A Viking seeress encounters the magic of Native America. Read the first two chapters of People of the Songtrail, the latest novel by W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O’Neal Gear, publishing on May 26th.
Firelight fills the room. I hear murmuring echoes that seem to come from great distances, voices I almost recognize. One voice is velvet soft: “Thyra, you must let them go. You’ll hurt them.”
I don’t know where I am. England maybe. But I think I’m two or three. Mother’s beautiful face swims out of the night, smiling down at me. She appears annoyed, as though I’ve failed some test of humanity. Behind her, firelight dances over the log walls, and I remember that all morning I’ve been crawling around, gathering the fluttering orange wings on the floor and trying to scoop them up. They’ve been talking to me, scolding me for trying to catch them. I don’t understand why I can’t grasp the half-transparent butterflies in my hands.
“Here.” Mother reaches up to clutch her silver pendant. “Hold my hand and help me release them.”
I place my small hand in hers. As a flood of warmth fills me, the orange wings flutter upward and disperse in a hypnotic dance across the ceiling. I watch them with my mouth ajar. They are so beautiful.
Mother’s necklace dangles in front of my eyes. She sees me looking at it. “Someday you will be a great seeress and this will be yours. You will be able to walk in and out of our Helgafell as though no door existed at all.”
Helgafell. I don’t know what that is.
Mother bends, picks me up, and carries me to the fi re- warmed wisent hide spread before the stone hearth. Hanging on the wall beside the hearth is a metal staff and a glittering sword etched with runes. The sword’s name is Hel. Over runes tell of the giant goddess of the underworld, after whom the sword is named. The goddess, Hel, is half- black and half- white and lives in the hall of Eliudnir, the hall “sprayed with snowstorms,” in Helheim. Her bed has a name, Sick Bed, and her bed curtains are Gleaming Disaster. Her dish is Hunger, her knife Famine.
My empty stomach squeals when I look at the sword. Hel sings me to sleep at night, her voice sweet and high, like wind through standing stones.
An iron cooking kettle hangs just above the hearth flames, but I smell only the mineral scent of steam rising. Mother is bundled like a dying skeleton, in a ragged blue cloak with a gray wool blanket wrapped around her shoulders. The angles of her cheeks are sharp as lance blades.
Even now, when I think of her, I am filled with a tremendous sadness for which I can find no reason. I remember that she could change into a deer. I saw her do it. I remember her long ivory hair and the gentleness of her hands.
And I remember screams that day. Her screams? I’ve been trying to remember all my life.
A knock comes at the door.
Mother turns. Brightness crosses her face like summer sunlight striking the glaciers, breathtaking and fragile. “Oh, thank the gods, your father is home. I’m sure he caught a bird or fish to throw in the stew pot.”
A man enters— not Father— whispers something to Mother, and a panicked expression creases her face. She grabs the man’s arm. “Are you certain of this? But why? Why would he do this?”
“When Pallig defected to join the raiders ravaging the south coast, the king heard rumors that the Danes were about to kill him and his councilors, then take his kingdom. He decided to act fi rst.”
“No one know for certain, but Sweyn fears for your life and your daughter’s.” Shouts outside. Three men run past the open door. The man talking with Mother whirls to look, then licks his lips. “The traitor wants Eyr badly. We can’t let him get his fi lthy hands on her.”
Mother hesitates for an instant before she grabs an iron rod from the pegs above the door and shoves it into his extended hands. Then she strips her necklace from her throat and gives it to him. “Give these to Avaldamon. He will need them. And, Baldur, I know you’re an accomplished Seidur practitioner, but don’t use Eyr unless you must. And never use the pendant and Eyr together! It’s too dangerous. I can barely control them. You—”
“I’m so sorry, Veth—”
“No time for regrets. Go! I’ll be behind you.”
I seem to have gone blind, or perhaps I’ve fallen asleep, as children do in the midst of the most dire things. I see nothing now . . . but I hear Mother’s footsteps hurry toward the rear of the room, then she gasps as another door squeaks open on rusty hinges. The room is drowned in darkness, though the fi relight continues to shine at the edges; the roof and walls appear to be a mosaic of amber shards.
From out of the dark, Mother’s eyes appear— just her eyes— fi lled with tears, staring at me with enough love to last me a lifetime.
A man orders, “Quickly! She’s a myrkrida, a darkness- rider. Don’t let her touch her sword or staff. Grab them from the wall. And make no mistake, I want her alive.”
. . . then the screams. Voices tangle. I’ve never heard Mother scream before.
Is it Mother?
Hard hands grab me and swing me up into muscular arms. I see no faces, but
I smell smoke, hear people running and children sobbing.
Outside, my vision returns. Ashes, white as snow, bathe the air with brilliance.
The man carrying me mounts a horse.
As we gallop away, the town is a dream born of moonlight, sculpted in icicles,
dying in fi re.
. . . That’s the last thing I remember. Ice and flames.
