CHAPTER ONE

Ingerith Orendersdottar woke early, before any others in the household in which she dwelled. She put on her dress over her shift and pinned her overdress at the shoulders with undecorated brooches. A length of cord served as her sash and she slipped on plain and sturdy leather shoes. A splash of spring water over her pale face served to clean it before she started the sooty fire for the day. This was normally a task worthy of only the thralls. However, she liked to be up before the rest of the household and used this as an excuse.

When the hearthfire was steady and the rest of her washed, Ingerith went out for the only time she had to herself the entire day. She walked out of the house and down a beaten path into the forest. Along the way, she thought, as she always did, about the peculiar chance of her birth.

Ingerith was born to a thrall woman from the land of the small people, across the North Sea. The thrall woman (being a thrall, she had no name) had black curly hair. So curly, that the curls manifested themselves in Ingerith's long, dark brown hair, for Ingerith was allowed to grow her hair long, not cropped short like her mother's. Her father was a fairly wealthy merchant man with a wife and another daughter. His wife, Gunnhild, was a rather bitter woman, for she was the daughter of a jarl, and had been hoping to marry a chieftain. Unfortunately (in her eyes) she was married off to a merchant who, though handsome, was not nearly rich enough for her tastes. So, every year she badgered him to go further into exotic territory and buy more expensive and frivolous things, both for herself, and to sell. This year, he was finally going directly to Constantinople. The trip would take two years and nearly exhaust their resources, but Ingerith's father had a sturdy knarr to take him across the Baltic Sea, down the Lovat River, portage to the Dneipr River, and into the Black Sea. Ingerith was worried for her father's safety, but Berner Frodisson was no fool. He would take every precaution there was, even if it meant taking another year.

Since this was going to be such a long trip, Berner had asked both of his daughters and his wife what they would like him to bring them back. Madrene, a voluptuous honey-blonde with a sweet-poison smile had asked for a red silk dress and dark-skinned slave girl. Gunnhild asked for a length of blue silk for a new dress and new gold brooches set with sapphires to match. But when Berner, rather dizzy after such greedy requests, had asked his daughter Ingerith, she replied, "I only want you back safe and sound."

Berner had been slightly puzzled at this and said so, "But you must want something!"

"Nonsense," Gunnhild had replied briskly. "If the idiot child wants nothing, then give her nothing."

"Gunnhild," Berner had warned. "I will not leave my child with nothing." He was fed up with her demands. He had returned his attention to Ingerith and asked, "I will not leave until you tell me what you want me to bring back for you."

"All right," returned Ingerith grumpily. But then an idea turned in her head. "I want you to bring me back a cluster of golden cloudberries," she confessed, and she had smirked at the look of surprise on their faces. When Berner had recovered from the shock, he chuckled, "Very well then, my child. You shall have what you desire." Of course, because of their outrageous demands, Madrene and Gunnhild had not been assured of their prizes. Madrene glared at Ingerith; Gunnhild ignored her.

That had been six seasons ago, and Berner was due back by Harvest. It neared the Midsummer Festival now and the heavy spring planting had just ended. Midsummer was a time to rest and relax as the full warmth of Sunna shone down upon the earth, before She would begin to fade again, and the difficult, but rewarding work of the harvest would begin. Later in the day, Ingerith would be sent out with the children of the settlement (she was to play nursemaid) to harvest blueberries, gooseberries, elderberries, and rowanberries for the Midsummer Feast, and to dry and preserve in honey for the coming winter. For now, however, as long as she refrained from breaking her fast at home, Ingerith would not be coerced into any unbearable task until the berrying later in the day. And so she went along her way down the path.

When she had reached a huge ash tree, she did not turn right, as the trail did, but followed a barely visible deer track through the thick woodland. After carefully making her way through the tangled bracken, Ingerith came upon a familiar meadow. It was bordered by thick woodland, a swift icy river, and a deep fjord. But she hardly took notice of all that now, and, kilting up her skirts, ran like the wind for the sheer joy of it. She leapt over rocks and depressions hidden by the long, wildflower-filled grass, with the ease of practice. She was still following the faint track, intent now upon her destination as she headed into an ancient wood where little bracken grew. Still she ran, dodging huge pine, ash, and birch trees. Then, just as abruptly as she had started, she stopped running.

