Mist

Midgard (Volume 1)

Susan Krinard

Tor Books

1
 

SAN FRANCISCO, PRESENT DAY
The sword sliced the air inches from Mist’s face. She swung her own spatha to intercept the blow, bracing herself and catching her opponent’s blade in mid-stroke. Metal clanged on metal with glorious, discordant music. Her adversary bore down hard for several seconds, his furious gaze fixed on hers, and abruptly disengaged.
“One of these days,” Eric said, his face breaking out in a grin, “I’m going to beat you.”
Mist lowered her sword and caught her breath. Perspiration trickled from her hairline over her forehead, soaking the fine blond hairs that had come loose from her braid, and her body ached pleasantly from the workout. She grinned back at Eric, who sheathed his sword and reached for the towel draped across the bench against the wall.
“You’re good,” she said. “Almost as good as I am.”
He grimaced and scrubbed the towel across his face. “I outweigh you by eighty pounds,” he said. “I don’t want to think about what you could do to me if you were my size.”
Size had nothing to do with it, though Mist hadn’t yet found a way to tell Eric why he’d never be able to beat her. She’d even thought once or twice of letting him win, male pride being such a fragile thing, but instinct was too strong.
Mist sheathed her sword and ran her thumb over the engraving etched into the hilt. She had no right to pride of any kind. She’d lost that right long ago, as she’d lost her honor and the only man she had ever loved.
And yet Eric had unexpectedly roused her from the despair of one who waits for redemption that will never come. Like Geir, he wasn’t afraid of a woman who shared his strength. He’d taught her to laugh again. And when she looked into Eric’s face—the face of a true warrior of the Norse, broad and handsome and fearless—she knew he was safe. Safe because he would never demand more than she could give. Safe from her mistakes.
But there would be no more mistakes. She had made sure of that.
“I’m headed for the shower,” Eric said, catching her glance and giving her a sly look in return. He padded toward her, remarkably graceful and light on his feet, his bare chest streaked with sweat. He lifted a loose tendril of her hair, rolling it between his fingers. “Care to join me? I’ll wash your back if you’ll wash mine.”
His meaning couldn’t be clearer, and she was eager enough to join him in bed after his long absence. But she dodged aside when he bent to kiss her.
“I’m really tired tonight,” she said, smiling to take the sting out of her rejection. “Long day at the forge. I promise I’ll make it up to you tomorrow.”
Eric frowned and rubbed his thumb along the edge of her jaw. “You okay? You’ve seemed a little preoccupied ever since I came back.”
She covered his hand with hers. “It’s nothing. I missed you, that’s all.”
“Have you?” He nuzzled her neck. “Show me.”
“Soon. I promise.”
Eric let her go and winked. “My sword is always at your service, m’lady.” He strode toward the door that connected the gym to the loft’s ground-floor living space, throwing another wink over his shoulder, and Mist was left alone in the echoing silence of the gym.
Her wrist was aching again. The red tattoo encircling it—still as bright as the day she’d had it done—seemed to squirm on her skin, an endless chase of wolves and ravens, the animal symbols of Odin All-father.
You used your wrist too much today, she told herself. But that didn’t account for this strange restlessness, which even Eric had noticed in spite of her best efforts to hide it.
With a sigh Mist returned the sword to the rack at the opposite end of the gym and followed Eric into the long hall, pausing at the door to the master bedroom. She could hear Eric singing in the shower.
Not in the mood to wait for her turn—and another invitation to bed—Mist threw on her leather jacket, pulled on her gloves, and went out to the garage. The temperature had fallen thirty degrees since the warmest part of the day, and the cold seemed to crackle in the late December air. Even the tart, briny scent of the Bay a third of a mile to the east seemed subdued by the frigid weather.
Her Volvo was ancient and often unreliable. It usually rumbled and complained like the great hound Garm whenever she needed it to operate smoothly, refusing to respond to even her most coaxing spells … such as they were. Tonight the car leaped to life almost immediately; it almost seemed to Mist as if it, too, felt her restlessness.
