The Coming of Uncle Baldur
Peer Ulfsson stood miserably at his father's funeral pyre, watching the sparks whirl up like millions of shining spirits streaking away into the dark.
Dizzily he followed their bright career, unwilling to lower his eyes. The fire gobbled everything like a starving monster, crackling and crunching on bone-dry branches, hissing and spitting on green timber, licking up dribbles of resin from bleeding chunks of pinewood.
The heat struck his face and scorched his clothes. Tears baked on his cheeks. But his back was freezing, and a raw wind fingered the nape of his neck.
Father! thought Peer desperately. Where have you gone?
Suddenly he was sure the whole thing must be a bad dream. If he turned round, his father would be standing close, ready to give him a comforting squeeze. Behind mejust behind me! thought Peer. He turned slowly, stiffly, wanting to see his father's thin, tanned face carved with deep lines of laughter and life. The black wind cut tears from his eyes. The sloping shingle beach ran steep and empty into the sea.
A small body bumped Peer's legs. He reached down. His dog, Loki, leaned against him, a rough-haired, flea-bitten brown mongrelall the family Peer had left. Friends and neighbors crowded in a ring around the pyre, patiently watching and waiting. Their faces were curves of light and hollows of darkness: the flames lit up their steaming breath like dragon smoke; they blew on their fingers and turned up their collars against the piercing wind.
The pyre flung violent shadows up and down the beach. Stones bigger than a man's head blackened and cracked around it. Hidden in its white depths, his father's body lay folded in flames.
Over the fire the night air wobbled and shook, magnifying the shapes of the people opposite. It was like looking through a magic glass into a world of ghosts and monsters, perhaps the world to which his father's spirit was passing, beginning the long journey to the land of the dead. Peer gazed, awed, into the hot shimmer. What if he comes to me? What if I see him? Smoke unraveled in the air like half-finished gestures. Was that a pale face turning toward him? A dim arm Waving? Peer's breath stuck. A shadow lurched into life, beyond the fire. It can't be! He glanced round in panic. Can anyone else see it? The shadow tramped forward, man-shaped, looming up behind the people, who hadn't noticedwho still hadn't noticed
Peer gave a strangled shout. "What's that?"
A huge man lumbered into the circle of firelight, a sort of black haystack with thick, groping arms. His scowling face shone red in the firelight as he elbowed rudely through the crowd. People turned, scattering. A mutter of alarm ran around the gathering.
Shoving forward, the stranger tramped right up to the pyre and turned, his boots carelessly planted among the glowing ashes. Now he was a black giant against the flames. Everyone stared in uneasy silence. What did he want?
He spoke in a high, cracked voice, shrill as a whistle. "I've come for the boy. Which is Ulf's son?"
Nobody answered. A shiver ran across the crowd. The men closest to Peer shuffled quietly nearer, drawing close around him. Catching the movement, the giant turned slowly, watching them. He lifted his head like a wolf smelling out its prey. Peer forgot to breathe. Their eyes met, and he winced. Sharp as little black glittering drills, those eyes seemed to bore through to the back of his head.
The stranger gave a satisfied grunt and bore down on him like a landslide. Enormous fingers crunched on his arm, hauling him out of the crowd. High over his head the reedy voice piped tonelessly, "I'm your uncle Baldur Grimsson. From now on, you'll be living with me!"
From Troll Fell. Copyright 2004 by Katherine Langrish. All rights reserved. Excerpt reproduced by permission of the publisher, Harper Collins. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher.
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