Authors: Katherine Langrish
This book is for
my mother and father
Among the many people I have to thank:
Alan Stoyel and Critchell Britten, for patiently and kindly
answering dozens of questions about watermills
Susan Price, for the tail-wagging troll
Lyndsay Stringfellow, for letting me talk trolls on
Liz Kessler of Cornerstones, for warmth, enthusiasm
spot-on criticism and friendship
Catherine Clarke, agent extraordinaire
ZoÃ« Clarke, Robin Stamm and all at HarperCollins
and Dave, Alice and Isobel â first and best of readers
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.
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.
â just 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, fleabitten
brown mongrel â all the family Peer had left.
Friends and neighbours 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
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.
he comes to me? What if I see him?
Smoke unravelled in the
air like half-finished gestures. Was that a pale face turning
towards him? A dim arm waving? Peer's breath stuck. A
shadow lurched into life, beyond the fire.
It can't be!
glanced round in panic.
Can anyone else see it?
tramped forwards, man-shaped, looming up behind the
people, who hadn't noticed â who still hadn't noticedâ
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 forwards, 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!”
“But I haven't got an uncle!” Peer gasped.
The huge stranger paid no attention. He dragged
Peer's arm up, twisting it. Peer yelped in pain, and Loki
began to growl.
“I don't like saying things twice!” said the man
menacingly. “I'm your Uncle Baldur, the miller of
Trollsvik. Come on!” He challenged the crowd. “You all
know it's true. Tell him so, before I twist his arm off!”
“Whyâ” Brand the shipbuilder stepped forwards
uncertainly, rubbing his hands. Peer stared at him in
disbelief. Brand spread his arms helplessly. “This â that is
to say, Peer, your father did tell me onceâ”
His wife Ingrid pushed in front of him, glaring. “Let
go of the boy, you brute! How dare you show your face
here? We all know that poor Ulf never had anything to
do with you!”
this my uncle?” Peer whispered. He twisted his
head and looked up at Uncle Baldur. It was like looking
up at a dark cliff. First came a powerful chest, then a
thick neck, gleaming like naked rock. There was a black
beard like a rook's nest. Then a face of stony slabs with
bristling black eyebrows for ledges. At the top came a
tangled bush of black hair.
Loki's body tensed against Peer's legs, quivering with
growls. In another moment he would bite. Uncle Baldur
knew it too, and Peer read the death penalty in his face.
“Loki!” he cried sharply, afraid. “Quiet!”
Loki subsided. Uncle Baldur let Peer go and bent his
shaggy head to look at the dog.
“What d'you call
?” he taunted.
“He's my dog, Loki,” said Peer defiantly, rubbing his
, a dog? Wait till
dog meets him. He'll eat
'im!” Uncle Baldur tipped back his head and yelped with
laughter. Peer glared at him. Brand put a protective arm
round his shoulder.
“You can't take the boy away,” he began. “We're
looking after him!”
“You? Who are you?” spat Uncle Baldur.
“He's the master shipbuilder of Hammerhaven, that's
who he is!” declared Ingrid angrily, folding her arms.
“Peer's poor father was his best carpenter!”
“Best of a bad lot, eh?” sneered Uncle Baldur. “Could
he make a barrel that didn't leak?”
Brand glared at Baldur. “Ulf did a wonderful job on
the new ship. Never made a mistake!”
“No? But he sliced himself with a chisel and died
when it turned bad!” scoffed Uncle Baldur. “Some
Peer's heart rapped like a hammer, hurting his chest.
He leaped forwards. “Don't talk about my father like
that! You want to know what he could do?
he could do!
what he made! See!” He pointed
defiantly past Uncle Baldur.
High over the heads of the crowd reared the fierce
dragon neck and head of the new longship. People
stepped back, opening a path to where it lay chocked
upright on the shelving beach. And the dragon head
glared straight at Uncle Baldur, ogling him threateningly,
as if it commanded the sea behind it, whose dark armies
of marching waves rushed snarling up the shingle.
Uncle Baldur rocked back, off balance. He lowered
his head and clenched his fists. Then he shrugged. “A
dragonship! A pretty toy!” he jeered, turning his back on
it. The crowd muttered angrily, but Uncle Baldur
ignored them. He seized Peer's arm again. “You'll come
now. I'm a busy man. I've a mill to run, and no time to
With a bang, a piece of wood exploded in the heart
of the pyre. People dodged as the fire spat glowing
fragments at their feet. The whole burning structure
slipped and settled. Brand stepped in front of Uncle
Baldur, barring his way.
“You won't drag the boy away from his father's
funeral!” he exclaimed. “Why â it's not even over!”
