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BUSKERUD COUNTY, NORWAY
Rebekka struggled through the snow, aware that the Nazis were not far behind them. Uncle Geir was helping to break the trail, but Mist had gone off to find the enemies and stop them before they got too close.
Uncle Aaron put his heavily padded arm around her. “Hurry, little one. We must move fast.”
She sighed. Her legs were tired and sore. She wished she were still perched high on Mist’s shoulders, above everyone else, imagining that she was riding on an elephant far away where it was warm and there were no bad men.
But Uncle Aaron was too tired to carry her, and he wasn’t very strong. He kept hurrying her along, his breath making clouds that covered his face and the scared look he tried not to let her see.
The sound of gunfire stopped everyone. Rebekka’s heart jumped in her chest. That had to be Mist, killing Nazis. She’d learned all about killing a long time ago, and it didn’t make her sick the way it used to. She knew the bad men had to be stopped.
“Move on,” Uncle Geir said, though he really wasn’t her uncle. She just liked to pretend. He skied alongside the others, waving his hand. “Let’s keep going.”
Slowly everyone started forward again, huddled against the wind. She heard the noise first, though she didn’t know what it was until it was too late. Someone rushed out of the saplings to either side of the trail and raised a gun. Mrs. Dworsky fell, her chest blossoming with red, and then Mr. Becker and Miss Hammerschlag staggered and dropped beside her. Another German soldier emerged from the trees and knocked everyone else down with a spray of bullets.
Uncle Aaron dragged Rebekka to the ground, covering her body with his. She didn’t see anything else, just heard—the bullets, the screams, the silence afterward. Then Uncle Aaron collapsed on top of her, and she couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe until someone pulled her out and carried her away.
Uncle Geir pushed her underneath a pine heavy with snow and aimed his own gun at the soldier running toward them, his boots kicking up red-stained snow. She caught a glimpse of someone fighting, not with a gun, but with a long staff. Horja, who always carried the long stick but had never done anything with it until now. She knocked a Nazi down while Geir fired at another German soldier.
Then the staff broke, just like it was a branch snapping under too much snow. Horja fell, one half of the staff still clutched in her hand. Her arm was bleeding, but Rebekka could see that she wasn’t going to die.
Neither was Uncle Geir, because suddenly the Nazis were gone. Dead, like all of Uncle Aaron’s friends. Like Mama and Papa, though no one else seemed to know that she’d already figured that out.
Rebekka sniffled, but she didn’t cry. And when she finally saw Mist …
“No!” she screamed. “Orn!”
* * *
Anna opened her eyes. Tilted elven eyes gazed down into hers—Hrolf’s, dusk-blue framed with unusually pale lashes. It was those eyes that drew her back out of the memories. Memories that were not and had never been her own.
“Are you well?” Hrolf asked. Anna almost thought she detected anxiety in his voice.
But elves, she had learned, were remarkably even-tempered, dispassionate by human standards. She wasn’t going to let him see how disturbed she really was.
“Fine,” she said, sitting up. The lean-to Hrolf had constructed was still standing firm, though the snow was falling steadily. Rota and the elves were on watch, armed with bows and daggers that never seemed as if they’d be much good against automatic rifles.
Fortunately, unlike the Nazis, the enemies who pursued them were confined to pre-industrial weapons themselves. That “rule” had never been fully explained to Anna, but Freya and Loki had agreed to it when they had begun their “game” for possession of Midgard. The “game” wasn’t a game anymore, but apparently there were lines even the trickster god, Loki, wouldn’t cross.
“Jotunar?” Anna asked, brushing her gloved hand across her face.
“We seem to have evaded them again,” Hrolf said, rocking back on his heels. “But the weather grows worse. We must find the Treasures soon.”
“I know.” Anna stared out at the white world, so like the one she had just left behind in her dreams. “I thought Horja’s memories would have come to me by now.”
“Then your dreams were of the other. Your kinswoman.”
Anna closed her eyes. She hated it when Rebekka took over. The blood, the screams, the darkness …
“You should go back to sleep,” Hrolf said, offering her his blanket. “Perhaps the right memories will come to you if you aren’t so cold.”
“You sound like Dainn,” she murmured.
