They set out less than a month after Odd’s return, as soon as the cracking ice and snowmelt had allowed it. Everyone was eager for a change of scenery, impatient to shake off winter furs and slough off winter fat. The longships were made seaworthy in record time, the spears and battleaxes sharpened to an edge. Odd and his mother packed their belongings, which were meagre. All around them people were unlocking doors and opening windows, breathing in fresh air and breathing out the cabin fever.
It was thought unlucky to take a woman on board, at least on the way to a raid, but, Odd had pointed out, it was even unluckier to refuse the request of he who had ended winter. He never said how he did it, merely let the timing of his return speak for itself. The men eyed him, sceptical at first, but Odd just stood there, with his brand-new staff, and smiled.
Predictably, in the end they decided not to risk it. Who knew what the lad could do? Besides, it wasn’t as though they were dealing with a Norse woman; she’d been only borrowed from Scotland, and now they were bringing her back.
The journey across the North Sea took anywhere between a week to ten days, depending what the weather willed. They took enough food for the two of them, and bartered any leftovers for a handful of coins, to see them after their landing.
When they boarded the longship, Odd placed a hand on his mother’s shoulder. She’d always been straight-backed and proud, nothing sickly or frail about her, but ever since his return everything about her seemed smaller.
“Will you be all right, mother?” he asked. “I’ll be near the oars most of the day, but the men, they—”
“I’ll be fine,” she replied, and smiled a little. She smiled a lot more since he’d returned; more even than before he’d left. “They’ll not do anything to me. They think you might bring the hoarfrost back if they do.”
Odd nodded. He had never actively made such a claim, but had been very careful not to outright dismiss it, either.
On the day they set sail, and the shoreline of Norway shrunk into the distance until it was only a confusion of fjords, Odd took a brief respite to stand at the ship’s bulwark and ask his mother: “Will you miss it?”
His mother considered for a second. “I shall miss your father’s house, for it was the only thing I had left of him,” she said. “I shan’t miss the rest of it too much, I don’t think.” She looked back at the hazy shore. “Will you?”
“I don’t know,” Odd said honestly. But as the last blur of land was swallowed by the waves, he felt a tug in his heart. When he turned his head westward, towards the sea-speckled wind, he faced something new and strange and unknowable. His mother was returning home, but Odd himself was departing.
Sailing a boat wasn’t as exciting as the men in the village made it out to be. Odd’s job was rowing, which he did studiously, despite the spray which drenched everything and the cramps which made his muscles ache after the first day. He’d come back a lot stronger from Asgard, a strength even he couldn’t explain. The men offered up daily prayers to Aegir and Odin for the fine weather, and while Odd didn’t usually join them, he breathed silent thanks of his own.
In the morning he would get up to replace the night crew and row until early evening, when he’d visit his mother. They’d housed her in the storeroom in the middle of the boat, the only place with four walls and a door. It smelled of smoked meat and was partly filled with stones to keep the boat in water, but it was better than camping out with the other men on deck, which, she pointed out, was what her first trip on a longship had entailed. They would eat and laugh and she would tell him stories about Scotland.
“You mustn’t expect too much of me,” she would say. “I haven’t been there in, oh, so many years. Since the raid when I met your father.”
I know, Odd thought but didn’t say. He still remembered how she looked in the waters of the pool in Asgard, through his father’s eyes. She had kept her thick black hair, woven in a plait, and her high cheekbones and startling green eyes. There were more lines of sadness etched into her skin, and her smile never came as easy as before, but she was the same woman. She was still strong and kind and very beautiful.
“Tell me about your village,” he said again, just as he had during all the nights before. “Will it still be there, do you think?”
“We’ll have to go and see for ourselves,” his mother said. Her voice was noncommittal, but when Odd saw how she looked down at her hands and smiled, he recognized the dimmed candle-flame of hope.
