Halvard sat down at the edge of the table, exhausted. Eilíf sat down opposite him and leant her head down on the table, too tired to eat the food Holmvé had made for them. Halvard ripped the bread beside his soup into tiny pieces and dropped them into the bowl for them to soak. He had barely had four hours sleep. Most of the night had been spent going from cordon to cordon with water and food. To make matters worse, three more cordons had been built in the east tunnels. Three cordons too many to supply with the few soldiers he had. Added to that, many of the bodies still had not been moved and the rats had already started to cause problems. Many soldiers, áðr’s and even the lágr hilmir refused to touch the bodies of the dead and dying, despite the threat of demotion.
“Is she alright?” Halvard asked.
There was a loud knock on the door and Halvard got up to open it, grumbling as he did so. A middle-aged dwarf woman stood at the door, with a scarf held over her face and the strong aroma of garlic and lavender around her.
“Holmvé Hjort?” she asked. The scarf muffled her voice.
“Do I look like my name is Holmvé Hjort?” Halvard said.
“I need to speak with her.”
“She’s resting. Come back later.”
“I need to speak to her! I heard she knows a cure!”
Halvard glared at her. “I don’t know where you heard that but it’s simply not true.” He tried to close the door, but the woman jammed her foot between it and the door frame.
“Please! I won’t tell anyone! I just need her to help my son!”
The expression on her face was so similar to the one Halvard remembered seeing on Elin, Jarl’s mother. The same look of a mother who would do anything to save the life of her children. And remember how that ended, Halvard thought bleakly.
“She’s not here!” Halvard roughly pushed her away and closed the door. The woman did not give up though, she threw herself against the door and shrieked that they could not leave her on the doorstep.
“Please! Please I’ll do anything!” she wailed. “I have gold! I’ll give you everything I have! Please, just help my son!”
Halvard closed his eyes and held his head in his hands, his back against the door as the woman continued to throw herself against it on the other side.
“Halvard! Let her in!” Holmvé said. He looked up to the stairs and saw her. Her face was drained and tired and her eyes were red with exhaustion.
“Holmvé, you need to sleep. You’ve been up all night,” Eilíf said.
“I can sleep when I’m dead. I can’t just leave her outside like an animal.” She walked towards the door and stumbled slightly. Eilíf rushed forward and took her hands to steady her.
“What are you doing? You need to rest!”
Outside, the woman hammered on the door even harder. “No! No, you stay and rest. I can help her,” Eilíf reassured her.
Holmvé did not argue. Eilíf passed her and walked out the door. As soon as it had closed, Holmvé sat down on the stairs in a huddle and burst into tears. Halvard stared at her, unsure of how to respond.
“I’m sorry, I’m just tired,” Holmvé snivelled. “I can’t believe this is happening again. What was the king thinking? Didn’t enough people die last time?”
“He’s a young boy. And with the likes of Yrsa Gull around, I don’t say I blame him. The poor thing looked scared out of his wits after the funeral,” Halvard replied.
His reply did not help Holmvé who just buried her head against his shoulder. There was another loud knock on the door. Before Halvard could say a word, Holmvé stormed up and threw the door open, a wave of curses escaping her mouth even as she saw who stood on the doorstep.
“What in Hel’s name do you want, Gauss?”
“I’m here for Halvard,” the áðr replied, a little frightened of the old woman who stood before him with her bloodshot eyes.
“You wouldn’t give him his old position back but now you’re walking all this way for a soldier? Go away!” Holmvé shouted furiously and tried to close the door on him.
“The Har Fleinn asked for him specifically,” Áðr Gauss replied just as angrily, and shoved his foot in the doorway.
With a sigh, Halvard scooped one last spoonful of cold soup into his mouth, got up and grabbed his cloak.
* * *
Halvard didn’t bother to talk to the áðr as they both walked in silence to the garrison. The streets were deserted. There was waste everywhere. Trampled food, animal dung and crumpled heaps of old clothes were scattered on the floor. Feet peeked out from beneath the rags. With not enough soldiers brave enough to touch the bodies, many had been left in the streets until they could be taken outside the city. Passersby brave enough to approach the bodies had left cloaks or rags over them so they would not become a spectacle.
“What does the Har Fleinn want with me?” Halvard asked flatly. He was too tired to really care, but the tiny part of his mind that was still awake was curious.
“He was impressed with how you dealt with that boy in the plaza.”
“Is that all? You couldn’t have just told me and let me sleep for a few more hours instead of dragging me across the city?” Halvard snapped.
“He wants to thank you in person.”
The áðr sounded angry and would not even turn to look at him, and Halvard was too tired to pick up on what normally would have worried him.
A small group of dwarfs walked by, their hands covered in white dust. One of them quickly hid something behind his back as they passed them.
“Go home!” the áðr bellowed, and they scurried away. He muttered to himself as they turned into one of the larger tunnels towards the plaza and noticed a large scrawl on the wall. Above the words a large icon had been drawn of a wolf in white chalk. The likeness was almost identical to the one on the goblin cuffs they had taken. A block of discarded chalk on the ground by it.
