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He could just barely hear the weeping. In one corner of the room there was a row of strange little boxes built of massive stones and chunks of ice; the weeping came from within. The three children from the village were inside, blue-lipped and shivering. They stared at him, wordless.
One boy pointed across the room. There, a bloodstained table caught a shaft of light that came down through a crack in the boulder above. This in turn illuminated the long bones that lay there, blackened with chewed flesh. Also, there was something against the wall, a humanoid figure…Gest let out a gasp of recognition.
It was his brother Thrud, chained to the frozen wall, his flesh blackening at the edges. The older brother lifted his head slightly, then shuddered at Gest’s approach. “Don’t…my brother…” he croaked.
“What happened?” Gest whispered over the weeping of the children. There was something missing, some void he couldn’t quite place. Then he saw it. Thrud’s arm and one foot was missing. Frozen to the wall, his strong right arm, his good right arm, the mighty warrior’s weapon, was but a stump of flesh, wrapped in rags and frozen in ice.
Thrud blinked red eyes. “Got me…surprised. No chance.”
A voice came from the other side of the cave, a boy’s voice, muffled by ice and stone. “He eats us.”
Gest turned, almost against his will, aghast. There was the boy that loved giants, his face pale and blue-lipped. “What?”
“He eats us. The…man. The Beast, he calls himself. He keeps us here and eats us. He ate your brother’s arm.”
Gest shuddered again, staring from the stained bones on the table to the row of helpless, hopeless children. It would take tremendous strength to shift the stones and ice that held them there. “But why? Why do all this?”
The boy rubbed his blueish face. “He is mad. He lost his wits to a Veilstorm’s power.” The boy shuddered. “He asks us riddles. The Beast thinks it’s very funny. When you don’t know the answer, you’re next.” He turned pleading eyes on Gest. “Please get me out.”
“No…run…brother…” Thrud struggled and croaked a warning, but it was too late.
An enormous man burst into the cave from a hidden tunnel, booming with laughter. Gest spun to see a mass of white-blond hair and muscle bearing down on him. A pearly smile flashed as the man swatted Gest’s swordpoint aside effortlessly and thrust his bearlike face forward. “Greetings!”
The force of the big man’s charge threw Gest off his feet, and he tumbled painfully onto pebbles and chunks of ice. For a moment, Gest blinked down at his torso in surprise. His thick winter clothing was torn and ragged, as though clawed. Standing over him, the huge man laughed again, showering snow from this thick-haired head. “I am the Beast, boy. Soon, I will consume you. I will feast upon your flesh. You may entertain me, as these young ones have done.” He sucked on his teeth, as though relishing the feast to come.
On the wall, Thrud shook weakly. “No! Gest…run, do not…let him speak!”
“But…” For a moment, the younger brother glanced at his blade where it lay on a bit of smooth stone. The Beast had moved with incredible speed, and was strong beyond measure. Gest did not try to pick up the blade. “You crave amusement?“ he puffed heavily, “You are in luck, then. I am a storyteller and singer.” He licked his dry lips. So did the Beast, looming over him with a wicked grin. “And…I could amuse you, if you let them all go.”
“No!” Thrud shouted once more, shaking his bloody stumps.
“Let them go? Let them go? Are you mad, little man?”
Gest coughed, feeling the cold try to pierce him. He straightened. “Perhaps. But perhaps my madness could serve to entertain you, for a while.”
Shaking with laughter, the bulky man spun in a ponderous circle. “Yes, yes, I see. I see it now. We shall play the old game, the game on which life and death is wagered.”
Gest shook his head as if to clear it. The manic talk of the enormous bearlike man was difficult to follow. “The old game?”
“Yes!” The Beast grunted deep in his throat and fixed him with a blue eye. “I see what we will do. We will play the great game of riddles, now.”
Gest could only stare in surprise. This was turning out more like the old stories, after all.
“Do you know…riddles?” Without looking at him, the Beast turned away and sat by the bloodstained table in the middle of the freezing room, and swept away some of the stained bones. Puffing and blowing steam into the air, he continued, “I know all that I consume, I know them better than they ever knew themselves. So I know many secrets! Now I will gamble with you for your brother’s life, and perhaps the delicious little ones as well. Come, sit.”
