The Ragnarök Prophesies: Book Two
My eyes burned from the acrid smoke billowing through the village in great plumes. Gray ash swirled within the clouds of smoke, covering everything in an inky film. The maps spread across the table before me were stained with soot, making it all but impossible to see the siege lines laid out below. Still, the thin parchment fared better than most everything else caught in the poisonous mists.
How long had the fires from Laki burned now? Eight months? Longer?
I could not remember.
"Six months," Katrín murmured from across the room.
I looked up from the table and into the weary, hazel eyes of my betrothed. A wild tangle of auburn hair complimented the flush of her cheeks. Soot made dark streaks down her simple dress, but she was still the most beautiful girl I’d ever laid eyes on.
"Aye," I said, deciding the maps could wait. I moved across the room toward her, my arms aching to feel her in them again. "Six months."
And two and twenty days since we were betrothed.
My bottom lip curled upward when her soft reminder floated through my mind in a whisper. Two and twenty days since I promised to make her my wife. Despite the chaos swirling around us, and the fires burning the countryside alive, they’d been the best two and twenty days of my life.
Maybe our only two and twenty, Katrín whispered on the private link binding us firmly one to another.
"Nei," I said aloud, my heart stuttering at the fearful tremor coming from her.
Geri rumbled in the back of my mind. As always when fear gripped Katrín tight, the great wolf curled his essence around her, protecting her as best he could. Flickers of images skittered through me in a soft rush as the animal living inside me pushed soothing thoughts at her. I did the same thing, wrapping my arms around Katrín and holding her to my heart.
Despite mine and Geri's combined efforts to ease her, Katrín still trembled in my arms.
Fear hung in the air around me as thick as the smoke and ash boiling from Laki. The villagers' fear. The wolves’. Katrín’s. Aside from my betrothed’s, I scarce knew what came from whom any longer. Not even Geri and his sharp wolf senses could pinpoint which of our people owned the choking emotion.
I was no longer sure it even mattered. Man and wolf alike had plenty of reason to fear.
The fires of Laki had burned for six months now, covering the countryside in the same palpable film of ash and mist that marred the siege maps. The livestock was dying. The rivers and streams were polluted. Farmlands, once bountiful, produced little more than poisoned, rancid shoots. Katrín’s people and our wolf brethren were starving.
Worse, somewhere out there, hidden by the ash and lava still spilling through the countryside like a thing alive, Sköll and Hati roamed free. The monstrous wolves struck like snakes, rising from the mists when least expected. They attacked without mercy, felling their targets one by one. I had centuries of memories stored away, but not once in all of those lifetimes could I remember Fenrir’s brood ever coming so close as this to fulfilling their destiny.
Geri growled at me as another ripple of fear waved through Katrín like long grass in a summer’s breeze. Her wolf, Freki, whined.
The sound seemed little more than a hushed murmur in the back of my mind.
Nei, fallegt, I soothed woman and wolf, reaching out to touch Katrín’s flushed cheek. We shall find them again.
"Já," she answered aloud. "We will."
I didn’t need the unbreakable bond linking us to know she only half meant the words. Her fear was the same that’d taken up permanent residence in my heart since the twin wolves took their latest victim a fortnight before. Katrín and I would find Sköll and Hati again, but gods only knew if it would be soon enough. Asdis and Dagur were the only of Sol’s descendants remaining, and I no longer knew if we could protect them from the hellhounds.
The combined might of the shifters and the wolves we commanded was failing. How long until Fenrir’s brood fulfilled their destiny? Until we were unable to beat them back as we were meant to?
I didn't know, but I felt the end barreling toward us.
"You cannot think that way, Jon," Katrín admonished, her worried eyes meeting mine again. "You mustn’t."
I stood silently for a moment before sighing in defeat. Katrín was right; I couldn’t think that way. I couldn’t afford to think that way, but I couldn’t help it either. I knew what Sköll and Hati were capable of.
How many times had I lost the girl in my arms to them?
I'd lost count long ago, but I remembered each and every time vividly.
I still heard the way Katrín screamed for me when Sköll hamstringed Freki a century before. Katrín's name was Sarah then, but her face had been the same.
I remembered the way she reached for me, mouthing my name, as Hati leapt upon her from behind three centuries before that, and the way her blood spilled across the Savaran Pass in the Jebal Barez a century before that.
