They had known to expect the heat, but they had not expected it to be quite as hot as it was. At first, Fenris thought it might have been the shock of travelling so quickly from trudging through knee-deep snow, to trudging across dry, red dirt under Múspelheimr’s twin suns. But he soon realised that Múspelheimr was just plain hot. Hotter than he had ever been told to expect. There was no shock involved, and he could have spent his entire life within the realm and it would still be too hot. It was as if he had fallen asleep before the fire, and was in the throes of a fever dream, unable to wake and throw his blankets off.
But he knew it was real, because his brother trudged along beside him, every bit as sweaty and miserable. Jörmungandr had tied his hair in a messy knot on top of his head to escape from some of the heat, but it wasn’t long before the fair, freckled skin on his neck began to grow red.
“Either someone will see your ears and murder us for them, or your neck will grow so red, you’ll catch fire,” Fenris said, glancing at him sideways.
Jörmungandr took a deep breath, tilting his head back until it fell limp. “If I did catch fire, I don’t think I’d even notice,” he said heavily.
The suns above them had not moved across the sky since their arrival to the realm. Sól and Ljót rose and set only once a year, baking the realm for half of it, and freezing it in their absence for the other half. The entire realm was red, as if on fire and ever burning, with no water for miles to quench the flames. Large, painted mountains loomed in the distance, but gave no landmark to the unfamiliar traveller, stretching on endlessly across the horizon. Fenris and Jörmungandr hadn’t seen a road since crossing the gate from Midgard, and had not seen food or water since leaving Jötunheimr. Everything on the realm was dead and dry, unwelcoming to even those few who did live there.
“We should go back,” said Fenris, struggling for breath. “Apologise. Perhaps he’ll even let us live.”
“Or perhaps he would slay us on sight,” said Jörmungandr. He swayed in his steps, nearly stumbling to the ground, and leaned against Fenris to regain his balance before distancing himself again so they both might breathe easier.
“It would be better than dying in this endless furnace,” Fenris said, trudging on along.
“Shut up,” Jörmungandr said as he stopped.
Fenris kept walking, knowing that if he stopped, he might never be able to start walking again. “Either way, my death will be on your hands,” he said.
“Shut up,” Jörmungandr said again, peering off to their right. He shaded his eyes with his hand and squinted against the suns, trying to find something that wasn’t there. “Do you hear that?”
Fenris stopped and listened as well, realising he could hear something or someone moving and grunting in the distance. He stepped closer to Jörmungandr and looked out over the desert toward where his brother was gazing. He thought he could even see movement in the distance, though everything seemed to swim and dance strangely on the realm. He had many times seen water in giant pools, only to find nothing but dry, cracked land when they later reached the spot.
“It’s a boar,” he said, barely able to make out its shape as it shimmered in and out of view.
“Not only that, it’s alive. If we follow it, it may lead us to water,” Jörmungandr said, already walking toward it.
“Or we can eat it,” Fenris said, feeling tired and off-balance from both heat and hunger, though he wasn’t sure which would kill him first.
He followed after his brother, finding a renewed energy he hadn’t had in him two minutes before. The wind was against them, and tracking the boar from upwind made the already difficult task even more strenuous. Every time they got close, it would run ahead again, nearly disappearing in the phantom mist. By the time they could see a squat, clay house in the distance, they had tracked the boar for what felt like half a day, if not more. Though they were no strangers to midnight sun, Fenris still wasn’t sure how much he could trust his own sense of time. He didn’t know if they had been in Múspelheimr for four days or four hours, and didn’t know how much longer they were likely to have to travel before finding one of the realm’s few cities.
At first, Fenris thought the water he saw in the near distance was more of the illusive shimmering, but it kept its form as they drew nearer. The boar walked along the edge of the lake, snorting and grunting as it pressed its snout to the ground and dug into the dirt at the water’s edge. But Fenris forgot all about the boar and rushed toward the water instead. He dropped at the bank, but as he scooped up the murky water in his hands, Jörmungandr slapped his hands and spilled the water.
“Don’t drink it,” he said, looking back to the boar.
“Why?” Fenris demanded, his throat aching with the effort of speech. “Why should I wait? So you can have the first drink, and suck the lake dry?”
Jörmungandr still watched the boar. “Why would an animal trek across a desert to water, but not drink it?” he asked.
It was a fine question indeed, but Fenris couldn’t understand why he was being asked it. “What?” he asked.
Jörmungandr pointed to the boar. “It doesn’t drink. Look.”
Fenris looked toward the boar as his brother knelt down beside him. Jörmungandr dipped his fingers into the lake and brought them up to taste them, only to immediately spit the small amount of water back out again.
“Saltwater,” he explained.
Fenris tasted the water as well, nearly gagging as it touched his tongue. He thought perhaps there was more salt than water in the lake as he tried to scrape it from his tongue with the back of his hand. Whimpering helplessly, he looked over to his brother, and then back to the boar. He was tired and he was exhausted, but he could think of no other option for them, unless they wished to die under the suns of Múspelheimr. For a moment, he looked out over the lake as he weighed his options. The water spread clear to the horizon and beyond, shimmering in the sun. No waves played on the surface, and none broke on the shore. It was still like a pond, but as big as a sea. It may as well have been a sea of glass for all the use it was to them.
“I’m having it,” Fenris said suddenly, getting to his feet and shedding his clothes as quickly as he could. If the boar couldn’t lead them to water, it could at least feed them.
“Brother, you’re not thinking clearly,” Jörmungandr said, though he did nothing to stop him.
Fenris gathered what strength he had to make the change, and found it more painful and drawn out than usual. The wolf was the only form he knew, and assuming it as exhausted as he was took more strength than he was used to, twisting his body and changing his bones. Ordinarily, it was a matter of seconds to shift his body’s shape, but exhausted and starving, it took much longer than that. When the change was complete, he fell over onto his side just to breathe and watch the boar as it dug around the water’s edge. Before it got too far away again, Fenris forced himself to his feet and ran, stretching sore and tired muscles to the point of pain. On four long legs, he was faster than the boar, and easily outpaced it. But the boar had tusks, and when it realised it could not outrun its pursuer, it turned to fight. It lunged and snapped, and had it faced an ordinary wolf it might have prevailed. But though Fenris was smaller than an ordinary Jötunn wolf, he was smarter and able to confuse the boar and wrestle it off its feet before digging his sharp fangs into the beast’s soft neck. It squealed and kicked and fought even as its life drained from it, refusing to go easily and wearing Fenris out even more. Not waiting for it to die, Fenris tore from its flesh, letting the boar’s warm blood quench his thirst. As the boar’s life faded and ended, Fenris gorged himself on it, not hearing his brother approach until he dropped Fenris’s clothes to the ground.
“You vomit and complain every time you do this,” he said as he sat down on the hard ground.
Fenris’s mouth was so full of his kill, he could barely growl in retort.
“We should at least cook it,” Jörmungandr said.
This time, Fenris did growl before tearing another chunk of meat off with his teeth.
Shaking his head, Jörmungandr got back up and walked around, picking up dried scrub and brush from the ground around them. There wasn’t enough to build a lasting fire, but it would be enough to cook some of the meat if he built the fire close enough to where the boar lay. While Jörmungandr busied himself with that, Fenris forced himself away from the boar. It was easy to eat too much and risk bursting his stomach when he changed back, and avoiding it was a trick he had never quite managed to master. Certain he had again overdone himself, he lay on the ground and watched as his brother built a small fire and cooked the boar as well as he could with the weak flames he was able to nurture on dried grass and scrub.
“It must drink something,” Jörmungandr said eventually as he cut a strip of meat from the boar. As he ate, he looked out over the lake thoughtfully. “It can’t drink the saltwater, surely.”
Fenris grumbled, determined not to vomit despite the almost painful tightness in his belly. He couldn’t speak in this form, but even if he could, he didn’t think he’d want to.
“You’ve done it again, haven’t you?” asked Jörmungandr.
Fenris grumbled again, and Jörmungandr laughed and reached out to scratch him behind his wolf ears. Not even having the energy to snap at him for it, Fenris only grumbled again and swatted at him with one paw.
“Who’s a good puppy?” Jörmungandr asked, ruffling Fenris’s fur.
This time, Fenris snarled and snapped at him before he squirmed away as far as he could and let himself bake under the suns. His dark fur only seemed to make the suns’ heat even hotter, so he rolled over onto his side and changed back into the form of a man, holding his stomach and trying not to be sick.
“Can we go home?” he asked sickly. “This place is worse than any punishment Þrymr could deliver.”
“No. Not yet,” Jörmungandr said. He looked out to the mountains in the distance as the fire burnt itself out at his feet. “We could go try to lodge with the woman Dad fancies.”
“We can’t go to Asgard,” Fenris said, wondering why his brother thought Odin’s wrath as a better thing than Þrymr’s.
“No, not our stepmother, you idiot,” Jörmungandr said.
“Well, I’m not staying with the trolls,” Fenris said.
Jörmungandr sighed tiredly. “Not her either, you fool. The The elf woman.”
Fenris thought about it for a long moment. “I thought he married her.”
“No. Not the one he bought. The one with the farm,” Jörmungandr said before Fenris could say anything further. “What the hel’s her name? She threatened to cut your bollocks off because she thought you were fucking her goats.”
“Oh, yes. Her,” he said, suddenly remembering the strange relationship the father had with the woman. “I never fucked her goats. I fucked her sister.”
Jörmungandr rolled his eyes and tore more flesh from the boar.
“Yes, she’s always been kind to us,” Fenris said, ignoring the fact that he was being ignored. “She might even give us work.”
“I never said I wanted work. I just said we could go there,” Jörmungandr said bitterly, trying to coax the fire into cooking the side of the boar just a little more before it snuffed itself out completely.
Fenris could feel his skin beginning to burn as he lay on the ground. He could see the freckles on his shoulder, and wondered if it was just his imagination, or if he was actually getting more of them. Moving sluggishly and with the knowledge that if he stayed where he was for much longer he may not regain the strength to rise again, Fenris slowly trudged over to the salty lake and fell onto his back into the water. It was warm, and did little to cool him, but he stayed there all the same.
“We need to move,” Jörmungandr said suddenly. “Fenris, get dressed.”
“We can wait until nightfall,” Fenris argued, wondering how many months until Múspelheimr would see such a thing.
“Fenris, get your furry ass out of the water and get dressed,” Jörmungandr said urgently as he leapt to his feet and began scattering the remains of their fire.
