Seventeen-year-old Inut stares across the empty Bay of Skaill. Waves lap at his reindeer canoe. He rubs his left temple. Blood.
Inut’s father killed the reindeer and skinned it. He wrapped boy and boat in it last summer. Both fit for the ocean, he’d laughed.
Three weeks ago, Inut woke in this canoe, out of sight of land. If he could only remember. He wishes for his mother to wrap fur-clad arms around him and murmur Eskimo words of regret. Smoke. Trees. Coming nearer in the bobbing boat. The waves slap at the frame. The horizon yields a green slew of something inexplicable. Shouting. People running.
Orkna stands, a colossus, staring out across the bay. The sun dips beneath the horizon. A canoe bobs into sight.
Seize the lad’s weapons, Orkna growls. He may not be alone. He starts off slowly towards the beach. Steady footfalls in the mud. His leather boots and sheepskin clothes. Fish bones around his neck, swaying against his jugular. Kin from the west or raiders from the east? Let them declare their hand first. Watch their faces. Let them betray themselves as they stare at your red-ochre-tinted body and wonder whether they’re war paint or fertility symbols. Will they try to kill us?
Let him be, Arna says.
A young man, alone, but with blood on his boat? Her husband lays his spear against the wall.
Arna stirs their pot of barley. The man makes the house. You make the home and the child. He told me that a hundred times before our boy’s drowning. Not a mention of it since the limp body was dredged up at last. We’re no longer parents.
Let him rest, she says. The lad’s exhausted. Memories jump up and crowd inside her head like eels. Needs met before, then claimed by a watery grave. It feels good to give again.
Orkna leaves the house. Arna gazes after him then down at the lad. He’s stroking the slab, like he’s never seen one before.
Stone, she says.
His eyes flicker to her face.
The youth jumps from rock to rock on the beach. Calling to her, in words Arna cannot comprehend. She shivers. Last night her husband called the boy ‘driftwood’. Rubbish picked up from the ocean. Detritus. Only fit to go back there.
Arna throws dried seaweed on the smouldering fire that won’t leap into life. It’ll sulk through the night but apologize in the morning when it’s fanned into flames and heats their barley porridge for breakfast.
Best if he goes, Orkna tells her. The other men don’t want him here.
In that case, I go with him.
At dawn Arna wakes Inut. He points to where he carved the stone. Snow. Do you have it here? Do you build from it and drink it, wash in it and cook with it over a fire? We practically live in it.
Inut takes Arna’s hand. They walk down to the shoreline and the boat together.
A Glimpse of Things to Come
As Finian picked his way through the marsh, his older sister Emer stayed a couple of paces ahead of him. They wound their way along the narrow path until they reached a grassy hillock. She leapt onto it and surveyed the bog.
Sixteen-year-old Finian waited patiently on the path. He eyed the willow drowning in the stagnant water and drooping into the brackish mire. He stared at his shoes. The gold polish his servant had covered them with that morning was flaking away. The black leather toes were scuffed, too. Prince or not, he’d be in trouble when they got home to the castle. He glanced over at Emer. That was the benefit of being the youngest of six: you could always lay the blame at the door of an elder sibling.
Emer gathered her red-velvet skirts and jumped from the hillock onto another, a yard away. Finian gawped at her womanly lithe confidence. He scrambled into the hillock and tried to judge the distance to the next hump sticking out of the water.
Finian thought of his father, the king. Of his eldest brother. Of the two other brothers before him in the line of succession. Any of them would’ve leapt over the murky pool with ease.
Finian sprang into the air. As he jumped he saw the willow twist up and lunge its tendrils out towards him. Its roots grabbed his ankles and its branches curled around his wrists and torso. He struggled as he fell into the pool. The brown waters closed above his head. He thrashed about until he felt a strong hand grasp the collar of his tunic and yank him upwards.
The siblings scrambled onto the path. He gasped for air, coughing the foul water out of his lungs. Emer shoved her younger brother in annoyance.
“Look at my dress. It’s ruined. You can explain that to Briana, after she spent last winter weaving the cloth for it. Idiot!”
The pool had become clear. At the bottom, Finian could see the stones. Minnows were darting back and forth in and out of the shadows.
“That means we’ll see a vision,” Emer added. She sounded smugger than anyone Finian had ever heard, including their eldest brother.
The siblings gazed down into the water together. An image formed of an ivory tower. Finian was sitting in the library there, frowning over the manuscripts before him.
They clutched hands as the water swirled and the image changed.
Finian saw a battlefield. He could smell the stench of drying blood and hear the cries of men dying. Then the image changed again. Finian was sitting on their father’s throne. He was only a year or two older than now.
He pulled away and ran away along the path back to the castle.
Emer caught up with Finian at the drawbridge. She drew him aside and whispered, “I don’t think we should tell anyone about what we’ve seen.”