Odd’s grandfather on his father’s side had been a woodcutter, just like his father. He’d been ginger, with a beard like a bonfire and arms like the trunks of the spruce trees he felled. He’d died in a raid, hamstrung during battle and then overtaken by three Scotsmen — that’s how many men were needed to pull him down. Many of the village’s longships had been planned by him, and they were said to be the best, cutting the water like a knife through butter, quick to respond and smooth to sail. Odd heard stories about him, first from his father and later in the dining hall, from past neighbours. He’d been an artisan as well as a craftsman, something Odd’s father had inherited from him.
Odd’s grandfather on his mother’s side had been short and wide and swarthy, with black hair as curly as the fleece on his sheep. He’d fathered six other children aside from Odd’s mother, though only three survived their infancy. His voice had been as deep as the roots of the hills and more enchanting than the fairies which lived in them. You’d be likely to find him at all hours of the day sitting with a harp strung from horsehair, singing and telling stories, impersonating a troll or a vagabond hero, smiling often. Odd’s mother had inherited his stubbornness, his love for music, and his sheep.
Odd had never known either of them, but they lived in his mind, present as though they’d helped rear him from birth. He knew his quick fingers were his father’s heirloom; the dimples on his cheeks his mother’s. He wondered what else he’d gotten without even knowing — what long tendrils the past had snaked into the present, which bones and eyes and shoulder-breadths lived on in the family.
Bad weather caught up with them off the south coast of Orkney, despite the prayers, and forced them to dock for the day. This suited Odd and his mother just fine; they used the opportunity to part ways with the raiders. The men were at best indifferent or relieved, and the following morning the longship set sail again with no fuss, angling for western Scotland.
“They’re heading towards Ullapool, but we’ll take a ferry and dock at Wick, then go inland to Gallaibh,” his mother said. The names on her tongue sounded different, more natural, even though she was still speaking his language. “We’re best rid of them now, before they start what they came here for.”
The ferry from Orkney cost them all their money, but his mother firmly maintained it was better this way. Their ferry master, a tall man who looked like he could fit right into Odd’s village, spoke Odd’s native Norse as well as his mother’s language.
“Fine season to be docking at Wick,” he said, as they bobbed out of the craggy bay. “Fish are beginning to swarm. The boy could find himself a job, easy.”
“We’re not in search of livelihood, but of a place,” his mother said. “Have you heard past news of An Cuan Moireach? We’re headed not far north of there.”
“Alas, nothing but trouble.” The ferry master made a face, as though he tasted something foul. “Raiders tearing up the place fer all it’s worth. After it’s dead, they’re squatting in it and setting up their houses. Don’t get me wrong,” he looked at them meaningfully. “Blue-skins what lived there before weren’t any better. I’m Norway stock, meself. But that’s plagued land, that is.”
Odd and his mother exchanged glances.
“How far inland have they gotten, do you know?” Odd’s mother asked.
The ferry master shrugged laconically. “Haven’t a fathom. But you’ll find out soon enough, no? Good luck on your journey.”
The beaches of Scotland were close cousins to the beaches of Norway. The shingled inlets, rocky slopes, and grey sea were a parallel image of his home, unfamiliar but clearly related. The only thing different was the buildings. In Scotland it wasn’t enough to use only wood, apparently, and different materials had to be used at every opportunity: stone for the walls, heather for the roof, weathered tree-logs for support beams. There was a hall, or what Odd assumed to be one, anyway; but it was made of stone and much larger than what he was used to. The people, although they walked around in customary clothes, wore finely-worked belt-clasps and cloak-fastenings which were engraved with queer markings, the sort he’d seen on the silverware his mother had brought with her all those years ago and which they had left with Fat Elfred. It was like a medley between two worlds; a crooked mirror of his hometown. It was at once exciting and very strange, even unnerving. He wasn’t sure how to act in this new setting.
He looked at his mother and saw her eyes bright and a little awed as they made their way off the ferry, up the beach and onto honest ground. It wasn’t a look he expected to see; his mother had always said she didn’t miss her homeland, just people who spoke her language.
