“I see Earth rising a second time
Out of the foam, fair and green;
Down from the fells fish to capture
Wings the eagle; waters flow” ~ Voluspa
In the end, a wolf swallowed the sun.
I pressed my fingers and toes into the cracked sidewalk and sniffed the air. Behind dew and rot, behind layers of old asphalt and smoke, I smelled something rich with life. Not the thin wavering scent of grass or the weedy trees that survived in the park, not moldy feathers or wet batwings, and not even the heady reek of my own kind.
It wrapped around me, teasing and promising with bits of perfume that made me think of growing and of dying, of early spring when pups are born, but mostly of Esja’s kisses. I wanted to find the source. Glancing up past the steel and glass and crumbling brick towers, I saw that the sky was lightening. We had less than an hour before we were expected at the den.
I closed my eyes and listened. It was silent in the empty city, so much so that I could hear the quiet flicker of my own heart. There was the scuttle of rat feet in a pipe below the ground, and there the sudden squawk of a filthy raven tongue. I heard the whisper of fur on rock and twisted around to glare at Tannir, who wagged his red tail and dropped his jaw in a grin. He yipped at me and I put my finger against my lips, then tapped my nose and gestured down the west-running street. Tannir quieted himself, and glanced at his brother Megin, whose fur was brushed with darker brown. Megin snapped at Tannir and pointed his long nose back at me. Tannir lowered his head submissively, and I gave him a brief smile.
Alar, the fourth of our gang and my year mate, crouched beside me in the shape of a man. He whispered, “What is that stench?”
“I don’t know.” I raised my eyes toward the sky again. It had been this late when the Einherjar had raided the old den two years ago, when they’d taken Tati, Brisar and Esja.
“Are you sure we should? Floki said it was just a patrol, you know he doesn’t like for us to veer off course, especially when we are already at the edge of our territory.”
I stroked the strip of black fur hanging off my belt. “This smell is new. It’s been years since we explored this side of the city.” As Tannir and Megin crept near, I shifted so that the four of us could huddle in a tight circle. “What if the Sker pack has moved closer? What if the Valkyries are using one of the old warehouses for their alchemy? We cannot afford not to know.”
“And if it is bait? For a trap? They know we are curious.” Alar bared his teeth, but the threat was not reflected in his yellow eyes.
“We will take care.” I offered the back of my hand to Megin as I said, “Take your brother and run back to the den. Tell Floki of this smell and that Alar and I are investigating.”
“You should go back, Hugh. We can’t risk you.”
A growl rumbled in my stomach. “What kind of leader will I be some day if I do not do these things on my own now?” Megin licked my skin, and I flipped over my hand to scratch under the wolf’s jaw. “Go.”
Alar and I watched the brothers lope quietly down the sidewalk, skim around the bones of an iron beast, and vanish into the early dawn shadows.
“Come on,” I said, and pulled the fur free of my belt. “We will track better wearing our wolfskins.”
“Ugh.” Alar scowled as he untied his own fur and laid it out across the back of his neck. “You say these things because it doesn’t hurt you.”
I grinned. It was true. I’d sloughed off my wolfskin for the first time when I was ten, and over the past seven years it had only become easier. They said my great grandfather had been the last Skoll to phase so young, and he had been pack leader for sixty years. “Stop complaining. Practice will teach you to relax through it.”
“Not if we end up having to run from Einherjar,” he grumbled.
“I wouldn’t mind if we do.” I laid my fur over one bare knee and removed my belt. I buckled it around my neck a bit loose so that when I shifted I would still have my claw-knife and bundle of light pellets. Alar hadn’t moved. I met his eyes.
He said, “You know, if we find Karre, we won’t be able to kill him.”
My teeth clenched. “But we will try.” There’d been no blood price, no remembrance gifts, no songs for her death. Not that we expected that from the city’s most fearsome Einherjar. When I closed my eyes to sleep, the last thing I always – always – saw in the darkness of my memory was the look on his face when he clutched her throat. His glass-green eyes had been wide with triumph and his lips twisted in a smile. Blood had tinted his blond hair near to pink and the tiny braids stuck to his skin like serpents.
