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Fear. Fear and pain and darkness. These are the children of winter. Now I will tell you how we came to be known as Winter’s Children, the Frost Giants of the mountain peaks. Now I will tell you of the three winters that ended our world, so that we might begin anew, mightier than before. Now I will tell you of the Fimbulwinter, and the Beast.

The story of the Jötnar begins thus: There was a small village on a mountain’s peak. The people there lived the hardest and coldest lives of any in those mountains, scratching an existence from the frosty earth. They hunted and trapped for meat and for skins, and in this way they survived in the same place their fathers had, their own place, high up and away from the concerns below.

The Piercing of the Veil caused great changes in the weather. Life became more difficult than ever. Storms lasted longer, and the sun’s pale light barely warmed the village. However, these folk were hardy. The cold was part of their lives, and they endured it. Or at least, most of the village did.

After the first Veilstorms came through, things began to change. The cold was deeper, and seemed to fill the mind as well as the body. Every now and then, folk would go missing in the dead of winter. They were said to have gone frost-mad, and wandered off into the white.

In this village there lived two brothers who kept a mead-hall. Their mother had died long ago, and their father went frost-mad one winter and was gone, leaving his boys the house and mead-hall, but not much else. The pair put everything they had into the building and their stock, and despite the long winters and the Veilstorms, they managed quite well. Their establishment became the grandest in the land, with a tall roof and thick walls. The gilded roof-timbers within glinted in the firelight on the endless evenings, when their fine drink flowed.

One of the brothers was named Thrud. He was tall and strong, and led many of the raiding parties down the slopes below. He gained great treasures by the might of his arm, and filled the chest by his bed with yellow gold. Thrud spent the rest of his time training in the yard, or in the mead-hall, drinking with the old warriors.

The younger brother was named Gest, a master of runes and saga-making. He traveled far and wide to courts across the land, and earned king-gifts and treasures in his own way. When he was at home, he told stories and sang in the mead-hall, bringing the rowdy crowds to a thoughtful silence with his words and rune-working. But for all his skill, he did not receive the same respect as his brother.

Some loved to hear his tales and songs, proud to have such a master of stories in their village. One such was a small boy, who leaned forward and listened wide-eyed to his favorite stories. Tales of the ancient giants, the Jötnar of old, whom Gest said once existed. The boy watched the shadows of the great mountains all around, hoping for a glimpse of the mythical creatures. Gest shook his head and smiled, reveling in the boy’s enthusiasm, and searched out more tales of the Jötnar.

For his part, Thrud soon took a liking to the boy always hanging about the mead-hall, and began to teach him to fight, training the young muscles to strength. Trying to follow in the footsteps of the heroes and creatures he loved to hear about, the boy threw himself into Thrud’s training, though he was too young to make much progress. Still, Thrud approved of his pupil’s eagerness, and always had a smile for the boy.

One fall, an early snow blanketed the peaks in white down, softening the rugged shards of black rock that stabbed toward the windswept sky. The folk in the village of Út shrugged their shoulders and went about their business. Thrud clambered over the mountain and returned with load after load of logs for the fire, while Gest repaired the cracks in the walls of their mead-hall. It would be a terrible winter this high in the mountains, but the village had seen winters before and survived. They just had to keep the fires burning.

It was a cold day, with the sun obscured by grey clouds, too thick to dissipate in the high winds that howled past the peak. An old hunter returned to the village white-faced, breathing hard. He gathered other hunters around to look at some tracks in the snow. Thrud and Gest paused in their preparations and went to have a look.

The tracks were small and meandering, uneven and rounded. They were the tracks of three children. A cry went up round the village, for the young ones of several houses on this side of Út were missing.

“They must have gone frost-mad,” said the old hunter. He reckoned the intense, unseasonal cold drove them out in the night, and away from the village, their senses dulled or confused by the endless white. There seemed to be no other explanation. If there were any other tracks, they had been hidden or confused in the biting wind.

The brothers realized that one of the missing children was the boy who so loved stories about giants. They joined the search. Tears froze on noses as the desperate hunters followed the tracks out of the village, but found them disappearing, or following a winding way up to the high crags, where there was nothing but black stone and ice.

The children were gone, and it was dangerous or impossible to follow.

In the mead-hall that evening, the old hunter conferred with the other old men. They all muttered anxiously together, wittering in a corner of the hall. “Never before have so many gone frost-mad, but what can we do? When the frost takes you, none may gainsay it. The little ones were chosen by the white, a sacrifice to the gods of winter.”

