There was, at the beginning of all things, Fjarlægur. A vast land walled by icy thorns and hidden wastes. Fjarlægur was a secret at the middle of nothing, and so natives called it “Leyndarmal—secret.” Surrounding Fjarlægur was a stretch of barren ice on which an endless blizzard raged. For lack of a better name, the ice plates surrounding Fjarlægur were simply called The Endless. How far they stretched in either direction, no one knew, it was infinite, incomprehensible, unfathomable. Much how the universe is, blanketed by stars, and expanding further then we can hope to understand in our lifetimes or those of our great grandchildren.
Fjarlægur was a silent land, populated by only creatures of dirt and stone. That is, until we came, five winds billowing across The Endless, to converge upon the beating heart of the storm. Siblings we were, and ancient as gods, with power encircling our brows and fiery crystals embedded in our hands. Three forms we each could take; that of a mortal, that of a wild beast, and that of our truest form, the wind.
Malmur, focused, intense, determined, staring out at the world with steel grey eyes. She had hair that cascaded down her back in liquid waves, and it was the color of burnt leaves. Her beast form was that of a small cat, fierce eyed, a coat crisscrossed with red and gold patterns. She was the eldest of us, and enforced her will upon us with iron precision, Malmur’s word was law, and none of us refuted that. Hard headed and hard hearted though she was, there was always something glittering behind the metal walls latticed across her eyes. A piece of pain caught in a cage.
Eldheitur, passionate, fiery, aggressive, loving. She was the most beautiful of us all, with flaming auburn hair and smoking skin the color of blackened caramel. Eldheitur was discomforted by the wet forests and slow sun at the centre of Fjarlægur. Her eyes often turned eastward, and I knew she yearned for rolling sand dunes and figs ripening in the sun. Eldheitur tried our patience with her excitable tendencies, but she was also the most affectionate of us all. She loved us with an intensity not even Modir could match. Her and Vestr were always close, despite the fact that their personalities often clashed. Her beast form as that of a firebird, a resplendent creature, with iridescent feathers and a crown of emerald on her proud head.
Modir, industrious, practical, compassionate, empathetic. The one of us who always mediated the relations between us siblings, it was little surprise when she began to show a talent for nurturing, when she was the first to coax the green up from beneath the frozen earth. She possessed an uncanny gentleness that she always applied to the growing of green things.
She and Malmur often did not get along, though they both functioned from the motivation to grow things. The difference being that Modir wanted to see things that could grow from the frozen ground and flourish in the winter sun, she wanted to aid their growth with gentle hands, never to force, never to hinder, always to coax and encourage. Malmur also wished to grow things, but she wanted to thrust them into the world with her own hands, to forge them from harsh iron and glittering steel, and she did not care if sacrifices were made. Malmur believed that anything worth creating was worth paying for in blood.
Modir was always lovely, not in the way of Malmur’s frozen elegance, or Eldheitur’s bewitching aura, hers was simple, and somehow sweeter. She always wore her hair long, but kept it bound back in long plaits of flaxen gold. Her face was soft where Malmur’s was angular, strong where Eldheitur’s was delicate. Her beast form was that of a hare, strong-legged and nimble, with thoughtful eyes and a sweet face.
Vestr, sensitive, imaginative, intuitive, charming… he was the best-loved of us all. The youngest, he was the only one who could make Malmur laugh, Eldheitur emerge from her shell, and calm Modir’s tempers. Much of what he was then was in stark contrast to how he’d been as a child, always afraid, always curled in some far corner, crying for nightmares that would not leave him. As a young adult he changed, and grew easier to talk to, though he was still inaccessible at times, lost in a landscape of dream. During these times in which not even Modir could get through to him, Vestr would embark on long journeys through the woods. He was always moving, always flowing forth, like water spilling from a cup.
In mortal appearance, Vestr was disarming, with black hair, laughing eyes, a pointed chin, and high cheekbones. It was his wolf form that always made me uneasy, perhaps it was the strange green glitter in his narrowed eyes, how he towered over all of us, despite him being the youngest. Or maybe it was the scent of blood that followed him, evasive and yet cloying, clinging to him like perfume, overwhelming the senses and dimming the wits.
