The snow that had threatened the previous day had never fallen, at least not on Svartburg, but the clouds overhead this morning were darker than ever, and Albrihn was starting to think he had an understanding of this bleak land’s moods. If he was any judge, the grey slush that now filled the muddy streets of the squalid city would be covered with another layer of white by evening. He walked up the hill towards Wodan’s hall accompanied by Jonis and a squadron of his soldiers. Morrow was not among them – for good reason. They were all armed, and none of the peasants they passed on their way had any doubt from the way they walked, from the grim expressions on their faces, from their unerring progress up the main road, that it was best to keep out of their way. At the door to the hall the Housecarls moved to stop them and demand their weapons, but one sharp look from Albrihn made them rethink their orders and they were allowed to proceed unmolested.
Inside it was as dark and gloomy as ever. Albrihn marched straight down the centre of the hall, between the tables where men sat breaking their fasts, and all eyes followed him. Wodan was at the table at the head of the hall as before, picking at more fish, but his priest was not with him. “What is the meaning of this?” he asked, leaning forward with a frown. “Why does my supposed ally, the brave Atlantian captain, come into my hall with a sword on his hip?”
“Lord Wodan, I’m here to inform you that one of your soldiers committed an act so shameful that he has had no choice but to flee this city. It is my hope that you will declare him outlaw and assist us in bringing him to justice.”
“And what soldier would that be?”
“Rayke,” Jonis whispered.
He turned and stared as a massive figure swaggered through the hall’s side door, the way out to the latrines, wiping his hands on a bit of sackcloth he casually tossed onto the rushes at his feet as he passed. Orkan’s arm was heavily bandaged, but otherwise he looked completely unperturbed. He watched Albrihn as he passed and then took a seat beside his lord and began to heap his plate with more fish.
“Well?” Wodan asked.
Albrihn looked at Orkan, nonchalantly chewing on his fish and looking back at him curiously. He narrowed his eyes. “How can you sit there, after what happened last night?”
Orkan wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “S’just a scratch,” he said, nodding down towards his injury, “I thought Atlantians were made of sterner stuff.” He laughed.
Wodan wasn’t laughing. He looked suspicious. Something had happened in his city that he wasn’t party to, and he didn’t like that, Albrihn decided. “Lord Wodan, last night Jarl Orkan gained entrance to one of my officer’s rooms under pretence and then attempted to…attempted to force himself on her.”
“Is that so?” Wodan asked, raising his eyebrows.
Orkan grinned and waved a hand. “Ridiculous. Just a misunderstanding.”
“She stabbed you,” Jonis said, “does that sound like a misunderstanding, Wodan?”
“The girl was willing enough,” Orkan explained as he leant back in his chair, “but she took offence at something I suggested. I suppose,” he laughed, addressing the room as he grabbed his crotch suggestively, “a Talosi man is a little too much for these Atlantian bitches, eh?”
There was laughter from the warriors at the tables and Orkan joined in loudly. “That’s ridiculous,” Jonis said, cutting through the mirth.
“It seems reasonable to me,” Wodan said, “a quarrel, nothing more.”
Albrihn shook his head. “Lord Wodan, the officer in question would never have taken Orkan to her bed willingly.”
“How can you be certain of that?”
“She prefers women,” he said simply, “she’s never lain with a man to my knowledge. I don’t think she’d start now.”
“How can you trust anything she says then?” Orkan growled. There was no humour, feigned or otherwise in his expression now.
Albrihn’s jaw tightened, but he decided to overlook that unpleasant comment for now. “Lord Wodan, the account given by my officer and other witnesses is clear. And I am empowered by the Emperor of Atlantis to enact his will. Your jarl attempted a commit a crime so vile we no longer speak the word for it in my city. In the name of your lord and mine, I ask that you allow us to carry out the punishment enshrined in the laws of this nation.”
Wodan looked to Orkan and then at Albrihn. He steepled his fingers and pursed his lips. “And what punishment would that be?”
He drew his sword. “A man who forces himself on a woman is gelded. Or, if he wishes, executed instead. I am fully prepared to carry out this sentence myself, whichever fate the condemned chooses.”
Orkan roared and his sentiment was echoed by the other warriors in the hall. Even Wodan smiled slightly. “Did he say something funny?” Jonis demanded, trying to raise her voice above the din.
Wodan waved a hand for silence. “Enough, enough. I can see you take this very seriously, captain.”
“I’ve never taken anything so seriously in my life.”
“I take it seriously too.”
“Lord,” Orkan said, “you cannot possibly believe…”
“Silence.” He ran his ringed fingers through his beard. “Our customs are different here, as you know.”
