‘Keep going!’ shouted Aulf, above the icy rush of the wind.
Ingar had never been on the narrow of the boat’s outrigger before, but she was determined to reach the end. Her eyes were streaming, the tears turning to ice, but still she edged farther out. Glancing at Aulf, she saw him leaning out, only his legs from the knees hooked under the rigger. The sheet was wound round one hand, the other beckoning her on, and, behind his goggles, she was sure he was laughing. She reached the end, turned, tucked her legs in, and let her weight fall back. She pulled in the jib sheet, and the craft bucked as Aulf pulled in the main and turned closer to the wind. They rose ever higher on one keel as the boat surged on, faster than the wind. She could hardly breathe as the frozen air hit her face, but suddenly she was laughing too.
Looking back at Aulf, Ingar could see the Dragon’s Teeth passing the stern of the boat, massive wooden posts left from some bygone battle, set in a long curve, marching back to the white horizon, the only interruption in all that empty sea of whiteness. Suddenly a mass of jumbled timbers and torn sail broke the symmetry of the teeth. It took a moment for Ingar to register what she was seeing. She waved frantically at Aulf to slow down, but Aulf only laughed. She pointed down with both hands. Something in her look cut short Aulf’s laughter. He dropped the sheet and they both swung in as the Aurora dropped to a level keel. Ingar pointed back down the teeth and shouted, ‘A wreck!’
Aulf looked back. There was something in the teeth, but not a wreck, surely. Everyone knew about the teeth and they were massive. You couldn’t miss them unless you were blind! Aulf brought the skiff round and started sailing back up the line of stakes. Ingar was right. It looked like a good-sized boat had hit the wooden stakes at some speed. The boat and two of the stakes had been shattered.
As they approached the wreck, Aulf loosed the sails and threw off the anchor to slow the craft. As the Aurora came to a sliding halt, he jumped over the side and hurried across the slippery ice towards the wreck, Ingar running to join him. He was always amazed at the speed she could cross the ice without skates. As they approached the wreckage, Ingar gave a gasp of horror, then darted forward swiftly, Aulf struggling to keep up. He saw what she had seen. Behind the broken boat, partially obscured from their view by the wreckage, was a man, lying on the ice.
The man was cold. Most likely, the gaping wound to his head had killed him, but he was lying straight on the ice, his arms crossed on his chest and his eyes closed. So there were survivors. Or raiders. Someone had laid the man out that way. Aulf pulled his knife from its sheath and turned towards Ingar, motioning for her to do the same, only to find her crouched and wary, her knife already in her hand, her amber eyes darting quick glances in all directions. They skirted the wreck, looking for skate or runner tracks, but found none, other than the obvious ones made by the wrecked boat in front of them. Feeling more confident, they climbed through the tangle of broken spars onto the deck. It was a style of boat Aulf had not seen before. His skiff was a light craft on two runners, with outriggers, built for speed. Most boats were much larger, barges designed for carrying cargo, but this boat was neither. It was the size of a barge, but built more along the lines of a racing skiff. It had a roomy cabin, still partially intact, but the rest was a crumpled mess. The mast had come down, taking out one side of the cabin, and there appeared to have been a fire. The cabin door was charred and blackened.
Aulf gingerly pulled open the cabin door and peered cautiously inside. There was a tumble of junk and broken wood scattered across the floor, but under piles of blankets he could clearly discern two bodies. It was difficult to make out much beneath the heaped coverings, but they looked like they might be children, and they were either asleep or dead. Aulf and Ingar clambered in, realising as they saw more, that the fire had not been a result of the crash, but a deliberate attempt to keep warm. The iron stove designed to heat the cabin had been smashed by the mast as it crashed through, but the area had been cleared and a camp fire set on the hearth.
Ingar was bending over the two shapeless humps, buried beneath the piles of blankets. ‘They’re breathing!’ she exclaimed, relieved. ‘They’re very cold but they’re alive. They don’t look very old to me. What shall we do?’
