Home > The Liar's Key (The Red Queen's War #2)(8)

The Liar's Key (The Red Queen's War #2)(8)
Mark Lawrence

“What?” I hadn’t been having a good dream, but it was better than this.

Tuttugu thrust a half-brick of dark Viking bread at me, as if eating on a boat were really an option. I waved it away. If Norse women were a high point of the far north then their cuisine counted as one of the lowest. With fish they were generally on a good footing, simple, plain fare, though you had to be careful or they’d start trying to feed it to you raw, or half-rotted and stinking worse than corpse flesh. “Delicacies” they’d call it . . . The time to eat something is the stage between raw and rotting. It’s not the alchemy of rockets! With meat—what meat there was to be found clinging to the near vertical surfaces of the north—you could trust them to roast it over an open fire. Anything else always proved a disaster. And with any other kind of eatable the Norsemen were likely to render it as close to inedible as makes no difference using a combination of salt, pickle, and desiccated nastiness. Whale meat they preserved by pissing on it! My theory was that a long history of raiding each other had driven them to make their foodstuffs so foul that no one in their right mind would want to steal it. Thereby ensuring that, whatever else the enemy might carry off, women, children, goats, and gold, at least they’d leave lunch behind.

“We’re coming in to Olaafheim,” Tuttugu said, pulling me out of my doze again.

“Whu?” I levered myself up to look over the prow. The seemingly endless uninviting coastline of wet black cliffs protected by wet black rocks had been replaced with a river mouth. The mountains leapt up swiftly to either side, but here the river had cut a valley whose sides might be grazed, and left a truncated floodplain where a small port nestled against the rising backdrop.

“Best not to spend the night at sea.” Tuttugu paused to gnaw at the bread in his hand. “Not when we’re so close to land.” He glanced out west to where the sun plotted its descent toward the horizon. The quick look he shot me before settling back to eat told me clear enough that he’d rather not be sharing the boat with me when Aslaug came to visit at sunset.

Snorri tacked across the mouth of the river, the Hœnir he called it, angling across the diluted current toward the Olaafheim harbour. “These are fisher folk and raiders, Jal. Clan Olaaf, led by jarls Harl and Knütson, twin sons of Knüt Ice-Reaver. This isn’t Trond. The people are less . . . cosmopolitan. More—”

“More likely to split my skull if I look at them wrong,” I interrupted him. “I get the picture.” I held a hand up. “I promise not to bed any jarl’s daughters.” I even meant it. Now we were actually on the move I had begun to get excited about the prospect of a return to Red March, to being a prince again, returning to my old diversions, running with my old crowd, and putting all this unpleasantness behind me. And if Snorri’s plans led him along a different path then we’d just have to see what happened. We’d have to see, as he put it earlier, who cracked first. The bonds that bound us seemed to have weakened since the event at the Black Fort. We could separate five miles and more before any discomfort set in. And as we’d already seen, if the Silent Sister’s magic did fracture its way out of us the effect wasn’t fatal . . . except for other people. If push came to shove Aslaug’s advice seemed sound. Let the magic go, let her and Baraqel be released to return to their domains. It would be far from pleasant if last time was anything to go by, but like pulling a tooth it would be much better afterward. Obviously though, I’d do everything I could to avoid pulling that particular tooth—unless it meant traipsing into mortal danger on Snorri’s quest. My own plan involved getting him to Vermillion and having Grandmother order her sister to effect a more gentle release of our fetters.

We pulled into the harbour at Olaafheim with the shadows of boats at anchor reaching out toward us across the water. Snorri furled the sail, and Tuttugu rowed toward a berth. Fishermen paused from their labours, setting down their baskets of hake and cod to watch us. Fishwives laid down half-stowed nets and crowded in behind their men to see the new arrivals. Norsemen busy with some or other maintenance on the nearest of four longboats leaned out over the sides to call out in the old tongue. Threats or welcome I couldn’t tell, for a Viking can growl out the warmest greeting in a tone that suggests he’s promising to cut your mother’s throat.

As we coasted the last yard Snorri vaulted up onto the harbour wall from the side of the boat. Locals crowded him immediately, a sea of them surging around the rock. From the amount of shoulder-slapping and the tone of the growling I guessed we weren’t in trouble. The occasional chuckle even escaped from several of the beards on show, which took some doing as the clan Olaaf grew the most impressive facial hair I’d yet seen. Many favoured the bushy explosions that look like regular beards subjected to sudden and very shocking news. Others had them plaited and hanging in two, three, sometimes five iron-capped braids reaching down to their belts.

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