By Scott Oden
This is an excerpt from A Gathering of Raven, by Scott Oden, presented by Black Gate magazine. © 2017 by Scott Oden.
It appears with the permission of Scott Oden, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. A Gathering of Ravens is available in hardcover and digital formats from Tomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press. Cover by James Iacobelli.
For two days, under skies hewn from the cold heart of winter, Grimnir guided them south and west. They left the settled fjord-lands of northern Sjælland for the wilder country of the south, a land of moors and fens and tangled forests. They ate what food they had left — hard bread and salt pork and the last of her store of apples — and drank from clear running streams. By night, as the temperatures plunged and snow threatened, Grimnir grudgingly built a small fire. Étaín would huddle near it for warmth, but the cold had little effect on the now-taciturn skraelingr. He sat away from the fire, muttering to himself in the harsh tongue of his kind or singing some tuneless chant that echoed with the drums, horns, and wrack of war; he was awake when Étaín dropped off to sleep, and awake when she crawled stiff-limbed from beneath her blanket. She wondered if he slept at all.
For the most part, her first impressions were sound. Grimnir was as godless and profane as any heathen Northman. He sneered at her morning prayers and scoffed at her wish to pray at midday, or over her food. He had no time for anything that smacked of Christ. Just the sight of even the small silver cross Hrolf Asgrimm’s son had cast aside filled Grimnir with sullen rage. But he made an effort to pause by every moss-covered rune stone, poring over each surface like a priest over the Gospel. What he found there dictated not only the direction they traveled, but also his mood. Stones commemorating those who had fallen in battle left him nigh upon jubilant, while the few they happened across trumpeting some nameless Dane’s conversion sent him into a curse-laden tirade.
“Traitors and oathbreakers!” he would mutter. “May the Wolf gnaw their wretched livers!”
By the afternoon of the third day, as a keening wind whistled down from the north, they descended into a shallow valley thick with some of the most ancient forest Étaín had ever seen. The trees were squat and gnarled, like giants in repose, their spreading boughs half-clad in the finery of autumn. Walking beneath them felt as though she were walking down the nave of a mammoth cathedral; it was silent, and gray light tinged with red and gold filtered down from the clerestory of branches overhead.
With each step, Étaín felt like she came more and more under some fell scrutiny, like something beyond the ken of mortal man was watching her descend into its world, a slice of the pre-Christian past, a twilight world of branch and leaf — something that would judge whether or not to let her live. She glanced at Grimnir; if he felt the same sensation he did not show it. Perhaps he knew what lurked among the trees. That thought caused her to clutch all the more tightly to the tiny silver cross . . .
“There,” Grimnir said, after another hour had passed. The shadows had grown deep and long and Étaín could only just make out what lay ahead of them. The forest hemmed in a lake, its surface as black as a starless night; at the center of this lake was an island that looked overgrown with trees. Hawthorn, birch, oak, ash, and yew grew in such profusion that their trunks twisted and writhed together in a mass as solid as a fortress palisade.
“Christ Almighty, what is this place?” Even as she spoke the words, Étaín felt the hair on the back of her neck stand on end; she turned suddenly, staring into the deepening gloom. The trees around her exuded menace, something hoary and wild and fey that begrudged every breath she took.
“No place where your Nailed God is welcome,” Grimnir said. “So watch your tongue, little fool.”
Étaín nodded, her eyes wide with fear.
Grimnir led them to the water’s edge, to where someone had drawn a slender punt up on shore. Étaín looked dubiously at the flat-bottomed boat. It seemed as old as the forest, its boards black and shiny with use and decay. A pole lay next to it.
“Get in,” Grimnir said.
“We shouldn’t be here,” Étaín replied, backing away from the water. “This place is… wrong. It’s evil. I can feel it.”
“Evil, eh? What do you know about evil? Get in the boat. We’re close, now.”
Étaín shook her head, her trembling hands clasped before her. Something inimical to her lived among these trees, something unnatural whose hatred and malevolence warped the bosom of the earth itself. That island…
“Get in the gods-be-damned boat, little fool!” roared Grimnir. The echo of his voice profaned the silence. Boughs rustled on a phantom wind; Étaín imagined she could hear spectral laughter, as though whatever dwelled here took great pleasure in her terror. She backpedaled. She was on the verge of fleeing from this cursed grove when Grimnir sprang.
Étaín screamed. She had the impression of lips skinning back from yellowed fangs and eyes blazing like coals an instant before his fist hammered into the side of her jaw and sent her sprawling into oblivion.
Étaín woke by a fire — a great, roaring blaze that filled the glade with warmth and light. She lay with her back against a fallen log, her hands bound behind her. A dull ache radiated from her bruised jaw. Her ears rang, yet. She blinked, looked around, and tried to remember how she’d gotten here — wherever here was.
What she’d taken for a glade was actually a bight in the living palisade of trees that girt the small island, a grassy cove dominated by a stone-curbed fire pit. It was fully dark, now, but Étaín could still see the black lake beyond, its surface gleaming like a sheet of dark ice. It was snowing; fat flakes hissed and died in the crackling flames rising from the pit.
She twisted to see what was behind her. Red-orange light sent shadows writhing along the tree-walls; the boughs overhead laced together like a roof, its autumnal thatch sparse, now, with the onset of winter. At the deepest part of the bight an ash tree and a mighty yew stood with their branches and the upper reaches of their trunks woven together; the bases of these two trees did not touch. Indeed, enough space existed between them that they formed an opening in the living palisade — an ominous black gate into the heart of the island. She saw Grimnir a few paces behind her, staring at this dark aperture.
“Why are my hands tied?” she muttered, her words slurred from the swelling in her jaw. The silver cross that had belonged to Hrolf Asgrimm’s son was gone; no doubt he had sent it to the bottom of the black lake.
Grimnir did not move. His chest expanded as he took a deep snuffling breath and held it before exhaling. When he finally turned toward her, a frown etched his craggy brow. “The taint of your kind reaches even here,” he said. He moved to where she sat.
“Loose me,” she said.
With a grunt, Grimnir leaned her forward and checked the knots that bound her hands in place.
“You stay like that for now,” he said.
“For your own good.” Grimnir walked around to the other side of the fire and sat on a seat sawn from the trunk of a fallen oak. His eyes gleamed in the light, feverish and bright.
