A Fun (and Naughty) Xmas 'Between the tales' Freya story.
High in a cold mountain pass, in the far northwest of the continent known as the Many-Titled Lands, the tiny figures of a lone black horse and rider could be seen making their way up a steep slope to the high point of the trail. It was a little snowy, because the first falls of autumn had already hit the high places, but the trail was a good one, a trade route, and horse and rider were making good time.
The rider was long-legged and strong, wearing sensible clothing of leather pants and jacket, with chain mail shirt and a dark blue cloak over all, though her head was uncovered by helm or hood. Her features were high cheek-boned and wide, with a mouth that shaped easily to laughter or just as easily to curses. Her flashing blue eyes and the blonde hair that was braided into two long ropes that fell below her waist labelled her as a northerner, as did the war-like assemblage of weapons she sported at her waist and on her saddle.
She sat effortlessly aboard that saddle, handling her beast lightly with leg and hand as they picked their way along up the pass between the two tall mountains.
The black horse himself was quite finely made, but tall, with an ugly snake-head and a beautiful long, flowing mane and tail that redeemed his looks a little.
As they rode along together, the woman seemed to be having a conversation with the horse, and he would nod or shake his head in seeming agreement or disagreement with her words. In a normal horse, this might seem odd, but for a magicked horse, who had once been a human, this was no very special thing. The really special thing was that this evil-minded beast, who had been an even more evil human, now loved the woman with all of his black heart, and woe betide anyone who forgot it!
It was Freya Fjordrider and Dinna of course. Few pairs were as well-known across the wide lands as those two, and few were better equipped to survive the harshness of that place, and to have a hell of a good time while doing it. In Dinna’s case, a fun time involved murder and mayhem, but Freya’s pleasures tended to range quite a bit wider than that.
Freya and Dinna, as so often before, had found themselves alone together and low on funds. So, as they had also done many times before, they were headed for the nearest city to look for the next profitable adventure.
In this case, the nearest city was the twin city of Peena, far on the west coast of the Many-Titled Land. It had been some time since Freya was last there, but she remembered the city with fondness. It was a rough town, a place of pioneering miners and trappers, who went far out into the nearby mountain ranges to hunt their prizes, of fishermen who went into the cold and deep oceans west of the continent to net the huge cod that were so popular when carted inland as salted meat, of horse and cattle herders from the plains, herders like the ones in Freya’s own long-abandoned family, who would ride into town to stock up on supplies and to trade excess beasts. All of this made for a very wild and exciting night-life for the city, and therefore, of course, also made it a fun place to visit for beings who liked action, as did Freya and her horse.
Trade to and from Peena to its twin city of Laabra, and back to the distant towns of Seatown and even further south to the lands of Plesha and Hyperbollee, was brisk, although the caravans would soon cease for winter and Peena would settle down into months of storms and isolation. Freya was hoping she could sign on as a caravan guard for one of the last to go, or perhaps find some other venture that was even more to her taste. You never knew in Peena.
The rider and her black mount crested the pass and began to descend the other side. Yellow autumn afternoon sun caught her there at last, bringing some warmth to the journey and flashing off her sword and Dinna’s bit, making the man who watched her from a distance wince as they blinded him. He’d been watching for quite a while, perched up on the mountain-top like some sort of strange eagle, while behind and below him, his pair of giant hellks clashed their mighty antlers together with woody clacks and bickered over what grass they could dig out of the snow with their vast two-hooved feet.
Freya knew he was there. She was no innocent to just ride along with her gaze only in front of her, unaware of what might be behind, beside, or even above. No, she’d been keeping one blue eye on the man for some time, though she never gave herself away by looking directly at him.
She’d seen the man go from mountain-top to mountain-top to follow her progress all through that long day, and what was occupying her mind and her conversation with Dinna just then was the way he had done so.
“Got to be a mage…” she was saying to her horse. “He keeshing flew with those giant hellks like they were a trio of birds. Damn it and jadd it! What does he want with me? I’d have thought he’d find something more interesting to do than follow one rider all keeshing day long.”
Dinna nodded his head and rolled one evil red-rimmed eye back at his mistress. He was no fan of magic workers, unsurprisingly since one had rendered him into his current form and also caused him to lose those jewels of which men are most proud. He’d deserved it, no doubt about it, but he bore an extra vicious grudge against wizards and the like, even more so than he did for all the other humans who were not Freya.
“Yes, I agree. It’s time we brought him out of hiding,” Freya told her horse. “I don’t want us to head into night down in the next valley with him still high up above us somewhere, waiting to land his keeshing hellks on us. I just wish we had Tig or Effenwus or Ol’dbat along to help us. I hate magic-users!”
This was slightly unfair, since the three fast friends she had just named were all also magic-users, but in Freya’s mind, the wizards she knew and had come to trust were no longer the same as the ones she had yet to meet. In general, wizards were a strange bunch, prone to doing whatever they damn well pleased, especially y ones who travelled away from their own city of Fyrkat. There they had checks and balances created by their own people, but out in the lands at large, they got up to all sorts of mischief.
“Up to mischief now, I bet,” Freya was muttering to Dinna now as they rode down further into the valley until they were below the snow line, then, checking to make sure they were out of the sight of the man above, suddenly leapt off the trail and galloped away towards a clump of stunted pine trees that were scraping out a living at the very high point of the tree line.
Into the trees they went at a full gallop, horse and rider seeming to move and think as one as they leapt rocks and fissures and anything else that came between them and their goal. Once amongst the trees, the pair swung about with a flinging of the braids of the woman and a wide flaring of the mane and tail of the horse, and then she threw herself out of the saddle.
“Stay here,” she told Dinna as she went back to the edge of the trees to peer out. If their stalker was truly after them, he would probably find them, but he might come within range when he did, and then, let him look out! If he had only idly been watching them from his godlike aerie, then perhaps he would move on to observing more interesting fare. There would surely be a caravan or two coming one way or the other soon. Freya had already passed or overtaken many in the last few days, though unluckily for her if not them, no-one was hiring because no-one had yet lost a guard to raiders or snow vultures.
Keeping her body and face back behind the foliage of the scrubby pines, Freya peered out and back the way they had come. Looking up to the peak of mountain where the observer had last been perched, she couldn’t see a flash of the red or the shining white that had first alerted her to the presence of the wizard, if wizard he was. Having lost sight of her, he might have moved forward to the next peak hoping to pick her up again, so Freya peered west toward Peena, but a careful scrutiny showed her nothing that way either.
