To Serge, with love
In the time of Ragnarok, the Twilight of the Gods—
As darkness descended, and Loki’s horde beset the Aesir;
As the Alfar fell and Fenrisulfr opened his jaws, Odin to consume;
When the World Tree shuddered and
Surtr set the Rainbow Bridge aflame;
Thus spake the All-father:
To you, my servants, Valkyrie, Choosers of the Slain,
I entrust the greatest Treasures of the Aesir:
To Horja, Gridarvoll, the Unbreakable Staff;
To Eir, the Apples of Idunn,
without which the gods cannot survive;
To Hild, Six-legged Sleipnir, Swiftest of Horses;
To Bryn, Freya’s Cloak, giver of the power of flight;
To Olrun, the lost Sword of Freyr, which needs no hand to wield it;
To Regin, Mjollnir, the Hammer of Thor, Mightiest of Warriors;
To Rota, that glove called Jarngreipr,
to which the Hammer must return;
To Skuld, Megingjord, the Belt of Power;
To Hrist, Bragi’s Harp, whose voice charms all creatures;
To Kara, the Gjallarhorn, Summoner of Warriors;
To Sigrun, Gleipnir, the chain that cannot be broken;
To Mist, Gungnir, my own, the Spear that can never miss its mark.
All these you must hold, by your Oaths, untouched,
Until the Aesir come again.
“Just a little further, skatten min,” Mist said, helping the little girl to her feet. The ramparts of snow to either side of the narrow path were as high as the child’s hips, but Rebekka had refused to stay on the trail Geir and Horja had broken through the nearly trackless wilderness. Snow was falling more and more thickly, reaching down like a smothering hand and flattening the dense forests into shadowy silhouettes.
“I’ll take you back to your uncle,” Mist said. “Do you think you can hold onto my pack if I lift you up?”
The girl gave Mist a scornful look from beneath her close-fitting hood and woolen cap. “I don’t want to stay with Uncle Aaron,” she said. “He talks too much. Where is my papa?”
Rebekka should have been born a Valkyrie, Mist thought. She had the spirit, the strength, and an excellent judgment of men in one so young.
But the days of open, honorable battle, when the bravest fighters were chosen to join the gods in their great hall, Valhalla, had gone long ago. Once Mist and her Sisters had swept over blood-soaked battlefields on elf-bred steeds, selecting the victors and sweeping up the souls of valiant warriors to live on forever as Einherjar, the army of the Aesir. Forbidden to join in battle themselves, the Valkyrie had borne the trappings of war but never hurled their spears or bared their swords. They’d had to be content with basking in borrowed glory.
No more. Now a handful of Odin’s Shield-maidens carried Sten guns with the Norwegian Resis tance, creeping and skulking and striking from silence without warning, shooting down the murderers of women and children like the dogs they were. Killing them— not with magic, but with the skill of their own hands—and making sure at least a few of the Nazis’ victims escaped.
Rebekka stared at up at Mist expectantly. “I want to stay with you until Papa comes.”
The girl was too young to understand. She would likely never see her father again.
“You know your papa has gone a different way,” Mist said, kneeling to help Rebekka remove her skis. She tied them onto the girl’s pack and waited while Rebekka scrambled up onto her back. The child let out a little puff of excitement as she settled into her lofty position astride Mist’s shoulders.
“How much longer?” she asked.
If they were lucky and the weather got no worse, they might reach the Swedish border before dark. But it was not hours Mist was thinking of. It was the years ahead, long years in a world that no longer held any memory of her kind except in myth.
Mist fingered the talisman pendant hung on a sturdy leather cord around her neck, the one Odin All-father had given her before the Last Battle.
“You will go to Midgard,” he had said. “You and each of your Sisters will bear a weapon that must not fall into the hands of the evil ones. As long as you live, you will guard them. Until . . .”
Mist had never seen him again, nor understood why the Allfather had sent the Valkyrie away when there would never be anyone to wield the Treasures, let alone steal them, when the Last Battle ended. Evil would die along with the Good.
And yet Mist’s duty remained. Until the German invasion of the Northlands, her only reason for existing was to carry her burden through eternity.
This war, among all the countless that had come and gone in two millennia, had ended her self-imposed exile. She had found a new purpose, and it resided in this little girl and hundreds like her. Rebekka would know an end to conflict and a life that, for all its smallness, would find meaning in simple pleasures, in love, in future generations. All the things Mist had learned to live without.
