Leifsson, being an actual, experienced magiker, has a few tricks up his sleeve which the youngins don’t know yet.
Einar raised his eyebrows, but silently led them to the stairs up. As they left the great hall, he prompted, “Ansgar Leifsson said…?”
Sif shook her head. “Someone’s watching,” she said, now convinced of it. “Magic, probably. Herre Leifsson was concerned that… that the jötnar were back.”
She hoped that was clear: an old threat, thought vanquished, now returning.
“The jötnar? But nobody’s seen a jötun in—” Einar began.
Lilja elbowed him in the ribs. “Exactly. Think about it.”
As the wheels turned in Einar’s head, Sif gave Lilja an approving nod.
“I see,” said Einar, eventually. They came to his door. “I didn’t realize they had been here before.”
“He didn’t tell me much,” Sif admitted. “He said he would tell me more tonight.”
“When?” said Lilja, as Einar disappeared into his room. “Should we come with you?”
Sif shook her head. “I didn’t tell him you were with me. It seemed safer for you that way.”
Einar poked his head out the door. “Safer for who?”
“For you,” Sif replied. “I don’t want—”
“We’ll decide for ourselves how safe we want to be,” said Einar. “I’m going with you. Lilja?”
“You’re sure?” said Sif.
“We are,” said Einar, emerging from his room with a rolled piece of paper in hand. “When do we meet him?”
“I guess I can’t stop you,” Sif said reluctantly. “In the great hall, at the tenth bell.”
“Great,” Einar replied. “We’ll meet you there at half-ten, then.”
Sif nodded, then held up a hand. “Wait. You two go on ahead, and I’ll come in right on time. I’ll tell Herre Leifsson that you were there and wave you over.”
“Why?” Lilja wondered.
“I don’t think he wants to talk about this any more widely than he has to. If we’re all there, I don’t know if he’ll open up. If it’s just me at first, I’m sure I can talk him into it.”
Einar exchanged a look with Lilja. “Do you promise not to talk him out of it?”
Notwithstanding that this had been her plan, Sif nodded. “Promise.”
“Okay. We’ll see you later.”
They had a few hours before the Rikesarkiv’s tenth bell. Sif returned to her room, gave Geirsson’s history a longing look, and instead took a textbook from her trunk, along with her ælfish dictionary. She sat cross-legged on her bed, and immersed herself in a dry treatment of the few dozen cumulations and forms Herre Leifsson would expect her to know in the classroom tomorrow.
The ninth bell sounded, and some time later, mercifully, came the three-quarters bell. Sif closed the book, set it aside with a good deal less reverence than Geirsson’s history deserved, and headed for the door.
Sif isn’t used to relying on other people. Her first impulse is always to go it alone.
Lilja stood. Sif stacked their dishes—she saw no reason to make the servants’ lives harder—and followed suit.
Einar was playing the besieging side, the one which started at the outside of the board and had to keep the king from escaping. Sif considered it the harder task, although she was the wrong person to ask. She aspired to be merely bad someday.
Einar lifted his hand, shifting a piece backward while leaving another to be captured. It made no sense to Sif, which was, in her experience, the sign of a good move. Einar rested his chin on his hand and studied the board intently. His opponent looked between him and the board, frowned, and said, “If I am not mistaken, Einar Goransson, that is that.”
“I believe it is. Thank you for the game, Herre Rolfsson.”
“You play it well.”
Einar inclined his head and stood, yielding the table to another player, and finally caught sight of Sif and Lilja. A smile broke out across his face. “Hello.”
“Hi,” said Lilja. “Was it a good game?”
Einar nodded. “It was neck and neck most of the way,” he said. “Herre Rolfsson made a little mistake toward the end—moved his king too far from the rest of his pieces. If it wasn’t for that, he probably would have won in another ten or fifteen moves.”
Sif glanced at the board. Rolfsson and his new opponent were busily returning the pieces to their starting spaces. “Someday, you’ll have to show me how to play,” she said.
“The rules are pretty easy…”
“Someday, you’ll have to show me how to win,” Sif clarified, looking back up and grinning.
Einar laughed. “My father always told me that your first hundred games are your hundred most instructive losses.”
Sif thought that through. “So I have to lose a hundred games before I start to get better?”
“You might pick up a win here and there,” said Einar, lifting a shoulder. “It’s hard to play well, though. If it were easy, would it be as satisfying?”
“Maybe not,” Sif admitted. “Do you still have the poster from yesterday?”
Einar took a moment to register the change in subject. “It’s in my room. Why?”
“Ansgar Leifsson wants to see it. He said there used to be a—” Sif stopped. She could feel someone watching her. She looked over her shoulder. Nobody was looking in their direction. “Let’s go get it.”
There was a knock at her door. She slipped a bookmark between the pages, reverentially folded the book closed, and padded over to the door. She pulled it slightly ajar and peered through the crack.
Lilja stood in the corridor. “Dinner?”
It was deep into the evening, and the great hall had emptied somewhat as the diners returned to their rooms, or to their business elsewhere. Half of the remaining magiker clustered around the tafl boards. The other half clustered around a cask of ale at the end of the sideboard.
There were tables aplenty. Sif and Lilja opted for one nearer the hearth. The deepening twilight brought with it a deepening chill, and in the same way that the hall of the eldesmagiker was always catching fire, the hall of the luftsenmagiker was always a little drafty.
Lilja flagged down a servant, who brought two bowls of stew and a loaf of light, airy bread. As ever, she steered the conversation, chatting about this and that. She and Einar had gone on a nice walk around the High Quarter in the late afternoon. She had questions about the reading for tomorrow’s class. She wondered if Sif would give her some pointers on the poles, since she clearly had some catching up to do.