Each time, she had a different name and lived in some new place, but she’d been the same. And so had her heart. That was as pure as Freki’s snowy-white fur had ever been, a lighthouse beckoning me home.
Mine and Geri's home would ever be with Katrín and Freki.
"Jon," Katrín said my name softly, the worried gleam in her eyes melting away.
I tilted my head down to hers and brushed my lips across her cheek. "Tis true, you know," I said against her flushed skin. "You and Freki have always been home for us."
And you, I, she returned. Ég elska þig. Always.
Geri rumbled in pleasure when Freki’s weak thoughts echoed Katrín’s vow of forever.
I closed my eyes as tension drained away, leaving peace in its wake. Only Katrín could do that for me, could calm me so easily. Geri felt the same, and so did Katrín and Freki. We were each parts of one whole. Soul mates in the truest sense, created and loved by Odin himself.
I scarce remembered Odin now, but a piercing sense of longing twisted through me and Geri at our master’s name echoing in the innermost places we shared between us.
"I think I remember him sometimes," Katrín said, twining her arms around my waist and resting her head upon my chest. "I wake some nights and remember the feel of his hands stroking Freki’s fur before holding out some new treat. There is always a sense of pride, as if, even then, Freki and I knew how loved we were by him. As if we knew the honor he bestowed upon us by feeding us from his hand…" Katrín trailed off with a sigh. "Do you think, when this is over, we get to go back to him, Jon?"
"I don’t know, fallegt." I tucked her closer as Geri whined, the sound full of hope.
"I pray so," Katrín murmured. "I think… I think I’ll be glad when this is over, Jon, when we’re finished." Her shoulders slumped as soon as the confession left her lips. "I should not think such grim thoughts, either."
Her guilt pricked at my heart like the point of a sword.
"Nei, fallegt," I soothed again. "’Tis not wrong to wish this war ended."
"Nei?" she said. "When it’s finished, the world ends, Jon. Everything Odin loved dies."
"Aye, I know." I stepped back and reached out to tip Katrín’s face up to mine. "But ‘tis ever the way it was meant to be, Katrín. There’s no shame in wishing to be done. Even Odin knew we could not stand against them forever. He would not begrudge you the desire to see this duty discharged."
"Perhaps not," Katrín said, biting her bottom lip. "But… "
"But what?" I prompted when she fell silent. I caught little more than the shape of her thoughts in my mind.
"But he dies, Jon," she said. "When this is over, Odin dies."
Geri whined, the sorrowful sound sweeping through me in a rush.
A soft, mournful flutter of thought came from Freki.
"Aye," I whispered, wiping a tear from beneath Katrín’s eye with the pad of my thumb. "He does."
"Do we?" she asked. "Do we die with him?"
"I know not," I said, swallowing down the fear that thought sent spinning through me. My death mattered little to me, and I knew Geri felt the same, but Katrín's death? Freki's? Geri and I would fight Sköll and Hati back for another thousand millennia if it meant Katrín and Freki lived on to be reborn again.
I couldn't imagine a world without Katrín. In truth, I never knew a world without her. In every life, Katrín walked at my side. Odin might have been my master, but she was my life. My heart. She and her wolf were the reason Geri and I fought to preserve what Odin created. Without her, would we even wish it preserved?
"I would not," Katrín murmured, glancing up at me again. "I think Odin knew that."
"Did he?" I asked and then nodded once. "Perhaps he did."
Odin sent us together, to stand together, to fight together, but we were always destined to fail at this duty eventually. I had the feeling the end would come when Katrín and Freki, or me and Geri, were reborn alone to face it. Odin had to have known Geri and I would be incapable of fighting without Katrín and her wolf, and she and Freki without us.
There was a lot I didn't understand about the myths surrounding my life and Katrín’s, but I'd learned enough in the last months to understand one thing clearly: the end would come for us sooner or later. Already, death lay like a shroud on the edge of my vision.
Freki was weak, failing, leaving Katrín barely able to shift into wolf form. And the mind that Geri and I shared was fracturing apart like a sliver of wood beneath an axe. Soon, in this life or in the next, our mind would splinter apart as Freki and Katrín’s did lifetimes ago, and the connection that always bound us together would fail.
Death would come for us then, and for the world.
When it came, did we get to go home to
Our fates had never been written as had Odin's and his brethren’s. Geri and Freki simply disappeared from myth and prophecy. I did not know what that meant, and neither did Geri. If Hugin and Munin, the ravens sent to stand guard with us, ever knew, they did no longer. As with me and Katrín, the ravens were weakening. Soon, too soon, we would fail altogether and Fenrir would be freed.
