After Esja produced sour milk three days in a row, Sigrid knew she had a problem. Leaving the pail of greenish milk next to her stool, she trudged off in the grey light of the early morning towards the barley field at the verge of the woods; the new field she had cleared only this spring. When your cow spoilt on the inside, she knew, that only meant one thing: mischief.
She found the door nestled in the mud between the last row of barley and the half-completed fence. Made of scavenged barrel-boards and twine, it could have been mistaken for a junk heap if not for the flotilla of little footprints surrounding it. Sigrid lifted the artless trapdoor a few inches just to be sure and was rewarded with the warm stench of burnt rabbit pellets. She dropped the door and staggered back. Kobolds.
“Ogmund,” Sigrid said to her husband that night after he’d come back from the pub, “Ogmund there’s kobolds in the field. Might you not take some time tomorrow to clear them out, before you leave for Norvgod?”
“Kobolds,” Ogmund turned his nose up disdainfully, half tripping over a stool. “I don’t have time for kobolds. Get Jord’s boy to take care of them.”
“What, Grann?” Sigrid planted her hands on her narrow hips, “you want me to send a boy down into a kobold lair?”
“He’s a big boy, and strong. Don’t think he hasn’t been in a fight or three. He should have a few likely friends to help him out.” Ogmund started unbuckling and unslinging his many weapons. “Offer him a bit of coin and see if he isn’t down there before lunch tomorrow.”
“Ogmund, Grann Jordsson hasn’t even got a stout knife to arm himself with.” She looked pointedly at the great steel sword denting her kitchen table. “His mother would tear off my scalp if he were to hurt himself. Couldn’t you just do it?”
“I’m bound for Prince Aelfwenther’s at first light, Sigrid, you know that. I’ve got bigger foes to face than kobolds.” Ogmund stretched, took Sigrid by the shoulders and kissed the very top of her tawny head. “Now, come to bed with me, wife. I will need some memories to take with me across the Durkensea.” Sigrid crossed her arms, refusing to return his embrace.
“No, I don’t think I will,” she said stubbornly. “I’ve got bread to rise if I’m to eat anything tomorrow, now the cow’s upset.” Ogmund paused, then turned and ducked under the doorframe to her bedroom without saying anything. Sigrid snorted with frustration.
What’s the point of marrying a great, celebrated hero if he won’t even keep kobolds from harrying your cow? She thought, surveying the room. Her eyes alit on the satchel he’d brought back with him from Norvgod – gems and jewels aplenty for her, for all the good they did. What I need is good milk from my cow. Sigrid sighed and turned her thoughts to young Grann Jordsson.
Grann Jordsson was fifteen years old and as big as a bear. As Ogmund had predicted, he agreed to help Sigrid with her kobold problem in exchange for ten bits of tin and a fresh loaf of bread. He’d enthusiastically raided her shed for equipment, taking with him a ball of twine, a dozen row pegs and a hoe as well, with the promise he’d bring them back when he was through.
Armed with her farming tools, Grann Jordsson descended into the dark and fetid lair at mid-morning, and by sunset his parents were seated at her table drinking barley wine by the jugful. Sigrid baked them bread and kept a lantern lit by the tunnel entrance, but as Jord and Egritt passed out just before sunrise the next morning, she had to admit she would never see her hoe again. She placed woolen blankets over their shoulders, left out the last of the milk, and snuck out at first light.
Sigrid set out down the wooded path towards Yunderhill, the tall keep built into the rocky foothills. It had been a good long time since she’d called on the sorceress there, but she and Groa had played together as girls and Sigrid was sure Groa’s time in Alfheim couldn’t have changed her as much as folk said it had. She brought a loaf of bread and a jug of wine with her, and the satchel of jewels just in case.
“Groa?” Sigrid called from the base of the high walls, circling the keep looking for a door. “Groa, it’s Sigrid Ulafsdottir from down in the valley! Hullo, dear, are you at home?” Her voice seemed to get lost somewhere between her throat and the crow-lined crenulations of the wall, but she kept yelling. “Groa, I’ve been walking all day, and I can’t go home just now. Be a dear and show me to the entrance, will you?”