Dogpatch was far from quiet even at this time of night, in spite of the unseasonable cold; the Muni light-rail ran right down the center of Third Street, and the whole neighborhood, once an industrial area packed with warehouses, was becoming fashionable with young professionals who frequented the growing number of clubs, restaurants, and galleries. Colored lights festooned the old houses and shops, and someone had set a decorated Christmas tree on the roof of the recording studio across the street.
Without really thinking about her destination, Mist turned north on Third Street and left on Sixteenth Street toward Golden Gate Park on the other side of the city. It didn’t surprise her that she’d ended up here; it had the closest thing to woods as anywhere in San Francisco, and it made a nice change from the tiny, half-dead scrap of lawn behind her loft.
She parked along Lincoln Way, got out of the car, and entered the park from Nineteenth Avenue. It was near midnight, and the park would officially be closed to visitors in a few minutes, but Mist had no trouble finding an unobtrusive way in. The only other people in the park were the homeless and vagrants who spent their nights huddled in tattered blankets under the bushes. There would be no Christmas for them.
Christmas. Yule, as it had been known before the coming of the White Christ. The solstice had never really been more than an excuse for celebration, an end to the darkness and the coming of a new year. If this bizarre, unseasonable winter ever ended.
A few gentle snowflakes drifted down to melt on Mist’s hair as she walked along Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and headed toward Stow Lake. There was a breathless quality to the frigid air. Dense fog began to settle over the nearest trees, turning the park into a ghostly realm of indistinct shapes and ominous silence.
Fog. Mist stopped, lifting her head to smell the air. Fog like this came in the summer, when warm Pacific winds blew over the colder waters along the coast.
A sudden chill nipped at Mist’s hands and face. Strange weather or not, there was nothing natural about the icy vapor that stretched probing fingers along the ground at her feet, slithering and hissing like the serpent Nidhogg bent on devouring everything in its path.
Disbelief shook Mist with jaws of iron. She knew the smell of the vapor and what it had portended when the Last Battle began.
But it wasn’t possible. The Jotunar, the frost giants, were as extinct as the great sloths or mastodons that had once roamed the North American plains.
Mist encircled her left wrist with her right hand, trying to soothe the unnatural, burning agony beneath the glove. She wasn’t going crazy. There was a perfectly logical explanation for the hallucination. This was the old, rejected world’s final attempt to hold her bound in the chains of guilt and self-contempt and loneliness, to abandoned oaths and a way of life she had discarded years ago like ash-soiled rags.
She needed to go home, go to bed, wake up to find Eric beside her—ready with a grin, an invitation, and a reminder that her life was normal now, had been normal long before she met him. Turning on her heel, Mist started back for the street.
A low, rasping chuckle stopped her in mid-stride. She spun around. A face emerged from the vapor, rising two heads above Mist’s generous height. A broad face, heavy, filled with anger and fell purpose.
Pale, cold eyes met hers. The mouth, with its rows of teeth filed to points like daggers, gaped in a grin.
Heil, Odin’s Girl,” the giant said in the Old Tongue, his voice deep enough to shake the ground under Mist’s feet. “Or can it be that I am mistaken? Is this what the Valkyrie have become, mountless and dressed no better than thralls?”
No hallucination, no illusion, no madness. The truth took Mist by the throat and shook her like a child’s doll.
This was real. This was death. And everything she had come to believe, everything she had tried to make of her life, was a lie.
Instinct, rusty as an ancient blade left to molder in a salty bog, brought Mist back to her senses. Her Swiss Army knife, the one she’d carried since World War II, was of no use against a Jotunn. She peeled off her gloves, dropped them on the ground, and began to search for a long stick, a fallen branch, anything she could use as a weapon.
“No sword, Valkyrie?” the giant asked. “No spear?”
Mist knew she had to keep him distracted. He was obviously the type who enjoyed playing with his victims.