Fenris could hear the desperate terror in his brother’s voice, and with it found a new bout of energy. He quickly climbed out of the water, trying to shake himself dry and rub the salt off his skin. As he scrambled to find all of his discarded clothes, Fenris noticed a man in the distance, calling out as he walked along the lake. He couldn’t hear the words being shouted across the desert, but even from the distance, he could see the unmistakable shape of large, sweeping horns atop the man’s head. Suddenly, Fenris remembered the house in the distance, and felt every ounce of Jörmungandr’s panic. It had not occurred to him until that moment that the boar did not drink from the lake because it had a ready supply of fresh water somewhere else. And the person who controlled that water was now walking straight toward them. Worse, he was no man at all. He was a giant, and Fenris had had quite enough of giants for the day.
“You don’t think?” he asked, struggling to pull on his breeches.
“I do think, which is why we must leave,” Jörmungandr said.
Their scrambling had attracted the attention of the man, and soon his pace had quickened toward them. As he ran along the bank and drew nearer, Fenris realised their assailant was bigger than any giant he had ever seen on Jötunheimr. He looked around frantically, unable to remember where they had come from. The desert was an endless, flat sprawl, offering little protection or shelter. Even if they did manage to outrun the giant, they would not be able to hide. Having few other options, they simply picked a direction and ran. But their flight only incited the giant further. He ran after them, gaining on them quickly with long strides. Fenris wished he had not changed back from his wolf form, knowing he’d have been able to out pace the giant on four legs. But he didn’t have the time to waste, and when the giant caught up with them, he picked them both up off the ground by their necks and held them up to his face.
Fenris and Jörmungandr struggled against his grip, slowly choking from the weight of their own bodies. Fenris managed to grab onto the giant’s wrist and pull himself up enough to allow himself to breathe, and looked up at the giant who meant to murder them. He had hair like a pony’s mane, long and black, with the sides shorn and showing tattoos on his blood red skin, and a long scar that reached almost to his eye. On the same side, his horn was bent and crooked from repeated breaks. The same horn that was right above Fenris’ head, and which could easily crack his skull open if the giant chose to. If Fenris had seen the man’s face before, he would never have followed the boar in the first place.
“Troll children,” he spat.
“We’re not trolls,” Fenris said, struggling to hold on.
“Have you run out of livestock to kill in your own realm, that you’ve had to come here to do it?” asked the giant.
Fenris looked to his brother, but Jörmungandr was too busy trying to keep breathing to say anything.
“We didn’t know it was yours,” Fenris pleaded. “We can pay. We have gold.”
“I don’t want your filthy troll gold,” the giant shouted as he threw both of them to the hard ground.
Fenris knew he should run, but he couldn’t even find his feet. His throat burned even more than it had before, and he had no strength left in his arms at all. Beside him, Jörmungandr choked and coughed into the dirt as he struggled to find his breath again.
When the giant turned away, Fenris thought he might actually leave them. He dodged out of the way of the giant’s long tail as swung it around, and for one glorious, shining second, he thought they might be able to get away from this new problem. But it was a short-lived relief. The giant only turned away to grab a large stone from the ground before raising it into the air and stepping closer again.
“No, wait,” Jörmungandr said, struggling to get up and pull Fenris with him. Fenris stayed on the ground, trying to shield his face with his arms.
“It’s just a boar. We can replace it. We’ll bring you two,” Jörmungandr insisted desperately.
“That sow gave me a new litter every morning. Since we won’t be having boar tonight, my daughters will have to settle for troll,” the giant said. “Did you kill it before you raped it, or after?”
Knowing he couldn’t run, Fenris curled up as tightly as he could, covering his head with his arms.
“I didn’t fuck the pig!” Fenris said, daring to look up at the giant.
“Goats!” Jörmungandr shouted suddenly.
Fenris was so startled, he forgot he was trying to protect himself, and looked up at his brother. Jörmungandr seemed to have startled and confused the giant as well. He stood there, holding his stone and looking between the two of them.
“What would I want with goats?” the demanded.
“Björn’s goats,” Jörmungandr said, looking to Fenris again. “You’ve seen it. After he kills them, he brings them back. We can get you that magic.”
“Yes!” Fenris agreed.
He doubted that they actually could, since Björn’s talent with magic was minimal at best. But if they could convince the giant they could get it, they could at least escape; flee to Niðavellir or Álfheimr and put Múspelheimr far behind them.
“You expect me to believe that?” the giant asked, laughing. “I’d rather eat troll.”
“No, we can,” Jörmungandr insisted. “Just let us go, and we can bring it back to you.”
The giant shook his head. “You must think I’m stupid,” he said, raising his stone again.
“You need only the bones, and we left those unbroken. My brother and I will go to Björn to find how to bring the boar back, and return here with that magic,” Jörmungandr said with a confidence that made him sound like their father. He hardly seemed to notice the stone at all.
The giant turned and looked back toward what was left of the boar.
“And until then, there still remains plenty of meat for supper,” Jörmungandr pointed out.
The giant sighed and grabbed both of them by the necks again and dragged them across the desert, back to the boar.
“Pick it up,” he demanded, dropping them again. “Wasteful, filthy trolls.”
He stood over them as they lifted the torn and mangled remains of the boar. They had not eaten much of the large animal, but if the rest of the giant’s family were all as big as he was, the boar alone may not have been big enough to feed them all. Fenris looked to Jörmungandr as they carried the beast across the desert, but his brother seemed just as lost for ideas of escape as he.
The house in the desert was squat, for a giant’s house, and dug halfway into the ground. There were no windows, and outside it was a large steel kettle with a tight lid, and iron pipes leading back into the house. Jörmungandr and Fenris took the boar inside, walking precariously down large steps. Inside, the air was considerably cooler, with no fire burning in the empty hearth, or windows to let in the heat from outside. On the other end of the house, four women — one older than the rest — braided one another’s hair. The older of the four looked up at the as they entered and frowned, quickly turning her consternation to her husband.
“Ægir, what have you brought into this house?” she demanded.
“Trolls,” he said, pushing Jörmungandr and Fenris toward the centre of the room. “They’ve killed our boar. I’ll kill one tonight and make the other fish until it drops dead.”
“We can bring the boar back,” Fenris insisted.
“We know Björn of Asgard. He has this magic,” Jörmungandr said. “All you need are the boar’s bones. Strip them and dry them, but do not break them. We can go to Björn and learn his magic and bring it back here to you.”
Ægir laughed. “Yes, I know Björn. Slayer of giants. Isn’t that what they call that little halfbreed whelp?” he asked.
Jörmungandr grit his teeth as he pulled off his tunic. The Jötnar of Múspelheimr were still Jötnar, and had many of the same rituals as their cousins from Jötunheimr. Ægir had more bands tattooed around his forearms than could easily be counted, and so many crests and totems on his bare chest that he had run out of room in the usual places and wore some on his scalp. If he didn’t believe their words, he would at least have to believe what he saw. Jörmungandr wore his sister’s band on his right arm, and his brother’s wolf and his father’s fox on his chest. And on his side, he wore Björn’s hammer. Ægir stood silently, staring at the image of Mjölnir as Jörmungandr stared back up at him defiantly.
“Rán,” Ægir said finally, barely looking away long enough to address her.
She got up and walked closer, looking first to Jörmungandr, and then to her husband. The two of them looked at one another for a long moment, having a silent conversation in the way of married couples.
“I would rather not eat troll,” Rán said finally.
Ægir nodded. “Where’s Bára?” he asked.
“Outside, watering the horse,” Rán said.
“Fetch her,” said Ægir. “And tell the rest to get ready to go to the lake.”
Rán nodded and left, and it was only then that Jörmungandr put his tunic back on. He continued to glare up at Ægir, making Fenris wish he could do something to ease the situation without making it worse or getting himself killed. But all he could do was stand there and watch the two of them size one another up.
“One of you stays,” Ægir said finally.
“I will,” said Jörmungandr before Fenris even had the chance to consider the choices.
Ægir turned his attention from Jörmungandr to Fenris then, making him wish he was still being ignored. “If you do not return with this magic, he dies,” Ægir said simply.
Fenris nodded stiffly. “And when I do, we both go free,” he said, trying not to make it sound like a question.
“Only if you bring the magic, and the magic works. On the entire boar,” Ægir said.
Fenris nodded again, knowing what Ægir meant. As an ordinary boar, it was just as useless to him and his family as a dead boar. Fenris could barely tell where Ægir’s tattoos began and ended, but even if half his family was living, he still had many mouths to feed. Before Fenris could say anything to assure Ægir he would return with the magic, the door opened again and a young giantess stepped inside. She was only slightly shorter than her father, and her head was completely shorn on one side, while her dark hair on the other was braided tightly against her scalp so it fell neatly behind her neck. Like her mother, she wore only a thin, linen wrap that stopped at her knees, but her dark skin kept her from burning beneath the hot suns.
“Father, what is that?” she asked, standing near the stairs. She stared at Jörmungandr and Fenris, making no effort to conceal her disgust with their presence in her home.
“Bára, fetch your sword. Take this runt to Asgard,” Ægir said, pointing to Fenris.
Bára still stared at Jörmungandr and Fenris. “Why?” she asked.
“They killed the boar, and they claim they can restore it. Either you return with that magic, or prepare to eat troll and fish until winter,” Ægir said. He picked up the boar and slung it over his shoulder as he walked to the door. “If the troll tries to escape, kill it.” He walked back outside, slamming the door behind him.
Bára finally looked away from Jörmungandr and Fenris to look at the spilled blood on the floor where the boar had been. “When I said I was tired of boar, this is not what I meant,” she said with a sigh. She turned her glare back to Fenris and tugged hard on his shoulder. “Come, troll.”
Fenris followed after, expecting her to walk out into the desert toward the gate, but instead she walked around behind the house to a small stable behind it. She took up one of the few swords leaning in a corner and buckled the belt around her waist as if she were preparing for battle. Its blade was a long as Fenris was tall, steel gleaming in the sunlight.
She walked inside the stable, toward the massive horse that lived there. Fenris looked up at the beast and stepped back from it as far as he could without leaving the stable.
“Two things,” he said as Bára began dressing it.
“What?” she asked tersely.
“One. My father has a pony, and it’s too big for me to ride. I’m not getting on that,” he said, pointing straight at the horse’s face. “And two, how do you propose to get it to Asgard? It won’t fit through the gate.”
Bára stopped with the blanket halfway on the horse. “Is this the truth, troll?” she asked.
Fenris stalled uncertainly. “You’ve never been to the gates?” he asked.
“I’ve never had reason,” said Bára. “Surely they open, as gates do.”
Fenris shook his head. “Well, I suppose you could get it through if you smashed the arch, but if you went around smashing gate arches, you’d wind up with elves being devoured by white bears, and dragons burning up dwarfs, and Norns know what else. If you had gryphons here, you wouldn’t even have had a boar for us to kill.”
“What’s a gryphon?” asked Bára.
