The Winterlands at night are freezing at best and lethal at worst, so of course they’re making Leif go on a Quest during the second sort, when half of his village’s population have beards beset by icicles and the other half are nursing a frostbitten toe in front of a blazing bonfire.
“You bear the gift of the Walrus Belly,” reassures Torsten as he heaves at the oars, threading their rickety little boat through frigid saltwater. By the amber luminescence of a lantern powered by whale blubber, Leif watches his companion’s breath mist into the night and mingle with his own.
“Gift of the Walrus Belly,” echoes Leif. “So, basically, the council of elders elected me for the job because I’m fat.”
“You said it, not me.”
Leif sighs, his breath shuddering past blue lips. Despite his… girth, he’s buried under three layers of clothing made from insulating sealskin, and even then the cold has pried each layer away like the fingers of an insistent lover. Not that Leif knows what that’s like.
Leif the Loser, the other boys would chant back at home, because of course Leif would be the only one left without a girl during their drunken rampages through the village.
Leif the Laughable.
That last one cuts the deepest, especially when Chief Gorvald the Gruesome hears the boys say it and bursts out laughing, a mighty guffaw that’s more of a thunderclap than any sound a human can make. Sometimes he even joins in on the chanting.
Is that why Leif had agreed to this fool’s errand? Is that why he’s freezing his balls off in the middle of Maiden’s Heart, the most unforgiving sea in the known world?
(Because, of course, nothing is colder than the heart of a woman who refuses to sleep with a man, as they say in the Winterlands.)
“I could be sat by a fire,” mutters Leif, “sipping hot broth and drinking elderflower mead.”
“And miss out on something that comes around once every millenium?” says Torsten. “You’ll live to regret it, lad.”
“Only if I make it out alive.”
“Well, you won’t with that attitude!”
The sea at night looks like molasses, thick and syrupy. Except there’s nothing sweet about it. Not when one dip below the surface would suck the warmth out of your beating heart and leave it stained purple with frost, unless you happen to be a blubbery narwhal, or a thick-skinned walrus. And suddenly the council’s reasoning is starting to make sense.
Torsten drops the oars, and the boat eases to a rest. “Now, we wait.”
“For the River to show us the way, of course.”
Leif wraps his arms around himself. He’s heard the legends, and wants to believe they’re true. But a river winding through the ocean? That doesn’t even make sense from a logical standpoint.
Torsten extinguishes the lantern, plunging the world into darkness. A tiny shrimp trapped inside a whale’s mouth wouldn’t feel much different.
“What was that for?”
“There is only one light we need, Leif. All others will lead us astray.”
Before Leif can mutter a remark about speaking in riddles, the sea comes alive with color. A huge, shimmering ribbon of light materializes just below the water’s surface, winding through the blackness and stretching out into the distance. A single skillful yet haphazard brushstroke, the sea as the canvas.
While Leif’s jaw hangs off its hinges, Torsten grabs the oars and maneuvers the boat onto the ribbon. He follows the path laid out for them with pinpoint precision, even when it winds into itself, or takes them on a detour.
“Take as long as you like,” says Torsten. “The River-in-the-Ocean is not something you swallow after a quick chew.”
Because it is a river, as much as Leif’s calm sensibilities want to deny it, and the surrounding ocean serves as the riverbank. He can see it’s made of tiny glowing pinpricks that pulse intermittently with light, like stars that have lost their way and decided to live among the plankton. The colors cycle between every hue imaginable: greens and blues and reds, as if somebody had tossed all their jewellery into the water. It’s not the first time Leif has seen the ocean illuminate like this, but for it to form a clearly-defined path, as if the gods themselves are showing them the way, is something out of a dream. Or perhaps a nightmare.
The River-in-the-Ocean ends in a giant pool of glowing dots, swirling into itself to form a vortex that ever-so-gently pushes the boat in a circle.
“We’re here,” announces Torsten. “You know what to do.”