Then there was I, Nordur. Ambitious, competent, stubborn… I was young then, young enough to think only of myself and my desires. Malmur often looked to me for stability, for we were the only two in the family who could make decisions quickly. Vestr was often lost in dreams, and when in action, he was impulsive rather than logical. Eldheitur grew confused easily, leaping from one decision to the next, lighting them on fire rather than making sense of them. Modir was more patient then either of them, but she never made decisions quickly, and tended to think on them longer than was necessary. I was the second brother, and the responsibility of my siblings often weighed heavy upon my shoulders. I longed for snow-clad crags and silent tundra, for a place that I could call my own, far from all distractions, with the stars to map and the land to gaze upon.
As a mortal, I was the tallest, with close-cut hair the color of snow and firm features. My form was that of a bear, I would have been the largest of my siblings had it not been for Vestr’s unnatural size. I never begrudged him that, or so I liked to tell myself.
So the five of us came to what is now called the Midlands, that place at the centre of Fjarlægur where the weather is temperate and the rain never falls more than it should. We abided there, for a time, but then the quarrels grew in intensity, and things began to change. Malmur wished to clear the trees to make room for a settlement of some kind, while Modir argued hotly against it, saying that she could not bear the sound of trees dying. Eldheitur grew more difficult, she would launch into hot rages, during which she would scream, throw things, and become quite undignified, before abruptly lapsing into angry silence.
Vestr had begun to act strangely, he no longer spoke to us as often as he once had, and he became a wolf more and more often. This angered Malmur, for she believed that our beast selves were baser beings, only to be called upon during times of great need. Vestr disagreed, believing that our mortal forms were deceitful, and would only, as he put it, lead us to great sorrow. He prowled the woods for long hours, refusing to answer our calls, and growing ever more restless.
Meanwhile, I, weary of my lot in life, often abandoned my siblings to their squabbles and wandered away from the trees and towards the snow banks that lay beyond. I had already named it; Fryst. That frozen land I longed for. I cared little for my mortal form and even less for my beast form, and I desired, more than anything, to embody the wind. I wished to rush through the craggy peaks and stir up the snow, to whisper in the trunks of dead trees, to swirl through the clouds, enticing them to storm.
There came a day that Malmur called us together. “Enough,” she said in a tone that rang with finality. “We are all grown and capable of making our own decisions, let us find our own territories, and split the land among us. That so we may live amiably, within safe distance of one another, and put an end to these disputes.”
It was Eldheitur that reacted first, her eyes going wide, filling with shattered crimson tears. The rest of us were pleased, I think. Vestr was impatient, pacing, dreaming of his own abode. Modir simply smiled, as if she’d won a long fought battle, and I wondered how much this decision was Modir’s doing.
“Nordur, you will go to the North, where the days are the darkest.” Malmur offered me a rare smile, and I knew, that of all the siblings, it was of me that she was most proud.
“I will name it Fryst,” I swore solemnly, kissing her on both cheeks.
“Modir to the South, where the sun shines the longest.”
“Summerland,” cried Modir, throwing her arms about Malmur’s neck. Malmur returned the embrace, gingerly.
“Eldheitur to the East, where the sun shines the brightest.”
Eldheitur, our most beautiful sister, eyes shining with tears, knelt at Malmur’s feet. Malmur grasped her at the shoulders and brought her to standing, placing a kiss on her brow.
“I will stay here, at this place that I have called the Midlands.” Announced Malmur grandly, throwing her arms out. I knew, without a doubt, that Malmur would make this land hers, and hers alone. I found it curious that she had not yet included our youngest brother in her proclamations. He was looking at her impatiently, and there was an anger in his eyes that I did not understand.
“What about Vestr?” Eldheitur asked finally, casting a perplexed glance at Malmur.
“He will stay here, with me,” responded Malmur grimly. “He is still young and has much to learn. The West is too much for him to handle, and I distrust the land there.”
I turned to look for my brother, to apologize, or to offer consolation, but he was gone
We separated, us siblings, grown close knit as any family. All of us cherishing one another despite our differences. We blew apart like seeds strewn to the winds. I came to the home that we live in now as the wind, I built it as a man, and I protected it as a bear. I found contentment here in these wilds, I grew wise, and I learnt the ways of both faraway stars and the soil beneath me.
