In the Shadow of the Gods (8 page)

Next to him, Brennon was not smiling either. He had found a knife somewhere. It was clutched still in his fist, unbloodied. It had not done much good against the arrow sticking out the side of his neck.

Scal's knees were cold in the few inches of pink snow. He did not remember kneeling down. His hand shook as he reached out and wrapped his fingers around the snow-eagle feathers. Yanked the arrow out of his friend's neck, arrowhead scraping against bone. The arrow came free, bloody almost half the length of the shaft. Little chunks of meat sticking to the arrowhead.
Mercy,
Kerrus had told him as they had watched the wardens burning a dead child,
has nothing to do with fairness.

The shouting came dim to his ears, and the sounds of metal against metal. Unimportant. He could not pull his eyes from the arrow. His thumb smoothing down one of the white feathers, the vane rough against his skin. A single sluggish drop of blood collected slowly at the tip of the arrowhead, stretching out until it held on by a thread-thin line, and fell gently onto his thigh.

It was silent inside the shell of Aardanel. Silent as the dead.

“Ruuli?” a gruff voice called out, searing through Scal like an arrow. His fingers tightened around the fletching, crushing the delicate feathers. “Ruuli, where are you?” The rough Northern tongue. The language of Scal's forgotten childhood. The memories were gone, but the words stuck, somehow. “Ruuli!” Closer now. “There you are, Ruuli. What are you—”

Scal stood. The arrow in one fist, Brennon's knife in the other. He faced a big, gaping Northman, twice Scal's size,
wrapped in blood-spattered furs. A big sword hung down by his side, dripping with blood. Lero's blood, and Athasar's, and Eddin's, Brennon's, Kerrus's.

“You are not Ruuli,” the Northman said, eyes narrowing. Scal shook his head, silent. The man drew in a deep breath and bellowed, “To me!”

They came running. Nearly twoscore Northmen. Dressed in furs. Covered in blood. Bristling with weapons. A dozen arrows were aimed at Scal's heart. Swords and axes and maces were hefted ready to bash and cut. They had already killed a few hundred today. One more life would be as nothing to them. Scal did not know if his own life was worth much at all anymore.

A man stepped through the battle-ready crowd. Small for a Northman—little bigger than Scal, half grown as he was. A thick yellow beard framed his face, beads and bones braided into it so he rattled with every step. The crew wore a motley of colors. Brown bear and black wolf and gray fox. But this man wore only white. Thick snowbear pelts, wrapped with bleached leather, spotted with dirt and blood. A snowbear head snarled from atop his own head, a hood whose muzzle was brown with old blood. An enormous cloak of purest white. Scal had never seen the man before, but he knew. Iveran Snowwalker. Iveran-of-the-ice. Iveran the Coldhearted. Chief of the Valastaa Clan. Scourge of Aardanel.

“Well,” he said gruffly. “Eddin had a Northman.” Iveran paced slowly toward Scal, placing his feet carefully around the bodies. He carried a short spear in his left hand and a curved sword in his right, both held at the ready. “You speak,
ijka
?”

Scal stared flatly. Fingers flexing around the shaft of the arrow, the hilt of the little knife.

“Boy is an idiot,” one of the Northmen muttered.

Iveran waved his sword for silence. “Idiot or no, he is one of ours. I will not have his blood spilled.
Ijka
.” He shuffled closer, eyes fixed on Scal's face. The unfamiliar word sounded like both comfort and command. “Why not put down that knife, eh? We will have a talk. Your blood is come to claim you.”

My blood?
Scal wondered dimly. North-born. Northman devil. Yellow-haired and blue-eyed, just like Iveran and the others arrayed behind him. He shared their blood. Numbly, he shook his head. “I am not one of you.” His mouth formed the hard sounds of the Northern tongue without any thought, as if he had been speaking it all his life. The very act betrayed the words, and he could feel his cheeks start to burn with shame.

Iveran grinned. An eerie echo of the snowbear's snarl. “Of course you are,
ijka
. Too much time with the southerners, is all. We have fixed that problem.”

The shame vanished, swallowed up by a rage that boiled through him. There was a snap as the arrow's shaft splintered inside his fist, head and fletching falling to the ground; the knife burned in his hand, a screaming demand. Iveran's grinning face swam up before him. There was shouting. Hands grabbing at his heated skin. Unbelievably, laughter.