And Leif does, unfortunately, know what to do. All sense of awe gone in the blink of an eye, he ties iron weights to his ankles, then a rope around his waist, the other end of which is attached firmly to the boat. He perches on the gunwale, the small craft swaying under the unevenly distributed weight, and hesitates.
“It’s just like I told you,” says Torsten. “All you have to do is let the weights pull you down until the Mermaid Queen finds you. Once she does, ask Her Majesty for her Divine Crown, which is said to grant the wishes of anyone who wears it. We’re not sure how you’re supposed to speak to her underwater, but all the legends say you have to make a request. Try using elaborate hand gestures, or maybe write it down on a bit of kelp. In any case, once the Crown is yours, simply untie the weights, then tug the rope three times in a rhythm so I know it’s you on the other end and not a shark.” He gives Leif a reassuring pat on the back. “It’s plain sailing. A six-year-old with lingonberry jam smeared across his face could do it.”
“Thanks for the morale boost, Torsten.”
Leif stares at the swirling mosaic of colors before him and finds himself shivering like an earthquake, though not because of the cold. For a heartbeat he lets himself wonder whether his life really is miserable enough to go chucking it away. If he dies tonight, will the other boys sing songs of his valor, or will they laugh?
He can already hear Chief Gorvald’s booming guffaw.
“May the Storms strengthen your heart,” prays Torsten, which is nice of him but is also another way of telling Leif to get on with it already.
It’s a bone-chilling night in the Winterlands when Leif takes what is probably his last breath and plunges into the water below.
The cold is a fist to the stomach, knocking the air out of his lungs. He thinks it can’t possibly get any worse, which is when the water seeps through each layer of clothing like the root tendrils of a seedling, reaching into his flesh and squeezing the warmth out of every blood vessel.
Everything is blindingly bright for a few heartbeats as glowing dots swirl around him, but it quickly fades as he’s pulled down into suffocating darkness. A dull weight presses in from all sides, and he’s sure his head is going to explode any second now, so he screams for Torsten to help him, only to get a mouthful of salty water.
Burning. His lungs are burning in the darkness, quite ironic considering he’s never felt so cold in his entire life. And it’s in the darkness that a jeering song arrives, quietly at first but surging into a crescendo to fill his world:
Leif the Loser
Born bigger than a humpback whale
Leif the Loser
The only Winterman destined to fail!
Leif the Loser
Lonely for the rest of his days
Leif the Loser
For no maiden will meet his gaze!
Leif the Loser
Can’t even hold a sword straight
Leif the Loser
Drowning was the poor lad’s fate!
Except he isn’t drowning. Leif gasps awake to find a world of inky blackness. His clothes are dry and his body is warm, at least, just like the sloping ground under his feet. It’s as if he’d never entered the water. He must be dreaming. Or dead.
He unties the weights around his ankles and takes a few steps. A smooth, curved wall greets him on all sides; he can’t see it, but he can feel the glass-like texture kissing his palms. His enclosure.
He finally scrounges up enough courage to call out. “Hello?” The only response is a dull stirring in the darkness, so faint that he isn’t sure if his mind is playing tricks on him. “Who goes there?”
THIS IS NOT YOUR DOMAIN, LITTLE ONE, booms a voice.
Leif is so surprised to be called “little” that for a second he doesn’t even register the voice’s lack of origin, as if it’s coming from every direction at once while at the same time blossoming from some secluded corner of his mind.
A second after that, he grasps the implications of there being a disembodied voice in the darkness instead of a white light, or something else reassuring. Fear coils its grimy tendrils around his bones, but he wrestles them away and latches onto the only tangible thing he has left: Torsten’s instructions.
“Are y-y-you the… the… M-Mermaid Q-Q-Queen?”
The words lack impact, tripping over his teeth to come out stillborn and pathetic. But it’s as if the darkness can look past that to know what Leif wants to say.
THERE IS NO MERMAID QUEEN, SMALL CHILD.