“A little out of place in a modern city, don’t you think?” she said, slipping back into English as she backed away and swept her foot across the ground.
The Jotunn either didn’t know English very well, or he preferred the drama of the ancient language. “A pity you embraced this mortal world so completely,” he said. “It will be your undoing.”
Mist’s boot struck something solid that rolled under her foot. A weathered bit of branch—likely rotten and not as thick as she would have liked, but she didn’t have time to look for something better. She snatched it up and held it behind her back with her left hand while she reached for the knife attached to her belt with her right.
“So you are not without your defenses after all,” the Jotunn said with a low laugh.
“What are you called, Jotunn?” Mist asked, forcing the archaic words through the constriction in her throat.
“I am Hrimgrimir,” the giant said. “I know you, Mist, once Chooser of the Slain.”
And she knew him. Hrimgrimir was the frost giant who guarded the mouth of Niflheim, the frigid realm of the goddess Hel, where all mortals but the greatest heroes went after death. Mist had assumed that Hel and her dead minions, like all Loki’s evil forces—along with the gods and their allies—had been destroyed in the Last Battle.
Except one of them hadn’t.
“From where have you come, Frost-shrouded?” she demanded, carefully flicking open the blade. “From what dream of venom and darkness?”
Hrimgrimir chuckled. “No dream, Sow’s bitch.” He blew out a foul, gusty breath. “A pity you chose her side. You might have lived to see the new age.”
Keep him talking, Mist thought. “Whose side?” Mist asked, scratching a crude series of Runes into the branch with the tip of her knife.
“Are you stupid as he says?” Hrimgrimir asked, advancing on her with a slow, heavy tread. “The Sow is your mistress.”
“Freya?” Mist said, angling the blade to slice the pad of her left thumb. “I served Odin, but all the gods were your enemies.”
The giant sniffed. “What are you doing, bitch? I smell your fear, but—”
Mist smeared her blood into the shallow Runes, dropped the knife, and swung the branch out from behind her back. She breathed a quick spell, and the blood began to smoke.
Too late, Hrimgrimir recognized what she had done. He reared out of the vapor, huge hands curled, his power and giant-magic swirling round about him like ice-forged armor.
Mist felt his assault in body and soul, and her bloody fingers almost slipped on the branch. But she had been stricken by the battle fever that had driven her through World War II. There was no chance she’d back out now.
She tried a second spell, and this time the magic obeyed her. She stumbled backward as the branch began to change, the end in her hand forming a grip that perfectly fit her grasp, the other end broadening and sharpening into a blade.
“Is that all?” Hrimgrimir said with another grating laugh. He waved his hand as if he were batting away flies, and his fist connected with the branch-blade.
But the wood was no longer wood at all. It flashed in the faint ambient light reflected by the clouds overheard, a blade like the one she had carried so long and laid to rest with all the other reminders of her past.
Hrimgrimir howled as the edge of the sword connected with the side of his hand, slicing a ragged gash in his tough flesh. He took a step back, giving Mist the chance to shift position. She lifted the sword and crouched, legs tensed to lunge forward. Hrimgrimir bellowed and raised both arms, leaving his midsection vulnerable, and she struck at him, aiming straight at his gut. He tried to block her attack with one arm, and cold, blue blood splattered over her as her Rune-spelled blade sliced him to the bone.
Mist jumped back, ready for another attack. It never came. The vapor fell like a curtain in front of her, a writhing wall of maggots sheathed in ice. She swung again, but her sword whistled through empty air. The vapor began to recede as quickly as it had come, crackling angrily and leaving a crystalline film on the grass.
Shaken, Mist let the battle fever drain from muscle and nerve and bone. A cold sweat bathed her forehead and glued her shirt to her back. The burning sensation in her wrist was nearly gone, and so was her shock, yet the sense of unreality remained.
A giant had come to Midgard, bringing with him an evil no child of Mist’s adopted city could imagine. Not even the Nazis, or any of the tyrannical regimes that had come and gone since, had possessed such power. They had been human.
