beside sea rations, eh?”
“Did I oversleep?” he asked.
The sailor laughed. “No more than usual.”
Bavo scrubbed his eyes and crawled off his bedroll. After stowing his gear, he came out from the deck-tent to observe the progress. Bavo knew fishing boats best, but this ship was only larger. And sleeker. It moved in the same fashion.
And when he came to rail, he could indeed see land, and possibly buildings. They were so far away they were just blurry blocks, but they did spread out from the harbor and up into a fair hillside.
“So that’s Johona,” Njal said.
“Jokona. It’s the name of the princedom, not the city. That should be the port of Sormoet.”
Bavo gave the sailor a sideways glance. ‘Open’ could meaning welcoming, or it could mean vulnerable to a raid. You could never tell with Islanders.
“It’s Quadrene,” Desdemona hissed with his tongue.
Njal laughed. “And that’s fair Desdemona. Don’t worry, lady elemental, you’ll have protectors. You and Bavo are too rare to be stolen from us, for all the Far-traveller wants your eyes on the Jokonalings first.”
The Viceroy had taken over the municipal palace, a short walk down broad tree-shaded promenades from Ista’s own rooms at the merchant’s townhouse turned viceregal chancellery. The chancellery clerks and officers were sober-minded men, for the most part, perhaps a trifle dull in their ledgers, but a wonderful place to rest up from the trials of the road while avoiding the pomp of viceregal court.
Of course, that meant there was a messenger waiting for her in the forecourt the second day after she’d come to the city. She’d only wanted a few days of rest and resupply, and yet dy Vilarò was urgently requesting her advice.
Ista was greeted with the least amount of ceremony she’d managed to wrest out of the viceregal household; her status of dowager royina still mattered more than her avocation from the Bastard, much to her chagrin.
But she was quickly shown through to the viceroy’s office, where he was ensconced in a seat, flanked with clerk and functionary. There was a man, clad in embroidered clothes, neither Roknari or Chalionese in cut, standing before the assembly. But it was not his odd foreign clothes, of no land Ista recognized, or the white cords braided and clamped into his dark hair that drew her attention.
It was the demon, that whirled under his skin, and then contracted all together, drawing tight in his chest.
“Ah, Lady Ista,” dy Vilarò said. “Thank you for joining us.”
“Viceroy dy Vilarò,” Ista acknowledge, and gracefully took the seat one of the functionaries brought up for her, so that she could see both the viceroy and the petitioner.
“This, royina,” the viceroy said, “is an emissary from the Southern Islands, Learned Bavo.”
The divine bowed his head. “Blessed,” he murmured in accented Ibran—and a Wealdean accent too, or something close to one; possibly with traces of Darthacan or Adrian, though Ista wasn’t sure. It had been long since she’d heard either, hidden away as she’d been in Valenda.
His demon, Ista noted, was an appallingly deep well, now curled up and trembling inside him. And one of them, man or demon, had enough knowledge to recognize her avocation. She wondered if his demon was shrieking at him—she’d encountered more than a few sorcerers in the past months who all but flailed in terror at the sight of her.
“And what does the Southern Islands want of the viceroyacy of Jokona?” Ista asked.
“For you to accept ransom, in exchange for our people taken in a raid some five years ago,” Learned Bavo said.
“Is that not a little tardy?” Ista said. The ransom of a royce or provincar might take so long to negotiate, but she did not think the Southern Islands had many of that rank.
“It took two years to discover whose ships had taken them—a summer to go out, a summer to return, and only a few redeemed in that voyage, Blessed, when they were found by chance. The Prince of Jokona refused twice to even hear the Lawspeaker’s emissary when they came to offer to redeem our lost.”
Learned Bavo straightened and squared his shoulders. “I bring this offer of redemption of those stolen from Singing Isle, from the Lawspeaker of the All-Assembly, under his authority and that of the great chieftains. This is the third and last offer they will send.”
“And you will just abandon your people, then, if we refuse you?” the viceroy asked, in a shrewd tone.
“Islanders,” the viceroy said, in a tone that was exasperation and admiration. “How many longships do you have, Learned Bavo?”
