Tomorrow is Book Day, but I will be in New York City for a reading from Lovecraft Unbound with la Datlow and others, so I made you a Wordle in slightly premature celebration!
This is what BtMB looks like in terms of word frequency, with certain common English words trimmed out:
Here's the publisher's page on the book, with various order-online links. And then for comparison's sake, here's my webpage on The Edda of Burdens, of which this is book 2. (Although really, you can read these in any order. The editor, however, who is wise, prefers publication order.)
...oddly enough, it's not actually a book about Strifbjorn.
And because I love you that much, here's the first scene:
in bondage now bides
the Wolf, 'til world's end
Fear. I know the scent of old.
Einherjar sleep not if we are unwounded, but I have spent the afternoon in the smooth fork of a copper beech in a sort of daydream, contemplating the curve of a crimson sun settling behind the wooded Ulfenfell. A chill gilds air raw with hanging winter, the nearby sea, the musk of leaves. And a woman's terror.
The scent lifts my hackles. A silken collar--an old fetter half-broken--galls my throat when I stretch too far, breathe too deep. I am accustomed. There is more news on the wind. Mortal woman. And a mortal man. They prey on their own.
I run the length of a horizontal branch broad as a horse's back and drop to the leaf litter, steadying Svanvitr's hilt with one hand. The pack wakes, rolling from crackling leaves like wood-red and smoke-grey and tarnished-silver shadows. They shake earth and dry grass from coats already silkening against frost, motes sparkling in slanting light. Milling around my legs, they grin.
Alas. Not my brothers, these, though I live among them in preference to the mead-hall, and the einherjar.
My gloves are in the hand I offer a bitch. She sniffs, allows the touch. Fingertips burrow through slick guard-hairs and dense undercoat to brush skin beneath. When I touch her flesh, I can speak to her, she can speak to me. You need not come. I take the shadowed road.
She laughs at me. I draw on my gloves. Bound for where Men are. Humans, I touch not.
Words for them.
Blood-scent soaks the air. There is a thing--an einherjar thing, not of wolves nor Men--the swanning. Knowledge granted, and a task to complete.
If I were another einherjar, it might swan me now: East--and quickly. I am not as they. I am unique, older, not exiled but not accepted among them as I am among the pack. I became as they are, starlight made flesh, when I swallowed a sun.
They have the words of the Light to guide them. I have the scent. Blood on the wind, and fear.
I step into the shadow of the ponderous beech. And out the other side.
The place between one shadow and the next is cold and silent, wrought of firefly lights and dancing beliefs. A breath of ice. A stink of char. A dead world left behind.
I cross quickly.
Even here, the fear-scent lingers. Or perhaps it hangs only in my mind, as if borne on unworldish wings.
The shadow of an oak is my gate back to Valdyrgard. I hold my step and watch. A flaxen-haired maiden in a cloak dyed with bloodroot twists away from a sour-smelling man of middling size and age. She has spilled her basket, bread and weedy late wildflowers. Her lip is split. He has blacked her eye.
I see no need to draw Svanvitr. Furling my cloak over my shoulder, I clutch. One gloved hand catches the man's wrist, snaps. He releases the girl. She staggers. A knife into the other hand, and I take it, cast it to the cool waiting forest. It rings on stone, rustles through leaves.
I force him to his knees.
Now comes the Light. It streams from my eyes, my fingertips. Fills my mouth. The cord under my gray woolen collar clenches like a hand, but the Light is stronger than broken chains, and I was stronger than them too, when it mattered. The girl scrambles back, twig-crunch and rustle, too foolish in her fine wove cloak to run.
"I mark thee." I touch my gloved thumb to my tongue and draw the letter thorn on his forehead in silver-blue starlight. "With Thurisaz, which is the mark of strife. Do thou no more harm to innocents, or I shall know of it."
He whimpers. I squeeze. My dark braid falling forward strikes him across the face. "Is all plain between us?"
Frozen until he remembers to nod. Then I loose him. He falls back, scrabbling like a cat, pissing himself before he flees. The girl hunches between oak-roots.
She draws away, though I offer a smile.
Her mouth shapes words. "Who are you?"
"Mingan. Called the Grey Wolf. I am einherjar, a Child of Light." The name soothes her not. But I am not my warrior brothers: I am slight where they are broad; dark where they are fair, old where they are young.
I am not meant for comfort. I should have stayed a wolf in more than name.
I close the space between us, drop my hand upon her head. "This is my wood. I dwell here."
She draws herself closer and smaller. I turn and step back into the shadows that are my home. She does not hear me sigh.
I'd stay and see her home through the twilight, but she would thank me not. I have other business to attend in the morning, and work before. With my scent on her, the maiden will come to no harm in the wood.
The night is used in the hunt; when the sun rises the deer on my shoulder is a buck, three points--young and tender, caught with my own hands. I bring him to the wolves in apology: the next night, I will not run with them across the moon-soaked mountains. I am summoned.
