To Consume the Heart

~His heart I would eat first.

I flex my hand.

Fire and brittle ice collide in my bones, shattering up their lengths and jumping joints, from the tips of my fingers all the way to my shoulder. I gasp at the pain, but pull in no air. My lungs are a sucking void, screaming silent in the dark.

Then my eyes open. Staring into the sky, all glimmering with stars, and I’m trying to breathe but there is no breath.

It hurts.

Sitting up, I lift my hands. Stare at them, slicked in black blood. I look down to the earth beside me, at the grass growing there in nighttime shadow. Everything in gray. I touch the grass, but I cannot feel it. All I feel is jagged, brittle pain like saw teeth.

Bending my head back, I stare into the stars. I stare long, letting ice-water memories trickle down my spine. The gnawing teeth. The slashing hands.

Balthazar vanishing before my eyes while I was eaten alive.

The ice and the howling and madness.

With the feeling of bursting blisters, my lips peel back from my teeth and I scream at the sky. He made me promises. I made him promises in turn. I am dead, and Balthazar too will die.


My feet shamble weak beneath my legs. My body is taken by tremors, as though the disparate parts of it are trying to shake themselves free of one another. I fix my eyes on the lights of the tavern, then the two figures standing outside. Watching me.

“BALTHAZAR!” The sound spills out of me like a waterfall, rising from my bowels to my throat and tumbling out. “WHERE IS BALTHAZAR?”

“Who is asking for him?”

“I am Freydis the Undead.” I feel my voice reverberating through my body more than I hear it with my ears. The senses are nothing to me now, except for the pain. “And I want Balthazar.”

There are whispers in the air—some giggle sharp like glass and joyful like children playing in spring. I hear it and I shudder. My body wants to pull itself to pieces.

More voices. My head snaps to the side, the bones of my neck clicking and grinding against each other. A tremor runs through my body as I watch people pour out of the tavern. Not one of them adorned in feathers, not one of them a bird. I open my mouth, teeth bared, and snarl at them.

“What do you want with Balthazar?”

Whipping around to this voice, I set my eyes on him. Some features begin to take form in the gray. The voice is familiar. Long robes, deliberate steps. Ansel. “Priest,” I snarl.

“Yes,” he says, “you know me, Freydis.”

A laugh rumbles in my chest. My hand pulses like a heart around my dagger. “Your god is not real,” I growl at him. I feel flashes of Sveas, cruel and horrible, tearing through me a tremor takes me almost tumble to my knees. “I have died. I have looked on the face of god and it was not your god I saw.”

“But we’re still friends,” he says, extending a hand to me.

I watch the hand—out, then in, like a beckon. I briefly recall him putting himself between me and a Malefic just the night before.

I remember Sveas’s hand outstretched, the push like howling wind at my core and the pull from behind. Being torn apart.

“She doesn’t want me,” I croak out, my eyes on fire in their sockets. “I looked on her horrible and beautiful—and she still doesn’t want me. Because of this!” I hold out my arms, force him—force all of them—to look on the horror that I am. “Because he did this to me!” I turn on the gathering crowd and watch them flinch back. “WHERE IS BALTHAZAR?”

“What do you want with him?” Ansel calls to me.

My head snaps around, and I lurch forward and scream. My feet drag through the grass, toward the priest who circles out of my reach but holds out a hand to signal all the gathering southerners to stand down.

“We’re still friends,” Ansel says, gesturing to the space between us as though there were a bridge there.

“Friends!” I throw my head back and laugh. “Friends.” I grip my knife. “I have no friends.” I run toward him, slicing the air and as he dodges back, turning on another who is close at hand to slice at them. If they cannot give me Balthazar, perhaps I should take them all instead.

“What do you want with Balthazar?” Ansel is asking, shouting at me as people lunge out of my way, panic-stricken and drawing their swords. He tries to wave them down. “What do you want with him?”

“I made him a promise!” I scream back.

“And what was this promise?” Ansel asks.

“I would be honored for you to eat my corpse.”

“I promised I would devour him,” I growl, my legs lurching me towards the priest, “and I am so hungry.”

I swipe with my blade. It glances off shields and scrapes through fabric, but fails to find flesh and I scream. Someone grabs me but I dodge and I parry, I slip and slide away until suddenly there are hands on me, holding me on my knees in the gray light of the tavern.

Their hands are a thousand shards of electric ice and glass—and my stomach is tearing itself apart. I bend under their grasp, my back arching with brittle snaps and pops, my skin pulling at the seams, and I scream. Their swords strike me in a dozen brilliant bursts of flame, but they cannot kill me.


There was a place I remember him going, where he took Sir Connor and I. Where I watched him cast his circle and weave his magic. It was horrible, and beautiful—as horrible things so often tend to be.

This is where I am, where my memories have drawn me. I stand here in the dark, listening to the whispers in the wind. Despair whispers, laughing wickedly as the door creaks. I see shadow pass through, and I tip my head. I listen. I hear. His voice.


I rush the door, slamming it with my hands, with the whole of my body as I scream to him. “BALTHAZAR!” I am so hungry. “BALTHAZAR! COME OUT YOU COWARD!” I beat the door with fists and forearms but he does not come. I hear the voices within and grind my fingertips against the door. “LET ME IN.” Slamming and pulling and gripping and…

Finding the doorknob.

