The Temperate Warrior
Æsa. Once we get to higher ground, I shall double back and make certain they did as they were paid.”
    Fingernails dug into his arms as he felt Æsa’s body tense. He noticed Jørgen had also caught her reaction and before he could say anything, Jørgen amended that he would go in his stead.
    “Take Snorri with you,” Gustaf ordered. “And flank them without getting too close. I do not wish to attract any more stragglers. As long as there are five, we move on. I shall wait for you at the summit.”
    Jørgen nodded and reined his horse to the left, acquiring Snorri’s assistance. After a few short commands, the two deserted the team and galloped out of sight.
    ****
    Æsa settled into the concavity of Gustaf’s torso, welcoming the strength and warmth of his body around hers. His thick thighs braced her in the saddle as they rocked to the slow gait of the horse, while his left arm wrapped around her waist. She should have felt safe in his protective hold, but the thought of Ásmundr’s faction possibly following them into the wilderness of Norway’s extreme terrain kept her on edge for most of the journey.
    The rigidity in Gustaf’s posture didn’t help matters either. Though he maintained a credible sense of security with the handful of capable men at his command, she was not convinced he was without his own suspicion. The way he scanned the surrounding forest with overzealous eyes and identified every little sound that emerged amid the irregular thumping of horse hooves, proved he was just as guarded as she.
    “What if Jørgen and Snorri—”
    “Shh…” Gustaf hushed, giving her body a comforting squeeze. “Unless they went fishing, they will return soon.”
    His humorous jest about his men’s shortfall with the ‘slippery gilled beasts’ brought a meager grin to her lips. She savored his ability to make her smile despite the dread that hovered over her like an imminent storm.
    After several long hours of traipsing up the mountainside, they emerged from the timberline and a vast view of mountains, divided by a narrow inlet of crystalline water under an azure sky, materialized before her eyes. The colors of red and yellow from autumn’s reckoning garlanded the foothills below. Her breath caught in her throat upon seeing the splendor of such a place and for a moment, her worries fell to the wayside.
    “Where are we?” she asked, her mouth agape.
    Gustaf extended his arm over her shoulder and pointed at the horizon. “Just beyond those mountains lie the valley in which no one, not even Harold Fairhair, dares to set foot. ’Tis sacred land protected by the spell of the seið-kona who lives there, and where my men’s families have taken refuge all these years.”
    “Are we going there?”
    “As soon as we know ‘tis safe to venture through.”
    “Does it have a name?” Æsa asked, her curiosity as high as the altitude of the terra firma beneath her.
    “ Dal Hinna Dauðu ,” Gustaf uttered, dismounting from behind her. “Its name is not as welcoming as the poetic lilt might imply, for it means V alley of the Dead .”
    Shivers ran down her spine as a sudden chill blew through her. Much of it was due to Gustaf no longer cradling her in his embrace, but a part of her blamed the ominous place-name and the connotation of death that surrounded it. “Why are you not afraid of such a place, but the mighty King of Norway is?”
    Gustaf had already begun to untack his horse, as did the others, alleviating some of the weight while the animals grazed. “I have not been condemned to the Underworld by the curses of Halldora.”
    “Halldora is a witch?”
    “She prefers seið-kona , and you would be best to address her with naught else.”
    “And Harold ‘the Fairhair’ has been cursed by her?”
    “I am certain he would like to believe he is not. But even now that his golden hair has turned white with age, he has yet to test the validity of her spell.” Gustaf tossed the last bundle to the ground and

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