The Snake and the Mirror

Witch’s Gambit

 

The sky wept rain in great sheets as grey clouds rolled across the sky. At a place where the lashing seas met the high cliffs there seemed to be no peaceful spot to take refuge from the storm and waves and danger of falling rocks. Any mortal human would be tucked away safely in their homes, away from the roaring waters and the driving rain.

There was, however, one figure that made its way across the rocky coast. At the base of the cliffs, on a narrow path of stone cut into the rain-soaked rock, walked a lone person wrapped in a thick oiled coat who made their way slowly across the path of stones and gravel. Ahead of them, cascading down the high cliffs, was a waterfall, a great curtain of white that mixed with the rain and sent a mist of water through the damp air, making the rocks of the path slick and dangerous.

This place was treacherous to reach, and more treacherous to stay, as it had once been the hideaway of the most infamous of the northern gods. They were the Falls of Franangr, the secret home of an ancient trickster.

Behind the falls stood a short round tower, built from the stone of the cliffs themselves, and abandoned for many years. Nearby, beside the roaring waterfall, was a great stone slab exposed to the elements. The slab was pockmarked with holes and pits where acidic venom had dripped across it, but the snake that had produced this venom was gone, as was the god once bound upon the slab. Franangr’s Falls was an empty place, or so the world had been led to believe.

The figure reached out a hand, and felt the illusion around them. The air was thick with magic that could trick all but the most keen-eyed god, or someone with power that not even fate could define.

The figure knew illusion when she felt it. She was a master of them, after all.

With a swipe of the hand the illusion shattered like broken glass, falling like droplets of the waterfall as it disintegrated. What had once been an abandoned and stone-cold tower was now occupied, with the four-facing windows aglow with light from within. The owner no doubt sensed the illusion being broken. The figure didn’t mind, she preferred being announced anyway.

As she stepped towards the tower door, another wave of the hand blew it open. From within the door burst hundreds upon hundreds of bald-faced emaciated hawks, a storm of birds that rushed the figure with claws raised and sharp beaks ready to tear through skin and flesh and bone. A wailing screech from a hundred hungry voices wailed alongside the roar of the waterfall.

As the cloud of birds came down upon her, a flash of red light burst from the base of the canyon, and the flock of ravenous hawks dispersed as a swarm of harmless gnats.

“I didn’t come for your tricks, giant-son,” The figure’s voice was cold as she spoke to the tower’s open door. “I’ve little patience for it, and I come to talk.”

The door remained ajar, a warm light shining from within, and the figure took this as a gesture of welcome.

As she stepped inside the warm light vanished, replaced once more with the cold darkness of an empty tower. The fire and warmth had been simply another illusion wrapped around the tower.

“This seems excessive, even for you,” the figure said. “But magic never was your strong suit. It was a waste to lay magic traps when you knew what might be coming.”

The figure clapped her hands together, and a dozen more traps that lay in wait were obliterated by a pulse of magic power.

“Who did you have to cajole to lay those runes?” She asked the darkness. “Your own abilities never extended far beyond your own shapeshifting and cunning, Loki.”

“I suppose I must have underestimated my guest,” Came the reply.

Out of the darkness stepped a tall figure. Though short by divine standards, the god Loki was still easily nine feet tall if he wished it, and his thin and lanky form towered over the human-sized figure.

“When a witch comes calling I expect a little reverence.”

“That’s because,” the witch replied, pulling back her hood to reveal a head of voluminous red hair and sparkling green eyes. “You’ve never met a witch like me. Name me, giant-son. You know the names of all your visitors.”

Loki’s face twisted into a grin that seemed far too wide for his jaw.

“Morgan le Fay, it is a rare pleasure.”

“The pleasure belongs to neither of us,” Morgan said. “You don’t wish me here and I don’t wish to be here.”

“A rare kind of meeting then,” Loki said. “When both guest and host despise one another seemingly in equal measure.”

“Rare but necessary,” Morgan said. “I would have words.”

“You’ve had quite a few already,” Loki said. “I hope you have better ones.”

“You and I share a common predicament.”

“There is nothing common about either of us, though there is plenty vulgar about you.”

Morgan’s eye twitched, but she didn’t stop. “We’re both being hounded by our fellows, Loki. The Asgardians hunt you like game.”

“The Aesir are rather preoccupied, as are the Vanir,” Loki grinned.

“Then why is it, Loki, that you are hiding here at the edge of the world? I may not be a god but I know how to spot a cowering rat.”

A strange sort of expression came over Loki’s face, it was as if he wore an ugly scowl and a grin at the same time. As perplexing as it was unpleasant.

“Just as you run and hide from your trollops-in-arms.”