The door wails as it swings slowly open. There is someone blocking the way, and Ansel is here, and—

He is a bright splash of color against the unrelenting gray. Red feathers in a flaming burst. Blue tundra eyes. I break in half.

“Balthazar…” He doesn’t look, keeps his head bowed, his brow furrowed, he closes his eyes. “Balthazar?” My throat creaks weakness. When was I rendered so weak? “Why won’t you come to me, Balthazar?”

“Freydis,” he murmurs, and lifts his eyes. There is such darkness hanging over him. The whispers swirling within them palpable.

I step up, reach my hand over the shoulder of the woman in the doorway—and he takes it. Warm—warm in the bitter, aching cold. This hand that had caressed my cheek, this hand that had beckoned me to dance in the clouds.

Never again will I be beckoned to dance in the clouds.

“You left me.” I hear my voice come out, low and breaking. I feel fire streak my cheeks. I clutch at his hand and I sob. “Why did you leave me? Balthazar, it hurt—it hurt so bad—”

“I didn’t,” he says, “I didn’t Freydis—I came back for you.” He’s gripping my hand now, and the pressure of his fingers is a sweet release from the cascading pain rolling through my brittle skin. “I love you—”

“You never loved me.” The words spill out of me as I remember him dropping me from the sky for being too coy. “No one ever loved me.” I remember my mother’s fists raining down on me in the snow.

“Freydis—” There’s a frantic panic in his eyes now, and he pushes toward me, looks to Ansel and the woman standing between us while the darkness looming behind him giggles sweetly. “Let me go to her!”

I don’t hear what Ansel or the woman says, I only hear his voice. Only see the bright color of him—the cream of his flesh, the brown of the stubble on his jaw. I grip his hand and pull, as though I can pull him through his woman, this—

A scream splits me in half as I yank at him, then slam into the woman, bringing the knife I’d forgotten I had to her throat. Her body goes rigid and she bends back as I pull her with the blade, pull her to force her to look up into the face of Freydis the Undead. I stare down at her—stare into one white, dead eye. I recognize her as a Njord—then, through the furs and the armor—recognize the sigil of Benalus on her breast. Traitor. My whole body quivers as I press the blade to her throat—I see her lips moving but all I hear is white-noise screaming. I could end her now, she who turned her back on us, I could end her and have Balthazar—

His grip is loosening on my hand. I feel myself slipping away. No, no—he’s all I want, he’s all I’m here for—

I lose my grip on him. My veins are submerged in ice as I tear away, pain flooding me. I turn on the first person I see, wanting nothing more than blood to pay for this pain. I fall on the stranger, all open mouth and screaming teeth and hungry tongue, and I am swinging, catching shields and arms and scraping flesh and drawing blood and—

I am struck. And again. And again. I am descending into the darkness and in the darkness there are whispers and icy laughter. The Miracle, I tell the whispers, and I don’t know how I know, but they’ll tell him to come.

I will have Balthazar’s heart tonight.


~Should he die, I would lay his body out and peel his skin back from the muscle beneath.

Somehow, from somewhere, I hear them come in. He is not alone, but that does not matter. I open my eyes. In the darkness of the church, all I see is the rich color of his being.

~I would make gentle work of it, and savor the last remnant of his scent off the nape of his neck.

When he sees me, already walking toward him with feet I’m barely aware of, he stretches his hand out to me. Gratefully, I take it. The heat of his skin pushes back the pain. I sigh.

~I would do it while the blood was still hot in his veins so that it would slip warm over my fingers.

“Freydis,” he says softly, “I’m here.” I kick aside the chairs that stand between us, so I can be closer to him. Stepping into the aura of his color and his heat, the pain begins to dull. “I’m here,” he says. “I love you.”

~And I would take the flesh from his bones with care—but not before I reached into the hollow of his chest and wrested free his heart.

I kiss him. Ice melts away. Fires are doused.

I slit his throat.

His eyes widening as a stiff shudder of shock rushes through his body—it is exquisite. I cannot recall having ever seen anything so beautiful in all my life—save for, perhaps, the sprawling snowy tundra of my homelands. Balthazar DiCarvagio—tumbling to the ground, his life spilling bright and red from his body, as beautiful as the tundras of Njordr.

I fall on him. His blood on my hands makes me feel alive again. I can remember what it feels like to live. Thank you, I think, frantically breaking him open. Thank you thank you thank you. The pain subsides though my stomach is broken glass grinding from within.

~His heart I would eat first.

Descending, I sink my teeth into his open chest cavity. He is so warm. His heart still fighting to live, up to the very moment my teeth break into it, and its bursts, bloody and hot in my mouth. I cannot stop—cannot stop the chewing, the gulping, the ravenous swallowing, cannot stop….

Until, suddenly, I can. Stomach no longer wailing, pain no longer bristling the length of my skin. I sit back, looking down on him, on the fading glint of light in his bright blue blue eyes.

All else falls away. Soft. Quiet.

I smile at him as the light dims, and the darkness descends.