Étaín shifted around, trying to find a more comfortable way of sitting; while not tight, the leather cords kept her arms at an uncomfortable angle. Was this punishment? His way of chastising her for trying to run away?
“Where do the Danes gather in England, eh?”
Étaín looked up. The question caught her off guard. She shook her head. “It’s been a year and more since I’ve been there,” she replied. “But, some used to make their camp on the Isle of Wight, just off the coast of Wessex.”
“That’s where he’ll be, the miserable bastard. That maggot, Half-Dane! He’ll hide out among his mother’s people and try to convince them he’s a gold-giver and a war leader. Ha! Wretched oathbreaker, that’s what he is.” Grimnir stood and paced like a caged wolf. “He’s another who plays his part well. A few years back, he had that idiot, King Haakon of the Norse, convinced he was a powerful goði. The fool wouldn’t move an inch against the rebel sons of Eirik Bloodaxe, who schemed to boot him off the throne, until his pet priest had cast the runes. Well, I got wind of it and tracked the lot of them up-country to a wretched pisshole called Rastarkalv.” Grimnir spat into the fire.
“Haakon was a crafty one. Knew the rebels were coming. He played a ruse to convince Bloodaxe’s sons they were outnumbered. Fools fell for it. They took to their heels and Haakon’s dogs reaped a bloody harvest among them. I left them to it, circled round, and came at Haakon’s camp from the north. That’s where I found him, Half-Dane, crouched over the runes like he knew what he was about.” Grimnir laughed at the memory. “Wasn’t expecting me. The swine! My coming was spelled out right there in the runes and still he was blind to it. Well, he had enough sand in his belly to trade a few blows, but when it went ill for him he took off like a March hare. I nearly had him, but we ran full into Haakon and his guard.” Grimnir stopped pacing; his eyes grew stern and deadly as he glared at something beyond the firelight, behind Étaín. “This time, he won’t have a score of Norse rogues to hide behind.”
“Rastarkalv?” Étaín said, after a moment. Her brows knitted. “That was more than a few years ago. Njáll’s grandsire fought alongside Haakon the Good. But . . . if you fought Half-Dane, there, and he also sailed with Njáll and Olaf Tryggve’s son, then wouldn’t Bjarki Half-Dane be an old man, by now?”
Suddenly, Étaín heard a trio of voices at her back. Harsh and rasping voices, like three different sizes of stones grinding together in a mockery of speech.
“Use your wits, niðingr…”
“He is only half a Dane…”
“Whence comes his father’s blood, eh?”
She stiffened as that same feeling of unnatural hatred, of cold menace returned; it crept up her spine, threatening to freeze the heart in her breast. Eyes wide with terror, Étaín turned…
Three gaunt figures emerged from the opening in the living palisade of trees. They were naked save for twists of filthy hide knotted about their loins. Their skins were as pale as curdled milk, their hair and beards black, stringy, and matted; they stood as tall as Grimnir though their limbs were heavier and gnarled with age. The eyes staring out from their seamed faces, beneath bushy brows, were dead and black—as lifeless as the eyes of a shark.
They stared at Étaín with an insatiable hunger.
Grimnir moved around the fire. “Nóri, Nótt, and Náli,” he growled. “My wretched cousins.”
The three figures stopped. The largest of them, Nóri, stood only a handful of paces from Grimnir; the other two—Nótt and the crookbacked runt, Náli—crouched in their brother’s shadow.
“Why have you come here, son of Bálegyr?” said Nóri. “We have no truck with the one you seek.”
Nótt pointed a dirty, accusing finger at Grimnir. “When has one of Bálegyr’s brood ever come before the sons of Náinn and not asked a boon, eh, my brother?”
“He has brought tribute.” Náli dared to dart in close and sniffed the air above where Étaín was sitting. “A gift, brothers! One of his… a woman of the White Christ!”
Grimnir slapped Náli away. “Back, maggot!”
Náli squeaked and sought refuge in the shadow of his brothers. “The kaunr wants something,” they muttered and hissed to one another. “What do you want, son of Bálegyr? Does he want gold? What is gold to us, eh? A sword, then? A blade forged in dragon fire by the hands of the mightiest smiths of the dvergar? Are we not the sons of Náinn, cousin? What does he want, eh? What does he want?”
“I want to walk the branches of Yggðrasil,” Grimnir said. “Like my father did of old. I want to take the Ash-Road!”
The dvergar—dwarves, for such is what Étaín heard them call themselves—seemed taken aback by Grimnir’s request. They huddled together, whispering. Finally, Nótt stepped forth. “And where would you go, cousin? Not to Ásgarðr, for you are the last of your kind to yet face the Doom of Odin. Would you seek jarls and gold-givers among Angrboða’s kin in Jotunheimr, or would you wander the mists of Niflheimr, never to plague Miðgarðr again?”
“Faugh! I am not fool enough to tempt those whores of Fate, the Norns, by leaving Miðgarðr,” Grimnir replied. “Yggðrasil’s branches pierce this world in countless places. Work your sorcery, cousins, and open a path that leads across the sea to England, to the shores of a place called Wessex.”
Once again, the dvergar babbled among themselves. Étaín’s eyes flickered from the three horrid brothers to Grimnir and back, again. Yggðrasil? Norns? Ásgarðr? These were stories and fables made up by the heathens to explain the world around them. Myths that could not stand before the truth of Christ the Redeemer. To hear them talk so freely of them, as if they truly existed, filled Étaín with a curious sense of dread.
Finally, the strongest of the brothers, Nóri, silenced the other two. “It is not as it was in olden times, cousin. The power of the White Christ rises like an unwanted weed in the garden. It chokes the life from the Old Ways and threatens the very roots of Yggðrasil. We can do this thing you ask, but the outcome is not as certain as it was in your sire’s day. And there is a price. A blood price.” Nóri leered at Étaín and licked his lips.
Grimnir’s eyes narrowed. “You sell yourselves cheap, beardling. There’s not enough meat on her bones for one of you, much less three. And why would I pay three to do the work of one?” Like a conjurer, Grimnir produced a pair of old dice carved from bone. “You maggots throw for it. The winner opens the way and gets the prize. Share it or not, that’s your own business.”
