Home > The Liar's Key (The Red Queen's War #2)(11)

The Liar's Key (The Red Queen's War #2)(11)
Mark Lawrence


Three long tables divided the mead-hall, now lined by men and women raising foaming horn and dripping tankard. Children, some no more than eight or nine, ran back and forth with pitchers from four great barrels to keep any receptacle from running dry. A great fire roared in the hearth, fish roasting on spits set before it. Hounds bickered around the margins of the room, daring a kicking to run beneath the tables should anything fall. The heat and roar and stink of the place took a moment’s getting used to after plunging in from the frigid spring evening. I plotted a course toward the rear of the hall, giving the dogs a wide berth. Animals are generally good judges of character—they don’t like me—except for horses which, for reasons I’ve never understood, give me their all. Perhaps it’s our shared interest in running away that forms the bond.

Snorri and Borris sat close to the fire, flanked by Olaafheim’s warriors. Most of the company appeared to have brought their axes out for the evening’s drinking, setting them across the tabletop in such a crowd that putting down a drink became a tricky task. Snorri turned as I approached, and boomed out for a space to be made. A couple of grumbles went up at that, soon silenced with mutters of “berserker.” I squeezed down onto a narrow span of arse-polished bench, trying not to show my displeasure at being wedged in so tightly among hairy brigands. My tolerance for such familiarities had increased during my time at the Three Axes as owner and operator . . . well, in truth I paid for Eyolf to keep bar and Helga and Gudrun to serve tables . . . but still, I was there in spirit. In any event, although my tolerance had increased it still wasn’t high and at least in Trond you got a better quality of bearded, axe-wielding barbarian. Faced with the present situation though, not to mention a table full of axes, I did what any man keen on leaving with the same number of limbs that he entered with would do. I grinned like an idiot and bore it.

I reached for the brimming flagon brought to me by a blond and barefoot child and decided to get drunk. It would probably keep me out of trouble, and the possibility that I might pass the whole trip to the continent in a state of inebriation did seem inviting. One worry stayed my hand however. Though it pained me to admit it, my grandmother’s blood did seem to have shown in me. Snorri or Tuttugu had already mentioned my . . . disability to our hosts. In the troll-wrestling heart of the north being a berserker seemed to carry a good deal of cachet, but any right-thinking man would tell you what a terrible encumbrance it is. I’ve always been sensibly terrified of battle. The discovery that if I get pushed too far I turn into a raging maniac who throws himself headlong into the thickest of the fighting was hardly comforting. A wise man’s biggest advantage is in knowing the ideal time to run away. That sort of survival strategy is somewhat impaired by a tendency to start frothing at the mouth and casting aside all fear. Fear is a valuable commodity, it’s common sense compressed into its purest form. A lack of it is not a good thing. Fortunately it took quite a lot of pushing to get my hidden berserker out into the open and to my knowledge it had only ever happened twice. Once at the Aral Pass and once in the Black Fort. If it never happened again that would be fine with me.

“. . . Skilfar . . .” A one-eyed man opposite Snorri, speaking into his ale horn. I picked out the one word, and that was plenty.

“What?” I knocked back the rest of my own ale, wiping the suds from my whiskers, a fine blond set I’d cultivated to suit the climate. “I’m not going back there, Snorri, no way.” I remembered the witch in her cavern, her plasteek legion all around. She’d scared the hell out of me. I still had nightmares . . .

“Relax.” Snorri gave me that winning smile of his. “We don’t have to.”

I did relax, slumping forward as I let go of a tension I hadn’t known was there. “Thank God.”

“She’s still in her winter seat. Beerentoppen. It’s a mountain of ice and fire, not too far inland, it’ll be our last stop before we leave the north just a few days down the coast and strike out for Maladon across open sea.”

“Hell no!” It had been the woman that scared me, not the tunnels and statues—well, they had too, but the point was that I wasn’t going. “We’ll head south. The Red Queen will have any answers we need.”

Snorri shook his head. “I have questions that won’t wait, Jal. Questions that need a little northern light shed on them.”

I knew what he wanted to talk about—that damned door. If he took the key to Skilfar, though, she’d probably take it off him. I didn’t doubt for a moment that she could. Still, it would be no skin off my nose if she stole it. A thing that powerful would be safer in the old witch’s keeping anyhow. Far from where I intended to be and out of the Dead King’s reach.

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