TWILIGHT OF THE GODS: CHAPTER THREE

A new month, a new chapter!  In Chapter Three, we bear witness to the meeting between our protagonist, 16-year old Dísa Dagrúnsdottir, and the Hooded One — the immortal herald of the Tangled God, Father Loki, who watches over the Raven-Geats of Hrafnhaugr.  And, we discover the Hooded One’s true identity . . .

god of war

 

Here’s Chapter One.

Here’s Chapter Two.

And, here’s the jacket copy of the book:

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.

Twilight of the Gods cover

 

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Dísa took her foot from the step; she made to turn, so she might put a face to the voice that left her cold. As she did so, however, unseen fingers clamped down on the nape of her neck. The young woman flinched as her ears caught a familiar sound—the sinister hiss of iron on leather.

“Move and I’ll gut you, wretch!” hissed the figure at her back, its breath hot and reeking. She heard snuffling, as though it sought to divine her intent through scent. “Where’s the old crow I usually deal with, eh? That’s her basket you’re hugging, so you must know her. Or did you steal it from her and decide just to trespass onto my lands for a lark?”

“She . . . she’s dead,” Dísa said, her voice trembling. “Kolgríma’s dead. Our hunters found her three days past, at the bottom of the Scar.”

The fingers clasping her neck tightened. Hard nails dug into her flesh. An explosive grunt, somewhere between a cough and a curse, came from a place inches above her right ear. “Faugh! And what are you, then?”

“The . . . the Hooded One’s new priestess. I—”

She stopped as the tip of a long-seax entered her field of vision, its blade marked by the watery gray-black whorls of pattern welding. The black-nailed hand that held it was the color of old slate, knotted with dark veins and sinew; amid a webwork of ashen scars Dísa saw a single tattoo between its thumb and forefinger—a stylized eye done in faded cinnabar. With a flick of its wrist the figure knocked the basket’s lid askew. Dísa heard another round of snuffling followed by a low chuckle.

“You what, little wretch?”

“I . . .” Dísa Dagrúnsdottir closed her eyes; she dredged down deep, clawing through ropy tendrils of fear until she found the cold, hard core of her anger. She saw once more the disapproving stare of her grandmother, who shone like a valkyrja in the esteem of her people; she heard once again the whispers of her sisters, the other Daughters of the Raven, who thought her but a silly girl and unfit for this so-called honor; she saw again the look of sadness in Flóki’s eyes, a look mirrored in the eyes of old Hreðel, who had had his high hopes—that he might wed his son to Sigrún’s granddaughter—dashed. She seized that core of anger and held on to it. Dísa opened her eyes. “I am here by Fate’s own hand, you lout!” she said. “Release me and stand aside! Better yet, release me and show me into your master’s presence!”

“So-ho! My master, is it?” the figure said, its tone dripping mockery. “My master is the one you seek? By all means, then. You’d best leg it, little bird, and double quick! Don’t want to keep my master waiting!”

The hand around her neck gave her a shove forward. She stumbled, catching herself before she could fall. Of the figure, all she saw as it shouldered past her and bounded up the steps to the longhouse was a swirling cloak of wolf pelts and a mane of black, plaited hair worked with beads of bone and silver.

Dísa cursed under her breath and followed, albeit more slowly. She reached the porch beneath the gable, upheld by carved posts, and found the door to the heart of the longhouse standing open. She paused in the ruddy light of the threshold, wincing at the stench that flowed forth. It was a mix of sweat and smoke, the coppery tang of blood mixed with the feral stink of unwashed animal pelts. Dísa exhaled.

“Halla!” She heard the figure bellowing from inside. “Halla, Ymir take you! Where are you?”

Carefully, like a warrior crossing into enemy territory, Dísa entered the longhouse. It was not all that different from the longhouses of Hrafnhaugr. Posts of rough-hewn timber ran in two rows down its length, supporting roof beams thick with cobwebs and dust. The floor beneath her feet was hard-packed dirt carpeted in old ash, bits of slag, and flaked hammerscale, while raised platforms to the left and right provided places to sit, sleep, or eat. A long stone fire pit ran half the length of the longhouse. Stifling heat bled from its bed of glowing embers.

