Once upon a time there were three brothers who lived with their parents in the midst of a vast forest. If there were any other people in the forest, they knew nothing of them, for they found no trails other than those they themselves had blazed, and they found no pits for iron in the bogs other than those they themselves had dug, and they discovered no hewn trees other than those they themselves had hewn.
The three young men grew well in the midst of this forest until they had mastered their trades and wanted for nothing. For none could track or hunt or cure hides and weave cloth so well as Wulfstan, and none could forge iron or steel or fire molded clay into vessels so well as Odduin, and none could better coax the barley or the flax from the fields or encourage the ash trees to produce fairer and straighter limbs than Baldry. In their skills they were masters, and their home was filled with carved wood and stone and with jewels and wrought gold and silver the envy of any prince. Other skills they had and shared, but in these, they each were alone the master. But they knew nothing of that, for they supposed themselves alone in the world.
As their lives could not have been bettered with company, it never occurred to the three brothers to wonder why there were no other people in the world. It was just so.
Yet the world could become lonelier still, and the day dawned when the father and mother of Wulfstan, Odduin, and Baldry died. The three brothers found them thus in their bed after the long cool of the night of the autumnal equinox, and straightway prepared for them a suitable burial. Baldry carved a coffin out of a single great branch of a favorite oak, Odduin forged golden hasps, hinges, and handles for the coffin, and Wulfstan fashioned a princely cloak of silver ferrel fur underlain by fine linen and with a clasp of gold adorned with emeralds for their coverlet. And then they placed the coffin to float on the river, and they stood by the bank and watched at twilight until the current carried the coffin so far to the south that the corpse candles over the coffin could no longer be seen in the gathering gloom.
With that, the brothers felt a strange chill fall on their broad shoulders as the dusk descended, and each turned silently to his workshop, but they could not busy themselves with their craft, and instead they sat and wondered at how dark and empty the world suddenly seemed.
For a time and half a time, the three brothers mourned as is fitting, but eventually they decided that the time for mourning was past. And as the strange gloom that had fallen on them had not eased, they took council among themselves.
Odduin, who was regarded as the wisest of the three, gathered his brothers beside the glowing fire of his forge and the warmth of his kiln, and he spoke. “Brothers, we are alone now in the world, and the warmth we had of our family has gone. I can find no joy in my work, for now there is none to take delight in it, no mother to make her presents of golden combs or father to make him gifts of iron tools.”
Baldry nodded in agreement. “So it is, brother. What shall I do now with the carved seat I intended for our mother for Yule, or the barley ale I brewed for our father’s table?”
“I could make use of that barley ale, if you’re truly stuck with it,” Wulfstan whispered. “But you’re right, brothers. My fine shawls and gowns for our mother—I’m afraid we are going to look very foolish wearing them.”
Odduin frowned at his brother, and Baldry laughed, but silently.
“And that is why men marry,” Wulfstan declared. “So that they will have someone to please with presents of gold and silks and gems. We must marry.”
“But we no longer have mother and father to find us suitable wives,” Baldry said.
“And so we must look to this task ourselves,” Odduin declared.
“How can we, brother?” Wulfstan replied, “Seeing there are no others in all this great forest wherein we alone wander?”
“We must go beyond the forest, Wulfstan, and seek wives in the wider world. For our father found a wife in this world, unless we are to believe he fashioned her himself out of the clay of the bank or the iron of the bog or the wood of the forest. I will seek to the north, toward the mountains of ice under the pole star. Wulfstan, you shall seek to the west, toward the plains under the setting sun. And you, Baldry, shall seek to the east, toward the hills under the rising sun. We need not search to the south, for we know well that the great forest there is the haunt of demons and dragons and trolls, and we will find no women there.”
“Unless there be one there who could daunt demons and dragons and trolls, and she would make a fine, blushing bride, I’d wager,” said Wulfstan.
Odduin stood. “For two moons of Islith shall we walk, and then we will return here and we shall know where we are to find our wives.”
And so it came to pass. In the morning, Odduin banked the great fire in his forge and closed the flue on his great kiln, Wulfstan set the last of his hides to dry on the racks and doused the fires in his smokehouse and rolled up his great bolts of fine linen, and Baldry harvested the last of the year’s grain into his barn and placed a bung in his beer barrel, and then each brother bade the others farewell and they set out.
