Bera reached the waymark and took the path towards the Ice-Rimmed Sea. Marsh reeds and grasses whispered, husky in the frosted air. It was dawn, at the tipping-point of the autumn solstice; the end of fishing and trading and the start of hunting. Until Winternights, no one had time to visit the sacred sites, too busy making provision for the barren months ahead.
Only someone who needed to.
Her mother’s rune-stone sat on top of a hillock at the edge of their inlet, the place she had chosen at the height of her power. It was close enough to be reached from the village where Ottar had brought his daughter, leaving behind the rest of their folk to die from the red-spot sickness. Closer to the Seabost raiders, too, who needed his boats and would trade. Folk resented Seabost arrogance and feared their battle-scars but they needed meat, so deals were struck.
Bera paused while she was still quite far away and gazed at the grey sentinel in a bleached landscape. Beyond it, a skein of whale paths stretched to the flat horizon, with furrows and cat’s-paws where the wind whispered on the water. She sensed the distant swell of long waves, their slow tumble in the deeps. The edge of the Known World.
This was the seventh time she had come here on the day of her mother’s death. Her brother had killed her by being born and not lived long afterwards; but Bera was too young to remember much more than the heart-shape of her mother’s face. She walked on and the warmth of her skern, nestled into her neck, was a comfort. For once, she was glad he was silent.
At the rune-stone Bera opened her bag and took out a shallow dish. She had no idea how to scry and Sigrid was useless. Bera’s mother was her best friend but Sigrid was frightened of “Valla stuff” and had no knowledge to pass on to Bera. It made it even harder to live up to folk’s expectations, which was why Bera was going to try again.
It’s never going to work without water, dear.
Her skern was leaning against the rune-stone, studying his nails.
‘If you know that much, why don’t you tell me how to scry?’
I can tell you how but you either have the knack or you don’t. Seems you don’t.
‘You’re supposed to predict for me. So tell me where to find water.’
I’m not here to replace your eyes, duckie, so open them. There’s a spring over there, look.
Not for the first time, Bera wondered if her skern was unusually exasperating. All folk were born with them but only Vallas could see them throughout their lives, supposedly to receive support and guidance. The normal ones only saw their skerns again at the point of death, which Bera often had cause to envy. Like now. She stomped over to collect some clear water in the bowl and carefully took it back to rest on flattened earth, near the rune-stone. The water stilled and Bera stared at the dark surface.
Her skern smirked back.
‘Stop leaning over me.’
He flumped down beside her in a sulk.
‘Are you there, Mama?’
The bowl reflected nothing but Bera felt close to her mother here, as she always did.
‘Help me be strong. It’s coming to the time of Drorghers. But worse than that, Mama, I think the red-spot has started here.’
‘I’m talking to my mother.’
I don’t hear her saying much. Go on, ask me what to do.
‘You never give a straight answer.’
I’m getting the hang of it. So listen up.
The six families had just moved into the mead hall for the darkening days, to keep safe and eke out the food until late spring. There had been one time of starving, after they had failed to pay Seabost, and Bera vowed she would never let them be that hungry again. But now there was the outbreak of sickness and she knew how to help. She glanced up at the ribbed cross of timbers, ruddy in the fire's glow. It was like being inside a whale.
Seabost was best passed in darkness but it was too late for that now. Perhaps her father would refuse to give her a crew but she had to try. Bera took a ladle of water from the bucket, poured it down her throat and then banged it on the cooking pots.
'Wake up! Wake up! We need to get going!'
The mead hall was full of folk bundled in furs, the air sour with snores and old smoke. There were moans and shuffles as they stirred. Her father pushed off his bedroll and stood up. He coughed, hawked and spat. The gobbet sizzled in the fire. He banged his chest with a massive fist.
‘You're not going anywhere. We’ve got boats to tar and lay up for the winter.’
‘It’s not winter yet.’
He gave a warning growl, like an old bear. Once, it would have stopped her speaking but she was determined to help.
'I’ll go alone,' she said. 'Who needs your scabby crew, anyway?’
