It was the middle of night when Andy went to get a drink of water in the kitchen and found Halla once more sitting at her kitchen table.
After four years of silence from that other dimension, it gave Andy a bit of a surprise to flick on the light and find the witch-queen sitting there as if she’d never left, but Andy had seen many far more startling things in her life, and she merely stopped a moment to get her bearings, nodded politely to Halla, then turned to the sink to fill her empty bedside glass.
Drinking the whole glass in one long swallow, she refilled it again, then took another glass from the drainer, filled it, and turned to offer it to Halla.
“What no tea?” asked the imposing woman who sat at her table, seeming to fill the tiny kitchen of the beloved home of Andy, Lem and their friends. Her voice was as Andy remembered it; deep and rich. She was speaking Jotunsnakke, and Andy knew then that her Odin-given magical ability to understand the other-dimensional version of Old Norse was still in effect.
“Might wake the baby if I crash around too much making tea,” Andy said calmly in the same language. She sat down opposite her visitor. “You’re a mother, too . You know how hard it is to get them back off to sleep if you startle them.”
“I have servants for that,” Halla said, taking her glass and sipping water regally, if regal is a thing you can be while drinking water in a small, old-fashioned kitchen. She looked as beautiful as ever, with perhaps a little more matronly weight around her middle adding to the sense of her queenly substance. Her red hair was even longer than Andy remembered, her gold-laced braids reaching to rest in the lap of her richly-embroidered green over-dress, with its traditional decorations of gold chains and strings of green beads hung from shoulder to shoulder. Always one for wearing green, was Halla, Andy remembered.
“Where is the dog of the small feisty one?” Halla asked. “I’d expected to have to fend her off my ankles, her or the dog.” Halla laughed, but Andy noticed she did it quietly. She had no wish to wake Andy’s baby either, or with the baby the rest of that very efficient household.
“Lily is as fierce as ever, but Bu’s a little deaf nowadays,” Andy said, “Though she wouldn’t admit it. She’s still a keen a guardian… but you don’t really care about the dog or Lily or any of that, Halla. Let’s cut to the meat of the matter. What do you want?”
Andy had tried always to be honest with this woman, though she’d had to lie on a few notable occasions, and it seemed Halla still trusted her. More than Andy would ever be able to trust the queen in reverse, at any rate!
Halla studied her for a long moment and Andy knew Halla would see very similar to what she herself had seen in the queen. A softening around the tummy brought about by not one, but two babies in this last four years. A girl and then a boy, to delight Lem and Andy and their doting grandparents.
Andy knew that there was a little grey now hiding in the light-blonde of her long, straight hair, and that tiredness had made her elvish face look drawn and older, but she wouldn’t have chosen to be any other way. She loved her life as mother and medium, loved Lem, loved her children and her life here in their magical home with their friends. She eyed Halla back with the confidence of knowing she was as powerful now as this witch had ever been.
“I said once that I would help you if you ever needed me,” Andy said, knowing that this was the only reason that the self-interested Halla would come. To arrive here in this dimension, she would have had to sacrifice something she valued, and she would know that Andy would not help her if she had sacrificed a thrall, as she once would have done. Halla didn’t like giving up things, or losing at anything for that matter. She would only do it if she had to.
She glared at Andy now, golden eyes hot and angry. “I would not have come if I had seen any other way,” she said, quietly but with ferocity and, under that, deep pain, well hidden but easy enough for sensitive Andy to read. “You are a mother, you will understand that to be torn from your child forever is unbearable. This has happened to me. I need to get my daughter back, and I come to… to beg for your aid.”
Andy didn’t embarrass Halla by calling attention to the ‘beg’ word that it must have cost her dear to utter. Instead she allowed herself to think how it would feel if she were to lose darling Demetra or blessed little Jethro, just on his feet and ready to start toddling, and her heart filled with compassion.
She leaned forward, putting her long elbows on the table and said, “Tell me. I will help you if you can.
“You never met my brother, Ketill,” Halla said. “King Ketill he now is, there in that other dimension of this place that is known as Muspelheim. He wanted a bride to seal his kingship, a bride of the blood of kings, of King Dag’s ancient line, so he sent men into our hall in the night and stole my little Hallgerd. A child of but four, and he took her to raise to be his bride. I would have her back. Of all beings in the worlds, I love her the best, as best as I can love…
“Angrbodr told me I need you to help me do this. Will you come with me, Kona?” Halla continued. “Witch,” that name meant, but it had also been the name Halla first knew her by.
“I am named Kona no longer,” Andy said, “My name is and always has been Andy. I am a Kona, but it is not my name.” She was thinking fast. She knew it was all very well that Halla’s fierce giant of a goddess thought taking her along was a good idea, but that didn’t mean she would survive the venture. Odin? she asked into that space in her head where her own patron always seemed to reside.
Give her one night, the rest of this night, Odin said. I foresee that you will survive, so long as you are back here by dawn, and you may benefit from your efforts in your own right. If nothing else, this witch and her giantess will owe you, and their favour is not something to throw away lightly.
Never make a goddess angry at you if you can help it, Andy thought wryly at him, remembering past advice he had given her.
Indeed, he said, and she felt the warmth of his regard. Do this. I will be with you.
“I will come with you,” Andy said to the woman who was staring at her impatiently, awaiting her answer, “Though I know not what use I can be.”
“Ketill has created many ghosts. Perhaps they will help us if I have you to speak to them for me,” Halla said.
“I will do what I can, but only for the rest of this night. At dawn, I will return to my family,” Andy said. “I will not ask you this, nor look for oaths from you. I just tell you. At dawn, I will return, so let’s get going. I’ll grab my bag of tricks.”
