STEEL HAND, COLD HEART SNEAK PEEK
“All the horrors thou wilt not get to know which Hel’s inmates suffer. Pleasant sins end in painful penalties; pain ever follows pleasure.”
Edda of Saedmund the Wise
They called me Carina the Unstoppable. No, the name did not render men to terror like Merciless Merle, nor did it inspire awe like Dagna the Destroyer, or command attention like Odda Ironfist. But the moniker was mine. I earned it for the many times I had been knocked flat on the training grounds or limped on bleeding limbs to finish a fight. It was how I earned my place as one of Hel’s Daughters, the Hand of Death Herself.
I leaned over the rails of our longboat, Jörmungandr, aptly named because the figurehead was carved in the image of the giant sea serpent, wriggling its way through the water east toward Frisia. A strong wind held our mainsail, and we bobbed back and forth on gentle waves. These smooth waters were a blessing from the sea giant, Aegir. He approved of our quest, speeding us along our last raid of the season, the last offering to Hel before the long winter.
This was the Daughters’ last raid of the season but my first. I could hardly contain my excitement. I wanted to be there already, to see the villagers’ faces when we arrived on their shore in droves. When we offered their blood to the Goddess Hel.
I curled my steel fingers into a fist. On the eve of my initiation, Thora warned me attaching my steel hand would hurt. Her exact words were, “It feels like cutting your fingers off one by one and pissing in the wound.” Vidar warmed the steel gauntlet in the coals until it glowed sunset red, and I grit my teeth as he slid the molten metal over my fingers. The steel hand burned through flesh and muscle until the metal touched bone. My eyes had watered. A violent scream had gathered in my chest.
I held it back. I didn’t have the luxury of showing weakness, and once the hand was seared to my fingers, I belonged to Hel. She who bears the steel hand has the Goddess’s blessing to take life. That was three months ago. It took that long for my hand to heal, to become useful again.
My fist curled tighter at the sound of Dagna’s voice. She made the application of the steel hand seem like a hangnail in comparison. Whereas the steel only burned me once, Dagna burned me again and again and again.
Slowly I turned, on my time, not hers.
She stood opposite me on the port side of the longboat, still too close for my liking. Her gold hair glowed under the pale moonlight, tied tight into a perfect braid that resembled a thick coil of rope. She stood tall and lean, bright-eyed and fierce. With her broad axe slung over her shoulder and the cruel smile on her lips, one look from her caused men to fall to their knees and weep for mercy. She painted the perfect picture of one of Hel’s servants, and I despised her for that.
“When we arrive at Frisia,” she said. “I hope you don’t forget who you should be fighting. It will be easy to get confused in the dark. Should you find my axe in your back, forgive me. You blend so well with blackness.”
Her cruel smile widened. This was an old joke, a tired one, except a few of our Sisters still laughed. It stuck at me like nails. I was not the perfect picture of Hel’s Daughters. I had been claimed by a raid in the Southern Isles years ago, brought back as a spoil of battle at three. I had olive-toned skin and black hair, wood brown eyes, and even though everyone could plainly see it, Dagna felt the need to shine a painful light on my differences.
I should have been glad she at least warned me she might stab me in the back this time.
She had officially tried to kill me three times and maim me more times than I could count. The breeze lifted her tunic, revealing the edge of a long pink scar. I gave her that one on the practice field, self-defense with a touch of vengeance.
“A good, healthy rivalry,” Merle called it, seemingly proud that when it came to fighting, neither Dagna nor I held back.
But it was not exactly healthy. If one of us were stabbed, or trampled, or drowned tonight, the other one would open a bottle of mead and drink in celebration.
“Look there,” Thora Legbreaker said. “Land approaches.”
She thrust her steel finger north to a gray shadow rising up from the waves. The only sign of life on the island was a pair of flickering torches. Merle followed the line of Thora’s finger, marching up the length of the boat for the spyglass. She held it to her face and stood, one leg on the bow while her red, fox fur trimmed cloak billowed out behind her.
She was breathtaking in a way she had not been when I’d been in training, learning to sail with the Daughters on trade expeditions to Brezadine. This was different. This was Merciless Merle on her way to show her devotion to the Goddess Hel, dressed in her finest cloak, her steel claws freshly oiled, and her belt heavy with her sword and bow.
