Freeze Warning

As a nearly immortal Valkyrie, Mist is the guardian of the greatest of the Norse god’s Treasures—Odin’s spear Gungnir. But Mist believes all the gods are dead, and she’s slowly settling into a normal life in San Francisco. Just when Mist is ready to give up the duty the All-father laid on her, she meets a mysterious woman, Bella Stratus, and a man who helps her save Bella’s life:  Eric Larsson, the perfect embodiment of a Viking warrior. He’s charming, good-natured, and nearly her equal in strength; and for the first time in centuries Mist has found someone she might be able to love… and trust. “Freeze Warning” is set in the world of Susan Krinard’s Midgard series.

This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by editor Melissa Frain.

 

Gungnir seemed to hum in Mist’s hands as if it had a life of its own.

And it did. Odin’s life. The life of the All-father, who sat in his throne before Mist and her sister Valkyrie, a father stern and uncompromising and pitiless.

Outside the walls of the vast hall known as Valaskialf, the battle raged: Einherjar and Alfar against Jotunar, the Aesir facing Loki and his fell children. Surtr and the fire giants on their way from across the sea, and the World Tree, Yggdrasil, groaning and writhing as its roots began to rot.

But it was only the beginning of the Last Battle. And when it ended . . .

“By your sacred oaths, you will protect these Treasures with your lives,” Odin said, sweeping them once more with his burning, one-eyed gaze. “No matter what transpires in the other Homeworlds, you will remain on Midgard, and you will see that no one finds these objects of power.”

“But if this is Ragnarok,” Mist said, daring Odin’s wrath, “all the enemies will be destroyed. Whatever becomes of Midgard—”

Silence.” Odin scowled at her, with an expression that could knock any of the Aesir off his feet if the All-father chose. “You forget yourself, Valkyrie.”

Mist lowered her head, trembling with fear and anger and the desperate need to join the other warriors of Asgard in battle. But the sword she wore at her side was only symbolic, and Gungnir—the Swaying One, the Spear that never missed its mark—was not hers to wield.

“You will be set down in the Northlands of Midgard,” he said, relieving Mist of his terrible attention. “You will be concealed from Loki and his allies. Even the Aesir and Alfar will not be able to find you.”

Because they will be dead, Mist thought. Odin will meet Fenrir and be destroyed. The Homeworlds will fall, and there will be nothing left but ash. Midgard may become a paradise as the seeress foretold, but no one will ever come for what we guard, neither ally nor enemy.

We will be utterly alone.

“And our mounts?” Bryn asked in a soft, very respectful voice.

“They remain in Asgard until the end. You will have but this one purpose. Do not fail.”

The Sisters looked at one another, fearful and bewildered and desperate: Hild gripping the reins of Odin’s eight-legged steed, Sleipnir; Regin with mighty Mjollnir, Thor’s Hammer; Bryn with Freya’s cloak, which let its wearer fly like a falcon; Sigrun with Gleipnir, the chain that could not be broken, which had snapped when the world began to crumble and released the Great Wolf Fenrir upon Asgard.

The others—Kara with the Gjallarhorn, already sounded by Heimdall to mark the beginning of the end; Eir with the apples of Idunn, which kept the gods forever young; Horja, Olrun, Rota, Skuld, Hrist, each with her own Treasure—waited without speaking. Waited for the final command.

“Go into the antechamber,” Odin commanded all but Mist, “and wait for me there.”

The others drifted away, some stumbling in shock, others feigning acceptance Mist knew they didn’t feel. When they had closed the doors behind them, Odin beckoned to Mist, calling her up to the dais where he sat on his golden throne. His wolves, Geri and Freki, sniffed and circled her as she climbed the steps.

“You have ever rebelled against your Fate, Valkyrie,” he said, Draupnir glittering on his finger as he gestured his disapproval. “Yet now you have been given a greater one than ever you imagined.” He reached inside his coat and withdrew a leather cord. At the end of it hung a piece of stone, carved with a raven and Rune-staves of power and protection. “Take this. You will wear it as a sign of my favor, and as a ward against evil.”

Mist bowed her head, stunned by Odin’s favor. “Why am I worthy of this?” she whispered.

“Ask not what I will not tell you.” He draped the cord around her neck. She gripped Gungnir so tightly that she thought her fingers might break.

“It is done,” Odin said, rising from his throne. He sighed, the first time he had shown even the slightest weariness or regret. “Join the others. I will follow presently.”

Mist turned for the great double doors, her footsteps echoing in Odin’s Hall. No one spoke when she met her Sisters in the antechamber. There was no more to be said.

When Odin joined them again, he seemed as ancient as time itself. He worked the Galdr, the Rune-magic, and Mist felt a great light open up beneath her feet. The next step she took was on the green grass of a Midgardian summer.