The guttural cry of a gyrfalcon overhead pulled Mist from her thoughts. White against white, her Sister Valkyrie, Bryn, was only a flicker of motion in the colorless sky, almost invisible. As Mist watched her circle, Bryn faltered as if caught by a noose and pulled abruptly toward the earth. Her wings trembled, and a shower of pale feathers fluttered down amid the snow.
“What is wrong with that bird?” Rebekka asked, following Mist’s gaze.
Mist caught a puff of white down and clenched it in her fingers. From the beginning of the war Mist had refused to accept that, even with the gods so long dead, the Valkyrie were still forbidden to use the Treasures. It was she who had suggested that Bryn take advantage of the magic cloak she had vowed to protect.
So far, it had been invaluable. But lately Bryn had been giving disturbing reports, claiming that it was becoming increasingly difficult to put on the cloak and change her shape.
“It’s as if it doesn’t want me to wear it,” the dark-haired Valkyrie had said at their last camp. “As if Freya is punishing me for my blasphemy.”
Mist had scoffed. “Blasphemy for using it to aid her people in their time of greatest need?”
Bryn had shivered and shook her head. “The Treasures were ours to guard, not to use. We have no right.”
They had spoken of such things, Mist and Bryn and Horja, when they had found each other after Minister-President Quisling had taken control of the Norwegian government under the German Reich. All three of the Valkyrie had been living in solitude, apart from each other; none knew what had become of the other nine guardians, or why any of them had survived when Asgard, the realm of the gods, was no more.
“There must have been a reason,” Bryn had said. “The All-father would not have entrusted the Treasures to us if he knew no one would return to claim them.”
But Mist had only laughed. “Odin was blind,” she said, “and now he is gone. He condemned us for nothing. We could have died honorably instead of holding to a meaningless oath. Now we have the chance to fight again.”
Bryn and Horja had been shocked at her casual sacrilege. Horja, who guarded Gridarvol, Thor’s unbreakable staff, had joined Bryn in protest.
But Mist hadn’t listened. With the staff, Horja could not only fight but clear paths through the deepest snow. Freya’s cloak would give Bryn an invaluable edge in spotting enemies. Gungnir, Odin’s spear, would find its mark when all other weapons failed. The gods would never return to punish Mist or her Sisters.
Now, as if to prove Mist right, Bryn recovered, spread her wings, and cried out again before darting toward the fringe of woods that ran parallel to the trail. Mist knew there was no more time to waste.
“Hold on tight, Rebekka,” she said, pushing off on her skis and falling into the steady rhythm she could maintain for days without rest. Snow drove into her face and stung her eyes, but she didn’t slow until she was in sight of the other refugees.
Aaron Fischer, who had taken up the rear, turned awkwardly to face her.
“Rebekka!” he said, the word catching on the wind. “Where have you been?”
“She’s all right,” Mist said. She reached behind her and swung the child to the ground, setting her on her feet. “Rebekka, you must stay with your uncle.” She met Fischer’s shrouded gaze. “Can you carry her? I must go back.”
Fischer grunted agreement, and Mist lifted Rebekka onto her uncle’s shoulders. The girl glanced back mournfully as Fischer lowered his head and set off again, too weary to ask where Mist was going, or why.
Jumping up onto the snowbank, Mist raced alongside and ahead of the straggling line of refugees, her skis driving through the soft upper layer of new-fallen snow to find the harder pack beneath. A raven circled overhead— the symbol of Odin’s two avian advisors, Thought and Memory—scenting the violence soon to come.
Within minutes she had caught up to Geir, who was closely following Horja and using his skis to flatten the snow in her wake.
He saw her and half turned without slowing. “Mist?” he said.
She signaled for him to stop, jumped back onto the trail, and bent her head close to his. Her breath melted the rime crusting his ginger brows and the week’s worth of beard on his chin. His hazel eyes were little more than slits nested in a web of creases, and his face was haggard with worry. He had never looked more beautiful to her.
“Germans,” she said. “I’m going to help Bryn deal with them.”
Geir put his hand on her arm; even through layers of gloves, coat, and sweater, she could feel his warmth.
“How many?” he asked.
She grinned, making sure he could see her expression. “Don’t worry about me,” she said. “You know I can handle them.”
And he did. At first he’d been skeptical that any woman, however brave or skilled with weapons, could keep up with trained Re sis tance fighters. She’d proven him wrong on their first mission, and when Horja and Bryn had joined them he had supported their participation wholeheartedly.
Of course, he didn’t know what they were. But he’d never questioned her, and she had seen the pride in his eyes. Pride, and something she had never thought to see in any man’s face.