What is this strange peace?

From the Bowels of Ghouls

Darkness has swallowed me whole, encompassing me like a tight and narrow throat pulling me ever down. I don’t know how long I am consumed by this darkness before it begins to splinter—first in bright, crackling streaks like lighting across the sky, only they are the warm color of fire. Despite all that initial warmth, behind it there howls an ice far colder than any storm of Njordr.

I peel open my eyes against the cold. They feel frozen shut, my eyelashes clumped with ice. I blink against the hard brightness of sunlight on snow—though there is no sun here.

Something doesn’t feel right. I crane my neck to look down at myself—hearing my bones crackle and feeling the muscle stiff like jerky straining with the movement. I recoil, by there’s only so much one can recoil from themselves.

There is something writhing under my torn shirt. It finds its way to the blood-soaked tear and slips out. Fingers. A hand. An arm.

“Djävlar—“ I try to pull away from my own body, pull out of my own skin. I cannot.

Then I notice…a mutilated, twisted leg protruding from the side of my knee. More body parts, grotesque and blended into mine. I touch my face and to my horror, I feel teeth. Teeth breaking through my skin from the inside out—and moving. Just the faintest pulse, as though they’re chewing the air.

Bile stings the back of my throat and tears burn at my eyes. I’m about to go to my knees, wondering if this is some nightmare, wondering when I’ll wake.

Then I see her.

She stands before me in the howling snow and wind, her hair whipped up into icicles like broken and deformed antlers, her eyes two gaping black maws, her skin thin blue ice clinging to sharp, crystalline bone. She looks like a statue carved from the frozen wastes, tall and horrible, her ribcage wide and her waste sucked in to a narrow core around her spine, her hips jutting like ax blades. Her mouth a row of jagged, long teeth like needles pulled into a horrifying grin.

Then, all at once, she’s nothing at all—a flickering gray shadow sinking into horrible black then blasting my eyes with sharp, piercing white, her form changing in flickering flashes. At one moment an emaciated wolf, at another a bear with a hide torn by decay, at another a woman with her breasts out and frozen and cracking like ice, and in between a sucking void my eyes can’t bare to pin down.

She is horrific.

She is beautiful.


A chill runs through me as I realize then—I’m dead. I can’t be seeing her, not really, not if I’m alive.

I did it.

I finally died.

My heart sinks. I had meant to dance in the clouds, with Balthazar. He’d asked me to dance and I’d been coy and mocking. He’d bested me in battle, and he’d given me a bracelet, and he’d kissed me and held my hand and—

He’d been my friend. He’d told me he loved me, and I’d choked on the word because…well…what did it mean?

If I’m dead I don’t get to know.

I close my eyes and shake my head. Oh well. I was never meant for a life like that anyway. I was meant for Sveas. I was always meant only for Sveas.

My eyes search to pin her down. I reach to pull my mace from my belt and ready my shield, doing my best to ignore the writhing of the arm against my stomach, the aimless chewing of the teeth on my face. My body crackles like ice as I bend to brace myself for battle.

This was always where my life was leading. This was always where I was meant to be. I tell myself that it was the only place I had ever wanted to be, and I make myself believe it.

“Disgusting filth,” a hissing voice comes to me on the wind, coming from no particular point but beating at me from every angle. “Abomination. You do not belong here.”

My stomach clenches. “Yes I do,” I grit out. “I am Freydis the Undying, Daughter of Njordr and daughter of the Thrymfrost. I am the daughter of Nidhoggsdotter and the spirit of the Wolf, and I come at long last to defeat you, Sveas!”

Her laughter is glaciers breaking and avalanches burying cities.

“You are nothing. You are un-whole, bits and pieces of peasants left behind and forgotten. You are a cast out little whelp that should have been left to freeze in the snow upon birth. You are shit in the bowels of ghouls and I recognize you not as a daughter of Njordr but as just another southern mongrel.”

Her words are a thousand blades lodging in my chest. I gasp as though I’ve been struck, and the air in my throat freezes.

All I can see is her outstretched hand, her fingers long like twisted branches.

“No,” I say through ice and gasping. “No! I was branded in the Rimelands! I grew up in snow and ice, I came of age in blood—”

“You dirty the door of my hall.”

“No, no! Fight me Sveas!” The screams come again, and tears freeze on my cheeks. “I am meant to fight you! It’s all I’ve ever been meant for!” Ice clogs my throat, my voice straining against the sobs that swell, burning and cold in my chest.

“You were never worthy of the last rites.”

“Sveas! You can’t—”

“Be gone from my sight, you wretched dog.”


The blackness bites down on me, closing everything else out. The last thing I hear is my own pitiful screaming.

How? How can she still not want me?

The void that swallows me also swallows my screams, sucks the breath from my lungs until I feel my body collapsing in on itself. The tearing in my heart drowns the horrible burning in my flesh. I don’t care for the splintering agony in my bones, for my soul is being torn asunder.

How can she not want me?

The arm that writhes against my skin, the teeth that pulse on my face, the leg that dangles at my knee…

What have I become? In the bowels of ghouls, rendered shit.

Where he left me.

He who claimed to love me.

Whatever that may mean.

