By way of an introduction to the story itself, here are two short excerpts followed by the first chapter.
The early morning held a clammy chill, the sunlight too weak to warm the world. The sun seemed as ghostly as the moon, each in their corner of a pale cloudless sky. Shivering, Signy hugged herself. The linen of her dress felt clammy too. Judging by his slow and steady breaths, Toki was asleep beside her.
Signy had also slept a while before her dreams woke her. She had long since stopped telling anyone about her dreams. The first few times she had, her mother had looked frightened. She tried to hide it of course, but Signy could see it in her eyes. And for a long time, she felt her mother watched her in the mornings. When Signy caught her looking, her mother replaced the furrow between her eyebrows with the flash of a smile. But the smile was too small or too short or something; it was like it never actually reached her worried eyes. Signy decided not to speak of her dreams after that.
In the stern, a lone upright figure might be the only one also awake. Resting her head back down, Signy listened to the creaking of the ship and the snores from one of the men. She was unlikely to sleep; but she wasn’t even sure she wanted to.
Without shifting her gaze, Frúa Helga said in a dreamy voice, “You know the stories of Odinn hanging in the tree for nine nights and cutting out his eye. Why did he do these two painful deeds?”
“The hanging brought him the runes and the nine magic songs.” Signy looked at her owner’s face to see her response, but Frúa Helga kept staring into the fire with empty eyes and a blank face. Signy turned her eyes towards the flames also. “The eye was the price for drinking from Mímir’s well.”
“And what these have in common is wisdom. Insight. Knowledge.” Frúa Helga sighed. “You see how suffering is at the root of wisdom. Some people think it must be wonderful to be a völva. They see only the might and the magic. But behind that craft lies suffering. There is a cost. And the magic in this world chooses more offers on top of the ones you already give to the gods, the elements, and other spirits.”
A tear formed in the corner of her owner’s eye and rolled down her cheek. Signy pressed her lips together to not cry herself.
“It is a way of life that costs you what you love most in exchange for working with the spirits of the natural world and listening to the gods. You are tried again and again to see if you are worthy.”
And if you want to know how the story begins, read on below
The embers on the hearth glowed red in the dim darkness. Signy held her breath and listened to the night sounds. A slight snoring came from her parents’ sleeping skins across the room. She slid her feet onto the floor and, step by step, crept towards the door.
Further down the bench, her brother lay sprawled half in and half out of his sleeping skins with one arm thrown above his head. He was fast asleep. Signy edged her way around his other arm, which stuck out over the side of the wall bench.
In the doorway, she looked back into the room and smiled before closing the door gently behind her.
Outside, the pale light of the summer night welcomed her into its world of washed-out colours, which made the familiar seem anything but. The grasses and blossoms grey at her feet. Hedges and trees grown into looming giants. The edge of the forest alive with shapes lurking inside its murky depths.
The known world of daytime slept. The fields, pastures, and houses of the whole hamlet lay silent. Not even the birds sang. Dawn did not yet paint the sky. She would not be late.
It wasn’t the first time she sneaked out alone. Her mother warned her again and again that the Jotun giants would get her if she kept risking her life by going off into the wilds on her own. And Jotun giants were the most dangerous beings of all in the world. Why, they tricked, and often bested, even the gods themselves.
Signy knew from all the stories how Jotun giants could make themselves unseen and work all manner of trickery and magic. Despite their name, they could take different shapes and sizes. You could never know them by sight for sure. It wasn’t that she didn’t believe the warnings about them; she just couldn’t stop herself. Nowhere did she feel more free than when alone in the forest with the other wild beings.
Today, however, she was not going off on her own - and nor was she going into the forest. Today she was sailing out to sea. Her stomach did a somersault at the thought.
Feet flying and heart beating fast, Signy raced through the long, wet grass towards the coast. Just before the last house of the hamlet, she found Fasti and Toki waiting for her.
“Sh! The dogs will hear you,” hissed Toki.
Completely out of breath, Signy bent forward, hands on thighs.