In front of her stood a huge outcropping of rock that ran over the edge of a steep slope. The outcropping overlooked the cliff, and every day since the Summer Finding Ingerith had come here to watch for her father's knarr, hoping beyond hope that he would return early. It was not only for his sake that she wished him home, though she truly feared for him in the late autumn or early winter weeks, but for her own sake as well. Things had not been well in Berner's household since he left it. Gunnhild mistreated the thralls, as well as Ingerith. Berner's younger brother Ketilmund was supposed to be temporarily replace Berner as head of the large, multi-familied household, but Gunnhild had so cowed the people that they obeyed her, and not him. They had listened to Gunnhild as to when to plant in the spring, and lost an entire field of crops and twenty sheep to a snowstorm as a result. The household could ill-afford this, and it only served to make Gunnhild more cruel and ruthless. However, she made the men who had done the planting pay for the lost crops, and did nothing about the lost sheep. There were rumors that Gunnhild was an evil spokone, but Ingerith thought the rumors unfounded. Why had the crops failed and the sheep died if she were so powerful a spokone? Ingerith shook the foolish thought from her head. The real reason why she watched was that if Berner did not return soon, she feared the animosity between Ketilmund and Gunnhild would come to a head and split the stability of the household. She sighed and turned her thoughts again to the fjord and the distant sea.

Which is why she saw nothing until she smelled the smoke. Ingerith ran to the very edge of the outcropping, which jutted upward, straining to see where the smoke was coming from. However, it was not until the sun was blocked out by a huge shape that she noticed where the smoke was coming from. The smoke was coming from her home and the shadow, outlined in the gold of the rising sun, was a dragon.

For a moment, Ingerith was caught by the sheer savage beauty of the creature. Then, she remembered her home, and with a sharp cry, bolted back down the path. She ran heedless of obstacles this time, but where root and branch would've caught and tripped others, Ingerith ran free. She was not scored with sharp thorns, nor struck by passing twigs. It was as if the forest itself moved to make way for her. Of course, this was not what was on Ingerith's mind as she ran. She could not think at all, her mind was numb. Only one thought flitted briefly through her mind: How are we going to pay for all this?

It was said later that she appeared out of nowhere on the wings of the Gods, as if Freya Herself had lent Her falcon-cloak. But the first thing Ingerith heard above the roar of the fire as she came upon her home was Gunnhild screaming, "There she is! Spokone! Dragon-whore! You have ruined me!" Ingerith ignored her and slowly stepped forward in shock. At first, the people thought she was going to walk directly into the fire, but she stopped just short and fell to her knees. She made no sound; there was no expression on her face. The only movement on her entire body was the slow rise and fall of her breath and the liquid tracks of tears making their way down her cheeks.

They found her in the same place that morning, covered in soot from the still smoldering fire of her home and the surrounding fields. The strangest thing was that she was surrounded by blackened, scorched earth, but knelt in a perfect circle of green growing grass. This time her face did not lack expression and the fire was not the only thing that still smoldered. One of the younger women was told to venture forward and speak.

"Ingerith," she said softly. "Ingerith, you are summoned to the Council of Elders." It was then that Ingerith finally raised her head. She turned and looked directly into the girl's eyes.

"Tell her she will wait until my father returns," was her reply, and there was cold-forged steel in her eyes. The girl did not have to be told who "she" was. With that, Ingerith rose and slowly paced back into the forest whence she had come.

When Gunnhild learned of her stepdaughter's insolence, she sent a hunting party after Ingerith, but found that the forest impeded them with every step. After five hours of struggle, even she bade them give up. The way out was not blocked.

Meanwhile, Ingerith had returned to her watch-place and sat to wait for her father's return. During her sojourn on the outcropping, the dragon flew overhead several times and after each of its flights home, Ingerith smelled smoke, but after the third time, the rains came, washing her clean and quenching the fire in the village.

On the morning of the fourth day of unmoved vigilance, Ingerith glimpsed off in the distance the pale edge of one red-striped sail. Her heart leapt for joy, but she remained as before and watched with only a small smile to keep her company. When her father's ship finally beached it was not far from her watch-point. Only when she was sure he had disembarked did she stand and wave greetings. He waved back, not knowing whom he greeted, and continued his long trek to the settlement.

