The Grells of Hinderland face a bleak future.
Blackfrost, their last source of fuel, is running out. Food is scarce, jobs are hard to find, and worse … the greedy Minax under evil Empress Koya are threatening to invade from the south.
For the sake of his family, young Midge leaves his cosy home in search of a job and treks north to the mysterious icy wastes of Krønagar.
Set upon by Minax thieves, he misses out on his dream of working on the king’s new flagship, ending up as dogsbody on the Ice Trekker, a shabby cargo vessel that runs into trouble from the start, nearly capsized by an enemy vessel heading in the same direction …
Despite evil omens in the sky, monsters from the deep, desperate battles on land and sea, treachery on board and a constant struggle against the worsening weather, the crew presses on. Midge finds hidden strengths and learns to use every trick up his sleeve to survive.
But the Ice Trekker crew are not what they seem, and it’s not long before Midge is caught up on a suspicious, and desperate mission in uncharted Krønagar with the treacherous Minax on their tail …
“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.