The Tree at World's End

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Five

Fjiorn stood before the closed doors of the most imposing feast-hall he had ever seen. The doors, carved with beasts and monsters and gods, were half again as tall as he. They stood solid and barred.

It was cold and Fjiorn, naked, was shivering, waiting for he knew not what.

Just as wolves in the woods behind him began to howl, one of the doors groaned slightly open. But Fjiorn knew that human hands had played no part in this, that the doors had been opened by a draft, or worse, by spirits.

He pulled on the great oaken slab and stepped inside.

The long central fire pit was lit and burning hungrily. The length of the hall was full of feasting men and women, in an uproar of drunken laughter and raucous banter.

Fjiorn moved amongst them as if he was a wraith. None spoke to him, touched him, or acknowledged his presence in any way, so he knew that to them he did not exist. Pillars made from whole tree trunks supported the lofty roof. These were intricately carved with some motifs that he recognised, and others that were completely alien to him.

Iron braziers hung from the crossbeams, each bearing a dozen burning brands.

When he reached the other end of the hall, the place where the king’s throne stood empty, the noise behind him quieted rapidly until silence reigned.

Fjiorn turned then, half-expecting that the revellers had marked him at last and were about to question his presence in their midst.

Instead, the scene of mindless merriment had been replaced by one of carnage.

Those who moments earlier had cavorted in drunken revelry now lay sprawled in their own blood, gutted, throats slit, or hacked to death.

The fire too had died, and the walls and ceiling of the magnificent hall were charred. The smell of burnt flesh and blood caused Fjiorn to stagger and retch.

“This is what you are tasked to prevent.”

The familiar voice drew his attention away from the slaughter and he turned to see the goat-man seated upon the king’s throne.

“You will travel to the rim of the world. You will endure hardship and sorrow and will not be given anything that you do not earn. But one thing you will be given. A single chance to draw our world back from the brink. To stop the wolves Sköll and Hati from devouring the sun and the moon. You will be given one chance to prevent Ragnarøkkr itself.”

Fjiorn staggered before these words. This was not a goat-man after all. He had to be a goat-god - for how could a being of such power be merely human?

Now, in life, Fjiorn was not one to care for gods or for children’s tales, but like everyone else, he knew of Ragnarøkkr; he had grown up on stories of the destruction of the world and the end of all life, including that of the gods, and his soul trembled at this revelation.

Then a thought came to him, and he voiced it without a moment of hesitation.

“Are you Loki?”

The goat-god did not answer, but his grin changed into a frown.

Then his face twisted and melted and reformed itself into someone familiar: Stigr, the infamous seiðmenn.

And he was frowning.
The sorcerer turned his attention from the cauterised wound where Fjiorn’s ear had recently been to gaze into his eyes.

“If I was Loki, you would have no chance of recovery at all,” he muttered in his high-pitched tone.

With a finger he traced the fern-like pattern that spread from Fjiorn’s left cheek and down his shoulder and arm.

Fjiorn was revolted by his touch, but was unable to stop it.

“As things stand,” Stigr concluded, “you are not only fortunate, you are chosen.”

Fjiorn wanted to ask what that meant, but words were not yet available to him. Stigr continued, seemingly indifferent to his plight.

“Thor has struck you with his lightning, which means that the god has singled you out, marked you. Your life is now no longer your own, Fjiorn.”

Åsa reached out with a hand and stroked Fjiorn’s forehead.

“What has he been chosen for?” she asked, eyes dark with worry.

Stigr shrugged.

“That is between him and the god. For now, his duty is to rest and recover. The god has both struck and spared him. So, there is no doubt that he will make his will known soon enough, and perhaps he already has, in Fjiorn’s fevered sleep and in his dreams.”

Stigr gave Fjiorn a thorough examination, applying poultice to his foot as well as to the side of his head.

Åsa watched his every movement like an osprey and marked that the healer’s expression grew troubled, the more he ministered to his patient.

“What is it?” she prompted eventually. “What do you see?”

Stigr did not respond immediately. He squinted down at Fjiorn and eventually shrugged.

“I cannot truly say. I have only seen something like this once before, a long time ago,” the sorcerer replied, but avoided meeting her eyes.

“Just watch him closely,” he cautioned at last. “Especially for the first while.”

“What happened the other time?” she persisted, and when he still hesitated, she gripped his wrist.

“Tell me,” she hissed, her eyes narrowed.

Stigr met her gaze at last, his mouth a tight gash, the droop of the right eyelid more pronounced than usual.

“That one wandered away in the night and was found three days later at the bottom of a cliff, half-eaten by gulls and ravens,” he delivered in a harsh tone.

Stigr then wrenched his hand from her grip, and Åsa released him willingly enough.

“Whether by accident or by decision, that was how it ended for him.”

He then continued in a softer tone.

“I did not want to say because that is something that happened long ago, it is not now. That man was not Fjiorn. He may not have had the stomach for the tasks the gods had laid out for him, and the shame of it might have caused him to seek his own end. But who can say? I do not know.”

Åsa nodded.

Stigr gave her a noxious-smelling mixture to brew into a tea then took his leave.

She thanked him, walked him outside, and gave him one of their goats in payment.

Stigr marked that it was not the best animal, but neither was it the worst, so he grunted his approval and left.

After Stigr’s departure, Åsa had little time for anything but the task of keeping herself, her husband, and their flock alive and safe.

For the first time since their wedding at the Festival of Ostara more than three years ago, Åsa was grateful that she had no small children to care for. She did not know how she would have fared if she had.

Maybe the gods did see what was needful and best, and that, even what had seemed like a curse at one time, might come to be recognised as a blessing at another.

Her greatest concern now was that their supplies were dwindling. Normally it was Fjiorn’s task to make the two-day trek to Fyrka.

She could not leave him alone for that length of time, nor did she know who to turn to for help.

She knew that asking Stigr was out of the question. Her closest relative was Gunnel, her half-sister, but Åsa neither liked nor trusted her, or that distasteful man she called a husband. And even if she decided to seek out Gunnel’s help, it would mean leaving Fjiorn alone for more than eight hours.

After Stigr’s caution, such an absence was unthinkable.

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