She left the table and a glowering Halla, confident that she had the power needed to return to her own dimension whenever she wanted to. Halla could have her for this night, and this night only, and the queen knew enough of Andy to know that this would not be negotiable.
As quietly as she could in their bedroom, while her dear Lem snored gently down his long Greek nose, Andy dressed in jeans and a Norse-style tunic of Lem’s that he’d cast off after the Satan’s Bellybutton concert that night.
She took up the skull of the Kona’s cat, Ellri Blar, who was sitting on her altar out of reach of little fingers. She lifted her sword, Sannindi, from the wall and quietly buckled the belt around her waist. She’d been having lessons in sword-fighting from Perry and Lily. The magical sword, named “Truth,” in English, would be no useless accoutrement.
Hooking up the loops of her bag of tricks, inherited, like the skull, from the old witch who had once given Andy all of her memories and skill, Andy took a last look at Lem and her two children, all co-sleeping together in their big bed, and blew them a kiss. “I’ll won’t be long,” she whispered to them.
Back in the kitchen, she wrote a quick note, hoping that Lem would never read it. He could rightly argue that she owed nothing to this woman, less than nothing, but Andy felt that to maintain her sanity while living with her mediumship sometimes required that she use it for others, and this was one of those times. “Gone with Halla till dawn. I love you through all the dimensions and back,” she wrote, and pinned the note to the table with her empty water glass. “Let’s go,” she said.
They didn’t have far to go to get to a place where they could pass through to that other dimension. The backyard of Andy’s home had seen such things before, and they now made their way quietly down the back porch steps to the small back lawn that was cradled by tall Jacaranda and bare winter Coral trees. It was cold and clear, with a half-moon shining down on them.
Halla, eyeing her somewhat ironically, took out a knife, and cut her own arm so that blood flowed down and splashed onto the grass. “Angrboda, two to go to Muspelheim,” she said, as if she was buying train tickets, and Andy felt the giantess loom over them, though in this dimension it was not likely that she would actually show herself fully. They were swept up as into massive arms, that seemed to swirl them around and around like children in the arms of their father, dancing at a party, until Andy was dizzy. Then she found herself sitting on her backside beside a rippling body of water.
“Phew!” she said. “Thank you Angrbodr, for the smooth trip!” It wasn’t sarcasm. Compared to the time they’d used Ayahuasca and vomited everywhere, or the time Lily and Perry had been snatched up in a giant wolf’s mouth, it had been.
“She has put us down very near to Ketill’s Hall,” Halla said, getting up and brushing off her apron and dress. The beads and other Norse womanly danglements that hung on her breast clicked and rang. “Harta it was called in Hundi’s day. I know not what he calls it now.”
“You clank and clink so much, I hope we won’t be sneaking anywhere, whatever it is called,” Andy said, getting up to brush her own backside
Halla huffed at her and unpinned her chains and strings of beads from the front of her overdress and shoved them into a belt purse like Andy’s.
Andy felt for her own bag of tricks, tied at her belt, and checked that Sannindi was sheathed deep at her side. Ellri Blar? she asked the ghost of the familiar cat whose skull she’d tucked into her bag. “Elder Black,” old Kona had called the cat when he lived
Here, said Ellri Blar, and she saw the transparent figure, kinked tail low, lush whiskers spread, crouch to sniff at the water beside them. Somewhere nearby a sleepy marsh hen crarked, and further away something alien screamed.
Odin? she asked.
Also here, said the god wryly. More important to check on your kitty first?
You know cats, Andy said. They always need to come first or they take offense.
Unlike gods, Odin said.
Wise ones anyway, Andy said. And you are one of the wise ones, surely?
Flatterer, laughed her patron, Nicely saved, and was gone back to his corner of her mind.
“So,” Andy said aloud to Halla. “Lead the way, and along that way you can tell me your plan.”
“Plan?” said Halla. “Planning never works for me. See what happened to my plans to put Ketill on the throne, and to expand Jotunheim? My only plan this time was to have you with me, and I have you. Let us go and see what we shall see. This way.” She pointed, and Andy could see by moonlight that a foot-trail ran alongside the water where the reeds ended, and solid land began. A lake perhaps. No current that she could see or hear at any rate. Perhaps one of the many wetlands that had once graced the land where Perth now stood, back there in her home dimension.
They started off, with the ghost of the cat trotting past them to lead the way, kinked tail now up high and proud. Ellri Blar might be dead, but he was still a cat!
“What is that shade that accompanies us?” Halla asked over her shoulder.
“My dead cat.” Andy said.
“What is with you people and pets?” Halla queried dryly, then laughed at her own joke.
Andy had to laugh too. Halla could be funny when she wasn’t trying to kill you. “They’re good company,” Andy said. “Even when they’re dead.”
“I’ve never had a pet,” Halla said over her shoulder. “Hallgerd is the closest thing I have ever had to a pet.”
“I guess a child could be considered to be like a pet, especially if someone else is changing the nappies for you.” Andy mused. “I’m glad to hear you found something to love.”
“I remembered what you told me about being a friend to have a friend,” Halla said. “Dag and I are friends now. I try to show him loyalty, and he has come to trust me. It is much more pleasant, since we have to be married, that we are friendly.”
“I’m sure it is,” Andy agreed. The idea of being in an arranged marriage in a strange land didn’t strike her as much of a way to build a friendship, but she supposed it was the world Halla had been born to, though the native Muspelheimer had spent some time banished to Andy’s dimension. She’d come to like the taste of peanut butter and the comforts of that life, but when the choice came to stay or go, she had chosen to return to her arranged marriage, and to the freedom of a lack of bureaucracy, and a surfeit of magic.
