Chapter One

Chapter One: Welcome to Krønagar 

“Hide!” hissed the old sailor, eyes white with fear. He slithered across the icy decking and burrowed into a tangle of fishing nets lying on the dock.


Midge turned his face upward. The navy night sky turned green, laced with purple and orange like oil in water. “What is it?” he asked, ducking into the doorway of a battered wooden boathouse. A rippling movement swept over his head in a giant tidal wave of light. He held his breath as though he were being sucked under water.

“Skythons!” came the terrified reply. “You gets them in Krønagar. But never seen ’em so big before. Horrible things. Horrible!”

Midge stared upward to watch a shimmering snake-like pattern weave and twist across the sky. The effect of long, rippling muscles struck him as so strange and beautiful that he forgot to feel afraid as he gazed at the shifting colours.

“They mean bad luck,” howled the sailor, arm over his eyes.

Up in the cold sky, colours still shimmered. “Surely it’s just superstitious nonsense?” Midge said, still staring. “They can’t be real. Just a trick of the light.” He couldn’t drag his eyes away from the sight as the shape swooped toward the dark line of mountains, arched up, over, and back toward where he stood on the little jetty. He jolted as he thought he saw a giant violet eye, bloodshot and terrible, staring right at him. It was so close he could see it gleam.

Looking round quickly, he found an old fish head. He scooped it up and flung it as far as he could into the harbour waters where it landed with a loud splash. The purple eye swivelled, following the movement of the bait, and the Skython swerved, changing direction with the ease of a supple salmon, skimming the dark waters. Then it snatched at the water, and zoomed upward, the fish head in its claws, before cresting the distant hills.

After a few minutes, the night sky returned to normal, and the glistening moon returned, lighting up the huddled weatherboard huts that formed Siegfried Harbour.

The old sailor clambered out of the foul-smelling nets. “That was close.” He held out gnarled fingers. “The name’s Jegget.”

“Midge.” They shook hands.

“Where d’ you learn that trick, young feller?” he asked, dusting himself down.

“In our corner shop. It kept the rats out of the cellars, except there I used old bacon bones.”

Jegget gave a toothy grin.

“I lobbed them in the landlord’s barn next door. Seemed to work.” Midge shifted as the watery eyes, pale with age, swivelled and stared, eyebrows raised, at the scar on his cheek. He touched the old wound. “Our landlord’s a Minax. He didn’t approve.”

The old mariner grunted and clamped his unlit clay pipe between yellowed teeth. “Them Minax don’t care for anything but themselves,” he grumbled. “And that ruthless new leader of theirs. What’s her name?”

“Empress Koya,” said Midge.

“Yes, her. See how she’s taking over Hinderland! Hardly anything left now.”

“I know, I know,” agreed Midge, shuffling his feet, but too polite to leave.

“No wonder us poor Grells are all trying to scratch a living up here on the frozen edges. While the pesky Minax have the best of everything, eh? It’s not right, is it?”

“No, no. It isn’t.”

“Could turn a decent old sailor to piracy, it could.” Jegget let out a long, world-weary sigh and shouldered open the tatty door of the nearest tavern, before vanishing inside.

Midge shrugged and swallowed a sudden yawn. Sky monsters or not, he needed somewhere to bunk for the night. The tavern looked dark and uninviting, so he decided to head into town to see if he could find anything better.

Checking his satchel was properly closed, he tied down the flap with two round turns and a half hitch, and made his solitary way toward a smattering of  distant lights glowing green in the deep turquoise dusk. Apart from the sound of his boots on the icy surface, it was quiet. The other Grells from the ferryboat that sailed earlier from Hinderland were long gone.

He hoped to find a spare bed somewhere. He didn’t take up much room. Anything would be more comfortable than the narrow bunk in the smelly cabin that he’d shared with five others on the choppy crossing.

As he trudged along, he thought about his encounter with old Jegget and the Skythons. In truth, the sailor was right. Life was harder for the Grells than it had ever been. For centuries, the Grells and Minax rubbed along, clumped in settlements in neighbouring Soderland and Hinderland.

Lately the Minax were throwing their weight about, seizing land, trading posts, villages, towns, and then whole cities…while the mild-mannered Grells just grumbled and retreated.

Midge remembered perching on the landing, listening to his mother and father talking long into the night about how the Minax were demanding more and more rent, while refusing to fix the leaking roofs and damp cellars. It was the same all over. The old king seemed to have given up and retired to his palace deep in the woods of Hinderland, leaving his subjects to struggle.

Midge passed a wooden post outside a run-down boathouse. A torn poster was pinned to it. Ice cutters wanted, he read, smoothing it down as it flapped in the wind. Good rates. Minax, youngsters, or time-wasters need not apply.

