Below is the second chapter of Greg van Eekhout’s debut novel, Norse Code, a Spectra title which goes on sale May 19, 2009 (if you haven’t read the first chapter, go to Tor.com, here, and then come back to us to read Chapter 2. Seriously, go ahead. We’ll wait).
I don’t want to give to much away, but Norse Code is about as fun as you’ll have reading about the end of the world. Granted, I’m biased (I like good books), but I think what makes this novel so enjoyable is how Greg balances the very “human” nature of these supernatural beings with the magical apocalypse going down all around them.
In other words: Hermod’s my boy.
by Greg van Eekhout
VENICE BEACH, CALIFORNIA: chalk-white sky, waves the color of lead, sand like wet cement. Hermod trudged south, his jeans soaked, his socks squirting water like a pair of sponges. Beside him, an Alaskan malamute trotted happily.
“Here I am, miserable,” Hermod said, “and look at you, all smiles.”
Winston barked in the affirmative and bolted off into white shrouds of fog. Maybe he’d sniffed out a body washed ashore and was closing in for a snack. Hermod grudgingly admired the dog’s attitude. When the world was dying, it made sense to cultivate a taste for carrion. Hermod only wished he could do a better job of following Winston’s example. His last meal was more than twenty-four hours behind him, and all he could think about were steaming piles of roast boar and warm ale, right from the goat’s teat. But it had been several thousand years since he’d enjoyed that kind of home cooking.
Despite the grim weather, Hermod and his dog didn’t have the beach to themselves. Figures moved in the fog like ghosts, picking through storm debris for wood to dry. Old men waved metal detectors over heaps of kelp, and whenever one drew close, Hermod would count the man’s eyes.
“Hey, mister, you wanna buy a god?”
Hermod froze in the sand. A gray apparition stood several feet away in the swirling salt air. Hermod unslung his duffel bag and yanked hard on the zipper. He plunged his hand inside and wrapped his fingers around the hilt of his sword. Behind him, waves thudded against the shore.
“What did you say?”
“I said, do you want to buy a dog?” came a reedy voice. “Isn’t he just the sweetest? Oh, silly, don’t lick my face!”
The figure came forward. It was a girl, draped in blankets. Dirty blond dreadlocks framed a grime-streaked face. She cradled a small ball of white and gray fluff. It squirmed and tried to get at her chin with a pink and black speckled tongue.
“Thanks,” Hermod said. “I’ve already got a dog.”
“Not like this one, you don’t. This one’s gonna grow up big. Real big.”
Hermod took a closer look. The dog’s fur was a mixture of snow and smoke. Its ears tapered to points. Its paws were as large as the girl’s fists.
“That’s a wolf pup,” Hermod said.
The girl squealed, “Oh, cold tongue! Not in my ear!”
“Where’d you get a wolf pup?”
“I know someone who knows a woman,” the girl said, placing her hand gently around the pup’s muzzle. “And she knows a woman who raises them. I’ll trade for your jacket if you want him.”
The waves broke like distant cannon fire, and an old song scratched at the back of Hermod’s memory. Something about a woman who raised wolves. But was it a woman? Maybe it was a witch or a giant. He’d never had much of a head for music, and there were so many songs and chants and poems and incantations crowding his collected years that he could hardly hear an old bit of skaldic verse without it devolving into “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B.”
There lives a woman, there lives a woman who raises the wolves . . .
The wolf pup squirmed in the girl’s arms, and she struggled to maintain her grip. “Hey, what’s with you, fuzzy bean?” Losing her hold, she dropped it onto the sand, and it scampered off on its big clumsy paws. “Where are you going?” she cried, taking off
after it. “I wasn’t really going to trade you! Come back!”
Hermod stared after them for a few moments, until Winston trotted out of the murk to his side. Red sticky bits of gull feathers stuck to the malamute’s jaw.
“Let’s get off the beach,” Hermod said to the dog. “You’re giving me the creeps.”
YOU EVER get an earworm?” Hermod started on his eighth beer, very much feeling the previous seven. His alcohol intolerance had always been a point of embarrassment back home, where his brothers and cousins could put down barrel after barrel of ale. They might vomit it all back up before sunrise, but the point was, they could down barrels of it first.
“An earworm? What’s that, some kind of parasite?”
