The Thief of Faces
A child with no face. Empty sockets and white bone where there should have been pink skin and milky lips.
“It’s not my fault!” I cried. “I didn’t do it,” I shouted. “It wasn’t me!”
Far away, on the corpse-shore where the dishonoured dead lie waiting for the end of the world, Fridha heard my cries and called my name.
These were bad dreams, my worst in months. I walked the cold shore of Nastrond, as I always did in my dreams, with the mist rolling in from the ocean at the edge of all worlds. There were faces under my boots but I wouldn’t look down. I mustn’t look down. There might be one face there I could not bear to see.
Voices came from the mist along with the tears of women. Perhaps these were the mothers of Thurstang, comforting Ingaberg, but in my dream they sounded like another woman’s tears. I called her name but Fridha did not come to me. Not even the flash of her sun-burnished hair. I ran across the beach of upturned faces, calling her, but found only tears and they were my own.
I awoke in pain. My face had swollen up like sail in the sea wind. What had that berserking madman done to me?
“He dislocated your jaw.”
The foreign thrall, Valka, knelt beside my pallet, kneading herbal paste into a strip of linen. From behind the room’s shutters, wintry light brightened the room.
“Am I dead now?”
“Alas,” she said, “no.”
I took a moment to think about this.
“Why are you looking after me?”
“Lodhinn Knudsson commanded me to nurse you.”
So that was it! The spiteful thrall and the vengeful thul, joining forces against me while I lay helpless. The duel with the Berserk had been engineered by Lodhinn, out of revenge. Surely he had weakened the chains so the madman could escape! Now they were brewing up some trollish poison to carry me off for good.
“Are you… are you going to kill me?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
She held out the evil-smelling rag towards my face, but I flinched away. So, it was to be suffocation! I tried to draw breath, but my mouth wouldn’t let me. The pain was enough to make me want to die anyway.
“Don’t be a child,” Valka said. “This is a soothing treacle and the bandage supports your jaw while it heals.”
When I resisted, she looked at me from under her fringe with those severe blue eyes.
“You’re not in danger. Think clearly. If you were to die, they’d have me strangled for it.”
“Why should Lodhinn Knudsson care about that? That duel was his doing. He’s sent you to finish the job he started!”
“Lodhinn is the thul and if his patients die, it looks bad for him,” Valka replied, reasonably enough. “If you want to dishonour him all over again, go ahead and die. Otherwise, let me put this bandage on.
This was good sense. I relented. Valka leaned over me. She unspooled the linen strip, stretching it across my jaw, over my ears and the crown of my head and back down again, then looped it around more times. Her breasts dangled excitingly in front of me.
An old sea-viking named Hjalti Thorolfsson once gave me some wisdom. He had been wounded by an arrow, as later happened to me, but had recovered well enough. Unfortunately, the wound festered. Hjalti was a big man with ruddy cheeks and a booming laugh, but he told me he was dying. How did he know?
“I take no joy,” he told me, “from meat or beer or the pendulous breasts of women. There are only days left. Would that I had died in battle, so that the valkyries might take me, but my soul must wander the cold shore of Nastrond instead. Such is Wyrd.”
His Wyrd was to die within the week, but I took a cheering thought from his passing. That is this: that no matter the pain or the loss, so long as there is joy in the senses, death is not near.
The way my senses responded to Valka’s curves, I knew at once that I wasn’t going to die.
“Where are you from, Valka?” I asked, hoping to make her ministrations last.
My nurse tutted as she fussed with the dressing. Reaching behind my head to knot the bandages, she pulled even closer. That was a sweet moment, but then she drew away.
“Dwarfland,” she said, with a sour tone.
“Surely not, but rather beautiful Alfheim,” I rallied. “You must be one of the Light Elfs!”
Valka looked at me coldly.
“Really,” I insisted. “Your accent, your manner – you’re a riddle to me.”
She switched her gaze to the rafters.
“Valgerdha – Valka – isn’t my birth name. I was born in the Land of Song, among green mountains and sweet rivers.” She looked at me again, with softer eyes but a loftier tone to her voice. “You are a skald, Eirik Glee, but you haven’t heard music until you’ve heard the language of my people. There is no poem like the name my mother gave to me.”
I’ve never met a thrall who didn’t give herself airs, but this one’s were grander than most. I started framing a barbed reply to bring her down to earth, but then I noticed the tears on her cheek. I thought again. To have your language taken from you, is like the loss of an eye. Half a world goes with it. You learn new tongues and there are words you hear in them, but there is no music.