By that dim and sanguine light, Dísa beheld the Hooded One’s domain. She expected something more ordered, more formal, like the sacred enclosure at Old Uppsala—now nothing but ashes and memory thanks to the Nailed God’s followers. Her mind had constructed a temple-space; the reality was closer to a troll’s lair or the bolt-hole of some hoard-hungry dragon: on each side, gold and silver shimmered in the ember-glow—torques and arm-rings, fine-wrought chains and mint-stamped coins, bent offering plates and broken altar pieces; bronze there was, too, and the red gleam of hammered copper. Among this spoil lay the trophies of war: swords and daggers with simple hilts, great maces, Frankish axes on hafts of aged oak, and spears so old their ash-wood shafts had warped; shields leaned against the central posts, some round and others shaped like inverted teardrops; hauberks of rust-spotted mail lay draped over ancient breastplates etched with the eagles of a dead empire; the skins of wolf and bear, silk gambesons torn and stained with blood, myriad belts, scabbards, sheaths, and girdles—all taken from centuries of dead foes.

“Halla, damn you!”

Dísa found the figure who had accosted her outside. He stared back at her from across the fire pit, his head tilted, his right eye like an ember that burned with a light of its own; his left eye was the color of old bone. His saturnine face was as sharp and lean as a starveling wolf’s, with a jutting chin, heavy cheekbones, and a craggy brow. A jagged scar bisected the bridge of his nose, crossed his left eye, and continued up until it vanished beneath gold-and-bone beaded braids of coarse black hair at his left temple.

“You . . .” Dísa said. “You’re no man!”

The creature’s thin lips peeled back over sharp yellow teeth. “For which you dunghill swine should be thankful,” he replied. He sprawled back in a throne-like chair that sat at the center of the longhouse, bandy legs knotted with muscle thrust out before him. He wore a Norseman’s hobnailed boots, a kilt of russet linen and iron-studded leather strips, and a bronze breastplate gone nearly black with age—its muscled belly cut down below mid-sternum and replaced with a riveted drape of mail and leather. The war-belt of a Saxon prince, made of fine wide leather with clasps of carved copper and red gold, held his sheathed long-seax and a Frankish axe.

“What are you?”

The creature leaned forward, nostrils flaring. “Your master, little bird.”

Dísa blinked. “You’re the Hooded One?”

“Halla!”

“I am here.” An eerie voice answered from the shadows behind him. Dísa caught the pale glimmer of flesh as a hunchbacked crone inched closer, an outcast hag who kept to the gloom at the edges of the longhouse. She wore a ragged green dress and no shoes, her black-soled feet inured to the cold of the bog. A grimace twisted her thin-lipped mouth as her eyes, two opaque orbs framed by fey locks of ashen gray, fixed Dísa in an unblinking stare. When she spoke again, her voice was that of a girl barely out of childhood. “He is called many things, child,” she said. “Corpse-maker, Life-quencher, and the Bringer of Night; he is the Son of the Wolf and Brother of the Serpent. You bear witness to the last of the kaunar, child. The last son of Bálegyr left to plague Miðgarðr. He is Grimnir, and he is all that stands between you and the hymn-singing hordes of the Nailed God.”

And Grimnir—whose name meant “the Hooded One”—leaned back, grinning at the young woman’s discomfiture.

Dísa was at a loss for words. Indeed, she wondered, then, if she’d crossed into the realm of nightmare when she stepped past the boundary stones at the crest of the hill. Nothing was as her elders had told her—though now she understood why only one person served this thing that called itself the Hooded One. Would the men of Hrafnhaugr have countenanced a beast protecting them? And would they keep their swords sheathed even now if they knew what it was that settled their disputes and squabbles? She stared, gaped, and tried to assemble the pieces of what she knew, what she’d seen, into an answer she could grasp.

“He’s . . . You’re the Tangled God’s immortal herald? You’re who defends Hrafnhaugr, who serves as our law-speaker? You?”

Grimnir’s grin turned to a snarl. “Aye, me. And scant thanks I get from you lot! A few scraps of food, a bit of gold, and for what? So you sniveling wretches can sleep at night?”

“Then, why do you do it?” Dísa glanced from Grimnir to Halla. “Why protect us if there’s nothing in it for you?”

