Story no. 31. Hey, I was in Ireland, cut me a break.
Ifrid felt in her bones the moment God-of-Judgment set foot into her stepfather’s hall. The men-at-arms felt it; she saw fear and awe and hunger in their faces as she sprinted past them. There was no question if Eren felt it. Ifrid was a fast runner, but the other girl outpaced her like an eagle soaring over a deer.
They had been up in the Glen, a crevasse in the mountain which rose over the keep. It had been sheer extravagance for Lord Jaoth, the father of Lord Veath, to build the defensive walls right up around the Glen with no more motivation than a murmured wish of his wife’s, so that she might go walking in the little wood and look up at the waterfall that danced down onto the rocks night or day.
But it made a fine place to hide from Veath while she was practicing her archery, Ifrid thought, and if she needed to come back in a hurry she needed only rush up the steps and run along the walltop.
The noise from the town below had gone utterly still – no carts rattling, no men shouting, no women shrieking, no stone crashing on stone as they levered rocks one onto one another for the new trade hall. What was left was the sound of a man whistling, if a single man’s whistle could echo over miles of forest and rock. Below the whistle rustled whispering, the patter of footsteps, a child’s laugh.
Ifrid slowed to a halt when she reached the hall’s great doors of shining oak, spanned by gilded hinges longer than her outspread arms from tip to tip. Great beasts yawned around the base of each door, carved there to frighten demons away from the court of Veath. The teenager bent to rest her hands on the head of the rightmost guardian-beast, both to catch her breath and get up her courage.
From the expensive royal tutor that the High King had sent to Lord Veath, his brother-in-law, the children of the household had learned of the savage land of Ygghravsa, only reached by climbing one of the violent Ten Rivers into the Eelteeth Mountains, each of which cascaded the height of a hundred men down the Ridge Cliffs, throwing down rocks like daggers upon foolhardy travelers. Ygghravsa was braced between the Eelteeth and the Dark Mountain, so tall it could be seen for a thousand miles in all directions. There they worshiped not Umath, the stately god of the sun, or Akobeth, the peaceable goddess of the harvest, but Dark Gods. The Dark Gods, unlike the Golden Pantheon, had not left the earth after the War of the First-Fires, but remained behind the Eelteeth among the people there, ruling as witch-kings.
From her mother, who had grown up in the shadow of the faraway Dark Mountain, Ifrid knew the titles and sigils of the four Dark Gods: God-of-Insanity, who is heralded by the screaming of crows and the sign of the waning moon; God-of-Lies, who comes walking in the wake of hissing snakes and leaves the symbol of the eclipsed sun; God-of-Death, who follows the laughter of jackals and uses the flag of the broken sword; God-of-Judgment, who comes in silence and needs no crest.
From her father, who came seldom in the hall of his love’s husband and lord, Ifrid knew too the secret names of the Dark Gods, given to them by God-on-the-Mountain, who was so old he had lost his name.
God-of-Judgment had first come in the hall of Lord Veath when Ifrid was eight years old, carrying Eren beneath his cloak. He had been seeking the Lady Fyaadyr, Ifrid’s mother.
Ifrid pushed open the door of the hall.
The whispering came from nearly thirty children who stood around the feet of the God-of-Judgment. He stood head and shoulders over even the tallest man. He brought the smell of the forest into the hall with him: great trees and coursing waters and wolves and badgers and eagles. Black hair spread around his head in tufts and tight locks; silver eyes glowed in his brown face.
The children’s faces had the same hunger of the men-at-arms, but they did not know to be, or did not yet have to be, afraid of God-of-Judgment. Small hands grabbed at his cloak and yanked at his ragged armor. They whispered to each other, flapped their hands, and giggled.
Eren stood in front of God-of-Judgment, her face radiant.
“Daughter of mine,” God-of-Judgment said quietly, if a quiet man’s words could be heard at the bottom of the cellars and the top of the walls. “How has the last year run?”
Eren spoke in the language of the Dark Mountain, her voice rising and falling. Ifrid leaned against the door. Words swam in her ears, dipped in her brain, then re-emerged again, half-understood. She didn’t really need to know what they were saying, only that it was being said.
The children who had followed God-of-Judgment from the village could not have understood what was being said, but they did not grow bored or wander away, but their eyes traced the faces of the god and the girl facing him over and over again. The murmur and shuffle of footsteps just beyond the doors told Ifrid that the adults of the keep had gathered outside the hall, but dared not come in.
The shadows in the hall had long lengthened, and some of the children begun to fall asleep on the floor.
God-of-Judgment looked over Eren’s head to meet Ifrid’s eyes. Her body shook but she held his gaze.
“Has my brother been here?” he said.
“Not since the last time you asked,” Ifrid said.
God-of-Death had come twice in the hall of Lord Veath: once, six years late, to bless Ifrid’s birth, and once, two years later, to bless the arrival of Eren. Lady Fyaadyr had refused him entrance to the hall every day for a month when he had come to bless Ifrid. The Dark Gods could not rest in homes where they were not invited.
Ifrid did not think that was why God-of-Death had not come for six years, though.
“How old are you this year, Ifrid-daughter-of-Fyaadyr?” God-of-Judgment asked.
“I am eighteen this year,” she said evenly.
God-of-Judgment shifted, and new lines appeared in his face. His lips drew back into a tight grimace. Then, “Do you know the story of Oro Baratheiar and God-of-Death?”
“I know it,” Eren said. Ifrid met the eyes of her sister, a child as thin and clear as a summer shadow. She realized her face, too, had drawn into an expression of painful sadness. “God-of-Death hid from Oro for a thousand years because he did not want to send his son from this world.”
“Do you know why?” God-of-Judgment asked.
Eren thought, and gave the answer that would be true were it her father: “Because he loved his son too much.”
“No,” God-of-Judgment said, a little sadly. “Because he was a coward and he did not want to cause himself pain.”
The girl frowned up at him, and Ifrid saw that Eren, in the infinite wisdom of eight years, had meant to protect her; and she saw that God-of-Judgment saw it; and she saw that God-of-Judgment knew that she knew it.
He knelt on the stone floor of the hall, and the children who were yet awake rushed to climb on his shoulders and sit on his knees, and he pressed a kiss to Eren’s forehead. “Daughter of mine, I will return at the first snow.” She kissed his cheek, and he rose. The children who had been holding his cloak and shirt found themselves on the floor without knowing how they had gotten there.
“Ifrid-daughter-of-Fyaadyr,” God-of-Judgment said.
“Yes, sir,” Ifrid said.
“We do my brother no favors by allowing him to hide in the shadows of his fear,” he said. “You are a woman grown; let us go and find your father.”
The doors swung wide and they walked from the hall together, Ifrid aware of a hundred eyes on the enormous brown man and the towheaded teenager. Those gathered in the antechamber and the corridor past that pressed themselves against the walls, neither able to meet the god’s eyes nor to force themselves to hide from him.