Winter’s Daughter: Part IX

It was dark in the shadow of the forest, near black, with roots hanging above like the strands of a long and hoary beard. Skadi felt like a mouse, or a hedgehog. Something small and unassuming, camouflaged by leaves and dappled light. It grew colder as they descended beneath the earth. The stairway wound, around and around, like a spiraled seashell. Every now and again, the man leading her would pause, and light one of the torches on the wall with his lantern.

At last, they came to a circular room at the bottom of the winding staircase. It was warm and inviting, with a fire flickering behind the grate. There was a pot hanging over the fire from which a most delicious aroma emanated. Skadi put a hand against the earthen wall, her knees weak with nerves and hunger.

“Hungry?” The man asked.

She could only manage a nod.

“Sit,” he said, drawing a chair up to the fire.

Gratefully, Skadi sat. She watched avidly as he ladled soup from the pot into a ceramic bowl. When he offered it to her, it took everything in her not to snatch it from him and devour it in great gulps, like the starving animal she was. Instead, she accepted it graciously, and ate it slowly with the wooden spoon he gave her.

The man moved away from her and started rearranging a pile of equipment he had stacked on the floor, clearly giving her privacy while she ate. For this too she was grateful. The soup was rich and filling, with roasted hazelnuts floating in it, and strips of meat she assumed were beef. She was surprised to find that it was flavored not with simple garden grown herbs, but expensive spices, like nutmeg and Chile. She watched the man warily, wondering if he was some sort of bandit, to have such pricey commodities.

On the stairs, there was a clatter of feet, and Skadi leapt to her feet, nearly upsetting her bowl of soup. The man merely looked up, seeming unperturbed. “That’ll be Cathy,” he said, returning to his equipment.

Moments later, a girl came running down the staircase, taking the steps two at a time. Then, coming into the room, she flung herself into an expansive armchair. “It’s bees and burrs out there,” she cried, thrusting her chin out dramatically. “I’m starving.”

“There’s soup in the pot,” said the man.

No sooner had he spoken then the girl was out of her armchair and dishing herself soup. She plopped back down into the armchair and devoured the food, looking for all in the world as if she had not eaten for weeks. She emptied the bowl in record time, then sprung up and took more from the pot, her ladle scraping the bottom.

“Cathy,” the man said admonishingly. “Leave some for our guest.”

Cathy threw an apologetic glance over her shoulder at the astonished Skadi. “Sorry, sorry.” She sang. “I’ll only take a little more.” She returned to her chair with her bowl brimming, and Skadi could not help but smile at the girl’s impertinence.

“I’m Cathy,” the girl said, shoveling soup into her mouth, as if she hadn’t just finished an entire bowl.

“So I gathered,” Skadi said wryly. “I’m Skadi.”

“Pleasure,” the girl stuck out a grimy hand, then seeming to reconsider, wiped it on her equally grimy dress and offered it again. Skadi shook it, smiling.

The man came to sit with them next to the fire, drawing from a long pipe of tobacco. “And this is Endre,” the girl said. “I’m sure he didn’t bother to introduce himself.”

Endre glared at Cathy.

Noticing the red kerchief tied unevenly about the girl’s blonde hair, Skadi was struck by a revelation. “You’re the one who distracted the kings men!”

“None other,” Cathy said proudly, finishing her bowl.

Skadi sat back, momentarily speechless. “But why?” She asked in tones of wonder.

Cathy looked at her soberly, “we know what they do to those they catch, and it ain’t pretty. Wouldn’t wish that fate on anyone. An besides, we’re not exactly law-abiding citizens. Now are we, Endre?” She turned to the man with a wink.

Skadi wondered if it would be rude to ask if they were bandits.

The man, as if hearing her thoughts, answered the unspoken question for her. “We’re outlaws,” he said grimly. “There was more of us before, but Cathy and I…” they shared a long look. “Split off from the main group.”

“It’s just us now,” Cathy said cheerfully.

Skadi finished her soup, thinking she would go back for more, but found that after so many days without proper nourishment, she was uncomfortably full.

“You’ll want to sleep now,” Endre told her, he had an armful of blankets, which he placed next to the hearth. Skadi thought to tell him that she didn’t need the warmth, but then quickly reconsidered. She didn’t want these mortals casting her out because they feared she was uncanny. She wondered if it would not be wiser to depart, but with exhaustion weighing heavy on her shoulders, she could not find the willpower to refuse.

I will stay the night, she thought to herself. Then leave the next morning, and all will be well. Endre and Cathy bade her goodnight, then retreated to a room tucked away under the stairs. Skadi regarded her heap of blankets for a moment, then pulled them out towards the middle of the room, away from the fireplace. Too much time in front of the fire had her skin prickling uncomfortably. Nordur had often warned her about the dangers of heat.

“There is a tale they tell here in the north. Of a maiden built from snow, whose parents loved very much, but with the coming of summer, she melted away to nothing. I would not wish that fate upon you, my ice girl. Be wary of fire, of heat, of summer, and of falling in love.”

No danger of the latter happening to me, at least. Skadi thought wryly. Love had never seemed further from her thoughts, and thus far she had suffered no harm from exposure to sunlight or hearth-fires, though still she was wary. The thought of disappearing in a slough of ice shards and melt-water frightened her more than she liked to admit.

With the blankets layered beneath her, Skadi at first slept peacefully, her pearl hands folded beneath her chin, dreaming of ocean waves and sunsets. Sometime in the night, Skadi awoke, feeling unsettled. She had never seen the ocean, so why did she dream of it? Her hands were pulsing, and in the darkness, they glowed silver. Overcome with an emotion she did not understand, she hugged them against her chest. Sometimes she felt as if these hands weren’t entirely hers, that they were an extension, not truly her flesh, not truly her blood. They slept against her skin, looking as if they breathed of their own volition. Shuddering, Skadi went back to sleep, and now dreamt of nothing at all.

Skadi could have slept many hours longer than she did, but Endre shook her awake at dawn. “Come,” he said gruffly, his hand on her shoulder. “We must leave soon.”

She groaned and rolled over. Go away.

“There’s breakfast,” he added, when she still didn’t get up.

Skadi sat up and untangled herself from her blankets, rubbing her eyes blearily. Cathy was standing over the fire, frying bacon and sausage. Skadi went over to watch, and Cathy looked up, her eyes widening in surprise.

“Aren’t you cold?” Cathy was shivering, even with a plaid blanket draped over her slender shoulders.

Skadi shook her head, then, not wanting to draw attention to her oddities, asked if she could help with breakfast. Cathy waved her off. “No no, go see Endre, he has something for you.”

Skadi went to the room under the stairway and ducked in, standing uncertainly on the threshold. Endre looked up from where he was rolling blankets into a tall knapsack. “This is for you,” he said, indicating a pile of clothing on the end of the bed. “You’re bigger than Cathy, but some of her larger clothes may fit you. Try em on in the closet over there.” He jerked a thumb towards a small room behind him.

Skadi could only stare, gape-mouthed. “These…are for me?”

“See anyone else standing in this room?” he asked irritably. “An besides, you can’t go around wearing that tattered thing.”

She blushed, looking down at her homespun gown. It was indeed in tatters. Taking the clothes, she retreated to the closet, and tried them on. Most fit well enough, though they were clearly for someone with smaller shoulders than she. Still, she wore them with pleasure. It had been long since she’d had clothes she could move comfortably in. Dressed in a blue tunic, which she had belted over a pair of grey trousers, Skadi returned to Endre.

“They fit ya nicely,” he said, then threw her a knapsack. “You’ll need the bag for carrying your changes of clothes. I’ve also packed you some necessities for the road. Dried meat, a sleeping roll, canteen, so on.”

“I’ve no money to pay you with!” Skadi cried.

“You need not pay us,” Endre looked up, meeting her gaze. “After all, our kind best stick together, eh?”

Skadi went very still. “What do you mean our kind?” She said the words carefully, but they seemed too loud, not cautious enough. He could mean “kind” by outlaws, by travelers, or vagabonds.

Endre smiled, showing his teeth. “Watch closely girl.” He took a knife from his belt, and at first Skadi flinched away, but then seeing the knife was not intended for her, she watched as he drew the knife across his arm. The skin split, and blood seeped from the wound, but it was not red. It was green. Green as lichen, green as bracken and ivy, green as sap. Then seeing him in the light, seeing him fully, she saw that his beard was green as well. That there was leaves in his hair. No, not in his hair, they were growing from his hair. There was a thud, and dimly, Skadi realized that she’d let the knapsack fall to the floor.

“You’re uncanny,” she breathed, feeling a knot unloosen in her chest. She hadn’t even realized it was there.

“Uncanny as can be, and so are you.” Endre raised his eyebrows. “Dunno what you are exactly, and don’t really care. But I saw the scratches on your arms, you don’t bleed red. An you don’t exactly favor the fire’s heat.”

“And Cathy…is she–.”

“Oh no, not her,” Endre chuckled. “She’s as mortal as can be. Not to say she’s normal. She’s a hedge-witch ya know. Wove illusion spells over the eyes of your pursuers last night. She’s a good girl though, tough as nails, and fine company on the road. You can trust her.”

Skadi realized that they intended to take her with them. She looked down, confused. She had meant to leave this very morning, but now her plans were tangled. Part of her wanted to go with this uncanny man and his companion, but her past experiences warned her not to trust too easily. To flee while there still was a chance.

Endre must have seen the indecision in her eyes, for he spoke softly, coming to stand before her. “This is your decision to make,” he told her. “You are welcome to join us on our travels, but if you wish to go your own way, you are free to do so.”

He returned to the main room, leaving Skadi standing there, torn between the desire to join them, and the fear that they would betray her.

In the end, Skadi went back outside, and silently began to help them in packing their gear. Folding clothes neatly into the sacks, wrapping packets of food with twine, dousing the fire and turning over the grate. Cathy chattered on cheerfully as they geared up, and it was not long before Skadi began to feel at ease.

She was apprehensive at the thought of returning to the surface, fearing that the king’s men would still be searching the wood. Her fears were assuaged when Endre led them through a back-way, a branching of root cellars, dug deep into the earth. They smelled of soil and root dust, and Skadi sneezed, thinking longingly of the clean air above them. The passageways seemed to go on forever, winding further and further. She did notice a steady, if slow, incline towards the surface, and just when she thought she could bear it no more, she spied a circle of blue sky ahead of them.

