(THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS: READ AT YOUR OWN RISK)
Astrid Kolfinnsdóttir returns home to find sorrow, conflict, betrayal, wavering self-confidence... and true love in a prisoner of war as both of them are on the run.
Shan Ling (featured on the cover) finds her archaeologist father is still alive... both of them in a concentration camp where there is seemingly no escape from a life of squalor and bitter work.
All while the Resistance is mounting, as armed peace gradually crackles to give way to war...
I first read Dark Tide in German (Das dritte Lied der Meere) in Stralsund, where I had purchased it in a local bookshop. And I was kept hanging on the edge of my seat. The Resistance coming together, Astrid's character arc getting more and more riveting for every page turn...
Really, I could see myself even more mirrored in Astrid Kolfinnsdóttir for each and every thing that happened to her. It's just like Hamlet (poisoned father, usurper, disbelieved rightful heir, ghost, and all; as you will see!) mashed up with a James Bond film (love interest, action, persecution scenes, dark secrets, realpolitik...).
LOOK DOWN, LOOK DOWN, YOU'RE STANDING ON YOUR GRAVE...
We thought Ling's archaeologist father was dead. And there he is, as he meets his daughter in the concentration camp where hundreds, if not thousands, of POWs are made to dig for the puzzleball talisman under the watchful eyes and iron arms of ruthless death rider non-coms. She broke her wrist, they sent her to the infirmary, and there was the one she had thought dead all the while... A gaunt shadow of his former self. And how did he wind up there? See, he had a university doctorate in Archaeology. So, when the officers of the death riders found him with the white puzzleball in hand and, after he'd thrown it into the trench, and learned he was "Dr. Shan," they assumed he was a physician (there's a trope for that!), and they sure would need one as a field surgeon, as well as to heal the prisoners of war who showed signs of squalor-induced illnesses... and of barotrauma from plunging deep into the Marianas Trench, where the puzzleball is hidden and thus the concentration camp is based.
At this point my eyes get teary... will Ling's omnivoxa skill (to speak every human, animal, and plant language) get her out of the camp and help her find her talisman? It does. The talisman is right at the bottom of the Marianas Trench.
Dr. Shan Lu Chi tries to help Ling break out of the camp by having her pretend to have the purple fever and play dead, in a cart full of dead POWs (like Edmond Dantès from the Château d'If), but she is knocked out cold by a poisonous sea-jelly on the camp's outskirts. She plunges into the trench and gets helped by an anglerfish and other abyssal fauna to find the puzzleball, then, as her system is yielding to barotrauma, she gets helped by the same abyssal fauna to surface again.
BECCA FINDS HER INNER STRENGTH...
The prophecy spoke of Becca as "one of spirit sure and strong," but we doubted that this career-minded, nerdy ginger had any hot blood in her veins. Until NOW.
First things first: she's an orphan; her father poisoned by mercury spills, and her mother torn to shreds by sharp hooks, little Becca was institutionalised for a long while and then shuttled from foster home to foster home. She was also bullied constantly for being red-haired, left-handed, and socially awkward... so that "spirit sure and strong" was always within her.
After a brief encounter with Astrid, learning her secret, reassuring her, and boosting her self-confidence by making a magical bone flute for the Ondalinian heiress before their ways part as Astrid returns home up north. Now it's time for Becca to get her talisman, a gold coin, from an English 18th-century pirate wreck (the Achilles, whose captain Maffeio Aermore --I AM ORFEO FEAR ME-- is the only one whose ghost is missing) in Cape Horn guarded by the Williwaw, a big badass bird of prey and the personification of the sudden wind gusts in the Strait of Magellan (called williwaw, btw). Add an angry air elemental to a whole crew (sans captain) of vengeful ghost pirates whose ship it sank... Thrilling action scenes ensue. Our bespectacled leftie succeeds, thanks to trickery --spinning a yarn to flatter the Williwaw-- when it comes to getting the coin... spirit sure and strong indeed. She falls off the cliff and is knocked out cold, with a wounded right arm and awakens...
...on a boat manned by two humans, her right arm bandaged carefully, seeing all her wounds and her black right eye, the gash on her right hip... Her whole right half is a mess, but she is in good hands. A brown-eyed, sunburned young man and a maiden. Two young Italian environmentalists, brother and sister, Marco and Elisabetta Contorini, who left their studies at the University of Milan to become rainbow warriors (he studies to become a filmmaker, she to become a lawyer). And man, are they hot... Furthermore, upon seeing Marco shirtless and how bronze-like his skin is, Becca feels like she's never felt before... and his feeling for her is the same... yes, in love; there's my beta OTP, second to Destrid. And of course the Contorinis shuttle our Rebecca, whose injuries are healing, to the Kargjord, to the Resistance headquarters.
SOMETHING'S NOT RIGHT IN THE STATE OF ONDALINA...
I previously mentioned the character arc of Astrid Kolfinnsdóttir as the main highlight of this novel. Not only because she is next-in-line to rule counterpart Scandinavia, but because what happens to her is at once Shakespearean, Westerosi, Dickensian, and straight out of a prized action anime. An intoxicant of a character plot that will find its closure in Book 4 (will she claim her rightful throne?).
To begin with, Astrid --after parting ways with Becca and receiving that bone flute-- returns home up north, to her realm of Ondalina, to her family. I love how it was portrayed as a harsh and cold land whose centre is a fortress of ice, where the highest officers of the realm and their families and aides-de-camp live. It's a stratocracy led by Kolfinn, Astrid's lord father, whose right-hand-woman Rylka we'll talk about some more because her lust for power is what has led up to all this intrigue...