Instantly Hrolf stiffened, and Anna ducked her head. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I never got to know him really well. But I still can’t believe he’s a traitor.”
“Let us not speak of it,” Hrolf said.
Anna sighed and closed her eyes, too exhausted to argue. Five minutes later—or what seemed like five minutes—the same slender hand shook her awake again.
“Frost giants,” Hrolf said.
“Where?” Anna asked, grabbing her own pathetic little knife.
“Too close.” He picked up his bow and ran outside. He and Rota consulted in low voices, and Hrolf dashed off. Rota, her bright red hair escaping her cap, crawled inside the lean-to.
“They know our tricks now,” she said. “Hrolf has gone to warn the other Alfar. You’ll run while we hold them off.”
“We’ll know in a few minutes.”
Feeling a little sick, Anna let Rota help her put on her pack. They were always ready to travel at the drop of a hat—or a Jotunn’s nearly silent footfall—so she had all the provisions she needed. Rota strapped on her snowshoes and herded her outside. Hrolf reappeared, his breath raising a white cloud that wreathed his fair head in a veil of elvish mystery.
“North,” he said. “There’s a narrow gorge perhaps half a kilometer from here. Find a place close to the brook that flows between the mountains. There, you will find cover enough to hide until we come for you.”
Hrolf took her arm, but Anna shook him off. “Rota said they know our tricks now,” she said. “It’s different this time, isn’t it?”
The elf exchanged glances with Rota, who made a helpless gesture with outspread hands. Hrolf sighed.
“We have been fortunate in throwing them off our scent for so long. But they have not yet prevailed in any of our skirmishes.”
Tell that to Eilif, Anna thought, remembering the slight elf-woman who had been killed only a week ago.
Killed defending me.
“And what if none of you comes back?” she asked, wondering why she was no longer astonished to hear such cold, blunt words coming out of her own mouth.
“It is possible that we must lead the Jotunar on a false trail well away from here,” Hrolf said, “but one of us will return for you.” He hesitated. “You may be alone some little while, but—”
“What’s ‘some little while’?” Anna interrupted. “Do you think I can survive out there for longer than a day?”
“You have learned quickly,” Hrolf said, his dark eyes earnest in a way that made her feel like she was five hundred times his age rather than the reverse. “You know what is most important.”
“If worse comes to worst,” Rota said, “find a way to call on Horja’s memories. She knew how to survive.”
“And if I can’t?” Anna shook her head. “No. I’d rather take my chances with you.”
“You don’t have a choice,” Rota said, pulling Anna away from the lean-to with all her irresistible Valkyrie strength.
Anna had learned a lot more over the past few weeks than just basic survival skills, or how to be detached—even cold-blooded—when she needed to be. She’d also learned to recognize when she was beaten.
“Don’t let them kill you, okay?” she called to Hrolf over her shoulder as Rota plowed ahead of her through the snow.
“I will do my utmost to prevent it,” he said.
Once she and Anna had put a good quarter mile of snowbound forest between themselves and the temporary camp, Rota slowed and began to look for the gorge Hrolf had mentioned. The ground began to rise, growing steeper with every step, and soon Anna spotted a high, rocky outcrop thrusting up out of the hillside.
“There,” she said.
Rota nodded, and they kept going until they found the gorge, thick with trees and cradling a white, fast-moving stream at the foot of a narrow falls.
“Be careful going down there. And don’t worry about us.” She held up her hand. “And don’t argue. Now, vamoose.”
“Go,” Rota said, giving Anna a gentle push.
Anna began to scramble down the rocky side of the gorge, resisting the urge to look back. She had just reached the bottom of the slope and was walking into the cover of the pines when she saw the Jotunn.
He grinned at her, all teeth, and strode toward her. Anna shoved her pack off and fumbled for her knife. Hrolf had tried to teach her, but there hadn’t been enough time. And she wasn’t nearly good enough.
Especially not for—
Vidarr? Anna blinked twice to make sure she was seeing correctly in the snow-glare. But it was Vidarr, in his SS captain’s uniform, a Walther pistol trained on her chest. Anna stepped back and nearly fell over a dead branch. Vidarr Odin’s-son had gone missing after he and his brother Vali had set Dainn up in Asbrew. But this could all be part of the past.