Midge snorted, and his nostrils tingled with the unfamiliar smells of fish, salt, oil, and damp wood. It was all quite different from home. He already missed the warm scent of fresh biscuits in his mum’s kitchen.

With a heavy heart, he thought it didn’t seem very long ago that he’d finished school and announced with pride how he was heading north to find work. His mum wasn’t too pleased, but they needed the money. “Look after your stuff,” she’d warned as she fussed over his kit, putting in his sling with a fresh box of resin pellets. “Krønagar is dangerous! Even the king can’t help you up there. It’s heaving with thieves and pirates and I don’t know what. And whatever you do, don’t land up in the mines. Especially after what happened to your father.”

After speaking her mind, she’d slipped some extra food into his kit and with a firm hug, let him go.

Midge sighed at the memory. Perhaps he should have stayed at home, hosing down the storeroom floors or keeping an eye on his brothers and sisters. Or, more often, the other way round. Bathing wasn’t their strong point.

He reached the edge of the town. A huge sailing ship drew his gaze. The vessel rested light as a swan on the dark water at the end of the jetty. He headed toward it until, peering up, he could just make out the fancy letters on the side. Solvestia.

Midge’s heart leapt. King Thorwald’s new flagship! Here! The majestic clipper bobbed on the water, its ropes slapping together. They called it a peacekeeping vessel, supposedly sent to put a stop to piracy in remote waters, but every Grell knew it had a quite different mission.

He admired the sleek lines, the gleaming sails, the polished decking, the crisp banners…It was magnificent—the perfect symbol of the new king’s reign. When the old king had died, his son, Thorwald, took over. He had different ideas to his father, and soon started to make a stand. He obviously didn’t see the Grells as underdogs—even though that’s what they’d become. The ship was Thorwald’s doing, part of his mission to build up the Grell navy, which was beginning to challenge the Minax. The Solvestia symbolised a new hope. Perhaps things really were going to change.

Gazing at the vessel, Midge could see in his mind’s eye the poster that had made him take the trip. He knew the words off by heart. Cabin Help needed for King Thorwald’s Flagship! Attend Siegfried Harbour for interview. Ever since he’d read the words, he’d dreamed of nothing else. He’d practised tying nautical knots for hours, read everything he could about sailing ships, studied maps of Hinderland and Krønagar, and tried to learn the names of all the little islands around the coast.

He stared up at the dark portholes of the ship, watching the sentries go back and forth. Was there still a job? Well, the ship remained in the harbour, so there must be a chance. He felt happier than he had for days, now he’d seen the Solvestia. He’d return at first light and see what to do.

Ahead, down an alley, a door opened. Midge jumped as a bright rectangle of light spilled onto the frosted wooden decking. The sound of jeering and rough laughter followed. He heard the clank of a flying tankard, as a pack of Grells—ice workers to judge by their padded clothes and scarred faces—let off steam and spent their hard-earned cash. The door closed, muffling the shouting and loud songs. The clunk of sailing boats and smug steam vessels jostling next to the jetty was all Midge heard.

A mouth-watering whiff of sausages drifted toward him, making his stomach gurgle and his nose twitch. Before he could follow the savoury smell, a hover-sled careered up from nowhere, spraying him with icy mud. “Hey, you! Bit young for King Thorwald’s navy! Har, har.” The voice belonged to a thickset individual, a Minax, to judge by the gold studs in his long ear lobes.

Midge had clashed with Minax before. Grells and Minax never agreed on anything, so that wasn’t saying much. But he’d never had to tackle such a nasty specimen as the ugly creature that stood before him.

The lopsided face bristled with mangy ginger whiskers. Right in the middle was a huge misshapen nose obviously broken in the past and never set. The teeth were filed into sharp points, some studded with cheap green gemstones. A grimy jacket strained over a sagging belly. He spoke again, taunting. “Shouldn’t you be in school?”

“Not any more,” muttered Midge, not liking the look of the mud-green, close-set eyes. The sled’s engine put-putted to itself, spewing snowy fumes into the night. Midge stole a glance at the glossy bodywork with its shiny metal engine. He recognised the model right away from the cards he collected from packets of his favourite sweets. It was a Whisker II, its gold go-faster stripes and a padded silver saddle making it the flashiest ice sled on the market. It ran on fuel called Blackfrost. He’d heard workers talk about the stuff on the ferry north. It was a rare commodity, mined in the far north, which only the richest could afford. What was this manky character doing with such a costly mode of transport?

Midge drew his satchel closer to his chest, as the Minax blocked his way. There was no one around to help and nowhere to run, not unless he fancied a midnight dip in the dark harbour waters.