To begin with... Astrid became friends with Becca upon confessing her secret to the red-haired orphan. You see, she cannot songcast --she cannot sing to perform magic. During the Ondalinian full moon festival, the Månehonnör, one year in her childhood, she ate too many månekager --glazed white round mooncakes. One single coin in all of the festival contains a silver drupe coin. That coin got stuck in Astrid's throat and her singing voice gradually weakened, the court physicians being unable to extract the coin... even though Astrid's speaking voice was not affected by the incident. Still, her parents treated her a bit too overprotectively, like any disabled child.
So, Astrid returns to Ondalina. The fortress is hewn within an iceberg and concentric: its heart containing the stratocrat's sumptous yet austere residence (in the middle of a large square where he gives speeches and has his troops perform parades and reviews), the officers' Parisian- or Prague-style palaces around it, and the rankers' most modest homes in the outermost ring. Markets, stables, and farms lie at the foot of the iceberg. The gray and blue of the Arctic homeland greets her, and the cold makes her heart race.
There are many outlaws in this stratocracy, and food is rationed. The Ondalinians are proud warriors and also prize the ability to cast concealment/camouflage magic so much that newborn infants are greeted into the world with "Hide it!" (instead of any congratulations). They value toughness, military virtues, and the skill to conceal themselves, their homes, and above all their own flaws.
Her mother Eyvor told her always to trust her instinct... Before she left for the ieles' den, Kolfinn's horse threw him against a wall, giving him multiple rib fractures. They had also poisoned his food to the point of lethal illness, and, even though he's survived and recovered, he's still weak though out of bed."
Now who could have planned these attentates?
Astrid goes out to seek Kolfinn and warn him --maybe in the council chamber or any of the ministries? Eyvor can only be found in the palace stables, being an experienced rider... Astrid decides to swim there first; maybe she knows about her husband's whereabouts.
She feels pretty much light-hearted seeing that her father has regained command --Ondalina must be ruled with an iron hand in these times of armed peace; thank Gods there is Kolfinn.
Astrid enters the stables and is greeted by Sanni, the stable master.
"Long time no see, Astrid Kolfinnsdóttir."
"Where is Eyvor?" Ondalinians always call their parents by first name.
"In the ring, with Prince Ludovico."
"And Kolfinn isn't there?"
"He is... he is not here..." Sanni awkwardly replies.
Soon, Astrid finds her mother in the middle of the horse-riding ring. Eyvor is tall, blonde, muscular. A stablehand brings her steed Blixt into the ring. Eyvor is talking to a dashing fellow, raven-haired with white streaks and steel-blue-eyed; Miromaran Principe Ludovico, whom Astrid knew well.
After the War of the Reykjanes Ridge, the peace treaty required an exchange of rulers' children. Ludovico had come and Kolfinn's sister Sigurlin had gone to a country estate in her new Mediterranean home. Actually, it was Astrid who had to go south in exchange for Prince Desiderio (OTP foreshadowing!), but Kolfinn had refused to send his daughter.
Ludo is a horse trainer for the Ondalinian military and a good friend of Eyvor's... but now they are having a heated debate:
"Rylka is the regent. Talk to HER, Ludo!!"
Rylka is Kolfinn's female aide-de-camp and the second most important person in Ondalina. Astrid can neither stand her nor her son Tauno, the bully of her childhood... both of them know her secret... Why is Rylka taking over in this regency?
Astrid's suspicions are raised... She wonders if her father is behind bars or something worse...
"Tja, there's someone in prison," Astrid says. "I wish you could tell me who it is..."
Ludo replies: "My nephew Desiderio. They've locked him up in a dungeon and don't let me come in to visit him..."
ASTRID'S TRAIN OF THOUGHT: Desiderio? Wasn't he presumed dead? He went forth to the western border of his own realm and did not return...
"But what is Desiderio doing so far up north?"
EYVOR: "He's accused of the assassination of Kolfinn."
Astrid cannot believe her ears.
"But he was not," Ludo is sure. Why is he imprisoned? Because Rylka thinks he's guilty. She says it's best for him, to guarantee his own safety.
There is still controversy, even as Blixt is injured, on this... Rylka is going to have Des executed without any court-martial, and both Eyvor and Ludo are concerned A LOT...
But then, Eyvor bursts into tears... "My husband is on his deathbed, Ludo!!"
Eyvor was speaking to Ludovico trying to reassure him that she would do whatever she could for Desiderio, his falsely accused and imprisoned nephew, but her husband is dying and she is upset and under clear strain...
Astrid is left in shock.
"Kolfinn is very ill..." her mother sobs.
"I don't understand... he seemed far better when I left..." our shero's emotions are out of control.
"The poison has damaged his heart... Don't stay too long..." Eyvor sobs.
"I want to see him RIGHT NOW!!" The mention of poison has aroused Astrid's feelings even more.
"Not a good idea. He's bedridden, and very weak."
"He's my father, Eyvor! Cannot I at least say hello..."
Eyvor shakes her head: "No, Astrid... you must say farewell." Her daughter is shocked when she sees Eyvor cry; no Ondalinian, male or female, should ever shed any tears.
Standing before the seven-meter frosted gate, flanked by two tall, massive-limbed, long-icicle-haired, icy-blue-eyed Fryst troll (Ice troll) guards, whose speech sounds just like cracking ice (Fryst sound a lot like White Walkers, right? I picture myself White Walkers), as they let their plank-clubs fall before their heiress, and they open the gate to greet her, she thrids through a series of passages, rankers' huts, elegant officers' mansions, to the palaces of the military elite, into the west wing of the formidable palace of the ruler... the offices are on the top level and the dungeons are below ground... on the ground floor stands (aside from the family's apartments) the clinic where he is bedridden. "He is a shadow of his former self," Kolfinn's personal physician tells her at the door to the room. "The poison has ravaged his system. No antidotes, no remedies have had any effect. It's either a new formulation or he may be unusually susceptible..."
