An epic Fantasy like no other. The tale of Skarga takes you to another time
and place where things are not always what they seem.
Skarga has grown up on the outskirts of the frozen north, with her five brothers and father, all of whom believe she is cursed, bringing poor harvests and bad luck into their lives. She is unwanted except for the small abandoned boy, Egil, she has rescued from the snow.
But now they are in great danger. Hearing that her father is arranging their murder, they escape the township into the harsh and bitter cold. The trap is sprung and the escape fails, but her captor is not who she expected.
The mystery deepens as it seems the boy is the one Thodden has been searching for, and not her at all. So Egil holds the clues to the secrets and magic.
Skarga will do everything she can to protect him, but there is more than one life at stake and neither knows or understands the change that is about to occur.
Three books, one story, that will keep you wanting more...
Matthew Bourne’s stupendous ballet set to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake is a work of genius. The original ballet is much loved and is unutterably beautiful. But Matthew Bourne has added an element of both modern and age old magic which I found mesmerising.
A presentation in Melbourne, (where I live) was announced and I managed to buy tickets in the front row right in the middle.
I was captivated from the first chord, and the captivation soon elevated to voluntary imprisonment. I could not move. I could not look away. This was enchantment on a grand scale, and since my excellent central front-row seat meant I was almost on stage myself, or at least felt I was, I became even more enthralled.
The principal dancer, Alan Vincent was a swan of dazzling and magical artistry. He was exceedingly charismatic in the role and I was utterly lost in the vivid, unique and beautiful work of glorious fantasy.
It was not the plot of this production which inspired me, my own story was born from the dark undertones of the work, the magical barely explained merging of man and creature, the strange unworldly romance and threat, of prejudice, misunderstanding and bitter misery.
I am deeply thankful to both Matthew Bourne and Alan Vincent. They not only brought me amazing pleasure that day at the theatre, but were the whole inspiration for my trilogy, Stars and a Wind.
I began to write within days of seeing this ballet. It has taken me a long time to publish, but the original inspiration remains alive in my mind.
A White Horizon-Chapter One
The Wind From The North,
Chapter One -Book Two
The Singing Star...preview
Book Three (released 2.12.16)
With the journey ahead, wind in her hair and the boy snug at her side, Skarga was definitely not thinking of her father. But her father was definitely thinking of her.
With the blizzard from the west like wolf’s teeth through the black tide and the churning rain threatening to close off all visibility as far as the crag-drop, Ogot knew, as he had known months ago but had refused to admit, that it was time for rare patience and not for common temper. Unswervingly attached to a belief in his own natural control over everything within his realm including the weather and the oceans current, he had long denied the possibility that anyone else, especially including his daughter, could ever thwart him. But life had not always worked out the way it should have, and now if he wanted his daughter dead, he would have to arrange it after winter had paled into soggy spring when, braving the milder tides, the first boats would come home at last.
Winter should be waning by now and spring was surely close. The first gentle breezes were due in from the western seas yet it rained strenuously for six more days. The stored grain barrels, sodden soft splinters where the starving mice had gnawed, were thick with mould. The brindle hound whelped in the lean-to by the midden but with no milk for the pups, two were dead before she’d bitten their cords. The wolves crept up from the forests, smelling blood.
The township waited, each man concentrated on the salvation of his own family’s prosperity, with bed the cosiest place - even the only place - to wait. The comforting sweat of arms and legs entwined, the children grizzling, fleas and lice searching out the warmth of armpit and groin, and the squeak of mice nesting deep in the straw. Waiting for the land to thaw sufficient for the plough, waiting for the passes to melt and the trade routes to open again, waiting for the mountain streams to unfreeze and the churning waters to turn the grinding stones. They waited for the coastal anchorages to loosen their winter chains, the warm currents to bring the herring, and the little fish to fill the strings of weedy brined nets. Every man and his wife waited for the first mild days.
It stopped raining. But then, almost at once, it began to snow again. Ogot suspected immediately, when the mountain mists remained low across the foothills and the snow would not bate, that such unnatural villainy could come only from the curse and it was his daughter to blame. The farmers could not sow and kept the cattle snorting impatiently in the byres. Fields were frozen down to the rock face and even the wormy-wrigglers and leggy-beetles could not burrow through it.
Then when the great hall took fire and the fire raged while the snow stormed, he knew for sure. Only witchery turned icicles into flames spiralling between the snow flurries. Each white flake carried a separate reflection of reddened gold. For half a day’s span it seemed the stars were falling. It was Ragnarok, muttered some. But Ogot knew it as his daughter’s curse and the little bitch’s revenge.
As the comforts of home were reduced to spirals of dirty smoke, the old man called his sons into the cow byre and sat them on the straw around him. He then proceeded, in the simple terms which were all he could hope they might understand, how Skarga had done it.
Everything stank and the cows ruminated, farted, and rolled their eyes. Ogot kicked at the straw, and said, “Did any of you see her do it?”
“See who do what?” said Banke, wiping cow shit from his hand to the knee of his britches.
“See Skarga setting the fire,” said his father, still practising patience.
“Well, if it’s the curse, we wouldn’t have seen her, would we?” objected Hakon.
“Skarga took the boy and the cart this morning, and went to Helmsby market,” said Gunulf. “She’s not back.”
“Then she sent the spell from a distance,” nodded Ogot, “and thought we wouldn’t guess. But I know, and if the boy was with her, he’ll know too.”
“Nasty, weasely slave brat,” Gunulf said. “He’d never tell.”