Flexing her fingers against the ache in her left thumb, Mist dropped her temporary sword and retrieved her knife. Almost instantly, the branch assumed its original form, the Runes burned away along with her blood.
But her thoughts continued to boil with questions. Where had Hrimgrimir come from? Even if she had been wrong about Ragnarok, the Last Battle, and the utter destruction of the world she had known millennia ago, she was certain she would have discovered the presence of other survivors long before the appearance of this one.
Certainly no Jotunn could walk Midgard unnoticed for long, even in more modest size. Had she been drawn to the park tonight because she had felt his presence?
She didn’t have to ask herself why he’d tried to kill her. Though there had always been a minority of Jotunar who had been friends and allies to the Aesir, few giants could meet a servant of the gods without enmity.
But why now? He had known not only what but who she was, and his attack had seemed very personal. He’d been waiting for her. For her.
Mist stared blindly at the trail of blackened grass Hrimgrimir had left in the wake of his retreat. Hrimgrimir had threatened her, but he’d given up as soon as she’d wounded him. Something about that hasty retreat bothered her. Carefully she reconstructed the Jotunn’s words, parsing them for any meaning she could have missed in the heat of battle.
“You might have lived to see the new age.”
Her heart stopped, and the fine hairs on the back of her neck stood rigid as a new-forged blade. The Prophecies had foretold a new age after Ragnarok, one of peace and plenty. That age would hardly have been one friendly to the dark forces. Few Jotunar would welcome its arrival, even if they survived to see it.
Unless the “new age” Hrimgrimir spoke of was very different from the paradise that had never come.
Skita. All Mist wanted now was a warm bed and Eric. But she had to have answers to this mystery before she could ever hope to have a normal life again. She had to find Hrimgrimir and make him talk.
Moving quickly, Mist followed the Jotunn’s trail, her boots crunching on the frozen grass. The park was still silent save for the bitter wind in the treetops and the distant roar of a motorcycle on Fulton Street. She had gone only a few hundred feet when the track disappeared completely. No trace of the giant remained.
And yet, as she stood still and opened her senses to the unseen, the feeling of something out of place began to grow again.
She looked for another piece of wood. She was long out of practice, and she, like all Valkyrie, had possessed only enough Galdr and basic Rune-lore to perform her duties. She’d been lucky the first spell had worked and that it hadn’t weakened her. This time the magic might fail or even turn against her.
Still, she had to try. She found a piece of firm bark, opened the knife again, and held the bark against the trunk of the nearest tree. The Runes sizzled as she cut them into the wood, simple yet powerful symbols formed of short, straight strokes: Uruz, Thurisaz, Ansuz.
It was too dangerous to use blood again so soon, so she closed the knife, withdrew a lighter from her jacket pocket, and set fire to the bark.
In three breaths it was consumed. The ashes fell to the foot of the tree in the pattern of an arrow, facing west.
Without hesitation Mist turned onto a narrow, dusty path that wandered among a dense grove of Monterey pines. Her search brought her to a heap of discarded clothing spread over the pine needles, half hidden under a clump of thick shrubbery.
Mist cursed. The magic had turned against her, mocking her meager skill. She was about to leave when the pile of rags heaved, and a hand, lean and pale, reached out from a tattered sleeve. A low groan emerged from the stinking mound. She smelled blood, plentiful but no longer fresh.
Against her better judgment, she knelt beside the man. She expected an indigent, perhaps injured by some thug who found beating up helpless vagrants a source of amusement. But the hand, encrusted with filth as it was, appeared unmarked by the daily struggle for food and shelter, more accustomed to lifting golden goblets of mead than sifting through rubbish in a Dumpster.
She started at the thought. Mead had been the most favored beverage of gods and heroes and elves.
This one certainly didn’t look like any kind of hero. Hesitantly she pulled the blankets aside. A tall, lean form emerged, dressed in a torn shirt, trousers too short and wide for his body, and hole-ridden sneakers. He lay on his belly, legs sprawled, cheek pressed against the damp, chilly earth.
