The tale of Ylmi One-Eye begins as many do in Vrania: with famine. Driven by hunger and a shortage of food, Wiltha, along with her husband Torin and her brother Unhost, set out to find a place where the hunting was more plentiful.
After much hardship and suffering, they came to the northernmost fjord in Vrania, and were surprised to find the hunting there was good, and the vegetation growing thick and plentiful. Warm springs they found beneath the ground, and with the help of those wanderers who joined them, they dug down into the earth, to get better access to the springs.
Then one day, as he dug beneath the earth, Unhost struck a vein of gold.
He told no one of it, and kept it to himself.
But it was not long before Torin found another vein, and gathered gold as well. When he told Wiltha, the three of them agreed it was best to keep the gold a secret.
“Wealth brings many robbers,” Wiltha said, “and it would be better for us to keep what we find, instead of giving half our work to a king.” To this they agreed, and the secret they kept even from the others who joined them, telling only a few at a time, so that they might keep the matter hidden.
But, gold was not the only thing lurking in that fjord.
Within the mountain in the midst of the fjord, a dragon rested, rebuilding his strength, and the labour and tumult of the growing settlement roused him from his slumber.
For a time, he contented himself with occasionally carrying off a portion of their herd, or even any of them who wandered outside after dark.
Torin decided that something had to be done, and together with Wiltha and a few others, he made ready to attack the dragon. But, Unhost pointed out that they were few in number, and though by now there were almost a dozen people living in the village, even all together they were not skilled warriors, nor mighty champions. Nonetheless, Torin led a company against the dragon, in an attempt to end its deprivations.
The battle they waged was short. The dragon’s fire burned Torin blind in both eyes, while Wiltha lost the use of her arm, and ever after walked with a limp. Two others died on the mountain.
When it was over, the mighty beast rose into the air and drifted over the tiny settlement. With barely a wisp of effort, he bathed the place in flames and burned every building to a smoking pile of ash.
Then, even as his sister was still screaming in agony from the wounds dealt her by the dragon, Unhost knelt before it. He offered the dragon gold and the pick of their herds, if it would spare the village.
“What village?” the dragon laughed. “There is nothing here but ash and bones.”
“I can rebuild,” Unhost begged, quickly. “I will bring in others and, with your protection, we can build a prosperous settlement – one that will keep you fed and wealthy for years to come.”
“And, how,” the dragon asked, “will you rebuild when every wanderer fears to live in my shadow? Who will you bring here that does not fear me?”
“I can keep it a secret,” Unhost pleaded. “Spare my life and I will bring exiles, the hungry and the desperate here, to work the land and grow our herds. When they have a life here, if they find out that you live nearby, they will be reluctant to leave the safety of what they have built.”
At this, the dragon’s flames quietened somewhat, and he considered. After a moment, he struck the earth with one claw, shattering the rock and sending a spray of dirt and stone into the air.
“Done,” he said. “Rebuild your village and I will not burn it, as long as you fulfil your end of the bargain.”
And, that was how Unhost came to offer service to the dragon who blinded his brother-in-law and maimed his sister.
So he began to rebuild, leaving Torin and Wiltha to care for each other.
Little by little, wanderers and outcasts drifting through the mountains came to settle with Unhost, and help him build.
The hunter Almir Alsson and Torig Ingsson were the two first, but close behind them came Bodvar Oliksson and his wife Siggi Worviksdottir. They came from one of the little fishing settlements which dotted the northern coast of Vrania, travelling south to find food and escape the terrible storms which so often drove terrible seas upon the coastline.
They were hard workers, and became well-liked within the village as it grew. And, though they were not pleased when they learned of the dragon, Bodvar helped Unhost to dig deep beneath the ground, and in that way made dwellings protected from dragon-fire.
Despite the presence of the dragon, they made for themselves a life more comfortable than most in Vrania. The mountains gave them shelter from the worst of the storms, there was food and shelter enough for their small number, and it was not long before Siggi gave birth to a boy, whom they called Lanvir, and soon after to a daughter, whom they called Ylmi.
The two children were little alike; whereas Lanvir was energetic and talkative, Ylmi preferred quiet and stillness; whereas Lanvir was curious, Ylmi was cautious; and whereas Lanvir often found himself in trouble, Ylmi was often found close to her mother, watching and listening.
So they grew together, until the day that they went gathering in the forest, and Lanvir stopped with an enormous smile on his face.
“Father told me the most incredible thing last night,” he whispered: “there is a dragon here, living in the bay.”
