tagSci-Fi & FantasyFreyas Saga Ch. 16

Freyas Saga Ch. 16

byvillanova©

They followed the road north, and slowly the land grew cooler and greener.

They trained.

It was too big to talk about, the change in Five, the change in her status, the change in the way people would talk to her. Five could tell, they were both wary of it. It was easier to pretend that everything was back to normal. And so the days fell back into the rhythm; wake early, find food, breakfast, train, walk, find lunch, eat, train, walk, find dinner, eat, sleep.

There were cold days, and days with midges, and days with wild dogs, and days when they just couldn't find any meat and Five had to make do with roots and her dwindling supply of flour and fat and salt, but they never starved.

One night, it had all gone especially well. Five's shooting had improved to the point where she bagged not one but three rabbits, and they met a pedlar on the road who exchanged one of them, and some salt, for a couple of flasks of wine. They feasted on roasted bunny and leaves and bread, and drank wine, and Five sat by the fire with Freya next to her, dazed with tiredness, sated with food, mellow with wine.

I have never been happier, she thought.

Then something came to her, and she looked sidelong at Freya, who was as usual staring blank-faced into the fire.

"Can I ask you something?" she said.

Freya nodded.

"When the worm in Torina wounded you, you said something. I thought at first you were sick, but then you said it again, and I realised it was a thing you were saying. What was that? I didn't recognise it."

Freya looked blank for a moment, then her face cleared.

"Oh," she whispered. "It was a curse. In my mother's tongue."

"Really?" said Five. "You can speak her language?"

"There were others of her people who were in Hargest when I was an infant. I learned that tongue from my nurse. Then I learned our tongue, from my father and from Lady Fricka."

"So it's your first language?"

"It is. But I barely speak it. To my shame."

Freya looked up at Five and smiled slightly.

"But I curse in it. When provoked."

"What did you say in it, that time?"

"It is hard to render in our tongue, but had I said it to a man, he could justly have struck me."

"What was it, though, more or less," said Five, grinning.

Freya flushed slightly and smiled.

"It is complex," she whispered, "but it concerned the worm's sister, and her cunt."

Freya grinned. Five laughed.

"It was something to see, though," Five said. "The way you took that thing down."

Freya shrugged.

"Not that I'm being lazy," Five said. "We've only killed one worm. Not quite the stuff of legends yet."

"There will be more," Freya said.

"I know," said Five. "'Ave to admit, I find this whole fighting for glory thing very odd. I've never been glorious in me life. I've been a cook."

"You are young."

"I've started late," said Five.

Freya stared at the fire for a moment, then turned to her.

"Is that what you want?" she said. "Glory?"

"I suppose," said Five, "doesn't everyone?"

Freya was silent for a moment.

"Once," she admitted, "before the worm took me, I would have said that there is little else."

"But not now?"

Freya was silent, then slowly shook her head.

"No. What we do now, I do not do for glory."

"What do you do it for, then?"

Freya's face twisted, as she struggled to find the words.

"I cannot say," she said at last. "All I know is, I must. There is no other way for me."

"Well," said Five, "if you don't want glory out of it, you're doing it the right way, not telling anyone your name and all. I suppose, if it came to it, I wouldn't mind my name living after me. Just for a while."

"You have no name," said Freya absently.

Five glanced at Freya, who was staring into the fire, moody and distracted.

Which explained why she could be so fucking cruel, even if it didn't excuse it.

Five's anger and humiliation rose in her throat, and she had to swallow it before she trusted herself to speak without her voice cracking.

"Yeah," she said, "and I'm not bitter about that at all."

She stared into the fire, furious, controlling herself with difficulty. She waited for Freya to apologise, but some long moments passed, and when she shot Freya the tiniest glance, she realised that Freya was still staring into the fire as if nothing had happened.

Mistress, she thought, so many things bind me to you, but you can still be the biggest fucking cunt, and she got to her feet and walked off into the darkness to calm down.

