Blog | Free Fiction | Published 28 November 2022
My face burned and pounded like the anvil in Sindri’s own forge. Scalding tears blurred my vision and streaked down my clawed cheeks from the throbbing pain in my bitten nose but I swiped them away angrily as I scrambled for Snow Wind, my bow.
Below me, the Elkhounds bayed and circled the trees supporting my blind. At edge of the clearing, horses milled about, their hooves churning the snow and their snorting breaths plumed on the fridges air. The riders whooped and shouted in glee. Their leader was in especially high spirits as he pushed back his hat trimmed with gray wolf fur and grinned up at me.
“Is that a bear cub we’ve treed or our princess Aahoo?” he thundered in a basso voice that could be heard over a mead hall filled with a bunch of brawling drunken idiots.
Some of those said-idiots laughed uproariously.
“I’ll show you a bear, Gunnar Trygg!” I hollered down at him as I dragged my quiver of arrows to me and rattled through them until I found the one with the white fletching and silver arrow head. Small runes had been etched the length of the shaft with my best carving knife.
More laughter from the chuckleheads below. Gunnar’s smile only grew wider. “Now, now, Princess. It’s below your royal dignity to be a sore loser,” he called up to me. “You’ve given me a fine chase, but you’re mine now.”
I rolled to my knees and notched the arrow, pulling the string back to my bloody cheek. “You really shouldn’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched,” I replied, but quietly. I doubt he heard me, though I’m sure he saw my arrow as I let it fly. Not at Gunner and his friends below, but up, through a hole in the branches over my head I’d cut out for just this purpose.
My arrow shot high into the air, glimmering like a second Morning Star. Gunner and his troops looked up, saw the arrow, and had plenty of time to determine where it would land and move.
“Princess! I never thought you would succumb to panic fire!” quipped someone below me, but not Gunner. No, he was frowning now, staring up at the arrow that was plunging down into the circle that had opened up in the center of the soldiers’ formation.
I saw the precise moment when Gunner’s eyes widened in realization. His hands hauled on the reins of his mount and his mouth opened to bellow a warning, but by then it was too late.
The arrow struck the ground and icy mist exploded out in a great dome that enveloped the soldiers, their horses, and the hounds circling under my platform. The edge of the dome ate into the outer edge of my blind, the air inside it crackling with the sudden change in temperature and glittering innocently with tiny floating ice crystals.
On the ground, everything inside the dome was frozen, the soldiers and everything else held immobile by a fine layer of frost. The runes’ magic wouldn’t last, but it would hold enough for me to make my exit.
I jumped to my feet and grabbed the leather pack that was leaning against a wooden crate sitting by the platform’s hole and shrugged into the shoulder straps. My quiver was next, slung cross-body, followed by my bow. Then I threw up the lid of the crate and pulled out one of my latest inventions. I’d dubbed it my wind mount. Corey had thought I was utterly made when I told her what I wanted her to make for me and what I planned to do with it.
It was a small steel wheel with a deep groove along its outer edge and a steel ring nestled inside its center, lubricated with grease so that it spun freely within with wheel. I threaded a chain through the center of the ring. On one end of the chain was a heavy hook, on the other, a flat metal bar as long as my outstretched arm with a thick eye ring.
Three quick strides took me to the southern edge of the hunter’s blind, the side facing into the old growth forest sheathing the western slope of the mountain ridge. A slender steel cable stretched from where I’d anchored it to one of the blind’s tree trunks off into the woods. I slung the chain of the wind mount over the cable and settled the metal line into the groove of the wheel, then set the hook into the eye loop and straddled the bar.
I pulled on a pair of specially made thick leather gloves, gripped the chain of my mount and jumped off the edge of the blind.
Cold wind whipped my hair behind me as I flew down the mountainside and forced me to squint through more tears, my injuries freezing and burning at the same time. Trees blurred past me and the ground was a rushing river below with treacherous snags of shrubs and boulders threatening to rip my legs off if I let them dangle too low. I kept my elbows tucked into my sides and my knees clamped together and curled practically to my chest as I hurtled towards a rapidly approaching platform perched on a clump of rocks piled against sheer stone edifice.
