I

 

 

I KNEW what the others said about Neskaya: that his name held no meaning in our language, that without the names of his ancestors he could inherit none of their traits, that his sorceress mother had seduced our king, and that his coloring was strange and wrong. Warriors and old women alike gossiped that Neskaya held too little interest in feasting, mead drinking, and wenching for a healthy young man. They spoke of his long, silent spells and of his days missing from his father’s grand hall. Many speculated on where he went, though no one knew for sure.

But none dared say he did not love and excel at battle. None dared to question his courage. I had stood shoulder to shoulder with him on many fields, his swords moving in arcs so fast and graceful that my eyes could scarcely follow. I wondered if any others lived who had heard his little chuckle when an enemy fell at his feet and the warm blood painted his white cheek? Of all of our people, Neskaya alone could fight with a sword in each hand, instead of a single blade or axe. He wielded them so beautifully that when he fought; it looked more enchanting than a dance. He was a fine warrior, deadly and quick, a man any other would happily take on a raid, and yet a man no other could sit comfortably with around the fire afterward. As for me, I had known Neskaya long, half of my life, and while I could not refute what others said of his strangeness, I didn’t feel ill at ease with him. He was the best swordsman, the best archer, and the fastest runner of our people. For these reasons, and many others, some I had no words to name, I loved him.

I’d followed him as he’d slipped away from his father’s table. The other men, distracted by knife throwing, arm wrestling, or just drunkenness, did not see us leave the feasting hall. Neskaya, in his blood-red cloak, moved like a shadow over the snow. I worried that my own clumsy feet would alert him to my pursuit, but if Neskaya became aware of me he neither stopped nor turned. Though cold as the grave, the night was at least still, with no wind to bite my face or pelt me with the ice from the roofs and eaves. Even so, I missed the fire and spiced drink already, and I wondered why Neskaya hurried so recklessly from these comforts. To find out, I stayed a good bit behind him as he descended the hillock from his father’s gates to the village. I hid in doorways and behind carts as he passed the little wooden houses and shops. When he entered the woods, the sacred grove where we offered to the gods, the holy trees wrapped me in their shadows and obscured me from his sight.

Sacrilege though it was, I hated this grove of twisted trees, fed for centuries on blood. Even in the perfect stillness, their boughs creaked and moaned, and it seemed to me that the stench of death clung to the soil that nursed them. Why would Neskaya come here? I shuddered as a wolf bayed and hid myself behind a thick trunk to watch him.

Neskaya cast his hood back and shook his dark hair. His black locks were one of the many things that aroused suspicion among our fair-haired people. None had ever seen such a thing. His hair fell across his face, mirroring the silhouettes of the trees that striped the snow. Neskaya pulled off one of his leather gloves and laid his bare palm against the wood of a tree. Next he went to the nearest tree and touched it the same way, skin to bark. Moving in a circular pattern, he touched every tree, his quickening gate spiraling further and further from the temple. These woods stretched far; I feared I would lose him, or that the wolves would find him, or me. It did not take long before he melted into the dark. I could no longer see him flit from tree to tree, nor hear the crunch of his boots on the snow.

“Neskaya!” I yelled.

To my surprise, he’d been standing only a few feet off, regarding me with his shoulder resting against a trunk and his ankles crossed. “Lars,” he said in greeting, and he then turned and walked to a long, wooden bench.

He sat down, and I sat beside him. I found I could see well, with the moon nearly full and the snow reflecting her light. Neskaya’s black eyes glittered. His lips were full in a way I’d only seen as a result of injury, though Neskaya’s lips swelled without losing their fine shape. Also, they were red—an unnatural red that couldn’t be explained away as ruddiness or health. No, his face was as white as a bone and his lips the color of blood. Though I’d done so before, I removed my glove and touched his lower lip, sure that it would burst under the pressure. When it didn’t, I slid closer to Neskaya and thrust my two fingers beneath his upper lip, drawing it up and seeing the same stark contrast inside his mouth: white teeth against scarlet gums. I ran my fingertips over his top row of teeth and then over his bottom. He allowed this. I wriggled my thumb beneath my finger and then parted the two, forcing Neskaya’s mouth open. As I rubbed circles over his tongue, enjoying its texture, my other hand closed in his hair and inclined his head further back. A little gasp escaped him, and his lips fell further apart. My face moved toward his, eager to taste his mouth, devour his mounds of ruby flesh with my lips and teeth.

Instead I withdrew and pushed him off a little too forcefully with the hand that held his hair. He didn’t give me the satisfaction of shock or hurt, only looked at me with his steady, unreadable gaze. I’d known him almost ten years and still found myself unable to decipher his eyes most times. “Neskaya,” I hissed. “Why do you not come to my bed anymore? Why do you not ask me to yours?” And then, perhaps because I didn’t want to let him answer, I asked, “Why come to this forsaken place on such a night?”

“This is a holy place,” he said.

“That’s no answer,” I said, getting frustrated. I wanted to leave. I remembered the sacrifices hanging from these branches, strangling slowly: horses, hogs, bulls, and men. And soon it would be time to hold the Midvinterblot again, to buy the gods’, the ancestors’, and the alves’ favors with blood.

As if reading my mind (and I’d thought many times that he could) Neskaya said, “It’s almost time.”

“Every nine years,” I said.

“Do you remember last time?” he asked.

I’d been eleven and had just lost my father to a petty war with a nearby kingdom. I remembered men and beasts dangling above me and priests showering me with blood. Then somebody shoved a few chunks of roasted meat and a cup of ale into my hands, and I squatted in the gore-soaked snow near the fire. As the men and women grew intoxicated, as they coupled and fought, I watched around the edges of the circle of orange light, because now and then a boy with strange eyes that sloped up at the corners and a strange mouth like a berry ready to burst with ripeness appeared, watching me. As soon as I turned to look at him, he disappeared. A few times I’d run into the shadows to seek him, thinking he might be an alve I could catch and demand a wish from. But I never found him, and the thrashing of the dying bodies in the trees, the awful stuff that rained down from them, drove me back into the light. I feared the spirits of the dead and the other alves that lingered in the twilight on this night and had not the courage to be alone among them.

The next day my mother and I went to live at the King’s great hall. The King and my father had been closer than brothers, and with my father in Valhal, the King welcomed us in his home. My mother went off with the women, and the King took me to meet the sons of the warriors living on and around his estate. Many of them were boys around my age. One of them, to my bewilderment, was the alve-boy from the Midvinterblot. His name was Prince Neskaya, and he’d turned nine years old the night before.

“Do you remember?” I asked Neskaya in turn.

“Mmmm,” he answered, without elaborating.

“I remember seeing you, though I hadn’t met you yet.”

“Yes, I remember,” he said. “Lars?”

“Neskaya?”

“Tonight,” he said, standing and draping his hand over my straw-colored curls. “Come to my bed. Come.”

He kissed my hairline, turned on his heel, and melded with the forest-shade. The scent of his hair, and of his body beneath his woolen tunic, lingered for a moment, and I wanted to grab hold of it and clasp it to my chest. But a breath of wind whisked it from me and no trace remained of my Neskaya nor his smell. Alone, I waited with only my cloud of frozen breath as a companion. I did not want to rejoin the feasting in the hall, if it could even be called feasting now that the crops had failed for the third summer in a row. I wanted to go straight to Neskaya’s bed and not be held up by a dance or wrestling match. I would be cross if detained, and so I waited to trek back to the King’s Hall.