The Sololfursson had said Ingolfur was too weak to reach the Goddess’s Isle. Their laughter haunted him for three days across the sea, yet finally he found the island’s skirt of silver mist, as the druids had promised. The vapour shelled him in silver, softening the itch of his bloodstained skin and deepening his certainty. This place had been his destiny since he was born.
Yet when the mist lifted, he felt a flicker of doubt. The twilight sun revealed only a spit of summer forest, girdled by basalt cliffs; after twenty years of stories, he had expected the Isle to fill the sky. Still, he kept on rowing. The Goddess must be here. It was only fitting that, like him, the Isle hid its true nature. As he entered a small cove armoured in shingle, he imagined the land itself reaching out to greet him. For a moment, the fear he had carried across the long waves disappeared.
Then he saw the man, waiting still as granite on the shore.
He looked a common shepherd — a cloak of rough wool, eyes of dull flint, and skin carved by too many winters — but Ingolfur felt a spike of dread. The druids’ adage echoed in his ear: “No man who seeks the Isle stays.” This place should be home only to beasts and birds.
Yet wasn’t Ingolfur a great warrior, still cloaked in the blood and ash of his last battle? He groped for the comfort of his sword hilt; this shepherd was the one who should fear.
“Hail, saltwalker,” he called as Ingolfur beached, his voice cracked but strong. “I’ve goat’s milk and fruit wine, and would be pleased to share.” He spread his hands. “My hall is draughty, but plenty wide for two.”
“Do you follow the Cross or the Moon?” Ingolfur asked, proud of how fearlessly his voice barrelled through the salt wind. The challenge made him sound a true Sololfursson.
The man laughed. “The Moon, lad, and her Goddess, fool as I’d be to say otherwise to one of Sololfur’s swords.”
“You know my order?”
“Aye. Though you’re young to have taken the vows.”
“I am old enough,” Ingolfur snapped. “And it is my vows that have led me here. This is the Isle of Dragons?”
“Some call it that,” the man said, eyes narrowing. “Others ask for the Moon’s Rest, or the Soul’s Mirror. But aye, lad. The Goddess is here.”
Ingolfur kept his face cold, but excitement bloomed inside him.
“I am Afi Haraldsson,” the old man continued. “What may I call—”
“I am Ingolfur of the Sons,” Ingolfur interrupted. “I seek the Goddess’s judgement. I have lamellar and mail, a blade of pure starsteel, and the silver crosses of seven knights. Guide me to her, and all of it is yours.”
“Seven knights?” Afi grinned, and Ingolfur’s fist curled. This hermit doubted him, like all the others. “Aye, I’ll guide you, though you’re an unusual Son, lad.” He tapped the ship’s prow with his foot. “In my day, Sololfur’s warriors would never travel alone, or in such a ship.”
Ingolfur flinched. Afi had noticed the long-bodied carvings wriggling over every inch of the ship, each flickering a forked tongue. The other Sons had gouged them there after they chained him; a suitable shape, they claimed, for a coward.
Yet he would prove them wrong. He unsheathed his sword, reaching for the clarity he had felt when he spoke the vows of the Sololfursson, two years ago.
I swear my soul to protecting the people of the Moon.
The boat split in two with a single blow. The planks danced across the pebbles, to be lapped by the waves.
Afi’s gentle smile did not waver.
“That was unwise,” he said.
“It was not.” Ingolfur looked to the sky; above, a herring gull soared, the setting sunlight casting it into a sliver of gold. “When I leave this island, it will be on wings.”
Afi led him up a steep cliffside path, littered with the skeletons of shearwater chicks. When they crested the top, heathland rolled out for a few hundred feet before the forest engulfed it. The air was thick with the scents of heather pollen and rotting seaweed. Apart from the single gull, the sky was empty. After seeing the endless temples of the Cross Lands, Ingolfur was disappointed that this, the greatest of his people’s myths, was so mundane.
“Beautiful, isn’t she?” Afi said. “Used to be folk of all creeds came here, but you’re the first for many a season.”
“You have been on this Isle a long time?” Ingolfur said. “Were you here to guide Sololfur too?”
Afi’s mouth twitched. “Afraid not, lad. Never guided the dragon lord.”
Ingolfur felt a sting of disappointment. The story of Sololfur was woven as deep within him as the Isle’s. Two decades ago, the great clan father had left his people as a man, and sought the Eye of the Goddess. He had never returned, but his transformation had been depicted in crafted steel in the Sololfursson’s Hall: not as bird or beast, but as a winged dragon, the ultimate symbol of warriorhood. The druids sang that he had flown on to the Cross homeland, to fight the Knights there. Ingolfur had stared at the carved beast for long hours in his childhood, feeling the longing in his gut. If only he had had a dragon’s strength, he wouldn’t have grown up alone.
Afi peered upwards. “There’s someone just as impressive for you to meet, though,” he said. “You’ll need her approval, if I’m to guide you.”
