The Snake and the Mirror

Prologue

 

The sounds of battle grew closer every day. The drumbeat of marching feet, the echoing clatter of steel, and the high chorus of death-shrieks and battle-roars had echoed across the hills and grown louder and louder as fields were turned to churned mud and forests were reduced to ash. The battle had been fought for years as the wounded and the dead rose each night, picked up their weapons, and charged out once more to meet their foes the next morning. But all the courage in the world could not shift back the tide of this war. In a world above the world, the great gods of the North were losing the battle for their home.

Odin, the All-Father, the Deceiver, the God of the Hanged, rose from his throne in the great hall of Valhalla as the sounds of coming battle rang in his ears. The time for thought had come and gone, the time for action had come. In an age past Odin had been granted visions of the future, and he had seen the death of the gods, of his people, of his world, and time had made his visions reality. Odin had watched all the realms consumed by fire, water, and darkness before the great jaws of a wolf consumed him to. Now Odin, all his kin, and all his enemies had been reborn afresh into a new Asgard, with a new Midgard, and a new future.

And it was happening all over again.

Dressed humbly as he was in a long grey cloak, a walking staff in hand and a broad-brimmed hat over his eye, the tired grey god walked through the empty halls to his chambers, hidden away deep beneath the lofty hall of Valhalla. There was no one to stop or to question him, for they were all on the battlefield fighting for their lives and for their future against a sea of foes.

Within his sanctum, upon a table, rested Odin’s last confidant. Stooped in the shoulder and hidden beneath his own shadow, Odin inclined his head to greet the pale and emaciated head of a man, long since severed from its shoulders.

“The day is grim, Mimir” Odin said. “And it is dark”

“And it will grow dimmer and darker still, Father of Hosts” The severed head spoke back to him with a shriveled voice through decaying lips.

“Has it come again already?” Odin asked “Is Ragnarok upon us as it was before?”

The muscles of Mimir’s face twisted into what it could manage of a smile “Many times you have asked me, Odin, and every time I have answered the same: Only the Norns know fully how the cycle will pass, they let you be privy to their plans last time, but Urd contents herself with creating order, Verdandi chooses to weave her spider threads about us in silence, and Skuld keeps her darkest secrets tightly hidden.”

Odin could not help but feel a dark smile creep across his own face “Fate will not be kind to us, it seems.”

“Kindness is rarely the method of fate” Mimir said “But you would resent it if it were.”

“Aye, that I would.” Odin gave a tired sigh as he took a seat beside the table, placing his hat idly on Mimir’s head “Greatness rarely springs from kindness. Only in the heat of fire and under the hammer’s blow can good steel be made.”

“I cannot say what will be, All-Father” Mimir said “But ask me what is and I shall tell all I know.”

“How bleak are the signs?” Odin asked “How much time do we have before the serpent buries this world?”

“Bleak” Mimir said “Loki and Surtr have thrown in their lot with Nidhoggr.”

“As I knew they would.”

“As you knew they would” Mimir made his best approximation of a nod. “Fenrir is still bound, but his gnawing grows more pronounced each day. The Midgard serpent is unbound but seems…slothful. Its allegiance lies nowhere.”

“So my son has told me” Odin said, recalling Thor’s excited and half-drunk telling of his adventures down the river between worlds. “How is Midgard?”

“In no fit state to fight that I have seen.” Mimir said “But it has only felt the beginnings of the Primordial’s assault. Nidhoggr seeks to conquer Asgard before the wretched serpent will set all its power against Man’s Earth.”

“If Asgard falls” Odin said “if the Naglfar reaches the northern seas and Surtr strides across the lands of Midgard, then no amount of human heroism will save them from the end of days.”

“Do you think the humans have no hope?” Mimir asked, and at this the One-Eyed god’s smile grew a little broader. “Do you think they are too weak to fight?”

“On the contrary, Mimir, I think the world of the stupid little apes.”

Odin rose once more to his feet, he had spent enough time worrying and talking to a severed head. As he did, the grubby grey cloak feel away, replaced by a long cloak of dark grey wolf fur with a mantle worn over armor woven from thick gold rings. In his hand was no longer a walking staff, but a tall spear with a wicked edge and a haft blackened by fire and ablaze with shining runes. He drew the hat off of Mimir’s crown, but when he placed it on his brow it had become a great helm of gold that did not disguise his face or missing eye.

“They are a troublesome and irritating race with a penchant for discord and dishonor” Odin said “Though the same can be said of we Aesir. They are dumber than us, weaker, and more short-lived. They cannot see far past their own eyes, nor travel further than their own feet, but there is more to them than driftwood.”

“In a rare few perhaps”

“In those rare few, but they number many now, and those rare few are like fire. Where they burn, their fire spreads to others.”

Odin began to walk, steady on his feet and shoulders up, back into the hall.

“They are cowards, and they are heroes. They are criminals and they are paragons. Ten thousand contradictions in a single ugly race, but with a little pushing and molding they can be as mighty as the gods.”

“Let us hope then” Mimir gave his parting words “That they can be dragonslayers too.”

Odin walked with calm and steady footsteps back up to the great hall of Valhalla, and once more the echoing sounds of battle rang in his ears. How long could they hold this hall? A month? A week? Days? The Norns taunted him with their silence, and while Odin the Wise knew most things, he did not know it all. He relied on an old trick even more ancient than he was: Always pretend to know more than you do, more often than not people will believe you.