“Looking for something?” came a deep voice behind her, and Freya jumped about a mile, but she landed in a crouch facing the opposite way, sword drawn ready to strike.
“Ho ho ho!” laughed the wizard, lifting his hands up to show he was unarmed, “I am very sorry, Freya Fjordrider, but I couldn’t resist giving you a fright.”
“Very funny,” said Freya, “Though I may yet find that I can’t resist cutting your keeshing head off, magic user.” Standing up straighter, she relaxed slightly, though her drawn sword never wavered. It was obvious that the man, whoever he was, did not intend to attack her immediately but there was no accounting for the actions of wizards.
At this fraught point Dinna came charging up behind the man, but he froze him with one casual hand-wave, and so Freya knew that he was indeed a magic-user, and that he did not intend to kill her yet, because he could have frozen her just as easily. Dinna was held in full flight, nose outstretched, teeth bared, front hoof thrust forward into mid-air. “Hurt him at your peril!” She warned the man.
“Oh, I would never harm your famous companion,” said the man. “That would be no way to introduce myself. He is only held in time for a moment so that we can speak. I have a deal for you.”
Freya eyed him with new interest. He was quite a sight. He was tall and strong, fat as well, with eyes as blue as hers, a thick, white beard down to his chest, and hair as silver-white as snow in sunlight. He didn’t look old, though. He had soft, un-lined skin and ruddy cheeks, and his mouth turned up at the corners. He might have been forty or fifty or even sixty, the hair was so misleading, but anyway you could never tell with wizards, who could live a very long time. He might have been two hundred.
He had the usual wizardly penchant for garish clothes, but where most of them liked to mix up the colours, he had gone for red, bright red tunic and trews, with black boots and belt, and a white, fluffy trim to collar and cuffs that might have been made of snow-vulture down. He was certainly not your average Peenas, as the locals called themselves.
“Tell me your deal,” Freya said.
“I have a quest for you, a quest inside the walls of Peena, if you will take it. I will give you much wealth if you do this for me,” the man said.
“Seems to me that you are a wizard, and therefore you have a lot more power than I. Why not undertake this quest yourself?” Freya asked.
“Because the one I hunt is a wizard too, and he has much better powers than I in one direction: he is a sneaker and a hider and a plotter. He has stolen something of mine, something I value very highly and I need to get it back before midwinter. He is hiding from me, but he will not be hiding from you. If you can find him for me, I will be able to get back my…thing… and then I will reward you highly.
He sounded genuine. Freya relaxed a little more and let her sword tip come down. “And why me?” she asked.
“Ho ho ho,” he laughed, right from his ample belly on out. “Why not, adventurer? Tales of your luck and prowess have travelled far, and when I heard from the wizard T’gauli that you were coming this way, I knew you were the woman for the job.”
Freya sheathed her sword, Greygory. “You know T’gauli?” She asked. “Little dark-haired wizard, very nimble on his feet, right?”
“Ho! No! Tall, brown-haired and gangly is Tig, and could fall over a grain of dust on a clean marble floor! I think you are testing me, Freya Fjordrider!” the wizard said, and laughed his booming laugh again, seemingly unoffended. “We were in the same group of young ones who were taken into Fyrkat as apprentices.
He must have noticed the disbelieving rise of her eyebrows, because he added resignedly, “I know, I look much older. It was a prank at school that made me prematurely white and nothing I have tried since has changed it. It serves me right. I was always one for practical jokes,” he said ruefully.
“It seems you haven’t learned your lesson if your recent bit of fun in startling me is your usual way, but if you know him as Tig, then you know my friend truly,” Freya said coming forward at last to grasp the forearm of the big man.
He clasped hers in return, and she could feel the hard muscle under the soft woollen coat of red that showed this was not one of those magic users who spent all their time on their arses making magic in some tower. This one did physical things, fat or not.
“Come,” she said. “The night falls quickly in these mountains. It’s time to collect firewood and make camp. Free my horse and let us discuss this deal of yours. It will have to be a good one if it leaves me stranded in Peena all winter!”
“Oh, I’ll magic you anywhere you want to go afterwards,” the wizard said, stepping aside and waving his hand at Dinna once more. Dinna came back to full charging life, and without the big man to run into, found himself galloping right out of the little grove of trees and onto the bare mountain-side before he could stop. There he stood, looking about himself in surprise, before turning on his tail and charging back again with blood in his eyes.
“Woah!” Freya commanded, stepping in front of the wizard. “Friend! Friend with money to buy oats!”
Dinna slid to a halt just in time to avoid trampling his own dear mistress. He certainly wouldn’t have stopped at her mere command. Love her he might, but he still had the lawless and ferocious nature that had made him the most feared human outlaw in all of faraway Beagrade.
“Dinner time,” Freya told her horse, rubbing his flat forehead under his forelock and ignoring the fact that his eyes were still rolling with frustrated aggression. Since food was way down the list compared to getting to stomp someone, he didn’t look very mollified, but he didn’t sidestep her and go for the wizard, so that was something.
“I can do oats,” the man in red said. “I have them for my Hellks. Would you like some oats, oh noble Dinna?”
Dinna looked suspiciously at him. People didn’t usually think to treat him any differently than other horses. “I know your story,” the wizard said, “You were badly mistreated. It was cruel what the other magic users did to you, a fine warrior like you. I’d be happy to do my little part to make it up to you. Oats, and sweet hay, ahhh, and perhaps apples, great warrior?”
Dinna shook his mane, lifted his head, and his evil black eyes filled with pride. Freya stifled the comment she had been about to make, something along the lines of, “He deserved everything he got, he was a horrible human,” and instead stepped aside so the horse could follow the wizard further back into the trees. Well, that was first. Who knew that Dinna was that easily turned by a bit of blatant sucking up? Not Freya. She’d thought he was smarter than that! Maybe it was the mention of apples. Dinna loved them, and they came few and far between on the road.
The two Hellks and the sleigh that they drew were parked right behind the clump of pines. When they saw, Dinna, they raised their massive heads and clacked their antlers together threateningly. They were much taller than the horse, being as tall at the wither as their giant owner, and their huge spatulate racks of antlers, fully grown, hard and bone-like even at this time of year, were as wide as Dinna was long, nose to tail tip.