And she knew that Asgard was no more.

 

The wind was very cold for mid-June . . . much colder than it should have been, Mist thought, even though San Francisco in summer was often shrouded in fog and was subject to temperatures low enough to cause tourists in their shorts and sandals more than a little discomfort. Mark Twain himself had once said that the coldest winter he’d ever seen had been the summer he’d spent in San Francisco.

Still, this was different. Forty-five degree weather in the City by the Bay was only one more sign that the climate had gone haywire all over the world.

Mist leaned on the rail of the pedestrian sidewalk that ran the length of Golden Gate Bridge, gazing down at the choppy water. The wind cut through her light sweater and short leather jacket as if they were woven of the fog itself. A tour boat glided under the span, a few of the more hardy passengers huddled on the exposed upper deck as they took pictures and pretended to be more thrilled than chilled.

But Mist wasn’t interested in the boat or the tourists. She was thinking of the water spilling into the bay from the ocean. It was deep here, but not quite deep enough. Not for what she had in mind.

Strands of blond hair that had come loose from her heavy braid flew across her eyes and mouth. She brushed them away. She’d worn her hair in the same simple style for centuries. The same long centuries during which she’d guarded one of the Twelve Treasures of lost Asgard.

She had used Gungnir only once, with disastrous consequences, seventy years ago. Then she’d meant only to save refugees from Nazi-occupied Norway, working with the Norwegian Resistance fighters of Milorg. But she had left them in 1942, after everything had gone wrong, and hardly touched Gungnir since.

Now, for the first time since she’d settled in San Francisco right after the end of the war, she was well past the point of wondering if she’d fulfilled her duty. There was no duty left to fulfill. No reason to hold Gungnir when all the Aesir were dead and gone.

It was all meaningless now, and she knew it was time to move on with her life. Even Kettlingr, the Kitten—the sword she’d carried as a knife at her belt since she and her Sisters had been sent to Midgard with the Treasures—no longer served any purpose, and it held memories she would be happy to leave behind.

She left the railing and stood in the middle of the walkway, noting that the only other people who had dared to venture onto the bridge were a woman invisible beneath several layers of clothing, a sole cyclist wearing very tight shorts, a mother and her well-swaddled child, and a pair of men with their arms around each other, bundled up in gloves and scarves and the warmth of each others’ bodies.

Romance, Mist thought cynically, could conquer just about anything. Except death.

Almost by instinct, her gaze shifted to the mother and child. There was life, too. The little girl was chattering incessantly, her breath condensing in excited little puffs as she pointed at another boat on the ocean side of the bridge.

Mist closed her eyes. So long ago since she’d been a child, staring in bewilderment at the golden halls of Asgard with its five hundred and forty doors, her small hand gripped in the much bigger one of the tall, fierce woman in her mail armor and winged helmet. No one had looked at them as they passed through gardens and arbors and pavilions open to the air. No one noticed them as she tried to make sense of the incredible scene before her: the thousands of feasting warriors clinking their silver ale cups, the gods and goddesses laughing at jests she couldn’t hear, the vast hearth roaring as the juicy carcasses of boar and deer turned on their spits.

But Mist hadn’t been her name then. She had forgotten it as soon as she set food in Asgard, just as she had forgotten who her Midgardian parents had been and where she had lived.

None of that had mattered when she had first gazed into Odin’s face. The face of the ruler of all the gods. His single wise, bright, and terrifying eye had examined her as his ravens, perched on the back of his chair, had offered their own guttural commentary. And beside him, shining and wonderful, Gungnir stood close to hand.

She had passed the test. They had given her the name she was to bear along with her new immortality, set her to learning the ways of the Valkyrie: to ride, to properly select those fallen warriors suitable for a life of feasting and fighting in Valhalla, to serve in Odin’s Hall as bearers of mead and ale to his thousands of guests and Einherjar.

Mist remembered her first ride with the Sisters. She remembered blood and death on a stubbled field in the frigid cold of Midgard. She remembered sweeping down to gather up a particularly gallant warrior, throwing his body across her mount’s withers and turning back toward Asgard, passing through brilliant light, the sound of hooves clattering in a courtyard inset with jewels and gold. Her Sisters followed one by one, some already having fulfilled this same duty for centuries as mortals reckoned the passage of time.

For most of them, it had always seemed enough. For her, it never had been.

Heading back the way she’d come, south toward the toll plaza, Mist wondered how quickly she could charter a small boat to carry her far enough out into the Pacific to bury Gungnir and Kettlingr forever. She had enough magic and the right spells to ward the weapons so that anyone who happened to be looking for sunken treasure would be inclined to ignore them.

And then it would be done. Finished. Over.

She was still thinking of endings when she saw the woman climb over the railing.

