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.