Heart pounding and lungs gasping, I took one hand off of the chain and reached up to grip the humming cable above my head. Even through the thick troll hide and the protective runes I’d sewn into the glove, my hand quickly grew uncomfortably hot, but I held on, straining to slow my speed to something survivable before I became a bloody smear on the mountainside.
I brought my legs up just before I slid over the platform and had my feet ready to break my momentum. Even so, I had to twist to the side and take some of the impact on my shoulder when the force of my landing caused my ankle to scream in protest and fold under. I clenched my teeth against the pain and stood on the other foot so that I could unsling the wind mount from that steel cable and set it onto the next.
By now, my arrow’s frost spell would have worn off. Gunnar and his troops would be free and it wouldn’t take them long to find the cable and determine where I had gone. They would be following me, but they wouldn’t be able to cover the ground as fast on horseback. I had the advantage of speed if I could manage to make the cable switchbacks I’d created without falling over or smashing myself to bits.
The next cable wasn’t at such a steep angle, so I didn’t move as fast on that leg, but I also had a much better landing. The third, fourth, and fifth legs of my journey went smoothly enough, but by the sixth and final length of my trip down the mountain my face felt chapped and my whole body felt as though I’d plunged into an icy lake.
Teeth chattering, fingers fumbling, I unhitched the wind mount and shoved it clumsily back into my pack. Then I just stood on the ground under the great spruce tree I’d anchored my cable to and shivered for a moment, letting the adrenaline from my wild ride simmer down.
I was at the top of a softly rolling hill that sloped down into another valley nestled between two craggy mountain ridges. Spread out along the valley floor, buried under the winter snow, was some rather nice fertile farmland. Along the small river the locals called Little Hans was a flour mill and the cozy little village of Haithabu.
As soon as I caught my breath, I’d walk down into town to see about getting the wounds on my face tended to and if I could borrow a horse to get me back to Hovegarden. I’d also take a moment to see how the village folk fared. I liked to visit our outlying communities to see if their people had what they needed and to catch any troubles before they became real problems. It was one of my favorite duties as Isabrot’s princess and I took this part of my duties very seriously.
The fact that it gave me an entirely legitimate reason to avoid my mother was simply a happy coincidence, I swear.
I was still blowing on my hands to warm them and studying the village below, trying to figure out why I suddenly had a worm of disquiet squirming around in my belly when I heard the sound of great wings flapping and the crunch of snow as something large landed behind me.
I whirled around to find a tall slender woman wearing a cloak made of dark feathers and a headdress made from the skull of a giant raven. Her eyes were a reddish brown unlike any color normally found in humans and could pierce you to your core with a glance. They were made even more striking by the ceremonial blue woad tattoo that covered her face from her cheekbones to her hairline, marking her as our chief shaman.
Her name was Silvia and she was my mother’s closest advisor.
She speared me with an unamused look and my stomach fell. The next words out of her mouth would not bode well, I was sure of it.
“Princess Aahoo, your games of evasion are finished. Your presence has been commanded by our Chieftain. You will come with me immediately.”
“Auntie Silvia!” I said in a huff as I clapped a hand to my chest and let out the breath I’d sucked in on a startled gasp. “Are you trying to stop my heart?”
Silvia lifted one skeptical brow at me. “You are your mother’s daughter, and no daughter of Kharma’s would have so weak a heart.”
I scowled at her. “That’s not the compliment you think it is, Auntie,” I told her.
I hated it when people said I was like my mother. She was ruthless, brutal, and overbearing. She had no use for sharp wits, only sharp swords. I liked to think I took after my late father. He died when I was but a babe, but I knew what people said about him. He was someone who’d used his head and diplomacy to solve his problems. He’d had strength enough to offer his trust even to those others would deem irredeemable. He was kind, calm and funny. That was the kind of person I wanted to be.
Silvia shook her head and heaved a much put-upon sigh. This was not the first time my Auntie had found herself mediating between mother and daughter and I felt a stab of guilt in knowing I was making her life that much more difficult.
And Auntie Silvia had enough difficulty in her life as it was.
She never complained, she never faltered in her duties as advisor to out chieftain and as our clan’s head shaman, but I knew she struggled with some kind of mental trauma or internal struggle. It had to be tied into the three years she’d fallen into a mysterious slumber, but the only person she ever talked to about personal problems was her best friend, my mother.
