Last month, we met Úlfrún Hakonardottir in Chapter One of TWILIGHT OF THE GODS; this month, we meet our protagonist, 16-year old Dísa Dagrúnsdottir, a Raven-Geat from the hinterlands of Lake Vänern, in what is now Sweden.
Here’s your link to Chapter One.
And here’s the jacket copy:
A Gathering of Ravens was called “satisfying…complex…and a pleasure to read” (Publishers Weekly, starred review). Now, Scott Oden continues the saga of Grimnir in this new epic Viking fantasy novel, Twilight of the Gods.
In A Gathering of Ravens, he fought for vengeance. Now, Grimnir is back to fight for his survival.
It is the year of Our Lord 1218 and in the land of the Raven-Geats, the Old Ways reach deep. And while the Geats pay a tax to the King in the name of the White Christ, their hearts and souls belong to the gods of Ásgarðr. But no man can serve two masters.
Pledging to burn this Norse heresy from the land, famed crusader Konráðr the White leads a host against the Raven-Geats, using torch and sword to bring forth the light of the new religion. But the land of the Raven-Geats has an ancient protector: Grimnir, the last in a long line of monsters left to plague Miðgarðr. And he will stand between the Raven-Geats and their destruction.
Aided by an army of berserkers led by their pale queen, Grimnir sparks off an epic struggle—not only against the crusaders, but against the very Gods. For there is something buried beneath the land of the Raven-Geats that Odin wants, something best left undisturbed. Something the blood of the slain, Christian and pagan, will surely awaken.
The land of the Raven-Geats, on the north shore of Lake Vänern
Early spring in the Year of Our Lord 1218
Torches flared and guttered, casting a thin orange glow over the procession as it moved through stands of ash and oak. Thrice-nine men and women wound their way down from the fortress-crowned heights of Hrafnhaugr—that keel-shaped bluff men called Raven Hill. They walked in ominous silence. No cortege for wedding or funeral was this, for neither flute nor drum nor voices raised in gladness or mourning set their pace. Only the jangle of war-harness and the creak of worn leather; each was clad in the barbaric splendor of a bygone age, in ancient mail of bronze and iron, in wolf skins and skulls, in girdles of brazen scale and pectorals of hammered copper. The pale flesh of the north was lost beneath swirling tattoos done in cinder and woad, beneath streaks and daubs of lampblack and ash that gave them a peculiar cast—more beast than human. Black-nailed hands cradled axes and sheathed swords, or clutched at the feather-hung shafts of short stabbing spears.
They followed a path that brought them down near the water’s edge, to a ramshackle dock where a small boat waited, tied fast to the timber pilings. The shoreline, here, formed a natural bight—a deep bay called Skærvík where the black waters of Lake Vänern lapped at the steep, snow-clad flank of Raven Hill. As they approached the dock, the men and women parted to allow one of their number to shuffle forward. This figure was smaller than the others and swathed from crown to calf in the pelt of an immense gray wolf, its skull still attached. The blue eyes that glared out from beneath the beast’s heavy brow were sullen, angry.
The eldest woman present, hale and silver-haired, a shield-maiden in her youth whose skin bore more scars than wrinkles, stepped up to the smaller figure. “Dísa Dagrúnsdottir!” she said, her voice hard as flint. “The Fates have called you forth. They bid you take your place in the shadow of the Hooded One. Do you accept this charge?”
Eyes blazed from beneath the wolf’s skull; the smaller figure said nothing.
“Do you accept?” thundered the old woman, scowling.
And Dísa Dagrúnsdottir, who would enter her sixteenth year with the next new moon, drew herself up to her full height and shrugged free of the ancient beast’s pelt—which stank of sweat, and smoke, and old blood. Beneath, she wore a long black tunic, belted at the waist and heavy with runic embroidery worked in silver thread. Though small and wiry, she had the sharp, hungry eyes of a raptor. Like the other women present, Dísa’s right cheek bore the tattoo of a raven; it marked her as a daughter of an ancient bloodline, a sisterhood as old as the foundations of Hrafnhaugr, itself. Dísa flicked her head, causing rune-carved fetishes of bone woven into her black hair to click together like impatient thoughts.