“He will, after I’ve finished with him,” said Asved.
“I thought,” remembered Hakon, “you said you knew how to stop the curse. Get the better of her.”
Ogot kicked the milking bucket. “Fool. So I said that, alright, yes I did. I meant it too. Cockerels. Two of them, and in winter when the stupid birds are more precious, too. But it didn’t fucking work, did it?”
“So now you’ve found a better way?”
“I’ve already sent for Grimr the Skald,” nodded Ogot. “I sent a summons some days back. You’ve all heard of him. He’s got a name as a good man who gets things done. He doesn’t turn tail and he doesn’t turn false. Besides, he’s my fourth cousin on my mother’s side, so he’ll feel obliged. He’s family.”
“I told you before,” Asved frowned. “I said I’d do it myself. I’m not shitting squeamish just because she’s my sister. I’ve always hated the sow anyway, nasty, skinny pale bones, all stares and wide eyes. I’ll do her in for you and get rid of the curse.”
“You think I’d pay out good weight for someone else to get rid of her, if my own son could do it for nothing?” demanded Ogot with some passion, since paying out silver always hurt like Hel. “But I’ll not have the bitch’s curse come back on my own family, it’s as simple as that.”
“You said this Grimr the Skald is your cousin,” Hakon reminded him.
“Well, who gives a fuck for that?” said Ogot. “That’s not close family.”
“And famed as a skald.”
“So he can cut the bitch up by day and tell us some good stories by night,” said Banke, cheering up. “Then we’ll send him off next morning before something happens and the curse does him in.”
“But mind, there’s to be no watching or trying to help,” Ogot insisted. “Grimr can do whatever he pissing likes as long as he does it alone. Rape or no rape, drowning or cutting, I don’t give a shit. You keep the Hel out of the way, and plead ignorance afterwards. Hear me?”
Banke didn’t like the word ignorance. Ignorance sounded suspiciously like stupidity. “Innocence. Not ignorance,” decided Banke, looking surly.
“What if it’s Skarga who’s innocent?” said Hakon, saying it slow.
The others stared at him. “Don’t be a fucking fool,” said his father.
The fire took a very long time to put out. The hall stood close to the crags and it was a long way down the cliff sides before hitting water. The barrels had been frozen solid since morning and the single bucket line from well to ashes turned to squabble and chaos. There was no one to organise it because the old man was too furious to organise anything more complicated than scratch his arse, set up a simple sacrifice or watch over a boar gutting. So even before night turned the flying sparks into dragon spit, there was nothing left of the hall’s proud timbers and by then the old man had calmed down. His home was rank black rubble disappearing under the snow quilt. It continued to snow and even the embers froze.
Even before the final ignominy of the fire, Ogot King-wisher had sent out word. He needed a man who would rid him of his daughter and naturally he chose the man everyone recommended, for Grimr the Skald had many reputations. Then Ogot strangled a couple of cockerels and strung up their wilted feathers by the main doors. When the ravens came to tear at the flesh, he had assumed, as any sane man would, that Odinn had accepted the gift and was therefore contracted to help. Odinn had never been much of a woman’s god and could usually be relied on to outwit whatever female curse was lingering. The fire therefore came as a surprise, and with a nasty taint of divine treachery. Odinn had taken the gift of the cockerels, but had failed to complete the bargain. If even the gods couldn’t play their parts fair – well, Ogot trusted cousin Grimr would prove more reliable.
The path to Helmsby was as rough pebbled as a small avalanche. With a relentless rattle, the two wheeled cart missed neither rut nor puddle, neither pot hole nor ditch. Besides, the pony had no wish to be away from its warm barn, dry hay and the crunch of last year’s apples. It plodded as slowly as permitted. Skarga was in no rush either, but for her it was because she hated home and had no wish to return there at all.
Egil edged closer along the driving bench. He had been waiting for the right moment. “Lady, there’s something I have to tell you.” He looked around warily, still unsure of the moment’s suitability. Then he turned back at Skarga. “Last night I overheard your father talking to Tove,” Egil continued quietly. “He’s got – plans! I only caught some of it, but that was enough.”
“You shouldn’t listen to other people’s secrets,” said Skarga. “Tell me anyway.”
“Who’s Grimr the Skald?” asked Egil.
She put her head down and thought a moment. “Some sort of cousin. A relative of my father’s but we’ve never met him. Never visited. He’s a famous story-teller.”
“Your father’s sent for him,” Egil said.
“Why should I be interested? Another bard, another night of pointless feasting. But the great skalds never bother coming this far north. We’re just a boring uncivilised backwater. He’ll refuse the invitation.”
“He won’t.” Egil sighed. “He’s going to be very well paid, so he’ll come. But not for stories and sagas. He’s been sent for to take you away. To get rid of you for good. To murder you.”
Skarga gulped and dropped the reins. “And the Althing sanctioned that?”
“No, not them,” said Egil. “It’s a secret. Your father’s idea, but I bet it was that filthy Tove’s plan.”
“Sweet Fricco’s prick,” muttered Skarga, “I’ll kill the bastard first. When’s he coming?”
But Egil shook his head. “He hasn’t answered the summons yet. The passes are still frozen shut. When he comes, I’ll help you kill him.”
