How about an exclusive excerpt of An Apprentice to Elves by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette? Courtesy of the lovely folks at Tor, we’ve got Chapter 2, and the book is out this week, so make sure you put it on your to-buy list!
Here’s what the book is about:
Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear return with the third book in their Iskryne trilogy, An Apprentice to Elves. The trilogy began with A Companion to Wolves, and continued in The Tempering of Men. This novel picks up the story of Alfgyfa, a young woman who has been raised in the Wolfhall by her father Isolfr, who is the human leader of the queen-wolf Viridechtis’ pack, and was the protagonist of the first book.
The warrior culture of Iskryne forbids many things to women-and most especially it forbids them bonding to one of the giant telepathic trellwolves. But as her father was no ordinary boy, Alfgyfa is no ordinary girl. Her father has long planned to send his daughter to Tin, a matriarch among the elves who live nearby, to be both apprentice and ambassador, and now she is of age to go.
Read on for the excerpt!
Whatever her other frustrations in the house of the svartalfar, Alfgyfa loved the work. The smithing work, anyway: there were other tasks that delighted her less, such as caring for her foster brother Girasol, Tin’s son, once he arrived.
He was Tin’s second child. Her first, a daughter named Rhodium who was a little younger than Alfgyfa, had been sent fostering to a household of the Iron Lineage in another alfhame, for complicated alfish reasons that Alfgyfa tried not to listen to. Girasol, being a less valuable male, would stay with his mother. His father and his facilitating parent, though certainly known, never seemed very important. Alfgyfa, whose experience had all been the other way around—she knew who her mother was, of course, but it was her father who was the center of her world—found it disconcerting, but she never doubted that Tin loved her son.
It must be said that svartalf babes, for a mercy, were not so helpless as human ones. They clung under their mothers’ robes with strong spidery fingers almost from the moment they were born. Perhaps that was the secret to the svartalfar’s unearthly strength: there was simply no part of a svartalf’s existence when it was not engaged in some physical task that was desperately essential for life. When Tin wished a reprieve from Girasol—when she would
be working close in to fire and steel, for example—she reached into her robes and pried his tiny fingers free of her flesh, then handed him off to one of the apprentices.
He was, in that way, much less trouble than a babe in a sling.
But it must also be said that svartalf babes, for a tribulation, were not so helpless as human ones. His fingers might be delicate—almost unimaginably fine, like the teeth of a reindeer-horn comb. But they were also unimaginably strong, and they pulled Alfgyfa’s hair and left bruises on her arms and shoulders where he perched. And he was much more mobile than a human infant, and from a younger age. He could quite outscamper her, and the other apprentices never let her forget the times she had to come to them to retrieve him from some unlikely perch.
She also tended the shaggy little ponies of Nidavellir, as the alfhame was called. They were beasts no larger than a trellwolf dog, often spotted of coat, round-bellied and hard-hooved. But they could do the work of any cart horse or reindeer Alfgyfa had known, hauling ore and victuals in carts to and fro. They were perfectly at home in the tunnels, and you could see them trotting cheerfully along the wider thoroughfares of the alfhame as if they trotted along some grand boulevard under a bright spring sun. Their hooves clopped bright echoes, and in their harness stonestars glimmered, and bells rang down the long passages of worked stone.
But child-minding and animal husbandry were not all of her duties—or even the most of them. And before long, Girasol grew to the age where he was ’prenticed himself, and then Alfgyfa was no longer the youngest and least of Tin’s household. As the seven years of her apprenticeship passed, so she learned. Smiths did all sorts of work, but Alfgyfa loved best the blades—axes, swords, even knives for cutting vegetables. She loved the work of making crucible steel: taking iron ore and mixing it with burned bone—from trellwolves, ancestors, bears, sometimes even trolls, depending on the purpose of the blade—for strength and resilience. When a svartalf died, her remains were wrapped and scented with great ceremony, then burned in a refining fire with ore. The charcoal that remained of the bones became part of an alloy with which blades or baubles were made for those who wished to remember her.
