Thumping sounded from away outside the cavern. Biri (whose name I had finally learned) dived into the tunnel and sped off, dodging the debris unthinkingly. (I couldn’t do it that fast, but enough trips back and forth with buckets of water etc., and you get pretty good at avoiding the bruisers.) Two minutes later we heard his triumphant cry echoing down the blackness, and the … boots, as it happened, coming toward us.
Biri and another youngster led six aristocratic adults into our chamber. The woman whose knee-stump I was washing gave a shout, and all the adults echoed her, turning it into a chant: “Cal-dur! Cal-dur! Cal-dur!” The kids just watched with eyes like candle-ends.
Our visitors’ faces were a sight; I caught one woman smiling, trying to be reassuring while the tears dripped onto her armor and down to the glove that gripped her axe. I thought I saw the haft trying to bulge. They moved out among us, talking to everyone, and I had gotten sufficiently good, listening to Biri, that I caught some of it:
“… came as soon as we heard …”
“… more colonists, more warriors. We will not …”
“… fortifying the entrance now …”
“This stops here.”
That last was a rather short, bulky dwarf (okay, in comparison, goofball!) with pale shaggy brown hair and a short raggedy beard, like he’d been hacking off clumps at random. He was talking to Dval, absentmindedly feeding an old bandage to the low fire while Dval finished tying the new one on a shrunken greyhair whose own raggedy beard showed where we’d cut off the charred remains of his braids. He asked the question I had no place to ask.
“How d’you mean to fix that, eh, young Prince? Two blasted millennia and a handful of cracked centuries this has been going on! They raid us, we refortify and raid them, they figure a way past our guard and raid us again! An’ they started it! Hoomins ain’t rational, and that’s the whole vein!”
“Oughta wipe ’em all out,” muttered Biri near me. He was still not happy with me being there at all. The prince, who had heard him, sighed heavily. “It would be unjust and an imbalance. No: I have another plan.” He seemed minded to let us all wonder.
With all the extra people, Dval and Biri and I got to go sleep for a whole entire day. The sound of dragging and hammers rumbled under my dreams, which had to do with, of all things, werewolves. They were attacking me, and I had a great sharp sword to kill them. But every time I would stab some pick-jawed grey-furred monster, one kid or another would fall bloody to the ground.
I knew them all. There was Ginny Chang, over there was Jamie Reickert. Here was Biri, there my brother Shannon. I tried not defending myself, and they started tearing me to bits, so I took the sword back up and stood there, murdering other children and crying. One of them looked like one of Ketrid’s sorry friends.
When they knocked me over and made to rip out my throat, I woke up, startled and shocky. Across the cavern, Dval was twitching and snorting in the light from the door. Biri was sleeping badly, too. I put my head between my knees and gasped for air, swallowing and swallowing.
Has it always got to be killing? And yet what other answer is there for a crime like this, or a crime like mine, or a crime like Beebo’s and Tom’s and Lara’s? If people haven’t learned not to hurt others by the time they’re grown, what else can you do with them besides kill them?
My imagination presented me with the corpses of all the pirates my people’s marines had spent the last seven years driving out of the ocean. We couldn’t leave them there, not if we wanted to take up our old lives as sea-traders. Not if we wanted to live on the coast at all, for that matter. And with no other country able to stand against them on the high seas, they’d taken to raiding inland. Lara had told me some stories of harbors with nothing but cracked, blackened stones left tumbled, and an overgrown road leading away.
Not everywhere; some port cities had been able to defend themselves, and rebuild. Or else they’d been dealing with the pirates themselves. I threw my head up on the thought, getting a spasm in my neck: maybe that’s where Ketrid and his people had gotten their attitudes, dealing with pirates as equals and allies!
I couldn’t sit still with the thought. I hurled myself off the mat and out of the half-lit cavern, hunting for some work to do.
The prince was pointing down a hall as I came up, and the two men next to him gave short nods and started down that way, hauling great bulgy leather bags. They seemed to have been the last of the crowd, and the prince turned his attention to me.
I could cope. My dad did this to me all the time. I straightened my shoulders.
“It is good to meet you, child of the Raven,” he said, nodding his heavy head at me. I gave him a deep nod. After all, if you count it the right way, I’m a princess, and have no business bowing to a foreign prince. But there’s never any reason to be rude, my mom always says, and her being raised a real princess, she should know. “Please call me Cal. Come: walk with me.”
I cleared my sleep-clogged throat. “Actually, I was looking for some good heavy work.”
“Bad dreams?” I nodded. “It is … not a good thing, what has happened here. I am grateful to you and to Danvallin for coming to help so quickly, when we were trapped so far away.” I raised my eyebrows curiously. “This is a colony; its only connection is to the outside, the door through which you yourself entered. The main halls are much further south, and there hasn’t been time to finish the connecting tunnels yet.”
“You folks need radios,” I said unthinkingly, and then shook my head. “Wait, sorry: wouldn’t work through the rock.”
“What is this ‘radioss’?” he asked, hardening the plural ess. I explained to the best of my ability. Which, actually, isn’t all that bad: we kids had been taking apart the old crystal sets for three years now, and Shannon and I had successfully made our own, from scratch, just before I’d left on that voyage. Cal nodded, much struck, and asked about some of the theory.
Odin’s own eyepatch! We reinvented cabling, right there in the ruined caves! I couldn’t see that it would be any quicker than simple tunneling, but he had something in his mind, and far be it from me to assume I know more than grownups. Most of the time. I started to breathe a bit easier.
Cal took me along with him the rest of that day, directing the cleanup and repair and fortification. I saw the normal cavern-lights for the first time, softly shining metal pulled into woolly fineness and packed loosely into hollow thin or clear stone. We watched the grim, bright-eyed engineers fortifying the entrance. (I was right, you see, about smiths and engineers.) In the great kitchens which, like the overwhelming majority of the colony I had not seen (or dreamed of), we helped set up the cooling-chests and the stoves. Cal patiently answered my questions about how, and whether, and when, and most of the answers seemed to do with magic. Forge-magic.
“So,” I demanded, “Does Dval – err, Danvallin, know any of this forge-magic?” Sometimes I can be soooo stupid. Set it down to youth, and you’ll do me the compliment of assuming I’ll grow out of it. Thank you. Cal looked at me for a few minutes, a rather weird look on his lumpy face. “I assumed you knew. Danvallin is the master. The Aesir themselves ask for his work above all others.”
Okay. Right. I can cope with this.
The master smith. I’ve been pumping the bellows of the master smith. Yeah, I’ll be able to breathe again in juuust a minute.
“So, uh, why does he live all by himself?” Cal had started out of the kitchen, and I trotted a bit to catch up.
“He does not. There is nearly always an apprentice. I am told you yourself showed up a mere two days after his last apprentice made journeysmith and was seconded up here to the colony. Biri, the one who brought you.”
“How’d you manage it so that Biri went just before I got there?” I asked, not having the sense to keep quiet. Cal gave me a bumpy, bristly smile. “That was not my doing. You must enquire of the Norns if you truly wish to know.
“And if they will speak,” he added under his breath, his eyes automatically tracking the bustle around us. His massive chest expanded, and he fell silent, his smile gone. A moment later he seemed to wake back up again. “As it happens, I shall be visiting them later this year. Would you like to come?”
My brain, already groggy, felt as if it’d been slammed into a door. “Um. Um. Uh, yeah, I’d love to come. I’ll, uh, have to ask Dval …”
“Oh,” Cal interrupted with a strange smile, “I mean for Danvallin to come. But if you did not wish to go, you could remain here. It is a long journey.” I nodded. One more in a string.
“I’d like to go.”