‘You do as I say and we’ll have less lip.’
‘So you want us all dead?'
A square bundle of clothes pushed forwards, with only a nose and mouth visible. Sigrid minded the cold.
'It's too dangerous,' she said. She shoved her shawl back with mittened hands. 'You'll be too close to Seabost and they won’t have it. Tell her, Ottar.'
Her father pulled on his boots. For some reason he looked smug, like when he had a big boat order.
'She needn’t fear Seabost. And there’s no ice this early.'
'So I can go.'
'I didn’t say that. You're needed here to tend the sick. Brew some herbs.'
'I used the last bundle two days ago.'
'She doesn't know the right ones.' Sigrid scratched. 'Her mother never had time to show her.' She burrowed under her furs and triumphantly crushed a flea.
'You might try helping, Sigrid.'
'She's too stupid,' said Ottar. 'I'm off to get the boats started.'
Ottar strapped on his tool belt, kicked his lad awake and headed for the double doors. One of the fishermen stopped him but Bera didn't wait. She wanted Bjorn.
Her friend, only a little younger than her, was Sigrid's son but everyone said he was more like his father. Bera had no idea if this was true, as Bjarni had drowned while she was too young to know him. Bjorn had come into the longhouse to live with them afterwards, as Ottar’s foster son.
Bjorn was sleeping like a toddler, his blond hair tangled over his creased face. There was darker fuzz on his upper lip. When had that appeared? Bera didn't want him to become a man and go off and drown, like his father. She kicked him crossly, as if he had chosen to grow up.
'That hurt!' He rubbed his thigh.
'The others won't come so it's just you and me.'
‘As ever. What are we after?’
‘Something to cure the red-spot. My skern told me about it.’
'Your skern's been wrong before.'
Bjorn rolled out of bed fully dressed and only had to pull on his sea boots.
‘No wonder you stink.’ Bera pushed him towards the door. ‘I'm sure this time. It's out past the Skerries.'
Bjorn ducked away to fetch their fishing gear. Bera went to say goodbye to Sigrid. She would be working hard and complaining about it. Sure enough, she was at the very back of the hall tidying away the bedding.
She didn't look up. 'You're leaving me with all this, then?'
'So come with us, Sigrid.'
'Never! I’m not drowning, even for you. When have you ever seen me on a boat?' Sigrid stopped. ‘Teasing me again. But, listen, I feel a bit mizzy-mazey today. Don’t go.'
'I have to find a narwhal.'
'They don’t come down this far. And supposing they did, how do you know where to look?'
Bera was irritated. She wanted support, not doubt.
'I'll take Blind Agnar.'
Sigrid bridled. 'That old fool.'
'It was a whale that blinded him, so now he senses them.’
Sigrid sniffed and rubbed her nose on her sleeve.
‘Chop some more wood when it's full daylight,’ Bera said. ‘One of the fires was nearly out when I got up.'
Sigrid made the hammer sign at her throat.
‘Were there Drorghers?’
Bera turned to go and Sigrid caught her arm.
'Look after Bjorn for me. If anything should happen.’
They briefly touched hands. Bera wondered how ill Sigrid must be to talk like this.
At the door, Ottar also surprised her.
'Take the fast boat. Big Falki here will row.'
What had the fisherman said to change her father's mind?
Her father went on. 'Tell me if the Seabost traders are back yet.'
Bera nodded. She wouldn't risk going close but as long as this got her a good boat and strong hands she would agree to anything.
Ottar’s boat was tied up at the jetty, butting against the posts as if urging her on. Beyond it, at the far end of the jetty, Blind Agnar was sitting, as he did every day. He was shamefully old. His equally ancient dog was curled at his feet. Both turned to face the sound of her approach with opaque blue eyes, like sea-milled glass.
‘That you, Bera?’
‘I’m smelling a storm coming.’
‘There’s a mackerel sky, but I don’t think the bad weather will come till this evening.’
‘Could be so. Where you off to?’
‘I’m not sure. I’ll get out there, first. But I want you to come.’