Alar nodded, and we clasped hands. Then we each put palms to the concrete and wrapped our wolfskins around us.
It was like shrugging on a tight coat, one that melted into your skin. Like sinking into a warm river so that the water tingled against every surface and every crevasse, sucking until the difference between your body and the fur is negligible. Your bones crack and roll, popping out of and back into place while your muscles tighten and pull.
Esja had said it hurt, and when I told her all my analogies for what it was like for me, she said I was too damn thoughtful. I remembered taking her hands and stretching out in a broken field of grass between two hollow sky scrapers. Our fingers interlocked, but everything else was separated by air. We threw on our wolfskins and I held her tight as we shifted together. She whimpered and I tried to press my wonder into her, my ease at the transformation. Afterward, I licked her face and curled around her until she stopped shaking. And then I bit her fur and tugged, and shook off my own fur again. Back and forth we went that day so that she could learn to find and share my awe, until even I was weary. Esja was covered in sloppy ichor and sweat and blood, but she smiled at me in her girl-form and kissed me.
Two weeks later, the Einherjar came, led by Karre, and took her away.
After the wolf consumed the sun, Winter came again and again with no Summer between. The gods rode down from the sky to meet the giants in battle, and Vitharr, son of the One-Eyed Riddler, gutted the Fenris Wolf in order to free the light. The wolf’s heartblood flowed onto the wolves and freed them to walk like men. The Thunder God tore open the heart of the World Snake and all its blood spewed out – but the Snake’s blood was no gift to humankind. It poisoned them with greed and envy and disease until they destroyed themselves. The ocean rose and fires devastated the land.
All the stars fled.
Gods died, humanity perished, and the earth was enveloped in fire. The roads to Hel burned and the ocean rose up to quench the flames. Only the Skoll, sons and daughters of Fenris Wolf, walk the empty cities, scavenging on the flesh of the dead beside ravens, squirming maggots, and rainbow beetles in whose black reflections are all the lost colors of the world. Only the Skoll and the fallen children of the gods, the Valkyrie maids and Einherjar warriors, who are neither gods nor people.
Standing on the sidewalk in my wolfskin, the scent of layering life was stronger still. I waited a moment for Alar to adjust, and then ran up the western street.
The odor led us down one of the ancient city’s main thoroughfares, wide enough that my whole pack might have lined up nose to tail across it. Metal poles and more burnt-out and decaying shells from the massive mechanical beasts created obstacles that Alar and I leapt over or skimmed under. Among the chucks of stone and steel that littered the street were shards of glass and as the sun gilded the sky and the edges of towers the glass glinted like millions of beautiful eyes. I thought of them as the lost souls of the city.
Tati had said that once billions of humans had lived in the buildings, that they were dens stacked atop each other and spread out over countless miles of coastline. That was before the Long Winter,
The scent of life thickened until I felt it clinging to the tips of my fur. It settled in my throat and I could taste the sweetness at the base of my tongue. Also in the air was the salty stench of the ocean. I slowed as we curved around a corner so that we faced south and the street suddenly angled sharply down.
I narrowed my eyes against the sun’s reflection on the calm surface of the sea. There was no beach here like the one we knew at the eastern edge of our territory, for here a great swath of city had been swallowed up by the water. All the way to the horizon I could see the tops of sky scrapers jutting out like ragged teeth. Close to Alar and I, the buildings were crusted with barnacles, with salt and the bones of sea creatures. Once, not so long ago it seemed, the ocean had been higher here. I wondered if it continued to recede.
And the scent we followed issued from one of the salt-encrusted towers. Nose low to the ground, I sniffed my way closer to it. I did not smell Skoll or Einherjar or Valkyrie, but the life-scent was so strong, and below it all the salt of the sea, that I was not certain I would have smelled a Valkyrie if she walked up behind me and put her spear to my ruff.
