The next night Godrik rose with a decidedly impish spring in his step. The morose air that hung about him the previous evening was gone, much to my relief.
“You’re feeling fresh,” I remarked wryly, covering up the disturbed soil at the base of our oak with a spread of freshly fallen snow.
“We can go.”
“The village south of here or the one further southwest?” I had quickly learned to be mindful of the inevitable body count my nightly thirst created. I was a hungry oaf of a newborn and still required unusually large amounts of blood.
I dropped my sword in surprise. “Do not jest!”
“If you truly wish it, I will take you.”
It turned out this did not mean, however, that he intended to make it easy for me.
The journey there took far longer than necessary. My maker refused to simply fly us to the island of Zealand where the city was located, insisting that I guide us using my own abilities. Days later, when we finally arrived at the sea, I had planned immediately to suffer a long icy swim across the sound in formal protest, but as soon as we reached the shoreline I immediately began rethinking my approach. The black waters swirled in strange, angry currents and large frozen icebergs scuttled erratically through the straight. These were dangerous waters, and I hadn’t the slightest clue as to what, if any, risks they might pose to us. Sensing my indecision, Godrik stood, arms clasped behind his back, watching me in silent amusement as I dithered over what do to. Thinking quickly, I announced that I would glamour a ferryman to convey us across the choppy sea.
It was one of the rougher passages I had experienced, though Godrik sat staring impassively at the turbulent black waves as though they were no more than glassy ripples in a stream. Once across, we clambered out of the unsteady boat onto solid ground. The town was but a sleepy fishing hamlet.
“This cannot be Roskilde!” I barked in outrage. The old ferryman peered at me through jaundiced eyes and gave a hearty, toothless laugh. “You’re on Amager Island, young fool! You’ve still to cross the Baltic again and only then can you travel the day’s journey it takes to get to the city.” He gestured to a winding sandy trail and we headed off immediately. I do not care to record here the stream of obscenities that subsequently issued from my mouth.
The following evening, we at last arrived at the outskirts of the city. Gravitating towards the sounds of life, we came to a large outdoor market. I was amazed by the dazzling array of people I saw, drawn from seemingly every corner of the world. The air was positively alive with the chattering of a dozen different languages. Traders, migrants, and travelers of all sorts flooded into the bustling city and commerce was lively even after dusk. The central aisle of the market was rutted with mud and merchants harangued passersby with fork tongued promises of superior quality and impossible deals. The aromas of the crowd and their foodstuffs were enticing and revolting in equal measure.
At one point a grimy urchin of a child ran by and attempted to filch a coin from my pocket. I caught him by the wrist and growled in his face, much to his terror. Perhaps the light of a nearby torch illuminated my pallid features in too horrific detail; I cannot be certain. In an old trick that delighted my own lost babes, I scraped behind his ear with my free hand and discovered a small gold piece. He scampered off into the crowd sniffing back his tears, gleefully clinging to his treasure. Godrik snorted, calling me a ‘sentimental hen’ and continued to stroll through the throngs of people unfazed, his hands clasped behind his back.
He seemed to part the seas of humanity with his very presence and I followed in stride at his shoulder, scanning for any potential trouble. Though he seemed to be out merely for a casual meander in the markets, I could tell by the slightest shift of his eyes and the subtlest turn of his head that he was soaking in every detail of information pouring in around us.
At one point Godrik paused and headed over to a grain seller who was speaking rapidly in another tongue to a client. He nudged his way to a place at his cart and scooped up a heavy palm of barley, letting the pearls sift through his fingers in a fraudulent guise at inspection. He commented on something the merchant said, then, looking slightly troubled, bought a small sac of grain and hurried back to me.
“The Roman Empire defeated the Persians since I’ve been away and Leo III died,” he relayed in hushed tones.
“Who was Leo III?” I asked.
Godrik stopped in his tracks. “You don’t know who the emperor is in Constantinople?”
“Maker, I’ve never been this far south. I don’t even know what language that was you were speaking!”
“Wait…What?” he gasped, thoroughly shocked. “What do you speak apart from Norse?!” he demanded, suddenly incredulous at my limitations.
“A little German and enough Finnish to get a beer and a wench,” I said, grinning.
“Then you only write in Runic?”
“Well, no…I recognize the symbols, though not many of yours,” I gestured to the archaic runes in the ancient tattoo on his arm.
“You aren’t lettered!?” he screeched.