It had to be, because Vidarr shouldn’t have a gun. Not in this war.
But if she was wrong …
“Where are they?” he asked, continuing to advance.
“You’ve already lost them,” she said, feeling her way.
“Don’t lie to me,” Vidarr snarled.
“Where have you been, Vid?”
He tightened his grip on the pistol. “You tricked me.”
“It’s not me who’s been playing tricks,” she said. “How did you find me?”
Vidarr’s heavy brow wrinkled. “I … I don’t—”
“I’m surprised you’re still in one piece after the beating you took from Loki.”
“Loki.” Vidarr blinked several times, as if the name were strange to him, or hadn’t been spoken in his hearing for a very long time. His shape seemed to waver, one moment decked out in the SS uniform, the next in the kind of clothes any cold-hardy Jotunn might wear in the winter forests of Norway.
“I don’t even know if you’re real,” Anna said with a sudden laugh.
The uniform returned, perfect in every detail. Vidarr snapped out of his confusion and aimed at Anna’s head.
“This is real,” he said, his deep voice taking on the distinctive, biting cadence of a classic film Nazi villain. “I will give you one last chance. Surrender them to me, and I may show mercy.”
“I don’t have them, and you’d kill me anyway,” she said.
Vidarr grinned. “You’re right,” he said, and pressed down on the trigger.
Time stretched, a single second spun out to minutes as Anna realized that she was going to die. She saw Vidarr’s finger move millimeter by millimeter as the trigger strained to fulfill its deadly purpose, felt her muscles contract to carry her out of the bullet’s path.
She was far too slow. But an endless instant before the hammer hit the bullet, a heavy clump of snow broke free from a branch over Vidarr’s head and splattered over him, driving him to his knees. His shot went wild, but in another moment he was on his feet again, shaking the snow from his clothing and taking aim.
Anna didn’t wait. She didn’t even think. She felt the pistol cold against her palm and shot him full in the heart. And then she shot him again, and again, until she had no bullets left.
With a look of utter shock, Vidarr sank to his knees, clutched at his chest, and slowly fell into the snow facedown as if he’d been practicing his death scene for months. Anna began to tremble, and the world turned sharp and bright and immediate, as clear as the fast-running stream a few feet away.
The man she had shot wasn’t wearing a uniform, and there was no gun in his hand.
Or in hers.
Turning sideways, Anna vomited into the snow. Suddenly Hrolf was at her side, guiding her to a boulder and sweeping the snow away with a gloved hand so that she could sit.
“I … killed him,” Anna whispered.
“Who?” Hrolf asked, looking back toward Vidarr’s body.
It was gone. None of it had been real, after all.
Except that there was still a single black spot of blood in the undisturbed snow.
“There,” she whispered, pointing at the spot.
Hrolf followed her gaze, rose, and crouched again near the place where Vidarr had fallen. He removed his glove and touched the dark spot with the tip of his finger.
“Animal,” he said. “I am not yet familiar enough with Midgard’s beasts to be certain, but perhaps it is a—”
“It isn’t human?” Anna asked. “Or … god?”
“Another of your dreams?” Hrolf asked, getting to his feet.
“It must have been … Horja’s memories,” Anna said. “But this wasn’t like the others. I felt like—” She shivered violently. “Like myself the whole time.”
“Whom did you see?”
“What did he say?”
“He wanted ‘them.’”
“That’s what I assumed.”
Hrolf frowned. “If he were real, we might assume that he was still aiding Loki. It would explain his disappearance, if the Slanderer had been hiding him.”
Anna remembered mocking “Vidarr” about the beating Loki had given him after he’d defied the trickster god. He would have hated Loki for that, even though Loki had left him alive. Why would he help Loki now?
Anna touched her neck, feeling for a familiar weight on her skin. Like Vidarr, the pendant—along with her very special “parrot,” Orn—had vanished before Freya had come to Midgard in an elf-woman’s body. Anna still didn’t fully understand the purpose of the pendant, though she knew it was somehow responsible for blending her soul and memories with those of its previous carriers, the Valkyrie Horja and her own grandmother, Rebekka. She had tried to make herself believe that Orn would return to her, or at least to Mist. He’d wanted so badly to convey some message to the Valkyrie.