Thought vanished, and instinct took over. Mist ran toward the woman, slowing as she approached and holding her hands out at her sides as if she were declaring truce with an enemy.

The woman paused and looked back, her seamed face caught in an expression of profound misery. Mist knew that expression, because she’d worn it herself more than a few times in the past.

“Hello,” she said softly, standing very still.

The woman—who could have been any age between fifty and seventy—only stared. Her clothes were a strange tumble of colors and textures and lengths, of linen and fake fur and corduroy and cotton, embellished here and there with random bits of taffeta and chiffon. She wore a beaded pouch around her neck, and a cap pulled low over gray hair. If she had any other belongings, Mist couldn’t see them.

“Listen,” Mist said. “I want to help. Can you talk to me a little?”

The woman glanced down at the water and then back at Mist. “Who are you?” she asked.

Her voice was rough with fear and determination, but there was just that slight glimmer of hope, of thinking someone might actually care what became of her. Mist planned to use that hope.

“My name’s Mist,” she said. “Can you tell me yours?”

“Bella.” The woman laughed, as if she were telling a cruel joke. “Bella Stratus.”

It was an odd name, but Mist had definitely heard stranger.

“I noticed you were thinking of jumping, Bella,” she said. “I wish you wouldn’t do that.”

“Why?” the woman asked.

“Because maybe there are things you haven’t taken into account. I’m not saying . . . whatever you’re going through isn’t bad. But I know what it is to be lonely, and hopeless, and see only emptiness in your future.”

“Do you?” the woman asked, her face turning expressionless.

“Yes. You can’t believe how many times I’ve stood right where you are.”

For several minutes they stared at each other, Valkyrie and mortal. Then the woman began to climb over the rail again. The wrong way.

“This isn’t the answer, Bella,” Mist said, taking a cautious step toward the woman.

“Then what is?” Bella asked without looking away from the water far below.

“I don’t know. I haven’t figured it out myself, and I’ve been searching for . . . longer than you can imagine. But there’s got to be another way.”

Abruptly the woman bent over as if she had been caught unaware by a terrible pain in her gut. “It’s better like this. It’s too much.”

“Will you tell me about it?” Mist asked, moving closer still.

Bella said nothing. She clambered the rest of the way over the railing and perched on the very narrow ledge on the other side.

Mist had no time left. She reached inside her pocket and pulled out a small, flat piece of driftwood and her smallest knife, inscribing the Rune-staves as she jogged toward the railing. The staves were uneven and crooked, but when she sliced her thumb and blood filled the grooves, she felt the magic stirring.

It wasn’t much. It never had been. But she chanted under her breath, and tossed the driftwood in front of the woman’s face.

The barrier was temporary; it was made only of air, more illusion than real, just solid enough to prevent the woman from stepping forward. Mist reached her as the barrier dispersed, lunged halfway over the railing and grabbed Bella’s thin wrist as she began to fall.

Normally Mist would have had no difficulty dragging the woman to safety. But Bella seemed to become inexplicably heavier by the second, until it was all Mist could do to keep from letting that wrist slip from her grasp.

Then, without so much as a whisper of warning, there was a man beside her, reaching down with his longer arms, snatching at Bella’s frayed sleeve and locking a big hand around her forearm. Together he and Mist pulled the woman up and over the railing, where Mist collapsed with the would-be victim onto the pavement as Bella wailed with an agony so intense that Mist seemed to hear in her voice the cries of the slaughtered on the field of Idavollr.

When her world had come to an end.

“You okay?” the man asked, crouching beside her. She looked up to meet his eyes. They were a beautiful blue in a rugged, handsome face under a shock of blond hair and a cyclist’s racing helmet. She guessed that he was in his early thirties, a few years older than her own apparent age. His build was muscular under the cyclist’s jersey and shorts, his manner self-assured but clearly concerned. He could have been a Norse warrior returned victorious from battle.

“Thanks for your help,” she said. “We’ve got to get her to a hospital.”

The man fished a cell phone from the pocket of his close-fitting jacket and punched in three digits. While Mist held Bella, feeling utterly helpless and deeply uncomfortable with the unfamiliar intimacy, the man spoke to an emergency dispatcher. He ended the call and pocketed the phone again.

“Do you think she’ll be all right?” he asked.

“I think she will be,” Mist said, unaccountably flushing under the intensity of the man’s gaze. “My name’s Mist Bjorgsen. Thanks for helping me.”

“Eric,” the man said. “Eric Larsson.”

She’d been partly right. Swedish rather than Norwegian, but still every bit the image of a Viking warrior. Somehow that knowledge released a little of the tension that had turned her body into one large and painful knot.