Death of the Undying

The air stinks of rotting flesh. The back of my throat tastes like bile. I cover my nose and my mouth as I move down the passageway, past the first ghoul that crawled out from a crevasse in the wall and attacked. The presence of ghouls explains the foul stench, at least. With the odor so powerful, there were surely more to come.

Balthazar and Sir Connor follow close on my heels. They mutter between themselves about what they see. Balthazar quickly searches the body of the ghoul but finds nothing, and Sir Connor notes that, so far, there doesn’t appear to be much of anything in the ruin. It’s just a stinking, winding cavern leading ever deeper into the dark.

As I round the corner, I hear the sounds of teeth gnawing flesh and bone. I know those sounds. They echo in my ears, a memory.

In the dim cavern that opens up before me, I see a ghoul crouched over an old body. Breaking bones with its broken teeth. Sucking at the marrow. Rending the flesh.

“More,” I say to Balthazar and Sir Connor, and beat my shield to draw the thing’s attention.

Its eyes reflect the dim light as it lifts its twitching head and sets its sight on me. It drops the limb it had been holding, stumbling to its feet and coming at me, giving wet hisses and snarls. It’s easy enough to drop—as is the one that lunges at me from behind, its gnashing teeth clipping uncomfortably close to my arm before I’m able to beat it down.

When I turn, I see something else crawling out of the dark. Something monstrous but skeletal, and bearing a weapon. “Fuck,” I mutter, keeping my eyes on the monster as it stalks toward me. I hear Balthazar shout as more ghouls come up behind him and Sir Connor. The sounds of fighting erupt behind me as I brace myself to fight the thing ahead of me.

The weapon it carries is long and heavy—a thick, curving metal spike on a pole that it thrusts at me. I stumble backward as I manage to block the first blow with my shield, but the second blow comes before I’ve recovered my footing and my shield is held just a bit too high.

The spike slams into my stomach. I feel it punch through my furs and leathers into the skin underneath. My body doubles over the weapon as sharp white pain splinters through my abdomen. My guts are forced to make room for cold metal.

But I’ve known worse pains before. I’ve been stabbed deeper, and with colder blades.

Shaking off the pain as the monster wrenches the weapon back, I pull my shield tight against myself and plant my feet, looking up at the monster. It’s about to strike again, as more ghouls flood out of the darkness beyond, then—

“Freydis!” Balthazar shouts behind me, and I hear ghouls dropping. The monster turns its attention toward Balthazar. Finally, his inordinate loudness is useful.

I’m able to fight back two more ghouls, killing them with relative ease, and when I turn toward Balthazar and Sir Connor, I find only the monster. Blocking the entry. Turning toward me.

Bracing myself, I crouch behind my shield. I deflect the first hit as the monster comes toward me, then it aims lower and splits open my shin, splintering the bone. For a moment I’m down on my knee, blocking a blow aimed for my skull, then—as I am dragging myself back up, trying to angle myself toward the entry and away from the monster, another blow catches me on the shoulder.

Pain rains through me from every angle, and I can feel the heat of my blood pouring from my stomach, soaking my pants. The cloth of my shirt clings to me, sticky with blood, and now my pantleg does the same, plastered against my skin around open flesh and bone. Blood is now running in open rivers down my back and front from the fresh wound opened on my shoulder.

Parrying another blow, I make another effort to rise. If I can only manage to get to my godsdamned feet—the monster has moved away from the entry. I might be able to drag myself out of here and back into the light of day.

The weapon, slicked now with my blood, gleams in the dim cavern as it swings toward me once more. Fuck.

With my shoulder in ruins, I struggle to lift the shield. I manage to get it partway up, but too late. The hook catches me in my back and I am dragged to the floor.

As I am slammed into the cold earth, I hear Balthazar’s voice again, and Sir Connor close behind him. Their shouts echo through the cavern, a great and horrible commotion, and the monster looks to them again. It wrenches its hook free of me and goes to them.

If only I could just…get to my hands and knees, it wouldn’t be so difficult to drag myself out of here—

Pain, a searing flash through my calf, ignites within me. I hate to hear the sound of my screams, almost as much as I hate knowing without looking that a ghoul has set on me, and is tearing the living flesh from my bones.

Reaching for my mace—when did I drop it?—I feel another ghoul fall onto me. It seizes my arm and wrenches it back, just about tears it from my body, and it bites into me. I close my eyes against the pain, try to grit my teeth and swallow the screams, but they come boiling madly out.

Somewhere in the distance, through all my screaming and the gurgling snarls of ghouls, I hear Balthazar. “Freydis! No!” I manage to wrench my head up, to see him coming toward me, his mad blue eyes wild with fear and dismay. And there is Sir Connor behind him, spotting the monster looming toward them and vanishing right there into the dark.

That spell of Balthazar’s, his hiding spell—the one he’d put on Sir Connor before we came here. The one I’d sneered at. “A child hiding under a blanket,” I’d said when first he’d showed it to me and, sulking, he’d returned to visibility.

“Balthazar!” I shout, stretching out my other arm, reaching for him with a hand weighted down by a shield and near useless from the ruin of my shoulder. I imagine he’ll grab me, yank me carelessly from the mouths of the ghouls and fly us out of here.

