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Into the Roots of the World, Bearing Light
The marriage garland was braided from new-growth branches, picked green and living
from the worldtree. Eylis and her bridesmaids had woven it while they walked in procession from
that cyclopean trunk to Baldar's Lantern, which hung in the center of their village. There she was
met by her groom, the hero, who would break her heart. Eylis tied the garland around the hilt of Aryk's sword. A marriage band uniting warrior
and wife. His eyes were so bright, his lips soft as a rose. He was not a god, but the closest thing,
blushing and love-drunk and beautiful. As they lay that night, moonlit by the window above their goose-down bed, Aryk nuzzled
her earlobe. "Are you sure you want this?" His stubble brushed her jaw. She searched his face, traced the arch of his cheek with the tips of her fingers. "I am," she said. "I carry my father's sword, oath-bound to serve at Baldar's call." She kissed him, touched her forehead to his. "I know." "If the serpent wakes in our time--" "Shhhh." She closed his lips with her own and gathered the quilt about her shoulders.
"Why think of such things now?" His chest was thick and solid as she rose above him and pressed
him to the bed. "Come, my love. We have much of life to live."
by Jeremy A. TeGrotenhuis
Artwork by Tomislav Tikulin
The marriage garland was braided from new-growth branches, picked green and living from the worldtree. Eylis and her bridesmaids had woven it while they walked in procession from that cyclopean trunk to Baldar's Lantern, which hung in the center of their village. There she was met by her groom, the hero, who would break her heart.
Eylis tied the garland around the hilt of Aryk's sword. A marriage band uniting warrior and wife. His eyes were so bright, his lips soft as a rose. He was not a god, but the closest thing, blushing and love-drunk and beautiful.
As they lay that night, moonlit by the window above their goose-down bed, Aryk nuzzled her earlobe.
"Are you sure you want this?" His stubble brushed her jaw.
She searched his face, traced the arch of his cheek with the tips of her fingers.
"I am," she said.
"I carry my father's sword, oath-bound to serve at Baldar's call."
She kissed him, touched her forehead to his. "I know."
"If the serpent wakes in our time--"
"Shhhh." She closed his lips with her own and gathered the quilt about her shoulders. "Why think of such things now?" His chest was thick and solid as she rose above him and pressed him to the bed. "Come, my love. We have much of life to live."
Three years they were together before Baldar called Aryk to fight. It was not the summons he feared. He reassured Eylis of this and ran his fingers through their son's golden curls.
"The jotun wage war upon the lowest boughs," he said. "We will drive them back. That is all. The serpent still sleeps."
"Of course it does," she said, smiling down at Jonna, who giggled and plucked at his father's wrist with chubby fingers. "How could such beauty be born into a world soon to die? Will you always be so dour when the time comes to fight?"
Aryk squeezed her hand, kissed her, and belted on his father's sword. Eylis, with her son on her hip, followed him to the worldtree, to the top of the ancient stair carved into its trunk that led down to the lower realms. Baldar was there, armed with his oaken staff. Beside him stood his brother Thyr, garbed in lightning, and Fleya, their sister, robed in falcon's feathers with a horn bow in her hand. Their father Wodan leaned on his black iron spear, face dour as though he dreaded the battle to come. Thyr and Fleya tickled Jonna's feet and teased Aryk that his son seemed twice the warrior that he was, and perhaps they ought to bring the child with them instead of the father.
Eylis laughed, wished them well, and watched them descend to meet the heroes of the lower realms, and from there to battle.
She bounced Jonna on her hip and wondered what it might feel like to wear a cloak of feathers, to carry a bow. Her son whimpered as his father disappeared down the winding stair.
"He'll be home by autumn," she promised.
Jonna tumbled through the snow, laughing in the free, chirping way that only children can. At six years old he was already long-limbed like his father, quick enough to catch his wolfhound pup and wrestle it to the ground in a puff of thick-flaked powder.