Bella, whose arthritic fingers gripped Mist’s jacket as if she feared she might fall again, murmured something unintelligible and closed her eyes. In a moment she had sunk into a state of what seemed to be complete unawareness.

“Whatever she’s gone through,” Eric said, “she’s better off this way until the ambulance comes. She won’t have to think.”

He spoke as if he, too, understood. “Yes,” Mist said. “Sometimes it’s better that way.” She realized that she was about to say too much and quickly changed the subject. “It was lucky that you happened to be passing by when you did. I don’t know why there are so few people on the bridge this afternoon. I know it’s cold, but—”

“It is weird, isn’t it?” he said, though the look in his eyes suggested he wasn’t thinking about the lack of pedestrians. “You know, it’s strange, but I almost feel as if you and I have—”

His words were cut off by the wail of a siren approaching from the toll plaza. Lights flashing, the ambulance pulled up at the curb, and a pair of EMTs jumped out.

In minutes they had Bella on a stretcher and well secured in the back of the ambulance. Mist had already told the EMTs everything she knew while Eric had listened and nodded in the appropriate places.

“I should go with her,” Mist said as the EMTs began to close the rear doors of the ambulance.

“They’ll be taking her to Saint Francis Memorial,” Eric said, touching her arm. “Let them do their jobs. You can visit her later.”

The feel of Eric’s hand on her sleeve had an extremely unsettling effect on Mist’s body. She pulled her arm free, and they watched the ambulance make a careful U-turn and speed off toward the toll plaza.

“Well,” Eric said, “I’m glad we were both here.”

Mist nodded brusquely, more than ready to get back to the loft. “Thanks for helping out,” she said, turning away.

“Hey,” Eric said. He reached for her again. She swung around, stopping him in his tracks with a look that worked about 99 percent of the time.

It worked this time, too. “Hold on,” he said, raising his hands. “I’m not coming on to you or anything. This has never happened to me before, and I’d like to talk about it.”

“What is there to discuss?” Mist asked coldly.

His very blue eyes were earnest and grave. “Look, this kind of thing . . . it makes you think about mortality. Of what we all have to lose. And I think you want to talk about it as much as I do.”

Think about mortality. It was all Mist could do not to burst out laughing.

“I doubt that,” she said, unable to understand why she couldn’t seem to look away from his face.

“Can I at least walk with you back to your car?” he asked.

Mist could hardly refuse to let him share a public sidewalk. “I can’t stop you,” she said.

He retrieved his bike from where he’d left it leaning against the railing and fell in beside her, jogging a little to catch up.

“You move fast,” he said in an almost teasing tone.

She looked at him askance. “Your legs are long enough.”

Eric broke into a chuckle of real amusement. “I’m not trying to start a contest,” he said.

You’d lose, Mist thought. Strong and fast by mortal standards didn’t cut it against a Valkyrie. Even one as tired and worn out as she often felt she was.

They walked the rest of the way in silence. Eric followed her to the parking lot and her ancient Volvo, which had seemed the perfect mount when she’d bought it at a “pre-owned” car lot around the same time she’d moved into the loft in Dogpatch.

“Quite a . . . classic you got there,” Eric said.

Mist thrust out her hand. “Good-bye, Eric Larsson.”

He trapped her hand between both of his. She tensed, ready to kick those long, muscular legs out from under him.

“Hey,” he said softly. “Easy. I just want you to know—” He blushed a little, his fair skin suddenly awash with freckles. It made him look as much boy as man. “I admire what you did back there. And I still want to talk.”

All Mist had to do was move just a little, and the man would be flat on his ass. But there was still that something about him, and she recognized why she was fighting it so hard. She felt the same attraction he obviously felt, but she’d been alone too long to know what to do with it. Or even how it was supposed to be done.

She sighed. “Look,” she said, pulling her hand free. “I don’t—I’m not—”

“It’s up to you, Mist,” he said, serious again. “I’m going to be looking in on Bella this evening . . . say, around six, if they’ll let me in. You want to talk, you come then. If not—” He shrugged. “So be it. But at least take this.”

He handed her a business card. Mist shoved it in her jacket pocket without looking at it. He held the Volvo door open for her, and she thanked him and started the engine. He was still staring after her when she glanced in the rearview mirror.

 

“This isn’t how it should be,” Mist told Kara as they paused beside one of the wide, intricately carved pillars that supported the vast roof of Odin’s Hall. Stretching as far as the eye could see, long tables were covered with every type of food and drink, all being rapidly consumed by Odin’s warriors, the Einherjar. The same once-lifeless warriors Mist and her Sisters had brought from the battlefields of Midgard.

But now the Valkyrie were nothing more than servants, carrying platters of mead and ale to each table, ceaselessly filling cup and drinking horn, enduring the ribald jests of the men at their feasting.