It was only now that Odd felt a knot of doubt, cold and gnarled and unpleasant in his belly. Suddenly, he wondered how much of that statement was hard fact, and how much of it was saying something in the hopes it became true.
They spent the night in Wick, after Odd’s mother traded one of her plaited hemp necklaces for a room. It had been part of the jewellery she’d brought along with her to Norway and had worn ever since. Odd had initially protested, but she quieted him with a smile.
“No need to fret about it,” she said. “They may have been a novelty back home, but they’re quite common where we’re headed, you’ll see.” Everything about her seemed lighter, more relaxed. Odd didn’t know whether to be happy or a little bit jealous.
There was a single pallet, so Odd slept on the floor. He dreamed vividly, with strange and windblown colours; an aurora borealis of dreaming.
In his dream, a sprightly man armed with a slingshot and a spear appeared before him. His hair was a shocking shade of auburn, something which nature took no responsibility for. Odd knew he’d seen that colour somewhere, and suddenly he remembered, in that odd and inexplicable way of dreams: on a cunning fox, not too long ago, with its tail bobbing like a fire-lantern between endless snowy hills.
So you’re the boy, the man said, drawling and faintly amused. You reputation precedes you. I already heard the tale from overseas. He was speaking in a language Odd didn’t know, and yet every word was clear.
Who are you? asked Odd. It seemed like a good place to start.
Call me Lugh, said the man. Or Long-Handed, or Skilled in the Arts. Fearless warrior, hero of thousands, leader of the Tuatha Dé Danann. I’m a different league than your usual dream-guests, I realize, but it’s all right, I accept your veneration with dignity.
Odd cocked his head. What are you doing here?
I came to see the boy hero, of course. Lugh smiled. He had an awful lot of teeth, each one very white. All of twelve years old, and already half of the Aesir are hanging from his little finger. I heard Odin All-Father owes you a favour, and that’s no small thing.
Who did you hear this from? Odd asked, although he already had an inkling.
Oh, a cousin. Lugh waved a hand dismissively. We keep in touch. But now you’re on my turf, and my question is — he levelled Odd with a dramatic look — what exactly are you doing here? This isn’t your native land.
It’s my mother’s, Odd said simply. We’re going to her old home.
Which is where? For the first time in the conversation Lugh’s half-smile vanished, his expression turning into something a shade away from unpleasant. His spear crackled — literally crackled, thought Odd bizarrely — like caged lightning.
North of An Cuan Moireach. He didn’t know where that was, precisely, but his mother had said it to the ferry master and he saw no reason to withhold the information. Why?
Ach, no, no. Bad news. Lugh gnawed his lip. That horse-wooing bastard told me to keep you safe, curse his eyes. You shouldn’t go there in search of memories, boy; the only thing you’ll find is disappointment. Trust my word, turn back, or go somewhere else in this fine country of mine.
Odd took a moment to process that statement. Then he smiled, a mysterious little twitch of his lips. But you never know until you get there, do you?
Lugh looked at him, nonplussed. He was silent for a long moment. Odd continued to smile.
Then: You’re not turning back, are you.
No, said Odd politely. But thank you for the advice.
The spear crackled again, once, but in a slightly tamer fashion. You know, they didn’t lie about you, Lugh said. You’re something else. Not even a little bit scared. Here, let me show you something.
And just like that, easy as turning around, they were outside under a vast sky of velvet blue-black, still and deep as the depths of a lake, sprinkled with countless shining stars. It was beautiful in a dizzying way, and Odd felt his breath catch, awed by the sheer scope of it. The sky seemed to stretch from one forever to another.
See that? Lugh said, and Odd blinked, refocused from the endless spin of worlds to the man’s long arm, pointed at a specific cluster of stars. They were scattered like a glowing comet’s tail, standing out even compared to the other brilliant constellations. Odd hadn’t even known nature could do things like that. This is what they call Lugh’s Chain. You’ll see it in the heavens when you need to, and when you do, know that it’s time to go.