There came news, not so long after our departure, and shocking news it was. Vestr, our baby brother, had disobeyed Malmur and fled the Midlands, taking Hafland, in the West, as his own. Not only that, but he had bitten off Malmur’s right hand, taking the crystal that gave her the power to embody the wind. The ultimate betrayal. Malmur sent messengers, demanding that we aid her in hunting Vestr down, so that she could take revenge. It was Modir that responded, her words written with a careful hand and a thoughtful mind.
She spoke for all of us, saying that no, we would not hunt our brother down. He had committed the ultimate betrayal in taking Malmur’s sacred power, a power that could never be returned. And for that he would be exiled. Banished and unwelcome in all lands save his own. More than that, we would not do, for despite what he had done, he was still our brother, and we could not hurt that which was a part of us. Malmur was furious, I’m told, and ripped Modir’s letter to shreds long before she saw the wisdom of it. It did not help matters when Eldheitur proclaimed that she would sooner take Vestr’s side than aid us in capturing Vestr. Malmur began to turn putrid with betrayal.
Eventually, we all came to have inhabitants in our lands. In the east, Eldheitur hatched firebird eggs in a forest of gold, iron, and silver. In the south, Modir gave birth to a child of her own, and grew thick blankets of green upon the earth. At the centre of the world, Malmur found herself infertile, and so built mortals from clay. Here, in the north, I found myself alone and lonely, so I built you, with my own clever fingers and breathed life into your being.
In the west, I know not what Vestr did. Only that Hafland remained silent and incomprehensible.
Malmur is responsible for the existence of mortals, and I can tell you this, sweetling. They are complicated creatures, far more so than the beasts that roam my forests. I should like to say that my sister’s creations are beneficial to Fjarlægur, that they have wrought peace and contentment wherever they go. But I cannot. Something dark and ugly grew within Malmur the day Vestr bit off her hand, and it can be seen in the faces of the mortals she created. Like Malmur, their faces are cages, and there is something flashing within those cages. Pieces of pain, like cut glass within the flesh, never quite leaving, never quite easing out. I lived among them for a time, endeavoring to pass my knowledge onto them, but they have short memories and little in the way of gratitude. Their lives are short, and they dry out in the sun, crumbling to dust and returning to which they came.
Malmur retreated from the Midlands not long after they were created, and commanded them to worship her as a god. All of us have become gods in this time of mortals, even Vestr. Malmur told them he was a false god, a betrayer, and that none would worship him, under pain of death. Some mortals took this as encouragement, and Vestr became their idol, their one true god. These select few mortals retreated to the borders of Hafland to build shrines and write devotions. Others took it upon themselves to dedicate their faith to Malmur, and Malmur only. Still others worshipped my siblings and I, in all their separate sects and various forms of religion.
This made Malmur very jealous. She resented that her creations should worship any but her, and while she heaped lavish praise on those who worshipped only her, she grew spiteful of those who did not. My sister then retreated from society, and where she is now, I do not know. I grieve for her, just as I do for Vestr.
That is why, Skadi, I entreat you to be cautious of humankind. Their blood runs with the poison that has stained the land between Vestr and Malmur, and ultimately, the poison that has torn us all apart.
Remember, Skadi, never trust the West Wind.
It was a crystal night, the world polished, as if seen through a looking glass made of ice. The breeze coming in through the trees spoke of spring, and the ground was carpeted by a thin layer of green. There was not a cloud in the sky, all the stars shimmering, as if each was an individual jewel placed against a backdrop of velvet, and no moon to dim their light.
Skadi stood at her window, as she had so many nights before, and felt an aching exhaustion within her bones. It had now been eighteen months since her capture. How many nights had she fed the king’s appetite? How many long hours had she spent contemplating freedom, testing the strength of Gleipnir’s chains?
It happened so slowly, that at first she thought she must be imagining it. Gradually, the entire sky lit up with silver, and it seemed that the stars turned fiery white. One after another, they began to fall. Then between one breath and the next, it was all an illusion, and a snowstorm fell from the sky like an invisible tear. The blizzard came from nowhere, from a cloudless sky, streaking the sky with white, and turning the ground thick with snow before Skadi had time to blink the flakes from her eyelashes.