The door to the dictator's chamber is flanked by two guards. There he lays in bed, but what about those piercing icy blue eyes and those long thick locks as fair as the winter sun, and those dark tattoos, the signs of his highest rank, spiralling around his muscular arms...? Kolfinn has completely wasted away, his face pale and sharp-featured like a consumptive's, his fair hair brittle and dull.
The shock is right now too much for Astrid. She's his girl through and through; when she played with those polar bear cubs on the ice, he saved her from that mother polar bear without killing the bear herself or her cubs, only interposing himself between the bear and his own sobbing girl --since the beast was also a parent protecting her child. Still he protected her from bullying, laughter, snide remarks... thus does he show that he loves her, even though Astrid has disappointed him more than once.
"We must talk, Astrid... there's not much time left for me..."
Grief spears her heart. "Kolfinn, no! You will recover..."
"I expect something else of you, Astrid," impatience flashes in his eyes. "Such feelings are something for the southron; we northerners do not need anything like that..."
Astrid cannot hold back the tears.
"As you know, Ragnar is next in line... he will rule when I die. Rylka have I appointed as regent for his minority."
Ragnar is Astrid's older brother, three years apart: he is twenty and she is seventeen. Rylka is officially the commander of the Ondalinian armies, and unofficially she leads the national secret service; nothing that has occurred within the realm is unknown to her...
"Why does Ragnar need Rylka? He is strong enough and will surely make a good ruler..."
"Strong yet inexperienced," Kolfinn replies. "Rylka will advise him. My concern about Ragnar's position is as relevant as that for the safety of the realm. We are teetering on the brink of war..."
Astrid feels a stabbing pain in the gut: War!
Even though he remains sarcastic on his deathbed, Kolfinn grows pale when his daughter tells him all that's happened to her. Then, he sinks unconscious back on his pillows...
She shows him the flute and tries to play it...
"A flute? Flutes are for children. The daughter of a military leader playing the flute in public to songcast? That will never happen..." Kolfinn replies, even stressing the importance of the war. "The only thing we can put in our end of the scales against the enemy are Desiderio and his soldiers. They were taken prisoner..."
"Eyvor told me so."
"Rylka wanted to have him executed," Kolfinn continues, "but I have stopped her. For us, he is only good alive." Upon trying to raise himself up, Astrid realises that he is suffering from searing pain. ASTRID'S TRAIN OF THOUGHT: Who could have come so close to administer the poison?
"Lie still, Kolfinn... you need your strength..."
"I cannot lie still..." he roars, and she hears the rage and despair of one who is dying in his voice.
"I must put things in order... Ragnar will speak to the enemy; I should see that he can negotiate the peace. And you must do your duty too, for the position of your brother is threatened... When the enemy finds out your secret, they may think that Ragnar has the same condition... I have commanded Rylka to punish those who speak of it out loud... I wish, for the Gods' sake, that you hadn't told this Becca your secret, for she could tell it further..."
"Are you so ashamed of me?" Astrid whispers, her head lowered.
Kolfinn winces and clutches his chest. "I fear so much for you, Astrid... your disability is a sign of weakness, and weakness cannot be tolerated within the Ondalinian ruling family. You know how dangerous lives we lead. It's all about survival. Here in Ondalina, only the strongest ones survive."
Astrid grits her teeth.
ASTRID'S TRAIN OF THOUGHT: He only sees what I am not. Not what I really am. I am not weak, but stronger than he thinks. And neither does he know that the future of this realm could depend only on me...
In the end, he breaks the silence.
"Nothing will happen to you after I breathe my last. Rylka, loyal as only she can be to me, has signed a betrothal with her son Tauno."
"Why? As an alliance with another realm? It's not easy for Rylka to find the right bride for that... *** Is it some ragamuffin?"
Kolfinn's eyes widen as he looks at his daughter.
"No, Astrid. He will have you to wife."
As seen here, misfortunes seldom if not never occur alone. Left speechless, as if they had sucked the breath out of her lungs.
"Tomorrow, the official betrothal will take place, and then the marriage contract will be signed. I want everything to be tied up before I die."
"I am seventeen, and I don't want to marry anyone! And least of all Tauno!"
"Why not? He's a good officer, strong, and he will protect you..."
"He's a monster... whips his horses... I have seen it! And... and... he's STUPID! He's always done bad at school, always with his foolish friends in the back seats, throwing snowballs at everyone!"
"Years ago. He has already come of age..."
"Rather utstött than Tauno's bride!" Astrid exclaims.
Utstött, Swedish for outcast, refers in Ondalina to the criminals and dregs of society. who live on the southern borders of the realm.
"It is your duty to marry, and you know it. If something happens to Ragnar or his eldest son, you will be next in line. You have spent too much time in the South. Värme gör oss dumma," Kolfinn says the last words in Ondalinian. It's actually Swedish (nice touch there!!) for "Warmth makes us foolish," and the Ondalinian national motto.
A bit more of an argument on father issues ensues, with Kolfinn worrying that Astrid's children will be unable to songcast as well, and thus, a burden for this proud warrior society.
"Rulers have no friends: rulers have realms. I have ordered the council to bring the marriage papers to my sickbed on mid-day the next day. Tauno will be there. And Rylka. And you will have to be too."
Not only is her father dying of a terminal illness... she is forced to marry the man she hates the most, her eternal bully.
"What we do, we do for Ondalina," he says as she kisses his pale bony cheek and leaves the sickroom with her sword and knapsack.