The herring gull was coming closer, transforming from a fragment of light into a snow-feathered bird, its beak a golden spear-tip dipped in blood. Afi grinned as it landed on his shoulder.
“This is Kari,” he said gently. “She wanted to see if you would gut me before she said hello.”
The herring gull cocked an eye of speckled brown at Ingolfur, blinking once before giving a keening cry.
“Ah, she likes you!” Afi said, caressing her neck. “Are the skies clear, my light?” She bobbed. Ingolfur’s throat tightened.
“She has received the Goddess’s gifts?” he said.
Wonder filled him. The white of the gull’s feathers reminded him of the druid’s cave paintings on the mainland: ancient images daubed in charcoal and crushed shell, showing a woman in a black pool, before a white orb inscribed with an eye — the Moon of the Goddess, Lady of Seasons and Tides and all true change. Its light rippled down, casting the woman’s reflection into the water: not that of a human, but of a white seal. In the next painting, the woman was gone, and only the seal remained, swimming away into an ocean of shadow.
“It’s true, then,” he said. “You stand before the Goddess’s Eye, and she reflects your soul’s shape?”
“A druid tell you that?” Afi said, eyes glinting. “Aye, lad. You’re right enough.”
Ingolfur shivered. He had a sudden urge to reach out and touch the bird’s feathers, but he fought it back. That was not how a Sololfursson acted.
“I admire seekers such as you,” Afi said. “It’s an act of great bravery, to hunt such truth.”
“Truth? I know my soul, old man. It is a dragon’s, like Sololfur’s before me.” He hated how amusement danced in the old man’s eyes. “You doubt me?”
“Nay, lad, only curious. What makes you so sure?”
“My soul echoes his.” Ingolfur’s voice thickened with pride. “Always, he has inspired me. On the mainland, he had everything; the oaths of a hundred warriors, a mighty hall of golden oak, and two young sons to carry his legacy. Yet he left them behind to come here. He gave everything, to protect his people. I too am willing to make such a sacrifice.”
“A mighty calling, for one so young,” Afi murmured. But he wasn’t even listening, staring past Ingolfur to the ocean. “And it seems you’re merely the first wonder today, Ingolfur Dragon-Soul, to arrive on the Goddess’s shore.”
The sea was darkening, but the mist still shone. In its depths, a silhouette loomed.
A sailing boat.
A sinuous shape writhed inside Ingolfur’s gut.
They had followed him here.
“Likely a lost fisher,” Afi said, stroking Kari. “If so, they know not to beach.”
Yet Ingolfur was already moving. The clotted shadow of the forest beckoned him, to melt into it, and become something scaled and slithering amongst the undergrowth.
Before the trees, he braved a look back. The shadow had disappeared. Nothing approached the island.
But how many other ships might be out there, hiding just behind the innocent face of the mists?
“Looked like you were fleeing, lad,” Afi said as he entered the trees.
Ingolfur managed a laugh. “A Sololfursson does not spook at a fishing boat, old man.”
Afi chuckled as he led them amongst twilit maples and pines, navigating a floor of brambles heavy with dewberries. Kari flitted ghost-like from tree to tree. Something crunched underneath Ingolfur’s feet; tiny bones. They stank of rancid meat.
The night had nearly closed in when Afi stopped by a grey-barked oak at the edge of a stream. He retrieved a pile of dry sticks from a hollow under the tree’s roots, then pulled out a sparking flint.
“We continue,” Ingolfur said.
The flash of the flint lit Afi’s frown. “We don’t, lad,” he said. “No matter how much you brandish that starsteel. I’d prefer dealing with an angry Son to seeking the Eye at night.” He pulled out a skin from his waist. “But if you promise not to slay me, I’ll share my wine.”
Ingolfur hesitated, hearing the Sons’ laughter in his ear. A Sololfursson did not obey the commands of hermits; he should make Afi continue, at sword’s point if he had to.
But surely a Son could also be magnanimous? And his armour felt heavy…
He sat. Afi whooped and handed him the skin. Ingolfur took a sip, then cursed.
“Tastes of fire and piss,” he hissed.
“Ferment it myself,” Afi said. “Vintage of the Goddess. Drink, lad — there’s nought else I can offer you but nuts and berries.”
“You have no meat?”
“No, lad. Never hunt on the Isle.”
The alcohol was strong, at least, and it helped soften the ship’s silhouette in Ingolfur’s mind. This was a far cry from the Sons’ camps. There, every Son sparred for the right to eat, with any deemed wanting going hungry while forced to serve the rest. Yet here, the forest was quiet; no bird song, no scampering of beasts, only the stream’s murmur and the fire’s crackle. Ingolfur felt his breathing slow.
Something shifted in the darkness. He started, hand on his hilt.
A mountain hare emerged to sit at the fire’s edge, the red light glittering off eyes of aquamarine. A green-eyed fox soon joined it, sitting next to its prey to stare at Ingolfur. His skin prickled.
“Bear them no mind,” Afi said. “They only like the flames. I think they remember them.”