“Do you accept?”
Dísa’s thin lips peeled back in a snarl that spoke less of the fire of youth than of a long-cherished dream denied. Her sharp breath steamed.
The old woman stared at Dísa for a long and uncomfortable moment, her seamed face an unreadable mask. Finally, she nodded. “Then go, and prove yourself worthy.”
The old woman stepped aside.
Glowering, Dísa Dagrúnsdottir brushed past her and stalked to the end of the dock. She sprang into the boat and arrayed herself on a bench in the bow. The old woman gestured; two from their number, a man and a woman, followed Dísa. The man clambered aboard and ran out the oars even as the woman untied the ropes holding the boat fast to the dock and shoved off; in the last possible instant, she leapt aboard and took her place at the steering tiller.
No words of farewell passed Dísa’s lips; she stared daggers at the spine-rigid old woman as the oars bit into the dark breast of Skærvík and the boat shot away, the creak of wood, the hiss of water, and the guttural whuff of the oarsman’s breath the only sounds.
And slowly, the boat vanished into the murky night.
A man came to stand alongside the old woman. Heavy-set, his chestnut beard shot through with silver, he thrust his hands into his gold-threaded girdle and rocked back on his heels. “If the Hooded One rejects her, I might yet be persuaded to find a place for her in my household. What say you, Sigrún?”
The old woman, Sigrún, glanced sidelong at the man. Hreðel, he was called; the torque of twisted gold he wore around his bull neck marked him as a man of consequence. For all that he was master of Hrafnhaugr, and her chieftain, Sigrún had known Hreðel since he was a lad—soft, sleepy-eyed Hreðel, who drank too much and worried too much and coddled his only son the way southern matrons coddle their daughters. “Will you and your boy share her, then?”
Hreðel frowned. “Don’t be crass. I make the offer in good faith. She has no mother, her father is dead, but my lad, Flóki, has taken a shine to her. If she returns—”
“If she returns,” Sigrún said, nostrils flaring, “and the mantle of priestess is not hers, then she will have no place among the Daughters of the Raven.”
“Surely you would not exile your own granddaughter?”
Sigrún turned her head; her fierce gaze pierced and held Hreðel like a huntsman’s spear. “Exile? No, Hreðel, if the Hooded One sends her back in dishonor, nothing as fragile as kinship will save her. If she fails, that daft girl dies by my hand.”
The prow of the boat surged in time with the oarsman’s strokes. Overhead, stars peeked through jagged rents in the clouds; the night grew old. Soon, dawn would stain the eastern sky, and where would she be? Dísa sat in silence, contemplating the answer as the far shore drew nearer—looming like an ominous prophecy she could not escape. Would dawn find her a slave? Or would she even live to see the sun’s rise?
In one fist, Dísa clutched a smooth stone bearing a deeply graven rune—Dagaz. She bore its twin inked into the flesh of her shoulder, done by her father’s own hand when she was but an infant. That rune . . . this stone, these were the foundations of her doom.
Like the sacred runes, the Daughters of the Raven numbered twenty-four. Never more and never less; drawn from the ancestral families who founded Hrafnhaugr, the Daughters each bore a tattooed rune corresponding to the first letter of their name. The rune was how the Fates decided who among the Daughters would serve as priestess to the Hooded One, who was the Tangled God’s immortal herald, and the law-speaker and protector of Hrafnhaugr.
Dísa recalled the anticipation, the fear that crackled through the village a week past, when hunters found the old priestess—a crone called Kolgríma—dead near the mouth of that ravine they called the Scar. As the eldest of the Daughters of the Raven, it fell upon Sigrún, Dísa’s own grandmother, to oversee the selection of a new priestess. It was, Dísa thought, a very simple matter: Sigrún gathered the other twenty-three Daughters together by the Raven Stone at the center of the village. She dispatched a nimble youth to shimmy up the face of the Stone and retrieve from its niche a sealed clay pot. For fifty-eight years, this pot had rested in the carved recess at the crown of the stone, placed there when old Kolgríma had taken up the mantle of priestess. It was light, hollow, its surface scoured and pitted by the elements. Gingerly, the youth passed it down to her grandmother.