Watching a world that had moments ago tasted of spring now glow with cold, Skadi knew it was time.
“Slæpgur,” she said. “Slæpgur, I need your aid.”
At first, there was nothing but the silent white expanse growing outside her window. Then a ribbon of green threaded through the snow, bringing the scent of sea spray and oak moss.
“Do you know now what you must do?” Slæpgur asked gravely.
“Yes, but I need you to help me. Will you distract the king?”
“With pleasure,” he threw something to her from among his coils. “Catch.”
“What is it?” She turned it over in her hands, feeling the smooth round shape.
“Ointment, for staunching blood. Use it wisely, it was made from a rare lichen that only grows on the western slopes.”
Then Slæpgur was gone, swirling around towards the king’s chambers. She watched him go for but a brief moment, then ran to the door, knowing she must make haste. The door to her chamber was locked, but it mattered not. She had a spare key that Sigfred had given her, many nights ago. The door no longer creaked, but only because she’d slipped a pat of butter from the mess-hall between the hinges. There had been preparations throughout the days leading up to now, very small ones, so as not to attract suspicion.
Beside her door, the guard slept, unconscious to the world around him. She had placed sleeping nectar in his drink that very evening. Down the corridor she went, feet bare so as to make as little noise as possible. She stopped at the door of Sigfred’s room and knocked lightly, casting glances on both ends of the corridor, fearing that a guard might still hear her, despite the precautions she’d taken.
There was a hurried shuffling within the chamber, then Sigfred cracked his door open, peering at her in confusion.
“Shh,” she cautioned him, a finger to her lips. “Let me in. I need to tell you something.”
Sigfred paused for but a moment before unhooking the chain on his door and letting her in. He shut the door quickly behind her and turned, raising his eyebrows. “Care to explain?”
Skadi sat down on his bed, the nearest available surface, and stared at her hands, which shook despite her best efforts at calm. “I— I need you to do something for me.” She stared up at him through the strands of her unbound hair. “And no matter how awful or terrifying you think it is, you must do it.”
“Skadi,” whispered Sigfred with urgency, kneeling down before her and taking her hands in his. “You know I would do anything for you.”
“I know,” she said, swallowing hard. “I know.”
“So tell me, what is it?”
Taking a deep breath, she lifted her eyes to meet his. “I need you to cut my hands off.”
Sigfred went very still, his eyes going wide. “What?”
“Sigfred. Wait. Please listen to me. There’s a…a curse on me, and it can only be lifted once I’m free of––.” Skadi lifted her hands, trying to show him the hold Gleipnir had on her wrists. “Of this.”
Sigfred ran his fingers over her wrists, but shook his head. “I don’t see anything.”
“But it’s right there!” Skadi cried, desperate. “You need to see—.” Struck by a sudden thought, she stood and went to the torch on the wall. The torch cast only a thin wavering light, and she hoped that it would be enough.
Sigfred stood, watching her warily. “What are you doing?”
“Come here,” Skadi beckoned.
He came to stand near her and waited, Skadi thought, with exaggerated patience.
Holding her wrists up to the light, Skadi pulled the chain taut between them, so that a silver strand could be seen, looking so deceptively fragile, as if made from filigree. Sigfred looked up, and drawing in a breath, reached out a tentative finger to touch the chain.
“What is that?”
“It’s a chain,” she told him. “I know it doesn’t look very strong, but I can’t break free of it.”
Sigfred looked at her, eyes narrowed in confusion. “I don’t understand, why are you chained?”
“Look,” she whispered, struggling to keep irritated impatience from creeping into her tone. “I promise that I will tell you everything once we’ve gotten me free of this thing.”
“By…chopping your hands off. Is that it? Skadi, how can ask this of me?”
Why did he have to be so incredibly dense? “Sigfred. Please. I’m under a curse, and this is the only way to break it. Trust me, I’ve tried everything there is to try, and nothing breaks this chain.”
“This could kill you,” Sigfred was backing away from her, shaking his head in denial. “No. There has to be another way.”