A day travelling with pony and cart in foul weather left sneezes and bruises, sore shoulders and a raw rump. The pony’s hooves were tender too and the boy trotted off with it to the smith’s; the boy’s friend and the pony’s doctor. Skarga stayed the night with Erna the weaver. She bought three reaches of embroidered border as a bribe for Tove her step-mother, thirty five reaches of undyed woollen cloth for the household, six tapestry squares for her step-aunt Tovhilda to stitch bed hangings, and a roll of knitted Lindsay to make an undershift and stockings for herself. The dogs had settled into long dark streaks against the firelight, loose tongued and panting. The cauldrons had been swung up again under the roof supports while the scents of remaining food lingered, a mealy porridge with a wispy hint of cabbage which Skarga had been invited to share. Now in bed, she could hear a soft damp wind, snow muffled, against the roof thatch but the night’s ravages stayed outside with the wolves.
Old Snorri the iron-smith had a baby kestrel in the back byre. Egil would go anywhere with a wild hunting bird to pet. Egil said, “I’ll be there if you want me, lady. Snorri says he’ll let me feed her tomorrow.”
“Feed her your fingers probably.”
“I’m not that stupid. Besides, I already know more about kestrels than Snorri does. But there’s more. You can never learn enough.”
“Idiot boy. Knowing anything at all about hunting birds is more than enough.”
They were sharing a spare cot in the woman’s quarters at the back of the hall. Egil snuggled closer, the best way to keep warm. “Don’t change the subject lady. You know you don’t want to go home yet. And they won’t miss you, you know that too.”
“Brat,” Skarga said fondly. “I should have left you on that mountain side to starve when you were a baby, instead of bringing you back to the longhouse.”
“Now that’s cruel,” Egil sniffed cheerfully. “Reminding me my parents didn’t want me, just because yours don’t want you either. And for all you know, I got abandoned by mistake. Perhaps they came back for me later and sobbed all night into their snotty cots when they found I’d gone.”
Skarga’s smile was invisible in the shadows. “While I had all the pleasures of changing your reeking piss-cloths and washing the puke off your chin after I’d fed you my own share of evening gruel. And me just nine summers old myself.”
The next morning Skarga sat by Erna’s loom, flicking at the warp’s clay weights, asking the question she’d been practising in her head. “You knew everyone once, back when the market was busy after the first Saxon raids, and poets came from all across the lands to recite under the great hammer.” She looked up, as Erna nodded. “There’s a man I’m interested in,” Skarga went on mildly. “His name’s Grimr and he’s a skald. He’s cousin to my father but none of us know him except by reputation. Do you?”
“So they’ve arranged a marriage for you at last?” said Erna, without interrupting the rhythm of her weaving.
Skarga smiled. “Not exactly. I just want to know about the man.”
“Well, don’t marry him,” said Erna. She fed in the thread, stretching it between her fingers. “He’s not a good man. I knew him a little, but I was young then, and he was younger. Perhaps he’s changed.”
“Men don’t change,” said Skarga.
“He was tall, with pale hair and eyes,” said Erna. “Those sort of eyes that stop you looking inside. Mind, he had a honey slick voice that went well with the old sagas. Made good drama, standing like a cypress in front of the cooking flames, weaving stories like I weave blankets. But he did other things too. I knew grown men frightened of him.”
“I’ve a brother like that,” said Skarga. “Cruelty is a strange, lonely business.”
“Grimr Ulfsson wasn’t just cruel,” said Erna. “He was clever and he could summon up dragons and night terrors. He was very young at that time, but he terrified me and well night everyone else. Now he’s surely older and stronger. Don’t marry him.”
Skarga sighed. “Tell me why men were frightened of him.”
“It was a long time ago.” Erna shook her head. “I don’t like remembering the past. It makes me wish I hadn’t got old.”
So they stayed two more days and would have stayed longer perhaps, if the messenger hadn’t come. It was still snowing and the man was wearing it like a cloak. He almost fell off his horse at her feet. “My lady. It’s the king, your father.”
For one glorious moment Skarga wondered if he’d fallen down the old well sodden with drink, and was dead.
“My father is –?”
“Lady, the great hall has burned to the ground. He’s demanding your return.”
“Oh, shit,” said Skarga and stalked off to the smith’s barn to look for Egil.
It seemed that nothing had changed at all. The empty freeze continued without interruption into the unhindered horizon. The wind swept low, cutting at ankles and toes, ruffling then smoothing the huge expanses of snow. The black night spread unchallenged.
But in one way everything had changed, for Thoddun smiled.
Intensity and attack, uncertainty, fear, courage and relief. Now it was relief that followed the bear attack, the rescue, and the survival. Skarga wiped her nose on her sleeve. Then she felt a rueful twitch of shame for Grimr would have cuffed her ear for doing such a thing.
As usual Thoddun read her mind. “Perhaps I’d prefer you not blowing your nose on my sleeve,” he said, voice still bear-gruff. “In all else, I believe you should do exactly as you wish. I have no further objections.”
His approval warmed her. He had never before shown such patience nor had he ever acknowledged her courage, her resilience, nor her need for comfort. Much of the time, she thought, he had never even acknowledged her existence.
Now she was exhausted but had her breath back under control, and mumbled, “I never killed a bear before. I’m not used to – killing.”
She was still sniffing loudly when he interrupted her again. “I’m grateful,” he said, his breath tickling her ear as his voice became more human, “that you recognised me. It would have been unfortunate had you killed the wrong one.”
“Of course I recognised you,” said Skarga sitting up at once. “I’m not that stupid.”
And he took her more fully into his embrace and, leaning forward, kissed the tip of her nose, which was distinctly moist. “Silly cub,” he said with what sounded like vague amusement. “It seems I am becoming quite fond of you after all.”
