“I’m so bored,” Gruelbane said for the fiftieth time in as many minutes. He and Sunthwart were sitting on a big rock in their usual hangout, a clearing deep in the woods to the east of the village of Arkenwald. It was the middle of summer, and the lazy drone of bees and busy noises of forest animals drowned out the distant sounds of the village.
It was just the two of them. The rest of the young men their age had been away on raiding parties for more than a moon already, but Gruelbane and Sunthwart hadn’t gotten a boat. No one wanted them on his crew, so they were left behind with the elderly, infirm, women, and children.
In some ways, it was ideal. Sunthwart was an orphan, his parents and two younger brothers having all died in the Great Plague of ’86 (not to be confused with the Very Bad Plague of ’85 or the Not So Bad, Really Plague of ’87), and Gru had only his elderly Gram to take care of. Since she slept eighteen hours of the day and usually didn’t remember who Gruelbane was when she was awake, it worked out. Neither of them had any real responsibility, so they could laze away the long summer days without worry.
They were brutally, perhaps terminally bored.
Suddenly, their torpor was interrupted by the appearance of a little blonde girl at the edge of the clearing.
“Ilsa!” called Sunny. “What are you doing here?”
“Yeah,” Gru added. “No one is supposed to know about this place.”
Even from forty yards away, they could see the little girl’s epic eyeroll.
“You’re needed in the village,” she said perfunctorily, turning on one bare heel to disappear back into the forest.
“Hey—,” Gru began.
“Wait!” Sunny continued.
From the gloom of the deep forest path, an impatient voice drifted back. “Don’t argue. Just come!”
The boys exchanged a long-suffering look, pretending to consider their options: Stay in the clearing and be bored into comas, or follow the annoying Ilsa, daughter of the most prosperous of the village’s goatherders, Sven, and see what she wanted?
Ten sweaty minutes later, Gru struggled into the village behind Sunthwart, whose long legs had eaten up the distance more efficiently. He was rather shocked to discover his friend deep in conversation with Sven, who had little time and less patience for anyone except his family.
Sven was legendarily cranky, as evidenced by the cheese paddle he was waving irritably around his head as he gestured back toward his dairy. As he neared, Gru noticed that Sunny’s face, hair, and tunic were flecked with damp whey.
Duly warned, he stood well back from the growling Sven, who was saying, “And then it all turned sour! I know it was that evil witch Verda, and I want you to prove it. If you can find me evidence of witchcraft, I’ll have her brought before the elders and burned at the stake!”
“Don’t you think you’re being a little hasty?” Sunny asked. Gru, wisely, said nothing, letting his friend be splattered again with the noisome curds when Sven shook his paddle angrily in Sunny’s pale, long face.
“Hasty? Hasty! I’ve got six svardas of milk curdling in my springhouse and no way of turning it into cheese. If that witch’s curse keeps on, I’ll lose everything! Everything! You have to find evidence against her. I’ll pay you each one groenig for your efforts, but you have to have the results by tomorrow. That’s when the village elders next meet.”
With a final, sweeping gesture of the paddle, Sven stormed off. The last fling had spattered cheese in a wide arc, some of which had caught Gru across his lips. He took a curious swipe at it with his tongue, grimaced, and then licked the rest up. Free food was free food, even if it did taste like feet.
“We’ll do what we can,” Sunny promised to Sven’s retreating back, using the flat of his hand like a spatula to squeegee off the worst of the malodorous mess.
“Why does he think Verda cursed his goats to give only sour milk?” Gru asked.
“He claims that Verda made advances on him, and when he refused her, she threatened to destroy him if he didn’t reconsider. Three days later, his goats grew disgruntled and started producing milk so sour he can’t even make good cheese with it.”
“He doesn’t make good cheese with sweet milk,” Gru observed, and Sunny nodded. Sven was the most successful goat cheese maker in the village because he was the only goat cheese maker in the village.
“Still, he’s threatening to take justice into his own hands if he can’t get proof that Verda cursed his herd.”
Gru shrugged. “Guess we haven’t got anything better to do. Although…” He paused while Sunthwart wiped dripping curd from the edge of his ubiquitous umbrella. “We haven’t had a good witch-burning in ages. It’d be kind of nice. Roast goat legs. Mead. Honey ice.”
