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Excerpt for Frost Giants of Jötunheim by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Frost Giants of Jötunheim

By Richard Denning

Table of Contents

Title Page

Table of Contents

Copyright Page

The Author

Map

Notes

More by the Author

Frost Giants of Jötunheim

Written by Richard Denning

Copyright 2018 Richard Denning.

First Published 2018.

Smashwords Edition

Published by Mercia Books

All rights reserved. The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or transmitted in any form, for any reason or by any means, whether re-drawn, enlarged or otherwise altered including mechanical, photocopy, digital storage & retrieval or otherwise, without the prior permission in writing from the copyright owner. The text, layout and designs presented in this book, as well as the book in its entirety, are protected by the copyright laws of the United Kingdom, United States and similar laws in other countries.

Book Jacket design and layout by Cathy Helms

www.avalongraphics.org

Copy-editing and proof reading by Jo Field.

Graphics and map by Gillian Pearce

www.hellionsart.com/

Author website:

www.richarddenning.co.uk

Anglo Saxons Runes are Germanic Font 2 from:

www.fontspace.com/dan-smiths-fantasy-fonts/anglosaxon-runes with permission from Dan Smith

The Author

Richard Denning was born in Ilkeston in Derbyshire and lives in Sutton Coldfield in the West Midlands. He is married with two children. He has always been fascinated by historical settings as well as horror and fantasy. Other than writing, his main interests are games of all types. He is the designer of a number of boardgames as well as the director of UK Games Expo, the largest tabletop games convention in the UK. Having trained as a doctor he worked for many years as a General Practitioner before leaving medicine to work full time in the games industry and on his writing.

Author website:

http://www.richarddenning.co.uk

Also by the author

Northern Crown Series

(Historical fiction)

1.The Amber Treasure

2.Child of Loki

3. Princes in Exile

4. The White Chariot

Hourglass Institute Series

(Young Adult Science Fiction)

1.Tomorrow’s Guardian

2. Yesterday’s Treasures

3. Today’s Sacrifice

The Praesidium Series

(Historical Fantasy)

The Last Seal

The Nine Worlds Series

(Children’s Historical Fantasy)

1.Shield Maiden

2. The Catacombs of Vanaheim

3. Frost Giants of Jötunheim

Dedication

As my editor, Jo is now planning a well-earned retirement, this is the last book we will cooperate on. I therefore dedicate the book to her with grateful thanks for all her help over many years.

Map of Jötunheim

Chapter 1

A Burglary in Asgard

“Merciful Woden, but this place is huge!” Wilburh said as he gasped in astonishment at the enormous structures that now surrounded him. He was typically a quite reserved and studious youth, but his blue eyes widened as he swept back a mop of fair hair to get a better view.

He was standing in the centre of the city of the Aesir gods in the world of Asgard. Behind him, Heimdall, Gatekeeper of the Gods, closed the gate to Midgard, Wilburh’s own world, which he and his companions had just come through. The journey via the mystical rainbow bridge between the worlds, known as the Bifrost, was always thrilling, yet it now seemed tame compared with the breathtaking sights all around them.

Next to Wilburh stood his friend Anna, a red-haired, green-eyed shieldmaiden - or girl warrior - of the people of Scenestane, the village where they lived. In the past, Wilburh, Anna and three other children, Lar, Hild and Ellette, along with their companions: a travelling tinker, story teller and poet named Raedann, and the gruff dwarf, Gurthrunn, had already shared two dangerous adventures that had brought them into contact with, and gained them the trust of, the gods.

Gurthrunn, who was well known to the gods, had often acted as a messenger between them and the human world. So it was that today he had come to Scenestane with an invitation from the gods for Anna and Wilburh to journey with him to Asgard. Both children, in very different ways, had given a significant service to Woden and the other gods of the Aesir. Anna had in the process become a warrior and Wilburh a sorcerer or wielder of magic. The gods had wished to thank the two children and show them a little of their city as a reward.

Having arrived by way of the Bifrost and been escorted into the city through a gate guarded by Heimdall, they now walked along an avenue past houses and mansions a hundred times the size of the hall held by Nerian, Anna’s father, who was the headman in Scenestane.

“My race, the Dweorgar from my world of Nidavellir, helped build these halls,” the dwarf said, looking up at the vast stone-built edifices, “nevertheless the scale of them does sometimes make even me a bit dizzy.”

Heimdall laughed. “My brothers and sisters do like spectacle, it has to be said,” he gestured to buildings as they passed by.

“That first building inside the gates is Himinbjorg, the ‘castle in the sky’, as you humans put it.”

He was pointing at a fortress-like structure that connected to the tall walls close by the gate they had entered.

“It is, in fact, my house and also the gateway fortress that protects the entrance into the rest of the city. Over there is Gladsheim – the bright home. That is the Temple of the Aesir and contains Woden’s throne.”

“I have been there and met the All Father,” Anna said in a hushed voice.

“Ah yes, I recall the day,” the gatekeeper said.

“What is that other temple next door to Gladsheim?” Wilburh asked pointing at the structure that looked almost identical to the first.

“That is the Vingolf – a temple for the goddesses to call their own.”

He led them on past other houses on either side of the grand avenue that started at the gateway. Almost at the end of the avenue stood a large hall, which again looked like a fortress. It had no windows but rather had two huge stone doors on one end which were currently shut.

“There is the strong room which houses all our treasures, many of them fashioned by the Dweorgar in ancient times,” Heimdall said with a bow of his head toward Gurthrunn.

On they walked past still more buildings until they finally reached the end of the grand avenue. Ahead of them was a massive banqueting hall, a structure so huge that the roof disappeared into the clouds high above them. What they could see of the roof and the walls was covered with tiles and bricks made of gold and bronze, so that the whole building sparkled in the bright sunlight. Access to this hall was through a multitude of doors dotted all around the outside. Beyond the hall was a town of wooden huts, which were much closer in appearance to those to be found in Scenestane and unlike any others in this city of the gods.

