The bond between men and the gods is weakening.
A dead man walks between the worlds and foresees Odin's doom.
The only survivor of a slaughter unleashes a monster from fiery Muspelheim.
Long hidden among mortals, a giantess sighs and takes up her magics once again.
A chief's son must overcome war and treason to become the leader his people need.
And the final battle is coming...
Raised in Denmark, fluent in Korean and and living in France, Thilde Kold Holdt was a name new to me when I was putting together this bundle, and might be to you too! Isn't that the fun, and what is so exciting about discovering new voices? Welcome to Northern Wrath! – Lavie Tidhar
"Packs a punch worthy of the Thunderer himself. It rocks!"– Joanne Harris
"Holdt wows in her Norse mythology-inspired debut… an electrifying adventure."– Publishers Weekly, starred review
"Ferocious, compelling, fiercely beautiful. Fantasy at its very best."– Anna Smith Spark
Blood dripped from Einer's fingertips onto the crisp snow.
The sound brought him back to his senses. His sleeves were bloody, his entire coat was, and his trousers too. The left side of his ribs stung. His coat was torn there. The wool flayed in long strips. Einer pressed a hand against his ribs. Fresh blood warmed his fingers.
He must have been attacked, although he did not remember it, or much at all; only that he had set out with the others before midday. He did not remember jumping down from his horse, or tearing off his gloves, or being wounded, or anything much. He did not even know what the last thing he remembered was.
His lips tasted of iron and salt. There was too much blood on his coat and hands for it to have come solely from his wound. Someone else was there, or had been. He must have fought.
A trail of Einer's own bloody steps disturbed the otherwise white snow. The steps led straight back a few paces, up the bare slope of the dale.
With one hand clenched around his chest not to upset his ribs, Einer forced his legs through the heavy snow, following his own bloody footprints. He searched the forestless mountain for Sigismund and his friends. They would not have left him on his own. Unlike them, he did not know one dale from the other.
Ten strides up lay Einer's horse at an awkward angle. Its skull was crushed and its stomach exposed, as if a hunter had sliced it open and wrenched out its guts. To the right of the horse lay the hunter; a great white bear with an axe through its skull. The snow was tainted red around the beast. On its hind legs, it had to be twice Einer's height.
The trail of Einer's steps led straight to the white bear. The axe in its skull was his.
He tried to dry the blood off his hands onto his trousers, but they were equally smeared with red. Frantically, he washed his bare hands in the snow, and the arms of his coat and his trousers, but the blood had already stained itself into the fur, and wool, and dried into his skin.
He had thought he would not lose control again. The last time had been so long ago.
The sight of the bear, and the thought of it all, made him shake, or perhaps it was the cold, for his freezing hands barely bent to his will.
His eyes swelled with tears at the thought that it had happened again. If his father heard about it, Einer would be sent away again, and if his mother heard about it… He couldn't imagine what she would do, but he knew that it meant never returning home to Ash-hill. No one could know.
Even as he stared at his axe in the bear's skull, Einer could not make sense of it.
The berserker inside him was supposed to have been repressed, and yet there he stood, in snow to his knees with blood on his hands and his axe planted into the skull of a great white bear, shaking at the thought of what he must have done. He felt trapped inside his own body.
Einer took a few deep breaths, focused on calming his emotions, and took in the landscape. He imagined that was what his mother would have done, had she been there. She would have calmed him down first, and then assessed what needed to be done.
The winter days were short this far north. Since the sun was still in the sky; he could not have been out for long. He needed to find a way back to the village before sunset. First, he needed warmth.
Einer limped towards his horse, searching for his gloves, or something else to warm his hands. The horse smelled of manure, and the smell was worse than the sight of its exposed intestines and stomach. Einer bent down by its open guts where the heat steamed out. He leant into the steam, let his face thaw, and shook the ice out of his hair and hat. The smell of iron poured out of the horse and filled his nostrils. He reached in past the horse's ribs to heat up his hands. The warmth seared into his flesh and tore at his bones. His fingers numbed, and when the pain returned, he tried to bend his fingers, again and again, until they listened.
For a moment, he kept his hands in the heat and watched the quiet dale to calm his racing heart and decide on his next move. When the snow fell this far north, it covered everything, not like back home, where there would be trees with patches of earth underneath them. There were not many landmarks to steer by here, and Einer did not recognise the shape of the hills, but the position of the sun told him which way was west, and they had ridden east out of the town in the morning.
The white bear twitched.
It wasn't dead, not yet.