Again, Leif has to blink the disbelief out of his eyes. He even pinches his own cheek to check that he’s still as chubby as he should be. Which, unfortunately, he is.
NOR ARE THERE MERMAIDS IN GENERAL, continues the darkness. THEY ARE BUT A FABRICATION BORN FROM THE LUST OF LONELY VOYAGERS, HAVING SPENT TOO MUCH TIME AT SEA WITHOUT FEMALE CONTACT.
Leif starts shivering again, all the cowardice of fifteen years spent being inadequate frothing at his seams. He had one job: retrieve the Divine Crown from the Mermaid Queen, and he can’t even do that. He really is a loser.
But… wait. Why should he trust the voice? He supposes there’s not much else to trust when everything is pitch-black, and there is a fiery, robust quality to it that demands his attention, but still. He wants more than that.
“If you’re not the Mermaid Queen,” begins Leif, the fear melting away like hoarfrost in spring as curiosity lends him confidence, “who are you?”
NOBODY, replies Darkness. Their voice is an avalanche devouring a mountainside, the sort of harmonious medley of beauty and terror that only a natural disaster could conjure. And it’s neither male nor female, but something else, something less limiting.
YOU ASSUME I CAN BE QUANTIFIED BY A SIMPLE “WHO”. TRY AGAIN, TINY CREATURE. PROVE TO ME YOUR LIFE WAS WORTH SAVING.
Leif’s heart flutters. Whenever Darkness speaks, it’s as if the words are carved in stone, and reality molds itself around that ultimate truth.
So, I am alive. For the time being.
Leif swallows. He doesn’t want to go back to the cold, and what he says next may very well decide his fate. So he tries a different angle, hoping the truth will unmask itself in small increments that he’ll be able to piece together on his own. Which is easier said than done when he doesn’t even know what Darkness wants.
“Why do you keep calling me ‘small’?”
BECAUSE YOU ARE SMALL.
Leif clenches his teeth. Fifteen years of ridicule, and he won’t let anyone tell him it meant nothing. Not even… whatever Darkness is. “I’m very sorry, but I’m anything but small. Back home, they’d sing songs to mock my size. During dinnertime, the other boys would dump their leftovers on my plate, then dunk my face in the slop while making walrus noises. One time, an avalanche started on a nearby mountain and the elders blamed me for it because—”
—YOU HAPPENED TO TRIP OVER A LOG AND LAND ON YOUR BUTTOCKS ONLY A FEW MOMENTS BEFOREHAND.
“Yes, that’s exactly what…”
That’s exactly what happened. But maybe Leif shouldn’t be surprised that Darkness knows. After all, he’s supposed to be dead, but isn’t.
“You’re one of the gods, aren’t you?” Leif ventures.
ONE DOES NOT HAVE TO BE A GOD TO SEE THAT YOU ARE SMALL.
That didn’t even answer his question. Before Leif can insist that he’s fat all over again, the blackness surrounding him stirs. It tears open like a wound, banishing the gloom on the other side of the barrier for a giant, window-shaped opening. Leif looks through it, and watches a familiar rotund figure struggle to lift a battleaxe while a dozen onlookers throw their heads back and laugh.
It’s a dagger to the heart. And it hurts so much that the pain trumps even the awe of witnessing what Darkness is capable of doing.
“Why are you showing me this?”
BECAUSE I WANT YOU TO SEE WHAT I SEE, LITTLE ONE.
More windows materialize in the darkness, more moments in time that Leif has banished to the recesses of his mind only to be shown to him right now, clear as day. He grits his teeth through it all until it’s too much.
“Please stop. With all due respect, I don’t know how you can look at all this and still see me the way you do.”
THEN IT IS TIME TO TAKE A STEP BACK.