The moons of Islith passed quickly enough, and at twilight of the last day of the fourth moon, the three brothers stepped from the forest into the clearing alone, and each nodded to the others in mute acknowledgment of the failure of the quest.
Odduin kindled the fires in his forge and his kiln, but he simply sat beside the fire and gazed into its ruddy glow. Wulfstan took up his bow and stepped into the forest to hunt, but he simply sat on a fallen log in the glade until the night’s dew covered his shoulders. And Baldry opened his barn, inspected the harvest for mice, and noted that his beer had fermented properly during his absence, though he did not bother to fetch down a mug for himself or his brothers.
The next morning, the three brothers met at the long table and took council.
“Brothers,” Odduin said, “In all my wandering I found no women in all the world. I see it is the same with you, Wulfstan, and also with you, Baldry.”
“Yet our father had a wife,” Baldry observed.
“Even so. It may be that in some way he fashioned her himself. Therefore I propose, brothers, that we do this thing out of our craft. For my part, I am a master of iron and clay. I will set to this task tomorrow morning. I advise you to do likewise. See here. I have returned with the sacred waters taken from the well of Uldar at the foot of the mountains of ice, guarded by the nymphs. It may be that this water will bring life to iron and clay and wood and stone and hide, if we but fashion a suitable vessel to contain it. But be warned, for the nymphs, grudging my taking of their water, warned me that although this water brings life, so also does it assure strife and pain.”
“Strife and pain come to all that live, brother,” Baldry said. “Except to the nymphs of the well of Uldar. We shall attempt this task.”
And so the next morning Odduin set the clay to fire in the kiln and the iron to heat in the forge. Wulfstan took his finest furs and his softest cloth and began to stitch them together, and Baldry began to carve the finest wood, after settling on rowan for his beloved. Into the working of their materials, the brothers mingled the waters stolen from the well of Uldar. And after laboring until dusk on this work, each brother left to take his rest. And so they continued for many days.
Now, it was unfortunate, if understandable, that the brothers had avoided searching the demon and dragon and troll haunted forest to the south, for had they done so, they might have discovered the mighty city of Ib that lay below the great forest. In this evil city there are many women, though few of them honest enough to wed, and many men as well, though few of them suited for much other than craft and intrigue.
The citizens of this city were likewise afraid of the great forest to the north, knowing it to be the haunt of terrible fiends that delighted to rend the flesh of city people particularly. Yet they coveted the lumber of this forest, which they dared not cut. Instead, they gleaned whatever logs floated down the river from time to time, regarding them as gifts from the gods, and the gods were especially generous after the great storms descended from the ice mountains in the far north. And the people of Ib coveted the gold and gems that they found in the gravels and sands along the banks of the river, washed down from hidden veins of untold riches somewhere in that forest.
Thus the people of Ib spent many hours in the reaches of the river just above the city, collecting goods with which to barter or to fashion their cruel idols and elegant seats of power. And so it came to pass that Freydor, the fisher, who cast his nets into the waters of the river just above the city and had occasionally fished as much as a furlong upstream into the forest, though remaining watchful for demons and dragons and trolls along the banks, found the drifting casket containing the remains of the three brothers’ parents.
Freydor was astonished at the quality of the casket, the elegantly carved and polished oak wood, each end of the casket decorated with the likeness of a dragon’s head, the sides of the vessel adorned with beautiful nymph’s faces and terrible wolves, alternating down the sides of the casket. He marveled at the quality of the gold hinges and hasps, each in the shape of a great lion’s paw, and he thrilled at the sight of the coverlet, the ferrel furs finer than those worn by the corrupt Prince Ladlow, the linen suitable for Princess Asriel’s shift, and the golden clasp, wrought in the likeness of an angel with inlaid silver and crusted with emeralds, more magnificent than the crown that sat atop the dissipated brow of King Durac himself.
Freydor was a craftsman of some repute, but he acknowledged that the men who fashioned this vessel were his masters. And he divined that three separate hands had been at work here, one on the wood, another on the gold, and yet a third on the furs and fabrics.
