Chapter 1 of “Lords of the Night,” a Historical Fantasy

Chapter 1

Odd

Odd prepared carefully for the summoning, studying the rune stave closely and going over the words of the spell several times. Despite the chill in the air, sweat trickled down his spine. He knew he was taking an enormous risk—If anything went wrong, he might be utterly destroyed. But the risk would be worth it. He had trained seven long years in the dark for this, reading fiery letters with aching eyes until he thought his head would split wide open.

He went over his preparations for the tenth time. He felt almost confident the summoning would be perfect, but apprehension coiled in his gut like an eel. He sketched the rune stave with anxious precision, drawing glowing blue lines in the still air of his cave, where they hung, flickering in the darkness as he chanted the spell. He was certain it was perfect in every detail.

The rune stave shattered as something burst through the glittering lines, which faded like sparks from the cookfire. Odd stared at this apparition, shocked into immobility. It was about his own height, with long, black legs streaked with colors Odd had never seen before. The legs terminated in heavy black hooves. Its torso was swollen and ridged like a dead whale, completely black. But its face was strikingly human, the face of a pale young woman. It had blazing blue eyes and a corona of corkscrewed red hair.

Before Odd could invoke the spell of binding, the spirit raised one leg, using the opposite foot as a pivot point, and swiveled—fast. Odd saw the black hoof hurtling toward his head, and then he knew nothing at all.

#

He awoke to the sound of sobbing. Confused, he kept his eyes closed. He was lying on rock. Shards of stone bit into his back. His head ached horribly, especially his jaw, where the spirit had struck him. His arms and hands were firmly bound. He tried to draw a rune stave to free himself, but he found he couldn’t move even his fingers.

Odd finally risked opening his eyes, which met a terrible vision. The spirit was crouched upon the cave floor on the opposite side of the fire. Now its white face was streaked with uneven black lines from its eyes to its chin. Odd’s heart nearly leaped through his chest wall before the creature used one black hand to wipe its face. The resultant smearing told Odd that the streaks were something tears had washed down the creature’s face.

The apparition looked at its soiled, wet hand and heaved a deep sigh that seemed to begin at its hooves and work its way through its distorted body until the air finally escaped from its mouth. Odd said, “Please, mighty spirit, don’t harm me. I apologize for summoning you to this lowly cave…”

The spirit looked at him in amazement and said something unintelligible. It sounded like a question. Some of the words sounded familiar, but garbled.

Odd attempted to arrange his face into an expression that was both benign and authoritative. He wasn’t sure it was working, but said, “I have summoned you, O Spirit. I know not where you reside, but this is my…”

The spirit asked another question, sounding angry, blue eyes snapping. Again, some of the words sounded like Odd should know what they meant. He seized on one of the words, “where.” He repeated it, but gave it his own intonation and cocked an eyebrow at the spirit. It considered for a second and then repeated “where” in perfectly unaccented Viking Nordic. Encouraging!

It took a long time. The spirit eventually had to untie Odd, who was helpless for some time afterward as circulation painfully returned to his hands and feet. As he recovered, the spirit watched him intently, every move making it start, clearly fearful of him. He wondered why a powerful spirit would be afraid of a mere human magician. He didn’t want to tempt fate by testing its tolerance.

Once the first word was unravelled, the rest began to come into focus. Odd discovered to his astonishment that the spirit had been speaking Nordic all along—just not in a way that he understood at first. As they fumbled their way through a conversation, it became easier and easier.

The spirit was finally able to make its questions understood. “Where am I and how did I get here?”

“I summoned you, O Powerful Spirit. This is my dwelling place.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

Odd reflected. This was a poorly informed spirit if it hadn’t heard about summonings. “Um well, I wanted a spirit to be my familiar. To do my will. Ah, to demonstrate my power to the people of Iceland. They haven’t been very impressed with me so far, but it’s not my fault. Now they will learn what a great magician is Odd Ketilsson!”

The spirit seated itself on the cave floor a safe distance from Odd, put its head in its hands and shook it. The light from Odd’s fire made grotesque, distorted shadows on the stony walls.

“I don’t know what’s happening. Maybe I’ve gone crazy. Maybe I’m hallucinating. I didn’t take the mushrooms that Magnús offered me, but maybe they were in the coffee or something. I must be out of my mind on shrooms.”