“Get your head out of your belly! Don’t you smell anything funny about Sven’s story?”
A cavernous furrow appeared in Gru’s broad, flat brow, bringing his eyebrows together and casting a shadow over his big nose.
Sunny tsked impatiently. “Sven claims that Verda was hitting on him. Does it seem likely to you that Verda would want to lay with Sven when she could have any man in the village?”
(“And has,” Marta Gudrunsdottir muttered from behind her kitchen shutter, where she’d been listening to the entire exchange.)
The furrow smoothed and Gru grinned suddenly, “No!”
“Well, then, I think we should begin by investigating Sven, find out why he’s so anxious to get Verda out of the way.”
“But Sven has dogs,” Gru said worriedly, falling reluctantly into step next to his friend, who was already moving out toward the southern edge of town, where Sven lived in a sturdy stone house a few hundred yards from the mill.
The slowly revolving shadows of the mill’s great wind paddles darkened the path they took toward Sven’s. Between the mill and Sven’s home there were paddocks for goat-dipping and the blocky, low springhouse where he preserved the product of his dairy. The dairy itself, built of whitewashed stone, grew like a moldy canker from the backside of Sven’s house.
Downwind, they were awash in the stench of goatcrap and sour milk.
“Blech!” said Gru. Sunny pinched his nose and breathed shallowly through his mouth.
There was little cover in which for them to hide, so they moved past Sven’s house, chancing surreptitious glances through the pane-less windows. They saw Sven’s fat wife, Yenka, sleeves rolled up to reveal forearms like two pink hams, kneading dough in the kitchen. In the side yard, a naked, fat blonde baby was rolling goat pellets into a puddle of urine while a second child, a few years older, was being chased around by a kid that seemed intent on doing him serious bodily injury.
In the distance, a curl of sweet smoke marked the next house over. They could just see its neat, yellow thatch roof above the trees surrounding it.
“That’s Verda’s, isn’t it?”
“Mmm,” Sunny agreed.
“Do you think she still has the sheep?”
Verda and her late husband, Ingvald, had raised a flock of sheep, great-hocked, fat, happy creatures that had always produced excellent wool for the village.
“I don’t know how else she’d make a living,” Sunthwart said.
“I do,” Gru answered with a leer.
Sunny flushed. The thought had occurred to him, but he’d tried to ignore it. He found even thinking about such things caused a sick squirming in his belly, but his best friend had no compunction, often speculating about what it would be like to be with their first women.
“Anyway, didn’t your gram make you a spring shirt from Verda’s winter wool?”
“I’d like to make something of Verda’s wool,” Gru said.
It was Sunny’s turn to furrow his brow. “That doesn’t even make any sense. What are you talking about?”
Gru looked temporarily nonplussed, and then his confused look changed to one of triumph, like he’d gotten one over on his friend.
“You don’t know what a naked woman looks like…down there?”
Sunny flushed a deeper red and raised his shoulders defensively. “I don’t care to look.”
“What are you, a prude or something?”
Since “prude” was a better label than some others Gru might have chosen, Sunny accepted it and changed the subject.
“How are we going to go about this? We can’t just go up to Verda and ask her.”
“Ask me what, boys?” a deep, musical voice queried.
They spun around so quickly that they struck one another’s shoulder and bounced off, hopping one-footed in an ungainly way to regain their balance.
Verda laughed, a lilting, joyous noise that made them both smile, despite having just been put in a very uncomfortable spot.
“Uh…” Gru began unhelpfully.
“We were wondering…” Sunny stalled.
“What you think about…” Gru said, casting Sunny a desperate look.
“About the proposed design for the millworks?” Sunny finished, trying not to sound like he was pulling the question out of his arse.
Verda looked confused for a moment. “Has there been a proposal brought before the elders?”
“N-no,” Gru said. “We just overheard some people talking last night and thought we’d see what you felt about it.”
“Oh. Well…what’s the plan?”
Gru turned wide eyes on his best friend, who’d grown even paler than Gru had thought humanly possible. Then, with an almost imperceptible shrug, Sunny launched into the lie.