“I have no longships, viceroy. I am only an emissary. Yngri Far-traveler has longships.”
Dy Vilarò sucked air through his teeth, and a few of the functionaries straightened as if pinched. Ista had no idea what the divine’s words implied, but given that dy Vilarò was an Ibran sea-lord, that this Yngri Far-traveler had longships must be of some concern.
“Thank you, Learned Bavo. I must consider this.”
The divine gave a deep bow and stepped out of the chamber. Ista saw tall guardsmen in foreign leathers greet him, before the doors closed. Good, then, the divine was taking care. Jokona was under Ibra-Chalionese control, and Quintarianism had supplanted Quadrene doctrine, but there were still many who did not take to the fifth god or His servants. Ista was protected by her rank and her retinue. A foreign divine would have to have his own guards.
The moment the doors closed, dy Vilarò’s retainers burst into objections, declamations, and frankly alarming amount of hissing. The emissary was a threat, the emissary was arrogant, the emissary was attempting to force their hand.
“What, exactly,” Ista said, cutting through the masculine alarm, “can Learned Bavo, as emissary from the Southern Islands, do?”
Dy Vilarò smiled ruefully. “He can have his ship set sail out of the harbor, and be gone the moment I refuse him this request. I have no doubt Yngri Far-traveler is lurking about somewhere, over the horizon, with greater ships than the emissary's little coaster.”
“And what is Yngri Far-traveler that this worries you so?” Ista said.
“You are Chalionese, royina, and have had little to do with the sea.”
“Yes, and Baocia was a sleepy mountain province. Out with it, dy Vilarò.”
“Yngri Far-traveler is a great captain of ships among the Southern Islanders. He has traveled many times through our waters, from his island home to far Cedonia, south into the Archipelago, and even to fabled Kush, it is said. I have no doubt he will pay ransom strictly to the terms that divine offered, and no further. If we do not accept this ransom, I have no doubt we will suffer from his cleverness and outrage.”
“Eighty-seven slaves found after five years? The task is ridiculous! They are scattered to the winds!” one of the functionaries scoffed.
“Eighty-seven slaves. Or their bones, and half-ransom for those. If I deny the request, I am quite sure we will have Islander longships floating up the rivers somewhere, to take their blood price out of some unprotected town.”
“You can’t sail a sea-vessel up the rivers any further than Oseing.”
“You can with an Islander skeid—they draft astoundingly shallow, enough to pierce up to Umetoret if a captain was wily and daring, and I fear Yngri Far-traveler is both.”
Ista let the viceroy and his men argue amongst themselves, and slipped out the door. It was frustratingly easy to do, even though dy Vilarò had asked her to come specifically.
Learned Bavo was pacing in a side courtyard, with his Islander guards like lazy cats around him. They were enormously tall, as if tree trunks had decided to put on clothes and walk like men, and their bushy beards made them even more like moving shrubbery.
“Learned Bavo,” Ista said.
The divine jerked out of his pacing, and his guards snapped to attention, laziness gone to interest, like cats spying a mouse at its hole. The divine looked sideways at them, and muttered something that made for smiles and snickers, but much less predatory looks from the guards.
“Blessed Ista. Do you need service from me?”
“Just words, Learned. You are not, to my ears, from the Islands.”
“No, my lady. I am from the lowlands of Walon, which is a protectorate of the Weald.”
“How came you to serve as an emissary for the Southern Islands then?”
The divine chuckled, “Through the Gods’ own design, it must have been, for it was none of mine. I was going to be a shaman, not a sorcerer.”
Ista knew very little of shamans, just that the Hallowed King of the Weald had long sponsored their fellowship, and that they had some form of magic that was not Temple sorcery.
“But the raid came, and Learned Rosvita was slain holding the door against pursuit, and Desdemona leaped. Not to me, at first—to the Roknari officer. When his men turned on him, Desdemona leaped again, and that was to me.”
“Desdemona?” Ista asked. From context, it seemed a reference to his demon, but that was a woman’s name of the Weald, she was certain.