Odd didn’t catch much of this, but he did understand that the spirit was questioning its sanity. “No, you’re not mad. I summoned you. That’s why you’re here.”

“You are either a hallucination or a crazy person. From the way you’re dressed, I’m guessing crazy. I’m going to find my friends and then we’re calling the police. You kidnapped me somehow—I don’t understand that part—but I’ll be back—with the police!”

The apparition leaped to its long and colorful legs and began striding uphill toward the cave entrance. Odd called after it, wondering what “the police” was, but it kept going until it left the ring of light cast by Odd’s fire. He could still hear those hooves, though, crunching against the loose scree on the cave floor. The spirit said it would return, so he decided not to go after it. It had already proven itself dangerous.

After what seemed like at least a day but was probably less than an hour, Odd heard the crunching sounds returning down the shaft of the cave. The figure that emerged from the darkness was alone. Whatever it had threatened to bring back with it had not materialized. Odd considered this was probably in his favor. The apparition seated itself next to the fire again a bleak expression on its face.

“There are trees out there,” it said. “Big, straight birches.”

Odd did not follow the significance of this. “Yes?”

“There were no trees when we got here. Just scrub. Now there are trees. Everywhere.”

“Yes?” Odd said cautiously, not comprehending. The fire was dying down. And he was hungry.

“Where am I?” asked the spirit.

Odd stared at the creature. Then he said, “Haukadalur. Western Iceland.”

The spirit’s face crumpled. Tears began to flow again. “Tell me what year it is.”

Again, Odd stared. He had no idea how to answer.  Finally he replied, “It has been about one hundred winters since Flóki Vilgerðarson visited these shores.”

The creature stared at him in horror, eyes like chips of ice in its smeared face. “No. No. That’s completely impossible. That was more than a thousand years ago! I don’t believe it. I won’t believe it.” Odd stared. What was the spirit saying? A thousand—a thousand!—winters had passed since Flóki Vilgerðarson explored Iceland? What was the spirit talking about? Everyone knew it had only been one hundred winters or so. Was the spirit indeed deranged—or did it mean it had been summoned from a thousand years in the future?

The spirit rose to its hooves again, but this time Odd had a better view and time to process what he was seeing. Those were not hooves at the ends of its color-splotched legs. They were boots. Solid, black leather boots constructed in a manner he had never before seen. They extended to mid-calf and looked comfortable and warm in addition to being the best-crafted footwear he had ever seen. He felt a sudden pang of envy. His own shoes were made of a single piece of goatskin, hair to the inside, stitching to the outside. He could feel every pebble beneath his feet, but with this pair of boots—were they magical? They certainly were the finest he’d ever seen—in those boots his feet would never feel the rocks he trod on, nor would he ever feel the cold creeping up from the ground. Odd wondered if it might be possible to bamboozle a spirit out of its boots, but decided first to focus on persuading the spirit not to harm him.

The spirit was striding around the cave, staying close to the fire but avoiding Odd. It muttered to itself as it paced, but Odd couldn’t hear the words.

“O Great Spirit?” he ventured.

The spirit stopped walking and looked at him. “I’m not a spirit.”

This gave Odd pause for thought. He had summoned a spirit, so what else could this thing be? “What are you, then?”

“A woman.”

Odd regarded his strange visitor. The face beneath its smudges was human, even pretty. The hair, although bright red and exuberant, was human. But the bulging shape of its torso, ridged and puffed and black, seemed grotesque and inhuman. Her hands likewise were swollen, and a deep black as though dipped in tar. “I, uh, I guess I thought you were a spirit because that’s what I called up—a spirit. Not a person. And you don’t look entirely human to me, if I am to be completely honest.”

He surreptitiously rubbed his hands together, remembering how much it had hurt when she had removed the rope and circulation began to return. He’d been reluctant to tackle a spirit with his magic, but a woman? That was a different matter. He could fell her with a single gesture.

The apparition, or woman, or whatever it was looked offended. “I don’t look human to you? And why not?”

“Your legs. I have never seen skin all splotched with colors. And I have never seen colors like that, either.”

The woman glanced down at her legs and shrugged. She pinched the black, streaky skin between thumb and forefinger and pulled a tent up above her knee, making Odd shudder with disgust. She released the tent, and the “skin” snapped back, conforming to her shape. “See? It’s not me, just my leggings.”