“I don’t have much time,” she pleaded. “It won’t kill me, I promise.”
“So many promises,” he muttered. “Why do I fear that you’ll break them all?”
Taking his sword from where it hung on the wall, Skadi went to the fireplace, and plunged it into the flames. She held it there, waiting, and at the other end of the room, Sigfred was silent. Only once the sword had begun to glow white hot around the edges did Skadi pull it from the fire. The leather bindings on the hilt did little to protect against the heat, but she felt nothing.
She went to Sigfred and placed it in his unwilling hands. “Just do it,” she said. “It’s the only way I can be free. It’s the only way I can tell you the truth.”
Skadi knelt on the floor and put her hands, palms down, on the surface of the iron chest at the foot of his bed. She looked up at him beseechingly, and he shrunk away from her, into the shadows, still holding the sword. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
“If you don’t do this, it will hurt me more.” She assured him. “Now do it quickly, before it cools.”
Skadi took the jar of ointment from her sleeve and showed it to him. “Once it’s done, spread this on the wounds. It will help staunch the bleeding.”
At last, Sigfred came to stand next to her, holding the sword in a white knuckled grip. His hands reddening from the heat of the sword.
“Where do I––.” His voice faltered.
“Here,” she indicated, drawing a line with her finger just above the wrist.
Taking a wide piece of leather from the pocket of her dress, she clamped it between her teeth, and waited.
It seemed an eternity before he gathered the nerve to swing the sword up in a wide arc, and finally, to bring it down, in a decisive motion, swift as a beheading, but so much more painful.
There was a loud crack, like that of ice breaking. Silver water pouring forth from exposed limbs, and the sizzling of the blade as he pressed it against her open wounds. There was a moaning sound, like that of someone trying to keep themselves from screaming. White starbursts of pain exploding behind her eyelids. An overwhelmingly keen sense of loss, of terror, and finally, of relief.
“I’m free,” she thought from behind a dizzying veil of pain. “Gleipnir is gone.”
There was a burning sensation on the stumps of her hands, followed by a gentle numbness, and she felt as if there was cold butter against her skin. Skadi opened her eyes, and saw that Sigfred had spread the ointment thickly across her wounds. It smelt of oak moss, and the relief it lent her was indescribable. There was a dull throbbing coming up through her arms, but the sharp slicing pain had abated, enough so that she could see, enough so that she could talk.
“Sigfred,” she whispered, overwhelmed with gratitude. “Thank you.”
“You’re insane,” he gasped, placing his sword on the firestone. His hands were shaking, and his face blanched of color. “You’re— what are you?”
Skadi drew in a deep, shaking, breath. The time had come for her to tell Sigfred the truth, and then, she must flee, using the time Slæpgur had given her.
“I’m the daughter of the North Wind,” she began softly. Gathering courage from her pain, and in turn, her ability to withstand it.
“I don’t understand,” said Sigfred after a while. “I don’t––.” He stopped, scrubbing a hand across his face. “My father was keeping you here, chained up like a dog, all this time, and I didn’t know?”
Skadi tried to shrug, then found that even the smallest movement of her arms sent pains slicing through her. “There was little you could have done to help even if you had known.”
“Little I could’ve— Skadi! I could’ve done so many things. I would’ve gone to the chancellor, to the head of state, to the temples! I would’ve demanded that they abdicate my father on grounds of witchcraft.”
“Sigfred…the chancellor knew.”
But he was no longer listening, a light had kindled in his eyes as he paced from one end of the room to the other, gesticulating wildly with his hands, talking rapidly. “Skadi, I can protect you,” suddenly, he halted, looking at her as if seeing her for the first time.
“Marry me,” he cried, kneeling before her. “Marry me and become my lady and wife, and one day, once my father has abdicated and I’ve taken my rightful place on the throne, you will be my queen.”
Stunned, Skadi stared at him, any words she might say growing dry and curling beneath her tongue. Is this all that men know how to offer? More cages, and more ways to be caged? The pounding in her arms was obstructing her ability to think clearly, and somewhere, she knew Slæpgur was telling her to hurry, that time was running out. For a brief moment, she allowed herself to imagine a future with Sigfred, as his queen. To sit on a throne all of her own, and to have the people bow before her, to look at her with admiration and respect, rather then mocking hatred.
