Outfoxed – Chapter Four

Blog | Author's Blog, Free Fiction | Published 28 November 2022

I’ll take a moment here to make an observation: to wit, that there is a key difference between saying you remember how to do a thing, and agreeing to do it.

“And this is the rune that follows that one.  Together, they will stop the smoke from pluming or drifting away,” I said to Corey who watched over my shoulder as I quickly sketched out instructions for firing the longhouse.  “As long as we don’t get any stiff breezes, the smoke will be driven downward, grounded.  I don’t want to chance whatever evil that’s happened here spreading on the wind.”

Corey took the page I’d torn from my notebook and handed to her, muttering to herself as she carefully sounded out my writing. I’d been teaching her to read but she was only ever a grudging student at the best of times and so she was struggling now.  I waited—almost patiently—until she’d worked her way through it to be sure she didn’t have any questions.  She loomed over me as she did so, as tall as her twin brother, Colby, the lanky young man with flaxen hair and jug-handle ears sticking out from under his furred hat who was hanging back with Gunner, Ull, and Astrid by the horses.

Then again, nearly everyone dwarfed me, so that wasn’t saying much.

“And why is it I’m doing this and not you?” Corey asked me.

If she weren’t drawing her seax from its sheath at her hip I might have taken the question as a refusal.  As it was, the utility knife, looking small in her strong right hand made rough and calloused from her smithing work, meant she was ready to get to work.  She was only yanking my chain, trying to keep things light despite the dire circumstances we’d stumbled into.

I started packing away my notebook, inkwell, and pen back in my pack.  “Delegation is an important leadership skill.  I’m practicing,” I told her with my customary grin, which was just as forced as her bellyaching had been.  The smell of death still clogged my nose and the gruesome sights from inside the longhouse would be haunting my nightmares for weeks.

Then, of course, there was Hikko, who’d spoken to me before haring off as soon as Gunner and crew reined in their horses before me.  I knew I hadn’t imagined it—the fox had talked.  That meant she wasn’t a normal fox, which left me with so many questions, not least of them was what she meant by saying the deaths in Haithabu were only the beginning.

The beginning of what?  And how did she know?  Was what happened here in this village connected to the arrival of an armed force marching on our southern border?

I had to get to my mother as soon as possible.

There were too many questions and not enough solid information.  And right this moment, she was gearing up to go charging into the fray, blind, like she always does, and I knew Auntie Silvia had already flown ahead but mother wouldn’t listen to her when she had her sights locked onto a perceived enemy.

Oh, who was I kidding?  She wouldn’t listen to me any more than Silvia, but that didn’t mean I shouldn’t be doing everything possible to make her stop for one moment and actually think before she leapt into the fire.  Instead, I was bogged down here, trying to cram a week’s worth of arcane literacy into Corey’s head in only a few minutes while calculating travel distances and conveyance options.

“Delegating, huh?  More like running off and leaving us with all the hard nasty work,” Corey said, taking the stick of juniper I gave her for the smudging part of the ritual to cleanse the longhouse site once they’d burned the building down.  “Why do you even have this in your travel pack?  You do a lot of purification rituals when you’re off alone in the woods?”

I fastened the flap on the front pocket of my pack and shouldered it.  “First off, it’s also good for helping people recover from illness, and there’s almost always someone ill when I go visiting the homesteads.  And secondly, if you want to be the one to go and convince our chieftain not to attack the invading Light Tower soldiers, I will happily trade places with you.”

Corey lifted her hands in surrender and backed off a step.  “You know, torching a plague house to the ground and wafting juniper smoke around with a feather suddenly sounds like a lot more fun.”

“That’s what I thought,” I said rolling my eyes.  “Now, remember—”

It was Corey’s turn to roll her eyes.  “Etch the runes on all the outer walls of the longhouse.  Burn the house to its foundation.  Drown the ashes.  Purify the site with this stick, and whatever we do, don’t go inside.  I know!  Now, go on with you!”

I grinned again and this time it sat more easily on my face.  Corey would never have given such cheek to my mother.  It made me unreasonably glad to know she felt she could with me because it meant that I wasn’t going to be the kind of chieftain my mother was.  I could be an effective leader without being a bully about it.

With Haithabu sorted out, I started walking towards the river and the nearest dock where I saw a faering moored.  The small six-man boat would be my best bet.  The horses Gunner and the others rode in on were all tired and needed to rest or they would founder.  No other mounts were left in the village, which meant that my fastest option was by boat.  Little Hans was a tributary of the Albe, one of our larger rivers that, fortunately for me, ran straight through Dondalen Valley.

That would be the plain the soldiers must be marching for and where my mother would be planning to lead our people to meet them.

I’d cast off the line securing the stern and turned around to go untie the bow line only to see that Gunner had done it and was now climbing into the boat.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

Gunner didn’t look up from pulling out two oars and sticking them through the rowlocks.  “Making ready to ship out, Princess.”

“No, you’re not!” I sputtered standing on the dock glaring down on Gunner as he took a seat on the far side of the middle bench and tugged his gloves into a better fit.  “Get out of there.  I don’t have time for this!”

He finally looked up at me, wearing that halfcocked smile he knew always irked me.  “Then why are you standing there instead of coming aboard and shoving us off?” he asked.  “Or did you think a little wisp like you could get this boat down river in one piece, let alone in time?”