Through the Hall of Elders, that leads through the palace to her family's private apartments. The hall is empty save for Astrid and the life-sized statues of late Ondalinian leaders (a nice touch of Winterfell) that flank the hallway.
She would have fled... but her family and her country hang in the balance. She hardens her heart as with ice, for herself and for Ondalina...
"But is it really so?" The statues give no reply, looking with blind ice eyes. To marry that scoundrel Tauno, negotiate terms of surrender, and know that doomsday draws closer and closer... how should it all serve the realm? She looks at the statues of those who ruled decades, centuries, millennia ago. They made their strength out of concealing... secrets, knowledge, that they let no one else know.
"Kolfinn's rules... I must not abide by them..." she whispers.
Right then, when she expects it the least, she finds Rylka and Tauno, taking a turn towards her at the corridor. Astrid hides behind a statue and tucks her hair into her jacket collar.
She recognises them instantly: Rylka in black aide-de-camp jacket, with her dark blue hair cut as short as most Ondalinian soldiers' and piercing amber eyes; Tauno with his mother's hair and eye colour, also in uniform, the rank of major seen by the three insignia on his collar... he's tall and broad-shouldered, with an attractive square face yet a sarcastic grin...
Astrid has grown up with Tauno, the same Tauno who played praks on seniors, hiding their spectacles for instance, or laughing at a stammering girl. Definitely not the kind of fellow I or Astrid would marry even if drunk.
Rylka winces at Tauno's horse odour, and he explains that he's just have a cavalry maneuver. He also laughs in disbelief when his mother tells him that he is to marry Astrid.
"Really? Forget it, Rylka. I won't marry her, she's completely insane."
But still his mother pressures, threatening the bully with imprisonment.
"You wouldn't have your own son seized?"
"I would put you before a court-martial, as any officer who disobeys his superior's commands," Rylka harshly replies.
Astrid's eyes widen even more when she realises that Rylka is a traitor and the one behind the plot, intending to pull young Ragnar's strings as ruler for a while and then... "Ragnar will not accept the surrender. He will go to war, like his father's son, and find death upon the battlefield."
"You don't know," Tauno replies.
"I will care for it myself. Friendly fire can barely be told from enemy fire," the schemer replies. Astrid shudders... Rylka is planning to assassinate Ragnar, Astrid's brother, making it look like he was killed in action.
"Since Ragnar will die without male heirs, Astrid will be next in line," Rylka continues. "Yet, before she can swear her calling's oath, she will have a riding accident. How tragic. But you know how dangerous it is, and you --her faithful husband-- had always warned her to take care..."
"Then I am next in line!!" Tauno finally understands.
Astrid is beside herself with anger. Rylka wants to kill her and Ragnar and take over the realm... but the villainess's speech is far from over.
"Astrid will have died without children... so it will be a short-lived marriage. And, with no heirs to the dynasty, the spouse of the late ruler is next in line, according to Ondalinian law. Then, you can marry whoever you please..."
Astrid thinks: How clever you are, Rylka. You've set it all wonderfully right.
And then... COUP DE THÉÂTRE!
"Come here, Tauno," his mother slaps him on the chest. "Time to fulfil Kolfinn's last wish on his deathbed..."
"Wait, Rylka... How are you so sure that he will die?"
She rummages in her chest pocket and produces a little vial full of Prussian blue liquid. "Anyway, I do not believe that Kolfinn will recover..."
When her twit of a boy asks why, she reveals it's the heart poison she's used on Kolfinn herself...
A raging Astrid can't hold no more, she storms out of her hideout drawing steel, then, after some struggle, wrests the vial off Rylka's hands: "TRAITOR!! And my father trusted you..." Rylka uses an illusion to turn the vial into a snake, which forces a startled Astrid to drop it. Then, Tauno --an experienced warrior-- strikes her in the back and seizes her arms, forcing her to drop her sword... she cannot break free.
"Well done, Tauno! Hold her tight while I summon guards."
"But she will say that you poisoned Kolfinn... she will tell you the truth!"
"That shall never occur. She's already said that she was by her father's sickbed... I will tell the guards that she had something in hand when she entered the sickroom. We were suspicious and asked her what it was, but she would not tell us; she would not show what it was and tried to hide it in her knapsack... but she let this poison vial fall to the floor..."
"NO!!" Astrid struggles to wrest Tauno off herself.
Rylka smiles, an icy cold smile. "I must explain who poisoned Kolfinn. It was his own daughter. For weeks, she has plied him with this poison, but never a dose high enough to kill him... This evening, however, she tried to put him out of his misery for once and for all. Guards! Guards!" Rylka calls down the corridor. Astrid struggles to break free once more.
"I'll break your arms off," Tauno threatens her. But Astrid knows there is so much to lose... Rylka is free to give Kolfinn the final, lethal dose as the guards throw his daughter behind bars... But the young major's grip is too hard... until she quickly thinks of the surprise factor, of a strategy Kolfinn had taught her...
Lowering her head, Astrid pretends to sob... Tauno believes she has given up and loosens his grip... only to have the maiden pack him by the left arm and throw him head-first against the floor, as she storms down the corridor.
But soon Rylka and her boy are both after her... When Astrid is exhausted, she comes to a fork in the corridor: the middle hall leading to her family's bedchambers, the one on the left to the Hall of Justice, the one on the right to the dungeons. And two armed soldiers are standing on the fork.
"Guards, seize her! She has tried to poison our leader! Seize her!!" commands Rylka.
As the guards block the middle path with their spears, Astrid takes a sharp left turn... but the guards take a far faster left turn, leaving her to turn right instead. Right into the dungeons, her heart pounding and her lungs struggling to provide her with oxygen. She doesn't know what to do, except that she must into the dungeons, downstairs, where it's colder and darker...