“Why are you excited?” Ylmi asked, with a frown. “That sounds like a bad thing.”
“It is not like that,” Lanvir assured her. “Unhost has a bargain with it: the dragon will leave us alone, as long as we give him a portion of the gold and sheep which we get for ourselves.”
“In the stories,” Ylmi pointed out, “little good ever comes from bargains with dragons.”
“Perhaps,” Lanvir agreed. “But, still… a dragon!”
In the days which followed, the thought of the dragon never left Lanvir’s mind, and Ylmi saw him now every day looking out toward the fjord. At night, if there was a full moon, he would slip to the door and look out, until Bodvar told him to come back inside.
Often, he would ask anyone who would listen to tell him of the dragon. Sometimes, he would bring the stories back to Ylmi: tales that Unhost was paying the dragon with gold they dug out of the ground, or with naughty children who didn’t obey their parents.
When she heard this, Siggi thumped him and said he should not tell such ridiculous tales.
“Children are not given to the dragon,” she said, “disobedient or otherwise. They are spanked by their parents.” She gave them both a look. “Your father and I would never give you to a dragon. All the same, it is not prudent to be out after dark.”
“Because the dragon might eat us?” Ylmi asked, with eyes as large as chicken eggs.
“A dragon or a wolf or a bear,” Siggi told her. “Vrania is dangerous at all times, and more so after nightfall.”
After this, Lanvir told her fewer stories, but Ylmi did not think that her brother was any less obsessed with the dragon.
Not long after, Ylmi returned from her gathering in the forest to find that Lanvir had not returned from his fishing, along the northern edge of the bay. The sun was drawing low, and Bodvar was hard at work, deep underground, carving tunnels into the rock with several other members from the village.
Siggi was called away to help a woman named Sutri, who had fallen ill, and she told Ylmi to watch the boiling stew and to eat with Lanvir when he returned.
So Ylmi waited, but though the sun set over the sea, and the moon rose high over the mountains, her brother did not return. For a while, Ylmi waited, growing more fearful and nervous with each passing moment.
At last, despite her parents’ warnings to stay inside after nightfall, she slipped out of their hut and made her way northward, hoping that her brother had not come to trouble.
The waters of the fjord were rough, with a harsh wind blowing in from the sea, and far in the north thunder rumbled amid distant clouds. The moon was waning, but still shed enough dim light for Ylmi’s young eyes to follow the faint trail they often used to fish, on the northern edge of the fjord.
It curved around the northern lip of the fjord, and ran beneath the rising cliffs for a long way – so long that Ylmi began to grow weary with the distance. She called to her brother, but the wind tossed away her cries, even as she shouted as loud as her young voice would allow.
At last, she came upon Lanvir’s fishing rod, set upon a rock with the rest of his fishing gear, lying with the basket he was to carry the fish back in. His shirt was folded neatly beside them and Ylmi was filled with a sudden fear.
The great mountain, where the dragon was said to live, loomed before her, not far out into the fjord, and Ylmi guessed that her brother had swum out to it.
For a brief, terrible moment, she hesitated, debating whether she should follow, or return to the village to get help.
But, she was still a young girl, and she knew a dragon was beyond her. She turned and ran back down the path toward the settlement. High overhead, the thunder boomed as the storm drew closer, and she rushed down the path as fast as her legs would take her, gasping for breath as she ran. Twice she fell, but each time she rose and hurried on, desperate to reach the village.
Rain had begun to fall when she finally saw the glow of the little fires and warm huts, and she dashed to find Sutri’s house, where her mother was tending the sick woman. Ylmi’s chest was burning, and she could barely speak for gasping for air, so fast had she run.
As soon as her mother understood, she told Ylmi to stay there and rushed away. There was much tumult that night in the village, and Ylmi understood little that happened.
In the following day’s light, she was taken by old Olga to the shore, where her parents were being shouted at by Unhost. There was a great deal of yelling, much of it by people she was unfamiliar with, and little of it done by her parents. By the end, Unhost made it clear that they were no longer welcome along the shoreline, with the rest of the settlers.
“The dragon has agreed not to burn us all, though the price was a high one,” Unhost said. “I have been forced to promise him more gold, what we have now and more besides. As for you,” he turned on Bodvar, “go up into the mountains; there is no home for you here in this village. If you are able, manage the sheep and goats. Otherwise, do not trouble the rest of us, who are trying to make a living.”
“But,” Bodvar said, pointing to their house, “I have built my home here. Winter is only a few months away!”