“Rude-elf, Stupid! Behave yourselves! Dinna is our guest!” the man said, bustling forward toward the sleigh, which was ridiculously big and ornate. Far too big and heavy to be drawn by even such massive beasts as these, if it was to be dragged across the ground. All bets were off if the wizard could lift it into the air, though. Then the Hellks became merely an affectation. He could, after all, have just lifted the sleigh on its own. One thing Freya knew, though, was that all wizards loved to show off their prowess, even the good ones.
The wizard in red got a sack of supplies out of the sleigh and came back to Freya lugging it over his hefty shoulder. “Here, let me put down feed for the mighty Dinna, then we will eat as well,” he said, reaching into the sack and bringing out smaller sacks of oats and apples and hay.
“I’ll light a fire,” Freya said, eyeing this interesting person with piercing blue eyes that calculated much and trusted little.
“Pile up some wood if you like and I will light it,” said the man, who had left Dinna munching apple with apple-foam dribbling out of his mouth, and was now seeing to his own beasts.
Freya wisely didn’t point out to her horse that he looked less than dignified or ferocious at that moment, what with the dribble, the bubbling, foamy noises he made as he chewed, and the blissfully drooping ears and eyelids. Instead she went to break off and gather the brittle dead branches that languished at the bottom of the pine trees, and she piled them in the centre of a clearing in the middle of the little grove. Now that they were over the crest of the pass, she knew that the sea breeze that came up off the ocean at night would become icy as it blew up face of the mountains, and would freeze them solid if they were out in the open.
The man unharnessed his beasts and led them into the sheltering trees. They adroitly manoeuvred their vast antlers between the branches, and settled down to eat their hay. Freya left off her gathering of wood, having easily collected enough to last the night, and went to admire them.
“Can I touch them?” she asked the man, who had another sack out now and was lifting packets of human foodstuffs out onto a table he had also taken from his sleigh.
“Surely. They like to be scratched around the base of their antlers,” the wizard said in a helpful fashion. He put out a hand and lit the fire with one word, and nothing exploded or even turned into a monster, as had been known to happen when her friend Tig did it.
Freya eased up to the closest Hellk, who ignored her and kept eating docilely enough. She was under the impressive spread of its antlers, and she found herself looking up at them in child-like wonder. Hellks were rare, and she had never seen one tamed before, nevertheless able to be put into harness. The powers of this wizard must be great indeed. She reached up and scratched around the nearest antler, and the great animal put his head over so she could reach better, while never ceasing his happy champing of hay.
“They’re marvellous!” Freya said, grinning from ear to ear.
“I quite like them myself,” the man said, grinning back at her, his white moustaches curling up. “Now come and eat. We will need to move fast on this, so once you are a little rested and if you agree to my deal, we will travel on to Peena.
He went back to his sleigh and came back with two miraculous wooden chairs that were hinged to close up and be stored easily, and over these he threw soft furs. He gestured at the table. “Come. Eat,” he said.
Freya left off her Hellk-scratching, and came to the table. She tried very hard to look unimpressed by this man’s show of magical wealth, but when he showed her the sugar-melons that she loved but had last eaten many years ago down in a castle in Hyperbollee, she ended up drooling and foaming as much as her horse. “How did you know?” she said indistinctly, her mouth full of sweet, crisp melon.
“It’s one of my powers: To know what each wants most and to give it to them,” the wizard admitted somewhat smugly. “Now, let me tell you what I want you to do for me…”
“Tell me your name first,” Freya said, reaching for another slice of melon. There was more food on the table, a lot more, but she’d be keeshed if she left behind a single slice of this delicacy. She could fill in any little gaps in her stomach with the other things afterwards.
The big man looked at her indulgently. “I am the Wizard S’ntaklaws, known to T’gauli, and to you if you like, as Sin. Tig and Sin we were in the early days, and oh what mischief we made!”
“I just bet you did,” Freya said, eyeing off the wizard’s sparkling eyes and cheeky grin. “So, tell me, Sin the Naughty Wizard, what do you want me to do?”
“I want you to find my enemy, and return to tell me where he is. He has set a spell to hide himself from me, but I just know he’ll be showing off what he stole from me. I think this job will suit you well,” and here the big man twinkled his eyes at her, “I want you to go to every tavern in Peena until you find the man who is showing off by giving or selling people anything they ask for. When you find him, I will give you a tool you can use to freeze him, then call me at once, and I will come to you and catch him before he has time to go back into hiding.”
“Sounds like the sort of task I might enjoy at that,” Freya said consideringly, “As long as I can drink while I go from tavern to tavern.
“Ho ho ho! That’s the Freya Tig told me about! Perhaps we can come to an agreement?” Sin said in a jolly voice. “One tankard per tavern perhaps? If you get too drunk to see, how will you find my enemy?”
“I never drink enough to render myself harmless, I assure you,” Freya said, grinning back as she put the last of the melon into her mouth and wiped the juice off her chin. “But I will agree to your terms, wizard. I have nearly had my fill of food, but perhaps you would like to tell me more of your enemy while I just… here she reached across the table for a roasted drumstick of goose, another favourite, and took a huge bite.
“Hmm, my enemy,” said Sin. “He is a small man, with a pointy keeshing head and a sneering mouth. To see his strut, you would think he had an appendage the size of his own leg.”
“Well that should make him easy to find. I’ll just look for the man with the strange limp,” Freya said sarcastically. “What is this man’s name?”
“Dil’do,” Sin snarled. “The wizard Dil’do. Ever he was my enemy, even back in Fyrkat when we were young. Ever he loved to hurt. If you want more reasons to hunt this man down for my retribution, I will tell you that he gave our gentle Tig a very hard time when we were lads. T’Gauli’s power came late and hard to control, but Dil’do’s came early and sly. I could not always protect my friend, though I tried.” The eyes of the burly wizard no longer twinkled, but instead had become hard and grey as ice in the great western ocean. “And now he has stolen the thing that I need to make the lives of the children in Peena better this cold winter. Much of my power I have put into this thing, and I cannot do my self-appointed work without it. Will you help me, Freya?”
“S’ntaklaws, I will,” Freya said, leaping up, swallowing goose, and throwing what was left of the huge leg away across the clearing. “For my friend Tig, for your cold children in Peena, and of course because you have promised me treasure and a way out of the city before winter sets in!”