As the children watched, countless numbers of warriors clad in chainmail, both men and women, were emerging from the town clutching shields, swords, spears and axes. They headed towards the banqueting hall and were soon streaming into the building.

“Who are they? What are they doing?” Anna asked.

Wilburh, though, was smiling.

“I think I know. They are the Einherjar – the victorious dead – fallen in battle and now brought to Valhalla. So, I guess this must be Valhalla, Woden’s banqueting hall?”

Heimdall nodded. “Come, I will show you,” he said and led them through one of the doors.

Inside the hall, the warriors were lining up on either side. Behind them tables and benches had been pushed away creating a large central space across which the warriors now faced each other. One of the warriors started hammering his axe handle against the top of his shield and soon others on both sides joined in. The clattering noise grew louder and louder and the blows faster and faster.

“It looks like they are about to have a battle,” Anna shouted in an attempt to be heard over the din.

Even as she spoke there was a roar from one of the warriors that was soon joined by bellows, shouts and challenges from the others and before Anna could say any more the opposing lines of warriors charged towards each other. There was an almighty crash as shields smashed into shields and spears splintered on armour. Then the battle was truly joined and the warriors were soon hewing and chopping at each other. Axes swung up and down, swords slashed and cut and spears stabbed back and forth. Before very long a number of the warriors from both sides lay still on the ground and yet the battle raged on.

“What are they fighting about?” Anna asked.

Heimdall gave her a blank look. “Nothing really,” he answered vaguely.

“The warriors are dying there aren’t they?” she asked. “Surely they know why!”

Wilburh shook his head. “They are dead already and risen from the dead. They are heroes: men and women who died fighting and were brought here by the Valkyries. Each day they come back to life and train for battle. Then each night they feast here in Woden’s Hall, that is until Ragnarok – the end of time – when they will fight alongside the gods in the final battles at the end of the nine worlds.”

Heimdall nodded. “You know the ways of Asgard well, child,” he said.

“He should do,” Anna said. “He spends all his time reading ancient scrolls in the temple in our village.”

Heimdall opened his mouth to say something then quite suddenly he turned his head and stepped away from them out through the doors, leaving the warriors to their battle. The children followed him, puzzled by his actions. It seemed he was staring towards the strong room of the gods. The children glanced in the same direction just as a deafening, shattering explosion sounded from within the strong room making the whole massive structure shake. A moment later the doors to the treasure chamber burst apart and smoke and flames erupted from the building.

As they looked on, the figure of their old enemy, the Valkyrie, Kendra, appeared through the smoke looking quite unaffected by whatever immense force had so devastated the strong room. She stood for one moment at the doorway scanning the surrounding city. She was, as ever, quite beautiful and at the same time quite intimidating. Wilburh and Anna had once seen her sway their entire village to her will apparently using nothing more than her appearance and a presence that could not be easily dismissed. In one hand, she held a sack which seemed to bulge. In the other hand, she held what appeared to be a large curved piece of leather studded with metal.

“She has Megingjord!” gasped Heimdall.

“What?” Anna asked.

It was Gurthrunn who answered. “It is another treasure that my people made long ago for the gods. It’s Thunor’s belt of strength. When he wears it, his already impressive strength is doubled. He then becomes almost invincible, even compared to another god.”

Kendra spotted them and walked a few steps away from the strong room in their direction. She opened her mouth to speak but whatever she was about to say was never heard because at that moment a shadow passed overhead. When they glanced up, Wilburh had to take a second look to make sure he was seeing what he thought he was. Passing by above them was a chariot that appeared to be pulled by two goats. The goat-towed vehicle flew on past and landed in front of them. With the thud of boots on stone, the huge form of a warrior god leapt down to confront the Valkyrie. Wilburh could see muscles rippling in his arms and powerful body and recognised the Thunder God, Thunor, also known as Thor, son of Woden and the mightiest of all the Aesir gods. His eyes burned with anger as he addressed Kendra.

“Drop my belt and your other plunder and surrender to me, or I shall slay you today, fallen one.”

Kendra turned her beautiful face towards the god.

“Mighty Thunor, or maybe not so mighty…” she taunted him with the belt.

Thunor scowled and moved determinedly towards the wicked sorceress, but before the god could reach her, Kendra had pulled a cloak around her shoulders. Anna gasped as she recognised it. It was an unusual cloak – being made of falcon feathers – and was itself a powerful magical artefact. It had once belonged to the Goddess Freya and had been stolen by the Valkyrie during the children’s past adventures in the world of Vanaheim. As they looked on, Kendra changed shape. First, she crouched down and extended her arms. Then her face and body blurred and metamorphosed into the form of a falcon, complete with talons, beak and feathers. Thunor’s belt and Kendra’s own clothes were somehow absorbed within the new shape.

Squawking in triumph, the falcon launched itself skyward with a few beats of its wings. Thunor roared in anger and aimed his hammer at the flying bird. A crack of thunder rolled across the air towards them all and at the same time a bolt of lightning arched towards the falcon, but by now the bird was far away, high above them and out of reach of even the Thunder God’s bolts.

“Come, let us pursue!” Thunor shouted at them and without discussion the children and Gurthrunn ran after him back to his chariot. It was far larger than a chariot might have been and they were not cramped or squeezed in as they clambered up after Thunor.

“Hold on!” he shouted at them. It was wise advice as the chariot leapt into the air. Wilburh let out a cry of alarm as he hurtled towards the open rear of the chariot, but Gurthrunn was there and seized him in one huge muscular arm.