Stepping over his sword in wonder, Gest walked to the bloodstained table. He stared at the huge man across the icy wood. Trying to keep his teeth from chattering, Gest rewrapped his torn coat over his torso. “Alright.”
The Beast took a deep breath, nodded his hairy head a few times, and began to chant rather than speak his riddle. “Heed me now. I want to have today what I had yesterday. It hampers men, hinders their words, yet speeds their speech.”
Gest blinked for a moment, trying to think past the cold that hurt his head and sent icy fingers through the rips in his clothing. His stomach churned, but it was play the game, now, or lose everything. “I know what you ate, or rather who…but that’s not it…”
The Beast’s tongue lolled out from between his white teeth as he leaned over the bloodstained table. His cruel nails scraped at the wood in eagerness. “Of all people, I think someone that reeks like you should be able to read me this riddle. I am disappointed, truly!”
Gest cleared his throat, trying to still his shaking. “I’m sure you’ve eaten much worse…Ah, I see. Mead! It hampers the wits, and many find their speech slowed. But others only find their tongues in their cups. Mead is the answer you look for, and you are right, I do smell of it, for my brother and I keep the mead-hall in the village.”
The Beast sighed, then leaned back. The light was shifting as more clouds tore past the spires of rock overhead, blocking the light from the cracks in the boulder. The man’s white teeth glittered in patches of crystalline light as he brushed snow from his pale leather clothes. “Very well. Speak, little man, for I begin to hunger as winter draws near…”
Thrud coughed, and shook the stump that had been his mighty right arm. “Why…do you play with us?”
“Be strong, brother. I will have you out of there yet.” Gest tried to sound more certain than he felt, at least for the childrens’ sake. He rolled through his head, struggling. He had heard so many riddles in his time, so many that would be far too easily guessed. He needed to do in turn to this creature what it was trying to do to him; throw the opponent off balance, make them lose focus on the game by asking riddles that hit too close to home. “Well…answer me this, madman. What beast brave men shelters? Its back becomes bloody as it wards off blows, fights against spears, and gives life. Against a lords’ left hand it lays its body.” It was hard to breathe, so cold was the air in here.
The creature threw back its head and laughed, the booming sound echoing through the cave. “A beast that shelters men! And it is bloody…your brother, who is no lord, brought me one of these.” Heedless of the cold, he plunged a thick arm into the snow at the side of the cave, revealing it to be more porous than Gest had thought. Grunting, the Beast felt around in the hole, searching for something.
After a moment, Thrud muttered, “I do not understand…now is your moment, brother. Now, while it is stuck! Please… please run from this place, and this creature.”
But the Beast only let out another harsh laugh as he yanked something out in a burst of snow and earth. It was Thrud’s shield, but cracked and damaged now. “The answer is…a shield! Its bloody back has saved many a man from a spear-thrust, though not from my table. Now tell me this, little man. Who is the great one that walks over the earth, and swallows all the waters and the woods? He never fears men, only the wind; and he swallows the sun.” Laughing low in his throat, the Beast leaned forward, blowing toward Gest’s face.
The young poet chewed his dry lip, thinking. Fear was clouding his mind, made much worse by the Beast’s choice of riddles… and the rotten smell of his misty breath didn’t help. Mist…and fearing the wind? Gest cleared his throat and leaned back forward, feigning eagerness. “Fog! Men can do nothing against it, and it blocks the sunlight.”
A low growl of frustration came from the Beast as he sat back once more. “Very well. I see you won’t be defeated by the simplest questions.”
Gest grinned as steadily as he could manage without letting his teeth clack together. It was time to try a slightly different tactic. “You think you are so clever, madman…answer me this, if you can. Who sleeps in the ashpit, and is only struck out of stone? Neither father nor mother has the greedy fiend, and there he wants to live his life.”
The Beast scowled and sat up. “Fiend, eh? Sleeps in the ashpit. Is that meant to be some sort of insult?” His wild eyes roved around the room, and looked Gest up and down like a slab of meat. Which perhaps, he was, to the eyes of this man. “I gave up the need for it long ago…your riddle is fire!”