His face lit up.
‘Out on the sea paths?’
‘I have to find a narwhal.’
He turned back to the sea.
‘Then bring me and the dog back some fish, for you won’t find no narwhal.’
Her new confidence must have showed in her voice, for he allowed her to help him aboard the boat, even when Falki moaned about having him and the dog as extra weight.
‘He can row,’ said Bera. ‘And if the wind stays light, you’ll be glad of it.’
Bera watched her village grow smaller. It clung to a ribbon of land, where they scratched a living in the far north of the Ice-Rimmed Sea. Gales came early and midwinter lasted an age. She dreaded the grinding weight of snow and ice that trapped them ashore. All the quick and lively fish followed the whale roads, taking birds with them to battle in the pounding surge, or glide on sleepless wings over ocean rollers. Only blind monsters remained in the frigid darkness, slowly crawling after smaller ugliness with gaping mouths like sacks, full of teeth. White mountains teetered over their home and the long forests were silent; suffocated and shapeless in vast drifts of snow. Whenever a wind blew, it was funnelled into a drilling blast that went either straight up or down the fjord. It was an endless night that swallowed the stars. It was the time of Drorghers.
Bera was shrammed with cold, as though the walking dead were upon her. She wished it could always be summer, when waters chopped and boiled with sparkling silver shoals and the killers who surged in to eat them. Then there was a whirling soup of fins and teeth, spumes and spouts and crashing waves. Bera was always out fishing. It was more than getting food, for her: it was her joy.
‘What are you smiling at?’
Bjorn gestured for her to join him on his rowing bench. Bera wanted to slap his silly lovesick face and ignored him.
She lifted her face to feel the sun's warmth – but summer was gone and a nip in the air made her eyes stream. She pulled her woollen sea cloak round her face in case anyone thought she was weeping and then sat next to Bjorn.
‘The sail will fill when we’re past the headland.’
Their boat butted through sluggish water that was a taste of the freeze to come. Its chill seeped through the wooden hull and froze the bones.
‘Why did Ottar let Falki come?’ Bjorn asked.
‘Falki’s wife died in the night and his sons are sick.’
Bjorn made a face. ‘Less mouths to feed.’
They hit rougher water and Bera was thrown against him. Above them the striped sail creaked. It was old and patched but had been woven by Bera’s mother and folk believed it gave them the best luck. More than she had yet brought them, anyway. The men bent to their oars and Agnar's old dog settled again against the stops. They were speeding towards the prospect of a narwhal she claimed was waiting for them. But where? Bera wished her skern would point the way but no appeal or sign would make him appear.
Bera needed to raise everyone’s spirits, including her own. She started Bjorn’s favourite, with its rumbustious tune:
‘In the bones, in the bones
Feel the east-wind in the rigging
And the boat song in your bones.’
Bjorn took over, grinning at her.
‘In the blood, in the blood
Feel the rumble and the tumble
And the boat song in your blood.’
Then they all finished together, lustily.
‘In the heart, in the heart
Feel the pulsing of the whale road
And the boat song in your heart.’
They were a team, joined in the love of the sea and a childhood song. Bjorn stopped looking at her strangely. Bera needed him as a friend and hoped he would fix on some village girl soon. Not that there were many to choose from.
As they neared Seabost, she and Bjorn got the yardarm down onto the deck. They would be less visible without the sail. The oarsmen worked even harder, to get past the enemy as fast as the roiling sea would let them. The splashing oars sounded loud enough to wake the dead. Bera could smell tension, which was strongest near Bjorn. They returned to his bench and Bera took the end of his oar to help.
'Is your skern next to you?' he asked.
'Some trading boats are in, look. How did Ottar know?'
'They'll see us!'
'They'll all be drunk.'
Blind Agnar, on the front bench, turned his head into the wind. 'Seabost, it smells like dead flesh.'
The hairs on Bera's arms prickled with fear.
'Is my skern here?' Bjorn asked her.
'Why keep asking about skerns? You’re years away from dying.'