As Dísa and the other Daughters watched, Sigrún smashed the pot against the side of the Raven Stone and from the shards drew forth the graven rock the young woman now held in her hand. Her rune, Dagaz. And in a twinkling, Dísa’s saw her hopes dashed. She did not wish to serve the Hooded One. The mantle she wanted most was that of shieldmaiden, to raid the Norse and the Danes for cattle and gold, to wield sword and spear against the enemies of the Raven-Geats; she wanted her name spoken in awe as much as she wanted to draw the eye of blessed Freyja, who had first choice from among the slain heroes of the ages. But no. The gods had decided her fate in an instant, when this flat rune-carved river rock peeked forth from shards of dark clay, from the remains of a pot that had sat in a niche for decades. She–—
The keel of the boat scraped the rocky shingle that was their destination. Dísa started at the sound. A single lamp burned on a post near the water’s edge. The girl exhaled as the woman in the stern left the tiller and came to her side.
“It is time, cousin,” she said, placing a reassuring hand on the younger woman’s shoulder. Like Dísa, the woman had black, fetish-hung hair and a raven tattoo on her high-boned cheek. A white scar bisecting the bridge of her nose, twice broken, did nothing to soften the hard planes of her features. She’d known Odin’s weather, and Dísa knew jealousy.
“Eager to get shut of me, Auða?” Dísa bridled at her cousin’s touch. Shrugging off her hand, she stood and vaulted over the side of the boat. The lake was shallow, here, and its icy water lapped at her ankles. “Go, then, and leave me to it!” Dísa slapped at the boat’s hull and tried to push it off the shingle, but to no avail. Flustered, she spat and made to turn away. Auða leaned down from the prow and caught her arm. Iron fingers dragged her back around.
“Go to him like this, with an anger-filled heart,” the older woman hissed, “and he will send you back shorter by a head. Do you understand? These tantrums end now, or they will be the end of you.”
The man at the oars, who was Hrútr, Auða’s bedmate, ducked his head and looked away.
Dísa said nothing for a moment; she stared at her feet, at the foam-flecked pebbles of the shingle and the dark waters splashing and ebbing over them. Her shoulders trembled. “I do not want this, Auða,” she said, her voice hoarse with pent-up resentment. “The old hag sends me to live a thrall’s life, and death!”
“And more the fool you are if you believe that,” Auða replied. “You think this is Sigrún’s doing? That she placed your rune in a jar a generation ago, when she was but a girl herself? Do you not see the hand of the Gods in this, Dísa? They’ve chosen you, singled you out for greatness . . . or for failure. If you go to your death it’s only because you did not prove yourself worthy of their gift.”
“Gift? Call it what it is, cousin: slavery! The Gods have chained me to the ankle of the Hooded One! I will be no better than one who lives and dies in obscurity!” Dísa knotted her hands into fists; she wanted to smash something, to vent her rage before it filled her throat and choked the life from her. She wanted to scream. “Where is the worth in that? Where is the glory?”
“In the Hooded One’s shadow, cousin, there is no room for the obscure. In her day, men from Uppsala to Jutland feared Kolgríma’s name. Your name will spread even farther. You have my word on it,” Auða said.
The older woman seized a handful of Dísa’s dark hair, and gave her a playful shake. “It begins by not standing here whining like a spoiled child.”
Dísa drew a deep breath and squared her shoulders. She nodded to Auða, though a hundred more questions boiled around in the cauldron of her skull. Questions like:, why did men fear Kolgríma? Dísa knew her as a doddering old crone who fell to an ignominious death. How had her name spread? How would her own spread, as one poised to become little more than a handmaiden to the inscrutable Hooded One? Dísa had enough inborn wisdom to know her questions would find no answers, here. Not with Auða. She glanced over her shoulder at the lamp-lit pole, its crest carved with a stylized eye—the sigil of her soon-to-be master; beyond, she could see the beginnings of a stone-paved path beneath a mantle of snow. It led inland . . . but to where? To what? Glory? Death? Immortality? Or mere servitude until the weight of her years caused her to stumble along a well-worn trail and fall into obscurity and a shallow grave?