Alfgyfa thought this was an excellent form of funeral, and even better than burning in a boat, as Ingrun’s brother Randulfr had once told her was the tradition of his home country.
Along with the ore and bone, the crucible—a cylindrical pottery vessel— was filled with chips of glass and sand. (This sand and glass would bond to the slag, and help leave the remaining steel pure, once it was hammered clean. Sometimes, for particular weapons, the glass and sand were chosen from significant sources as well. There was a blade in the entrance hall of Tin’s home that had been wrought by one of her foremothers, and the fragments of glass for its refining had been salvaged from a cobalt-tinted window broken in the attack that started a clan feud. When the feud was ended, the weapon was hung up forever.)
The filled crucible was then covered and sealed up with clay slip, just like the clay slip Alfgyfa had already learned to use to fix a handle to a drinking cup before it was fired.
Many mastersmiths shared one furnace cavern. When it was time for the ore to be refined, each crucible was marked with the seal of the particular smith who had filled it—or, more likely, who had caused it to be filled by her apprentices. The crucibles were buried in charcoal in a cave that touched the surface: one designed so it caught the wind and channeled it into the heart of the fire—and the heat and fumes of the furnace rose up chimneys so the fire, in its own turn, created a draft and drew ever more breath.
At its height, the air feeding the blaze whistled through the mountainside so that it was like lying under the belly of a dragon. The whole of the warrens grew warm when the smelter was fired. And even after the furnaces were cool enough to approach, Alfgyfa loved that one must go into them only in thick shoes padded with wool and leather, which burned and crackled and scorched around one’s feet. The crucibles glowed yellow-white when the apprentices pulled them from the ashes, and Alfgyfa loved that, too.
Alfgyfa loved also the forge. She loved the singing of the hammers— Mastersmith Tin’s, and those of her journeymen Jade and Nickel. She loved when she was allowed to pick up her own hammer and stand in a circle with the other apprentices around an anvil. The Master or one of the journeymen would tap a spot on cherry-colored iron, and the apprentices’ blows must fall in the same place, in quick sequence, one after the other like the patter of the raindrops that these caverns would never know. Alfgyfa loved swinging her hammer with all her might, feeling the pull across her shoulders, and the quick elastic slam into hot metal, and then the tug and skitter as she whipped her hammer away before the next one fell.
When they worked on the raw steel from the crucibles, with each blow impurities showered from the metal in cascades of brilliant sparks. They hammered and hammered until the steel was clean.
She even loved the ceaseless labor at the bellows, where each of the apprentices took turns pumping the leather-wrapped wooden handles for the hours and hours required to refine steel. When Alfgyfa began, she could barely move the bellows. She was not as strong as an alf, and her small human hands barely spanned the broad handles. She would stand on her tiptoes and strain, pushing down with her whole body, until one of the other apprentices came and added his or her weight to Alfgyfa’s. But eventually, as months passed—not that the svartalfar measured time in months, the moon being as alien a light to them as the sun—Alfgyfa gained in weight and strength and muscle until she could take her turn with the alfar, unassisted.
She loved too the shaping of the blade, the folding and refolding, the care that must be taken with temperature and the force of the hammer blows.
But she loved most of all the quench —the moment when the forged steel was lifted in tongs, glowing dully, and slid into the cask of oil that awaited it. There was a delicious sort of dread in the moment when she strained her ear for the plink or ting of cracking metal—of a failed quench, and effort wasted, and metal that could now only be recast and reforged. But she loved most of all that moment when a blank blade was lifted, flaming, from the cask, and the burning oil spattered from it like dragon’s tears.
And in all of this, she loved also the incongruities in what Tin told her—told all the apprentices—about smithing. “Blacksmithing is gentle. It is not a thing of brute force, but patience and coaxing. You lead the form out of the metal. You lead the metal to become what it should. If you force it or rush it, the gate will warp, the nail will be brittle.”