The Aesir and Vanir, sitting at ornate tables set above the former mortals, simply ignored the Sisters. But the worst were the elves, the high-and-mighty Alfar, who ate and drank so delicately with their elegant fingers, their long hair elaborately dressed, clothed better than the gods themselves in velvets and jewels. For them, the Valkyrie simply didn’t exist.

They were the ones Mist came to despise the most, they who would never dirty their hands in a real battle but only fight with their Alfar-magic, bending and shaping the forces of nature. That was the quality that made them such superb breeders of horses, but it also threw Mist’s greatest desire back into her face: the aching need to wield a real weapon in battle, a right forbidden her and her Sisters.

Kara sighed and shook her head. “It is our Fate,” she said. “We cannot resist it.”

“Why can’t we?” Mist asked. “Why can we not go to Odin, and—”

“What do you think he would do? Relieve us of our duties and send us to fight every day with the Einherjar? Or join in the battles we ride to when we choose our fallen warriors? Who, then, would supply Asgard with Einherjar to fight at Ragnarok?”

“Ragnarok is the very reason we should learn to fight,” Mist said. “Odin will have no time to send us to Midgard when it begins. He’ll need every warrior to stand against Loki and the Jotunar.”

“He’ll never agree.” Kara laid her hand on Mist’s stiff shoulder. “We are honored above all women. Give up your futile dream, and be grateful for what you are.”

Hrist came to stand with them, bearing the usual platter. “The Einherjar are calling for more ale,” she said.

With a sharp sigh, Mist returned to the kitchen, nearly as great as the hall itself, and filled her tray with flagons of mead. When the Einherjar began to call, she set her jaw and returned to her Fate.

 

It didn’t take much Rune-magic to convince the charge nurse to let her see Bella. Just a little misdirection and a few Runes scribbled on a piece of paper Mist quickly burned with her lighter the moment the man looked away.

After that, no one paid any attention to a woman in her late twenties wearing very average boots, jeans, and a leather jacket. She’d hidden her knives, just to be on the safe side.

She was only a little surprised to find Eric at Bella’s bedside, holding the older woman’s hand and laughing at some joke between them. Bella was smiling, if a little sadly, and a few more of Mist’s suspicions about Eric began to dispel. When he and Bella noticed Mist standing in the doorway, he beamed with open pleasure. No fear of preserving his masculine dignity here.

“Mist!” he said, jumping to his feet. “I knew you’d come.” He grinned at Bella. “Didn’t I tell you?”

Bella’s eyes filled with tears. “I have so much to . . . I don’t know what to say,” she whispered.

“You don’t have to say anything,” Mist said, taking the hard plastic chair Eric had vacated. She touched the older woman’s hand as Eric had done, feeling the same awkwardness as before, the hesitancy of the perpetual outsider. “I’m glad you’re all right.”

“They put me on fluids and gave me something to eat,” Bella said, an unexpectedly wry expression crossing her face. “But I don’t figure they’ll keep me here much longer.”

“We’ve been talking about that,” Eric said. “It was a fight, but Bella’s agreed to let me help her a little. She lost her apartment, and she hasn’t got any family anywhere near California.”

“He said he’d be like a son to me,” Bella said. She closed her eyes. “It’s wrong to take charity like this, just because I—”

“We’ve been through this, Bella,” Eric said gently. “It’s only until you get your feet under you again.”

“Yes.” Bella squeezed Mist’s hand. “I’ve almost forgotten how good people can be.”

So have I, Mist thought, meeting Eric’s gaze.

“Well,” Eric said, shoving his hands in his khaki trouser pockets, “maybe we’d better let you rest, huh? I’ve asked them to give me a call when they’re about to release you. I’ll be here to get you.”

But Bella clung to Mist’s hand. “Listen to me,” she said, suddenly urgent. “No matter what happens, it is your Fate. You cannot surrender, even when it seems you must fail.”

Mist stared at the old woman. “I don’t know what you’re—”

Just as abruptly, Bella released Mist’s hand and turned her head away. “I’m . . . I’m just so embarrassed about all this fuss,” she said.

“Don’t be,” Eric said, as Mist tried to make sense of Bella’s strange transformation. He leaned over the bed and kissed her wrinkled cheek. “You sleep now, okay? And don’t try to think about anything.”

Bella nodded, and Mist rose from the chair. Together she and Eric left the room.

“That was strange, what she said,” Eric mused as they walked out into the late afternoon shadows.

“Yes,” Mist said. “But she wasn’t making much sense.”

“Well, she’s been through a helluva day,” Eric said.

Mist tried to put the woman’s words out of her mind. “You did a good thing in there,” she said.