“It’s a mountain cat that someone put wings on,” Fenris answered simply. “They like to eat horses and people, but will settle for anything on legs.”
Perhaps not horses like Bára’s, but she didn’t know that. She looked to her horse warily and put the blanket back where she’d taken it from. “Then we walk,” she decided.
“Do we have anything to drink?” asked Fenris, knowing what had caused the entire mess in the first place. His throat still burned, and the longer he stood under the suns, the more tired he could feel himself growing.
Bára hesitated thoughtfully before taking two large water skins and filling them from the horse trough. Rather than offering one to Fenris, she tied them both to her belt and walked back out to the desert.
“Where’s mine?” Fenris asked.
“This will keep you close,” Bára said.
Fenris rolled his eyes and followed. “You must think so little of us,” he said, not needing the incentive to do as he promised he would. Not when his brother already had an axe held over his head. “Damn giants go around squashing us like ants. If they don’t decide they’d rather screw our women instead.”
“Has society fallen so far on Jötunheimr that it’s now common to bed trolls?” asked Bára. “I always thought it was trolls who stole Jötunn women.”
Fenris groaned tiredly. “At least I don’t have a tail,” he said.
Bára looked down at her tail, frowning deeply. Then, she strode on with an even faster pace.
“Stop talking, troll,” she said.
“I’m still not a troll,” Fenris said, reaching up to scratch at the whiskers that grew on his chin and gave away his lies.
He walked behind Bára as they journeyed back across the desert to the gate to Midgard. The suns beat down on them, and soon Fenris found his steps coming as uneasily as they had when he walked with his brother. He was still tired and parched, and being back out in the heat only brought it all up to the surface again.
“I need water,” he said, sitting heavily on the ground.
“How much farther is it?” asked Bára, looking ahead over the endless desert.
“Don’t know. Don’t care. Water,” Fenris said.
Bára looked down at him, first with incredulity, and then with alarm. She knelt in front of him and placed her hand over the side of Fenris’ face, grimacing when her palm dragged over his whiskers. Fenris wanted to pull back, but she tilted his head up to look at his face, holding onto him tightly.
“Here. Drink,” she said, handing him one of the water skins.
Knowing there was another full skin, and more beyond that once they reached Asgard, Fenris drank greedily. He drained half of the water skin, wetting the front of his tunic in the process, before finally gasping for air and leaning back on his elbows. His throat and chest still burned, but it was a comfortable burn, and one he welcomed. He handed the skin back as he caught his breath and looked out over the distant mountains on the horizon.
“Where do you get the water?” he asked, only then realising he had not been given saltwater.
Bára hesitated before answering, as if not sure she should tell him at all. “My father has found a way to make ale from the water in the lakes. Before we brew, half of the clean water goes to the animals,” she said.
“So you live off of boar and ale?” asked Fenris. He pulled himself up to his feet and stretched his aching muscles, wondering how long it would take him to grow tired of boar every day.
“We sometimes eat fish, but it’s dry and salty. People die from eating too much of it,” Bára said.
Fenris watched one of the phantom pools glimmer in the distance before continuing toward the gate once more. He wondered what fish on Múspelheimr must be like, to survive in a realm that never saw rain except for once every few years. Jötnar were hardy, and survived much that would kill even the Æsir. If the fish of the realm were unsafe for even Jötnar to eat, they must have been the deadliest creatures in all the realms. Fenris wondered if Ægir would feed Jörmungandr fish, and if not, what else his brother might have to eat if it took too long to fetch the magic from Björn.
They walked across the desert in silence after that, while the suns stayed on their stationary perch high above the realm. But Fenris realised that even though the suns stayed still, the moons did not. They moved across the sky just as they moved across Jötunheimr’s sky, marking the passage of the days. They had moved from one end of the horizon to the next, and as they fell out of view behind the mountains, Fenris began to fear they had gone the wrong way; that in his confusion, he had travelled in the wrong direction and got them lost. He couldn’t remember how long it had taken them to trudge across Múspelheimr, but trudging back with Bára seemed to have taken twice as long. Though, he wondered how much of that was the heat and exhaustion confusing him. He did not remember which direction the moons had been travelling before, because he had not thought to look.
He tried to ignore it and the burn in his chest as he focused on taking each new step. Two dark birds circled high above, as if waiting for Fenris and Bára to drop dead mid-stride, but they didn’t stay for long. They soon flew off toward the horizon, disappearing in the distance.
Not long after, Fenris could see the gate up ahead through the shimmering air. Despite being a realm of giants, Múspelheimr had few large beasts roaming its surface. The gate leading to Midgard wasn’t much of a gate at all, but rather two large pillars of carved stone, with no arch connecting them. The pillars of stone stood barely taller than Fenris, in their own way still serving as a marker for the gate on the other side.
“You lied,” Bára said. “Have you told any truth today?”
“I have told nothing but truth today,” Fenris said, knowing he should have expected her reaction. Giants were stubborn, and once they had an idea, they would let go of it for nothing. Fenris had known this all his life. He stepped toward the gate, but didn’t cross it. “You’ll want to duck.”
Without another word, he stepped through the gate to the crossing point on Midgard, savouring the cool air on the other side. Several moments later, Bára followed him through the low stone arch, clipping her head against it as she crossed. She looked up at it accusingly, and then with wonderment as she realised where she was.
The crossing point sat on top of a small hill within a valley, surrounded on all sides by tall trees. Soft, green grass covered the ground beneath their feet, moving in the gentle breeze, while Midgard’s single, yellow sun hung low on the horizon, casting long shadows over the valley. Bára looked around her with wide eyes, hesitantly bending over to touch the ground.
“What is it?” she asked, plucking some of it up.
“Grass,” said Fenris, looking around the ring of arches and trying to decide what to do next. “You can eat it, if you like. Animals do.”
Bára cautiously put one of the blades into her mouth, and spat it back out again.
“I never said it would taste good,” Fenris said, laughing.
“Are all trolls as foul as you?” she asked, spitting onto the ground.
“I am not a troll,” said Fenris, wondering which gate he might have to travel through to find his father. But he could have been anywhere, and Fenris knew it, though Loki would have surely known either where to find the magic Fenris and Jörmungandr had promised, or known how to forge it long enough to escape. The odds of finding him were slim, and Jörmungandr wouldn’t have much time before Ægir grew impatient. Their father liked to hide away for months at a time, returning with new treasures and new bounties on his head each time.
“Come on then. We’re going to Asgard,” he decided reluctantly.
Bára stepped back, looking at each of the gates around them. “You mean to actually travel there?” she asked.
“How else do you propose to speak to Björn and fetch his magic?” asked Fenris, stepping toward Asgard’s gate.
“It is forbidden,” Bára insisted.
“Not much I can do about that. We’ll just have to be careful,” Fenris said, not sure how they’d actually manage that when all on Asgard knew his face, and Bára was obviously Jötnar. He knew just as well as Bára what waited on the other side of the gate, but he also knew they hadn’t much choice if they wished to see their families survive.
Bára looked toward the sky and shook her head. “No. I won’t go,” she said. “How many moons does this realm have? You have until the last moon rises.”
Fenris looked to the setting sun, knowing any answer he gave to that question would backfire. “One,” he answered honestly. “And you’ll give me until it sets.”
Bára looked up again and nodded. “Very well. If you do not return by then, I will return home and tell my father you only meant to escape.”
“Fine.” Fenris stepped through the gate to Asgard and found the realm shrouded in the darkness of night. As he walked along the wooded path, he briefly considered going to Odin himself, but did not look forward to the inevitable trouble that would follow. Nor could he even be certain Odin would help, even if he did know the magic.
Instead, Fenris followed the path to the city, keeping as close to the shadows as he could. Björn’s house was near the edge of the city, with a large pen for his goats to destroy and escape from. They were Jötunn goats, the size of Æsir ponies, and they bleated loudly and rushed to the high fence as Fenris approached. They jumped and thrashed their heads, knocking their horns against the fence and kicking it with their front hooves. Before Fenris reached the fence, the door to the house opened and Björn stepped outside, brandishing a large stick.
“Shut up, damn you,” he shouted, slamming the stick against the fence.
Fenris stepped out from his hiding place in the shadows, wondering if the goats would have kicked up the same racket if he hadn’t approached.
“Björn,” he called out.
Björn stopped and looked up sharply to Fenris. “What are you doing here?” he asked.
“I need your help,” Fenris said, stepping closer to the light.
“You should not be here,” said Björn, looking around for witnesses. “If Odin knew—”
“Then don’t tell him,” said Fenris.
Rather than respond, Björn took Fenris by the shoulders and roughly guided him inside. His house was warm and dry, but not stifling and oppressive like Múspelheimr had been. Fenris allowed himself to be led inside and away from the door, giving Björn’s wife a toothy grin. Járnsaxa rolled her eyes and shook her head, but said nothing as Björn and Fenris walked to the other end of the house, away from the children, asleep together on a small bed.
“What are you doing here, Fenris?” Björn asked quietly, looking back over to his family while they ignored what was happening.
“I need your goats,” Fenris said.
“My goats?” asked Björn.
“Yes,” said Fenris.
“No.” Björn stepped back, offended. “What makes you think I would give you my goats?”
Fenris shrugged. “You don’t seem to like them very much,” he reasoned. Björn did not seem impressed, but Fenris wasn’t going to let that stop him. “And it’s not the goats I need. I need their magic. Which I assume means I may have to kill one of them.”
“No,” Björn repeated.
“They come back,” Fenris said.
“You won’t sway me on this. I will not give you either of them, no matter how foul they are,” Björn said. And then he shrugged casually. “Besides. I don’t know how the magic works.”
“They’re your goats. What do you mean you don’t know?” asked Fenris.
Björn shrugged again. “They came to me like this.”
“Well, what do you do to make it work?” asked Fenris.
“I strike them with Mjölnir,” Björn said. It was information that was completely useless, since Fenris knew he was never going to get Mjölnir from Björn, no matter what he tried.
“Then come with me,” he said.
Björn laughed. “Whatever you’ve done, I’m certain a blow from Mjölnir would only make it worse,” he said.
He was right, and Fenris knew it. The magic was not in Mjölnir, but in the goats. Otherwise, every creature and being Björn struck with the hammer would rise as quickly as it was struck down. Fenris would have to find whatever had brought the magic to them, and he would have to do so before Bára returned home. Fenris sighed and turned away, not sure what to do.
“Does Odin know this magic?” he asked, not sure if he was feeling desperate or hopeful.
“I’m sure he does. But you know what happened the last time someone tried to take information he did not wish them to have,” Björn said.
Fenris nodded. “Aye,” he said.