***

She was careful to not walk too far, to stay just within sight.

She's a warrior, she told herself. She's always been special. She's always been the best of her class. People have always made excuses for her. She's never had to be polite or charming. Well, she could get an army on her side like no-one else, but that's not the same thing.

Still, though. A thousand thanks, Freya Aelfrethe, for reminding me what a useless fucking nobody I am.

Five dug her nails angrily into her own palms.

I know it's sort of unfair to be so cross with her. But, fucking hell.

***

Freya looked up, startled, as Five stomped off into the shadows, and she started to stand up, then it occurred to her that Five was upset about something and might want to be left alone.

She thought back. What had been said? What did I miss? They had been talking about fame and glory -- did I mock her? Not intentionally. What ...



You have no name. But all I meant is that she did not have the burden that a name represents. She was free to live life as boldly or as quietly as she chose.

But no; no longer. Now she is bound to me. She knows my name all too well, and I did not make my meaning clear.

What I just did was put her in her place. Crushingly.

Freya groaned quietly and laid her head on her knees. Then she heard the faint sound of grass hushing, and raised her head again.

Five walked back into the firelight and scowled at her.

"Forgive me," said Freya. "I spoke without thought. I did not mean to insult you."

"I'm not that easy to insult," said Five, "but you bloody found the way."

"Forgive me, Five," said Freya, holding out her hand. "Please."

Five hesitated, then came forward and took Freya's hand, and Freya leaned over and kissed Five's knuckles and laid her cheek on the girl's hand in supplication.

"It's all right," said Five in a slightly softer tone. "Sometimes I forget you weren't raised to be polite."

Freya kissed Five's hand again and held out a hand, entreating the girl to sit down. Five sat.

"It was one of the things I was angry about, when I was in the forest," said Five. "That nobody had ever taken me seriously enough to give me a proper name."

"It is no small thing, to name a person," said Freya.

They sat there, in companionable silence, for a moment. Then Five felt Freya looking at her sidelong.

"I could give you a name," Freya said. "Now. If you chose."

"Now?"

Freya nodded. Five considered.

"I think," she said, "all things being equal, why don't we wait to see how this all turns out. If you're going to give me a name it should have something to do with who I am, and I don't feel like I've shown who I am, yet, if you get my meaning."

Freya smiled.

"You have shown me your worth more than once, but yes. The rest of the world has yet to know it. When the last worm has been ground into the dust, if we live to see that, then I will know you well enough to give you a name you deserve."

What'll I have deserved by then? Five thought. Could be years. Decades. Who'll we be to each other then, she and I? Will we still be bound the way we are now?

She thinks so. I hope so.

But fortune's a bastard.

"I look forward to it very much," said Five.

She picked up her wine cup and raised it, and Freya touched her own to it, and they drank.

"How did you get your name?" said Five. "I reckon you weren't always called ÔAelfrethe'."

"My mother named me Freya," Freya said. "I had no other name until I learned to fight. I would fight with the boys and they would let me win because I was female. When I saw that they did this, I told them that unless they fought with me the way they fought with one another, I would fight to kill. They laughed at me."

"Ooops," said Five, smiling. Freya took another calm sip of her wine.

"Indeed," Freya said, "the next time I fought one of them, I quickly saw that he was not fighting with me but only mock-fighting. Using the flat of his sword."

"What happened?"

"I grew very angry," said Freya, "and I ordered him to fight like a man. He would not. I taunted him. He told me that I was a girl, and that he could no more lay his hand upon a girl than he could lay his hand upon his own mother."

"What did you do?"

Freya paused, and her brows drew together as if she were remembering something that gave her shame.

"I said, ÔIf you love your mother so much, then weep in her lap like the child you are,' and I cut off his hand."

"What?!" Five cried.

"Not completely," Freya said with a defensive glance at Five. "I had not then the strength that I have now. His hand was still part of his arm, but I had cut through the wrist, which was my intention."

