My fire had grown dark with the deep storm blanketing the mountains. Tossing a log on it made no difference to the lurking shadows.
A snap. A flash. A scream.
“Every time.” My voice echoed in the great hall, offsetting the small noise issuing from the floating embers.
“My lord?” A shadow cowered.
A stray leaf took to the flames and floated up, revealing a gathering in a mountain pasture.
“Humans. They’re at it again. Fetch my cloak. I’ve had it!” I spat. The fire in the hearth glowed an angry bruised blue and purple.
“Yes, right away.”
Cloaked, settled, and agitated, I stepped into the fire.
A hot darkness pressed in around me before evaporating to leave me in a brightly lit open glade, surrounded by a mass of despots in long black regalia. Hoods from wolf pelts covered many of their heads. A poor man knelt on the stones at my feet, little left of the skin on his back. Leaning against the post he was bound to, he had passed out long enough for the blood at his knees to congeal. His brown hair, braided and beaded, had been hewn roughly, the strands thrown across the ground in ecstatic revelry. Symbolic tattoos, now shattered, snaked across his arms.
“Fenrir has descended! Bow before our mighty lord!” A woman in the circle shouted. The group dropped to prostrate themselves in front of me. I ground my teeth at the show. The smell of burnt meat behind me had my stomach pinching and rolling. Exasperated, I tugged at my feathered mantle to stave off the chill of late winter. I left the country alone for three hundred years and they perverted everything.
I knelt in front of the man at my feet.
“We bestow an offering, Fenrir, in return for guidance against the fjándi threatening our gates!” A man called out from the throng. Vættr, the shadow at my feet, wavered. I glanced up from the chained invalid to pinpoint who it was that thought this was going to please me. I despised my meat charred beyond recognition. They bent lower, cowering under my gaze.
“What has this man done to deserve such a punishment?” I clenched my teeth to hide my seething rage.
“A Mikill Maðr, my Lord! The chief’s heir. We have brought you offerings of their horses and their prince to please you,” responded the woman who had demanded the others bow.
I broke the chain tethering the man to the post and cradled him in my arms. A pulse fluttered at his throat. “And what guidance do you expect from me, children?” I draped my cloak of black feathers around the man, hiding him from the crowd.
“How to destroy the fjándi!” A weaselly voice shouted from the crowd.
“And who am I to you?” I flicked a glance to the statue behind me. I would have laughed if I had not been so taken aback. True enough, an idol sat on a base. It was an idol of Fenrir in bastardized human form, but the base was in a different hand.
“You are Fenrir, the herald. The caller of wolves! You chase away those who intrude. You have protected the people of Mosebay for millennia!” came the call.
“What have you done to the shrine?” I hissed.
“We have moved many times since last you made your presence known, oh great Fenrir.” The woman bowed once more.
“And you have broken the shrine?” I surmised.
“It has been many years since the incident, my Lord. We will build you a new, better shrine, now that we know you will again heed our calls for help!” the man next to her explained. “Please! Take the man and the horses as offerings! Call the wolves down to chase out the Mikill Maðr!”
Standing up, I cradled the waif. How he or his people were called Mikill Maðr, I knew not. There was no greatness, no impressive size to the man, nothing by which to indicate a stature to rival the giants. His hair and tattoos told me otherwise.
I studied the cowering crowd surrounding me and snapped my fingers. The echo of it bounced around the valley.
The woman looked up in surprise. At that moment, she alone of the whole group recognized me. “You…you are not Fenrir!” She screeched, turning the tide of the crowd. The cawing of crows scratched the air around us, distracting the leader.
“No,” I smiled sadly. They had made a slew of egregious errors. “I’m Hrafnaguð. I bring crows and wolves to eat the dead. And he is my people.” I pulled the wounded man closer to me. “You stole the Mikill Maðr’s land and destroyed all in the temple, save but for the pedestal of my statue, cubs of Fenrir. The Wolf is bound to his little corner and will not be able to answer your prayers. I’ll relieve him of some foolhardy followers, though.” I stepped back into my fire as the air filled with the screams of crows, and a dark curtain of feathers cut off my view of the scrambling crowd.
The suffocating void spat me into my hall. The man had not stirred with the change. “Vættr, summon Eir. Tell her it’s pressing.”
The shadow that had seen to my cloak upon my initial exit flickered and slid beneath the heavy door out to the mountains.
I clumped across the thick stones to the timber stairs that held fast against my fury. The second floor beneath the thatch gathered warmth and the scent of herbs and apples in storage. A bedroll of fresh hay and lambskin lay waiting for guests in a corner.
“They made a right muck up of your back, didn’t they?” I shifted the unconscious man such that his stripped flesh wouldn’t press against the bedding. His breathing was at least even and quiet. Hopefully, they had not injured him further.