“Yes, Desdemona, my demon as a whole. In parts, it is like having 16 gossipy aunts commenting on everything you do,” the sorcerer said. He paused, and then added, “And one long-suffering uncle who sometimes comes out of his study to do the same. It is most… vexing, and most rewarding. I would not trade her for an investiture and a great beast, even if it were possible.”
Ista nodded, bewildered. No sorcerer she had ever conversed with had quite that opinion of their demon. Foix was mostly content with his bear, Cattilara’s had been a frightful construction of stolen souls, and most Roknari she had encountered since where either terrified or maddened or both.
“You… were at the raid? The one that stole all the people you have come to redeem?”
“Oh yes, Blessed. I had come as a student; the Royal Fellowship of Shamans has been sending students to the Singing Isle for a hundred years. It was a place of great healing, and much scholarship. Like a Temple-Hospital of the Mother’s Mercy, almost.”
Ista closed her eyes at that, and took a calm breath. Like a Temple-Hospital—so, physicians, the ill, temple-servants trained to care for them, and likely no men-at-arms to protect them, because who would attack a hospital?
“The outrage was enormous, of course. This embassy is the last attempt to resolve things peaceable.”
“Peaceably, with this Yngri Far-traveler at your back?”
Learned Bavo smiled ruefully. “Islanders consider a dispute solved without bloodshed as peaceably resolved, even if someone had to be dangled over his own well to get him to agree. And I would be a fool to come to the Roknari without arms at my back.”
“Well, that much is true, I grant you. Especially you with the Bastard’s braids in your hair. One of His divines is not the best to talk to the Roknari.”
“But Ibra-Chalion holds Jokona now, and I do speak the language,” Learned Bavo said. “And I know most of the lost by sight and name, if not close enough to call them friend.”
Which meant he did know some of them as friends, Ista parsed that as. Perhaps Learned Bavo was a wise choice, if only to stop some slaveholder from substituting living foreigners for dead Islanders in order to collect a full ransom.
At the chancellery hall that night, Ista explained the situation and the strange emissary.
“He named his demon…” Illvin murmured in appalled wonder.
“It is a Wealdean custom and a Wealdean heterodoxy,” dy Cabon said.
“I had wondered.”
“Three weeks to find all of these people, to the best of our ability,” Illvin said. “That is no time at all, even with the triennial census.”
“We shall just have to do our best.”
“Dy Vilarò’s clerks shall do their best, and be run ragged besides.” Illvin looked at their copy of the names. “Well, at least the Islanders tried giving the names in Ibran script, as well as Roknari. I’ve no idea how to read their letters.”
Ista glanced at the sheets of paper again. Certainly, the Islander writing was angular and heavy, more like lines carved onto stone that the flowing letter of Ibra and Chalion, or the wildly ornate calligraphy of the Archipelago, but each name and brief description had been written all three scripts, with the best approximation whatever scribe who had been set the the task could manage, or so Ista hoped. Islander names were notoriously strange.
“What is this?” Ista asked, as she descended the stairs in the afternoon, three days later. She’d been reviewing her ledgers, calculating how much she needed to store up to follow the autumn campaign into Visping. Liss, two of the soldier-dedicats, a slight figure wrapped in a soldier’s cloak (which explained why one of the soldier-dedicats wore one and one didn’t), and several of the household servants, all in an uproar.
Liss looked near tears, but said, “Xiomer and Arvin went to find one of the Islanders; she’d been sold to a gentleman in the city, and he gave her to his widowed mother as a scullion. The householder gave her up when told, but turned her out naked. Said the clothes belonged to her.”
“M’hendi, this one does not wish shame on your house...” the cloak-wrapped girl began, her accent a cat’s yowl lilt in broken vile Roknari, but stopped, her eyes huge and pale.
Ista sighed. “Someone find a dress for her.”
“Already asked for, my lady,” Liss said. “And sandals. And a bath.”
Ista nodded, “And a place to sleep.”
“The pilgrim hostel of the Mother’s Temple, m’lady?” Xiomer suggested.
“That will do,” Ista said. Perhaps she should write a note to the hostel’s overseer, promising recompense for hosting the girl. Perhaps she would write a note to Learned Bavo and tell him to do it.