Go where? Odd couldn’t tear his eyes from the sky.
Doesn’t matter. You can decide when you get there. Lugh sighed. Boy heroes. I used to be one myself, you know. After another moment of silent contemplation he said, Okay, laddie, time to wake up. I’ll be taking my leave of you now.
And he snapped his fingers, and Odd woke up, and forgot.
It was another two days’ travel through Cataibh, heading southward and a little inward of the eastern coast. Odd was getting better at pronouncing the names, but his mother was still visibly amused by his attempts. It was suddenly a much bigger issue that he’d never bothered to learn his mother’s language, nor anything else of her world beyond the children’s stories she’d told him near the fireside. He’d taken his old life for granted, as though that was all there — the Norse village under Norse skies, with Norse folk praying to Norse gods. Now, at the place where his mother was most comfortable, he felt adrift in a strange land.
The roads stretched out across plains and gently rolling hills, covered in grasses which sometimes reached up to Odd’s knees. Occasionally there would be a forest, thick and dense and alive with moss. There hadn’t been nearly so much moss in Norway, Odd was sure. If there had been less moss and more trees, perhaps the people of Scotland could have built houses with roofs that didn’t have mushrooms growing out of them.
A part of him resented the fact his mother felt so comfortable among the tors and windblown meadows, even after all these years. Another part saw the way her face shone and could only be happy. Usually her happiness triggered his, except when they interacted with people. They met various locals, which Odd’s mother stopped to talk to — what she called ‘asking for directions’, though conversations lasted much longer than that. The farmgirl or shepherd or travelling peddler would talk and talk, and occasionally Odd picked snatches of familiar half-words, usually names. A lot of places were called Lugh, or some variation thereof. Privately, Odd wondered who he had been and why he was so famous.
The frequent roadside stops meant frequent rests, often after being invited into the household for a bit of food and rest. The people of Scotland were hospitable. This was good, because Odd’s leg was better but not completely healed and the walking was hard. One time a farmer offered them a ride on his cart. It was pulled, Odd noticed, by a horse, the likes of which had always played a part in his mother’s stories. He supposed that now he knew where they came from.
Scotland was large, and windy, and altogether different from Norway. The further south they travelled, he realized how much it wasn’t his home, and how much it was his mother’s.
On the third day, they arrived.
Odd’s mother was born in the village of Tain. It was no more than a scattering of houses, collected as if by accident and placed in a glen. Right next to it were the outskirts of a forest, overlooking grassy hills which rolled all the way down to the sea. The people there were mostly fishermen or seafarers; her father had been an uncommonly agrarian exception.
When Odd’s mother reached the place, she breathed in deep and smiled.
“Let’s go down to the village,” she told Odd, trundling forward with her knapsacks and blankets trussed together on her back. During the last mile of their trek, her step was so light she almost looked as though she were dancing.
They reached the village in the late hours of the morning. From afar, it looked normal: Scottish huts with their thatched roofs and stone walls, clustered together around a—
“Wait,” Odd’s mother said suddenly. “We had no feasting hall in my village.”
Odd saw her face pale.
“The houses were different,” she muttered, still walking, eyes wide and suspicious. “The smithy’s gone... and where is the Bealltainn tree?”
When they came within a stone’s throw of the first houses, a man walked out to greet them. He was tall and fair-haired, dressed in the fashion Odd was familiar with. He called out in Odd’s native language:
“Hail, travellers! What brings you to this outpost?”
“Outpost?” Odd’s mother muttered. Louder, she said: “This is the village of Tain, yes?”
Which was a very bad question to ask, Odd knew, because people had a tendency to ask the questions they least wanted to hear the answers to.
What happened was this:
Tain had been raided by Vikings for several decades, on and off. Then one year, the village had been torched and resettled by Vikings. It happened all over Scotland, not just there.