I remember being thrown into the sky—one of his madman’s spells. Next time, I’ll go willingly to dance with him in the clouds.

He’s reaching for me, the jewels on his fingers glittering in the dark. I can almost touch him.

Then he remembers the monster, looks up at it as it moves towards him, and as he lurches back from me and vanishes.

“Tell me,” I once said, sneering, “are you a weak man, Balthazar?”

Some uncertainty wells up inside of me as I am left alone to the devouring mouths. The pain rushes through me renewed, and I am screaming again. I hate these screams—I would give myself up to these tearing mouths and wait it out. They cannot kill me. But these fucking screams…

Blackness eats away at the edges of my vision, and I grow dizzy. My consciousness is fading—it’s okay, I’ve been unconscious before, alone in the forest, in a snow drift, at the bottom of a glacial canyon—when I hear a crash. The ghouls wrench free of me and scatter. They run after whatever sound that was, from wherever it had come, and for a moment leave me in blessed fucking peace.

Slowly, the feeling of the cold earth beneath me comes back. I grit my teeth, blink my eyes to clear my vision, and begin pushing myself to my feet again. I stumble up, pain rocketing up my leg, and I growl low in my throat as I lift my shield and my mace and—

How is the monster back? The cursed skeleton storming toward me and lifting its weapon and—

Back to the earth I crumble, and am barely able to make out the monster aiming its finger at me. The ghouls come in seconds, and I close my eyes and give myself up to the pain.

There is more screaming than just mine. There is a crash of stones, a collapse, and some part of me wonders if the whole cavern is coming down around us, but the ghouls don’t stop eating. Balthazar’s voice returns like thunder through the cavern, chanting some ancient language that I don’t understand, but no spell seems to come.

The ghouls keep eating.

Somewhere in the distance Sir Connor’s voice reaches me: “We have to go, Balthazar! She is dead! This is her arm! She’s dead, we have to leave!” And as I scream, I laugh. I cannot die. I am the Undying.

The ghouls keep eating.

More shouting, more fighting, the sounds of bodies being thrown to the floor and the eruption of magic down the halls. A riot of violence and booming voices intermingled with eerie silences…

…and the ghouls just keep eating, leaving less and less of me to drag out of here, and the less there is of me, the further into the darkness I seem to go.

It’s okay though.

I’ve been in the darkness before.

I’ll be okay.

I always am.

Farewells and Sewers

Her ventures in the woods had been fruitless, so now she found herself here.

In the sewers.

The Undying, the Dragon’s Daughter, the child of the Rimelands. Here. In the sewers.

Freydis was slicked in filth, and digging out more with every passing minute. Sneering through the mud and the refuse as she carved out the tunnel that would ensure that the city’s noted sewage problem would finally be tended to. No more disease ridden sewer rats—in theory. No more plague monsters—in theory.

She wasn’t sure she really trusted any of these southerners or their schemes. Especially when their schemes had her waste deep in sloppy shit mud.

It was too easy for her mind to wander. She didn’t want to think about her current situation, and though she didn’t want to think about the rest of it either…

First Jehanne left. Freydis had been surprised to find that that hurt. It hurt had angered her fiercely. “What do you mean you’re leaving?” she’d said, voice hard as she drew her knife, like maybe she could keep Jehanne there by force, or like killing her might be preferable to letting her go. “You can’t go. You’re teaching me to read.”

“Oh, you silly,” Jehanne had said—in that strange way she had of saying things, with a little bounce on the balls of her feet and a little roll of her mismatched eyes. She’d even reached out and put her hand on Freydis’s hand, re-sheathing the knife with no resistance. “You’ve learned a lot so far. You’re doing great! But there are others that can teach you. No one as good as me, but…” Jehanne looked at Freydis’s bracelet, reaching out to flick the red feather. “For all his faults Balthazar knows a lot. I’m sure he would be willing to teach you.”

For a moment Freydis flushed and thought of reaching for her knife again. Then she deflated and looked at the ground. “I thought you were my friend,” she said, resenting the quaver in her voice.

“Freydis, I am your friend!” Jehanne smiled brightly and cocked her head to the side. Her smile changed for a moment, becoming somewhat flat, dimming a little. “You do know that just because someone leaves, that doesn’t mean they’re not your friend, right?”

“I’m not stupid,” Freydis said, but she looked away and hoped Jehanne didn’t see the doubt in her face.

Jehanne shook her head and her smile shifted back to its usual manic brightness. “I’m just going to work on some things with Bakara. I’ll be back.”

“You could stay with me. And the Blackjacks. We’ll protect you.”

“No silly, I want to go with me husband. Besides, I don’t need protecting.” First she smiled so that her nose scrunched up as she patted the gun in her basket, then she leaned forward conspiratorially. “We’re going to do experiments and blow things up.” Clapping her hands, she gave a little hop.

Freydis tried to smile for her, but couldn’t quite muster it.

She’d mostly cleared this segment of earth, and had to admit she felt good about the work she’d done. She doubted anyone else could have done better. She’d cleared the area efficiently and effectively, and was almost done. The area could use a little widening though, she thought, so she began cutting again into the sides of the tunnel.