Odd knew what leggings were, and they didn’t look like this. “What are those colors? Even in the firelight, they hurt my eyes.”

The woman looked again at her black leggings, streaked with glowing orange, blue, magenta and lime green. “Yeah. I guess that’s right. You’ve never seen these colors, but they’re common where I come from.”

“And, and your, um body? It’s not shaped like a person. Not like a woman?”

She ran her hands over her ridged, puffy torso and smiled slightly. Next she grasped a tiny flake of silver at her throat, and with one smooth movement, accompanied by a ripping sound, she split her body wide open. Before Odd could release a shriek in response, she shrugged off the black “torso” to reveal a knitted tunic underneath—a tunic that left no doubt as to her personhood or gender.

Odd relaxed a little. This was not a spirit—or even one of the Huldufólk, another possibility that had crossed his mind. Capturing one of the Hidden Folk in this manner would have been incredibly dangerous, resulting in endless trouble with the magical ones who lived in the hills and stones. But this was just a woman. Her clothing was like nothing ever seen in this world, but inside the clothing, she was just a woman.

“Where did you come from?” he asked. “I wasn’t trying to summon you. I wanted to summon a powerful spirit that could help with my work.”

The woman sat down opposite him, across the fire.“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you. I don’t believe it myself. Let’s just say I come from a long way away.”

“If you come from so far away, how is it that you speak the same tongue as I? I don’t understand everything you say, but you are definitely speaking Norse.”

“That’s going to be a long story,” the woman said, not moving.

“Well, if it’s a long story, maybe you should get started?”

“I’ll tell you about myself, but you go first. Somehow, you reached into my life and pulled me through time, and I don’t trust you. Sounds like you were looking for a slave that you could force to do your bidding. What’s to stop you from enslaving me?”

Odd had to acknowledge that she had a point. But he had wanted a spirit, not a mere woman. A woman couldn’t help him on the path he intended to travel.Very well, it hurt nothing to tell her. He began to speak.

“I had fourteen winters when I left my father’s farmstead to go to the Black School,” he began.

She interrupted him. “What’s the Black School?”

“It’s the school where some boys go to study to become magicians. Anyway, it’s very far away and no one knows where it is…”

“If no one knows where it is, how did you get there?”

“I will tell you, woman, if you ever shut up!” Odd snapped. The woman looked at him coolly.

“Mind your manners, Odd Ketilsson.”

This creature was arrogant in a way Odd had never encountered in a woman. He fumed silently for a few moments, then resumed his story. “So I left my father’s farm…”

“Why did you leave?”

“That’s my business,” he returned, letting a frown draw down his sandy brows. He glared.

“Fine. So how did you find the Black School?”

“I went from farmstead to farmstead, asking for magicians or seeresses practicing in the area. Based on what they told me, I went south and east, to the volcano called Hekla.”

To his surprise, the woman chuckled. He raised his brows.

“That’s my name,” she said, smiling a little.

“Your name is Hekla?” Odd stared at her. “Your parents named you after a volcano? Why would they do that?”

The laughter was gone from her face now. “I guess it was all the red hair I was born with. Anyway, it’s a fairly common name where I come from.”

“Where—“

“Never mind that for now. Keep talking.”

Odd squirmed with irritation. He wasn’t used to a female taking this tone with him. “I found the volcano. At its base, there is a lava tube. I was told to walk into the lava tube and it would take me to the Black School.”

“And did it?”

“Um, sort of. I had a torch with me, but when it went out, I couldn’t relight it. By that time, I had gone a long way underground. It was as black as a seal, and I was terrified of wandering off a drop-off in the dark. It was also freezing and I was exhausted, so I laid down to rest in my leather sleep-bag, wondering if I would ever find my way either to the Black School or out of the lava tube. But when I woke up, I was in the Black School.”

“How’d that happen?”

“I don’t know. I woke up in a warm, soft bed, and there was this…personage sitting by my bed, watching me.” Odd shuddered slightly.

“Personage?”

“She was the…” Odd gulped, feeling as though there were a dry stone in his throat. “She was a goddess. The Goddess Hel. In person.” His voice was hushed with reverence.