For the past hour he’d been enjoying relative comfort at the bar of the Venice Sidewalk Café, conveniently located mere yards from the beach. An open restaurant on the boardwalk was a rare find, most of the food stands and cafés having shuttered themselves against weather and vandalism. His companion was a woman in her early forties with hair the color of a highly polished trombone; he remembered she was
named Roxie, or Trixie, or Linda. He liked her because she had a cute button nose and was willing to buy him more beers than he could handle (which appeared to be four), and he was hoping she’d take enough of a shine to him to invite him home, or at least buy him a second plate of chili fries.
“It’s like a song you can’t get out of your head,” he said. “It just plays over and over and over ’til you want to jam a spoon in your ear and scoop your brains out.”
Roxie or Trixie or Linda nodded. “Yeah, I get those. One time it was the first movement of Stravinsky’s Symphony in C, for, like, two days. Thought I was gonna go bugfuck.”
Hermod took a sip of his thin yellow beer. “So, you live near here?”
“I have to say, though, I still adore Stravinsky,” she said, ignoring his question. “Those orchestral textures of his–nothing else like them. It’s just that nobody likes a skipping record. When you know what’s coming next, and then it does, again and again and again, it’s painful.”
Hermod drew his finger across the rim of the plate, picking up chili residue, and licked it. “Painful.”
“What’s your earworm?”
“There lives a woman,” he sang tunelessly. “There lives a woman who raises the wolves. You recognize it?”
She sipped her own beer. It was only her second. “Not the way you’re singing it.” She gave his arm a playful punch, then rubbed his shoulder, as if to make the boo-boo go away. “You’re not as skinny as you look,” she said, giving him an appreciative reappraisal.
“I’m not as anything as I look.”
“Ooh, Mr. Mysterious. Where did you say you were from?”
“Originally? Just on the other side of the bridge.”
“Okay. And which bridge would that be?”
“The rainbow one.”
The woman giggled. “You’re so weird.”
“It’s just the beer. That, and this stupid song going through my head.”
The woman flagged the bartender and held up two fingers. “My daddy always said the worst hell is inside a man’s head.”
“Oh, Hel’s probably not what you’d expect,” Hermod said. “At least not until you actually meet her.”
“Of course,” the woman sighed. “Hell is a woman, and you were married to her.”
Hermod gratefully took the fresh mug of beer the bartender put in front of him, drained a fourth of it, and wiped away a foam mustache. “Hel’s not married. You go north and down, for nine days and nine nights, into the sunless lands, through chasms with walls so high you can’t see the top. You come to the freezing river. Beyond that is the corpse gate. It’s a wall formed of corpses intertwined, arms and legs all tangled. They’ll speak to you, and they’ll want to touch you, because you’re warm. Beyond the gate is the entrance to Helheim itself, and it’s guarded by the hound Garm, huge and emaciated and terrible. And then Hel, queen of the deadlands: Half of her is pure flesh, soft and rosy as the most beautiful virgin’s. And the other half is black like a rotten banana peel. I once asked her if I could take two of my brothers back home to the living worlds with me. She said I could take just Baldr, but I insisted on bringing Höd back with me too. I figured that was only fair. She wouldn’t go for that, and then everything got really screwed up.”
The woman looked at her watch and signaled the bartender again, and Hermod paid little attention to her as she settled the tab, because the song in his head wouldn’t leave him alone.
“Thanks, Linda,” he said, as she got up and put on her jacket. “Sorry if I creeped you out there.”
There lives a woman. There lives a woman in Ironwood. There lives a woman in Ironwood who raises the wolves of Fenrir’s kin, and one will grow to eat the sun and the moon.
Hermod raised his glass to finish his beer. Instead, he set it down and stared into the rising bubbles.
A raven hooked its claws over the seat Hermod’s lunch companion had vacated. “Would you like to know how many women you’ve struck out with over the course of your life?”
“Tell your brother to fly off while he still has wings,” Hermod said to Hugin, who was perched atop a beer-tap handle.
“The girl on the beach had a wolf pup, and you let her go.” Hugin’s weight pulled down on the beer tap, dribbling Bud Lite.
“It doesn’t have anything to do with me,” Hermod said. “I’m just a pedestrian in this world.”
“I’d say you’re running out of sidewalk.”
“Me and everyone else.” Hermod finished his beer and rose, glancing at the raven’s shiny black eyes to find his own reflection staring back at him.
“There’s a seam to Ironwood nearby,” Hugin said.”There are more wolves. Maybe you should follow the sidewalk there.”
“I don’t see why I should, really.”
“Because you want to keep on walking. You like walking, don’t you?”