They dine on well-bled meat while I take myself to Strifbjorn's mead-hall where the einherjar gather. I do not count the days among the wolves, but I attend when my brothers call. I walk the valley road, not the shadowed one, passing under trees in the short cold morn. Patches of frost linger in the shadows, but the mist coils off the land, burned by the sun overhead. I glance upward, some memory I cannot quite reconstruct raised by the tug of the cord about my throat.
Mountain-clutching trees break above a hillocked green meadow, which sweeps down a gentler slope south and east until the flank of the mountain plunges into the sea. Close to the lip stands the mead-hall. It is built as long as two ancient pines grow tall, solid of seasoned logs and shingled bark. The sea lies at my right hand and before, the mountain at my back; the meadow gives way to birch and poplar to the left.
A pale form arrows across the sky, plunging furled by the turf-roofed mead-hall. A thing like a two-headed stallion stands in the midmorning light, tossing its horns and mantling those giant wings. A slender figure, clad in white, slides down his shoulder; she acknowledges my approach--but barely--with a raised hand, turns, and strides into the hall.
My brethren arrive for the feast and the council. For me, it is no homecoming.
Not until I enter the door of the mead-hall, and an elk-shouldered shape steps over the fire-trench to meet me. My braid is silver-black where his is like winter butter, but his eyes are grey as mine and as full of starlight.
"Mingan!" Strifbjorn embraces me. His clasp is iron bands, fingers that would break mortal bones clenching on my forearm, his other arm falling around my back.
I return the clasp, looking up to see his smile. A bear-fur cloak broadens him that needs no broadening, the pelt grizzled silver over rich brown. It contrasts with the swan-white shirt and trews. At his hip, Alvitr's bronze hilt matches Svanvitr's.
Pine-scent rises from the strewn branches, mingled with the smell of cold fires and hot honeyed ale. Strifbjorn does not flinch from the heat of my hand through the glove.
"Strifbjorn, my brother. You are well?" I smile to see the light in his eyes flash, and he does not turn from it.
His voice drops. "Very." He leads me to a seat near his, at the south end of one of the long tables. On the left, below him along the bench. We will share our trencher. The great gilt chair on the north wall sits empty. Our Cynge is not with us.
He never has been, but I taught them to keep his chair ready, and the Lady's at the south end of the mead-hall.
The waelcyrge cluster at one end of the hall, around the bride. Menglad, who wears a red far more pure in shade than the muddy carrot-color of the blond girl's cloak.
One of them leaves her sisters and brings us mead in horns, bowing her head when Strifbjorn's fingers brush her hand. She is the little one, Muire, with the darkest hair, golden-brown as buckwheat honey. Her eyes also slide from mine, but it is not modesty that drives her to turn away. Strifbjorn is fair and handsome, his prowess unmatched in renown. As long as he remains unmarried, the Daughters of the Light vie for his regard.
Mine, they avoid--for I am Mingan the Grey Wolf, who walks alone, who acts alone, who does not hear the voice of the Light in his ear. The Children--except Strifbjorn and perhaps Yrenbend--fear me.
It is not their weird to seek understanding of things that shake the pattern of their days. Except perhaps Muire, who is a blacksmith and a poet, which are not such separated things as might seem. She writes history. I would she did not fear me. I would she might ask what I know.
I remember things--some shadowy, some crisp--that took place before the Children, einherjar and waelcyrge, were sung out of the starlight on the ocean and in turn sang the mortal creatures from the stones. I know of only three old enough to remember another world, and of those I am the one who walks among the Children of the Light.
I drain my nectar-scented mead, and the smell brings remembrance. A fetter, a sword, a scorching heat, the taste of blood. Pain, inside and without. The scent of a man I trusted as I have trusted none other, save Strifbjorn. The scent of a man who betrayed. I remember these things, but not with a man's understanding.
I recall them as a wolf might. But so my brothers name me.
"You are distant, my brother." It is not Strifbjorn speaking--he has turned to the side, listening to an einherjar who has come up on his right. It is the waelcyrge Muire, the chooser of the slain, who has returned with more mead.
She meets my eyes for a long quiet moment before she glances away, still not gazing at Strifbjorn. I witness the longing in how she refuses to look at him, and I see his denial of it in the stiffness of his shoulders as he bends closer to his welcome distraction. He is trapped, my brother, in the expectations of his role--and the mistakes we both have made.
"I sorrow, my sister," I say to her at last, continuing to examine her clear grey irises at an angle.
She is, I have said, an odd one, not so unlike the other waelcyrge as I am unlike my chosen brothers, but unlike enough. There is a thoughtfulness in her small nose and pointed chin that I am unused to seeing in the Children of the Light. She collects herself, and I am reminded that she fears me. But she speaks out around the fear. "Why do you sorrow?"
This softest and most exact among us--a sparrow-hawk. "You're the skald," I say. "You tell me."
Her face muddles. She stammers and flees to the cross-bench with her sisters, those who have so far arrived.
The hour is early still.
Mwahahahahahaha. Ahem. That was unbecoming, wasn't it?