We left our home as the light flashed in the night sky. Green and gold like fingers of a flame against a sky as black as tar, the sea still and frigid as we pushed our boat from the shore. Most folk said the lights were the Bifrost, the bridge between Åsgard and Midgard, but I knew it was more than that; it was women’s work. It was the light reflecting off the shields of the Valkyrie, the women sent by Odin to the battlefields to choose who amongst the slain were worthy of a place in Valhalla. Battles raged everywhere since Harald Finehair came to Norvegr. The Valkyrie worked tirelessly.
My father opposed Harald, so we had to flee, leading us to a boat in the ice, traveling at the worst time of year. If anything befell us, death would come quickly in the water, and no one would be visited by a Valkyrie. Even if my father had chosen to stay and fight, it was doubtful the Valkryies would think him worthy of Valhalla. I certainly did not.
Weighed down by three layers of furs, I climbed into our boat, long and narrow to speed our way through the black waters of the Westsæ. My mother sat silently beside me, her fair hair covered by a woolen hood. Her expression was as cold as the sea beneath us. She did not care who sat on the throne, but we would follow my father.
“Where are we going, Móðir?” I asked, as the men who fled with us lowered their oars into the water.
“West,” was all she replied. But I knew that much already.
The water was still as we started. But as we slid through the water, it moved like silk in a breeze.
Once I had seen a high-born lady dressed in silk, brought home to our shores by traders who went all the way to a place called Miklagard, though the traders had said there they called it Constantinople. The sea there, they said, was warm and blue like the sky in summer, that it shimmered under a sun so hot you thought your skin cooked. That the city smelled of spices so strong your nostrils flared, but your heart soared. That people of every shade, speaking every tongue, bartered for goods and ate meals so rich in flavor you thought you might have somehow ended up in Valhalla by mistake.
I thought I’d like to go there some day, know what it was to be heated from inside, like a hreindyri roasting on a spit. But instead, we traveled through these icy waters to a place unknown, at least unknown to my mother and me. The rest of the long boat was filled with men. No doubt my father had shared our destination with them.
I was old enough to marry, but with all the upheaval, nothing had been arranged. I glanced about the boat, thinking someone on here, one of these men pushing and pulling the oars through the water, might be my husband. Or maybe he waited at this mysterious destination. Or maybe he did not exist, and I would have a different life. That the Valkyries might choose me from amongst the battle slain.
My eyelashes froze, but my body was warm. I lowered my head to stop the chill wind from hitting my face directly. We moved with steady efficiency, the air still other than the sounds of the oars gentle yet swift glide through the water and ice creaking in the distance. The streaks of the winter light illuminated the water enough to show the bergs, which floated like menacing spirits all around us. The men were deft at avoiding them. One mistake, and we would end in Ran, the afterlife for those who died sea. It would be a hard ending for warriors.
We ate tough hreindyri jerky, ripping it with our teeth, washed down with a decent helping of mead. Not too much, for we had to keep our senses, even those of us whose only job was to stay alive for however long we were on the sea.
The steady movement of the boat eventually lulled me, and I leaned against my mother. I do not know how long I slept, for it was still dark when we woke. But at this time of year, we had only slivers of daylight anyway. Instead, I counted the hours by the changes in oarsmen and the rumbling of my stomach.
I think we had been at sea for a day when something shifted. Glancing about me, I marked the others’ expressions, whether anyone had also noticed that something felt different in the air.
“Do you feel it, Móðir?”
Her expression remained impassive, as it always had. “Feel what, daughter?”
I pulled a hand out from under my furs and waved it in the air. “That. Do you feel the air is different?”
She regarded me with narrowed eyes, for she knew I had a connection to worlds beyond our own. I could see things, hear them, feel them. My father knew as well, but he never spoke of it, afraid I would be judged a witch or used for some nefarious purpose.
“Shh, daughter,” she said as she flicked her eyes at the others on the boat.
But I wasn’t the only one who felt it. One of the oarsmen flinched in a way that to anybody else would have been nothing, but I saw it for it was. He tried to shake off the other, whatever that other was here. It was not the same other as we had in Norvegr. I stared at his back, willing him to turn his head to me. When he did, his eyes were wide with confusion, likely similar to mine. We would not want to be found out, but how would we speak to each other? I was stuck in this seat with my mother. Perhaps he would find a way to sit with us when the oarsmen changed, so we could speak in whispered tones about our connection to the otherworlds.
I smiled at him, nodded with understanding. We, at least, understood we were not alone.
The sensation increased, and with it, my heartbeat. I began to sweat inside my furs, dropping the top layer. Mother turned to me in alarm.
“You mustn’t, daughter. Not here.”
“I’m boiling in my own skin.” I thought of Constantinople. Is this what it felt like? No, the trader described it as an embrace. This was suffocation.
I pulled my hands out from under the furs and dragged the back of one hand across my brow. The long boat felt as small as a henhouse. My fellow seer also squirmed and wriggled in his seat. Then suddenly, a burst of cool air like a feathery kiss.
A swirl of slick, silvery skin glided through the water. Tiny balls of light danced on the surface. I leaned in for a closer look, every ball of light actually creatures with fins like fish and faces like humans. Gasping, I reached out a hand to see if I could touch one or catch one, but felt myself jerked backwards.
“Daughter, are you mad? Keep your arms in the boat.” My mother’s eyes flashed with fear and anger.