Thrud threw his brother a look. He slammed down his mug of metheglin and stood. “I will go!”

The greybeards stopped their talk and looked at him in surprise. “I will go!” he said again, his voice ringing off the sturdy wooden walls. “I will find the children, and if there is anything that tries to stop me, I will drag its head back here. None may force us from this village. None may take our little ones and live!”

His boast rang through the packed hall, leaving quiet in its wake. A few drunks sniggered. One more would go frost-mad today.

Thrud walked to the door, hefted his spear, and left. Gest smiled and nodded at the folk staring at him and the door that had closed after his brother. “It will be a day for singing when he returns. To my brother Thrud!” When he raised his mug, the rest had to follow in his cheer.

After drinking with them for a while, Gest left, staggering slightly from the jeering and the counter-boasts. No one followed him.

Thrud was out in the road. A grey figure in the twilight, Gest’s big-shouldered brother leaned on his spear and looked up at the top of the mountain. His breath misted in the fading sunlight, forming tiny ice crystals that drifted down and frosted his brown beard.

A few snowflakes were falling. Gest’s older brother looked at him, eyes glinting inscrutably. “Keep the hall for me, little brother. I shall leave at first light, to return with the children, or not at all.”

Over the next day, Gest waited. He watched the high peaks, though the next day was sunny; the white snow reflected and the icicles refracted the light through the village. Scuds of clouds whipped past the peak occasionally, heralding a coming storm. He could just barely see the wind blow a fine spray of snow from the mountain in the flashes of brightness between the clouds.

He started picking out a tune as the day wore on, working on a new song to celebrate the return of the frost-mad children. As evening began to fall, with still no sign of his brother or the children, Gest bit his lip and ceased composing. The wily old hunters had to be right. There was something up there that did not want travelers to leave. Something so strong, or so clever, that it could even stop Thrud. For who could fight the frost?

That night, he packed. He took more supplies than Thrud had, and an extra coat in case his brother needed one. Perhaps he was merely trapped in a snowdrift, just waiting for his younger brother to come and help him escape. Gest also took a sword, hoping he wouldn’t need it.

The next morning, Gest steeled himself for the climb. His fur boots pulled up, his pants over them, leather ties held his heavy coat over his thick sleeves, he was as prepared as he could be. It could be a deadly climb on the frozen rocks near the peak, and he would be tired from the long march. But there was no other way.

He hiked up the steep trails where his brother had gone, picking a path between the black spires of rock and patches of ice. It was slow going, with his heavy pack, his warm coat, and his sword. The day darkened quickly, and Gest began to fear the cold. Being caught by the night up here, exposed to the wind and the full freeze of night, could mean death even without madness. He needed to find shelter. And still no sign of his brother, or the frost-mad children Thrud had gone to seek.

Until he found a splintered shard of wood from the shaft of a spear. It lay among the rocks and frozen patches of snow, a smooth-polished rod with one sharply broken end. That’s all there was; not even blood stained the splinters that lay among the pebbles nearby.

Then he found it; a dark crevice that opened like an irregular mouth along the underside of a huge black boulder. It was not exactly like the stories and songs he knew; no bones lay outside, and no bloodstains decorated the rocks with strange symbols. However, a strong musk emanated from the crevice, filling him with uncertain fear. In any case, with the night-cold bearing down upon him, he had little other choice to survive.

Gest stretched his back, and sat for a moment on a stone that stuck up above the snow and flood of pebbles. He popped the joints in his hand, considering. As his eyes were adjusting to the light, he would be vulnerable to anything that lived in there. Drawing his sword, Gest dropped his pack and leaned against the boulder with an ungloved hand. He closed his eyes and counted, resisting the temptation to hum a few bars of an old war-song his grandfather had taught him.

With his eyes still closed, Gest slid his hand down and felt the bottom of the boulder, then bent double and walked in, opening his eyes into the darkness. He found the cave opened up almost immediately; the huge boulder was hollow and full of tiny tunnels. With his eyes already used to the darkness, he could see the marks of passage of others. And there, off to the side, was a bootprint in the smooth snow that had drifted just inside the cave mouth. It was his brother Thrud’s, Gest had no doubt, though it seemed larger than he remembered. So why hesitate?

Blade held out in front of him, Gest advanced into the dark tunnel. He found himself in an icy cave, lit by the dying sun outside. He couldn’t see them, but he felt the angry clouds gathering overhead.

Read more in part 2

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