“Maybe you’re right, cousin,” Dísa said, turning back to face Auða. “Maybe I am a spoiled child. But maybe I am only angry because I would at least have liked to have had a hand in deciding my own destiny.”
“Wouldn’t we all.” Auða reached down against the strakes and came up with a cloth- covered basket that contained Hrafnhaugr’s offerings to the Hooded One—slices of smoked meat and fish, barley bread and hard cheese, dried apples, flasks of last year’s mead, bits of silver and gold, and scraped parchments bearing a litany of ills that needed to be addressed, from boundary disputes to blood feuds. Dísa took the basket and set it safely ashore. “Go, now, cousin, and come back in the Hooded One’s favor.”
The two women’s eyes met; a look of knowing, of understanding passed between them, and then Dísa put her shoulder into it and shoved the boat’s keel off the shingle. She watched as Hrútr backed water ; she watched her cousin’s face, a glimmer of white in the snow-flecked darkness. She watched it fade into the night.
“Or don’t come back at all.” Dísa finished for her, in a voice that did not carry. She exhaled, then, her breath steaming, and turned. It was time to sort out her fate. Time to rid herself of the worry of not knowing. Nodding to herself, she slipped her rune stone into a pouch at her waist and caught up the basket. Striding to the head of the path, Dísa Dagrúnsdottir made her way inland.
She walked half a league, ascending along the path through snow-clad trees and around great boulders. This trail was not unknown to her; two years before, she had followed Jarl Hreðel’s son, Flóki, up this way, to see with her own eyes the boundary between their world and the Elder World. An ancient compact promised death to any who crossed it, save the priestess of the Hooded One. Only she could approach him,; only she could look upon him,; only she could speak to him. As far as Dísa knew, the Hooded One never set foot in Hrafnhaugr—despite being its protector. None alive, save Kolgríma, had ever laid eyes upon him. There were stories, of course. Jarl Hreðel boasted he saw him as a boy, tall and forbidding; Auða claimeds she saw him near the bridge over the Hveðrungr River, at the edge of their territory—a shadowy figure wearing antlers, his face like naked bone; a dozen others shared the same tale. All save Sigrún. That old crow kept silent, though hers was the last generation to fight beyond Hrafnhaugr’s borders; surely she had laid eyes upon him?
Dísa wondered: was he truly beyond mortal reckoning, as the legends professed, a deathless úlfhéðnar, grim and inscrutable? Or was “Hooded One” merely a title borne by a succession of up-country brawlers, a mantle embroidered by skalds and passed from father to son? With no little trepidation, she wondered if the duties of priestess included bearing sons. Regardless, it was an arrangement as old as Hrafnhaugr, itself.
The boundary stone lay at the crest of the hill, in a clearing that was open to the sky. Dísa paused and looked around her. Dawn was still more than an hour away, still. A heavy pall of cloud lay over the earth, and fat flakes of snow swirled down to hiss in the greasy orange flames of the remaining torch. Behind, Dísa could see the waters of the bay called Skærvík and beyond, the faint twinkle of lights atop Raven Hill; ahead, the path plunged into a deep valley. She approached the boundary stone—a waist-high eidolon that bore the faint suggestion of a squatting figure, perhaps a troll or some manner of landvættir. Old offering pots lay at its feet, weathered and broken; scraps of rune-etched wood and old parchment were jammed into its grasping hands. For an instant, Dísa wondered what would happen if she simply dropped her basket here and walked away, if she refused the honor of serving the Hooded One. Come back in his favor or not at all. How long would she survive in the wilds as one of the vargr, as an outlaw? Not long enough, she decided.