He was too thin, but the winter had been hard on everyone. Eylis's mother had known how to stretch a turnip and passed that talent on to her daughters. And the people of the village took care of them, besides. A worm of guilt had wrapped itself around Eylis's heart the first time she found a sack of tubers and dried elk on her doorstep. Jarl Ulli had only smiled and shaken his head when she went to protest and return the food.
"We take care of the hero's people," he had said, and left it at that.
Eylis shared the gift with her sister, Valya, who had lost her husband to the plague the year before. Jonna's cousin Hannes ran with him, stumbling, often pausing to catch his breath. Was the difference between them Jonna's heroic blood, or the dried elk that Eylis had kept back for herself and her son?
The winter would pass. Come spring, they would both be strong again. Valya's cough would fade, and Aryk would be home.
The wolfhound pup licked Jonna from chin to nose. He toppled backward, squealing and rubbing at his mouth, kicking up clouds of snow. Hannes flopped to the ground beside his cousin, grinning, breathing heavy through his teeth.
They walked to her, the wolfhound pup at their heels. She took their hands and led them back to the house, where Valya was stretching a turnip into soup.
Jonna pulled his hand away and coughed.
A spike of fear killed the worm in Eylis's heart.
"Let's get you boys something to eat," she said, bundling her son into her arms. Her nephew and the wolfhound pup followed behind.
Eylis butchered the wolfhound pup when they had eaten all but the seed tubers. Each day the sun hung longer in the upper branches of the worldtree. Still, deep drifts of snow clung to the earth.
Jonna's cough did not fade with Spring. Nor did Valya's, and Hannes lay abed with a fever well after the first new growth. Half a dozen village children had died.
Through her window Eylis watched the colossal pillar of the worldtree, seeking Aryk's silhouette against the snow. He should have been home by now. Twice before he had gone to fight the jotun and had never been gone all through winter. His summers were for battle, his autumns for the harvest, and his winters for warming her bed.
At last, she saw four silhouettes at the top of the stair, bearing a litter between them. Five had gone down to do battle, and of those five only Aryk was not divine. Eylis threw open the door and ran. Jonna cried out behind her, but her heart pounded in her ears, killing all sound but the drumbeat of dread and panic.
He was haggard but alive at the head of the column. Relief buckled Eylis's knees. He ran to her, lifted her up, held her close.
"I thought it was you they carried," she said.
"I'm sorry. The battle was hard-fought." He pressed her tight to his chest. A falcon-feathered cloak shrouded the litter. "Fleya . . ."
"Shhh." She stroked his hair, which had faded from red to iron gray. He was too young to look so old. "Hush now. You're home. Everything will be alright."
Aryk went rigid. He stepped back from her, held her at arm's length. Agony rippled across his face.
"Eylis . . ." he said, gently, bright eyes searching hers. "A god is dead. The serpent stirs in the roots of the world."
They burned Fleya's body and her falcon-feather cloak in the center of the village. Her pyre was built from the bark of the worldtree, kindled with the wood of stunted, gnarled saplings.
Baldar stood beside the pyre. His lantern hung from the crook of his staff. It was a heavy thing, wrought of star-iron before the sprouting of the worldtree. The smoke of Fleya's funeral pyre gathered in the lantern's chamber. It began to glow, burning white and cold.
"Fleya's death heralds the end of this age, as it heralded the end of ages past, to mirror our mother's death at the birth of the world and the serpent's binding." Baldar drew a circle in the air with one finger. Wodan and Thyr watched from behind him. The all-father wore a hard expression of grief and outrage. The storm-god wore only weariness.
"The loop soon will close," Baldar went on. "The serpent wakes. Its every inhalation drains the world of warmth and light. When the snow melts we will venture forth, to the final battle and fulfillment of the pattern of death and rebirth, to restore our fallen sister and begin the world anew."