Then looking over the prince’s shoulder, she was overwhelmed by a vision of Aase’s motionless body in the snow, and the moment was shattered. I’m not a bird in a cage. Not the king’s bird and not Sigfred’s bird. Not any man’s bird. I’m a wolf in the snow, with sharp shiny teeth and a heart made of ice. I’m the daughter of the north wind, and there is no palace that can hold me.
With each throb from her wounds, a new strength was awakened in her. All of that accumulated hunger, all of that rage and heartbreak and vengeance. All those nights that the king had opened her veins, all those nights that she had lain there and done nothing. She was free now, free to wish him harm, and free to hurt all those who had hurt her. There was no time now, she was too weak, but one day she would return, and she would make them all bleed as she had bled.
Skadi shook her head. “They will accuse you of the very same things you accuse your father of now. Will they not think it strange you took me to wife, after all that your father did to me? They will think my virtue stained if nothing else, and it won’t be long before they accuse me of bewitching your father, and you after. Do you not know how these stories go?”
“I don’t care,” cried Sigfred with passion. “I love you, and I don’t care what they think.”
“Oh, but you will,” said Skadi sadly, pulling away from him and standing.
“What are you doing?,” Sigfred asked, following her.
“I’m leaving, Sigfred. I’m going home. I’ve had more than my fill of mortals and their folly. I don’t belong here, I never did.”
“Yes,” he reached out to grasp her hands, but recoiled when he remembered she had none. “Yes you do, you belong with me.”
Skadi’s heart broke a little, just a shard falling from a bank of ice, and she sighed, suddenly feeling very old indeed. “I had hoped you would never say that. I had hoped that I was your friend because you cared for me, and not because you saw the ways in which you might take me for yourself. I suppose it is in the nature of men to grasp for the things they cannot have, but…Sigfred, I had hoped you were different.”
“Skadi, you don’t understand. I say these things because I love you, not because I wish to cage or restrain you.”
Skadi looked at him for a long moment, and found that she was not as heartless as she’d thought, for she could not find the strength to tell him that she didn’t love him back. So she said nothing, and fled from the room in silence. On through the corridors she went, dodging guards and pushing open hidden doors with the stumps of her hands. The pain from them was unimaginable, but she pushed the pain away, to the back of her mind, along with everything else she could not allow herself to think of.
Instead, she focused her mind on the instructions Slæpgur had given her when outlining her escape.
“The kitchens here, the barracks there, the mess-hall at the center. The living quarters are behind you, and somewhere there is a door that opens into the sewers, but there is no time to find that now. You must cross the courtyard, and a busy street, find the watchtower. You must run up those rickety stairs, abandoning stealth in favor of speed. Even when the lights come on below you, and the shouts of guards echo up through the stairwell, on and on you must go, to the very top.”
It was here that Skadi found that the door would not open, and she had no fingers to pull at the stubborn latch. She drove her shoulder painfully into the wood, but still it would not budge. “Help me,” she whispered, though to whom she offered her plea she did not know. The latch shifted in the wood, the door opened, and Skadi fell through. She found herself at the very top of the watchtower, with nothing between her and the sky, and the wind whistling through her hair. The snowbanks had tripled in size during the time that she’d been within Sigfred’s chambers, and still the sky was flurried with thick feathers of snow.
Behind her, someone threw the watchtower door open. “Skadi, stop.” Sigfred pleaded, and behind him she could the outlines of two guardsmen. “We can go to the priests and tell them of father’s crimes. I know they’ll help us, you just have to trust me.”
Skadi looked down from dizzying heights at the swirling wind beneath her, and prayed to her father for courage. As the prince reached for her, she let go of the railing, and fell, the snow blotting out her vision. She heard his cry somewhere above her, and for one terrifying moment, she thought that she would hit the ground before Slæpgur could catch her. Then he was all around her, pushing her up and into the air, his green coils curling about her waist as he bore her into the storm. Skadi caught her breath, then caught it again, struggling to draw air into her lungs. She looked back, once, and thought she could make out the bare outline of Sigfred atop the watchtower. Then he was gone, and the castle with him.