The beasts sat there for a long time as the night deepened. Their gazes were gentle, but they irked Ingolfur. He felt like they were an audience, judging his worth.
“Remove your armour, lad,” Afi said. “It must weigh you down.”
“A Son doesn’t remove his plate until the battle is done.”
“Oh? I’ve been wondering about that. Where are the brothers of your order? In my time, whether they camped, sailed, or raided, the Sololfursson did so together.”
Ingolfur flinched. The fire’s crackle was suddenly like laughter. “I was named dragon-souled,” he said. “And so only I am worthy to follow Sololfur’s footsteps. I was a warrior of great might on the mainland. The youngest Son to ever be taken on a salt ranging into the Cross lands.”
“Aye? Must have been a sight.”
“It was,” Ingolfur said, voice warming. “We sailed into their lands for five days to reach their monastery, and their god. You should have seen it; a mountain’s worth of stone in a single building, more treasure than a hundred dowries, and windows of hard light. Yet none of it could stop us paying them back for what they did.”
“And what had they done?” Afi said.
“What they have done for generations. Steal our flocks. Steal our land. Steal our children.” He found he was spitting the words. “They took my brother, when I was a boy.”
“Ah. I’m sorry, lad.”
Ingolfur shook his head, remembering the pure-white sails of the Knights on the horizon. He and Talolfur had been building a raft on the beach, so that they could seek the Isle. His brother had told Ingolfur to fetch the Sons, but he had been too scared, and instead hid in the grass. His insides curled in shame at the memory.
“I was weak then,” he said. “I could not stop it. But the Sololfursson trained me to be strong. We came upon that monastery like dragons, and the Cross fled like snakes.” His hand twitched at the memory of his blade, cleaving through the back of his seventh knight. “The priests barricaded themselves in their church without even facing us, yet we were the Sons of Sololfur Dragon-Soul, and would not be denied.” He remembered the laughter of the men as they had stacked the pitch-tarred wood against the doors. How their war chief laughed louder than all of them, and ordered Ingolfur to set it alight.
Afi frowned, lifting a hand. “Hold a moment,” he murmured. “When I was on the mainland, the Cross would have boys in their churches, to sing their God’s praises. You mention the priests, and the knights, but what of them?”
Ingolfur’s hand twitched again. “I saw none such,” he said. “We are not child-killers, old man. That is why I am here, after all. When I take the dragon shape, the Cross will take no more children. I will fly high above our shores, and burn any knight that dare come close.”
Afi nodded slowly. Kari gave a soft coo, as if soothing him. Ingolfur flushed; he had forgotten the beasts a moment. The fox and rabbit were watching him still.
Then he tensed.
Another eye glittered in the darkness.
Afi followed his gaze. “Another visitor?” he said softly. “You are welcome, at our fire.”
Ingolfur leapt up at the creature that slithered into the light. The flame danced off its long body, revealing scales patterned into light and shadow. Its tongue tasted the air.
“A snake,” he hissed.
Afi lifted his hands. “Just another friend, seeking the fire’s comfort.”
Ingolfur shook his head. When it stopped, the snake was near invisible amongst the leaves. The memory of his ship’s wriggling carvings flashed, and he heard Sword Chief Falfur’s voice in his ear, the chief’s voice dark as the sea’s depths.
“We defile your body, and mark you snake-souled.”
“Any Son would be shamed,” Ingolfur spat. “To have their soul revealed in such a shape.” He drew his sword. “Make it leave. I won’t suffer such a coward at my fire.”
“Hush, lad. Don’t shout, not this late-”
“Make it leave!” Ingolfur roared.
His cry split the night.
And, in the long dark beyond the fire, another scream answered.
It ravaged the air; a sound between a fox’s howl, an eagle’s screech, and a man’s cry, but a hundred times rawer, piercing with its sudden need.
It sounded close.
The rabbit and fox bolted, while the snake slipped into the leaves. Ingolfur scanned the darkness. A beast? Beyond the fire, the night crouched everywhere, and against it his starsteel seemed an inconsequential slip of light.
A Son would stand fast. A Son would be brave.
The air suddenly reeked with carrion, and a shadow crossed the moon.
Ingolfur yelped and kicked at the fire, smothering the flames. In the darkness, he pressed himself to the earth, filled with a vast, familiar fear.
“We name you snake-souled,” the war chief whispered again.
Afi’s voice, when it came, was calm. “Needn’t have done that, lad.”
“What is that?” Ingolfur hissed.
“The reason we’re waiting here. Have no fear; it mislikes coming amongst the trees, and will slumber tomorrow.”
Ingolfur shivered, unable to rise. “It sounded like a beast,” he said. “Wounded, perhaps.”
“Wounded? Aye, I suppose so. Take it as a warning; not all the Goddess’s gifts are good, lad. Some men’s souls are unnatural. And unnatural souls have unnatural reflections. But it will not come into the trees. Sleep. Regain your strength.”