A dozen crows suddenly took flight, reluctantly finding new perches now that their section of the smooth, grey wall was dropping open on invisible hinges. Sigrid scrambled out of the way as the wall hit the gravelly earth with a bang and a cloud of dust. She was still coughing when a blonde woman robed head-to-toe in red stepped out onto the slab and regarded her curiously.
“Sigrid Ulafsdottir? By my one good eye!” Sigrid moved to meet the red woman still coughing and waving away the dust in front of her face. Groa looked the same as ever, complete with two perfectly good eyes. The two women met with an embrace before Groa took Sigrid by the elbow and drew her towards the tower at the heart of the walled keep. “Where have you been, my dear? I’ve been back for nearly a year now! Not very neighbourly of you, is it now?” Groa chided her, smiling toothily. Sigrid hung her head and squeezed the other woman’s hand.
“I’ve been running the farm alone, Groa, you’ve no idea the work it takes. I’ve been through three farmhands in six months, and Ogmund’s no help at all. I wanted to come sooner, I really did!” Sigrid stopped as a servant shambled past her, smelling oddly of spoilt meat, but Groa tugged her along.
“Three farmhands? Wherever do they go?” Groa led her through a gated door carved so thoroughly with runes that it had the topography of porridge.
“Two were eaten by Rut the Rugged before those fellows from the capitol came to drown her, and the third simply went missing in the woods earlier this fall.” Sigrid thought a flicker of recognition flew over Groa’s face just then, but she didn’t have anything else to contribute. “So, I’m sorry to say, I’m not just here to visit, Groa. I was hoping you might be able to help me with a thing.”
Groa raised an eyebrow as she led Sigrid into the most opulently appointed hall Sigrid had ever seen. Red and gold tapestries lined the walls and the floors, warmed with the extravagance of dozens of wall-mounted torches. The long table was still shiny and soft, the carvings still smooth, and the paint unchipped. Being a sorceress must pay well, Sigrid marvelled, though she did note Groa’s servants left a little to be desired, slow-moving and rather smelly they were.
“Tell me all about it,” Groa insisted, showing her to a chair. Sigrid produced wine and bread, and the two women settled in for an evening of talk.
“…so it isn’t that Ogmund isn’t a very nice man,” Sigrid found herself saying mid-way into the third bottle of wine; a better vintage, Groa told her, though it tasted like the bottom of a well. “It’s only that he’s no good for anything.” She cut herself another slice of bread and heaped butter on it, thick and fresh. “He’s ever off overseas killing dragons or ettins or whatever for all these great princes, but what good is that to us? Why can’t he stay home and deal with our problems?”
“Why don’t you go with him, dear? A man with his reputation, I’m sure you’d be staying in palaces from here to Qat San!” Groa motioned for one of her smelly servers to fetch another bottle.
“Pfft,” Sigrid snorted dismissively. “Then I’d just be abandoned amongst foreigners, without even my chores to occupy me. No, the truth is I rather prefer being a widow. I only wish Ogmund would stop coming home again. He gets underfoot!” Sigrid laughed inappropriately and Groa joined her. Just like when we were girls, Sigrid thought. We were mankillers, both of us, then, she remembered fondly. Groa’s golden eyes twinkled with a familiar mischief.
“I could help you with that, Sigrid,” Groa raised one eyebrow suggestively. “It wouldn’t take much to make you a free woman again. You and I – the times we used to have! We could find you a new man. One better equipped to serve your needs.”
Sigrid gasped. “Groa! What are you saying, girl? No, don’t say anything more! That isn’t the kind of help I had in mind.”
Groa looked miffed, and poured herself another cup of wine. “More’s the pity. I could make you the perfect partner if you really wanted.”
“No thank you,” Sigrid said firmly. “I only need some help with the kobolds.”
Groa shrugged. “Sigrid, you know I love you, but I don’t have time for trolls-”
“-whatever. I’ve been slaving for months now raising some help with the bigger problem of the Jarl.”
“What, Jarl Eskrisson? The man we pay our taxes to?”
