The Grief of the Bond-Maid

Sjofn pulled her hood off over her head, baring her throat and the leather collar about her neck. "Please. I'm a slave of the wizard Vegtamr, and you have to help me. He hanged himself four days ago."

"Well, good riddance," said the dark man mildly.

She stared.

"I've not heard of the man, but wizards make bad neighbors," he added. "For anyone."

"You don't understand. He's a runecaster and a priest of Odin. He thrust a spear into his belly and hanged himself, as Odin did. A sacrifice to himself."

Both men looked disconcerted. "They're crazy, the Odin priests," the redhead muttered. "He sends them mad."

"No one has done this in years," she explained. "Few have succeeded since the Allfather did it, but Vegtamr will. All his life, he has been preparing for this. For nine days and nights, he will be dead, and then he will come back, and he will bring the power of the runes with him from out of the Ginnungagap. Not just little spells, like you carve into a shield or a knife-hilt, but all the power of the runes, at his command. He'll be able to do anything the gods can do. He could..." She looked around at the town about them, and made a gesture to indicate it being swept away.

"And you want us to...?"

"I need you to cut him down before the rite is complete and strike his head from his shoulders." She bit her lip. "Please."

The dark man spoke: "Couldn't you have done that yourself? If he's dead, like you say?"

"I'm his slave," she repeated, and tugged down her dress to bare her shoulder. She wouldn't have done that if she had not known that they had no sexual interest in her. Visible on her pale skin was a section of tattoo, parallel lines with letters of the runic alphabet etched between them. The whole thing was much longer, of course, the shape of a serpent gripping its own tail. Sjofn knew every inch of the intertwining ribbon that Vegtamr had cut into her flesh and rubbed with soot. Her spine crawled at the memory. She knew by heart the words written upon her skin: nor by knife nor by poison nor by fire nor by stone—a flow of letters wrapped about her body like a chain. "He's enspelled me so that I can't harm him. I can help you both, but I can't work directly against him."

"Help us? With what?"

"There will be wards," she admitted. "It won't be simple."

The red-haired man shook his head doubtfully. "Wizards, now," he said. "It's not a good idea to go up against wizards. Everyone knows that." Sjofn wanted to weep. "Please," she whispered. "He's a cruel man. He can't be allowed to seize that sort of power." Seeing uncertainty dance in their shared glance, she added, "And he has silver, a hoard of it. You can have that if you kill him. Take it all. And the gold brooches that he wears."

"He sounds rich as a king," said the redhead. "Silver and gold then, to kill a wizard. What do you think, Thorkell?"

The other nodded somberly. "I say we help her. How far away is he, girl?"

"Two days to walk here, down the river. His house is at the mountains' feet."

"Then we'd better get the horses." He turned away.

"As long," said his friend, with a little smile, "as you're not afraid to ride with two strange men." It was a weak attempt at levity but Sjofn, too exhausted to be discreet, answered at face value.

"You've eyes only for each other, don't you?"

For a moment, both men froze. Sjofn bit the inside of her lip, wishing she could take the words back. Despite her isolated life, she had an inkling just how dangerous the accusation was.

"She is a witch," said Thorkell through clenched teeth.

His companion gripped Sjofn by the shoulder and pulled her to her feet. "Don't," he breathed, pointing a finger in her face, "even think of saying that in public—"

"Bjarni." Thorkell laid a warning hand on his arm. Bjarni let her go.

"Why would I say anything?" she asked, rubbing her shoulder.

"It's just," Bjarni said with an uncomfortable laugh, "people will start picking fights, and then it ends up with a death, and we have to pay weregeld and leave town..."

"It's all right. I won't tell anyone."

He let out a huff of breath. "I'm sorry, witch. I didn't mean to be rough."

"My name's Sjofn." She shrugged her slight shoulders. "And that wasn't rough." She looked away then, because the understanding in their troubled eyes made her tremble.