Pearl asked, “What about blades?” thereby saving Alfgyfa the trouble.
“Most of what we smith is not blades, child. But yes, a blade that is rushed will be brittle, and it will shatter. If not in the quench, then when a life is at stake.
“You will find,” she added, looking at Alfgyfa, “that this principle applies much more widely than just the forge.”
Tithe-boys were not the bane of Otter’s existence, for Otter’s existence in the heall was largely too contented (for she did not use the word happy, not even to herself) to admit of banes. But they were, more frequently than not, a source of ongoing irritation and a damnable nuisance.
Otter was no one’s mother. Was not, in her estimation, cut from cloth wellsuited to the task of raising children. And yet, here she was: along with Thorlot, acting foster mother for this pack of beasts and the wolves that kept
In her calmer moments, she’d entertain that thought, then remind herself that it was somewhat uncharitable. At least wolfcarls, by and large, did their own laundry. And they made sure the tithe-boys learned that the heall women had duties beyond playing their personal servants also.
The current batch, gathered in anticipation of the unborn puppies maturing in the belly of the young bitch recently traded from Ketillhill, were a fine example. Two of them were but fourteen—young to come to the heall— and four were the more usual fifteen or sixteen winters. But it was an odd side effect of the end of the trellwar that more young men survived, and so there were more young men seeking their profession in the wolfheallan even as the wolfheallan became less critical to the defense of the North. After years of scraping and scrimping, the Franangfordheall was swimming in tithe-boys.
The trellwolves seemed to handle the change in fortune more economically: recent litters of the older Franangford bitches had been on the small side. The end result was that, in addition to the six newly arrived boys in want of a future, there were three tithe- boys left over from Amma’s and Viradechtis’ last litters. And these youths were well into the category that Otter would consider men.
None of them were awful people, precisely. But Canute, Tunni, and Varin had too much idle time on their hands, being too old for lessons beyond swordplay—and, being unwolfed, were in a strange position with regard to the threat and the heall. They didn’t belong to the wolfsprechend yet. But nor did they belong to anyone else.
Brokkolfr did his best to manage them. But Brokkolfr was not their mother either, and he too had a limited number of hours in his day. As Isolfr’s second— and the better human politician of the two, though no one could match Isolfr when it came to settling conflict between wolves—Brokkolfr had enough to do managing stresses between wolfcarls.
In any case, right now, standing in the spring mud with a collapsed hidestretching rack in ruins before her, Otter was feeling anything but charitable toward tithe-boys. And great grown nearly men tithe-boys least of all.
Among their other failings, they did have a tendency to show off for Thorlot’s daughter Mjoll and the other young women of similar age. And Mjoll, for all her general good sense, was still young enough to be flattered, even though she liked the tithe-boys no better than Otter did.
Which was why, after she came to tell Otter about the incident in the yard, Otter had asked her to stay inside and see to the porridge for the next little while. Mjoll had blushed blotchy red, and Otter knew she didn’t need to say anything more.
Otter drew herself up and looked across the mud of the kitchen yard to Tunni, Varin, and—always the ringleader—Canute. The other two boys —great, grown boys! She would indeed start thinking of them as men, if only they would act like it!—clustered slightly behind Canute, the tallest. They were all trying to look nonchalant. Or as nonchalant as one could look with mudstained breeches and a bloodied nose.
Causes in a wolfheall, Otter had learned, were tricky things. The pregnant bitch from Ketillhill was a nondescript agouti tawny named Athisla, and this was her second litter, her first at Franangford. She was sly, and a bit of a trickster—Frithulf’s brother Kothran had taken to her immediately, and there was some excitement in the heall anticipating just how clever the cubs in this litter might be. Her brother Ulfhundr was young and timid—for a wolfcarl—and very much under his wolf’s paw, as the wolfcarls said.