Andy herself missed the power she’d had in that other place, this place, but she had chosen differently. She’d chosen for love. Well, for love and perhaps a little bit for chocolate. There was no chocolate in that other place. She sniffed the air. Yep, magic, she could smell it. It smelled almost as good as cocoa. Almost.
In her mind, Odin chuckled. Smells good, does it not, daughter? he said, and she had to admit that it did. Here she would be able to do much more than she could at home. Do and See much more. She reached out with her spidey-senses, looking for the dead that walked every land in every dimension. Faces came out of the night at her, but none seemed interested in her for long. These were the dead who had no axe to grind in the now. They were merely memories of this land.
She was brought sharply back to the present by the sound of the alien scream, which this time was much closer. “Uh, just how nearby is Ketill’s hall?” she asked Halla, wishing she had Lily there to speak to the beasts of this land as she’d done before.
Even Lily’s skill wouldn’t save you from something that wants to eat you, Odin reminded her. Nobody wants to hear complaints from their food.
The scream was answered by another one on the other side of them. Andy tried to imagine what the screamers might look like, and memories of the tales Perry and Lily had told of fighting off attacking marsupial lions surfaced, uninvited and unwelcome. Australia had contained some very large and ferocious fauna, once upon a time, and in this dimensionthey lived on.
The two women left the wetland behind and moved into forest. Tuart, if Andy was any judge of local trees, with banksia and she-oak growing up sheltered under their tall embrace. It was lovely to see so many trees, and so healthy.
“We’re nearly there,” Halla said. “It is time we stopped making noise. Ketill will have guards on the walls of his hold. He is not yet accepted as king by all. Before he sold me off, many of Hundi’s men, and the Hearthmen of the time before Hundi, had yet to accept Ketill’s gifts and swear their loyalty. I’m sure it is still the same now, or why did he need to take my daughter to marry?”
Wondering how they were supposed to walk past the guarded walls of this stronghold, Andy nonetheless softened her footfalls and zipped her lip.
Halla was the daughter of King Hundi the Usurper, and her half-brother, Ketill, had been got by Hundi upon Thora, the queen of the king he had deposed. His brutality and betrayal had made Halla’s mother, Gurith, old before her time. She had died while Halla was yet young, then Halla had been exiled by her father, and then betrayed by her brother. It was not surprising that Halla had grown up unable to love or trust, or to be trusted. It was only surprising that she had survived at all, which was a testament to her strength and cunning. Andy would do well not to forget that.
Halla put out a hand now and halted her. Andy stopped in the dark, with forest all around them, and peeled her eyes and ears, trying to hear or see anything more than grey tree trunks or slanting moonlight on undergrowth. Halla pointed ahead, and they crept forward a few more steps, a few more, with the ghost of the cat stalking at a crouch before them, and now they were at the edge of a field that was carved out of the forest, in which nothing now grazed, and which showed ahead of them the wooden walls of a stockade. Above the pointed tops of the logs that formed it, there was the flash of a helm in the moonlight. The walls were indeed guarded.
The helm was not horned, because that is just modern fallacy, but the rounded helmet was sure enough Norse, and it came as no surprise to Andy to see it there. In this dimension, the Norse had travelled much further and fiercer than they ever did in hers, and now they ruled over all of the planet. This Muspelheim culture might have varied in many ways to the culture that spawned it nearly 1000 years ago, but it also retained many of the same values and skills as those of its ancestors. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” was the apparent motto.
Andy was a little sorry that she wouldn’t get to see this city by day. It was a very different city than her own Perth, a city where nature and agriculture still flourished and where the humans lived in a harsh sort of harmony with the land and its creatures.
Halla was muttering to herself quietly, and Andy realised just how they were going to get in unseen, when she saw the air around them begin to shimmer with a kind of mist. Angrbodr was hiding them. The child Hallgerd had been promised to her as a priestess long before she was born, and the goddess was apparently all in on this effort to get her back.
“Use your Seeing,” Halla said quietly now to Andy. “Find a spirit in there who will help us. A thrall who Hundi killed or some other person who Ketill ended by fair means or foul. There must be plenty there.”
Andy settled herself down in the mist and felt forward with her mind. She was such better at this than she had been in the days when she tried to ignore her talent, and the added magical energy of this place made it easier too. Yes, there were spirits inside the stronghold, but some were too angry to listen, and some were too absent to hear her, and… oh, there was one who might listen, but it wasn’t what you might expect…
There, in the area of the hold put aside for the domesticated diprotodon that the Muspelheimers called maras, was the spirit of a mara who had known Lily and Perry very well. Little, Flink, she had been called, and she was now an ancestor, standing guard over her living relatives. She remembered those people from another land who had been able to speak to her and befriended her. Had she still been alive, Andy’s skill could not have reached her, but now that she was one of the honoured ancestors, her soul was no longer filtered through the different brain of a beast and she was easily contacted.
Flink, said Andy. You don’t know me, but I know and love two people and a dog who you once loved and helped. Would you help me in their memory?
The feeling of the mind of this spirit was warm and wise. I will help you, so long as it does not harm my children or the children of my children, the Mara said, and Andy got the impression of a spirit that guarded always the living beasts, connected still to the web of shared knowing that all the diprotodon lived within. How lovely. Not so different to how the ancestors of her own kind watched over them, though it was often unknown by the people themselves.
We seek only to rescue a child from the people within, Andy explained. We need to come in and get out again, with only that single child. We will not harm any mara in the doing. I will see to that.
Then I will help, the mara decided. Creep forward and I will open the gate for you.