The chariot climbed higher and higher, following Kendra’s route. The falcon was now a tiny dot speeding away into the distance. Below them, Heimdall returned to his post as gatekeeper – a seemingly minute figure now. The chariot raced on, reaching the clouds above the god’s city. For a moment they could see nothing save a white light and then suddenly they were above the clouds where the sun shone brightly, almost blinding them. The chariot circled as Thunor scanned the skies for Kendra. Then, with a shout of triumph, he spotted his prey still above them and pulled on the reins. The goats bleated in protest but responded with a burst of speed and the chariot banked to the right to follow her.

They had turned away from the sun into the darkness of the skies above Asgard, a sky dotted with strange stars that Anna did not know. Kendra seemed to be heading towards one of them and then in a flash of light she was gone. Thunor cracked the reins and the goats leapt after her. Wilburh could not describe what happened next. One moment they were above Asgard, home of the gods, and the next, Asgard had vanished. Just as suddenly, another world appeared in the sky – a vast dark shape against the stars. Then, with a flash, the crescent shape of another sun appeared in the new sky. A moment later the world was illuminated: a world of greens and greys, icy blues and intense white. A world of dense forests, ancient woodlands, mountains, snow plains and icy hill tops. They were witnessing the sunrise on another of the nine worlds. Which one though? Wilburh asked himself.

The falcon seemed to spot them as she made another immense effort and now was hurtling down through this world’s clouds towards a mountain range far below.

At Anna’s side, Wilburh was muttering his incantations and the next instant a ball of fire appeared in his outstretched hand. The ball hissed and sizzled. Wilburn examined it, apparently admiring his arcane work. He did not seem to notice the heat that was singeing Anna’s hair.

“Closer, divine Thunor. Get me closer and I will roast this bird!” Wilburh implored the god. Thunor, though, was shaking his head. The chariot flew on but the god did not close the gap. In the end, he gave a roar of frustration and pulled on the reins so the chariot banked away. Wilburh threw the fire ball even so, but it could not hope to reach Kendra and it faded away before it had crossed half the gap between them. The children watched as the bird grew smaller and smaller and then was gone, lost against the vastness of a mountain range.

Wilburh turned in frustration to Thunor. “Why did you not let me try? Why give up now? Don’t you want to catch her?”

Thunor nodded gravely and sighed. “Yes, I want to catch her. Please believe me when I say I did not want to lose her.”

“Well? What stopped you? She was right there in front of us!”

Thunor turned to study the world below them, his gaze apparently lingering on the mountains where the turrets and battlements of a large stone city could just be made out atop the peaks.

“Much as I want to catch her, my friends, if I go any closer to that world… it will mean war!”

Chapter 2

Neighbours and Enemies

At that same moment in a different world, the children’s home world of Midgard, Anna’s brother, a red-headed lad called Lar, was following his father, Nerian through the entrance to the chieftain’s hall in the town of Licitfelda several miles north of Scenestane. Like Lar’s own village, the town was built entirely of wooden huts and halls, for the people of Midgard preferred to build with wood even though close by were the ruins of an old Roman settlement, which the villagers called Wall because of all the stone walls there. Once inside the door, Nerian paused and turned to Lar. He studied his son for a moment whilst tidying up the strands of grey hair that still grew on his balding head, and then smoothed his moustaches.

“Keep quiet in here, Lar. Let me do the talking,” Nerian whispered as a warrior came to lead them on into the interior of a long building not unlike their own headman’s hall at home. Fires burnt in pits in the centre of the room, the smoke escaping through holes in the thatched roof above their heads. Around the room groups of dark-haired warriors stood in huddles, deep in conversation. Several groups broke off whatever they were discussing and stared at Lar and his father as they went by.

“What am I doing here if it is not to talk?” Lar said grumpily to his father. Nerian had always seemed to value his son’s abilities to haggle and negotiate with traders and merchants. If he let him buy and sell cows and grain, thought Lar, why not let him help talk to the Welsh? After all, their reason for coming was important.

Nerian frowned. He had never welcomed questions. “You are here to watch and learn how this is done. In any event your Welsh is not that good.”

Lar frowned now himself but did not reply. He knew he spoke Welsh as well, if not better, than anyone in the village and certainly better than his father. Raedann, who spoke many languages, had taught him well. His father, though, always seemed to find it hard to compliment his son. Part of the problem was the fact that Nerian had quite fixed ideas. Lar’s sister, Anna, always said their father was the most stubborn man in the world.

One area where Nerian hung on stubbornly to his views concerned what would happen to Lar and Anna when they became adults in a few years from now. Lar was a boy, of course, and so it was he who was expected to one day be the head of the village, even though Anna was both older and far more of a leader than he would ever be. In theory that meant that Lar should also be a warrior who might have to lead his people in battle, but here again, Anna was more gifted. Despite all the arguments in favour of Anna succeeding Nerian, their father seemed determined to teach his son leadership and so had brought him along on this trip to Licitfelda. Yet his father seemed neither to recognise nor encourage the best skills Lar had: those of negotiating and making deals.

Frustrated and resentful, Lar looked round the room at the people. They did not seem that different to his own people – the Angles or English of Scenestane. His people were the new ones – invaders from over the sea who were spreading across this land of Britain. The people they had come to see were the natives of this land. His own people called them ‘foreigners’ – and the English word for that was ‘Welsh’. Here in the land of Mercia, Lar’s village was right on the border with the lands controlled by the Welsh. Whilst his people and the Welsh traded with each other they had different languages, traditions and beliefs. Sometimes that caused trouble. Sometimes there were even wars. It had been a few years since the last battle, however, and today they hoped the trip would be peaceful.

They had arrived in front of the chieftain of the Welsh in the area – a man a few years older than Nerian with silver-white hair. He was sitting in a high-backed chair, one hand smoothing down his straggly white beard.

