Pretty much a direct prologue to Liesmith, in that it deals with The Conspiracy that forms the main plot of that book.
Every month, or thereabouts, Sigyn takes the long trek out of Ásgarðr and into Járnviðr. She has always made this trip, at first alone, then, later, with her first son swaddled against her back, then skipping ahead of her on the road, then joined by his eager, red-haired brother.
The boys love this journey, and Sigyn is pleased for it. Less so for how they nag her all month to undertake it, even if their enthusiasm on the road never fails to lift her heart.
Today, Sigyn takes her sons to see their family.
The road is long. They set out just before dawn and do not make the outskirts of the forest until after dark. Sigyn’s sons, Váli and Nari, cling closer to her in this part. Sigyn has her axe and the forest has its monsters but, in truth, there will be no violence. Not today. Not for Sigyn.
The Járnviðr is a fearsome, primal place. Of darkness and towering trees and bright eyes that stare from within the shadows, attached to forms that scurry away whenever Sigyn’s eyes alight on their location. Still, she walks. Carrying her youngest, now, his head lolling in sleep against her shoulder, his hearts beating slow within his chest.
Ahead, through the twisted branches, Sigyn sees the dim glow of firelight.
“Mama,” her eldest says, tugging on her apron. “Mama, look.”
“Yes, my little flame,” Sigyn says. “We are nearly there.”
In the treetops, Sigyn hears a frightful wail. Scouts from the village who have noticed their approach. It wakes her youngest, who squirms in her embrace until she put him down. Then he and his brother are racing forward, laughing and shouting, vanishing into the dark. A moment later Sigyn hears them shriek, then a fearsome voice that booms, “Fresh meat! Ripe for the feasting!”
Sigyn smiles, and does not hurry. Not even when she hears footsteps approach along the road, nor when an enormous figure appears before her, arms outstretched.
Sigyn smiles, steps forward into the embrace. “Angra,” she says, feeling arms the size of tree trunks crush around her waist. “It is good to see you.”
Angrboða is a monstrous sight, even half-hidden in the gloom. A shaman of the íviðjur–the Witches of the Iron Wood–half as tall again as Sigyn and twice as broad. Angrboða has jötunn blood, of the Múspell clans, and it shows in her coal-dark skin and the mane of bright red feathers on her head. In her short and twisted horns. She is not a full-blood jötunn–such things are very rare, outside of the heart Jötunheimr, where no one ever goes–but she is close along the line.
Angrboða has Váli and Nari sitting on her shoulders, and she leads Sigyn into her village. Sigyn is no stranger here, and the other women greet her as she walks. There is a heaviness amongst them, though, and Sigyn feels the clenching in her gut.
“You must be hungry,” Angrboða says. “Come, we eat!”
They sit around the fire, where meat roasts upon a spit. The carcass is very large–much more-so than any boar or goat or auroch–the flavour something Sigyn has never tasted outside of jötunn lands.
“How many?” she asks.
Angrboða sighs, chewing her own meat with care. Across the fire, Sigyn watches a black-feathered woman cry as she devours a large heart.
“Three,” Angrboða says, swallowing and pressing her dark lips into a line.
The jötunn eat their dead. The æsir call them monsters for it, yet do all they can to ensure famine never comes.
Angrboða makes a disgusted sound. “It is wicked,” she says. “You know his mother, his grandfather. He has as much jötunsblóð in him as any here. He should fight with us, not slaughter his brothers and sisters in this endless, awful feast.”
“His father is Odin,” Sigyn says. “An Odinsson will never make peace with the jötnar.”
Angrboða spits out a curse. Then her face softens as she watches Sigyn’s boys tussle with a young íviðja girl beside the fire.
“Your boys still stubbornly refuse to show their feathers,” she says.
This is Odin’s work as well, Sigyn thinks. The glamours that curse Váli and Nari’s father into his frail æsir skin binds his boys to servitude also.
And so Sigyn brings them to the Járnviðr. Has them eat the flesh of fallen jötunn, has them learn the ways of their father’s people. One day, she hopes their skin will darken and their hair will turn to feather. That fangs may split their lips and claws curl from out their fingers. Sigyn hopes this in the way all mothers hope for greatness for their children. As she hopes that, one day, her boys will take proud íviðja wives, will sire many wild youngsters of their own.