Now she wondered if Bjorn would be here working at her side, if he hadn’t left, too. One of the only Njords in town she’d really been able to speak to since arriving here—who had greeted her with a good fight, and warmly. She’d thought they would each other’s backs in this strange place, the only true Njords in Stragosa, at all times.

It was hard to hear the nasty things some of these southerners said about Bjorn—or that he overheard, clenching his jaw and furrowing his brow but saying nothing. Smiling as fiercely and insistently instead. She had supposed that, eventually, she and Bjorn would teach some of these soft southern fools a few things about due respect.

But he seemed to value something about these people—or to regard them cautiously. They had almost had him burned once, she had heard, though she’d never spoken to him of it and he had never mentioned it.

And now he was gone, too.

“Do not look so sad, Freydis.” He had set a hand on her shoulder. “I’m only going for a stretch of the legs. I’ll be back.”

She didn’t ask when. She knew he wouldn’t have an answer. He may not even come back—wherever his journey took him, it would be away from Stragosa but it would not be safe from monsters. It may lead him back to his people and a call of war, or some battle elsewhere. Besides, it was a stupid and childish question to ask.

“Even though you’re going,” she said instead, and did her best to say it rather than ask it, “we will still be friends.”

“Of course! How could we not be?” He put his arm around her and pulled her roughly against him, giving her arm a squeeze and a shake. “Look my friend. You will keep an eye on Walt and Borso for me, yes? They are in need of someone to watch their backs.”

Freydis hesitated. There might be a time she couldn’t keep that promise. But she would try, and she would assure him, to make him happy. That’s what friends did, right? Make each other happy? “I will.”

“Good, friend,” Bjorn said, shaking her again, almost hard enough to rattle her bones. “Come! Let’s go to the tavern. One more drink before I go!” He bent down to poke her in the chest, grinning madly. “And we shall sing some of the old songs and watch the southerners quake in terror!”

There wasn’t a proper goodbye for either of her friends. They said they were leaving, and then they were gone, and that was it.

Like she had slipped away and vanished from the cold lands of her home.

Freydis shook the thought away. She felt like a pathetic, foolish child. When had she become so childish?

The soft earth gave way suddenly beneath her hands, then the wall itself collapsed into thick clots of mud. Dozens—no, hundreds—of skulls toppled out of the earth. They crashed over and around her, their hard domes battering her as she stumbled back and succumbed to the outlandish wave of them.

Thrashing back against the skulls, she cracked and broke them open, crushing them in return and fighting her way out. When the project supervisors came by to check on her after hearing the screams, they found her standing in the mound of skulls, pounding them into powder with her mace and screaming curses.


She struck my knuckles with the flat of her blade and my small hand sprung open in pain, but I bit into my tongue to stifle the cry. I had long since learned not to cry out in pain, not when my mother was there.

“You stupid little fool,” she said through clenched teeth, pointing at my dropped sword with the tip of hers. “Your father really didn’t teach you a single gods damned thing, did he? Pick it up!”


Balthazar sat back in his seat, his hat sparkling—it had changed since last I saw him, though the wound on his face had remained the same since I had tore at it with my fingernails. He didn’t seem to hold it against me. He assessed me in a way that made me shift in my seat—uneasy but somehow pleased—and look away. “You are more intelligent than you let people know.”

No, I thought. You are wrong.


I rushed into the house to where my father’s body had fallen, the life rushing out of him in a red fountain he tried to stay with his hands. Even those large, rough hands were not strong enough to hold back the tide. There were tears in my eyes and a scream on my tongue.

Before I could get to him, my mother spun and backhanded me. “Don’t come in here screaming your weakness,” she shouted while I fell and tasted blood. “He failed me. He failed us. He left you weak. Now will you stay weak and sniveling or get back on your feet like a proper fighter?”


“You would like sharks. They have lots of teeth.” Jehanne, strange little creature that she was, beamed up at me from her seat. She was clad in yellow, her mismatched eyes seeming hyper focused on my face, her own smile full of sharp white teeth. “And they’re very tough. Like you!”

What does she want from me?


I reached out for her—I can no longer remember why, some message I had for her probably, just trying to get her attention. When my fingers settled on her shoulder, she turned. When she saw me, her lip curled like a snarling dog. She slapped my hand away and stood from her seat in the mead hall, pushing me away from her in front of the entire clan. Making my face burn red with humiliation.

“What do you want?” she barked, and I snarled in response.


“You should picnic with us!” Florence said with a quirk of her eyebrow and twitch of her eye that might almost have been a wink. She reached into her basket, lifting out a bottle to waggle it at me, and I wondered if she might have already helped herself to a bottle. “We have wine!”

But why? What can I bring to this?


Sitting by the fireside, bandaged and still bleeding, barely conscious, my eyes followed my mother as she paced back and forth. Her fists clenching and unclenching at her sides.

“My daughter is a weakling and a curr.” She wasn’t even shouting it, only muttering. Not looking at me. Refusing to look at me. “The shame of the Thrymsfrost. Runt of litter. How can this—” She gestured at me, who had risen from an attack that should have left me dead, who had walked home, but not before slitting the throat of the man who would have seen me dead. “—be born of my loins?”