Ingerith was filled with rejoicing and fairly flew back to the settlement. This time the folk of the settlement were sure that Freya's cloak had been lent, for Ingerith breezed past the smoking ruin of what had once been her home, down to meet her father on the path up from the narrow beach.

When she saw him, she tried to cry, "Father!" but it only came out a harsh whisper. Four days without food, drink, or sleep had taken its toll. Even so, he heard her and looked up.

"Ingerith! My child!" and he gathered her up in a hug worthy of the bear he had been named for.

"Oh, Father," she said in a whisper so soft he barely heard it. "You came home early! But our home! Oh our home, Father!"

"There, there, child," he reassured as he wiped away her tears. Then he remembered something. "Here," he said, pulling out a small bundle from inside his tunic and handing it to her. "I hope indeed your gift is not crushed!" She opened the leather pouch and took out something wrapped in fine white silk. She unwrapped it and found inside the most perfect cluster of cloudberries so golden they nearly glowed.

"Oh, Papa," she breathed, reverting to her childhood name for him. "You remembered!"

"Of course I did, dearling. How could I forget my own daughter's wish?" he replied, but a shadow Ingerith did not see crossed his face. "But you look worn," he said, covering his other worries with those for his daughter. "Come, try one and perhaps you will feel better."

So, Ingerith plucked a berry from its stem and placed it in her mouth. She broke the berry slowly on her tongue and was rewarded with an assault of flavors: honey sweetness cut with a tart tang and smooth juices that flowed like water in her mouth. She savored it for awhile, then swallowed and almost immediately felt as if she'd had a entire night of sleep and a good hearty breakfast!

"My thanks, Father," she said clearly. "This gift is indeed more precious than I had ever imagined it would be."

Berner sighed, "Yes, that is what I feared."

"What do you mean?" Ingerith asked worriedly, but Berner was distracted and would not answer.

"Berner!" Gunnhild glided gracefully over and allowed her husband to kiss her on the cheek. "I see you have returned. I hope it is with all we wanted to bargain for?"

"What happened to my house, Gunnhild?" was his reply. It was only then that Gunnhild acknowledged Ingerith's presence when she turned her fiery gaze upon the girl.

"She happened to your household, Berner Frodisson!" the woman spat, pointing a thin finger. "That bastard daughter of yours called down a dragon on us!"

Berner did not look angry with either Ingerith or Gunnhild, which the two did not expect. He did, however, blanch and say quietly, "I knew it."

"Knew what?" Gunnhild demanded.

"Come," Berner said, stronger now. "I must speak with you in private," and he grabbed her arm, sweeping her unceremoniously to the one outbuilding left on their estate.

Ingerith watched her father and Gunnhild leave and turned back, only to be confronted by her stepsister.

"Been wallowing in the filth of your own guilt, have you?" jabbed Madrene, regarding Ingerith's still-sooty figure with disgust. Ingerith just stared at her idiot half sister, then, hysterical laughed bubbled up inside her.

"What!" Madrene demanded, a bit frightened at this new, uncowed Ingerith. "What is so funny?!"

Ingerith let out one more deep chuckle, then composed herself and replied cool sadness, "You think you can tear at my heart by mocking my appearance, when really, my heart is already torn to shreds by your mother's betrayal, and your own black heart." Then, she turned her back on the three to follow Gunnhild and her father back to the settlement.

"You bitch!" Madrene spat, then grabbed Ingerith's arm and swung her around. "How dare you speak to me like that?! I am the daughter of a highborn woman and your mother was nothing but a lowly thrall!"

"And yet," Ingerith replied stonily, "my mother was worth a thousand of yours."

Madrene slapped her, hard.

Ingerith's world went silent. All she could feel was the heat of the red print on her cheek and the cold fire welling within her. All she could hear was a rush of air. She stared icily into Madrene's eyes, filled with rage.

Madrene, sensing this, released her and stepped back, fear filling her eyes. It took a moment for Ingerith to notice that Madrene was not looking at her, but rather above her. It took another moment to find that the rushing she heard in her ears was not from her pounding blood, but from the powerful strokes of huge wings.

Then, she saw the shadow.

Madrene, formerly rooted to the spot in terror, screamed bloody murder and ran for shelter. Ingerith stood her ground, rage still flowing, then turned to face the thing that had destroyed her home and brought ruin to her father.