“You built it on land I gave you,” Unhost retorted. “With the help of others, you have endangered us all with your recklessness, by angering a dragon. Go, before I change my mind and cast you out completely.”
Ylmi was quiet as they climbed up into the hills. When they stopped to rest in a small clearing, she broke down in sobs.
“I’m sorry,” she said, through her tears, “I should have stopped him. I should have…”
Bodvar reached over and lifted her in his arms, to pull her close. “My daughter, it was not you who were at fault.” He held her there for a moment, as she sobbed.
“But, if I had stopped him,” she said, “then he would be here with us, and we would not be without a home.”
“If.” Bodvar wrapped her in another giant hug. “If is a silly word. Lanvir knew what he was doing, and that should not rest on you. As for a home,” he looked around them, “we will make one in these hills. There will be plenty of room for you to climb trees, to plant a garden with your mother…” He looked over Ylmi’s head at Siggi.
“But,” he added, bending down and taking Ylmi’s head in his hands, “you must know that we love you. Always. And none of this is your fault.”
So Bodvar talked with his daughter, then and in the days to come.
They found a place where caves had been hollowed out of the mountainside, and around the largest they built their home, laying sod and earth around it, so it was as warm and sheltered as the dugout houses by the shore had been.
But, though they made the house warm, there was little time to gather and store food for the winter. Siggi planted the best garden she could, but they had few seeds saved and the rocky soil was poor, even in the best places. She watered it from the nearby mountain stream, and said it was a blessing that water was so much closer at hand.
When he was not at work on their home, Bodvar went into the forest and hunted. Often, he brought Ylmi, and she learned quickly how to move silently through the trees. She held the squirrels her father shot, while he scanned the tree branches for others. She marked how he moved, and how he looked for leaves which moved without the wind.
When the first snow came, they shut the door to their hut and watched it pile up outside. Siggi said that things were not as bad as they could be and, perhaps with a full year, next winter they might have more food than now.
As they sat by the small fire, Bodvar stood. Sending Ylmi for his large knife, he took from one corner a thin bundle of tightly wrapped hides and drew out a long stick, a little larger than Ylmi’s wrist.
“This winter will be long, cold and hungry,” he said, as they settled again by the fire, “and it will do none of us good to deny it. But, when there is cold and hunger, the best course is to keep idle hands busy.” He took the knife, as Ylmi handed it to him, and lifted the stick. “This…” he waved it before her, “…will be your first bow.”
So, while the snow fell, the three of them worked on the bow. Sometimes they talked, taking turns telling stories to each other as they worked. Bodvar’s tales were of the conversations between animals in the forest: the wolf was forever trying to catch the fox, so the stories went, but the fox was always able to outsmart the wolf and escape.
But Siggi’s stories were older, darker, and Ylmi soon found that she preferred her mother’s tales. In the darkness and the cold, Siggi spoke of old Vranr, exiled from the west, to the isle where they now lived. She told of his tricks, and how he fooled and cheated kings and lords of the faraway western lands, from the great northern wastes to the blazing plains of the south. He grew ever bolder, until he met the daughter of a powerful king, who bested him at his own tricks, and the two fell deeply in love.
But, for all the stories, Ylmi noticed that their food grew ever less, as the snow grew deeper on the mountain around them. She noticed when her father ladled an empty spoon into his bowl, thinking he had deceived them both. She did not believe her mother when she said she was full, and poured the rest of her stew into Ylmi’s bowl.
And, each night, she saw the empty space where Lanvir should have slept, and should have whispered to her as they fell asleep.
They huddled together, as the days grew shorter and the cold deepened, until winter reached its peak.
On the shortest day of the year, they cleared the snow from before their door and gathered uncut wood, to build a bonfire in the clearing.
As night began to set, Siggi lit the fire with a burning brand from their housefire. As the dark of Dunharvic’s Night fell swiftly around them, the clearing blazed with a warm light, reflected back by the glimmering snow.
“What if he comes anyway?” Ylmi asked, as she watched the flames rising.
Bodvar chuckled: “Oh, he will come, but the fire will keep him at a distance.”
“But the white goddess will warm herself by it,” Siggi added. “Skathi, the winter huntress, will warm her hands by the flames, and send Dunharvic on his way, for there are no dead here tonight.”
Ylmi listened, as she watched the flames rising into the sky, and wondered.
Slowly, the winter whiled by.
Ylmi grew used to the pangs of hunger, even as she watched her bow take shape. The limbs were smoothed and rubbed with deer fat, over the fire, by far Ylmi’s favourite part of the bow making. The warmth from the fire felt good in her hands, and as excess fat fell into the fire, it hissed and crackled and smelled like roasted meat.