“Ho ho ho! Most excellent!” the wizard said, and with one gesture he had packed all of his camping gear away into sacks and into his sled again. “Come Rude-Elf! Come Stupid! We must away!”
Before they knew it, Freya and her surprised horse found themselves lifted by invisible hands and planted into the giant sled, and they were flying behind the two hellks, which placidly ran on the air as if they ran on solid land. Sin stood in the front of the sled, vast legs spread, silver beard and hair blowing, and magically drove the beasts and the sled through the air with practiced power that impressed Freya more than a little.
She had to laugh when she saw the expression on Dinna’s face when he found himself in mid-air. He never did like to be off the ground by far, and now he stood in the back of the sleigh and goggled over the side, legs spread wide, as his long mane and tail whipped around wildly. The speed and cold of their passage made him blink and look almost innocent for once, though Freya knew better.
Freya herself was loving it. The view of the mountains behind and across the ocean ahead was exhilarating, especially when they came into view of the city of Peena far below. Lights were coming on as the autumn evening drew in, and the city twinkled in lines and patches. The only thing Freya had ever seen to compare to the sight was the view of her own invading army by night, seen from the top of a high hill.
Wind blew her braids straight back and cut icily into her skin through every gap in her clothing, but it was worth it. She put her arms out to the sides and balanced in the rocking sled by pure instinct, laughing out loud.
“Ho ho ho!” boomed Sin, looking behind himself to see her triumphantly posed like a goddess in all her power. “On Rude-elf, on Stupid!” he cheerfully called to the two Hellks, who gave him an antler-shake in response and went on leaping across the sky.
Soon enough they were coming down to the ground again on the outskirts of the city. “Don’t want to warn Dil’do that I’m coming,” Sin explained. “From here, you and the mighty Dinna can ride into the city and draw no more attention than you usually do.”
The giant sled touched down on the land and the Hellks ran for a few steps to slow their momentum, then came a halt, blowing great snorts out of their nostrils and clashing their antlers together companionably. Not waiting for assistance, Dinna leapt over the side of the sled and danced nervily on the solid ground until Freya joined him. He snuffed at the tip of her head to check that she was safe, then shook his head and mane, rolling his eyes evilly at her, as if to say, “We’re never doing that again.”
Since it was very likely that they would be, Freya merely told him to horse up and be brave.
Sin followed them out of the sled with one large magical stride and came to Freya to give her the two spell tools that she would need for her mission. One was a pointed green hat with a bell on the point.
“What the jadd am I supposed to do with that?” Freya asked him, somewhat horrified at the thought of having to wear it. She had her pride!
“Ho ho ho, keep it in your pocket,” S’ntaklaws chuckled and said, “Though I’m sure you would look quite fetching in it, if you did wear it.” Here he wiggled his silver eyebrows at her suggestively. “When you want to call me, just pop it on your head and say, “Sin Sin Sin,” and I’ll come at once.”
“This had better not be one of your practical jokes,” Freya growled, “Because if it is you won’t have head to put a hat on any more.”
“Nobody enjoys a joke these days,” Sin said, shaking his head in mock sadness. “Alright then, just hold it in your hand, say my name three times, and I will come.”
“And the other tool?” Freya said, mainly to distract herself from wanting to clock him over the noggin.
“This,” said Sin, handing her a small shepherd’s crook the length of her forearm, painted in white and red stripes. “Hook Dil’do by the neck, leg or arm and he’ll be held frozen until I come for him,” he said.
“You don’t really have the idea of sneaky, do you?” Freya said to him, grinning despite herself. “How am I supposed to go around with that thing and still get close to this Dil’do?”
Sin shrugged his wide shoulders and grinned back. “My magic shows itself as it will,” he said, spreading his hands out. “What can I do?”
“Alright, wizard,” Freya said, “But if he sees me coming with this keeshing piece of frivolity and gets away, I’ll still be wanting transport out of Peena.”
“Deal,” S’ntaklaws said. “I know you’ll do your best to catch him. You might be able to, er, disguise it somehow?”
“By wearing a colour-blind shepherd’s outfit?” Freya suggested.
“Or by becoming a barber?” he replied, grinning to show he was joking again.
“You’re a really funny bloke,” Freya said, liking the man. “Not!” She took the garish crook from the laughing wizard and shoved it deep into her near-side saddle bag. “I’ll be in touch,” she said, swinging into Dinna’s saddle and offering her forearm again.
“You can call me to you to report at any time, so long as you are alone,” the man said more seriously as he returned her clasp. Yep, big muscles hid under that red and white coat. Freya turned her mind away from that fact and towards her business. Well, mostly.
“I’ll call you to my tavern room, if I can get one,” she said, and winked at the wizard, then she and her black horse turned at the touch of a heel and were gone into the night.
Behind her, she could hear his, “Ho ho ho!” going on for quite a while. She had a feeling he liked her as much as she liked him, bad jokes and all. Good.
The city of Peena was rocking as she rode down the main street. There were a lot of incomers at that time of year because the mountains became almost unliveable and many came into town to winter over. Many also had a lot of money to spend, and a lot of pent up living to do.
Freya had a favourite tavern there, of course, the Cod and Piece, and she might as well try there first as anywhere else. She pointed Dinna’s head towards the hostler’s that she usually used and crossed her fingers that they had a stable free, and a stable-hand who was youthful enough to avoid Dinna’s wrath. He hated stable-hands but loved children, for some reason that Freya had yet to discover.
Leaving her horse in the capable but nervous hands of the hostler, who knew him of old, she made her way a few doors down until she came to her favourite tavern. It was tall and teetering, being narrow and five stories high. This was a cold city. The higher you could build, the more use you got out of your heat before it went out of the ceiling and disappeared into space, but there were no rules about how safely you had to build. A high wind in this city might see towering buildings go down all over, but it never stopped new ones being built. Ah well, you only die once. Freya was pretty sure it wouldn’t be a collapsing tavern that killed her.
Saddle-bags over her shoulder, she kicked open the swinging door of the Cod and Piece and looked for the landlady, a ferocious and tiny woman called Comfort. Comfort had been a madame in a brothel, and a whore before that, and she knew how to make a guest welcome. She also knew how to deal with unwelcome ones, and her establishment was generally cleaner and less chaotic than the usual in Peena. Not that Freya didn’t like a bit of chaos, none better, but she preferred her bed free of bugs… or larger interlopers. Blood on the sheets made them too sticky for comfortable sleep and she always fell over the corpses in the morning.