“Oh, Sigrid. You really shouldn’t. That is a waste of your hard-earned coin.”
“Well, it’s rather the law, isn’t it? The last thing I need is ruffians ’round the farm looking for tithes.” Sigrid said with some surprise. Groa stood up abruptly, slopping her wine on the table.
“That’s what I’ve raised the army for-”
“-and that is why I don’t have the time to go slumming down kobold-holes.”
“Army? What army? You’ve raised an army so’s you don’t have to pay taxes?”
“Sigrid, you understand very little,” Groa turned towards her fiercely and for a moment the firelight cast such an odd shadow over her face that Sigrid wasn’t quite sure Groa had two eyes after all. “The Jarl is a horrible bully of a man, and when I’m through with him, no tyrant will ever dare take another penny from the lands of others.” Sigrid opened her mouth to object to this misleading hyperbole, but something in the sharp angles of Groa’s face made her think the better of it. She gulped down the last of her wine instead.
“Very well, Groa. You fight the Jarl and I will go home and attend to the kobolds all by myself.” Sigrid stood and tripped a little trying to disentangle herself from the legs of the table.
“Oh Sigrid, don’t pout.” Groa threw up her hands, spilling yet more wine. “Stay the night. It’s dark and you’re in no shape to get home.” Sigrid hesitated, considering it. “Really, you ought to stay longer.” Groa looked as if she’d just remembered something. “My army marches out this season. It’s bound to be safer here.”
That was startling. “The local lads wouldn’t touch my farm, would they?” Sigrid asked. “I wouldn’t know the Jarl if he came calling for tea.”
Groa looked evasive. “My army – they aren’t really local lads as such. Look, you really ought to just stay here.”
Sigrid set her mouth in a determined line. “Groa, I really don’t think I will. I have my cow to feed, the fields to tend, and now, apparently, kobolds to scare off on my own. In fact, I should be going now. I can see I have overstayed my welcome.” Sigrid gathered her sweater and her walking stick from the table. “I do hope you enjoy the jewels. I will visit again, perhaps, if I am not killed by the kobolds.”
“As you wish. But you can’t say I didn’t warn you.” Groa flopped down into her chair and took the last hunk of bread. “One of the nair can see you out.”
Groa’s shambling corpses only accompanied her as far as the outer wall. Sigrid staggered the rest of the way home in the moonless black alone.
War. Kobolds now felt the least of her worries. But that was always the way, wasn’t it? Big people with big powers were ever mindless of what they trampled when they clashed with big trouble. No heed at all for humble people and their cows.
Sigrid stood by the flimsy trapdoor with a fresh loaf under her arm and a bucket of not-entirely-sour milk in her hand. She took three deep, calming breaths and then lifted the door off the hole. Muddy earth rained down a steep slope into a dark tunnel.
“Hullo?” Sigrid called, “I’m Sigrid Ulafsdottir and I’m coming down now.” She paused. “I’ve brought some breakfast.”
The entrance didn’t smell any less like sacrificed rabbits than last time, but as she descended into the darkness, the smell of mould and earthworms quickly choked out anything else. Sigrid inched along, mindful not to scrape her head on the roots overhead, heading cautiously towards a ruby light around the first bend of the tunnel. The tunnel grew more clean-cut the deeper she descended, and Sigrid noted with some satisfaction that the place was quite tidy, not strewn about with bones and rot, as she’d feared. At least the kobolds were not complete animals.
“Hello?” Sigrid called again. “Is anyone at home?”
The dim light flickered as impish shadows sprang up on the tunnel walls, followed by the pitter-patter of quite a lot of feet. Sigrid tried to stand as tall as she could, her offerings clutched tight to her skirts. She affected a resolute expression, though her heart was racing with the knowledge that she could soon be hacked to tiny pieces by the underground folk.
They came three abreast, as small as children dressed like an army of cookware. Red-faced and large-eyed, the creatures waved six sharp spears under her nose, threatening and jabbing at the air. Behind them, a fatter one in robes followed with a lantern. The fat one scowled terribly at her and chattered like a squirrel.