The windows fade, only to be replaced by more. Leif has to squint to realize the fat boy he’s looking at isn’t him; someone from another tribe, perhaps, with fleshy jowls and a breathless, sweaty sheen to his person. Another window shows a different boy, one with fiery hair and freckles, curled in a puddle of mud as a mob hurls stones at him. A third window shows a skinny girl with skin the color of treacle and strange, robe-like clothes being spat on; she has pinkish-white patches of skin on her face that her tormentors don’t.
Leif’s gaze darts from one window to the next, one sickening, unbearable moment to another. He wants to curl up just like the red-haired boy and pretend the world isn’t as cruel as it is. But he can’t tear his gaze away from all these people. He’s never seen them before, and most certainly hasn’t a clue what distant realm they’re from, yet he feels a curious sense of kinship with them all the same. An invisible thread, running through everyone and sewing the gaping hole in Leif’s heart shut.
NOW DO YOU SEE WHAT I SEE? asks Darkness.
Leif watches in awe as the red-haired boy unfurls and groggily gets to his feet after the mob has dispersed. His face is caked with mud and blood and his body hangs limp, but there’s a fire in his eyes that won’t be extinguished anytime soon. The dark-skinned girl wipes away her tears after her tormentors have left, then picks up a spear and, gritting her teeth, begins practicing behind closed doors.
LITTLE CREATURE? prompts Darkness. I SAID, DO YOU SEE WHAT I SEE?
Leif nods as his eyes well with tears. “I’m not alone,” he manages to choke out.
AND YOU NEVER WILL BE.
“But why? Why help me?”
Darkness takes an uncharacteristic pause, as if carefully considering a response. HUMANS… THEY FASCINATE ME TO NO END. IT SEEMS TO BE A HABIT OF THEIRS TO GET BACK UP AFTER THE WORLD HAS BEATEN THEM DOWN. DO NOT THINK I AM HELPING YOU OUT OF MERCY OR COMPASSION, FOR I AM BEYOND SUCH MORTAL PHENOMENA. PEOPLE LIKE YOU, THE ONES THAT NO LONGER HAVE A REASON TO KEEP GOING BUT STILL DO, ALWAYS HAVE AN INTERESTING STORY TO TELL. AND MY ONLY WISH IS TO SEE YOURS UNFOLD, LITTLE LEIF.
Leif supposes it’s better than no answer. In any case, he finds it amusing that a being like Darkness cares what he thinks of them.
YOU WILL SOON BE SENT BACK TO YOUR DOMAIN. IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE YOU WOULD ASK OF ME?
Leif wipes away the tears. “What do you… look like?”
The windows fade, and then so does the blackness. Leif has his breath snatched away by the view: ice-blue, crystalline water as far the eye can see, filled with silver-scaled shoals of fish and vibrant-hued, gelatinous creatures he’s never seen before. He notices he’s inside a transparent, bubble-shaped enclosure, which keeps him in and the water out. A humpback whale passes overhead, and it’s a beautiful sight.
HUMANS ARE OF THE LAND, says Darkness, BUT I AM OF THE SEA, AS ARE MY CHILDREN YOU SEE BEFORE YOU. SO THINK TWICE THE NEXT TIME YOU CONSIDER “WALRUS” AN INSULT.
Leif’s vision begins to fade, and that’s when he knows his time is almost up. Part of him wishes he could stay here, with an invisible being that doesn’t discriminate between people. But he has to go back.
For my people.
“Thank you,” murmurs Leif, before everything goes dark.
Leif’s eyes flutter open to find a blurry Torsten shaking him awake.
“You did it, lad! I knew you had it in you.”
He’s sprawled in the boat, and the River-in-the-Ocean must have faded because the only light source is the dim amber of a lantern.
He coughs up seawater. “Torsten… what are you talking about?”
Then Leif registers the cold metal his fingers are curled around. Is this a… crown?
“How did you get the Mermaid Queen to hand it over? Oh, you must have a whale of a tale to tell…”
Leif closes his eyes and savors the night air. For the first time in forever, he doesn’t feel like a loser.