The passageway ended in a cave, which opened up and out to the green fields and glittering cobalt sky. Skadi took a deep breath in, and another. She felt renewed, air crisp against her face, her clothes soft against her skin, and her stomach no longer echoing with hunger. With Endre on her right side and Cathy taking up the lead, the road before them no longer seemed long or unfriendly.

Smiling, Skadi strode forward to meet the road, and the road, in turn, sprung to meet her eager feet.

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Winter’s Daughter: Part VIII

A king is no more or less evil than the man breaking his back in the field, the solider gone to war, or the troubadour juggling in the square. He is simply a man, with a great deal of power, acting from mortal desires, mortal flaws. There are those who believe that were they to overthrow this monarch, this king, that another, better, man may take his place. Yet the truth of any war is that with the fall of a king comes the rise of another. The balance of power changes, the pendulum swings, and at the end of the day, it is simply another mortal on the throne, man or woman, deciding the lives and the deaths of those they rule.

There is nothing right in this world, my child, there are no heroes, chivalrous knights or white wizards. Just as there is nothing wrong, and there are no villains, tyrants, or wicked sorcerers. There is only the fields, meadows, and black forests, in which many things may prowl. There is only the change of the season and cycle of the day, the rise of the sun and the sinking of the moon, the crash of the tides and the drifting of the snow. There is only mortals, weeping for what they cannot have, with blood clenched in their white fists and their knees driven into the dirt.

There is only the vast wilds, and mortals denying the emptiness of the world around them. Denying that they are alone, even if they must create demons, monsters, and gods. Better that they are surrounded by danger than the unimaginable alternative; There is only them, and the destruction they have wrought. There is only them, and the consequences they must face for their actions.

All beasts adhere to the nature that they were born with, and that is what mortals are, my child. They are beasts, imagining that they are something else, adhering to their nature just as the hungry bear adheres to his. Thinking that they defy the laws of nature, even as they are bound by it, even as they act in accordance to those very laws that they claim to despise.

When you see a story, you see a layer of light, on which soldiers, kings, and fair maidens play their part. And wether you know it or not, you see the monsters on one side, and the valiant ones on the other. Perhaps you do not intend to differentiate them in this manner, but you cannot help it, it is in your nature. If I were to tell this story truly, they would all be monsters, they would all be cruel. They would all weep in the dirt with blood clenched in their fists, they would all beg for the world to start over, so that they could kill the same people, break the same hearts, and forget themselves in the same black spaces.

There is no joy in a story such as that. That is why, in the story I am telling you, I allow you to see things as you wish. This is a tale of my brother’s daughter. This is the tale of a monster and a king. On your layer of light, you see the monster as valiant, and the king as cruel and heartless. It is the same tale mortals tell their children, only with roles reversed, and who can say, which is the truth?

There is no truth. There is only what you believe to be true, and that is very different.

••••••••

Skadi did not know how many miles she walked, but she felt no weariness, even as the sun dipped in the sky, and the day grew darker. She didn’t care how long she walked, or where she went, only that she put as many leagues between her and the castle as possible. There was a strange aching pit in her chest, a sensation that would not abate, even when she pressed her hands against it. It worsened whenever she thought of seeing her father again, and she found that she couldn’t force her feet to turn towards Fryst, but rather they kept turning east. Away from the castle, and away from her father.

There were so many emotions entangled within her, she couldn’t sort between them. They confused her, and also made her angry, for they were mortal emotions.

Shame, terror, grief, and forefront of all, rage.

Rage that caught in her breast, making her breath grow short, and making her vision flash red. Rage at the king, and all mortals, who had held her captive. Rage at the chain that had bound her, deadening her emotions and fighting spirit, restricting her movement, keeping her from freedom. Rage at Sigfried, for giving her a heart that she did not want, for not understanding why she had to flee, for not aiding her when she did. Rage at Vestr, for misleading her, for being kind when he should not have been, for making her indebted to him, for leaving without letting her voice that rage.

And rage…at her father, for not saving her. For letting her suffer abuse at mortal hands, when surely, surely, he could have torn that castle down with a breath of his winds. For being so far away, for telling her stories that she must now question, for creating her in the first place.

She was corrupted now, dirty with the filth of human touch and human cruelty.

Even the snowbanks and spring wind seemed to move away from her, when once they had welcomed her as a daughter of winter. Everything was wrong. Her feet too loud against the snow, the pound of her heart deafening in the silence, her clothes too scratchy, too human. Too much time among mortals had changed her, and her hunter’s instincts seemed dull and out of reach.

It was these thoughts that overwhelmed her, and her knees buckled as she fell into the melting snow, crying out bitterly, her voice reaching into the silent air and then falling away in fractured pieces. Skadi wept. They had taken her childhood from her, they had killed the wolves inside her and leeched her strength from her veins. Skadi had thought herself a predator, and they had made her prey. She had not realized how much she’d lost until now. She had thought, that once free of the castle, it would all return, and it would all be as it had been before.

It was not. It seemed that she had lost something irretrievable, and it was all she could do now to put one foot in front of the other, and continue on.

The road Skadi followed spiraled down the ridge of mountains that marked the outskirts of Dagrland, and the beginning of another country, unknown and unnamed. The road became long and twisting, with endless switchbacks, and dizzying heights on either side. A terror for a man driving through with his cartload of goods. This was a place known as Stormlight Pass, named for the thunder and lightning that ran so rampant here. It did not frighten Skadi, and she paid no mind to the storm clouds mounting on the horizon, or the sleeting rain, when it came.

Skadi walked on, feet sinking into the mud, her legs bleeding from scrapes and bruises, her hair plastered against her neck, her homespun gown becoming evermore torn and sodden. By now Skadi was desperately hungry, she could go longer than most without sustenance, but it had been many hours since she had last eaten, and Vestr had given her no supplies for the road. It occurred to her that all those years she had seen her father eating his hall, he had done so because he wanted to, not because he needed to.

More ways in which I am not like them, she reflected sadly. I’m not a god, and I’m not mortal. What am I really?

Perhaps she was just a golem. Carved from ice and obsidian, brought to life with magic, but with nothing to call her own. Her father had not given her his blood, his features, his genes, or his powers. He had made her from the earth around him, he had sculpted her like a statue, or like a girl made from snow. So what then, made her his daughter?

She felt a strange gratitude towards Vestr, for giving her his blood. She knew, intuitively, that he had not filled these pearl hands with water and starlight from the fjord, as her father had, but bled the blood from his own veins.

The road curved down, finally, and began a steep incline into a valley that sat at the bottom of the mountains like an open hand. Skadi entered the valley, then hesitated, for not so far ahead of her, flickered village lights. There was warmth to be had there, and food, perhaps even a place to rest. But she could not make her feet move forward, for she had conceived a deep distrust of mortals. Once, Skadi would have entered that village, bringing with her an armful of furs, or a brace of young rabbits, she would have sold them in return for a bowl of stew or a place to rest her head. Perhaps tales would’ve been exchanged, though she would always be careful not to reveal too much, then she would leave the next morn, with the townsfolk none the wiser, thinking her only a trapper’s daughter.

Skadi entered the village like a ghost, creeping along the street corners, keeping to the shadows. It was not difficult, for it was storming, and morning had not yet come. The streets were dark, and most of the villagers were abed. Food disappeared. A loaf of bread left to cool on a windowsill, a fistful of almonds from a vendor’s stall. Meat was harder to find, but she found a string of sausages dangling in one of the larger stalls. And with this Skadi had to content herself, she could have eaten a great deal more, but she dared not risk further thievery in a village so small.

There was unoccupied hay to sleep in, near the stables, the flickering of torches making it appear both welcoming and cozy. But Skadi did not dare. She left the village as she had come, ghostlike and silent. She slept in a field, with cold mud beneath her, corn stalks tickling her face, and the rain falling from above. It was not the most comfortable, but her belly was not as empty as it had been, and she was far enough from the castle and the king’s men that she allowed herself to feel safe.

Her sleep was dreamless and undisturbed and she did not awaken until many hours after the cock had crowed. She sat up, blinking, to survey a land that was washed with gold light. She stood so quickly that she lost her footing in the slick mud and fell down again. Skadi had intended to leave with the dawn, and it was already mid morning. She crept to the edge of the field, where villagers were less likely to spy her, and pattered down the road on quick feet. She was perhaps being overly cautious, but now even the scent of humans raised the hairs on the back of her neck, and she was reasonably certain that the king would’ve set out warrants for her arrest by now.

Her stomach was grumbling loudly, and she reflected that she would soon have to find something to eat. Bird eggs, perhaps, she could scavenge from the forest. She no longer had the bow and arrows that December had made for her. That, along with her wolfskin clothes had been confiscated after her capture, something she regretted bitterly. For now, Skadi would have to make do with her quick fingers and nimble feet.

She did not feel so nimble now. Certainly not when an attempted clamber up a tree turned into a frenzied grasp for branches as she slid back down. A squirrel in a tree adjacent laughed derisively, then leapt away when she hurled a stone at him.

“Stupid bush-tail,” Skadi muttered. She was in a foul temper. Her gown was sopping, her hair stank, and she was starving.

A further investigation of the surrounding area yielded up poor fare; a handful of berries, a few fallen nuts, some tubers that she was reasonably sure were edible. But it was not meat, and so it was not breakfast. She could have set snares, but she had no twine. Skadi was finding, as the hours wore on, that she was grossly under-equipped. She was now regretting not being more bold during her excursion through the village the previous night. But surely the risk of capture was not worth a few extra mouthfuls?

Her stomach rumbled in displeasure. Then again, perhaps it was.

There was a silver studded brook not far from where she was, and with that, she could at least confront the issue of cleanliness. Wrinkling her nose, Skadi stripped off her gown and immersed herself in the water. It was ice-melt from the mountains above, and so freezing to mortal flesh, but Skadi found it pleasantly cool.

After a thorough scrubbing, using handfuls of leaves and gravel, she smelt significantly better. Skadi soaked her gown in the water, then hung it to dry. She didn’t want to put it back on, but she knew it was unwise to be unclothed if she was in any danger of being seen by mortals. A girl alone in the woods drew enough attention as it was, an undressed one would make hackles rise and bring in the constables, or worse, attract a very nasty sort of men.

Her next priority was to find a weapon, she simply could not go trekking across the countryside without some means to defend herself. For now, sharp stones in her pockets would have to do.

The road seemed long and wearisome when she returned to her travels, particularly because she had no destination in mind. She only knew that she could not return to her father, and that her back must be to Dagrland. Numerous times, a trio of men rode past, and she had to hide in the bushes until she was certain they were gone. She knew they were not king’s men, for they wore no crest or colored clothing, but they were men nonetheless, and so not to be trusted.