He was right, it seemed; Ingolfur waited for a long time, yet nothing disturbed the forest. Yet he couldn’t sleep, not with the beast’s scream echoing in his ears. Eventually he rose to pace and pace in the dark, finally falling into an uneasy drowsing far from Afi’s relit fire. He dreamt of hands pushing him down, forcing his body to fold and coil in on itself, while men laughed with the roars of dragons, ecstatic in their violence.
Ingolfur woke to Afi standing over him, a sword in his hand.
He was on his feet before he realised the blade was sheathed in a scabbard of tattered leather, the hilt rotten with rust. Afi’s eyes creased.
“Not for you, lad.”
“You didn’t have that yesterday,” Ingolfur said. He would have noticed. Even simple steel swords were a luxury few could afford.
Afi’s glance flickered to a tree branch, where Kari perched, preening her feathers. “Yesterday there wasn’t a longship approaching my island.”
“What?” His gut writhed. “Did it have a dragon’s head?”
Afi’s eyes were very still. “So, you know it.”
They had found him.
“They are other seekers,” he said, managing to keep his face impassive, as a Son should. “We must make haste. I do not want to compete for the Goddess’s attention. By the time they find the Eye, I will be soaring over the sea.”
It was all he could do not to break into a run as he followed Afi through the forest. He pictured the dragonship: how the warriors would fill the fifteen benches, oars defying the waves. How they would pour from the ship in formation, swords naked. How they would laugh as they found his tracks.
Compared to them, the forest was insultingly peaceful. The sunlight shone slight and silvery, while a cool wind brought the scents of loam and rain. It would have been beautiful, if not for the silence; he listened for the voices of his pursuers, but there was not even birdsong. Yet he caught the glint of eyes watching from the trees twice, and his feet crunched on more bones tangled in the brambles. As they went, the skeletons grew more common, and larger: rabbits and squirrels, gulls and guillemots, twice a goat, and once a deer. Beasts died in any forest, yet these bones were blackened and crazed, and often scattered, as if they had been dropped from a great height. Each had been picked clean, but was still heavy with the scent of rotting meat.
It was a relief when the trees finally cleared, revealing the crash of the northern shore and clean salt air. Afi called a halt at the forest’s edge, murmuring several things to Kari before the gull took wing.
“She will watch for the others?” Ingolfur said.
“Aye. Always does.”
The shoreline was slow going. The tide was receding, leaving rockpools slippery with seaweed. Ingolfur glanced into one; beneath his broken reflection, hermit crabs sheltered, their shells striated with red and white, retreating into themselves under his shadow.
“How far?” he said.
Afi pointed beyond the rock pools to a beach of shingles, a mirror to the cove where Ingolfur had landed. It ended in two great flanks of rock, leading into a cave.
“At the seat of the tides, the Eye rests,” he intoned. “There the Goddess will show the shape of your soul.”
“I will be a dragon,” Ingolfur said. His jaw tightened as Afi frowned. “You doubt—”
Kari’s cry cut Ingolfur off. Afi’s eyes widened.
“Run, lad!” he cried.
Ingolfur twisted, expecting to see the Sons howling from the forest.
A shadow passed overhead, trailing the stink of rot.
The creature that slammed onto the rocks came to Ingolfur in fragments. A winged body the size of an auroch, armoured in scales black as basalt. A bird’s head with eyes weeping shadow. Forelegs ending in the vast hands of a man.
Then the parts resolved into a single beast. Ingolfur stepped back, gut coiling. The creature spread fans of greasy feathers, and screamed.
Then, slicking from the great beak, came words.
“Raid we shall, over the salt road,” it exhaled, in a voice like a storm wind.
Ahead, Afi sprinted to the cave. Ingolfur tried to match him, but his mail weighed him down, and he stumbled in a shallow rock pool. A shadow surrounded him, then whistled past; the beast smashed into the shore to his right, skittering pebbles.
“Son son burn we shall.”
Ingolfur’s heart convulsed at the dreadful voice. Afi had reached the cave’s mouth, but stopped in its shadow, and called something. The cave looked too small for the beast, yet the sound of crashing shingle came closer and closer as the creature gave chase. The scent of hot metal and blood and spoiled meat assaulted Ingolfur. He readied himself for the touch of those vast fingers.
Yet, just as the footsteps crescendoed, they stopped. The beast whispered, right in his ear.
“Son my son it is good so good you are here.”
Whimpering, Ingolfur found a final burst of speed, and slipped past Afi into the darkness.
He ran until the screams were only an echo behind him. His eyes adjusted to a tunnel lit by distant sunlight. A shadow approached, and he caught a flash of trembling white. Kari.
“I thought a Son like yourself might face such a beast,” Afi said, breathing hard.
Ingolfur groaned, shaking at the old man’s words. Afi was right. They had all been right. He was a snake. A coward. Unfit to be a Sololfursson.
“Calm, now,” Afi said. “No shame in wisdom. If you faced Sololfur, you would have been killed.”
His voice was gentle. This was not how you spoke to a Son. Ingolfur shut his eyes, longing to escape.
Then he raised his head.
“Aye, lad. Different from your legends?”
