I looked at the list I was holding, and then looked back at Kyi. “You’re kidding me,” I said. “You have got to be kidding me.”
“Not at all, jarl,” the housecarl said solemnly. She couldn’t quite keep the smirk off her face, though.
“There are already eighteen people applying as housecarls?” I asked incredulously. “It hasn’t even been a day! How are there that many people who are that desperate?”
“Word travels fast,” she said dryly. “And I think you overestimate how desperate people would have to be. That was a valid assumption the last time around. These days, not so much.”
“You’ve gotta remember, when you started nobody was quite sure what to expect. You were the first jarl to claim territory in this world, and there were people who thought you’d get slaughtered just for that. Then there were people who looked at your history and figured you’d run away within a month. Plus Loki had his claws in you, and most of the people he takes an interest in burn out fast.” She shrugged. “Now you’ve been here a while and you’re still going strong. People respect you, you’re owed favors by people in high places, and you’re saying you want to expand.”
“Meaning you’re a rising star right now,” she said. “There are plenty of people who want to get in now, while your court’s still small and they think they have a chance to get into your inner circle. It’s still a risky move, but it’s a hell of a lot better than it looked a few years ago.”
I sighed. “Fine,” I said. “Do you know any of these people?”
She hesitated. “I’m familiar with a couple,” she said, reluctantly. “But I don’t think they’re people you’d want on your team. They’re the unreliable type.”
“Great,” I said instantly, handing her the sheet. “Cross their names off the list.”
She hesitated again before taking it. “Seriously? You don’t want to know anything else about them?”
“Nope,” I said cheerfully. “If you think they’re bad candidates, that’s all I need to know. If I didn’t trust your judgment, I wouldn’t have put you in charge of things to begin with.”
“All right,” she said dubiously, grabbing a pen off the desk.
While she was working on that, I took a moment to check up on things in the throne room. Aiko had gone back to Transylvania, claiming that she wanted to check in on the defenses and make sure things were still okay, but Snowflake was unwilling to be parted from me. She was downstairs right now, dozing by the fire, which gave me an easy way to see what was going on down there.
Things were quiet, compared to earlier in the day. There were no runners going back and forth, and only a couple of people who weren’t a part of my core organization. It wasn’t hard to see why; the sun was going down, and there’s a basic human instinct that says you want to be in a safe place come nightfall.
There are good reasons for that, even beyond the fact that most big predators are more active at night. The mood, the vibe, the energy of the world changes when the sun goes down. It lends itself to magics that, while not precisely evil, are secretive, deceptive, and dangerous. Vampires aren’t remotely the only things that prefer the darkness to the light of day, and while some are quite pleasant, there are others that are very much not.
On a night like this, it was entirely rational for a civilian to want to be safe behind locked doors before sundown.
But that still left quite a few people in the throne room. Tindr stood at one table, quietly gathering up various papers and sorting them into piles. Another, larger table was covered in food and drink. There were around half a dozen people sitting there, strangers or part-time help, most of them in their late teens or early twenties. Presumably they didn’t have homes to get to, or else they thought they were safer here. Kris and Matthew sat in the corner, sipping beers and talking about whatever shapeshifters talked about.
“Here,” Kyi said, pulling my attention back upstairs. “The rest of them are strangers to me.”
“Cool,” I said, taking the list. Scanning it, I saw that five of the names had been neatly crossed out, leaving thirteen. “Where are the rest of them?”
“They should be at Utgard by now,” she said.
“Great,” I said, setting the piece of paper on the desk. “Get Kjaran and your gear and meet me downstairs. We’re going to go fetch them.”
She blinked. “Now?”
“Yeah. I want to be back here before night falls for real, and that means we have to leave pronto.”
Around half an hour later, I was sitting in my throne, a group of more-or-less unhappy jötnar standing in front of me. For many of them this was their first time out of Jotunheim, and the portal had been correspondingly hard on them. Between that and the fish-out-of-water experience of being in another world for the first time, I wasn’t surprised that they weren’t terribly happy.
Kyi stood by my right hand, and the other housecarls were arrayed behind me. Selene had gone upstairs, and beds had been found for the other guests. This was jotun business, and it would have been deeply inappropriate for me to invite any of my other minions to watch.