At that, Grimnir harrumphed. He shifted his weight; one black-nailed finger idly traced an old carving on the arm of his chair. “Stop your yammering and bring me that basket, little bird,” he said, after an uncomfortable silence. “And be quick about it! Got a craving for something besides that old hag’s toadstool soup and maggoty bread!”

With halting steps, Dísa approached his chair and held out the basket. She was close enough to see the tattoos snaking across his gnarled and knotted arms, serpents and briars twisting among a webwork of old scars, runes that spelled out his enemy’s doom in cinder and woad. Rings of gold, silver, and wrought iron decorated his thick biceps. Grunting, he snatched the basket from her hands.

Grimnir set it on the floor before his seat and hunched over it, his good eye agleam as he riffled through its contents. The rolled parchments he tossed to Halla without a second thought, and then went straight for the mead and the smoked pork.

He uncorked a flask with his teeth, spat the wooden stopper into the fire, and took a long pull—lowering it only after half the flask’s contents had gone down his gullet. Grimnir loosed a gusty sigh; he wiped a rivulet of mead off his chin with the back of his hand and sat back, gnawing on a knuckle of smoked hock.

Dísa felt Halla’s leathery fingers plucking at the back of her tunic. She scowled at the old woman and brushed her hand away.

“Kolgríma’s dead?” Halla said.

Dísa nodded. “We found her three days ago, at the mouth of the Scar, where it empties into Skærvík. From the spoor it looked like she’d been seeking something.” The young woman did not miss the sharp look Grimnir shot the old crone. A hint of a frown creased her forehead. What were they hiding?

“And the rune you bear?”

Dísa took the rune stone from the small pouch at her waist and held it out to Halla. The crone took it in her palm; she hunched over it, her long fingers twitching, never still.

Dagaz . . .” She breathed; her milky eyes rolled back into her head. She hissed in a hypnotic voice: “The rune of Day, a harbinger of cataclysmic change—the light burning away the darkness. The endless winter is drawing to a close. The Wolf whose name is Mockery nips at the heels of Sól, who guides the Chariot of the Sun! Soon, the Serpent will writhe! The Dragon—”

Nár!” Grimnir snapped. He flung a pork knuckle at Halla’s head. “Get ahold of yourself, witch!”

The crone shook and turned away, still muttering, still staring down at the rune stone cupped in her trembling hands. “The Dragon . . . the bones of the Dragon . . .”

Grimnir’s good eye rested on Dísa; for her part, she glared at the two of them as though they were nothing more than cheap mountebanks who had struck gold by playing the simple folk of Hrafnhaugr for fools. He sniffed in disdain and looked away, saying: “Wipe that snarl off your face, little bird, before—”

“Dísa,” she cut him off. Suddenly, Auða’s words of warning, her counsel for Dísa to school her temper lest she pay with her head, fell off like an anchor rope; like a raft tossed by a tempest, her long-simmering anger came unmoored. She would not be their silent accomplice. Not like Kolgríma; not like the score of other so-called priestesses who had come before her. “My name is Dísa, you black-hearted wretch! I am the daughter of Dagrún Sigrúnsdottir, who was slain fighting the Danes and their Christian paymasters in the surf of the Skagerrak! My mother died to keep those wretched hymn singers at bay because that was the Tangled God’s will—or so Kolgríma told us. But that was just another lie, wasn’t it?” The younger woman thrust an accusing finger at the parchments Halla had set aside. “Like the lie that you are the law-speaker of Hrafnhaugr, when you cannot even be bothered to look at the complaints of my people! And our defender? Was that a third lie? Scavenger, more like! Did my mother die just so you could pick clean the corpses of more dead Christians?” Even as she spoke the words, Dísa felt the icy talons of fear close about her throat. Her eyes grew as round as stones; she dared not move, dared not even breathe.

The air of the longhouse grew chill and silent. Smoke hung frozen in the air. Grimnir’s neck tendons creaked as he slowly turned his head in Dísa’s direction. The dead yellow bone of his left eye bore a circle of deep-etched runes inlaid with silver for an iris; his right blazed with fiery wrath.

Grimnir sucked his teeth and spat. “I see your tongue works, little bird, but do your legs?”

“I—” Dísa shivered. “I d-don’t . . . ?”

But it was Halla who answered. “Run, child.”