Avarice brought a gleam of life to the three brothers’ eyes; they glanced sidelong at one another. Nóri chuckled. “We will take your wager, cousin.”
Étaín struggled against her bonds. “You bastard! I thought… I thought you needed my help?”
Grimnir ignored her. He tossed the dice at the feet of the dvergar. Like dogs fighting over a scrap of meat, they went at one another in an effort to lay hands on the dice. Amid all the shouting, punching, kicking, and cursing, Grimnir leaned down and grabbed Étaín by the hair, dragging her close.
“Watch, and be silent,” he hissed.
Suddenly, Nóri emerged from the scrum with the dice held high. Crowing like he’d won a great victory, he chivvied his brothers into some semblance of order and quickly sketched out their game: the winner would be whichever one scored the best in three out of five throws.
With a derisive chuckle that even Étaín could barely hear, Grimnir seated himself on the log and watched the three of them go at it. The first three throws took over an hour, with Nóri and Nótt squabbling over even the tiniest nuance, from acceptable stances for throwing to what the phrase “out of bounds” truly meant; crookbacked Náli accepted their every pronouncement in stoic silence and rolled highest every time he touched the dice. Clearly, he was in the lead . . . until Nóri declared his last two throws invalid because he couldn’t stand up straight.
On the fourth throw, Nótt jiggled Náli’s elbow, causing one of the dice to fly off toward the edge of the lake. The two elder brothers went bounding after it, capering like bearded children. “It plays where it lays, you worm!” Nóri shouted. Demoralized, cheated of his victory, Náli shuffled after them.
But as the crookbacked dvergr passed by where Grimnir sat, the latter snagged his arm and drew him close. Étaín saw a flash of iron as something passed between the two; Grimnir gave the runt a knowing wink. Náli blinked; he glanced sidelong from Grimnir to his deceitful brothers and tried without success to hide a gap-toothed smile.
Finally, the dice flew for the fifth and final time. Twisted little Náli was the clear winner, but it was Nóri who stepped forward. Nótt, ever the sycophant, cleaved to his brother’s shadow, muttering endearments and licking his cracked lips at the thought of being permitted a taste of flesh, a drop of blood. Sullen Náli stood behind them, his face suffused with black rage.
“I’ll take that prize now, cousin,” Nóri said, a gloating smile twisting his features. He started toward Étaín.
And with a strangled cry, Náli struck.
The crookbacked runt shouldered Nótt aside; the knife Grimnir gave him flashed in the firelight as he planted it hilt-deep in his elder brother’s neck. Nóri stumbled, his scream of agony turned to a wet gurgle by the rush of black, foul-smelling blood. Étaín saw disbelief written on the dvergr’s face. He took a step toward them, and then dropped like a stiffened board, as dead as Judas.
For an instant, no one moved; save for the crackling of logs on the fire, the cove was absolutely silent and still. Suddenly, a peal of tittering laughter ripped from Náli’s breast. The runt capered and danced. But, as he whirled in place, crowing and crooning, it was Nótt’s turn to strike. Snarling like an animal, the middle brother came up off the ground and wrapped his long fingers around Náli’s throat. The runt’s crowing turned to screeching as Nótt bore him down; they thrashed and struggled, rolling and twisting and tearing as Grimnir and Étaín looked on. Nótt’s clawed fingers tore ribbons of skin from the flesh of Náli’s throat; for his part, the crookbacked runt tried to gouge his brother’s eyes out.
“Look at the high-and-mighty sons of Náinn, now,” Grimnir said. Náli’s bulging eyes implored him for help as Nótt throttled him atop the blood-spattered corpse of Nóri. “Driven to murder by dice and the promise of flesh.” Grimnir spat. He rose off the log and crossed to the struggling dvergar. Before either one could react, he grabbed a handful of Nótt’s hair, wrenched his head back near to breaking, and — in one smooth motion — drew his seax and ripped it across the dwarf’s throat. A fountain of foul black blood jetted from the ragged wound; it drenched Náli, who coughed and wheezed as he dragged himself free of his dying brother’s grasp.
Even still, the dvergr wanted his prize. He rolled onto his belly and scuttled toward Étaín, hunger and lust filling his dead black eyes with an unholy light. His brother’s stinking lifeblood dripped down his face. Náli licked the gore from his lips; faster he came, like some obscene crab. Étaín recoiled, tried to get her feet under her. She shrank from the thought of Náli’s foul touch.
Inches from her, Grimnir caught him. He planted a foot in the dvergr’s twisted back, slamming the runt to the ground and driving out what little air he had left in his lungs with an explosive whuff.
“Your life is mine, beardling,” Grimnir said. “Open the way.”
Náli struggled to draw breath. “Will… Will y-you honor our bargain?”
“There is no bargain. Your life is mine. Open the way or I’ll carve maggot holes in your belly, you miserable runt!” Reaching down, Grimnir knotted his fingers in Náli’s hair and hauled him upright. He gestured to Étaín. On unsteady legs, she clambered to her feet. “Turn around,” he said, and with one stroke of his seax Grimnir severed her bonds. Trusting she would follow, Grimnir dragged Náli toward the opening in the palisade of trees.
Étaín watched them a moment; then, she caught up Grimnir’s pack and hurried after him. “You… You had no intention of bartering me to them, then?”
“Why would I?” Grimnir paused, giving her a chance to catch up. Náli writhed in his grip. “You need to open your eyes, little fool. Three to one? Now the odds are more to my liking.” He shook the crookbacked dvergr like a sack. “Isn’t that right, cousin?”
“You lied!” Náli screeched. “Ymir blast your eyes!”
“I never said what your prize would be, did I, beardling?”
“They assumed…” said Étaín.
“Aye, the fools assumed.” Grimnir turned Náli loose and shoved him toward the opening in the trees; the twisted dwarf walked slowly ahead of Grimnir, scowling in his beard and fingering his bruised throat. He passed through the wood-wrought doorway.