My next memory is of a new family, a new home, a place where ghosts haunt the hidden crevices in the floor. I live in Denmark now. I have a baby brother. I’m happy. I am loved.
Are my dreams of that other mother, that other home, just the fanciful creations of a child’s mind?
I don’t know why it matters any longer.
Except that sometimes at night I hear that other mother calling me as though she’s still trying to find me.
And I desperately long to go to her.
Thirteen years later . . .
Ealdorman Uhtred of Northumbria paced the small candlelit room with his hands clasped behind his back. His black woolen cloak fell to the tops of his goathide boots, and was fastened over his right shoulder with two oval brooches, exquisitely crafted into the golden shapes of roaring dragons. Shoulder- length auburn hair swayed around his tanned face as he moved. Despite the peat fi re burning in the hearth, the air was icy and dank.
Another man, taller, stood before the single window with his back to Uhtred. He stared fi xedly out at the foggy coast of northern En gland where dusk settled over the rolling hills like veils of smoke- colored silk. Even silent and still, he projected authority. He’d pulled his brown hood up to shield his pale, patrician face. A silly precaution, in Uhtred’s mind, because the short chieftain from Greenland, Gunnar the Skoggangur, who stood near the door, undoubtedly knew his royal identity.
Uhtred shifted to study Gunnar. Blond and skinny, the Skoggangur always chose to stand near the door in case he had to make a hasty exit. As he folded his arms across his chest, his burly arm muscles bulged beneath his faded green cape. His skills as a ship’s captain were the stuff of legend.
Uhtred said, “The civil war does not go well, Gunnar. We stand upon a precipice that, I assure you, falls away into oblivion for the Danelaw. We cannot lose. Do you understand the grave nature of the task we’ve placed before you?”
“Dozens of my relatives still live in the Danelaw, and dozens died during the slaughter thirteen years ago. Of course I understand.”
The Danelaw, the portion of northern En gland inhabited by Danes, lived in terror that King Aethelred planned to repeat the St. Brice Day Massacre—the slaughter of thirteen years ago. Gunnar’s relatives must have impressed that fear upon him. His wrinkled face had set into hard lines.
“Very well. The gold is there at the end of the table.” Uhtred extended his hand to the bronze box.
Gunnar reached down to pick it up. “And what if I don’t find the Prophetess?”
“Then the contents belong to you. Given what we’ve already paid you, it should be more than suffi cient to account for your efforts.”
The Skoggangur hefted the box, judging the weight of the gold within, and the act caused the tall man at the window to heave a disgruntled breath, as though annoyed at the pusillanimous chieftain’s avarice.
Gunnar gave him a brief glance. He had little respect for those who had lived pampered lives, particularly royalty, and probably especially King Aethelred’s own son. Gunnar had spent much of his forty- seven years in fl ight from the law, which, if truth be told, is precisely why Uhtred had chosen him. Quick- witted, the wiry little man had seen it all and feared nothing. Plus, the Skoggangur was uncommonly loyal to his family in the Danelaw. During the worst of times, Gunnar had braved enemy fleets to bring them food and needed supplies. No matter the risks, the Skoggangur would do his best to protect his relatives.
“Are you satisfi ed?” Uhtred inquired.
“You’re certain you want me to include Thorlak the Lawspeaker and his strange apprentice, Thyra, in the colonizing effort? Seems very illadvised to me. Given Thorlak’s past, especially his former rivalry with the Prophetess, if he discovers what I’m up to—”
Uhtred interrupted, “We know from reliable sources that he’s eager to find Hvitramannaland and, apparently, some great trea sure there. Let’s oblige him by providing the funds. I’m sure neither Cnut nor Aethelred would seek out his talents, but we want to remove that temptation from their minds. We need him out of the way. How much more out- of- theway can he be than if he’s in Vinland with a group of colonists seeking religious freedom?”
Gunnar’s gaze sharpened. “What is this great trea sure he seeks in Hvitramannaland?”
“That’s just the sort of thing I’d expect you to ask, you old thief. How would I know? You’ve spent far more time around him in Greenland than I. Have you heard anything?”
Grinding teeth moved beneath Gunnar’s bearded jaw. “Not even a whiff, which means he’s been keeping it to himself well. How do you know about it?”
The glint in the little man’s brown eyes annoyed Uhtred. Gunnar, naturally, would want the treasure for himself.
“My friend, I have many sources you do not.”
“Well, that’s an unpleasant surprise.” Finally, Gunnar added, “And you’ll bear all costs of my transporting the Prophetess safely back to England?”
The Skoggangur nodded but still seemed to be contemplating the difficulties ahead. He clasped his hands behind his back and started pacing. “Before I go, let’s discuss the bald facts, shall we? I assume we are all aware that neither King Aethelred nor King Cnut will be happy if I find her. If she’s alive, and either king suspects for an instant that she may be coming home to support the aethling Edmund”— he glanced pointedly at the man before the window—“each will want her dead, and will do everything in his power to stop me, including the murder of everyone in the colonizing expedition.”