Merle was always something to behold. Not a scrap of fat on her bones. Every bit of flesh and muscle was worked to perfection, each sinew and joint made for one thing—dealing death. As children, we had our own stories about the fearsome chieftain: that she walked from her mother’s womb exactly as she was now. Her mother died in childbirth and our tale was that it happened because Merle had been born with a sword and cut her own mother in half to escape her body.
Mostly we told that story because none of us could picture Merle as a plump, round baby with gold curls and rosy cheeks. It was hard to imagine her as anything else besides steel and iron and blood. I would never reach the fine-tuned, immortal strength of Merle. That was something that couldn’t be found with training or practice. It was born into you. It lived in your blood.
All I could do was prove I deserved my place. I could show her that she had been right to spare my life, to bring me to Helvar, and to raise me as her own.
She tossed the spyglass back to Thora and grinned at the rest of us. Her one, silver tooth glinted in the moonlight.
“Lower the sails,” she shouted. “Take to the oars. Before morn, the Goddess Hel will be fat with blood!”
“Hah!” We all called back in unison and raised our steel fists. My blood pumped hard as I sat down at the oars. I locked my steel hand around the oak handle and sank my claws into previously made marks. As the sail came down, I pulled against the water.
Horrible Hild kept one hand on the styra bord, and her steel fist banged against the back of the boat to keep rhythm. I plunged the oar into the water when she struck and yanked it back in the beat of silence. Dagna sat across from me, pulling her oar to the same rhythm.
“Be careful,” she mouthed silently.
I looked away from her and focused on the ever-growing land mass rising up in front of us. Odda Ironfist warned us that it was easy to get carried away on your first raid, to gain a thirst for blood.
“The blood is not for you,” she said.
It was for the Goddess Hel. Each life we took tonight would be a new soul in Niflheim, the land of the dead, and in exchange for that soul, Hel gave us life: food, riches, weapons, bountiful crops, fat livestock, rivers of fish, good health for our children, and plentiful game. The more death we doled; the more She gave, and if we did not satisfy Her with enough souls for the winter, She would take them from our people, in the form of starvation or sickness. If we failed, our people failed.
One life for every life on Helvar. That was what we owed, and we could always give more but no less. There had been two seasons since I’d been on the island when we’d fallen short. The year of the storms, eight years ago, when then Daughters were stuck on the island due to the dangerous waters. That year, the crops soured, and thirty children died of stomach sickness. And four years ago, the year of revolt. Some of the villages we raided in the past came for vengeance. We lost fifty-two lives that year, too busy defending ourselves to make our claims to Hel.
Hild’s heavy hand beat faster, harder, and I stretched my arms to meet her demand. We would make our claims tonight. We would end the season with blood. Silently we swept across the water, moving through the waves instead of bouncing over them. We had to come in quickly, quietly, to gain a solid position before the village discovered our arrival.
Our longboat slid up to the sand, along with the twenty-two others that left Helvar with us three days ago. I released the oar and reached for my sword, a gift from Merle after my initiation ceremony.
“What will you name it?” she had asked.
I carefully examined the longsword, carved with runes in the golden hilt. Death must be satisfied. “Gut Spiller,” I’d said, because that was usually where I aimed my kill strike—along the middle.
Merle nodded with approval. “Gut Spiller,” she’d said.
Now I took Gut Spiller and climbed onto the sandy beach with the others, tense and waiting for Merle’s command to strike.
She made her way in front of us and stood on a boulder buried in the sand. The breeze off the ocean fluttered her cloak behind her. She looked like a goddess herself.
“This is our last raid of the summer, Sisters,” she said, clicking her steel fingers together. “Whatever food and riches we take will have to sustain us for the long winter following. Whatever blood that seeps into the sand will have to satisfy the Goddess Hel until we can draw blood for Her again. While we are out there, we cannot forget who we are.”
Her steel blue eyes found me in the crowd, and I fought the urge to shrink away, standing taller instead. I knew who I was, who I was meant to be.