And his face …
Mist had seen its like countless times in Odin’s hall, Valhalla, regal and stately among the carousing Aesir and warriors, fairer to look upon than the sun. It had always been accepted that the most beautiful of all creatures were the light-elves of Alfheim, allies of the gods.
This man was not so beautiful. His face was a mask of gore and mud, one eye swollen shut and nose covered in blood. Yet his features could not be mistaken.
A frost giant had come to Midgard from gods-knew-where. Now one of the Alfar had arrived as well, against all reason. Against every “truth” she had known, believed for so long.
Mist touched the elf’s shoulder. “Can you hear me?” she asked in the Old Tongue.
He moved his hand, fingers digging into the soil, and spoke in a voice rough and raw with pain.
“Who…” he croaked, opening his one good eye. “How…”
There was no doubt, no doubt at all, that he was speaking the Old Tongue with the accent of the Alfar. He was every bit as real as the Jotunn had been.
“Rest easy,” she said, shrugging out of her jacket and laying it over him. “You’re safe.”
The eye, so dark a blue as to be almost black amid the red and brown of blood and dirt, regarded her with growing comprehension. “Safe?” he whispered. With a sudden jerk he rolled to his side, pushing her jacket away. “The Jotunn…”
“There is no giant here now,” she said, pushing him down again. “Lie still, man of the Alfar. All is well.”
The sound he made might have been a laugh. He eased himself back down, inhaling sharply, and looked into her face. “Who … are you?”
Mist hesitated. The laws of Midgard—the natural, mundane laws she had accepted for centuries—had been broken. She didn’t know what the rules were anymore or whom she could trust, including herself.
But he was of the light-elves, who had fought and died alongside the gods. Even if she’d never had much use for the lofty, superior aesthetes who had been much too grand to spare so much as a glance for a lowly Valkyrie, she badly needed answers.
“My name is Mist,” she said.
In a burst of speed his hand shot out and encircled her wrist, long fingers curling around her tattoo. It seemed to catch fire again, and she wrenched her arm out of his grip. He closed his eye and released a shuddering breath.
“It is as I hoped,” he said.
Mist was too angry and startled to wonder what he’d hoped. “Whoever you are,” she said, “don’t do that again.”
He rubbed at his swollen mouth with his other hand. It was shaking. “Where is the frost giant?” he asked.
“He fled.”
“He did not … harm you?”
“No. I think I scared him off.”
“You fought him?”
“He attacked me. I didn’t have much choice.” She leaned closer to the elf, studying his face in search of anything familiar. “What do you know about him? Where did he come from? Where did you come from?”
Wincing, the elf pushed himself up on his elbow. “I will … answer all your questions, Mist of the Valkyrie,” he said, his voice regaining a little of the melodic cadences of his kind. “Is it safe?”
Mist shivered as if Hrimgrimir’s icy vapor had sunk deep into her flesh and muscle and bone.
“I don’t know what you mean,” she said.
He stared at her, his sole visible eye filled with mild contempt. “Do not pretend ignorance. It is not plausible.”
“I don’t much care what you find plausible. Who are you?”
“I am … Dainn. Dainn Far-seeker.”
Dainn. It was not an uncommon name for elf or dwarf. There were two most famous among the Alfar. The first was Dainn Rune-bringer, who had given the Rune-magic, the Galdr, to the elves, as Odin had brought it to the Aesir after days of bitter suffering. Mist had never seen Dainn Rune-bringer in Asgard, and it was no wonder: that Dainn was said to have vanished many ages before the fall of Asgard.
And then there was the other. Memories of the Last Battle flooded into Mist’s mind, images of bloody conflict and hopeless courage. She and her Sisters had only been present at the start of the fight, but she knew that the Alfar, though they never lifted a single weapon amongst them, had fought bravely with their potent magic. All but one.