“Greetings, Nerian of Scenestane, what brings you to Licitfelda?” the chieftain asked.

“Hail Dafydd,” Nerian said as he stepped forward. “I have come to talk about land.”

“What land?”

“Well, you will be aware of the wet weather we have had this last winter.”

Dafydd nodded. It had been a bad winter. It had seemed that the rains would never stop and whilst the spring had now come and it was certainly warmer, showers persisted. The cloaks Lar and Nerian both wore over their tunics were soaked through from the latest downpour.

“Well, what you may not know is that the rivers near our village burst their banks last week. These floods have meant that Scenestane has lost much of its grazing lands and we are struggling to find sufficient land to plant our crops now spring is here.”

“I am sorry to hear that,” Dafydd responded sympathetically and Lar was certain that he was being genuine. The Welsh chieftain would certainly understand just how much bread villagers needed to bake to stay alive and that bread needed fields to grow grain to make into flour. Lar knew his father had been worrying about nothing else for days. Without enough fields his people might starve next winter when all the stored food finally ran out. The village had no wealth and had nothing with which to buy food.

“So, I have come to inform you that we will be requiring use of the land along your side of Watling Street. The land is rightfully ours and has been since the agreement reached after the battle at Wall.”

It was true that a few years before, the Angles had beaten the Welsh at a battle near the old Roman settlement and that after the battle, the Welsh had agreed to hand over land to the Angles – land that would then belong to Scenestane. However, it had never been formally handed over and Nerian wanted to reaffirm ownership before he had the fields ploughed and planted.

Lar bit his lip and glanced at his father. Nerian’s abrupt tone and choice of words was hardly polite. Lar knew from Raedann, who had travelled through the Welsh lands, that the Welsh were a proud people who resented the loss of lands to the Angles. “You would not believe how many songs the Welsh have about lands they once owned and battles they have lost and great kings that have fallen,” the poet had told him. “Never ask a Welshman to sing a song, Lar. You will be there all week!”

Maybe they did sing songs about lands they had lost, but they did not seem to enjoy being reminded about it by the Angles because Dafydd’s brow wrinkled and his face darkened.

“What you say is true,” he replied in a cold voice. “We do not deny it.”

“Of course you don’t deny it, it was agreed!” Nerian said, stumbling over the words.

“Father…,” Lar began but a glare from Nerian silenced him.

“Hold your tongue,” his father hissed.

“But…”

“I said be quiet!”

Dafydd was on his feet.

“It was also agreed that relations between us would be civil. You are hardly being civil, Nerian.”

Nerian scowled. “Are you saying you will not fulfil your promise – that you will be an oath breaker.”

Dafydd gritted his teeth. “I welcomed you to my hall. Yet you insult me.”

“I am just trying to take over the land you have abandoned.”

Now Dafydd lost his temper. “We have abandoned no land, Angle. It is you thieves that have taken it away. You pirates and invaders. All our land is sacred and yet you steal it from us. You, Nerian, have long been our enemy. You have attacked us since you and I were the age of your son here.”

Dafydd was pointing at Nerian and shaking in rage. Around the hall the Welsh warriors had broken away from their conversations once more and were staring at Nerian with something like hatred. Lar became aware that many of them wore swords and some had moved their hands to rest them on the pommels. One warrior standing beside Dafydd was holding a spear. His hand was clenched tightly around the shaft, his knuckles white with tension.

Lar shuffled closer to Nerian and spoke quietly in English. “Father, I think we should…”

“I said be quiet!” Nerian snarled at him, apparently oblivious to the sudden threat in the air. “This is not like arguing over the price of apples with some dumb farmer, boy.”

Lar frowned. To him it seemed similar if not exactly the same. You find a deal - both sides need to feel they have a fair agreement. Land or apples, it was just the same. At least that is what Lar believed.

Dafydd glanced at Lar for a moment before returning his gaze to Nerian.

“You should listen to your son. He may be trying to talk sense into you. I warn you, Nerian, show some humility or I may order my warriors to draw swords.”

But, it was no good, Nerian was not listening to reason.

“Give me our land!” Nerian insisted.

Dafydd’s face was now bright red as he roared out an order. “Guards! Seize them!”

At that command, a dozen men jumped forward, spears and swords at the ready and took hold of Lar and Nerian.

“Let us go!” Nerian demanded but Dafydd was not listening.

“Take them to the Roman road and throw them out of our lands,” he commanded his men. Spear butts were jammed between their shoulders as they were forced from the hall.

“If you return to our lands again, it will be war!” Dafydd shouted.

When they reached Watling Street the guards released them and let Nerian and Lar cross the road whilst they remained standing on their side, watching. There was something about the way they stood – each armed with spear and shield and in full armour – that seemed to say, ‘This is our land, keep off it!’

As they stumbled along the track that led back towards their own village, Lar turned to his father.

“Well I certainly learnt how it was done today! Thanks for the lesson, Father,” he said waspishly.

Nerian just glared at him.

“I mean what was that about?” Lar asked.

“I was trying to show you how to be a strong leader!” Nerian shouted

Lar now lost his temper. “Why? Why do you insist on me being the leader? I am not a warrior, I am not even any good at leading. But if you want a cow or a field for a fair price I’m your man. We could have done a deal with them. And now we have nothing.”

“Do you mean pay for the land?” Nerian asked.

“Well, maybe. There could have been something Dafydd would be willing to accept.

Nerian shook his head. “We don’t have any money or anything to buy the land with. Anyway, as I keep saying, those fields are ours! We don’t have to pay anything for them. They belong to us already.”

Lar pointed back to the warriors, who even now stood on the fields and watched them.

“Tell that to them!” he said.

Chapter 3.

Thunor Asks for Help

The rest of their journey was conducted in silence but it was obvious that both of them knew the other was fuming. Anger was their companion as they approached the village.