“Comfort!” Freya said striding across the public room and slinging her saddlebags down in front of the bar where the tiny woman was serving. “How are you, my friend?”
“Freya Fjordrider! Well suck my titties! Haven’t seen you for a cod’s age!” Comfort said happily, putting a tankard in front of Freya before she’d even sat down on a bar stool.
“Good to see you’re as foul-mouthed and beautiful as ever!” Freya said, swigging down her first mouthful of the best ale in the city.
Comfort giggled at this. She had never been a beauty, but it wasn’t for her looks that men had flocked to her, though her mouth may have had something to do with it. “And I’m very glad to see you are as ladylike as ever, my friend,” she replied, passing over a shot of the famous Peena spirit, made from fermented mountain-birch twigs and sugar and known to one and all as Peena’s Enhancer.
Freya knocked it off in one gulp, slammed the shot glass on the table, and laughed. “Yep delicate flower of womanhood that’s me!” she said happily. “Tell me, Comfort, have you had a wizard in here bragging himself up, or maybe selling things? Little man, pointy head, small jadder but big attitude?”
Comfort wiped the bar in traditional barkeep fashion as she thought it over. “Hmm, yes. Think we have, but not for a few nights. I didn’t like the way he was making money off my regulars. I want them to save their money for me,” she said. “I had Brute over there turf him out.” Here she nodded over at her muscle man, someone new to Freya, who was standing by the fireplace and eyeing off all the patrons with a surprising amount of benevolence. He was quite handsome, if you liked muscled and big, which Freya did.
“He’s my new personal bodyguard,” Comfort said, waggling her groomed eyebrows at Freya.
“Keesh it!” said Freya mildly. “You always get the good ones.” She took her eyes off the man, who was now off-limits if Freya knew what was good for her, and said, “Can you tell me any more about this little wizard to help me find him quicker?”
“Got a fetish for yellow. Bright yellow. With lots of silver embroidery that glows even in the dark,” Comfort said. “Black hair. Evil little pig eyes. Cruel sneer. I hated him on sight. I was glad to have a reason to kick him out. You want a room, Rider of Fjords?”
“Yes,” Freya said, swigging the last of her beer and picking up her saddle bags. “But I’m not sure how long I’ll be here, and I might have to leave suddenly. Let me pay you for a week in advance, just in case.”
She handed over enough of Sin’s silver to book Comfort’s best room for the week, and a coin or two extra to sweeten the deal. Freya wanted to always be welcome at the Cod and Piece, whatever destruction she wrought elsewhere in the city.
“Need any extra comfort?” Comfort asked, waggling her plucked eyebrows again.
“Not unless you want to loan me Brute there,” Freya said, and shouldering her saddlebags once more, she followed the tap-boy up the stairs all the way to the top of the teetering building. She’d get seasick if it was windy, but she’d also be pretty jadding safe from unexpected window entries, at least by anyone unmagical.
It didn’t take her long to check over the bed (clean) the other facilities (tending to frilly) and the window and door (lockable) and to dump most of her gear before heading back down the steep rickety stairs and off out into the street with a cheeky wave for Comfort as she left. Where to try first? What tavern wouldn’t care if Dil’do was hawking goods? Only one way to find out!
It took five tankards of ale to find Dil’do’s new haunt. Freya was honourably sticking to her deal of one per tavern, but she was still pretty plastered by the time she swaggered into the sixth barroom, propped herself up on the bar, and looked around.
She knew the wizard as soon as she saw him. You couldn’t miss him. He genuinely glowed in the dark corner he was skulking in, because his baggy tunic and trews were both bright lemon yellow, and they were embroidered with silver bands that had been magically treated to glow in the dark. He had a pointy head, as Sin had said and evil little pig eyes, as Comfort had told her. He was reaching into a big sack, and when he pulled out a fancy leather bridle, he looked as surprised as any of the crowd who were waiting with interest to see what he’d got. He set about looking for bids at once, and soon had a price he was happy with. He reached into the sack again, and this time pulled out some sort of spiked mace to a chorus of drunken Oohs of interest. The bidding started again.
Ah, a sack, she’d bet it was one of Sin’s, and therefore his stolen magic tool. She waved aside the approaching barman and got her long legs moving to head towards a seat near Dil’do’s corner. “Hmm, should have eaten something by now,” she said to herself, “Think I need to clear my head a bit.”
Boots up on another chair, Freya sat at a table on her own and ordered another tankard and food, which soon came. She ate the meal of tough, roasted mountain-goat and tasty roasted tubers with plenty of butter, sipped her ale, and watched the little wizard pull out and sell, in quick succession; an exotic bottle of green liquor, some sort of carved phallic sex toy, a fluffy puppy, an engraved sword, a faceted gemstone, and a dusty old book.
For each object, there was at least one very keen bidder, and Dil’do was raking in the coin. Something to do with Sin’s magic, she supposed, to be able to produce exactly what each person wanted most. A handy talent, but one he should perhaps not have given over to the sack to hold.
At last the barkeep got sick of his patrons not buying drinks, but instead staring with rapt attention at the sack to see what would come out next, and he took the little wizard by the scruff of the neck and marched him out of the bar. This was what Freya had been waiting for. No way could she have got her stupid red and white crook over his neck or arm with so many people watching, and she hadn’t wanted to warn him he was rumbled, so now she dropped her boots to the floor, pushed her greasy plate away, and followed Dil’do and his ejector out of the front door at a subtle distance.
The barkeep got Dil’do as far as the front steps of his tavern, then gave him a shove to the back of the neck that sent the little man stumbling onto the street, flailing his arms to stop himself falling over, sack flapping emptily in one hand as he went. He cannoned off a few of the drunk carousers who were passing and got a clip to the ear from one particularly grumpy woman, and then, he just disappeared into thin air.
“Keesh!” Freya said. She didn’t think he’d caught on that he was being followed. Maybe it was something he always did, or maybe he’d done it to avoid further reprisals from the big-fisted woman. She was certainly peering around at the dark street in bemused fashion, just as Freya herself was, and looking like she might have enjoyed giving him a bit more biffo.
Freya spent a little while hunting up and down the street and looked into some more taverns, but the night was getting old, and the little wizard was nowhere to be found, so she made her way back to the Cod and Piece and up to her room, with a wave to the busy Comfort on her way through the bar.
