Chapter One

In which our heroine dies and lives again…

 

Glittering lace drifted from the sky to the snowy ground. Moons’ light glinted off of the flakes, rendering them silvery stars instead of mere snow. Frigg flinched. It was a painfully beautiful scene, but the sword in her chest made it rather difficult to appreciate the forest’s wintry glory. Her aching limbs had begun to stiffen, the twinges of feeling retreating to her torso. Soon, she would freeze. Frigg knew this. She had to move. To her left lay Tyr—his body broken and bloodied. After he had run Frigg through with his gold-hilted blade, she had struck swiftly, through his heart. A silver claymore rose from Tyr’s back where he lay dead on the snow.

A cough assaulted Frigg’s slim frame. Blood spattered onto her chest, legs, and boots. Her breathing rattled in her lungs. She was going to die. Soon. Frigg rested her head against the trunk of the tree she had limped to after the battle. What would death be like? Tyr had not taken her skills seriously when she drew her sword. Not many men took a female assassin to be a hardened, cold killer. That had been Tyr’s mistake. Now, he lay there, dead himself, farther along the path than she. Frigg supposed that if he could relive this night, instead of luring her to the woods for a secret tryst, he would have fled in terror.

Another cough. This time, even more blood spilled onto her chest and the sword slipped further in. Groaning, she struggled to stand up. The sword would have to remain in her chest. Frigg knew she would bleed to death in seconds if it was removed. It was stuck in her right lung and lodged between two of her ribs, exiting out of her back. The Grotto wasn’t far, but Frigg would likely die before she reached it. At least she would die attempting to return there. Snow fell in heavy, oppressive sheets, slowing her way. She dragged her feet in the drifts, edging nearer the Grotto. Frigg thought she saw the blinking light of lanterns in the distance, but before she could be sure, her legs gave out.

More convulsions wracked her body. The snow soaked up the blood spilling out of her back and chest. Death. It had crossed Frigg’s mind many times in the five years that she had worked for Hulda, but she had never given it serious thought. Now, as her life’s liquid pooled over the linen snow and pain blossomed in every corner of her body, Frigg found her head full of thoughts of her last day at home…Mother baking bread and stirring the contents of the pot over the hearth…Her sister Eir sleeping at her knees, planting a snotty nose against her thighs…Bryn at the back of the room knitting, silent and still…

Frigg missed them all; far more than she should with the sort of life she led. Family was a liability. Hulda had drilled that notion into her head. Somewhere within, a beating heart reminded Frigg that she was still alive. There was a miniscule sliver of a chance that she would make it through this. She started to crawl. Though her fingers were so cold they barely worked, and her feet slipped and slid beneath her, she managed to travel a few more feet through the snow drift. Then it happened.

The sword shifted, tearing a new gash somewhere inside her chest. A river of crimson flowed fresh over the ground and all the breath left her. Blood bubbled in her throat. The pain intensified, leaving Frigg flailing and screaming for death to come. Those infernal memories of her family stretched before her eyes, the starry sky burning holes through the hazy mirage.

“Mother,” she murmured, blood pouring over her lips.

Trees and snowflakes melted into one another. Cold specks hit Frigg’s face and open eyes. Why could she not close them? She knew why. Frigg knew when she faced death that she would want to see him approaching. No one caught Frigg off guard. She would not allow it. Her vision blurred further. After a while, she discerned a shadowed figure on the edge of her gaze.

“You’ve come,” Frigg whispered. “You’ve come for me.”

The darkness grew wider and swallowed her whole.

 

* * *

 

Clinking metal and stone woke her. A scraping, grating noise irritated the air, but it stopped within seconds. More clanking and shuffling sounds. The pouring of liquid. Frigg opened her eyes, but saw only a blurry visage of stone and flickering amber light.

“You’re awake,” a man’s voice observed.

Frigg stiffened. She did not recognize the voice. Where was she? She remembered dying…was this place in the Afterworld? The man walked closer to her. When she looked over to the place she expected him to be, all she could make out was a mottled image. He had pale skin and light hair. The eyes were of maybe a blue or green hue. He extended something to her, expecting her to take it.

“I can’t see,” Frigg announced, looking away from his offering.

