Derek focused on the big man. "Who is that?"
"That's Gunnar. He's the Norse Heritage's idea of security detail."
"What, all by himself?"
I nodded. "He's sufficient."
Ghastek's vampire stared the giant Viking, motionless like a statue, while the Master of the Dead mulled the situation over. The bloodsucker turned, scuttled toward us, and fell back in line behind my horse. Apparently, Ghastek decided that his vamp was too precious to risk.
We drew close.
Gunnar took a deep breath and roared, "Vestu heill!"
Ow. My ears. "Hello, Gunnar."
He squinted at me through his facemask and dropped his voice down. "Hey, Kate." He sounded slightly out of breath.
"Good to see you."
He leaned on his axe, pulled the helmet off and wiped sweat off his forehead, revealing reddish hair braided on his temples. "You heading up to see Ragnvald?"
"All of you?"
"Even the lion?"
The lion opened his mouth, showing his big teeth. Yes, yes, you're bad. We know, Your Majesty.
"Even the lion."
"What about?" Gunnar asked.
"Dagfinn. You've seen him around?"
Gunnar took a moment to spit into the dirt, making a big show of it. "Nope. And all the better for it."
Bullshit. "Too bad."
"Yeah." Gunnar waved me on with the helmet. "You're good to go."
We rode on.
"He lied," Ascanio said.
"Yep." Gunnar knew exactly where Dagfinn was. He took his clues from Ragnvald, and since he wasn't talking, the jarl probably wouldn't be talking either. This would not go well.
We rode up through the wooden gates to the mead hall. The rest of the settlement sat lower down the hill, past the mead hall: solid wooden houses scattered here and there. People walked to and fro, men in woolen tunic and cloaks, women in ankle length gowns and hangerocks, woolen apron-dresses. They were an assorted crew: some were white, some were black, some were Hispanic. A couple to our right looked Chinese. Norse Heritage took everyone in. Viking wasn't a nationality - it was the way of life. As long as you thought you were a Viking, you had a place at their table.
People gaped at Curran as we passed. The vampire and the rest of us got significantly less attention.
As we dismounted before the horse rail, I saw a familiar black Shire stallion in the pasture, segregated by himself. The huge horse stood almost eighteen and a half hands tall, the white feathers at his huge feet shaking every time he moved. A pale scar snaked its way up the horse's left shoulder. Hello, Magnus. Where is your master?
The stallion stared in my direction and bared his teeth. Now horses were giving me crap.
"Mind your manners," I murmured.
"Best behavior," Ascanio assured me.
Mentioning that I was talking to a horse who couldn't hear me would've totally cramped my boss style, so I nodded and walked up to the mead hall.
A large, raw-boned woman barred my path. A large gun hung on her right hip and a small axe hung on her left.
"Hrefna," I acknowledged her. We had run into each other in the Guild before. She was good with both knife and sword and rarely lost her temper.
"Kate." Her voice was quiet. "The lion has to stay outside."
"He won't like it."
The lion shook his mane.
"I can't let him inside," Hrefna said. "You bring him in, someone's going to make trouble just to see if they can put his head on their wall. I've got to do my job. It's your call."
I looked at Curran. The lion melted. Skin stretched, bones twisted, and human Curran straightened. He was completely nude. Gloriously nude.
Hrefna raised her eyebrows.
Curran pulled jeans and a shirt from my saddlebag.
"Well," Hrefna said. "I always wondered why you went all shapeshifter. Explains things."
The vampire next to me rolled his blood-red eyes.
We walked inside the mead hall. The vampire, shapeshifters, the dog, and the lion man followed me.
A huge room greeted me. Twin rows of evenly spaced out tables ran parallel along the chamber. Originally the Vikings had tried to have the tables joined in two lines, but they couldn't sweep under them, so they went to plan B, which made their mead hall resemble a barbarian cafeteria. People mulled around the tables. Some ate, some talked, some oiled their weapons. The tables ran into a raised platform at the opposite end of the hall. On the platform a man sat in a large chair carved from driftwood and lined with furs. His shoulders stretched his blue woolen tunic. His face, framed by a glossy black mane of hair, was dark and carved with sharp precision. A narrow gold band sat on his head.
He glanced at us. Dark eyes took our measure. He noted Curran, frowned, and looked away pretending he didn't see us. Curran preferred to stay anonymous. Not many people besides the city heavyweights knew what he looked like. Ragnvald was trying to decide if the polite thing to do was to acknowledge Curran or pretend he wasn't there.
Before we left on this fun trip, we had discussed our strategy, and I volunteered to take the point. If Curran came in his official Beast Lord capacity, there would be ceremony and the whole thing would take much longer than needed. Besides, I knew the neo-Vikings better than he did, so it made sense for me to take the lead. Curran decided to go as a redshirt. Apparently it was some sort of disposable attendant term from some old TV show.