“Even here,” Jonis insisted, “there can be no excuse for…”
“We too have punishments for this crime,” Wodan interrupted, “but I have no proof any crime occurred.” He spread his hands and smiled slightly. “It is the word of one Atlantian soldier against my own jarl. If the girl is troubled, maybe I could arrange some recompense from my coffers…”
“This isn’t about silver,” Albrihn said, “if you doubt my soldier’s account then I call upon you as lord of these lands to call a magistrate so that we may convene a trial.”
Wodan’s eyes gleamed. “A trial can be arranged. But there are no magistrates in Svartburg.”
“You can’t sit in judgement,” Jonis said. “he’s your own jarl!”
“I do not have the authority to judge. Only the One-eyed God can determine the truth.”
She threw up her hands. “Shall we ask him then? Since you seem to think I have something to do with the angry bastard, maybe I should see what he thinks?” She tilted her head upwards and frowned at the rafters. “O mighty sky person, please tell me if this savage tried to force himself on my friend.” A pause for effect. “Oh he did? Great. I’ll let them know.” She folded her arms and fixed her gaze on Wodan.
“Do not insult my god in my own hall, witch.” He looked at Albrihn again. “In Svartburg, disputes between commoners are settled by me. Disputes between nobles are settled by the gods. We do not ask for their guidance, but rather allow them to choose the victor through arms, as in battle. In Svartburg, the only trial between warriors is trial by combat.”
Jonis looked aghast. “You can’t be serious…”
“I will not be a party to further barbarism,” Albrihn said.
“Then I suppose she was lying after all.” Orkan was smirking as he returned to his meal.
Albrihn pointed his sword at the jarl. “You want me to fight him?”
“That is our way,” Wodan said.
“Very well. If I must take his life in combat, so be it. As long as he dies, I don’t care about the circumstances.” He turned and headed for the door.
“I thought you wanted to geld me, Albrihn?” Orkan called out.
“That’s the condemned man’s choice,” he replied, “but I will be quite happy to oblige, should the opportunity present itself.”
“The trial will be at noon,” Wodan said. “Today.”
Albrihn paused at the door. “I’ll be there.”
“You can’t really think this is the way to do this, Rayke,” Jonis said. The entire Seventh had convened in the smaller bunkhouse – the one Morrow stayed in. She was sitting quietly to one side, saying nothing.
“You heard him; this is how things are done in Svartburg.”
“So? We don’t have to pander to these barbarians.”
Abrihn rounded on her. “Do you think we’ll get justice any other way? Even if Wodan did believe us, do you think for a moment he’d let me kill the commander of his army?”
“If you kill him,” Hasprit said, his voice sounding uneasy, “what’s to stop this whole city turning against us?”
“They won’t,” Albrihn said, “because they believe a trial by combat is the will of their god. If Orkan loses, it’s just proof he was guilty, and deserved it.”
“You certain of that?”
“No,” he admitted, “but I don’t think they’ll kill us now.”
“There’s another thing, Rayke,” Jonis said, “you don’t know you can beat him.”
“He’s big, but he’s slow. That axe of his is tough to swing. He’s a barbarian, you said it yourself.”
“Big means tough. You can dance circles around him, but how can you strike a killing blow? He’s near enough twice your size.”
“I’ve fought bigger.”
“When, in the mainlands?”
“Yes. Well, maybe not bigger…but as big…probably.”
“It should be me,” Morrow said. She stood up from the bunk she’d been sitting on. “I’m the one he tried to…to do that to. I’m the one who wants his blood.”
“No. He’d crush you with one hand.”
She smiled evilly. “He’d be lucky to catch me.”
“But you can’t out-muscle him either, sir! And I’m faster! What’s the difference?”
“The difference is I’m the captain, and this is my responsibility.”
“I don’t need you to fight my battles for me.”
“That’s not what this is…”
“Morrow,” Jonis said, “I don’t think Orkan would even fight a woman. Have you seen how they treat us here?”
“Yes, Jonis, I’ve seen exactly how they treat us. Remember?”
“I’m sorry…but you know what I mean…”
“There’s nothing to discuss here,” Albrihn said, “I’m doing it. Not only do I command this unit, but I’m the best man – or woman – with a sword. And if I do die,” he sighed, “they’ll at least respect that I honoured their ways. That might help this situation.”
“What is this situation, captain?” Windhael asked.
“I think they’re planning to attack Talos. But I don’t know how that fits with the Hyen-a-khan. Everyone keeps talking about them, but we haven’t seen a single one yet, apart from those heads over the gate. That’s what I need you for, Morrow.”
“Me?” She looked around.