Skarga looked up at him in amazement and said, “Fond?”
“I should not have left you here alone,” Thoddun nodded. “The bear must have been exceptionally hungry to come so far south of his range, but I’m aware of the dangers, and should have stayed at least until the dogs returned. My need to hunt disguised man’s caution. I am sorry.”
Still curled within the circle of his arm, she sniffed again and shook her head. “An apology is far too much,” she said. “You may even start being nice and that’ll make me cry again.” She paused, then whispered, “Do you really think you might get to like me?”
He grinned. “I didn’t admit to liking. I merely said I was growing fond of you. I’m often fond of the younger ones I take in, the cubs and fledglings.”
Skarga wriggled away and glared. “I’m not a puppy.”
“No, indeed,” he laughed. “You are undoubtedly less endearing than that.”
She wiped the last tears on the golden border of her tunic and sat up. Down the side of his nose were two dark claw marks. “You’re hurt. I saw you wounded.”
He was still laughing. “Did you think me infallible? But they’re little more than grazes. No, that’s not mock heroism, simply the truth.” One leg of his britches was badly ripped but only a slight blood stain soiled the edges.
Her own ankle was still throbbing and she had begun to feel sick. She swallowed and shook her head a little, clearing the fogs. “Does it always work that way?” she asked. “I mean, if you’re wounded as – something else, you’ll be hurt as the other? I can try and bind it up, but there’s nothing to wash it with, unless I melt some snow.” She sighed. “And I ought to wash some of this blood off myself. I must smell dreadful.”
The bear’s blood disgusted her. It was thick on her hands and up her arms, and had smeared onto Thoddun’s tunic as he held her. He looked down at her with a silent laugh. “Indeed. The scent of fear and blood, which is utterly delectable are the greatest temptation. Have I warned you that I found no food?”
Skarga’s voice seemed to grow suddenly smaller in her own ears. “And I think I’ve hurt my ankle.”
He laughed aloud then. “So deliciously vulnerable. You have no idea of your own danger, do you, my sweet? A predator always chooses to take down the young or the injured first. But since I probably shouldn’t eat someone who’s just tried to save my life, it seems we must both go hungry. How bad is the ankle?”
“Painful,” blinked Skarga. She pointed. “There’s the bear.” She swallowed bile and turned away. The carcass was spread, throat open. The flaming skies lit the pool of split blood. This time Thoddun was not angry and his voice remained gentle.
“No, child. I cannot eat my own kind. Nor will I hunt again yet. I Changed back too quickly before, and will not risk Changing again while you are weak. When the dogs return, I will take us on. Can you continue without food?”
She nodded. “But I don’t think I can walk.”
He put his hands beneath her arms, hoisting her firmly back against the side of the sled. Then he tossed up the pleated hem of her shift, exposing both ankles. “Which one?” he demanded.
She pointed. At once Thoddun eased off her boot and without hesitation stretched his hands high up beneath her skirts, curling his fingers into the turned fold of her stocking where the garter tied around the top of her thigh. She hiccupped but said nothing. His fingers were very warm against her skin. He began to roll the wool down her leg and when he reached the ankle bone, he stretched his fingers outwards until her foot was uncovered. “Badly swollen,” he said, studying the bruised flesh. He pressed his palm flat up beneath her instep. “Either sprained or broken. Move your toes,” he ordered her.
She could not. She bit her lip, stifling the whimper. Instead she reached across and pulled her skirts back down over her uncovered thighs. She had been shamed enough by nakedness over previous moons’ seasons. Thoddun looked up at her, then grinned. “Still frightened of rape, or only of being dinner?”
“I was just cold,” sniffed Skarga.
“It seemed remarkably pointless lying to someone who can read most of your thoughts,” Thoddun pointed out, and caught up two handfuls of snow, rubbing her hands, cleaning away bear’s blood. He scrubbed down the dark stains along the deep cuffs of her sleeves, then handed back her gloves from where they had fallen. “Well, let’s eliminate one problem at least,” he smiled. “Now, until we get to my own halls, I can’t properly mend your ankle. It’s undoubtedly fractured and needs a splint, but there’s no chance of that here. I must use your stocking as a bandage. The stretch will bind well. Of course, it’ll leave you cold again, but you can put my cloak over your knees and tuck your feet in, which is the best I can offer. I could skin the bear’s carcass for you, but without curing, it would probably make you vomit. This will hurt. Are you ready?”
He didn’t wait for her answer, but took her foot firmly to his lap and began to wrap the ankle with the soft wool of her own stocking, spreading its width as he bound, first tightly around and beneath her heel, then briskly upwards to the curve of her calf. She stared up at the dragon fire in the sky and clenched her teeth, making no sound. Pushing her boot back over the bandage, he was fast and efficient and she bit her tongue, swallowed hard, but remained silent. When Thoddun had finished, he flicked down the hem of her shift, and smiled at her with vague approval.
“Thank you,” said Skarga, trying to settle the heave of a bilious stomach.
“Feeling sick?” Thoddun stood, stretched, and looked down at her. “Pain can do that. The hunger isn’t helping. Do you want your knife back?”
It protruded still from the eye of the dead bear. She shivered. “Yes, please. I might need it again.”
He chuckled. “Being stuck with me, you might.” He strode over and retrieved it, bent and cleaned the blade carefully in the snow, and brought it back to her. He then recovered both fur cloaks, arranging his own pelt over her knees and wrapping the great thick expanse of it under her legs and feet so that she was swathed from the waist down. He put her own wolf-pelt over her shoulders and bent down beside her again, lounging against the sled’s bulk, head tilted back.