"Fucking hell," said Five.

"The boy was like one asleep," Freya remembered. "He lost much blood. In the end I had to help him bandage himself and I took him to his house and handed him to his mother."

"What did she say?"

"I do not remember her saying anything," said Freya. "But when my father found out, he demanded that I apologise to the boy. I would not. I had warned him, and he did not heed me. My father said that if I did not apologise, he would beat me in public. I did not apologise."

"What did your father do?"

"He beat me in public," Freya said with a wry smile. "I could tell he did not wish to, but I left him no choice. I could not afford to. After that, the other boys always fought with me like a man, and my sword-work improved. The boy even kept his hand, though it was useless for fighting."

"Did you make it up with him?"

"No," said Freya with a scornful shake of the head. "He was weak and stupid. It was his fault. But someone started to call me ÔAelfrethe' and I accepted it as my name."

"'High and cruel'," Five said. "Isn't it a bit ... not very heroic?"

Freya drained her cup and stared into the fire for a moment. Then she turned to Five and took her by the hand.

"If you wish to have glory," she whispered, "if that is what you truly crave, then you must learn that a woman cannot earn the same kind of glory as a man. When a man great at war is merciful, or shows more than normal kindness, he is praised and called Ôgreat'. But you and I are expected to show such things, and when we do show them, they are seen not as part of our greatness, but as part of our weakness. If you wish men to think you great, you must be great in the qualities they do not expect you to have. We must not flinch. We must not be too kind. We may use our presence to move others to do our will, but we may not rely on it. We cannot use our beauty to get men to do our bidding."



"That's never been a problem for me," said Five. Freya smiled.

"Is it what you want?" she said. "That kind of glory?"

"I'd rather go down in history as a decent fighter than as a cook who wet his breeches whenever he was in a battle," Five said.

"Then you will have to learn to be cruel," said Freya.

"I know," said Five, feeling gloomy.

"You cannot admit to pain," Freya said. "You cannot admit to doubt, or weariness, the way a man can without losing his authority. You must be ever resolute in action."

"I understand," said Five, "but, I mean, you admit those things to me. Doubt, tiredness. You're not scared of coming across like that to me."

"No, I am not," said Freya. With a pang, Five guessed the reason.

"I know why," she said. "It's Ôcause my opinion don't matter, in't it?"

Freya's face flooded with dismay and immediately realised she was wrong.

"No!" Freya exclaimed, not whispering but aloud in her harsh voice, and it made her lean over in a brief fit of coughing. Five squeezed her hand as the fit passed, then Freya straightened once more, a wounded look in her eyes.

"Not that," she whispered. "I admit them to you ..."

She searched for the words. Five watched her, her heart full. Finally Freya met her gaze.

"Because I need you to know my heart," she said.

As they looked at each other, Five could hear the crickets whirring in the grass; the rustle of the stream; a distant bird. Freya was sitting so close to her that she could smell her. Their hands on the grass were inches apart from one another.

Neither of them moved for a long moment, then Five lowered her eyes.

"I'm sorry," she stammered.

Freya regarded her for a moment.

"Why, when it comes to judging your own worth, are you so stupid?" she said.

"Because everyone's always told me I'm useless," replied Five levelly, staring at the ground. "I'm not used to being trusted this much."

They sat in silence. The moment had passed.

Freya raised her hand and laid it on Five's shoulder and squeezed gently, like a protective elder sister.

"The men you killed," said Five, looking up at her again. "D'you ever think of them? D'you ever think of who they were, or where they came from?"

Freya glanced at her, and Five caught the warning look in her eyes. But they had hardly ever talked like this, and she wanted to learn, and Freya was the only one who would teach her.

"The first man I killed," Freya said, "was a Westerner, at Cyningstun. He was so ... shocked, to see a girl in the field garbed for war, for I was only a girl, that he gave me an advantage. He put up a fight but I was lucky. The second man I killed was a mercenary at Browby. He was less surprised but he was too slow. By the time I killed my third man, which was at Tarsim, I was known, and he had sought me out, for the honour of besting me. But as you can see, he did not. The fourth man ..."