Sitting on the frilly bed in her high room, she took out the green pointed hat, and scrunched it in her hand. “Sin, Sin, Sin,” she said. That didn’t feel silly at all! Just as well she didn’t have to put it on her head as well!
There was a popping noise, and suddenly her room was full of wizard. He was less clothed than when she had seen him last, in fact he had no shirt on at all, leaving him wearing only his red trews, his black boots and his white beard. His torso was impressive. A light pelt of silver hair swirled on his chest and down his belly, and the layer of fat he carried did nothing to hide the vitality of his physique.
“Did I catch you at a bad time?” Freya asked, letting her eyes run up his strong form with admiration.
“That will teach me to give someone the means to summon me at once,” Sin said, and chuckled away happily. He didn’t look upset about it all, in fact he took a moment to pose himself to best advantage for her before he went to sit in the only chair in the room, a rocker by the window. Once ensconced in its pillows and frills, he leaned back and rocked, pushing himself with one big booted foot while the other hung over the arm of the chair, and looking mighty cheeky while he did it.
“I’m starting to think you’ve been sitting there half-dressed all night, just waiting for me to summon you,” Freya said, amused.
“Ho ho ho! Maybe,” Sin said, rocking away. “But I’ll never tell if it’s true. So, tell me, friend of Tig, what did you find? Did you find that pointy-headed excuse for a magic-user?”
“I found him,” Freya said. “In the Old Goat. Trading things he took out of your sack, but when he was thrown out of the tavern, I followed him and he disappeared in the street.”
“Ah yes,” said Sin. “An old trick of his. I can give you a tool to help with that. He pulled a small sack off his belt and reached in, then tossed Freya a piece of curved whalebone, with two springs sticking out of it, on which two sparkling balls were attached. “Put that on when you need to see him in his invisible state,” he said as Freya caught and examined the thing critically.
“You’ve got to be keeshing me,” she said, tossing it back to him. “Show me how to wear it.”
The big man grinned a wide grin at her and placed the curved bone over his head so that the balls on springs bobbed around like a pair of antennas as he rocked back and forth. They sparkled in the candlelight. “See?” he said, “Perfectly practical. Pop it on your head when he disappears, you’ll be able to see him and follow him. I had them all ready to use, but he’s got more tricks up his sleeve for me. He knows when I’m nearby, so they’re no good to me.”
The wizard rocked, bobbed and grinned, large hands folded across his lightly furred tummy, curly beard and hair lightly wafting in the wind from his steady back and forth.
“Tig didn’t hire you to play an extended prank on me, did he?” Freya asked, smiling at the sight of him.
“Tig was never the joker,” S’ntaklaws said. “I on the other hand…”
“If I come over there, will you show me how to put it on?” Freya asked, eyeing off the big man again, a speculative look on her face. She’d always wondered what it might be like to bed a wizard, and she was starting to get ideas about this one.
“Come sit on my lap, and I’ll do more than that,” he said.
Freya stood up and kicked off her boots, then flung off her cloak and tunic and undid her belt to let her trews fall. She stepped out of them as she walked across the room. He watched her admiringly, and she knew she was a sight to see, scars and all.
Sin put down his leg and patted his thigh with one meaty hand, and Freya mounted him like he was a horse and sat straddled over both of his legs. Taking the silly headdress off the wizard, she threw it behind her onto the bed. and putting her hands into his curly silver hair instead, she leaned forward to kiss him. He kissed her back, and at the same time, he reached under her to undo his big black belt, then he took hold of her arse with both hands and lifted her higher on his body.
“Ooh,” said Freya against his mouth, smiling secretly to herself, “Did you get that out of one of your sacks?”
“No, but I know exactly what you want, all the same,” he rumbled back, and one of his big booted feet began the chair rocking again. It rocked on for quite some time.
By sun-up, Sin had gone again. Freya had kicked him out so she could sleep the morning away. Not that she’d really wanted him to go. He hadn’t been lying when he’d said he knew exactly what she wanted. Ah well, she could always revisit the experience after her quest was done, but now it was time for resting.
Freya’s sleep was the sort of deeply peaceful one that comes after a very satiating night. Eventually, though, when the sun no longer shined in her window, she stretched like a big cat and rolled over to get herself out of the bed. Time to start hunting for Dil’do again.
Or it would be after feeding her face, anyway. She wandered down the five floors of rickety stairs yet again and shoved up to the bar downstairs. Comfort was there, of course. Freya sometimes wondered if she ever left it for long. Maybe she just slept on the floor behind it.
“Sounded to me like I could see why you didn’t need to borrow Brute, last night,” was the first thing the little woman said to Freya. “Kept me awake till all hours, you did,” she went on, wriggling her expressive eyebrows at Freya, proving that she did indeed sleep somewhere other than behind the bar.
“Uh, sorry about that, I think,” Freya said looking not sorry at all, in fact looking smug.
“Not to worry. Listening to you was way more refreshing than sleeping. Gave Brute and me some extra zip, it did. Breakfast is on the house!” Comfort waved a hand in the direction of a barkeep and pointed at the kitchen. “Listen I’ve got some news for you about your pointy-headed wizard. Word is that some of the local shopkeepers got sick of him undercutting their wares and tried to throw him out of town this morning, but he disappeared, and the last they saw of him he was heading south. My guess is he’ll be heading for Laabra. This city has got too hot for him.”
“Many thanks, my friend,” Freya said. “I’ll be heading out to hunt him right after your generous offer of breakfast, but keep the extra I paid you for the days to come that I will no longer be using.”
Comfort winked. “One day you’ll be back, and if you aren’t weighed down with treasure, you’ll be short of coin, if I know you. The nights you have booked will wait for your return. Happy riding, sister. Both sorts!” Here she winked again.
“Comfort, you’re a dirty-minded old woman,” Freya laughed. “But thank you!”
She ate quickly and went to get her somewhat sulky horse from the hostler. By noon, she was on the road to Laabra at a fast canter, a pace that long-legged Dinna could keep up for hours.
The first part of the road to Laabra was a beautiful one, running along the seashore at times, and the tops of cliffs overlooking the sea at others. Then it turned inland to come to the place where the road crossed the great river known as the Gender Divide. There, high on the cliffs, at the place where the racing, aqua-blue, snow-fed river was at its most narrow far below, was the Gender Divide Bridge. It was a sturdy affair of huge mountain logs, but its placement so high above the water required a certain amount of courage to use it.