“I’ll return. No hurting yourself.” Back down the stairs I traipsed, to seek out one of my chests in one end of the longhouse. Clothing from my younger years came to hand: tunics, belts, trousers, boots. I rubbed a thumb across the coarse grey wool of a cloak. “Probably won’t be of any use yet. It’ll just stick to the wounds. Where’s Eir?”
I took the lumps of clothes back up the stairs and left them on a low milking stool that needed mending. “Giants? You’re no Mikill Maðr I’ve laid eyes upon, chiefling. Could it be that your father adopted you into the family? Would not be the first I heard of them taking in a lost human babe.”
A pounding at the door roused me from my one-sided conversation. I was left to enjoy the burn in my legs for the next round of stairs I faced letting in Eir and showing her to the man in the loft.
“Where did you collect him, Hrafnaguð? Let alone, why’d you bring him back? He’d probably already occupy Hel’s doorway if not for the world’s fire caught up in his lungs. Thank Surtr when you get the chance for that.” Eir dropped her bag of materials next to the hay pile.
“Noted. And I brought him back because people were irritating me.”
“He’s people, Hrafnaguð.”
“He hasn’t irritated me yet.”
“He looks like he irritated you.”
“No, he irritated worshippers of Fenrir.”
Eir pursed her lips at that revelation. Pulling apart her bag, she extracted salves and bandages. “Go, do something with Huginn or Muninn. They’ll be more entertaining than I will for the time. Know his name?”
I shook my head and left off for yet another trip down the stairs. “They said he was Mikill Maðr. Never seen one that tiny before.”
“Muninn might know then.”
“Oh, probably, but that means finding the treat pouch, and have you seen the state of the house? It will be faster to just let the man wake up.” I put hand to task, though, and picked up detritus that scattered itself across every flat surface.
Shears cut through fabric above me while I set the house back into a respectable order. I could have called in help, but I rather preferred my privacy in my winter home. Sometimes that meant remembering that I was there on my own and needed to give half a wheat head’s worth of effort to keep it livable.
“Hrafnaguð, get up here. He’s coming ‘round.” Eir’s whisper drifted down through the floorboards where I was spitting a mutton leg to roast.
Setting it in the holder near the fire, I wiped off my hands and climbed the stairs once more. “Remind me to construct my house as one level next I decide to obtain a new residence, Eir. I may not look old, but my joints remind me I am no toddling babe.”
Grey eyes the pitch of a dove’s wing stilled my babbling. I was reminded in that moment that I was not without my senses, however, with my age. Leaning against the bannister post was going to be the only way to hide a wave of heat slithering up my skin. “You’re probably wondering what you’re doing here?”
“Amongst other questions.” His voice, a touch lower than his face would have hinted at, held a thick accent for the lands I oversaw.
“I am Hrafnaguð. This is Eir. Do you remember what happened before waking up here?” I studied the splash of freckles across the man’s nose that climbed across cheekbones and dusted the tips of his ears.
“The Napr Kelda men caught me when I took my father’s horses to water. We had stopped in the heights on our trek from the other side of the mountain as we do every year. I don’t remember you, but I do remember them. Every face. No clue, though, what they said, just knew they didn’t like me. Killed the horses. Best I can guess is they either hate my people, or they needed a sacrifice.” He carefully twisted into a sitting position, Eir clucking at him as his bandaging slipped. His eyes slid down me in a derisive calculation I had not experienced since childhood. “I’m going with sacrifice, and you’re a god that came to collect, so now I’m yours, right? What will you have me do? Chop your wood, tend your herds, mend your thatch? For if not a sacrifice, I am life bonded to you as a debt I have no money to pay or barter left to give.”
“You needn’t remember their faces. Their sacrifice was in vain, in so far as who they ultimately summoned. If the one they had wanted had shown his toothy grin, you would be food for prophets. Rather instead, you are now in my home, and as many have worshipped me for more centuries than I wish to admit, I would say that you are correct in your assessment of god, though none you know of by the name of Hrafnaguð, it appears.” I left my post and settled on the milking stool, careful of the short leg that threatened to pitch me off.
“No, Hrafnaguð is unfamiliar, my Lord.” The man ducked a bow, hair swinging forward. His fingers went to the edges in sudden fury and disappointment. Quickly, he dropped his hands, biting his tongue to still himself from a protest.
Eir turned between the two of us in question before collecting her bag. “He is stable enough, Hrafnaguð. Do not push him for a handful of days, and the wounds will mend.”
“Thank you, Eir. Would you join us for mutton?” I offered, though the shank at the hearth’s edge would still need another hour, if not two.
“No, sadly, I must be back to my own house where others are awaiting treatment. Send your shadow if you need to call on me again.” She drifted down the stairs on light feet, “Take off your cloak before you become a giant feather duster,” and disappeared out the door like a ghost.
“The goddess of medicine is not someone I would have ever expected to meet for the number of times we have prayed to her,” the man across from me mused, though his eyes refused to leave off tracing my features.
“Who are ‘we’?” I pressed for an answer and pushed the hood from my hair, Eir’s direction finally registering.