He shrugged in obvious embarrassment. “Hey, I’m not exactly broke. And I’m not doing that much. She’s a nice lady, and she deserves a lot better than what she’s got.” His eyes brightened as he looked at Mist. “Since you came, I guess you were at least willing to see me again.”

“I came to visit Bella,” Mist said, but the words came out completely unconvincing.

“Okay. Sure, I understand. But maybe we could have that talk now? Over coffee, or”—he glanced at his expensive-looking watch—“dinner?”

“Coffee,” Mist said, before she could think better of it.

“Great. I know a little place . . . independent, you know, not Starbucks. But we’ll have to drive.”

“I’ll follow you,” Mist said quickly, before he could suggest that she ride with him.

“Sounds good.” He flashed her that big-hearted grin and gestured for her to precede him down the hall. She accepted his “gallantry” as mere courtesy and held the door open for him when they reached it.

 

The coffee was very good, and so was the conversation. Eric managed to draw Mist out as no one had been able to do for years, and though Mist had to be careful about what she said, she was pleased to learn that Eric had some passing knowledge of Norse “mythology.”

“You know,” he said, as they were finishing their second cups, “I read those Thor comics when I was a kid. I wanted to be like him. I thought maybe I could be, because everyone in my family was tall and blond”—he ruffled his hair self-consciously—“and I was pretty sure I could be great with a hammer.”

If only the real God of Thunder were as noble as the one in the comics, Mist thought. If only everything in Asgard had been so simple, so black and white.

“That Loki, though,” Eric said, shaking his head. “Always plotting and cackling over his temporary victories, thinking he had everyone else beat but never winning. I wonder why they put up with him the way they did.”

“They didn’t always,” Mist said.

“Yeah, I guess he got his share of punishment.” Eric looked down into his cooling coffee. “Sort of felt sorry for the guy. So much ambition, and nowhere to put it.”

“They made it pretty clear he was a hopeless case,” Mist said, taking another sip.

“Yeah. Hopeless. Still, you have to admire his persistence.”

Since Mist had never actually met the Slanderer in person, she was hardly an expert. But everyone knew how many times Loki had aided the Aesir, only to betray them again. And then came the ultimate betrayal, the one foretold, the one no man or god could prevent.

Fate.

“Persistent enough to destroy the universe,” Mist said aloud, “kill all the gods, and die himself at Heimdall’s hands.”

“You’re not talking comic books now.”

“The original myths have always interested me, too.”

“Then you know there has to be a balance. The whole universe would crumble without it. It’s not always a matter of good and evil.”

“Balance?” Mist shook her head. “Maybe here, on—”

She stopped, realizing she was about to say “Midgard.”

“You seem to have thought a lot about this,” she said, studying his face. “Quite the armchair philosopher.”

“Yeah, well.” He shrugged with that bashful air he could pull off so well. He reached across the table. “You look sad. I wish I knew what to say to make you smile.”

This time she didn’t slide her hand away. “Does someone have to smile to be happy?”

“So you’re happy now?”

“I don’t know.”

He laughed. “Well, at least you’re honest. That’s what I like about you. No pretensions. No games. And you’re not exactly hard on the eyes, either.”

“I take it that’s meant to be a compliment,” she said, letting an edge of irritation slip into her voice.

“Whoa,” he said. “Sorry. I just figured you’d heard that a lot. Or don’t you know you’re beautiful?”

“It isn’t very important to me,” she said.

“Then what is?” he asked, hanging on to her hand.

It was a question she hadn’t been able to answer in such a long time. But when she met Eric’s eyes again, she wondered if that was about to change.

You’re crazy, she thought. But maybe not. Maybe this was the last sign she needed that the old life was finally over.

“You haven’t told me a thing about yourself,” Eric said. “I can go first. I’m a legal consultant for a number of fairly large companies throughout the US and parts of Europe. I do a lot of traveling, but I get a fair amount of time off, too. I’m fortunate enough to make a good living, and I’m good at my job. I live on Nob Hill. I lead a pretty active life when I’m not on the road.” He looked into her eyes. “Now it’s your turn.”

Mist examined his words for boastfulness—which she’d never been able to tolerate—but his manner was casual and almost self-effacing. It made it much easier for her to open up, too. She sank back into her chair.

“I make swords,” she said. “Authentic weapons for collectors. The kind you could actually kill somebody with.”

He jerked back, pretending alarm. “I knew you were dangerous, but not that dangerous!”

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m very selective about my clients. And I’m paid very well, too. I have a good nest egg, and a loft in Dogpatch. Two Norwegian Forest Cats.” She blushed. “Kirby and Lee.”

Eric gave a full-throated laugh, attracting the curious attention of several fellow customers. “You really do know your comic books.”

“It was a joke, really,” she said. “But they’re good companions.”