The woven wall of trunks towered above Étaín’s head. It was impossibly ancient, a fortress of gnarled trees and interlaced branches. Slender birches coiled around the boles of mammoth yew trees, while oaks that were young when Christ was a boy erupted in a profusion of tangled shoots and branches that wove in and out among the hawthorn and the beech. Along the edges, like guards tasked with keeping a crowd at bay, stood countless ash trees, from tender saplings to hoary old gray-barks that must have seen the dawn of the world. Étaín hesitated on the threshold of the gate, shivering at the thought of what might lie beyond. Was it truly Yggðrasil, the mythical World Tree? Or was it just some bit of heathen mummery that flourished in the shadows, where the Word of God did not yet reach?
“Go on.” Grimnir’s hand thrust her across the threshold. She gasped. But, despite the cold knot of apprehension in her belly, Étaín marveled at the sublime beauty that existed inside the tree-garth. It was a cathedral, of sorts, a heathen shrine made from living wood. Dwarf-wrought lamps, like fantastic beasts hammered from copper and bronze, cast pools of silver or gold or red light. They illuminated an intricate pattern on the floor, a labyrinth of knotted roots that made their footing treacherous. At the heart of the garth grew a primeval ash tree.
“Yggðrasil,” she heard Grimnir mutter.
Étaín coughed. The air here was heavy with the scent of ancient vegetation, of moist earth and leaf mold. From far above, she could hear the rustle of the wind, the flutter of wings, and the faint chittering of a squirrel.
They followed Náli. The dvergr approached the tree with a sense of reverence, like a priest attending his god; Grimnir’s wolfish face bore an almost childlike look of wonder, though his eyes never lost their cold and calculating gleam—ever did he look like a merchant who marveled at his gold even as he appraised its worth. Étaín herself stepped carefully toward that knotty and twisted goliath with a deep sense of foreboding.
Before the ash tree, and cradled by its living roots, stood a stone basin filled with glowing embers. The great tree’s trunk was hollow with age, and set inside it was an arched doorway made from rough-hewn stones, each one carved with a serpentine trail of runes. Beyond the doorway was darkness so utter and complete that Étaín wondered if it was not some trick of the light; harder to explain, though, was the bone-chilling breeze that wafted from the doorway.
Then, something happened that Étaín did not expect: the sullen dvergr passed his hand over the basin of embers. Instantly, blue-tinged flames leapt up and curled around his fingers. Étaín recoiled in terror — this was no mere hedge witchery, but an ancient sorcery as old as stone and bough; it was the Devil’s bailiwick, and simply witnessing it meant she strayed perilously close to damnation. Out of reflex, she crossed herself . . .
Náli reacted as though she had struck him; the sorcerous flames wavered. “Ai! Curse you, niðingr! Your White Christ has no place here! Lop off her hands and rip out her tongue, cousin, lest she bring the wrath of the Æsir down upon our heads!” Náli trembled and clutched at his temples.
Grimnir seized her by the scruff of the neck. “Leave off, you blasted hymn-singer,” he growled. “And none of your miserable air crosses, either.”
Étaín did not reply, though a small voice in the back of her mind wondered what would happen if she flourished a crucifix and sang out the Lord’s Prayer. After a moment Náli regained his composure. He shook himself, as though clearing his mind of a foul memory. The flames sprang full to life. The crookbacked dvergr stared deep into the heart of the basin, and in a harsh, croaking voice he began to chant.
Étaín could not understand the words; they were guttural and repetitive, but the rhythm of Náli’s voice gave the blasphemous suggestion of a heartbeat—as though he tried by savage words to awaken something long dormant. The chill breeze gusted, causing the eerie blue flames to dance and waver. Something deep in the earth shivered, running through root and bole and causing the branches overhead to rustle and shake.
Náli’s voice dropped to a low growl:
The ash, as it stands.
The old tree groans,
And the giant slips free.”
The dvergr nodded to Grimnir. Still holding Étaín by the scruff, he pulled her with him to stand before the stone-bordered doorway, covered now in a rime of frost. The blackness beyond writhed and roiled like a living thing. Sounds came forth, distant and phantasmal: the clash of steel, the roar of voices, music, harsh laughter, the cries of the dying, howling and monstrous grunting and tearing—the din of the Nine Worlds echoing through the roots of Yggðrasil. Étaín clasped her fists together, biting her knuckles to keep from calling out to the Almighty for succor.
Beside her, Étaín felt Grimnir stiffen; Náli had fallen silent and the sudden end of his chanting raised the skraelingr’s hackles. Grimnir turned . . .
Suddenly, both of them staggered forward as the dvergr rammed Grimnir in the small of the back. Long-fingered hands tried to strip Étaín from his grasp. She had a brief glimpse of Náli’s eyes, no longer dead black but alive with lust and vengeance; Étaín screamed. With a bitter oath, Grimnir twisted his body, wrapping her in a protective embrace; with his free hand, he snatched a handful of Náli’s beard, dragging the crookbacked dvergr off balance. The echo of their struggle ended abruptly as all three tumbled through the doorway, vanishing into the heart of Yggðrasil . . .
Étaín fell into darkness, wrapped in soul-searing cold, her ears battered by the clash of iron and the screams of the dying. She opened her eyes and…
… winces as an eerie light stabs down from the green-tinted sky. Ferocious clouds boil across the horizon; lightning slashes like drawn steel and thunder rumbles with the roar of kettledrums, calling the ravens to war. Ahead of her, a hillock rises from the windswept plain. Not of stone or earth, this knoll, but of naked bone—a cairn of skulls. Empty eye sockets glare at her; yellowed teeth gnash in the keening wind as tongueless mouths seek to give voice to their scorn. They are the dead of Exeter. Dead because of her.
Dead because she opened the gate to the Danes.
Godwin slept like an exhausted old fool. He’d spent himself early, rutting in her like a swine in heat despite the fires and the raucous howls of the Danes at the gate. It was nothing to slip from his filthy bed; like a ghost, she drifted from the old fool’s house. No one paid her any heed—she was nothing, less than a whore, that silly orphan from Glastonbury old Godwin had bought to scratch a familiar itch—and soon she’d crept through the heart of the city. She avoided the embattled main gate, where a handful of archers kept Red Njáll’s reavers at bay, their arrows shattering on shield and corselet. Étaín padded through the shadows along the wall until she came to a small, forgotten postern gate. Its guard, an old soldier named Hereward, slept as soundly as her wretched husband. He snored on as she unbarred the gate; he smacked his lips, dreaming of wine and tits, as she took his lantern and signaled to the invading Danes; old Hereward was still smiling when a reaver’s knife slit his throat. She walked down to the dragon ships as the first screams echoed over doomed Exeter . . .