The fury drained away slowly. He lay belly down on the ground, his arms twisted up behind his back. A great weight across his legs. A boot pressing one side of his face into the snow. He caught a glimpse of Iveran, the little knife buried in his shoulder. He was laughing as he pulled the knife out, its tip red with blood. He said, smiling, “Not one of us? You lie to me,
ijka
.”

They trussed him up like a pig. Lashing his wrists and ankles
around a thick branch that took two of them to hoist. Scal's rage was gone, leaving only a festering shame behind. Even that did not burn so badly as his muscles after the first few hours.

He had put up with much abuse in Aardanel, but Kerrus had always told him that insults were no more than drops of water. Water could never harm a flame.
Violence is weakness,
he had said,
and the best way to fight is with compassion. Let your grace be your shield, and your generosity your sword.

Well. Parro Kerrus had been good all his life, and what had it gotten him? A sword through the chest. A cold and lonely death. Scal had tried to be good, too, to prove he was more than a barbarian Northman. To make Kerrus proud. To make some kind of good life for himself. And it had gotten him strung up between two Northmen. Hanging-down head staring right at one fur-covered arse. All the people he had ever cared about dead and gone.

“How goes,
ijka
?”

Scal twisted his burning neck to the side, where Iveran paced along, grinning. The white furs on his left shoulder were faintly pink, but the chieftain showed no lingering pain. Scal turned his head away. The choice of which arse to look at was an easy one.

“No hard feelings, eh?”

It was not easy to manage, but Scal filled his mouth and spat to the side. The slime hit Iveran's hip. Slid slowly until it froze. One of the Northmen growled, but Iveran lifted a hand. He was smiling still, but his eyes were as cold as the air.

“You will thank me one day,
ijka,
” he said, and jogged away to the head of the twisting column.

Never
.

They made camp in the light of the sinking sun. Scal's two bearers untied him long enough to lash him to a tree. Arms stretched back, wrapped around the trunk, twisted so the pain in his shoulders was a constant, aching throb. They kept his ankles tied together, too, as though he could rip the tree from the ground and run off. Not too likely. He was a distance from the main camp, where they gathered around a big cook fire and traded stories and songs. Just as it had always been with Athasar's patrol. He was even farther from the camp than the supply sledges and the bushy, half-wild dogs that pulled them. The message was clear enough.

Not far enough away, though. He could hear everything they said, clear as light. He listened to the Northmen brag of how many they had killed that day. How many exiles and wardens they had taken down. Stories of their last moments, their begging. Laughter. Scal felt that hot fury start to rise again. One of them brought over a battered wooden bowl of some kind of steaming stew, held it to Scal's lips. The boy took a mouthful of the thick broth and spat it back in the Northman's face. The big man started bellowing, hands clawing at his face as the hot stew dripped. The stew cooled quickly in the night air. The man's hands went instead for Scal. One curling through his hair, holding his head still. The other forming a fist. It fell once, twice, before the others could drag him away. He took a fistful of Scal's hair with him, leaving the boy with a bleeding scalp and mouth. Iveran stood before him, arms crossed over his thick chest, frowning.

“He does not belong, Iveran,” the man with a handful of Scal's hair shouted. “His blood is cold. Leave him for the snows.”

Iveran ignored him, crouching down next to Scal. Holding the boy's eyes. “Too much time with the southerners messes your head,” he said, tapping a thick forefinger hard between Scal's eyes. “Makes you think backward. You got your head wrong,
ijka
. We are your people. You are where you belong.”

“You killed my people,” Scal said, the words thick around a mouthful of blood.

Iveran's fist thumped into Scal's forehead, the back of his head bouncing off the tree trunk. Colors danced in front of his eyes. “Wrong,
ijka
.”

Bloody spit dribbled down Scal's chin, and Iveran's face wove in and out of focus. Scal forced the words to come out clear. “I will never be one of you.”

“That is what you want, eh?” Iveran held something in front of Scal's face, and Scal forced his eyes to cooperate, to focus. It was the little knife. Brennon's knife. The knife he had stuck in Iveran's shoulder. It was still dotted with blood, or rust. Hard to tell. “We have seen what southerners do to their prisoners. You want to be a southerner? Then you are our prisoner.”

The knife swam closer until Scal's eyes could not follow it. Iveran's hand grabbed his aching jaw, held him still as the knife cut, once, twice. Deep cuts. All the way through so Scal could feel the knife's point scrape jarring against his teeth. He could taste the blood as it washed down his cheek from the prisoner's cross. Scal drew a sharp, surprised breath, but he kept his scream trapped behind closed teeth and his eyes on Iveran's face.