Sometime past midday, a small farm appeared in the distance, but Skadi skirted around it. She looked longingly at the orchard, with trees bowing under the weight of apples. Surely, she could present herself to the farmers, and they would let her work for her supper. It was not uncommon for travelers to pass through, looking for work. Perhaps less common for there to be a young girl traveling on her own, but it happened sometimes. Skadi stood there for a moment, hovering between the shadow of the trees and the light of the open field. A young girl peeked out from between the trees, she was hugging a rag doll to her chest, her eyes wide and curious.

“Ma!” She called, seeing Skadi. “Ma! There’s a stranger here.” The girl went running towards the house, braids swinging, still calling her mother.

Skadi hesitated for but a moment, then turned and fled. She didn’t stop until she reached the road, and the farm was no longer in sight. She gulped in a breath, then another, her body shaking with sobs. She did not know why she had ran, she did not why she wept. Only that flight was all she knew, and right now, she was terribly alone and afraid.

The day turned golden, the sun beating down with a passion, and Skadi stopped at a stream to bathe her face. She regretted having nothing to bind her hair back with, for it continually fell in her eyes and made her feel suffocated by its weight on her shoulders. Holding it back with one hand, she drank deeply from the stream, feeling better as she did so. Though it did not rid her of the clenching hunger in her stomach.

Then came a sound from somewhere behind her, and Skadi went still, listening. At first she wasn’t sure, then with a creeping sense of dread, she recognized the baying of hounds, and worst of all, the crackle of magic in its wake.

There was no doubt, the king’s men had found her.

Skadi leapt from the water, and turning off the road, fled into the woods. The branches tore at her face and her hair, but she did not pause in her heedless flight, for she could now hear the stampede of hooves and the sound of men shouting.

“This way! She went this way!”

There was crashing not far behind her, and sharp teeth grabbed at her dress. Crying out, she stumbled and nearly fell, but caught herself on a thicket of thorns. Hand bleeding, she tore free of the hound that had grabbed her, and tumbled headfirst into the woods. Skadi righted herself, then zigzagged between the trees, she had heard the unmistakable whistle of arrows somewhere behind her. One narrowly missed her, clipping her hair and embedding itself in the bark of a nearby tree.

Her heart was pounding so hard against her rib cage that she was sure it would burst forth and fly free, leaving her to crumple at the feet of her pursuers.

The men behind her yelled in frustration, the trees were thick, and it was difficult to maneuver through the darkening forest on horseback. Some dismounted and continued on foot, going faster than they had before. A man grabbed her arm and threw her to the ground, jeering in triumph, but Skadi had one of the stones she had gathered ready, and she dashed it across his face, causing him to cry out and clutch his eye. She rolled out of his way and scrambled to her feet, running forward without looking back.

She could feel herself tiring, but terror gave strength to her faltering legs. I cannot go back. I will not go back. I will kill myself before they bind me in their chains again.

Then a hand shot out of the darkness, and someone pulled her around a tree, holding her struggling body firmly against their own. It seemed that the kings men were headed straight towards the place in which Skadi and her captor were hiding, when there was a shout, a flash of a red kerchief in the trees ahead of the men, and they turned away. Spurring their horses in pursuit of the phantom.

Skadi kicked and fought with renewed strength, her foot connecting with a shin, and there was an audible grunt of pain from her captor.

“Quiet, girl.” The man said gruffly. “You’re with friends.”

Slowly, Skadi let the fight drain out of her body, and the man released her, turning her so she could see him. He was tall and broad shouldered, with a scar over his eye and a grizzled beard. A Northman, Skadi thought, a mercenary tasked with returning me to the king? With that thought, her breath hitched, and she looked around wildly, hoping for escape.

“Can ya not see we’re tryin to help you?” Asked the man irritably. “Now come inside, for the hunters find you again. Cathy can’t distract em forever.”

When she looked again, she saw that the man had opened a door in the tree. Which somehow seemed impossible, but she saw now that there was a set of stairs leading down into the bowels of the earth. The man motioned at her impatiently.

“Come if you be coming,” he said. “An be quick about it.”

Skadi looked back at the forest. Evening had fallen, and the trees were dark and ominous. Not so far from them, the kings men were still hunting for her, now with torches. Shuddering, Skadi turned back towards her rescuer, and followed him beneath the earth.

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Winter’s Daughter: Part VII

Further than the eye can see, spiraling up past the tops of the trees, is a place where the mountains meet the sky, where only the wind can go. Not even the birds would seek to spiral to such precarious heights. The blizzard grows fierce here, colder than cold, such winds that they would rend a man’s flesh from his bones before he drew breath to scream.

“Are we almost there?” Skadi asked, shivering. Not because she was cold, but because of the electric pain streaking through her arms.

Beneath her, Slæpgur swerved, turning towards the yawning mouth of a cavern placed deep within the treacherous crags of the mountain. He landed in a whirlwind of movement, and Skadi braced herself for impact, but he let her down gently. Lowering her slowly onto the cave floor with a tendril of wind, so that she could find her feet and lean her back against the wall.

“I must go,” said Slæpgur, hovering uneasily at the edge of the cave. “I must go, and see that they do not pursue you. Up here, I have little fear of mortal interference, but men and their magic can conquer even the slipperiest of slopes.”

“Slæpgur–– wait!” Skadi cried. He turned, waiting. “Don’t hurt Sigfried…if you can.”

In the storm-light cast by the roiling sky, Skadi could just make out the features of a man’s face, surrounded by cyclones of blackened wind. She thought he nodded, once, before he turned and fell into the storm.

On a bed of stone and wet leaves, Skadi slept. It was hardly a cushioned bed draped by velvet, such as she had slept in at the castle, but it didn’t matter, because she was free. No chains to bind her, no castle that slowly devoured her in heavy silence, no mortals jeering at her from below a dais weeping with gold, and no king, leeching from her lifeblood as he replenished his own.

The next day dawned bright and clear, the clouds having dissipated as if they’d never been. Outside, the world was white and frigid, the sunlight reflecting off the snow like shards of broken glass. Skadi slept until midday, overwhelmed by exhaustion and pain. Even in sleep, the pain of her stumps would not leave her, and her dreams were punctuated by a rhythmic throbbing. Sometime during the morning hours, Slæpgur returned, bringing a canopy of shadow with him, which he placed over the mouth of the cave, blocking out any creeping rays of sunlight.

Skadi awoke not long after, bringing her hands up to rub her eyes, then stopping, abruptly, as pain sliced through her. “Slæpgur?”

“I’m here,” there was a whisper of wind, and looking up, she could just make out the form of a man silhouetted against the cave.

Skadi scooted backwards until her back hit the wall, holding her arms up as if to fend off an impending attack. “Slæpgur…is that you?”

“Yes,” he said regretfully, and his voice seemed deeper, more mortal. “I take mortal form with the coming of day. Do not let it frighten you.”

Skadi felt an uneasy tingling at the tips of her phantom fingers. “I don’t understand,” she said slowly. “Only Gods can transverse between mortal form and that of the wind.”

Swallowing, Skadi stood, and black spots exploded in her vision. Quickly, she leaned her head against the wall behind her, and forced herself to breathe slowly through her nose. At the far corner of the cave Slæpgur stood as if frozen, and said nothing. There was a horrible suspicion creeping up on Skadi, one that she tried repeatedly to shake off, but it remained nonetheless.

She could hear Slæpgur’s mocking voice resounding in her mind, “Just a humble breeze from the western slopes.

Then the riddle appeared, glittering in her mind’s eye, engraved there like words cut into stone.

The prince loses his heart, The stars turn to snow, The blade severs tendon and bone, And the wolf steals the King’s eyes.

Sigfried had indeed lost his heart, somewhere in the depths of Skadi’s eyes, and she didn’t know how to give it back to him. If a blizzard could fall from a cloudless sky, who was to say the stars had not turned to snow? The blade had indeed shorn her wrists from her body, cutting through tendon, bone, and all. Who, then, was the wolf?

“When I fled, you said that you would distract the king. That you would make it so he could not pursue me once he sensed the curse was broken. It must’ve been a clever feat indeed, to stop a man so great as he.”

She could not be sure, but she thought Slæpgur smiled. “Indeed it was,” he said silkily, drawing something from within his cloak and shaking it into an outspread hand. Trembling, Skadi inched closer. Two emerald marbles, she thought at first, but on closer inspection, no. They were eyes, turned to stone, but undeniably eyes. How often had those very same orbs rested their cold gaze upon her? Eyes that drove you to obey even as you resisted. The eyes of a commander, of a king…of a madman.

Skadi took a step backwards, then another, holding her wrist against her mouth in a vain attempt to prevent her gorge from rising. “You stole his eyes,” she whispered.

Slæpgur returned them to his cloak, cocking his head to one side in an almost birdlike manner. “I thought you would be pleased.”

“Who are you?” Skadi asked the man before her.

“Why, I am Slæpgur, of course,” he said, laughing. In the echo of the cavern, his laughter rang false, and they both knew it.

“I know you are not who you say you are,” Skadi said, clenching her teeth together so tight that they ached. “So I ask again, who are you?”

Slæpgur raised his hand, and the canopy fell from the mouth of the cave, causing light to flood in, and Skadi to raise her arms protectively over her eyes. A minute passed, and she slowly lowered them, squinting.

The man who stood before her could have passed as a mortal, were it not for the eery swirls of green spiraling behind his translucent skin, making him appear almost fragile, and yet infinitely dangerous. Like the ocean contained in a crystal bottle, leaving you wondering, how long? How long before the crystal shatters, and the ocean engulfs us all?

His hair was black as sealskin, falling to his shoulders like fronds of seaweed. His eyes were large and black in his white face, seeming almost childlike, and so at odds with the wicked glitter she had seen in his tendrils when he took the form of the wind. “I suppose the time is past for guessing games,” he said, with a cruel twist of his mouth. “Niece.”

“Vestr,” Skadi said, heart sinking. “The wolf of the West.”

Vestr inclined his head.

Skadi shut her eyes against the sight of him, trying to swallow the lump of grief in her throat. “I trusted you,” she whispered. “But you used me, in…what is this? Some vengeful game played out between the gods? Is that what I am, Uncle? Just another pawn?”

“I never wished Nordur ill,” Vestr said quietly. “He has never given me cause to.”