Determined to finish the deed, Einer pulled his bloody hands out of the horse and approached the bear. The bear kicked out with its hind legs. Before Einer could reach it and retrieve his axe from its skull, the bear rose.
Einer backed away with his eyes locked on the bear. He crouched behind the dead horse to shield himself, fully aware that he would not be able to run with his wounded ribs. Not that running would have given him much of an advantage.
His weapon belt was empty.
The bear was enormous. Even on all fours, it was taller than Einer.
Einer searched around the horse for a weapon, for something to defend himself with, if it came to it. Don't turn around, don't turn around, he chanted in his head, hoping the bear would listen.
Before long, the bear would notice Einer. He needed a weapon before then, but moving in to reach his axe was too risky. A quiver was fastened to the back of the horse's saddle. Einer pulled out the arrows and lay them in the snow besides him. There were only three. His bow lay pressed underneath the horse. Einer dug the snow out to reach. His hands were freezing once again.
The white bear stumbled a few steps forward, and then its eyes caught the horse. Einer slid his hands out from underneath his dead ride. It was too late and he had no bow. He grabbed an arrow in each hand. The bear eyed him, and slowly, as if its large weight barely allowed the bear to move, it stepped towards Einer.
Einer tried not to breathe; perhaps the bear had not seen him yet.
He clenched his hands around the arrows. His hands were numb from the cold. His ribs stung, and still, the bear trod ahead, one heavy step after the other. Its cold eyes were locked on Einer. There was no doubt they had both seen each other.
Einer rose from his crouched position. His chest wound forced him to hunch in over himself. The closer it came, the larger the bear seemed to be.
He braced himself to fight. At the very least, he needed to die with valour, like a warrior, so Odin might choose him and allow him to pass on into Valhalla in the afterlife. Be brave, he told himself, but his limbs were shaking, and his ribs hurt as if he was being stabbed over and over, and he did not feel very brave at all. 'Be brave,' he whispered aloud. 'You've already survived one attack.' The thought did not make him feel brave, only more terrified, because he had never heard any stories about someone surviving a white bear attack twice.
The bear pushed itself up to its hind legs. It cast a long shadow across Einer. Before he could change his mind, Einer yelled and plunged forward with his arrows. He hopped up against the bear's fur, aimed for the heart, and pushed both arrowheads against its chest. The wood snapped. The arrow tips fell helplessly down into the snow. The bear bumped into Einer, so he fell onto his back. He fumbled for the last arrow, grabbed it with both hands, and wormed backwards. 'Go away,' he said, trying to sound threatening, but his voice shook from the cold and did not carry much strength.
The bear roared, tall on its hind legs. Its voice resonated around the dale.
'Go away!' Einer bellowed, finding all the courage he possessed. He slashed out at the white bear with the arrow in his hands. 'Leave me.' He felt silly for yelling. The bear looked down at him, tilted its head, and then it let itself fall forward. Einer held his breath, ready to be crushed under the bear's weight. The tip of his last arrow hit the bear's chest and splintered like the others.
With a thump, the white bear landed in the snow with a great paw on either side of Einer. Its breath smelled of rotten fish and the stench made Einer's eyes tear up. Or perhaps it was the fact that he could not remember anything. He did not know why the others had left him to ride off alone, or how the white bear had found him, or how he had planted his axe in its skull. He had nearly killed a white bear, and he did not even remember it.
The bear eyed him, and lifted its black lips in a snarl to reveal its sharp yellow teeth. Its face was smeared with blood, and its jaw so wide it could close down over Einer's head.
Einer felt himself shrink at the bear's blank stare. 'Forgive. I… I… I don't remember,' he admitted. 'Forgive me. I wasn't myself.'
The bear leant closer to him, and Einer rummaged to pull away, but he was trapped between the bear's large paws. He tightened his grip around the splintered arrow. The white bear bent in close to his face, and just when Einer thought it would bare its teeth and crush his skull, its wet nose touched his. It nudged him, as a mother might nudge its cub. Its breath thawed his face and Einer's cheeks and ears prickled to life. He lay still, and sniffed to stop the melting snot from running down over his face. 'Forgive,' he muttered to the bear, staring into its black eyes.
The wind ruffled the bear's fur.
'You should leave,' Einer said. The beast moaned in response, swayed its heavy head from one side to the other, and as if it understood him, it rose to its hind legs, turned, and slumped down, away from Einer.
One gloomy step after the other, the white bear lumped away, past the dead horse, and up the slope of the dale.