“Hey!” The bartender rushed over, snapping his bar towel at the ravens. “Frickin’ crows, Jesus! Shoo!”
The ravens flapped away out the open door, and once they were gone, the bartender gave Hermod a dirty look, as if he’d brought them in with him. He glared at Hermod’s empty glass and empty plate and opened his mouth, but Hermod forestalled him.
“Don’t worry, I’m on my way.”
Outside, he retrieved Winston and strode off at a good pace. Hermod really did like walking. It helped take his mind off things. Such as the ravens, whom he hadn’t seen in centuries. Of course, just because he hadn’t seen them didn’t mean that they hadn’t
“Just keep walking,” he muttered. “Doesn’t matter. None of it matters. It’s got nothing to do with me. I’m a pedestrian.” And for a while he managed to lose himself in the rhythm of his footfalls. This is what he was good at. He’d successfully let entire decades pass this way. Centuries, even.
Rounding a corner onto Venice Boulevard, he caught a faint whiff of hot pepper in the air. Winston growled irritably. At a strip mall, a pair of workers were replacing the front window of a laundromat. From the glass shards and the remnants of riot control
gas, Hermod figured there’d been some action here recently. Random acts of stupidity were becoming even more common as the months passed and winter refused to release its grip. And as bad as things were in Southern California, other parts of the planet were taking worse punishment. People blamed the freak weather on the cascade effects of global warming and retreating glaciers, and who was to say they were wrong? Hermod had experienced many long winters. Even ice ages. Just because things were cold in California and everywhere else didn’t necessarily mean it was Fimbul-Winter.
Hermod spotted a plywood sign across the street, wired to an ivy-choked chain-link fence: Ironwood Nursery.
He wondered how the people who lived around here experienced this place. Maybe to them it was just where they purchased their begonias. But some places looked different, depending on the angle from which you encountered them. Hermod spent a lot of time within these strange angles. It was the only way to approach the seams between worlds.
“You stay put,” he said to Winston, reaching down to scratch behind the dog’s ears. “Find yourself a nice, plump squab to munch, if you want. But you don’t cross the street after me, understand? And if I’m not back in an hour, you’re on your own.”
Winston whined and rubbed his muzzle against Hermod’s pant leg. About a year ago, Hermod had picked him up in Churchill, Manitoba, the last survivor of his litter. They got along pretty well. Winston was a good traveling companion; he didn’t ask questions.
Jaywalking across Venice Boulevard, Hermod checked the zipper of his duffel bag to make sure it wasn’t stuck. It would be just his luck to die of a snagged zipper. Death was inevitable, but there was no sense in dying stupidly. Rusty hinges screeched as he pushed open the gate and entered the cover of the nursery. Marking the way toward a tangle of bushes, barren ornamental orange trees flanked a narrow path of cracked concrete paving stones. A handscrawled cardboard sign indicated the daily price
increases on vegetable seeds. Withered potted plants raised on wooden pallets showed more evidence oft he cruel weather. A few people went about their business here–a silver-haired Japanese man arranging bonsai trees and a boy setting rattraps by a palm
tree–but otherwise the nursery felt abandoned. Hermod continued on through cottony fog.
Something called him off the path–instinct, or a spell, or a doom–and he stomped through ivy, whistling “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” When the sour tinge of urine touched his nose, he again checked the zipper of his duffel.
He came upon a peach-colored metal Quonset hut edged with rust, like a flower past its bloom. Vines crawled up the sides and arched over the top, studded with yellow flowers and white fungal colonies and fly-specked spiderwebs. It was an entire ecosystem, an entire world.
From the duffel, he removed a bundle of stolen motel-room towels and unwrapped his sword. Its double-edged blade was scratched and stained, but he reckoned it would still do its job. He didn’t require emerald-inlaid runes or curlicues, he just needed something that wouldn’t shatter against swung steel and was sharp enough to bite through flesh and bone.
He wrenched open the door of the Quonset and took a step inside. The entrance behind him vanished in the gloom, as he’d expected. He coughed and batted at clouds of tiny flies with his sword, the reek of long-confined piss hanging in the steamy air. Sounds came out of the darkness. Snuffling. Mewling. Hermod lowered to a crouch as blotchy darkness gradually resolved into shapes, then into details.
In the center of the hut sat a giant, with a round spongy head like a mushroom and two dark little eyes, filmed over like those of an old fish. An irregular welt of a nose spread across her face, and, below that, thin, wet lips formed a ventlike mouth. Her flesh
gleamed, clammy as wet clay.