“I’m sorry, I don’t-” Sigrid started saying, and the spear-bearers began to snicker. Sigrid frowned and looked imploringly at the fat one, whose smirk suggested to her a clever mind. “Come now, do try,” she said. “I’ve come in good faith.”
“We know you,” the fat one said with a clipped accent, eyeing the milk with cunning. “You the missus with the angry cow.”
“Yes,” Sigrid replied. “I suppose I am. I am Sigrid Ulafsdottir and I live over your heads.”
“I am Tchit Kit Tan,” the fat one said, then rhymed off a barrage of chirps to introduce the armed ones as well. “Siggid Ulfsotter, what has made you come visit? We gots nothing of yours.” This last bit sounded defensive and Sigrid was quite sure she didn’t believe it. But it didn’t matter. She scuttled her suspicions and swallowed her pride.
“I want to say… I want to say-” Sigrid held out the bucket of milk and loaf of bread. “- I’m sorry. Esja was upset and I wasn’t very neighbourly towards you. But you didn’t hurt anyone until I sent – until we barged into your home. That wasn’t right.” The big kobold looked very suspiciously at her, so Sigrid forged on. “I see now we’re all in this together, we little people. Just trying to live. So I brought milk. I’m sorry.”
Tchit Kit Tan raised an eyebrow with surprise. “Are you going to poison me?”
“What?” Sigrid answered quickly as the spears tickled her chin, “No, of course not! Are you going to cut me to pieces?” She countered.
Tchit Kit Tan paused indecisively. “No,” she finally said. The forest of spears lowered as their bearers looked for instruction. Tchit Kit Tan beaconed with one hand. “Okay, come. Maybe you take back dat big meaty baby too.”
“Meaty… baby?” Sigrid asked cautiously. Flanked by tiny, clinking guards, she followed her host into the tunnels deep under the mountain, surprised by the familiar smells of baking and hearth-fire ahead of her. In the red light of the cavernous hall, by an iron oven big enough for an ox, she saw poor Grann Jordsson, peppered with moss-patched cuts and blubbering like an infant. “Ah,” Sigrid said.
“He knock Tsak Tan inna brain wit dat hoe, like as she carrots.” Tchit Kit Tan snorted. “Stupid baby.”
“Yes,” Sigrid agreed, only relieved to see the boy alive. “That was stupid. But we won’t do anything like that again.”
“No good, no good,” Tchit Kit Tan tutted from her basket-like rocking chair by the cook-fire. A pair of little ones, cute as naked rats, brought warmed milk to all three of them and stared at Sigrid as if she had six heads. “Nothing we can do to move the One-Eyed One. The westerly ways open into the woman’s coldrooms and there’s nothing in them but dead things.” Tchit Kit Tan stopped rocking and looked at Sigrid very seriously. “And those are not good eating!”
Sigrid turned a little paler but could not disagree. “If you can’t starve her out, maybe you could, I don’t know, steal all her swords. Or her horses!” Sigrid tried to imagine what mischief could dissuade an entire army and found herself out of her depth. Tchit Kit Tan looked sympathetic in a gruff sort of way.
“No. When angry bodies clatter and stomp, we plug up the ways and wait. They wear themselves down. Always do.” Tchit Kit Tan continued, shrugging. “Some will starve, but that’s the way.”
“That’s it, then?” Sigrid said. “You huddle down here and I get overrun by armies?” Tchit Kit Tan nodded and the little ones gave her bread a mercenary look. Sigrid stood. “Well, that’s nonsense. I’m moving down here with you.” Grann sniffled from the tiny stool he sat on, looking miserably into his bowl of milk. “We all will,” Sigrid corrected herself.
The armies came just after the harvest and just before the snows. Sigrid counted herself lucky that she had been able to get the barley up in time, with the help of the kobolds. Sigrid watched bale after bale disappear down the hole with satisfaction. Groa and the Jarl can grow their own bloody crops.
Grann’s parents were quite willing, but getting Esja down the hole was another matter. The old cow had a particular distaste for kobolds, and kicked and lowed even as the sound of grinding bones and metal rained down over the valley from Groa’s keep. It wasn’t until the first frozen outriders on their steeds of shadow and bone came clattering down the road that Esja decided she liked corpses even worse.
