The Gray Tern by Andrew Crossett

They say that the human slaves get restless and more prone to rebellion and violence during the months of Longer Light, when spring begins to arrive in most of the northern lands.

It’s strange, because spring has not actually arrived in Irrisen for nearly fourteen centuries—not since my fearsome ancestor, Grandmother Yaga, swept in with might and magic and took the land for herself and her daughters. Still, something deep inside these slaves, and perhaps even in the land itself, yearns for the warmth and the green that comes to other places at this time of year.

It was during those troublesome days that I most often found myself with work to do, and coin to earn.

As a jadwiga, a descendant of one of the old queens, I was noble enough to be trusted with a position of responsibility, though not noble enough to be rich without effort. The females of my people can become witches, but as a man that path was closed to me, and my options for advancement were fewer and slower. Fortunately I was good at my job, which was to solve problems for the Icy Queen, Elvanna, and her arrogant offspring. More often than not, those problems were best solved through the shedding of blood, be it with a poisoned dagger in an alley, or a gruesome rending of flesh and bone in full view of the slaves and other lesser beings in need of example.

Sometimes, however, there is a price to be paid at both ends of the sword.

On an evening in what the calendar claimed was late spring, I sat at my usual table in the Blue Bottom, a drinking barn—tavern would be too dignified a term—in the capital city of Whitethrone. The place was frequented mostly by trolls and goblins and the biggest and bravest of the lesser jadwiga. The ale was foul, and my mood wasn’t much better.

There was a commotion over by the door as a frosty-furred winter wolf the size of a pony came loping into the place. White Hell is my partner, and her friends are allowed to call her “White.” If you’re not sure if you’re her friend, try calling her that and see whether she kills you or not.

Halfway to my table she changed into human form, not even breaking her stride as she shifted from four legs to two. Her ability to switch between the two shapes came courtesy of the magical pendant she wore, given to us by Elvanna’s ice mages in order to further the queen’s business.

As a human, White Hell was just as impressive as she was in her natural form. She stood well over six feet tall, as muscular—and as hairy—as any man in the room. A tangled cascade of white hair hung halfway down her back. Her startling blue eyes held a feral gleam that could not easily be mistaken for human, and even in this form her teeth were big and sharp enough to bite through cured leather.

“Nikol,” she said to me through her thick wolfen accent. “I have bad news.”

I tossed her the short cloak I always carry with me for her two-legged arrivals. She caught it and wrapped it around herself, not out of modesty (she had none) or because of the cold (she felt none), but simply to avoid the inconvenience of having to kill any of the males in the place. By the standards of too many of them, she was the perfect woman, and some of them might be drunk or suicidal enough to say so.

The bar-slaves knew from experience that White usually only bothers to take human form when she’s thirsty, so they quickly brought her a bucket-sized tankard of the near-chewable ale the Blue Bottom specializes in.

Her news was important enough that she told it even before she drank.

“I was in the hills a mile or so outside the bone gate,” she said, “making water against a tree, when I saw grass.”

“Damn,” I muttered. “How much?”

“Not a little,” she replied. “A lot. Almost a whole field. And it was not dead… it was new and fresh.”

I shook my head and took a drink. “Elvanna is going to spit shards.”

“I asked an Ulf slave who lives in those parts if he saw anything,” she said. “When he could speak, he told me that a gray bird is always seen flying above, just before the snow melts. A tern.”

“Wonderful. Magic, then. Some meddling southern druid on a mission? Or one of the witches, making a move against the Queen’s rule?”

“Don’t know,” White said with a shrug, and took a huge swig of ale. “When you find out, tell me. I will bite it, and hurt it, and kill it. It’s been too long since I last crunched the bones of anything that can beg for mercy.”

“I’ll keep that in mind. So, we’re looking for a gray tern in Irrisen. It should be easy enough to find one of those. In fact, it should be easy enough to find a hundred. And that’s just on my walk home tonight.”

White glowered in frustration, and gulped her drink.

“I know of this tern,” said a female voice behind me.

A middle-aged human woman stood there, attractive for her years. Her black hair was streaked with silver. She was far too well-dressed to be a slave, and far too plentifully dressed to be one of the unfortunate, shivering girls who were periodically brought into the Blue Bottom and laughingly told to dance on the tables to avoid freezing to death. The witches and other respectable people never came into this hole. So who was she?

“It’s said among some of the people of this land,” she said, “that fourteen centuries is long enough for winter to last. They wonder, in their simple way, who might be powerful enough to bring the springtime back again. It may be that Baba Yaga was not the only great witch from her world, they say. Perhaps there were others as great as she, less cold and less cruel. And perhaps the gateway she used so long ago to come to this world did not close behind her.”

“I don’t know who you are,” I said to her, “but you’ve just spoken about five different kinds of treason and nonsense. The nonsense, I just find funny. The treason… well, I’m paid well enough not to see the humor in it.” I reached for my dagger.

She laughed. It might be accurately said, in fact, that she laughed in my face.

“Well,” she said, “Baba Yaga is due to return in just a few years, isn’t she? Perhaps then Queen Elvanna can ask her advice for dealing with her bird problem.”

The woman shimmered, and transformed before my eyes into a beautiful gray tern. It flew two complete circuits around the room, leaving startled men and monsters choking on their drinks in its wake, and then darted out the door into the night.

White howled in rage… a human howl that turned into a much more impressive lupine one as she transformed back into wolf form, sending shreds of her cloak in all directions. She galloped out the door after the bird, in her fury blasting forth a cloud of deadly ice from her mouth, which seriously inconvenienced three drinkers who had chosen to sit too close to the entrance.

I sighed and finished my drink. “Elvanna is going to spit shards,” I repeated to the dazed goblin at the table to my left.

* * * * *

The Queen, if she had indeed been spitting shards, had finished doing so by the time I was summoned to see her the next day. She was quite calm, even friendly, as we walked along a windy, exposed gallery high up in the Royal Palace.

Elvanna is a lovely woman, provided that your tastes run to white, white, and more white, with just a hint of blue here and there. Though the icy wind was howling hard enough to strip the skin from a normal human, and even I had to steel myself against it, she walked along beside me in a light, airy gown, like a southern princess at a seaside pavilion in the summer. I wondered if Elvanna actually laid out and snowbathed during her private hours.

“Do you think I have been a good queen, Nikol?” she asked me. It was an absurd question, and she knew it.

“You know any answer I could give to that question would be meaningless, tetya,” I replied. “I am no traitor.”

She nodded. “Fair enough. But what do the people think of me?”

“The jadwiga are happy enough, except on tax days. The merchants likewise, and they enjoy the prosperity that has come with your rule. The slaves curse your name and spit in the snow when it is spoken, if they think no one in authority is watching.”

She beamed at me. “See, then? I have been a good queen.”

“Your mother would be proud, I’m sure.”

The Gray Tern continues in Part 2