The huge swathe of leaping colours across the arctic sky which had lit the bear attack in a flood of green and crimson, were now fading. Thoddun looked for a moment up at the vast sheeting luminescence disappearing into darkness once more, their final curtains opening, to emerald arrows shooting towards the stars. Then he closed his eyes, and sighed.
“Very well,” he said at last, in the voice of surrender. “I’ll answer whatever I can.”
Skarga peeped around at him but his eyes remained shut. The expression of resignation and note of reluctant acquiescence did not escape her. She felt guilty about a number of things, but taking his bearskin cape was not one of them. Though he wore only the coarse flax tunic, rough edged and plain over a thin woollen shirt part open at the neck, and his britches, tied under the knees over his stockings, were now torn, in fact he did not look cold. A small trickle of blood had seeped through one stocking from the scratch on his leg and had dripped unheeded to the turn of his boot. His gloves were lying still on the bench of the sled and he did not bother to fetch them. There was so much she wanted to know. Skarga, though surprised, relinquished guilt and said, “What will you let me ask?”
Thoddun’s eyes snapped open. “Suddenly timid?” She wondered if he meant to be reassuring. He said, “You have seen me as I’ve never let any human see me, unless I’m hunting and utterly disguised. You know more about me than I’ve permitted any human to know before. It’s a good deal more than I like, but you show no repulsion and little fear. So now there are other things I should undoubtedly tell you. However, if you’ve no wish to ask, I’ll say no more of them yet.” He stretched back again and shut his eyes once more, but he continued speaking softly. “Though perhaps for the sake of simple decency,” he continued, “at least I should tell you this. There was an avalanche. My home is vulnerable to such reversions, but this was not a natural event. It was contrived. It was a direct attack. Now those tunnels are closed off and must remain blocked until I chose to rebuild. I may never do so. There is no need to think of that yet.”
“But I keep wondering,” said Skarga, “how you knew where I was. Is it only a coincidence that your tunnels led right there?”
Thoddun smiled, though this time it was to himself. “Yes, I knew exactly where you were, and coincidence is never coincidental. Those tunnels were built long, long ago and not by me. I had allowed them to remain closed. Because of you, I reopened them. Now they’re sealed again. I am not entirely displeased.”
“It’s to do with Grimr isn’t it?” said Skarga. “You only saved me because you wanted to fight Grimr.”
Thoddun opened his eyes and smiled again. “You are wrong, but not entirely,” he said. “You are not entirely wrong and you are not entirely stupid, but I could have attacked Grimr at any time and did not need you as an excuse. However, such questions must certainly wait for some other day. In the meantime, I am taking you to my halls in the far north. Somewhere below us, though further towards the summer coast, some of my crew are digging out the main passage, reopening the way back home. Others will Change to their other selves, and swim or fly. Some will have arrived and are already preparing for my return. I chose to bring you by sled, in the only way you are capable of travelling. It is slower, but I can set the pace, sustaining longer hours, and travelling through the dark.”
Skarga asked, “Will Egil be there?” and Thoddun nodded.
He leaned over and scooped crushed ice between his palms. It began to melt a little within the heat of his hands and he held the trickling water out to Skarga. “Drink,” he commanded. “You can survive without food, but not without liquid.” She drank as ordered, her lips against cup of his fingers. He repeated this a second time and she drank again, then for himself. He wiped his hands dry on his britches and smiled. “There are still at least three days of travel before we arrive. More if the dogs fall ill, or the weather turns. And of course, although we speak of days as though daylight divides night – it does not. In winter the darkness is unbroken, whatever we choose to call it. There are many dangers and inconveniences out here in winter, in particular since each day appears simply as part of the night, but they are all possibilities I have dealt with before, and am accustomed. Hunger will be your main problem. The difficulty of your ankle need not delay me, as long as the dogs stay fit.”
She saw them returning now, little shimmering shadows bounding through the snow fall, ears alert and pricked, smelling the carcass of the bear. Thoddun rose at once and strode out to meet them, merging into the white bluster, speaking in the strange language he used to the animals. The dogs clustered around him, paws up to his knees, tails wagging, hopeful.
He came back to Skarga. “They found little food,” he told her. “The weather is closing in again and another blizzard is coming. I’ll give them time here before we move on.” The dogs had gone to the dead bear and Skarga could hear them growling. She could not see, nor tried to look. Thoddun said abruptly, “Are you interested in my judgements? You have no need to be. If you are not, I’ll not weary you with them.”
Skarga was surprised. “Yes, I’m interested,” she said. “I know you’re not interested in mine. But I expect my life depends on yours.”
The dogs had dragged the ragged hollow fur across the snows and a trail of pale dead blood was smeared long and thin, congealing into black ice. They squabbled as they fed, tearing at the belly. Thoddun raised his voice over the snarls and crunching of bone. “You are being,” he said, “remarkably polite.”
Skarga sniffed. “So are you. Is it because I tried to save your life? But you weren’t in real danger, were you. I thought about it afterwards. You only pretended to be badly wounded, to fool it and trick it, so to kill it more easily. I know because I can see your wounds now. You’re hardly marked at all.” She watched his smile broaden. “See, I’m not so stupid.” She paused, her own smile peeping. “Not all the time, anyway.”