Now, three was a number of some interest to Freydor, for he had three daughters of surpassing loveliness, and he was loath to see them wed to mere tradesmen of the city of Ib. For the men of Ib were grasping, thoughtless, frivolous creatures, and they required of their women both stature and wealth or they would not take them to wife. Yet Freydor fancied his daughters as far above the noble women of Ib as the soaring hawk is above the humble, if practical, kingfisher. Moreover, Freydor knew his daughters for honest women, and he would not see them bound to the worshippers of the lying god Yerolka, who was currently fashionable in Ib and who gave men mastery over their wives in measure beyond their desert, and who encouraged women to cultivate deceit as their revenge for this abuse.
Thus Freydor pondered this matter deeply for some hours. Then, just as the sun touched the western horizon, he devised his plan to send his daughters to wed these unknown craftsmen. Such men were obviously unwed, for no wife of Ib would approve such an extravagance as this coffin, and they must surely match his daughters well, and in addition, such a match would establish his claim to a share of their wealth. After all, Freydor too was a man of Ib.
So Freydor took the bodies from the casket and brought them to the bank of the river and buried the two passengers with all due rites under a ledge of red sandstone, said to be particularly favored by the dead on account of the fossils of ancient sea creatures it bore. The corpse lights continued to burn over the newly dug grave, so he knew that the rites he performed were acceptable to the dead, who would now rest quietly. Then he concealed the casket under a low hanging bush at the river’s edge, and he returned home and called his three daughters to his side.
The first, Mathilda, was tall and pale and had hair the color of flax and cold, blue eyes under a noble, lofty brow. He held out to her a magnificent necklace of silver and diamonds. “Mathilda, this is your dowry. Remember that you are stately, you rise above your peers as an elm tree, yet you are graceful like the willow. Put on your blue gown, adorn yourself with this necklace, and prepare to meet your husband.”
To the second, Nerita, voluptuous, green eyed, hair the color of burnished copper, he held out a torque of red gold threads, crusted with rubies and woven around a core of dark utta wood. “Nerita, this is your dowry. Know that you are lithe and supple like the river otter, and as cunning as the mink. Put on your green gown, adorn yourself with this torque, and prepare to meet your husband.”
And to the third, Lirila, dark of skin, black eyed, and raven haired, he gave a necklace of onyx set in ebony and iron and hematite. “Lirila, this is your dowry. You are quiet and mindful, yet of the three you are the strongest for those very reasons. Put on your white gown and this necklace of nighted onyx and prepare to meet your husband.”
Each of his daughters did as she was commanded, and then they stood before him, each of them more lovely than any other in Hyperborea. “Now, my daughters,” Freydor said. “Come with me to the river. I will set you in a vessel and you will sail up the river that enters the great forbidden forest. See that you do not approach the bank, lest you be taken by a demon or a dragon or a troll, but sail straightway until you come to the settlement of your husbands, the men who crafted this vessel, and there will you live. You will know these men by the quality of their houses, the wood, and the iron, and the gold, and the great riches of their home.”
And Freydor set a sail on the coffin and a rudder, and then he set his daughters within, and with the first light of the morning and a fair southern wind, they set sail against the current, and Freydor stood on the banks and watched as they disappeared out of his sight, and still he remained on the bank for a long while after. At last, Freydor felt a strange chill fall on his narrow shoulders, and he went silently to his workshop and busied himself with mending his nets. After all, Freydor was a man of Ib.
Mathilda, Nerita, and Lirila found a fair wind behind them, and so after three days they came at last to where the settlement of the three brothers lay, which they knew by virtue of the rich cloth of gold banners fluttering beside the landing and by the pylons topped with great wooden heads of dragons carved in the same fashion as those on either end of the coffin. And it was darkest night, so the sisters ran their boat against the bank and concealed it under a bush, and then they stole silently into the settlement and wondered at the great riches in the carven wood, the stone, and the banners that fluttered below golden lamps affixed to masts of iron.
The three sisters came at last to Baldry’s workshop. Within, they found magnificent carvings of wood, figures of beasts and nymphs, angels and demons. Many of the figures were adorned with gilt, or with jewels of rare fire and color that lighted the workshop even in the darkness.