The chieftain stood slowly, his expression hard to read. It may have been because Scal was still dizzy from all the blows his head had taken. But it seemed like Iveran meant to say something.

“I have
vasrista
with the boy.” It was the man who had attacked Scal; red welts ran down his face from the stew. The killing rage was gone from his eyes, but he looked no kinder.

Iveran pressed the bridge of his nose between two fingers. “Leave be, Einas,” he said with a tired sigh.

“Honor will not wait,” the man said sternly.

The chieftain was quiet for a long time, and Scal could feel the eyes of the whole clan on him. His eyes were working better now, but he let them stay unfocused. Not looking at any of the Northmen. He had no idea what they were all waiting for, but he did not expect to like it. The cold air sucked through the cross on his cheek as he breathed. It was the wrong cheek, for a prisoner. He was not a true prisoner.

“Make the ring,” Iveran said at last. A small cheer went up from the men before they turned away. Iveran squatted down next to Scal once more, but Scal kept his eyes far away. “Listen to me,
ijka
. You have insulted Einas. Warm blood or cold, he will not stand for that. He has claimed
vasrista
on you. You know the word?” He paused, waiting, but Scal showed no sign of hearing. “It is a challenge against honor. You insulted his, so he calls for satisfaction. You will fight him, hand to hand, body to body, until one falls.” Iveran's eyes passed critically over Scal. “He will beat the shit out of you, no doubt of that. Might even kill you. It would save me the trouble.” Iveran stood, spat onto the ground next to Scal, and walked away.

The two Northmen who had been carrying him all day
came over to untie him from the tree and march him to a clear patch of ground. The others had kicked the snow away, exposing the brittle dead grass beneath, and now gathered in a ring around the spot. They parted to let Scal get shoved through, then closed the gap.

Einas was there, on the other side of the ring. About three good paces away. Stretching his arms and back, loosening his legs. Scal stood still, waiting, arms hanging heavy at his side. His fingers tingled with the blood rushing to them. His shoulders were aching lumps. Blood filled his mouth, the cross like a fire in his cheek. The pains felt right, matching the hurt that rumbled low inside him.

From somewhere around the ring came Iveran's voice: “Begin.”

Einas did not move fast, but he did not need to. Scal was not going anywhere. As the big Northman rushed bellowing toward him, Scal stared flatly and thought of all the things Parro Kerrus had ever told him.
Inaction can be a man's wisest course of action.

Einas barreled into him, leaning down to ram his shoulder into Scal's stomach. Wrapped his arms around the boy, propelled him backward into the living border of the ring. There, crushed between Einas and other Northmen trying to shove them back into the ring, breath gone in a mighty whoosh, Scal remembered,
Violence is the answer of a small mind.

They were pushed away by the ring of Northmen. Einas stumbling back a step, Scal trying to draw in breath. Then Einas stepped close once more, fist jabbing against the side of Scal's ribs.
Revenge is a fool's game with no end.

“Fight, boy!” Einas shouted in his face, spittle showering
from cracked lips and rotten teeth. The rest of the Northmen took up the cry. Scal stood still, if slightly bent, torso aching and breath coming hard. Einas's big fist thumped him in the center of the new-carved
X
on his cheek, sent him stumbling to the side and seeing stars once more.
He who provokes a fight is weak, but he who retaliates is weaker still.

Einas brought his fist up against the bottom of Scal's jaw, snapping his head back, lifting him off his feet, and sending him into the barrier. Arms caught him, steadied him. Shoved him back toward Einas, whose fist connected solidly with Scal's nose. Bone crunched and blood poured.
If a man should break your arm, extend to him the other one.

Scal thought at first that his eyes were bleeding, washed with red. His heart thumped loud, painful within his bruised chest. Someone was bellowing a wordless, endless animal noise, full of mindless rage. His throat hurt, and his hands as they sang through the air to be met with the solid thump of yielding flesh. The pain in his arms melted away, escaped through his knuckles that tore and bled but did not hurt. He spun like the wind, and his fist against a jawbone felt to him like a breeze. A blow caught him on the ear, another pounded against his ribs. But Scal was fury itself, anger given physical shape, and his body kept moving without being told. Until something terribly solid hit him between the legs and brought him and the screaming both to a shuddering stop.

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