One day. Not today.
Today, Sigyn sits about the fire and speaks with Angrboða of many things. Of the trials of the Járnviðr, of the foolishness of æsir. Later, she will retire to a bed of furs and feather within Angrboða’s home. Bellies full of fallen kin, her sons will fall asleep quickly in Sigyn’s arms. She will hear Angrboða’s snores from just beyond, and finally will Sigyn allow her thoughts to drift to the one who is not with them. She will dream of warm and dark-skinned arms that wind around her waist. Of sharp teeth that bite against her throat and a hot tongue that soothes the marks.
She will dream of waking to the same, of spending days and weeks and months and years within the forest, dancing a mad dance made for two. Of watching her two boys grow into their hides and claws. Of standing proud beside their father as they come back from hunts drenched in æsir blood.
These are the dreams that Sigyn dreams only on these nights, far from Asgard’s ill-won wall. She tells no one of them when she wakes.
Instead, in the morning, she sends the boys off to run riot in the village while she helps Angrboða pack a wagon. A huge thing, laden down with stinking half-rotten meat, pulled by two huge aurochs that stamp and bellow beneath the weight.
They set off early, towards the south.
“We should bring your boys next time,” Angrboða says. “I think they are of age.”
Sigyn nods, and vows to do so. The boys love playing in the Járnviðr, but Sigyn thinks this trip is important for them, also.
They walk for many miles, Angrboða’s large steps sure as she drives the aurochs down the well-worn trail. Birds call from the trees above and wolves howl within the forest, and Sigyn’s step and heart are light. So is the conversation that she makes with the one she calls blood-sister, an oath they swore many years ago. Angrboða is large and brash and joyous, revels in blood and darkness, and Sigyn loves her. They cannot spend as much time with each other as they would both like–in truth, as asynjur, Sigyn should perhaps not spend time with the jötnar at all–and so they each treasure the small hours that they get.
After they have walked most of the morning, the trees begin to thin. Replaced by rocks and meadow and the sound of waves crashing somewhere up ahead. They are heading towards an ocean cliff, one they have stood upon many times before. Today, when they reach it, they stop the cart and Angrboða pulls drums from a bag. Sigyn clutches a small flute. On the edge of the cliff, they each begin to play, pounding and weaving the same haunted dirge they have made so many times before.
Beneath them, the sea begins to boil.
Still they play, as the waves grow higher and gain fury, some awful storm that stirs beneath. Sigyn hears a rumble, the bellow of the ocean, and it is all the warning she does get before a head the size of the rocks they stand upon rears out of the sea.
Still they play.
This beast is Jörmungandr, and though it be large enough to ring the world–though it reeks of every dead thing beneath the waves–it will not harm them.
It is Angrboða’s child. Sigyn’s husband is its father and that, by her reckoning, makes her its step-mother. She has loved it like her own since first she learnt of its existence, now ventures forth to bring it what succour she can in its lonely exile.
Sigyn plays until her lungs ache and her fingers bleed, head swimming with the sea and with the trance of Angrboða’s drums. Before them, Jörmungandr has closed its many eyes–the largest the size of pools in which Sigyn could bathe with comfort–and laid its head to rest upon the rock before them. Sigyn watches strange things from deep within the sea scurry across its scales, or fall to the grass in their mad dash back to the water.
Still she plays. Her thin flute now accompanied too by the strange rumbling wail of Jörmungandr’s song, a sound made somewhere deep within its throat. It sings with them of the cold and lonely ocean, of the endless ring around the world, and in turn they lull it into slumber with a mother’s love.
When they can play no more–when exhaustion will bring no air to Sigyn’s lips, when Angrboða’s arms will no longer beat–they fall to silence. Jörmungandr does not move, though its eyes roll open to watch them as they pull out bread and meat and ale and rest and take their lunch.
“I do not envy you the birth,” Sigyn says when he breath returns, grinning up at her enormous step-child.
Angrboða gives a deep and heartfelt chuckle. “Ah! Save that sympathy for your husband, the Serpent was birthed from his loins.” She leans in, gives a conspiratorial smirk, “Though it was much smaller, then.”