‘You go back over to the Aurora,’ Aulf instructed her briskly, ‘and get the stove well stoked up. As hot as you can get it. And put some water on to boil.’
Wasting no more precious time, Aulf got his arms around the closest body and lifted it carefully. The child’s body, if indeed it was a child, was longer than he had thought, but not heavy, just awkward to lift in the bundled wrappings. A blanket fell back, and he saw a girl’s pale oval face, framed by dark locks tumbling out of a large woollen hat, long black lashes contrasting starkly with the waxen pallor of her cheekbones.
Ingar had already gone ahead of him as he hefted his burden with some difficulty over the side of the wrecked craft and picked a careful route across the ice to his own boat. With a grunt of relief, he laid the girl’s prone body on his own bunk in the cabin of the Aurora, and leaving Ingar to pile extra furs and blankets around her, he set off back to the broken boat.
By the time he laid his second charge on Ingar’s bunk, in the welcome circle of heat radiating from the small iron stove, he was out of breath from his exertions. Beads of perspiration that had broken out on his face and then frozen in the icy air, now melted again in the warmth of the cabin. Drawing the blankets back, Aulf saw that this was a boy, his face ghost-like in its deathly whiteness. Like the girl, the youth was lightly built, though taller. He was young, but older than the child Aulf first imagined him to be, maybe fourteen or fifteen years old.
Leaning his face close to the boy’s, Aulf caught the faint breeze on his cheek. He was still alive, at least. Beneath the blankets, he was sensibly dressed in a long coat of creamy fur, and light trousers of soft brushed leather, tucked into long fur-lined boots. He had a thick knitted hat covering his head and ears, the like of which Aulf had not seen before, decorated with rows of colourful geometric patterns and several plaited woollen tassels. Aware that Ingar had crossed the cabin to get a closer look at this second survivor, Aulf wrapped the covers carefully around the boy again, and raised his eyes to Ingar’s face. She had pulled off her hat, and her wiry red hair stuck out wildly around her head. Her strange golden eyes looked very large in her narrow, freckled face. The two of them stared at each other in troubled silence for several moments, each of them aware of the echo of their own doubts in the other’s mind.
‘They’re not from round here, that’s for sure,’ Ingar said. ‘What are we going to do with them?’
‘Well, we can’t leave them here,’ Aulf said. ‘They’re hardly more than children.’
‘What about the mail? We’ll be late.’
Aulf pursed his lips. ‘It can’t be helped. We’ll just have to do the best we can.’ Distracted, he ran a hand through his untidy, fair hair. ‘I’ll get some food. When that water boils, make some tea. We need to wake these two and get something hot inside them.’
Chapter 2 - Jacob and Elya
Jacob surfaced slowly into consciousness, aware at first only of welcome heat enveloping him, and then of the unexpected aroma of chicken stew. Despite the warmth, there was still a deep chill in the marrow of his bones. Into his mind drifted the memory of coldness, gnawing deep, numbing his body, until all he wanted to do was sleep. For a moment it crossed his mind that maybe he was dead, but then he became fully aware of the pain in his hands and feet, forcing its way into his fingers and toes and making them throb, and he knew that he was still alive. Pain was good. Better the pain of live toes than the numbness of frostbite.
Someone was speaking to him. A man’s voice. With an effort, he forced his eyes properly open, and focused his gaze. He seemed to be lying on a strange bunk in a strange cabin. A tall man with fair, tousled hair and a white knitted sweater was leaning over him, watching him anxiously out of eyes the blue of the clear deep ice. Realising the boy was finally awake, the man’s face relaxed into a relieved smile.
‘You had us worried!’ he said, and Jacob blinked and frowned.
‘Elya,’ he muttered, twisting his head.
The fair headed young man moved to one side so that Jacob could see the mound of blankets on the other bunk. A girl, with a mane of frizzy red curls, and wearing a drab brown fur coat, was leaning over the shapeless heap, with a steaming mug in her hand.