And in the center of the room, they found the figure of a woman carved of rowan wood, seated in an ivory chair, adorned with fine woven linen and crowned with a wreath of willow leaves fashioned from emerald and silver.
“Perhaps it is an image of the maker’s goddess,” Lirila said.
“Perhaps it is,” Mathilda replied. “But this is a rare chance, and I will not let it pass. Would men of such great substance as these take a fisherman’s daughter to wife?” And she took the crown from the statue and set it on her own brow. “Here I shall sit until the morning,” she announced.
“This is not wise,” Lirila warned her sister. “Soon enough the maker will learn the truth of it.”
“The craftsman creates the image because he longs for the true. Let him make of it what he will,” Mathilda replied.
So her sisters removed the statue to the forest and concealed it beside the boat.
Next they came upon Wulfstan’s workshop, and they marveled at the fine furs and the heads of mighty beasts mounted upon the walls. The weapons of the hunt lay upon a table, a long bow and a heavy spear and a great sword. Nerita took up a fur of the lithe cemerr and stroked it against her cheek as they explored. And in the center of the workshop, they found the figure of a women, cleverly stitched together from silken soft hides and fabrics twisted so finely that the threads could not be seen, and this figure was crowned with the hair of the copper colored tira wolf, rarest of all predators. On her brow, she bore a circlet of rude, red hammered gold, set with uncut emeralds. Nerita nodded approval, took the circlet, and set it on her brow. “So it is here just as it was in the other room. Sisters, here I shall sit until the morning.” And her sisters removed the figure of furs and hides and silks and concealed it beside the boat.
Lastly they came to Odduin’s forge and kiln, the room smoky and dark, a ruddy warm glow filling the air. The walls were lined with weapons of black iron, and the tables laden with gold and silver, wrought in fine wires and in massive plates, and they found jewels, raw and cut, heaped into coffers.
And in the center of the room, they found a statue of a woman, cast of black iron, adorned with dark jewels, onyx and jet and ebony wood. On her dark brow, she wore a circlet of polished black dragonclaw, bearing a single large gem seemingly black, but bearing a red fire that flashed forth at certain angles. Lirila could not resist a smile as she took the circlet and set it on her own brow, where it fit comfortably, but then, ashamed of her boldness, she set the crown aside on a workbench.
“Here you shall sit, Lirila, until the morning,” her sisters announced. And her sisters removed the iron figure and concealed it beside the boat.
Then they each returned to the seat each had claimed and remained there until the morning. But Lirila did not place the dragonclaw crown upon her brow.
The pleasures and horrors of Hyperborea may be more clearly illuminated than in other realms, the pain and the ecstasies may be more keenly felt than in more mundane districts, but this they have in common with those of the rest of the world—neither of them lasts forever.
Each of the brothers was astonished at the success he had had in conjuring his wife. Each of these women was more fair than he could have hoped for, and their transformation into beautiful, loving, devoted brides was more complete than any of them had dreamt possible. Even more felicitous, the three wives seemed much at ease with one another, and at this the brothers were most astonished, for had the nymphs of the well of Uldar not warned the brothers that the waters of the well, though they could bring life to mere clay, would also breed enmity and strife?
And so for a time and half a time, the brothers and their wives lived together in complete harmony and bliss. Yet as is the case with such matters, difficulties were bound to arise, and so they did, to the misfortune of all.
And it came about in this way.
Wulfstan it was who first saw the change. For copper-haired Nerita had decided to cut her hair, a custom of her and of her sisters from of old, for their hair grew exceedingly fast and thick, and in the warm months they would often trim their locks to a cooler length. This Nerita did, and upon walking into Wulfstan’s workshop, the great hunter, stitching together a fine gown of cemerr trimmed silk, the which her husband intended to present her as a gift, she so surprised him that he drove his needle quite through his thumb.
Bellowing in surprise, his thumb in his mouth, Wulfstan gaped at his wife. “How has your hair come away, my love?” he asked her.
“My hair, my husband?”
“No pelt treated by my hand ever loses its fur, wife. I have seen the beast shed its fur in the warmth of the year, Nerita, but I made you with nothing but winter fur in its richest and fullest state. And see here! Your beautiful hair!”