And he’d made Anna believe she had some purpose in helping him complete a vital task, some divine objective he’d dragged her all the way across the country to achieve. He’d made her believe she was safe.
She’d made the mistake of trusting him.
“The Jotunar are gone,” Hrolf said, pulling her back to the present. “We must return to the others.”
“Was anyone hurt?” she asked, berating herself for not having thought about it earlier.
“Minor injuries,” Hrolf said. He helped her to her feet. “If you can walk…”
Anna nodded, and they climbed out of the gorge. When she and Hrolf returned to the lean-to, she didn’t even notice the raven until it spoke.
“Anna,” Orn said. “Go now.”
Her mind filled with whirling black feathers, crowding out every other thought. When she came to, she found herself sitting in the snow, the elves looking down at her with the grave expressions that passed for alarm among their kind. Rota was crouched beside her, peering into her eyes.
She knew they hadn’t seen Orn. But it didn’t matter now.
Taking Rota’s offered hand, Anna scrambled to her feet. “It’s okay,” she said. “Horja knows where to go.”
* * *
Orn flew in wide, sweeping circles over the Alfar as they began to dig. He knew that the cache was under four feet of snow—not deep, but deep enough to conceal it from the eyes of the casual passerby, as if any such could be found in this vast track of wilderness. In fact, the magic that warded the chest—powerful Rune-staves etched into the steel lid—would be very difficult for even a former resident of the Eight Homeworlds to counter.
Horja had learned those Runes from him. The memory was vague. When he’d been with Anna, all he’d known was that he must find Mist, and that he was carrying a vital message. But his brief contact with Odin’s Spear, Gungnir—as well as with the seeds of the Apples of Idunn—had begun to change him. He had remembered how important it was to find the other Treasures and make physical contact with them.
And he knew that a little more of himself would return with each Treasure. He had not been able to stop Vidarr from kidnapping him and Anna during Mist’s battle with the World Serpent, Jormungandr, but they had escaped. Even Vidarr’s act of treachery had aided him. He had grown stronger. He had brought Odin’s sons to heel and made them serve his purpose.
He had also realized that he must hide, especially from the enemy who had tried to take him and Anna before. Hide himself with spells of concealment until he was strong and wise enough to face that enemy and fulfill his destiny.
That meant that not even Odin’s chief Valkyrie, Mist, could know where he was. He had sent Vidarr to follow Anna when she left the city where the battle would begin and end. He had taken the pendant from Vidarr and kept it safe.
The pendant was important. Orn knew he was very close to making sense of all the fragments of thoughts and memories buzzing around in his head, and the stone with the raven’s-head etching was where all the fragments would come together.
The fragments, and the Treasures. The three that Mist held—the Chain, the Glove, and the Steed—were too well warded for him to touch unless he exposed himself before he was ready. But once he had these …
“The ground’s too hard,” the Valkyrie Rota said, her voice carrying up to Orn as he flew above her, her red hair a blaze against the backdrop of white snow and blue shadow. “You boys have any spells that can break it up a little?”
One of the Alfar stepped forward and began to sing. Orn circled lower, watching intently. The earth heaved and trembled as the ice trapped within it began to thaw, and trickles of water welled up from a dozen tiny fissures in the ground.
“Let’s try again,” Rota said, setting to work with her spade. It was not long before the Valkyrie gave a low hoot of triumph as her spade touched the lid of the coffer. The Alfar knelt to brush the mud away and lifted the coffer from the cache. Anna stood by, hovering like a female raven defending her chick.
As if the Treasures were as important to her as they were to Orn. As if she, like Horja, had in truth been Odin’s Valkyrie. And would be again.
Once the coffer had been placed on the cleared earth beside the hole, the fair elf, Hrolf, crouched over it and laid his hand on the lid. He snatched it back with a very unelvish oath.
He, Rota, Anna, and the other Alfar huddled together in soft conversation, though Orn could easily hear their words. After a moment, Anna knelt beside the coffer, closed her eyes and began to chant the Rune-spell, pronouncing the words as perfectly as if she had been born among the ancient Norse. The lid opened with a faint moan of protest.