“Remember that Death has no mercy,” she continued. “She must be satisfied, and if She is not satisfied here, then She will take her blood from our people. We are the Daughters of Hel, the hands of Death.” Merle raised her steel fist over her head. “Tonight, let us show Hel that She need not take what we freely give. That She has no cause to leave the underworld and claim what is Hers, because we shall gladly give it to Her! Join me, Sisters!”
Our voices were like one, giant fist, striking at the silence. Merle climbed down from her rock and led the charge up the hill toward the flickering torches of the village above. I found a comfortable place in the center of the mob, surrounded by warrior women with swords raised and teeth bared.
A sharp elbow struck my side and a blonde braid whipped me across the cheek. “Try to keep up, Carina.” Dagna shoved her way forward.
This was not her first raid. She was a year older than I, always slightly ahead.
As usual, I followed in her wake, fighting to catch her. She reached the village first. Our chant awoke the villagers. That had been the intention. Although Death did not discriminate, She would take sleeping children as readily as virile soldiers, there was no skill or glory in taking the life of someone asleep.
A man in a sodden tunic and a dull sword rushed at Dagna. She swung her axe, cutting clean through his neck. His head rolled into the grass, and his headless corpse fell bleeding. There was no quicker or cleaner way to send someone to Death. It had been a flawless attack.
“Go swiftly to Niflheim,” she said and moved onto her next kill.
Steel-handed woman flooded the village, spilling blood on the sandy path. I pushed ahead, stepping over fallen bodies and around my Sisters. Screams of terror blended with screams of victory, and the air smelled strongly of sweat, fire, and blood.
A man launched himself into the path in front of me, brandishing an axe.
“Go home, Daughter of Hel,” he said, raising his axe high.
I thrust Gut Spiller forward, plunging the blade into his stomach. He let out a final gasp and collapsed. I knelt beside him. He was my first kill, my first offering. It had been easier than I thought. Years of practice, of fighting with trained woman warriors, I acted on instinct. He appeared; I stabbed.
“Go swiftly to Niflheim,” I whispered and picked up the axe. I hooked it on my belt. What had been his was now mine and my Sisters’, the gifts Hel gave in exchange for life, and I needed more. I could not go back to Helvar with only a rusty axe, not on my first raid, not being who I was and having to face Dagna.
My Sisters mobbed the village, dropping down from the thatched roofs, climbing in through the shuttered windows of the stone houses. I turned further up the hill where a single light burned through the trees, perhaps a small group trying to escape. I grasped Gut Spiller and charged after the light, leaping over fallen bodies and weaving around a herd of loose sheep. You could not escape Death. You could outsmart Her for a while but She would always have you in the end.
When I breeched the trees, I plunged into a deeper darkness and quiet, away from the shrieks of the village. A single light shone ahead of me, unmoving. It came from inside a building, a small, stone building with a tall turret in the center--a church.
The people of Frisia worshipped the one, male god. Instead of blood, they offered their god celibacy and gold—ridiculous. What kind of god needed silver and gold? But my people would have great use for it.
I reached the carved oak doors of the church and paused. They were slightly ajar, and on the other side, I heard a woman.
“No,” she whispered. “I cannot. I will not!”
I heard no other voice. Either she was alone, or the person she spoke to wasn’t responding. Either way, there could be no more than two, easy enough.
I shouldered open the door, and a single priestess spun to face me. The burning candles on the altar behind her flickered. She kept her hands behind her back and her white hood dropped over her forehead. She was old, possibly as ancient as Thorvald the Drunkard, the oldest man on Helvar. Liver spots marked pale cheeks that hung heavy from sharp cheekbones. She had probably been striking once, before age dragged on her.
Keeping one eye on her, I scanned the rest of the room, around the wooden benches and along the tapestries clinging to the walls. “Where is the other one?” I asked.
“There is no other.”
“Then who were you talking to?”
“Him.” She raised her eyes to the altar and the carved marble statue of her god, dressed in long robes with arms outstretched. “Have you come to kill me?” she asked.
It was a useless question. Of course I had come to kill her. That was what being the Hand of Death meant, except now that she asked, something under my skin tugged at me to stay my blade.