He laughed and for a moment it sounded like the growling of the dogs. It was an illusion she remembered having once before, somewhere different, with someone else. “Playing injured is an old trick,” Thoddun said. “But you were brave. For a human, a female, with a broken ankle, your courage was unusual. But it’s not why I’m being what you call polite.”
“Just because you feel sorry for me?”
He said, “Pity is a human emotion and not one I experience willingly. I’m being – pleasant – simply because now I believe I can trust you. Your reactions have proved trustworthy. That’s rare. It’s an impression I enjoy. Perhaps it has something to do with growing fond of you. Make what you will of it.”
Skarga thought of several things to say and said none of them. Eventually she murmured, “Thank you. Now you asked me if I wanted your opinions and judgements. And I do.”
The dogs were still gnawing though the noise had dulled. Between five of them, there would now be little left worth chewing.
“Simply this,” said Thoddun. “I’m taking you north to my halls. You should be comfortable there for the immediate future. You’ve proved yourself unembarrassed by the habits of my people and you show some understanding. I’ll try and keep you entertained, and Egil will keep you company. But it cannot last. You must eventually return to your own people. You’ll not want to go back to your family so I’ll try and devise some place to take you where you can be happy enough, according to humanity’s standards. It might help you to discuss preferences.”
It sounded suddenly very bleak. Skarga hung her head. “I don’t know,” she said. “I never make plans because I never expect them to work. I’ve never had expectations.”
The dogs were drifting back, licking each other’s blood darkened muzzles, tails wagging, reasserting dominance. The lead dog stood beside his harness, lying in the snow. Thoddun trudged over and buckled the leather, looping the reins over the sled’s bench seat. Behind him the dead bear lay in torn ribbons of flat, dirty hair. Its paws remained, four huge pads splayed from an empty frame. Its skull was smashed open and the brain eaten, but the liver had been ignored, spread in one fine spiral of diminishing warmth.
Then Thoddun put both hands around Skarga’s waist, lifted her up and gently balanced her over his shoulder. A moment’s dizziness, and she was bumped up onto the sled’s driving seat where she sat and blinked. He had slung her over his shoulder once before when she had first met him, but it had been quite different. He had hauled her up like a wadmal sack, and let her head bounce down against his back. This time he had been studiously careful. Now he climbed up beside her, pulled on his gloves and took the reins. The dogs began to trot.
He had not yet replied to her, but Skarga risked a quickly rehearsed question. “I’m glad you trust me,” she said. She clasped her hands in her lap and looked up at him. “But why didn’t you trust me before? I’m hardly a threat. Isn’t it me who wasn’t supposed to trust you?”
She was tucked up close to his side, thick wrapped in fur. He looked down at her a moment, closely but not unkindly, before returning his gaze to the snows ahead. “I tend to distrust humanity,” he said briefly. “I have good reason. And humanity tends to distrust my people, also for good reasons. I accept the necessity for both.”
“But you are human,” she pointed out.
“No,” he answered her. “You are not listening. I am man, but not human man. I am transanima man, and that is something else entirely. After everything you have seen, you should appreciate the difference.”
“I expect people are frightened when they – if they see – and it’s hard to trust anyone who’s different,” said Skarga softly. “Yet once the transanima were worshipped as gods.”
“Mortal men now hate and fear us, and kill us when they can,” said Thoddun. “Those who worshipped us also feared us. The blame is partly our own since we keep our secrets close and live in isolation, but that’s a choice based on experience. We are dangerous to you. You are dangerous to us. So I do not trust humanity.” Immediately she remembered the Sheep Islands. She remembered the village women and his crew who did not keep themselves so isolated. Skarga blushed, and hoping he would not read her mind, banished the memory. “Too late,” he said. The little tucked smile faded. The gentleness in his voice turned abrupt and his expression hardened, snow to ice. “Yes, we cohabit at times when it suits us.” he said. “I told you I don’t rape women, but nor do I care for them. You don’t have to love a woman to make love to her. We do not share the truth of our identities with them, nor show our real selves. But it is not a subject I’d have expected to discuss with you.”
Skarga looked away. “I didn’t ask to discuss it. I never said it aloud. It’s your fault for poking about in my mind. And I know what it’s like to be lonely and I can imagine what it’s like to be away so long without – well, without your own women.”
He stared down at her again, seemingly amused, but tinged with a flicker of malice. “Ah,” he murmured, “I remember your interruptions when I had you on my hands in the Western Islands, and when I thought you an insufferable nuisance. And I doubt my men were suffering from anything as wholesome as simple loneliness. As for what you call our own women, there are almost none left. There are the seal women in the Pictish lands who call themselves Selkie, though they’ll not look beyond their own kind unless it’s a human they can seduce and drown. Amongst the rest of us, few females are born and most don’t survive. That was why I was particularly interested when I thought you one of us, and disappointed when I realised you were not. My mother was transanima, but she was unusually strong. She was not what you might call – gentle.”
“Where does she live?” Skarga wondered. “In the north with you?”
“No,” he answered. “In her grave.”
“It would be strange for a father,” she said, “to discover his son –”
“My father shares the same burial mound,” Thoddun interrupted her. “But when I offered to answer your questions, I hardly expected to discuss either my sexual preferences, or my personal family. It seems that humanity, even the more trustworthy of them, can still surprise me.”
Skarga glared. “I didn’t ask those things,” she said. “I wouldn’t ever be so rude. You rummaged into my head again.”