Eylis shivered at his words. She had never imagined that the serpent would wake in her time. It was a creature out of old stories, an evil long put to rest and not to rear its head again for many lifetimes. Not an enemy her husband, nor her children would have to face.
"To birth the world anew," she murmured, and looked hopefully to Aryk. "When the serpent sleeps, the world will be made right again?"
Aryk's eyes were shadowed as he turned away from Fleya's pyre. He smiled and kissed her forehead.
The snow faded, but Jonna's cough lingered, and deepened, till it filled his chest and emptied him of strength. He lay swaddled in furs and woolen blankets, and still his cheeks were cold. The roots of his golden curls had faded to white by the time Baldar's summons came.
The god stood in the doorway, star-iron lantern hanging from his staff.
"It is time, Aryk," he said. "The warriors of the lower realms assemble. We go to make the serpent sleep again."
Aryk pulled away from her. Eylis wrapped her fist in the folds of his cloak and held tight to the hilt of his sword. She choked on agony at the wound her words would deal him and said them anyway. "Our son is sick!"
"There is nothing to be done for him," Baldar said. "The warriors of the lower realms await us."
For a heartbeat she feared Aryk would abandon her. Feared that his loyalty lay more truly with the gods, with destiny, with the larger forces at work in the world that pulled him away from family. What union was this, where he could walk away while their son burned with fever and gagged on his own breath?
"They can wait a while longer, can't they?" Aryk said.
The god lingered in the doorway, his face clouded by fury. Drifts of old, malingering snow curled past his ankles and clung to the rushes, stubbornly refusing to melt in the warmth of the hearth. "Your fathers swore an oath."
"And I will make good on it when my son is well, Baldar."
"This is futile!" Baldar thumped his oaken staff against the threshold. "Whether this illness claims him, or he lingers on, all will be lost if the serpent wakes. The spell that first bound it was too costly. Wodan and Thyr--"
"Would you have me leave her alone to watch him suffer?" Aryk rounded on the god, his teeth grit and hackles high. "Go without me, if you must."
"The pattern must be fulfilled," the god said, voice cold and hard. "A mortal hero is required."
"Then find another," Aryk said, and turned back to his child. Eylis had never loved him more.
Baldar seethed. The white fire of his lantern flared. Smoke curled from his fingertips, and his eyes flashed with knee-weakening fury.
"We will wait, hero," the god said. "Only until the boy is dead."
That night, as they lay on either side of their son, warming his frigid body, feeling the pain of his tortured breathing, Eylis wept.
"Shhh, dear heart," Aryk said, kissing her tears. Smiling. A weak, gentle smile. Too gentle for a warrior. The expression of a man who would risk the world for his wife and son, knowing that death lurked, inevitable. "Everything will be alright."
And Eylis believed him.
Jonna died at the end of Summer. What few leaves had sprouted had long since browned and fallen and crumbled to dust. The branches of the worldtree were skeletal and bone-white. The sun burned blue and cold above Jonna's pyre, built from wood salvaged from what had been Valya and Hannes's hut. They had no need for it, anymore.
Eylis knelt on the frost-hard ground. Sobs had hammered her ribs near to cracking. She tasted iron and fire, felt the burn of smoke and sorrow in her throat. Her eyes were full of ash, but had emptied themselves of tears.
She understood, finally, why her sister had thrown herself on Hannes's pyre. Aryk knelt beside her, strong hands tight on her shoulders, face canyoned with grief. Did he hold her to offer comfort, or because he knew what end she entertained?
He held her till the pyre burned down to coals, till the dim sun descended into the heart of the worldtree and the waning, sickly moon swung low. Baldar stood in silhouette against that vast trunk, that pillar holding up the sky, its bark flaking as the serpent's breath swallowed all vitality.
Aryk stirred but did not stand. Eylis touched his hand.
"What Baldar said about Fleya," she whispered. "Will it be true of our Jonna? And Valya and Hannes? Will they be restored when the serpent sleeps again?"