As ever, Sif followed along. She suspected Lilja was dying to ask how the chat with Herre Leifsson had gone, and that she was avoiding the topic because she knew it had Sif worried. Sif appreciated the thoughtfulness. It was nice to be distracted.
It also couldn’t last forever. As they were just finishing their meal, Sif said, “Herre Leifsson wants to talk to me again later tonight.”
Lilja jumped on the opportunity. “What did he say?”
“Not very much.” Sif’s forehead creased. “There’s been a Shining Hand before. He said not to do the thing with your hand— that one.”
Lilja closed her palm guiltily.
“Apparently, people still remember the last one, and they still don’t like it. He said he’d tell me more later. Does Einar still have the poster?”
“I think so.” Lilja pointed over Sif’s shoulder. “I think he’s about to win. We can ask him.”
“He won’t make many friends, playing how he’s playing,” Sif observed. “Let’s go watch.”
I talk about the upsides of serializing my writing all the time, but one of the downsides is that I can sometimes forget certain details. For instance, sometimes I describe the spiral corridor as a ramp, and sometimes as broad stairs. I think I’m going to correct to the latter.
“What did it say?”
“Nothing. It was just a drawing of a hand, like this.” Sif held up her hand, fingers together, palm facing Leifsson.
He sat bolt upright, as though he’d been shocked. Sif blinked, and said, “What—”
Without malice, but firmly nevertheless, he reached across the table, put his hand over hers, and folded her fingers shut. “Be very careful to whom you make that gesture. They may be old wounds, but they run deep. Do you have the paper?”
“Not with me,” said Sif.
“Get it,” Leifsson replied. “I’ll be here tonight at the tenth bell. Bring it to me.”
“What wounds?” Sif asked.
Leifsson paused, looked over her shoulder, then met her eyes. “If I don’t tell you, you’ll just look it up, I expect?” Sif opened her mouth. Leifsson held up a finger. “Honestly, now.”
Sif closed her mouth and nodded.
“Don’t. If you go nosing around, people will ask why. If they are back, they’ll hear. If they aren’t, the thanes’ agents will. Neither is good.” He tapped the table. “I’ll explain tonight. Keep your curiosity in check until then.”
“I can do that.”
“Good. I will see you then.”
Sif went back to her room, lit a candle to ward against the gathering dark, and sat on her bed, back against the cold stone wall, with Geirsson the Scholar’s history on her lap.
The dweorgr now began to figure in the history of the Norrmanne. Both had been slaves of the ælfr. The dweorgr cast off the ælfish yoke at the same time the Norrmanne did, fighting shoulder to shoulder, or at least shoulder to hip. They declined their share of the spoils, grateful for the aid the Norrmanne had provided, but suspicious of magic as ever. Instead, they retreated underground, reclaiming their mountain halls and digging deeper.
After that, the dweorgr disappeared from human history until a century after liberation, when an expedition appeared suddenly from a branch tunnel near Medylwyrmirholm, the Norrmannrike’s capital. Joar King the Second reopened trade, but cautiously; a few years later, he was poisoned, and Joar King the Third threw open the marktplatz gates.
She dimly remembered dweorgr mingling with the Norrman traders in Syderskogholm’s merchant quarters. Every one Sif had come across had been severe-looking and extraordinarily watchful. Not the kind of person whose coin purse you went after.
Dweorgr: short, stocky creatures, technological experts who are responsible for den Holm’s highly advanced sewer system. They’re much less friendly with the Norrmanne now.
One of the things I’m proud of in this universe is its dynamic nature. I have about three hundred years of history written down in detail, and it’s full of major events, realignments, and changes to the nature of the world. Ordinarily, I do a bad job of that, but Lägraltvárld, at least, reads like a real history.
He didn’t see her until she was nearly on top of him. He was clearly surprised. Barely thinking, Sif slid into the chair across from him.
He swallowed, and the corner of his mouth twitched upward. “Sif Hrothgarsdottir,” he said, one eyebrow raised.
“Herre Leifsson,” she replied. “I need to talk to you.”
“I thought you might,” said Leifsson. “I did not—didn’t mean to single you out as I did.”
Sif could hardly fail to notice the switch to the informal voice.
Leifsson let it hang over the table for a moment. “It’s the war,” he said. “They want me to make soldiers.” He nearly spat the word. “As if two dozen green magiker will make a difference. I won’t be a part of sending you to battle, not before you’re ready.”
Sif’s brows knit together, and her lips formed the beginning of a question.
“… that wasn’t what you were here about, though,” Leifsson said ruefully. “Was it?”
“No,” Sif managed. She recovered. “I think we’re glad you’re on our side, though.” Leifsson halfway smiled. “There is something else on my mind.” She leaned forward and spoke more softly. “Last night…”
It occurred to her that it might be wise to leave her friends’ names out of the story. Quickly, hoping the pause didn’t sound out of place, she continued, “… I was taking books back to the Arkiv. On my way back, walking through the park, I saw magiker, I think.”
“You think?” Leifsson interrupted.
“They were working the weave,” Sif said. “There was a flash and a sound like thunder, and… The next thing I remember, I woke up leaning against a tree.”
“They saw you?”
“No, I don’t think.” Sif shrugged, looked away. “I was working an illusion. They wouldn’t have seen me unless they were looking for me. I know it’s against the rules outside of the Akademi.”
Leifsson looked toward the center of the room. Nobody paid them any attention. Softly, he said, “Don’t spread this around, but if you have a good reason, and if you don’t make a mess—of the weave, or of the situation—we don’t pay too much mind to rules-breakers. Were they up to no good, these magiker?”
Sif tilted her head. “I don’t know,” she replied. “They had something, though. A sheet of paper, blank except for ink which only showed up when Ei— I touched it with the weave.”