She stumbles to her knees, hands clasped in supplication. She wants to speak but she has no voice; she wants to beg forgiveness but she cannot find the words. The eyes of the dead bore into her. Accusing. Judging. She wants to scream but she has no breath; she wants to crawl away but shame shackles her. She sinks lower, the weight of her crime doubling her over, grinding her brow into the cold earth.
Can the dead understand? Can they understand the burden of being a foundling—motherless and fatherless, unwanted, left by the back gate of a cloister like something unclean? Can the dead understand a childhood bereft of love? Can they understand innocence lost in an abbot’s bed, and the shame at being sold for Judas-coin once the first blush of womanhood has faded? Can the dead understand what it is to want to die?
But she does not ask, and the dead do not answer. There is no release in their hollow gaze, no forgiveness. A shadow falls over her. Weeping tears of dust, she raises her eyes to the heavens and beholds a glorious sight: a cross rising from the crest of the hillock, and from that cross hangs the silhouette of a man. A crucified man.
The Christ! He is risen, and He brings with him redemption, for is He not the Redeemer of the World? Hope fills her breast. If she can only reach Him . . . He is the way and the truth and the life. His blessing is absolution; in His gentle smile she will know eternal peace.
She wills her limbs to move, scuttling forward on her belly like a crab to clamber up the steep-sided cairn. The earth trembles. Bone clatters in an avalanche of skulls. Desperate, she scrabbles higher, pulling herself over leering skeletal faces. Teeth splinter beneath her heels; her knees crush eye sockets and nasal cavities, and the thin sutures knitting together plates of bone pop under her weight. She gropes and claws her way to the crest of the hillock, reaching out, entreating the Christ to absolve her . . .
The earth heaves; the cairn beneath surges and ebbs, and she rides the swell like a leaf on Rán’s breast. The skulls of Exeter’s dead fall away to reveal ancient bark, gnarled and mossy—the root-knotted base of a monolithic tree. Deep crevices surround her, black and blood-reeking chasms that echo with war chants and ring with the rasp and slither of iron. She looks up, suddenly fearful. The figure of the Christ vanishes, and beneath spreading boughs like great storm clouds she beholds a crucified titan, one-eyed and fey-bearded, with a pair of giant ravens perched on his naked shoulders.
The great birds stare at her; their coal-black eyes glitter with malign intelligence. They ruffle their feathers, shaking their bodies and flexing their enormous wings. In unison, with voices that reverberate like brazen horns, they chant:
“From Serpent-girdled Miðgarðr, | by the Ash-Road,
Comes Laufeyjarson’s blunder: | filth-born skraelingr,
Against Odin’s Doom; | and with him a child
Sworn to the Nailed One, | foe of all.”
The titan stirs, tendons in his neck creaking like ship’s cordage as his massive head turns. He looks left, then right, gray beard sweeping across his chest. Then, with agonizing slowness, he leans forward—a man seeking the insect that bedevils him. Mastering her fear, she raises her head and meets his gaze. The socket of his left eye is black and empty; the right, however, is the color of a storm-racked sea. It pierces her, flaying her courage, leaving her naked under its cold and terrible scrutiny. In its depths images take form… visions…
She sees a wood-wreathed ship tossed upon winter’s foaming waves. A man stands beneath the dragon prow; his red-bearded visage is familiar to her, though careworn now and scarred by rage, loss, and a thirst for vengeance. “I will find you,” he mutters, his words lost to the tempest. “By Odin, I swear it!”
The rain becomes the swirling smoke of a mighty bonfire, its flames curling up into the night sky. Waves crash in the distance, and harsh laughter echoes about the strand. A dozen men sit around the fire—men with plaited beards and amulets carved of bone, cold-eyed and angry, hands caressing sword hilt and axe haft. Their leader, a hunched and spine-twisted giant with a beard like tarry thatch, laughs loudest of all as he jabs an accusing finger at the newcomer. “I remember you. You were King Olaf’s man. Why would you serve me? Why should I trust you, son of Hjálmarr, when last I recall you were panting for my blood on the beach at Scilly?”
The laughter turns to the shouts and screams of dying men on a corpse-strewn moor, a coppery sun sinking into the western mists. The giant is prone in the gore-slimed heather; he claws for the hilt-shard of a broken sword as his foeman, a broad-backed Saxon in chain and wolf fur, plants a foot on his chest and is poised to ram an iron-headed spear into his throat. The red-bearded man—graying, now, and blood-blasted—appears from the mist and catches the Saxon unawares. His axe bites deep into his foeman’s spine. He stares down at the fallen giant as twilight descends. “Stay alive, you bastard,” he says. “I need you as bait!”
Twilight turns to darkness, and the man to a twisted ash tree limned against the star-flecked sky. Beneath its boughs is a smoking altar, and the air is thick with incense and the reek of blood. Hands drag her forward; those same hands strip her naked and wrestle her spread-eagled onto the altar. A priest hovers into view—gray-bearded and one-eyed, an iron dagger in his upraised fist. He invokes the Allfather, a dozen voices joining his own, and as the chant reaches its crescendo the priest drives the blade into her bare breast. She screams…
… and recoils from the titan’s doom-laden glare. He laughs, then—a sound like the thunder of war drums, loud enough to crack the foundations of Heaven. She scurries back, to the bark-ragged edge of a root chasm; there, with the titan’s laughter thudding against her ribs, she stumbles. Her foot catches on a knurl of wood and for a terrifying moment she hangs over the abyss, arms flailing, feet seeking a purchase that is not there. She draws breath to scream anew… but before she can utter a sound she plummets into darkness.
And it is sound that catches her. Sound like salt wrack slapping against a hull, like the creak of oarlocks; sound caresses her trembling limbs; horns blare and pipes skirl, their discordant song punctuated by the scrape of iron on bone. Beneath it all, staccato throbs like the beating of an immense heart, matching the rhythm set by the thudding of the distant drum. She listens as the sounds weave into a tale, a ballad of iron…
Wild was Grimnir | when he arose,
And when his snake-cunning | foeman he missed;
He shook his head, | his hair was bristling,
As the son of Náinn | about him sought.