Instantly Nerita saw that he did not approve, but she was as sinuous as the river otter, both in her limbs and with her tongue. She did not care much for the close examination Wulfstan seemed intent upon making of her, so before he could rise from his work table and approach her, she slipped from his grasp and raised her chin in delicate hurt and turned for the door, stopping only briefly to cast an offended look back at her husband, the first such look of its kind. “If you do not approve of me, you have only yourself to blame, for you yourself fashioned me.”
“So I did,” Wulfstan said doubtfully, rooted to the floor as she disappeared through the door.
At once, Nerita repented her words, but she did not reply.
Baldry set aside the sapphire adorned silver ring he was polishing, the which he intended to present his wife the next evening, and he examined her curiously as she stood in the doorway to his workshop, the bright sunlight framing her from behind and highlighting her flaxen hair, scintillating with the diamonds he had strung for her willow-green ribbons. At least, he admired what of her hair was left on her head, for, as had her sister, Mathilda had cut her hair short.
“I have seen the willow cast its leaves in the fall, but never in the summer, my love…”
Mathilda raised a golden eyebrow at her husband as a charming blush stole across her pale cheek. “What does my husband mean with this riddle?” she asked.
Baldry stood and crossed the floor to her, and took a shortened lock in his hand, twining it between his fingers lovingly, yet the look on his face was appraising, craftsmanlike. Unwilling to explain herself, she simply turned from Baldry and started for the house, casting but a single glance back at her husband as she said, “If you do not approve of me, you have only yourself to blame, for you yourself fashioned me.”
“So I did,” Baldry replied slowly.
And Mathilda repented her words, but she did not reply.
Lirila sat before her glass, considering the long black tresses that fell in waves about her shoulders and spilled wantonly down her dark throat and across her breast. When her husband Odduin had first found her in his workshop so many months ago, sitting in the very seat where he had left the iron likeness of a maiden, he believed that his project had succeeded beyond his hopes. Then he looked first into her eyes.
“Your glance is black as pitch, maiden,” he had said, knowing well that now she heard his words with living ears. “And yet I do see the fire of the forge in them, burning even now. Will it ever be cooled?”
“It will not, my husband, so long as we love.”
“How could I have hoped to have succeeded so wonderfully? Yet, there is more here than iron and clay, I think. I cannot forge a soul in that furnace,” Odduin said. His face grew dark and grim. “And it is plain that you are a living soul. There is more here than my craft or the waters of the spring of Uldor.”
She wondered if the ruse was a failure. She wanted to reveal the truth to him, willing to take the risk herself, yet she feared for her sisters, and as she was not quite sure what he did suppose her to be, she was afraid to ask.
Odduin drew near and reached out to touch her, his hand drawing near hesitantly, as if he still feared that the fires of her forging might burn within. Yet he found her dark smooth throat warm, her long black hair silken and soft.
Then he fell to his knees and plighted his troth to her that instant. When she received his pledge, he rose and placed the dragonclaw crown upon her head, bearing a single large black gem in the center that cast back no light except, at certain angles, a single flash of deepest garnet red. In placing that crown on her head, she felt a sudden horror, and she would have set the thing aside at once and told him all, but she did not. And she had carried this heavy secret in her heart, for in truth, she loved him well.
And so Lirila now sat before her mirror of polished crystal framed in gold, her silver shears in her hand, and she hesitated.
Her reverie was disturbed by the sound of agitated weeping outside her window, and she crossed the room to look out upon her sisters, wringing their hands upon the paving stones. Fetching them to a quiet grove, she heard their stories.
That night as she slept, Lirila was awakened by the sound of her husband’s voice, conferring with his brothers. She recognized Wulfstan’s strong grumbling words: “ ‘If you do not approve of me, you have only yourself to blame, for you yourself fashioned me.’ That is what she said to me! This woman, divine in form and perfection—she blamed—me!”
“And so it was with Mathilda, just so!” Baldry said, his voice a sinister murmur. “And since then, she has not spoken to me. But Lirila, brother. What of her? Has she too shown any signs of corruption or defect?”
“She has not, nor would I believe that she could, for—for whatever she is, fairy or spirit, there is surely more in her than I could forge with my craft.”