He, too, she had never met, but she knew all about him. Dainn Faith-breaker, slain by Thor for the foulest treachery against Odin and the forces of good.
The Dainn before her was as ordinary as any elf could be … which would have been dazzling enough if he hadn’t just come out of the wrong end of a fight.
“Dainn Far-seeker,” she said. “The Jotunn attacked you?”
He nodded and gingerly touched the lump on his forehead. “It was not my intention to let him catch me.”
“He was after you, too?” she asked. “Why? What did you mean when you said—”
He held up a grimy hand to silence her. “Do you still have it?”
His voice had taken on an imperious note, which might have been more convincing if he hadn’t been covered with filth and rags that probably hadn’t seen anything resembling soap for years. He obviously wasn’t going to let her get away with playing ignorant again.
Simple, everyday annoyance began to wear the edge off Mist’s shock. “Odin gave me no leave to speak of it to anyone,” she said, “not even the Alfar.”
“You can trust me.”
Sure, Mist thought. But even if an elf had improbably gone over to the dark side, he couldn’t break the warding spell.
“It’s concealed and shielded with magic devised and gifted to me and my Sisters by the All-father himself,” she said. “And now I think you’d better start explaining—”
“What did the Jotunn say to you?”
“You seem to know that already,” she said, lapsing into English.
“You said nothing that could lead him to it?” he asked, his own English like something straight out of an Austen novel.
“No, I didn’t,” she said. “And no Jotunn could get through the wards. It would take a god to do it.’”
“And yet you have clearly been unprepared for any attempt to take it from you.”
“I didn’t exactly expect to meet a Jotunn or an elf when I got up this morning.”
He shook out his long black hair—the feature that all Alfar took most pride in—as if he might shed the leaf-litter and dirt that matted it almost beyond recognition. “I cannot fault you for holding true to your duty.”
“I don’t know what I’d do if you disapproved of me,” she said with a heavy dose of sarcasm. “Now maybe you’ll deign to tell me how you and Hrimgrimir managed to survive the Last Battle.”
Dainn rolled onto his knees and tried to stand, a little of his Alfar’s natural grace returning, then sank back down again with a very unelvish grunt of frustration.
“The Last Battle?” he said. “Is that what you thought it was?”
There was no mistaking his mockery, blandly delivered with that oh-so-superior elvish attitude. “It’s been centuries since Ragnarok,” she snapped. “Since none of us heard from Odin or any of the Aesir in all that time—”
“You naturally assumed that the gods had met their final destruction, as the Prophecies foretold.”
“What are you talking about?” she demanded. “What in Hel’s name is going on?”
Dainn sighed, staring out into the darkness. “The Seeress also foretold a new existence of peace and harmony after the gods met their final end,” he said with exaggerated patience, as if he were dealing with a naïve child. “Look around you. Does it seem to you that the world has been reborn?”
She knew cursed well it hadn’t. When she’d moved to San Francisco some fifty years ago and found Odin’s sons, Vidarr and Vali—two of the handful of Aesir foretold to survive Ragnarok—she’d quickly learned that they had no more idea what had happened than she did. In fact, they didn’t even remember how they’d come to be in Midgard in the first place. But that didn’t mean Ragnarok hadn’t wiped out the residents of the other Eight Homeworlds.
So she had told herself long ago. So she’d had every reason to believe.
“Midgard is as it always was,” Dainn said. “The Sword’s Age never ended. Not for this world.”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” she said, getting to her feet. “What’s your point?”
“My point is that there was no Ragnarok.”
In a way, Mist was far less startled by his answer than she should have been. But she wasn’t ready to concede just yet.
“Before I and my Sisters were sent to Midgard,” she said, “I saw everything happen just as it was supposed to. Baldr murdered. The Wolf loosed. Loki—”
“There was an ending, yes,” Dainn interrupted, looking up at her. “But not the one we expected. Paradise never came because the Aesir and their enemies did not perish.”

 
Copyright © 2013 by Susan Krinard