The glow in Náli’s eyes | was like forge-gledes,
As bloody revenge | for his brothers burned deep;
Under the ash he waited | and gathered his strength,
His teeth he gnashed | and his breath was venom.
“Give heed, Bálegyr’s son, | for here I am
No starveling runt;
False is thy tongue, | and soon shalt thou find
That it sings thee an evil song.”
“Bold in the shadows, | is Náinn’s bastard,
Náli, adorner of benches!
Come forth and fight, | if thou would best me,
And I shall teach thee the dirge of the vanquished!”
Swift as a storm | they smote together,
In the murk-wrought tangle | at Miðgarðr’s edge;
Born of hate was Grimnir, | Nótt’s slayer,
Who set his corpse-wand | against the flesh of Ymir.
In the hilt was hatred, | in the haft was treachery,
In the point was fear, | for the skraelingr’s foe;
On the blade were carved | blood-flecked runes,
And a serpent’s tail | round the flat was twisted.
Ill went the grappling | for the pale son of Náinn,
Who ran from the fray | on craven’s feet;
Dreadful and dark-cheeked | came Bálegyr’s get,
Into the maggot-holes | that wounded Yggr’s steed.
(Then Grimnir spake, | scorn dripping from the gates of breath:
“Why dost thou flee, beardling? | Hast thou
No stomach for Odin’s weather?”)
In the shadows Náli chanted, | weaving potent charms;
He sang a song of darkness | and reddening fires,
And its echo reached | the deeps of Niðafjoll
To rouse from slumber | Hel’s draugr-serpent.
Wreathed in corpse-reek, | came the fierce-raging wyrm
And the Ash-Road groaned | ’neath its evil weight;
The skraelingr met it, | war-grim and bitter,
To test night-bringer’s edge | against bone-clad coils.
(Then Náli spake, | to match scorn with scorn:
“Where is thy boast, cousin, | now that
The weather has turned against thee?”)
With clash of iron, | mighty hammer on anvil,
The strife-bringer | twisted sore in wrath;
Away sprang Grimnir, | though not in fear,
For Fate had spared his foe | till Gjallarhorn’s song.
Away sprang Bálegyr’s son, | across the Ash-Road
With shoulders cloaked | in the skin of the wolf-father;
The serpent gave chase, | goaded by Náli,
And with him | came the Doom of Odin.
Sound and darkness fade, leaving her awash in green-tinged light — not the eerie glow of storm wrack like before, but rather the gleam of sunlight through a canopy of leaves. She opens her eyes and dares to try and perceive of her surroundings…
She is supine upon a branch — the smallest branch of a tree so vast and complex that her mind cannot fully comprehend its enormity; even still, two horse-drawn wagons could traverse this branch abreast and one need never worry the other about slipping over the edge. She stands, her legs unsteady. The branch juts forth from an impossible tangle of limbs, follows a convoluted path, and then plunges back into that leafy mass. Beyond, she discerns an eternal darkness stippled with stars yet brimming with radiance, a universe of contradictions: a windswept emptiness filled with raucous silence; sterile and desiccated but smelling of moist vegetation; dead yet vibrantly alive. Far above, in the mist-wreathed branches at the edge of her vision, three wood-woven spheres catch her eye; from them streams light like that of cold, caged suns — yellow, green, and white, the shades of spring sunlight filtering through leaf and bough. Each a drey that might encompass a world. Each like the one whose edge she stands upon.
Without warning, a violent tremor snatches her feet out from under her. She lands hard, the rough bark stripping the skin from her palms; blood wells from these abrasions, filling the air with a rich coppery scent.
She can see the stench rising before her; it drifts and coils like scarlet vapor, a beacon to whatever nameless hunters might prowl the spaces between worlds. She clenches her fists, tries to make it dissipate. She mutters a prayer.
In answer, there comes an earsplitting howl. She clambers to her feet, suddenly fearful, and heads back the way she came. Barely a half-dozen steps does she take before something explodes from the wall of branches. She skids to a stop.
Through a veil of dust, she spies a wolf loping toward her. It is a dusky beast, thrice the height of a tall man at the shoulders, with hackles bristling and eyes aflame in the shadow of Miðgarðr.
Familiar eyes, the angry red hue of a blacksmith’s forge.
A skraelingr’s eyes.
And on the wolf’s heels comes a writhing horror, a bone-scaled serpent drawn from the abyss of nightmare — a son of Níðhoggr, feral-eyed and pale; she reckons by its ravenous gaze that no amount of flesh can slake its hunger. But it will try. And it will start with her. Giving an inarticulate scream, she turns and runs.
The wolf is bestride her in a pace, its rank breath hot against her neck; eyes squeezed shut, a prayer on her lips, she braces for the deathblow — glad, on one hand, to die quickly rather than see her flesh dissolved in the serpent’s maw. But it doesn’t rend her limb from limb. Instead, the beast snatches her up in midstep, cradling her in its fierce jaws as a mother would its cub. Then, without breaking stride, the wolf veers right and springs out over the abyss. For a frozen instant they hang over nothingness. Even on the threshold of death, curiosity draws her eye to the deeps beneath Miðgarðr, to the shadowy roots of Yggðrasil, where for half the span of a heartbeat she glimpses the stone-curbed Well of Urðar and the three women who gather by its waters. They return her scrutiny with equal parts amusement, indifference, and naked spite.
And then… bone-jarring impact. Claws scrabble and tear at the wood as the wolf seeks purchase, pulling itself up onto the dangerously creaking branch. It glances back, allowing her to see the span it had leapt across, leaving the serpent to writhe and hiss in fury. The wolf gives a low growl, almost like gloating laughter — a sound it chokes off as an eerie shadow falls across the branch. A titan’s shadow.
With a frenetic burst of speed, the wolf — she a limp rag of flesh in its jaws — launches itself at the point where the branch rejoins the tangled lattice of wood and mud, where an unnatural arch of rune-carved stone lurks beneath a gloomy overhang. The wolf makes a wild lunge for that arch even as the branch shatters and breaks apart under its feet, a victim of the titan’s wrath.