A Wife's Place
It's often said that a wife's place is beside her husband. In Khan Pyotr of the Albins' case, that meant being alongside him on the field of battle repelling his country's many enemies from their soil.
Two days after their wedding ceremony took place in the Orthodox Chapel in Pyotr's capital, Sverdvansk, the young khan received word that Albina's old foe the Men of the North had sailed into port, leapt out of their longboats and marched deep into his territory, raiding defenceless villages as they went.
Pyotr raised the levy and commanded his standing army to fall in. He mounted his snow-white stallion and surveyed the massing forces of his men with pride. But where was his wife? He slid back down, handed his reins to his second in command and strode back to the royal tent to stick his head through the goatskin flap.
"Why aren't you ready?" he asked.
"I didn't think you'd want me!" she replied.
As he entered, he expected to see his new wife being strapped into the last of her armour by her servants, poised with her helmet ready, but she was still wearing her silk dressing gown and fur boots. Her armour, cast on his orders as a wedding gift, lay ignored on the table. She stared at it nervously, though, and flashed a pitiful smile at him that softened even his angry heart.
Dashing across the tent, he tugged her into his loving arms. "I want you with me always! That includes seeing your trusty blade slashing open the throats of those interlopers," he said.
She stood patiently as he personally strapped on her armour and pressed her jeweled helmet onto her head. "What if I'm with child already?" she asked.
"If expectant mothers can die on the swords of invaders, they can ride into combat to defend themselves, too. If you are pregnant, this will count as our son's first battle!"
She beamed as she drew her sword and swiped the air with its blade. He kissed her passionately. It was such a joy to see her wearing her armour and ready to fight. The royal couple ran to their horses and flung themselves into their saddles.
The army gathered around them. Dvina was only one of many wives galloping into battle today. Her late arrival had been called a bad omen. But then the enemy was sighted, and the throaty command of the horn called the Albins to defend their country. All was forgotten as she led the charge.
By lunchtime, when Dvina again sheathed her sword, thousands lay dead and dying. The Men of the North's captured leader was paraded around Pyotr's camp and ritually humiliated by being asked to lick the boots of the khan. But then she murmured to her husband that the ransom might take weeks to arrive from Konungsborg, and they must make Olaf welcome in the meantime and treat him as an honoured guest.
"If the Gods bless me with daughters," Olaf told Dvina with a wry smile, "they'll fight alongside their husbands as you do. Your way shall be ours, too!"
The Crone Wakes
As Sasha wakened with the crow of her neighbour's cockerel, she turned over in bed, but instead of her lithe limbs (tired after yesterday's hours spent bent double harvesting the wheat, but still ready to wield the scythe again today) stretching happily she felt her back twinge and then pulse in agony.
Sasha clutched her lower back and groaned. She threw back the darned wool blanket and forced herself to sit up. Then the pain of her bones mingled with the thumping in her head. Last night, they had celebrated finishing the lower pasture (Devil's Field, they called it) and stacking up the sheaves in neat bundles to dry. Her brother Pyotr's parsnip vodka had fired up everyone's blood, and one after another the peasants had peeled off in impromptu couples, heading away into the forest or back to their hovels to enjoy the night.
The stranger who had been Sasha's partner had been passing through their hamlet, earning a few kopeks from harvesting work before moving on again. The young women had vied for his attention last night, but he had had eyes only for her.
"Don't try to do too much until you're used to it."
Sasha whipped round at the sound of the honeyed voice that had tempted her last night under the stars. Promises had been made that she was smart enough to know were never going to be kept. This wasn't the first time she'd lain with a stranger. The secret was to carry the thing off and to be as casual as possible about bidding each other farewell.
He lingered in the doorway of Sasha's one-room hovel, leaning against the creaky doorpost.
"It wasn't my first time."
He smiled slyly in a way that unnerved her.
"That much I know. I meant your promise. It took effect overnight, and your pledge has changed you. No more working in the fields at your age! But you'll be too busy casting spells for me, anyway. If you get hungry, just beg a little. Most folk take pity on a crone and toss a few coins into the bowl."
Sasha stormed towards him, intending to shove past, but her back arched over and her knees buckled. The ignominy of hobbling to the duck pond to gaze at her reflection in the ripples was far more galling than the knowledge that she had lain with this monster last night. What had he done to her?
Following Sasha at his leisure, the stranger filled his pipe and lit it from a flint struck against tinder.
"Your soul is mine for all eternity. I can make those creaking bones of yours carry you a few more centuries yet, if I choose. Or I could return you to your old self. It's in my gift."
Sasha bristled. Then she recalled the exact words they had spoken to each other.
"I offered my body. You never mentioned my mind. But then a man like you is never interested in that part of a woman!"
The stranger blanched, and Sasha knew she'd hit home.
"My mind is still free. I will conjure magic or not, as I please. I'd rather live a crone for centuries but do a little good in the world than earn my old life back doing your dirty work!" she said.
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