Hermod counted five wolf pups clutched to her chest, suckling on floppy teats as long as his fingers. The pups pawed and nipped at one another to gain better access, and the giant stroked their coats of white and gray.
“Is it true what they say about a mother guarding her children?” Hermod said.
“Do you plan to earn fame that way, lesser son of Odin?” Her soft voice gurgled. “Oh, the songs they’ll sing about you: Hermod the Nimble, mighty slayer of nursing mothers.” She pressed the head of her smallest pup tight against a teat.
“I’m not here for that,” Hermod said. Sweat trickled down the back of his neck. “I’d just like to talk.”
“A visit to enjoy the warmth of my hospitality? I don’t think so, when you barge into my mound, uninvited, sword in hand. So much for the vaunted manners of your tribe. No, the Aesir are cunning, and their city is built on a foundation of murder, and they offer the hand of fellowship only to their own. So why should I offer you mine?”
In truth, Hermod couldn’t supply her with a reason. His kind had made war against giants and trolls since the earliest days. The Aesir had taken slaughter and made it a sport. Thor’s hall was decorated with the mounted heads of this giantess’s kin.
“If I had a hall in which to host you,” Hermod said, “I’d offer you a seat by my fire.”
“That is an empty offer.”
“Yes. I’m afraid so.”
Scratching sounds came from the matted roots at Hermod’s back. His skin itched, but he wouldn’t step away from the wall, wanting as much distance between him and the giant as possible.
The giant nuzzled her misshapen nose into the furry brows of her pups. “They say that when you returned from Helheim, having failed in the only significant task ever set before you, you left Asgard. You’ve never returned?”
“I’ve been traveling.” He’d packed a sack with his pipe, a tankard, and a spare shirt, and though he’d lost all three many years ago, he’d never returned to his city. It wasn’t home anymore.
“You must have seen much, given the length of your absence.”
“Oh, you have no idea. And just when I think I’ve seen everything . . . This morning, for instance. There was a girl on the beach. She offered to sell me a wolf pup.”
The giant’s dark eyes narrowed to slits. “Are you saying I would allow my own babies to be sold, like pets?”
“Oh, I know they’re not pets.”
She sniffed, making a sound like a vacuum cleaner clogged with Jell-O. “If that’s the most remarkable thing you’ve seen, you’re touring the wrong places.”
“Well, you know, the girl got me thinking,” Hermod said. “She reminded me of an old song. I guess you wouldn’t really call it a song. It was more like a prophecy. It was about a woman who raises wolves.”
The giant shifted a little on her haunches. Muscles the size of basketballs bunched in her thighs. She hadn’t seemed that big before. “Your kind are always making a villain of wolves. Another distasteful trait you share with men.”
Hermod waved a fly from his mouth. “In the song, they’re not actual wolves. They’re other things, shaped like wolves, of a line belonging to Fenrir. You know of Fenrir, right? The great wolf son of Loki? There’s a song about him, too, how at the end of days he devours Odin.”
The giant did something that might have been a smile. Several hundred teeth lined her mouth, like pebbles. “I haven’t heard that one, but I like it.”
“Anyway, so this song I remembered this morning, it goes: There lives a woman in Ironwood, who raises the wolves of Fenrir’s kin, and one will grow to swallow the sun and moon. So, the girl, the pup, the song, a path that leads to Ironwood, and here you are. You and your wolf-thing pups. I suppose it’s all a coincidence.”
“And if it’s not, what is it to you? Some songs are sung not of a voice but of a truth that grows from the very soil of the World Tree. Some songs are older than us. Older than your All-Father, the gallows god himself. You were there when the Ragnarok doom was sung and your brother fell in blood. It was foreseen. It was prophesied. How you mighty Aesir must have quailed and wept to see the first hour of the end of the world struck. And yet you yourself journeyed to Helheim, and on your knees you begged before the queen for a reversal of fortune. Did it work? Did it set everything to rights? Hermod, little messenger, find the wisdom to see that the song will be sung, bray and flail as you might, and it will be sung to its very last note.”
“Thank you,” Hermod said, raising his sword. “That’s all I needed to know.” He charged and swung for a pup’s head–any of the pups would do for the first blow–but the giant turned to protect them, and his blade bit instead into her shoulder. She threw back her head and roared. Twigs and clumps of dirt shook loose from the ceiling and clouded the air with filth. With the fury of an avalanche, she sprang forward, covering the distance between herself and Hermod in a single earthshaking step.