When Lar and Nerian did finally reach Scenestane they found the entire village gathered around the headman’s hall. Those nearest the door were peeking inside. Children were sitting on the shoulders of their parents so they could see over the heads of the adults. There was a feeling of excitement in the air and hushed whispers could be heard as father and son drew near. Lar noticed that his friend, Raedann was with the villagers. The man was taller than most, if a bit gangly, but even so he appeared to be struggling to see inside the building.

“Now what is going on here?” Nerian asked irritably.

Lar shrugged. “How should I know?”

When they reached the huddled villagers Nerian pushed his way through to get to the door. “What’s going on?” he demanded, elbowing them aside.

Meccus the blacksmith, who was Ellette’s father, turned to him. Lar knew him as typically unflappable. Today though, for a man not usually given to panic and emotional outbursts, his face revealed astonishment.

“Nerian, what a day! What a day indeed.”

“Well? What is it that has got you babbling like an idiot?” Nerian asked.

“Th… th.. Thunor. It’s the god, Thunor.”

“He is not lying, Nerian,” Raedann said. “It is the Thunder God!”

“Sure it is,” Nerian scoffed. “Come to our village has he? A likely story… look, I am tired and want some ale and meat. So, if you can just let me into my hall, I’ll…”

“Greetings, Nerian of Scenestane,” the thunderous voice of Thunor echoed out of the door.

Now it was Nerian’s turn to show surprise. “What?” he gasped as the giant figure appeared in the doorway, stooping slightly to fit beneath the lintel. Just about visible around Thunor’s huge frame Nerian saw Anna standing beside Wilburh, along with his sister Hild and their other friend, the tiny Ellette. Behind them was Gurthrunn. Nerian stared at Thunor for such a long time that Lar began to think he was never going to speak again. Finally, he gathered his wits and bowed his head in respect to the god.

“My lord, what can I do for you?” he managed at last.

“Well, your daughter was kind enough to extend the hospitality of your hall. So, perhaps we can start with an ale or a cup of your mead and then we should talk.”

So saying, Thunor retreated into the hall, followed by Nerian and, like a flock of sheep, the villagers trotted along behind. Everyone clearly wanted to be there. Lar could understand that. After all, just how often was it that a god came to your village? The villagers and their children’s children would be telling tales of this day a hundred years on.

Nerian gave Thunor the headman’s high-backed chair and sat down next to him, with Gurthrunn on the far side. Lar and his friends scampered over to seize a bench at the head of the nearest table and the villagers found seats and other places to perch wherever they could. Nerian called for ale, bread and meat and once it had been served, turned to the Thunder God.

“What then can I do for the gods?” he asked.

Thunor gulped down a full tankard of ale in one go and then belched in appreciation.

“You can, perhaps, help prevent a war.”

Nerian gave a hollow laugh.

“Why do you laugh?” Thunor asked as he let Anna pour him another tankard of ale.

“Lar and I have just returned from a nearby village. We managed to get away with our lives but precious little else, our request was refused and war with the Welsh now seems likely. I’ll spare you the details, but if we can’t prevent our own wars, I fear we cannot help prevent the gods’ wars.”

Thunor looked thoughtful. “Then help me in what I ask and maybe the gods can find a way to help you in your troubles with your neighbours.”

Nerian pondered this for a moment then nodded. “Very well. What is it you need us to do?”

Thunor now explained about Kendra’s visit to Asgard, her theft and his subsequent pursuit to Jötunheim, repeating his comment to Anna about the likelihood of war were he to continue further down onto that world.

“Your belt, stolen?” Nerian gasped. Around them the villagers were abuzz with hushed conversations and speculation about what the Valkyrie would do with the belt.

“Maybe she will use it to wrestle the giants, I have heard they like a challenge,” said Cuthwine, the miller’s son.

“Hasn’t the belt been stolen before?” Meccus asked the miller.

“No, I think it was Mjolnir, Thunor’s hammer,” the miller replied. “Loki stole it once.”

“You would think they would look after it all, wouldn’t you?” said Eanfled, one of the old women, her not so hushed voice ringing out across the hall.

Nerian glared at them all until they fell into silence once more. He then turned back to face Thunor. “Why war?” he asked.

The god leant forward onto his elbow, bringing his face closer to Nerian’s. Around the room all the villagers as one crept a little closer, desperate to hear news of the gods.

“You are aware of the many confrontations between the gods and the Jötunn – the giants,” Thunor began.

Nerian nodded and so by his side did Lar. All the tales of the gods seemed to mention conflict and battles between the inhabitants of Jötunheim and Thunor’s brethren. Since ancient times the races were bitter enemies even though there would be peace sometimes and even occasionally marriages between them. The god Loki was not the only one to have giants for ancestors. In fact, the oldest gods, like Woden, all had Jötnars for parents.

“Well, recently the gods and the giants have concluded a difficult peace treaty. Part of this agreement was an undertaking that the gods would stay out of Jötunheim.”

Nerian nodded. “I think I understand now. As a result of that agreement you are reluctant to risk peace by going to Jötunheim.”

“Yes, especially given recent developments involving the Valkyrie sorceress, Kendra. It seems that a conflict with Loki’s supporters may soon arrive. We cannot afford a war with the giants too.

Thunor scratched at his beard as he appeared to ponder how to say the next sentence. “Being honest now, a visit by me would be particularly unwise.”

Lar could understand that. Of all the gods it was Thunor who had the most notorious reputation for fighting giants. Thunor’s history of brutal battles against the Jötunn would mean that any pursuit of Kendra down onto Jötunheim would be like a red rag to a bull.

“You are suggesting instead that a visit by a neutral party would seem more desirable?” Nerian said.

Thunor took another great gulp of beer and belched again. So loud was the noise, Lar was sure the roof shook with the echoes.