“You’ve lost a lot of blood,” the man said. “This will help you get well.”

She tried to move away from the stranger and his cup—which was, in all likelihood, poison—but a wrenching, clawing pain darted through her chest. Frigg gasped and clutched at her torso. The sword was gone and her wounds had been bandaged. Perhaps the man did not intend to kill her after all.

“Drink it,” he ordered.

Frigg squinted, barely making out the picture of the man sipping a bit of the draught.

“See?” he held out the cup.

Frowning, she reached out a weak hand. Blinking excessively, trying to focus her eyes, Frigg gripped the cup. Her hand was empty. She shook her head, but her depth perception remained skewed.

“I can’t see it properly,” Frigg scowled.

“Here,” the voice said.

Gentle hands pushed her back onto the pillows and lifted the back of Frigg’s head. The rim of the cup met her lips. A warm brew poured into her parched mouth. She rolled the liquid over her tongue. Winter’s throat was the base for the potion—a strong sedative if used by too heavy a hand—but it was faint. Over that, she tasted lavender and rubia root. It was not poison. The man obviously knew his herbs.

“Convinced I’m not trying to hurt you?” he asked.

“For now,” Frigg stammered.

The mere act of drinking had exhausted her. Inhaling, a strange rattling rang out from her lungs. It would take many weeks to heal completely from such an injury. She closed her eyes. She was not in the Grotto. Still, she had been close when she had fainted. Maybe Frigg could muster the strength to escape. No, better to wait. Hulda always told them that waiting was the most prudent choice when one was stranded or had lost the upper hand.

“I stitched up the lung and set the broken ribs as best I could. Then, I sutured the skin. It’s well bandaged, but you shouldn’t touch your chest for a while,” the man explained, breaking her concentration.

“What?” she asked, having missed most of his words.

“You had a sword in your chest,” he told her, slowing his speech. “I pulled it out and cleaned the wound. It took about thirty or forty sutures. It’ll be a nasty scar. It barely missed your heart. You’re very fortunate to be alive.”

Frigg blinked and let the information settle. Scars were not of concern to her. Weeks spent on bed rest were. She could not stay there for so long. She had to report back to Hulda, receive her compensation, and take on a new mark.

“Do you have a name?” the man inquired, innocent enough.

Frigg closed her eyes and turned her head to what she thought was a wall. The winter’s throat had begun its work; already she was growing sleepy. Sometime later, the man walked away. A door closed somewhere in the distance. She let herself drift to sleep.

 

* * *

 

Some sort of root cellar; that was where Frigg was lying. A desk sat next to her bed, adorned with lanterns. The light flickered over the pitted surface of the purple, earthen walls. Tiny bits of roots stuck out of the soil. A shelf lay near the door—stacked high with glass jars filled with strange-colored contents. Herbs hung from a rack suspended from the ceiling. Frigg had seen rooms like this before. Eljas, back at the Grotto, used a cavern for making his own tinctures and poisons. Frigg caught the sound of the man’s footsteps outside the door. He came inside balancing a tray on his forearm.

“How long have I been down here?” Frigg demanded.

“Good morning,” the man greeted, ignoring her barbed question.

“I must leave. Soon,” Frigg added.

“Your sutures can’t come out for at last another month.” Seeing her eyes widen, the man continued, “I found you five days ago. You slept for two days, then I kept you sedated the last three. I imagine you don’t remember much. Can you see better, now?”

Frigg narrowed her eyes. She could see perfectly, now. Whatever treatments the young man had administered, they were working.

“You never told me your name,” he smiled.

“Nor do I intend to,” Frigg growled.

“Suit yourself.” He shrugged. “I’ve got my own secrets. Can’t fault you for keeping yours.”

Frigg frowned. Now that she could see him clearly, she noticed he was pleasant to look at. His skin was warm, his hair a deep shade of gold. Jade eyes peered kindly at her. He wore simple brown trousers and layers of sweaters. Booted feet shifted as he set the tray on the desk.

“Well, I’m Marko,” he told her. “You are in the cellar of my family’s hunting cabin.”