A second Minax arrived on a sled. He slewed to a halt, stalling his machine. Even uglier than the first, he was scrawny where his companion was chubby. He had the air of a giant battered toy, mainly because one ear seemed to be bent and positioned lower than the other as though sewn on wrongly. His skinny legs were bowed and one arm looked bent and twisted as if from an old injury. He sneered at Midge. “Lost your way? Careful the pirates don’t kidnap you.”

 “Actually, I was about to join them,” said Midge, hoping a little humour might defuse the situation, “but I left my eye patch on the ferry.” He slid his pocket sling and his supply of sticky resin pellets into his hand, hoping they wouldn’t notice. He was a good shot, or so his brothers and sisters always told him, as they totted up the times he managed to zap the bullies who lived down the road in the middle of their mangy backs. He eyed the Minax who scratched his stubbly neck, removed a flea with a nail and flicked it onto the cobbles before stamping on it, twisting with his boot.

“Oh, ha ha. Our beloved Empress Koya will have you and your kind for breakfast soon, won’t she, Skad! Likes her snacks, she does.”

“Chopped up and spread nice and thin. Like pilchards on toast, Hognid. Nice and tasty. I hears she likes pilchards.” Skad and Hognid, who were obviously so dense they needed to remind each other of their names, clambered off their sleds and propped them up against a wall.

“Oh, shove off,” said Midge and started to push past.

But Skad was having none of it. “Not so fast,” he snarled, turning and grabbing Midge by the scruff of his neck. He shook him hard, like a terrier with a rat. Swirling lights jiggled across Midge’s vision, mixing in with a blurry glimpse of the leering Minax. With a cruel laugh, Skad dropped him in the gutter.

As he staggered upward, he heard someone yell “FREEZE!” A cold, wet blast of winter hit him in the back as a damp slushball splattered between his shoulder blades. It smelt of rotting flesh. He reeled, as Skad congratulated Hognid on his aim.

An Abominaball! The dirty tricksters, he thought, falling backward over a coil of thick rope. He never imagined even these two weaselly Minax would stoop so low. The sky seemed to tilt, as the gas released from the slushy snow mixed with tainted eel granules made him woozy. Before he could move, someone ripped off his satchel and he heard the sound of coins being chinked into purses. Midge struggled to stand, but fell again, crashing through a wooden fence. The end of a post jammed into the small of his back. He lay still, winded.

Great. As cold water flooded through his jerkin, Midge passed out.

* * * *

A distant Aurgel squawked and Midge stirred as a sliver of light touched his eyelids. His head felt heavier than a sack of grain and his body was like a block of ice. He was used to the cosy rooms he shared with family above their shop. Hinderland weather wasn’t  warm, but compared to Krønagar, it was positively tropical. After a night in this frozen place, all his body warmth seemed to have bled into the ground. And he was still hungry. And something smelled really, really bad. He sniffed. His nose hairs quivered. His own body odour could fell an ox. He needed a hot bath.

Groaning, he heaved himself to his feet, but stumbled. The ground seemed to be moving. Those Abominaballs were downright nasty, he thought, feeling dizzy, wondering when the foul eel poison would wear off.

A bell clanged. What time was it? Oh, no! A memory clambered back into his brain. The king’s flagship was due to leave at dawn. He shook his head and looked all around him, before stopping short. There was no sign of his pack, the jetty, the harbour, or even the flagship. Just a lot of surging greyness. He rubbed his eyes and refocused. He was on the deck of a small ship. To judge by the movement, he was at sea.

Midge scanned the scene, his gaze still a little fuzzy. He stood aboard a small vessel with two grubby sails and a funny snub-nosed prow. A stack of crates lay on dark, damp timbers alongside the wheelhouse. A cargo boat, he guessed and groaned aloud as the horrible truth sunk in.

Instead of sailing off to adventure on a fine royal clipper, he had been robbed, and was now stuck on a grubby little tub, in the middle of a freezing cold ocean, heading goodness knew where.


In his mind’s eye, Midge pictured the stately Solvestia, its sails crisp as fresh sheets, slicing the waves as it headed north, its harebell blue flag tugging in the breeze. Beyond, the northern mountains stretched upward, their rounded tops dappled like reindeer with the first winter snow...

Midge dropped to the deck, head in his hands, sick with disappointment. Thanks to those Minax, he’d missed out on his once-in-a-lifetime chance. His ship really had sailed.

Krønagar should have a big unfriendly sign at the border reading “DANGER. ENTER AT OWN RISK.”

It probably did have one once, thought Midge darkly, but someone must have nicked it. 

End of Chapter One
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