Somehow his father was exempt to nearly every law on Asgard, but that exemption did not follow to Fenris or Jörmungandr. Jötnar had been barred from Asgard for generations, but for reasons only Odin knew, he had made a single exception. Not looking forward to being flayed, or worse, Fenris turned back toward the door. He stopped at the threshold just long enough to turn back around and nod to Járnsaxa.
“Good evening,” he said.
Járnsaxa nodded back and offered a thin smile. “I would leave, if I were you. He never truly sleeps, and he will find you here.”
Knowing she spoke the truth, Fenris left the house and ran back up the road, keeping to the shadows as much as possible. Björn was no help, and Odin wasn’t an option. Not knowing what else to do, Fenris turned away from the gate and ran deeper into the woods. The house was difficult to find in the dark, away from the road and hidden far back into the trees, but Fenris knew these paths well. Loki had frequently smuggled him into Asgard when they were young, and he still remembered many of the secret places. He found the house in the woods beyond the palace grounds, with faint fire glow flickering through the cracks in the door, and walked toward it. He knocked, knowing the door would be locked, and uncertain if he would even be welcome. But it was the last place he knew he could turn.
The door opened, and Fenris’ stepmother peered out, clearly exhausted from tending to the house by herself. She smiled warmly when she saw him, but her smile soon faded as she looked behind him.
“Where is your brother?” she asked.
“We did something bad,” Fenris said bleakly.
Above him, hidden in the trees, Fenris heard the rustling of feathers. He looked up, trying to find the source, but all he could see was blackness, with the occasional star shining through the dense canopy.
“Come inside,” said Sigrid, looking up as well.
She tugged him inside and shut the door, locking it behind them.
“He’s watching,” she said as she stepped closer to the fire pit to tend to the flames.
Fenris looked around the house, and already knew the answer to his question before he asked it. “Is my father here?”
Sigrid shook her head. “No. He has not been home for weeks. You know how he is.”
“I do,” said Fenris.
She sighed, and for a moment Fenris thought he was about to get an earful over something.
“How is your mother?” Sigrid asked instead.
Fenris considered the question. “Prone to melancholy. My uncle’s wife is with child again.”
Sigrid looked at Fenris sadly and nodded. “Children should bring happiness, and it’s unfortunate when they do not,” she said.
Fenris shrugged, unsure what to say. He looked over to the bed Sigrid should have shared with his father, struck suddenly by the realisation that it was the only bed their house would ever see. Standing there near the door, Fenris felt the weight of his own exhaustion, and sat down on a bench along the wall. While he rested, Sigrid disappeared into the cellar underground, returning with a large horn of ale and some cured meat.
“Tell me, Fenris. What have you done, and where is your brother?” asked Sigrid, handing both to him.
Fenris told her, and she listened patiently, sitting on the bench beside him. Even before he finished, Fenris thought Sigrid might know some information that might help him, but she remained silent until he finished, even listening to Fenris telling her about leaving Bára at the crossing point, and Björn refusing to help in any way. She passed no judgement, even knowing Fenris had brought these problems on himself. Sitting there with her in the dark, telling her how he had caused so much harm, he could see why his father had married her. How he must have fallen in love with the way she offered comfort just by listening.
“Björn wouldn’t know that magic,” she said once Fenris fell into silence with a shrug. “It’s ancient, from a time before Odin’s reign.”
She paused just long enough for Fenris to feel the rising panic in his throat.
“What do you know of the old gods?” asked Sigrid.
Fenris shook his head. “Do you mean the time of Bor’s reign?” he asked.
“No. There are gods older than Yggdrasil, who rose and made power from nothing. They planted the seed that laid Yggdrasil’s roots, and created the paths we travel between the realms,” Sigrid said.
Those gods, Fenris did know, though he had never heard any call them gods. They had other names, as varied as their power, but never gods.
“Niflheimr?” he asked.
“You’ll find this magic there, but it will not be easily given,” said Sigrid.
Fenris stood still, half expecting Sigrid to offer him another way. Instead, she fetched him two furs and one of Loki’s large bows. She strung the bow with little effort and gave it to him, along with two dozen arrows he hoped he wouldn’t have to use. As he struggled to find a way to carry all of it, Sigrid disappeared to the cellar again, before bringing up a bottle of ale and more of the cured meats.
“I can’t hit anything,” he said, getting the bow over his shoulders so he could wrap the rest in one of the furs.
“Then travel swiftly. It can be done in a day, if you stop for nothing.” Sigrid kissed him on the cheek before opening the door to let him out.
As he left the house, Fenris looked up to the branches above, but saw nothing watching him. Knowing it didn’t mean he was alone, he ran back toward the gate as swiftly as he could. Once he was back on the road, he looked up to see a dark bird flying between the thinning branches above. He knew its brother wasn’t far behind, but rather than trying to look for it, Fenris ran even faster. He came to the gate, not knowing whether the ravens would follow him through, and ran to Midgard.
“Odin knows I was there,” he said, only realising after he spoke that Bára was gone. He looked around the crossing point, hoping to find her nearby, but the valley was empty. More than that, something seemed wrong about it. He looked to the sky, realising he had spent more time on Asgard than he’d thought. The sun had set and risen again, and Midgard’s lonely moon was nowhere to be seen. Fenris dropped everything to the ground and ran back through the gate to Múspelheimr, cursing its sky and soil for existing. Once on the other side, he didn’t stop. He ran back in the direction he and Jörmungandr had first gone. He would not let himself think about what might happen if Bára returned home before he could reach her. He ran as fast as he could, ignoring the burning in his throat and lungs, and the hot suns baring down on him. It was a long distance to run, from the gate back to Ægir’s home, but it was an even longer distance to walk, and soon he spotted Bára slowly making her way back home. He ran until he caught up with her, reaching for her skirt to get her attention. But his fingers were too numb to grasp anything, and his legs too tired to carry him any longer, and he fell into the dirt at her feet, panting and heaving for breath that wouldn’t come. His vision swam and greyed as he struggled to sit up, but it seemed that none of the air he breathed even reached his lungs.
“You came back,” Bára said, surprised.
Fenris nodded weakly and tried to speak, but he couldn’t find his voice.
“Do you have it?” asked Bára.
Fenris tried to speak again, managing barely more than a croak before falling heavily to the ground as he shook his head. Bára crouched down and helped him sit up, pulling him by the back of his tunic.
“Are all trolls as fragile as you?” asked Bára as she handed him the remaining water skin.
Fenris drank greedily, trying not to choke. “Not a troll,” he said breathlessly when he was done.
“Do you have the magic?” Bára asked again.
This time, Fenris shook his head. “Didn’t have it,” he said, still panting heavily. “Know where to get it. Need time.”
“You don’t get any more time. My sisters don’t have any more time,” Bára said.
Fenris shook his head again. “I need more time. Killing my brother won’t help your sisters. Give me the time I need and I can put this right.” He thought of his mother, back home on Jötunheimr, and how Jörmungandr’s death would destroy her.
“No,” Bára said.
“Will your father honour his word?” asked Fenris. “Will my brother be safe as long as you’re with me?”
Bára nodded. “Yes, but not for long,” she said.
“Then let me honour my word before he goes back on his,” said Fenris, pulling himself up against her weight. “I know where to find the magic. I just need time to get there.”
“Where?” asked Bára.
Fenris emptied the water skin and handed it back. “Niflheimr,” he said grimly.
“You’re mad,” Bára said. “I will not go to Niflheimr any more than I will go to Asgard.”
“Then your sisters will starve,” Fenris told her plainly.
He didn’t wait to see if she would follow him, and started walking back to the gate. He knew she would follow eventually. When she caught up with him, neither of them said anything as they walked back to the gate in silence. On the other side, Fenris found the skins and the bow Sigrid had given him, all exactly where he had dropped them.
“He would have skinned me alive,” Fenris said quietly as he shouldered the bow and handed Bára the furs and ale.
“What?” asked Bára.
Fenris shook his head and looked around at the gates, eight of them, for the eight realms bordering Midgard. He tried to think back on the maps he had seen his father draw. Few knew the passages between realms like his father, but Loki was not there to guide him now.
“Which one is it?” asked Bára, looking down at the furs Fenris had given her as if she had never seen such things.
“That one,” Fenris said distantly, pointing to his left. “But it’s not Niflheimr we need to go to. This gate is too far north. Or south.” He couldn’t remember it clearly enough. He knew Yggdrasil did not start at Niflheimr, but had roots that went even deeper. Niflheimr and Midgard were the trunk, the higher and common realms were the branches, and the lower realms were the roots. But to get to where that first seed was planted, one had to go beyond Niflheimr, to her shadow realms.
“Worms and termites that dig in the soil,” Fenris recited to himself, trying to remember the words.
Bára watched him curiously. “What nonsense are you talking about now?” she asked.
Fenris waved his hand to silence her so he could think. “The termites dig into the tree, making the soil sick and barren. The worms feed the tree…Svartálfheimr,” said Fenris, tapping his fingers against his leg with each word. “The gate to the Norns is through Svartálfheimr.”
“What?” Bára asked again.
Fenris stepped close to the Svartálfheimr gate and turned to face Bára again.
“This gate to Niflheimr is too far from its shadow realms. To walk to Nornheimr would take months,” he said, putting his father’s riddle into plain words. “But if you go through Yggdrasil’s roots, which tangle over one another, it’s quicker. Niðavellir’s gate is closer to Nornheimr, but getting there from its Midgard gate is deadly. Svartalfheimr’s is still deadly, but faster by both measures.”
He remembered the maps, watching his father draw them and write cryptic directions to the paths he wished to keep secret. Loki knew paths between all the realms, even without gate travel, and he had recorded all of it, even though he wished to share none of it.
Fenris turned to smile at Bára, finding her far less than amused. “You’ll want to put one of those on,” he said, pointing to the furs.
Bára found the larger of the two and draped it over her shoulders, using the brooch that was pinned into it to attach it in front of her neck. It was barely long enough to reach her hips, still leaving her legs bare to the weather. She didn’t seem to mind, so when she looked ready enough, Fenris nocked an arrow and cautiously stepped through the gate to Svartálfheimr. On the other side, it was dark and cold, as a light snow drifted down from the grey sky. Bára followed after him, gasping loudly as she stepped through. Fenris let himself smile as he scanned the area as best he could, letting her puzzle over the cold and toe at the snow with her sandals.
“Just you wait,” he said. The trees around them were all empty and quiet, so Fenris lowered the bow and unstrung it, and reached for the second fur. Rather than wearing it, he laid it onto the ground and put the bow and arrows on top of it. Acting quickly, he undressed, piling his clothes in with the bow and the rest of the supplies Sigrid had given him.
“What are you doing?” Bára demanded, holding her fur tightly around her shoulders.
Fenris pulled off his shoes and tossed them down with the rest. “I don’t know where to go from here. I’ll find it more easily if it can smell it.”