Two days later, Learned Bavo came to her chancellery apartments to make his apologies for not planning on where to house all the redeemed, and Illvin managed to get the man talking about trivial things as a way of getting information as chancellery servants brought refreshments against the mid-day heat.
Ista was rather certain Learned Bavo knew exactly what Illvin was doing, but he seemed to enjoy talking about boats—or rather, seagoing ships—over melon in honeyed water and peppered nuts.
“At least Yngri had the figureheads removed,” Learned Bavo said, in the course of explaining something about his boat that Ista hadn’t been following. The terms he’d used and the knowledge he’d expected Ista to have were not actually in her store.
Ista made an inquiring noise.
The Wealdean looked chagrin for a moment, perhaps realizing just how much he’d knowledge he’d taken for granted Ista knew, then quietly explained. “Islanders use carved dragon heads to frighten the spirits of the sea and keep them from causing mischief to their ships. When they don’t want to frighten the spirits of the land, they remove the figureheads before they approach.”
“‘Spirits of the sea?’” Illvin wondered. “Do you speak of children’s stories, like the little miners that live under beds?”
“In a way, Lord Illvin.”
“I may not have minded my theology much in my schooling, but as Ista’s senechal I’ve a year and more of practical experience. Nothing of spirit can affect matter, without a being of matter to let them in.”
“There are many beings of matter in the sea, Lord Illvin.”
“The Roknari practice of abandoning sorcerers at sea was always foolish. Not just fish live in the depths,” Bavo said, and then added in a noticeably different accent, “And rescue by a passing ship is always possible. I should know!”
Learned Bavo winced, and muttered, “Hush, Desdemona.”
On the morning of the third day of the second week, Ista and Illvin had taken breakfast and walked over to the viceroy’s palace to learn what progress had been made in the search when their path was blocked by a knot of people arguing in the public forecourt.
The knot turned out to be several Islanders, a few soldier-dedicats of the Daughter’s Order, and Learned Bavo, all focused on a heavily pregnant woman and a man whose Roknari was vile to point of incomprehensibility. A little boy held onto the man’s knees, and ducked his head at every harsh word.
“What is going on?” Ista asked Illvin.
Illvin frowned, and then asked a question, in a tongue that wasn’t quite the vile Roknari Ista had become familiar with.
“And what was that?”
“They’re speaking a hill dialect. Holy Family, it’s like chewing through old boots.”
“Lady Ista, Lord Illvin, I am woefully uneducated on the customs of this country. What might ‘Temple debt’ mean? And ‘customary wife’?” Learned Bavo asked.
Illvin twitched at that, and asked in his crisp merchant’s Roknari. “How much Temple debt?”
“Narjan is a hundred-solida-man,” one of the soldier-dedicats said. “To the Temple at Osloen. He’s a shepherd at the arch-divine’s hill retreat.”
“Narjan?” Illvin said.
That made the man, grey as a mouse and worn thin and raveled, look at Illvin and nod. “M’hendi, you require this one?” he said, or so Ista recognized after shifting the vowels a quite a lot in her head. He’d used the self-effacing mode of slave to warrior, as far as Ista could determine.
Illvin frowned, and asked careful questions, as Ista jerked her chin at Learned Bavo. The sorcerer padded over.
“What is going on?” she asked, keeping her voice down. Illvin was listening with the concentration of a man who isn’t sure he understands the words, let alone the meaning, of the answers he hears.
“The soldier-dedicats brought him along, with all the Islanders who were resident at this hill-country estate. They seemed to think he owed us money? Or owed their arch-divine money? Or possibly both? Any road, Tíðfríðr Hervorsdottir won’t give him up. She says he’s hers, and she’s keeping him.”
Tithfridr presumably being the pregnant woman, who was holding the shepherd’s hand in a firm and unrelenting grip. What an impossible name she had.
Illvin concluded his questions, and gestured for the pair to wait, then turned towards Ista.