Hekla drew up one red, skeptical brow. “Hel, the goddess of death and the underworld?” Odd nodded. Hekla stood up, brushing dust from her leggings. “Odd, you can’t tell the truth to save your life. There is no Goddess Hel. I don’t know what you’re trying to pull, but…”

“Please!” The urgency in Odd’s voice stopped her. “It’s all true. I stayed in the Black School for seven years, and I saw her many times. She’s real. She is a true goddess. Please don’t say that again—for all I know, she’s listening!”

“Why do you think she’s a goddess?”

Odd closed his eyes, remembering. “She is entirely black…”

“There’s lots of black people, even in Iceland. At least where I come from.”

Odd shook his head. “No. Not black like a person with dark skin.” He had actually never seen someone who wasn’t white-skinned, but his people knew a tremendous amount about their world. Odd knew dark-skinned people existed, even if he had never seen one. “She was black like obsidian. Like the winter sky at midnight. And even her eyes are all black, with no whites. But there were little lights floating in them, like tiny stars.” He shuddered again briefly. “And she is incredibly old and powerful.”

“Uh-huh,” Hekla said. “Then what?” Her tone was no less doubtful.

“Well, she accepted me into the school as a student. There were six other boys in my class—“

“No girls?”

Odd stared. “No. Of course not.”

“Right,” said Hekla, a grim set to her lips.

“I studied there for seven years. I…I wasn’t very happy. I was the best student in my class, but there is no light in the Black School. We studied by the light of the fiery letters in the spell books. We memorized hundreds of spells every year, maybe thousands. It made my eyes ache. I learned a useful little spell to make a flame in my palm, and I would light this flame whenever I was alone because I missed the light so much. Odd closed his eyes, remembering. “I missed the sun,” he said wistfully. “At least in the winter, you know the sun will come back in the spring. In the Black School, there is no light to look forward to for seven long years.”

“So you were the best student in your class. Best at what?”

“Magic. Carving staves in particular.”

“Staves? Like long sticks?”

“No. Magical runes. Some are the same as we use for writing, some are different. They all possess magic.”

“And you carve these runes in wood or something?”

“Anything. You can carve them into anything.”

“Can you carve runes into a living animal or human? Surely you wouldn’t do that?”

“You don’t have to make a cut. You can cast a spell by carving a stave into the air with your finger. That’s mostly how I do it. Or you can shave a rune into the sheep’s wool or scratch it onto a horse’s hoof. Or onto skin with your saliva. Or…”

Hekla held up a restraining hand. Once Odd had realized that her hooves were actually boots, he also realized that her hands weren’t black, but covered in puffy material of some sort. “Got it. Thanks—that was helpful. Now, you’re here and the Black School is somewhere under a volcano. When and why did you leave the school?”

“I turned twenty-one along with the rest of my class. One morning about six months ago, we all received a written notice of graduation. We were granted full privileges as magicians and told to leave the school at our convenience. And of course, that set off a firestorm,” he concluded gloomily.

“Why?”

“We all knew when we started at the Black School that in every graduating class, the last student to leave the school would be taken, never to see the sunlit lands again. No one wanted to be that student, of course. Everyone was trying to figure out how to trick everyone else into being last. None of us were friends—we competed too hard against each other. I had done too well, and they were jealous.”

“Were you trying to trick the others, too?”

“Not exactly. I was trying to figure out how not to be the target of someone else’s trick. I had already decided how I was going to leave the school without being detected. I had it all worked out. I spent hours and hours in the library, searching for an invisibility spell in some of the books that we weren’t required to read or memorize. I didn’t want it to be something that another student would be likely to know about. I found one, memorized it carefully, and planned to leave the school invisibly without worrying about what my fellow students were up to.”

“And how did that work out?”

Odd’s face fell and he slumped a bit. “The spell worked. I know it worked because I tested it out on the others. I played tricks on them when I was invisible, and no one could figure out who or what was tweaking their books out of their hands or knocking beakers off the table. I hoarded up some food I stole from the kitchen and headed for the lava tunnel leading to the upper world. I made no noise. I lit no light. But it didn’t work.”

“The other boys caught you?”

“No, worse. Hel caught me.”

****

To purchase “Lords of the Night”: https://amzn.to/3yqcPI1

3 thoughts on “Chapter 1 of “Lords of the Night,” a Historical Fantasy

  1. Pingback: Book Clubs Take Note: Discount Offer on “The Obsidian Mirror” | obsidianmirrorblog

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