“Aye, run!” Grimnir snarled. “I’ll even make it sporting! I’ll give you to the ten-count.”

To her credit, Dísa did not need to be told a third time. Though fear crackled down her spine, knotting in her stomach like a fist clenching her entrails, it did not root her to the spot. Nor did it cloud her mind.

“One,” he said through gritted teeth. “Two.”

Dísa spat at Grimnir’s feet, turned, and bolted for the door. She paused at the count of three and snatched a Frankish axe from a pile of discarded weapons by the door. Its oak haft was the length of her forearm, with a flaring head no larger than a man’s fist. She risked a glance back at Grimnir, who leaned forward in his seat and clutched at the armrests like they were the limbs of an enemy.

“Four.”

Dísa allowed a hint of a smile to flirt with the corners of her mouth, and then she was gone. She would write her own destiny. And if she had to die, she would not go easily into the grave.

 

“Five,” Dísa muttered, trying to mimic Grimnir’s cadence. She descended from the porch of the longhouse at a run, her feet barely touching the steps. She paused at the bottom, the axe clutched in both hands. Dawn was less than an hour off; atop the nearest pole another torch had gone out, its smoking head still reeking faintly of sulphur and lime.

“Six.”

She knew in the pit of her belly she could not outrun him. Grimnir had the deep chest and rawboned limbs of a born predator—and the wide, snuffling nostrils of a tracker. For a heartbeat, she allowed self-pity to surface. Damn me and my foolish tongue! But she tamped that down before despair had a chance to take root. If she could not outrun him, she’d have to outfox him.

“Seven.”

Though they loathed one another, her grandmother had nevertheless raised her not to be a victim. She knew how to escape and evade human trackers, how to lay ambushes, and how to hit a man hard before he could hit her—knowing she would only have one chance. Dísa plunged to her right, into the well of darkness left by the extinguished torch, and followed the base of the hillock along a path choked with dead weeds and nettles.

“Eight,” she gasped, reaching the halfway mark.

The bog’s stench was thick, mud and vegetable decay warring with rotting meat and waste. Without pause, Dísa scuttled up the side of the hillock. An ancient ash tree grew near the foundation of the longhouse, its trunk gnarled and bent like an old man; using its roots and tussocks of grass, she dragged herself up and into its shadow.

“Nine.”

Dísa fell prone. The damp cold and the stench, the tall grass and the knotty ash tree, the inky darkness before first light—all these things worked to make her nigh-upon invisible. Her eyes watched the front of the longhouse. She controlled her breathing, from gasping to slow and measured exhalations. Her breath steamed. For a moment, she wondered if Sigrún’s hard lessons would be enough to save her.

“Ten.”

And in the cold darkness, axe in hand, Dísa Dagrúnsdottir waited.

 

“Ten.” Grimnir spat out a gobbet of gristle and heaved himself up. He drained the mead; cursing, he slung the empty pottery flask into the heart of the fire pit. Embers exploded. Halla watched them swirl up into the damp air as though they were sibylline stars.

Grimnir put a hand on the hilt of his seax. “I’ll send them her head, and maybe those dunghill rats will send me a priestess who knows the value of respect!”

Halla caught his arm. “You mustn’t harm her,” she said.

“Oh, must I not?” Grimnir tore his arm free from her grasp. “I’ll not sit idly by while some motherless whelp insults me!” Bronze rang as he rapped his knuckles against his armored chest. “Me! And after all I’ve done for them? They serve me! I do not serve them, and it’s high time I reminded them of that!”

“Kill her,” Halla said, “and you kill us all.”

Grimnir’s brows beetled; his good eye smoldered like a banked forge. “What are you yammering on about?”

“She is Dagaz!” Halla hissed. The crone leaned forward, her milky eyes burning with a passion of their own. She had the witch-sight, a gift made more potent by the blood of the troldvolk—the troll-folk—seething through her veins. “She bears the final rune! Do you not see it? The circle ends with her. Kill her, and the circle is broken ere the prophecy comes to fruition!”

“Bugger off, you old wretch!” Grimnir snorted and turned away. “You and your cursed prophecy! I’ve told you time and again that the age of prophecies and portents is over! The Old Ways are gone! This is the Nailed God’s world now. The rest of us . . . we’re just monsters who dwell in the gloaming, awaiting their blasted god’s reckoning!”