It was the rot of cowardice given to me by my true father, the one Merle had taken me from. It was a sickness in my blood that I could not cure, not with a thousand hours of practice, or even with a steel hand. It was the foul odor that Dagna smelled on me and what made her sneer when I passed. I didn’t just look different from them. I was different from the other Sisters, inside and out. They had been given the strength of the Goddess at birth. I had to earn it.
I raised my sword with both hands. I just had to kill the woman and be done with it. I should have done it by now. My hesitation cost me. I moved to her, and her yellowing eyes followed my every step, unflinching, judging. I could drop my sword and split her in half; she was so fragile. Instead, I lowered my blade to the ground.
Hel’s fury, what would the grand Goddess of Death want with a wasted old priestess anyway? She would have her soon enough from age.
“Don’t do anything that will force me to kill you.” I pushed by her to the altar, snatching a gold chalice encrusted with rubies. I unfurled the sack on my waist and shoved the chalice inside, followed by two silver candlesticks.
In a cabinet below the altar, I found a large jug of mead. Thorvald would enjoy that. Watching the priestess, I ripped down her velvet curtains too. We could turn them into cloaks or trade them in Brezadine for seed or weapons. I stuffed them into the top of my bag, pleased with my take. Merle would be pleased too.
Unless she discovers you spared the old woman.
“You know, she will not give you what you seek,” the priestess said, “your vile goddess.”
“How do you know what I seek?” I plucked two gold figurines from the windowsill and shoved them into my pockets.
“Acceptance,” the woman said.
I flinched. “That is not what I seek, and your god cannot protect you from Death.”
“No, but He can provide everlasting life.”
I tied my sack closed. Making my way to the priestess, I prodded the point of one steel claw into the underside of her chin. She eyed me from the end of her nose.
“Everlasting life is an affront to the Goddess,” I said. “All have their time to live, and once that time is done, they belong to Her. You will too.”
“Perhaps,” she said. “But who will you belong to? You don’t belong to them. You come from the Southern Isles. You are not one of them.”
I ignored her. “What are you hiding behind your back?”
“Nothing, at least not to you.” She pulled her arm forward and flattened her palm. On her wrinkled skin sat a simple rock. “It’s a prayer stone, but any prayers you say on it will not reach your fiendish Goddess.”
I jabbed my claw into her skin. “Keep talking, old woman. You will bleed out faster if your tongue is moving when I cut it out.” I snipped my steel fingers together, and her sallow eye finally sparked with fear.
That was enough to satisfy me. She could keep the last few threads of her life and her worthless stone. I had her god’s riches, and I would give them to my people instead.
I turned for the door, and a figure appeared there. I heard the click of a crossbow, and the wisp of a dart cut by my ear. It lodged into the old priestess’s throat. Blood spurted from her lips, and she fell. The stone clattered across the floor. Crimson ran down her chin to her robes while her eyes remained open in a judgmental glare at the ceiling. I took a breath as Merle marched toward me, slinging her crossbow over her shoulder. Blood streaked her cheeks and stained the blade at her belt.
She did not look at me as she passed. I should have killed the woman myself. Why had I let her go? What sickness had come over me?
“You have a good eye for worth.” Merle examined the inside of the church. “Not for detail.” She nudged the old woman’s leg with her boot.
The rot of my heritage seeped up through my pores. “I’m so—”
Merle held up her hand. “It is our nature, our human nature, to preserve life.” She pressed her steel hand to my cheek, warm, not cool. Heated from battle. “But when we become one of Hel’s Daughters, we must go beyond nature. Death does not spare the young, or the weak, or the infirm. That is usually who She takes first.”
Merle shook her head. “No, Carina, you do not. But you will. When you spare a life, you commit someone of Helvar to die in her place.”
“Do you?” Merle nudged the dead woman’s leg again. “Don’t disappoint me again, or I will make sure you’re the one we send to Hel. Now, come with me and prove you deserve those claws.” She flipped her bloodied cloak over her shoulder and made for the doors. I shook off the yearning to cry. Hel’s Daughters did not cry.
As I followed her, I kicked something on the ground--the priestess’s rock. I picked it up. The gray stone was simple, something you would pluck from a riverbed, except this one was etched with a circle of two snakes, tied into knots.
I tucked it into my pocket so I would never forget how I shamed myself this day.