This is a bit from the second volume of Ys. Who knows when the first one will be published, but I have hopes for it. This extract features Una’s younger sister, Hildr, one of my favourite characters. Hildr is eleven years old and I love her.
The night was cold, but even if the skin she’d been given had been a bear skin or a wolf skin, and not an ox skin stiff with age, Hildr would not have slept. Her face hurt where Dan had hit her, and she felt her teeth with her tongue. Nothing loose, but the blow had split her lip and she was parched with thirst. The outlaw camp was never completely still. They had horses somewhere close, and they kept watch all night, changing at regular hours. The fire burned low and there was little enough light to see by, but she peered into the darkness until she saw movement where there was none, and pinpoints of light like stars floating beneath the trees. She tried to imagine her father, because it was impossible to think of her mother. She imagined him coming back home, furious because he hadn’t found Hakki. She refused to follow that other, dark path, of Haldan bringing Una and Hakki home, and the inevitable consequences.
He can’t have found Hakki and Una because the Guardians’d kill ’em if he brought ’em back. He don’t know that, don’t even know the Guardians don’t care if Una’s a trollwife an’ Hakki’s a trollkarl. Father thinks they’ll listen to reason.
She imagined him going to the village and telling the Guardians that the thrall must have taken Una and Hakki both back to his country in the south. The Guardians would let her mother and Gudrun go free then, because they weren’t trollwives, were they? Tears ran down her cheeks as the illusion shattered, like a pebble thrown into still water. Even she, clutching at the only hope she had, could not believe such a load of pig shit. Her father would come back and the Guardians would sling him in the barn with Mother and Gudrun and then…and then…She knew what came after but shook her head back and forth to stop the image from forming, bit her lip until it bled so the pain would shatter it, like a pebble in a water reflection.
In the dead time of the night, she heard a shuffle, a stealthy step close at hand. She hunched her knees up to her chest and wished she had her fists free, or a knife, but lasses didn’t carry knives and in any case, she had hardly had time to pack, had she? The shuffling was close, close enough, she thought, to feel the movement of air, and she heard breathing, slow and measured. A hand was laid on her shoulder, and she kicked out with both feet. The contact hurt her toes, but she had the pleasure of hearing a grunt of pain.
“Little bitch,” a voice muttered, the odd, lilting accents of Brynki the outlander.
Is it clever to scream?
She held her breath and the outlaw clapped one hand over her mouth; the other flicked a knife blade before her eyes.
“See this? If you don’t want it in your throat you’ll hold your noise. An’ if you want to see your dad again, you’ll come quiet an’ take your chance with Brynki.”
Bite? Go quiet?
She let out her breath and nodded. Brynki lowered the knife. He slid the blade behind the knot and cut the rope. Rubbing her wrists, she rolled out from beneath the skin. This was what she had hoped for. It was so exactly what she had hoped she feared she was dreaming it, that her longing had been so strong it had shaped a vision. But Brynki was moving beyond the fireglow and signalling to her to follow. She could do that, vision or not, and quieter than him too, for all he was an outlaw and used to creeping about unheard and unseen. He stopped beneath the thicket at the edge of the camp. She crept close and listened, her heart pounding with excitement.
“Wait here,” he whispered. “I’ve got business to do first.”
She didn’t need to be told what the business was. She’d have done the same. But she wanted to see. The sentry, she couldn’t tell which one it was, stood with his back to a tree trunk, a bow propped up next to him. The other two lay wrapped in bear skins beneath a wattle shelter. Hildr kept her eyes on the sentry. He’d get that one first, she reckoned. That’s what she’d do anyway. There was no sound. Wherever Brynki was, he was being quiet about it. The sentry stretched and took a couple of paces towards the glowing embers of the fire. He bent down and stretched out his hands to warm them. His face bent into the faint light and she recognized the thin face and dark hair of Dan, noticing with satisfaction that the bite mark on his cheek was puffy and swollen. After a moment, he straightened up and turned back to the edge of the campsite. She heard the unmistakable sound of pissing, cut short abruptly. She strained her ears. Bracken sighed as something heavy was laid down in it. Her gaze cut to the shelter. A shadow slipped beneath the skin awning. There was a swift movement, an arm pulled back, once, twice, and the shadow slipped outside again.
Brynki skirted the fire and strode across to where Hildr was watching.
“Come on. Let’s go. There’s another two fuckers in this band and they’ll be back any time.”
“Wait. I just want to have a look.” Hildr jerked her chin in the direction of the bracken where Dan was lying.
Brynki hesitated then nodded. “Quick.”
Quick and clever.
Hildr scampered across the clearing then slowed at the edge. The bracken round the first tree was flattened and as she moved cautiously into the trees where the shadow was dense and motionless, she saw the tip of a boot. Then the second, leggings tied with leather thongs, a rucked kyrtill, a gambeson, torn and patched, and flooded with black blood. Dan’s face was tilted back, staring sightlessly into the forest behind and overhead. The vein in his throat had stopped pumping and he was quite still. Hildr looked quickly over her shoulder. Brynki was standing watching, hands on hips. She bent and snatched the knife from his belt and slipped it inside her sleeve.
“Seen enough?” Brynki asked when she returned.
She nodded. “ Where are we going?”
“North. That’s where Mundi went, but a day out from your midden of a village, he said he reckoned he’d head west. So that’s what we’ll do.”
Hildr swallowed. Quick and clever. “But Mundi didn’t come back. I heard you say.”
Brynki shrugged. “So? Mebbe he didn’t find him. But you will. Mundi said all your kin are touched with trolldom. You’ll find him, all right. Leastways, you’d better do.” Brynki untied a length of rope from round his waist. “Hold out your hands. I’d be a fool to trust you not to run, an’ I don’t want to end up like Dan either.”
Quick and clever.
“Let me go for a piss first.”
“By the Allvaldr’s fishy ballocks! You do it there. No getting out of my sight.”
Hildr slunk behind the tree and lifted her skirts. When she’d done, she slipped the knife into the drawstring of her linen knickers.
Obediently, she held out her hands and Brynki tied them together. He held the other end of the rope and jerked it. “That way.”
North is where Father is, and this sheep’s ballocks of an outlaw don’t want to give me to the Guardians. Walk, Hildr but keep your eyes and your ears open. When you get your chance, use the knife. Quick and clever.