“Why do you think the Danelaw hired the likes of you, Gunnar? We expect discretion and complete secrecy.”
“Not to mention courage. She was the most feared Prophetess on earth.” A cynical humor touched Gunnar’s voice. “What if she doesn’t wish to return with me?”
“Convince her, Skoggangur.”
Gunnar’s blond brows plunged down in an evil manner. “Well . . . I’ll do my best. Personally, I think she’s dead, but—”
“Just do your job,” the hooded man replied in heavily accented Danish.
Gunnar squinted at the man’s broad back. “I was only making sure we understand each other.”
“We do,” the man said.
“Well enough, then.” Gunnar tucked the bronze box inside his green cape. The hooded man couldn’t see it, but Gunnar gave him an elegant bow. As he straightened, he said, “I’ll send word if I find her, and apprise you of her approximate arrival time.”
“The sooner the better, Gunnar. We are in dire straits here.”
The Skoggangur turned on his heel and left, gently closing the door behind him.
Uhtred ran a hand through his auburn hair and shook his head. “Well, he’s off. May Thor help him.”
The hooded man turned. He looked very much like his father, with an oval face, long nose, and eyes perpetually narrowed as if nothing ever pleased him.
“His name, Skoggangur, means ‘forest- walking,’ doesn’t it? Meaning that at some point in his life he was ejected from civilized society and forced to live in the wild, little better than an animal himself. He’s a criminal.”
“Oh, indeed he is. For many years, Gunnar’s troop of scoundrels cut a wide swath across Iceland. But wealth can transform society’s opinion of even the lowliest men. After he managed to kill enough men and steal enough brocades, precious stones, wines, cattle, and thralls, he could afford to pay one thousand marks of gold for a cargo vessel named Thor’s Dragon.”
“One thousand marks? A foolish sum for a mere cargo vessel.”
“Perhaps, but overpaying brought him to the attention of the finest families, and allowed him to join the highest ranks of the realm, the godar, the men responsible for maintaining Greenland’s religious and judicial organizations.” Uhtred paused. “That was a long time ago. He is now renowned for his charity and justice. Gunnar maintains a religious hall on his farm that is open to all members of the Seidur faith.”
“Hardly the sort of man I would have expected you to hire to carry out so critical a mission.”
“He is also a master of navigation, Highness. He’s sailed Thor’s Dragon to the Hebrides, Rome, the great city of Mikligardur, and all the way to Alexandria in the Black Land, and many places in between. This trip, however, will be his fi rst to the Land of the One-Legged Skraeling barbarians.”
The hooded man’s jaw clenched. “You’re telling me that we just hired an outright murderer because he’s a good sailor?”
Uhtred gave him a grim smile. “Partly. Gunnar’s greatest asset, however, is that he can be bought. Most men in similar circumstances would eventually yield to their conscience or patriotism, or any other justification that allowed them to weasel out of the agreement. I assure you, Gunnar the Skoggangur has no conscience or sense of loyalty, except to his family, or that which he sells to the highest bidder.”
“Can we rely upon the fact that he will not sell us out to someone who offers him more?”
Uhtred spread his arms in a placating gesture. “Once he sells his services, he scrupulously honors the agreement. That’s how he and his forest- walkers survived. A man could count on them.”
Edmund walked over to stare down into Uhtred’s tight eyes. “We desperately need that woman. My father and Eadric, the despicable ealdorman of Mercia, are massing their forces as we speak, and King Cnut is just waiting for his opportunity to attack En gland and take everything we hope for.” His nostrils flared with a breath.
“I’m well aware of that, Your Grace.”
“Are you, Uhtred? Well, let’s be certain we understand the same things. When Sweyn the Forkbeard last attacked En gland, he attributed all of his triumphs to his Prophetess. He said it was her Seidur witchery that allowed him to ravage and burn anywhere he pleased, until no naval or land force dared to stand against him. He became so powerful that wherever his army marched, people threw down their weapons and fell to their knees to pledge allegiance to him. If we have King Sweyn Forkbeard’s renowned Prophetess on our side, it will terrify Cnut and my father. Perhaps even into submission.”
Edmund— the man who would be king— softly added, “I must have her.”
He strode for the door and exited with his plain brown cape swaying about his long legs.
Uhtred exhaled the breath he’d been holding. Great Odin, he knew far better than Edmund what was at stake. If the Prophetess had been here thirteen years ago, King Aethelred’s slaughter of the Danelaw would have failed and many members of Uhtred’s family— and Gunnar’s family— would be alive today.
Uhtred stared at the empty doorway for a few moments, remembering loved ones long gone, then grabbed his hat from the peg on the wall and followed Edmund into the luminous twilight.
Copyright © 2015 by W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O’Neal GearPre-order People of the Songtrail today: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-A-Million | iBooks | IndieBound | Powell's