Sigyn tries to imagine the great Midgard Serpent as a tiny, squirming babe. The beast in question huffs, rolls its great eyes to look anywhere but at its mothers.
They finish lunch. When they are done, they rise and kiss Jörmungandr’s briny scales, promising they will return as soon as they are able. It rears its head and watches as they leave, sinking back into the ocean only when they have disappeared into the trees once more.
This time, they find a river, and follow along its bank. Eager otters watch them as they pass, and Sigyn feels the life of the forest swarm all around.
There are times, she thinks, she resents her husband’s insistence they remain in Ásgarðr.
Eventually, the river widens into something like a lake. There is an island in the middle, joined to the bank by an old, ill-tended bridge. Sigyn and Angrboða drive the cart with care across the rotting timbres, into the grassy wide expanse between the waters. Bright red eyes watch their passage.
There is a beast kept prisoner here, another child. Fenrisúlfr, Angrboða’s second. He is called “wolf” only because the æsir are ignorant brutes who do not, Sigyn thinks, know a proud jötunn when they see one. Fenrir’s feathers are glossy black, and cover him head to toe, his dark horns jutting straight like ears from atop his skull.
He is bound upon this isle by an enchanted fetter, Gleipnir, placed upon him by the petty, fearful hands of Odin’s kin. A sword was placed in his mouth, also. Upright so that it pierced him should he ever think to shut his handsome jaw. The sword lies discarded now, Angrboða having crept in of a night and pulled it free. She wove it with bright enchantments, such that if her son were to grasp it in his mouth, it would look like it cursed him still.
A mother’s gift. But not even Angrboða’s magics could free her son from his prison.
“Mothers,” Fenrir growls as they approach.
“Oh, my handsome son!” Angrboða races forth, embraces her child about his huge and feathered snout. Sigyn joins her soon after, stroking hands across her step-son as he shuts his eyes and whines his pleasure at their kind attentions.
Sigyn embraces him but briefly, before returning to the cart. There, she begins to unload the carcasses from it, ensuring they are left within Fenrir’s imprisoned reach. He falls upon one as she does, tearing flesh from bone in his mad hunger. Angrboða leaves him, then, and joins Sigyn with the unloading. It is heavy work. First hauling stinking meat, then cleaning up the cracked bones and remains of the last time they were here. While Sigyn attends that, Angrboða unhitches the cart, then slaughters the aurochs that have dragged it all this way. She leaves these corpses, too, within reach of her ravenous child.
When she is done, Sigyn fetches another thing. It is a cloak, plain grey wool she has had her valkyrja friends steal from the laundry of the Allfather himself.
When she brings it to Fenrir, he stops his feasting long enough to taste the scent.
“This is him?”
“Yes,” Sigyn says.
“And father?” Fenrir asks. “Father is still held hostage?”
“Yes.” Sigyn feels iron in her gut as she says the word.
“Then I will chase him,” Fenrir swears. “When I am freed, I will chase father’s captor through every Realm. The is nowhere he may hide. And when he is caught, I will eat him whole. Then father will be free.”
“Thank you,” Sigyn says, hand across her heart to stop the ache. “You are a loyal son, and your mothers thank you.”
Afterwards, Sigyn and Angrboða unload the final things from out the cart. Cleaning the wounds that grow beneath Gelipnir’s unforgiving bite. They pad and bandage, giving their son what comfort they can in his cruel bondage.
When that task is done, they sit beside him, telling tales of the places he cannot go. He rumbles laughter and shares what few stories he has in turn, of birds and deer, fish and otters. Sigyn and Angrboða laugh, and praise him for his cunning words, and inside their hearts break to think this is the fate reserved for such a bright and clever mind.
They stay with him until dusk. Sigyn wishes it could be longer, always—wishes they did not have to do this at all—but there is one final place that they must reach.
This time, when they set off, they leave the cart. They need no more things were they are going, travelling further up the river, searching for its source.
The road winds down. Impossibly so, water streaming upwards along the rock. The trees thin, then the brush and grass. Birds no longer call from overhead, replaced by a cold and silent mist. Grey shale crunches under Sigyn’s feet, and the sunken eyes of corpses watch in silence as they pass.
