Home > Prince of Fools (The Red Queen's War #1)(7)

Prince of Fools (The Red Queen's War #1)(7)
Mark Lawrence

The prisoner strode into the throne room with head held high. He dwarfed the four guards around him. I’ve seen taller men, though not often. I’ve seen men more heavily muscled, but seldom. I’ve even on rare occasions seen men larger in both dimensions, but this Norseman carried himself like a true warrior. I may not be much of a one for fighting, but I’ve a great eye for a fighter. He walked in like murder, and when they jerked him to a halt before the chamberlain, he snarled. Snarled. I could almost count the gold crowns spilling into my hands when I got this one to the pits!

“Snorri ver Snagason, purchased off the slave ship Heddod.” The chamberlain took a step back despite himself and kept his staff between them as he read from his notes. “Sold in trade exchange off the Hardanger Fjord.” He traced a finger down the scroll, frowning. “Describe the events you recounted to our agent.”

I had no idea where the place might be, but clearly they bred men tough up in Hardanger. The slavers had hacked off most of the man’s hair, but the thick shock remaining was so black as to almost be blue. I’d thought Norsemen fair. The deep burn across his neck and shoulders showed he didn’t take well to the sun, though. Innumerable lash marks intersected the sunburn—that had to sting a bit! Still, the fight pits were always in shadow so he’d appreciate that part of my plans for him at least.

“Speak up, man.” Grandmother addressed the giant directly. He’d made an impression even on her.

Snorri turned his gaze on the Red Queen and gave her the type of look that’s apt to lose men eyeballs. He had blue eyes, pale. That at least was in keeping with his heritage. That and the remnants of his furs and sealskins, and the Norse runes picked out in black ink and blue around his upper arms. Writing too, some sort of heathen script by the look of it but with the hammer and the axe in there as well.

Grandmother opened her mouth to speak again, but the Norseman preempted her, stealing the tension for his own words.

“I left the North from Hardanger, but it is not my home. Hardanger is quiet waters, green slopes, goats, and cherry orchards. The people there are not the true folk of the North.”

He spoke with a deep voice and a shallow accent, sharpening the blunt edges of each word just enough so you knew he was raised in another tongue. He addressed the whole room, though he kept his eyes on the queen. He told his story with an orator’s skill. I’ve heard tell that the winter in the North is a night that lasts three months. Such nights breed storytellers.

“My home was in Uuliskind, at the far reach of the Bitter Ice. I tell you my story because that place and time are over and live only in memory. I would put these things into your minds, not to give them meaning or life, but to make them real to you, to let you walk among the Undoreth, the Children of the Hammer, and to have you hear of their last struggle.”

I don’t know how he did it, but when he wrapped his voice around the words Snorri wove a kind of magic. It set the hairs pricking on the backs of my arms, and damned if I didn’t want to be a Viking too, swinging my axe on a longboat sailing up the Uulisk Fjord, with the spring ice crunching beneath its hull.

Every time he paused for breath the foolishness left me and I counted myself very lucky to be warm and safe in Red March, but while he spoke a Viking heart beat in every listener’s chest, even mine.

“North of Uuliskind, past the Jarlson Uplands, the ice begins in earnest. The highest summer will drive it back a mile or three, but before long you find yourself raised above the land on a blanket of ice that never melts, folded, fissured, and ancient. The Undoreth venture there only to trade with Inowen, the men who live in snow and hunt for seal on the sea ice. The Inowen are not as other men, sewn into their sealskins and eating the fat of whales. They are . . . a different kind.

“Inowen offer walrus tusks, oils sweated from blubber, the teeth of great sharks, pelts of the white bear and skins. Also ivories carved into combs and picks and into the shapes of the true spirits of the ice.”

When my grandmother interjected into the story’s flow, she sounded like a screeching crow trying to overwrite a melody. Still, credit to her for finding the will to speak—I’d forgotten even that I stood in the throne room, sore-footed and yawning for my bed. Instead I was with Snorri trading shaped iron and salt for seals carved from the bones of whales.

“Speak of the dead, Snagason. Put some fear into these idle princes,” Grandmother told him.

I saw it then. The quickest flicker of his glance towards the blind-eye woman. I’d come to understand it was common knowledge that the Red Queen consulted with the Silent Sister. But as with most such “common knowledge,” the recipients would be hard pressed to tell you how they came by their information, though willing to insist upon its veracity with considerable vigour. It was common knowledge, for example, that the Duke of Grast took young boys to his bed. I put that one about after he slapped me for making an improper suggestion to his sister—a buxom wench with plenty of improper suggestions of her own. The vicious slander stuck and I’ve taken great delight in defending his honour ever since against heated opposition who “had it from a trusted source!” It was common knowledge that the Duke of Grast sodomized small boys in the privacy of his castle, common knowledge that the Red Queen practised forbidden sorceries in her highest tower, common knowledge that the Silent Sister, a parlous witch whose hand lay behind much of the empire’s ills, was either in the Red Queen’s palm or vice versa. But until this brutish Norseman glanced her way I’d never encountered any other person who truly saw the blind-eye woman at my grandmother’s side.

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