“Then answer the girl’s question, skrælingr,” Halla said, using the derisive name given to Grimnir’s people by the ancient Danes. He stopped, turned slowly. Halla continued, unabashed. “For thrice-times-ten-score years you’ve haunted the shadows of Raven Hill, you and old Gífr before you, slaying their enemies and accepting their sacrifices. You’ve played the part of their Hooded One, and for what? If the Old Ways cannot be resurrected, why do you stay?”

“You know why,” he growled.

“I want to hear it from your lips!” Halla’s childlike voice took on an even eerier quality, a guttural chant that echoed about the longhouse:

“When the years tally | nine times nine times nine,

Again, and war-reek | wafts like dragon breath;

When Fimbulvetr | hides the pallid sun,

The monstrous Serpent | shall writhe in fury.”

Grimnir started forward. “Hold your tongue, hag!”

Halla, though, drew herself up to her full but unimposing height; wild silver locks framed the resolute crags of her face as she pressed on:

“Sköll bays aloud | after Dvalin’s toy.

The fetter shall break | and the wolf run free;

Dark-jawed devourer | of light-bringer’s steed.

And in Vänern’s embrace | the earth splits asunder.

 

“From the depths a barrow | rises through the water,

The stone-girdled hall | of Aranæs, where dwells

Jörmungandr’s spawn, | the Malice Striker.

Its dread bones rattle | and heralds an end.”

“I said shut your stinking mouth!” Two steps brought Grimnir within arm’s reach; he lashed out. The back of his knotted fist struck Halla across the cheek. A human woman would have reeled away, nursing a broken jaw at best . . . or a broken neck. But Halla, who sprang from the loins of Járnviðja, the troll-queen of ancient Myrkviðr, the dark wood of legend, took the blow in stride. Her narrowed eyes bled milky fire as she turned her head slightly and spat out a blackened fragment of tooth.

“You know the last stanza, son of Bálegyr,” she said, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. “How does it run?”

Faugh!” Grimnir snarled and turned away. But then, in a voice as tuneless as a broken chanter pipe, he added:

“Wolf shall fight she-Wolf | in Raven’s shadow;

An axe age, a sword age, | as Day gives way to Night.

And Ymir’s sons dance | as the Gjallarhorn

Kindles the doom | of the Nailed God’s folk.”

Halla nodded. “You stay,” she said quietly, “because you know the prophecy is true.”

“True? Aye, I know there’s a bit of truth to it, hag,” Grimnir replied. “But I also know there’s a damn sight more to it than what’s in that wretched scrap of doggerel! You think I chose to live among these swine, to play protector to a village of half-wits, because some skald cobbled together a prophecy from a tale he half-heard? Ha! You’re a daft old bat!” Grimnir stabbed a finger at the open door. “Now, cease your prattle. I have a little bird to hunt.”

“Let her be,” Halla said. “She is Dagaz, you fool. She is the Day who gives way to Night—”

“Fool, is it?” Grimnir rounded on her. “Let me tell you something that maybe even those worm-riddled curds inside your skull can grasp. Your precious prophecy? It might be true, but that doesn’t mean it will ripen and bear fruit! There are other things at work here, besides a bit of old verse.”

“Like what?”

An ancient hate gleamed in Grimnir’s eye. “Like oaths,” he hissed. “Oaths sworn in blood and on bone. Sworn in the name of the Sly One, Father Loki, and of frost-bearded Ymir, sire of giants. Oaths of vengeance, woven long before some dunghill swine muttered about years tallying nine times nine times nine again. Grim days are coming, witch. And with them come justice and a reckoning . . . justice for Raðbolg, my kinsman, and for Skríkja, who gave me life. And a reckoning for that slippery eel you’re pinning your hopes on, that so-called ‘Malice Striker’!”

Halla’s face turned to a mask of rage. “You would betray your own kind? Side with the vermin of the Nailed God?”

My kind? So-ho! Where were you and the other troll-spawned whores of Myrkviðr when your precious dragon came against Orkahaugr, eh? In the days after Bálegyr fell at Mag Tuiredh?” Grimnir spat, recalling the cataclysmic battle in distant Ireland where his father was slain fighting the vestálfar, the West-elves of Èriu. “Oh, aye, I remember: hiding in your caves, with your potions and your brews! I side with my people, hag, though I may be all that’s left of them.