If Mjoll was flattered by the titheboys’ attention, Athisla actively sought it. She knew they were going to be competing for her puppies, and just as she’d encouraged scuffles between her potential mates before her heat, Otter was sure her sly dun snout was in back of this mess somewhere, even if Otter herself would never understand exactly
You could learn a lot about wolves if you paid attention in a wolfheall, even if you’d never be able to speak to them yourself. And you learned even more about boys, whether you wanted to or not.
She sighed and looked at the three boys. They quieted, watching her warily back. She said, “Would anyone care to explain what happened here?” They all exchanged glances. Canute straightened up slightly and said, “We were … roughhousing.”
“Canute,” she said. “Come over here.”
He started toward her with a glance to his two friends. Tunni and Varin hesitated, then trailed along as raggedly as the sheep at the edge of the herd who were just begging to be picked off by predators. Otter raised her eyebrows at them—are you sure you want to be part of this discussion?—and they dropped back somewhat, but kept coming. She would commend their loyalty, if not their brains.
She studied Canute while he crossed the yard, red mud sucking at the soles of his boots. He might have eighteen winters on him, but he wore them like a scarecrow’s coat. He tugged the hem of his outgrown jerkin down as he walked. It wasn’t too tight, merely too short, as if, like a shaded sapling, all his winter’s resources had gone to growing height rather than breadth. If he gained the breadth to match his height, he would be a bull of a man. And probably still an idiot.
Canute stopped before her, close enough that she had to crane her head back for a view of the underside of his chin and the sharpness of his cheeks and jawline. His hair was a streaky brownblond under the mud matted into it. What
she could glimpse of his expression was equal parts rebellious and crestfallen.
“You were fighting,” she said.
“Roughhousing,” he argued. He wasn’t sullen, at least. It was a plain statement of fact. “Fighting is if you want to hurt somebody.”
She reached out and flicked some drying mud off the raveling braid sewn onto his cuff. He tried to look abashed, and then he thought about it a little more and tried not to look abashed. Neither effort was particularly successful.
“Be that as it may,” she said dryly.
He stepped back, in order to get a better angle on her expression. It had the side benefit of clearing his up somewhat, too, and removing the interior of his nostrils from her direct line of sight.
“Whether you meant to hurt anyone or not, you did cause damage.” She gestured to the drying rack with the back of her hand. She knew the gesture made her look foreign; the Northmen were more likely to point with a chin. And yet it stayed with her. She continued, “Who’s going to clean this up?”
He blinked at her. Behind him, Tunni and Varin giggled. So much for loyalty. She made herself a note to talk to Skjaldwulf about them before Vethulf noticed there was a problem and took it into his head to perform some corrective action of his own.
“I am?” he said uncertainly.
Not entirely stupid, then. “You are,” she said. “And you’re going to scrub your shirts and trews out, too. And scrape the mud off those hides.”
Varin and Tunni giggled all the more, biting their lips to hide their mirth.
She turned to them, tilting her head back. “And you two,” she said. “Don’t think I somehow missed your part in all this. While Canute is cleaning up the mess you’ve made in the kitchen yard, you two can shovel out the stable yard. And when you’re done with that, I imagine you, too, will have some laundry to do. And all three of you are going to take that broken drying rack to Sokkolfr, and he is going to teach you to repair it.” Sokkolfr would not thank her, but if it could teach the tithe-boys to think about where they put their great, careless, “roughhousing” feet, it would be worth it.
And she would find something for Ulfhundr, too, something boring and fiddly and worth the nuisance his sister
was proving herself to be.
As her apprenticeship approached its ending and she contemplated the vigil and test that would attend her elevation to journeyman and the setting of the first status-marking inlays in her teeth, Alfgyfa reckoned it out and realized that she had spent as much of her life here in Nidavellir, a strange tall pale creature among the alfar, as she had among the wolves and men of the Franangford Wolfheall. More, for she had been some time at her mother’s breast before that, even though she did not remember it, and her mother had been of the bondi, the townsfolk: a crafter.