“Undying!” I recognized the joviality in Bjorn’s voice before I ever set eyes on his face and his wide, manic-eyed smile. Setting my eyes on him coming at me like a bear with outstretched arms, I felt a halting wash of…relief, and softness in my heart. I hesitated, but found myself incapable of recoiling. “Friend!”

He has been among the southerners too long.


When she slapped me and I tasted blood, I thought, I do not understand. I won this fight. I defeated him. I won. But I did not kill him, only humiliated him, so she hit me. Hard. And again. And again. Harder.

“You defeat a man, but you do not kill him?” Strike. “What weakness did I leave in you that you would let survive a man you had defeated?” With a fist now. “What weakness in you?” She shoved me away and drew her sword. “You fight me now.”

I remembered when I was twelve and first so gravely disappointed her. I remembered her killing my father. My head was ringing but I rushed at her, every strike and curse bellowing out of me as I went—

She hit me on the side of the face with the flat of her blade as I had hit the man who challenged me. She kicked me, then she pummeled me. She was upon me, punching me, her fists pummeling my face until I was aware only of the thrumming pain and the taste of blood. The world was a gray and pink blur, and the ice was brittle in my bones.

Eventually it was over, and I a ruined, bloody, broken mess.


“You are fascinating, and you are beautiful!” He shouted it at me after he slipped behind me in our duel, as difficult to get hold of as the wind, and put a knife to my throat—after he took me down to the ground and held me there, the sharp blade nibbling a slow cut into my throat while I looked up at him with all his feathers and shimmering stones and mad, blue eyes. “I want to know you more, Freydis—do you accept my courtship?”

He is mad, I thought. He is absolutely mad. But the knife? There is a certain comfort in a knife.