She opened her eyes, and they flashed with anger. “You betrayed him!” She cried, voice cracking. “You betrayed all of us. Tell me, how can I trust someone who would bite off their own sister’s hand?”

Vestr’s face grew dark with rage, and the ocean inside him seemed to roil, making the air within the cave crackle. “Do not speak of her,” he snapped. “You speak of events you do not understand.”

“You’re right, I don’t understand, and I don’t want to.” Skadi gathered her cloak up from the cave floor. “I think I should go. I’ll find my own way.”

Vestr stared at her, she could see that he was holding his face very still indeed, and she could not read the war of emotions playing out behind his eyes. “I have something to give you, before you go.”

“I want nothing from you,” Skadi said bitterly, holding her cloak against her chest.

“Oh, but I think you’ll want this.” Vestr something wrapped in white silk from within his cloak. Then, unwrapping it, he let the silk flutter to the ground. “Come here,” he said, “I won’t hurt you,” he added when she balked with uncertainty.

Tentatively, Skadi came until she was standing before him.

Held in Vestr’s grasp was a pair of silver hands. They looked as if they’d been meticulously crafted from pearl, and yet they pulsed with life, the veins running through them glittering with a strange pale flame. The fingers were elegant and jointed, curving against his wrist where he held them.

Vestr lifted his eyes to meet her own, and she flinched. “Still don’t want them?” He asked gently, only a trace of mockery in his tone.

“They’re very lovely,” Skadi said stiffly, and looked away, unable to meet his gaze.

“Perhaps Nordur has told you tales of me,” he said, lifting one of her stumps and running glowing fingers over the wound. Skadi gasped, expecting pain, but instead felt an unpleasant prickle against her skin. The sensation grew, expanding up her arm, cancelling out the throbbing, until there was nothing left in its wake, and she only felt relief and the absence of pain.

“Perhaps he has said that I only use my powers for my own ends, or that I am selfish and care not for the pain of others.” He eased the pearl hand against her wrist, and holding them together, a flash of green light came flooding from his fingers. “I will tell you this, niece. I know a very different tale.”

He lifted his hands away, and Skadi saw with astonishment that her wrist and the hand were perfectly conjoined. Cautiously, she flexed her fingers, and found that the hand, her hand, obeyed, clenching into a fist before uncurling again. She hardly noticed when he lifted her other stump and began to repeat the process.

“And perhaps, you will one day allow me to tell it.”

Vestr stepped away to admire his handiwork, his face beaded with sweat. Skadi raised her hands and stared at them in awe. She had seen magic worked in her father’s hall, she had seen treasures forged beyond the imagining of mortals, finer than even the craftwork of dwarven smiths. Yet in all the years she had watched her father, she had never seen him make anything as fine as this. Indeed, the rest of her body seemed dull when in comparison to these hands.

Strangest of all, there was a warmth inside these hands. A warmth unlike anything she had ever felt within her frigid form. Somewhere within her blood stream, water that tasted of salt and far-off places met a fjord of starlight, they converged, soaring into one another with the crashing of ocean tides on icy shores. Slowly, the blood swelling in her hands replenished the stores of depleted starlight that the king had leeched from her veins.

“Thank you,” she whispered, shame-faced, and more confused than ever. Vestr’s actions now seemed in such contradiction to the tales she had been told. He had outlined a plan for her escape, given her precious ointment to staunch blood, prevented the king from pursuing, and carried her to this far mountain. Now, he had given her new hands, beautiful hands that he had clearly crafted himself, and he had asked nothing in return.

Vestr said nothing, and when she looked up, he was gone, and the wind was lifting her from the cave floor, and out into the blazing blue. He brought her high up into the sky, and then down, towards the ground, and onto a road that shimmered with the consistency of cut glass.

His voice whispered against her ear, and she felt his hands warm on her shoulders. “Farewell, niece. Safe travels.” Then he was gone, sweeping into a clear blue sky, leaving only the scent of sea spray and the echo of his mocking laughter.

“Wait—!” She cried, reaching up helplessly, but there was no one to hear her, save the soft southern breeze.

43F08FAA-0067-497F-8248-3F206F15CDD6

 

Winter’s Daughter: Part VI

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.

“Skadi, what—.”

“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.

D4BF0121-D00C-4AB2-92D4-DC448C43F028

Winter’s Daughter: Part V

For as long as there are mortals, there will be a kingdom at the centre of the world. There will be a war, with two flowing banners on opposing sides, and at the end, they will fall, and will crumble into the dust. For that is what mortals are, from dust they come and to dust they shall return.

Mortals will do atrocious things to increase the time in which they can accumulate power, wealth, beauty, recognition, all of those desirable things of which they can never have enough. The extremes to which they will go, to lengthen their mayfly lives.

That is why I linger here, on the far outskirts of this vast land. For I am heartsick and weary with the ways of the world. That is not to say, that I do not have tales to tell, or too little time to tell them. For an immortal such as I, there is no such thing as not enough time.

Once, at the centre of the world, there was a kingdom, ruled by a king. He oft acted with a brutality that became legendary among mortal men. He was never a good man, this king, but once he had been a great man. A man out of legend, even as Beowulf himself once was. Powerful and mighty, a bane of all manner of wicked thing, monster and mortal alike. The years in which mortals lived were formed by his hands, and their lives lay strung together between his fingers. He drew up a wall of bricks and mortared them together with the blood of his enemies, with the blood of ghosts and ancient fiends, and at last, with the blood of children. Thus the great Kingdom of Dagrland came to be.

Then came a time that the king saw himself aging, and the wear of the years upon his face. He saw the youthful exuberance of his son. How he grew straight and tall, with his father’s black hair and his mother’s somber blue eyes. He saw that his son was thoughtful, good with tactics, that the people liked him, and that it would not be long before he came to his rightful ascension.

“No,” said the king, struck in his heart by fear of his own mortality. Standing as the gods do, at the height of all things, and seeing how far he could fall.

So it came to pass that the king wandered in the great wood, searching for some sense of solace in the leafless trees, whistling like bone flutes in the wind. There he met a wanderer, all dressed in furs, smelling of the wide winter wastes. This wanderer was a seer, and he promised the king a grand prophecy, but only if the king would give up that which was most precious to him. So the king agreed, thinking that he had nothing left he considered precious.

It is true, the king had nothing, save himself, and that was enough for the seer.

The prophecy was told, and it is being played out as we speak, though never in the way one might think. For prophecies are sly wicked things, and they always tell their covert lies under the cover of darkness.

One day, the stars will turn to snow, and I will steal the eyes of the king.

 

•••

Skadi was strong. Strong enough to withstand all of them. She could feel them watching her, as hounds do a wounded wolf, waiting for her to fall in the snow, waiting for that moment in which they would leap, teeth bared, aiming for her throat. Sometimes, it was hard to remember who she was, that she was a predator. Sometimes, it would all fall away, and she would feel as if she was just a girl in a tower, held in the clutches of a mad king, slowly bleeding out. Just some broken thing at the mercy of men, as so many had been before her.

Then the doubts would come creeping in. If she was truly a predator, a wolf in the snow, then why did they not fear her? Where was her sharp teeth and sharper claws?

She was fading, her strength being eaten up, the only sound in her ears was that of her blood dripping into the ruby goblet. The sound of her own immorality being tested.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

 

•••

“What part of the North do you come from, Lady Skadi? I have cousins in northern Dagrland.”

They were seated in the Great Hall, and the celebrations for the Midwinter feast were well underway. Below, people engaged in unusual merriment, raising drinking horns and singing bawdy songs. Seated beside her, Prince Sigfred would not stop asking her questions. But here, with the king’s burning eyes set upon her, she could hardly answer.

Before, she had thought it no longer mattered. After all, what could the king possibly do that he had not already done?

Now that he has broken your body, he will endeavor to break your mind.

No, there was one thing that the king had not yet taken from her, and he knew it. He knew the one thing that could still frighten her. And so he had whispered to her the night she had defied him with her scathing words.

“If you do not do as I say, I will send my men in and I will let them have you. I will let them thrust themselves upon you, like the whoring bitch you are. A king may not lay with a monster, but the seer said nothing of the common solider.”

It was there that the king had his victory, and Skadi had gone limp under his boot.

The food was unusually decadent, salmon grilled with rosemary, rich chocolate spiced with nutmeg, and peaches, imported from Skinandi, so ripe that their pale skins split under the weight of their own juices. But Skadi had lost her appetite even for the damson pudding. She stood from the table and exited the hall, stomach roiling with nausea. The king watched her go, but made no move to stop her. He was secure in the knowledge that he had her heeled, her defiant spirit under lock and chain.

The corridors were blessedly silent, and nearly bare. Most guardsmen were either breaking bread in the Great Hall, or dissolving into festive drunkenness. Skadi found an abandoned window seat at the far end of the western corridor. It was the furthest Gleipnir would allow her before it grew taut. She stared out at the stars for a time, thinking wistfully of the echoing caverns of her father’s hall. How foolish she had been, thinking it lonely there, when she had still been free.

There came the sound of booted feet, echoing down the corridor, and she leapt to her feet, heart hammering.

“Easy,” said Sigfred, coming into the light. “It’s just me.”

Skadi remained where she was, silently willing him to go away.

Watching her warily, Sigfred sat on an overturned barrel across from her. He offered her a cautious smile, one that she did not return.

“You should go,” she told him. “I cannot speak to you.”

“Why,” he asked laughingly. “Did someone forbid you?” Then, seeing the truth in her eyes, his laughter abruptly halted.

Skadi edged away from him, already planning her escape to the confines of her chamber. “It doesn’t matter.”

“My father,” the prince said bitterly. “He has forbade you from speaking to me, for some unknown reason. All these years later, and still he endeavors to deny me any pleasure, any moment of happiness.”

“This prince,” thought Skadi to herself. “He has a gift for sniffing out secrets.”

“Stay a while,” he coaxed. “No one will see us. My father will be in the Hall longer yet, and the guardsmen are unwary this night.”

She could not say why she did as he asked, why she edged back to her window seat and sat. Perhaps it was the kindness in his voice, sweet as music to her ears, so rarely did she hear kind words spoken to her on a mortal’s tongue. A burning curiosity to know more of this strange prince, so unlike his father, and yet his heir apparent. Or maybe, it was that defiance within her, refusing to back down.

They spoke for many hours longer than they should have. He told her stories, about his childhood, what he remembered of his mother, his passion for hunting. She told him little, and chose her words carefully. Saying only that she came from further north then he could imagine, that she missed her father dearly, that this place seemed foreign and outlandish to her. She could see that he was curious, hungry for more. She was a mystery to him, and that was dangerous, for men will hunt mysteries with a fervor beyond that which they show when hunting deer.

