Authors: Michelle Diener
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Fantasy, #Mythology & Folk Tales, #Fairy Tales, #Mythology, #Science Fiction & Fantasy
Mistress of The Wind
Copyright © 2013 Michelle Diener
All Rights Reserved
No part of this work may be copied or distributed in any way without the written permission of the copyright holder.
This is a work of fiction and all names, people, places or incidents are either used fictitiously or are a product of the author’s imagination.
Amazon Kindle Edition
Published by Michelle Diener
A big thank you to everyone who helped make this story the best it could be. To beta readers Fee, Julia, Jo, Stephanie, Mel and Laura, thank you for your great feedback! To my critique partners Edie, Liz and Kim, your suggestions were much appreciated. Thanks to Amy at AEMS for the technical side, and Laura Morrigan for the amazing cover.
Fairy tales are stories for the soul, and delving into East of the Sun, West of the Moon to write this book was pure pleasure.
jorn ran along a path of his own making, between the thinning trees at the top of the mountain. Sometimes, when he was so exhausted he lost himself, his existence
running. Was watching the ground flash beneath him, hypnotized by it.
Tonight, though, he looked forward and up. Time was running out for him. He could feel it slipping like snow off pine branches. It held, and it held, and then suddenly, in a hiss, it gave.
He could no longer afford the luxury of weariness. There would be no rest until this was over, and if he didn’t find the girl, there would never be any rest.
Unless he was dead.
He reached the pass, his legs quivering with exertion, and sank shoulder deep into the snow drifts. He noticed, in the detached way he’d adopted over this last year that he’d been a bear instead of a man, that his fur looked dirty white against the snow’s purity.
He started forcing his way through, every step slower than the last, until, just for a moment, he leaned into the cushioning white and rested.
“Do you give up yet?”
Had he dreamed Norga’s voice? He lifted his heavy head, saw her standing a few feet from where he’d fallen in the snow.
He was too weak to fight her, and besides, it was against the rules they’d set between them. He let his head flop back down.
“You’ve been looking how long now? Isn’t it time to give in to the inevitable?” Her voice was spun sugar in the frosty air. Sweet and brittle.
Strange, he thought she’d enjoy waiting out the full year. Enjoy seeing him return defeated. The chances of his success were so low, it was why she had agreed to this in the first place, rather than risk an open war between her people and his.
It seemed out of character for her to want to hurry him up.
“I have a month left.”
“And what can you do in one month you haven’t been able to do in the last eleven?” A freezing wind lifted her dark hair and tugged at the gossamer dress she wore and she did not so much as shiver.
You can’t feel the cold when your heart is a sliver of stone.
“The woman doesn’t exist, you fool.” Spun sugar gave way to daggers of ice. “You were always a dreamer, but now you’re letting your dreams rule your life.”
Bjorn ignored her. Stretched out. Tried to ease some feeling into his weary limbs.
How had Norga found him? She was powerful, but to have tracked him down to this mountain top, at his lowest hour? Just wondering how she’d accomplished it put a spark of energy back into his body.
“You do not answer because you know I have it right. Put yourself out of your misery.”
Though she spoke with confidence, with a gleeful relish at his condition, deep within him, hope bloomed. He was careful not to move, to give even the smallest twitch of reaction to alert her she’d given herself away.
“My misery starts the moment I give up. I’ll spend my month searching, as our bargain allows, whether I find her or not.”
“You’ve thought about your fate, have you? Thought about your life once you fail and have to marry my daughter as we agreed?” She smiled, then dropped her magical appearance, allowed her true colors to show. As big as he was when he stood on his hind legs, her back was twisted and bent, like a gnarled old tree. Her nose was sharp below two gleaming black eyes, alight with cunning.
She loomed over him, a trollish nightmare.
His father had thought her the most beautiful creature alive. Bjorn wondered bitterly what he would think of his beautiful bride now. She had never revealed herself to her husband before his death, only to her stepson. Out of necessity the first time, and thereafter to frighten and intimidate him.
And then she’d turned him into a bear.
“I might not fail.” He turned away from her, curled up on himself and closed his eyes. “I have one month left. I’m taking it.”
“Suffer a bit longer, then. I’ll see you soon enough.”
He didn’t answer, and after a moment of silence, looked round to find her gone.
He had never given up, but he had been flagging. Had begun to doubt his memory. Doubt that a small girl had once reached out her hand to him in a clearing long ago and whispered: ‘I will love you forever.’ The strange connection he’d felt with her since that day had been frayed and stretched almost to breaking-point.
He forced himself up and started moving again.
He was close. Close enough to scare Norga into a little visit. Close enough that she thought there was a chance he might win.
He found a new rhythm as he loped across the snow. The rhythm of hope renewed.