‘Is that Elya?’ said the man. ‘It’s all right. She’s doing fine. Your boat was wrecked. We brought you in here. You need to drink this and get warm.’ He had a strange way of speaking. It took Jacob’s numbed brain several moments to work out what he had just said.
The young man helped him raise his head from the pillow and held a steaming cup to his lips. Jacob sipped gratefully at the hot tea and felt the welcome heat warming him from the inside.
‘Thanks,’ he murmured gratefully.
The young man got up and Jacob’s eyes followed him as he crossed the small space to a neat little iron stove, to stir the contents of a pot, simmering on the top. Jacob’s gaze flicked back to the other bunk. Anxiety made him restless. He struggled to sit up, hindered by the copious layers of wool and fur enveloping him, feeling inexplicably weak, and exhausted by the smallest effort.
‘Take it easy,’ instructed the young man, returning to his side, this time with a bowl of thick, meaty stew in his hand. ‘Let me help you.'
As Jacob scraped the last remnants of food from his bowl, the heat from the stove and the warmth of the food in his stomach combined to dispel the lethargy that had threatened to overwhelm him before. He pulled his hat from his head and rubbed his hands through his short blond hair that stood up, brush-like, all over his head. Movements on the other side of the cabin distracted his attention. The freckled girl was helping Elya into a sitting position and offering her a bowl of stew. His sister looked as white and fragile as the mist that crept over the ice. Even her lips were pale. Feeling stronger after the food, Jacob swung his legs carefully over the side of the bunk, wincing as he put his weight on his thawing toes, and hobbled the short distance across the cabin to sit beside his sister, putting his arm around Elya’s shoulder, so she could lean against him as she ate.
For the first time, Jacob looked properly at his rescuer. He had a clear, pleasant face, browned by sun and wind, with a wide mouth made for smiling, and eyes so intensely blue they might have been cold were it not for the lines that laughter had etched around them. Over his sweater of creamy wool, he wore straps of leather, crossing his body, and more leather around his neck, a wide band, set with something polished, reflecting the light of the oil lamps.
‘I’m Aulf,’ he said, by way of introduction. ‘This is my mail skiff, the Aurora. And this is Ingar, my crew.’
At this, Ingar turned her head away from the lamplight, almost shyly, but Jacob thought he noticed her strange yellow eyes shining before the shadow obscured them.
‘I’m Jacob,’ he replied, ‘and this is my sister, Elya.’
‘What happened to your boat? How did you crash?’ Aulf asked
‘We were driven from our home and had to escape on our boat. We’ve been sailing for twenty days on the open ice. Our food and fuel were all gone, so my father decided our only hope was to keep sailing through the night in the hope we’d reach land. Elya and I were asleep when we hit the posts.’ Jacob paused. A small spasm contorted his thin pale face. Elya lowered her gaze and turned her face into her brother’s shoulder.
‘Twenty days on the open ice?’ queried Aulf, incredulously. ‘So you’re not from Hexult, then?’ He shook his head in wonderment. ‘But nobody goes far out onto the Ice Plain. How did you cross it? The glare off the low mists is blinding, and the sun could be in any direction.’
Jacob looked at him in surprise. He had imagined Aulf to be a seasoned sailor; he gave every impression of being so
‘We used our lodestones, of course,’
Aulf gave him a blank stare. ‘Your what?’
Jacob reached inside the collar of his coat and tugged at a leather cord he wore around his neck, dragging out a small dark, pitted stone hanging from a metal spinner. The top had been polished flat to allow the engraving of an arrow that passed across the small hole at its centre. He drew it over his head and handed it to Aulf. Aulf took it, inspected it carefully, still at a loss.
‘Surely you’ve seen a lodestone before,’ said Jacob, surprised that a sailor did not recognise it. , ‘See the arrow engraved on the top?’ he explained helpfully. ‘Turn round slowly. It always points in the same direction.’
Aulf turned slowly, his eyes widening. ‘A magic hand!’ he said, amazed. ‘How do you tell it where you want to go?’