Astrid hopes to trick her pursuers in this maze; she and Ragnar have often ventured there as children as a test of courage... When the guards on duty blocked the barred dungeon gates, Astrid found a little passageway underneath, lots of smaller passages full of cells deviating from the corridors, and an exit right at the other side. Perchance with enough good luck, she will find it before Rylka and Tauno catch up with her.
But first she must pass by the warden, in his little office to the left of the gate. She says that she is there to inspect the dungeons... but then comes Rylka and commands the officer to seize Astrid...
"Pardon me..." she says as she pins the warden to the wall, takes the keys from his belt, pries the lock with key after key... Right as she shuts the padlock, having come through, Tauno reaches with one arm through the gate bars... Astrid throws with her right hand the lock away beyond the major's reach, still holding the keys in her knapsack, but he packs her by the left arm!
"I have her, Rylka... find another key!"
As the henchman seizes her right arm as well, his face squeezed between two bars, Astrid packs a right hook that gives Tauno a serious nosebleed. The dungeon corridor divides into three, like the Hall of Elders. She still takes the middle corridor. There are cells full of prisoners on both sides... best to get right out of here... The passage gets narrower and narrower, turns left, then right, always a winding curve after another. Until she finds a gate just like the entrance one, surely the exit. One of the keys might do.
Until a guard driving a cart loaded with pots of stew opens a cell and lets in a bowl of sticky stew for the prisoner within. "Prisoner 592..."
Astrid wants the guard to make haste ---what if Rylka and Tauno appear and seize her once more? Until Rylka's command drowns the guard's own voice:
"Come out, Astrid Kolfinnsdóttir! Prison guards are combing every passageway!"
There's no more time. She tears a button off her jacket, enters the open cell as the door is locked behind her. In the middle stands a prisoner chained with an iron collar, responding to her speechless plea after he's looked at her in surprise.
"You there, have you seen Kolfinn's daughter?" Rylka asks the old guard who has brought the stew in.
"There's no one here but the prisoners and me!"
Now Rylka speaks to the prisoner, who replies: "I have done nothing... I have the right to a lawyer, to a fair trial..."
Rylka interrupts. "There will be no trial. Anyway, you do not have much to live anymore." Then she speaks to the old guard: "Don't feed him anymore. We do no longer need him. There is no reason to keep him alive."
Another guard shows Rylka Astrid's button. "Tauno, swim to that sickbed, should she attempt to reach her father. Out of my way, old fool," she shoves the food-guard aside.
While Astrid quivers, Prisoner 592 is still. They have a look at one another; the prisoner is a stripling with copper-auburn hair and emerald eyes, whom she's never seen yet who gives her a sharp sense of déjà-vu, his face bony and bruised.
Astrid and the prisoner exchange no word until the guard is out of earshot.
"Quite a place indeed, this Ondalina. You must be Astrid. I am Desiderio. Pleased to meet you."
(COUP DE THÉÂTRE -- OTP ALERT!!)
So there are Des and Astrid behind bars. He is naked from the waist upwards, and the chain tears at the skin of his neck, making drops of blood fall on his bare chest.
"Ah, yes, I have forgotten. I'm an assassin. Don't worry, for I would never kill you. It's simply impossible." He is as sarcastic as she is.
"You were accused of assassination," Astrid replies.
"From what I can hear, the same is said about you. An inner voice tells me that there isn't much truth in this accusation either."
Then, as he struggles to break free, she realises that he is starving. A drop of blood falls on his chest once more.
"Half starved he is... And surely in pain. Torture? Starvation? Thus do we Ondalinians never treat our prisoners." Astrid gives a few of the eggs in her knapsack to Des, who wolfs them down within seconds. When he's eaten, he hides the package under the mattress to keep it as a spare ration.
Astrid recognises this as a military frontline trick.
Recovering a little of his strength, Desiderio explains how he was assigned to the western border and, one week later, fell into an Ondalinian ambush in the dead of night. He lost two thirds of his men, the survivors were gathered, horses and weapons confiscated, and the prisoners forced to march up north. Even more soldiers died during the forced march. Rylka accused him of being a conspirator plotting against Kolfinn... Then forth came an officer with three insignia on the uniform (Tauno, Astrid recognises) and knocked the captive prince out with the stock of his crossbow. When he came to, Des was inside this dungeon.
Astrid looks in his face and tone for any indication of lying and finds none.
In response, to prove that he is telling the truth, Des puts his hand on his heart and chants a bloodsong. As crimson strands of his heart's blood swirl around, she can see the images of his memories in the blood he is drawing. A military camp with its tents and firesides, the gallop of arriving horses, loud calls and commands, and, as the morning sun creeps up, all the slain. She watches the rest of the bloodsong in grief and rage. Everything has taken place just like Desiderio had said.
"Excuse me," she says. "Pardon me for my suspicions and for all that has happened."
"Why has Rylka done so?" Des asks in a broken voice, the bloodsong having weakened him once more. And she explains, even adding that usurpers have killed Desiderio's parents and driven his sister into exile.
The same pain breaks both of these young hearts. Grief, then rage, then rage fanning into hope as he gets to know that his sister Sera leads the Resistance. When Astrid has finished, Desiderio tries desperately to tear his chain collar off the wall. She encourages him. They will have to escape together. Find her father, if he is still alive. "I must protect him from Rylka... and I must protect you from Rylka," Astrid says. She finally finds the key that opens his collar, but seeing his neck as one huge abrasion wound makes her wince when it comes off.
But the dungeon lock is outside, and Rylka has commanded the guards not to open it until to take Des's corpse out. Astrid knows that he is right. "Anyway, any guard would open the door if he saw me in here. Rylka has put a high price on my head... I will lure him here..."
