“So I’m curious,” I said, watching as she squatted and opened the bags, digging through them. “How does this work? I haven’t studied seithr at all, so this is a completely new kind of magic for me.”
“It works,” Signý said. “I can’t explain more than that. Seithr is something you have to experience. Can you get a horse for me to sacrifice?”
“I don’t do animal sacrifice. Is that a problem?”
She shrugged. “The curse will be weaker without it. But it can be done.” She looked around, and then pointed at Vigdis, seemingly just because she was the closest of the housecarls. “Go cut a pole,” she said. “Living wood, four feet, sturdy enough to bear weight.”
I tensed, expecting Vigdis to react poorly to being ordered around like that, but she just nodded and walked off towards the trees around the edge of the park. No griping, no backtalk. She didn’t even look to me to confirm the order.
“You’re respected by the other jötnar,” I commented. It was something I’d noticed before, but this seemed like a good time to ask about it.
“Seithr is not something that is regarded kindly among my people,” she said. “But it is a thing which is respected. Everyone is aware of what it can do, and the risks it poses. So when the volva says a thing is needed, you do not argue, yes? Because if the ritual fails, or if she takes offense, you may be better acquainted with what it can do than you want to be.”
I nodded. “It makes sense. It’s just interesting to me.”
About that time, Vigdis returned, carrying a thick pine branch in one hand and the axe she’d used to cut it in the other. She handed the branch gingerly to Signý and backed away.
The volva took the branch and knelt on the ground, her black cloak puddling around her. She took the knife and trimmed off the twigs forking off the main branch, then sharpened both tips so that it looked something like a double-ended spear. Once that was done, she carved a handful of runes on it, spacing them out seemingly at random.
I was still watching curiously. I couldn’t smell any magic, and from her attitude, it didn’t seem like she was concentrating on it enough to be doing anything particularly difficult.
Suddenly, she stood and slammed the pole into the ground. Normally I wouldn’t have expected that do much beyond making her look silly, especially since Signý was hardly muscular, especially compared to the other housecarls.
She was still a jotun, though, and I was guessing there was more to this than just muscle. The improvised spear sank a foot into the ground and stood there. Signý pushed it a bit, making sure it wasn’t going to fall over, and then grunted in satisfaction and went back to her bags.
First she opened the bag of samples and took out one of the vials of blood. I could smell the magic around it, a subtle, deceptively powerful piece of work. I’d hired Alexander to do the work, since something like that was far beyond my means; it had been ridiculously expensive, and worth every cent.
She grabbed a small paintbrush from the other bag and went back to the pole, where she cracked the seal on the vial. She dipped the brush into the blood and painted a couple more runes on the pole, her motions quick and confident. Then, just as confidently, she bit her own thumb, drawing blood. She wetted the brush with her own blood and painted a few more runes onto the pole, then returned to her bags.
She capped the vial of blood again and returned it to the bag of samples, then reached into her satchel, digging around. It seemed like she was reaching further into it than should really have been possible, considering the size of the satchel, but I wasn’t going to ask questions.
She pulled out a skull and a pelt, and went back to the pole. I noticed that she was holding a small hammer and several nails in her other hand, as well. She draped the pelt over the pole like a cape, trailing onto the ground, and then slipped the skull on top. She hammered a few nails into the pelt, holding it in place, and then went back to the bag.
I was pretty sure both pelt and skull had come from a horse. I thought about commenting that this was still a little suspect, even if she hadn’t killed the animal in front of me, but I didn’t say anything. It was dead either way, after all. Getting squeamish now wouldn’t exactly do it any good.
“Start a fire,” Signý said absently, pulling out several bottles and pouches from her satchel. Instantly, several of the jötnar leapt to obey. Thraslaug took her axe and started cutting out a fire pit near the pole, while the others went and started collecting firewood.
Within about ten minutes, the fire was burning brightly. Signý had mixed liquids from some of the bottles with powder from a couple of the pouches, muttering quietly. I could smell magic now, something dark and cold and oddly alien. It wasn’t much like what I associated with jötnar in general or Signý in particular, which was interesting.
She drank whatever that vile concoction was, grimacing at the taste. From the smell of it, I was surprised that she could get it down without vomiting, but I supposed this was something a volva learned to do.
She grabbed a handful of what looked like dried berries from another pouch and walked to sit by the fire, tossing the berries into the flames. They burned with an acrid, bitter smoke; I recognized the scent as a nightshade of some kind, although I couldn’t have said what species it was. Henbane, maybe.
“Jarl,” Signý said. “I need you to focus on how much you want this Jimmy to suffer. I need you to think about all the pain and trouble he’s caused you, and how much you want to punish him for it. Think about it, and look at the fire.”
“Okay,” I said. “I can do that.”