One frightened step at a time, Sigrid drew the cow down the tunnels to the under-mountain, where her few neighbours had joined more kobolds than she had ever imagined in tall, wide caves lit with red lanterns. It was dark and it was hot, but when Groa’s nair and the Jarl’s soldier’s clashed on the fields and foothills, they were safe. Sigrid baked bread and churned sour butter and lost herself in the chores of maintaining a tidy lair. They replaced the sad trapdoor with a sturdier one from her farmhouse, mere days before the building was razed to the ground.
It was into the second or third week of spring, once the snows clogging the passes had turned to glacier-blue streams and the first crocuses and merryweathers had really started to paint the hills, that Sigrid discovered Ogmund in the ruins of their home. She was in the habit of coming to the surface at least once a day, ostensibly to draw water from the well, but truly to enjoy some sun. Lifting her old back door off the hole and climbing into her fields, she often felt as if she were still at home.
She hid behind the well’s walls when she first heard the rumbling vibrations of his voice, thinking it was the Jarl’s men around again to press people into service, but when she recognized the rhythm of a single voice weeping, she crept out and made for the remains of the old house.
Ogmund was seated on the stone hearth with his back to her, crying rather noisily in full armour of burnished steel. Sigrid didn’t think there was any way she could tactfully interrupt him without embarrassing him, so she got straight to the point:
“Ogmund!” she cried, “what on earth are you doing?”
The big man leapt to his feet and drew his longest sword, the two-fisted beast he wore strapped to his back. She could see the whites of his eyes from twenty paces as he realized what he was looking at.
“Sigrid?” he said, confused. “You’re alive?”
“Well, yes, I’m – there, there,” Sigrid started as Ogmund swept her up in a fierce hug, trying to return the embrace without pinching herself on his armour, “Yes, yes, I’m alive, I’m alive.”
“Good lord, woman!” When Ogmund pulled back, he still had tears in his eyes, but he grinned like a madman. Sigrid could see he’d lost several teeth, but had them replaced with gold. “Why didn’t you come to the capital? Or send word? As my wife, you might have stayed with Prince-”
“I’ve been just fine right here, Ogmund.” Sigrid cut him off. “I’ve been staying – uh, with the neighbours. Esja’s there too.” Ogmund looked confused, so she narrowed her eyes and reminded him. “My cow. Anyway, Groa tells me the Jarl’s about ready to surrender the valley to her, so I-”
“Groa?” Ogmund interrupted, “Groa One-Eye? Groa Alf-Touched, Groa who has emptied the bowels of Helheim -”
“Yes, yes,” Sigrid said impatiently. “You remember Groa. She was at our wedding, Ogmund.”
“Groa has been here?” Ogmund still looked as if he’d been hit in the head with a boot.
“No, I’m afraid she can’t leave the keep these days. I’ve been up, though, to bring her bread and milk when there’s extra. She’s really got nobody to-”
“You have been in the Helfort?” Ogmund really looked as if he needed to sit down, so Sigrid fetched a stool which wasn’t too badly burned. “The Prince is sending a legion of his Fergaarde to the Jarl to march on the Helfort in a fortnight. I was going to go with them. I thought I needed to avenge you!”
“Ah,” Sigrid said, reevaluating her week’s plans. “Well, I have no need to be avenged. You could go along or not, I suppose, I won’t stop you.”
“No, Sigrid,” Ogmund said, regaining his composure. “No, you have to come with me back to the capital. The valley isn’t safe. I have bought a manor in the city, an estate supported by two thousand acres on the south shore. You will live well there, Sigrid.”
“I live just fine here, Ogmund!” Sigrid stepped back and planted her hands on her hips. Leave the valley! She couldn’t even think of it.
Ogmund looked confounded. He glanced about the burnt and salted landscape while his mouth worked out the words.
“But Sigrid,” he finally said, standing and taking her little hand in his great big ones. “There’s nothing left.” He paused. “Who did you say you were staying with, again?”
“If you must know,” Sigrid said, avoiding eye contact. “I’m staying with the kobolds.”