“I need a squadron to do some exploring. From what Wodan told us, they’re all over this country. I need you to go up into the hills and see if you can find any trace of the dogmen. You know what to look for.”
“Are you kidding? Not only do I not get to kill that bastard, I don’t even get to watch you do it?!”
“This is about justice, not revenge.”
In the circumstances, Albrihn only bowed his head, accepting the insult from his subordinate. “I won’t tie you to a horse and send you away, Morrow, but I’d rather you weren’t at this…trial… It would only agitate the situation. And compromise me.”
“I need a cool head. I can’t be picturing the look on your face last night every time I swing my sword.”
“That’s exactly what you should be doing!”
He put a hand on her shoulder. “Please. Not as my lieutenant, but as my friend. You know I have your interests at heart. I’ll bring his head to you, with his balls stuffed into his mouth if there’s enough left of them when I’m done. Just do this for me.”
She still looked angry, but then finally relented and patted his hand. “All right, Rayke. But don’t you dare let him kill you. I can’t murder the prick twice, after all.”
Noon arrived, though it was hard to tell from the sky it was so black. The odd snowflake was beginning to drift to earth. The Seventh turned out en masse for their commander, all present save for the small squadron Morrow had taken out of the city an hour earlier. Jonis walked out by Albrihn’s side. He looked resplendent in his armour, freshly polished. He rarely donned the full kit – breastplate, peaked helmet, shoulder guards and bracers, along with a light mail shirt beneath it all – but he moved in it easily enough, a practiced warrior. His sword was in its scabbard, and his left hand rested easily on the pommel. She wouldn’t want to be fighting him, but as they reached the space before Wodan’s hall, she saw what it was he faced. Jarl Orkan stood before the doors with Wodan and the Housecarls behind him. A large crowd was gathered, warriors from all over the encampment, serving girls from the hall and even a few pale-faced peasants, squeezing in for a better look. Orkan wore his armour too; a long coat of mail and a conical helmet with face guards. She could see good leather beneath it too, and thick furs on his shoulders. As always, his muscular arms were uncovered. He had a pair of small axes tucked into his belt as well as the mighty two-hander slung over one shoulder. Apparently the One-eyed God didn’t demand the participants in this ritual choose only one weapon. Well, Albrihn had his fair share of daggers and other surprises tucked away, she knew.
Valgia, the priest, hobbled into the middle of the circular area that had been cleared between the spectators. He banged the end of the staff he carried into the ground three times, and the hubbub died down. Albrihn stepped forward and Jonis went with him, standing close by his side. Orkan advanced too, swinging his axe down. As he let the head drop to the earth, she could hear the heavy thud it made. He could cleave Albrihn in two with one swing, if he ever got the opportunity. She squeezed his arm.
“We have come here, on this fateful day,” Valgia rasped, his cracked voice carrying surprisingly well across the impromptu plaza, “to witness the judgment of the Greatfather. He watches us even now, his eye focused on this battlefield, his great wisdom turned to determining the outcome.”
He looked up and Jonis found her gaze following his up to the gathering clouds. She felt a shiver, despite herself.
“In this trial,” the old man continued, “by ancient custom, only one champion may leave the arena of combat alive. Let no quarter or mercy be given, and let no man interfere, for this is the will of the gods, and there is no higher authority.” He tapped his staff three times again and walked back to where Wodan stood.
“No hiding now,” Orkan said as he lifted his axe up.
“I’m not the one hiding,” Albrihn replied. “Remember that it didn’t have to be this way.”
“We both know this was inevitable. I wanted to kill you the moment I set eyes on you.”
“I know. But you won’t.” He drew his sword. The long, straight blade gleamed even in the wan light of the wintry day. Jonis couldn’t help staring at it, freshly polished and honed, and the way the snowflakes gently settled on it. She fancied some were being sliced clean in two as they landed on the very edge.
“Be careful,” she whispered. She leant up and kissed him on the cheek, but all his attention was focused on his opponent. “Remember this is for Morrow.”
“This is for justice.”
“Her justice, Rayke.”
He glanced at her and gave her a half smile. “You’re right. But either way, say goodbye to Jarl Orkan.”
“I won’t miss him.”
“Me neither.” He raised his sword and stepped further into the circle.
“Send the witch away, Albrihn,” Orkan said, “her magic won’t help you.”
“He doesn’t need my magic,” she called as she walked backwards towards where the Seventh were gathered. “At least, I hope not,” she whispered to Hasprit, “because I don’t bloody have any…”
Albrihn adopted a combat stance and Orkan hefted his huge axe with a chuckle. The jarl towered over the Atlasian, but Jonis had never seen her lover looking more dangerous.
“All right,” Wodan shouted, “let’s get this over with…”