Then the midnight hour struck, and Skadi knew it was time. The king would come to her chambers, and she must be there. “It’s late,” she told the prince. “I should go.”

“No, no. Stay a little longer.”

Skadi did not stay to listen, she was already fleeing down the corridor on bare feet, praying that she was not too late. She was not. The king had not yet left the Great Hall, and her chamber was empty. She shut her door and leaned against it, breathing hard through a mist of adrenaline. She had not known how frightened she was until the danger was past.

That night, long after the king had come and gone, Skadi lay awake in her bed and could not sleep. There was a strange scent in the air, like that which comes before a storm, making it so the air crackled with energy. Then the winds came, and they rushed about outside her tower window, chasing and nipping one another with fierce teeth. She fancied that between whirls of snow, she could see the shapes of Seawolves.

Her window began to rattle, and the glass trembled against the strength of the windstorm taking place. Leaves whipped against the panes, and stuck there, as if magnetized. Skadi stared at them.

There are no leaves in winter.

It was almost as if something was trying to break in, but when Skadi peered through her window, there was nothing but the wind. As she looked, the winds doubled in their force, ripping at the window frame with transparent claws. She could feel the breeze coming through the cracks in the wall, lifting her gown in circles about her ankles. Fingers aching with anticipation, she reached forward and undid the latch. No sooner then she had, the window sprung open, throwing her backwards with it’s force.

The wind was fierce and cold, bringing with it the scent of sea spray. Her hair burst loose of its bindings, streaming behind her in waves of black.

“Father?,” she asked the wind, voice trembling and uncertain.

“No, child,” replied the wind, in a velvety voice that was very clearly male.

“Who are you then? Why have you come?”

“Why, to see if the rumors were true of course.” He purred. “I could not believe my ears; a daughter of the north wind captured by a mortal king, held imprisoned in his tower. So I came to see for myself.”

“Will you help me?” She asked, stretching her arms towards the shape of the wind.

Green tendrils came forth and caressed her hands. There was a rumbling laughter coming from the tangled mass that trembled just outside her window. “Why should I?”

Skadi withdrew her hands, frustrated. “Because you are a wind, as my father is. Because…we must help one another, in a world ruled by mortals.”

“Ah, how pretty. Did you quote that from a book?” She could feel the wind behind her, working her hair into tangles, his mocking voice in her ears.

“Who are you?” Skadi demanded of the wind.

The wind shrunk into itself, becoming no more than a green mist. “Just a humble breeze from the western slopes.”

“Ah, I see,” returned Skadi. “You are simply too weak to aid me. I should not have asked.”

The wind whipped forth again, becoming a raging torrent, so that Skadi fought to remain standing. “Crafty,” he whispered. “I like that.”

Outside, the dawn was coming, and the wind grew agitated, sailing from her room to cling to the windowsill. Seeming as if he would fling himself forth into the open air at any moment. Skadi ran to the window, grasping at his tendrils. “Please,” she cried. “Don’t go.”

“I shall return, sweetling,” sighed the wind. Then he was gone. A green ribbon furling out over the hills, taking with him the scent of sea spray and oak moss. Skadi stared out after him enviously, the weight of Gleipnir on her wrists heavier than ever.

•••

In the days that followed, Sigfred seemed to find endless excuses to get Skadi alone. They would meet at the window seat during the night hours, a secluded balcony, and scandalously, his chamber. Skadi, having never been courted, and having never truly understood the ways of men, was uncertain to his motivations. But she could not deny him when he was the only mortal being who spoke to her with such thoughtful kindness. Sigfred made her feel as if she was not entirely friendless within the confines of this prison.

Somehow, his visits continued to go unnoticed, likely because the Midwinter festivities still had not drawn to a close. Endless hunting expeditions were planned, lavish feasts were held, the palace was rife with excitement.

He was not her only companion, for the strange green wind that had come to her window returned.

“At least tell me your name,” Skadi asked the wind on his third visit. He still refused to reveal his form, and always departed well before the dawn.

The wind seemed to consider, though she could never be entirely sure what he was thinking, since his features were all but invisible to her. “You may call me Slæpgur.”

“You mock me,” Skadi retorted. “That is simply another word for crafty.”

Slæpgur curled around himself, smiling. “So it is.”

And with that Skadi had to content herself, for she found that Slæpgur was the most infernally stubborn of beings, and more secretive even than she. Still, he was a companion with which to wile away the long hours of the night. His quick wit made her laugh, and he had a charming way about him that even the prince did not have.

While Slæpgur was witty and humorous, he also had a cruel streak, and a sarcastic way of speaking that at times drove even Skadi to indignant tears. Sigfred was more compassionate by comparison, and always gave great thought to the things Skadi told him. Sigfred was also somber, and given to bouts of depression from which he would not stir for days at a time, try as Skadi might to cheer him.

Bound as she was, with the king’s awful visits still haunting her, Skadi was no longer alone, and hope was an emotion that no longer hovered so far from her grasp.

There was one thing that gnawed at her, leaving her restless and worried in the black of the night. The curious absence of Aase, it had now been three moons since the lynx had come to her window, and there had been no sign of her since. It worried Skadi, and pained her, for Aase had been the only way she could contact her father, and more besides, she had become a dear friend.

The winds of winter had grown less harsh in their intensity, and all could feel the promise of warmer days in the air. It was on one such day that the king decided to venture out on an extended hunting expedition with the whole of his party. Sigfred claimed he was sick, and went so far as to faint in the hallway, to the general shock of onlookers. The king was convinced, and bade him stay and get some much needed rest. It was not until the king had departed that Skadi realized Sigfred had tricked him. He came to her chamber not long after, looking inordinately pleased with himself.

“It is a lovely day,” he told her. “You should come for a stroll in the gardens with me.”

“In the…gardens?” Skadi stared at him, wondering if he’d lost his mind. “Sigfred, you know I cannot go outside.”

“My father is gone,” he responded, speaking as if she was particularly daft. “We can do as we like. How long has it been since you’ve felt the wind in your hair? Or frost crackling beneath your feet?”

“Too long,” whispered Skadi, a slow smile spreading across her face. “Wait just a moment. Let me change my clothes.”

Once he had gone, she found a homespun gown that was more suited for the outside, and bound back her hair in a braid. She flung a shawl over her shoulders and ventured out, thinking that a guard would come to stop them at any moment.

“Ready?” Sigfred led her to a secret door that stood near the kitchens, and opened it slowly, as if unveiling a masterpiece.

“Only I and a few select others know of this door. We could take the main entrance into the gardens, but that one is patrolled by guards.”

Outside, there stood intricately carved gates and ivory archways. The ground bare of greenery, for spring had not yet brought flowers to the surface. Skadi gasped in wonder as she turned slowly through the entryway, for over everything, there lay a glittering blanket of snow. Too long it had been since she’d felt it all around her, and tears sprung to her eyes. She’d seen it outside her window, and touched the cold mounds of it laying on her windowsill. But this was different, this was beautiful and real, this was so wistfully close to what freedom was. Skadi spun again, laughing, bright pieces of snow flying up around her. Even the shadowy presence of Gleipnir on her skin could not make this moment any less perfect.

Turning, she saw that Sigfred watched her, smiling. “Thank you for bringing me here,” she told him, voice thick with emotion.

“I thought it might make you happy,” he said softly, and there was something in his eyes that made her blush uncomfortably and turn away.

Together, they walked through the snow, and Sigfred showed her the wood carvings on the archways, the delicate ice spears hanging from the garden walls, and the first sprouts of green coming up through the walkways.

“You could at least pretend to be cold,” Sigfred remarked, laughing as she carelessly let the shawl fall from her shoulders.

Skadi froze, then slowly turned to look at him. “What did you say?,” she asked cautiously, panic fluttering in her breast.

“I didn’t mean––.” Sigfred stopped, frustrated. “Forget I said anything.”

She turned back to the scenery, trying not to let the fear pounding in her throat ruin it, but what he said… what did he mean by it? Did he know? Did he know what she was? Sigfred was observant, perhaps overly so, and she had not been cautious enough. He had touched her hands, so he must have known how cold her flesh was. He must have seen the curious opaqueness of her eyes, the iridescent shadows flickering in her hair, and clearly he had noted her imperviousness to the cold.

Say nothing.” She told herself.

Sigfred let the moment lie as if forgotten, and hurried forward to show her more. But then something caught her eye, a flash of tawny fur, a tail laying limp in the snow, and she turned, breath frozen in her throat.

The lynx lay half over the garden wall, partly buried by the snow. For a brief moment Skadi hoped, no, prayed, that Aase simply slept, that hers was not the stillness of the dead. Coming closer, those hopes dissolved into the wind, and she saw that icicles crept over the lynx’s fur. How Aase had died Skadi did not know, perhaps a warding spell had caught her, perhaps there was a wound somewhere, beneath the snow that covered her. All Skadi knew was that Aase had died because of her, and ultimately, because of King Eadred.

Her knees trembled, and her breath grew shallow as she envisioned ripping into Eadred’s throat with long shiny teeth. Then the vision ended, and she was left with the knowledge that she could do nothing, say nothing, be nothing. Bound by both curse and chain, the only purpose she served was to lengthen the life of her captor.

“Skadi!” Called Sigfred from the path up ahead. “Come see this.”

Painfully, she turned away from Aase’s prone body and returned to the path.

“Skadi, what’s wrong?” Sigfred asked her, face wrought with concern. “What happened?”

Wordlessly, she shook her head. Too heartbroken even to weep. She showed him the body, and watched numbly as he dug her from the snow. “Strange to see an animal within castle walls,” he remarked, pulling the lynx free. “Particularly a big cat.”

They buried her next to the garden wall, and Sigfred brought hot water from the kitchens to melt the frozen ground. Skadi said nothing of what the lynx meant to her, and she knew he didn’t understand, but he spoke little as he helped her, his fingers gentle on the lynx’s tawny fur, and that was enough.

Afterwards, they returned indoors, and Skadi allowed some of her pain to slip away. Aase lay at peace now, perhaps her soul joined the wild hunt even now. Skadi would do her no good weeping for her, but still the tears came in the warmth of her room, as if thawed by the firelight.

“Skadi,” whispered Sigfred. “Won’t you please tell me the truth about who you are? What happened in the garden to upset you so?”