Not giving Bára the chance to question him, he pulled off his breeches and changed right there in the snow, growing thick fur and sharp teeth, and taking on a form that was much better suited for skulking around tall trees. As a wolf, he had the qualities of a wolf. He could see better though the snow, and he could hear and smell the forest for miles around them. He sniffed the air, and then the ground around the gate, walking a wide circle around it. He could smell nothing familiar, but there was something different. Something that smelled like tracks leading away from the gate and to the east. Assuming it would lead him somewhere, Fenris followed it, keeping his nose buried in the snow. Behind him, Bára picked up his makeshift pack before following him, keeping one hand on her sword.
The path wove through trees, meandering as if lost. As the sky darkened and the light faded, Fenris looked up to his companion and gave in to his exhaustion. He looked around for any sort of shelter, but saw only trees and snow. While Bára was twice his size, and he was accustomed to the cold, they would both freeze if they did not find somewhere warm to sleep. He began walking in wide circles again, hoping to find any kind of den large enough for the two of them, but all he found was flat ground and towering conifers. When he heard the clicking of stone against steel, he turned back to find Bára trying to build a fire on wet branches. Before he could tell her it was a fruitless effort, the branches caught and flame rose up from the wood. He leapt forward and dropped down to the ground beside the fire as Bára continued to build it up with low branches she pulled from the trees. When the fire began to grow too big, she pulled Fenris back by the scruff of his neck and sat down on the cold ground next to him.
“Can all trolls do this?” she asked, watching him warily.
Fenris grumbled, trusting she knew what he meant to say. He lay down on the ground, hesitant to change back. He stayed warmer as a wolf, and could help keep Bára warm as well, if she would be willing to share space with him. He watched the fire crackle and dance as Bára fed it more branches. He knew she was cold, and she was hungry, and she was far from home, so he offered her the comfort of silence, letting her forget he was there with her while she rummaged through the supplies Sigrid had sent with them. She found the meat, but eyed it warily and let it be. It was his fault she was there and he knew it, but if she was too proud and disgusted by the idea of what he offered, Fenris thought she might deserve to go hungry for the night.
As night fell, he could hear the woods around them begin to wake. Even Bára heard it, as she looked around with her hand on her sword. Fenris knew there were wolves in these woods, as well as mountain cats and bears. The snow muffled sounds, and this close to the fire, Fenris’s wolf eyes could see little more than bright light and dark shadow. With the fire as large as it was, Fenris could only smell smoke, until the wind shifted. There was something else near them as well. Something Fenris couldn’t see or hear, but there all the same. He jumped to his feet and growled a warning as the mountain cat leapt out from the night. It was sleek and heavy, grey fur with black spots, and almost twice Fenris’s size. Fenris dodged out of the way, but not quickly enough. Its long claws caught his haunches and pulled him off his balance and to the ground again. He tried to roll out of the way, but the mountain cat stayed on him, having teeth and claws, where Fenris only had teeth. He tried to kick it off of him with stiff legs, but the mountain cat was like water, twisting around him while it pinned him down. It tried to go for his neck, but Fenris bit and kicked enough to keep it unsteady. He tried to get out from under the mountain cat and away from its claws, but every time he moved, its claws found purchase in his skin again, tearing him open to bleed him out on the snow. He could feel himself growing slower with each moment, knowing it was a losing battle, but still refusing to give up.
Suddenly, the cat went stiff above him. It jerked and twitched, as if possessed, before finally falling limp on top of him. Fenris managed to scramble out then, only seeing Bára once he had freed himself from beneath the mountain cat. She pulled her sword from the side of its neck, making Fenris realise that some of the blood on him wasn’t his.
Most was, though. He fell down by the fire again with a pathetic yelp. The snow around the fire was trampled and covered in blood that still fell from Fenris’s sides. He knew he could stem the flow if he could change, but he wasn’t sure he had the strength to do so. He tried to wait to gather up what little he had, but the more he waited, the less time he had to fix his wounds. He forced the change, twisting flesh and bone back to the form of a man as the pained whimpering of a wolf became the anguished cries of a man. When he was done, he sat naked in the snow, still bleeding in places, but not as badly. Suddenly, something wet and heavy was dropped over him, and it wasn’t until Bára pulled the fur around Fenris’s shoulders that he realised she had skinned the mountain cat.
“Will you die?” she asked.
Fenris shrugged and looked down at his thigh. The skin had tried to knit back together where the mountain cat’s claws first caught him, but the wound was deep and refused to close fully. He had dozens more cuts and gouges in his arms and chest, but they had all been smaller, and had mostly closed over when he changed.
“If I change back, it should heal,” he said, pulling the fur tighter around him.
Bára nodded and began cutting apart the mountain cat. Despite their size, mountain cats didn’t have much for good meat on them, but it was still meat, and apparently more appetising than what Fenris had brought. Bára cooked the pieces by putting them directly into the fire, letting it sit on top of the wood as it burned.
“If I’d known it belonged to someone, I wouldn’t have killed it,” Fenris said suddenly, pulling the fur tighter around his shoulders.
Bára looked at him, her red skin almost glowing in the light of the fire. “I know,” she said. “Most people do not normally make habit of killing someone else’s livestock.”
“Oh, so I’m people now?” asked Fenris.
Bára looked away suddenly, focusing intently on the cooking mountain cat in the fire.
Fenris laughed. “I won’t tell anyone,” he said.
He got up to find his clothes and dress, finding the chill of the ground against his skin far more pronounced when he wasn’t covered in fur. As he reached to pull on his breeches, he caught Bára watching him again. At first he thought she was about to mock, until he realised where she was looking. He paused to look at the single band around his right arm, before he let his gaze slip to the many tattooed on Bára’s.
“You only have one,” she observed.
Fenris pulled on his breeches and sat back down to wrap his feet. “One is all I need,” he said.
“Who is it?” asked Bára.
Fenris wondered if he should answer, but decided there was little gained from refusing her question. “My sister,” he said. He looked back over to Bára, unable to count the bands on her arms. “Who are yours?”
Bára looked down at here arms, running her fingers over the black bands etched on her skin. “Sisters as well. And two brothers. My father’s only sons,” she said.
“Ymir’s tits,” Fenris said quietly.
Bára reached into the fire, quickly pulling out one of the mountain cat’s haunches, crisp and burnt. She handed it to Fenris, but it was too hot for him to hold, so he dropped it to his feet to cool. They sat in silence, with only the sound of the fire between them. Fenris was exhausted, and felt heavy and tight from the effort of staying awake, but he didn’t dare fall asleep. They were still easy prey for the creatures that roamed Svartálfheimr’s forests. Hoping it might help wake him, he pulled some of the meat free from the haunch at his feet and ate it. Mountain cat meat was bitter and tough, but Fenris was tired and hungry enough to ignore it and eat anyway.
“Does the night come so swiftly on all the realms?” asked Bára.
Fenris looked up to the dark sky as he chewed. “It depends on the season for most. And where you are on the realm. Niðavellir has no seasons. Nor does Niflheimr. Asgard and Midgard have four. The days grow longer and shorter on the rest of the realms, sometimes lasting months if you live where it’s cold.”
“Isn’t Jötunheimr nothing but cold?” asked Bára.
“No, not all of it. Our summers are very green, but very short.”
The answer only seemed to confuse Bára further, but Fenris didn’t know what else to say. He ate as much of the meat as he could stomach before curling up in the furs as tightly as possible.
“Sleep,” said Bára. “I can keep watch.”
Fenris yawned loudly. “I’d rather not wake up dead,” he said.
Still he lay down on the cold ground and watched the fire while sleep overtook him. When he woke in the morning, the fire still burned lowly. The meat was all gone, and their tracks from the previous day had all been covered by new snow. Bára sat near the fire, still awake and poking at the coals with a stick. Fenris wondered if she’d slept at all during the night, or if the Jötnar of Múspelheimr slept with their very slow suns, hibernating for half the year like giant bears.
Fenris looked around the camp, unsure where they had come from and where they were going. In fresh light, the area looked completely different. He looked up to the sky, but thick clouds still hung above them, giving him no indication of which direction they should travel. Still stiff and bruised from the night before, Fenris quickly undressed and changed back into the wolf, remaining acutely aware of every injury the mountain cat had delivered. He spared just enough time to sniff at the deep gashes on his leg to make sure they had healed enough to begin travelling again before getting up to sniff around their camp site. He had to make several passes in a large circle, trying not to limp as he walked, before he picked up their trail back to the gate, and the one they were following away from it. Once he was certain he had found it, he alerted Bára with a low bark and began following the trail. Before following him, she kicked out the fire and scattered the coals into the snow and gathered up Fenris’s clothes and supplies.
Even under the snow, he could still pick up the scent of some sort of trail. Only able to hope it was the trail they needed, he followed it, keeping his snout buried to get as close to the ground as possible. The snow only fell in occasional flurries, but there was still enough of it on the ground to slow their progress. Several times, Fenris lost the trail and had to circle around again before he could smell leather and sweat once again. He knew he was spending too much time in his wolf form when he began to become distracted by the scent of a deer that had crossed the path a day before. He tried it ignore it the first two times, but when it happened for a third, changed back and quickly dressed, keeping his eyes ahead in the direction the trail had been leading them. Though it meandered through the trees, it did lead a fairly straight path, which gave Fenris hope that it was the right one.
“Is something wrong?” asked Bára as Fenris pulled on his shoes.
“It should be just a while more,” he said, stretching the muscles in his neck before taking his father’s bow. He used one of the arrows mark the path, holding it up so it covered their tracks in the snow when he looked down its shaft. He turned his head, holding the arrow as straight as possible and looked the other way, toward where their target should be.
“If this is the right path, we should be close,” he said, following the point of the arrow and walking as straight as he could through the trees.
“If?” asked Bára.
Fenris shrugged. “I’ve never been here before,” he said.
He ignored her sighing behind him and kept walking. The sky above them slowly brightened as morning turned to day. Even without the ears of a wolf, Fenris could hear something tracking them, unseen in the trees, and picked up his speed as much as he could.
“Please don’t let me die on Svartálfheimr,” he said quietly, realising he was praying to the same gods he sought out.
“What is that?” asked Bára, pointing up ahead.
Fenris peered through the trees, expecting to see another mountain cat, or a prowling wolf. Instead, he saw something tall and slender standing in the distance. It took him a moment to realise it wasn’t a being, but a gate. The gate to Niflheimr.