With a thought he called his ravens to him. Huginn and Muninn took their places on his shoulders, the great black-feathered birds looking into his single eye awaiting his instructions.

“I have a message for you two to deliver.” He said, and he whispered so that only they could hear it.

“Now begone! Get it delivered at all the speed your paltry wings can muster.”

With a squawking caw the ravens were away, dark wings carrying his words away from Asgard, leaving Odin alone with a crooked smile on his face. With nothing left to say and no one left to say it to, Odin strode out of the hall to join the din of battle.

It was night in Asgard, as it had been for weeks. After the first few days of darkness the stars and moon had blackened, but now a new aurora was cast across the heavens as great shards of multi-colored light danced and twinkled in their place. The ruined remains of the bifrost had been thrown across the sky after the shattering of the rainbow bridge, and now its ruined remains twinkled overhead.

Ahead of him Odin could see the battle lines, glowing with fire as the giants, the dragons, and the hordes of the honorless dead clashed with his Einherjar. Odin drew in a deep breath, and his nose filled with the scents of blood, filth, and carnage that could only come from battle. The ravens were already circling in their wide arc, keeping their distance until it was safe to come to feast.

He was disrupted from his reverie by the sounds of galloping hooves as a line of mounted warriors came to greet him. All the riders were women, all of them trained, battle-hardened, and beautiful, and as they rode to him many more came down from above, supported on their own great wings. The lead rider had, clutched in her hand, the reins of his own massive steed, the eight-legged Sleipnir, which dwarfed all other horses as he did all other men when he rode into battle.

“All-Father” the lead Valkyrie bowed her head as she handed him the reins “You’ll join the battle today?”

“I figured it was about time.” Odin shrugged as he mounted his horse, and he could feel the excitement brewing among the valkyries as he did. “It can never be said that I run from battle.”

“None would even think it, All-Father.” The lead Valkyrie bowed once more as the line fell in behind him.

Odin turned Sleipnir to face the battle line, even from this distance, his one remaining eye could see the fighting and the carnage as if it was happening at his feet, and soon enough it would be.

Odin, God of the Spear, God of War, and Lord of Lords, would ride to battle this day in command of his many Valkyries and his countless einherjar. As he had before, so it would be again.

 

A world away, on Midgard or as the humans called it Earth, a young girl had hitched a ride on the back of a traveler’s wagon. It wasn’t safe, the kindly man had said, traveling alone form one town to another, not with the world in the state it was. She had agreed, smiled, and let him cart her to the next town on her journey south, and she had let him remain blissfully unaware of just how rightly unafraid she was.

Her name was Torleif, and sitting beside her on the wagon, always within reach of her thick leather gloves, was a mighty hammer gifted by the god of Thunder, Thor.

“How long’s the trip, old man?” She called forward, legs swinging off the back. She had ridden up front with him for a while, but she had a child’s restlessness, and liked to move around.

“Still the better part of the day” he called back, somewhat gruffly as he repeated himself “But we’ll be there before nightfall, no reason to fret.”

Torleif lied back down in the cart, blue eyes staring upwards into the great empty sky. As she stared, a pair of dots appeared high overhead, appearing at first like her distant memories of jet planes, but these grew larger and larger still.

Soon she could see the shape of two large black birds descending in a slow spiral towards their cart. She considered taking hold of her hammer, but she could sense no danger from these birds. The ravens weren’t threatening, and in fact she felt slightly calmed by their presence. So instead she merely sat up in the cart to watch as the ravens perched gently on the sides, watching her through beady black eyes, unbeknownst to the old man who merely continued driving his cart.

One of them opened its mouth, and when it spoke it did so with a man’s voice, a god’s voice.

“Torleif” Came the voice of Odin the All-Father, though she did not know it by sound “Wielder of the Thunder and Champion of Asgard, listen well because this may be the last message you receive.”

Torleif straightened up, listening intently to the words of the raven and paying mind to every word.

“Asgard is fallen for all intents. The Aesir and the Vanir shall hold Valhalla for as long as we can, but when the hall falls and we are forced from Asgard, the Dragon of Yggdrassil shall set its sights upon your world, and by then it may be too late.”

Torleif bit her lip, hands curling into fists as she listened.

“Your only hope is to challenge Nidhoggr on Midgard, to make the dragon face you on human terms. On Midgard, a human can succeed where even the gods have failed, but you cannot do this task alone.”

Torleif had already grabbed her hammer, ready to leap off the cart and run towards Nidhoggr at his word, but now she paused.

“Seek out Freyja, the only one of our kind outside of Asgard who has not returned to fight. Find where she is and what she has been doing. More than that, however, you must seek out more like you. Find the champions and the heroes, the warriors both nearby and foreign-born with fire in their souls. You cannot slay this dragon alone, Torleif, but if you heed these words, find Freyja, and follow my signs, then you can begin to stack the odds in humanity’s favor. Follow the roads, for all roads lead to your destination.”

With that final riddle, the raven closed its beak, and it and its partner, the silent one, both flew back into the air.

Torleif frowned, she didn’t have patience for riddles, particularly when the topic sounded so dire.

“Hey old man!” She called forward again.

“Not polite to call people old, young lady” The man said gruffly “True as it may be.”

“Where do all roads lead?” Torleif asked, ignoring him.

“Well, no one place really…” he trailed off “Though there’s this old saying..”

“What old saying?”

“All roads lead to Rome.”

 

Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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