Slowly, the ground begins to rise once more, a thin and ill-trodden trail that rises up a mountain of rock and bone. Up ahead, there lies a cave, and as Sigyn and Angrboða approach it, they hear the clink of iron and a great and rumbling growl.
“Peace, friend Garmr,” Angrboða says. “It is only us.”
The darkness shifts, and a great beast emerges from it. Similar in shape and size to Fenrir, and shackled also: an iron chain about its neck, bolted inside the cave.
“Queen mothers,” Garmr growls. “Welcome.” And it lays its belly on the ground.
They bow in return and take steps forward along the path. As they do, they hear, “Wait, honoured mothers, for but a moment.”
When they turn, Garmr is looking up at them. All bright red eyes and blood-soaked feather.
“Have you seen Fenrir?” it asks. “Is he—?”
“Well,” Sigyn says. “As much as he can be while still chained.”
Garmr shakes itself such that its own chain rattles. “Thank you, honoured mothers,” it says, satisfied with their answer. “Our Lady awaits you. I will not keep you longer.” And it slinks back into its cave.
Sigyn and Angrboða continue their walk.
Beyond the cave, the path makes a hairpin turn. Just beyond that, an enormous wall rises into view. Made of gold and bone, of every one of the riches of the grave. There is a gate in the wall, and it stands open, just a fraction. Just enough for Sigyn and Angrboða to pass through, surrounded by the grey-skinned walking corpses of the dead.
The dead who bow, who show reverence for their guests, here in the grey halls of the dead where the living rarely walk.
Men fear death. Weak men who play at war, who will sing praise to blood and battle, yet who will shun childbeds and sickbeds both. Who pretend death is glory, that it is the crucible of heroes.
Sigyn thinks these to be the words of those who wish others to die on their behalf. But she has walked Hel’s hollow halls, has ridden with the valkyrjur into battle, has shared the jötnar’s awful feast. Death is death, nothing more or less. An endless maw that devours slave and king alike. That will, one day, devour the very gods themselves.
Sigyn knows this. Knows that, one day, they will all walk these bone-carved halls. Sigyn would have her seat be one of honour when she arrives.
Éljúðnir looms ahead, Hel’s endless towering hall. As they draw closer to it, more dead appear along the road. These ones are honour guards, dressed in finest grave-goods, weapons raised in fealty. Another figure comes to stand on Éljúðnir’s steps. Small and slight, draped in dark robes cut such that only some skin is exposed.
This skin is black and dead, mere leather stretched across thin bone.
This is Hel, and here she rules.
This fact does not, however, stop Hel’s mother from surging forth, from pulling Hel’s slight frame into a strong embrace.
“Mother,” Hel says, skeletal fingers winding through Angrboða’s feathers. Hel’s head turns towards Sigyn. “Step-mother.”
“Hel. It is good to see you.”
Hel has no eyes that Sigyn can see. The top half of Hel’s face is veiled, as is all her living flesh. The living who cast her out, who Hel disavows in this one small way. But, living or not, Hel does not forget her family.
Hel gives them hospitality in her hall, a great feast of dust and ash. They make gossip as they dine, sharing news of other realms, of the trials of the forest, of Hel’s siblings and half-siblings.
And of Hel’s foolish, ill-fated father.
Hel does not laugh at these stores, and her mouth has not lips to grin. Yet Sigyn knows she enjoys them, that they do some small thing to calm the terrible ache she feels that he cannot see her. Not while Odin yet sits on Ásgarðr’s throne.
But one day, Sigyn knows, even the gods will wash up on Náströnd’s corpse-lined shores. On that day, Sigyn knows change will come to all the Realms.
They stay feasting through the night, until Sigyn feels the weight of sleep pull heavy on her shoulders. They cannot rest here, in this place of death, and so Hel summons for them a great winged beast to take them home. This is one of the drekar, a child of Níðhöggr who gnaws the roots of Yggdrasill itself.
Angrboða climbs into its feathers and Sigyn prepares herself to do the same when she feels a bony hand upon her arm. When she turns, Hel is standing close.
“Step-mother,” Hel says. “The time of the first signs of Ragnarøkkr draw near.”