It was there that Freya first saw her quarry. He was on the ground, using his reins to soundly punish a small horse who had decided that any beating was still preferable to stepping onto that terrifying span. When Dil’do saw her coming, he let go of the reins and let the little horse run free, which it did, back towards Peena as fast as its little legs could carry it. Then, just like that, the wizard disappeared again, but Freya had a counter to that now, reluctant as she was to use it!
She reached into her belt and pulled out the balls on springs, and affixed them to the top of her head, where they bobbed about, catching her eyes with their sparkle. If it hadn’t worked she was going to beat Sin worse than Dil’do had been beating the horse, but in fact the magical tool worked perfectly, ridiculous as it was. She could clearly see the little wizard, especially his weird head, as he skittered across the bridge over the torrent ahead of her.
She let him go till he had crossed right over, not wanting him to know she could see him, and also very much not wanting to give him the opportunity to use some sort of magic trick to shunt her over the rail and into the drink far below.
Instead, she turned Dinna in circles, pretending to be surprised to find that the little man was gone. Once she was sure he was across, though, she turned back for the bridge and gave Dinna a touch of her heels, only to find that he wouldn’t move.
“Let’s go!” she told her horse impatiently, giving him another touch, then a firm kick, eyes never leaving the place where she had seen Dil’do go into the trees on the other side. When he still didn’t move, she made a noise of irritation that sounded like “Tcha!” and looked down, and found that he was almost folded in half, he’d turned his head and neck so far around, and that he was now looking up at her, and if a horse could have laughed, he would definitely be laughing.
“Yeah, yeah, it’s funny!” she said. Sometimes it wasn’t so great having a horse who’d been a human. “It’s also serving a purpose. Can we just get on and catch this wizard?”
Dinna started off obligingly, but he seemed to be finding rather a lot of excuses to turn his head around side to side so that he could eye her headdress again, and whenever he did, she could see him wrinkling up his mobile mouth then faking a snort in an attempt not to smile too obviously. “You’ll get yours,” she muttered vengefully under her breath as they clonk-clonked onto the bridge and started across the Gender Divide River.
Dinna wasn’t afraid of heights, as long as he had his feet firmly on something real, and not much scared Freya ever, so the crossing was soon accomplished, and then they set out across country on the track of the wizard, who had cut away from the road as soon as he got to the treeline. Invisible he may be, but he still left footprints on the frosty autumn grass.
At this point Freya began to wonder why Dil’do had run from her, since she was just some stranger, but maybe he’d thought she was a shopkeeper on his trail. At any rate, it didn’t matter if he ran, since she had a horse and he didn’t. Sooner or later she would catch him up.
He was making good time on his little legs. Freya cantered for an hour, bent over her saddle to keep track of the footprints that came and went across grass, sand and rock, while Dinna carefully and obviously made sure she didn’t knock her fancy headdress off under low tree branches. “Smart keesher,” she told him, eyes never leaving the trail, and he snorted fakely again.
Then they came out onto the edge of a grassed valley, and she could see far across it towards the other side, and part way down the slope on her side was Dil’do, running for all he was worth, magically quickly in fact, and not bothering to hide himself, since he thought any pursuit wouldn’t be able to see him. His yellow and silver outfit was glowing in the approaching evening dimness and his legs moved so fast that they were blurs. “Got you, wizard,” Freya muttered. She sent Dinna into a gallop in a straight line directly at her quarry and yelled her war cry, “A woman! A woman!”
Dil’do looked behind himself and tripped, rolled, came up running again. It was then that the magical sack he had tucked through his belt came into action and tripped him again by getting under his feet. “Think that happened because I wanted it to happen?” Freya shouted to Dinna over the rapid thuds of his feet and the swishing of the long, frosted grass as they pushed through it. “Come on lad, shift your toes!”
Dinna put his ears back and stretched his neck and really turned on the speed, while Freya put up a hand to hold her bouncing balls on her head. If she lost those she would lose sight of Dil’do as well.
He was up and running again, but this time he was limping and holding his back with one hand, and his extraordinary speed was gone. Freya and Dinna were closing on him now, and she reached into her belt for the red and white striped crook that she carried there, ready to catch him with it if she could.
They were right behind him now. He ducked, but Dinna was an old hand at that game and he turned as well, hard on the wizard’s tail. Freya reached out to catch an arm with the crook, but the desperate man pulled it away just in time, once and then again, and again.
“Be much better if it was a jadding sword!” the woman yelled. “Keep still, you wriggly little keesher!”
“Not likely!” the wizard said, and he suddenly sat down, so that Dinna over-ran him and had to turn on his hindquarters and charge back, which he did with no signalling from Freya. He was as keen on the hunt as his mistress, in fact keener. He had blood in his black eyes now.
The wizard was up again and running for the little river that ran along the centre of the valley, but he was never going to make it. Dinna came up behind him like a charging bull, and this time Freya didn’t bother with nicely trying for an arm. She went for the neck and the very second she got the crook around it, the little man went as stiff as a board and tumbled end over end right down the bank and into the river, where he began to float away on the rapid current like nothing so much as a small yellow canoe.
Freya and Dinna kept pace with him along the bank, but there was no way she was sending her horse into that fast flowing, cold water when she had a wizard on instant call.
Reaching into her belt for the third time, she pulled out the green pointed hat and clutched it tight in her hand, saying, “Sin, Sin,Sin!” as they cantered along the rough bank of the river, with Dinna leaping everything that came along, log or rock or mud patch.
The yellow canoe that was Dil’do looked like it was sinking a bit now. His fancy clothes were getting waterlogged, and the sodden sack that still hung from his belt wasn’t helping either.
Freya caught a flash of the surprised face of S’ntaklaws as he materialised just behind her, and then she heard him start to laugh his booming laugh as he realised what was happening. “Ho ho ho!” came his laugh from behind her as she kept following Dil’do down the river.
“Laugh later! Your enemy is sinking!” she turned in her saddle and yelled, noting that this time Sin was fully-clothed and feeling a momentary pang of disappointment.
But then the stiff little wizard in the river lifted straight out and up into the air like he weighed nothing, and began to float back up the river’s course, above the water, until he reached the big red-dressed wizard on the riverbank. Freya pulled Dinna up and turned him back too, and they arrived at Sin’s side just as he lowered his board-like foe carefully onto the ground beside the water.