Dísa clutched her basket tighter. Then, holding her breath, she stepped over the boundary and into the shadow of the Elder World.
There was no shift to her senses, no feeling of dislocation. The sky did not change, nor the ground underfoot. Indeed, none of the things Flóki had warned her about came to pass—no lightning, no thunder, no guardian spirit demanding tribute, no test of worthiness. Merely the wind off the lake and flakes of snow drifting from one side to the other with apparent ease.
“Flóki, you lying wretch.” The beads in her hair jangled as she shrugged and continued on her way. Down into the valley she went,; but for the poles with their guttering torches, she’d soon have been lost. Despite the thin light, Dísa picked her way with exaggerated care, mindful of eroded ruts, tangling roots, and scree. A quarter of an hour later, she heard the gurgle and splash of water, and caught the strong, earthy stench of a mire. Beneath it was a darker scent—one she had known as a child, when her father would come back from hunting: the smells of smoke, dried blood, and offal.
Her destination lay at the bottom of the valley, at the heart of a string bog that drained through crevice and cleft into the dark waters of Lake Vänern. The natural path ended and a corduroy of logs led to a small hillock. Torches lit the approach; more flared at the crest of the hillock, where an ancient longhouse stood like a sentinel from a bygone era.
Though largely lost to the cloak of night, enough ambient torch light spilled over the structure to give Dísa a hint as to its size and grandeur. Great, carved posts of age-blackened timber upheld a roof of mossy shingle, like the scales of a great serpent. Smoke leaked from the gables, and from the clerestory atop the roof. Dísa found her gaze drawn to the porch, made by a pair of beams overhanging the gable, their ends hewn into the shapes of a dragon and a snarling wolf; beneath this, a door yawned.
The young woman shivered, clutched her basket as though it were a talisman with the power to protect. A cold sweat of fear slithered down her spine, taking with it her resolve; Dísa felt eyes on her. Malicious. Unseen.
You belong here, she told herself. You belong here. You are the priestess of the Hooded One. Thus, by tamping down her fear of the unknown and shoring up her courage, she was able to place one foot on the corduroy path. Then the other. Again, nothing leaped from the darkness to challenge her. Shadows danced in the flickering torchlight, and the feelings of scrutiny did not abate.
Slowly, she walked to the foot of the hillock. Stakes and spears thrust up from the damp loam around her; some flew tattered banners from clans that had long since vanished from the North. Others bore grisly reminders of the Hooded One’s writ to protect the lands of the Raven-Geats: skulls of naked bone alongside severed heads in various stages of decay. She could smell the violence, like the musk from some feral beast that rose from the corpses that lay half-buried in the bog—smears of whitish-blue flesh in the dank undergrowth, rusting helmets and armor, rotting shields, broken blades.
And looking about, Dísa apprehended the truth: it would be no mere man she served.
You belong here. You are the priestess of the Hooded One. For a moment, surrounded by the sights and smells of death, that thought brought a crushing sense of despair to Dísa. You belong here. The Gods have decreed it. Till the end of your days you will be a creature of shadows, a servant who toils for the Tangled God’s herald. You will bear witness to the inhuman things that snuffle at the threshold of the world so the folk of Hrafnhaugr can sleep soundly at night. But Dísa shook her head, beads ticking, and shrugged off her seeming hopelessness. No! “I will write my own destiny,” she said aloud, her voice profaning the eerie silence. And with a newfound sense of purpose, she placed one slender foot on the lowest step leading up to the longhouse porch . . .
And stopped. Her spine went rigid with fear. For behind her, Dísa Dagrúnsdottir heard a cold and humorless chuckle, as harsh as the fall of stones into an open grave. The voice that accompanied it came from no human throat:
“Will you, now? And what will this destiny say, eh? That you died a lost little bird, bound for the stewpots? Nár, after I skin you and joint you, there won’t even be a stringy morsel left.”
Check back next month for Chapter Three! TWILIGHT OF THE GODS is due out at all fine booksellers on 18 February 2020. Pre-order your copy today!