The village was renamed as Dòrnach by its new inhabitants, who made it in the image of their farm back home. They burned down the trees which the fishermen and the seafarers had worshiped, and used the local silver and metal to adorn their clothes. They took Scottish women for wives but gave their children Nordic names.
Odd’s mother had been in Norway at the time, giving birth to Odd. All she had thought about was then her new home, not her old one. Until now.
Odd came to her again when the sun had already set on the village of Dòrnach, and found her sitting on a hill overlooking the sea.
“This was a hill I used to sit on when I was only a girl,” she said, as she approached. She was looking at the waters and didn’t turn around to see who it was. “I used to spend hours here, staring at the waves crashing against the beach. Now the beach is full of longships and you can’t see the waves at all.”
“I was at the hall,” Odd said as he sat down to her. “I talked with some of them. They’re very helpful, actually.”
His mother was silent. Odd chanced a glance sideways and, for the first time in his life, was shocked to see her cheeks wet with tears.
“My father’s house,” she said, in a quiet voice. “My aunt’s garden, where we all played as children. The smithy and the cattle pens. All of it, gone.”
Odd didn’t know what to say. He settled for putting a hand on his mother’s shoulder and looked around the darkening night, hoping for an answer. He had always seen his mother as calm, capable, unperturbed by any twist of fate. Now she seemed like a little girl again. It was unprecedented.
“I had always thought, maybe one day after you were grown and Elfred died, if I wouldn’t remarry, then maybe, during a summer... but no, no, no more. No more.” She took a deep breath and put her face in her hands. Then she became very still, in the way of quiet, unobtrusive mourning.
Odd did the only thing he could do: he folded her in his arms, a tight hug, with eyes squeezed shut and not letting go. He said nothing, for he had nothing to say. The silence stretched out like a shadow on a sunset-orange afternoon, filled with things that can’t be put into words.
After a couple long minutes, Odd’s mother broke away gently, wiping her eyes and cheeks. She looked up into the sky, not making eye contact.
“The stars are the same,” she murmured in distraction. “The stars haven’t changed one bit.”
Odd looked at the sky too. High above them, brighter than even the moon, was a scattering of stars like a comet’s wake, trailing across the heavens in a brilliant speckled tail. And suddenly, it all came back to him.
Lugh’s chain, he thought, or maybe said out loud, because his mother said, “What?”
“Mother,” said Odd solemnly as he turned to her. “Let’s go away.”
“Go where?” his mother asked, eyes still too-bright in the darkness. “What are you talking about?”
“Let’s leave this place.” He reached out and took her hand, twining their fingers together. His palm was already bigger than hers. “Let’s just take our things and go. What have we got to stay for, a home? Where? The past is the past. Let’s let memories be memories and start over, somewhere far away from anywhere else we’ve ever been.”
“But where will we go?” his mother protested. “And how will we live?”
“I’ll take care of us. I’m not as weak as I look, you know that, and I’m good with my hands. We’ll be fine together.” He squeezed her hand. “As for where we’ll go — we can decide when we get there.”
Odd’s mother looked at him silently for many minutes. Her eyes were different, inquisitive, as though she was searching for something on his face. Odd looked right back.
“How did you grow up so fast?” she asked softly, as though speaking to herself. “Where is the little boy I remember? What happened to him?”
“He learned a few things,” said Odd. “And he met some people. They gave him advice, some of it good and some bad. But mostly, they showed him what home was.”
“What is home, then?” His mother brushed a strand of hair from his face, as she used to do when he was five. Odd looked at her fondly. She was the most precious thing he had in the world.
“Home is people,” he said. “Not a place. Even if it’s a very beautiful one. Because in the end, the place is only as good as the people in it, but people can be beautiful regardless of where they are.”
“Those are wise words,” his mother said. She looked away, into the horizon blurred by sea-fog and distance. “How would you like to cross the sea? The gods alone know what lies at the other end.”
Odd smiled widely. “That would be a fine thing,” he said.