She placed a hand on his, and he winced at the coldness of her touch. “I’m too heartsick and weary to tell you much of anything Sigfred,” she answered honestly. “I’ve lost a dear friend, I’m tired and sad, and I just want to go home.”

Then he pulled her against him, and she leaned her head into his shoulder. Outside, a sudden breeze swirled, raising snow flecks up off the ground, and in the far reaches of the Midlands, the North Wind howled, as if in grief.

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Winter’s Daughter Part IV

“Your Majesty, do not make us suffer her presence any longer. Be rid of her! Foul thing that she is, with her cruel eyes and cold skin, and that…that stench! What is it that gives such an odor? Something that smells of burnt copper, in her breath. That scent rising off her skin, almost sweet, were it not for the unmistakable notes of decay, like that of a rotting corpse overgrown by nightshade blooms. Worst of all, such a musk, rising from her hair, almost wolffish, and certainly overpowering, it makes our dogs yap and bristle so.”

Noblemen, tripping in their haste to display their comely daughters. “Surely she is more to your taste, my lord?” All of these maidens with their dimpled cheeks, eager to win the favor of a king. Too ignorant, too innocent in the ways of the world to understand the fate that awaited them should he take interest.

Blessedly for the maidens, King Eadred spared them not a second glance. He was abstracted, his chin resting languidly on his hand. Across the room, a serving girl shuddered as his emerald gaze rested on her briefly, before passing through, as if she was insubstantial as mist. Chancellor Aksel hurried forth to answer the complaints, raising his hands for quiet.

“You disrespect the King when you express such discontent at the presence of Lady Skadi. She is an honored guest, and will be treated as such.”

The murmurs heightened in protest, then died down again. Slowly, the courtiers dissipated, returning to their respective corners. No one wanted to risk the wrath of the king, though many scathing eyes fell upon the quiet figure standing in the shadow of Eadred’s throne.

“Witch,” they whispered into their hands.

“Whore,” others spat, though never in her direction, for fear that it would be taken as direct antagonism toward the king.

Skadi stood still as a statue, eyes wide and unblinking. Only her hands moved, writhing and twisting about one another. The scars on her wrists were barely scabbed over, and when a fingernail caught on one of the wounds, it broke open, bringing with it a deluge of blood. Cold water, colored with starlight, fell from her wrists and stained her dress. Skadi did not even flinch, pain was her constant companion, and it no longer had the strength to frighten her.

The man standing guard next to her gave a sideways glance, and seeing the silver blood trickling over her fingers, blanched. He closed his eyes, muttering a prayer to Malmur for protection from eldritch forces.

At least in the hall of a king, Skadi thought, I will never go hungry. Indeed, the platters before them were always heaped with rare delicacies. Things such as Skadi had never seen, stuffed swans, roasted in their own juices, glazed with honey and almonds. Pickled beets, so red and dripping they looked like hearts, placed decoratively over bowls of wild rice seasoned with violet petals and pomegranate seeds. It was obvious, when Skadi sat before these platters of food, that all expected her to abstain from eating. To waste away, becoming as fragile as a southern maiden, her cheeks hollowed and her waist caved in.

It seemed almost an act of defiance when she heaped her plate with all of those things she had never eaten in her father’s halls. Tender chicken braised in orange sauce. Pudding that tasted of hazelnuts and damsons. Wine that bubbled and fizzed when she went to drink it, though she drank sparely of that, requiring the steadiness of her wits perhaps more than her strength. Skadi might hold her tongue and clench her hands, but she would not become weak. Let them gawk and simper, those who had never felt the scarcity of winter take the meat from their bones and sap their strength. Despite the endless leaching of her blood, constant nourishment kept Skadi from growing fragile and deathly, as she had been in the early days of her capture.

See? You cannot break me. I will pretend myself meek and compliant as I grow strong in the abundance of your halls. Then I will break free of my chains, just as Fenrir did, and I will devour all of you.

Outside, the day darkened, and the king prepared to retire to his chambers. Skadi followed unwillingly, prodded forth by the iron fist of the king’s watchdog. She resisted the urge to throw a beseeching glance over her shoulder at the onlookers, reminding herself that to them, she was a monster. Yes, she could throw herself on their mercy, she could beg for aid, claiming to have suffered abuse at the hands of the king, but what good would that do? It would bring her no allies. They would only think her mad, and the consequences of causing such a scene would follow swiftly in their brutality.

At the entrance of her chamber, the guard released her shoulder, then gave her a hard shove, thrusting her into the interior of her room. Skadi remained where she was until she heard the slam of the door and the turning of the lock. She had long stopped searching for some sign of mercy or understanding in the eyes of her captors. They were all afraid, just as she was. And while a very few treated her with a trembling kindness, it was only as a man feels pity for the beaten lion he leads back to its cage. In the end, most treated her with careful indifference, and she learned to treat them in kind.

Skadi no longer cast about the room for some means of escape, as she had in the early days of her capture, for as long as this chain held her, there was no hope of easy escape. O hateful Gleipnir, how well it held her, wrapped around a stake at the center of the room. Even when she walked through winding halls and twisting doorways, she could feel the length of that chain trailing behind her. Never did it tangle, never did it catch. Disparate as smoke, stronger then a thousand men.

She might seek to strike out at her captors, or even at the king himself, but the curse on her made that impossible. Every time she thought of doing him harm she felt her knees go weak, her blood growing icy and sluggish in her veins, so that her body trembled with the mere effort of remaining upright. She didn’t know if this curse came with the chain, or if it was something separate, some foul spell spoken from the lips of one of the king’s court wizards, or perhaps, even from the king himself.

The lock on the outside of her door whirred and clicked, and she felt a spark of panic within her, starting from the center of her chest and spreading outwards, like an inkblot on a white sheet.

They may own your body, but they can’t own your mind.

Then the door swung open, squeaking on rusty hinges. The king stood outlined in the doorway, and for a brief moment, the circlet upon his brow and the soft light in his eyes made him appear as a beautiful prince from some old tale. Then the moment ended, and he came forward, bearing down on her with terrible force.

There are no fairytales here, she told herself, just the cold winter wind whistling inside my bones and the sound of my blood being taken from my veins.

Later, when he had drunk his fill of her blood and she lay against the bed frame, weak-willed and blanched of color, he spoke to her.

“It is unfortunate that you are not comely in the way of the southern maidens, I would reconsider my pledge not to take you to my bed.” He leaned forward, touching his fingers against her flinching face. “Still, there’s a certain…feral beauty to you. Were you not so big-boned and stocky you might even pass for one of the northern ladies.”

My father didn’t build me to be beautiful, she thought bitterly. He built me to be strong. But she kept her thoughts to herself, she had learnt to measure her words carefully when in the presence of the king. Words were weapons, and they could so easily be turned around, so that their slicing edges and sharp points entered her own skin.

Eadred lifted a strand of her obsidian hair and brought it to his face, inhaling its scent, he wrinkled his nose. “Though it cannot be denied that there is a particularly distasteful odor that lingers about your person. I will have the maids perfume you, and perhaps we can do away with it.”

“But no matter,” he continued, standing rather abruptly. “The seer made it painfully clear that no king should couple with a monster. For that is what you are, my girl, hide it though you may.”

Skadi did not allow herself to breathe until he had shut the door behind him.

“How long have I been here?,” she asked the pale moonlight streaking in through her window. “Why has my father not come for me?”

Skadi reasoned that six moons had passed since her capture, perhaps more. As for her father…it was likely that Nordur was incapable of leaving the borders of Fryst, but then why had he sent no message, no envoy? Perhaps he was sick, or did not yet know of her capture, though the latter seemed unlikely. Nordur had eyes everywhere, and if he did not know, then no one did. The thought chilled her, and she wondered if the court wizards also fashioned barriers over the palace to keep out prying eyes. Given the king’s paranoia, it seemed likely.

Deep in thought, she failed to notice the sharp clack against her window frame. Then there was another, and she shot from her bed, running to throw her window open.

“Who’s there?” Skadi whispered into the wind, not daring to raise her voice too loud, for fear of alerting the sentries.

In the darkness below, at first there was nothing. Then a shadowy figure leapt nimbly over the stone wall between tower and street. It became quite still for a moment, and Skadi held her breath, wondering if she’d imagined it. Then it moved again, coming to stand in a patch of moonlight. It looked up at her, tufted ears twitching in the wind, body crouched warily.

Skadi had not anticipated the tears that would come at the sight of an ally, and for a moment she could not speak, so overcome was she. “Do you bear a message from my father?,” she asked finally.

The lynx spoke within her mind, as many of the beasts residing within her father’s fjord could. “I cannot stay long. There is watch spells on this place, and they are inordinately vigilant. Your father sends his regards, and wishes to know how you fare.”

“Well enough,” Skadi said, pulling her sleeves to cover the still bleeding wounds on her arms. “How is he?”

He is unwell, and can summon no more than the smallest of winds. Your loss has shaken him, and his health has ever been unsteady. It has taken us long to find you, the wizards have warded this place well, particularly against Nordur’s influence.”

That familiar pinprick of panic started in Skadi’s chest at the news of her father’s uneasy health, she clamped her teeth against it, eyes bright with unshed tears. “It is as I feared. The wizards here are powerful.”

And they grow more so by the year. King Eadred has amassed a great kingdom here.”

Somewhere on the street, men laughed drunkenly, and the lynx crouched lower, looking over her shoulder. “I must go. We are doing what we can to get you out. I will come again.”

Then she was gone, bounding over the wall and disappearing into the night. Skadi swallowed a million burning questions, grasping the window-frame with white knuckled hands, and clinging to the memory of the lynx’s flashing eyes like a talisman.

In the weeks that followed, Skadi allowed herself something that she had not for many months. Hope. It was a fragile thing, flickering in the shallows of her mind, but it was real, and it helped steel her against the daily humiliation of standing at the king’s side during court, the unbreakable chain woven about her, and the king’s nightly visits.

The next time that the lynx visited, the sky was bereft of moonlight, the shadows sleek and long as an otter. This time, the lynx perched just beneath her window, and they spoke long into the night. She told the lynx, whose name was Aase, of how Commander Carlsten captured her, of Gleipnir’s unshakable chains, the seer’s prophecy, and at last, of the king’s cruelty. Below her, Aase bristled, her eyes flaring with golden rage, and finally, with sorrow.

Nordur knew this would happen,” Aase said softly. “The stars spoke of a prophecy, just as the seer did, though worded differently. They said that any daughter he had would be taken by the King over the mountain, that he would chain her in bear sinews and fish breath, and that nothing could save her––

“Nothing,” interrupted Skadi, dread breaking over her like a tidal wave. “But surely it’s just a prophecy?”