‘It’s not magic,’ said Jacob. ‘It doesn’t point to places, just to the sun. Or to where the sun would be at midday,’ he corrected.
‘So it knows where the sun will be at midday, every day?’ Aulf was still turning round slowly, his eyes fastened on the small stone in his hand. Ingar, drawn by his fascination, had also got up from her seat to take a closer look at the magic stone. Like a child with a new toy, Aulf asked eagerly, ‘Could I try it tomorrow?’
A shadow crossed Jacob’s face. ‘It was a present from my father.’
‘Oh!’ said Aulf, embarrassed. He passed the lodestone back hastily. ‘I’m sorry.’
Jacob thought how much they owed this man, and added swiftly. ‘But we have a bigger one on our boat. You can try that. It’s the least we can do, after all you’ve done for us,’ Jacob said, smiling too, for the first time.
‘We don’t know how to thank you,’ Jacob said, awkwardly, looking from Aulf to Ingar and back again. ‘You saved our lives, for certain.’
Elya lifted her eyes to Aulf’s face, and Aulf was startled; not simply by the intensity of those dark green eyes, but by the fact that he found himself regarded from two pairs of the same intensely green eyes, set in faces so similar they might have been the male and female incarnation of the same person.
Aulf regarded them both curiously. They were an odd looking pair; Jacob with his blond hair, so pale it was almost white, standing in little spikes, all over his head, and Elya with a thick sheen of ebony waves spilling over her shoulders from under her enormous woollen hat. Yet, beneath their hair, their features and appearance were strikingly similar. Their clothes were almost identical. They had the same finely carved cheekbones, clearly visible beneath the delicate, pale skin, the same long, slight frames, and there was that silent communication between them, the way they each seemed to understand what the other was thinking without the need for speech. ‘You’re twins!’ Aulf exclaimed as understanding dawned.
Jacob and Elya nodded. ‘Yes,’ they said together, as if to confirm their unity.
‘Do you think Gem; our boat can be mended?’ Jacob asked.
‘There’s too much damage,’ Aulf told them, apologetically. He saw Jacob’s arm tighten once more around his sister.
‘Our father...’ began Jacob, but the words caught in his throat. He stopped, took a deep breath and tried again.
‘Our father’s dead,’ he said.
‘I know,’ responded Aulf, gently. ‘We saw.’
‘We didn’t know what to do,’ Jacob went on, an edge of despair in his voice. ‘Elya and I were asleep, and then there was this almighty thud and loads of splintering, and the mast came crashing through the cabin roof, and everything came down around us. We managed to scramble out, but it was pitch black, and there was stuff everywhere. We were shouting for him, but we couldn’t find him in the dark. We called and called, but he didn’t answer.’
Aulf felt uncomfortable. Elya started to cry silently, her waxen face crumpling as though her tears were melting it.
‘Eventually we found him, almost under the boat,’ Jacob went on, his voice trembling as he recalled, ‘but he wasn’t breathing. We tried everything; really we did! In the end, we left him there on the ice. We didn’t know what else to do.’ He scrubbed at his eyes with the heels of his palms, but the tears he was trying to prevent spilled over in spite of his efforts.
Aulf bit his lip awkwardly, silently chiding himself for his own impotency. It was Ingar, still perched on the edge of the girl’s bunk, who replied.
‘You did the right thing,’ she reassured Jacob. ‘It was an awful thing to happen, but you did everything you could.’
‘But what are we going to do now?’ Elya whispered through her tears.
‘We’ll work something out,’ Ingar assured her , fixing Aulf with a hard stare. Pulling himself together, Aulf nodded. In truth, he had thought no further than the immediate challenge of saving two half dead children from frozen oblivion. In his twenty two years, he had only really had himself to look after, but now these youngsters needed his guidance. ‘Ingar’s right,’ he said firmly. ‘We’ll work something out. But not now. Right now, the two of you are exhausted, and nobody thinks straight when they’re that tired. It’s late, anyway. Tomorrow is soon enough to be making plans. What you two need is a good night’s sleep, here in the warm, and we’ll talk tomorrow.’