She nodded and then started chanting. It was an interesting sound. She was speaking in whatever bastardized form of Old Norse the jötnar spoke, and I had no idea what the words meant. It was a repetitive chant, though, the same handful of phrases repeating over and over again. The cadence was strange, incredibly regular and constant. Normally, even in a chant you could hear a slightly longer pause between sentences, letting you parse what they were saying. This was different, words coming out without anything to distinguish which ones went together to form a coherent idea. I imagined that even people who spoke the language would have a hard time sorting it out.
Signý leaned forward and inhaled the toxic smoke from the fire, coughing a little without pausing in her chant. She fumbled blindly behind herself for her satchel. After a couple of seconds of that, Thraslaug pushed it into her hand, and she pulled it forward, digging through it without looking. After a moment she came up with a drum.
It was small enough to easily hold in one hand, but elaborately decorated. The oval bowl of the wood was carved with long strings of runes, and had small silver bells dangling from it. The leather of the drumhead was painted with elaborate designs, the center of which was my own coat of arms. There were a handful of runes on the leather, but by and large the designs were more pictorial, and very stylized, with a strong nature motif. At least it wasn’t covered in wolves and snowflakes, the way most of my stuff ended up being whether I liked it or not; the predominant pictures here were mountains, trees, and ravens, all painted in simple, bold strokes.
Without pausing the chant, she started to beat the drum with her other hand. It was an odd rhythm, fast and heavily syncopated, totally unconnected from the chant. The bells on the drum jangled to their own time, adding a third rhythm that had just as little in common with the others.
She skipped a beat to reach over and slap me lightly on the arm, and I started guiltily, remembering that I had a role to play here. I looked from Signý to the fire, thinking about Jimmy.
It was hard to argue that he’d been a thorn in my side for years. I couldn’t even keep track of how many times he’d pissed me off with his idiocy, arrogance, and overwhelming selfishness. But this…this was something else. To work to undermine me now, to lead others into doing so when they had no real conception of what it meant, that went beyond anything else he’d done. Not only had I killed people for less, I had a hard time thinking of anyone who upset me on that level that I hadn’t killed.
Signý threw another handful of the dried berries into the fire. I coughed at the smoke, closing my eyes briefly before forcing myself to open them again and stare into the flames. They seemed to dance now, shapes on the very edge of meaning appearing in the play of the fire on the wood, disappearing before I could identify them.
Without being prompted, Thraslaug threw more wood on the blaze, stoking it up into a bonfire. I realized that she was following along with the chant, nodding her head in time with the drumbeat. Several of the jötnar were, in fact. Thraslaug was the closest to the flames, and keeping up with the chant the best, but Vigdis and Nóttolfr were chanting as well.
I caught my mind drifting and forced myself to focus on Jimmy again. It was difficult, much more so than I would have guessed. The different rhythms and the endless repetition of the chant were making it hard to focus. I’d already been feeling pretty loopy, disconnected from my own emotions, but it was getting worse now, even more dissociated.
When the chant stopped, it took a few seconds for me to realize it. I blinked and looked at Signý. She was standing there, staring into the fire, but not chanting anymore.
As I watched, she walked over to the pole. Her movements were clumsy now, almost making me think of a sleepwalker. She stumbled over her own feet and made no effort to catch herself; she would have fallen had Thraslaug not stepped in to hold her up.
They reached the pole and Signý grasped it, not leaning on it or trying to pull it out of the ground, just holding it. She recited a few lines in Norse, then glanced back at me and started again in English.
“Here I set up a curse-pole,” she said, her voice breaking a little. “I raise this pole against Jimmy Frazier, in my name and my jarl’s, and this curse I turn on him. I curse him with blindness, that he may not see, as I have been blind to his treachery. I curse him with pain, that he may suffer, as I have suffered for his cowardice. I curse the earth that nurtures him and the sky that watches him. I curse the spirit that guards him, that he may wander astray and not find his home.”
She twisted the pole until the head was facing generally northwest, then took a step back, breathing hard. “There,” she said. “That should do it.”
“Interesting,” I said, trying to piece my scattered thoughts together again. “What was the purpose of the chanting?”
“Seithr is not just magic,” she said. “It is a state of mind. The chanting, the rituals, they make you think the right way. Push you until the impossible becomes possible.”
“Almost like a vision quest,” I mused. “Breaking down mental barriers. Interesting. Do you know where he is?”
She nodded and pointed at the pole. “That way,” she said. “The nithing pole faces towards him.”
“Anything more specific?”
She shrugged. “I can feel him. He burns like a candle in my mind’s eye. But I could not tell you where to go to find him. It doesn’t translate to words.”
“That’s fine,” I said. “You can come with us. Come on, people; break’s over.”