“Quickly,” he said, breaking into a run and eager to be away from Svartálfheimr. He could hear something following them as they ran toward the gate, but he kept his eyes straight ahead and didn’t look back. They ran through the gate, Bára having to duck awkwardly through it, to a wide open plain covered in rime and snow. Fenris ran several long strides away from the gate before stopping to turn back to it, but the creature that had followed them on Svartálfheimr seemed reluctant to follow them through the gate to Niflheimr. Whatever had followed them on Svartálfheimr likely knew to be wary of what lay beyond the gate. Heavy winds blew across the frozen plain, kicking up frozen pellets of frost and ice like sand. Shielding his eyes from it, Fenris looked to the sky, straining to see the sun behind the patchwork clouds that rolled across the sky.
“We need to go south,” he said uncertainly, unable to tell which direction the sun was going.
“You know where to go on this realm, but not the other?” asked Bára as she bundled into her furs.
“Trees start at the bottom. We need to get to the roots,” said Fenris.
He thought he might have better luck finding the right direction if he changed into the wolf again, but the wind blew so hard and the air was so cold that he could barely manage to make himself move, let alone undress. His mother may have been Jötunn, but he had inherited his father’s complexion and intolerance to cold. He could change without first removing his clothes, and had done so in the past, but the clothing never survived the process. If he did that now, he would be either stuck as the wolf, or forced to conduct business naked and cold. Bundling into his fur, he looked back to the sky again.
“South is this way,” Bára said suddenly, walking away from the gate.
Fenris looked to her, and then back toward the sky. “How do you know?” he asked.
Bára paused and looked up as well. “Because the sun is rising, which makes that east,” she declared.
Fenris squinted against the light, but couldn’t see the sun moving at all. “You’re making that up,” he said, following after her anyway. He knew they wouldn’t find shelter out there on Niflheimr’s tundra, and getting to Nornheimr was their only chance of surviving the night.
“No more than you,” said Bára wryly.
“There’s one more gate,” Fenris said, shaking his head. “We must find that before night falls. Unless you can build fire from nothing, we will freeze.”
“No more than frost giants can control the snow,” Bára said, casting a sideways glance toward Fenris.
“I’m not a giant either, in case you missed that,” he said, rolling his eyes.
He trudged on, bracing himself against the wind as it picked up again. The tundra spread endlessly in all directions, covered in a layer of hard frost and snow that broke beneath their feet as they walked. Bára’s sandals provided little protection against the cold, and the fur she wore over her shoulders billowed out behind her in the wind, offering little protection from the cold. Fenris thought he might have been able to move quickly if he took on the wolf form, but Bára was still slow, and would be slowed eve further by having to carry everything as well.
Suddenly, she stopped and reached for her sword. Fenris stopped as well, expecting to see danger ahead, but he saw nothing but tundra and a herd of reindeer. Looking back up at Bára, braced for a fight, he realised how strange the animals must have appeared, with their huge, sweeping antlers, and roaming in the sprawling herd. Laughing, Fenris reached out to stay her hand.
“They’re reindeer,” he said. “We have them at home, and use them for pack animals and food. Only ours are twice the size.”
“You can eat them?” asked Bára.
“Yes,” said Fenris, taking a moment to realise what she was actually asking. “Oh. Yes, of course.”
He dropped his furs and raised his father’s bow, struggling to line up a shot. The bow was big in his father’s hands, and massive in his own, and the draw was so heavy, Fenris thought it might pull his arm right off. Before his shoulder snapped, he loosed the arrow, sending it twisting and tumbling through the air before landing awkwardly in the middle of the herd. The reindeer all scattered away from it, but it didn’t seem as if he’d hit anything, so he tried again. He couldn’t pull the arrow back far enough to aim properly, and again the arrow sailed gracelessly through the air, this time at least striking a young buck in the flank. the wound wasn’t deep enough to kill it, or even cripple it, and it ran awkwardly away from the herd, trying to jump away from the pain from the arrow.
“I am terrible at this!” Fenris declared, dropping the bow to the ground with the furs. He quickly undressed, keeping his eye on the reindeer so he didn’t lose it in the scramble. When he changed into the wolf, he lost sight of the reindeer anyway, but he had the advantage of being able to smell its blood on the air. He ran through the herd, trying to confuse the reindeer and separate out the wounded one again. He knew he didn’t smell like a wolf, but he still smelled like a predator and threw the reindeer into panic.
Suddenly, the herd began moving in the other direction, doubling back in their tracks and heading back toward him. Just as confused as the reindeer, he tried to find his buck again. When he heard Bára shouting, and saw her swinging her massive sword over her head, he realised what was happening, and used it to get the buck away from the herd. It jumped awkwardly, still kicking its hind legs as it ran out to the open tundra. Here, Fenris was able to catch up with it, and in only a few swift bounds, was on top of it with his teeth in its neck. He twisted and pulled, pulling flesh from its neck until it fell out from under him. He got up as Bára approached, bending over it with her sword. Leaving her to do with the reindeer as she pleased, Fenris ran back to gather his clothes and gear from the snow, dragging it all into a neat pile before changing back. He dressed quickly, hopping up and down while he wrapped his feet and put his shoes on first.
By the time he was done, Bára came back with the reindeer slung over her shoulders and her fur wrapped around her waist. A faint steam rose off the reindeer where it had been cut and torn open, making Fenris suspect Bára had more than one reason for wanting to kill one. Fenris bundled back up in his furs and picked up his father’s bow before leading the way back along their path. The sun was beginning to dip in the sky, and with it the winds had begun to pick up even harder. He looked around, worrying about Niflheimr’s other creatures. Bears that would track them for the easy meal, and then kill them for the sport. Though they were smaller on Niflheimr than they were on Jötunheimr, the great white bears were still large enough to kill giants. Even as a wolf, Fenris would not stand a chance against one.
“We need to hurry. Now we’ll have bears after us, and we will not survive the night,” he said, trying to pick up the pace as he stomped through the rough snow. “It shouldn’t be much farther.”
“How do you know where you’re going without knowing where you’re going?” asked Bára, readjusting the reindeer on her shoulders. It was big enough to weigh her down, and her pace had slowed as she tried to watch her steps through the snow.
“My father travels,” Fenris said, scanning the tundra for anything that might have been a gate. “He’s made maps of the Dragon Lines between realms, and found many paths that aren’t on any other maps.”
“Does he take you with?” Bára asked.
Fenris shook his head. “He used to, but not these days,” he said. “I’ve seen his maps, but he left when I was a boy.”
“You’re lucky,” said Bára with a strange authority. “Trolls eat their young.”
“I’m not—” Fenris inhaled deeply and rubbed his face with his free hand. “I’m not a troll. My father is not a troll. He’s a half-giant and a bastard, but he’s not a troll. It comes from my grandmother, but she doesn’t know how far back it goes, and it doesn’t breed out easily. My grandmother managed to convince her husband she was as elf. It worked, right up until my uncle started growing a beard.”
Bára made a strange sound, but Fenris couldn’t decipher it. “You have an uncle?” she asked.
“Two. One lives in Utgard, and the other lives with my mother and grandmother to tend the farm,” Fenris explained, scratching at the sharp whiskers that were in desperate need of shaving before he stepped foot back on Jötunheimr.
Bára fell silent again, and it was a silence Fenris wasn’t too eager to break. Instead, he focused on keeping his footing and watching for signs of a gate leading away from Niflheimr. His father’s map marked the time it should have taken to walk between the gates, but it was time measured by the gait of a mountain pony. Or, Fenris suspected, by some entirely arbitrary measure known only to his father. Hoping they hadn’t passed the gate, Fenris paused and looked behind them, but what he saw was no gate. With the wind howling in his ears and his attention occupied by everything else, he hadn’t noticed that they were being followed until he saw the great white bear walking behind them in their tracks. It had kept a wide distance, but now that it knew they had seen it, the bear began to run toward them.
“Run. Now,” Fenris said, turning back around to flee from the bear.
Bára reached for her sword again, but turned to run instead when Fenris darted past her. “Running now!” Fenris said.
Bára struggled to follow, holding on to the reindeer as she tried to run through the snow.
Taking an arrow, Fenris turned and tried to run backwards while lining up his shot, but he couldn’t aim at all, and could barely pull back the string. When he loosed the arrow, it fell short, landing ahead of the bear before being smashed under its massive paws. Fenris tried again, but once more, the arrow fell short, as well as flying wide, landing nowhere near the bear. As he nocked the third arrow, he stopped and pulled the string back as far as he could, until his arms and back sung with the strain. When he loosed the arrow, the string caught his forearm and tore through the sleeve of his tunic and his arm. Howling from the sudden shock off searing pain, Fenris jumped and nearly threw the bow, forgetting all about the bear. It wasn’t until he heard it roaring and thrashing that he looked up and saw his arrow in the bear’s eye, but not deep enough to have killed it. It pawed at the arrow and shook its head around, trying to dislodge it, but all it managed to do was break the shaft. Suddenly remembering there was a bear and forgetting about the searing pain in his arm, Fenris turned to run again, catching back up with Bára.
“Drop the deer!” he shouted.
Bára turned to look at the bear as it charged back for them. She frowned as if she was about to weep as she dropped the deer to the ground and went for her sword again.
“These things eat whales. Run,” Fenris said, trying to pull her along.
Fenris had hoped that dropping the deer would have distracted the bear, but it ran right past the carcass and continued to pursue the two of them. Now it wasn’t just hungry; it was furious. Fenris and Bára ran as fast as they could across the stark plain, unable to see details of the terrain in the fading light on an all-white landscape. It wasn’t until Fenris felt the ground go out from under him that he realised they had come to a sharp drop. He rolled and tumbled down the steep slope, losing his arrows and his furs as he fell. Once he finally stopped at the bottom, he stood up to see Bára suffering similarly, losing her sword and furs, and leaving her only in the thin linen skirt and wrap she had been wearing. Fenris picked up the bow from where it had fallen nearby and sighed with relief that it was still in one piece, and hadn’t been damaged. He unstrung it, hoping to keep it in one piece, and looked up at the ledge where they had left the bear. He expected it to leave them, but after sniffing around at the top, it leapt down as well, sliding down the slope on its belly. Not waiting to see if it would make it to the bottom without falling, Fenris and Bára began running again. Without being weighed down and tangled in furs, Bára was able to run faster, and quickly overtook Fenris. He thought she might leave him behind to feed the bear, and tried to push himself as hard as he could. Suddenly, Bára reached out and took Fenris by his tunic collar and began pulling him along, so fast he could barely keep his footing. He looked back to the bear, seeing it gaining on them again, the broken arrow still stuck in its eye and its face half covered in blood. When Fenris looked back ahead to see where they were going, something caught his eye in the distance, standing tall and still far to their left.
“There,” he said, pointing.