A cold wind whipped up from the roots of the world. Eylis shivered to her bones as the last warmth of her son's pyre was pulled from her.
"Aryk?" She searched his face.
"Yes." His lips were rough on her forehead. "I have to go."
She caught his sleeve as he left her kneeling there on brittle grass, alone, to face cold and starvation and the end of the world.
Pulling on his clothes, hauling herself up, denying the urge to lie down beside her son's ashes and wait, she stood. Jonna could live again. If the gods succeeded in their quest, she would see her son, laughing in the bright sunlight as he chased his wolfhound pup.
"I delayed you," she sobbed. "Is there still time?"
Aryk set his jaw. "Eylis, we will face the jotun. The lower realms are perilous, to say nothing of the roots of the world."
"I will die whether I stay or go." She gripped his wrist and dragged him to Baldar, who waited at the edge of the village common. The god did not look at her.
"Are you ready at last, hero?" he said. "Will you make good on your oath?"
"Take me with you," Eylis begged.
"You will be a burden." These words dripped from Baldar's mouth. "We must make haste and can afford no hinderance."
"If I fall behind, let me fall," she said, turning to Aryk, for she knew the god would be deaf to her.
"Whether she stays or goes, her fate is the same," Aryk said. "Please."
"If she falls, she falls," Baldar said. "You will not turn back to save her."
Aryk hesitated. "Very well. If she falls, she falls."
"Very well." The god touched Aryk on the forehead and spoke a sorcerous word. The lantern flared. He reached for Eylis. She winced, expecting his sorcery to burn, or chill, or judder her like a stroke of lightning. It did none of these things, but the biting cold slowly faded to the brisk chill of a morning in early spring. The pain in Eylis's back, the first pangs of arthritis in her fingers, small hurts uncountable that had lingered beneath the surface of her awareness, all were dulled.
Only her heart still ached.
"You are bound to the lantern, now," he said. "Protected from the serpent's breath until the lantern's flame is spent. Let us make haste."
"Should we wait for the other gods?" Eylis asked, searching Baldar's stony face. He turned without another word toward the distant column of the worldtree.
Wodan and Thyr met them at the top of the downward stair. Wodan held his black iron spear and his shield of hawthorn wood. Thyr was armed and clothed in lightning. They eyed Baldar's lantern--Wodan with disgust, Thyr with exhaustion--and they stood to bar the way.
Baldar regarded them. "It has come to this, then? Father, brother, have you forgotten our mother's sacrifice?"
Thyr's shoulders slumped. The lightning of his stormy mantle dimmed. "How many cycles has it been, brother? How many times must we watch our sister die? We are tired, Baldar Light-bearer."
"Do you think your mother would be pleased to see what has become of this world?" Wodan straightened his back, challenging his youngest son. "We should have abandoned it when the serpent first wound itself in the root. Lifetimes of suffering weigh on my shoulders, Baldar. A burden I cannot carry any longer."
Baldar sneered. "Would you abandon the world my mother died for? The people she loved?"
"If you succeed, what will you have saved?" Thyr said. "A few millennia of peace, but then the suffering will begin again. Millions of lives across the dozen realms, condemned to suffer. The cries of countless starving children ring in my ears, Baldar. Are you deaf to them?"
"I have no desire to fight you, son." Wodan menaced Baldar with his spear. "But I will, if I must, and console myself that you will be born again when we plant the seed of a new world."
"You would abandon humankind, whom my mother--your bride--loved enough to give herself in the spell that bound the serpent." Baldar strode forward, paying no heed to Wodan's spear. "You have forgotten her. Or, worse, you must think her a fool."
"What kind of love demands suffering and death?" Wodan said. "We do not wish to abandon them. We wish to free them from age upon age of cold and ruin."
"Come, brother." Thyr god stretched out his arms in reconciliation--but he kept his eyes away from Aryk, away from Eylis. "This world will end, if not with this cycle, then perhaps the next, or a thousand cycles from now. It pains me, too, but you cannot fight the inevitable."