Orn descended swiftly and landed on Anna’s shoulder. She started, stumbling back from the coffer. Rota cursed and reached out to steady the mortal, while Orn flapped his wings to keep his balance.
Anna froze. “You’re real,” she stammered, tentatively reaching up to touch Orn’s breast feathers. “I thought I was dreaming.”
“You saw him?” Rota asked.
Anna ignored the Valkyrie. Her eyes glittered with moisture, drops suspended on the fringe of tiny feathers surrounding her eyes. “I didn’t think you were coming back, Orn,” she whispered. “No one could find you. Where did you go?”
“Here now,” Orn said, deliberately keeping his speech simple.
“Did you follow us? Why didn’t you let me know?”
Orn cocked his head, peering at each of her companions in turn. “Dangerous,” he said.
“Why? Was Loki … was someone watching you?”
Loki. Orn’s crest rose.
“I saw Vidarr,” Anna said. “He wasn’t real, was he?”
Pretending not to understand, Orn glided down from her shoulder to land at the edge of the hole. He pecked at one of the half-frozen clods of earth cast aside by the spade and the magic the elves had used to soften the ice-locked soil.
“He doesn’t seem to have much more to say now than he did when he was with you and Mist,” Rota said. “I’m sorry, Anna, but this whole ‘Odin’s messenger’ business…”
“Orn didn’t exactly get a chance to deliver any message,” Anna said, her voice rising. “Vali—”
“The raven could have returned to Mist any time once the battle was over. He’d have been safe with both Mistand Freya to protect him.”
Ignoring mortal and Valkyrie, Orn hopped up to the rim of the coffer and examined the contents. The soft leather pouch and broken staff lay cradled in nests of padded velvet. He dipped his head inside the coffer and lightly pecked the pouch and each half of the staff. Painfully bright light burst inside his head. There were pictures there, too, but he couldn’t quite make them out. He hopped down into the snow, drawing patterns with his feet as he moved this way and that.
“What is he doing?” Rota asked. “Those almost look like Runes.”
Hrolf crouched to examine the tracks as Orn fluttered out of the away. “They are,” he said, “but they make no sense. If the raven knows what the symbols represent, he has no understanding of how to give them meaning.”
Orn laughed. Of course they did not understand. The power contained in these Treasures had altered him yet again; he could feel the strength growing inside him, pushing outward as if it would burst through skin and feathers. He had laid the spell as easily as he might pluck a sparrow out of the air.
“What if it’s a message from Odin?” Anna asked. She looked at Hrolf. “Do you think you might figure it out if you studied them for a while?”
The fair-feathered elf shook his head. “We must not linger. The Jotunar may have found our trail again.”
“He’s right,” Rota said. “We’ve been lucky so far. Luckier than we’ve had any right to be.”
Smearing the Runes with his beak, Orn shook out his feathers. The fools didn’t know that he had been protecting them almost since they had arrived in this familiar country—leading the pursuing giants astray, giving subtle warning to the elves and Valkyrie that they had been too blind to recognize.
He flew back to Anna’s shoulder. “You,” he said, staring into the eyes of the Valkyrie. “Say nothing.” He looked at each of the elves in turn. “You did not see me.”
One by one they looked away, as if he had become invisible.
“Orn?” Anna murmured, reaching up to touch him.
Such was the nature of their long association that she had unconsciously resisted the spell. But Orn was not displeased. He leaned his head very close.
“I go,” he said in his softest croak. “You did not see me. Danger. Understand?”
“Yes,” she said slowly. “I understand, but…” Her throat bobbed. “You’re not the same, Orn. You’ve changed again. Why? Why did you leave me without saying any—”
Orn didn’t wait for her to finish. He spread his wings and launched himself skyward, leaving her and the cold earth far behind.
Soon he would have no need of these wings, this puny body. He would have another far more powerful.
Many as one. The second prophecy was the answer, the prediction he had built his strategy upon, the part his enemies, even Freya, did not know.
When he was whole they would all bow to him, and he would have both revenge and victory. Traitors would fall, and a new world would rise.
Copyright © 2016 by Susan Krinard