Rolling his eyes and muttering something that sounded suspiciously like ‘ignoramus for a child,’ he snatched me by the arm before I could offer anything in saucy retort. He dragged me roughly through the crowds, hunting for something specific.
We stopped at a scribe’s table. Godrik picked up a leaf of parchment and flipped it, testing its pliability.
“You’ve no better vellum? This is poorly cured indeed.” He sniffed it, making a face. “Jackrabbit skin? Eech.”
“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir. We ran out of our best stock some months ago. You’ve a keen eye for quality, if I may say so.”
“Fine. Give me two sheaves of this, several of those quills there, and six pots of ink – and none of this dried up offal that the customers have been peaking in and spilling everywhere. Give me six fresh pots, lad.”
The scribe gathered the materials and after a quick haggle over the price, he was paid, the useless bag of grain being thrown in to sweeten his deal. Godrik shoved the bundle of writing supplies at me. “Here. Happy belated Yule. You’re to learn Greek and Latin by the month’s end.” Though I hadn’t the slightest clue how to begin, I didn’t dare question him. I sensed a hard displeasure across our bond.
We left the market and headed away from the city towards the countryside. Godrik grew even more tense as we walked and began instructing me in low tones.
“Listen very carefully to me. We are now in the Danish kingdom. We must present ourselves to the king of the draugur here, Cornelius. You will say nothing unless you are spoken to and you’ll follow my lead in every case. Among our kind you must always address me as master, but I forbid you from ever using this term when we are alone. Am I clear?”
“If you disobey me in front of our kind or dishonor me in any way, then gods as my witness, I will have your fangs. Do you understand?”
“‘Yes, master’ from here on out.”
He swore under his breath and pulled my sword off me, slinging it over a muscled shoulder. “Best if you’re not armed. I don’t want you doing something incredibly stupid in case they rile you up – which they will. Be clever and don’t give them the satisfaction of a response. You’re the lowest bump on the log now, boy.”
“Great,” I said, feigning enthusiasm.
“King Cornelius and I get along well enough, but his court is full of snakes. His underlings are distrustful of me and his consort dislikes me even more. I’ve lingered in the territory too long and my age permits me to demand his throne. I do not wish it, of course, but remain wary at all times. Under no circumstances are you to let yourself be separated from me – this I command as your maker. If anyone there asks about your turning, say you remember very little of it and nothing more. Again, I command it. You must not reveal the details of how I made you, Eirikr. It is our secret.”
“May I ask why? What is so secret about it?”
“Virtually all draugur are turned after a few exchanges. A night, no more. Most are weak and profane, useless beings in the beginning – and often well into their centuries, but you will see this for yourself soon enough.”
“Then I am unique?” I responded in surprise, feeling flushed with pride.
“Aye, I suspect you are unparalleled. It’s quite a rarity to be the sole progeny of an elder, too. But do not let it rule your ego or act like a boastful fool, it will get you murdered. Remember, Eirikr: the only blood drinker you can ever fully trust is the one you make.”
I nodded, realizing now the complexity of my request to come here. I understood court intrigues well enough, but how that translated into the politics of our own kind, I could only begin to guess. It was evident that I was unwittingly my maker’s biggest, if only, weakness. I quickly resolved to endure whatever indignities our visit might entail so as to not be either a failure in my maker’s eyes, nor a pawn against him in someone else’s ploys.
Godrik started fussing with my cloak and hair, smoothing it over to ensure I was especially presentable.
“Alright, alright! Who’s the hen, again?” I said in annoyance, pushing him off.
We continued along the barren countryside when I glimpsed a door set in the side of a low grassy hill. Approaching it, I realized the hillock was in fact an enormous underground sod house, the size of which I’d never before seen. I felt apprehensive suddenly, as though we’d crossed into a dangerous place and perhaps we should turn back. Godrik stiffened too.
“Magic wards,” he explained. “We bear no ill will. They will let us pass.”
At the door, a man stood rigidly guard. His scent carried on the air and I immediately recognized he was like us – a night walker.
“Who goes there?” he called out, drawing a long blade.
“Tis Godrik, Baldr. We wish to have an audience with the king.”
“Ah!” he exclaimed, relaxing, “You return to us at last. It’s been nearly a year. The king will be pleased to receive you.”
At the door, the sentry looked over me thoroughly, undressing me with his eyes. Perhaps I stared too long as well simply out of naïve curiosity. He was the second blood drinker I’d ever met.
