This is a short story inspired by a fantasy picture posted on Diana Wallace Peach’s blog with the aim of encouraging some speculative short fiction. How could I resist?
Lars Svansson was fed up. He pulled his glove and sleeve back to check the time and sighed a cloud into the frosty air. An hour and fifty minutes they’d been trudging through the desolate Norwegian landscape when they could have taken snowmobiles and been, well, wherever they were a damn sight quicker than this. He carried on through the snow.
It was getting colder. He glanced over his shoulder as the sun clambered down from its low shelf and began burrowing into the distant white-shrouded hills. As the last pale golden beam was extinguished, the undulating plain shimmered in a blue, unearthly twilight. Lars looked at the person behind him in the line of men tramping through the snow.
“It’ll be dark soon. I hope we’re nearly there.”
The man stared up at him with dark tinted goggles but said nothing. They kept walking. What the hell have I got myself into, Lars thought to himself. The eighteen men – he presumed they were all men although the thick parkas, headwear and goggles could hide anyone’s gender – had arrived at his rural house around noon. Three of them had spoken to him but the rest had just waited patiently outside with their 4×4 vehicles.
It was, apparently, some kind of emergency. They had insisted that he come right away. The one with piercing eyes had done most of the talking while the biggest of the three had merely indicated his desire to be off with irritating key jangling and muttered curses. The third man had been the calmest, smiling and offering helpful advice on clothing and boots. But there was, still, something about him that Lars had found unnerving. And apart from when they had stopped the cars at a sharp bend that jutted out over a low but steep cliffside and said that they must walk from here, they had not spoken another word.
Lars wished he’d brought his cross-country skis. And then was glad he hadn’t as they crossed a field of glittering grey shale, their boots suddenly loud after the muffled crunch of snow. Disrupted stones skittled across the surface. He wondered if he was going to die out here.
A voice called out up ahead and he could just make out in the dim, blue light one of the leaders, possibly the one with the eyes, waving his arms above his head. And then they were lost from view as a mist suddenly descended upon them. Lars kept his eyes trained on the legs of the man in front as they continued to clatter over the shale.
He could feel the mist looping around him, almost caressing his face as he strode onwards. And then they were out of the fog and walking across a brightly lit landscape that was almost the same as the one he had seen five minutes earlier. Almost.
The moon was huge. Maybe ten times bigger than normal. But that wasn’t what grabbed hold of his head and poured awe deep into eyes. There was what he could only describe as a mountain. But it was carved to look like a man. Snow and ice clung to the shape, frozen crags and rockfalls gave the impression of a huge tumbling beard. Lars gawped, mouth open and legs no longer moving. The man behind prodded him in the back.
Lars tried to reply but his brain was still rebooting. It was easier to just keep walking.
As they approached the mountain he noticed that the giant man was carved with his hand on the head of some kind of creature. They were both massive, the biggest pieces of art Lars had ever seen. He wondered how this had been kept secret; it was a modern wonder of the world. The line of walkers ascended a small hill next to the giant’s foot, Lars staring at the creature to his left and then craning his head upwards to look at the face of the giant. The giant looked down at Lars. With open eyes and intelligence. Lars screamed. One of the party thumped him until he shut up.
A noise like an avalanche rumbled down to them. “Is this the one, Heimdallr?”
“Aye, Hræsvelg, that he is”, replied the man with the piercing eyes.
The giant grunted and peered down at the cowering man. “He doesn’t look like he’s capable of helping.”
“It’s the best we could do at short notice,” said the calm, smiling man who, Lars somehow noticed, was still smiling.
“Hmmm. Well, I suppose I should thank you, Loki, for at least trying.”
Lars stared at the man. Loki? Heimdallr? His thoughts, scattered and whirling, were sent scurrying away as the large impatient man picked him up by the scruff of his parka and strode over towards the creature lying under the giant’s hand. He dumped Lars on the brow of the snowy hill and pointed at it.