She might be more alf than woman, then. But she wasn’t very much alf, either, and even when the other apprentices treated her well—even when they forgot she was not just oddlooking, white-skinned, and strangeeyed, but alien—their very forgetting reminded her, because though they treated her sometimes as one of their own, she wasn’t. She couldn’t see in the dim light as they could, nor effortlessly lift an anvil that weighed twice as much as she—though one of her own weight, that she could heft if she could get her legs under it—nor sing five-part harmony in her own throat. Her words in the alf-tongue came always stilted and flat and without the nuance she slowly learned at least to hear even if she could not reproduce it.
She did learn to manage an approximation, however. As she witnessed Girasol’s early attempts to learn to speak, Alfgyfa realized that it was a skill, not something inborn. She set herself to learn. Practicing on her own in the trellwarrens for months, she taught herself to produce two harmonics. An overtone and an undertone allowed her to add some of the nuance and layers of meaning that one alf-word would contain when spoken by Tin or any of the others in the household.
She guessed, after long practice and many attempts, that a second set of harmonics might just be physically impossible for her. The alfar must have some sort of resonant chamber in their throats that caused the full range of base note and four harmonic pitches. She was a human, and she would never be as at home with the alfar as she had been among the wolves.
The trellwarrens were a mercy to her because she could be absolutely alone there, as nowhere else in the alfhame. And for a girl who had been accustomed, from a very early age, to run wild in the wood alone, secure in the knowledge that she was protected by the stewardship of the konigenwolf and her pack, the constant society of the alfhame was sometimes painfully wearing.
And most wearing of all was the ritual.
Everything a svartalf did was attended by some sort of liturgy, ceremony, or observance. The coal for the forge fire always had to be stacked in the same pattern and lit the same way, with the same words said over it. The floor always had to be swept in the same pattern—there was a chant for floor sweeping—and the spices and vegetables in a dish always had to be measured precisely the same way, and added to the skillet in exact order. It was meant, Tin gave Alfgyfa to understand, to provide a meditative structure to the tasks of the day.
Alfgyfa found it mostly stultifying. And the laundry seemed to collect all the worst of it together.
If it had only been a matter of the laundry itself, Alfgyfa would have liked it quite a lot. The big cavern was open to the sky. As a result—at least in the seasons when there was more daylight than dark—she usually attended it in different hours than the svartalfar, who found it inconvenient to wrestle mountains of sopping wet linens about while wearing the long robes and veils that sheltered them from the sun. So the laundry cavern was a place of some privacy for her.
And the cavern itself was a wonder. Having grown up running in and out of the labyrinths of the aettrynalfar as if they were a neighbor’s cottage, Alfgyfa had been familiar with hot springs, geysers, flowstone, and natural wonders of the geothermal variety. But this was all that—its heat, in fact, helped keep the svartalf gardens productive in the long cold polar summers of the Iskryne—and more. There were pools set aside for bathing and splashing in, and pools set aside for quiet meditation. They ran the gamut from boiling—at the top of the cavern, where the hot spring bubbled up into a pool and then fell in a long, smoking plume to the next tiered basin— to merely tepid, and in the shelter of the southern wall there was always snow.
In her free time, Alfgyfa enjoyed all of these things—and she swam better than any of the svartalfar, whose dense bones and muscles made them distinctly nonbuoyant. It was nice not to be third best at everything. And she certainly enjoyed the beauty of the setting—the sulfur-lined fumaroles, the veils of steam, the brilliant minerals crystallized at the edge of pools.
But the actual work of laundering clothing was miserable, backbreaking labor. The svartalfar’s outer garments—their quilted, appliquéd, embroidered, and bauble-adorned layers of robes— were hung, aired, powdered, and brushed, or spot-cleaned as necessary. But underneath, they wore linens like any man. Well, not precisely like any man, perhaps, as Alfgyfa could think of few wolfcarls who would fit in a svartalf’s skivvies. And those linens were made of yards of heavy unbleached cloth that had to be boiled, chanted over, pounded, chanted over, lathered with a black, slimy lye and ash soap that left Alfgyfa’s hands raw and red, meditated upon, rinsed, twisted, rinsed again, and stretched on the hottest rocks to dry while being chanted over still.