Aase blinked. “Has not everything the stars spoke of come true to this point? And you did not let me finish, there is more.”

Nothing could save her,” Aase continued, “until:

The prince loses his heart,
The stars turn to snow,
The blade severs tendon and bone,
And the wolf steals the King’s eyes
.”

Aase shrugged her tawny shoulders. “Make of that what you will.”

Skadi leaned her forehead against an enclosed fist, frustration building. “But none of it makes any sense! The blade severs tendon and bone? The prince loses his heart? How does that help me?”

I hate riddles,” Aase confided to Skadi. “And a mention of a wolf is never a good sign, they always mess everything up.”

Outside, the sky was tinged with pink, and the shadows had become iridescent. “You should go,” Skadi told the lynx. “Thank you, for everything. Look after my father for me.”

Stay strong. Remember you are a daughter of the north.”

Aase leapt from her perch below the window in one smooth movement, muscles rippling, and then she was gone, the vestiges of night swallowing her up, and leaving nothing behind.

The lynx visited often in the months that followed, and together they attempted to solve the riddle. Aase soon lost patience with it, preferring to speak of the dappled woodlands she had traveled, or the snowshoe hare she had killed that morning. Skadi always listened with an envious delight, longing more than ever, to be free. Aase seemed to have difficulty understanding the concept of Gleipnir, gnawing at the thin strand enclosing Skadi’s wrists with sharp teeth, unwilling to accept defeat. It was no use, the chain held strong as ever, and Skadi found it difficult not to despair.

Then, two moons later, there came a great stir at court. Women tittered in tight groups, all the young men dressed out in their finest. Even the king seemed unusually animated, leaning forward on his great throne. Everyone seemed to be craning towards the great doors, as if expecting them to swing open at any moment. Even Skadi found herself looking in their direction repeatedly, if only to see what all the fuss was about.

It was late noon when the doors finally opened, and a herald ran forth, tripping over his shoes, to announce the arrival of Sigfred Gunner Hansen, next in line to the throne, and the only legitimate heir of our most esteemed Majesty King Eadred Bjerg Hansen and the diseased Lady Elise Rikke Hansen…

Skadi soon grew dizzied by this extravagant list of titles and patronymics of which she had no understanding. It seemed that the herald would go on forever, and she returned to attacking her bowl of lamb stew, trying to ignore the deeply disapproving looks Chancellor Aksel kept throwing her way. At last, the king waved away the perhaps overachieving herald with an impatient hand. The herald moved away, and Prince Sigfred himself came through the doors, followed by a small entourage.

She was not sure what she had expected from a son of Eadred. An inborn cruelty perhaps, a madness in the eyes and a tremor in the hands. Certainly not the man that now knelt before them. He was tall, perhaps taller than even Eadred, with his father’s black hair and proud nose. Then he lifted his eyes, and Skadi caught her breath, for they were not emerald as she had thought they would be, but a deep cobalt blue.

“Arise, my son.” Eadred said formally, extending his hands in greeting. “You have had a long journey, so rest, eat your fill. We will speak later.”

“Thank you father,” Sigfred stood, and Skadi could see that his face was comely, though the years had worn lines into the texture of his skin, and she guessed his age at one and thirty. He smiled at his father as he bowed himself from the room, but the smile was too tight, too cold, and clamped with exhaustion.

“Sigfred looks older than his own father,” thought Skadi in surprise. Then she remembered the life-giving blood she had been supplying the king with each night for over a year, and forced the thoughts down with a chill. “Think no more of it,” she told herself sternly.

Still, looking at the prince, she could not help but wonder, was it he whom was spoken of in the first line of the riddle? She hoped, rather than assumed, that the final line applied to King Eadred, but for all she knew the line could be about any king. And who was the wolf?

I am.”

No, that couldn’t be right. This curse rendered her incapable of doing the king harm. Then who… It exhausted her, poring over the details, trying to find the hidden clue, but if the riddle wasn’t the key to her escape, then what was?

 

•••

The days passed in accordance to one another. Skadi came no closer to deciphering the riddle, and prince Sigfred remained at court, to the delight of all the eligible young maidens, and to the annoyance of his father.

“You look younger then when last I saw you,” remarked Sigfred to Eadred. They were seated in the mess-hall. Seated just next to the king, Skadi stiffened at the prince’s offhand remark.

“It’s all this sunshine I get here in the south,” Eadred responded with a self satisfied smile. “Does wonders for the health.”

Sigfred smiled darkly, dishing boiled potatoes onto a platter laden with duck. The prince seemed fond of dark meat.

“Who’s this?” Sigfred asked his father, indicating Skadi. “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced.”

“This is Lady Skadi of the Northern lands,” Eadred responded, his smile becoming cruel. “She’s visiting.”

“A pleasure, Lady Skadi.” Sigfred inclined his head, bowing without getting up, and somehow still making it look graceful.

Skadi didn’t quite know how to respond, very rarely did anyone acknowledge her presence, and even less often did they show any courtesy. She remained silent, but inclined her head slightly, knowing that it was an inadequate response to a greeting from a prince, and not caring. She was a prisoner, not a guest, and while they could force her to sit next to the king and wear his velvet gowns, they could not make her be civil. She returned to viciously stabbing her potatoes, imagining each one was Eadred. Cursed as she was, she had to be contented with small, petty, pleasures.

Feeling eyes upon her, she raised her head, and found that Sigfred still stared openly, looking as if he’d seen something both terrible and astonishing.

Skadi retired to her rooms that night feeling deeply unsettled by the prince’s behavior.

“Could it be that he knows who I am?,” she wondered, peering out her window for some sign of the lynx’s return. It seemed that Aase would not come that night, and it was just as well, for both the palace and city streets were bristling with men.

It was long past the midnight hour when Eadred came to her chambers, and she was startled from an uneasy sleep by his entrance.

He rarely spoke to her, but tonight he did, his hand hot on her arm and his face narrow with anger. “You will not speak to Prince Sigfred, do you understand?”

When she remained silent, he shook her. “I said. Do you understand?”

“I understand well enough,” she responded. “You are afraid of what the prince might do if he finds out, is that it? Afraid of what the country will say if they find out that their king relies on witchcraft to keep his longevity? Afraid that the prince may claim his rights to the throne? That they will find a way to be rid of you, old man that you are. For that is what you are, my king, hide it though you may.”

The pain came quickly after that, one bright explosion after another, though he was careful never to mark her face. He liked to kick her. “Like the animal you are,” he told her, his boot in her ribs. Skadi could withstand the pain, and she did, teeth gritted, clenching in all those screams. It was better to show that she was still defiant, then to let him think he’d broken her.

They may own your body, but they can’t own your mind.

204D965C-5A12-467E-AAAB-F6C00C051ABE

Winter’s Daughter: Part III

From wall to wall he paced, crimson robes rasping against the stone. The jewels hemming the edge of his cape glinted as they swiveled into the reach of the sputtering torches, then faded, the shadows enveloping them once again.

“The seer promised,” he insisted, long fingers tugging at an opal choker encircling his throat.

“Nigh five winters ago,” the portly bishop reminded him. “You know how these…” he coughed delicately. “Pagans have a tendency to overstate the truth, with the intention of winning your favor.”

“He wouldn’t dare.” Rasped the man, halting abruptly. Behind him, the jewels skidded to a halt, their surfaces marred by the relentless scraping against the palace floor. “If he has cheated me—.” His fists opened and closed convulsively, brows knit tightly over burning emerald eyes. “I shall hunt him down and tear him from limb to limb.”

“T’would be most wise,” muttered the bishop, studying the floor. “Before we waste more time and resources searching for this…girl from prophecy.”

“No.” The man responded vehemently, resuming his pacing. “Not yet. Search the Winter passes. Send every able-bodied man…” he swiveled on his heel, mere inches away from the bishop, who blanched and backed away. “She must be found. Do you understand?”

“Yes, your Majesty,” said the bishop, hastily bowing himself from the room.•

•~•

“He’s mad,” muttered the bishop later, seated in his chambers with a washbasin in front of him. He was developing gout, and his was a sigh of pained relief as he eased his feet into the tepid water.

“Hush,” cautioned the woman behind him. “Tis unlucky to speak of the King in such a manner.”

“He is though!” Insisted the holy man, turning to look at her. “All of…this to find some girl that this addled old man prophesied to be the one his Majesty is looking for. If I ever find this seer, I swear I’ll brain him––”

The woman eased his tense shoulders with big hands, shushing him. “All this excitement’ll get you knotted up tighter than a bride on her wedding night.”

The bishop snorted, but relinquished himself to the woman’s care.

•~•

In the tower room, still the King paced, eyes glittering wildly in a face that was blanched of all color. “Where is she?” He demanded of the draperies, and when given no response, he flew into a fit of rage. Reaching forth, he tore at them with all the viciousness of a wildcat denied his prey. Ripped velvet puddled at his feet, the rods holding the draperies in place teetered, then fell, the end of one smashing into the side of the King’s face. Blood streamed from a shallow wound on his cheek, mixing red with the black of his beard. He continued to howl his rage as he pounded against the windowpane, and outside, the wind answered him.

•~•

Skadi knew not why she was hunted, only that she had been for many a long night, and that her legs wearied of carrying her beyond the brisk baying of hounds. She knew that in the fjord Nordur could protect her, but she feared bringing the hunters to his doorstep. So she endeavored to lead them astray, and so led herself into lands she did not know or understand. No longer were the paths written on the map of her mind, nor the memory of which tree bent where, or when the river flowed.

She fled as the wolf flees before hunters, snarling and snapping at every turn, but knowing instinctively that to turn and face them is to court death or capture. Her feet were pierced by the eyes of briars, and her legs scorched by the snow. Inside her chest, a wracking cough grew, making her breath weary and wet. Skadi went beyond even the reach of the winter winds, into the lands that are known as the Midlands. Unbeknownst to her, these lands were ruled by the very man she sought to escape.

At the heart of the Midlands, in a land tarnished by blood and corrupt deeds, King Eadred was lord and sovereign.

It was on the outskirts of Drevach that the King’s men converged upon her.

“Go around,” Commander Carlsten told his men. His face held in a manner that was carefully expressionless, his hands frozen upon the reins. Giving orders, even as the core of his heart balked at the task before him. He had a daughter barely sixteen years of age awaiting him at home, and though her features were of more human likeness than those of Skadi’s, he still fancied that he saw his daughter’s eyes reflected in her own.