“This is very good ale!” he said.

“Thank you,” Nerian replied. “That is why you are here though. You are asking for our help with the giants?”

The god nodded. “That is exactly why I am here. I believe Kendra means to persuade the giants to help her free Loki. You will recall he is bound by Gleipnir, the unbreakable thread fashioned by the elves to keep Loki trapped forever in a place where he can do no more harm. If Kendra succeeds it will mean war – a war that we gods may not be able to win, especially if I am weakened without my belt. I would like to request that the shieldmaiden and her companions accompany the Dweorgar, Gurthrunn, to Jötunheim. Once there they should find out where Kendra has taken the belt and what she has done with it and the other treasures she has stolen, and then attempt to retrieve them. I believe Kendra will use the belt to bargain with the giants for their support. She may sell it or even give it away. That must be prevented at all costs. If a confrontation with Loki’s supporters or maybe even a war is coming, I need that belt, for as I have said, without it my strength is diminished.”

To Lar this made sense. If there was fighting then the gods would want Thunor, their greatest warrior, at his full potential.

Nerian, though, looked very unhappy at this. “Why Anna? Why not Iden, our priest? Why not me? Why is it always the children who must be placed at risk?”

“The shieldmaiden and her companions have proven themselves worthy of the gods’ trust. Twice now in fact. They have travelled beyond Midgard whilst none of you others have. Whom else should we put our faith in?”

Nerian looked unconvinced but unable to find a good counter argument.

“Besides which,” Thunor went on, “are they not now old enough to train as warriors in your world? Have they not fought in battle a year ago here in your very village?”

Nerian nodded. “Yes they have … but they are so young.”

“Yet no younger than you were when you first fought a battle, I believe,” Thunor said, glancing at Anna. “Your daughter told me of fighting and battles when you were her age.”

Nerian’s shoulders dropped in surrender. “Very well, but do they all need to go? I can see that Anna and Wilburh have their skills and they might be of value on such a venture. The others though…”

Lar was aware that his father was gazing at him when he said these words. When he saw Lar looking he turned away quickly but a moment later his gaze flicked past him once more. Lar felt suddenly hollow inside. Had Nerian been about to imply that Lar was useless? Lately his father’s opinion of him had been low and getting lower. The anger that had been rumbling inside him during their journey back from the Welsh village bubbled to the surface.

“Well Father? What about me?” he asked. “And what about Hild and Ellette,” he added.

Raedann stepped forward. “And what about me? I will accompany them like I did before.”

Thunor looked over at him and nodded, but said nothing. He seemed to be waiting for Nerian to answer.

Nerian shot an angry glare at Lar but did not respond. Instead he addressed his words to Thunor. “Suppose they do go, what can they possibly say to the Jötunn to counter Kendra’s offer? With what can they bargain?”

Thunor grunted and gestured to Gurthrunn. The Dweorgar got to his feet and walked over to the side of the hall where, Lar now noticed, was a large chest. Gurthrunn threw open the lid and at once the hall was filled with a golden glow. Lar gulped as he stared at the heap of gems, jewellery, goblets and plates, arm rings and coins now revealed.

All around them there was the sound of a hundred villagers all breathing in at the same time. This was more wealth than the villagers had ever seen. Their own stories told of hidden plunder and dragon hoards. Raedann had told them of the wealth of Rome and Byzantium, but none of them had ever dreamt they would see such a treasure. Lar noticed that even Raedann looked astonished at what he was seeing in this humble village hall.

“The giants have always been jealous of our treasures,” Thunor said, especially the Storm Giants, who love gold. Seek them out. You’ll find them in Utgard. They are not as wild or vicious as the Frost Giants and may be tempted to help us in exchange for gold and gems. Anna may offer them in any quantity to get the belt back and to try and thwart Kendra’s plans!”

“So Father, what do you say? Will you permit all of us to go? I mean me, Hild and Ellette as well as Anna and Wilburh,” Lar said in a challenging voice.

Nerian glared at him but then, apparently with all his arguments used up, he nodded. “Very well, you may go. You may all go.”

Chapter 4

To Jötunheim

After Thunor had left them to return to Asgard, the children gathered supplies, hooking onto their belts pouches full of salted meat, smoked cheese and flat breads, as well as wineskins full of bitter tasting ale and honey-sweet mead for the journey. Both of these alcoholic drinks were weaker than the adults might drink but still safer than drinking plain water from a stream which might not be clean.

They also collected their weapons. Lar took a sword as well as the long dagger or knife-like seax that everyone carried, but he generally only used either in dire need. His preferred weapon, and one with which he was skilled, was the bow. He took a sheaf of his best arrows and tossed the quiver over his shoulder. Usually in battle he wore the quiver at his hip or even pushed the arrows in the ground to be close at hand, but strapping it on his back made it easier on a journey.

Hild and Ellette had slings and each carried a leather pouch full of stones. Ellette in particular was a good shot and could hit a racing hare at a hundred paces. Less accurate, Hild was not much of a fighter but always carried with her an assortment of healing herbs. She was learning from her mother, Julianna the wise woman, how to mend bones and heal wounds and was already gaining a reputation as a skilled healer. She carried two additional pouches at her belt which bulged with moss and plantain leaves for wounds, mugwort for fever, fennel for belly ache, salve, willow bark to alleviate pain and rolled strips of cloth to use as bandages, along with a few other items, including needle and thread.

Wilburh did not have a weapon, save his seax, for he was a sorcerer and relied on magic to defend himself. Raedann, like Lar, carried a bow, but he also had an axe. All of these weapons had been made in the village and whilst of good quality could not compare to those made on other worlds.