“My, my, what have we here?” he drawled, scenting me with flared nostrils and licking his lips.
Godrik let out a low threatening growl.
Baldr threw his hands up in submission, clearly terrified of the diminutive boy who bore an innate authority. He scrambled to unbar the door to us and hastily bid us enter.
The long hallway was framed by a low ceiling and lit by clay oil lamps. Godrik strolled through the winding passageways with ease, ignoring the doors that creaked open and whispers that filled the halls as we went. Finally, behind double doors, we entered into a spacious hall – the main court itself. No less than two dozen blood drinkers filled the room. Some were playing board games, another strolled around with a lute, singing, and the king himself sat perched upon a dais strewn lavishly with rich furs and a throne covered in hammered gold.
“Godrik! Always a pleasure,” he greeted us. I immediately disliked him.
“Your highness.” Godrik bowed shallowly and reached over to push me far lower in my supplication. “May I introduce my progeny, Eirikr.”
The king raised an eyebrow and looked over me appraisingly. Cornelius was dressed strangely, swathed in an elaborately folded white garment and a shawl in fine purple wool. I’d never seen such a color dyed into fabric! Casting a furtive glance around the room, I realized the people here wore all manner of bizarre attire. I wanted Godrik to explain, but I suppressed the urge.
“Well, he is certainly one of the prettiest draugur I’ve ever met,” he said in a thick Danish dialect that was difficult to understand. “You have made quite the plaything, Godrik. Can he do anything beside stand there looking like something Polykleitos chiseled out of stone?”*
I cut my eyes at Godrik, not understanding what sounded to my ears like an insult. The two laughed in unison, though I could tell my maker’s mirth was forced.
“He was a warrior prince, my lord, and shows great promise as one of us. He will go far, I believe.”
“Indeed. This is your first, is it not? Your discerning taste honors our kind, Godrik. We shall celebrate his joining our ranks.” Clapping, he started the musicians back up and called for a small herd of glamoured humans to be brought in. It was a raucous feast and the general air of bloodlust tested the limits of my self-control. Afterwards, many of the king’s court made a point of stopping by where we sat to congratulate my maker. I was thoroughly ignored and galled to be spoken of like a chattel, but I heeded my maker’s strong words of advice and kept my mouth firmly shut. I passed the time observing others’ wary reactions to Godrik. None touched him, and indeed most kept a fair distance between his seat and where they stood, averting their eyes to his direct gaze. He was dismissing a man requesting to sketch a portrait of us in charcoal when a commotion broke out on the far end of the chamber. A woman with waist long hair so fair it was nearly white floated in.
“Master?” I whispered, barely audible. Before he could respond, she was directly before us, offering her hand for Godrik’s kiss. I felt my maker’s annoyance, but his face was a mask of perfect cordiality.
“Dearest Godrik, we are honored once more with your presence. You come with such unexpected news.”
“Aye, madame, this is my child, Eirikr. Child, this is Sigrid.” I gave another deep bow. She stepped uncomfortably close, narrowing her sky blue eyes at me.
“How extraordinary. He gives off the scent of being a half decade, even a decade old. But that cannot be.”
“No, madame, he is not yet a yearling.”
“Blessed goddess. I dare say I’ve never heard of an elder turning a first after so long. I do hope you keep him around for at least a little while, Godrik. It would be a shame to waste all that undiluted blood. But alas, he is quite the specimen.”
She slipped an arm around my elbow and pulled me toward the center of the room for a dance. Thankfully, I recognized the song as one we used to dance at home. Each time we passed and touched hands for a turn, she stared icily at me, trying to unnerve me.
“Does madame like what she sees?” I smirked.
“You mean the semen dump before me? You reek of your master’s pleasure.” she spoke through a wide smile.
Rage burned in my throat. I glanced over to Godrik, who was conversing casually with Cornelius at the dais. He nodded slightly with a knowing look, reminding me to remain calm.
“I apologize for the offense, though surely madame does not begrudge me for serving my master dutifully,” I replied, disgusted by the requisite scraping and bowing.
“What offends me more than your master parading you about in my court is his intentions in doing so. Tell me, underling, what did Godrik promise you when he turned you?”
“He promised me nothing, Lady Sigrid,” I lied smoothly, willing my palms not to ball into fists. Then I added for good measure, “He simply took what he wanted.”