“Nonsense. They have said it themselves! She is your work, brother. As is mine and as is Baldry’s. We fashioned them to perfection, and so they were perfect. Or, almost perfect. And this must be mended,” Wulfstan said.
“And so it must,” Baldry agreed. “For mine, a bonfire I think. And from the ashes of her burning I shall create again. I still have some drops of the waters of the spring of Uldor, and my first essay in this craft was so near to perfection. . . .”
“Then it is settled. Our craft is not perfected yet, not worthy of the great task we undertook. We shall begin again, and then we shall have all as it should be.”
Lirila was not certain which brother spoke those last words, but she did not wait to inquire further.
She flew to her sisters’ sides and drew them down to the riverside wherein they had concealed the effigies so many months ago. There they still lay, hidden in the tangled jasmine alongside the coffin.
“Now, sisters, all is lost. We must fly!”
“Have our husbands discovered our secret?” Mathilda asked, her cheek pale and wan.
Lirila laughed bitterly. “Would they had thought us goddesses, or fishermen’s daughters! Our husbands have decided that they must repair their work, and they mean to begin by destroying us that they might create again. Let us replace these images in their workshops and get us gone before they destroy us in their desire to perfect us.”
And so they did, but not a moment before time, for just as the first light appeared in the eastern sky, they heard a cry from Baldry’s workshop, and then another from Wulfstan’s, and at last, a cry from Odduin’s forge, and they knew that the images had been discovered.
Lirila wondered at that cry, and she hesitated at the water’s edge, but her sisters drew her toward the boat.
And with that, they betook them to the coffin, pushed it out into the current, and began the long journey south toward the evil city of Ib.
The three sisters tarried in Ib for a time and half a time, until even after they had brought forth the children of Odduin, Wulfstan, and Baldry.
Lirila made it her custom to walk along the bank of the great river with her child in the twilight. She was careful to stay clear of the forest, for she would not have her treasure stolen by demon or dragon or troll. She would admire his hair, dark and smooth and fine as if it were onyx spun on a loom of the gods, and his smooth cheek, polished like rosewood from the jungle forest of Umber, and his eyes, burning with the light of Odduin’s forge. She wondered if that light would ever be cooled. But she knew it would not, not in this child. For she knew the forge wherein that light had been kindled, and it would never cool.
Yet still the three sisters delayed to return to their husbands, for they fretted about what defect their husbands might still find in their wives.
And the three brothers never repeated their experiment, and they crafted no other images, but rather they adorned the mute things that they had made with their own hands, and remained ever hopeful that one day, they might wake to life again.
But they did not wake to life again, and after a time, it became difficult to imagine that the three women they had fashioned had ever been otherwise.
At last there came a twilight when Lirila espied a craft sailing down the river, and she ran to the bank to see what it might be. She saw that the craft bore the hallmark of the three brothers in the magnificent carven dragon heads at the bow and stern and in the wonderful golden hasps and hinges and in the marvelous silken coverlet that lay over the three figures concealed there. Three corpse lights burned over the princely vessel, and she was filled with horror at the thought of what might lie within. But before she could arrive at the vessel’s side, the priests of the lying god Yerolka, at their ritual ablutions in the river, took the vessel and made it fast to the shore and drew back the coverlet to reveal the three effigies the brothers had fashioned.
The priests at once proclaimed this a miracle, for had not the gods sent them their very own images to worship and adore, instead of the vain things before which they had until now prostrated themselves? So they took the images to the temple, cast down the image of Yerolka, and all Ib worshipped the three goddesses in the darkened temple, lit only by the corpse lights that refused to dim.
Lirila brought this news to her sisters at once.
“But what do the burning lights over the figures mean?” Mathilda asked. “That these figures truly lived, after all?”
“Yes, sister,” Lirila said. “And ask yourself—what was it that brought life to the effigies?”
And the three sisters, knowing what this must mean, betook themselves to the boat and set sail with their children up the river.
But whether they arrived at last, and what they may have found there, or whether they were taken by a fiend as they sailed through the great forest, none could say. For none in Ib ever ventured into the great forest, knowing it to be the haunt of demons, dragons, and trolls.