“Do you not see them, Móðir?” They were everywhere. Surely she could see them?
“I see only black water. Stop it.”
A shout from the oarsman. The other seer had seen them too, for his fellow oarsmen shouted at him. He had stopped moving. Shaking himself, he resumed his rowing.
The creatures continued to move across the water, but seemed confined to the areas near me and the other seer. Were they leading us off course or helping us find our destination? I was not afraid of them, so I was content to let them be, as I continued to watch their every movement until my eyelids grew heavy.
I woke some time later, startled by a shout.
“Hjatland!” My father stood at the bow, pointing. In the distance, a small island rose from the misty, dim light of the winter morning. I looked to the water, and was saddened to see the light creatures had gone.
Something settled in my chest as we neared land, a pressure and an inkling. When we came within striking distance, the pressure turned to premonition. Danger lay ahead, but in what form, I could not sense.
I tugged on my mother’s fur. “We shouldn’t go ashore, Móðir. Something isn’t right.”
I felt her fear rise. My instincts were never wrong. She called to my father, but he didn’t hear her or didn’t want to. She called again, more urgently, and he came to us. My mother nodded at me.
I opened my mouth to speak, but before I could utter a word, I felt, again, the cool, feathery kiss. The light creatures had returned and one leapt higher than the others. I held out my hand, and it jumped into it, its tiny wings turning to feathers. My mother and father sat there, unblinking, waiting for me to speak, both of them running out of patience.
“We must prepare for landing, daughter,” my father said when I had said nothing, his face pinched in annoyance. He swirled his fur around him as he stood in a sharp motion. My mother sighed and turned away from me.
I turned to the creature in my hand, obviously unseen by the others, when I noticed the other seer. He was no longer rowing, but his eyes remained on me.
My mother looked at me, her jaw set in frustration.
“Can that man sit with us for a moment?” I indicated the other seer.
My mother looked from one to the other and narrowed her eyes at me. “Why?”
“He is like me.”
Her face fell.
“He can see what you cannot. I hold in my hand a being.”
She looked at my open palm with the winged light creature in it, but by her expression, saw nothing.
“It is trying to tell me something. I think it matters for our safety. Please.”
She made space on our bench and gestured to the man to sit between us. When he was near me, I saw the lines on his face, though he must not have been much older than I. Life in a boat will do that.
He leaned towards the creature.
“We mustn’t draw attention,” I said, and he nodded, straightening.
The creature spoke, but I could not understand the words. I shook my head. The creature tried again. Still nothing. It fluttered its wings and flew to my ear.
Whispering, it said, “When you reach the shore, you must go south. Leave your family and the others, for they are not welcome. But you are.”
“And him?” I tipped my head to the other seer.
“He is also welcome. But neither of you is welcome in the world of humans. We have been waiting for you.”
“For both of you. You are coming to blend our worlds. You bring knowledge of yours, and we will share ours with you. More are coming from your land. That we join is laid down by the fates, but we must meld our spirits first.”
“But what of my family?”
“Their fates are in the past. Yours are in the future.”
The creature took flight and flew away. I told the other seer all that it had told me, and we sat in silence for a few moments.
“Do you believe it?” he asked.
“Should we question the fates?”
“Or abandon everyone on this boat? Your parents? My friends?”
“Do we have a choice?”
“We always have a choice.”
I looked out across the water. The light creatures had gone. I held my hand out to the other seer, and he placed his in mine. We knew what we would do, without ever speaking a word.
Within an hour, the long boat came ashore. Shimmering, silvery skin slid in and around the water, but the men did not see it. They grabbed their shields and axes and trudged through the waters. My mother and I came behind. The other seer walked with us. He carried his weapons, but they hung at his sides.
As soon as my feet touched the earth, a shock went through me. I dropped my furs into the surf and walked around the men, the other seer accompanying me. My mother grabbed at me, but I shook her off. The men shouted as we passed them. My father leapt to try to hold me back to no avail. The other seer and I walked on. As we did, he dropped his weapons in a trail behind us and took my hand in his that had before held an axe.
We did not have far to go. We both felt the pull to the stone round house, rising high before us. As we approached, a man and woman walked out, their skin silvery in the misty light. My heart sang, and I gripped the other seer’s hand harder. We stopped before them. The woman opened her arms and spoke a word I did not know, her voice tinged with the sea. But its meaning was clear.
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I adored this tale! I do think in some ways it was unclear that the Others were selkies if not for the title but would be open to seeing more to possibly expand on that. I like the innate connection to the oarsman. The detail to language, pantheon folklore, and culture made the story, short as it is, immersive. Thank you for writing it and, even more so, for sharing it.
I loved the mysterious atmosphere you were able to create in this story. Your descriptions were great and I had no trouble picturing anything even though my knowledge of Norse mythology is zero to none. I'm not sure if Selkies are a good or evil creature, but I personally felt a sense of foreboding when the two accepted their invititation. Maybe that's just my own fear of the unknown though... Anyway, well done!
Hey! Your story came up in the "Critique Circle" email so I checked it out. I love the world you created and think you have so many possibilities if you wanted to expand on your story. I am not sure if you use a program to help edit, but I use the free version of Grammarly and it works pretty well. It might help make some of the sentences in your story read a little more clearly. Anyway, great story and I look forward to finding out what happens next!
Thanks, Travis - I just read yours from the Critique Circle! I use ProWriting Aid. My writing style for short stories runs to the mysterious :)