* * *
Someone was watching her.
Astrid scanned the edge of the forest, clutching her hoe defensively.
There was a stillness in the trees. The birds were gone, the branches did not move as the wind held its breath. It no longer whispered to her as usual, with words she could almost hear and understand.
She forced herself to lift the hoe and pretend to work. She was imagining things, surely?
But no. She knew,
someone . . . some
was there. Every nerve in her body screamed at her to run. As she slammed the blunt blade of the hoe into the cold, wet earth, her arms shook.
There were many dangers in the forest, and there was every reason to fear them.
But this felt different.
This felt personal.
And absolutely terrifying.
It would be a long time before anyone returned home. Father, Eric and Tomas would only come in when the light started to fail and they couldn’t see to cut wood any more. Her mother and older sisters would be back even later from market.
She was alone.
She shivered as the wind started up again, a chill breeze off the snow-topped mountains that ruffled over the treetops and blew through the thin, scratchy wool of her dress. Tugging her toward the house.
There was no reprieve from the invisible eyes. They were still on her. And she had come to trust what the wind told her, even if she no longer mentioned the strange kinship she felt to it.
She wanted to be indoors. Now.
Her eyes jerked to the trees again, and she made up her mind. She couldn’t stand being out here any longer.
She took a calming breath. What could it be, anyway? A wolf? A bear? She was close to the house. Neither would be quick enough to get her before she reached the safety of the front door.
But this isn’t one of those things.
She knew it with bone-deep certainty.
Ridiculous, she told herself.
Then she threw down her hoe and ran.
he sensed him.
Less gratifying was her reaction—unmitigated terror was not a good start. Especially given the rules between his stepmother and himself.
If Bjorn were to beat Norga, he would require this woman’s cooperation.
As he’d watched her working, his heart had beat faster and faster, his excitement stirring in tandem with the wind.
The bond that he’d felt so strongly after he first met her snapped back into place at the sight of her, as if it had never been tested to its limits. His worries of how he would know her, now a woman rather than a small child, were blasted away by the cold wind that pummeled him.
Hope surged in his chest. He had found her, now he had to find a way to have her. Time was running out.
He peered through the thicket and across the fields to the small cottage, trying to see movement at the window. As he stood in the deep shadow of the trees, the wind changed direction, swirling around him and blasting his eyes with grit and leaves. He shivered and blinked.
His lady must come willingly, no matter what the cost to others or himself. Forcing her was against everything he stood for.
The deal he’d struck with Norga was more than just finding the right one, though. It was keeping her with him for a whole year, while never allowing her to see him. And keeping the deal he had made with Norga a secret, as well.
And that was where she’d had the good instinct to run. Before Norga got hold of him, he’d have been the first to tell her how wise she was to barricade herself safe against his ilk.
The sons of demi-gods were hard work at the best of times and came with more baggage that they were most likely worth.
There was no help for that now.
He would have to find a way for her to accept him or this last year of searching, this last chance for them all, would be for nothing.
He eyed the small cottage, old and frayed at the edges. There was a helpless look to the clumps of thatch falling from the roof, to the smokeless chimney.
It huddled in desperation. A stench of poverty pervaded the place, with an overlay of fear.
He concentrated for a moment, and a sack of gold appeared, then another. It was a massive sum, but the vault he’d magically whisked it from was full, and in truth, he’d give every one of his sacks for her. With a touch of his paw, the sacks shimmered out of sight, hidden until he needed them.
Gold was a powerful motivator.
He would lay out his case first without resorting to bribery, but he was not his father. He was a realist.
Her family needed gold, he had plenty of it. They had
. He needed her.
He took one final, long look at the door barred against him and turned back into the deep forest.
That door would be open to him soon enough.
* * *
Astrid faced the forest again. The blue grey of the mountains behind the trees had almost disappeared into the black grey of a threatening sky. She was rooted to the spot as she stood in the field, mud caked around her shoes, the cold catching her throat and making her eyes water.
“What is it?” Freja snapped, impatient. Eager to be within.
Was it Astrid’s imagination or had the forest stilled again?
“I don’t want to go.”
“You should have thought of that while you sat like a princess inside and neglected your duties.” Her father slammed the hoe into the earth, and Astrid shivered at his tone.
“I told you . . .”
“And I told
. Fetch the mushrooms your mother needs for her stew. Now.”
She looked from her father’s closed face to her sister’s more forgiving one. But everyone was angry with her, even Tomas. They were tired and hungry, and there she’d been, huddling indoors, babbling about being watched. She was the youngest, but she had never been treated like a baby. There wasn’t enough of a gap between them for her to feel very much younger, anyway.
“We didn’t sell enough at the market to buy meat,” Freja whispered. “There’s not much to put in the pot tonight.”