If there had been somewhere to run, he surely would have, but with no room at his back and the giant blocking any escape before him, he set himself into a stable stance and thrust his sword forward. The blade sliced neatly between two of her ribs, and she staggered backward, yanking the sword from his grip. Hissing in pain, she withdrew it like a splinter, inspected the blood-slicked steel, and then bent the blade across her leg until it shattered with a terrible glassy peal.
The giant hunched her shoulders and faced Hermod, panting a dank wind. “I take it you’ve really never slain a giant before?”
“You were going to be my first.”
“You have to put more muscle behind a blow like that. That’s why Thor was so good at giant-killing. He had the arms to swing that hammer of his. And he usually went right for the head, just dashed our brains out. Flesh wounds with us count for little.”
“If only I had another sword.” Not for the first time, it occurred to Hermod that many of his relatives knew how they were going to die. Odin in Fenrir’s jaws, Thor poisoned by the Midgard serpent, Frey killed by the fire giant Surt. There was no verse about Hermod’s own end. Usually he considered this a great blessing. But there were advantages to knowing how things would catch up with you in the end: For every other menace you encountered, you knew you’d get out with your skin intact.
Hermod sprang forward and dove to the ground, rolling and reaching for the largest of the shards of his sword, about the size of a butcher-knife blade. The edge cut into his palm, a new addition to his lifetime collection of wounds. Using the giant’s own knee for a foothold, he vaulted up and thrust the shard into her eye, smacking it home with the heel of his hand. The giant struck him on the side of his head, and Hermod crumpled to the ground.
The mound held still for a moment. Then the giant sat down slowly. “My babies,” she said, only the last inch of the sword shard emerging from her eye socket. The pups returned to her, climbing up her body, sucking the very last milk she had to give them,
even for a few moments after she’d died.
Climbing down, they approached Hermod, too much like puppies. But then they yawned, their maws growing wider and wider. Hermod pitched forward, and eventually all he could see was a gaping black chasm, and he was falling into it.
During his struggle with the giant, the roof of the mound had collapsed. It had been daylight when he’d entered, but now it was night. The moon shone yellow and fat, and the pups stretched their jaws yet wider and reached for it.
HERMOD GROANED and opened his eyes to see an elongated muzzle and sharp yellow teeth inches from his face. He scrambled away in a panic, his hand grasping for his sword but finding only mud.
Winston barked, and Hermod let out a gulping breath of relief. “Good boy,” he croaked. Then the ground spun out from under him and he vomited.
He closed his eyes and made himself breathe. His head was frightfully painful to the touch, and his fingers came away bloody, but his skull seemed to be holding his brains inside. He fished a bandanna from his jacket and bandaged his sliced-open palm.
A few yards away, the Quonset hut lay in ruins, all crumpled metal tangled in vines. He was sure if he dug through the wreckage, down deep, he would find the giant’s corpse, but he was content to leave it there. Paw prints circled him in the mud.
Why hadn’t the wolves killed him? They’d seen him murder their mother, and once they’d opened their mouths, he’d been entirely at their mercy. But, then, the moon still shone, a pale disk struggling to push its light through the clouds. Maybe the pups
weren’t quite up to sky-eating or god-slaying yet. The girl on the beach had said her wolf still had a lot of growing to do.
And Hermod had a lot of questions for that girl. Finding her should be a priority. Instead, he lay back in the mud. A giant had broken his sword and given him a concussion, and he deserved to lie in the mud and sleep.
Cursing, he forced himself to his feet. He thought he was going to vomit again but managed to hold it in, swaying on his legs. The wolf tracks led back to the paving stones, marking a muddy trail for a dozen or so yards. The trail blurred as the path led farther from the Quonset, away from the overhanging trees. It had probably rained while Hermod was unconscious. Beyond the gate, outside the nursery on Venice Boulevard, there was no trace of the pups at all.
“Well, boy,” he said to Winston, “once again it looks like I’ve taken a mess and made it a disaster.”
The malamute wagged his tail, which Hermod took as polite agreement.
Greg van Eekhout is a science fiction and fantasy writer with around two-dozen short story publications. His first novel, NORSE CODE, is due from Spectra in summer 2009. Greg currently lives in San Diego, where he obsesses about martial arts classes, coffee, Moleskine notebooks, and giant squid.