“I wish I had time for pets,” he said, “but my life just doesn’t make it fair to them.” He lifted one blond brow. “I think, if I could, I’d like a few snakes. In a terrarium, of course.”

Mist shuddered. It wasn’t that she was afraid of snakes, but they did hold certain symbolic connotations she couldn’t quite ignore. “To each his own,” she said lightly.

“You don’t have to have everything in common to enjoy someone’s company,” he said, turning serious.

Too serious for Mist. “I should really get home to the cats,” she said. “They’ll be looking for me.”

“I understand. But we still have a lot of things to discuss.”

Mist hesitated. It was up to her, now. She could send this guy running if she put even a little effort into it. But was that what she wanted? Odin’s balls, how could life get so confusing all of a sudden, after decades of reclusive monotony?

“Do you like to ride?” Eric asked, breaking into her thoughts.

“Yes,” she said, “though I haven’t done it in a few years.”

“I haven’t, either. But I’d like to try it again. There’s this nice little stable up in Petaluma . . .”

 

“His name is Froskur,” the stableman said, leading the nearly swaybacked horse toward Mist as she waited eagerly for her first flying mount.

“Frog” suited the beast, with his protruding lips, short neck, and somewhat scraggly mane. It was difficult to believe that this creature could have been bred by the elves.

“I know he’s far from beautiful,” the stableman said, stroking the bay’s muzzle. “He was the only one available. But he’s fast, and brave. He will never flinch, no matter how hot the battle.” The servant smiled, more challenge than apology in his eyes. “I do not think you’ll be displeased.”

Mist tried to conceal her disappointment, and as she looked into the horse’s eyes she could see bright intelligence, a good nature, and curiosity about his new rider. He took a step forward, bumped his nose into Mist’s chest with some force, and lipped at her sleeve. She laughed and ran her hand down his cheek.

“You see?” the stableman said. “He’s a fine boy. He’ll serve you well.”

And even if she, youngest of the Valkyrie, was the laughingstock of Asgard, she would prove herself. She would select the best warriors for Valhalla. She would earn Odin’s approval, not merely his acceptance.

“Thank you,” she said, swinging lightly up onto Froskur’s bare back. “I believe he’ll suit me very well.”

As if he’d taken her words for a command, Froskur reared and launched himself skyward. Mist laughed as the ground receded beneath her, spreading her arms wide to catch the wind. Froskur whinnied in joy that matched her own.

She was free now. She was who she was always meant to be. And nothing could ever bring her down aga—

“Mist?” Eric said, pulling his gelding to a stop beside her. “You looked like you were about to fly away.”

Shaking herself back to reality, Mist cast him a wry smile and patted the mare’s neck. “I doubt she can fly,” she said. “Though I think she’d like to.”

“Wouldn’t we all,” Eric said with his usual infectious laugh. “First one back to the stable gets the prize.”

Mist didn’t ask what that prize might be. She shouted, and the mare leaped into a gallop, responding to her rider’s excitement.

And yet, in spite of her expert guidance, Eric’s gelding proved the faster and pulled ahead of her. He beat her by a nose, coming to a quick stop just as they reached the corral where the stable’s horses waited for riders.

A little breathless, Mist dismounted and stroked the mare’s nose as she once had Froskur’s, whispering words of praise. The horse could not understand human language like Asgard’s steeds, but she bobbed her head as if in acknowledgment of her due.

When Eric had dismounted, they walked the horses to cool them, enjoying the sounds of birdsong and rustling leaves in companionable silence. Then they returned the animals to the stable boy, who took them into the paddock for a rubdown.

“I won,” Eric said, as they headed back to their cars. “Now I get to claim my prize.”

Suddenly Mist was wary again. She kept her distance from Eric and faced him squarely, prepared to ward him away.

“Hey,” he said softly. “Don’t give me that look. I’m not going to ask for much.”

“What do you want?” she asked.

He took a long step, cupped his hand behind her neck, and kissed her. The next moment he was on the ground, shaking his head as if his brains had been rattled by her very measured blow.

“Was that really necessary?” he said, sitting up and brushing dirt and last autumn’s leaves from his shirt.

“You didn’t warn me,” Mist said, reaching down and pulling him to his feet.

“Yeah. I don’t think I’ll try that again.” He slapped at his pants, gazing almost mournfully at the dirt ground into the khakis. “Was it really that bad?”

The terrible fact, Mist thought, was that it had been good. Very good. In those few seconds of contact, her body had come alive, remembering what it had been like to share a bed with a man and enjoy his body as he did hers.

And Eric was, as they said, hot. She’d tried to ignore that in the beginning, but it wasn’t possible now.

“No,” she said, meeting his gaze. “But mutual agreement would be nice.”

“Then you’d consider trying it again?”

“Maybe. If the circumstances are right.”

