Not only is it full of great stories, but look at that lineup! I'm flattered and a little awed to be in such amazing company. (Inside the book, we also find Peter S. Beagle, Jeffrey Ford, Nnedi Okorafor, and others.)
And now, because my cruelty is tempered by mercy, I offer you scene two of By the Mountain Bound. (Scene three, which is the last scene of Chapter One, will be posted before I leave for climbing tonight. Eventually, these will go up on the web page, but for now this is an exclusive.)
Menglad was married on a day late in fall in the five hundred and seventy-first year of my immortality; the five hundred and seventy-first year of the World. And the Grey Wolf joined us for the wedding. He was not a stranger in our midst, but neither was he a commonplace. Instead, he came like a raven on the storm, to festival, to weddings, to council of war when war came upon us.
I remember it well. I remember the night because I was the one who served him--him, and Strifbjorn, whom I loved. The other waelcyrge did not wish to wait upon the Wolf, so I walked the length of the shield-hung hall, a horn of mead in each hand.
I remember the night very well, for it was the beginning of the end.
Strifbjorn, disdainful as always of his sisters, barely turned when I brought his mead. The Wolf... after draining the mead horn, he studied me with that disconcerting gaze, a frown on a face one might more expect to see hewn from a mountainside. I could not make my eyes meet his. A mortal thrall, captive of war, brought me new horns of drink, and Mingan's gloved hand lingered on mine for a moment more than propriety demanded when I handed him the new one. His flesh burned hot as forged metal through the grey leather. I thought of sunlight on dark fabric.
There were stories, of why he burned. I stammered in answer to his question, the hot blush rising. He released my hand; I fled back to the cross bench, the trestle table and my sisters at the north end of the hall.
It was a long walk beside the fire trench, under banner-hung roof beams lost in the dark high ceiling. It seemed every eye in the hall watched my flight, although I knew from the murmurs that my brethren were engrossed in their gossip, renewing acquaintances. Nonetheless, I caught my skirts about me like the shreds of my composure and hurried to my place among the women.
Menglad, called the Brightwing, reached from under her crimson wedding veils and caught my mousy-colored braid. "Herfjotur says her steed says the Wolf desires you, Muire." She giggled, gesturing to the proud-nosed waelcyrge on her left.
They all were watching. I raised an eyebrow at the bride, amber-haired and fairer-skinned than I, her sword slung properly at her hip rather than across the shoulders as mine must be to keep from dragging. Skeold slid down the bench to the right that I might sit beside Menglad. I gathered my wide skirts, lifting them clear of my boots as I ascended from the scented pine-branches littering the floor, onto the step where the women's bench rested. Turning, I allowed the silk to flare, the snow-pale surcote contrasting the spangled midnight blue kirtle.
My clothing matched that of my sisters, though they were taller and more golden. Gathered around Menglad in her crimson and gold, we resembled jays mobbing a cardinal.
The groom had not yet arrived, nor had most of the einherjar. Perhaps four hundred of my brethren. Half the number that would fill this, our largest hall. They sat along the benches or walked, chattering. Two extra trestles, running the length of the hall, held the overflow.
I leaned close to Menglad. "The Wolf could have his pick. He has no need of such as I."
I saw by the gleam in her eye that she was teasing me. "He's never offered for anyone," she said. "Perhaps he's waiting for someone to notice him back."
I chuckled. "If he fancied me, he would speak to Yrenbend. Or Strifbjorn--they're close as shield-mates."
The mocking Light was still flickering behind the storm-blue of her eyes. "Are you insinuating that all those waelcyrge who sigh over Strifbjorn must compete with the Wolf for his passions?"
"Strifbjorn is waiting for something. And the Wolf--either he prefers to be alone, or the one he wants is bound to another." I grew uncomfortable, shifting in my seat. "And strong as they are, they can do as they like. Who would dare censure them?" I wanted the subject changed. It was too close to mockery.
But Menglad always was rash, sharp and bright as a chipped glass blade. She shivered, her eyes on the Wolf, and kept talking. "Aye. But his prowess and courage aside, who could be truly glad to go to that wild bed, and share him with his mistress, Darkness?"
There was no answer to that. I watched the one black-brindled head among the golden as it bent close to Strifbjorn's. We dined only for pleasure: we slept only when hurt. We came together, my brothers and sisters and I, in the face of war or the cause of celebration: not as we used to, for the sheer joy of singing the world into being. Back before Men were made, and creation was complete.
But that night was a wedding, and there would be a feast in the hall. And after the feast, there would be fighting.
Oh, it would be fine.
"Are you nervous?"
Menglad gave me a sidelong look behind her veils. "Nervous?"
"About the wedding night." Her eyes behind the veil were more blue than grey. The starlight that suddenly filled them was tinted silver.
She leaned aside and dropped her voice. "Shall I tell you a secret, Muire? Of all of us, I believe you can keep one."
"I am an historian, after all. The only secrets I whisper are those of the dead."
She pursed her lips; it smoothed her brow. "You are not like the rest of us, Muire. I do not envy you. But I do not know what we would be without your voice."
I brushed her strangeness away with my left hand. "You were about to give me a secret."
She took a breath, licking her lips moist. "I've been to Arngeir's bench," she whispered, leaning so her veil hid the shape of her words against my hair.
"In the mead-hall?" I couldn't imagine how she kept that secret. Despite the dark of night and the averted eyes of politeness, one notices such things as a shared niche. Especially when the benches are not often used for sleeping.
