Hands are close to her face; the rust of blood. There is no pain like this. The known world convulses and a dark tunnel presses her in an agony of spasms. She is suffocating. The earth tilts; shifts. There is only a woman’s face to keep her here and not passing through the gateway to Hel. She can already smell it, close. Brymstone and blood. The woman’s hands. Not safe, at all.
‘Breathe,’ says the woman.
‘Yes, you can. Come on. For me.’
That voice. That’s something to hold on to. But who? No time to remember. There is something dark here, something wrong. Life blurs as the ground rocks. This, new, bad pain makes her pant, turns her inside out. Lights flash; a sequence of sparks that mark the places where the earth’s crust is tearing apart, that feel like the start of a megrim.
Her death throes ripple out over the land, under the sea and sky, making ruin the ... ruin the ...
A scream tears her head wide.
Bones crack. Her hips yawn wide as the Skraken’s jaw. The echoes are making the mountains ring, quickening in her body that is the earth. Far beneath her, fire rages, cracking the ice cap on the tallest and blowing a cloud of ash up, up towards the pitiless stars. Now liquid fire swarms downwards, coiling like a serpent; white-hot metal. A terrible beauty …
‘Like a blacksmith pouring …’
‘Shush, sweetheart, here’s the head! Gently now.’
Bera pushes out in a long, gaping wail. She is all mouth, like Hel herself. Lightning flickers, light, dark; death, life. Liquid fire, travelling fast. Past or future? Bad now but -
‘Worse is to come.’ Poison. Blackness. ‘I must protect them.’
Gently does it. Her skern is swaddling her tight as a shroud. His lips are fire.
The earth thrashes, whipping the floor like a serpent’s tail. It sends the woman - is it Sigrid? - staggering, swearing. That’s real enough. Then a flaming gush, a rush, and the world dissolves in a choking billow of ash, with flying sparks and blazing blocks of red-hot stone, spewing up into the air before raining blackly down. The red sun is hidden and a curtain of fire spans the whole horizon and up beyond sight, making the dark weave of time crackle with terrible knowledge.
This is their future.
‘We will all die.’
Her skern is cleaving to her, dying, as they had been in the womb: twin souls floating in space and time before the agony of birthing. Ash is falling, swirling like squid ink in buttermilk, coating grass and leaves. Everything turning black and sticky, withering, and starving cattle will become dry bones, for the wind to whistle into oblivion.
‘Are we dead already?’
No, dear one. Look!
In the corner of her eye she can see a baby’s skern, beyond her own.
Sleep now. Your baby is here, safe and sound.
Dusk is a strange time: a blankness, when light is removed but nothing takes its place. It is an absence, a robbing of the senses of what Bera used to navigate through her world. Sight is dimmed and smell betrays.
A loss. And dusk came early here.
Bera stood amongst the ruins of an earlier homestead, feeling a creeping sadness, like some poisonous mist exhaled by the coned mountain that dominated the valley. Sigrid said the earth had swayed during the birthing and Bera had seen a vision - of what? The island’s past? Future? Her thoughts were brittle, her skill at scrying gone.
‘Was I right to bring them?’
No answer from her skern, who had been hiding ever since the birth. Or departed.
Time to get home, if that was what the makeshift longhouse could be called, as patched and ragged as a peddler’s clothes. Bera planted her feet on the hard earth, feeling welded by ice. Where was the dance of life on a boat? Being one among all the teeming creatures of the air and water? Here she stood, alone in a blank landscape, full of promise but with no history. No ancestors; no Drorghers.
Or so it seemed.
A man stood on a rise above the ruins, a darker greyness in the gloom. Watching her.
She pulled back her shoulders, full of the earth’s energy, surging up through the soles of her boots. She was a Valla, like her mother and grandmother and all the long line of Vallas through the ages, like beads on the necklace that was their emblem and gift. And now she had her own daughter and that would make her stronger. She turned for home.
When she got back to the homestead, breathless even after so short a walk, she wanted to avoid Dellingr. He was starting to roof the new covered way, so she slipped round the other way, to the far end of the longhouse, past the back of the new byre and latrine. The only way into them was from the longhouse, a new arrangement of hers to keep them all safer. Bera came round the corner and cursed, under her breath.
Dellingr was there, sorting stones. ‘You should be resting,’ he said, without looking up.
‘When did you last act like a smith?’
‘When I last had iron to work.’
‘You have tools to sharpen.’
He didn’t trouble to reply.
Once she would have liked watching his tidy strength. But that was before.
Dellingr might be their strong man and smith but only a Valla could keep them safe from unearthly threats. Back home, they all lived together in the hall through the black days of winter, to keep warm and ration food. But above all, it was to be safe from the band of Drorghers, come to snatch their living kin and steal their skerns. It was the Valla’s duty to keep the fires lit that held them at bay, or face them if a torch went out. They didn’t have enough wood to light torches, here. She hoped there really were none. Seabost had said there were no walking dead when she arrived there but one had come. A prickle of fear made Bera shiver: did she somehow draw them to her?