A single star streaked through the wind-slashed northern night, highlighting the ice shards that skittered across the glacier and collected on the pelt of Magnhild. Shivering, she howled as another contraction rippled through her body, and dropped to her knees. She panted and leaned against the single granite outcropping that pushed through the otherwise flat, blue expanse, broken only by shifting dunes of snow. “Take what comfort the fates offer,” murmured Hjordis, as she tightened the cord on her sealskin hood. She didn’t need troll prescience to know that any offspring of her jotun sister had little chance of surviving to adulthood, much less the birth.
She grasped Magnhild’s heavy fur and pulled herself up to stand on Magnhild’s lap. The future was beyond her control; the best Hjordis could do was try to make the present as close to bearable as possible. “This night will soon be over, and then you will have a fine, tiny horde to share with the clan.”
“They will never be accepted into the clan.” Magnhild squeezed her eyes shut, tears freezing on her prominent cheekbones.
Hjordis pulled herself up to her sister’s shoulder and gently tugged on Magnhild’s earlobe. “Many fathers to one birth? This is not news to the jotun breed. Frode is not too proud to feed another beast’s young. He took me in and raised us as den-sisters, did he not?” She gripped her friend’s eyebrow ridge and blotted the corner of her eye with the tip of her tail.
“Even Frode cannot accept them…too, too different.” Magnhild thrashed her head from side to side, wracked with grief and pain. “I am so thirsty!”
“All will be well.” Hjordis, thrown from her sister’s lap, picked herself up and shook off a cloud of snow. “If you are so thirsty, you have plenty of ice to comfort yourself.” Magnhild growled and licked the ice from her own shoulder.
Inhaling deeply, the jotun threw her arms overhead and arched her back as another contraction rolled through her and up towards her armpit. On one knee now, she grasped the rock with one hand and howled as the crease in her armpit split open, disgorging dark fluid so hot that steamed as it melted a deep hollow in the ice beneath.
“Magnhild was well-named. This will not be an easy birth,” muttered Hjordis. She squatted in the snow to wait out the battle. There was nothing more she could do for her friend until the young were delivered.
“So few kits for so much struggle,” Hjordis gazed at the newborns, wrapped about each other in the nest Magnhild had created from fur she had torn from her own belly to line the hollow created by her pre-birth fluids. Normal jotun newborns would be fine in the ice, but these were…different. They were tiny, definitely not of clan blood, and more vulnerable than she herself had been as a troll, raised among jotuns.
The first, larger than the others, wrapped himself protectively around the other two, tail tip covering the pink tip of his hairy snout. Clearly this was the pup of Fenris; an affair that had begun well-before Midsummer and lasted into the darkening days of Autumn. He was to be named Ingolf.
The second, pure white, with silver hooves and a nub of horn pushing through her equine forehead, was clearly a unicorn. Who knew when—or how—Magnhild had managed that. She would be called Drifa.
The third lay nestled between the two, slender of limb, her rapid breaths like the tapping of the bow on a hardanger fiddle. Likely conceived during Midsummer’s night. A fossegrimen, then, to be named Runa.
Magnhild’s still body lay wrapped around the nest, in death sheltering her young from the night as she would not be able to in their lives. Hjordis knew she was right, even Frode would not be able to accept these offspring.
“Strange to feel such affection for ones so likely to die.” Hjordis shrugged. But she had sworn an oath to her den-sister that she would care for them, in return for protection during her own fostering with the jotun clan. She had not counted on raising them entirely on her own.
What little sun there was this time of year, this far north, was due to rise soon. The little ones would need to be fed and kept warm during the long journey to a climate better suited to their temperaments. She had better be ready. She drew her knife from its sheath and began to cut through Magnhild’s thick pelt.
© Liz Husebye Hartmann (2015)
Prompt from Writing Essentials Crew