As if thinking the grim thought set the Norns to spinning their weave, a shrill scream rent the air outside the cottage. Another scream followed on its heels, and then came the human cries of the villagers.
"The devil comes. Oh lud, he comes! The hellhounds are loose!" one of the village women cried right outside the door.
Katrín jumped. Terror lanced through her thoughts.
Geri responded with a rage-filled roar.
I swore savagely as the wolf attempted to claw his way to the surface and force the change in response to our mate’s fear.
Nei, nei, hold off, I commanded the wolf, already knowing my demand was useless.
Geri would not stop now.
My men’s shouts bounced around the village and through miniscule cracks in the walls until the entire room seemed full. The thoughts of the wolf pack arrayed beyond the village bounced back to me in a clamor.
They were under attack.
"Jon!" Katrín cried out.
Another shrill scream cut through the clash and clamor outside. Whether it was Hugin or Munin, I didn't know. But I knew what it meant, and so did Katrín.
Sköll or Hati was out there somewhere, coming closer.
Death might not be so far off after all.
My vision blackened, fear for Katrín and Freki blinding me as Geri roared to the surface, melting bone and sinew before knitting it together again in a flash. When my vision cleared, I saw through the eyes of my wolf. The world was slanted, sharp, and tinged with an animal perception far beyond what my human eyes ever saw.
Katrín cried out my name again, the sound full of pain.
I felt Freki trying to force the change for her, but it came upon her slowly, creeping inch by inch. The wolf was too weak to make the change painless for Katrín.
Geri lashed his head back and forth, angry roars erupting from his throat.
The thoughts of the pack beyond the village dropped into our mind one after the other. Their alpha, Shidan, was being torn apart by a wolf twice his size. Despite the combined efforts of the pack, they could not stop the monster. Shidan would die where he stood, but like the alpha I knew him to be, the wolf had every intention of meeting death on his feet.
We have to help him! Katrín screamed through our bond, the change finally taking her.
I watched from eyes that no longer belonged to me as she dropped to all fours, not a hazel-eyed, soot-streaked woman any longer, but a snowy-white, lethal wolf. She was as beautiful in wolf form as she was human.
Freki staggered before catching herself hard against the leg of the table holding the siege maps. Fear for her and Katrín raced through me and Geri. We couldn’t lose her. Not yet. Not if we could stop it.
Aye, I vowed as our men tore open the door to the cottage in response to Geri’s furious roar. We will stop it.
We must, Katrín whispered.
Our wolves leaped as one through the door and into the chaos of the village beyond.
Men, women, and children ran this way and that, crying to the gods for protection, for shelter, for a miracle. My men, gifted shifters down to the last one, raced alongside them through the misty village on twos and fours. Great cats and wolves ran side by side with shifters still in human form to Shidan’s aid. Down to the last one, they knew they’d be too late, but they ran anyway.
Geri lifted his muzzle to the sky and howled, a thousand lifetimes of defiance echoing like a clap of thunder through the village. Freki’s furious response ripped through the air a split second later, blending with ours until the air seemed full of rage.
Hugin and Munin burst into sight at the edge of the village, giant wings flapping on great puffs of thick, sooty air. Neither Geri nor Freki slowed as the ravens circled above us, leading us through the chaos of the village and into the misty field beyond.
Geri and Freki overtook the ordinary shifters in seconds.
The scene waiting beyond the edge of the village was as familiar to me as Katrín and Freki. I’d seen it a thousand times, in a thousand different lives, playing out in a thousand different settings. Shidan’s pack fell upon a great, black wolf in silent, snapping waves. The monster shook them off as easily as rainwater, the alpha’s throat clamped between his massive jaws. Shouts bounced around the misty valley in a rush of sound, seeming to come from nowhere and everywhere at once.
We raced into battle a full thirty seconds too late.
With a single shake of our enemy’s head, my wolf brother died, blood pouring from his throat and down the hellhound’s muzzle. I did not know if the massive wolf was Sköll or Hati, but it mattered little. Shidan died either way.
Odin save us, Katrín prayed.
The beast dropped Shidan’s lifeless body and turned feral yellow eyes in our direction. He snarled, the alpha’s blood still dripping from his muzzle.
Aye, death was coming.