'I’m glad Sigrid let you come.'
'I don't need a mother's say-so. I'm old enough to do as I please.'
Bera smiled. Teasing Bjorn always made him forget his fear.
'Keep your voices down, young 'uns,' said Falki.
If a lookout saw them the reprisal would be swift and brutal. Bera dreaded seeing dragon boats setting off from the jetties. Their own boat seemed to stand still in the water, in plain view. Her nerves snagged her breath and she felt sick. Any moment now she would surely hear the rattle of lines and rigging as the Seabost fleet launched. But very, very slowly, Seabost was past and the alarm had not sounded.
‘Not many boats,’ Falki said.
‘Perhaps they’re not all back from their raids.’ Bera pointed. ‘At last! The Skerries!’
'Them islands are pips spat out by trolls,' said Agnar.
'The narwhal's here somewhere,' Bera said. 'I can find it without my skern.'
Bjorn pushed up his sleeve and scratched at the scar on his arm, made by a Seabost fisherman's boathook. They had come poaching one season and Bjorn's temper had got him into an uneven fight.
‘Those raiding boats won't come back today, will they?' he asked.
Bera was sure Agnar brought her luck. He was taking his turn to steer, with his hound at his feet. She sat on a barrel beside him and gently pulled at the dog's ears.
'That old dog's got no answers,' Agnar said. 'Tell me what you see.'
'We're closing the Skerries and passing the waterfall, where the big fish go. There was a mist earlier but it's clearing and a rainbow is touching the water. Way above its arch is a sea eagle, gliding inland to the mountains. The peaks are snowy but there are white streaks where every stream is flowing.'
Only in speaking it aloud did Bera feel its beauty. The last word came out in a sob, as if she would never see such a sight again.
'See an island with three horns?'
'Only one with a sort of nose sticking out.'
'That's the Trole. The horned one's behind it.' Agnar faced seawards, trying to get its trace. 'All kinds of whale beach themselves there, oftentimes.'
'I can't see it,' said Bera.
She was scanning all round them, still fearing an attack. A series of small islets raised then dashed her hopes and then an island appeared. They drew closer. It was a solid line of grey rock.
'There's nothing there.'
'That's where the whales go.' Agnar's voice was small. 'Leastways, they used to.'
Bera stroked his dog's thick rough fur. Some burs and thorns were caught in its coat and she teased them out, trying to think what to say to the others.
Falki rested his oar.
'Where's this narwhal then, girl? That's the last island before open sea. You taking us over the Ice Rim? Because I don't think you've got the guts.'
He spoke to her without respect. Bera feared she wasn't worth any.
'Got to have faith in this world, Falki,' said Blind Agnar.
'You should be dead, you and that hound, both.'
Bera's flash of anger made her feel better.
'Ottar pays you to row,' she said.
'Breaking my back for nothing,' he muttered but turned back to his oars.
Soon it was clear that what had seemed to be all one island was a large rock that separated itself as they closed the land. With horns. Bera pictured an opening in the cliffs, just around the headland, where the mountains dropped sheer into black water.
'I'll steer,' she said. 'You need to row again, Agnar.'
They bent to it, driving the hull through the waves.
As they butted out into the longer swell, Bera saw tiny scraps of white, like specks of ash spiralling in the breeze. They were countless sea birds, soaring up or swooping down onto shoals that churned the iron-grey waves.
Bera steered for a channel.
'These breakers'll have us over!'
'Not if I keep them head on.'
Several long spears were jutting out of the water.
'I'm right! They're here!' She punched the air, grinning, then gathered her dignity. 'There are many,' she announced solemnly.
The men rested their oars and reckoned the pod of narwhals. There were more than twelve, including females. Some were young and only slightly mottled: last year's calves, perhaps. The older males were livid white with dark blotches.
'Corpse whales,' said Bjorn. 'They say they're the bodies of drowned sailors.'
'Rare as hen's teeth,' said Agnar. 'See their tusks, boy. Magic, they are.'
'I'll take one spear,' said Bera. 'Who'll take the other?'
