The night bites, bitter cold. Five hours of daylight, five men asking for my hand. Each praying he’d have more luck than the last.
I clutch my bear coat tighter around myself, fight to move through the snow. The moon lights my aimless way; no ghostly lights grace the sky tonight.
I wonder if I’ll die out here, buried beneath the snow. A storm stalks me, threatening in the wind, more fearsome than any bear or wolf.
I breathe a sigh of relief, and it chills me down to my bones.
The first one’s name was Uruk.
I sat on my low seat, my feet bare underneath my thick skirt. My hair was netted together; my brother insisted on it. On formality.
I am, after all, Queen of the North.
All I had to do was marry, and my brother would step down. I would rule, as was my right. And I’d have a man to hunt with me, and keep me warm at night.
No Eskimal can survive for long without a partner; much less rule. My brother was right about that.
“You know I only rule because I have my Tara.” He told me. “Why haven’t you chosen someone, Miko?”
I didn’t tell him I wasn’t fit to rule. I didn’t tell him I haven’t been fit to marry for more than three months, either.
Uruk knelt at my knee. He offered me a beautiful fur cap, with a bird design sewn in bright colors inside.
I laughed at the sight of it-I clapped my hands, delighted. I’d never seen a bird before. For a moment, this bright little creature seemed more beautiful than all of the stars.
Uruk smiled and laughed at my delight.
Uruk is no hunter; but he travels farther and more fearlessly than anyone. Hr sees birds and sells his craft to the strange peoples he meets to the south.
Though the wildling in me would live to go on his faraway adventures, I knew a Queen’s place was in the North, close to the people.
All the same, I let Uruk convince me. I told him my secret.
I saw his expression shift into terror.
I returned his gift to him with a sigh-but he shook his head and ran out of the tent, leaving the colorful cap at my feet.
The second one was called Naktr. He brought half a seal with him, carrying the meat in a basket with his long, powerful arms, and the skin over his shoulders.
He laid it all at my feet.
Not artistic or wild, but good, strong, dependable. An excellent match for the Queen. I smiled at him, and his answering laughter was thunderous music to my ears.
I told him my secret.
Naktr marched out, making signs to ward off the evil magic as he left. He didn’t take his gifts, either.
Two more men came; two more men left, afraid and furious.
The last one to enter was Lamata, a good friend of mine. He made the best snow sleds out of all. What he brought with him was a night-black pup, barely weaned.
He dropped the beast on my lap. It yelled on protest-I burst out laughing.
I was drained, sad and despairing. But Lamata could always make me laugh.
He knelt at my knee, taking off his cap. I mussed his hair.
“The men out there are afraid of you.” He smirked. “What in Ursa’s name did you do to them?”
I said nothing. For a second I enjoyed the way he put his cheek against my hand, taking my playful caress for a gentle one.
I could rule with Lamata at my side.
His levelheaded playfulness would tame the wildling in me; I would center his distracted work to a single purpose. The survival of the family.
“Did you deny them for me?” Lamata asked. His black eyes shone like the northern night sky.
I smirked, shook my head.
His face fell-I laughed.
“Then...” He leaves the question unfinished.
My hands shake, then. I look into Lamata’s eyes and gather up my courage.
I turn and push my raven hair aside, revealing a pointed ear.
Lamata sprang up and slapped me, hard. Thunder rang in my ear.
I fell back against my fur-covered seat, and Lamata hissed the word at me.
He ran out.
I gathered myself, wiped away my startled tears. I slapped Uruk’s cap on my head and stuffed seal meat into my pockets. I wrapped the night-black pup in the seal skin and ran out with it in my arms.
I refused to be chased out of my own home by burning torches.
I walk for hours.
My feet and nose go numb, and hands ache. The storm reaches me; the pup’s whimpers fade to nothing.
I’m up to my waist in snow when something pulls hard on my hair.
I turn around, blind, frozen and spitting out snow. I snarl and kick and fight- but the snow traps me, I can barely move anymore. I wait to be devoured by a dog, a bear, a wolf.
Instead I hear quiet laughter.
“Queen of the North.” Says a raspy, familiar voice.
I realize what-who-is pinning me down.
“King of the North.” I whisper, out of a numb, frozen throat.
He laughs again, and melts the snow around me. He kisses me, filling me to the brim with warmth; I push him off.
His black eyes glint at me, two stones in his thin, snowy face. His big, pointed ears twitch like a dog’s, and when he grins at me, his teeth are sharp.
“Niklas.” He says. “I am Niklas.”
I cross my shivering arms. He picks up the shivering pup and breathes the snow away from its fur.
“Come, we have work to do.” He says.
“I was afraid,” I snarl, baring blunt teeth at him. “Because of you, I-“
“You are Queen of the two northern kingdoms.” He laughs, bowing theatrically before me. “Human and magical.”
I turn away, but it is only to hide the relief, the laughter bubbling up inside me.
I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t looking for him, every time I wondered out alone into the snow. It would do no good to pretend I haven’t been a wildling since I found him in my childhood, I would be lying if he and the half-magic creature in my belly didn’t fill me with wild laughter.
“Come.” He pulls on my hair, insistent.
Only then do I notice the sack he drags over his shoulder, heavy and full.
He picks Uruk’s cap up from the snow and sets it on his head. He wraps the seal skin around my shoulders.
I sigh and climb up on his back, close to his warmth. He drapes the pup over one shoulder, and I take it in my arms. Then he shoulders the heavy sack.
He runs light-footed on the snow’s surface, looking for my people’s solitary tents. At each one he leaves a pile of treasure, that I hand him, from the sack.
He gives me a piece; a bright red sphere. I try it with my teeth. It breaks open easily, filling my mouth with strong, bright color. I recognize it. It comes once a year, in the Silent Night-the only night, my father taught me, that all magic is good.
“Sweet.” Niklas smiles-I can hear his quiet voice clearly in the storm. “Sweet, isn’t it?”
We leave the sweet treasure for every family of the North; Niklas’ swift feet cross the vast land faster than the stars.