“You’ve healed well, my girl.” Breda set a large clay bowl in front of her before joining her at the long sturdy table, most of which was covered by a winter weaving project nearly done. “But I still believe your head took more beating than you think.”
She warmed her hands in the steam from her supper stew. “That’s as may be, but I am not wrong about this. There is someone out there. From the smell, not the same someone as last evening. I should roust them out.”
The mass of tight, kinked gray that surrounded Breda’s head like a halo bobbed as she considered the suggestion. “It could be someone too shy to ask for my help.”
Only at night and for several nights in a row? She thought not. She kept her counsel because there was no point in repeating last night’s argument about it. She pulled the heavy blanket close and dug into the dowitcher and turnip pottage. The serving was as generous as the round curves of Breda’s figure, and every bite warmed her. She’d hoped to catch a rabbit for their supper, but a bird had sufficed — Breda was as good a cook as she was a healer.
Though she remembered nothing of her life before waking up on wise Breda’s cot, she knew that food this hot and rich was uncommon. She was grateful for the older woman’s kindness and hoped her help with everyday chores and overdue repairs had evened the scales for the hospitality she consumed.
Breda was right; her head did still ache from time to time. She didn’t remember the blow, but the clear dent across the side of her helm matched the bruise she could still feel from temple to ear. How had her foe not finished her off? How far had she walked in a senseless daze? A long way, it seemed, given the state of her boots. A very long way, even, because Breda knew of no clan that kept women in their soldier ranks.
Of her appearance she knew only what her own eyes could see, or Breda could tell her — she was as tall as most men, and mayhap closer to forty years than thirty. Her face, Breda said, looked as if she’d been born scowling at the world. Her eyes were gray or light blue, depending on the light, and fringed in thick black. The pinpoints of freckles against skin, as pale as Breda’s was dark, covered the front of her body. Breda said they were just as plentiful on her backside. The single braids twisted from each temple were of long-ago weaving and lacked any shine of health. The bangs forever getting in her eyes appeared to have been cut with a spoon, at least in Breda’s judgment.
Time, Breda preached. Busy hands freed the mind. Her history would come back in time. Yet, three weeks and a day later, not even her name had returned to her.
A twinge at her temple reminded her of the futility of forcing memory. Her name might elude her, but she’d learned a great deal about herself, hadn’t she?
She knew how to clean and repair her armor. The iron scales and chain link were far from new, but the bronze seal on the breastplate, helm, and shield said some expense had been undertaken in its making. The spiral seal was known to Breda as a symbol of life, older than time itself, but Breda knew of no clan that used it. The same was true of the engraved runes and letters on her axe blades and handle — Breda had no idea the people they were made by, though their general form and shape was like that of Norse tribes and clans.
When she stood quietly in a clear space and held her axe at ready, her body remembered a swirling dance of steps and lunges that made her axe sing in the air. She knew how to throw the thin dagger sheathed in her belt with enough skill to pin a falling leaf to the tree behind it.
She hadn’t flinched from the gore when a local man had staggered in streaming blood from his thigh after falling on his plow. She’d handed Breda a thin strip of leather to tie above the wound before Breda had even asked for it.
She walked as if she’d spent much of her life astride a horse, and she knew both bridle and saddle knots, which came in handy trying to keep the troublesome goats tethered at night. She did not know the knots that Breda used for the same tasks, knots that Breda said were used by sailors. She was certain that she had never milked a goat nor a sheep, but hunting small game and foraging for firewood she did easily and well.
She had no name. But she knew she was a soldier, not a sailor, nor a farmer. She was also practical and useful, and she would eat anything put in front of her. The rest will come, she told herself.
After supper she joined Breda for a survey round of the small huts and lean-tos that ringed the grove sheltering Breda’s small holding. They lured the chickens into their roost and set the doors and hatches against night visitors. The repairs she’d done to the hut held nicely, forcing the foxes to find other meals. While Breda applied a fresh poultice to a cut on one of the goat’s legs, she made sure the tethers holding all three goats were well secure. As usual, one of the three head-butted her onto her backside, but she nearly forgave them because Breda laughed so heartily.
She stood some way off while Breda checked the door of the drying hut, which was filled to its rafters with early spring chervil. It was Evil’s own weed, she had decided, because she sneezed whenever she was near it.
On the other side of the grove, near the two sweet chestnut trees, she smelled an intruder again. She grimaced in the direction of the source, but all was still.
“I don’t like it,” she said as they both worked in front of the fire, her rubbing paste polish into the thin iron scales on her boot covers. She knew they should be bright as scales on a silver fish, but at some point, rust had set in. “They are closer every night. Why would someone watch you? Or are they watching me?”
Breda’s dark, wrinkled face was as steady as a standing stone that faces sun and wind and gives back warmth and safety. Her gnarled hands never paused in their threading of her smaller loom. “You have no reason to think they wish either of us harm.”
“They’re attempting to be quiet. They’re bad at it, that’s the truth of it. They don’t know the wood and therefore are either reckless or stupid. Neither is comforting to me.”
“It will be as the goddess wills it.”
She grunted. Breda’s goddess was not one she thought she knew, and Breda’s acceptance of Fate without challenge didn’t sit well on her mind either. She was grateful and comfortable in this place, but it did not feel like home.
As the fire waned, they wrapped large, heated stones in thick wool and tucked them into their beds. Breda’s pallet was on a four-post platform no wider nor longer than she was. Her own bed was on a low cot where folks who’d come for healing could rest. The pallet was stuffed with tufted wool and goose down. Its softness was a comfort, as were the hot stones at her feet and another at the small of her back, between her and the cold wall.
Her body liked these simple pleasures, but every night as she fell asleep, she was aware that her hips weren’t used to such ease. Covered by two blankets, she drowsily worried that she’d sleep too well, and the presence she sensed in the woods might find advantage in that.
She was of an instant full awake. Not sure what had startled her, she rolled to her feet and reached for axe and shield. Leaves rustled by a night-feeding marmot would not wake her.
The sound came again — the scuff of a boot on packed ground.
Without thought, wearing only the shapeless night shift of Breda’s that strained at her shoulders and reached only to her knees, she flung open the cottage door and stepped into the moonlight. The low moon cast faint shadows that made trees into thin giants.
As she set her shield on her left arm, she shifted it to reflect what there was of the light. Let them see who I am. Her right hand wrapped around the carved ash handle at its midpoint, she swung the axe in an arc around her head so the twin, curving blades would catch the moonlight too. In one continuous, smooth motion, she brought up her shield so the edge of one blade slid across it, sounding an eerie note of iron menace that silenced the wood around her.
Words, deeply known, came to her. “I am Skyra of Stane. Declare yourself!”
Leaves rustled, much farther away, and again farther. She listened until the wood was full only of night noise.
“I am Skyra of Stane,” she repeated. She had a name.