With Jacob settled back in his bunk, Aulf and Ingar left the pair to sleep, and went out on the deck of the Aurora. Night was falling fast, the stars already piercing the deepening blue of the evening sky. As the sun slid away below the flat horizon, so the temperature out on the open ice plummeted, and Aulf and Ingar tugged sheepskin mittens over their knitted gloves and pulled their woollen mufflers closer around their faces against the sharp bite of the freezing air. Together, they looked out over the wreck of the twins’ boat in subdued silence, until Aulf finally spoke.
‘Do you believe them?’
Ingar looked at Aulf’s face to gauge what he was thinking. ‘You’re the sailor,’ she reminded him. ‘You know more about what it would take to sail across the great Ice Plain. I would never have believed it was possible.’
Aulf stared out into the dusk as though he could see the endless blankness of the Ice Plain laid out for his consideration.
‘I thought that too. Out there, there’s nothing but featureless, blinding whiteness, and the treacherous mists to confuse you. Maintaining a straight course is all but impossible, and the ice just goes on and on, forever. But with an enchanted stone to keep you on course, who knows?’
‘So it could be true then?’
In the failing light, Ingar caught the glint of excitement in Aulf’s eyes.
‘I hope it is! Just imagine how incredible it would be to dare to take the Aurora across the Ice Plain, and find out what lies beyond it!’
Ingar heard the thrill of longing in his voice and knew that he meant what he said. Aulf was more at home on his boat then he ever was on land. He would not miss the islands or their people.
‘As long as you took me with you,’ she added firmly.
‘That goes without saying,’ he assured her grinning. ‘You are my crew, after all.’
‘Perhaps Elya and I should go through our belongings and stow our things on your skiff,’ Jacob ventured helpfully, the next morning as they ate breakfast together, ‘and you and Ingar could take any useful salvage from our boat.’
‘That sounds like a good plan,’ Aulf agreed. ‘But we need to work fast. If raiders spot us, we’re a sitting target.’
‘What about father?’ asked Elya, and she and Jacob exchanged another silent look.
There was no mistaking the dread in both pairs of green eyes. A little awkwardly, Aulf ventured, ‘There’s plenty of firewood. I’m not sure what you…how you…’ Jacob dragged his gaze back to Aulf.
‘You’re right,’ he said, steadying his voice with an effort. ‘We need to build a pyre.’
Aulf sailed the Aurora in a long arc, bringing it up next to the stricken craft. The Aurora was fast because she was light and strong, but there was plenty of room on board. The side lockers were mainly empty except for vast coils of rope acquired at various times from raiders’ trip lines. Ingar swiftly began to fill these with salvaged blocks and cleats from the wreck while Aulf lashed down a deck locker he had dragged across from the stranded vessel.
When Jacob appeared, staggering across the ice with an intricately carved wooden frame fixed to a round base, Aulf jumped down eagerly to help him lift it aboard the Aurora and lower it carefully onto the deck.
‘This won’t work properly if there’s metal nearby,’ Jacob warned Aulf as he hung another lodestone from the frame, a larger version of the one he had shown Aulf the evening before. He showed Aulf how the disc on the base of the frame, marked with numbered lines around the edge, could be rotated to point the same way as the stone. Aulf walked round the device several times, admiring every little detail of its design and thinking it was one of the most fascinating and beautiful things he had ever seen.
Back on the ice, Aulf was curious about the broken runners of the wrecked ship. There were strips of metal fixed to each runner that had buckled and twisted when the wood splintered, but had not cracked. The metal seemed as hard as iron but as malleable as copper. Carefully, he peeled the strips from both runners to store away in his own boat. To him they were more valuable than gold.
When finally the wreck was stripped of everything salvageable, Aulf moved the Aurora away, and they faced the toughest task of all. Using the charred door of the cabin as a bier, they hoisted the dead man between them onto the deck of his ruined boat and laid him on a bed of sails. Not sure what else to do, Aulf and Ingar retired to the Aurora, leaving Jacob and Elya to say goodbye to their father.