"I can," Baldar said. "For our mother, I must. I am sorry, brother. We will speak again in the world reborn."
Baldar opened his hand. White fire leapt from the lantern and splashed against Thyr, tearing him apart at the waist. Eylis staggered backward, stunned.
"No!" she cried, her voice drowned in Wodan's bellowed rage. He drove his spear through Baldar's ribs. Aryk lunged forward to save his patron.
Eylis screamed, rushing forward, reaching for Aryk. Her husband brought his sword against the all-father, parrying a spear thrust that raked his ribs. Wodan fell, cleaved from throat to navel, and tumbled over the edge of the stair.
"What have you done?" Eylis fell to her knees beside Baldar, who sprawled on the earth beside his slaughtered brother. Blood pulsed from his chest. "How will killing them restore my child?"
The god did not hear her. He lifted his lantern-staff. The white flame at its heart still burned. He pushed it into her hands.
"You must . . ." Baldar's voice was a bubbling rasp. "Into the roots of the world . . ."
"And then what?" she sobbed. "Aryk and I, we know nothing of sorcery!"
"The spell is . . . already wrought . . ." His chest heaved, and he lay still.
The fire at the lantern's heart flared. Aryk, clutching his side, helped her stand. He sheathed his sword and winced as she bandaged his wound with cloth torn from the hem of her dress.
Thyr's eyes dimmed. The lightning of his mantle faded. The gods were dead. She and Aryk were alone, burdened with a task meant for broader shoulders. She understood little of what the gods had said, but she had heard their despair. Only Baldar had clung to hope. He had been willing to fight his own brother, his own father, to restore the world.
"What do we do?" Aryk said weakly, leaning on her.
Eylis adjusted her grip on Baldar's lantern. She shifted Aryk's weight on her shoulder.
"We go on," she said. "For Jonna. For Baldar."
She descended the stair, bearing her husband and the lantern. It was hers, now, to carry. Her burden. The world's last hope.
They found Wodan at the bottom of the stair, where it fed into the first of the lower realms. His body was crumpled, his spear and shield shattered.
The realm into which they had descended was a broken place long dead. Skeletal figures lay around the stair, their leathery flesh clinging to frozen bones. Armor hung loose around their shoulders, and weapons lay beside them.
"These were the heroes of this realm," Aryk said, his breathing heavy. He could manage only five steps at a time before he had to stop and rest. Blood had seeped through his bandage. "Everywhere will be like this."
Guilt gripped Eylis's heart. These warriors had died waiting for the gods. They had starved and frozen while she kept Aryk back, waiting for her son to die.
"We must keep moving." Aryk clutched his wound and coughed. He doubled over, fell to one knee, wheezed in agony.
Eylis felt a stab of fear. What if his wound was worse than the scratch it seemed? She knelt beside him, but he shook his head, breathed deeply, and, with a grunt, found his feet again.
"The stair continues, but grows rough-hewn as we descend," he said.
"Aryk . . ." she furrowed her brow. Her breath came fast with worry.
"I'll be alright." He kissed her forehead and smiled. "Just one step at a time. One more, then another, then another. That, I can manage."
They descended, on and on, and at last came to a realm frozen to nothing more than a plain of ice that stretched to the horizon, dotted by the bone-white carcasses of long-dead trees. No stair continued downward.
"This was the battle-plain," Aryk murmured. "The realm in which the worldtree was planted. Below us, there is nothing but the roots of the world."
"How do we continue downward?"
Aryk shrugged. "Walk to the edge of the world?"
No jotun roamed the icy waste. For that, Eylis was thankful. Aryk weakened as they walked, each step more leaden, his weight heavier on her shoulder. At last the flat plain began to slope downward, and then roll like hills.
