Excerpt from “The Shades of Winter”

I remember my mother most clearly from that last day at Dyrsholt: her spine still as straight as a loom’s warp beam, and that familiar, stubborn set to her mouth.

“High time you attended to your lands yourself,” she’d said.

If it occurred to me that she had never, before this morning, given me even the slightest hint that she wanted so much as my opinion on how she managed Dyrsholt, it didn’t surface till she was long gone. I just nodded, dumbly, and wondered what new scheme lay in this sudden departure.

Her things were already packed and waiting on the dock. Her brother had sent a boat. I did wonder briefly how Arvid’s wife had taken the news that she’d be sharing her life with her sister-by-marriage, but it wasn’t really my affair.

It’s an old tale, I suppose. We weren’t the only family who came out of the northlands only to dwindle from greatness into obscurity. And like many another such family, we nursed our imagined grievances and dreamed of the heights regained, never admitting our fall from grace was anything other than evil mischances and the jealousy of others.

It wasn’t even as if we were traitors, really, though we had been once, long ago, and only luck coupled with the echo of past deeds had saved us from utter annihilation. We muttered our treason in secret, and stopped short of outright defiance, in the form of an unsubtle and obviously grudging obedience to our oaths. We never sent quite enough warriors in support of our leaders as we ought, and we sent them as late as we dared, but both our loyalty and our defiance was a thing of little moment in the world, so small a name had we become.

My mother, well, she was only a cousin to this, but once married, she had taken up the cause all the more deeply, I think, because of that. It went into every thought and every deed. While her aims might be clear, her methods were not, since so much of her energy was drained away simply trying to keep the proverbial wolves of poverty from devouring what little was left of once-vast holdings.

It wasn’t as though I was unloved, either. I had been a late child, arriving some considerable time after she and my father thought she was past all that, and I simply wasn’t within her calculations. I was welcome enough, but she had other things on her mind, especially with my father’s death so soon after my birth, and outside of seeing to it that Gwennie was looking out for my meals and clothing, she went back to alternately cajoling and threatening the local farmers into proper tithes, and to colluding with my brother Rei in devising plots whereby the Arnfinnr once more became a Great Power and challenged the Skjalfang for the right to rule.

They had never noticed that their own lack of engagement in Raeth’s affairs meant that they heard most news too late to be of real use to them, or that their lack of the riches needed to effect these plots was stymied by their firm belief that one really good raid would put us back into the ranks of the great families, and that we would then be given our due.

The idea that moderate behaviour and careful stewardship would build our fortunes more securely than even the most lucrative sacks of plunder ever could was laughable to them. We were a family of spendthrift, indolent malcontents, and maybe I would have been as well, if my mother had spent any time pouring out her complaints and her aspirations to me.

I was too young, though, and I didn’t seem very useful, or even, I think, terribly intelligent. She left me to Gwennie’s care, for the most part, and treated me with a careless affection when our paths occasionally crossed. My brother, on the other hand, conscious that until he got himself a child or two, I was his heir, took pains to turn me into a warrior. As soon as I could walk, he had me on the practice ground, mercilessly drilling me in correct stance and exhorting me to get stronger, faster, better. He wasn’t unkind, really, just single-minded and not very realistic about what a toddler is capable of.

It was a shock, to me and everyone else, then, when my mother announced that she was sending me to Raethelingas to join the young prince’s Kyndred.

It may have been part of one of those harebrained schemes she and my brother dreamed up from time to time. It might only have been a passing thought that having me there might at some point prove useful. Perhaps it had finally occurred to her that she was woefully out of touch with Raeth’s policies and priorities, and decided that even a child spy was better than nothing. It’s never made much sense to me.

I was six. All I understood was that she was sending me away.


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