“I must point out that I neither rummage in your head nor poke about in your mind, what there is of it,” he said. “It lies open to me, clear and unshadowed. I cannot help but see it. You should either control your more impertinent thoughts, or shut your mind altogether.”
“I don’t know how to,” she said with a sniff. “Thoughts just float around on the surface and pop in and out.”
“How inconvenient for you,” murmured Thoddun. “I can only be glad not to share your humanity.”
Skarga sat still and forlorn and felt she had somehow lost something precious. And if Thoddun read that thought, he said nothing about it at all.
The dawn reached over the horizon, skimming the ocean’s ice in frosted lilac. Now each day could be counted, its beginning and its ending marked by light. Distances could be timed. It would be possible to arrange meetings, separate units could establish precise arrivals, and journeys by sea, by sky and by land, would conjoin as agreed. With the return of the sun, organisation was reborn.
“You will travel already channelled,” Thoddun told them. “You will follow the orders of the channel leader and you will fight beside him and for him. Beyond him, you will follow the direction of my Second, Lodver. And beyond him you will follow, ultimately, only those orders issued by myself.”
From the great open cave mouth, the sea creatures left. Flokki led them. He was already in the water when he Changed, the huge sloping body of shining white catching the lamplight, the mottled black deep as the sea shadows. His orca was older than Thoddun’s and he had led armies before, even long ago.
The other creatures of the sea, the dolphins, the belugas and the bowhead whales, followed him into the churning waters. Some men sat on the wedged edges of the ice to Shift, sliding quickly into the slap of the wavelets as their bodies merged into their channels. Halfdan stood and stretched out his arms. He Shifted mid dive and his dolphin leapt in a grey sheen of lamplight, crashing nose first into immediate depths. Oddly submerged and was already hidden as he Shifted. Some feared his shark, though he was as soft natured as the quilt where he preferred to sleep.
They had smashed the ice and the coastal cave-waters oozed a mash of creamy slush, slopping the sea in lazy, rhythmic waves. Far out on the invisible horizon, the grinding boom of icebergs echoed the long freeze. Spring had not yet fought its own battles. Sunrise became sunset, light an instant hesitation between them, dawn to gloaming, and the great hosts of birds took the sky. Safn, though the smallest amongst them, was their leader. The trackers left first and four eagles sped ahead into the dimming. The boys were not required to go to war. “We’re old enough,” Erik said. “If I’d joined my father’s Lang skip, I’d have been fighting a full year at his side by now. Egil’s a little younger, but I’d look after him.”
“But you never joined the raiding fleets,” Lodver pointed out, “and therefore have not one sword’s thrust of experience. What’s more important, you’re neither proficient at Shifting, nor hunting channelled. You’ll stay here, helping guard our backs.” Lodver’s goshawk did not join the trackers, nor the greater flock. It was his wolverine which would be Second to Thoddun’s bear, but the creatures of the land did not march together. It was not a disciplined infantry. A huge moving mass of shadows formed each unit, shifting out on the stark snows, grouping around their leaders.
Because there were few remaining wolves, and because even those few might be tempted by divided loyalties, they joined the foxes, the hunting cats and the southern brown bears in a unit that would scatter and rejoin over the great stretch of terrain, tracking and spying, coming together to bring information and finally strength in reserve to the vanguard. The main troops were the ice-bears. But Thoddun would not lead them.
The vanguard led by Lodver and the left flank following Karr, united beneath the stars as the low fog rolled in from the sea. They had Shifted already as Thoddun brought out Skarga. She stood at the castle gates and watched at his side. When he strode forwards to speak to them, she stayed behind, watching the distant milling of fog-bound fur against snow, massed into the creeping gloom. Some hundreds of bears gathered, the strange swaying restlessness of pointed heads dipped in black inked noses, shuffling, pacing paws like the faint rumble of thunder on ice. A seething, jostling disagreement, forced quiet by their leaders. Lodver alone had not Shifted and he stood small amongst them, roaring orders. The bears snarled, remembering old disagreements. Lodver called again. Most came together, a hiss of warning, a push of the elders to the foreground. Once settled, they lowered their heads. Thoddun the man, strode between them.
The fog thickened. Lodver mounted his sled, lost in moving white swirls and shadows. The bears chose their own time. Some plodded, huge pawed, in pairs or clutches. Others raced alone, others slow, some fast. Before the crescent moon rose hesitant, the land was quiet again and only the mists moved, whispering like ghosts.
Thoddun turned back to Skarga. “Now,” he said, “first I send off the baggage train, the supplies and weapons. Then we leave ourselves.”
She was prepared and was dressed as he had told her. Below her wolf pelt, she was thick layered in wool. Shift, kirtle, tunic, gloves, stockings, cape and cloak, protection against an element more powerful than arrows. She felt no cold, just rather plump. When she had told him she felt ungainly, he had said, “I like it.”
“Does that mean I have to like it too?” she said.
“It means you won’t die of the cold while I’m off doing something else,” said Thoddun.
The fog disguised the moon and swallowed the tips of the distant bergs. It crept to her toes and crawled up the sides of her boots. “And the sled?” she asked, gazing down into milk.
He smiled. “Did you think I expected you to walk?” Half lost in vapour, Skarga could still see the exhilaration bright across his face as he breathed in the freeze. She wondered if she was the reason for his not Shifting. “No,” he said at once. “I no longer indulge such sensitivities. But the power of this army is already unbounded. It needs leading, not unleashing. Each channel bonds with its own, so each unit builds loyalty and the custom of fighting together. But that also serves to separate them from the others, and into competition within our own ranks instead of aggression directed only towards the enemy. So it’s man’s brain I supply unShifted. Calculation and planning and discipline. Lodver and I will both lead as men. He’ll Shift sometimes, but it’s his thinking skills I want in charge.” He smiled down at her. “Not that I intend making this whole march south without ever Changing. The spring hunting grounds are almost open, and there’s the scent of adventure, sea bird nesting, and soon the seals birthing on the floes.”