She screams. It is too far; they will not make it…
Suddenly, perspectives shift. The scale of this reality distorts, as though sure hands weave a new thread into the fabric of this place. In her mind’s eye, she sees the three women gathered around the Well of Urðar: a crone, carved of gristle and whalebone; a noblewoman, clad in silk and gold; and a thin-shanked girl, sickly and cancerous. Amused, indifferent, and spiteful. And what should have been a plummet into the endless abyss between worlds becomes instead a fall of a different kind: into the darkness beneath the arch, back into the world of Men.
Wrapped in soul-searing cold, her ears battered by the clash of iron and the screams of the dying, Étaín fell . . .
She did not fall from any great height — simply from standing to prone — but Étaín’s senses convinced her she had traveled an immeasurable distance. She landed hard, pain flaring up through her arms as she tried to catch herself. Something crunched under her, a sickening sound like bones snapping. Étaín lay there on her belly, wrapped in the stench of wood dust and crumbled cerecloth, gasping for breath like a fish cast upon the shore. Chills and spasms racked her body. A harrowing light stabbed into her eyes, drawing a blinding wash of tears.
“C-Christ… Almighty…” she managed.
Groaning, Étaín rolled onto her back and struggled to sit, old bones snapping under her hips. For one terrifying instant she remembered: a cairn of skulls falling away beneath her, a one-eyed titan, a ravenous serpent. Clutching at the air in panic, she scrabbled back until her shoulders thumped against a rough stone wall. “W-What happened?” Étaín gasped; her eyes widened with shock. “Where… Where are… ?”
She heard a chuckle, then. Peering into the gloom, she discerned a shape sitting across from her, a silhouette in a patch of darker shadow. A chill skated down her spine, forming a cold knot in her belly as she recalled again the vile dwarf Náli — with his grasping fingers and lifeless eyes. “Who’s there?” she whispered. “Grimnir?”
The figure leaned forward; milky light trickling in from above cast Grimnir’s wolfish face in sharp relief. He tossed his head back. Fetishes of ivory and silver clicked in his stringy black hair, and his eyes gleamed coal-red from beneath dusky brows. “Do I look like that wretched beardling?”
“Where is he?” Étaín said. She glanced around, her eyes slowly adjusting to the murk. Gone were the dwarf-made lamps and the stone basin with its peculiar blue flames; instead, they sat in a stone-flagged chamber with a low ceiling. Tree roots pushed down from above and in through the walls, gnarled tendrils that long ago shattered a stone sarcophagus set into the center of the chamber. “He… He was behind me. Tried to grab me.” She looked at Grimnir. “Where has he gone . . . ?”
“To rot in Helheimr, if the Norns be fair.” Grimnir grunted. “Nár! I don’t know where the wretch got off to. But he skinned out of there, quick as you please. Should have knifed that maggot right after he opened the way. Filthy night-skulker!”
A chill skated down Étaín’s spine, forming a cold knot in her belly. “He must have drugged us… yes, something in the smoke of his fire… some poison or other… some mountebank’s trick to make us think he was a sorcerer, to make us see his visions of blasphemy!”
“No tricks. No smokes or poisons. No wretched visions. We walked the Ash-Road.” Grimnir rocked back on his haunches. When he spoke again there was a note of reverence in his voice, a tone that reminded her of the respect he’d paid to Hrolf Asgrimm’s son. “The Ash-Road! The limbs of mighty Yggðrasil, whose branches twist and weave through all of creation, from Ásgarðr down to the cold roots of Niflheimr, and the rest of the Nine Worlds. Bálegyr walked it; old Gífr, too, after the Æsir drove my people from Jotunheimr. And now I have walked it.”
“No!” Étaín shook her head. She stands upon a branch — the smallest branch of a vast tree — far above, three wood-woven spheres — from them streams light like that of cold, caged suns — yellow, green, and white — each a drey that might encompass a world… “Impossible! Your heathen myths are nothing but smoke and mummery — lies whispered by agents of the Devil! I cannot believe —”
“That’s twice you’ve called me a liar, little fool.” Grimnir rose. “Try it a third time and you’ll regret it.” Unable to stand upright, he slouched and shuffled, kicking aside a pelvis and smashing a skeletal rib cage as he searched for a way out of the chamber. He stopped and glanced sidelong at her. “You can’t believe we walked the Ash-Road, but you can believe your Nailed God walked on water, turned it to wine, and came back from the dead?”
“Because it is so written.”
“So-ho! It is written, eh? But you didn’t see him do it, did you? Did your father see him do it? No? Did your mother’s brother see him do it, and then tell the rest of you lot the tale over the council fires? No? But I’m wrong and you — with your miserable books and a paltry score of years to stand on — are right? Even after seeing the Ash-Road with your own blasted eyes?”
“I saw only the Devil’s handiwork,” she said stubbornly.
Without warning, Grimnir bent; she watched him snatch something from a pile of debris. As he straightened, he lobbed it at her. Étaín flinched from reflex. The small missile struck her shoulder and bounced into her lap — a heavy, bright bauble, the tongue of a sword belt whose leather had long ago rotted away. Knots woven of gold filigree gleamed as though they were crafted yesterday.
“Give that to your Nailed God,” he muttered, chuckling. “As payment for the fine wool he’s got covering your eyes.”
“I pity you,” she said. Étaín did not try to hide her scorn. She was tired of dancing around as though on eggshells for fear she might offend him. “I pity you and I will pray for your salvation.”
“Save your breath,” Grimnir replied, matching her scorn with his own. “That wretch, Half-Dane, has more need of your pity than I do. His day of reckoning is coming!”
“Nevertheless, it is you I pity.” Étaín got her legs under her; using roots and jutting stones in the chamber wall, she pulled herself upright. Her limbs yet shook and her vision swam at the edges, but she could stand. “I may be narrow-minded in my thinking; there may be things under Heaven and under earth that I do not understand, things that I fear; things whose existence I will deny to my last breath, but it is not my world that is fading away. You’ve said it yourself: you’re the last of your kind. You claim the Old World is ending, but you need not end with it. Njáll was wrong — in the eyes of Christ, even a devil like you can find redemption. Forget this ridiculous errand of yours, this foolish quest for revenge! Peace and salvation can be yours, simply by asking —”
Grimnir rounded on her. “Ridiculous, is it? Foolish?” Spittle flew from yellowed fangs; he was on her in a heartbeat, knotting one fist in her hair and dragging her close. “Tell it to the scores of kaunar that bastard betrayed in Jutland, when he led the Spear-Danes against them! Tell it to Hrungnir, my brother, who was murdered by Half-Dane’s hand! The dead don’t clamor for salvation, little fool! They clamor for blood! My brother’s shade shrieks for it, and for vengeance! And that’s what he’ll get, as the gods are my witness!” Grimnir shoved her away. “Peace? Faugh! Keep your Nailed God’s empty promises. I want no part of this milk-blooded world you hymn-singers bring with you.”