“As for the hymn-singers and their Nailed God, the whole wretched lot are dug in like maggots! Kill one and five more spring up!” He snorted in derision. “They are here to stay and no prophecy is going to change that. You’d best get used to it.”

Halla turned away, her eyes fixed on the rune she clutched in her gnarled fingers. “We shall see. The prophecy is truth. Oaths or no, it still has the power to remake the world.”

Grimnir stared at her a moment, his gaze inscrutable, then ducked his head and spat. Nostrils flaring, he loped from the longhouse to pick up the trail of the little bird who’d fled.

“Do not harm her, skrælingr!” Halla bellowed after him. “Do you hear me? She is a part of this!”

 

Dísa reached the twenty-count, then thirty; she was fast approaching the count of fifty when she finally decided to rise. The ground’s cold dampness had seeped through the fabric of her tunic; that, coupled with the sick palsy that followed on the heels of panic, left her feeling brittle and hollow, like an ice-bound reed.

She wondered, as she rose to a crouch: had this all been in jest? The beast’s idea of a joke? Only a healthy inborn sense of skepticism kept her from rushing out and confronting the so-called law-giver of Hrafnhaugr. Instead, she inched forward, intent on peering around the porch-front of the longhouse; that’s when Dísa heard their voices. She crept closer. She was careful of her footing. Through a narrow window above her head, the young woman heard Grimnir’s harsh accent, ancient and distinct; she heard the weird crone’s voice devolve into singsong chanting. She drew herself up, straining to hear the words, when she heard the meaty thump of a fist striking flesh. Dísa froze.

Had he killed her?

The haft of the axe clutched in Dísa’s fist grew slick with sweat. She changed hands and wiped her palm down the thigh of her tunic. That crone was his ally, she reckoned, perhaps even his friend. And if that wretched monster could kill a friend without second thought . . .

Dísa cursed. She should have skinned out when she had the chance. Aye, she thought, I could have been halfway to the boundary stone, by now. Instead, I’m standing here like a damnable fool, waiting for death. That revelation brought a snarl to the young woman’s lips. She bared her teeth, her face settling into a mask of resolve. She would wait no longer.

Dísa crept to the corner. There, she crouched in the well of darkness left by the extinguished torch. Ruddy light spilled out from beneath the porch, its wolf-and-serpent carved posts throwing long shadows over the head of the steps. To Dísa’s credit, she felt a momentary sense of relief when she heard the old woman’s voice once more. It rose to a hard-edged shriek: “Do not harm her, skrælingr! Do you hear me? She is a part of this!”

And though Dísa Dagrúnsdottir was glad the crone was alive, it did nothing to lessen her resolve. The die was cast. She let the axe drop to her side, her grip on its haft firm but not rigid—just as Sigrún had taught her.

Grimnir’s shadow preceded him. Dísa watched it stretch into the night; she held perfectly still, not even daring to breathe as his apish body filled the doorway of the longhouse. Chuckling with anticipation, he crossed the threshold and took off at a slow lope. Grimnir grabbed one of the carved posts supporting the roof of the porch as he went by, using it to swing himself out toward the head of the steps. There, he stopped and bent nearly double, sniffing and snuffling as he sought Dísa’s trail.

Dísa heard her grandmother’s voice in her head: You will have one chance, Sigrún had told them last autumn as she and Auða schooled the younger Daughters of the Raven on how to handle themselves. Scant few of the others would become like the pair of them—skjaldmær, grim and deadly maidens into whose hearts the Gods had decanted the wine of slaughter—but they all had to know how to use axe and knife, to defend Hrafnhaugr against the depredations of the Norse, the Christian Swedes, or the hymn-singing Danes. One chance! You must put your man down before he can lay his hands upon you. Strike fast! Strike hard! Dísa recalled Sigrún’s shoulders rising and falling in a fatalistic shrug. Or die.

Strike fast. Strike hard. Or die.

Dísa Dagrúnsdottir did just that.