Tonight they would be, however. Used for sleeping, and for other things. I might spend the night in the field, or on the mountainside.
She shook her head. "We've met in secret. I'm sure Strifbjorn knows, but as Arngeir offered for me, there has been no scandal. He can be kinder than he seems--Strifbjorn, I mean."
I leaned closer, speaking so softly she must have strained to hear. "What's it like? And have you... have you shared the kiss yet?"
She shook her head. "We decided to wait. It seemed safer: what if something happened? Before we were wedded, I mean. We'd both be..."
...unmarriageable. Yes. It was one thing to marry a widow, knowing you would be taking on a bit of another as well. Different entirely to join with someone, expecting to find oneself half of a whole, and discover the taint of a third already woven into the bonding.
She picked up her thread after a moment of silence. "As for the other.... Well, it hurts. At first. But it's a... good sort of hurt. Not to be feared, Much less than a sword-cut."
I shook my head. "I am content with your reports." Over her shoulder, I caught a sneering glance from tall, fair Sigrdrifa, whom I knew also coveted Strifbjorn's hand.
I stood and excused myself with fortuitous timing, for as I took horns of mead from the thralls, more of the einherjar began to arrive--Arngeir's party, but not yet the groom himself. We seated them across the fire-trench from Strifbjorn.
My sisters scurried to assist me, leaving Menglad stranded on the cross-bench in her trappings of crimson and gold, with a wide divided skirt. She seemed small and alone when I glanced back; I wondered at her courage in the face of the great unknown--her marriage, her bonding, her future as half of a larger thing than herself.
I shook my head, and turned my attention to the task of carrying the honey wine.
Some time later, when the drinking and the revelry were underway, Arngeir arrived. I was still on my feet, distracting myself from the Wolf's stare and Menglad's attempts at merriment before the crude jests of our brothers. I met Arngeir with a horn of mead before he was well into the room.
My sister's husband-to-be was tall as any of my brothers, and more handsome than most. Clad in red like the bride, he strode in as if claiming the hall, his golden braid bobbing down his back. As I raised the horn, I heard the scrape of a bench. On the far side of the fire-trench Strifbjorn stood.
"Will you drink a guest-cup, traveler?" I asked.
"I will, maiden." Arngeir took the horn, drained it, and gave it back.
As warm horn slid into my curled fingers, Strifbjorn called out.
"Who comes to my hall?"
Arngeir winked at me. Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed the Grey Wolf rising, coming forward at Strifbjorn's left flank. On his right was Yrenbend, my favorite brother, lean and ascetic in his shirt and trousers of immaculate white.
"One who seeks a wife," Arngeir responded.
"There is a waelcyrge here who awaits a husband." Strifbjorn glanced down the hall at Menglad, who had risen from the cross-bench and stood surrounded by our sisters, a last red berry on a snow-covered bush. She swept the length of the hall, the train of her divided skirts and her veil rustling across the pine branches. "Sister," Strifbjorn said, his voice the essence of courtesy. "Will you have this man to husband?"
She drew herself up straight and proud, examining Arngeir with the critical eye of a shrewd farmwife about to purchase a stud horse. She looked along her nose at him, and I could see her fighting both a smile and a shiver. Strifbjorn stepped closer to me. I smelled the clean woodsmoke scent of his skin... and then the rank animal musk that seemed to hang around the Wolf like his grey cloak, that self-colored dark charcoal wool no other wore.
I held my gaze away from Strifbjorn, although his sleeve brushed my wrist and the heat of his body warmed my skin. I knew why Menglad shivered.
"How will you prove your worth?" Menglad's voice dripped hauteur.
"Rich gifts I will give, my sister, my intended," he said. "To each waelcyrge of your household and to all the Children of Light here gathered."
"Gifts are well, but they do not prove a man's wit or might. Which of those do you offer?"
"Might," he answered.
Strifbjorn stepped forward again, blocking my view. "You will strive with us for the privilege?"
"With words or swords, my brother?"
Menglad must have smiled; her voice lifted. "Let us feast, and then let this one who thinks to claim me stand and fight."
Strifbjorn and Arngeir clasped wrists. A delighted laugh broke out throughout the hall, and then each einherjar turned and walked to his respective place. Strifbjorn let his hand fall on my shoulder in passing and leaned to murmur, "Well done, little sister." He nodded once, not catching my eye, and walked away, the Wolf following as if at heel.
The shiver became a shudder as I watched him leave, and along his path I caught the look Sigrdrifa shot me--naked as a venomed blade. She stepped forward, but Yrenbend insinuated himself exactly as if he did not notice her. He caught me around both upper arms and spun me into the air. "Tonight, Muire, you must fight at our side." He set me in my footsteps as if I weighed nothing.
I sent a longing glance to Menglad and the others returning to the cross bench. "I will, Yrenbend. I'll stand by your side."
I pulled him down to me and kissed his cheek. "And I'll serve your ale tonight. If you expect Brynhilde to be busy."
Yrenbend cast about the hall, but did not find his wife. "She'll be attending Menglad during dinner," he sighed, "and then, of course, she fights with the valraven during the tournament." Brynhilde, like Herfjotur, was partnered with a war-steed.
And how like Yrenbend to make an offered escape seem like a favor tendered him. "Then I shall be pleased to assist."
...to be continued...