We are hidden by a goddess, Andy said, but feel for my mind and you will be able to know when to open the doors.
Come, said Flink, I will know, and her spirit was gone.
“I’ve found someone to open the gate,” Andy told Halla in a whisper. She decided not to mention that the someone had once been a Muspelheimer beast of burden. It was none of Halla’s business.
“Come on then,” Halla whispered back, and they crept out into the open field, counting on the mist of the giant goddess to hide them. The helm on the wall flashed again, but no alarm was sounded.
Andy couldn’t see how being invisible would help when the gates swung open, but she supposed they would come to that when they did, which happened way too quickly for her liking. They came hard up against the set of tall wooden stockade gates and waited a moment.
Now, Andy told Flink, and she heard the wooden stock inside rasp as it was lifted by what she knew was a very large koala-like nose on the end of a very large wombat-shaped body.
The doors swung open a little, and Andy slipped inside ahead of Halla, conscious of the sound of footsteps coming along the rampart of the wall behind her. The two women didn’t stop to thank Flink, whose ghostly form, clearly visible only to Andy, towered above them behind the gates. They ran for the nearest building’s wall, while behind them the gate creaked to, and once more the stock rasped, this time back into place.
He’ll think he was dreaming it, Andy hoped to herself as they crept their way along what might have been the wall of a smoke house, if the strong smell of curing bacon and fish was anything to go by.
Maybe the guard did indeed wonder if he’d dreamed it, because there came a doubting grunt from the wall behind them, a “Huh!” of disgust, and then the footsteps went back the other way. The gates were closed and all was quiet. What could have got in?
Andy felt a soft buss on her cheek and reached out to almost touch the stiff outer fur of the diprotodon, who had come curiously to her side to follow her along the wall. Ellri Blar took one look at Flink and disappeared, presumably back to hide inside his skull in Andy’s pouch. Not that he would call it hiding, oh no!
Lily and Perry remember you most fondly, Andy told Flink. And the dog says you were almost as good as another dog.
Ha! said the little mara, little being a matter of comparison with other maras rather than reality, as she was still massive. That dog, she was always cheeky. I am glad she is happy with her new masters. Hundi was ever a cruel man. My own people are much happier now, though this new king is still far from kind. Such is the lot of the maras who choose to let humans shelter us. Still, they are all kinder than the night-time jaws of a lion pack! Our people thrive in greater numbers than ever thanks to our pact with the humans. Tell me, friend of Lily, can I do more for you this night?
I know not, Andy said. My thanks for what you have done already, and if you would stand ready to help us again, I will be very grateful.
The insubstantial form of Flink blinked one very large eye at Andy, gave her a last faint poke with a rubbery nose, and faded away towards where Andy could see many more vast and living Mara sleeping together in a pen in the moonlight.
I will be ready, Flink said.
Halla had rounded the corner of the smokehouse and Andy hurried to catch up. Perhaps the ex-princess of this realm still remembered the layout of this place, because her tall figure was moving fast as she left the shelter of one building and ran for the largest building that stood at the centre of the stockade.
Hoping that the obscuring mist still covered her, Andy crossed the open space in the moonlight and ran right into the back of Halla, who had stopped at a pair of large doors that led into the large wooden building. The King’s longhouse, Andy supposed, thinking of King Dag’s elaborate longhouse, the one she had seen in Halla’s new homeland.
Huge carven pillars stood to either side of the doors and above them was a vast decorative carved lintel. No television, Andy said to herself amusedly. Plenty of time to do handicrafts.
Halla tsked quietly at Andy for running into her, then continued on past the doors and round another corner. Not going in the front way, Andy supposed. They made their way quietly down the very long side of the longhouse and came to a small door that led into a kind of lean-to off the main building. An outdoor kitchen with a wood oven and counters. For days when it would be uncomfortable to have a fire inside, in this much hotter climate than the far, far North.
Right now, being winter, the kitchen was cold and dark, and the two women quickly made their way through it. It was darker away from the moonlight, and Andy found herself feeling in front of her in case she ran into something.
A door creaked ahead of her, and then a small dog growled in the dark, but Halla silenced it with a single word. Still knew her, Andy guessed. It had only been a few years, and dogs didn’t forget their masters so quickly. Not ones as forceful as Halla anyway.
Andy followed Halla through the door and found herself in a room that was full of sleepers. Thralls, she guessed, those who were too low to sleep in the main room. They were lying on benches around the walls, bundled up in furs and blankets. A banked fire burned in the centre of the room, and the air became noticeably warmer.
The small dog was scuffling around Halla’s feet now, seeming to be glad to see her, though goodness knows why. Halla humphed in annoyance and picked it up, passing it back to Andy with one hand.
Andy cuddled the tiny beast to her chest as it wriggled and snuffled, and followed Halla further into the building. At least she could see a tiny bit now, thanks to the glow of the fire, and she more easily followed Halla through that room and through another door, this time into the longhouse proper.
The thralls kept sleeping. They’d be used to night-time movements, with so many people sleeping all together like this.
The little dog, a ratter, Andy supposed, or perhaps a spit dog if these people had them like the Old English did, tucked its hot little nose against her neck and groaned in pleasure, trying to wriggle ever closer to her with its whole body. Dear little thing, Andy thought to herself, and wished for the millionth time that she had Lily’s talent for speaking to beasts.
They were now in a very spacious hall. Snores echoed around the room, and a large but mostly banked fire glowed in a raised firepit in the middle of it. Small flames licked up from a large log that had been thrown in to last the night. The licking flames filled the room with a flickering red light that made everything look alien. Things hanging in the carven rafters seemed alive and moving, and kept catching Andy’s eye, making her startle, but the humans asleep around the room did not move.