“But…” Ingolfur exhaled. That creature was nothing like the depictions of the dragon lord from his childhood.
Monster, he thought.
Yet the ground had shaken under its feet. Its skin glittered brighter than mail, and it had flown. How could any Cross Knight stand against such a creature?
“He has terrorised this Isle for decades,” Afi said. “Yet it has been years since I have seen him in the sun. It burns him, as do the forest’s leaves.” He stroked Kari’s still-shaking wings. “We have guided dozens to the Eye without him daring the daylight. Yet now you are here, he wakes.”
“He spoke to me,” Ingolfur said.
“He spoke to you, boy?” Was that envy in the old man’s voice? “What did he say?”
It had been nonsense. A stream of sound. But then…
He had called Ingolfur his son.
Ingolfur closed his eyes, letting that truth sink into him.
Afi sighed. “It matters not, I suppose. Now you understand, lad. Seek a different shape.”
But Ingolfur found he was being filled with a bright, hard certainty.
“All my life,” he said, rising. “My people have called me weak. A shame, to my people, my Goddess, my father. Still, I swore to protect them.” He exhaled, remembering the long years as a child staring at the sea, hoping to see a longship. “I always knew I would follow my father here.”
“Father?” Afi said, stepping back.
Ingolfur laughed, suddenly elated. “Yes, old man. I am the son of Sololfur, by oath and blood. And out there, he claimed me. Take me to the Eye, Afi Haraldsson. As heir to the Dragon Jarl, I command it.”
Afi’s hand twitched towards his hilt. “You are his spawn?” he growled. “Then no.”
Ingolfur drew his sword. Yet before he could swing, Kari darted forward, talons wrapping around his wrist. Her brown eyes gazed at him with a human gentleness, as if seeking something in him.
Then his hand was on her body. Part of him quailed – the slithering weakling, which the Sons had always mocked – but he pushed the thoughts away. This was what a Son would do.
“Lead me, Afi,” he said. Kari shrieked as he tightened his fingers. He could feel the whisper of her heartbeat.
The old man’s face became very cold, but he finally obeyed. He led Ingolfur through a honeycomb of sea caves, full of soft sand and the crash of the ocean. They came to a tunnel toothed with quartz, so narrow that the crystals pricked at Ingolfur’s armour. It eventually widened, and Ingolfur gasped.
A vast rock pool stretched out in all directions, churning like the Far Salt Maelstrom he had once seen from the longship. Natural shafts in the ceiling let silver light dance on its tattered surface – moonlight, despite the fact it was surely still daytime. On its shores, everything was changing. Bindweed vines softened into moss as they climbed from the saltwater to the dripping stone wall. Great thickets of seaweed gleamed with fish eggs. Some hatched as he watched, their trembling bodies pulled away by the pool’s flow.
“The Eye,” Afi said. “I hope it’s worth it, lad.”
“What do I do?”
“Step into the water. The Goddess will reveal the shape of your soul. To accept it, you need only cast yourself into the waves.”
“You have served me well,” Ingolfur said. He released Kari, but she just fluttered to his shoulder. He growled and pushed her away, then stepped into the pool, the cold water pulling at him like a question.
“Goddess,” he said. “I am Ingolfur, Son of Sololfur. Like my father before me, see my soul. Grant me the power to protect my people.”
In the centre of the whirlpool was a light. It grew as he waded deeper, a flickering red and gold.
He understood. It was the light of the monastery, after the Sons had torched its timber outbuildings. He could hear their laughter, and the thin wails of those inside.
“I fought well there,” he said. “I slew three knights, in your name.”
The light softened, into the gold of a twilit sky.
The water was up to his neck now. It tightened around him, making him thrash to stay afloat. And there, in the fragments of the maelstrom, he saw his reflection, and the shape the Goddess offered him.
A serpent, flat on its belly, hiding in the grass.
He turned away with a cry.
Afi’s sword whistled past his ear.
Ingolfur was unsure whether horror or instinct got him out of that pool, but the next thing he knew, he was gasping on the rocks, sword in hand as Afi advanced. The old man’s tattered sheath hung by his side, yet he held no rusted blade, but a white-blue length of steel, tempered and folded into the brilliance of a star.
“Sorry, lad,” he said. “But I won’t allow another dragon.”
He leapt with a viper’s speed. Ingolfur barely turned his thrust, and Afi easily sidestepped his counter swipe. Only instinct saved him from the next five attacks; Afi’s form was honed, his grip changing expertly as he moved from thrust to cut to guard. Yet it was more than that. He struck to kill. Like a Son. Ingolfur tried to deflect, but the serpent’s shape flashed in his mind. His guard opened for a heartbeat, and Afi’s sword arced into a killing blow.
A white shape flickered between them – Kari. Afi flinched, angling his blade away as Ingolfur counter-struck, sword rasping against Afi’s, bringing their faces close.
“Why?” he screamed. “Why didn’t I see a dragon?”
Afi’s eyes widened. “It means you’re not your father, lad.”
