The thrall led them in silence to a decently sized outbuilding, bowing and scraping so servilely that Reki wondered if he were a man or a dog. As he opened the door, the musty smell of old straw and dust assailed her nose, and the dust inside looked like it had not been disturbed in a good many years. The thrall bowed deeply again, gesturing for the women to enter. Trying not to show her disgust – indeed, trying to breathe as little as she had to, so as not to sneeze – Reki stepped across the threshold.
Eydri and Aema entered as serenely as Reki could have hoped for. Even Runa and Beatrix only showed a moment’s hesitation before entering the building that was to be their – temporary – prison. It was, of all people, plump little Svana who protested.
“You can’t seriously -” she started, then interrupted herself with a sneeze. The poor thrall looked dejected and a little panicky, as though he expected he would be blamed if they would not stay here.
“Yes, Svana, we can.” Eydri’s tone made it sound as though she were speaking to a small child.
Reki could sympathize, but that was hardly the way to speak to an ally. With forced brightness, she smiled at the Singer from the Eikthyrnir. “We’ll open the shutters, and Runa can give it a thorough sweep. After that, it should be lovely, don’t you think?”
When the other woman gave her an incredulous look, Reki raised her eyebrows. Even if their next option wasn’t the dungeon, they were unlikely to find a space as congenial as this for their purposes.
“Yes, I suppose,” she said finally, picking up her skirt and stepping gingerly into the dust of ages. With a relieved sigh, the thrall Agnar bowed again and closed the door behind them. Reki heard the tell-tale scrape of a lock sliding into place. As expected.
The others had already begun opening the shutters, very likely the first real daylight these chambers had seen in a decade or more. Still, there was more than enough room for the six of them to sleep on the benches – although if another thrall did not come by, they might be forced to request bedding and a washbasin from the Usurper at supper. That would gall, although it was plain he had not expected anyone other than Runa.
“Well, ladies,” she said, turning on her heel. “It seems we have work to do.”
Runa’s shoulders slumped now that she was out of view of Ulfr’s men. “Here I’d just broken free of this place… What work is that?”
Reki smirked. “Did you hear what that cold fish of a captain was saying? I think the Norn’s work.”
“We’re here, and plainly he only wanted you, Runa. That means something is already starting to unravel,” Eydri said, gesturing vaguely upwards with one hand.
Svana looked at her sidelong. “Wordplay? Someone’s confident.”
Eydri laughed. “I signed on with the Cursebreaker’s ship. I may not be a warrior, but that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in honors and glory.”
“Speaking of warriors… Beatrix, I don’t think they realize you’re not one of us.” Reki turned her attention to the lone warrior among them.
The Imperial Princess smiled ruthlessly. “Nor do I. For now, call me Ria and make me an ‘apprentice.’ So long as they don’t demand I Sing, we should be able to keep that little trump card to ourselves.”
Reki grinned. “Ria, is it? You’ve done this sort of thing before.”
“On purpose, even.”
“Runa,” Aema started, hesitantly. “What was it they were trying to get out of you when you escaped?”
“Anything and everything I knew about Lord Stigander and Einarr.” She shrugged her shoulders uncomfortably. Aema reached out to pat her arm.
The lock slid open. Six sets of eyes turned to look at the opening door to their filthy room, but it was only Agnar again.
“S-s-s-s-sauna,” he stammered in a wet, nasally voice, bowing and gesturing for them to leave the hut. That explained why he hadn’t tried to talk before, at least.
Reki put on her best haughty Singer expression and strode forward, trusting the others to follow at the promise of a bath. “Thank you, Agnar,” she said. “Please have blankets and pillows fetched, and a wash basin and chamber pot if you would. Oh, and kindly ask someone to sweep the floors.”
“Y-y-y-y-yes, Lady.” He bowed more deeply, and then led the six women to freshen up before supper with the Usurper and the Weavess.
When, at sunset, the six of them were escorted once more under guard to the main hall, they found it dimly lit, with a candelabrum at either end of the trestle table and another, smaller, sitting in the middle. The Usurper and the Weavess were already seated. The Usurper, at least, did them the honor of rising to greet them. “My apologies,” he said, sounding insincere. “Mother is old and her joints aren’t what they used to be.”
The Singers murmured platitudes, insisting they were not offended – and, of everything they had faced so far, it was among the least offensive matters.
“Wonderful, wonderful. Ladies, I would like to present to you my mother, the Weavess Urdr. It is thanks to her hard work that Breidelstein is as peaceful and prosperous as you have seen.”
Reki had to work not to snort at that. Peaceful, maybe, but only because the people had grown accustomed to the boot on their necks. Prosperous? Hardly.
Urdr, as she was named, was an ancient, nearly toothless old crone with dirty gray hair and a sharp nose. Her mouth was puckered in a look of constant disapproval. Her eyes, though, Reki did not miss. She may be old – ancient, even – but that was the sharp look of a young woman who missed nothing. If her son was a wolf, she was a falcon, ready to stoop.
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