She seemed satisfied with my response but continued to pepper me with questions. Near the end of the dance, her suspicions became apparent to me: she assumed Godrik had turned a child in order to help him take the court. Alarm rang out in my mind and I broke from the dance to sweep the royal consort in a series of circles, enabling me to check the various exits and take stock of who among us was armed. If Sigrid understood my actions for what they were, she paid no mind and laughed at my embellishment to the choreography.
“Well, you are a charming dance partner, young one. Perhaps you will share a dance with me again before Godrik returns to Tarquinius. Or even better, perhaps he’ll leave you in our care when he does.”
I knew as soon as she spoke that her intention was to rattle my confidence, but before I could school my features, she caught my momentary confusion.
“Oh! Of course, silly me. You won’t have met him yet.”
It was not news that Godrik told me virtually nothing of his friends and associates and unsurprising that Sigrid could not be trusted by her word. If there was one thing in which I excelled, however, it was playing both sides to feel out a middle ground. “Tarquinius…” I murmured, taking a wild guess. “He is in Constantinople?”
A slight smile played across her features, as if in appreciation of my cleverness. “Indeed. I’ll see if I can’t find his messenger. He’s been waiting here for months.” Sigrid patted my arm then and abandoned me to snap at a servant.
I made my way back to Godrik’s side and stood a behind him, head bowed in imitation of the other young progeny I’d picked out in the group. Lost to my own thoughts, I heard only snatches of my maker’s conversation with the king.
There was comfort in the knowledge that Godrik had been adamant about not returning to Constantinople, but it would be a lie to say I was not concerned.
“Do you not agree, child?” Godrik asked.
I snapped my head up, wracking my mind over what they had been discussing, but found I had utterly lost the thread of the conversation.
“I’m not certain it is for me to give an opinion on the subject, master.”
It was a lousy bluff.
“Oh come now, you musn’t be bashful, youngling!” the king guffawed. “Goodness, Godrik, you’ve certainly beat him into submission quickly! You must share your methods with me.”
Before Cornelius could continue to press me for an answer, a tall, lithe man dressed head to toe in black interrupted us with a bow. His head was crowned with a wild shock of wavy, jet hair and his skin was as pale and opaline as the moon.
“But of course! How silly of me to forget. Amleth has been here awaiting your return for some time, Godrik.”
My maker nodded coolly in greeting to the night walker, but a fondness lay quietly underneath his still exterior. I might have been more jealous if I weren’t simultaneously fascinated by him and thankful that he’d saved me from embarrassing myself further. He had been turned at about the same age as me, but his features were all razor sharp angles and aquiline planes. Neither green nor really blue, his viridian eyes seemed to absorb the color around him and illuminate it from within. Amleth turned his piercing gaze upon me and the corner of his expressive mouth twitched almost imperceptibly.
Godrik exchanged a few polite words before excusing us. I was relieved to escape the scrutiny of the court, but when I discovered our accommodations included a large, luxurious-looking bed, I could barely contain my joy. Godrik snickered at my response, nostrils flaring as he suppressed an impish smile. He bade the messenger and I sit and came behind me, resting a hand on my shoulder.
“Amleth here is the child of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus,” he explained. “Tarquin was…well, he is presently the chief magistrate of the draugur High Consul. He’s also a very old friend of mine.”
I nodded in appreciation of what seemed like a rather important title.
“I am sorry you have wasted your time waiting on me. Has your stay here at least been comfortable?”
“Well, they haven’t tried to kill me, if that is what you mean, Godrik,” Amleth said with a hint of amusement.
“I dare say that would sit poorly with your dear maker.”
Amleth let out an ironic laugh. His voice, his carriage, even his glorious raven mane – everything about his bearing smacked of a refined cosmopolitanism. I was mesmerized by his beauty. He was truly an exquisite creature.
“I should think so. Tarquin requests your presence.”
“Formally or informally?”
Amleth waved a slender hand around nonchalantly. “Does it matter?”
“I’m afraid it does this time.”
He shrugged. “Informally, then, but you should know that the consul is gravely unstable.”
“The consul is always unstable, Amleth. We founded it on democratic principles; that’s the nature of the beast.”
“He knew you would say that. Master says he needs his oldest ally. He wouldn’t have sent me if it wasn’t important. People are contesting the electoral process. There’s talk of involving other creatures.”