Brother and sister stood close, not moving, hands joined and heads lowered. Aulf looked round to speak to Ingar, and was surprised to see her cheeks streaked with tears. He had not seen her cry before. He looked away again, pulling his goggles over his eyes.
‘Because of the glare,’ he told himself.
On the deck of the wrecked boat, the twins stood unmoving as the sun climbed higher in the flawless blue sky, then Ingar, watching from the Aurora, saw the two of them turn, as one, and lower themselves carefully onto the ice, and she knew the time had come. Swiftly she went into the cabin to light the torch they had already prepared; a piece of shattered planking, wrapped at one end with a strip of oil-soaked sailcloth. Jacob was waiting for her as she came out of the cabin and she handed the flaming stick into his uplifted hand. Solemnly, he walked back to Gem and thrust the torch into the broken spars and splinters of timber piled beneath the stricken boat. As the flames caught, the twins headed back to the Aurora. The blaze licked higher; the deck of the Gem became less distinct as the air above shimmered in the unaccustomed heat. With a ferocious roar, the whole boat was suddenly engulfed in flame. Smoke billowed against the clear blue sky, pushed over by the breeze that drove constantly across the ice. Aulf, worrying that the great column of smoke might attract unwanted attention, had to fight a restless desire to be on the move, but he didn’t want to be the one to break the silence.
‘We should leave,’ said Jacob, and Aulf, breathing a secret sigh of relief, needed no second telling. Swiftly, he pulled in the main.
‘Boats!’ exclaimed Ingar, urgently, pointing at the shimmering horizon.
Aulf’s mouth tightened as he squinted through his goggles in the direction of Ingar’s pointing finger. Five boats were clearly discernable, moving swiftly across the ice towards the burning wreck and the Aurora. Even at a distance, Aulf could make out the patched sails and makeshift cabins protruding from the decks, and knew them instantly as raiders. A motley fleet, but a fast one.
‘Jump in the netting and hang on,’ he ordered the twins sharply.
The Aurora had two outriggers, large skis outstretched on either side of the boat, attached to the hull by horizontal ladders with nets strung beneath them. He and Elya, tumbled into the nets, something in Aulf’s tone forestalling any protest they might have made, and Aulf and Ingar flung themselves onto the outriggers.
The Aurora had not had time to pick up enough speed; the raiders were closing in on them fast. Jacob, clinging to the netting, could pick out the individual figures of the raiders, leaning over the wale of the lead vessel, so heavily fur clad, their faces were mostly obscured, but the menacing whoop of their war cries carried clearly over the ice. An arrow whistled above his head, clattering harmlessly on the ice ahead. The gap narrowed. Jacob saw one of the fur clad men swing a grappling hook and braced himself for the inevitable impact.
Aulf jerked the Aurora round in a violent tack, throwing the entire vessel onto the far outrigger. The boat groaned with the force of the sudden change of direction. One side of the main deck slammed back down onto the ice, and they were away. Taken completely by surprise, the raiding ships slid harmlessly past as the Aurora, gaining momentum, shot away on her new course, the curses of the raiders following them clearly on the breeze. The pursuing boats spread out in a last attempt to intercept their escaping prey, but the Aurora, having gained her advantage, now sped away over the frozen sea with the ease of a gliding bird.
As the raiding boats dwindled to mere specks in the distance, Aulf swung away from the sun, towards Quayven. The smoke was no more than a distant dark smudge on the horizon, and in front of them, the ice formed a vast unbroken plain. They had avoided disaster, yet Aulf was still troubled. Already late with the post, he was uncertain what to do for the best. As the first indistinct hint of an island broke the clear rim of the horizon, he glanced at the lodestone, fastened to the deck. Sure enough, it was still pointing just in front of the sun. Looking at the strange and beautiful contraption, his doubts grew heavier.
‘We can’t sail into Quayven with those two and all this gear on board,’ he muttered to Ingar, taking her aside out of the twins’ hearing. ‘Can you imagine the fiasco? Not to mention the fact it would be an open invitation to every quick-fingered vagabond on the dockside!’