Halla was creeping carefully from sleeping shelf to shelf along the walls. She was trying to find her daughter, Andy supposed, and thought it rather a hit-and-miss technique, so she sent her Seeing out, looking for a spirit who might be able to help. Faces clustered around her, some terrifying of aspect. Many had died here, and not all peacefully. Is any one of you a mother? Andy asked. I seek one who will help me to reunite a mother and child.
One face came at her and stayed. I will help you, said the face, which was a ravaged one, drawn and haunted, even considering that it was now a haunt itself. This is my own daughter, and my granddaughter is the one she seeks, said the spirit of the tortured woman. I came to this place while haunting my cruel husband, and after his death I knew not where else to go. Come this way, I will lead you to my Granddaughter.
Andy grabbed at the back of Halla’s dress and tugged. Halla resisted a moment, then realised Andy must know something and allowed herself to be directed. They carefully made their way across the longhouse, around the big central firepit, and straight to the bench that the ghost of Sigurth was now indicating. In it lay a child of four or so, and even in the red firelight you could see she had flaming red hair. She was cuddled up to a woman on the same shelf, but her eyes were open, and tears glistened on her baby cheeks.
The ghost reached out a hand to pat little Hallgerd, then softly caressed Halla’s, long red braid. I miss my daughter, and I will miss little Hallgerd, she said, but they are better away from this place. Tell my daughter that I loved her dearly and would have stayed alive for her if I could, but the suffering was too much.
I will, Andy said, She has grown into a strong woman, but she would like to know you loved her.
The child was sitting up, with Halla holding one finger to her lips in warning, and little Hallgerd put her arms out to her mother and quietly allowed herself to be lifted up, gripping to her neck like a monkey and hiding her face, but keeping silent all the same. Her mother’s daughter, certainly.
The woman who had slept with Hallgerd woke, and began to sit up, and Andy saw Halla glow green all over for a moment, and then she juggled her child into one arm, and reached out for the woman, who made a startled squeak and collapsed back into her furs. Only unconscious, since no spirit began to leave her body, Andy was glad to see.
The squeak had done its work, though. Forms were moving along the walls as warriors and others sat up to see what had caused the unusual noise. Snores were something they could ignore, but squeaks were quite another thing.
Halla poked Andy and gestured back towards the kitchen door and they began to make their way there as quickly and quietly as they could. They were still misted, but there was no point in taking chances.
Andy couldn’t help a glance back into the room as she followed Halla, small dog still tucked under her chin. One warrior was rubbing his eyes, seeming to be trying to peer past their magical protection. He obviously saw enough to make him suspicious, because he quietly slipped off his shelf and came, naked, after them. He wasn’t sure enough to wake the hall, but he was coming to check.
Halla looked back, saw him, and moved faster, daughter clutched in her arms and a dim green glow still surrounding her. She was ready to do whatever it took to get Hallgerd back, and her goddess had primed her with extra power, ready for the task. Andy didn’t like the warrior’s chances if he caught up to them.
The two women slipped back out of the hall and into the kitchen full of sleeping thralls. It was Halla, burdened and unbalanced by her large four-year-old child, who kicked the clay cooking pot. It knocked hard against its fellow, and the crash and clunk of breaking pottery rang in the air. Thralls sat up, exclaiming in fear, and the naked warrior charged into the space behind them.
He’d picked up his sword along the way, and Andy found herself popping the little dog down and drawing Sannindi in one smooth movement. She met his blade with her own in a huge ringing clash, and felt the magical sword give a great sigh of pleasure. Too long had it been peaceable.
The warrior pulled back his sword and tried again for her vitals, shouting for help as he did, as thralls screamed and scrambled to escape the small space. It was chaos, but Andy managed to, once more, meet and turn his blow. Really, Sannindi could do this without any skill from her at all, but all those lessons had paid off and she found herself capably wielding her weapon and not just a passenger.
Their swords rang together again, and she could hear shouts coming from the longhouse as more people woke to the sound of battle. The naked Muspelheimer’s braids and other manly accoutrements flounced around as he ducked her sword and came at her again, only dimly seen in the low glow of the banked kitchen fire.
Halla was gone, Andy noticed, as she swung about to bring her sword over her head in a huge two-handed swash-buckle that Lily would be proud of. Ah well. Halla had her daughter now, and probably cared not one jot if Andy made it out. In the end, she was still Halla, and still could not be trusted.
Now others were cramming in the doorway from the great hall, itching to get at Andy. In the near darkness, all she could see was glinting of eyes and hard metal. The kitchen was getting way to full of enemies for comfort, so Andy took an extra-wild swing at as many faces as she could, and ducked backwards out of the door, turning immediately to flee for the front gates
On top of the wall, she could see the pair of guards, who probably didn’t know whether to come down and join in or watch for further attack from without. Stay up there! she told them in her thoughts. She didn’t need more trouble.
As she ran, with the shouts of too many people hard on her heels, she saw the gates swing wide. Halla had them open, and Andy saw her put down her child in the shadow of the gatepost and turn back, the green glow beginning to spread from her as she raised her hands threateningly. Well! Would wonders never cease? She’d come back for Andy!
Andy heard the skidding of bare feet in dirt as her pursuers backpedalled at the sight of the tall witch. “Go back!” Halla roared at them. “Justice is being done this night. Did you not know you took a child sworn to Angrbodr? Be thankful if you escape with your lives!”
Andy kept running right by Halla to snatch up little Hallgerd. She didn’t want the child creeping off and getting lost at this crucial time. An excited yipping at her ankles told her that her recent canine passenger had followed her, but she had no hands spare for the little dog. “Sorry, Squirt,” she told it. “No hands.”