She began to believe he might one day accept what she was, that they might remain together, even though she would not seem to age at all over his entire lifetime. It was a hope she nurtured like a fragile flame in the icy darkness.
Geir searched her eyes, his fingers squeezing her sleeve. There was no question that he had to remain with Horja; if the Germans broke through and attacked the refugees, he would be needed here.
“Take care,” he said, and seized her head between his hands. They kissed, a rush of heat that brought the blood surging like the giant Surtr’s fire through Mist’s veins.
“Are we stopping?” Mrs. Dworsky said, catching up to them. Her voice was thin, but there was no complaint in it. “Is it time to rest?”
Geir broke away to face her. “Not yet,” he said. “We must keep moving a little while longer.”
Mist didn’t stay to hear Mrs. Dworsky’s reply. She leaped onto the snowbank and raced back the way she had come. As she neared the woods she stopped, planted her poles, and unslung the Sten gun from over her shoulder. She pulled off her gloves, checked her Nagant revolver and made sure Kettlingr was within easy reach. To the eye of the refugees and the enemy, the blade was no more than a knife any woodsman might carry, but with the right spells it became the sword she had kept at her side since her coming to Midgard.
Shrugging off her pack, she removed Gungnir from its cloth wrappings and secured it to her belt. Like Kettlingr, the Spear’s true shape was masked by spells only Mist knew. Its grip hummed against her skin as if it were calling for the blood it had been denied so long ago.
In all her time with the Resis tance, Mist had never wielded Odin’s spear. The others had made use of their divine weapons, as she herself had urged, but she had never found the need to draw Gungnir or chant the Runes.
The thought filled her with a strange foreboding that shamed her. She had laughed at Bryn’s worries, and now she laughed at her own. If today was to be the day, she would use Gungnir without hesitation. It was a tool, nothing more.
Bryn emerged from the trees, naked save for the feathered cloak wrapped around her shoulders. Her legs sank deep into the snow with every step.
“Where?” Mist asked as the brown-haired Valkyrie joined her.
“Close.” Bryn’s labored breaths shaped streamers of condensation that came far too quickly. “Horja is still with the others?”
Mist nodded, searching Bryn’s eyes. “Are you all right?”
Bryn cut the air with her hand, dismissing Mist’s question. “We must hurry. There are six of them, and they are coming fast.”
“Can you fly again?” Mist asked.
Bryn’s hesitation was brief. “I will do what must be done.”
Without another word she turned back for the trees, Mist on her heels. Bryn’s clothing, pack, and weapons hung on a low branch just inside the border of the wood. She ignored them and ran on, threading her way among the stands of birch, maple, and pine. By the time Mist reached the other side, Bryn was gone.
But the enemy was very much present. Most of their kind were loud and clumsy, blundering through the snow like blind, pregnant cattle. Their dark uniforms were foul, ugly streaks of filth in the purity of the wilderness.
These men were different. There were four, not six, but they were alert and watchful, crouched low and constantly scanning the land around them. They were expecting a fight. They might even be worthy opponents.
Mist removed her skis, knelt behind a thick screen of young birches, and waited for Bryn to reappear. The falcon burst from cover to Mist’s right and winged skyward, calling out to catch the Germans’ attention.
Aiming the Sten gun, Mist raked the soldiers with a spray of bullets. Two of the men fell flat on their bellies. A third collapsed in a halo of blood. The fourth remained standing, returning fire with calm precision.
For the first time since she had joined the Resis tance, Mist felt the sting of a bullet slice through her clothes and bite into her flesh. The shock of it knocked her off her feet. She rolled onto her stomach and pulled the trigger again.
The gun jammed. She tossed it aside and yanked her Nagant from its holster. Her first shot missed the marksman, who dropped and continued to fire. The other two men opened up on Mist, pinning her to the ground.
Bryn shrieked, diving at the first shooter’s face with claws extended. He batted her away, his shots going wild. Bryn swooped up again, but her course was erratic, broken with strange dips and starts. Mist jumped up and ran toward the soldiers, snapping off the remaining six shots in rapid succession. She rolled into the scant cover of a depression in the snow and reloaded. When she came up, Bryn was diving again.
Not diving, but falling, her wings hugged to her sides. Mist emptied the cylinder at the German running toward her. He staggered, and Mist dived back for the depression. Flames engulfed her right hand. She lost her grip on the gun, and it flew out of her reach. She felt blindly for Kettlingr’s hilt with her left hand, but her fingers, slick with blood, couldn’t find purchase. She chanted the Runes as she tried again, praying it wasn’t too late, and tugged the blade free just as it began to change.