Little wisp…?!

Ooo, he made me so mad sometimes!

“I’ve got my bracers on.  I’ll have the strength to manage the oars,” I gritted out through my teeth.

“Then you might have the strength to keep up with me.  Barely,” Gunner said, his smile broadening until he was just shy of laughing at me as I felt my face heat up, no doubt turning red in my anger.  “Two rowers keep the faering balanced and straight.  Otherwise, you’re just going to bumbled back and forth between shores.”

I sucked in a deep breath and blew it out my nose hard, my mouth clenched in a hard line.  Of course, he was right and his slightly mocking tone made it clear that he thought I was being childishly silly.

And I really didn’t have the time to keep wasting on a pointless argument just because I didn’t want Gunner’s help.

“Fine,” I snapped.

I got in the boat, dropped onto the bench next to him and got my own gloves on before taking the oar he held out to me and then using it to shove us away from the dock into the river’s current.  Once I got my paddle into the oarlock, we set to work and the faering began to cut through the water with satisfying speed.

We fell into an easy rhythm, Gunner and I, leaning forward then hauling back to make the boat surge forward.  I focused on my breathing, on stretching my reach just a little further than was comfortable for me, while he shortened his a bit so that we balanced.  We kept an eye over our shoulders, adjusting our pattern to trace the bends in the river and to steer around obstructions.

All the while I did my very best not to acknowledge how well we worked together.  Or how his knee and thigh pressed against mine as we leaned forward to dig our oars in to pull again.  The heat from his large body sitting so close to mine was a balm against the cold winter air and chill wind blowing in our faces off the icy water and a distraction I didn’t need.  I grit my teeth and resolutely forced my thoughts away from Gunner with his strong back and broad shoulders to the thorny riddle of what I was going to say to my mother.

“Midsummer will fall on a Friday this year,” Gunner said suddenly breaking the quiet murmuring of the water and the creaking wood of our oars.

“So?” I huffed back at him.

We’d been rowing for over half an hour, the shoulder I’d rammed into the rockface was starting to ache abominably, and I was increasingly—and secretly—glad Gunner had insisted on coming with me.  I also kept flashing back to that poor dead child and how I couldn’t even tell if it was male or female it was so disfigured, so I wasn’t really paying attention to his very random observation.

“Our wedding, of course.  This summer, the Solstice will fall on a Friday.”  Friday was Frigga’s day, the goddess of marriage.  All weddings happened on a Friday.  “The weather will be fine, the first crops will be coming in, so there’ll be plenty of food for the wedding feast, and Midsummer’s Eve will ensure our union will be fruitful.”

At this point he had my full attention, so much so that I’d stopped rowing to gawp at him with my mouth hanging open in sheer outrage.

Gunner paused in his own rowing to wink at me.  He actually winked!

“I see many strapping sons in our future,” he went on, digging his own grave deeper.

I was overcome with a nearly overwhelming urge to whack Gunner repeated on his thick skull with my oar.  Instead, I plunged it into the water and dragged it back with a vengeance.

“You’re mad, is what you are,” I growled at him.

“No, what I am is victorious,” Gunner said and I could hear that insufferable smile in his voice even as I refused to look over at him.  “I had you treed.  I caught you.  I win.”

“You did not. You galloped into my perfectly laid trap like the brainless oaf you are and then stood there and let me freeze you in place while I skipped merrily away.  Laughing.”

“And yet here I am, bringing you to our chieftain, as ordered.  Which satisfies the terms of your challenge,” he said, cheery and undaunted.

The challenge he was referring to was the “compromise” I’d reached with my mother, who’d arranged my marriage to Gunner because he was big enough to wrestle an ogre and swing a broadsword for days on the battlefield.  Everything she could desire in a husband for her daughter and future chieftain—so, obviously, he was the last man in the world I would every consent to marry.

I won’t bore you with the details.  Suffice it to say that my mother and I had a huge fight that had grown men fleeing Hovegarden’s Great Hall to avoid becoming collateral damage.  Auntie Silvia had to step in and mediate before blood literally flew between us and she eventually convinced us to reach an agreement.  I could set Gunner a task and should he complete it, I would agree to marry him.

The challenge?  If my mother wanted me, she would send Gunner.  He then had to successfully track me down and bring me to her.  If I returned under my own power—having gotten the message that my mother was summoning me by the simple fact that he was hunting me—it didn’t count.

In two years, he’d never managed it.

“You are not bringing me to Mother under her orders.  I am reporting back to her with all haste after discovering the deaths of an entire village resulting from a mysterious crisis that requires her immediate and full attention,” I gritted out as I dug and tore at the water with my oar.

On the bright side, me taking out my aggression on poor Little Hans meant we were making very good time down the river.  We’d be coming up on Dondalen Valley any minute.

“I would argue that’s what Silvia is doing,” Gunnar said, easily keeping up with my increased pace with an infuriating lack of serious effort.

“Then I am racing to stop her from attacking duly appointed representatives of Antia’s government without provocation, possible kicking off a war with Aldin we are not prepared for and cannot afford.  Either way, you’re just along for the ride.  You haven’t won!”

“Yet,” Gunner said, that galling grin still plastered all over his smug face.


Chapter Three  ||  Chapter Five

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