Chapter 1

    “Are you the Badger?” called a voice.

     The stranger unconsciously put a hand to his forehead where the long streak of white hair merged with the black.

     “Aye, I’ve been called that,” said Badger, looking across at the man who had accosted him; a thin, wiry man as worn as the island that had born him, a net hanging from one hand, the other on his hip as he looked Badger up and down.

     “Thought so,” said the fisherman. His brows furrowed slightly. “What brings you here?”

     “I go where the work is,” said Badger, glancing along the jetty and wondering if this man had been sent to meet him. A squall stirred his long hair, blowing wisps across his mailed shoulders. “You’ve got monsters here, or so I’m told.”

     “So they say,” agreed the fisherman, “though I’ve never seen any myself,” he added doubtfully. But the stranger said nothing, just continued to look along the jetty as if he was waiting for something. “Are you still looking for your sister then?”

     “Always,” said Badger, the weight of years crushing the sound from his lips so it was barely a whisper.

     The fisherman frowned again. “You won’t find her here. I know everyone in the town.”

     “Probably not,” agreed Badger. Now he was looking at the top of the rise beyond the town, where a jagged keep sat, cleft in two by the cliffs, the two halves joined by a narrow bridge. “That where I’ll find jarl Harald?” he nodded.

     “Aye,” said the fisherman. “He expecting you?”

     “More or less.”

     The fisherman continued to watch the stranger for a moment, then seemed to make up his mind. “Tell you what, you help me get this net stashed and I’ll show you the way up there.”

     Finally, Badger turned back to look at the fisherman, measuring him, the eager look on his face, half-hidden in the grey bush of his beard. I don’t need the company or the questions, so why can’t I refuse?

     “Right you are,” he agreed, stepping alongside his new companion.

     “Thanks,” said the fisherman, “just fold it over as I pull it in. It gets tangled up in the boat, but it needs laying one fold on top of the other, back and forth so to speak…”

     He left it hanging, but Badger didn’t answer.

     “Right, well, I guess you know what you’re doing then,” then on a whim he stuck out a hand. “Roald, Agar’s son they call me.”

     “Jon of Gor,” said Badger, gripping the fisherman’s knobbly hand firmly in his own black glove.

     “Oh! I thought…”

     “You thought I was named after an animal,” finished Badger for him. How many times have I had this conversation? How many variations? Bloody bards.

     The fisherman chuckled into his beard. “Well, now that you mention it…” He gave a lopsided grin, but Badger wasn’t smiling. “Yes…” stumbled the fisherman, “the net,” he added, holding it up as if he’d forgotten it.

     “The net,” agreed Badger.

     The two men worked swiftly as Roald pulled the net up from the moored boat below, and Badger laid it out carefully. Badger shook his head. Roald wore a thin woollen shirt, and trousers cut off at the knee. No hat, no gloves, no shoes. Even through his jerkin and mail shirt, Badger could feel the cold seeping into his bones. With the net finally rolled up, he rubbed at his arms, trying to chafe some life into them. He caught Roald looking at him strangely.

     “Does it get any warmer in the islands?” grunted Badger.

     Roald raised eyebrows. “You cold?” he said, surprised, and Badger scowled but Roald just chuckled to himself.

“Well, fancy that!” He hauled himself back onto the jetty using the mooring rope of the boat. “Come on then, I’ll show you the way,” and the two men began to wend their way along the jetty, weaving between nets and reeking buckets of fish, the boards creaking beneath their feet.

     “Aye, it gets warmer,” concurred Roald, “but it gets a lot colder in the winter. Real ‘gloves weather’ as we call it here,” he glanced down at the Badger’s gloved hands. “Still I guess you’re from a long way south if the tales are to be believed.”

     “Bithnia,” said Badger shortly, before feeling the need to add something, “It’s warmer than here, but not the warmest I’ve been to.”

     “Bithnia, Bithnia,” mused Roald, trying to place it. “No, can’t say I’ve heard of it. Beyond Brin, is it?”

     “And then some,” agreed Badger. They were wending their way into the town, between houses of cobbled stone, mortared with daub, some roofed with slate, some with thatch. The streets were wide, irregular and mostly bare turf, muddy in places, but Badger had seen far worse. And smelt far worse. At least the wind serves a purpose.

The town, such as it was, was barely three streets before they started rising over bare grass, low stone walls marking their path. The wind returned with a vengeance, and though Badger had his hair loosely tied back, it still whipped about, festooning his shoulders like straggly seaweed. Kos, why don’t I just cut the damn stuff off? But he knew the answer.

     “You really don’t like the breeze, do you?” said Roald, glancing across at him, the hint of a smirk.

     “It’s not like in the tales, is it?” said Badger dryly. Fast as a snake, tough as an ox, the Badger shrugs off the wind like the farts of the gods. Bloody bards. He’d thought he was done with this ‘breeze’ on the boat over, but it seemed that Skarrak was no better shelter.