’The wolf is coming,’ Halvard read out loud to himself. “Bloody fools,” Halvard scoffed.
The áðr said nothing.
* * *
“So, you’re Halvard?”
Halvard bowed and nodded, unsure of how to react. He had never met the Har Fleinn face to face. He had not even been in the same room as him before, and now here he was, his attention completely on him. For such an old dwarf, he held himself perfectly upright. The cuffs which separated his long pure white beard into three plaits had been polished until they shone like gold. He looked like the kind of dwarf who would walk through a mud fight and still come out the other side with the air of a king.
“Gauss. Get out,” he muttered and waved his hand dismissively at Gauss.
With a nod, Gauss bowed and closed the door behind him.
“Shit, what did he do?” Halvard asked before he realised he had muttered his thoughts out loud. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to say that.”
“He is getting demoted,” the Har Fleinn explained, “and don’t appologise, I like a dwarf who can speak his mind, and I’m quite determined to like you.”
Halvard looked at him confused.
“I was told you’re the áðr for the death walkers?”
“Yes, I guess so. They follow me for some reason. But I’m not an áðr, I can’t be.”
“Yes, yes, your father. Well, I think you’ll find I can bend that rule.”
Halvard’s heart froze for a second before it pounded frantically, a look on his face that reminded the Har Fleinn of startled fish.
“Sit,” the Har Fleinn pointed to the sable and sat down opposite Halvard, two fresh flasks of mead on the table. “Drink.”
“Please don’t tell me you’re a fiskr?” the Har Fleinn asked, a disapointed expression on his face.
“No sir, I just haven’t slept more than four hours for the past week. If I drink I don’t think I’ll be able to stand.”
The Har Fleinn laughed loudly and nodded. “Fair enough. Well then, l should get to the point. “I’m going to make you an áðr, and yes, I know technically I shouldn’t be able to because of your father, but being the Har Fleinn does have a few perks. Did you know that there are three people who can restore a family name other than the king?”
Halvard shook his head, his hands cold and his heart stuck at the back of his throat. “Well, neither did I till I consulted the palace. The queen, the high council and the Har Fleinn. Me.” He reached into his cloak and pulled out a long silver plaque which he placed down on the table in front of Halvard. “Your name was restored this morning with the palace records. I’m afraid I can’t give you your old home back. That was sold to cover your father’s debts, but you I can make you an áðr now. With a smár, varðmaðr’s and áðr’s salary, of course.”
Halvard tried to speak, but the words were trapped behind the lump at the back of his throat. He reached for the plaque and ran his fingers over the new name written at the top. Halvard Byström. There were no names before it. There could not be. His name had been restored, not his father’s, but it didn’t matter. His name had been restored. He was no longer the neinn nefna son of an ósómi.
The Har Fleinn’s face softened as he saw Halvard’s expression and he cleared his throat loudly. “What you did in the plaza was brave, and what you’ve been doing with the death walkers is nothing short of heroic. If I had ten men like you, half my problems would be over. I’m putting you in charge of all the death walkers in the city. And before you get excited I need to warn you, you won’t have enough men, sleep or the respect you should have.”
“Is that all?” Halvard tried to joke, his laugh more of a choke.
“But I can promise you that whatever you need, food, equipment, pressure on the right idiots, you’ll have it. I need you to get the city running again.”
“You need me to get the bodies buried” Halvard nodded.
“Yes. Bury the bodies, keep food and water going into the cordons. I’ve also been getting unconfirmed reports of some little goðgás have been selling hemlock oil as sage oil to some of the dwarfs in the cordons.” The Har Fleinn took a long swig of his mead. “If you find them, I leave it up to you to deal with them.”
“But what about the judges?”
“Half of them are sick and the other half are worn out. Besides, any little shit who sells poison to desperate dwarfs deserves whatever he gets, in my opinion.”
Halvard nodded and stood up, the plaque still on the table.
“Aren’t you going to take that with you?”
Halvard nodded and picked it up. The plaque was heavier than he thought it would be. He bowed and walked towards the door, but before he walked through it the Har Fleinn called him back.
“I heard that you’re friends with Jarl Vǫrn?”
“Yes, I am.”
The Har Fleinn flicked something round and gold towards him. Halvard caught it, opened his hands and looked down at the same áðr cloak pin Jarl had once had.
“Vǫrn’s old one, I thought you should have it. I heard a rumour that he left for the high city?”
Halvard did not reply.
“I hope for him that rumour isn’t true. He didn’t take the Villieldr boy with him did he?”
Again Halvard said nothing, unwilling to give up any information which could affect Jarl badly once he returned to the city. The Har Fleinn shook his head. Halvard’s silence was as informative to him as an audible reply. “He’d better pray that boy comes back alive, or he’ll be sent to the Gróf.”
“He’ll be alright,” Halvard replied. “Jarl would rather lose his right leg than let anything happen to Knud.”