“A funeral? And I thought it was a pig-roast!” Uncle
Baldur crowed with laughter. Sickened, Peer jerked his
arm free, as the crowd surged angrily forwards, some
crying, “Shame!” They surrounded Uncle Baldur, who
shifted uneasily, looking around. “Can't you take a joke?”
“Show some respect!” said Brand curtly.
Uncle Baldur grunted. Summing up the crowd with
his sharp black eyes, he said at last, “Very well. I'll stay a
day or two. There'll be stuff to sell off, I suppose?”
Jerking his head towards Brand, he asked Peer shrilly,
“Has he paid up your dad's last wages â eh?”
“Yes! Of course he has,” Peer stammered angrily.
“He's been very kind to me â he's arranged everything.”
“Nothing owing?” Uncle Baldur scowled, disappointed.
“I'll soon see. Your father may have been a halfwit, but
Behind him, the funeral pyre collapsed into a pile of
glowing ash and sighed out a last stream of sparks which
sped away for ever.
With the eagerness of a pig digging for truffles, Uncle
Baldur set about selling off Peer's home. Stools, pots,
blankets, Ulf's cherished mallets and bright chisels â
Uncle Baldur squeezed the last penny out of every deal.
At first the neighbours paid generously for Peer's goods.
Then they realised where the money was going.
Brand dared to complain. Uncle Baldur stared at him
coldly and jingled the silver and copper in his pocket.
“It's mine,” he said flatly. “Ulf owed me money.”
“That's not true!” said Peer furiously.
“Prove it!” jeered his uncle. “And what's that ring
you've got? Silver, eh? Boys don't wear rings. Give it
“No! It was my father's!” Peer backed away, hands
behind his back. Uncle Baldur grabbed him, forcing his
fingers open. He wrenched the ring off and tried
pushing it over his own hairy knuckles, but it was too
tight. He bit it. “Silver,” he nodded, and stuffed it in his
Fat, comfortable Ingrid took Peer in and tried to
mother him. “Cheer up, my pet,” she crooned
sympathetically, pushing a honey cake into his hand.
Peer let his hand fall. The honey cake disappeared into
the eager jaws of Loki, who was lurking under the
“Ingrid,” Peer said in desperation, “how can that fat
beast be my uncle?”
Ingrid's plump face cramped into worried folds. She
sat down heavily and reached across the table to pat his
hand. “It's a sad story, Peer. Your father never wanted to
tell you. He was just a boy when his own father died, and
his mother married the miller at Trollsvik, the other side
of Troll Fell. Poor soul, she lived to regret it. The old
miller was a cruel hard man.”
Peer flushed and his fists clenched. “He beat my
“Well,” said Ingrid cautiously, “what your father could
not stand, was to see his mother knocked about. So he
ran away, you see, and never saw her again. And in the
meantime she had two more boys, and this Baldur is one
of them. They're your father's own half-brothers, but as
far as I know, he never laid eyes on them.”
She got up and bustled about, lifting her wooden
bread bowl from the hearth and pouring a yeasty froth
into the warm flour.
“Still, the old miller's dead now, and his wife too.
Perhaps things will all come right at last! Maybe it's
meant to happen. If your uncles don't marry, the mill
could come to you one day! I know your uncle Baldur
is very rough-spoken, and not a bit like your father, but
blood is thicker than water. After all, he did come to
find you! Surely he'll look after you, you poor, poor
“I don't want to live with him!” Peer shivered. “Or at
his mill. What will I do there, way up over Troll Fell? I
won't have any friends.”
“Perhaps you'll like it,” said Ingrid hopefully.
“Though Troll Fell itself is a bleak, unchancy place,” she
added, frowning. “I've heard many an odd taleâ But
there! Your uncles are the millers, so I'm sure you'll live
in style. Millers are always well-to-do.”
Peer was silent.
“Ingrid?” He cleared his throat. “Couldn't I â
couldn't I stay here with you?”
“Oh, my dearie!” cried Ingrid. “Don't think we
haven't thought about it. But we can't. He's your uncle,
you see. He's got a right to you, and we haven't.”
“No,” said Peer bitterly. “Of course not. I
Ingrid flushed deeply. “We only want the best for
you,” she pleaded. She tried to put an arm round him,
but Peer hunched his shoulder at her. “And don't forget,”
she went on, turning back to her bread-making, “he's not
your only uncle. There's another brother up at the mill,
isn't there? Don't you think your father would have
wanted you to try?”
“Maybe. Yes,” said Peer. He shut his eyes on a sudden
glimpse of his father, turning over a piece of oak and
saying as he often did, “You've got to make the best of
the wood you're given, Peer. And that's true in life, too!”
He could almost smell the sweet sawdust clinging to his