I gestured with my nose for Alar to wait. He found a shadow against the building across the street and plopped down with his ears perked and tail still. After a final draw of scent, I jogged around the perimeter of the tower. It was seven-sided and perhaps fifty stories high. On the bottom few levels there were no blown out windows: only dark stone stained with oceanic refuse. Higher I saw the telltale glitter of mirrored glass. Neither of the doors I discovered gave any indication they’d been opened in generations.
When I arrived back at the front I hunched over and slipped out of my wolfskin. Hands were better for breaking into new buildings than paws. I left my belt around my neck and tied the strip of my fur to it so it dangled down my chest. Alar padded over and cocked his head in question. I nodded and waited for him to join me in man form.
It was easy to pry open the worn metal door. Alar gripped the handle and together we strained briefly before it popped open with a loud crack. We froze while the noise echoed in the deserted neighborhood. Nothing disturbed us but a flock of angry gulls soaring closer from the edge of the water.
I went in first. Dawn vanished and I paused to adjust my eyes. I could feel the dankness of the building, but the smell was like music filling the damp air. If I reached out I might’ve touched it.
Alar sucked a breath in through his teeth and touched my back. I could smell his anxiety, but the sight before us left me no ability to reassure him.
It was a tree. Not thin and weak like most in the city, but with a gray trunk wider around than a hundred men. Ropey roots pierced the concrete floor and I smelled earth below. The branches spread like a spider’s web, up and out to the windows where dawn light glared, and up through the broken roof to stretch into the sky. Massive leaves broader than my man form shaded the lower levels, but the dappled effect, the lattice of branches lent the atmosphere a gilded tint and I found myself blinking in the strangeness.
“What in Fenrir’s name is this?” Alar said, his voice breathless.
I only shook my head and walked forward, my bare feet silent on the rubble-strewn ground. I saw something curled in the roots. It was pink and small and frightening.
Climbing over hunks of concrete and coiling roots, I made my way to the center of the cavernous tower, to the heart of the tree. I stopped abruptly ten feet away, and Alar knocked into my back. It was a girl, eyes closed, naked arms wrapped around her naked knees.
“Valkyrie,” Alar whispered, hate rolling off his tongue.
I ground my teeth together. It had to be a new experiment of theirs – they always hunted for ways to improve themselves, for ways to feed themselves better, to procreate as we did. “She doesn’t smell right,” I said.
“We’ll drag her into the sun and find out.”
Alar started forward and I joined him. The moment we touched her, her eyes flew open and she screamed. It was high and loud, and I tightened my grip on her wrists as Alar fought with her ankles. She appeared less than thirteen, and spat and kicked with all the fury of that age. We struggled, and snarled at her, dragging ourselves to the door. Her shrieks grew in volume and she was saying words, but none we knew.
Doubt crept into my heart, but I shoved it away. If she was Valkyrie she would burn in the sun and never feast on Skoll flesh. If she was other, the sun would warm her and maybe bring her peace. I ignored her screaming and as we burst out into the morning, we tossed her down into the street. She rolled, limbs smacking the asphalt, and then huddled with her hands over her head.
The sun shone between two buildings, and reflected back again from the ocean surface. She did not catch fire, or even char in the least.
I felt my knees weaken. She was not Valkyrie. What was she? I crept closer. She did not move, though I heard her muttering to herself. She did not smell like Skoll nor carry a wolfskin, and was not Valkyrie. There was nothing else for a girl to be.
“The tree,” Alar said.
I glanced back at the tower where the tree lived so well.
The girl lowered one of her arms so her eyes met mine. They raged silently with the force of the sea and were just as gray.
I could not look away. I said to Alar, to myself, and to the entirety of the empty city, “She is a human girl.”
When it is time for the gods to come again and gather in Ithavollar, from the World Tree’s roots shall arrive Life and Lifegiver. They shall feed on morning dew, lick life from the Tree’s skin, and from both shall the world be reborn.