Ice Land

Chapter One

When I was sixteen, I was given a cloak made entirely of feathers. It was made from pale grey falcon wings, unthinkably soft, with no more weight than a handful of ash. I remember the sensation as Odin first laid the cloak across my shoulders. His hands brushed too long against my skin, but even as I noticed this, something else was happening deep inside me: a sudden narrowing, as if I was being squeezed from within. In an instant, I too felt weightless, and in another second I was airborne. I looked down to see them all staring up at me: my father, his expression vexed with disapproval; my twin brother Freyr, his dark eyes pools of envy; Odin’s wife, her smile frozen with complacency (surely she must have seen his lingering caress?) And Odin himself, staring too intently with his one good eye, as if he could divine all the secrets of my adolescence. With relief, I turned my gaze from them and flew towards the horizon, the wind rushing at my face. And for the first time in my life, I felt free. At sixteen, I’d not yet learned that it takes more than wings to release one from the bonds of kinship. 

 

They say this island sprang from the armpit of a giant. That his sweat turned to rivers which in turn begot the land. It is a jagged place, scarred by ice and fire, and perpetually torn by pale green rivers that refuse to stay their course. Long ago, the forests were thick here. Wild beasts stood quietly, as if waiting to be shot. That was before men came and culled them, using broad axes and fine-tipped arrows. Now trees are scarce and the animals hide, but the land remains generous. Each spring, the farmers toil in the fields to clear lumps thrown up by frost. In summer, they drive their herds deep into the highlands, where the grass is sweet and the sun never dies. In winter, darkness descends upon us like a shroud. Men wrap themselves in furs, huddle around fires, and tell stories from the past. 

 

Water surrounds us. To the north, the frozen sea is but one day’s sail. To the south, the long fingers of Norway and Denmark are eight days’ journey. The sea offers us food and protection, but takes many lives in return. Despite its peril, the men here are of a wandering nature. They look to the horizon and refuse to let it lie. But they always return, if the sea or the sword does not claim them, for this island pulls on its people. Once settled they are bound, both by its beauty and its harshness. 

 

I was not born here. I left the land of my birth as a young girl, and came to dwell in Asgard with my father and brother. We were a peace offering, my family and I, a gesture of conciliation between the Aesir and the Vanir, my father’s people. My father was already a widower, saddled with the burden of two young children, so he had nothing to lose by throwing his lot in with the Aesir. In return, they made us certain promises. Njord, my father, was given control of the seas. Freyr, my brother, was given control of the harvests. And I was left with the tainted realm of love. 

 

Over time, I’ve come to represent love’s failings. Men and women turn to me in equal numbers. They bring their broken engagements, their shabby infidelities, their star-crossed romances, their spent marriages, their unrequited passions, in hopes that I will have a cure. Sometimes I do. More often I do not. For what they don’t know is that our world is an elaborate conceit. The gods have no real influence over the lives of men. We are nothing but totems: we occupy the space that men create for something larger than themselves. Few who dwell in Asgard understand this. Fewer still would admit to it. But false belief underpins us all. 

 

And, as for the sharp spear of love, it too is a deceit. Long ago, in another life, I was wounded by its impact. Now I know that solitude and self-reliance make far more loyal bedfellows. Though I’ve been married once before, now my bond is to the earth and to the sky and to the mountains that surround me. My home, Sessruminger, lies in the south of Asgard, snugly in the lee of Mount Hekla. Her vast glacial peak rises up behind me like the imposing neck of a triumphant queen. Hekla’s moods can be capricious: one moment she is stark, calm, majestic; the next wild, dark and menacing. But I am thankful for her presence, for it is she who orients me when I take to the skies, and she who brings me back to earth. My tale starts and ends with Hekla, and I will tell it as it happens, in the manner of the bards.