“No!” Ingolfur shouted. “The bitch got it wrong!”
But, a traitorous voice whispered inside him, how much easier would it be, to hold a snake’s simple form? How much safer, to slip under the cover of grass and heather, and hide from their laughter?
What had made him flinch in the pool: the snake’s shape, or the fact it had pleased him?
He collapsed, sword clattering on the stone. He had failed. He bowed his head, ready for Afi’s blow.
Instead, the old man knelt.
“It seems,” he said. “That Kari doesn’t want me to kill you.”
“Do it,” Ingolfur whispered. “Give me a Son’s death.”
Afi hesitated, before placing a hand on Ingolfur’s shoulder.
“Let me tell you a tale,” he murmured. “That might give you hope.” He sighed, and the weariness in the sound made him seem truly old. “When Sololfur came to this isle, lad, he wasn’t alone. I came with him, as his most trusted thane. We’d heard the stories of the Goddess’s power, and after one hundred raids together, we believed we were heroes. But after so long killing, all we cared about was blood. And so, when we came to the Eye, the Goddess showed us what our souls had become; not the beings of fire we thought ourselves, but monsters of rot, with tattered wings that would not carry us across the sea.”
“Your father was entranced. He ordered me to take the shape with him — and I was tempted, aye. But the truth of what I was also horrified me. Your father was furious when I refused him.” He gave a low laugh. “He attacked me, and I fled as he changed.”
“That was when Kari found me. She brought me fish, and led me through the deeper tunnels, where I could escape Sololfur’s new form. It hurt, to see her body’s purity, when I knew mine was so twisted. It hurt more to feel the kindness she gave me; kindness I didn’t deserve. I had brought pain and suffering to her Isle – Sololfur and I had sworn to protect our people, same as you, yet the dragon was killing all he could. And so I repeated the oath I had taken as a Sololfursson: I would protect her from him, as well as all the others seeking the Goddess.”
“And so I did, lad. For two decades, I have learnt Sololfur’s ways, and guided our people across this Isle. And in doing so, I have come to a revelation. Your reflection can change. Now I look in the Eye, and witness another form.” His voice cracked. “But I cannot take it. Not while Sololfur still soars.”
Slowly, Ingolfur lifted his head.
“Your reflection changed?” he croaked.
Afi nodded. “What do you think the Goddess sees, through her Eye?” he whispered. “The druids claim she reflects our soul’s shape, but how does she see it? After twenty years, I think I have found my answer. It’s our desires, lad. Our desires, after all, are the expressions of our change. Our desires are the language of our souls. The Goddess sees them and grants us the shape to fulfil them.” He stroked Ingolfur’s hair, like a mother might. “So I ask you, lad, before the Goddess. What do you want to be, truly? And what’s stopping you from becoming it?”
Ingolfur gritted his teeth, the silence yawning until he could bear it no longer.
“All my life, I have been afraid,” he whispered. “But all my life, I wanted to be a Sololfursson. I thought if only I pretended, if I ignored my fear, I could become so. It worked for a while. But then we came to that monastery. And there were children. Falfur, our war chief, ordered me to lock the boys in the nave and burn the monastery down. To finally prove I was my father’s son. I wanted to do it, but the Cross boys were crying out, and suddenly I was back on that beach, hearing Talolfur’s screams.
“I couldn’t set the monastery alight. I was too scared.” The words came like bile. “And so, they overpowered me, and took me to the cliff face. Before the Goddess’s tides, Falfur named my soul a snake’s, doomed to run and hide forever. Yet I couldn’t run. The others held me down while he…” He gagged, his mouth filling with the taste of earth and blood and a thousand ancient things. He remembered how Falfur’s hands had tightened at his waist, how the war chief had grunted as he shamed Ingolfur, over and over, before inviting the other Sons to join. They had laughed, while Ingolfur could only writhe on his belly and stare at the gulls above, folding in the golden air, floating and free of all of them.
“It’s alright, my lad,” Afi said. “Let it out of you.” A warm weight landed on Ingolfur’s back. Kari, giving soft chirps as she settled. Their gentleness burned. How could such a weak man have once been his fathers’ chosen warrior? How could they forgive him?
“These men,” Afi said. “Are the ones on the boat.”
“They hunt me,” Ingolfur said. “They left me bound in the dirt, but I snapped the rope and ran. This was the one place I could come. The one place I could prove that I was a Sololfursson. But all along that serpent was curled around my soul. They will find me and do it all again, and my only escape is through that pool.”
Afi shook his head. “The Goddess gave you another gift, if only you see it. She offers you a new form, aye, but also clarity. You say you want to be a Sololfursson, but if that were true, lad, you would have killed those children, and the Goddess would have reflected you as a monster. Aye, you may be afraid. Aye, the Goddess offers you a way out. But she also offers you the choice of whether to accept it or strive for something more.”
“How? How can I change? I have been this way all my life.”