“That’s a handy skill,” Freya said, as she threw herself off her red-nostriled horse. She was puffing a bit herself. It had all got rather flurried there for a few minutes. “I got him just before he ran into the river, and he tumbled in like a bit of wood,” she said, laughing at the memory.
“He was always a stiff-necked little Laabia, that one,” Sin said, reaching out a big arm and dragging Freya in for a big smacking kiss on the ear, while Dinna puffed and gave him dirty looks, jealous but too buggered to do anything about it. “It’s good to see you, Sin’s little helper!” the big wizard said. “Well done for the capture. I didn’t expect to find myself out in the middle of nowhere, though.”
“He got driven out of town,” Freya said. “I think he only avoided tarring and feathering because he did his disappearing trick.” She looked down at the petrified little man in wet yellow and silver. “Not a very popular person, is he?”
“Never was, except to those who cleave to bullies. He was ever a little prick,” Sin said, and the look on his usually jolly face was as close to a sneer as Freya had seen on it yet. He bent over and dragged his sack out from under the belt of the little wizard. “This is my special sack,” he said, “I use it every year to give food and clothing and toys to the orphans of Peena. I was an orphan there once too, and I still remember how it felt to be cold and hungry in winter. This keesher was from Laabra, and he took the rivalry between the cities personally. When I was found by the wizards and came to Fyrkat, he tortured Tig and I, and many others, until we gained more power than him. He’s never forgiven me for my power, because he always hated me worst. He’s been using his sneaky, creepy powers to attack me for years. It’s time it ended.”
“What are you going to do?” Freya asked. It felt a bit strange to think of the man being killed while he was unable to move, but he was Sin’s enemy, not hers. The decision was his.
“I’d like to end him,” the big wizard admitted, “But I will adhere to my oath as a magic-user not to kill. It is enough to have my sack back.” He made some sort of complicated gesture, and Dil’do’s stiff arms and legs went in all directions as he was suddenly freed.
The little man in wet yellow took a huge gasp of air and used it to start blustering at once. “You jadding Peenas! I nearly drowned!”
“That was not my intention,” Sin said, his jolly mood restored by Dil’do’s obvious discomfort. “But it was nice to see anyway. Ho ho ho! I did enjoy seeing you floating down the river like a piece of wood! It made my heart happy!”
Freya had to laugh at the sight of the rotten little creep, who was still flat on his back and gasping. He leant over sideways to cough up some water onto the grass.
“Somewhat of a shame you didn’t land in the water facedown,” Sin suggested, giving Freya a merry nudge in the ribs.
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you,” Dil’do spat. “Get rid of me without breaking your precious oath. Well I didn’t and I’m not dead, and I’ll be back to get you again and again, you and your whore. I could smell you on her from a mile away.”
Freya took a step forward, but held her boot back from the kick she would so dearly love to give him. “I have made no such oaths as wizards do,” she said quietly, “And I believe in eradicating vermin, before they can get into the larder again. I suggest you leave, now, before my kind friend here changes his mind.” She half drew her sword, and the little man scurried away from her, half on his feet and half on his knees.
“Looks just like a yellow weasel,” she turned her head to say to Sin, and in that moment, Dil’do made a leap for Dinna and was in the saddle before Freya could move to stop him. He grabbed at the pommel of the saddle and struck his heels into Dinna’s sides with a huge buffet, obviously expecting the horse to gallop off with him.
Dinna, who’d been quietly minding his own business and catching his breath, reins dragging, was somewhat surprised to find himself mounted by someone other than his beloved mistress, so it took him all of three seconds to respond the way Freya knew he would. He hit the roof.
“Thought he was a normal dumb sort of horse, the sort you can steal,” Freya said conversationally to Sin as the two of them watched Dinna bucking like a wild thing, as the little wizard hung onto the pommel for grim death, his arse barely touching the saddle between flights. “He’s doing quite well actually. Dinna’s broken his reins, though. I’ll be adding the cost of those to my fees.”
“Did you want me to pay that extra as treasure, or perhaps in some other way?” Sin said, and waggled his silver eyebrows at her.
“Take your tunic off again and I’ll think about it,” Freya said a bit distractedly as she watched her horse leaping about like a gazelle with Dil’do flopping around on top, looking very like the sack he had so recently stolen. “Oh, he’s going, he’s going, he’s gone!”
Dinna knew as soon as Dil’do had left the saddle for good, and even before the little man had hit the ground, the snake-headed black beast had turned on him and struck at him with both front legs. Dinna crushed his skull with the first blow, then proceeded to dance on the remains until Dil’do was just a small yellow, silver and pink splotch on the trampled grass.
“Well,” said Freya cheerfully. “I hope your oath doesn’t extend to saving enemies who are being killed by rogue horses.”
“I don’t believe it does,” Sin said, and he laughed long and loud. He was still laughing when he reached into his sack and pulled out his sleigh and the two Hellks, already harnessed to it. They were tiny as he drew them out, but grew as soon as he placed them on the ground, where they stamped and clashed their antlers even as they returned to full size.
“Well, that’s clever!” Freya said admiringly.
“If you like that, watch this,” the wizard said happily, and he drew out a small armoured chest, which he opened to reveal gold coins. Many, many gold coins. “Yours,” he said. “Yours and Dinna’s, and here…” He reached into the sack again and came out with another chest, this one full of jewels. “This is for Dinna especially, for doing me an extra service. Get him the best oats and hay you can find.”
“That’s going to buy a lot of oats,” Freya said happily as Dinna left off his stomping and returned to her with joy shining in his evil black eyes. “Had fun did you, fella?” she said, rubbing the horse’s hot forehead as he bowed his head down to her. He was never happier or more relaxed than when he’d just had a really good killing spree.
Freya took hold of one of the broken leather straps that still hung from Dinna’s bit and eyed S’ntaklaws craftily as she slapped it on the palm of her hand. “But there’s still the matter of the extra payment for my broken reins. What were we saying about your tunic before, and how you might need to take it off again to seal the deal?”
“Would you like to come back with me to Peena?” Sin asked, holding one meaty hand out in invitation, moustaches curling as he smiled. “I have some deliveries to do to children, and then… then, Freya Fjordrider, we could make sure you get paid enough to buy a thousand new reins, if only the payment had been in coin. What do you say?”
“Ho ho ho!” said Freya, grinning back at him.