Godrik did not hesitate. “If that is the case then I truly cannot go. I am a maker now. There are other considerations. He will understand.”
“He will be disappointed.”
“Will you be punished if you return without me?”
Amleth chewed a lip in thought. “No.” His frown slowly morphed into a smile and he jerked his head at me. “As excuses go, he’s not a bad one. I cannot wait to see master’s face when I tell him.”
“You will stay a while longer?”
“If you wish it.”
“I do,” Godrik spoke affectionately.
“Then it is settled. I should very much like to get to know this one,” he said, grinning mischievously at me.
The following night Amleth joined us in our chambers. Godrik had cagily refused to answer my questions about Tarquinius and further infuriated me by insisting we sleep under a trap door in the floor. The beautiful bed lay in the middle of the room with its rich covers still pristinely drawn, untouched. I’d risen firmly committed to my foul mood, but before I could take it out on my maker, he left me in the care of the young messenger to attend court, extracting promises from us both that we wouldn’t leave the room or do anything else foolish.
Amleth folded a long leg underneath him and sat gracefully on a chair. His movements were positively leonine.
“How long have you known Godrik?” I asked, eager to have someone answer me normally for once.
“Nearly my entire life.”
“Do you have siblings or…” I wasn’t sure what to call them. “Blood kin?”
“I do. I am one of Tarquin’s eldest.”
“Your maker is very important, I take it,” I observed, too embarrassed to admit I did not know what the High Consul actually was.
Amleth gave a genuine smile. “Thanks in no small part to your own maker, young friend! I see Godrik has been his usual forthcoming self. No matter. You can ask me anything. But first things first – have you eaten yet this evening? Would you share a meal with me?”
Within minutes Amleth had a buxom woman sent to the room. She was dressed in a simple shift gown and had rich chocolate locks that furled around her bare shoulders.
“Good evening, darling,” he purred, pulling a curtain of her hair away to reveal her throat.
“Sire,” she murmured and curtsied.
“I don’t like them heavily glamoured, nor bitten to smithereens like most of the royal stock. She’s only been mine up until now.”
“She smells delicious.”
“Oh, just you wait,” Amleth said, pressing a kiss at her pulse point. The tinny perfume of her blood slammed against my senses the moment he bit delicately into her flesh. He held a thumb over the tiny puncture, controlling the tendrils of precious fluid so that they slid down her neck one tantalizingly slow drop at a time. I could not help the growl that escaped my throat. Amleth chuckled at my eagerness.
“Here. Take it slowly. The delay only makes it better,” he explained in a husky voice, drawing me in by a shoulder.
I raised an unconvinced eyebrow at him, but followed his lead. He lessened his grip on the bite and I greedily lapped up what he released for me, nipping playfully at his hand.
“Steady, mate,” he chastised, then let out another pulsing flow. I tried to comply, but the heat of the woman’s blood and excitement of being watched by a stranger in the midst of such an intimate act proved overwhelming. Lurid thoughts of ravishing her with Amleth began to cloud my thinking and I pushed her away before the instinct to bite proved too strong. I didn’t know what the repercussions of draining someone else’s human might be.
“Your control is truly impressive,” Amleth remarked after he had healed the woman’s neck and sent her away. He sighed and collapsed onto the bed.
“What shall we do now?” He wondered aloud.
“Perhaps you’d like to see what else is impressive about me,” I quipped without thinking.
Amleth sat up sharply, eyes slightly wide.
“Or not,” I countered, realizing my usual forwardness might be unwanted. He could easily overpower me if he so chose.
“Don’t get me wrong. It’s just…You are marked, darling. You smell like ancient vampire and it’s very much meant to be a warning.”
“Oh come on. You know Godrik. Why should you fear him?”
Amleth looked at me like I was crazy. “I fear him because I know him! There are few creatures that don’t! He is capable of…” Amleth licked his lips nervously and dropped his voice into a bare whisper “of terrible, wonderful things.”
Immediately the horrifying image of his gaunt, drained figure sprang to mind. He’d done that to himself by choice in order to turn me. With a calm, steady hand. As a gift. I couldn’t imagine if he unleashed the same energy out into the world.
He held a long-fingered hand out, palm up. “Read me.”
I flopped down on the bed next to him and inhaled his palm, letting my nose and lips brush lightly against his skin.
“Leather and metal and…hyacinth?”
“Hnnn, yes. Good. You’ll get better in time. There’s also old power there. Tarquin’s.”