‘We need to find somewhere safe to store it all,’ Ingar agreed. They exchanged a look.
‘Ma’s!’ they said together.
Aulf considered for a moment. ‘It’s less than a day beyond Quayven. We’d best skirt round out of sight of Quayven though. It would mean another night camping on the ice, of course.’
‘What about the mail?’ Ingar reminded him. ‘You’ve never been late before.’
Aulf gave a resigned shrug and changed direction again, keeping the distant island on the horizon.
Aulf held a steady course. Around them, the circle of ice stretched out endlessly, never seeming to shrink. Jacob and Elya simply sat. It was in idleness that fear and uncertainty grew. Aulf knew he should keep them occupied, but with what?
As he was debating what distraction he could find for the brooding twins, Ingar shot out of the cabin.
‘The stove door was ajar! We’ve lost the smoulder!’ she burst out in dismay. ‘It must have been knocked when we were moving all the stores,’ she added quickly, not wanting anyone to think she was apportioning blame. ‘We won’t be able to stay out on the ice overnight without a fire.’
Jacob looked over at Aulf, and was surprised to see that Aulf, too, was looking grave.
Ingar gave a small helpless shrug. ‘We’ll have to risk sailing into Quayven, after all.’
Jacob waited for Aulf to answer, but Aulf had looked away to the horizon, tightening his lips as he pondered. The little frown had returned to his forehead. Fearing that he might be missing the obvious and speaking out of turn, Jacob said tentatively, ‘Couldn’t we just light another fire?’
Ingar and Aulf swung round to look at him, almost accusingly, as though he had said something to make fun of them. He shrank back apologetically.
‘You know how hard it is to start a fire from nothing, and how long it takes,’ Ingar said. ‘We can’t risk a night on the ice unless we know for certain we’ve got a fire.’
Jacob and Elya exchanged puzzled glances. ‘Don’t you have a flint and steel?’ wondered Jacob, still bemused.
Ingar and Aulf looked blank. ‘A flint and what?’ queried Ingar.
‘Well, what do you use to start a fire?’ asked Jacob, and Ingar vanished back into the cabin, reappearing moments later with a bow in her hand.
‘You light fires with that?’ exclaimed Jacob, impressed.
‘No,’ replied Aulf, and laughed at his own honesty. Immediately the tension between them relaxed. ‘I managed it once at school, but out on the ice, the only way I’d keep warm with that is with the effort of trying to start the fire! Out on the ice, we rely on keeping the smoulder going.’
‘Well, I’ve never managed to burn anything except my hand with a bow drill!’ returned Jacob. He looked hard at Aulf and Ingar. ‘Do you know what a flint and steel is?’
‘I know what flint is,’ Aulf answered. ‘It’s a type of stone. But I’ve never heard of steel.’
Jacob decided he liked Aulf. Most people – most adults anyway – would have taken offence at being put right about things they didn’t know by someone so many years their junior. Aulf, however, didn’t seem at all put out,.
‘When you reheat iron in charcoal, it makes it harder.’ Jacob told him. ‘That’s steel.’
‘Like the metal on your boat’s runners?’ Aulf recalled. He shook his head. ‘I don’t know of any metal like that.’
‘And you can light fires with this steel?’ queried Ingar, doubtfully.
Jacob nodded. ‘It’s easy with a flint and steel.’
‘So, have you got one?’ she asked, still unconvinced.
Jacob looked round at Elya, and found she was already staring at him, her face aghast as a sudden realisation struck her.
‘Oh no, Jacob!’ she exclaimed, paling. ‘You know what we’ve done?’
Jacob stared back at her blankly, then comprehension dawned. The same look of dismay swept over his face.
Elya looked at Aulf. ‘We left home in a hurry. The boat wasn’t fully stocked. We had no steels on board, only a small camping one. It was so important that father wore it round his neck…’
‘It’s all right,’ Aulf reassured her hastily. ‘We’ll think of something.’