Afi barked a laugh. “By choosing to want something different,” he said. “Your own choice, not what you think your father would want, or his Sons.” He rose. “Come then, lad. I’m getting impatient. If you’re not going to jump in the Eye, you’ll need to get off this Isle.” He sucked his teeth. “I told you not to destroy your boat.”
“No,” Ingolfur said. “There is no way out for me, old man. Run, and save yourself.”
Afi grinned, his eyes calm and cold as a hawk’s. “I’ve not outfoxed Sololfur half my life to give up so easily. The Isle is filthy with tunnels; plenty of ways for you to slip past these ‘warriors’. Then you’ll have your whole life to decide who it is you want to be.”
The words came like a light. There was a way out. Ingolfur stood slowly, hope filling him.
“You would help me?” he said. “After I threatened you? Threatened Kari?”
“I told you, lad; I made a choice. I would protect anyone who wished to find the Goddess’s salvation. That includes you.”
And there, Afi’s voice certain, eyes bright, Ingolfur found he believed him. He blinked in wonder. This old man was like no warrior Ingolfur had met, but his sword was swift, his arm still strong.
Yet he had not always been this. He had changed.
Sololfur’s scream tore through the caves. Its echoes sounded like laughter. They would always follow him, he realised.
“No,” he said. “I won’t run. If I do, I’ll be the snake they said I was.”
Afi raised an eyebrow. “Then what, lad? There are too many to face alone.”
Sololfur roared again. Ingolfur bowed his head. An idea was forming. An idea not bright enough for hope, but still. A light, or at least the reflection of one, in the dark depths of his soul.
“I won’t be alone,” he said. “Out there, my father called me his son. For all I have failed, he still recognised me.” He met their eyes, feeling the power in the gaze of the bird and the old warrior, how, even after his failings, they expected him to be something more. “I will go to him.”
The teeth of night closed as Ingolfur stepped out of the cave. Shadows tore the sky as the sun set, while the wind sang of sleet and sea ice. They must have been at the Eye for hours.
He exhaled, feeling the weight of his plate around his chest. Afi had tried to stop him, but Ingolfur felt a new certainty like a rope pulling him towards this confrontation, twenty years in the making.
Sololfur lay on the shingles. His wings were folded, his thick knuckled hands clenched around the carcass of a red deer. The great beaked head turned as Ingolfur approached, but the dragon did not attack. His eyes were clear now the light had dimmed, a deep brown, like Ingolfur’s.
“Father,” Ingolfur said.
Sololfur’s feathers flexed, exhaling the scent of offal. The red tipped beak opened.
“Son my sword son welcome,” he said, words as harsh as the salt wind.
Despite the stink, Ingolfur felt something warm inside him. He had always wondered whether Sololfur had left him behind because, even unborn, he had known Ingolfur would be weak. Yet here his father claimed him. He had lain here for hours, even in the burning sunlight, for Ingolfur.
Sololfur flexed, rolling great banks of muscle, before tossing him the carcass. Its flank had been torn open by the dragon’s beak, the raw meat blackened and bubbling.
“Eat eat my son,” the dragon said. “Devour our enemies.”
The doe stared at Ingolfur with blank otherness. She stank the same as the skeletons. She had been a person, once. Someone who had sought the Goddess and, unlike Ingolfur, found the change she was hoping for. A follower of the Moon, whom the Sololfursson had sworn to protect.
Voices came on the wind.
Even from here, Ingolfur recognised the warriors as they emerged from the forest. The wolf-head of Ingloki. Sneri’s bear-pelt cloak. And Falfur, at the front as always, bare headed and bestial. The sunlight slicked their armour red-gold.
There was nowhere to hide.
Sololfur too had seen the men. He rose, and the men faltered, crying out.
Ingolfur drew his sword. He thought of Afi, climbing the cave tunnels to safety. How would it have felt, to face these men with the old warrior at his side?
But he had Sololfur here. All he needed.
“Father,” he said. “Those men approaching us are rapists. Child killers. Monsters. They wear your mail, they took your oaths, but they are no better than the Cross Knights. Will you face them with me?”
Sololfur roared, the sound shattering across the beach. Ingolfur’s heart swelled at the raw hunger in the sound. Perhaps Afi had been wrong.
The Sololfursson called back. Yet it was not a scream of fear or challenge.
“Yes yes!” the dragon cried. “Sons my sons, welcome!”
Ingolfur felt the world dim. The snake shape curled inside his gut.
Sololfur recognised these men too as his own. He hadn’t claimed Ingolfur because of their shared blood. He had only understood the gleam of mail and starsteel, and the memory of old war.
And the Sons would love the dragon’s strength. Perhaps they would load Sololfur onto their boat and return to the mainland. Or perhaps they too would seek the Goddess’s truth and take the dragon shape. The thought made Ingolfur cold.
First, though, they would kill Ingolfur. And Sololfur would not stop them.
He could run. It was not too late to flee to the Eye and take the snake’s form.
A clean cry pierced the air. Kari, flying high, a beacon of gold.
She seemed so small. Easy prey, for dragons.
Someone needed to protect her.