Marko could not have been much older than her, based on his appearance. Twenty herself, Frigg wondered how such a young man could be so accomplished at surgery. He had done an expert job of dressing her wounds—Eljas, himself, would have praised the work. It was a bit uncanny how she had been rescued by someone so skilled at healing. She frowned. From then on, she would say less and be even more cautious than she already was by nature. Marko was not to be trusted, no matter what he had done for her.

“It’s very secluded, if that’s what you’re worried about,” Marko remarked.

She stiffened…how much did he know about her?

“Who put the sword in your chest?” Marko questioned.

Frigg remained silent.

Marko looked over at her, his face innocent. She turned her gaze to the wall and closed her eyes. He could be one of Hulda’s many informants, toying with her. He could be as innocent as he looked. He could be an enemy. Frigg exhausted various plans for escape, but cursed inwardly when she realized she was still far too weak to execute any of them. Marko’s shuffling feet and the telltale sounds of dishes from the tray told Frigg that he was going to force her to eat again.

“Alright, now,” Marko said, startling her by coming to sit next to her on the bed.

Frigg’s head shot around. She almost hissed at his forward behavior.

“I just want you to eat,” Marko laughed, indicating the tray in his lap. “Honest. I’m a nice, person, you know. I’m just glad I found you before you died.”

Frigg scowled and opened her mouth. Marko smiled and spooned some hideous flavored tonic between her lips. Next came a broth made from some sort of fowl stock. Frigg’s nose wrinkled. Still, she knew she should eat to build her strength. The sooner she healed, the sooner she could get back to Hulda. It felt as though it took hours. Finally, Marko set the empty bowl on the tray and stood up.

“I don’t know who you are,” Marko exhaled. “But I know that ordinary women don’t end up with swords in their chests.”

Frigg pursed her lips.

“I’ll see you in a few hours. I have to run an errand.”

Excitement budded in her mind. This was her chance. It didn’t matter if she was too weak to stand. Frigg would do whatever it took to get back to the Grotto. He left, leaving the door cracked behind him. She listened for sounds upstairs and heard another two doors close. Marko was gone. Moment after moment meandered past, and Frigg waited. After what she guessed to be a half-hour or so, she attempted to sit up. Cruel waves of nausea and dizziness raged beneath her skin. Panting, clutching her chest, Frigg swung her legs over the side of the cot. Every movement drew sweat to her forehead. Grunting, she stood up. For several minutes, she tested her legs; squatting, raising herself onto her toes…it was exhausting. Knowing she needed to make progress, Frigg took small steps across the room. It took far too long to move from cot to door, but she finally did it. Grasping the handle, Frigg tugged on the door and trudged into the hallway. Her resolve buckled when she peered up a particularly steep flight of wooden stairs.

Frigg gritted her teeth.

Pale, blue lamplight flickered from sconces set into deep alcoves. Shadows bounced across the dirt walls. Though she was in no shape for it, Frigg began to climb. There was no time for gaping or consideration. The first few creaking steps nearly defeated her. The sutures in her chest strained and pulled against her angry flesh. Her lungs refused to hold much air. By the tenth stair, Frigg collapsed on the rough, hard wood, clutching her chest and gasping. Blood stained her fingers when she brought her hand to her face.

“Blasted Tyr…I sh-should h-have…poisoned him…” Frigg’s eyes blurred over and her world went black.

 

* * *

 

“I knew you’d try something like that,” Marko sighed. “I should have sedated you before I left, for your own good.”

Frigg stared at Marko’s worried face, hating every inch of it. Never had she been so incapacitated. Marko removed the bloodied bandages from her chest. A true professional, he refrained from any unsightly gawking or comments about her breasts.

“You ripped several stitches.” He frowned. “Let’s hope the sutures in your lung held during your little excursion.”

Frigg clawed at the sheets where her hands rested. Every feathery touch of his surgeon’s hands caused her untold resentment. She had been weak. Because she had been a few seconds too late in drawing her sword, Tyr had nearly killed her. Pathetic. That is what Hulda and Eljas would call her. Severin would not even be able to look at her. Worthless. What good is an assassin who nearly dies when she corners her mark?

“Have you been listening, woman?” Marko shouted, startling her.

He had been prattling on about bleeding to death and permanent damage to her internal organs. Frigg had ignored him. She chose to do so again and turned her head away.