“All right,” I said, glancing at the list of names. “Let’s begin with Herjolfr the Fearless.”
One of them stepped forward. A scarred man whose human guise was only a little taller than me, he had an axe strapped to his back and a knife on one hip. He was one of the few who hadn’t been particularly affected by the portal. “Jarl,” he said, nodding to me.
“Herjolfr. What would you bring to my court?”
“I am a skald, jarl,” he said. “I would write poems in your honor, so that all might come to know your glory. And I am also a fighter, so that I might have a share in making that glory all the greater.”
“And why would someone with such skills choose to serve me?”
He grinned broadly. “You are a great hero in the making, jarl, and all who have eyes to see know it. Where else could I find so mighty a jarl as you, who are blessed by the wolf and his father alike? You are fated to perform great deeds, and I will write epics of them, so that we might both be famed long after our bones are dust.”
I wanted to turn him down out of hand. I’d never wanted to be famous, and the idea of someone writing poetry about me was a little nauseating.
But…well, I was trying to build a reputation, wasn’t I? I mean, there were reasons for it, but at the end of the day, the fact remained that my goal right now was to become famous. Or infamous, I supposed, but to the jötnar the terms were practically synonymous.
I glanced at Kyi, who nodded; she thought he was on the level about what he wanted and what his talents were. I hadn’t gotten any vibes off the guy to suggest otherwise, so I looked back at him and nodded. “Very well, Herjolfr,” I said. “I shall accept you as a housecarl, so long as you serve loyally.”
He knelt and bowed his head. “Jarl, I shall serve you and yours, as best as I am able, until such time as you shall see fit to release me from my oath. This I swear.” Then he stood and walked back to the group, standing a little aside from the others.
The next three were simple fighters, without any particular skills to recommend them. I needed fighters at the moment, though, so I took all three of them. The first two, both of whom were male, were called Ragnar the Unlucky and Skallagrim Leifson, respectively. The third, a female called Thraslaug Uggasdóttir, seemed more eager to prove herself, very nearly getting into a brawl when Ragnar snickered at her name.
It took a couple minutes to sort that out, and by the end of it I was starting to get a headache. “Okay,” I said. “Next up, Signý the Black.”
There was a brief pause, then another female stepped forward. As her name suggested, her hair was very dark, although her features were otherwise quite plain. “Jarl,” she said, nodding to me. Her voice was similarly quiet and unassuming.
I considered her for a moment. Her build was slender, almost frail-looking, and she wore a simple black cloak, quite unlike the leather or armor of the other jötnar. She wasn’t carrying weapons, either, beyond a short dagger and a staff. “Signý,” I said. “What skills do you offer me.”
“I am knowledgeable in the arts of seithr,” she said. “I specialize in curses, but I know the warding and prophetic spells as well.”
I blinked. “I see.” Seithr was a very old magical tradition, dating back at least to the Viking Age. I didn’t know much about it beyond that it was old, mysterious, and associated with death and bloodshed. “What do these curses do, precisely?”
She shrugged, the motion graceful and just a little odd, in a way I couldn’t quite place. “Harm, by one means or another. Sickness, madness, misfortune. Death, even, although that curse is less certain than some. It takes power to work another’s death, and power demands sacrifice.”
I nodded slowly. “And the wards?”
“I am not as skilled with those,” she cautioned me. “But I know how to invoke the spirits, and runes of defense and warding. It is enough for simple tasks, if not the greater protections.”
“And why would someone with that kind of power offer it to me?”
“Power demands sacrifice,” she said again. “And for all my talents, a man with a sword can kill me as surely as any other. Often have I been forced to turn my arts to ends that I find distasteful, under the threat of those who would make use of me. Skrýmir says that you will not do so, and that if I serve in your house you will defend me from those who would.” She shrugged again. “Skrýmir’s word is good enough for me.”
Well, that was ominous. If I took her in, then I might be letting myself in for trouble later on, when it came time to follow through on that promise of defense. People could be quite insistent about that sort of thing. On the other hand, though, Signý was apparently quite skilled at a type of magic I’d never even seen practiced before. What kinds of things could she do that I had no other way to accomplish? Maybe even more important, what could she teach me?