Bjorn snatched it.
Falki gave a low growl.
'Them'll dive deeper than any other beast and not come up for days.'
'I know,' said Bjorn. 'My father missed killing one off Seal Island once. He nearly froze waiting and gave up.'
He didn't seem happy about leaving their prize to two youngsters but, as Ottar said, money talks. Besides, much of the skill was manoeuvring the boat so that the strike could be made. He gave Agnar the stroke and they set to rowing.
Bjorn made sure the rope was lashed tight to his spear.
'Are the creatures drowned men?'
'I don't know,' said Bera. 'Remember that story about a young Valla, who was thrown into the sea for loving the wrong man? She came back from the depths as a narwhal.'
'Don't you go and fall in,' said Bjorn.
The male narwhals were gently rubbing each other's tusks, then pointing them up to the sky.
'I wonder why they do that?' Bjorn asked.
'Perhaps it's a dance.'
It seemed a shame to kill one. Bera tried thinking about the sick folk at home that its tusk could heal. She thanked her skern but he did not reply. She felt worse.
‘It’s no good,’ she whispered to Bjorn. ‘I can’t kill it.’
She would not show weakness to Falki, though.
‘I’m a better helmsman than you, Falki. Take the spear.’
Bera saw an opening and drove the boat right through the middle of the pod and separated a large male from the others. She ran the boat beside him and when they were sure of the target Falki and Bjorn let fly with their spears. The beast roared and tried to dive but was held by the ropes, fastened at one end to the boat, which tipped and rocked. The men tried to keep it balanced while Bera went with it. Falki took the killing spear, steadied, then drove it cleanly through the narwhal's eye. Bera was glad it did not suffer any longer.
They towed the beast to a nearby island, so they could deal with it in the shallows. Its pod followed, lamenting. Bera could not look at them.
As soon as they beached, Bjorn went to study the twisted tusk.
'I wonder what it's for,' he said.
'Always asking what things are for! I’ll tell you. It's for protecting us from any bad thing. Remember that.'
'It's you that should remember it!'
Bjorn stomped over to help roll the boat ashore. Bera knew he was right and she would say so later. It was just that she disliked killing. Scavenging a dead whale was different; it was making use of what Fate gave them, but this... The tusk was almost twice as long as her. She went to touch it but then snatched her hand away when she felt its power. There was something questing about it, as though the beast used its tusk like she used her skern. Or tried to.
'I'm sorry,' she whispered.
The men returned with saws and axes. Agnar's dog charged at the body and then shied away, as if stung.
'Can we take all of it?' Bera asked. ‘The body is as good as a right whale.’
'Slow us down, towing it,' said Agnar. 'Best get past Seabost fast, with the horn hidden aboard.'
'What's Bjorn doing?' Bera asked.
They decided it was easiest to cut off the whole head. Bera looked away, to where the narwhals were heading out to sea, their tusks raised in a final salute. It made her think of Sigrid and her not feeling well. What if it was the sickness? Perhaps the narwhal was meant to die, to save Sigrid.
'The tide's turning,' she said. 'You carry this to the boat while I say some words of thanks.'
There was a sudden clatter of shingle and there was Bjorn, fallen face down on the beach. Bera laughed and then froze. A longboat had entered the channel, with Seabost sails.
'They've seen us,' she said.
Bjorn scrambled up beside the others. Each man put a hand on his knife-sheath. Bera willed her skern to do something, anything. Meanwhile, she had to think clearly.
'We own this tusk by rights,' she said.
'Seabost don't ever see it like that.' Agnar drew his dog to him and kept a hand on its neck.
'Are we going to die?' asked Bjorn.
'She didn't see this coming,' spat Falki. 'No good asking her.'
True – her skern had given her no kind of warning.
The men spat on their hands, made the hammer sign from head to belly, shoulder to shoulder, then waited. Bera turned her thoughts inward, seeking some Valla strength. But before she could connect to anything the enemy's hull rattled the stones. Three men leapt ashore and pulled the boat up the beach with practised speed.