Einer waited until he could no longer see it from where he lay. With the bear out of sight, he let go of the broken arrow in his grip and exhaled loudly. He rubbed his hands together and cupped them around his ears. His heart raced. He pushed himself up to sit, and brushed the snow off his coat.
The bear trampled out over the icy valley, moving fast on all fours. It almost seemed as if Einer had imagined their encounter, or dreamt it. It seemed impossible. The bear had been so much stronger than him.
Far to the right of the dale, where the wind blew in, a rider trotted across the white fields, headed for Einer. The bear must have smelled someone coming, and decided to leave.
'I'm here,' Einer yelled. He waved his hands over his head, and then slumped back down into the snow, waiting for the rider to reach him. Somehow, he needed to keep his berserker craze a secret.
Sigismund and the others would question what had happened, and when his father heard that his berserker craze had returned, Einer would be sent away, no longer fit to be the son of a chief.
The crunch of the horse's hooves in the snow became louder and louder. Einer pushed himself back up, ignoring how much his hands and ribs hurt.
The rider was Sigismund. It felt strangely discomfiiting to see Sigismund covered in fur and skin jackets when he usually wore colourful clothes full of embroidery. His fur hat hid his blonde curls and his neck-warmer reached up over his chin and hid the thin stubbles of the beard he tried to grow.
A few paces away from the bloody outline of the white bear in the snow, Sigismund slid off his horse and pushed his boots through the knee-high snow. He stared down at the white bear outline, and warily approached. The horse trod nervously at the smell of death.
Einer gulped and rubbed his hands. 'My hands are freezing,' he said in a rough voice.
'Found your gloves,' Sigismund mumbled. He seemed to have completely forgotten. He shifted his attention away from the patch in the snow, to Einer, and it made Einer feel as if he had interrupted something. Sigismund stumbled ahead, holding Einer's thick wool gloves.
With a thankful nod, Einer took them. They were stiff from having lain in the snow. He slapped the snow out of them, and when he put them on, clenched his fists to gain some warmth.
'Thought we'd lost you to the ice,' Sigismund said. 'Didn't think you were… chasing bears..?'
'It got my axe,' Einer said. 'Lucky you arrived and scared it off.'
'White bears don't flee…' Sigis mumbled. 'Where is your axe?'
'With the white bear,' Einer said. 'Stuck in its skull.'
Sigismund stilled at his answer, and Einer just knew he had said something wrong, again.
The wind seemed colder for the sudden silence and distance between them.
'It'll be dead soon, then.' Sigismund shook his head in disbelief. 'Fifteen summers old and already a white bear slayer. Three summers younger than any of us,' he mumbled as if he had just remembered it, again. No one ever quite let go of that fact. 'How did you do it?'
Einer did not know the answer. Thinking of it made him miss his mother. 'I'd like to go home,' he said instead. 'It's cold.'
Sigismund agreed with a nod. 'We need to patch you up,' he said.
In silence Sigismund bound Einer's wound. Einer started to feel dizzy from the cool air and the pain in his ribs. The whole day exhausted him, and he just wanted to get home, not only back to the village and warm himself, but to set sail and get home to Jutland and Ash-hill, and Hilda.
Sigismund helped Einer up on the horse and mounted at the front.
Clouds had blown in during the day, and the sun hung low in the sky. It had been dark when they had woken up and prepared to set out. Winter days were so short up north, and Einer missed the warmer weather from back home. After today's events, he missed it even more, and all he wanted was to sit by the fire while their skald told stories about great heroes.
It seemed like they had ridden for a long time, but when Einer glanced back over his shoulder he could still see the dot of his dead horse and he knew they could not have ridden for that long.
In silence, they set into tölt and left the dale. After the trot with which they had started, the steady tölt was almost soothing, and Einer's ribs hurt less than before.
Einer knew Sigismund had something to say from the way he rummaged on the horse, searching for the words. Finally, Sigis spoke: 'Did you really attack…?'
'I did,' Einer confirmed. He tried not to mind the way Sigismund hesitated to talk about it as if they hardly knew each other, although they had been friends for half a dozen winters.
Einer starede at the back of his friend's head and became so acutely aware of how different from each other they were, and perhaps always had been.
The horse heaved and thumped out over the snowy landscape. The clouds tainted yellow.
'The gods steered your hand.' Sigismund had selected his words with care.
In silence they rode on for so long that the day turned dark and the lights of the village finally entered into view, in the far distance.
'The gods didn't steer me,' said Einer, having thought about it all this while. 'They let me go.'