He turned back to the Sons as they advanced. They were laughing. Always laughing.
We defile your body, and mark you snake-souled.
They were right. The Goddess had shown him.
But was it so bad, to be a snake?
“I have waited so long to meet you, Father,” he murmured. He stepped into Sololfur’s shadow, head bowed as he unbelted his blade’s sheath. “My whole life, I feared myself too weak for your legacy, and your oaths.”
A snake crawled beneath notice.
“Yes slave, serve son, raid we will,” Sololfur whispered, his gaze on the steel souls advancing across the rocks. He had no intelligence left, Ingolfur realised. Just a roving mass of hate and hunger, with his old memories stretched across like dead skin.
A snake was nothing to a dragon.
Ingolfur unstrung the lamellar cuirass from his chest, then shrugged the coat of mail over his head. Finally, he undid the necklace of seven silver crosses. They clattered on the basalt. How much lighter he felt, without their weight. He reached for the certainty of his warrior’s vows, and the strength in his arm, that could split a boat in two.
A snake still had fangs.
“Yet you broke the oath, not me,” he whispered. And, with the blade that he had inherited from his father, he pierced Sololfur in the chest.
Yet he ran now not with blind terror. He ran with fear, but also purpose. He kept his senses sharp, ducking and weaving over the rocks, tracking the crash of shingles as Sololfur chased him. He knew when to flatten himself in a shallow pool as he heard the dragon leap, dodging the reaching fingers. He knew not to look back at the Sololfursson, roaring as they charged. They could not stop him.
At first, Sololfur had not seemed to notice the starsteel as it split through his scales and slid in halfway to the hilt. Then, as black blood smoked on the rocks, he had jerked, wresting Ingolfur’s sword from his fingers. The blade was still embedded in the dragon’s chest, glittering as he landed to block the cave entrance with his bulk.
“Sons kill my sons,” he breathed, voice laboured but still strong. The Sons voices burgeoned in response.
Ingolfur didn’t stop, admiring how the setting sun turned the rock pools into golden mirrors. This was a beautiful place. Worth dying to protect.
Sololfur coiled, hands twitching as he readied himself to leap.
Then he screamed in anguish. Stinking blood gouted onto the rocks.
Behind the dragon, Afi swung again, hacking into Sololfur’s wing at the base. The dragon spasmed, reaching for him. The old man’s starsteel blade was an arc of blue light, shearing the vast fingers off at the tips.
And then Ingolfur was before the dragon’s chest. He placed his hands on his sword’s smooth hilt, and pushed it further in.
“Son,” Sololfur gasped.
The dragon collapsed, fountaining rot.
Afi laughed, covered in black blood.
“The poets would sing of such a blow!” he said. “I thought I’d lost you lad, but it seems I found a brother.”
Ingolfur smiled. He felt like he was returning home.
Yet there was no time. The Sons screams were almost upon them. “We must stop them finding the Eye,” he called, sprinting past Afi into the caves.
And they were running together, two warriors, into the dark and the centre of change.
The caves of the Eye had transformed even since Ingolfur had been away. Anemones of a hundred colours striped the walls, while whelk eggs jewelled the sand. In the centre, the Eye still turned.
Ingolfur breathed in its beauty as he plunged into the water. He felt the Goddess’s Eye focus, and the reflection formed.
The laughter echoed in his head. Accept this change, and he could be free of it.
Yet a peace was settling over him. A peace he’d never known, like herring gulls flying in the sunset, heedless of the burning hate of the land below.
He turned back to the cave entrance as Afi entered.
“All my life,” Ingolfur told him. “I felt I had to be like them. Thank you, for showing me another way to be a warrior.”
“Thank me later, lad,” Afi said. “Help me guard the door.”
Ingolfur shook his head.
“You have protected this Isle long enough, Afi Haraldsson.” He gestured to the Eye. “Go, and seek the shape you have always wished for. Join Kari in the sky.”
Afi glanced at the waves, the light in his eyes bright and desperate. Then he turned away.
“There are dragon-seekers out there,” he whispered.
“Give me your blade,” Ingolfur said. “It will be my honour to wield it.”
“Lad. There are too many to face alone.”
“I am Ingolfur, old man. Snake of the Isle. I have slain Sololfur. I stood against every Sololfursson, for the sake of children. I am a protector.” He pointed to the narrow tunnel of quartz. “They may have thirty blades, but here they must enter one by one.”
Afi stared at him a long moment.
“Thank you,” he said.
Afi’s blade was old, but the starsteel was unchipped, the edge sharp. Ingolfur cut the air, testing its weight. The cries of the Sololfursons echoed through the caves. They weren’t laughing now.
So Ingolfur laughed for them, a child’s laugh, clean with elation, the same way he had once laughed with Talolfur as a boy. He would never let them past. It was his purpose, to protect Afi, and everyone else. Beyond him, the Goddess’s Eye gleamed, his reflection still caught there in fragments – scales of pure silver, eyes of gentle brown, and above them the flash of vast, sea-faring wings.