That said, I had eyes and ears and I actually used them, unlike many. I paid attention because she was as good as family to me, but also because she was one of my people and I took care of my people. I was slowly but steadily digging up clues to what troubled Auntie Silvia and once I’d pieced together enough of the puzzle, I’d help her put down whatever burden she was carrying.
And speaking of puzzles…
A large raven swooped down to land on the cross-section that topped Auntie Silvia’s staff, but this was no ordinary Raven. He was glacial blue and midnight purple, with phantom snow drifting endlessly from his feathers. He had two gleaming white eyes that glared at the world with all the mercy of a blizzard and a third eye in the center of his forehead the color of crystalized blood that never blinked.
He was called the Watcher by our people in the early days because he appeared the same night Silvia fell into her three-year sleep and watched over her unconscious form until she finally woke up solemn and wizened well beyond her years. We called him the Watcher now because we all had the disquieting sense that he was watching us. All of us. Always.
Auntie Silvia didn’t call him anything. She barely acknowledged he was there, as though he was the root of all her worries and she would free herself of them by ignoring him out of existence. I think she carried the staff for him to perch on just so he wouldn’t alight on her shoulder, which I completely understood. I wouldn’t want that disturbing creature touching me either.
Only she couldn’t ignore him—nor could I, for that matter—not completely, and we both twitched, masking a greater shudder as the Watcher swept his baleful glare over us.
Refusing to look at the monstrous raven, Silvia fixed her gaze on me and said “Now is not the time to indulge your petty rebellion against your mother. We’ve received word that there is an armed convoy of soldiers marching on our southern border. Their banners bare the Light Tower.”
I sucked in a breath, my eyes going wide.
“We have to get back. Mother’s bound to over react,” I said, my mind racing over all the implications.
Light Tower soldiers were the elite amongst all of the fighting units in Antia. They only accepted those who passed truly grueling trials. Light Tower soldiers and officers were the fiercest, the most ruthless warriors in the land and the most devoted to their mission, which was dictated by Aldin who founded them and who had ruled over Antia ever since the War of Three Peoples. They were Aldin’s watchful eyes and his strong right arm.
But what were they doing here?
And how could I stop my mother from eliminating what she would surely see as a threat and challenge to her authority before we got some answers?
Auntie Silvia didn’t say anything, only held out her hand as the Watcher took flight. Through her connection with her spirit animal, a great raven—not the Watcher—she had the ability to transform into a huge raven herself and she could carry someone as slight as myself over short distances.
But before any of that could happen, a sharp bird-like cry turned both of us around to face down the hill towards Haithabu.
An arctic fox—that arctic fox, Hikko—was standing five horse lengths from us, looking intensely at me.
“You!” I snarled, my hands snapping up to my bow, but I didn’t pull it off my shoulder. I just stood there and seethed for a moment as the throbbing pain in my nose and the scratches across my cheeks flared hotter.
Silvia stepped up to stand beside me. “Do you know this fox?”
“I thought we were going to be friends,” I growled then waved a hand at my mauled face. “But then she did this to me. And after I fed her an entire bag of Frost Berries!”
Auntie Silvia shook her head. “You’re as trusting as your father. It’ll be your downfall just as it was his if you don’t take heed now. You should be grateful to this wild creature for teaching you this lesson in a manner you could survive.”
I rolled my eyes and was ready to move the conversation back to the pressing concern for the small army my mother was about to attack when Hikko gave another sharp bark. She dashed a ways down the hill to the village, stopped, and looked back at me. When I didn’t move, she ran back our way then spun about had darted towards the village again.
“I think she wants us to follow her,” I said eyeing the small white fox then the village…
And then realization clicked in my head and I knew what had been bothering me earlier as I’d stood trying to warm my hands.
“Auntie, there’s no smoke rising from those chimneys. I don’t see anyone moving around down there.”
Auntie Silvia was frowning now, too. “Time is pressing, but I feel we should see what is happening. I thought my dream of finding you here was related to the arrival of the Light Tower soldiers, but perhaps I was mistaken.”
Well, that answered the question I’d been asking myself; how Auntie Silvia knew to look for me here. Her prophetic dreams had made her not only famous but indispensable to our tribe since she was ten years old. She only ever dreamed of dangers to our people, not silly things like a wayward Princess playing a prank on her peers—and she was never wrong.
Something in Haithabu was gravely amiss.