There was frost on Greta’s eyelashes. She had to blink hard just to open her eyes, and then she was squinting against the glare of the sun, as it reflected off the ice and snow. It was hard to imagine how it could be so cold and so bright at the same time. She was shivering against the cold, drifting snow glancing off her skin like shards of glass. She raised an arm to guard her face against the blowing sleet while the snowbanks shifted around her. She could barely see the camp through the snowstorm, nor hear the harsh, guttural words of the Horen over the screaming of the wind. Each step she took was hard, dragging her leg out of snow so deep it threatened to swallow her, and plunging it down again just inches ahead. Each time she took a step, snow managed to get into her furs, though they were tightly bound to her legs. She used a sharp spear to help her walk, digging it into the snowbank so she had something to hold on to.
At last she reached the relative warmth of the camp. Decorated in skulls, a massive ship moored in the icy waters not far from camp, this was a transient camp, a short stop on the long journey to Grodyk. She took a quick glance back to see that Cade was still with her. She waited till he had caught up, then put a hand on his shoulder. He nodded. They made their way to the edge of the Horen camp, settling down by a blazing fire where the Eldara were settled, apart from the Horen.
She and her brother unslung the treasures of their expedition, half a dozen hoarfrost hares, scrawny beasts with hardly any meat on their bones. She handed off the animals to one of the elders, who took out a knife and began skin the hares. She glanced warily over at the Horen, wondering if they’d seen her pitiful haul. They could expect no assistance or sympathy from their reluctant allies. The Horen abhorred weakness. They would make no exceptions for the Eldara, and had only allied with them because the Eldara had their own form of strength. Magic.
Not that the Horen did not have their own sorcerers, witches, and shaman. There was magic within their ranks, too, but it was rare. For the most part, their strength was brute and savage. Feral instincts, rage. Greta had learned not to expect generosity. They would not lend a helping hand to one of their own. They certainly wouldn’t do the same for an outsider. The Eldara’s alliance was frail enough as it was. She looked from Cade to Hanne, and had to bite her tongue.
“Speak, girl,” said Hanne, elder even amongst the Eldara. “What’s on your mind?”
It was times like these that Greta hated her tribe’s customs. But she shook her head and turned away from her elder to watch the sparks fly up out of the raging fire. She watched the hares cooking on the slowly turning spit, licking her lips as the meat turned golden brown.
Cade sidled up next to her, rubbing his hands together to warm them, not wanting to get too close to the fire after being in the cold for so long. It was dangerous and painful to warm them too quickly.
“Why did we come here?” she said under her breath.
“The Horen are our strength,” he answered.
She blew on her hands, barely feeling her own warm breath with her numb fingers. “Why can’t we be our own strength?” she said, more forcefully than she’d intended, pained more by the thought of her brother leaving her side than by the cold.
“You know why,” he reminded her.
She bit her lip, but she nodded. It was the Eldara’s custom to force the men of their tribe to find their own way in the world. When they came of age, they were exiled, only to return in old age. The Eldara were comprised of women, children, and the elderly. Their weakness was self-imposed, part of the ancient rites of the clan. This left them vulnerable, forced them to enter into disagreeable alliances. An Eldera proverb was weakness is strength. Greta knew what it meant. It meant that their strength was hard earned, that true strength was not something you were born with, but had to be won by hardship, pain, and struggling. Only by exposing himself to danger can a man prove his strength.
Not for the first time, Greta refuted that belief. On this day, that belief was going to cost her a brother. She blinked back tears, and her eyelashes turned to ice again. She had to pull her fingers out of her mittens in order to melt the ice with the warmth of her fingers.
“It’s up to you,” said Cade, putting his arm around his sister.
He gestured at a group of Horen who were gathered around a fire pit. Thickly muscled, furs around his waist, his chest exposed to the elements but unflinching against the cold, a Horen berserker stood among them, sharpening his blade upon a stone. His eyes gleamed with rage, more beast than man. Even the other Horen were wary around him. They would let him loose when there was blood to be spilled. Otherwise, they’d keep a close eye on him, caging him upon the slightest sign of blood rage. The smallest twitch of his eyes, a subtle clenching of his muscles, the tightening of his jaw, a low growl under his breath. In an instant, they’d have his arms bound, for their own safety. Only when the frenzy died down would they release him from the cage. Berserkers were useful in combat, but dangerous when left to idle. But while the Horen were wary around their berserker, it was a wariness born of respect. There was also the fact, plain and simple, that it wasn’t just the berserker they needed to worry about. He might be volatile, with savage instincts that drove him mad at the thought of blood, but it was the runts they needed to worry about. The ones with something to prove….
Next to the berserker, a hulking brute picked meat from a skull. Greta wasn’t entirely certain the skull was animal. It could just as easily have been human. The camp was decorated with bone, and many wore their kills as trophies. They made weapons of femurs and lanterns of skulls. Not for the first time, Greta felt out of place amongst these savage beasts of men. Silently, she cursed her elders for allowing their tribe to end up here. She cast an resentful look at Hanne, then turned back to her brother.
“The Horen still think we’re weak. Show them we’re not, and they might just leave us be. With me leaving…” he trailed off. “Even the slightest sign of weakness, not only will you lose their protection, they may even kill you themselves. They can taste fear.”
“I’m not afraid.”
“I know you’re not, sister,” he told her. “But they don’t know that.”
“What can I do?” she asked.
“They worship savagery,” he said.
Greta laughed. “I am anything but savage,” she said.
“True. You are sweet and gentle,” Cade replied. “That is, when you’re human.” Greta nodded. So that was what he was getting at. Like many in their clan, Greta had magic. But magic had given her a rare ability, seldom seen even amongst the Eldara. “You think I should skin-walk?”
“What form should I take?” she wondered aloud, turning away from the conversation for a moment to receive a handful of meat, which Hanne held out to her. She ate it hungrily, and turned back to her brother, whose own mouth was still full.
“I’ve heard the Horen speak of the valkryn with reverence,” he said, chewing the meat thoughtfully. It was evident that he’d given this some thought already.
Greta nodded. She’d heard the same. Swift as the valkryn was a phrase she’d heard often enough.
“At least you don’t want me to turn into a snowbeast,” she said with a grin.
Her brother grinned back, punching her playfully on the shoulder. “I’m sure you could manage it if you had to, sister.” He stood up. “Let’s go. We’ve a valkryn to kill. If we leave now, we can make it back to camp before nightfall. After that, you’re on your own.”
At that, Greta had to swallow to stop herself from crying again. She turned away to be sure none of the Horen would see her in her moment of weakness. “Where will you go,” she asked, “When you’re exiled?”
Cade shrugged. “I’ve always wanted to visit the Dune Seas,” he said.
Greta smiled. “It’s a long way to Shayara.”
Her brother nodded, then with hardly another glance back, he headed back out into the drifting snow, knowing Greta would follow. A moment later they were crawling over ice and snow once more, this time in search of a valkryn’s roost. Not just any valkryn would do. They would have to kill the biggest, most ferocious, most savage beast they could find. Anything less would not earn her the respect of the Horen.