And then they had to be ironed, folded or hung, chanted over, and sorted back to their various owners by the tiny runes embroidered along the underside of the collar.
As near as Alfgyfa could tell, the main reason to become a journeyman was so that you could thrust your soiled undershirts and breast-bindings at the nearest apprentice and never have to think about them again until they appeared back in your wardrobe, ready for reuse. The heat was unbearable, the work heavy, the outcome uninteresting. The soap got in every cut and burn the forge left her. The water blistered her hands while her toes grew red, itchy chilblains from squatting too long in the snow. It was hateful work, and Alfgyfa loathed it, so much that Pearl and Manganese had forbidden her to speak of it.
And yet, ironically, it wasn’t the laundry she so despised that got her in the worst trouble; it was the weapons practice that she loved.
It was a deeply inculcated svartalf belief that no smith should forge any weapon she could not wield. And so two hours of Alfgyfa’s day were given over to practice with the heavy, gorgeously wrought spears and axes that were the chief weapons of the svartalfar. She had been sent to ’prentice a smith, and a smith’s training she would receive. The fact that she was female, which among humans, even in the wolfheallan, meant she had to bear children, not arms, meant to the svartalfar that she was expected to bear arms exceptionally well. “Allowances being made,” Tin had said dryly, “for your disadvantages.” She was weaker than her sparring partners because of her species, not her sex, but it was the reach of their arms she would have killed to be able to match.
Usually, even though she went in anticipating her inevitable defeat, the practice was the highlight of those parts of Alfgyfa’s schedule that remained after the real highlight of the forge work was done, but the practice matches held between the weapons classes of the various Masters were a different matter.
This one was between Alfgyfa’s class and a class of clerks, who learned weapons play because their caste— makers of contracts, keepers of accounts, arbiters of trade disagreements—used dueling to settle disputes among themselves as the smithing caste did not.
She hadn’t been looking forward to it. Meeting new alfar always left her feeling as if they were staring at her with their crystal-bead eyes and whispering into one another’s long, pointed, manyringed, trailing ears every time she did something to remind them that she was an alien. Such as being fair haired, or pale skinned, or straight spined.
But her first two bouts went well. She lost them both, of course, but she had expected no different. The Clerks’ Guild took their passage of arms seriously, and the ’prentices she fought were stronger, if not older than she—and their reach combined with their lower center of gravity made them deadly. The first one beat her with a staff combination that left her sprawled on her behind, bruised and grinning. The second wielded an eight-pound war hammer with the sort of delicacy you’d expect of a darning needle. Alfgyfa managed to keep on her feet against him, but she only avoided a broken arm because she had good armor, and he had good control of the strength of his blows.
She bowed to the victor, the tears of pain she blinked against one more additional small sting, and while the ’prentice who had clobbered her collected the medal the advocates allotted each winner, she went to find the chirurgeons and an ice pack. One benefit to living in the Iskryne: one need never go far to fetch snow.
But when they drew stones for the third bout, the apprentice who matched Alfgyfa’s raw black-red garnet crystal, an apprentice who had to be as close to her journeyman test as Alfgyfa was, threw hers back into the pot and said loudly, “I’m not fighting that. I’m not touching it. What if it has aettrynalf venom all over its hide?”
The hall went immediately and deathly quiet. The clerk ’prentices standing on either side of Alfgyfa’s opponent shifted their weight away, although it was an open question whether it was because they were embarrassed by the rudeness—unusually direct for the svartalfar, who preferred their insults veiled, oblique, wrapped in layers of allusion, and lethal—or because they expected Alfgyfa to rip the stupid bitch’s throat out with her teeth.