"...and I will strike that guard!" Des finishes the sentence, fire in his eyes. "I will pretend to be still chained..."
"...and you will pack him when he turns his back on you!" Sketching their plan on the dungeon floor, both captive young warriors discuss the possible weak points of their strategy.
"It's a risky plan, a lot can go wrong..." Desiderio finally says.
"Have you got any better ones?" she asks. Another knock on the door. The guard returns, Des snaps his collar back on, padlocking it loosely with enough care for the padlock not to snap shut and lying on the floor face down, holding his breath and lying still.
"Prisoner 592, show yourself!" the guard roars, peering through the bars of the little window.
"That prisoner is dead. I have killed him with my own hands. I am Astrid Kolfinnsdóttir, and you must help me."
Astrid sees the insecurity in the guard's not-so-bright eyes. What if he calls for reinforcements? She pries into her knapsack and offers him 100 golden trocii. It's only a lie... she has only two... but it works. This Judas of a guard will take the money and hand her over to Rylka, to cash in the reward promised by the regent as well... He points to the "unconscious" Desiderio: "How did you kill him?"
"I stabbed him in the chest with my dagger," Astrid lies, throwing her dagger out the window into the corridor.
"Now the money."
"Open the door first," Astrid insists. He's taken the dagger and believed the foreign prince is dead, and the guard is greedy. Perchance so short-sighted that he cannot see the bedridden Desiderio's chest rise and fall ever so slightly...
Before the guard can react, Des wraps his chains around the guard's neck as he gapes and turns red. He is stronger than the young man, but the latter, strangling him, has the upper hand, makes the guard's face turn blue, and chains him in the collar, hand- and foot-tied with the drawstrings of Astrid's knapsack and mouth gagged with his (the guard's) own belt.
Both young people flee the dungeons in haste. Finally, after storming upstairs and crossing a double iron gate, they realise they are in a place whose walls are decked with old weapons and armour, and whose entrance has carvings of quotes from the supreme judges of Ondalina.
The Hall of Justice. They hear folk and Fryst singing a dirge within. A dirge that is only sung for heads of state. Someone important has died, given the vast number of mourners...
The time and tide of life has ceased,
a stalwart soul now begs release;
a warrior prince both brave and true...
As she hears the last verse, a prayer for Kolfinn, she turns cold as ice.
Take brave Kolfinn to his rest.
"Oh Gods... No!!" Astrid and Des stand in shock.
It's too late. Rylka has already made her father drink that lethal dose of poison while the two young captives were behind bars.
Astrid staggers. Desiderio offers her his own shoulders to lean on... She must leave him, for his life's sake and her own... She feels blue Arctic floods surrounding her heart and turning it to ice... as she has always done to deal with her sorrows... but it doesn't work. These emotions are too strong.
"I'll go for Rylka," she whispers. "She will have to pay for what she has done..."
"It's suicide," Des tries to dissuade her. Though Astrid is stubborn and won't let him stop her, she listens to his objection: "This evening, she's accused you of poisoning your father. And now he's dead. When she finds you, you will be seized and accused of the assassination."
Though her rage is a storm, his words cleave through it like sunlight. The law is the law, and if she acted on impulse, she would be no longer able to help Ragnar. "She locked you up in a dungeon, as she did to me. And she will ensure that everyone is against you. Neither you nor me can stay here any longer," Desiderio continues, pushing Astrid's right hand downwards. "Your father was a warrior, your brother is a warrior... AND YOU TOO. A good warrior knows when to take a battle as lost, to survive and carry on with the war."
These words are an eye-opener to Astrid. When Des was made aware of his orphanhood in the dungeon, he had been able to stand the pain. And now it's Astrid's turn to do it as well.
Off to the Kargjord, in the Kattegat (more local colour in the form of familiar places!), where the Resistance has its headquarters, they will flee. They have nothing so far to escape Rylka's grasp: no weapons (the dagger she gave to the guard, the sword had Tauno smacked off her right hand when he seized her in the Elders' Hall), no mounts, no provisions... But Astrid knows where to find steeds: "From your uncle Ludo." With a canta prax spell, Des makes both himself and her camouflaged with the icy walls. From the Hall of Justice, off they swim through the Labyrinth of Pathways towards Ludo's farmhouse, Astrid leading and Desiderio following.
The last words from her father's sickbed ring in her ears: "What we do, we do for Ondalina..." Kolfinn and she were different as night and day, yet united in their love for the realm. He had fought all his life for the sake of the Realm and never given up... and now his battles would continue. Kolfinn is dead, his rules, the old rules, are no more. Astrid is ready to follow her own way. Come what may, no matter how hard, how scary, and Gods know how it would end...
We then find Astrid right outside of Ludovico's estate, a mansion with vast stables, a round garden in front, and an ornate façade. There's light on the upper floor. They should make haste, for, as long as Rylka finds out that Desiderio is alive and free, she will not hesitate to pay Ludo a visit.
Ludo himself opens the door and embraces his nephew. "I did not know if you or Rylka stood before the door..." The horse-trainer's heard it all. How Rylka has accused Astrid of patricide. "If we were at the palace and able to speak to Ragnar, it would be easy to debunk all of these accusations..."
"Rylka will not tolerate it," Astrid interrupts. "She will surrender Ondalina to the enemy without a fight. In exchange, Tauno will rule this realm."
And it's up to our shero to explain the rest. "Des and I crossed her plans a little... but she's still got a plan: executing us. They'll never let us near Ragnar. I bet her soldiers have orders to open fire as long as we are within their sight."