When the snows slackened, Bodvar would go out into the forest, to see if he could find anything to add to their store. Occasionally he found a snow rabbit, but more often than not he returned with empty hands, and a weariness that did not seem to leave, even after a full night’s sleep. As the winter went on, he spent more time resting by the fire, and it seemed to take more effort for him to move.
He showed Ylmi how to make arrows, carving nocks in the butt end and fire-hardening the sharpened points. “One day,” he told her, with a deep breath, “when your bow is stronger, you’ll need iron tips for big animals.” He took another moment to catch his breath. “But this will do well enough for rabbits and squirrels.”
As the winter dragged on, Ylmi noticed that her father now rarely ladled an empty spoon into his bowl, and her mother pressed him on more than one occasion to eat more.
But, even so, the food dwindled, and they spent more days wrapped tightly in the fur blankets, not rising to eat but only telling stories. Ylmi would peer through the flickering orange light at her mother’s face, poking out of a large bear hide, as she told of how Vranr and the princess he loved had escaped her father, and went on one adventure after another, climbing the high, white mountains, or delving deep beneath them to seek the dwellings of the mountain folk, who had passed far, far underground.
Slowly, the cold lessened, until one day it began to thaw.
Ylmi was the first awake – the first to hear the dripping of melting ice – and she slipped out of the house before her parents woke. She was eager to try her new bow, and she thought that fresh meat would do her parents good.
She returned soon with a pair of squirrels, much to her parents’ delight, and they laughed as they ate, the warmth and strength returning to their bodies, as the winter slowly receded.
From then on, whenever Bodvar did not need her help with the goat herd, she ventured into the forest to hunt. While her mother laid a new garden and her father gathered goats, she ranged farther and farther into the mountains, learning the paths and trails of the animals.
One day, when Ylmi returned from a long hunt, she found her father waiting for her, in the small clearing by their home. He had cut down a few trees, giving them a small space useful for planting, working and herding the goat herd, which was beginning to grow.
“Come, daughter,” he said when she had come down through the trees, “it is time that we talked.”
Ylmi nodded, laying out the rabbit and squirrel she had taken. Bodvar produced his knife and started to work on the squirrel.
“Your mother and I are worried about you.” His fingers moved swiftly over the carcass, stripping away the hide carefully and keeping the meat clean. “You talk little, and always you are hunting or working. You are a child, and though life here is hard, it is good from time to time to rest among the mountain flowers and watch the birds in their play.” He took a deep breath and smiled at her. “We want you to know that we do not blame you for your brother’s death.”
“If I had stopped him,” Ylmi said, quietly, “then he would be alive and we would not be stranded on the mountainside.” She looked at her father, and saw that his face was no longer as gaunt and haggard as it had been at the end of winter; he moved easier now, needing less rest. Perhaps they could make it better through the winter if she hunted more…
“If I had taught him better…” her father said, quietly. “I was his father; it is I who should have stopped him, Ylmi. You were his younger sister – the youngest member of our family – and you do not bear the burden of being warden to your elders. No,” he took a deep breath, “you bear no blame. Do you hear me? None.”
Ylmi nodded, silent for a moment. “Father, how long can we last up here?”
Bodvar gave a shaky laugh. “We made it through one winter, with less time to prepare.” He shrugged. “I do not think we will have such a hard time again.”
Ylmi drew in a breath, but something broke in her throat and she bent over, sobbing into her hands.
Swiftly, with long arms, Bodvar drew her close and held her against his chest, his beard tickling her neck. “I love you, little one,” he said. “None of this is your fault.” He held her until the tears subsided, then lifted her up.
“All is not as bad as it could be,” he said, with a forced smile: “we have a warm dwelling, the goat herd is growing, and perhaps Unhost will leave us alone here, in the mountains.”
She smiled and wiped her tears, but she did not forget his words. It was Unhost who had sent them away, thrown them out when her brother was missing. Unhost had allowed a dragon to take shelter near their village, and now her brother was dead. Instead of seeking to be free of the beast, Unhost had given it shelter, brought it gold and food, all to ensure that no one would ever question him, and would do all that he said without complaint.
Siggi cooked the rabbits that night, in a pot of onions and peas, but Ylmi barely tasted her food, her mind turning to Unhost and the dragon. Which of them was more at fault for the death of her brother and the suffering of her parents, she was not sure. But while Unhost was sitting warm in his hall, they were cold and alone on the mountain, and that did not seem right to Ylmi.