She thought for a moment.

"After that," she admitted, "it is hard to tell one from another."

Bloody hell, Five thought.

"Of the men who fought me," Freya went on, speaking slowly, "most of them chose to. The ones who knew my name, I salute their courage, and I honour their memory. The ones who did not know me, or did not credit what they had heard of me, I hold in contempt. They were stupid. They paid the price."

Five was chilled. All of the warmth had gone out of Freya. She sat as still as stone, staring bleakly into the fire.

"What of the ones who didn't choose to fight you?" said Five. "The ones who had to. Because they were conscripts, or whatever."

Freya considered this, then reached for the wine flask and poured more into her cup and set the flask down on the ground once more.

"I can only pity their ill luck," she said, and drained the cup in one.

It might have been my ill luck, Five thought. If I'd been born a few hundred miles to the south, I might have been standing in a line with a load of barbarians, shitting meself while we watched the great and terrible Freya Aelfrethe boring down on us.

"Well, the war's over, anyway," she said.

"This one," said Freya with a sardonic smile.

"What," said Five, "you think there'll be another? We only just finished the last one."

"There will be another," said Freya.

"How you can be sure?"

Freya just smiled, got up and stretched, then strolled over to her pack and got out her blanket.

"Sleep," she said, and lay down and rolled herself up in it and closed her eyes. Within moments, Five could hear her breathing regularly.

I'm sure you know what you're talking about, Five thought, looking at Freya's sleeping face. You've been fighting all your life. I bet this is just like a rest break for you. Can't help thinking that a little bit of you would like to see more war, though. So that you can do what you're best at.

Freya asleep looked younger, more peaceful and more solemn. Well, so does everyone, Five thought. Beautiful, to tell the truth.

Still. War might kill us, famine might kill us, a worm might kill us. Bandits in the night might kill us. But you know what would not kill you, Freya Aelfrethe? Washing a fucking pan from time to time.

Five threw a few sticks on the fire, took a pot and walked over to the stream to get some washing water. As she knelt in the darkness and felt the pan grow heavier, she couldn't help another unworthy thought.

Of course, if you did start doing the washing up, Freya Aelfrethe, you'd probably work out a way to do it better than me.

You're bloody lucky I love you.

***

With the summer coming to an end they camped outside a farm, and the farmer's wife told them that if they could catch the fox that was after their chickens, they could have a bird for the pot. Five shot the fox the same day, when it came out at twilight to hunt, and they presented the family with the skin. They declined the chicken but accepted stuff that would last longer, that they wouldn't use up all in one night: a head of lettuce, which they ate straight away, being tired of wild roots; a couple of pounds of barley; a refill of oil and salt and pepper. The farmer invited them to dinner and they feasted on bread and sausage and stewed beans and cool beer, and the farmers' kids stared with awe at the two strange, sunburned women.

The farmer was kindly but lame and they were friendlier people than the folk from Torina.

"From your speech, you're not from round here," said the farmer. "What brings you to these parts?" He poured out more beer for them.

"Your guess is shrewd, sir," said Five. "We're from up north. We've been in the war and now we're just travelling."

"They have women fight their wars up north?" said the farmer.

"We find that women can fight as well as men," said Five. "So we've no laws against it."

"Well, it's a big world and that's no lie," said the farmer. "I've never heard of a woman warrior before. I mean, apart from Freya Aelfrethe."

"God rest her," said Five.

The family looked surprised. Five thought, shit, maybe shouldn't have said that, and glanced at Freya, who was as unreadable as ever.

"Freya Aelfrethe is dead?" said the farmer.

"That's what we hear," said Five. "We met a bloke in a carwan a few days ago who told us she'd been killed on some mission to the East."

"Well, that's a thing," said the farmer. "She was quite a fighter, they say."

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