That's why, Des tells his Uncle Ludo, they have come here for aid in their journey to the Kargjord to join the Resistance. He cries tears of joy when told that Sera is still alive. Embracing both Desiderio and Astrid, he leads them in. She looks around the estate entrance hall. Fine furniture, portraits, swords... until her eye rests on a lovely glass urn. Fingers on her left breast, drawing some bloodspells into the urn, she shows visually what had happened. The news of the usurpation of Miromara makes Ludo reel and lean against the wall, his nephew pulling up a chair.
"You must not beg my pardon, Astrid," Ludo takes her by the hand. "You saved my nephew's life."
"Can you bring the urn to Eyvor?" Astrid asks. "She must call Ragnar to her side. The bloodsongs will show them the truth." She has placed the urn on a table.
Ludovico nods, his face recovering colour. "But first I must get you out of here." Opening the foyer wardrobe, he welcomes Des and Astrid to sealskin parkas as he darts upstairs and returns with two full saddlebags, containing everything he could find in the estate kitchens, currency, a compass, a map of Ondalina, and two daggers. He also takes two sheathed rapiers from a panoply on the foyer wall. "You two could also use these swords as well."
"Thank you, Uncle Ludo. Couldn't you please borrow us some mounts for Rylka not to catch up with us?"
"Sadly," Ludo replies to Desiderio's requests, "I only have foals with their mothers and a limping gelding." Astrid wonders how many chances they will have to escape Rylka's soldiers without strong mounts.
"But I have Elskan. It's expected that I should bring her to the palace tomorrow. She is fast as lightning, and equally lethal."
"Elskan?!" Astrid's eyes widen.
"I mean, the same Elskan that your father gave your mother, before he fell ill." Ludo scans Astrid from crown to toe. "You're quite a good rider, I know, but... do you believe you can ride an orca?"
Of course Elskan is a female orca, and a pretty young one that needs pacifying!! Soon the saddlebags are strapped by Ludo to her waist and the two young fugitives are riding on her back, Astrid holding the reins. Furthermore, he appears to give Elskan as a gift to Astrid as he leads them through an iron gate out of the stables. The leave-taking is heartwarming.
"Uncle Ludo... what do you think Rylka will say when she finds out that the two of us, and Elskan, are missing? When you're locked in a dungeon, you cannot give Astrid's bloodsongs to Ragnar."
Though both Des and Astrid fear the worst case scenario, knowing what Rylka is like, he reassures them. "Don't worry about me. Your concern should be getting to the Kargjord."
And off both young fugitive royals gallop forth on Elskan's back... Right as they gallop off, familiar voices of command break the stillness:
"Ludovico di Merrovingia! Make way!" "Astrid Kolfinnsdóttir, we know that you are here... you are under arrest!" Tauno roars as Ludo violently opens the stable doors.
"Hold tight, Des!" Astrid screams, as the world around them turns into a whirl, and she discovers what it's like to storm as fast as lightning.
Once out in the wilds, no longer persecuted, he says she likes her mount because Elskan is strong, temperamental, and does as she pleases, "just like someone I know well..."
Three days have passed since their escape, and such remarks between Astrid and Desiderio have become commonplace... but, when it's needed, he's a sober, honest, quite skilful soldier, knowing how to forage, how to erase the tracks of a night camp, how to do a super-quick canta prax, caring for his own welfare and for Astrid's all the while, knowing when the riders should dismount for Elskan to feed. And he's sensible. Knowing when to leave Astrid be alone with the loss of her father; as she does the same, knowing that he thinks of his parents shot dead...
But it's worst at night, when the memories, especially Astrid's, do not give a truce by the campfire. She cannot sleep, thinking of how Rylka poisoned her lord father, feeling the pain and the grief and the fire of rage all at once.
She admires and respects Des --whom she calls by this nickname!-- and wishes that she could be able to tell him her secret. Sooner or later, it will have to come to life. What if Kolfinn was right? Would no one have her for not being able to songcast?
During their journey to the Kargjord, they will make a stop at the Qanikkaaq, to find the black pearl of Orfeo, hoping that he has not been there first. At first she would have said no --before Kolfinn's death, before she was declared persona non grata, before she got to know Des, before she chose to follow her own path--.
Suddenly, they find Elskan reeling as if she were drunk, in a hunchback whale cemetery where countless scavengers are nomming on the dead whales. And there's something more, something blue, unearthly... Her heart skips a beat as she packs Des by the arm.
White eyes staring at them. Long, claw-like hands clambering towards them. Strings of algae in which it keeps the bodies of the drowned tied around its waist.
"What the...?" Desiderio asks.
"An EisGeist," Astrid draws steel. "Prepare for battle!"
The ice ghost hobbles closer, grey hair fluttering around his head, white lips curled in a sickening grin, showing teeth as sharp as glass shards.
Des draws his own sword as well as Astrid explains: "It carries its victims around until they decay. It eats the bones."
"Just show me how I can kill it!"
"You cannot kill a ghost," she replies.
"That's simply great! And then?" Des is ironic as usual.
"We distract it. Pretend that you are trying to steal its quarry. When I see the chance, you cut those ties with your dagger. While the EisGeist ties the loose ends up, we escape."
The battle against the ice ghost goes more or less according to plan, if one can count that Astrid was disarmed and nearly beheaded with her own sword by the ghost, that then tries to bite her in the throat, if Elskan had not interposed herself, as any good faithful steed will do.
