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.