Jotun and Aesir
A cry in the unhuman uproar startled me. I whirled around. A horse and rider were charging along the edge of the cliff, coming from the south.
"Good Lord!" I gasped. "Must everything be like a dream?"
The rider of that charging black steed was a young woman, but like none I had ever seen before. She wore a winged metal helmet, beneath which her bright yellow hair streamed like flame in the wind. Blue eyes flared hatred out of a beautiful, angry face. Her dress was a gleaming brynja, or coat of ringed mail, over a kirtle. Her white knees were bare, gripping the saddle. As she urged her mount down upon me, a straight, light sword flashed in her hand.
"You dare spy upon Asgard, Jotun dog!" she cried fiercely in a language that was remarkably close to Norwegian. "Death for that!"
Then that high eyrie of great gray castles was Asgard, home of the legendary Aesir! And this wrathful Viking maid took me for a Jotun, one of the race who were mortal enemies of the Aesir! Was I dreaming all this, or had I actually stumbled somehow into the land of ancient Viking legend?
Then I woke to realization of my peril. As the woman's sword stabbed toward my breast, I ducked under it. I felt the blade scream above my head as her horse thundered past. Swiftly I reached up and grabbed her outstretched mail-clad arm. My hold tore her from the saddle.
The sword flew from her grasp as she fell. But she was up and darting toward it in a single motion. I leaped after her and caught her before she could reach the weapon. She fought like a tigress. The strength of her slender, mail-clad body was amazing. Her small fist struck my mouth furiously.
"Scum of Jotunheim!" she hissed. I finally succeeded in pinning her arms to her sides. Her white face, inches away from my own, was blazing with rage, her sea-blue eyes stormy in wild anger. She was beautiful, with a vibrant loveliness like that of a tempest. Her helmeted, golden head came only to my chin, but her blue eyes glared into mine without a trace of fear.
"You'll dangle from the walls of Asgard for daring to lay hands on me, Jotun!" she snapped.
She spoke a strangely antique form of the Norwegian tongue. I answered in the Norwegian I knew.
"Why did you try to kill me?" I asked. "I'm not your enemy."
"You are a Jotun, an enemy to the Aesir," she declared. "You have the dark hair of a true Jotun dog, even though you have chosen to dress in outlandish garments. And you dared spy on Asgard!"
In the old legends, I remembered, the mighty Aesir had been fair-haired. Their mortal enemies, the Jotuns, had been dark-haired.
"I am no Jotun," I said earnestly. "I have but newly come to this land, from far across the outer ice."
She laughed scornfully. "Do you think I believe that you have come from beyond frozen Niffleheim? Your lie is not even clever. Why do you delay in killing me? Death is preferable to your touch, Jotun. And the death of Freya will soon be avenged."
"Freya?" I gasped.
This woman was Freya, whom the old Vikings had worshipped — Freya of the white hands, loveliest of the Aesir? It was impossible! She was real, warm, panting with hate as she sought to free herself. Yet she had spoken of Asgard. That distant eyrie of gray castle was Asgard, just as the legends had described it, even to the flying rainbow bridge that connected it with the mainland.
"I can't understand, Freya," I faltered, still holding her. "My name is Keith Masters. I came from beyond the ice — Niffleheim, as you call it."
For a moment, doubt softened her stony blue eyes. Then she looked past me, and they became bitter and hate-filled again.
"You need lie no longer. Here are your Jotun comrades now, come to help you."
I turned, appalled. Eight men were approaching stealthily, after tethering their horses at the edge of the forest. They were taller even than I. Their hair was black as mine, and hung down in shaggy locks from under cap-like metal helmets. They wore armor tunics of overlapping metal scales, and high buskins on their feet, and carried swords and shields. Their faces were black-bearded, brutal.
"He is the man — kill him!" a brawny man bellowed, pointing to me with his sword.
They rushed forward. Freya's sword lay near my feet. I released the woman and snatched up the weapon. As I faced the Jotuns, I glimpsed Freya staring in wonder from me to the charging barbarians. I heard their captain shouting orders.
"Strike them both down. Be sure the man does not escape!"
They came at me in a bunch. The light, straight sword in my hand flashed out viciously. I was a fair hand with a saber, for it was a sport I had practiced in university days. Except for its straightness, this sword was like the blades I had used.
It bit through a Jotun throat, then swung in a slicing slash at his nearest comrade's neck. Both men crumpled, but the others came on. I knew I was done for. Real life isn't like the movies. One man just can't stand off six in a sword fight.
"We are at the edge of the cliff," Freya said calmly. "Another step backward and we fall."
"Take care not to push the man over the cliff," shouted the Jotun captain apprehensively. "We must not lose his body!"
Whatever its reason, their caution gave me a chance I would not have had otherwise. I stood up against their stabbing blades, fending off savage thrusts. But such a battle could not go on for long. Already my arm was tiring, and I was exhausted by all I had gone through.
"He weakens!" roared the Jotun captain. "Thrust home!"