“Fine! I’ve only saved your life!” Marko’s voice caught in his throat.

He threw his tools onto the tray sitting on the desk. Fuming, he stomped out of the cellar. Frigg heard the metallic clicks of the door lock. So, he had grown wiser. Frigg melted into the pillows and went to sleep.

 

* * *

 

A month. An entire dance of the moons transpired before Frigg was well enough to climb the stairs. Marko supported her arms as she took one single step at a time.

“You’re doing well,” he encouraged her.

Frigg rolled her eyes and kept silent. In the last month, Frigg had managed to say only a few sentences to him. Otherwise, she restricted her communications to curt body-language and grunts. At the top, Marko helped her to sit and rest. The stitches in her lungs had dissolved. The flesh of her chest had healed, leaving a bright pink scar. Marko had removed the outer stitches yesterday. It was just as well that Frigg had promised Hulda never to marry. No man would want that sort of grizzly reminder of her profession.

“Are you ready?” Marko asked.

“For what?” Frigg panted.

“To go inside.” Marko jerked his head towards the closed door at their backs.

She shrugged, feigning nonchalance. In truth, she was dying to know what lay beyond the door. It meant more information to plan her escape. Marko stood, pulling Frigg up with him. The door looked old and worn—deep stains rested in the wood grains as though it had been painted a thousand times. It lurched open, angry creaks screeching from the hinges. They stepped inside the kitchen of the hunting cabin. Contrary to what Frigg first anticipated (which was that Marko would not be the sort of man to hunt), there were rabbit and elk skins hanging on the walls. Recently cured meat hung suspended from the ceiling. Herbs lay about on every surface. Frigg’s stomach heaved—the rich scent of the meat sending her sensitive stomach reeling. Head spinning, she rested her hand on the rough table before her.

“Do you need to rest?” Marko looked concerned.

“I’m fine,” she barked.

He shook his head, an amused smile resting in the corners of his lips. He led her into the central room of the cabin. Every surface was decked in animal parts. There were skin rugs and pillows, candle stands and decorative bowls made from antlers. Frigg was a killer, herself, though she had never hunted animals for sport or frivolity. It seemed a strange impulse to her. Animals never took out contracts on each other. They were wholly honest creatures. If they had a problem with another animal, it was kill or be killed. No secrecy. Humans could learn a lot from them, in Frigg’s opinion. Still, she would be out of a job if people matured in that way.

Marko hung a black kettle on the hearth hook before helping Frigg to sit on the worn sofa in front of the fire. It was much warmer in this room than the cellar. As they sat in silence, Frigg took in every conceivable nook and cranny in the space. There were four windows, each one shuttered against the cold. The main door to the forest was bolted with several locks and one timber beam strapped across it. On the roof rafters, she spotted two weak patches of thatching. Escaping would be no trouble at all—once she was confident she was well enough to make it to the Grotto.

Without asking for Marko’s help or permission, she stood up and walked around the room. Her legs ached and were stiff as she slowly stepped about. Frigg knew she would need to perform her set of stretches to build up her flexibility and stamina. She could have just aimed to clamber out of the house, uncaring towards whatever traces or messes she left behind, but Frigg would most likely avoid doing that. She was a professional assassin. Getting into and out of places without a sound, scent, or trail left behind was her job. Marko’s hunting lodge would be no different. It would be neat, clean; as though she had never been locked away in the surgeon’s cellar.

They stayed in the central room all day. Marko offered her a choice of several books to read, but she declined. Instead, Frigg watched and waited. First, she studied the surgeon—it was practice for her next mark. Volumes of information filled the shelves of her mind. He twitched his left foot when he grew especially interested in his book. He chewed his cheek or his nails when he was bored. Other extraneous tidbits about his behavior lodged in her mind. He drank seven cups of tea throughout the day. He always held the cup in his left hand. He spilled tea on his shirt twice. These details would have seemed trivial to anyone else, but to a hired killer, they could help plan a perfect death.

“You’re rather unnerving, you know?” Marko remarked just after dusk.

Frigg imagined it was her eyes—her red-brown eyes—that often chilled people to the bone. Perhaps it was also that she had a habit of boring holes into the people she watched.