Not that it wasn’t tempting.
Alfgyfa took a deep breath and tried to unclench her fists, to let the knifesharp edges to her vision soften again. She had been trying—genuinely trying and not just because she was tired of Tin’s lectures—to keep better control of her temper. And she was aware of Pearl and Girasol standing foursquare beside her; for all that they were sometimes rivals and sometimes pests, they had closed ranks with her without an eyelash’s worth of hesitation. Girasol was even doing his best imitation of his mother’s glare.
In his piping child’s voice (still carrying only the three harmonics of children’s speech, instead of the full five), Girasol said, “Don’t worry about Mischmetal, Alfgyfa. She’s got to redo her journeyman-work.” Since the beginning of all the other bouts had been held up while the advocates conferred over what to do about Alfgyfa and Mischmetal, it carried quite loudly, as svartalf voices tended to do.
Svartalfar habitually kept their voices low for just that reason (although Mischmetal certainly hadn’t bothered). They could claim that Girasol was too young to know that. But if that were the case, Alfgyfa thought, he also ought to be too young to be quite so attuned to the politics of an entirely different guild. He could never be a Mother, but if he survived the byproducts of his own wit, Girasol was someday going to be a Smith to be reckoned with.
Pearl placed a knotty, twig-fingered hand on the crook of Alfgyfa’s elbow. Gently, he led her to where the other ’prentices and Tin clustered. She walked more sideways than not, unwilling to turn her back on Mischmetal or the advocates.
Meanwhile, there had been a great fluttering of robes and clattering of ringrattle-headed staves and chiming of jingles among the advocates as they huddled. Now one broke away from the others and moved forward. It was elderly Tourmaline with his reed-thin crystal-sewn braids that shaded, ombré, from black where they dragged the stone floor to silver at his scalp. The dozens of parts between them had been painted with ochre, and showed dull red against his sooty skin.
Every alf in the cavern watched as Tourmaline stumped to Mischmetal. He spoke to her so softly his words were lost in their own harmonics, and with his face concealed by the flat drape of his braids, Alfgyfa couldn’t see the shapes his lips made, no matter how she craned.
Whatever he offered, it met with a flat refusal. Mischmetal chopped one long hand sideways.
Tourmaline shrugged—an impressive affair under his layers of ornament. Then he turned and, staff clacking and jingling with each step, came to Tin.
She met him with Alfgyfa at her side.
“Mastersmith,” Tourmaline said, “Apprentice Mischmetal forfeits the bout. Your apprentice claims the prize.”
He handed her a flat stamped metal bauble. Before he turned away, he made a point of lifting his head to catch Alfgyfa’s eye. His braids broke round his pointed ears like water flowing past a jagged stone. The tips were so long they trailed behind him, tufted with silver hair like antennae.
“It is not a reflection on you,” he said softly.
Alfgyfa forced herself to return his smile. “Thank you,” she said, her tongue curling at the taste.
When he left, Tin handed her the silver jingle without comment. Alfgyfa held it so tight it bit into her palm, and
kept her temper.
“So this is my victory,” she said, when Tourmaline’s stately progress had left only Tin and Pearl and Girasol close enough to hear. I thought I’d like it better.
Tin touched her shoulder lightly, reaching up with her endless arm to do so. “It will not be the last one.”
Alfgyfa nodded but decided not to try smiling. “I need a drink, Master.”
“Go and get one,” Tin said. “Then we will see about your next bout. But first, pin that jingle to your cloak.”
“Master?” Alfgyfa spun to look at her and saw the lined face peering up at her, crow-black tattoos no darker than the shade of horse-black skin, but distinguishable by their highlights: cool instead of warm.
Tin spoke under the overtone of empathy and the second overtone of determination. “When they try to shame you, you wear their scorn like ribbons. That is all.”