At that moment I heard a thunder of approaching hoofs.
"Help comes!" Freya cried. "My kinsman and the Jarl Thor!"
The Jotun warriors stopped and swung around. A bellow of rage and terror went up from them. Two riders were charging toward us, from Asgard, followed by a hurrying troop. One was a helmeted, gold-haired man, whose handsome face was wild with anger. The other's red face and small eyes were blazing. His yellow beard bristling, he swung a huge hammer that to me seemed his only weapon.
"The Hammerer!" cried the Jotuns.
They bolted in frantic fear toward their horses. But they were too late. A terrible bull-roar of rage came from the bearded, bare-headed giant. His huge hammer smashed a Jotun's helmet and skull like cardboard. Without slackening his horse's stride, the gigantic Hammerer swung his awful weapon at another Jotun's head.
"It's the Jarl Thor and my kinsman Frey!" Freya stated coolly.
Thor, mightiest of the old gods of legend, strongest of Aesir? Frey, the mythical kinsman of Freya? I shrugged in defeated skepticism.
None of the fleeing Jotuns reached their horses. The lightninglike sword of Frey stabbed two as they ran, and the terrible hammer of bearded Thor smashed down the others. Then Thor and Frey wheeled their horses. The Hammerer uttered another roar of rage and spurred straight at me.
"Here's a Jotun dog we missed!"
Before I could move, his great hammer, bright-red with new blood, was already raised. I swayed drunkenly, exhausted, unable to defend myself from that terrible weapon.
"Wait!" Freya cried.
The hammer was checked in mid-air. No ordinary man could have halted its downward rush so effortlessly.
"Is he not one of the Jotun skrellings who attacked you?" rumbled Thor.
"He cannot be," Freya said. "For they tried even harder to kill him than me, and he fought valiantly against them."
Frey hurriedly dismounted. His handsome face was drawn with worry as he ran to the woman and caught her shoulders.
"You're not harmed, Freya?" he asked anxiously.
"No, by the help of this outlander," she said. "Jarl Keith is his name, and he says he came from beyond Niffleheim."
"It's true," I panted. "I came in that flying ship."
I pointed to the beach far below, where my rocket plane rested between boulders. They stared down at it.
"So you outlanders can build flying ships," Frey said wonderingly. "Your civilization must be far different from ours. Odin will wish to question this outlander. We'll take him to Asgard with us."
Odin, chief of the old Norse gods, king of the mythical Aesir? I shook my head and gave up the fight against disbelief.
"Very well," growled Thor reluctantly. "I still think he looks like a Jotun."
Frey brought me the horse of a dead Jotun. By now, the troop that had hurried after Frey and Thor reached us. They were all big, fair-haired men, armored in mail brynjas and helmets, obviously disappointed at missing the fight.
I mounted, unable to lose the dreamlike quality of the experiences. With the troop of horsemen following. I rode beside Freya, Thor and Frey. I heard the clatter of hoofs, the rumble of voices, felt the saddle beneath me, and the motion of the horse. But nothing seemed real. My body grasped the actuality, yet my tired, harried brain refused to accept it. My eyes were so puzzled and shot with blood that Freya looked at me sympathetically.
"You can rest in Asgard. Jarl Keith." she said. "And you have nothing to fear from my people."
"I do not fear," I answered thickly, "but my dazed mind makes me unhappy. Are you people really the old gods?"
"Gods," she repeated. "I do not understand you, Jarl Keith. There are no gods except the three Norns and their mother, Wyrd, the fates whom we worship."
I clenched my teeth and stared straight ahead. If they weren't the ancient Norse gods, why did they give themselves, their city, the lands around them, the names I had found in the legends? On the other hand, it couldn't be a fake, for they seemed genuinely bewildered by me and my questions. Naturally they might have been fairly recent immigrants to this weird blind spot, perhaps the tenth or fifteenth generation. In that case, they wouldn't be immortals, of course, and there would be a perfectly reasonable explanation for their names and those of their city and surroundings. But would recent colonists dare the vengeance of their gods by taking their names? I had to change that question when another thought struck me. Even if the colony were thousands of years old, there would still be some remembrance of the Aesir — the old gods! But these people worshiped the Norns and their mother, Wyrd, which meant they were not gods and did not regard the Aesir as supernatural beings!
Defeatedly I stopped thinking when we reached the rainbow bridge. Five hundred feet long, it consisted of brilliantly painted slabs of stone, laid across two huge arched beams of massive, silvery metal. Far beneath this giddy span, the green sea rolled between the promontory and the island, Asgard. My hair stood up in fright as we rode our horses up the arch. Their hoofs clattered on the stone, proving the solidity of the bridge. But I shrank from looking over either side, for there were no railings or low walls. But neither the Aesir nor their horses showed apprehension.
Bifrost Bridge hung in the sky like a rainbow frozen into stone. And I, Keith Masters, with Thor, Frey and Freya of the old Aesir, was riding across it into Asgard, the mythical city of the gods!