“Ah.” I hesitated, unsure whether my new acquaintance was as touchy about his history as my own. “Tell me about him.”
He laid back, threading his hands together behind his head with a happy sigh. “Well, he’s the most prideful man you’ll ever meet, hence the nickname ‘superbus’. Uncompromising. Fierce. The only person I’ve ever seen him defer to is Godrik. Of course, they fight constantly and about everything. It’s rather hellish when they’re together but invariably it seems too quiet when Godrik’s gone.”
“Are they lovers?” I asked quietly, dreading the answer.
“Don’t you know?” he replied in surprise. “They were long ago, I’m sure. Godrik’s been virtually celibate for a century at least. Maybe more. He refuses everyone. Even me,” he said with a wry, ribbon-like smile.
I laughed, relieved of some of the jealousy that roiled in the pit of my belly. “I know the feeling. He strung me along for a while too.”
“Psshh. You’ve no idea how lucky you are. A draug like him is highly prized, especially in the south.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, genuinely curious.
“He is a kouros – not quite a man, not still a boy. He is the embodiment of male beauty – an ideal made flesh.”
I nodded, carefully filing this revelation for further consideration.
“And what of Tarquin? Is he as beautiful as his child?” I inquired with a smirk.
Amleth gave a gentle laugh. “We look nothing alike. He is a big, hardy man with a soldier’s build. Everything about him is severe. But he is very handsome.”
“Go on.” I gave in the urge to stroke Amleth’s lustrous hair, carding my fingers through its silken lengths. It was astonishingly soft.
“He has dark auburn curls cropped close to his head and a beard as red as a flame when it grows out. A toothy smile that’s always a bit vicious. And like all Romans, he loves blood and power.”
“I should like to meet him one day.”
“You will, no doubt. He’ll die all over again when I tell him what Godrik’s gone and done.”
“What will you say?” I pushed, tracing a finger down the pale column of this throat, entranced by the bounce of his Adam’s apple as he spoke.
“Hnnn,” he hummed, turning to face me. “I shall tell him Zeus has found his Ganymede.”
My brows knit together in confusion.
“Zeus is the king of the Greek gods and the son of Time,” he explained. “Ganymede was a beautiful mortal – the only lover the god of gods ever made immortal. I’ll say you are a thing that must be seen to be believed.”
“Your words are almost as pretty as you,” I murmured, running a tongue over my teeth.
Daringly, I leaned in and whispered a suggestion as to what else Amleth might do with his talented mouth.
“Shocking!” he gasped, entirely insincere. He shoved me away and then laughed like a madman, throwing an arm around my shoulder.
We carried on like that for some time, teasing and telling stories like schoolboys. I was elated to have a friend. Amleth’s black attire and his pale complexion had made a rather austere first impression, but in private he was witty and warm and terribly charming. This relaxed camaraderie only served to remind me of the supreme intensity with which Godrik did everything. I loved how my maker’s tendency toward extremes made everything more exciting; momentarily I missed him and wished he was sharing in the evening’s pleasantries.
Amleth and I were still whispering conspiratorially in bed when Godrik returned.
“Enjoying your nanny, I see,” he remarked, casually setting his things down on the table.
“I like him. Can we keep him?” I said boisterously, emerging from underneath the sheets.
Godrik rolled his eyes. “You should have been teaching him something useful, Amla,” he chastised. “Have you done anything besides loaf around?”
Amleth smiled broadly. Godrik shook his head in dismay and gestured for me to get up and help him out of the heavy leather cuirass he’d worn that evening.
“You’re wasting precious time, child. Two nights have gone by and you’ve not progressed an iota in your studies.”
I looked up from the intricate laces and buckles I was unfurling and grinned proudly at Amleth. “I’m illiterate.”
The dark slip of man merely raised an eyebrow. “I see. Another of your impressive attributes, no doubt.” He covered his mouth with a finger to suppress a smile.
Godrik gnashed his teeth, making a show of his annoyance and shrugging out of the breastplate. “Thick as thieves already. I hope I do not rue the day you two were introduced.”
“Nonsense. Amleth will help me and he has already taught me things. It’s merely a question of motivation.”
“Did you think me in gaming mood when I tasked you? I demand it! What more motivation do you need?!” he retorted, sitting down in irritation. Clearly his time at court had done nothing to improve his mood. The old chair creaked in protest under his weight.