A succession of competing demeanours took hold of Ogmund. Sigrid watched as confusion, alarm, confusion again, and then a moment of panic played over her husband’s features; then helplessness and, finally, anger. He dropped her hands and tightened his great fists around his sword’s hilt instead.
“Kobolds?” he hissed, face reddening. “You’ve been captured by kobolds?”
“Not captured, Ogmund. Don’t be dense.” Sigrid folded her arms over her chest and braced herself for the storm. Ogmund turned purple.
“You have been living with kobolds?” Ogmund raised his voice. “And you’d rather stay with them than live in a manor with me?”
“Oh, Ogmund.” Sigrid sighed. “This isn’t about you.”
“I will kill them all,” Ogmund thundered, gripping his sword and taking off for the verge of the woods. “I will not lose my wife to kobolds!”
“Ogmund!” Sigrid called, hiking her skirt and starting after him. “You stop this instant! Ogmund! Did you hear me? If you harm one red hair on their heads, I’ll never speak another word to you, do you hear?”
“They’ve ensorcelled you!” Ogmund raged, casting his eyes about for something to hit. “Groa One-Eye has cursed you! I’ll free you, my love. They will rue the day they meddled in the affairs of Ogmund Ironbreaker!”
Ogmund what? “Ogmund! Nobody has put any bloody pox on me! Would you stop a minute!” The big warrior had crossed the salted fields in a half-dozen paces and was searching the verge for tracks. Sigrid’s boot got stuck in the half-melted spring mud. She considered leaving it behind. “Ogmund!” she called. “Stop!”
The urgency in her voice made him look up and the look on his face plucked a string in her heart. He was lost, betrayed, confused, and upset. Though his hair was greyer and his teeth fixed with gold, though his chest plate could have been sold to buy half the farms in the county and his sword the other half; she saw the man who could never remember to close the cow pen, and the man who couldn’t reach the buttons on his jerkin without her help. The man who loved her lamb stew to reckless indulgence, and the man who was so proud each and every time he brought home a boar, as if he hadn’t gone hunting three thousand times in his life. The man who kept coming back for her month after month, year after year, though she was sure he could have had his pick of foreign princesses and wild-eye courtesans. Ogmund, her husband.
“Ogmund, please,” she begged, “I’m stuck.” She tried to haul her foot out of the mire with dignity and half-slipped instead, dropping to one knee with a decidedly undignified squeak.
She was so consumed trying to get up again without soiling her entire outfit that she didn’t notice Ogmund come to her side. She took his thick forearms out of habit, holding tight as he hauled her bodily to her feet. After another moment’s struggle with the stuck boot, she pulled her bare foot out and slipped into him, snagging her hair in the buckles of his armour.
“There you go,” he said gently, setting her more or less right on one foot. Sigrid hopped a couple of times and laughed despite herself. When she looked into his eyes, he was smiling too.
“Please come with me, Sigrid,” he said softly. Sigrid set her jaw and smiled again, sadly this time.
“No, Ogmund,” she replied. “I don’t want to. I don’t belong in the city.”
“But you don’t belong under the mountain either,” Ogmund pleaded. “I certainly don’t.”
“No, you don’t,” Sigrid said apologetically. “You’ve gone on to great things. I’m very proud of you, Ogmund, but I want to live here. The kobolds are quite sensible once you get used to them. And I – I can manage without you.”
Ogmund swallowed thickly and looked grieved, but seemed to understand her. He wordlessly picked her up and carried her over the rest of the field to the verge, where he followed her prints back to the solid wooden door in the ground. He put her down there and stood back uneasily.
“I can build you a house here, Sigrid,” he offered. “You don’t have to live in a hole.”
“After the war is over,” Sigrid agreed, nodding. “And you can always come visit.”
Ogmund stiffened, his frown lost in his beard. Then he nodded too.
“I could,” he conceded. Then he looked at the door. “I don’t think I could fit down there.”
“You’re very big, Ogmund,” Sigrid said, stepping off the door so he could open it for her. “But I am very small.”
She stepped into the darkness of the tunnel and let door snap shut behind her.