The warriors who faced them were standing in a double row, looking both afraid and sleepily-tussled, as Halla held them there with her usual combination of force of personality and force of green magic. Halla took one step back, two, three, and Andy was just thinking that they might make it out of there after all, when someone pushed his way through the rows and came to the fore.
“Brother,” Halla said grimly. Ah, it was Ketill, her half-brother, the king she had placed on the throne then been betrayed by. “Brother,” Halla said again, her green glow spreading and brightening until she looked like she was radioactive. “You did wrong by coming to take my daughter from me. May your dishonour end here. Let me take her back where she belongs and make your machinations in other ways.”
There was a muttering from the assembled warriors. Maybe they hadn’t been told the truth of how the child had come to be among them.
King Ketill folded his arms and scowled at his half -sister. Unlike his warriors, he had taken the time to dress in trews and tunic, and he looked far more together as a result, though less attractive, Andy noticed amusedly, than the naked men and women who stayed their weapons around him and breathed steam into the cold night air.
He was not red-haired like Halla. He was dark of hair and eye, with a solid meatiness to him that bode heaviness as he aged. A proper son of his oath breaker of a father, he looked not the slightest embarrassed at being caught out in such a plot. “She lies. Take them!” he told his warriors, who, to their credit as loyal followers but not to their morals or intelligence, did as they were told.
This they did despite the fact that they were facing a woman who looked like she had neon under her skin and who was appearing to grow ever taller as the power she was building radiated out.
“Come forward and you will die!” Halla howled, as her hands were raised to begin blasting.
The warriors were still coming forward, if slowly, weapons raised to attack.
Andy was just thinking this couldn’t have gone much worse and wondering where to put the clinging child while she fought for their lives, when a figure materialised right in between the two sides. A figure they all could see, from the looks of horror on their faces.
“Stop!” wailed the ghost, for ghost it was. The ghost of Sigurth, the mother of Halla. “Stop! This deed you would do is wrong, Ketill, as wrong as your father’s treatment of me, his first wife, and it will show you to be as evil as he. If you do this, I will haunt you forever!
“Your draugr, I will become, as I was once your father’s, and my ghost will weigh you down no matter where you go. I will eat your Hearthmen one by one and leave you alone, alone!” she screeched. “Would you risk that, oh betraying son of a betrayer? Son whose birth sent his own mother mad?” The ghost was lit by the eerie inner light of her deathly passion, as pale and creepy as a luminous cave -mushroom.
“Mother,” said Halla, hands lowering. “Mother, you came to help me?”
“Death released me from suffering, and I remembered how much I loved you, but too late,” Sigurth said, casting a wry glance at her daughter. “I love you, my girls, both my girls,” she said, putting thin, pale hands out towards Halla, and to Hallgerd in Andy’s arms. “Go now, descendants, while I hold these honourless Kingsmen and their oathbreaker king at bay.
“I loved you, my dear one, and I’m sorry that in life I failed you. In death, I will not!” The ghost turned her tortured face towards Ketill and his men, who all began to back away in terror.
“Halla!” Andy shouted to the woman, who seemed to be too stunned to move. “Come on, we have to go now!” She didn’t want to touch the witch, whose vast reserves of raised power now had nowhere safe to go. Who knew but touching her might not set it off in all directions? “Halla, I’m taking Hallgerd!” she tried in desperation, and this got the witch’s attention at last.
“Mother, I love you too!” Halla called, “And I missed you so much.” For one moment, the witch and the ghost of her mother reached out hands that should never touch again in this world, and yet a connection was made, and then she was coming, the green glow dying down as she met Andy at the gates and took Hallgerd from her.
“Quickly, back to the lake,” she muttered to Andy, who drew Sannindi with one hand, and reached own with the other to snatch up the little dog, which had cuddled up to her ankle and was essentially sitting on her foot. What the hell, a rescue was a rescue. Why not a dog as well as a child?
Andy looked back as they ran out of the gates, taking a final chance to check out their erstwhile hunters, and saw a last vision of the ghostly form of the tormented Sigurth, still standing firm, with the whole of Ketill’s household held at bay by pure fear. Andy had no idea how she’d managed to materialise, but it must be taking a lot of emotional energy to keep her there. She sent a prayer to the ghost that she would find peace and not become a Draugr, then turned her face determinedly towards their escape route.
Halla may or may not have been wiping a tear from her cheek as she led the way away from the hold and her mother, but she was not slowed down at all by the weight of her daughter or her emotion. Andy would have liked to think she’d shed a tear or two, but that might have just been Andy trying hard to fit Halla into a softer and more loveable picture than the reality, as she well knew. At any rate, the tall queen was making good time, tears or no tears, and Andy and her sword and small dog were hard pressed to keep up in the near-dark. Maybe Halla had better night vision.
Behind them, she could make out no followers as yet, but she kept turning her head one way and the next, hoping to get an ear close enough to hear the first footfalls of pursuit. Instead, as they’d crossed the field and bush began to close in once more around them, she again heard the strange screaming coming from the dark. First it came from one side, then the next, and then more disconcertingly, from in front.
Well, shit, she said to herself and to the small dog that was nestled once more into her neck. It seemed she was going to get a look at some more of the megafauna that was long gone in her own dimension, and from the sound of it, that wasn’t any funny bustling giant echidna or placid treetop-eating giant kangaroo. “Jack will be so jealous,” she muttered to herself of her biologist brother, “If I live long enough to tell him about it.”
“Hurry!” said Halla. “We need to get back to the place of power. We can’t go from here.”