Once out of the EisGeist's reach, the two young fugitives hold hands and contact the Resistance with a convoca, Des explaining how Astrid set him free. But she is still afraid to share her secret with them, including Desiderio himself. Off the two young lovers set for the maelström, together... as she wonders how he might react when he finds out the truth... When they reach the whirlpool and try to coax it with flatteru, it explains that the black pearl was taken away by a Celtic/Viking fisherman called Feimor Fa Éaemor... (FEIMOR FA ÉAEMOR: I AM ORFEO FEAR ME, once more), a blond, sun-burned young man who, after finding the precious stone, became a ruthless plunderer of Icelandic and Scandinavian coasts. Then, when the maelström sucks Astrid in as her cavalier commands her to songcast, Desiderio saves her by throwing a water ball into the eye of the maelström, making it retch, but also suck our poor shero in even deeper, rendering her unable to breathe. Luckily, Elskan is there to pull her rider out of the maelström's reach and into Des's arms... there he stands, retching and coughing himself. The truth, and its consequences, are unavoidable.
"We could both have died if you hadn't told me that you didn't know how to songcast!" Des says.
"I think you're going forth on your own," Astrid replies. "Take our food, I can forage for myself."
"Astrid, what do you say? I thought we were travelling together to the Karg!"
Shaking her head, she replies. "Go alone, Des. I don't care. Most people don't want to be by my side if they know my secret. I am only a burden to everyone else..."
And now Desiderio understands. "Was that the reason why Kolfinn didn't want to involve you in the hostage exchange?"
Astrid nods, still looking down. "He didn't want my secret to come to light. No one should know that a member of the Ondalinian ruling family is weak and disabled."
"That's frightful, Astrid!!" he says in a fit of rage. She thinks he's referring to her disability.
"Pardon me, Des. I should have told you sooner, heart to heart."
"No. I'm referring to how your father treated you. He should never have done so, for he had not the right. There's nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong with you. You're not weak... you're strong. One of the strongest I have ever known."
She looks insecurely into his green eyes, looking for a hint of scorn or irony... but all she can find is friendliness.
"Watch out, Astrid. I'm sorry too. I should not have addressed you like that. "I only did so because I was afraid."
"Afraid that the maelström would suck you in. Afraid of losing you..."
Awkwardly shifting her gaze to the distance, she cannot believe her ears. He loves her warts and all.
"Why don't you let me decide if I want to be with you?" Des asks Astrid. "For I want it. I want it a lot."
WHY ALL THESE ANAGRAM ALIASES:
I AM ORFEO FEAR ME.
FEIMOR FA ÉAEMOR. (Viking era)
AMARREFE MEI FOO. (Siglo de Oro - Spanish Golden Age)
MAFFEIO AERMORE. (Golden Age of Piracy - eighteenth century)
RAFE IAORO MFEME (THE CURRENT NAME OF ORFEO).
All the dethroned royals and other chosen gathered in the Kargjord discover the reason for all these anagram aliases. More precisely, Astrid reasons out what Orfeo's MO is and how it all began, ever since the black pearl was fished up. When the black pearl talisman touched the Viking's fingertips, Orfeo's soul changed hosts and possessed him. That's why he changed names and became so dreadful a warlord. When Feimor fa Éaemor died, his soul returned back into the pearl to wait for another host whose body it could enter, and so forth. The plot thickens indeed...
MORE ABOUT KOBOLDS:
The four goblin tribes appear to be counterpart cultures to the free Hanseatic towns, given their state organisation, German language, main characteristics as artisans, entrepreneurs, and mercenaries, the competition in between their states, and geographical placement around the Scandinavian and German coasts. Though I cannot find a 1:1 correlation, the basic premise is the same, and the German names of the Kobold tribes (Höllenbläser, Feuerkumpel, Meerteufel, Ekelschmutz), their communities (Scaghaufen, the Meerteufel capital), and Kobolds themselves (Guldemar, Totschläger, Dreck, Garstig, Mumlig) confirm this association. Their afterlife creed borrows from Norse belief in Odin and the Valhalla.
THIS GIRL IS LITERALLY A BASTARD...
Yes, Vallerio is Lucia Volnero's real father. He and Portia had her without being married, his mother objecting that one of her children, even if it was the spare, should marry a beloved of traitor stock. After it came to light that Countess Volnero was expecting, Vallerio was reassigned to the fortress of Tsarno and Portia retreated from court to spend about a decade in her country estate, marrying Sejanus and raising Lucia. She then had Sejanus poisoned and made it look like an illness. When the maiden debuted in the reggia, she got to know Vallerio, who was on leave, and he told her about their blood tie. Also, Lucia envied Sera for being the princess, being so well-liked, having happily married parents (Queen Isabella and Prince Bastian)... Yes, Lucia, it's all meant as compensation. You envied her family unity and made her an orphan. You envied her luck in love and stole her fiancé Mahdi, fixing his drinks to keep him as your listless toy and even casting a spell by draining some of his heart's blood to find out what was going on in his inner world, and to make a replicate, a Maligno the spitting image of "your" Mahdi but outright evil, using a lock of his hair and a vial of his heart's blood... what's more, you took your airheaded blonde confidante Bianca and sacrificed her to a Mephistophelic death priestess (who lives in a 1920s luxury British wreck, the HMS Britannia, in the Mediterranean) to obtain those spells, in cold blood.
You're a bastard, Lucia Volnero. Literally and metaphorically. Hope you get your just desserts at the end of next novel.
LONG STORY SHORT:
That cliffhanger at the end was masterful. Kept me hanging on the edge of my seat until I received the last book for Christmas... like... I asked myself: would Des and Astrid become one, and would they claim her rightful place from Rylka and Tauno? And would Astrid find the black pearl, and would Eyvor and Ragnar be made aware of the truth? So many questions that were left unanswered until last winter, and that I will not answer until next review...
Obviously, Destrid became and still is my OTP for this series. Both of them rulers' spare children raised for the military, sarcastic, savvy, resourceful... in two words: KINDRED SPIRITS. He loves her warts and all, and so does she. Neither one has a reason to fear or mistrust the other. And the trials of persecution have strengthened their bond even more.