     Roald laughed and raised his hands placatingly. “I’m not saying you don’t look the part,” he conceded, “but I thought you’d be, well, taller.”

     “Tougher?” offered Badger wryly.

     “Well, they say you once tracked a troll through thick snow for seven days and seven nights then crept into its cave and beheaded it before it even woke.”

     “What else do they say?” offered Badger. There were woods to the left, running parallel to them up the slope. A bit of shelter perhaps?

     Roald laughed. “Well, there’s tales you know. Of course, we know they ain’t all true, but… well they say you’ve killed a dozen men.”

     He left it hanging like a question, but Badger wasn’t going to be drawn.

     “Isn’t that so?” queried the fisherman.

     “No,” said Badger grimly. Far more than that, but sadly none of them were poets. “I don’t hunt men.”

     “They say you are looking for slavers,” said Roald.

     “They have a lot to say,” commented Badger.

     Roald couldn’t miss the flash in the Badger’s ice-blue eyes. “Right, I get it. None of my business,” said the fisherman hurriedly, for the first time feeling the cold. He fell silent for a moment as they climbed the steady slope, their only accompaniment the occasional bleat of sheep in the fields either side. Several hundred paces above them the Badger could see the keep: a sturdy, cold gatehouse cut from giant blocks of granite, and beyond it, a narrow bridge of wood that spanned a great chasm to a massive stack upon which sat the keep proper. It looked old, maybe even pre-cataclysm, but he could see it was not run down, despite its ragged look.

     Roald followed his look. “That’s the Karrek, the jarl’s seat, strongest fort in the isles, never been taken by force.”

     “It’s a long way up from the town,” said Badger.

     “No need to be any closer,” said Roald, “Lublow and Crowsmir are both ruled by the jarl, so the only enemies we have, come from the sea. Plenty of warning; we’ve got beacons on both sides of the island.”

     Badger nodded. Not much use now though is it, if you have monsters prowling the town.

     “Great views up there,” continued Roald, “you can see all the way eastwards across the Sea of Brin. Of course, trouble, when it comes, is from the corsairs on the other side but watchmen are always keeping an eye across the archipelago, and it’s many years since the corsairs tried a raid on these islands. Not much for them here to be honest, unless they like fish, wool and porridge!”

     “The archipelago is at peace?” asked Badger, not because he was particularly interested but because politics could always get in his way.

     “Aye, twenty years now,” confirmed Roald, “pretty much since Harald became jarl, the other jarls have left each other alone. There are a few bored carls hankering after the days of old but to be honest, most of us like it this way. I get to fish without having to look over my shoulder all the time and life’s even comfortable. Haven’t been able to say that for a while. Lublow’s booming.”

     If that’s booming, I’d hate to see what the town looked like before.

     “Well, this is it,” said the fisherman, as they approached the gatehouse. A lone carl was lounging in its shadow out of the wind, a fighting man in a mail hauberk and with a long-handled axe casually leaning against the wall.

     “Helloa! That you Roald,” called the carl, resting a hand casually on the axe handle.

     “Strigmar,” heralded Roald, raising one hand. “Look who I’ve got here,” he added as the two men approached the open gate.

     Strigmar glanced at Badger. “Am I supposed to recognise him?”

     “It’s the Badger.”

     Strigmar just looked at the fisherman blankly.

     “You know, the Badger; the one in the Skald’s stories.”

     Strigmar took a second look, this time properly, noting the darkened jerkin, the mail shirt, and the pair of swords strapped to the Badger’s back.

     “What? The Beastslayer?” he said doubtfully.

     “I’ve been called that,” agreed Badger. And a lot worse.

     “What do they call you Badger for then?” said Strigmar.

     “I dig things up,” said Badger dryly.

     Strigmar laughed. “I don’t think that’s it man. It’s your hair. Surprised you haven’t made the link.”

     For a moment Badger wondered if he was joking, but he caught Roald shaking his head over the man’s shoulder. Ah! Clearly brains not a requirement for guards then.

     “I’m here to see jarl Harald.”

     “He expecting you?”

     “More or less,” said Badger, once again.

     “Which is it? More? Or less?” said Strigmar evenly.

     “Less,” admitted Badger, “he doesn’t know I’m here, but he’ll want to see me all the same.”

     “Well, I’m not sure…”

     “Oten’s balls, Strigmar,” interjected Roald, “he’s the Badger. Of course, the jarl will want to see him!”

     “What do you want to see him for?”

     “Work,” said Badger, “the kind I specialise in.”

     Strigmar stuck out his chin. “He’s got guards already. Good strong carls, many of them.”

     “I don’t hunt men,” said Badger, “Beast slaying is my business.”