She forced aside every shred of fear, every scrap of doubt. Shoved it down deep and locked it away. What grew in its place was rage, black and icy. Why should she run in fear? She sprang from the loins of Dagrún Spear-breaker; she was a Daughter of the Raven, bearer of the rune Dagaz; she was the Day-strider, chosen of the Gods. She was skjaldmær, shieldmaiden.

The call of her blood stung Dísa to action. She came off the wall and rounded the corner; she crossed through the bar of light spilling from the interior of the longhouse, heedless of shadows. The young woman’s stride lengthened until she moved at speed, but as silent as a hunting cat.

Strike fast.

Dísa angled for Grimnir’s blind side. A tiny voice deep within warned her that she risked committing blasphemy by slaying the Tangled God’s herald, but her pride crushed it. If she could slay him then he was no immortal, and if he was no immortal . . .

Strike hard.

Dísa was on him a heartbeat later. She came on in a rush; the head of her stolen axe whistled through the chill air as she aimed its killing edge for the back of the beast’s skull. Breath hissed between clenched teeth. She threw her right shoulder into the blow, adding the weight behind her right leg as it touched the earth. Dísa imagined that blow landing; she imagined the jarring moment of impact, the wet crunch. She imagined his skull coming apart in a welter of blood and brain. All of this Dísa saw in the twinkling that remained. Triumph swelled in her breast . . .

Or die.

And then, he moved.

Like a serpent, Grimnir twisted to his right; he ducked under her arm, letting the axe-head skim so close to his skull that it clinked against the bone and silver beads woven into his hair. He spun around and came up behind her. And while this change in fortunes left her confused, to her credit Dísa did not falter and pitch forward on her face. No, she did as Auða or her grandmother would have done—she adapted.

With a grace and speed she did not know she possessed, Dísa recovered from that missed blow and reversed her momentum. Sinew creaked as she wheeled to her right, the axe in her fist coming up in a backhand strike. And while she thought she was fast, Dísa still moved a fraction too slow.

Her wrist slapped into the palm of Grimnir’s black-nailed hand.

For an age of the earth, it seemed, they stared at one another—one eye as bright and red as a forge-glede boring into two as deep and blue as lake ice. Dísa saw nothing human in that gaze. No fear, no apprehension; neither pity nor kindness. Only hate. Hate as ancient as Yggðrasil, itself, and as long as Time. Hate that knew no border or boundary. Here was a creature of the Elder World, who wanted nothing more than to see the doom of Ragnarök come to pass. And as the elongated span of time drew to a close, for the briefest instant Dísa fancied she saw the glimmer of something familiar in Grimnir’s darkling visage . . . the pale shadow of respect.

The tableau held a moment longer, and then it was gone. Dísa had time to apprehend a slow and malicious smile twisting Grimnir’s thin lips; his nostrils flared as he drew a deep draught of air. Fingers like steel cords tightened around her slender wrist.

And then, she felt an explosion of pain below her ribs that wrenched a scream from her. Twice, Grimnir punched her in the right kidney—quick jabs that sent waves of nausea rippling up through her frame.

Still, Dísa did not crumple.

With an incoherent cry of fury, the young woman twisted in his grasp and struck across her body. She put everything into that blow: every scrap of rage and fear, every hurt done to her over the span of her short life, the weight of every grief-shed tear. All of it, she thrust into the knuckles of her left hand even as she drove her fist into the bridge of his nose. She felt the crunch of cartilage. Grimnir’s head rocked back; ropes of black blood, thick and reeking of wet iron, dribbled from his nostrils and down his chin. But as he recovered from the blow the beast’s smile widened, lips peeling back over sharp yellow canines.

From somewhere behind them, Dísa heard the eerie voice of the witch, Halla: “Skrælingr! Hold–”

If Grimnir heard, he gave no sign. His eye never flickered toward the sound; the bloody smile he wore turned to a snarl. His free hand snaked up from behind and clamped down savagely on the nape of Dísa’s neck.

She struggled, expecting death to come with a sharp twist.

And still, she fought. But before she could so much as draw her arm back for that final, futile blow, Grimnir responded with a sharp forward snap of his head, laughing as he smashed the hard bones of his forehead into her face.

Dísa heard the dull crunch of impact before her world went white and silent and she knew nothing more.

 

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!  In hardcover, e-book, and audio!

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