Eylis followed the top of one hill until snow and ice gave way to hoary, gnarled wood, sloping downward over the edge of the world. They were far from the dying sun, and as they left the edge of the battle-plain behind they descended into darkness cut only by the light of Baldar's lantern. It was slow going. She braced the butt of the lantern pole into cracks in the root to support herself as she took one probing step after another. Aryk followed, his breathing heavy.
As they descended, she kept time by his waning strength. Panic bubbled up within her as she half-carried him down into the bowels of the universe. If he succumbed to his wound, how would she carry on? Surely there would be jotun guarding the serpent, ready to tear her limb-from-limb. Their quest had been foolhardy enough with only Aryk to fight them. Eylis could never fight alone.
A rattling breath escaped him, then a grunt, and he collapsed. Eylis dropped to her knee, cradling him. She held the lantern pole in the crook of her arm and reached out with her free hand to steady herself. The tips of her fingers dug into the gnarled bark as the last light in the world swayed over depthless dark.
"I'm sorry," Aryk murmured through cracked lips. Delirious eyes searched hers. "I'm sorry I could not save our son."
Eylis brushed his graying hair from his brow. Tears wet his beard. Hers and his, mingling.
"You must go on," he said. "One more step, and then another, and another."
She sobbed, pressed her face to his shoulder.
"Shhh." He kissed her temple. "Everything will be alright."
She held him till the last warmth left his lungs.
Eylis wiped her eyes. Her tears shattered where they struck the roots of the world. Frost had already set in Aryk's skin.
She wanted nothing more than to lie down beside him, to let the worldtree's roots freeze and become as brittle as the air, brittle enough for the serpent to break free and end the cycle of death and rebirth. She understood, then, Wodan's fury, and Thyr's resignation. They, too, had wanted rest.
Wanting a thing does not make it right.
She stood, left her husband's corpse nestled in the gnarled wood, and returned to the slow descent, probing with her toes and the butt of Baldar's staff, peering into the pressing dark, down into the roots of the worldtree.
The sloped path of the root she had followed suddenly steepened, driving straight down like a plunging knife. Eylis crawled on her hands and knees to peer over the edge. The lantern swung precariously on the crook of its pole as she held it out over the darkness. She found a loose piece of bark. It fell silently for twenty heartbeats, then cracked against something far below.
Twisting her cloak into a rope, she tied the lantern's pole to her back. Her bare feet, well calloused, scrabbled painlessly for footholds. She had left her shoes behind when the frozen bark tore through them.
That was after Aryk died. She could not recall how long ago. The sun and all the orbs of heaven were dead, at last, and time died with them.
The frozen, gnarled bark cut her hands. She pressed on, wincing when one of the wounds on her palm brushed an unseen ridge in the bark. The pain would not stop her, but the blood slickened her fingers.
Her grip faltered. Every muscle in her core tightened. Only one foot was planted solidly, and it would not hold for long. The ground was a plane of blue and gray below.
She tore the cloak and let the lantern drop, then jumped after it, tucking and rolling. Something below her left breast snapped and stabbed. The lantern's glow flickered. She tried to stand.
Pain burst up her flank. It hurt, but she had known worse. Jonna was a breech. She could not remember his birth, only the waves and waves of agony. She did remember his smile, and his golden curls, grayed much too soon.
Not that. Think of his green eyes, the freckles born on baby cheeks by the sun's first kiss. His laughter when he ran with the wolfhound pup.
She crawled until her hand found the lantern pole. Only then did she let herself pass out.
Breath stirred her hair. Steady, warm, pungent with old rot. At first, in a daze, she believed it was Aryk beside her on their goose-down bed. She saw his face in her mind's eye, haloed by the rising sun through their window.
But Aryk was dead, like everyone else. Yet someone lived, and that someone stood over her.
Her eyes snapped open. A long-limbed figure studied her with cold eyes. It held a lantern. Not Baldar's--her hand still clutched it--but the lantern was similar in make, carved of stone rather than hammered from star iron. The flame at its heart was pale green.