Sigyn cannot deny the anticipation that flutters in her heart, nor hide the grin that split her lips. Yet when Hel sees it, her fingers tighten.
“You must be cautious, mother,” Hel continues, and Sigyn hears pain and sorrow in her whispered voice. “As we move, so does Skollvaldr, and he traps father in his plots.”
Hel is no völva, no seeress, but many of her subjects are. And so are there many secrets she does not tell.
Sigyn feels ice within her gut and iron in her heart. “I will not allow this,” she says.
“You will have no power to stop it,” Hel says. “And things—” she forces herself to stop, teeth clicking hard together as she does. Then they part once more to add, “When the time comes, mother, you must make the most awful of choices. Know that, when you do, Hel stands behind you. And she will not see you fail.”
Once, long ago, when Sigyn was a little girl, she dreamt of different lands. Of adventure. Now, her boots are caked in the mud of all the realms, and every journey ends in death.
“I understand,” she says, embracing Hel’s thin frame. “Thank you.”
“Perhaps,” Hel says.
Sigyn climbs onto the drekar, and flies back to Járnviðr.
There, her boys race out to greet her, and to marvel at the beast that brought her home. It lies docile upon the forest floor as they climb over its back and swing between its horns, and Sigyn sits with Angrboða by the fire as they watch, together beneath a single blanket. Angrboða is warm, and she is alive, and Sigyn lays her head upon strong arms and feels sleep crawl into her bones.
She does not speak. She thinks that, if she did, it would be only to utter such foolish words as would keep her here eternal. Would see her abandon her small and ill-made home in Ásgarðr, would run forever through the Járnviðr, íviðjur howling at her heels.
That night, they sleep beneath the stars.
Sigyn does not dream.
When light filters through the leaves once more, when she blinks her eyes awake, it is to find the fire burning low before her. To hear the loud rumbling of Angrboða’s snores beneath her head, to feel the soft rise and fall of her sons’ breathing as they curl against her sides.
Later, after a small meal of bread and milk, they head for home.
It is a long walk, and Sigyn feels a weight settle in her heart to make it. Even her boys boys must sense her mood, for they do not pester her for stories of their siblings as they often do. Instead, they slide their small hands into hers and huddle close as the crumbling unfinished edge of Ásgarðr’s wall rises before them.
(And another step-son that Sigyn cannot free from bondage. Not yet.)
Their home is not far beyond. As they approach it, Sigyn sees smoke rising from the upper widows, and her heart begins to race.
When she opens the small door, poison green eyes watch her enter.
“Papa! Papa you came!” Váli and Nari fly forward, voices raised as one.
As they do, their father bends to greet them, opening his arms and gathering his sons against his chest.
Sigyn watches, not approaching. Taking but a moment to see her family as she always would, were she to have her way: her bright sons filled with laughter, her bitter husband’s face soft and kind and carefree. This time, she knows it will not last. One day, she swears it will.
She moves forwards. As she does, Loki rises.
“We did not expect you home,” Sigyn says.
“I cannot stay for long.”
“No,” Sigyn says. “You never can.”
The words are not meant to be cruel, and yet Loki thins crooked lips and looks away as if he has been slapped. “Sigga…” he says.
But Sigyn does not wish this fight. Not today. Instead she says, “We have been to Járnviðr. To see Angrboða and the others.” She runs her fingers across her husband’s dark-skinned cheek. He leans into her touch, eyes closed and lips parted, hands still clutched within his sons’.
“Angra,” Loki breathes, and there is longing in his voice and such an ache within his heart as it would split the very earth in two. When his eyes snap open, they are very round and very bright. “Tell me,” he says. “Tell me everything.”
Sigyn feels Nari’s hand wind about her skirts, feels him gently—oh so very gently—try and tug his parents closer. He would have this always also, Sigyn thinks.
“Of course, husband,” Sigyn says, kissing Loki’s too-warm cheek. “Stay with us and I will tell you of the forest, of your lover and her sisters, of your children.”
“Of my wife,” Loki adds, mischief glinting in his gaze. “I would know of Sigyn, also.”
“Of course,” Sigyn says, and does not lie. “I will tell you all.”
Loki will not leave until she is done.
But it will be much longer until he does not leave at all.