Bára paused just long enough to see where to go before picking up Fenris and throwing him over her shoulder. With each stride, her shoulder dug into his belly, knocking the air from him and making him want to be sick. He watched the realm as it receded away from him, bouncing and rocking about as Bára ran. The bear still chased them, roaring and thrashing its paws at them as if it could reach them. It wasn’t close enough, but it soon would be.
“Faster,” Fenris managed with what little breath he had.
The bear gained on them, and was soon within slashing distance. It struck its massive paw out at them again, barely missing Fenris’s face. He closed his eyes, expecting his next breath to be his last, and suddenly felt the air around them change from windy and icy to warm and humid. He opened his eyes as the bear roared behind them, its head and one of its arms stuck through the gate, while the rest of it was unable to fit through the stone arch. It roared and slashed, even as Bára dropped Fenris to the ground well out of its reach. Trying to ignore it, Fenris dropped the bow again and wrapped both his arms around his abused stomach, trying to catch his breath. He looked down at his arm, finding it bleeding sluggishly, with a fist-sized bruise around the burn from the string. Hissing, he pulled his sleeve back down and tried to ignore it.
“Where are we?” asked Bára, looking up to the blackness above.
Fenris looked up as well and managed to smile. “Nornheimr,” he said, watching Bára in the faint light that permeated the realm. “We made it,” he said, looking at the bear that still tried to force its way through the gate.
“So this is what you meant,” said Bára, watching the bear as it flung its head from side to side and slashed its giant paw at them. “Can it break the gate?”
Fenris forced himself to his feet and nodded. “Yes, probably,” he said, picking up his father’s bow again. “The gates aren’t there to allow travel. They keep things like bears from travelling.” He stepped back, hoping the gate held on both sides.
He began walking away from the bear, trying to figure out where to go from there. He soon came to a dark wall of rough stone and realised they were in a large cave. He ran his hand over the stone, and brought it away to find his skin glowing faintly. He realised then what he was seeing. Lightstone. Fine grains of it, like sand shimmering in the rock. He smiled and wiped his hand on his chest, and looked over to Bára. She too ran her fingers over the stone and rubbed them together curiously until the glow faded.
“Do you not have this?” he asked.
Bára shook her head. “No. What is it?” she asked.
“Lightstone. I thought it was only found on Niðavellir. The dwarfs mine it in huge boulders, and use it to make lanterns.”
He looked at the walls, glowing just enough to give off light without showing anything of the dark stone. Nornheimr was old, and any resource found there was sure to be old beyond usefulness. The lightstone in these walls could never be used for a lantern, and resembled the grit that was left at the bottom after the stones had broken apart and dissolved in the water after years of constant use. The humidity in the air was just enough to make the tiny grains glow without destroying the mineral completely. Fenris wondered how bright these caverns must have been when the lightstone was new, and how long the stone would keep glowing in the walls.
Bára looked up curiously, gazing at the high ceiling above as she walked down the narrow cave. Looking back toward the gate, Fenris began following the cave away from it and the bear. The light from the stone in the walls was just enough to see by, but not enough to see well. The cave floor was rough and uneven, making their pace slow as they followed a path forged by nature. Soon, the air began to dry, while a brighter light shone up ahead. They quickened their pace, coming to a large cavern bathed in an impossible orange glow. Large roots like ancient stone pushed their way through cracks in the ceiling and walls, twisting around one another before burying themselves in the ground again. Fenris and Bára stood in awe as they looked upon Yggdrasil’s roots.
“This place is scared,” Bára said lowly.
“Yes,” Fenris agreed.
“We should not be here. This is forbidden,” Bára said.
Fenris didn’t answer, but he knew she was right. Few people dared to travel to Yggdrasil’s roots and fewer still would admit to having done it. Fenris knew they should turn and walk away; find some other way to pay his debt to Ægir, but he couldn’t find the strength to move.
“Sisters, look. They’re here,” said the voice of a young maiden, echoing off the cavern walls like a strange song.
“So they are,” said another voice. “Step closer, children. We wish to see your faces.”
Fenris looked up to Bára, unsure if they should. Seeming similarly hesitant, Bára stayed still as well. She looked at Fenris, and for the first time since leaving Múspelheimr, she looked truly afraid.
Inhaling deeply and nodding, Fenris stepped forward slowly, waiting for Bára to follow. They each took several steps forward before the entire cavern changed before them, filling with trinkets and fur rugs that hadn’t been there a moment before. Large oil lamps burned in the ground, lighting up the entire cavern floor to ceiling. In the middle of the cavern, three women lounged on piles of fur.
“Oh, look at them. So frightened. How precious,” one of them said, laughing and tossing her hair back over her shoulder.
“Verdandi, be kind,” said one of the other, a young girl barely old enough to be a woman. “They’ve travelled far to be here with us today.”
Fenris watched them, unsure what to expect from them. He felt like he should say something, but his entire throat felt heavy and tight, and he could not find his voice.
“I want to see his teeth,” Verdandi declared, getting up and walking straight to Fenris.
He wanted to run, but he couldn’t. When Verdandi stepped before him and touched his face with one hand, his entire body tensed up. She giggled again as she pulled his lips apart with her thumb, showing his overly-sharp canines.
“Skuld, I simply must have one,” she said.
“No,” said the girl.
Verdandi ignored her, already pulling back Fenris’s hair to expose his ears, and then dragged her fingers across his freckled cheek.
“Look at his spots,” she said. “And he shaves his beard. How adorable,” she said, running her thumb over his chin.
Fenris tried to back away as she lifted the hem of his tunic and cooed. “Look at how furry he is. I am keeping him,” she said.
She tangled her fingers in the hair on Fenris’ belly, drawing a startled yelp from him as he stepped back and pulled his tunic down to cover himself.
“Verdandi, let him be,” Skuld commanded as Fenris pulled his tunic back down over his stomach.
Verdandi pouted and returned to her seat.
“All your pets die anyway,” said the third sister, an old woman weathered by time and magic alike.
“Don’t be so bitter, Urðr,” Verdandi said. “He’d be easier than the dragon. We wouldn’t even have to chain him.”
“You would still forget to feed him,” Urðr said.
“Both of you be silent,” Skuld said. She sat up in her seat to address Fenris and Bára properly. “You have come to ask a request,” she said, looking at Fenris.
He nodded weakly struggling to find his voice. “I—Yes, I have.”
Skuld smiled almost matronly. “So ask.”
He looked back up Bára, but found no help there. Taking a deep breath, he steeled himself before speaking. “I killed an animal that was not mine to kill. People will die because of it.”
“And you want us to undo this?” asked Skuld almost mockingly.
Fenris nodded weakly. “Yes,” he said, fearing he knew her answer already.
Skuld laughed. “Do we look like gods of death to you?” she asked. “Child, we are the gods Odin and his Æsir pray to. We do not undo actions. We make sure they come to pass.”
“What?” asked Fenris. “But we came all this way.”
All three of them laughed now. “You slaughtered that boar because we wished you to,” said Skuld, sitting back in her seat again.
“No. You can’t just make things happen,” Fenris argued incredulously. He looked up to Bára again, but found her backing away as she watched him argue with Fates.
“We know you, Lokasson,” said Skuld, still laughing lowly. “And we have decided that it’s about time for a war of giants. The last one was ever so fun, after all.”
“Why?” Fenris demanded. “Who benefits from war?”
The Nornir sisters only laughed harder. Feeling suddenly trapped, Fenris turned to run, away from their illusion and out of the cavern. Once back in the dark, he sat on the ground and just tried to breathe through the harsh pounding in his chest.
“Why won’t they help?” he asked, running his hand through his matted hair.
Bára followed him out, and kept walking toward the gate. “I suppose that’s that, then,” she said distantly.
“Why do they expect anyone to go to war?” asked Fenris. “Who would go to war for us?” He looked down at his father’s bow still in his hand and tossed it to the ground in disgust. “Even he loves his bows more than he loves us,” he said.
Bára made a sound that almost sounded like a laugh. “Why were you told to come here?” she asked. “Perhaps the person you asked got confused, and thought boars were judged at death. You know how the Æsir are.”
“I don’t know,” Fenris grumbled. He picked up a stone to throw at her, but he dropped it when he heard through her sarcasm moments later. He thought back to everything he had been told, both by Sigrid and by the Norns. Sigrid had not meant him to speak to the Norns at all, but to another old god. To a god of death.
“We went the wrong way,” he realised aloud.
Bára stopped and turned to look at him. “What?” she asked.
Fenris stood, picking up his father’s bow again. “We went the wrong way.” He looked back to the Norns, knowing they were listening even now. “Will you start a war to save your sisters?” he asked, already knowing his own answer. “Will you save them from starvation, to risk them dying in battle?”
At once, Fenris could see the weight of the situation fall over Bára. She looked back toward the Norns as well, the conflict plain on her face even in the dark. She did not answer right away, taking time to consider her options.
“Is there no other way?” she asked.
Fenris shook his head. “No,” he said.
“Are you sure this will work?” Bára asked.
Fenris shook his head again. “No.”
She sighed deeply and nodded. “Where do we go?” she asked.
Fenris looked around. “The roots tangle. We go the other way,” he said, hoping he was right.
They wasted no time, running back toward the gate to Niflheimr, and beyond. The bear was gone, but it wasn’t that gate they needed to travel through. They followed the cave as it turned and meandered, without branching off once. Finally, they came to a second gate, carved from a single black boulder. On the ground in the arch, a sliver of gold light shone through from the other side, but it was all of what awaited on the other side that they could see. Fenris left the bow behind, knowing it would be safer there, and nodded to Bára before stepping through to a large cavern on the other side. The air was hot and almost misty with humidity, letting the giant lightstone boulders in the cavern walls glow brightly. Huge roots again pushed through the cracks and fissures in the stone, twisting and turning amongst themselves before digging back into the ground, where thick, verdant grass and wildflowers grew, wilting from the heat and lack of sunlight. Beside him, Bára reached for a sword she did not have and stepped closer to the cave walls beside them.
“What is this place?” she asked.
Fenris stayed close to the gate, ready to dive back through if he needed. “Helheimr,” he answered.
Something began to rumble from high above, making the entire cavern tremble.
“I smell a Jötunn runt,” a voice said, deep and loud.
Suddenly, a giant red dragon leapt down from a cavern high above, spraying fire at the ground before landing in the bed of embers. Fenris and Bára both stood against the stone pillars of the gate, watching the dragon Niðhöggr wind his way through the roots. He had a long, serpent-like body, with two arms beneath large wings, which he used to pull himself along the ground. On his head was a crest of bony spines like a crown, flaring off his long, pointed face. There was no room for him to stretch his wings, so he crawled up close to Fenris and Bára, grinning a toothy, dragon grin.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve fed off the living,” he said, flicking his forked tongue out at them.
“We’ve come to you for help. You must hear us out,” Fenris said.