The man swallowed, tears pushing to fall. Massive grey eyes took in the beads and braids and beard. “Rúnatýr, you are Rúnatýr. I apologize, my Lord, for such a grievous error.” He again bowed, though with an honest strain to his shoulders this time.
“I am of many names, and as of yet, you are few by way of our meeting. Pray, will not a strong mead loosen one from your lips?” I pulled a simple jug from one of several boxes that contained more of the same in the loft and held the vessel out to the man in an attempt to draw him away from potentially prostrating himself and incurring the wrath of Eir on us both.
“Fensalir. My name and my people are Fensalir, Lord Rúnatýr.” He touched the clay timidly before taking the weight.
“Both your people and your land?” I offered him a knife by which to pry the wax from the lid.
He took the hilt to study the simple black leather before applying himself to the task. “It was my father’s way, as was his father’s.”
“I must admit, for you being my people, I have never heard of you.” I rose and left to the pantry to dig out a slab of bread, butter, and mugs.
“May that be why we have never once yielded to miracle or omen then, Sire?” He took one of the pair of mugs to fill while I provided crust and sustenance.
“Where do your people hail from, if the Napr Kelda took umbrage with your nomadic ways?” I countered, unwilling to answer yes or no to having ignored the wants and needs of humanity as I sat listening to the wind against my door for centuries.
“We come from the glades and marshes, a new family, made from cast-offs of war. I am no son to my father as my father is no brother to my uncle. We all are an assemblage, a stew of many roots and meats to satisfy the whole.” Fensalir handed me a full cup of golden heaven and took his plate in trade.
“They called you Mikill Maðr.” I bit into the rough bread and enjoyed the saltiness of the sheep butter.
“My father is of Mikill Maðr descent, that is true, but I am nothing more than the joining of a Ljósálfar and a læknir, if my current family’s guess is as good as any.” He sipped at his mead, pausing to savour the flavour of summer meadows in the depths.
“You were blessed with a magic?” I brushed the crumbs out of my beard.
“Of a type. It is of little use to most, but it serves me in my moments.” He took my empty cup and filled it once more.
I stared at the swirling liquid, confused that I had already drained it to warrant such attention. “Seems we all have a type of magic that I know of.”
“You would see a variety that I would find unfathomable.” Fensalir shifted carefully until he could rest himself into the mound of hay and lambskin, head propped against the warm timber wall. There was an unexpected study in his movements, in the calculation of his smile, the sinuous ease of his digits that ran fire through my blood.
“Can you heal, then, child of læknir? Would it be better to apprentice you to Eir and gain coin through your toils?” I cocked my head to return his studious gaze, amused with the mead flush drawing up under his freckles. This man, lounging like he ruled this little mound of hay and lambskin, knew of seduction. No. There is a difference between knowledge and wisdom. One was read and taught, one was experienced. And I, a god of death, had found myself blessed with a sage.
“One might say I heal, Sire. It is a healing of the heart, though, rather than that of flesh and bone.” His tongue touched his bottom lip, eyelashes falling in volitional grace. I shifted to set my cup away, along with the jug of mead. I took up my knife from the pile of clothes next to the hay and returned the blade to my boot. His fingers slipped along my hand, breath warm and honeyed against my collarbone.
I found myself suspended in a deep blackness. The scent of magic I waited to catch never came. I cleared my throat to test if sound was possible in the blindness. The echo greeting me resolved the starless midnight into a series of soft shadows.
“You see, Sire, in a way, it is magic.” Fensalir’s warmth eased from the tips of my fingers to swirl around my arms and across my shoulders.
“What is this?” The taste of flowered honey coated my tongue.
The shadows burned off with the rise of a brilliant sun. Far to the horizon stretched swaying grassheads and rippling water channels. A flock of skua launched into the clear sky, the flap of their wings a hiss in the quiet late spring air. Turtles, fry, tadpoles teamed in the shallows around the mound of grass I stood upon. A young woman in a blue cape danced at the edge of the horizon.
“Fensalir?” I called to the openness, rushing forward into the warm waters after the woman.
“Sire?” Fingers dragged up my shoulder blades to circle around my traps and up the column of my throat, stalling my progress.
I turned to find no one there. “Where are you? Who was that?”
A warm breath at my ear spun me the other direction to consume the view of the marshland. “Where I have always been. When you get a chance, you should meet Frigg. I think you’d like her.”
“You are no Ljósálfar or læknir, are you, Fensalir?” I wished for the heat under my skin to dissipate as invisible fingers threatened to buckle my will.
“It took a god to see me as I am. What would you call me, Sire, if not a child of a Ljósálfar and a læknir?”
“You are Fensalir, am I right? You are the marshland.”
The ground beneath me opened up, and I dropped through the soil into a blackness before coming to in the loft of my longhouse. Grey eyes crinkled at the edges where a smirk fought to restrain a chuckle. “It’s amazing what humans will sacrifice in an effort to better themselves, is it not, Sire?”
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