“It’s no problem, Lord Godrik,” Amleth offered, scrambling to kneel at the Celt’s feet. “I will teach him to read and write. It’s the least I can do, after all.”
Godrik stared silently at the floor before running the back of his knuckles down the plane of the pale man’s jaw, giving him a soft, conciliatory smile.
“Sweet Amleth. It was lucky we happened upon you here. I despise this place.”
“Me too. Shall we leave?”
Fear and excitement struck discordantly within me. How I wanted to have adventures but I dreaded losing Godrik’s attention.
“No. It is better to catch up on news from an unimportant place. Gods, if this isn’t a backwater.”
“How about moving on to the lower Rhinelands? At least it would be a little closer to the action. Once we get blondie here up to speed on his penmanship it might only take a few weeks for his letters to arrive.”
“Meh,” Godrik scoffed. “I prefer being out of the empire’s reach. It already boasts far too long an arm.”
“But it is your empire.”
“Enough. You are excused,” he said, uninterested in Amleth’s opinions about what authority he did or did not possess. “Shall we reconvene the same hour tomorrow?”
“Certainly. I bid thee good rest.” Amleth gave a deep bow and made his way out, pausing to nod at me. “Goodnight, my young friend.” He winked and disappeared behind the door in a flourish of black velvet.
Godrik leaned back, folding his hands neatly in his lap. He was waiting for me to share my thoughts.
“He’s exquisite. I want to eat him.”
“You want to…what? Do you even hear yourself?”
“What?” I asked innocently.
My maker stared at me incredulously, unblinking.
“I mean, just for fun. It wouldn’t…it doesn’t change things between us.”
He said nothing. I ran over my flippant words, searching for how I’d misspoken.
“People would know,” I said, furrowing my brow.
Godrik narrowed his eyes, unimpressed.
“His maker would know….Oh.” I felt stupid. “We’d be sending back the high counselor’s messenger and child bitten and banged up, without you in tow.”
“Claimed by a yearling, no less, raising the likely suspicion that I’d forced him to do it and thus making an already weak ally appear even weaker. We don’t share blood lightly, Eirikr. It is sacred.”
“Right. Got it. Anyhow, he seemed quite convinced that you’d kill him if he even looked at me the wrong way.”
Godrik closed his eyes and sighed. “I’ll make you a proposition. You learn to write an alphabet tomorrow and I’ll tell you how Amleth likes to be pleased.”
“He said you’d never been intimate together!” I accused.
“That does not mean I am blind to his tastes, though he does have a great many appetites.”
“Okay. A whole alphabet. In a night.” I was uncertain how difficult such a task would be. I certainly cottoned on to skills quickly in my transformed state. Perhaps this was not unreasonable for my preternatural mind.
“You learn two and I’ll show you how. It is a technique foreign to this part of the world.”
He had my full attention. “And if I learn three?”
Godrik couldn’t suppress an amused smile at my audacity. “Hmm. You learn three and I’ll join in.”
“Can I start now!?” I made a dash for my bag of supplies.
An hour later I was messily scratching out misshapen Greek letters, trying to imitate the example set Godrik had penned out across the top of the sheet. It was difficult to mirror his left-handed demonstration with my right and I produced a series of ugly, distorted little things, marred by blotches of ink splatters – the result of my utter lack of control over the quill. Unrelenting, I pressed forward, dutifully filling a page with the hideous scribbles and beginning a second when I’d run out of room. My overly large hands felt clumsy and ill suited for the refined task and several times already I’d snapped the nib of the instrument. Godrik showed me how to shape it with a blade – far more natural to me than controlling the flow of ink out of a damnable feather.
I was deeply focused when a panicked knock sounded at our door. Godrik snatched the knife off the table and opened the door a sliver, ready to gut whomever stood on the other side.
He relaxed and pulled Amleth in roughly.
“What?” he barked, looking concerned.
“I went to see Cornelius after I left and…and…someone’s been in my room. I think it was one of the consort’s chambermaids,” he spoke breathlessly.
Godrik scowled. “Stay here,” he ordered and slipped into the hall.
Amleth appeared genuinely rattled. “I suspect she sought correspondence dealing in my purpose here since you’ve arrived. There was nothing to find.”
“No one has done this in all the time you’ve been here?” I asked.
“Such a thing is not done. I represent the consul! It is a great offense, leaving her stench all over my things!” He frowned, seeing my own attempt at writing strewn about the table. “Oh gods…” he blurted out.