“I’m hurrying!” Andy said breathlessly, but she quickened her jog anyway. Any faster and she risked falling over a tree root and flattening her small furry cargo and, perhaps, breaking her neck as well.
More screaming, this time from all around, but Halla didn’t slow her run. There was no point in two women, a child, the ghost of a cat, and a small dog stopping to face up to whatever was closing on them. They had Buckley’s chance of fighting off the numbers that were screaming.
Marsupial lions, or tigers, Andy supposed, and remembered Lily telling the story of their own fight with the lions. Even while atop the tall Maras, it had been touch-and-go.
Andy could see hints of moonlight reflecting off water now. They were so close to the lake, and then it was just a short run alongside the reeds and they’d be able to get the hell put out of Dodge.
“Just,” made it sound so easy, didn’t it, but even as they broke through the trees into the reeds, they were faced with a creature out of some nightmare. It was a kangaroo, not a lion or tiger of any kind, but it reared up from a crouched position, and Andy caught the flash of moonlight on fangs. Carnivorous kangaroos, for fuck’s sake. She knew they’d existed, but it was pure bad luck that they’d managed to run into any. For sure that fortress back there wasn’t only for repelling night-time human attackers!
They came to a halt at last, unable to pass the creature that faced them on the path and unwilling to leave that path for fear of bogging down in the marshy reeds. Andy looked left, right, and cast a glance over her shoulder. Yep, meat-eating Skippies on all sides. They weren’t hopping, they were crawling forward on all fours, with well-developed forelegs and humped powerful shoulders, and they looked like nothing so much as a pack of hyaenas.
Halla dropped Hallgerd to the ground and bid her in a shout to stay down, and she began to summon up her green power again, while Andy tucked the tiny dog into her tunic top and took a better hold of Sannindi with both hands. It wasn’t a two- handed sword, but it was heavy for her, and she did best wielding it like this, since her long, thin hands both fitted neatly on the grip.
Ahhh, said Sannindi, It is so good that you have need of me at last!
Bloody oath I do, Andy said. Go to it, magic sword of truth!
These creatures were supposed by scientists to have been mostly scavengers, but they looked happy to take easy meat on the hoof if it presented itself, and you don’t get anything that looks much easier than two puny humans and their joey. Even when one is glowing green.
They were wary, though, coming in behind the two women as soon as they turned their backs, and with a circle of them and only two defenders, sooner or later there was an opening. A killer Skippy saw the chance, and leapt, powerful hind legs propelling it forward, deer-like face so incongruously fangy. Andy swung, then side-stepped, and the beast flew past her shoulders, badly wounded on the neck.
It hop-crawled away out of range, looking more like a grounded bat than anything resembling a roo, and Andy swung round to face as many attackers as fast as she could. The rest stopped their charge and went back to slinking again, looking for those chances that they knew would come.
Halla blasted a couple more into pieces with a burst of her green magic, and the rest backed off again, but there were so many of them, a real mob, and with every blast her glow dimmed.
“We’re in trouble! she shouted to Andy. “These are the Cwalu. “Death,” we call them, and death they are. They run in large packs and they do not give up. If you have any tricks in your bag, now is the time to produce them!”
Andy thought of what she had in there. Runes. Ellri Blar’s skull. The mummified head of a raven, and a feather to use for communication with it. Various other spooky bits and bobs. Nothing that was designed to fight off murderous kangaroos. Murder-roos. Ha! Ah, hang on, she did have something…
Flink!? she called into space, A little more help please?
I come! came the excited cry of the ghost of the mara, and Andy blessed the bond that Lily had built with the diprotodon, who was coming based purely on the love she felt for Andy’s friend. It is the meat eaters, Andy warned the little mara.
We will make meat of THEM! Fink shouted into Andy’s mind
“Help is on the way” Andy said to Halla as she swung and jabbed a snarling murderoo in the face. “Just keep blasting.”
They heard the maras coming long before they arrived. They were making a high chirring cry of excitement, and it was obvious that Flink had brought the living relatives with her on her mercy dash. The stalking cwalus began to look nervous, ears flicking over the shoulders, glances directing into the forest and then they began to melt away, but there were still a few extra-brave or silly ones left to stomp when Flink arrived with a whole herd of maras on her ghostly tail.
They went to work on the remaining scavengers, and it was an interesting experience to find oneself in the middle of a rampaging herd of very large creatures, the smallest of which were still as tall as Andy, and yet they never touched the three humans who stood in the centre of the chaos. They made meat of the murderoos alright, stomping and treading on them with their odd clawed foot-hands, until they fled, or became mere hamburgers on the trail and in the reeds around it. Apparently cwalu were not the threat to maras that the marsupial lions and tigers were. Not when the mara herd outnumbered them at any rate.
Andy heard Halla breathe a sigh of relief. Even that doughty woman had been worried. She herself felt tension ease out of her chest, and she sheathed Sannindi, who hissed with disappointment as it was stored away once more.
Flink came up to Andy, and along with her came many warm and living faces, thrusting their koala noses at Andy and Halla for pats and sniffs, looking very cheerful and excited. Andy rubbed and scratched as many huge heads as she could, feeling the rough guard-hairs over koala-like under-fur and looking into the wise eyes that shone in the moonlight. Tell them all we are very thankful, she told Flink, who came to peer into her face once more.
Of course. Tell my friends Lily, Perry and Bu, that I will always be here to help them. I will never leave my people, but they are my people too.
I’ll tell them, Andy promised. They remember you and speak of you often and with fondness.
“If we could end this love festival,” Halla suggested somewhat impatiently, “We should get going. It will be dawn soon, and you want to be home before your family wakes.”