“Neither running nor hiding,” Morgan said coldly. “I simply saw no need to go to their little get-together at the Russian crone’s fowl shack.”

Despite himself Loki let out a cackle at the pun. “Very well, two fleeing cowards who are neither fleeing nor cowards. What of it?”

“The Aesir believe you to have thrown in your lot with the Dragon of Yggdrassil, yes?”

“I surely do not know what the Aesir think,” Loki said. “Though that sounds ludicrous enough for them to believe it.”

“My point is we all know you have a role to play,” Morgan said. “The Dragon will come to Midgard in time. That cannot be stopped. And when it does it will herald Ragnarok. The horns will blow and there’s a ship you must attend to.”

Loki scowled. “I’ve played that role. I’d rather not do so again. Repetition can be rather dull.”

“The Three have seen it. It will be so.”

“Those three see a lot of things,” Loki shrugged. “And you’re certainly one to talk of destiny and fate, witch-woman.”

“All the more reason to want my help,” Morgan said. “The Naglfar is one of the largest and mightiest ships to ever sail. Its presence all but makes certain dominion the seas.”

“If you have the mind to steer it,” Loki said. “And that ship only sails one place, and only at the end of days.”

“As you put forward, Loki, I am hardly one to be bothered with Fate when it doesn’t suit me.”

“So if you want to start the events of Ragnarok, just to get your hands on a ship?” Loki asked, scarred lips curling into a smile. “Bold if nothing else, Le Fay.”

“It’s far from just a ship,” Morgan said. “The Ocean is home to many ancient sources of power. She who commands the seas commands the forces of the world.”

“But you need a god to get that ship,” Loki smiled.

“Indeed, a very specific one,” Morgan said. “You, Loki, are destined to steer the Naglfar. But with a True Witch like myself aboard, then there are many destinations other than Muspellheim that you can sail to. Leave Surtr and his brood to rot while you and I take what we will from the seas.”

“Name a few of these destinations then, Witch,” Loki said. “Where would you demand Loki sail you like some humble steersman?”

“Oh, to many places. To the Mediterranean seas where we could make dealings with the ancient Typhon for access to his vaunted seas. To the far western shores where blood gods prey on their mortal worshippers and command powers even wise Odin knows little of. Or if riches be your pleasure, then the treasure troves of Atlantis and Thule would be wide open to the captains of the Naglfar.”

“Captains? A tempting offer, witch. Though I am no humble sea god to be satisfied with dominion of the waves.”

“Command of the seas breeds command of the land,” Morgan said. “More than trade, more than power. There are ancient forces lost beneath the waves. In the dark places where the water runs cold with the blood of Primordial beings. In the deep-down blackness where your world-spanning child sleeps. Powers that, with my aid, you can pull free from the web of fate and use to put down the gods that hunt and imprison you.”

“Mmm, I appreciate your rather wild ambition, Witch,” Loki said. “But I know better than most the price when one tries to meddle with fate. As should you.”

Morgan scowled. “Then cower in your cave if you must, giant-son. I have other threads to weave and other fires to burn.”

“Hold yourself, Witch,” Loki said, raising a hand. “I think an arrangement can be made. But there are measures that must be taken. The Naglfar is far from ready to sail.”

“There are times when the aid of a witch can be invaluable,” Morgan said. “If we strike an accord my magic will aid in the ship’s construction, as well as make it mightier than it ever could have been.”

“So I set sail on the Naglfar,” Loki said. “And then you and I shall jointly lead it to glory and the ruin of our enemies, it sounds almost too good to be true, particularly given your reputation, witch.”

“A reputation we share,” Morgan replied scathingly. “We are united in our mutual dishonesty,”

Loki let out a short cruel barking laugh. “Well said, Le Fay. Very well, let us see what amusement we can make together,” He held out his hand, and even before she took it Morgan could feel the bonds of the oath tying them together.

Both of them knew perfectly well the nature of the other. Loki the Trickster, the Liar, the Son of Giants and Father of Beasts. Morgan le Fay the Deceiver, the Wicked Enchantress, the Queen of Air and Darkness. These were not the names and epithets of trusted partners and comrades.

But Morgan had not spoken entirely in jest. It was a careful and tenuous arrangement, one bound together in whatever loose threads of Fate the Norns had overlooked. But both were so perfectly aware of each other’s nature, so understanding of their opposing treachery, that from it could arise a macabre sort of understanding. Betrayal was coming, from both sides inevitably. But they both knew well enough that it would come after what they wanted was achieved. Even if it was not a partnership to last it was one to be feared. For the Naglfar would sail and Midgard would burn before the strikes of betrayal were made.

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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