“Don’t say another word,” I warned sharply. “Tell me this: you said Godrik refused your advances. Do you wish he had accepted them?”
“Yes or no. It is a simple question.”
He huffed and crossed his arms. “Yes,” he admitted quietly.
“Then help me learn three alphabets by tomorrow and you shall have us both.”
“Indeed? Well…” he sucked in a contemplative breath. “We have our work cut out for us.”
Amleth was leaning over my shoulder, pointing out how I needed to conceptualize the smoothness of my brushstrokes as if it were it a sword stroke in fencing, when Godrik re-entered.
“These fools. They no doubt think we’re here for an official power grab. As if!”
“This country’s an uninhabited block of ice! Who wants to rule over a handful of half-starved nightwalkers?” Amleth protested in outrage.
“I know. Stay here tonight. We’ll sort the matter tomorrow.” He picked up a huge armoire as though it weighed nothing and blocked the door with it. “Take note, child. Why do I let Amleth share our day space?”
“He’s possibly endangered and you know him.”
“No. It is because my age permits me to go to ground long after you both are asleep and rise well before. He can stay because he trusts that I will not kill him.” Calmly he withdrew his dagger and started sharpening it with a whetstone, grimacing with each slow scrape down its edge.
“What will you do about the consort?” I asked.
He looked up at me coolly. “Negotiate.”
No sooner than the sun released me from the sleepy shackles of day and I was back at work, refusing to pause even to sate my newborn’s hunger. My mind whirred in comprehension, pleased by the challenge and soaking up information as fast as Amleth could create examples for me. I could clumsily produce the scripts for Norse, Latin, and Greek, but now had to understand the sounds they each represented, nevermind the actual meaning of the foreign words. Amleth recited snatches of old poems he knew and I dutifully attempted to transcribe the sounds.
Soft leathered footsteps echoing in the long corridor of the hallway announced Godrik’s return from the great hall.
“Hurry!” Amleth encouraged, scrambling to arrange the letters I’d created in a neat presentation.
There was a long pause and the chamber door creaked open, but my maker did not enter. We both looked up, full of excited anticipation…
…and were met with a perfect picture of horror.
There stood Godrik, glistening and matted head to toe in gore, his eyes set like two green stones in a crimson sea. Dumbstruck, neither Amleth nor I uttered a word.
He looked about slightly forlorn, gaze unfixed.
“We should probably go.”
Amleth managed to find his voice. “What happened?!”
“I tried to negotiate. Sigrid threatened me, insulted me. I tried to make her see reason, but she refused. So I took out her eyes.” Godrik sucked at his teeth and daintily pulled a white sliver of something away, flicking it to the ground. I realized it was a shard of bone. “There was a bit of resistance.”
“Lives. Maybe he will be better host next time.” Without batting an eye he walked over to assess the papers at the table. He merely glanced over the runic praise poem, less interested in what would be the easiest for me.
“Eeesh. Your spelling in Greek is atrocious.” He leaned over my Latin paper, inspecting it closely. “You’ve butchered Ovid.” He raised an eyebrow at Amleth, knowing full well he’d dictated the passages piecemeal to distort the dead poet’s meaning. A crooked smile snaked over his bloody features as he saw how I’d chosen to sign my name: Godrikson. He looked positively innocent and monstrous all at once.
“Let’s keep it,” he said in an even tone, opening the bond and flooding me with his happy pride.
Somehow that little shred of vellum managed to make the journey with us. Not just that night when we left the Danish court (what was left of it), but through the years that followed. I have pasted it here in the next pages for safekeeping. Though it is full of grievous errors and in an unsteady, awkward hand, it seems only appropriate to include my first attempt at writing as I begin this diary, yet another in a line of firsts. After all, all my rune songs must begin and end the same: with the name Godrik on my lips.
I was singing, while Cupid quickly selected an arrow
from his open quiver, to engineer my ruin,
and vigorously bent the sinuous bow against his knee
and said, ‘Poet take this effort for your song!’
Woe is me! That boy has true shafts.
Pierce me, boy! I’m offered naked to your weapons:
this is your power, this is what your strength does:
as if your arrows came here now fired by themselves –
their quiver is scarcely more familiar than me!
You’ll grant me a happy theme for singing –
reasons for song, worthy of you, will rise.
I too will be sung likewise through all the world,
and my name will always be linked to yours.