His men were well trained in the ways of the hunt. They obeyed without hesitation, and wether Skadi knew or not, she was soon enclosed in a circle of armored men. They herded her toward the main gate. It stood before her, stern and unyielding, and when she pushed at the bars, she found that it had been locked. Joints aching, she clambered up the sides, thinking to scale the massive thing. Until a mailed arm encircled her waist and tugged her backwards, a gloved hand cutting off her outraged scream. She was too shocked even to struggle. How had she missed the sound of the horse’s hooves on the cut glass road behind her? How had she misread the signs on the wind, speaking of no human presence within her immediate vicinity?

Her weariness had undone her, and now she was pinned tightly to the front of the commander’s horse.

“Do not seek to escape, girl.” He told her, voice curt. “Or my men will have to cut you down.”

She said nothing, and he took her silence as acquiesces.

The ride to the castle was long. Longer than any journey Skadi had ever known. The hard leather of the saddle chafed her thighs, and her furs did little to ease the pain. Her only comfort being in that she rode not with one of the soldiers, but with the commander himself. She did not like the way they looked at her, their eyes burning, cruel laughter imprinted upon their faces. The commander was gruff, silent. His face angular and lined with age, his hair peppery, and his clothes weather beaten. But he touched her no more than he had to, and there was a bitter remorse in his eyes that she did not entirely understand.

Long had Skadi studied the ways of men. Haunting their villages with wary feet, accepting rides on their caravans from time to time. Just as Nordur had done, once, when released from the hold of his mother’s branches. Still, their ways of thinking and strange customs continued to puzzle her to no end. She understood them better than she once had, perhaps, but theirs was still a language full of words she could not decipher.

Twas more than a fortnight later that they at last spied the fortress hovering in the distance, more ominous than any padlocked gate. She sensed a cage within those walls, and her attempts at escape became more frequent, more desperate, and more fruitless. Despite his words, the commander made no attempt to have her cut down. His movements weary as he directed yet another triad of men to return her to camp. They were rough with her, more often than not, their mailed fists inflicting purpled bruises upon her arms.

The men on the ramparts hailed them as they passed beneath the gate, riding across a wide bridge that stretched an impossibly vast distance between land and stone. Beneath them, black water rippled, and here and there, she spied the head of some scaled and mighty beast.

“Crocodiles,” the commander said, when he saw her looking. “The King commissions them from far-off places for his moat.”

“They are unnecessary,” the commander continued, grimacing. “But the King likes to frighten his guests.”

Skadi shivered, not from the cold, which she did not feel, but from an overwhelming sense of dread, that mounted as the entrance of the fortress grew nearer. The commander looked at her gravely, but said nothing.
It wasn’t until they were within the fortress, with the doors slamming shut behind them, that Skadi allowed herself to give in to the hopelessness of her situation. She could see, with spiked railings and soldiers standing in silent innumerable rows that there was truly no way out.

It was at the entry way of the main building that the commander took his leave. She had been transferred into the hands of the King’s head Chancellor, Aksel Banner.

“You are relieved of your charge, Commander Carlsten.” Aksel said coldly, the malevolent glint in his eye leaving no doubt that he harbored ill will towards the commander. “Hurry home to your wife. She has been most grievous in your absence.” A smile curved on Aksel’s lips, cruel as a knife slash.

Carlsten stood rigidly at attention, his fingers trembling mere centimeters from the hilt of his blade. “Chancellor Aksel.” He said stiffly, bowing his head. He then turned on his heel, casting Skadi one last indecipherable look. She stood frozen, feeling both bereft and afraid, until Aksel took firm grip of her arm, right over where the solider’s had bruised her, and pulled her up the winding stairs, to the room of the King himself.

“I did not request your presence, Chancellor Aksel.”

King Eadred stood with his back to them, staring out his window at the snowy expanse below.

“Your Majesty. I beg forgiveness,” responded Aksel humbly, kneeling, and dragging Skadi down with him. “But— Majesty. The girl has been found.”

The King turned, quick as the pounce of a lion, his eyes alight with interest. “Rise, Chancellor,” he cried. “Bring her here.”

Gratefully, Aksel rose from his kneel and dragged her before the piercing eyes of the King. Trembling, Skadi wrapped her arms around herself and met the King’s gaze with her own. His eyes were emerald, burning with a feverish passion that seared right through her, and kindled fear in her soul. A recent wound streaked across his cheekbone, blood drying at the edges, lending to his look of apparent mania.

“At last,” he whispered, his hand cupping her cheek almost tenderly. She stared up at him defiantly, but still said nothing. Chancellor Aksel coughed behind her, and the King’s gaze left her own briefly to look at the Chancellor. “Leave us.” He said, authority absolute in his voice. The Chancellor stammered a reply, before bowing himself from the room. The King’s gaze returned to her own, just as the door closed with a decisive click.

Alone, she was. In this room. With a madman, whose every whim was law. It would be no wonder if that fear kindled in her soul became a wildfire, seeking to scorch her from the inside out. Instead, she felt curiously cold inside. As if the fire had been blown out by a harsh winter wind.

“Do you know what the seer told me?” Eadred asked her, his face mere inches from her own.

Numbly, she shook her head.

“Then listen well, little wolf, and understand how you came to be here, and what use I shall make of you;

It was many winters ago, that I met a wanderer in the great wood, a decrepit old man I thought him. Ah, but he was so much more than that, pup, so much more. He was a seer, you see, and how he came to tell me what I know now, and how our deal came about, that is more than you need to know.

All you must know, is that he came to this very room that we stand in now, and he offered me a prophecy:

Of all things you desire, O, King. There is little more you covet more than the increase of your power. Little more you dream of, then to triple the glittering jewels laying scattered in your treasury. Yet, there is one wish, laying against the skin of your heart, unspoken and unheard. You desire, more than anything, to extend the reach of your mortal lifespan. So that you live as an immortal, as one of the great winds and their godlike power.

Time. That is the treasure that cannot be held within a treasury, cannot be held in your hand, cannot be torn from the grasp of enemies. Precious time, and her womanly wiles, forever just out of your reach.

What if I told you? There is a way to preserve your life in a chalice. There is a way, to live beyond the ken of mortals. There is a way, to have time imprisoned within your fortress walls.

Find the daughter of the North Wind, and drink of her lifeblood. Drink of it and feel immortality trembling upon your fingers, a shadow moth at your mercy. Those wings yours, and yours alone, to rip from it’s fragile form.

Take caution, O King, for this is the offspring of a God that you will seek to imprison within your walls. You must first procure the mighty Gleipnir, the very same chain that the Gods once used to bind Fenris.

“How will I find such a thing?” I asked him in dismay. For I knew of this Gleipnir, and of the impossibility of its existence. Indeed, t’would be easier to pluck the moon from the heavens and place it upon my brow.

How indeed?” Cackled the seer, and I, thinking he made mockery of me, commanded that he tell me what he knew, or I would smite him myself.

“Do you know the things that are required for the creation of Gleipnir, little wolf? No? Then I shall tell you:

The sound of a cat’s footfall,
The beard of a woman,
The roots of a mountain,
The sinews of a bear,
The breath of a fish,
The spittle of a bird.

You can see now, why I felt such incredulity at the seer’s prophecy. But it seems, that in this time of change, impossible things have become possible. For the seer promised me that I would lay claim to this chain before the winter’s end, and barely two fortnights later, he brought it before me, and laid it at my feet.

As for you, little wolf, I have searched high and low. I have sent my men across craggy mountain and roaring rapid. I came nigh close to despair at finding you, but here you are, before me, as impossible in existence as Gleipnir itself.”

“Then you know,” Skadi whispered, in a low furious tone. “Who my father is, and that he will search for me. That he will tear down this fortress, stone by stone, brick by brick. He will lay bare your precious treasury, and then, he will sever your head from your shoulders, and make your lifespan shorter than the breath you can breathe before you lay motionless.”

For a moment, the King stared at her in disbelieving shock. Then his ringed fist came forth, and cracked her across the face, making pain explode, like a starburst, inside her skull and before her eyes. She reeled backwards, and fell to the floor, the pain in her arm minute in comparison to the pain she felt exuding from the gash on her face.

He knelt down next to her, and pressed a finger against her wound, causing her to cry out in pain.

“Remarkable,” he breathed, holding his finger up to the light. It was covered in her blood. Not red, as his own ran within his veins, but crystal clear, and cold as the waters that ran through her father’s fjord.

They did not lock her in the bowels of the King’s dungeons, as she had hoped. They did not imprison her wrists with clanking manacles of frozen iron. They did not dress her in homespun, or kick her and call her filthy names. No, they did far worse.

Instead, they barred her within a velvet clad room adjacent to the King’s chambers. They bound her with the thinnest of chains, so delicate it seemed a ribbon, and at first she laughed. Called them fools, and spat in their faces. She should’ve known, should’ve guessed from the King’s smug smile, the way he folded his hands beneath his chin, like a child with a terribly delicious treat. And when she tugged against them, they would not yield. It mattered not if she struggled, or endeavored to slip free, they held on fast. Bound as hopelessly as Fenris had been, when tricked by the Gods.

They dressed her in black silk and intricate brocade, bound up her hair with silver flowers, painted her with rouge and coal liner. Made her as one of the King’s courtesans, so that she burned and writhed with humiliation as the men of the castle smiled suggestively at her even as they skirted wide, fearing the King’s wrath if they lay finger on his property.

More dreadful still, and far worse than anything else she had endured. The King came to her chamber each night, and cut open her wrist with an ivory knife, spilling her crystalline blood into a ruby chalice. Then he made her watch as he drank it, swallowing it down in great gulps. Laughing jubilantly as the faint lines etched in his skin faded, laughing as she grew more haggard by the day. Her glossy hair becoming brassy and dry, circles under her eyes growing, her arms weak under the weight of her invisible chains.

Yet still her body betrayed her, and she stayed alive. For Skadi was the daughter of a God, and could not die as mortals do. Though she prostrated herself before the altar, and begged the five winds to take mercy on her, and carry her unto the sweet embrace of death. The winds remained silent, four faces turned from her, and at the center, Malmur’s eyes remained shut. Perhaps, she pondered, the Gods did not heed her prayers because she was a God herself. Perhaps the prayers of a God are meaningless in a world ruled by mortals. So Skadi stood alone, in a dark room, with the silence stretching out before her, and no one to hear her cries.

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