The ones who followed wore swords.
'Them's bad men, girl. What'd you bring us to?' Falki had his knife out and a net in his hands, ready for a fishermen's fight. It was all he knew.
The enemy advanced slowly. Two weren't much older than Bera, but were taller and as hardened as their elders. One had a badly broken nose, flat against his face. The last man off the boat was the worst. He had a livid scar that ran right down one side of his face, pulling his top lip upwards in a sneer. He unsheathed his sword with the easy movement of a killer.
Bera's mouth was glued with terror but she had to try and speak. Ottar had brought her up to face her fear. She wanted to run so made herself step towards them instead.
Her voice came out as a squeak. 'We are from the small village, further up the fjord.'
'Crapsby,' said Flat-Nose. The others laughed.
‘Home,’ said Falki.
'My skern, my...spirit guide, told me the narwhal was here to help our village. It is not theft. He foretold it and we took it with our own skill.'
Gulls squabbled overhead. Bera stared at the swordsman's puckered scar and could think of nothing else. No one spoke. They were all of them tense and still, in a swelter of hot blood.
Flat-Nose spoke again. 'This island belongs to Seabost, and so does everything on it. You get back to Crapsby, now, or die.'
‘It’s not Crapsby!' cried Bjorn. His voice warbled. 'Why call it Crapsby?'
'Because it's crap,' Scarface said flatly.
Bera was frightened by his coolness.
'There are more narwhals out there,' she said. 'You can hunt them.'
'Oh, we shall, little girl,' Flat-Nose said. 'But we'll have that tusk, too.'
Scarface slapped his short, wide sword against his palm.
'Move away,' he said.
Bera fumbled under her cloak until she could feel the string of beads given to her by her mother, passed on by her mother before her. They reminded her of all her Valla ancestors, which brought some scraps of courage. She took up the same posture she used to face Drorghers, her arms wide. But she was used to the walking dead; these men were the first living enemy she had ever faced.
She began haltingly. 'The narwhal is a free sea beast. It belongs to no one until it is killed. I brought us here. I am Bera, a Valla. Do not blame these men. There will be no fight. My skern has just told me so.'
The silence shimmered with bloodlust. Bera tried to form an ice wall of calm. And slowly she began to hope her spirit and words were winning the day.
Bjorn charged. He crouched low, his head aiming for Scarface's stomach. The swordsman punched him upright and his blade-tip sliced upwards, from groin to rib cage. Bjorn crumpled to the ground, clutching his belly.
It took everyone by surprise.
Bera saw the Seabost men through a red veil of fury and her words ripped.
'You coward! You have killed a boy. Perhaps you will kill this blind old man next? Or how about me? Or would you gutless pigs baulk at killing a young girl?'
Anger thrummed through her veins with every pulse of blood. She had never felt it before and a part of her gloried in it.
‘How about the rest of you? Too scared? I’d love you to try; then my Valla ancestors can punish you for all eternity.’
The men opposite her looked dazed but Bera couldn’t believe her words would restrain them for long. They must get going.
'Take our boy back to the boat. You Seabost pirates can keep the narwhal tusk in return for our safe passage. Do not strike us as we go, or follow us.'
Still no one moved. Then Falki led Agnar towards Bjorn’s sprawled body and they lifted it. Bjorn gave a terrible cry. He was alive! The two men stumbled at speed for the boat. Whether Bjorn lived or died, one day that monster would suffer. Ottar would claim the blood-debt but she would cause pain. One day, when she was in her full power, like her mother.
Bera slowly turned her back on them and her spine grew icy, dreading a cleaving blow. None came.
The boat was already in the shallows when she got there, held steady by Falki. Bera waded out and he helped her step up into it, then pushed off into deeper water, swung himself aboard and took his oars. He did not meet her eyes.
Bera looked back. Men were carrying the tusk to the Seabost boat.
Alone on the beach, the swordsman watched them go. He raised his sword to the sky, then lowered it to point straight at her. And then he was hidden as the flood pushed them back upstream, in a stiffening sea breeze.