The Winter King

By: Heather Killough-Walden
Book 8 in the Big Bad Wolf spinoff series, The Kings



Prologue


793 AD, TromsØ, the northwest coast of Norway





Erikk narrowed his gaze and placed his hands above and beneath his eyes, blocking the miniscule sunlight to the south and the reflection of it from the snow below. This far north, the sun appeared for a mere few days before vanishing altogether for most of the year. But of course it would hinder his vision now. Patches left over from the early snow weeks ago had yet to melt and extended directly to the edge of the overhanging cliffs on which he stood.

He watched the waves on the water below for some time before lifting his head and inhaling deeply, drawing in the scents on the breeze.

“There’s another storm on the way, isn’t there?”

Erikk looked down, dropping his arms. His little sister, Ylva, stood beside him, having come upon him as quietly as ever. There was a reason she’d been named for the wolf. “Within three days, perhaps four. Bigger than before. It will mark winter’s beginning and the end of the time of waiting.” Fall to the people across the sea to the west was known as “the time of waiting.” His grandfather, Ohthere had traveled there years ago and had come back to tell tales of their ways. It made sense to Erikk and Ylva, because that was what you did when winter was on the way. You waited. Hence, ever since the stories, brother and sister had referred to fall as such.

But this second storm was coming far too early for the heaviness it carried. The storm would bury them.

“You should tell father. He is having Bjarke lead a ship to go-a-viking by tomorrow’s sunrise. He wants him to go south past the Lapp settlements, and I think he wants you to go as well.”

Erikk bristled. Bjarke was a menace. He hated to have to accompany the brute, but if he didn’t for every trade with the islands, the man would wreak havoc on any crew assigned to him. Bjarke could not be left alone.

“I’ll speak with father.” He turned and left his younger sibling on the outcroppings overlooking the sea and knew she would remain there for some time, her gaze peering toward the horizon and the ice that waited beyond it. She was always looking northward, toward the cold, toward the bears. It was where her heart seemed to reside.

As Erikk neared the camp, another young man in leathers approached. Erikk smiled at him warmly. “Ronald. How do you fare?”

“All healed up and never better. I’m to accompany you tomorrow morning.”

Erikk frowned, glancing at his best friend’s arm, which was still wrapped – and his leg, which was also wrapped. “I doubt it.”

Ronald’s red eyebrows raised, and he made a face. “Aw, let a man be, Erikk. I really am feeling well again. And you’ll need someone on your side with Bjarke at the helm. He has it in for you. He hates you even more now because you bested him four nights ago.”

Ronald Dagfinnr was a medium-sized man the same age as Erikk, ten and six years. He had braids of red hair and the lucky and early beginnings of a beard. Ronald was fairly sure his beard gave him magical powers, and he had been acting a might too brave for Odin’s wisdom of late. The last time they’d gone out fishing together, he’d made the mistake of jumping into the freezing water in order to attempt to wrestle a male narwhal. The beast had speared him in two places before flippantly swimming off again.

Erikk had been forced to haul the bleeding man out of the water before the blood drew unwanted company. Fortunately, the cold of the water caused him to bleed less. On the other hand, he’d lost a toe.

To Ronald’s defense, the horn would have brought a mighty good trade. And what he said about Bjarke was true enough. The brute hated Erikk, not only because Erikk was the chief’s son and next in line as leader, but because Erikk had actually earned that honor. He was admittedly more handsome than most of the men in the camp, and had drawn the attentions of a handful of maidens who were more than content to warm his bed at night. Bjarke had enough reason for jealousy there alone. But at the age of sixteen, a full five years younger than Bjarke, who was twenty-one, Erikk was already larger than most of the men in the camp, taller and broader shouldered. He sported the coveted gold hair of Sif, and eyes of clearest, coldest blue. But most importantly, Erikk had proven himself a more skilled fighter than the other men in the camp, even Bjarke. His command decisions were invariably more intelligent than Bjarke’s, and that didn’t go unnoticed by the swine either.

All in all, he had an enemy for life, if not several. It was a shame, too, because Bjarke’s family was not without value all in all. His older sister, Toril, had been a shield maiden of glorious success. She’d won seven battles before she’d finally fallen beneath the enemy’s blade at the age of twenty-seven. She’d been mighty and honorable. No doubt, Toril had become a Valkyrie upon her death, and now lead other mighty warriors to their final resting place in Valhalla.

“Tell me something, Ronald. How did you know we were to go-a-viking in the morning?”

Ronald shrugged, then winced when the movement no doubt pulled on his stitches. Jorunn was very good with those needles she carved out of bone, but the sinew she sewed into the flesh drew a need for ale none the less. “I’ve been speaking with your mother,” said Ronald. “And of course, she knows everything your father does and says. She’s got Frigga’s eyes and ears, she does.”

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