“Valgerdha,” I said at last, “tell me your true name. Let me make a song of it.” My voice was hoarse so the offer didn’t sound convincing.
“That name, sweet poet, is a riddle,” she replied, “that I will never tell someone like you. Now it’s important that you stop speaking.”
She reached out and took the ends of the bandage wrapped round my head.
“Why?” I croaked. “Is it unhealthy for me to speak?”
“No. I just don’t want to listen to you any more.”
She pulled the bandages tight and my teeth snapped together. Te strip of cloth clamped my jaw firmly shut and tied a knot in it. Gagged, I could only glare at the girl. She brushed down her smock and turned to go with her pretty chin in the air.
The door opened and the room filled with people and the sound of women’s voices. Even through the fug of Lodhinn’s herbal treacle, I could detect the scents of women’s hair and the milky smell of babies.
Lady Gudhrun Quick-Tongue stood over my bed. She smiled a smile of radiant concern.
“Are you recovering, brave poet?” Her voice was warm and husky.
I nodded like a fool. A beauty like her would set a cripple to skipping. Then her daughter Gisla appeared and their combined loveliness was sufficient to raise the dead. A wet-nurse followed after, holding a sleeping baby, but I paid little attention to her.
“Truly, you are as skilled with your sword,” Gudhrun continued, “as you are with your tongue.”
I nodded, glad the bandage stopped me from blurting out some idiotic joke about swords and tongues. Was the lady flirting with me?
“So brave and so skilful!”
This was Lady Gisla,. She had a faint lisp, an odd imperfection that only enhanced her charm. Her hair shaded to gold and her eyes were as blue as the summer sea. Yet there was a strange composure to her.
I stopped nodding. It was hurting my neck.
“How long will we be robbed of our skald’s voice?”
This was Gudhrun again, turning that ever widening smile to Valka, who kept her eyes lowered but appeared to be listening to praise of me with growing nausea.
“Your thul says a month before he sings again, my mistress,” she replied.
The two noblewomen exchanged downcast expressions. I wasn’t happy either. A month?
“By then, Yule will have passed,” said Gudhrun. “The feasts will be ended. We will lose you, Eirik Glee, back to King Harald’s court, before we have truly enjoyed you.”
I hadn’t come all this way and fought a Berserk to spend a month as a dumb invalid and then be dismissed as soon as the Goddess Blót arrived. Yule was my chance to perform! I struggled with the bandage.
“Mpf!” I said when the knots resisted my fingers. “Ngh,” I added and also, “Gnnng!” as I rolled my eye at them to stop them leaving without hearing me out.
The two noblewomen watched their mad poet thrash around in his sick bed but Valka, with obvious irritation, stepped forward and loosened the knots she had tied.
“Thank you, Valgerdha,” I said with icy civility, once the bandage allowed me to talk. “Noble Ladies, I would not deny you any joy this Yuletide.” Moving my jaw made me wince. “No injury will stop me singing, for the company, if your thul’s treacles can dull my pain.”
Gudhrun teased at her lip with her pink tongue, a tiny gesture but it revived me greatly.
“I wouldn’t want you to harm yourself…”
“I know some runes of my own that speed recovery,” I added. “Please tell your noble husband not to put me out of his mind this Yuletide.”
Gudhrun returned her radiant smile.
“Would that all my noble husband’s servants were as eager as you, Eirik Glee. You must tell him yourself. He has gone hunting the troll that killed poor Ingaberg’s boy. Lodhinn Knudsson rides with him and will be delighted to see his patient recovered.”
I didn’t believe that for a moment. A troll-hunt? Perhaps the duel with Ogmund had been considered a draw. But if the Jarl was hunting trolls, his new skald had to make an appearance and show himself to be useful, sweet though a sick-bed with such lovely nurses might be.
Gudhrun leaned forward and squeezed my hand warmly. She held on to it and squeezed my fingers a second time for good measure. I was aware, under the sheets, of my nethers insisting that they too were hale and keen to serve the Lady Gudhrun in their own capacity.
“The pleasure,” I told her truthfully, “is mine, fair lady. I’ll acquaint your husband with my recovery and the first song I sing to the company will be a praise-song to your beauty and compassion.”
I even found a smile for Valka, who regarded me with an expression of contempt.
I would have been less keen to please if I had understood the Wyrd that was spinning around me. Under the bewitching smiles of Gudhrun and Gisla, I had forgotten Nastrond’s cold shore, the dead faces under my boots, the nameless baby with no face and his mother, weeping in the mists.
I had forgotten about the thief of faces too. That was my big mistake.