It was surprisingly easy to find him, with Signý’s help. He was holed up in Manitou, just outside of Colorado Springs proper, and right on the edge between my territory and Kikuchi’s. The building he was in was one that I’d often seen while visiting Kyra, back when she lived in this neighborhood, but I’d never had cause to go inside before. It was a small house that had been built probably fifty years ago, crowded up in the hills on a narrow street.
I glanced at Signý, and she nodded confidently. “This is the place,” she said.
“Cool,” I said. I walked up to the door and knocked. I could feel the spark of a magical ward against my knuckles as I did, not too intense, but present.
There was no answer, and I nodded. I hadn’t expected one, really, but I figured I’d give him the chance.
Now, I got to do things my way.
I wrapped myself in cold air and spread frost and ice across the ground and the walls, giving myself a nasty little flashback to the Wild Hunt. I shook that off and grabbed Tyrfing, flicking the sheath aside.
The sword sliced the door in half, and cut into the structure of the ward as well. The magic wasn’t completely unraveled, but it had never been that strong, and what was left was barely enough fire for me to notice through the cold. I disregarded it completely.
I moved inside, the housecarls following closely at my heels. Jibril had left after we dealt with the main group, but Matthew was still there. I hadn’t asked how he felt about taking down one of the other Inquisition members. Likely he wouldn’t care. Even by my standards, Matthew was a sociopath.
I was whistling again as I walked through the house. It wasn’t hard to figure out where Jimmy was hiding; Signý pointed firmly downward once we were inside the building, and at that point it was just a matter of finding the stairs.
I wasn’t delicate about searching the place, and the jötnar followed my example, a celebration of destruction, casually tearing apart what had probably taken someone a lifetime to build. We kicked doors in rather than bother checking whether they were locked, pulled paintings off the walls and threw them carelessly to the ground, pulled bookshelves down to check the walls behind them. Having your house ransacked by the cops would have been gentle by comparison.
Eventually, we found a hidden door in the small closet attached to the master bedroom. It was locked, a situation I resolved with Tyrfing rather than take the time to pick it, and we filed down.
The basement was tiny, just one room, clumsily excavated from the bedrock. I was guessing the owner had put it in themselves. At the moment, it housed Jimmy and three other mages, people I didn’t recognize.
They’d obviously been alerted by the noise upstairs, and they were ready when I came down the stairs. One of them threw a lightning bolt at me, while another tried to set me on fire. The third was maintaining a kinetic barrier just inside the room, trying to keep me at bay. A little better coordinated than the last bunch, at least.
Not that it did them any good. The lightning hurt, it made my muscles jump and twitch, but it wasn’t that serious. It wasn’t about to stop me. The fire was even more of a nonstarter; with so many jötnar in that staircase, it never had a chance. Matthew was shivering in his fur, and I knew for a fact that he could handle temperatures well below zero without really caring.
I cracked the barrier with Tyrfing on the first stroke, and shattered it completely on the second, proceeding into the basement. My minions streamed around me, jumping on the subsidiary mages and taking them down so fast they never had a chance to really process what happened.
Jimmy and I, though, only had eyes for each other. “You’re a tyrant,” he spat, glaring at me. He made no effort to attack me with his magic. He’d seen enough of what I was capable of to know that he wasn’t a match for me, let alone all of the people here.
“That’s a pointless accusation,” I said calmly, raising my voice a little to be heard over the noises Matthew was making. “It’s funny, if you think about it. If you can get away with calling someone a tyrant, they’re almost certainly not.”
“Right,” he said. “Because this is getting away with it.”
“In fairness, I have shown you incredible patience.” I paced back and forth a little, shaking my head. It was getting harder to keep my composure. The unthinking rage I was holding back wanted so badly to be let out.
“See,” I said, “this is what I can’t stand. I have tried to be patient. I have tried to be a good jarl. I have been reasonable. I have been fair. And people like you see it as weakness. You think it means you can push me around and exploit me, and the only way, the only way I can get anything resembling respect is with violence.”
He opened his mouth, and I stepped up, punching him in the face before he could say anything. He fell to the ground, bleeding from the nose.
“You called me a tyrant,” I said. “As that appears to be the only way to make an impression on you idiots, I am going to show you what a tyrant is really like. Hold him.”
Instantly, jötnar grabbed him and pulled him up to a standing position. I approached him again, still holding Tyrfing.
“You know,” I commented idly, “in the past I’ve always put strict limits on what I allowed myself to do. I always told myself that I’d never use blood magic to steal someone else’s life. I told myself that the power wasn’t worth it, that it was a slippery slope and the only way to keep myself from going too far was to not even touch it.”
I smiled behind the helmet. “Well, guess what? I find myself in rather dire need of power just now, and I recently had a rather impressive object lesson in what this kind of magic can do.”
He screamed, briefly, before I cut his throat.