‘We could use an ice lens to get a fire going,’ put in Jacob, thinking quickly, ‘if we stop now, while the sun’s still up. Assuming you have a drill and a saw.’
‘An ice lens?’ mused Aulf. ‘What on ice is that?’
Lodestones, flints and steels, now ice lenses! This time, Aulf didn’t stop to question. Instead he let off the main slowing the Aurora, wondering about these youngsters who knew things no one else knew. It was as if they came from another world, and spoke another language, one Aulf did not fully understand.
‘How old are you?’ he asked Jacob.
‘Fifteen,’ replied the boy.
Aulf examined him closely. He seemed to have the knowledge and the bearing of a man three times that age, and despite his delicate frame, he exuded confidence and authority.
‘Ingar, bring up the ice saw and drill,’ he called across as the boat drew to a halt.
With the saw and drill in hand, Jacob clambered down onto the ice and walked purposefully away from the boat, his eyes searching keenly around him over the solid frozen expanse.
‘How far is he going?’ Aulf questioned, a note of concern in his voice as the thin, blonde figure receded ever further into the distance.
‘He’s looking for blue ice,’ Elya explained in her quiet voice, and seeing Aulf’s lack of comprehension, she added, ‘The bluer the ice, the clearer it is.’
Aulf tried to look as though this made sense to him.
When Jacob returned, he was carrying a large chunk of freshly cut ice which he handed to Elya.
‘So, you’re going to start a fire with a lump of ice?’ Aulf asked, incredulously, and laughed aloud. Elya grinned too. Aulf was secretly relieved to see her smile. She was quieter than her brother, her green eyes more intense, as though she looked deeper and saw more than her fair haired twin. Aulf had feared she might be inclined to brooding, but now she looked animated and there was a spark in the emerald depths of her eyes. She turned to Ingar, who had watched everything in silence, more wide-eyed and wondering by the minute.
‘Can I borrow your knife?’ asked Elya, politely, motioning at the sturdy blade strapped to Ingar’s belt.
‘We’ll need tinder,’ said Jacob, and Aulf hurried into the cabin. When he emerged with the tinder on a flat slate, he saw that Elya had been shaping the block of ice with the knife, much as a sculptor might do. It was now curved like two rounded dishes set rim to rim. She was very intent on her work, her dark head bent over her carving, her long, gloved fingers expertly wielding the knife blade.
Finally she seemed satisfied with her sculpted ice disc. She laid the knife aside and began to polish the ice with the sleeve of her coat, pausing now and then to breathe on it before more vigorous polishing. Aulf and Ingar watched , fascinated. Elya held the now smooth ice lens up to the light and turned it around, examining it critically. Once more she looked satisfied. Arranging the tinder into a neat pile in the centre of the slate, she raised the finished lens again, holding it carefully above the tinder. The polished ice caught the light and flashed with the brilliance of the sun. The light shone right through it and made a bright point on the slate. Elya adjusted the position of the lens until the point of light was focused on the tinder. They all watched in silent anticipation, mesmerised by the tiny pinpoint of brilliance.
For a few moments, nothing happened, then Aulf drew a quick audible gasp. It was unmistakable. In front of their eyes, a thin spiral of smoke was rising from the small mound. Beneath the smoke, a tiny flame leapt. It was magic. There was no other word for it.
Still wide-eyed, Ingar crouched down swiftly and pushed more tinder gently into the little flame. It flared instantly. Reverently, she picked up the slate and carried it carefully back into the cabin, nudging it anxiously into the iron stove, and adding a few pieces of charcoal.
It was real enough; she could feel the first small ripples of heat beginning to rise from the little yellow flames. Still she crouched by the stove, as though she couldn’t quite believe what she had seen, until her few pieces of charcoal were well and truly alight. She added some more and closed the door of the stove. Only when the casing had grown warm and she was certain beyond any doubt that she would not lose the fire again, did she stand up, closing the vents to let the charcoal smoulder and save it burning away.
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