“As far as I can tell through the thickest hill Roknari I’ve heard in Jokona yet, Narjan the shepherd has been a debt-peon his entire life, bound at the villa that the Temple at Osleon keeps for its arch-divine. His wife died four years ago, and the villa’s seneschal assigned Tidfrid,” Illvin stumbled over the Islander name, “to him as a replacement, because he needed a woman to care for his young son. He couldn’t pay the fees for a proper marriage, of course, so it’s not been solemnized, and is just a marriage in custom and promise.”
“But why was he brought here?” Bavo asked.
“Because of the money, of course,” Illvin said in disgust. “I’m not sure if the seneschal is hoping your Lawspeaker will pay to take a disgraced woman off to be hidden, or is hoping you’ll extract money from the shepherd for his deflowering of a maiden, not that he has any, instead of out of the promised ransom, or what, but I’m quite sure someone hopes to get more money out of this than was promised, and it’s not the shepherd. He’s just a pawn.”
Bavo frowned, and his demon rolled within him, more agitated than Ista had seen it since that first moment, when it had all but curled up in a ball inside him. But it did not strike out, or strike in, so she left him to his tangle and went in to talk the viceroy; the Islanders would make what they would of this maneuver of the archdivine, and be welcome to it.
On the day of the ransom, Learned Bavo was already dockside and gave Ista the most curious look when she descended from the saddle. Or more precisely, gave Demon the most curious look—the ugly chestnut stallion was on his best behavior, though he tossed his head and presented his side to the divine when the man did not stop staring at him, as if a divine of the Bastard was another horse to be challenged.
That made Learned Bavo snort with laughter. “I come not to rival thee for thy mistress’ regard, horse,” he said in antiquated Ibran.
Ista frowned at him, and that made the divine tug a hard on the end of his braided hair. “Your pardon, Blessed.”
“Desdemona, I take it.” His demon was a loose ball, not a tight one, in his chest, and that moment of snapping sarcasm had not been him.
“She has opinions,” Bavo said, and gave Demon another sideways glance. “I did not know that Ibrans tamed demons so.”
“The elemental in the horse—you teach wisdom, as if it were a great beast. It will be pious, when it leaps to mankind.”
Ista considered Demon for a moment, who was both horse and demon, and thoroughly besotted with her. What would happen when the horse grew old, and the demon leaped away from death? She had not considered it before, except that it was her charge to cleanse the demons that had been unleashed in Jokona.
“I had not considered that.”
“No? Has Ibra-Chalion no sorcerers?”
“Very few.” Ista admitted. And mostly in Ibra; the curse from Fonsa’s days had made things too unsettled and too dangerous for even disciplined Temple-sorcerers to stay long in Chalion.
Bavo frowned, and fingered his divine’s braids where they were woven into his hair. “Sorcerers on the Islands are trained and treasured for the mountain watch.”
“The mountain watch?” Ista asked. The southern islands were all of a piece, as far as Ista knew, not broken with Roknari on one side and Chalion on the other. What did they watch for in mountain passes, if not border raids?
“Yes. To watch for the mountains sneezing.” Bavo blinked hard, and then said, “The word is vomiting, Bavo,” in a peevish tone.
Ista repressed a smile. Bavo’s Desdemona was something of a pedant. “And how does a mountain vomit?”
“With fire and ash, Blessed, and rains of saltpeter. Eight lives of men ago was the Mist Hardship, when the mountain watch failed and the Little Hood of Westmen Isle vomited for four months, raining sulfur in its shadow. The grass died all over the western district, then the cattle, and then men. The land is still empty, though some of the farms have been reclaimed.”
“Ah…a great disaster.” Ista had heard of the fire-mountains of Adria, but there were none in Chalion that were so dangerous as to vomit, to her knowledge. She had not realized the Southern Islands had them too, and many, from Bavo’s words.
“And the mountain watch … was supposed to prevent it. How?”
“A trained sorcerer can break the earth before it breaks itself and vomits. Better a little impoliteness than a great one? Sometimes they can even lull an awoken mountain to sleeping, though never death. Thus sorcerers are very valued on the Islands; they cause small chaos to avert the worst.”
Which was more or less the remit of Temple-sorcerers as a whole. They must shed chaos, but it did not need be wholly destructive.