“It’ll be as it was before then?” Behind the seeping fog, a whistle of wind slid through, dividing the mist into curled tongues. “Travelling by sled with the dogs? Sleeping in the caves? You hunting while I wait out the storms?” It was how she had first learned to be in love with him, an avalanche of protection and discovering the mystical delight of desire. “And like before, it’ll be just us alone?”
“I’ll need to meet up with Lodver frequently along the way,” he said. “The trackers will report. The birds will keep me informed. We’ll be taking a meandering route, linking between the others.” He grinned. “But a bear likes his solitary journeys, and this will be one I’ll enjoy.”
“Solitary? Except for me. And it sounds more like pleasure than war.”
“They’re all the same thing,” said Thoddun.
“And absurd for me to worry about danger? Or you hunting the new born seal pups - killing the helpless and small before they even have a chance for their own little adventures in life?”
He shrugged, still smiling. “Quite absurd. You’d prefer I killed adults - denying all the generations to come? Better to kill an unborn future of twenty pups or more, is it, without even digesting one of them? I’m a creature of pillage, my dear, not pity.”
“A mother expends months of bitter energy in pregnancy, then risks her life giving birth. Endless nurturing. Then one bite, and her baby’s just a bear’s snack.”
He chuckled, undaunted. “They’ve short memories. And they’ll breed again. When you breed yourself, my dear, I promise you better protection.” She glared, opened her mouth, and shut it again. The wind was growing sharper and she used the pause to pull her cloak tight. “I don’t expect danger,” Thoddun said. “But with an army, and meetings to arrange, this’ll be a longer journey than last time, though it depends how far your father’s people dare come north to face us. I intend engaging them out on the snows – in my territory – not theirs – where I understand the terrain and they’re fools and strangers. But Safn tells me they’ve not yet moved from their halls. If they won’t come out willingly, I shall force them.”
“My father’s never been a coward,” said Skarga. “But he’s always been a fool.”
“He’s after a hero’s reputation. And the wolf pack will be urging him out against us. But his jarls may have more sense. It’s a comfortable vik, and prosperous. No monsters have personally threatened them.”
“So why should he go to war?”
“The temptations of treasure,” said Thoddun.
A fleet of sleds, a hundred dogs. An army marching already Shifted carried no weapons and no food. Bears ranged free but men needed blankets. Each transanima would regroup with his leader when called, Shifting back to man for sleep, for orders, and for discussion. The creatures of air, sea and snow hunted for themselves, but an evening’s fire and feast for the men meant bonding and comfort and few transanima could Shift indefinitely or remain in their channels for more than a day or two. Sleds of supplies followed the coast. The rest went overland. Thoddun would carry his own.
Kjeld travelled with the coastal supplies, guiding a sled so huge it dwarfed the dogs, and sixteen of them pulled it. Unable to travel channelled, Kjeld sat grinning on the raised bench, gripping the reins between massive ungloved fingers. Thoddun waved him off. “Shift when you need to,” Thoddun told him, “the dogs know the way, but remember your training, my friend. No fighting in the rookeries, no collecting a harem. And wait each night for the arrival of the men you’re supposed to be supplying.”
Brandr and Skallagrim were left to order the defence of the castle. A formality. Thoddun spoke to them at some length. While he ordered the care of those remaining, the systematic rebuilding of the ice fortress as incoming spring melted the surface snows, and the preparations necessary should the wolf pack split and attack in Thoddun’s absence.
Skarga said goodbye to Egil. “I’m to be a messenger,” Egil grinned. “Me and Erik. We’d sooner have come with the army, but we never really expected to be allowed. I wanted to see Banke disembowelled by one of us. Truth tells, I wanted to do it myself. But being a messenger is important too. If anything happens here while you’re gone, I’ll be the first to bring word of it. Me and Erik. And then, who knows? We might meet up with that bastard Grimr. A long time ago I swore I’d kill him.”
“There’s something you don’t know about Grimr,” said Skarga. “Forget about killing him.”
“I never forget anything,” said Egil.
The fog dispersed, sinking into the white land like a sail flattened against the mast. The ground sparkled in turquoise crystals and the peaks of the distant bergs turned green. The wind kept low, whining in eddies. Thoddun’s great sled stood already loaded, just inside the castle gates. The air was clear and dry and a salt tang pricked Skarga’s eyes. She climbed the sled and sat, bracing herself against the cold, boots balanced up against the low bar. They were the dogs she recognised with an additional pair, seven in all, shaking their thick ruffs, impatient and excited. The lead dog hung his head, breathing vapour puffs down into the snow. Behind him the swingers, a darker furred pair, yapped and tugged at their harness.
Thoddun leapt aboard and took the reins. He did not sit, but stood as he guided the dogs in a wide circle and out, speeding through the great castle gates. A crowd of transanima, some Shifted, cheered, busy, excited and acknowledging their chief. The sun had set but a horizontal glow of pale illumination still hung soft, a spreading reflection of the disappearing light. Then it ebbed as the pale turned once again to utter dark. The sled headed into the bleak freeze and the night closed around them.