The Courting of a Bird

These southern lands are strange—with their formalities, their caution, their thin skins, their lion god. They are suspicious of me, following me with eyes that are wary and uncertain—though a few rare seem drawn to me. That Walt, half a mute that he is, inviting me to join his Black Jacks, for one. And this one—this man I’m watching now, though my eyes are more incredulous today than they were yesterday. It is a surprise to even think I may have found a spirit kindred to my own in this place—kindred of a sorts. A spirit so strange and bird-like. Feathers and all.
Stranger still that I might be so intrigued by a bird.
To watch him walk today, however, he no longer seems a bird. Feathers gone, feet no longer such wings moving him to and fro, today he moves slowly, hunched, a dreary look in his eyes—dreary, not dread. I suppose this is an improvement from last night.
Though last night he was no bird, either. Last night he was resigned dread. How he stared at the ruined flesh of his arm while his own fresh blood still clung in the stubble on his cheek. No bird was he any longer, though his words were as wind. I only listened, and ground my teeth, and picked at the rough edges of my mace.
And pondered.
This Stragosa is a strange place, with its ruins and its Miracle and its monsters. I have been assured that these things are connected, though how? I am as intrigued by this stone that resurrects the dead as I am by this Balthazar, though I do not know how I will learn more about it. Of this bird, however, this Balthazar…
He has promised to test his mettle against mine. Today, he looks in no shape for such a testing. I chew my hard bread and drink my wine while he speaks with some mage about the disease he contracted during the attack last night.
Last night with all its monsters. How he’d rushed without armor and but one blade into the beasts—an attempt at suicide if I’ve ever seen one. And a brilliant one at that. No bird then, but still something wild, perhaps something…rabid. The kind of thing that, when cornered, becomes all claws and ravening teeth. But oh, how he bled on that floor, while I turned away and gathered my mace for the fight.
I would have eaten his heart first, for he did promise me his corpse.
When he was a bird.
Was it truly so recent?
Oh how his eyes lit up when I told him of how I’d earned my name at the bottom of a glacial crevasse, rending the flesh of my human enemy from his bones with my teeth. When I showed him the skull I kept as a token, and he touched it very lightly with the tips of his fingers and said, “Marvelous.” He had leaned toward that skull with eyes sharp and focused, lips slightly parted—like it were some long-dreamed of treat, finally laid before him.
And when he leaned back and put his fingers over his mouth, eyes gleaming as he assessed me, I delighted in his delight. In his musing fingers over his mouth.
“Should I die,” he said, leaning toward me, “I would be honored for you to eat my corpse.”
I smiled. Should he die, I would lay his body out and peel his skin back from the muscle beneath. I would make gentle work of it, and savor the last remnant of his scent off the nape of his neck. I would do it while the blood was still hot in his veins so that it would slip warm over my fingers. And I would take the flesh from his bones with care—but not before I reached into the hollow of his chest and wrested free his heart.
His heart I would eat first.
“I would be happy to make a feast of your flesh,” I told him, and watched his features alight once more.
It was not much after that—mere stories of sharks and werewolves later—that another of the Jacks, whom I had only seen in passing before, stopped to introduce herself. She carried with her a bouquet of blue roses—more strangeness of Stragosa I assume—and she offered one to Balthazar.
“Instead of Tresser Tag,” she said, “I have been offering these flowers. But—” She withdrew it quickly before Balthazar could take it. “This is only as a friend, Balthazar.”
“Of course,” he said, spreading his hands. “And what a good friend to me you are, Florence.”
Bestowing the flower upon him, she turned then to me. “I am Florence. I do not believe we have met.”
“We have not. I am Freydis the Undying.”
“The Undying?”
“It is a fantastic story,” Balthazar said.
“You will have to tell me sometime.” Florence looked on me with a bright gleam in her eye. I already like her. We would make good friends someday soon, I could tell.
“Perhaps I shall.” I nodded to her, but said no more.
“Would you mind,” Balthazar asked, gesturing with long fingers to the blue roses, “if I might have another? So I may give it to a friend—and then! You can keep watch for it, see if you can spot it.”
Florence had a beautiful smile. She gave Balthazar the flower before saying her farewells, and once she had slipped away Balthazar leaned toward me once more, offering me the flower. “If you would,” he said. I have never been offered a flower before. I have never been offered…well, anything but knives in the back. Or the stomach. And fists to the face.
So I took it, and found the smile on my face as strange as the rest of this place.
The flower is on my belt now—two blue flowers, side by side—while I watch Balzathar move about the tavern like a de-winged bird. Sagging toward the floor. When he spots me I look away.
I had thought to be interested in the man, but last night…
Last night when his eyes could focus on nothing and his voice moved like a breeze through the air. Speaking of this sister of his.
A wretched bitch she sounds, like someone who could make trouble in the future. For Balthazar clearly, for myself, for the Jacks. She sounds like someone who must be put down.
Where I might find this sister of his though, I have no idea. I have only just arrived to Stragosa, and only just begun to learn of the strangeness here. It may take some time to learn enough of the sister to track her down, let alone to put her down, and besides…there are so many things here yet to be explored.
For a moment last night, I had thought of simply putting him out of his misery. His suffering was so great, I could feel it like spilled acid on my skin. By the looks of her, Florence could feel it, too—while she looked away from him and drank her wine, and he spoke of not even knowing if he was real, or just a figment dreamed up to be played with by his sister.
And the man had wanted to die. Rushing into battle without armor. It would have been easy enough to go to him where he laid in his bed. To sit beside him and say farewell to whatever possibilities he might have offered and slit his throat so that he could be done with it. I wonder what Walt would have thought. What Florence would have thought.
I take another bite of the hard bread as Balthazar eases himself into a seat at the table, moving as though every bone within him aches. “Good morning,” he says. His voice sounds more solid than it had last night, though rough around the edges. Not drifting like the clouds, but…rattling. Like the leaves in the trees.
“How are you feeling?”
“Better,” he said. “I still…need to have this—this disease, tended to, but…I feel quite a bit better than last night.”
Good. It is good that he is recovering, and quickly. It seems, at least. It is yet to be seen, I suppose, what strength still lingers within. “Tell me of this sister of yours.”
He is quiet a moment. I am unsure if this quiet is hesitancy, or if it’s a careful choosing of words. When he finally did speak, he told me of his sister—his twin, who was trained in the same arts as he, who never came to him himself but sent mind-controlled people to him instead. “Meat puppets,” he called them. The phrase made my spine feel as though it were full of worms. I assessed him again while he spoke.
Air mage. I still not quite understand what that meant. I still was not sure that I wanted to.
“She is powerful,” he says. “She’s the most powerful person I know.”
He said it as though she has no weakness. But even the most powerful of people have weaknesses. They have only to be uncovered.
“And what do you plan to do about it?” I asked.
A frown passes over his face. “There is nothing that can be done—”
“She must die.”
Balthazar withdraws—the smallest of motions—and the frown on his face deepens. “She is more powerful than me, and—and her mind, it is connected to my own. She can hear what I think, and I can hear what she thinks. It doesn’t happen as frequently as it once did, but it does still happen. Anything I plan against her, if I even think about it, she’ll know. And, besides—” He shakes his head as though disgusted. He would not be the first to be disgusted by me. I only met the man yesterday, so I grit my teeth refuse to care. “—she is my twin sister. I will not kill my twin sister.”
A fire flares in me. I refuse to have been tempted to be interested in a man whose spine so easily bends.
I refuse.
“Tell me,” I say through my teeth and a curling sneer. “Are you a weak man, Balthazar?”
His body goes rigid, and for a moment he stares into his breakfast. When he lifts his eyes, they are dark. His mouth—smiling so fiercely yesterday—is set in a hard line. His jaw is tense, his shoulders stiff. With barely parted lips, through gritted teeth he says, “I am not weak.”
I lean closer and stand, my body bending over and toward him as I snarl: “Then make your choice, Balthazar. You, or her. I am going to make sacrifice. You make your choice.”
Before he can voice a word to break in, I leave, bringing my unfinished breakfast with me. I throw wide the door and let myself into the chill and the snow. The sound of it crunching beneath my boots brings me peace. I close my eyes, I breathe in the cold and breathe out mist.
My fingers pluck the blue flower from my belt. I lift it as I turn toward the forest. I eye it while I walk, but only for a moment before I press it into my pocket.
I will not have been tempted into being intrigued by a weak man.