“See to it.”
“What?” Nothing was making sense to Lars. “Who are you? Where are we? Who is that?” he jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the giant, “and why the hell have you brought me here?”
The large man was reaching for Lars’ throat when Loki intervened. “Brother, I think we need to explain a few things before we ask any more of our guest.”
“Yes, all in good time.” He turned to Lars. “Forgive us, but it seemed just a lot easier to bring you to Jotenheim than explain. The over-sized white gentleman is Hræsvelg, a Frost Giant. We are associates of his from Asgard. I’m Loki, this is Thor and our scout is the ever-reliable Heimdallr.”
“I’m going mad. I’m lying in the snow, hallucinating about Norse mythology and I’m going to die.”
“You bloody will do in a minute if you don’t shut up and get started,” grumbled Thor.
Lars turned to the large god who now seemed to gripping a short-handled but large-headed hammer in a distinctly menacing way. “Why have you brought me here? What do you expect me to do?”
Loki sighed. “You said you were a veterinarian.”
“Well, there’s your patient, get vetting.”
Lars swivelled back to the creature. It looked like some kind of mythical creature, a gryphon or dragon, made from crumbling ice and snow. It was bigger than a whale. An eyelid creaked open and a pale reptilian eye looked at the small group on the hill.
“What is it?”
Loki put his arm around his shoulders. “It’s an Ice Dragon. Sometimes called a Blizzard Lizard by the younger scamps in Asgard. They are an ancient and endangered species and this is one of the last known in the wild. Hræsvelg here has been her constant companion for a few hundred years now.”
“Her? You mean this creature is female? How can you tell?”
“Well,” chuckled Loki, “she’s called Gladys so that’s a big clue.”
“So what do you want me to do?”
Loki eyed Lars with a serious expression. The smile had gone. “Can’t you see that she’s sick? I thought you were a capable animal doctor but all you do is ask inane questions.”
Lars shook his head. “This can’t be happening. I don’t know anything about dragons.” His eyes widened. “It’s all some kind of trick, isn’t it? Loki the Trickster!”
Thor clipped Lars around the ear, gently enough to keep him upright but firm enough to know that he was lucky to keep his head on his shoulders.
“Thank you, brother,” said Loki. “Now, yes, I did once get up to lots of jolly japes. But that’s all in the past. Mostly. These days I’m busy with our conservation actions. There are a lot of magical creatures out there that need our help. Like Gladys here.”
Lars looked back at the dragon. It was certainly in some kind of distress. Now that he looked closely he could see a faint pulsing that rippled along the side of the great beast. There was a rhythm to it that felt vaguely familiar.
“What does she eat?”
“Anything, really. Sheep, cattle, squid, trolls. But a little goes a long way, she probably hasn’t had a full meal in at least three years.”
“In that case…” Lars broke off and ran down to Gladys and felt her pulsing flank. “Tell that giant to get off her and out of my way,” he shouted.
He jogged through the disturbed snow and the shower of ice caused by Hræsvelg stepping away from the dragon. He had just reached her tail when it lifted and began swaying high into the dark night sky. With a creaking, groaning sound Gladys shifted position and an orb the size of a house tumbled down into the snow. Lars stared at the object and almost immediately a crack began to appear, widened by a translucent claw thrusting out from the interior of the sphere.
Loki smiled. “It appears Hræsvelg wasn’t her only companion, eh Thor?”
The Thunder God looked confused.
“Oh for Asgard’s sake, take Mjolnir down there and help the baby out of that egg.”
Some readers may be unsurprised that I’ve delved into mythology again, although it’s not Greek this time (check out The Ophagy if you’ve not come across it yet). It may be pure coincidence that I listened to the BBC radio drama adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology a few days ago. Or maybe not. On the other hand, I did grow up reading Marvel’s Thor comics (way before he was a cool movie character) and I lived in Balderton for several years (named after Thor’s brother, Balder). Oh, and I was born on Thors Day.