Étaín stumbled back and fought to keep her balance. “It doesn’t matter that you want no part of it,” she replied. “The world is what it is, and unless you plan to cut your own throat you are a part of it. In your father’s world, you might have walked through a tree to cross an ocean, but in our world you needs must have a boat—and the boats we need are to the west. But you tarry about the heart of Sjælland in hopes of what? Finding a magic door to England? Faugh, as you say! Lead us west, and perhaps together we can find a way across the ocean, to where your prey waits!”
Grimnir, though, merely grunted and shuffled to the far end of the chamber, where a passage doglegged off — presumably leading to the outside world. He vanished; a moment later she heard the impact of his hobnailed sandal on ancient wood. Once. Twice. With the third blow came a splintering sound as that end of the chamber suddenly suffused with light.
Grimnir laughed. “Who tarries now, foundling?”
Étaín stifled a sob of frustration. She moved slowly, dragging her feet across the dusty chamber as sharp-toothed hunger gnawed at her belly. She was cold. She was angry. Her heart yet broke for Njáll, her worry for him greater even than her concern for herself. And now this unending nightmare: lost in the wilds of Sjælland and forced to wander until… until what? Until that wretch decided to listen to her advice? I’ll sooner see winged swine in the heavens! But with a prayer poised on her lips, a plea for this nightmare to end, Étaín followed Grimnir out into the light.
Rotten splinters of wood crunched underfoot as she emerged from the heart of an ancient chambered cairn — a tall, green howe made more conspicuous by its position at the crest of a low hill. Gnarled ash trees grew around and on top of the cairn, but beyond its perimeter Étaín could see a forest of thick, moss-girt oaks and spreading chestnuts. It was mild; a breeze out of the west ruffled her coppery hair, and chased lacework clouds across a sky as blue as a field of cornflowers.
“Christ Almighty,” she whispered, crossing herself, for all around her every leaf was green and bright with the advent of spring.
But it was snowing, she thought. An hour ago it was not yet winter and already it was snowing! Her legs gave way. She fell to her knees in the weeds bordering the cairn and looked around, unable to believe the truth her own eyes revealed to her: late autumn had given way to early spring in the passage of but a single hour. “This… This is impossible!”
If it was spring, then… her mind raced. What of the Day of Wrath? Did the Ending of the World come with the New Year? Étaín saw no sign around them of tribulation and distress, nor was there evidence of calamity or misery or darkness or clouds or whirlwinds. There was only sunlight, a breeze that warmed her bones, and the smell of good clean earth. “Where are we?” she said, her voice rising as a panic gripped her chest with icy talons. “Where are we, damn you? H-How did that miserable wretch… where… ?”
“The Ash-Road, just like I said.” Grimnir flared his nostrils, snorting in triumph. “And that —” He jabbed a finger at a great mossy stone that stood canted at an angle near the foot of the howe, dappled sunlight picking out deeply incised runes. “— had better tell us we’re in England. Read it. Read it and you tell me where we are.” Grimnir sat heavily on the exposed roots of one of the ash trees. He looked different in the bright sunlight, darker and more savage; even narrowed to slits his eyes gleamed with a monstrous killing lust. “Faugh!” he said suddenly, clawing at the soil of the cairn. “It must be England. This land is steeped in the poison of your Nailed God. I can feel it. It burns just to touch the earth. And the silence…”
But Étaín paid him little heed. She pulled herself to the rune-etched stone and peered at the writing. Familiar patterns in the runes caught her eye, forming names she’d seen before as a child when she’d steal into the library at Glastonbury and read from the Venerable Bede’s work on the history of England. She traced them with a trembling finger:
Hengist the Younger,
Sword-thegn of Cenwalh,
Slew Gadeon of the Dumnonii
And took his death-wound.
“Impossible,” she muttered. Étaín climbed to her feet and stumbled to the edge of the hill. She glanced back… and stopped. The same familiarity she’d seen in the runes repeated itself in the lay of the land. She described a slow circle; with each step, that sense of familiarity grew.
“Well?” Grimnir said, breaking her reverie.
“It… it can’t be!” She took a lurching step and fell forward onto her hands and knees. “No, it can’t be!”
He sprang to his feet; with bounding steps he reached her side. He planted his sandaled heel against her hip and shoved her onto her back. Tears streamed down Étaín’s cheeks. “Tell me?”
“This place,” she sobbed. “I kn-know this place. It’s Heathen’s Howe, in the Sallow Wood. When… When I was a child this place had an evil reputation as a haunt of goblins and witches.”
“It is England?”
An hour ago I was in Sjælland.
“Is it Wessex?” he bellowed.
Étaín nodded. An hour ago I was in Sjælland and it was not yet winter; an hour ago I fell across a threshold, and now I am in England, and it is spring! “G-Glastonbury is but a half a day to the west,” she whispered as the full measure of her plight crushed down on her. England was a hateful land, so disgusting to her that she had welcomed rape and slavery at the hands of the Danes so she might be free of it. And now, I am back.
Grimnir grunted. “Praise that little maggot’s black soul, then. There are villages round about?” Étaín nodded again. “Good. We will start there. One of these English bastards will have heard the name Bjarki Half-Dane.”
Scott Oden was born in Indiana, but has spent most of his life shuffling between his home in rural North Alabama, a Hobbit hole in Middle-earth, and some sketchy tavern in the Hyborian Age. He is an avid reader of fantasy and ancient history, a collector of swords, and a player of tabletop role-playing games. When not writing, he can be found walking his two dogs or doting over his lovely wife, Shannon.
Oden’s previous works include the historical fantasy, The Lion of Cairo, and two historical novels, Men of Bronze and Memnon. He is currently working on his next novel.