Niðhöggr laughed, a deep rumble that came from his chest. “I am bound by no laws,” he said.
“Then you’re no god,” Fenris argued. “Gods are bound by more laws than any.”
Niðhöggr laughed again. “And why should I help you?” he asked.
“Because you’ve already taken my sister. I will not let you take my brother as well,” Fenris said bitterly.
Niðhöggr flicked his tongue out again before inhaling deeply, filling his chest with air. But rather than spew fire at them, he laughed and began to slither away through the roots. “Jötunn runt does not taste as good as giant, but I take what I can get,” he said.
As he pulled himself away, Fenris saw the grass that sprung up in his wake, sprouting small yellow and white flowers that bloomed and blossomed within seconds. Fenris looked up to the top of the cavern, finding no light from above that would feed the grass on the floor. He looked back to Niðhöggr, watching in a terrified awe as the dragon sprouted life wherever it dragged its massive body.
“Keep him distracted,” Fenris said quietly, looking back at the gate.
“How?” asked Bára.
Fenris shrugged. “I don’t know. Throw stones at him if you have to.”
He slipped through the gate and wasted no time once he was on the other side. He changed as quickly as he could, leaving his clothes beside the gate before crawling back through it on his belly. Bára had already walked away from the gate, making sure to draw Niðhöggr’s attention away from Fenris.
“I don’t do favours for giants,” Niðhöggr said. “I don’t do favours for anybody. What fool has filled your head full of such pretty lies?”
“Then what kind of god are you?” Bára demanded. “You are no god.”
Hoping the dragon did not recognise the scent of a shape shifter, Fenris crawled along the edge of the cavern, keeping to as many shadows as he could. The air was thick with the scent of acid and rot, making Fenris’s eyes and nose burn as he crawled through the taller grasses and weeds that survived the dragon’s fiery breath.
“Why should I help you if it means I will starve?” Niðhöggr said. “I will feast on every giant and Jötunn runt slaughtered in his home while he sleeps.”
Fenris watched Bára move along the other wall, keeping the dragon distracted so Fenris could creep up to him. He watched the wild flowers by Niðhöggr’s scales bloom and wilt, and he knew exactly what he had to do. Not even sure if it would work, he lunged out and caught one of Niðhöggr’s large belly scales in his teeth. The dragon screeched and thrashed, throwing his tail about in the small spaces and twisting his massive body, trying to crush Fenris. Not letting go, Fenris pulled hard, tearing the scale loose. Blood fell from the wound, burning Fenris’s face and paws and almost blinding him. All he could smell was the acid spice of dragon’s blood as it filled his nose and burned him from the inside out. He ran in a panic, not having time to plan his escape, and instead cut a straight path for the gate. He could hear Bára shouting, and the sound of stones bouncing off scales as he ran. His mouth burned, and he could feel the blood on the dragon scale tearing apart his tongue, but still he ran, not stopping until he was on the other side of the gate. As soon as he crossed, Fenris collapsed on the ground, unable to breathe from the burns inside his mouth and throat. He couldn’t tell if the blood had fallen in his eyes, or if the pain in his mouth and throat was so great that he couldn’t see from it. He lay there in the dark, knowing this was where he would die. When Bára ran through the gate as well and picked him up, he cried out in pain so loudly, he almost choked on it. Once again slung over the giantess’ shoulders, he could feel her running along the hard ground. It felt like an eternity before she dropped him again, packing his paws and face with cold snow that both soothed and burned. She buried his nose in it, and tried to pack it into his mouth without choking him on it. He knew he was whimpering pitifully, but he couldn’t make himself stop as she tended to his burns.
Suddenly, Fenris felt her prying his mouth open and tearing the flesh from his tongue as she pulled the scale out from between his teeth. He cried out again, unable to stop even as more snow was packed into his mouth. After a few moments, he felt himself being picked up again before he didn’t feel anything at all. The next thing he knew, they were moving, but it didn’t feel like he was being carried on her shoulders. There was something strangely familiar to the way he could feel himself moving; a steady, even rhythm of step, but he wasn’t able to figure out what it was before he lost consciousness again, letting the darkness consume him. The next time he woke, it was hot, and someone had their hands in his mouth again. He tried to bite down, but it hurt and he could hear himself cry out and yelp with a pain that would not cease.
“Hush, stupid,” he heard someone say, realising several moments later that it was Jörmungandr who spoke. He was the one who had his hand inside Fenris’s mouth, coating his tongue in something thick and sticky.
Fenris realised he was still as a wolf, and that he did not know where he was. He opened his eyes and looked around, but he did not recognise the house he was in. He and Jörmungandr were on the floor in a corner, surrounded by jars of herbs and salves that were all being shoved into his mouth one by one. Once he realised what was being done, he recognised thee taste of their mother’s magic on his tongue, though there was something different about it. Something that tasted hot and dry and unfamiliar.
“Who bites a dragon?” Jörmungandr asked, finally taking his hands away.
Fenris could only whimper, too exhausted and in pain to even protest when Jörmungandr began petting his head.
“You stupid, stupid puppy,” Jörmungandr said lowly, stroking him behind his ears.
Fenris tried to stand, but his paws burned when he touched their pads to the hard ground.
“No. No, no,” Jörmungandr said, easing him back down again. “None of that.”
Fenris whimpered quietly and let himself be gently guided back to the ground. He managed to lift his head well enough to see the room around them, finding it dark and quiet. There were no windows to let in any light, and no lanterns or hearth lit to see by; only the light that filtered through small slits in the ceiling. It was enough for Fenris to recognise the house they were in as Ægir’s, though he could not find the giant anywhere.
Through the darkness, he could see another figure moving hurriedly toward them. Bára crouched down next to them and handed a wrapped parcel to Jörmungandr.
“Take him and go,” she said, picking up Fenris in her arms as she looked over her shoulder to the dark and empty house.
“What? Why?” asked Jörmungandr, standing quickly. He looked down at the parcel in his hand and carefully unwrapped it before looking up at Bára again.
“I couldn’t do it,” she said shamefully. “My father is preparing the boar now. You must go before he comes back.”
Bára quickly made her way to the door, with Jörmungandr rushing to gather a small pack and follow after. She paused at the door, peering out before rushing around to the other side of the house to the stables. There was a reindeer in the shade as well, kicking at the dust mournfully. When it saw them approach, it began kicking and thrashing, but Bára put Fenris down on the ground and used her size to subdue the deer.
“It’s female, you know,” Jörmungandr said distantly.
“Whatever it is, you must take it and go,” Bára insisted. She tied a makeshift bridle to its face, blinding it with cloth around its eyes so it could no longer see. She brought the reindeer out of its stall and put it in Jörmungandr’s charge while she picked Fenris back up and put him on the deer’s back.
“I must go help. I’ll keep him distracted as long as I can, but hurry,” she said. She looked out at something Fenris couldn’t see and sighed. “My sisters will die either way, but this way, there will be no war.”
Fenris tried to bark at her, but the pain in his throat only made him choke. Sparing him only a passing glance, Bára rushed out of the stables and back out to the desert. From his spot, draped over the back of the deer, Fenris could see his brother inspecting the parcel Bára had given him.
“The reindeer is female,” he repeated. He looked at its covered face and sighed. “What do you say, little brother? Shall we start a war?”
He looked down at the parcel again, and crept out of the stables, peering across the desert to where Ægir roasted boar bones on a pyre. Fenris and Bára had broken sacred laws to retrieve the scale, and using it would break countless more laws. To cheat death was at the discretion of the gods, and the gods alone. To steal that power from the gods would inflame the ire of all other realms. There wasn’t a king or jarl in all of Yggdrasil who would not have tried to cheat death if given the opportunity, and all would go to war for that power once they learned how to obtain it.
Jörmungandr quickly dashed out of the stables. Fenrir could hear the door to the house opening and closing twice before Jörmungandr returned again, conspicuously lacking the parcel Bára had given him. Ægir would find the dragon scale in some convenient place, no doubt, starting the war Bára had tried to avoid.
Jörmungandr pulled Fenris off the reindeer’s back and backed the reindeer into its stall again. Making sure it was locked where it belonged, Jörmungandr took up his pack, and carrying Fenris over his shoulders, crept out of the stables. They could see Ægir far on the other side of the house, standing before a large fire in the desert. With his back turned to them, Jörmungandr slunk away, running as fast as he could back toward the gate. Fenris watched Ægir as they left, waiting for him to turn back to see them fleeing. But his attention was kept away from them as he dried the boar’s bones for a ritual he would not be able to complete.
As they left Ægir’s farm behind, Fenris kicked and squirmed until Jörmungandr let him down. He ached and burned in ways he had never before known, but he needed to change. They were too slow with Jörmungandr carrying him, and he knew his feet had been undamaged by the dragon’s blood. If nothing else, walking upright would at least be less painful than being carried over his brother’s bony shoulders.
The change hurt and burned, tearing and twisting already abused flesh. He tried not to cry out as his throat became inflamed all over again, but once he was done, he felt better for it. The change always helped heal injuries, if he had the strength to force it. His hands were still badly burnt, but he could feel his throat open up as he breathed deeply through his mouth. Jörmungandr handed him his clothes from the pack, letting him change as slowly as he needed to, and helping him into his tunic when he couldn’t grip it properly.
“Do you think it will work?” asked Jörmungandr.
Fenris shrugged. “If it doesn’t, there won’t be a war,” he said hoarsely. “Perhaps that’s what we should pray for.”
“You put too much faith in the other realms caring about what a few giants in the desert do,” Jörmungandr said.
Fenris struggled to keep pace alongside his brother as they walked back toward the gate. “And a dark elf once insulted Bor, and he killed every last one of them for it. Put nothing past the Æsir, brother.”
The two of them slowly trudged across the sand, moving slowly as Fenris struggled to keep his footing.
“It’s a shame. If I had been thinking, I’d have made sure she took a male as well,” Fenrir said. “Perhaps I’ll return and bring them one.”
“And make more work for your lovely maiden, and make her learn to milk a reindeer?” Jörmungandr asked, adjusting the pack over his shoulder. Only then did Fenris realise the pack also had their father’s bow attached, and he allowed himself a sigh of relief he hadn’t realised he needed.
“She is not my lovely maiden,” Fenris said, looking back toward the direction of the farm, now just a dot on the horizon. “But perhaps I shall teach her.”
Jörmungandr snorted. “You are just like Dad,” he said, continuing on the path toward the gate to the crossing point at Midgard.
Fenris shrugged again. “What?” he asked. “Someone will need to teach them.”
Jörmungandr laughed and looked up to the sky. “Let’s leave this realm. I hear there’s rain in Four Rivers.”
Nodding, Fenris followed, looking forward to a realm of cold misery for a few weeks.