Her face was still, as if she spoke from some deep, calm well of experience. She plucked the jingle from Alfgyfa’s fingers, clucking at the spot of blood, and pinned it boldly to the breast of her cloak, close enough beside Alfgyfa’s apprentice badge that they would chime against each other, though there were only two baubles there.
“Get your drink,” she said. She turned her shoulder to Alfgyfa. A dismissal.
Alfgyfa drew her shoulders up and tossed her braid back. The stone under her soft-soled boots as she went to the water servers felt as smooth as the weight of the gazes following her. One of the alfar who stood in the middle of the square formed by the four tall tables, each with its insulated well for hot or cold drinks, gave her small ale mixed with cider. She sipped it slowly, watching the round of combats resume.
Mischmetal had drawn a stone again and was waiting for her match. Alfgyfa thought it would be wiser to wait until she was engaged in combat before going to choose her own next stone.
Mischmetal found her partner— Alfgyfa’s own crèche-mate Manganese —and they claimed a space on the floor. A human holmgang was fought on a hide staked to the ground; in deference to their greater reach, svartalf bouts took place in a circle with a diameter the same as the span of a large adult female alf’s arms.
Alfgyfa liked that there was more room for footwork. She watched as they saluted each other, Mischmetal’s trellspear against Manganese’s doublebitted axe, and began to circle. One of the many sacrosanct svartalf traditions was that once combat had begun, there could be no interference from outside the circle, so there was always an odd little ripple of silence that spread out as a match began. Alfgyfa watched a while, biting her lip to keep from hoping audibly that Manganese would break Mischmetal’s arm. She finished her shandy and gave the mug back to the alf, then was just about to edge around the combats to the advocates and draw her own next stone when Girasol’s voice called her name. She turned to mark him, and saw him running towards her—that hunched, deceptively fast svartalf scuttle.
He was going to run right between Mischmetal and Manganese. And nobody except Alfgyfa was even remotely close enough to do anything about it.
Svartalf children matured quickly, but at Girasol’s age of not-quite-eight, he was still young enough—child enough—not always to be thinking about what he was doing, where he was going … what he was running headlong into, even when he should know better, should damn well know not to cross the line of a sparring circle without being absolutely certain that the match was finished and that both combatants had seen him coming and brought their arms to rest.
Manganese had started to, but Mischmetal … and Alfgyfa would lie awake later, trying to dissect it: whether Mischmetal hadn’t seen either Girasol or Manganese’s move at all, whether she hadn’t seen Girasol and had seen Manganese’s checked swing merely as an opportunity to be exploited, whether she had seen Girasol merely as an opportunity to be exploited, or whether she just didn’t care.
Alfgyfa knew which explanation she favored, but that didn’t make it true.
It wasn’t so much that she made the decision to move as that her body moved and her heart justified it afterward. She wasn’t strong enough to tackle a svartalf, but some part of her brain remembered Skjaldwulf’s fireside sagas. In more than one of them, women joined together to interfere with a holmgang and preserve life. There were means.
Alfgyfa sprinted forward, whirling her cloak off her shoulders, and swirled the hem wide so it flared over the blade of Mischmetal’s trellspear. The spear cut the thick wool like a dagger through gauze, of course—but Alfgyfa had kept hold of the collar, and from Mischmetal’s flank, she set herself and pulled hard.
Mischmetal was heavier than she expected, strongly set, and pulling on the cloak was like pulling on a mountain. But by dint of throwing her whole weight against the cloak, and the length of the lever arm, Alfgyfa managed to haul the polearm up until its blade almost scraped the ceiling.
Mischmetal was left wide open to her opponent’s blow, but Manganese had arrested it successfully. “Hold,” Manganese cried, ending the bout, and grounded the butt of her weapon. Alfgyfa fell on her ass as Mischmetal released the haft of her trellspear, and the weapon, still cloak-entangled, dropped to the floor as well.
Alfgyfa sprawled there—bruised, disoriented, with every adult and adolescent alf in the hall glaring at her— and Girasol piled into her arms.