By contrast, the great war hammer that Gurthrunn wielded was made in his home world of Nidavellir by his own people, the Dweorgar or dwarves, and was both fearsome and beautiful at the same time. Yet it was Anna’s blade that was the greatest treasure. It was a shining golden sword that had been made for the Valkyrie messengers of the gods and had been gifted to Anna by Woden himself in reward for her services in opposing Kendra during the children’s first adventure. Aefre was its name – ‘forever’ it meant. It was a magical, living sword, which meant it spoke to the girl, giving her advice and comfort in words nobody else could hear. Anna and Aefre were bonded and if it could, the sword would protect her for ever.

Apart from their provisions and their weapons they had to take along the god’s treasures. Clearly a huge, heavy chest was never going to be portable enough through the thick forests and tall mountains of Jötunheim. So, each of them filled a leather satchel with a share of the valuables, which they could carry on their backs. It meant they were somewhat loaded down, but with the weight distributed evenly between the seven of them, it was manageable.

When they were ready, Nerian bade them good luck and Iden, the village priest, prayed for their safety. There were hugs all round and a few tears from Julianna and even, much to everyone’s surprise, the big blacksmith, Meccus, as he said goodbye to his small daughter. Ellette said he was just being silly but gave him a particularly long hug before cheerfully joining the others.

When all was ready the villagers accompanied them on the first short part of their journey. There was an opening to the Bifrost - the mystical rainbow bridge between the Nine Worlds - in an ancient barrow, a burial ground just north of the village. The portal was a doorway set in a stone frame that was marked with runic symbols. Wilburh could read these and had once shown Lar which symbols referred to which worlds. For as long as anyone could recall, the portal had been closed by a plain stone slab that few knew how to open. This was no longer the case, for ever since the first terrifying encounter with the evil sorceress and Valkyrie, Kendra, the doorway had ceased to be an immovable chunk of stone. She had activated the portal, opening it so that the link between the worlds was available for anyone to use. Now the open doorway shimmered, glowed and rippled with a dozen colours and there was always a crackle and a hiss of power in the air around it.

An open door was a bit like a double-edged sword, of course. For whilst the children could and had used it to go to Asgard and, on another occasion, to Vanaheim, dangerous beings and horrors from the other worlds were also able to come through it, which was why, the previous autumn, a band of ice creatures from the frozen world of Niflheim had burst through the Bifrost and attacked the village. Though they were beaten back by the villagers, the threat had caused them great concern. That was until Wilburh, on his return from their adventure on Vanaheim, had brought with him a spell to place an invisible shield around the Bifrost so that only those visitors they were happy to see could come through it.

Now Wilburh spoke the words that would briefly drop the protective shield, and the children and their two companions stepped up to the doorway. One by one they passed through it and vanished. Lar was last. Before entering he looked back at his father. He was not sure quite why. Maybe he was hoping for some signal that his father valued him after all and did not see him just as someone useful when selling cows, but hopeless in battle and a bit of a loss in terms of his abilities as a leader. Maybe he was hoping for some clue that his father loved him.

If so, he got no such indication because his father had turned away and was deep in conversation with Meccus. With a sigh and a shake of his head, Lar stepped through the portal and was snatched away from his father, the village and even his world. Jötunheim was worlds away and it was to there that the Bifrost would carry them in the time it took to draw a breath.

When Lar had passed through the Jötunheim portal he turned to look back at it. It seemed that none of them looked the same. While the doorway near their own village was fashioned from worked stone, on Vanaheim they had passed through an opening made of intertwined tree trunks. Here on Jötunheim the way into and out of the gods’ highway between worlds was an archway made of rough rock that had runic symbols painted upon it in a variety of slightly garish colours.

The Bifrost journey had deposited them upon windswept grasslands where great beasts like giant cows grazed. In some ways they had the appearance of cattle from Lar’s village, only these were much, much larger. The creatures had long hair and fearsome horns and, he guessed, were about fifteen feet tall.

“Wow, look at the size of those! I wouldn’t be able to reach to milk them,” Ellette joked.

Gurthrunn grunted. “They’re not cows, they are aurochs. They live on many worlds. Some still live in Midgard even today, in the Welsh mountains far to the west of Mercia. I have seen them myself.”

“Never mind them. Come on, let’s get going,” said Anna.

The children fell silent as they crept past the giant beasts. Lar noticed that Anna had a firm grip on Aefre and even Gurthrunn was holding his war hammer at readiness. Yet, despite snorts and the odd bellow, the aurochs left them alone, so the Dweorgar and children passed by unhindered.

“Can you imagine the meat on one of those,” said Ellette. “Perhaps we might shoot one and take it back. I bet the villagers would be grateful.” She held up her sling and started fumbling for a stone in the pouch on her belt.

“Perhaps not, little elf,” Hild replied. “I think it would take more than a few pebbles to bring down one of them. You’ll have the whole herd charging us!”

Ellette looked disheartened.

“Beside which,” Anna said, pointing east, “we are here for other reasons,”. Far away across the plains they could see a dense forest, dark and forbidding and most definitely blocking their path. Beyond the woodland, they could make out distant mountains, their snow–covered peaks partially shrouded in cloud.

Ellette frowned. “Not the most welcoming of places, is it? Vanaheim was warmer.”

“We almost died in those catacombs in Vanaheim!” observed Hild.

“True, but at least we did not freeze to death,” Ellette countered, shivering as she looked at the mountains.

“Come on,” Anna repeated and led the way towards the trees. “We need to find our way to Utgard.”

Despite Ellette’s earlier misgivings, when they arrived in this world, the weather was fair. The sun was shining and in its gaze they felt its warmth on their backs as they tramped eastwards across the grasslands and towards the treeline. The fair weather continued for several hours and the children’s mood was upbeat, chatting and joking as they walked along.