The figure leaned toward her. She scrambled backward, agony stabbing up from her broken rib.
"Peace, godling." It showed long lower canines. Its voice was bone raked over gravel. "I want only to talk."
A jotun. An ice-giant. A servant of the serpent. She recognized it from the stories Aryk had told of his many battles. She gritted her teeth and tightened her fist around the lantern-pole. Aryk was dead. It was her turn to fight. For her family. For her son.
The jotun's pin-prick eyes glinted in deep hollows of desiccated flesh. "You bear the last lantern."
It knelt over her, yet kneeling it was as tall as any man. Its brow was hard and high as a fjord, its nose sharp as a mountain peak, the flesh taught against high, harsh cheeks. Its mouth could fit around her head.
"I expected a warrior--a host of them, in fact, until the others began to fall. Our lantern preserves us only while Baldar's light-bearers carry on." It grinned wryly. "You I did not expect, which makes you interesting. Like you, I am not a warrior. At least, I have not been for dozens of cycles."
While the jotun spoke, Eylis struggled to her feet. She leaned heavily on the lantern pole, unable to hide her injury. No matter. The jotun would have killed her by now if it meant to.
The light of their lanterns skimmed along the ground. It was cold, hard, and flat. The gray-blue of permafrost. There was nothing else, not even a drift of snow. Beyond the jotun, the roots of the world spilled and crawled along the icy ground. Somewhere in that wooden web the serpent kept its nest.
"If you do not mean to kill me, step aside." Eylis stepped forward and met the jotun's cavernous gaze.
Its arm rose to bar her way.
"You are neither god nor hero," it said. "How much do you know of the world's ending?"
She recalled the circle that Baldar drew in the air, standing beside his sister's pyre. She drew it for the jotun. "As day follows night, and night follows day. So it is with the world."
The jotun's hoary eyebrows rose. "Why then do you carry your lantern?"
"I have had enough," she snarled, and tried to slip past his grip, but his arms were as long as she was tall, and his stride tripled hers in length. No matter how she maneuvered, always he placed himself between her and the roots of the world, his arm heavy and rigid as iron.
"Tell me, and I may let you pass," he said.
She doubted that and sensed some trick. The jotun were devious, Aryk had often said. Still, she would never outrun him, and one blow from that arm would shatter her bones. She had to press on, for all the love and light and laughter the serpent had stolen.
"I am their last hope, jotun."
The jotun frowned. "Whose hope?"
"My husband, and my son. My sister, and her son." Her voice thickened as grief and anger welled within her. Was this what the jotun wanted? To witness her agony before it killed her? "All the dead, jotun, of all the realms. I will make your serpent sleep. I will restore them."
Green firelight cut deep shadows in the crags of its face.
"There. I have answered you," Eylis said. "Will you let me pass?"
"You do not know," the jotun said, mournfully. "I thought as much. Woman, the dead are dead. What you long for will never come to pass."
His words were a thought she could not bear to entertain.
"You lie," she murmured. "Aryk said they . . . he would never lie."
"If you carry that lantern to the serpent's nest, it will sleep again. The tree will regain its strength. Your sun will burn bright from the highest branches, and the upper boughs will be restored, green and lively. The gods rise from death, for that is their role in this, our absurd cosmic tragedy. As do we jotun, for we are the serpent's guardians, the children of its dream. But you mortals do not rise. The gods recreate you, but you are transient beings, molded of clay and candleflame. Your deaths have enviable finality."
She remembered Aryk's face, lit by the flames of their son's funeral pyre. She remembered his single word, yes, in answer to her desperation. A spark that lit hope in her, gave her reason to carry on.
The jotun watched her expectantly. What more was there to say? A lie had lured her into the darkness, into the roots of the world. A lie that her son could live again, that the world could be as it was, as it should have been, as it had seemed to her on their wedding night, gazing into her husband's eyes and seeing such a bright and beautiful future. As it was when she held her son, still wet and wailing, for the first time.
