Home > Prince of Fools (The Red Queen's War #1)(8)

Prince of Fools (The Red Queen's War #1)(8)
Mark Lawrence

Whether convinced by the Silent Sister’s pearl-eyed stare or the Red Queen’s command, Snorri ver Snagason bowed his head and spoke of the dead.

“In the Jarlson Uplands the frozen dead wander. Corpse tribes, black with frost, stagger in columns, lost in the swirl of the frostral. They say mammoth walk with them, dead beasts freed from the ice cliffs that held them far to the north from times before Odin first gave men the curse of speech. Their numbers are unknown, but they are many.

“When the gates of Niflheim open to release the winter, and the frost giants’ breath rolls out across the North, the dead come with it, taking whoever they can find to join their ranks. Sometimes lone traders, or fishermen washed up on strange shores. Sometimes they cross a fjord by ice bridges and take whole villages.”

Grandmother rose from her throne, and a score of gauntleted hands moved to cover sword hilts. She cast a sour glance towards her offspring. “And how do you come to stand before me in chains, Snorri ver Snagason?”

“We thought the threat came from the North, from the Uplands and the Bitter Ice.” He shook his head. “When ships came up the Uulisk in depths of night, black-sailed and silent, we slept, our sentries watching north for the frozen dead. Raiders had crossed the Quiet Sea and come against the Undoreth. Men of the Drowned Isles broke amongst us. Some living, others corpses preserved from rot, and other creatures still—half-men from the Brettan swamps, corpse-eaters, ghouls with venomed darts that steal a man’s strength and leave him helpless as a newborn.

“Sven Broke-Oar guided their ships. Sven and others of the Hardassa. Without their treachery the Islanders would never have been able to navigate the Uulisk by night. Even by day they would have lost ships.” Snorri’s hands closed into huge fists and muscle heaped across his shoulders, twitching for violence. “The Broke-Oar took twenty warriors in chains as part of his payment. He sold us in Hardanger Fjord. The trader, a merchant of the Port Kingdoms, meant to have us sold again in Afrique after we’d rowed his cargo south. Your agent bought me in Kordoba, in the port of Albus.”

Grandmother must have been hunting far and wide for these tales—Red March had no tradition of slavery and I knew she didn’t approve of the trade.

“And the rest?” Grandmother asked, stepping past him, beyond arm’s reach, seemingly angled towards me. “Those not taken by your countryman?”

Snorri stared into the empty throne, then directly at the blind-eye woman. He spoke past gritted teeth. “Many were killed. I lay poisoned and saw ghouls swarm my wife. I saw Drowned men chase my children and couldn’t turn my head to watch their flight. The Islanders returned to their ships with red swords. Prisoners were taken.” He paused, frowned, shook his head. “Sven Broke-Oar told me . . . tales. The truth would twist the Broke-Oar’s tongue . . . but he said the Islanders planned to take prisoners to excavate the Bitter Ice. Olaaf Rikeson’s army is out there. The Broke-Oar told it that the Islanders had been sent to free them.”

“An army?” Grandmother stood almost close enough to touch now. A monster of a woman, taller than me—and I overtop six foot—and probably strong enough to break me across her knee. “Who is this Rikeson?”

The Norseman raised an eyebrow at that, as if every monarch should know the tawdry history of his frozen wastes. “Olaaf Rikeson marched north in the first summer of the reign of Emperor Orrin III. The sagas have it that he planned to drive the giants from Jotenheim and bore with him the key to their gates. More sober histories say perhaps his goal was just to bring the Inowen into the empire. Whatever the truth, the records agree he took a thousand and more with him, perhaps ten thousand.” Snorri shrugged and turned from the Silent Sister to face Grandmother. Braver than me, though that’s not saying much—I’d not turn my back on that creature. “Rikeson thought he marched with Odin’s blessing, but the giants’ breath rolled down even so, and one summer’s day every warrior in his army froze where he stood and the snows drowned them.

“The Broke-Oar has it that those taken from Uuliskind are excavating the dead. Freeing them from the ice.”

Grandmother paced along the front line of our number. Martus, little me, Darin, Cousin Roland with his stupid beard, Rotus, lean and sour, unmarried at thirty, duller than ditchwater, obsessed with reading—and histories at that! She paused by Rotus, another of her favourites and third in line by right—though still it seemed she would give her throne to Cousin Serah before him. “And why, Snagason? Who has sent these forces on such an errand?” She met Rotus’s gaze as if he of all of us would appreciate the answer.

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