After a while, however, Lar became aware that clouds were gathering overhead obscuring more and more of the sun. Gradually the temperature dropped and a strong wind coming from behind them cooled the air further, so that soon they were assaulted by icy blasts that seemed to push them along like a hidden enemy forcing them toward some as yet unseen danger. The joyful mood of earlier evaporated and they struggled on feeling increasingly cold and gloomy.

Pulling their cloaks tightly around them they continued on their route for several hours until, just as they finally made it to the edge of the woodland, the sun set behind them. The trees here were unlike anything Lar had ever seen. They were huge – far taller than any oak or willow in the vicinity of Scenestane. The bark was dark, almost black in fact. The branches and trunks were twisted and gnarled and deformed into disturbing shapes that looked not so much like trees as nightmarish deformed creatures made of metal.

“These are the Ironwoods. The trees are not made of iron but their bark is so tough they might as well be. The weather here is so harsh they have grown this way over countless centuries in order to withstand the ice storms that come in the winter,“ Gurthrunn explained as they started to make camp.

Hild shivered. “Oh, you mean like what we just walked through? We need a fire,” she said, gathering a small pile of twigs for kindling. “Raedann, could you find me some wood to burn.”

“I can set that alight, Hild,” Wilburh said to his sister, holding his hands out towards the kindling, but Hild laid a hand on his arm.

“Stop it, Wilburh. There’s no point in you wasting your energy on magic, you know it tires you and we might have greater need of it later. I can do this,” she said, pulling her iron strike-a-light out of her pouch and striking it against a flint. After a moment sparks ignited some dry bark and a flame leapt up. She added twigs and then some larger branches that Raedann had dragged out from under the trees.

Gurthrunn grunted. “You think that wind was cold? That is mild compared with what can come here.”

Ellette glared at the dwarf. “You are a real bundle of joy, aren’t you?”

“I think we should have some food and a drink,” Hild said. Everyone agreed, and dropping the satchels of treasure in a clanking heap, they sat around the fledgling fire and delved into their pouches. Soon everyone was munching on cheese and flat breads.

“That feels better,” Ellette beamed.

“We’ll need to build up the fire for the night,” Lars said, and pushing himself up, went over to the edge of the clearing to find more wood. Anna joined him. After a moment, he became aware that she was staring at him.

“What is it?” he asked.

“You and father seemed to have fallen out. Did something happen on the trip to Licitfelda.”

Lar shrugged. “It did not go well with the Welsh, I can tell you that!”

“I gathered that much from what father told Thunor.”

“I am not sure what the answer is, to be honest. Maybe it will have to be war.”

Anna pursed her lips. “I hope not.”

Lar bent to pick up another branch but then realised she was still looking at him. “What is it?” he asked.

“When I asked if something had happened, I meant between you and father.”

He stopped picking up branches and looked at her. “Oh, I see.”

“Well, did it?”

“Well you know father. He has his ideas, doesn’t he?”

Anna nodded. “Yes, he does, but what idea caused the problem?”

Lar was about to reply when a distant howl rang out across the woodland. It was far off but a few moments later another answered, this time closer.

“Wolves?” Wilburh asked, his eyes widening in alarm.

Gurthrunn nodded just as another sound echoed through the trees. Not a high–pitched howl but rather a low bellowing.

“What was that?” Wilburh asked.

Lar knew what he was thinking. Whatever made that noise must be big.

“That was a troll!” the dwarf answered. He listened for a while and then bent down, picked up a tree branch and threw it on the fire.

“More wood, hurry, the fire may be our only defence. No one moved at first. They were all still listening to the howls and the bellows.

“Come on, quickly!” Anna shouted. That snapped them out of their stupor and sent them scampering away from the clearing.

They spread out to scour the surrounding woodland for fallen branches. After they each had an armful they returned and piled it on the growing fire. Then they all gathered around it and listened.

“Those howls and grunts are getting closer,” Raedann observed. “Is it wise to signal where we are with such a large fire?”

“They will find us, fire or not. Without it we will freeze tonight and with it we have a weapon, for wolves fear fire,” the Dweorgar answered after a moment.

“What about trolls?” Lar asked.

“We need it for them too.”

“Why? Are they also afraid of the flames?”

Gurthrunn shook his head. “No, it is for another reason.”

“What?” Anna asked, impatiently tapping her foot.

Gurthrunn opened his mouth to speak but before he said a word, Hild pointed into the trees.

“There is something coming! I am sure I saw something there.”

Lar could not see anything yet, but a moment later, Ellette pointed in the same direction.

“She is right. Just there, see?”

They all looked and sure enough, they could see shapes in the gloom. There were several low forms and one large hulking creature. As the beasts came closer and the firelight illuminated them, Lar could make out half a dozen wolves, their bared teeth glittering and silver fur glowing. The wolves were followed by the lumbering form of a huge troll. The troll had limbs that seemed overlong for its body, almost as if he could walk on all fours if he wanted. He had a huge potbelly. A head was mounted on a short, thick neck and featured bulging eyes and yellow teeth which protruded over his upper lip.

“Get ready!” Anna shouted as she drew her sword and went to stand next to Gurthrunn, who was already armed with his vast war–hammer. Lar joined them, got out his bow and notched an arrow on the string. On his right, Hild and Ellette were ready with their slings and Raedann with his sword. Behind them, Wilburh was muttering arcane words and making strange shapes in the air with his hands.

With a growl, the huge pack leader led the wolves forward, whilst behind them the troll bellowed and joined the charge.

“Here they come!” Anna shouted.

Chapter 5

Battle in the Forest

As the first wolf charged forward, Wilburh stepped out from between Lar and Gurthrunn and stood directly in the path of the beast. Placing his thumbs together he extended the fingers of both hands into an arc pointing at the pack leader and the rest of the pack.

Æledfýr blæstas!” he shouted and instantly a cone of flames burst forth from his fingers and radiated out like a wave.


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