"All you will do is rekindle violence and strife," the jotun said.
She spoke without thinking, from the depths of memory. "That is only part of life."
"It is the only life we jotun lead. When the serpent sleeps, we jotun will rise. We will climb the worldtree, attack the lower realms, conquer, slaughter, ravage and pillage our way upward. And the gods will cast us back, only to regroup and rise again, and again, and again, till at last one of you fails this final quest. Till the serpent wakes to end our suffering. That is the world you would restore, woman. A world of death and anguish."
Death and anguish she knew well. Aryk's seeping wound. Valya, hurling herself onto her son's pyre. Jonna, white-haired and bone-thin, wracked by endless coughing. Her knees buckled. She kept her feet only by leaning on the lantern.
"Again and again I am born to struggle," the jotun said, a growl rumbling in his throat. His words no longer seemed for Eylis, but for the darkness around her, for the infinite plain of this, the bottom of the world. For the serpent, slowly waking. "In earlier lives my battle was against the gods. Of late, my own people have made themselves my enemy. I try to show them the pointlessness of their eternal war, the inevitable end of cycle after cycle."
Eylis remembered her son racing through drifts of snow, tackling his wolfhound pup, his laughter like bells.
Her husband, home from war, stinking of campfires and sweat. His lips, rough and longed for. His shoulders round and firm beneath her hands. Her relief at his return.
"You're wrong," she said, finding her feet. Strength flowed into her trembling legs.
Fury twisted the jotun's face. Its lips curled back from its tusks. Dry flesh pulled tight against its cheekbones and the pits of its eyes. "Let the serpent wake, woman. You have no stake left in the world you would rebuild."
"Perhaps not," Eylis took a step, and another, and another. "But there will be love, and light, and laughter again. Not for me, but for someone. Isn't that enough?"
The jotun roared. Its arm lashed down. Eylis lunged forward and swung the lantern. The jotun's cheeks collapsed as the bones of its face gave way to star-iron. It stumbled forward, howling, and fell to its knees, grasping at the empty air. Eylis clutched her broken rib and ran.
The jotun's anguish followed, first as a roar, then as a tremulous moan.
The serpent twisted in its prison. She could hear it, crawling over and against itself. A cascade of frost and frozen wood fell where black scales scraped against the roots of the world.
Its eyes found her, fixating on the lone point of light in the vast abyss. She feared that it might roar, or hurl itself against its prison, finally shattering its bonds. It only stared, as though to transfix her. Its tongue flicked out to taste her warmth and life.
Did it know what it saw?
This primordial creature, this ancient evil, devourer of innumerable lives, saw only a speck of light and the silhouette of a trembling, exhausted woman. A woman who stood no taller than one of its million scales. It did not fear her.
Why would it, even if it understood what she carried? Though it might sleep, it would rise again to thrash at the end of cycle after cycle after cycle until the roots of the world gave way.
It had taken everything from her. And though it was vast as the summer sun it was bound high in a tangle of roots. She would have to climb to it, dragging herself up from gnarled foothold to gnarled foothold till she was near enough for Baldar's spell to do its work. How long would that journey take? Even as she struggled toward it, the serpent might break free.
Even if she succeeded, it would break free eventually. Not only the jotun, but Wodan and Thyr had said as much.
How to stand against such certainty? How to act when any action seemed, at its very heart, pointless?
The world will end.
"Eventually." Eylis hefted the lantern. "But not yet."
The serpent watched her, tasting the dying world.
"Not yet," she said firmly, and to her astonishment the serpent shrieked. It hurled itself against the roots of the world, desperate to be free, as though it feared her. Wodan and Thyr and the jotun believed in the inevitability of the serpent's victory. The serpent, it seemed, did not.
She remembered Aryk's gentle smile, Jonna's golden hair.
Nothing inevitable, indeed.
She took one more step.
And then another.
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