Fasti smiled his mischievous crooked smile at her. “If you forget to breathe in all the excitement, little cousin, you’ll pass out and miss all the fun,” he said in her ear.
The two boys stuck their heads together, whispering. Toki moved off along the edge of the trees. Fasti motioned at her to follow.
As they neared the sea, a mist over the water snaked its way onto the shore.
Toki halted. “Bogwife brew. We can’t go out in that.”
“Of course we can.” Fasti waved a hand dismissively in the air. “Not scared of the bogwife, are you? Come on, it’ll lift soon enough.”
A dog barked somewhere nearby.
“Hurry! Run!” Toki hesitated only a moment as if to see that they had indeed understood. Then he was off. Fasti kept alongside Signy as they raced after him.
They sprinted onto the beach, where they managed to pull the boat across the sand and shingle into the water so quickly that Thor himself must have been helping them. Or maybe Loki, who was the god most likely to approve of mischief and rule breaking, Signy smiled to herself.
With Fasti rowing strong strokes, they soon disappeared into the mist. The water was quiet on the bay. The world seemed to dissolve around them. There was only a strip of water visible; it felt mystical moving through the mist like this. Would they leave this world altogether and slip into another? Into Vanaheimr maybe.
Signy let her hand hang over the side of the boat and watched it glide through the water. It was going to be fantastic to surprise her family with fresh fish for breakfast. Her mother would smile and her father would ask with admiration how she had caught so many fat fish.
Fasti rowed them away from shore and west around a low headland. The water was a bit more choppy out here, and the mist thinned. But even if it should lift completely, they would be out of sight from the settlement now.
Resting the oars, Fasti sat back. His eyes twinkled. “Well, let’s catch us some fish.”
Toki laughed and punched him on the shoulder. Fasti pushed him back, and Toki fell off his seat into the bottom of the boat. Soon the whole boat bounced merrily in time with the three of them slapping and pushing each other.
On their way home, with the early sun shining through the mist and Toki at the oars, Signy leaned against Fasti. “Thank you.”
“So, you’re glad you came after all then?” He looked at her out of the corner of his eye.
“Now you can tell that annoying little brother of yours that he missed out.”
“Magni’s not annoying.” Signy sat bolt upright. “Don’t you dare say that about my brother.”
“Alright. Peace. Calm down, wildfire.” Fasti raised his hands in surrender and chuckled.
Signy chewed her lower lip. She should have asked to bring Magni along with them. Why hadn’t she thought of that before? The thrill of the two older boys wanting her to come, and the fun secret of it all. Her brother would be crushed to have been left out of the adventure. What could she say to him?
The boat rocked as Fasti moved to sit beside Toki, and the two of them rowed together for better speed. A breeze played over the water and with their hair. Out on the bay, the mist had cleared, but it still lay in curls along the shoreline. How far from home had they come?
“D’you think your father’ll be impressed with our catch?” Toki’s oar caught on the recovery and water sprayed from its blade. He glanced at Fasti and pulled hard on his oar to match Fasti again.
Fasti dipped his own oar to cause a splash that sent spray into the boat.
“You did that on purpose.” Signy wiped her arm on the skirt of her dress.
“Did not.” Fasti made big innocent eyes.
They all laughed.
Fasti pushed his oar handle forward, holding the blade in the air, ready to take a stroke, and waited for Toki to do the same. “My father’ll be impressed alright, but he’ll also punish me for taking the boat. And especially for bringing Signy along. What about yours?”
“Oh, I’m going to get a thorough scolding from my mother and a right good thrashing at the hands of my father. That’s for sure.”
Future punishment regardless, they both grinned from ear to ear. So this was what glowing with pride looked like. Signy shook her head and smiled with them.
The two boys looked straight ahead again, and their faces fell. They sat frozen in place, poised before the first pull on the oars. Signy swivelled on her seat to see what they saw.
Out of the mist around the headland, a larger boat came in full sail, bearing down on them fast.
“Longship.” Fasti’s voice had an edge to it.
The boys began rowing frantically for the shore.