“I’m being honest with you,” Marko continued. “Could you please stare at something else? It’s sort of frightening…”

Frigg turned her gaze to the window. Little strands of moons’ light slipped between the wooden shutters. She wondered what everyone in the Grotto was up to. Were they all cornering their newest marks? Where they training? Frigg scowled and stood up—she missed her life and wanted more than anything to get back to work. She stood up too quickly and spots whirled before her eyes.

“Hey, woman, are you alright?” Marko asked.

Frigg reached out a hand and caught herself before she could faint.

“I’m fine,” she panted.

“Sit back down and rest. You had major surgery and a rough recovery. Don’t expect to be fully fit and active again right away,” Marko cautioned.

Frigg overlooked his advice and staggered to the window. Annoyed groans escaped Marko’s mouth, but she ignored them. Opening the shutters, Frigg was bathed in moons’ light. Her pupils contracted, but she refused to look away. For a month, she had lain beneath the earth and now, she was desperate to be free of the hunting cabin. Looking out at the woods, her heart ached for the chance to get out and run…to return the Grotto.

“You’ll be able to leave soon,” Marko assured her. “Maybe another week and you’ll be strong enough.”

Frigg smiled at the woods. A week would never do. Tomorrow, she would be gone. The evening would be spent in preparation and then she would flee the following night. Perhaps she would slither through the loose thatching or the kitchen window. The biggest challenge would be the locked cellar door. Also, she needed to locate her silver claymore that had been buried in Tyr’s middle. Did Marko take it? What about Tyr’s sword? Her mind dizzied with countless wavering thoughts. So much needed to be done once she returned to the Grotto. Would they even take her back after her failure? Marko cleared his throat behind her. She turned and watched the surgeon rise to his feet. He led her back to the stairs and she descended beneath the earth once more.

 

* * *

 

Back in the cellar, Frigg laid in bed plotting her escape. The biggest obstacle would be locking the cellar door back after she unlocked it to get out. Looking about the room, she saw a few instruments that could be used to finagle the door open. Standing, she padded silently to the door and examined the latch. The locking mechanism consisted of bolts pushed through two metal holes in the latch and into the threshold. It would be child’s play to unlock. Locking it back would be another matter. She toyed with the idea of lifting the key off of Marko’s person, but she would have to get it back into his hiding place somehow. Then again, maybe she did not really need to make sure that the door was locked. Perhaps her escape would intrigue the surgeon; not that she cared. Frigg pushed the problem of the lock from her mind.

Instead, she focused on the thatching. Climbing up to the roof would be tricky when she was so weak. It may be best to open a window. Yes. A window would be the best way. For several hours, Frigg spent time stretching her stiff limbs. Her chest ached, but she ignored the pain and focused on her breathing. The injured lung tolerated the exercises and by the time she had finished, a deep relaxation settled over her. Frigg opened her eyes. Taking a quill from one of the desk drawers, she unlocked the door and went into the stairwell. The stairs were easy after her stretching. At the top, she tested the door latch. It opened with a silent turn of the handle. An orange glow bathed the dim kitchen in light. The door to the central room was open. A crackling sound told her that the fire was still burning in the hearth in the other room. Shuttered windows rested above a counter on the wall adjacent to the cellar stairwell.

Her deft fingers opened the shutters and one of the windows. A blast of frigid air washed over her face. A thought occurred to her, I could leave tonight. It would be messy. It would not be the clean, ghost-like escape she had planned. She would have to abandon her claymore and Tyr’s sword. She would have to forgo an exit worthy of her abilities, but it would mean freedom that much sooner. No more thoughts, she decided. Swiftly, she returned to the cellar room and packed what few essentials she could easily find. Back upstairs, her agility proved to be intact when she jumped onto the counter with absolute ease and silence. She climbed out the window and onto the snow. The cold did not trouble her. All she could fit into her mind was the thought of the Grotto and returning to her normal life. In the back of her brain, a strange sensation about the surgeon thrummed. He had saved her and she had done nothing to repay him. Maybe fate would provide her with the chance one day. Before any other distractions could arise, she ran off into the cold, black night.

************************

Want to read more? Check out Silent Shades here or here! As well, Silent Shades has its own page with more information about the book here.

© L.M. Sherwin. All Rights Reserved.

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