The Long Serpent shed its escorts in the harbor, which surprised Bavo not at all. Those five ships hung back, wary, as their great sister sliced her way through the water and agilely to the cleared patch of harborfront. Immediately, men leaped down and began securing ropes, and working to move a gangplank into position.
Yngri Far-traveler did not wait for the plank to be secured, but vaulted over the ship’s rail, in a show that drew all eyes.
Oh five gods fuck me, Bavo thought as the man leaped down onto the dock. He was perfectly, respectfully dressed in fine Islander clothes, completely appropriate for the public spectacle of meeting the viceroy and a saint, in black and white as befitted his station.
He was also wearing that gods-benighted embroidered cloak that had been given up as weregild at least three times in five years to Bavo’s certain knowledge. Bavo suspected that garment had circulated more widely and for longer, but there were only so many lawsuits Bavo had witnessed in his time on the islands. Even given the fact that islanders were a litigious people.
Which ones shall he kill? Desdemona chortled in Bavo’s head, delighted at the prospect. Perhaps all of them?
“You’re not helping,” Bavo muttered through gritted teeth, and had to tolerate the Roknari soldiers making four-fingered warding signs at him, not at all discreetly. As long as they didn’t do anything more, he could withstand them and their ignorance. If they did try more, Desdemona had accumulated a wealth of tricks in her long life that would allow Bavo to flee, some of which wouldn’t even cripple the men as he did so.
The Islander leader—chieftain, not ‘prince’, Learned Bavo had made clear—was much shorter than Ista had expected, after seeing Bavo’s tree-trunk guardsmen these past week. Shorter, slimmer and…
“I thought Yngri was a man’s name.”
Learned Bavo gave her a sideways look, and said, “Yes, it is, and he is. By law and custom.”
“Ah,” Ista replied, not enlightened in the slightest, but perhaps that explained the white braids in the chieftain's hair. The Bastard did love the out of season and out of place.
That explained the white braids, but not the black ones. The chieftain was arrayed entirely in black and white, from the crisp stripes on his trousers through his embroidered jacket. The flamboyant cloak he was wearing was crismon on dark blue, and Ista wondered if that was in any way significant.
And Ista thought the white braids were more explained by the dark purple knot that dwelled inside the chieftain's skin, not nearly as deep or as layered as Bavo’s Desdemona, but still appallingly strong.
Bavo stepped forward as Yngri approached the saint, and was clapped on the shoulders in greetings.
“Bavo! I see all has gone well. Your messages were...terse.”
“I did not know if they would be intercepted, Yngri,” Bavo said. The communication between ships was certainly vulnerable to it, with the Roknari galleys patrolling the waters between her and the small islands amongst which Yngri had stowed his fleet. “How is Særæifr behaving?”
“Quite terrified of that burning woman. That’s the saint, I assume. She looks like Hekla erupting and all the Gates of Hel besides.”
“She is the Gates of Hell. Don’t provoke her, or she may rip Særæifr from you, and then where would you be?”
“Lost upon the sea, and witless to boot. No fear, Bavo Many-Books, I will not provoke the saint. After all, I am only asking for justice.”
“You’re not. Five Gods, no one wants that!” Desdemona hissed suddenly, much to Bavo’s displeasure. He did not need her interjecting now, when the negotiations were almost finished and no one had died, or even been held upside down by their ankles and shaken into compliance.
Yngri looked nonplussed for the moment, then chuckled ruefully, “No, I suppose not. Winter’s judgement upon us, and every man and woman alive, we should all be whipped, if not hanged outright. I will ask for fair dealing, then. Does that satisfy you, sweet Desdemona?”
Yes, she told Bavo, who managed to keep her from seizing his tongue again.
“Come, let me make proper introductions.”
Learned Bavo came back with the chieftain, who had been joined by several more men, who were variously ship’s officers, seamen, servants, and suchlike, and a woman in an elaborate, impractical headdress attended by two more in less elaborate, though still very fine, clothes.
“Blessed Ista, Viceroy dy Vilarò, gentlemen, I name before you Yngri Heimkellsson, called Far-traveller, of Vestheim, and Unnr Starkadsdottir, volva of the Singing Isle. They are here to oversee the ransom exchange.”