“A candlelit dinner? A walk in Golden Gate Park?”

“Don’t push me, Eric,” she said. “I haven’t done this in a while.”

He frowned, an unusual expression on his handsome face. “I don’t get it. You should have guys after you in droves.” He rubbed his jaw. “Then again, maybe not.”

She couldn’t help but laugh, though it was something she’d long been unaccustomed to. “I promise I won’t do that again if you ask next time,” she said.

“Oh, I will.” His usual good humor returned. “You ready to go back to San Francisco?”

“And then what?”

“We take it at your pace. If you want to keep going.”

“I . . .” Mist swallowed, thinking how great a step she was about to take. “I do.”

“Great.” He beamed at her. “I do like a woman who can throw me to the ground.”

But there was no more throwing. Since Eric was in one of his month-off periods, they were able to spend a few days walking in the park, shopping—for Eric, who was a bit of a clotheshorse—and talking over coffee and dinner. Little by little, Eric, who seemed to have all the playfulness and cheer Mist had lost, won her over.

At the end of the first week, she offered to show Eric her weapons.

He walked into the loft as if he were entering a temple, solemn and quiet. Kirby and Lee were waiting at the kitchen entrance. They puffed up when they saw Eric, but he spoke to them in a low voice, as if he’d known them since they were kittens. They quickly settled again and began meowing for their supper.

With a brief apology, Mist fed the cats and then led Eric to the weapons room, chanting a quick spell under her breath to release the Rune-wards drawn over the door.

“Wow,” he said, coming to a stop before the glass-doored cases. “You really made all these?”

“Yes.” Mist felt deeply self-conscious, though she knew she had no reason to be. Eric obviously admired her work, and didn’t think there was anything strange about a woman swordsmith.

“Can I hold one of them?” he said, pointing to a fairly simple knife in one of the cases.

“That’s a seax,” Mist said. “Common Anglo-Saxon knife often used by the Vikings.”

“Fascinating,” he said, waiting expectantly.

Mist hesitated. Hidden among the knives was one very special weapon, one she’d barely touched since she’d left Norway in 1942.

But Eric would never know what it was. No mortal could. It looked like the other knives, less decorative than many, and only a spell could bring it to its true length and size.

Only a week ago she’d been thinking of dumping it into the Pacific Ocean.

She withdrew the seax and handed it hilt-first to Eric.

“It’s sharp,” she said. “Be careful.”

He studied it intently, handling the wooden-handled knife with respect. “Single edge,” he said.

“That’s right,” Mist said, glad he hadn’t tried to test it on his thumb.

“Beautiful,” he said.

“You can have it, if you want,” she said, looking down at the floor.

“Really?” He continued to admire it as Mist removed the leather sheath that had hung beside it. “You’re giving me this?”

“Yes.”

His stare burned into her forehead, and she was forced to meet his gaze.

“I’ll treasure this always,” he said, sheathing the knife and tucking it under his jacket. “I, uh, I have something for you, too. It’s nothing like this. Just a joke, really.”

Mist hadn’t received any kind of gift in a very long time. “What is it?” she asked.

Eric pulled a small, wrapped box from inside his jacket. “Open it,” he said, handing the box to her.

Holding it as gingerly as any blade, Mist took it into the kitchen. She set the box down on the table, unwrapped it, and opened the lid.

The first thing she saw was a mass of plastic blond hair. She pulled it out and laughed.

It was an image of the comic-book Thor, a huge head bobbing on a much smaller body, hammer in hand.

“It’s a bobblehead,” he said. “Saw it in a comics store and couldn’t resist.”

Mist set it back on the table and tapped the head with her finger. It shook furiously, as if Thor were in one of his rages.

Wouldn’t he hate it. If he were alive.

“I love it,” she said, looking up. “It’s perfect.”

She leaned forward and kissed him.

That night they shared a bed for the first time. It was the best sex Mist had had in decades. The only sex she’d had since Geir, when they’d huddled together in the temporary shelter of abandoned cabins, hiding from the Nazis and sharing their warmth. In every way.

When she fell asleep in Eric’s arms, she dreamed. Of Odin, and her oath, and Fate. She dreamed of Kettlingr in her hand again. She dreamed of holding to her duty, because it no longer seemed such a burden now. It couldn’t pull her into the past, because the past grew dimmer with every passing moment.

When she woke, Eric was sitting up in bed, gazing down at her.

“You were talking in your sleep,” he said, stroking her loose hair away from her forehead.

Loki’s piss, she thought. “What did I say?” she asked, her stomach roiling with panic as she looked into his eyes.

“I only heard one word clearly,” he said. “What’s Gungnir?”

 

“Freeze Warning” copyright © 2013 by Susan Krinard

Art copyright © 2013 by Goñi Montes

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