Mam is buried beneath her blankets again. It’s been two days, but still she refuses to rise. Maiken burned the stew she reheated for breakfast—again. Now, it’s nearing dinnertime, and Mam doesn’t stir. Papa, Ulf, and Tarben will return soon, but the longhouse is empty of the scents that usually greet them.
No one seems to be very hungry, which is good because Mam isn’t cooking.
I wonder what’s wrong with me, then, that my stomach won’t stop growling. Why doesn’t my body understand like the others’ that now is not the time for petty things like food or comfort?
Kennet will never eat another meal.
That should be enough to strip me of my appetite. We lit his pyre yesterday, and all I could think as the smoke carried his soul to Fallne Hallen was how much the air smelled like roasting pork, and how hungry I am. It’s the time of year when the leaves turn vibrant and the animals are fat and sleepy, but not yet hidden away. Normally, we eat best this time of year.
Except no one seems to be very hungry but me.
The men take their time returning tonight. Maiken keeps glaring at the door as she slices vegetables at the rough-carved table. Usually, she makes me help—and I offered two times already—but tonight she just stands and slices and glares, not doing anything worthwhile with the growing mountain of carrots and onions piling up beside her.
The baby starts to cry. Ib is always crying. There’s a rustle from the blankets; Mam adjusts her hold on him and he quiets. At least one of us is feeding.
I reach for a carrot and—quick as a viper—Maiken raps my knuckles with the flat of her knife. A thin line of blood wells up on the back of my middle finger. I pop it into my mouth with a glare of my own directed straight at her.
She ignores me.
That’s nothing new.
A sudden cry in the village brings both our heads around toward the door. My eyes drift to Maiken, but she remains alert, like a forest cat who has sensed a barn mouse. If she had a tail, it would twitch behind her.
Finally, she blinks and returns to her task. “Must’ve lost another one.”
As if Torblirost is a forgetful child spilling its toys in the forest. As if the plague that has gripped us these past weeks is not stealing lives it has no rights to.
The door bursts open. I jump. Maiken already has her knife in a warrior’s hold, the vegetables forgotten.
Mam doesn’t move.
Tarben pants in the doorway. “Maiken! Papa sent me…” He gasps for air, his eyes wild with terror, and my stomach goes hot. “Night Raiders.”
Maiken moves from behind the table before I’ve registered our brother’s words. She shoves a spear in Tarben’s hands and reaches for her sword. I follow them to the door, but Maiken spins on me.
“Stay here, Solvi.”
“I want to help!”
I’m ten, for Vöder’s sake. It’s time she sees me as a warrior.
Perhaps she reads defiance in my eyes. Her jaw works but her tone is confident when she wraps my fingers around her knife. “You need to protect this house. If anyone but us comes in, you know where to stick this.”
“Between his legs if I can’t reach his throat.” It’s one of the first lessons she taught me.
One side of her lips lifts and she claps her hand against my cheek. Then she’s gone, chasing Tarben and glory into the sinking sun.
From the door of our longhouse, I can hear a shriek here and there. Half-hearted and bitter. Torblirost has lost so many to the plague, what more damage can a band of mythical terrors do?
This logic doesn’t stop my heart from drumming like an execution song. What’ll I do if one of those demons shows up here? I know what I’ve told Maiken, but it’s another matter entirely to actually stab a man. My hand is hot and slimy around the knife. I switch my grip and wipe my palm against my thigh, but it doesn’t seem to help.
“Mam?” I whisper, backing away from the door. “Mam, did you hear?”
She must not know we’re under attack. I don’t want to take my eyes from the door, as if by watching it will keep anyone from entering. I back up until my legs bump the bench where Mam sleeps.
With a deep breath, I rip my gaze from the entry to Mam. She lies on her side facing me, Ib wriggling in her arms, her eyes open but as unseeing as Kennet’s were. My stomach lurches.
She blinks. Focuses on me.
“Solvi,” she says. I wait, but she doesn’t rise. She doesn’t demand a weapon or take charge.
“Mam.” Horrifying tears crowd my eyes. I blink them furiously away. I’m too old to cry, no matter how helpless I feel. “Mam, you need to get up now. We’re under attack.”
Her eyes slide closed. I want to shake her. I’m terrified to touch her.
“Take your brother,” she says, her voice little more than a breath. “Take your brother and hide.”
My heart still thrums that killing beat, but my breaths come easier. If she’s telling me to hide, it’s because she’ll protect us. I offer her the knife, but she shakes her head.
“Take your brother. Then let them come.”
My body flashes hot then frozen and I take a step back. “But Mam…”
“Solvi.” Her voice is broken, like the rest of her. “Solvi, I can’t…”
The knife is still slick in my palm, but my fingers tighten around the handle.
“Someone has to.” I don’t know if I say it for her or myself, but I know it is truth. I move back to the door to wait.
I am a warrior of Torblirost, and I will not let anyone harm my family.