Yngri Far-traveller was a fine, if confusingly androgynous figure, and Ista noticed dy Vilarò was not even surprised by the ambiguity, so perhaps it was known among seafarers. The woman Unnr—volva, Bavo had named her, and not elaborated further what that word meant—was middling tall, older than Ista by at least ten years, and completely unreadable as her face was painted stark white with red slashes at cheek and brow. And there was something that was not a demon that lurked against her heart, an impression of feathers and croaking laughter.
Bavo then turned and began introductions in the Islander tongue. Ista caught her name out of the flow of words, and saw the woman Unnr’s eyes widen under what must be ritual paint. She made a discreet nod to Ista, that left Ista wondering.
The exchange proceeded apace, and without much difficulty. Most of those found in the weeks between Learned Bavo’s arrival and this day had been swept into the care of the Mother’s Temple-Hospital, and treated as stranded seafarers. They were turned over to their countrymen easily, and with only a little fuss about recompense for feeding them for those days, especially as Learned Bavo had already emptied a purse for that.
Tíðfríðr the sheepwife got to keep her shepherd and her stepson, by the simple expediency of not letting loose of either of them as she strode up the gangplank and boarded the ship. The arch-divine of Osleon’s men were left begging as the Islanders laughed and cheered at her audacity.
A girl who had been sold as a Temple-servant to the Mother’s Temple-Hospital had a contract already drawn up, and presented it to Yngri Far-traveler when she was pushed forward. He asked her only if she was certain, and turned over her ransom-portion as a dower for her apprenticeship as a physician-acolyte, as she had asked. The teaching divine who accompanied her hugged her as she came back.
When the caskets were brought up, Learned Bavo, Unnr the volva, and her attendants drew away. Ista was shocked when they pried open the first of the sad, small boxes, and drew out the bones onto spread cloth.
“I’d check too,” Illvin murmured at her side. “For fear that some devious fellow gave me logs, or cattle bones, to keep both half-ransom and living Islander slave.”
Ista had to agree to that, because if Illvin could think of it, so could someone less honorable.
The problem came at the end of the day, when the viceregal guards brought up a tall woman with a toddler on her hip, and a newborn in a sling.
And an angry nobleman, flocked by family and retainers, following behind.
“You cannot take her! I bought her fair, and I refuse this ransom!”
Bavo turned to look at the commotion at the other end of the dock. He was almost finished inspecting the caskets—there had been only one case of trickery, and that had been one skeleton divided into two caskets, which had earned scathing commentary from Unnr Volva about Quadrenes. Bavo thought the scorn should be directed at the man who had thought to pass such trickery unnoticed, not all his fellows in general, but it had been a long day, and even his best temper was worn.
“What is..?” he asked.
“It is Snaerlaug Hedriksdottir!” One of Unnr’s attendants cried, “Oh, she lives! And she carries souls in her arms!”
“What?!” Bavo hurried toward the other end of the docks.
By the time he got there, it was already a disaster, or so it seemed. Even Blessed Ista was wild-eyed, and she seemed even-keeled and well-balanced from bow to stern.
“Holmgang!” Yngri shouted just as Bavo reached his side, his fingers flicking out in accusation at some finely-dressed Roknari.
Bavo stared at the chieftain. “Oh, Bastard’s hells.”
Ista watched in confusion as two Islanders dashed aboard their ship, and very shortly lumbered back, carrying a heavy sea-chest between them. At Yngri Far-traveler’s gesture, they opened it and disgorged an enormous cowhide, three different colors of rope, wooden pegs, and a very fine, flat box that weighed a considerable amount.
The box was placed between Yngri and the Roknari Lord Umechean, and opened with a theatrical flourish by one of the men.
“Choose,” the Islander chieftain said as he indicated the box.
“Four Gods, you are joking!” Lord Umechean said.
“No. Choose,” Yngri repeated.
Ista took a step closer, and pressed through the crowd with Illvin as her breakwater.
“Oh, well,” Illvin said. “That’s going to be tricky.”