And then there was another consideration. I knew something of what it was like to be forced into doing things you’d rather not. Considering her specialty, and her inflection when she’d called her acts distasteful, I was confident I didn’t want to ask what she’d been made to do.
“Very well,” I said, somewhat reluctantly. “Serve me loyally, and I shall protect you as best as I am able.”
She smiled and knelt.
The next two jötnar ended up leaving. The first openly acknowledged that, having met me and seen something of my operation, he really didn’t want to be my housecarl after all. He was quite polite and pleasant about it, and when I told him that was fine, he left without a word.
The next was eager to sign up, but there was something about his attitude that I didn’t like. I wasn’t sure quite what it was, but I got the distinct impression that I’d regret it if I took him on. He was a troublemaker, the sort who couldn’t see a line without needing to push it, to test the boundary. Give him an inch, and he’d take a yard; deny him that inch, and he’d work to undermine you, poisoning every interaction with him until he got his way.
I didn’t want to deal with that kind of thing, and a glance at Kyi confirmed that her opinion of him was similar.
When I told that guy to leave, it didn’t go quite so pleasantly. He went into a tantrum, screaming in Old Norse and waving his hands in the air, although he was smart enough not to actually get violent. The other jötnar were backing away from him warily, though, and it was easy to see that things were just going to escalate.
Then Vigdis quite calmly walked up and punched him in the abdomen, hard. He grunted in pain and doubled over, at which point her knee caught him in the nose with enough force that I could hear it break from where I was sitting. He fell, hard, and lay there moaning. She grabbed him by the nape of the neck, picking him up easily with one arm, and carried him through the room before literally tossing him out the door like a bag of garbage.
Then she walked back to her position behind me, all without saying a word. She was grinning widely, though.
It was probably a bit hypocritical of me to refuse him while I kept someone like Vigdis. From where I was sitting, though, there was a very important difference between the two. Vigdis was a psychopath, but she was my psychopath.
“I apologize for the interruption,” I said calmly into the shocked silence. “Next is Gisli Björnson.”
He looked at Vigdis, looked at the blood on the floor from the last guy’s broken nose, and swallowed hard. “I’ll leave, if you allow it, jarl.”
I nodded, and he all but sprinted for the door. Behind me, I could almost feel Vigdis’s grin getting wider at his reaction.
With five new housecarls accepted and three applicants gone, the crowd was thinning out considerably. I looked back at the list for a moment before saying, “Snorri Helgason.”
The next jotun stepped forward, stammering something in Norse. The only word I picked out clearly was “jarl,” which I heard enough that I could recognize it whether I wanted to or not.
I paused before I said anything. Jötnar generally looked young; like most supernatural critters, they don’t age appreciably. But you can look young, and then you can look young, and this guy was the second one. He was tall, but thin and gangly, like a half-grown puppy, and he carried his sword like he wasn’t at all accustomed to it.
“Kyi,” I said, quietly enough that I didn’t think anyone else would hear it. “How old is he?”
She eyed him for a moment, then shrugged. “I’d guess about thirteen, fourteen.”
“Tell him I can’t take him. I don’t think he knows enough English for me to.”
“You have to take him,” she hissed at me, very quietly but with surprising force.
“He’s a kid,” I said, in much the same tone.
“He came when you called.”
“Yes,” I said patiently. “But he’s still a kid. I’m not putting a kid in the line of fire. That’s just messed up.”
“You’re not listening,” she said. “He came when you called. If you tell him no, what do you think happens the next time someone wants housecarls? He’ll be there again, except that they won’t care if he’s a kid. And they’ll send him out to get killed rather than bother training him until he can hold his own.”
I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. Because she was right, damn her. It felt wrong on every level to basically hire a child soldier, but she was right that it was the best I could do to actually help the kid.
“Fine,” I said. “Tell him he’s in, then.”
She did so, the Norse phrases rolling off her tongue with a smoothness I could only envy. I’d tried to learn it, a couple of times, but I’m not good with languages, and Old Norse is not an easy language.
Snorri seemed shocked at first, then he grinned so widely I was afraid he was going to hurt himself. He knelt down and swore himself to my service, looking so happy that you’d think it was his birthday and Christmas all rolled into one.
After that I took all of the other four. What did it matter, when I’d already done that?