“I do,” Andy agreed. Goodbye Flink, and tell your family goodbye. I must go.
Fare well, Flink said. Tell that cheeky dog that she’d better look after my humans.
I will, Andy said.
The maras had a few more stomps of the murderoo patties, then made their way back into the bush, their tiny tails flicking with satisfaction at a job well done. Flink was the last to go, and Andy could have sworn the ghostly creature winked at her with a final slow blink before she turned at last to go into the trees.
Halla picked up Hallgerd, who hadn’t moved one inch from where she’d been placed. Andy supposed you might be quite a well-behaved child if your mother was as fierce as Halla, or it may be that she just hadn’t wanted to be lost again. Any child of Halla’s bid fair to be a handful under normal circumstances, especially one that was also destined to be a priestess of Angrbodr.
“Shall we?” Halla asked, and tilted her head along the lakeside to where they had arrived.
“For sure,” Andy said, feeling to make sure the tiny dog was still in her tunic. The little thing was curled up in a nest created by the sword-belt that held the tunic’s fabric in at her waist, and seemed happy enough to stay there. “Time to go home, Squirt,” she told the dog.
They had to step around flattened bodies to leave, and Andy couldn’t help feeling a pang of sadness that she had been instrumental in hastening the deaths of members of a species long gone in her own dimension. Ah well, she wasn’t selfless enough to wish herself there instead.
It took only a few minutes to reach the place of power, and the sky was only just beginning to lighten in the east as Halla put down her daughter once more, this time to give her hands the freedom to cut her own arm again arm andlet it bleed onto the reeds as she muttered her prayers to Angrbodr.
The witch-queen snatched Hallgerd back up then, and drew Andy in towards her as well, even as the weird swirling started.
They were transported once more through the lands of woo, to Andy’s own beloved backyard under the jacaranda trees.
Dawn was coming here too, but Andy had made it home in time, as she had promised her sleeping beloved.
“Well,” said Halla, letting Hallgerd slide down her side with one arm so that she didn’t get her daughter bloody with the other. “That went better than expected. Child, stand on your own two feet for a moment.”
“Any trip that gets me home is successful, in my opinion,” Andy said, rubbing at her face and pushing back the long blonde hair that had been swirled over her nose by the passage.
Halla laughed, relaxed now that her mission was accomplished.
The little girl looked up at Andy. “You are mama’s friend, Kona,” she told Andy firmly. “Mama said you are her friend like Ellisif is mine. Sometimes we fight, but we like each other best of anyone in the whole of Midgard.”
Andy looked at Halla. “Yes, we are friends,” she said, “And we look after each other just like you and Ellisif.”
Halla looked as embarrassed as she was capable of looking and shrugged her broad shoulders. “Thank you for coming to help me,” she said
“Thank you for coming back to get me at the gates,” Andy said.
“What else would a friend do?” Halla said, and smiled, and even in the dawn darkness, Andy could see she meant it.
“Go well, friend,” she said.
“Go well, friend,” Halla replied, and taking Hallgerd back into her arms again, she spattered more blood from her still-bleeding arm, muttered to her giant goddess, and was gone.
“Well,” said Andy to the ghost of the cat, who had made an appearance now that there was no more risk of maras, and to the small, snoring dog in her tunic, “That was a more interesting night than I expected to have when I wandered out to get a new glass of water!”
With her cat familiar once more preceding her, she made her way across the dew-wet, cold grass and up the back stairs of her home, through the oh-so-normal laundry and into the kitchen.
The light there was still on, and she carefully tore up and threw away the note she had left for Lem, before reaching into her tunic and lifting out the small dog, who blinked sleepy eyes at her and grinned a very sheepish doggy grin, large upright ears out to the sides. The dog was a she, and she looked like a rather odd cross between a sausage dog and a midget husky, with odd brown patches on white, and a long, curly fringed tail.
Ellri Blar hissed and disappeared again, mortally offended by Andy’s having a DOG in her hands. “Hmmm, you’re not exactly a handsome critter,” Andy said eying the little dog closely, “But you do have a charm of your own.”
“She was the kitchen mouse-dog,” came a much-loved voice, and there was Lily, leaning on the doorsill of the kitchen, wearing one of Perry’s huge t-shirts that came to her knees. “She thinks you are a much better prospect as a master. Nobody ever cuddled her before in all her life.”
Andy smiled back at the small funny dog. “New master, hey?” she said. “I hope you like children because this new master has two.”
“Bu has trained them to be kind, and she likes kids. She’ll be a great companion for them, and just their size” Lily said, coming forward to stroke the head of the small dog, then putting her arms around Andy in a tight hug. “I saw your note and I was so worried,” the little woman said. “I stayed up to make sure you came home, though I have no idea what I’d have done if you didn’t.”
Andy, hugged Lily back, small dog and all. “I’m so glad to be home. Halla needed me, and I went, but I was worried she’d leave me there. In the end, though, she was loyal.”
“Why wouldn’t she be?” Lily said, squeezing Andy even harder. “You rock. Oh, and the dog, she says her name is now Squirt. Goodness knows where she got that from.”
“Oh, um, that might be my fault,” Andy said. “Ah well, it kind of suits her. Come on, Squirt, it’s time for bed. I suspect you’ll be an under-the-blankets kind of gal, so let’s go and see how you fit in the bed with the rest of us. I hope you don’t have Muspelheim fleas!”
She gave Lily a last squeeze and they separated, and turning off the light, headed in different directions down the hall to their bedrooms and respective families. Almost at the door, though, Andy stopped and turned back, and Lily paused at her own doorway questioningly.
“Still got to get my glass of water,” Andy said quietly with a smile, and went into the kitchen to do just that.