Inside the box were two gleaming, beautifully lethal axes, each long enough that they would reach higher than her waist if the butt end were tamped to the ground.
“A duel? With axes?” Ista asked.
“Not one that will stop honorably at first blood, no,” Illvin said.
“I will not duel to keep my woman or my sons! Viceroy, this is preposterous!” Umechean appealed to dy Vilarò. “You must see that.”
“Snaerlaug says you are not married. You say you are not married,” Yngri Far-traveler said. “I offered ransom, and Snaerlaug wishes to go. Take the silver, or take up the axe.”
“Silver will not buy my sons!”
Ista rather thought that silver would not buy his life, from the glowers the Islanders were shooting at him. Well, most of them were shooting at him. Three men were calmly laying out the cowhide and pegging ropes around it, in three concentric lines of stretched tow.
“Learned Bavo,” Illvin spoke up, “Is this a proper way to resolve disputes on the Southern Islands?”
That made all the gathered turned to look at him, even dy Vilarò.
“Ah,” Bavo hesitated. “Yes. If all lawsuits have been exhausted, and all negotiations failed, then a holmgang is a resort that can be turned to. Lord Umechean can demand someone other than Yngri Far-traveler fight him, since his Særæifr will give him unfair advantage.”
“Zayreef? What is that?” Illvin asked.
“It is his demon, I think,” Ista said, and ignored the horrified murmur that spread through the Jokonan onlookers. “It is old, but strangely simple, as if it had not ridden men before.”
“Særæifr had not known men before me,” Yngri said. “I found him, dying on the beach when I was young, and he leapt to me as his body collapsed. He was a beached whale, in both senses, and I have taught him wisdom and mankind in my turn.”
“Then you most surely cannot fight this duel,” Illvin said in strangled tones. Ista was glad he could speak, because she was not sure she could. A whale? That was what caused such age and depth and strange flatness? She had thought they were merely great-sized fishes, but fishes could not sustain a demon of such depth.
Yngri Far-traveler snorted, and rolled his eyes, but turned to the woman Snaerlaug, and said something in rapid Islander.
She nodded, and turned to look at the Islander men that were gathered round. After a moment, she clearly said, “Viga-Kari.”
That prompted a man to step forward—another enormous islander, this one with burn scars puckering one side of his head and twisting that ear into a blob. He was a good hand taller than his fellows, and appeared to be made out of stone slabs, instead of tree-trunks.
“Snaerlaug Hedriksdottir,” the man said gravely, his voice hoarse and deep as a dry well.
Ista turned to the Roknari lord. “This is your opponent. Do you still wish to resolve this in a duel? I think a ransom in silver is better offer than a wooden casket.” She paused, and added judiciously, “A closed casket.”
The man had turned ashen, like tawny earth, and said weakly, “My sons…”
“You did not marry her,” Learned Bavo said, “And by Island law, if she does not acknowledge you, her children are hers alone, for good or ill. Let them go, keep your life, and find someone else to give you sons.”
Lord Umechean looked almost as if he were going to rally and decide on the duel, but then blanched and nodded hastily.
Ista frowned, then turned to see that Viga-Kari had picked up both axes, and was tossing them lightly in the air, testing their balance.
Ah, she thought to herself, watching the grace with which the enormous Islander handled the equally enormous weapons. That would put me off too.
Two days later, Bavo watched as the Long Serpent slid away from the Jokonan dock, and waited for the sailors of his own ship to pull up their ropes and make way.
“What an adventure,” he murmured to himself.
No one died, Desdemona said. How utterly dull.
“Sixty-four people recovered whole, and the bones of the dead too. And the souls Snaerlaug Hedriksdottir had in her blanket,” she’d been feeding them the entire time, until she could bring them home to a volva for cleansing, what an amazing woman in Bavo’s opinion, “and you call that dull?”
No one died, Desdemona repeated.
“No, no one died. An entirely peaceable settlement. Look on the bright side, Desdemona. We certainly disrupted many Quadrenes along the way. It will be a long time before that chaos recedes.
You always say the sweetest things, my Bavo, Desdemona said, mollified for the moment.
Bavo chuckled, and turned his eyes towards home.