Gest’s heart sank, and he glanced at the prisons where the children lay, no doubt exhausted from struggling against the intense cold. He shuddered with another deep breath.
The Beast lunged forward and stared at the younger brother, licking his lips. “Alright, then. A delicious riddle for you. Four walk and four hang; two show the way, two ward off dogs; one drags after, most always dirty.”
Gest stared at the white and red of the man’s mouth and the rippling muscle under pale leather. He’d never heard one like this before. It was too cold, he couldn’t think. Who went in groups of thirteen? And had such odd jobs… This was such a strange question from the Beast, and oddly disturbing. “Perhaps…”
The Beast leaned in closer. “Struggling, are we? Finding it too tough? Hmm, I hope you’re not tough…I don’t really enjoy chewy meat. The younger the flesh, the better.”
There seemed little he could do to stop the Beast from eating him and all else that came within reach. Did the Beast think about anything other than eating? Why was this madman here, up in the frozen mountains? Surely he could find greener pastures elsewhere…To eat…
The big man was pushing up from his chair when Gest shouted, “Cow! Cow!” And the Beast sat back heavily, disappointed. Gest gasped for breath. “Four feet, four teats, two eyes, two horns, and a tail. Makes for good eating, those of us who haven’t gone frost-mad and turned to…”
The Beast grunted. His blue eyes were narrow, and stared at Gest with naked hunger. “Riddle.”
“Yes, yes, don’t worry.” Gest searched his memory for something the Beast would have no experience with, something foreign to him. To his surprise, a peal of thunder crashed outside. There was almost never thundersnow this high in the peaks. A following crash sounded like the doom of the mountains themselves. He could feel each boom in his bones, right through the icy walls.
Gest cleared his throat. “Harshly he clangs, on hard paths treading, which he has fared before. Two mouths he has, and mightily kisses, and on gold alone he goes.” No longer could he stare a challenge into the Beast’s eye, but huddled into his coat and watched the mist of his breath fading.
The hairy man before him snarled, then stamped on a patch of snow on the floor of the cave. “You seek to deceive and fool me.”
Though it seemed as though little time had passed, the storm outside was swiftly rising in force. Gest could hardly hear what the creature before him was saying. There was wind blowing through the cave. His brother was stirring, no doubt to pull his stump against the chains again. The children in the stone prison were holding back their sobs. Better distract the Beast while he could. “Ah, well, do you need a hint? Is that what you’re saying?” He had to shout over the gathering storm.
The growl that answered him was full of anger and insult. “Your tricks do you little good. It is the hammer of the beater of metal, a goldsmith’s hammer; and now, the great, old game is over.” He clicked teeth together and leaned forward. “I will ask you for a secret, little man.”
As if to punctuate the Beast’s words, the storm crashed against the boulder that formed the roof of their shelter, and shook the earth with its fury. Gest could feel the heaviness in the air that meant the most terrible of storms, a Malevolence, was forming.
The children pressed fearfully forward against the stone and ice of their prisons. They knew how this would end. Their brief lives were coming to an end in horror. One boy looked back and forth between the huge Beast and the small man who knew all the stories. Soon, the screaming and the horrible crunching of bone would begin again.
As the boy’s breath came short, crushed by the pressure in the air and paining him with deep cold, he wished for the strength, the size, the power to break free. It would take a giant of the old stories to stop what was about to happen.
The Beast’s eyes were wild, and he stood, looming over Gest. Every syllable dropped by his lips seemed to increase the pressure, and bring another toll of thunder.
“What was it that Odin whispered…” There came a crack as Thrud threw himself against the ice wall, screaming in impotent rage above the storm. The Beast narrowed his eyes, but continued, “…into Baldr’s ear, as he was carried to the funeral pyre?”
The wind’s howl rose to an unbearable pitch, and Gest had to hold his hands over his ears. The ice on the walls cracked as the boulder shifted, and snow blew through the cave in a rush of white. After a moment, the Beast thrust his face into Gest’s with a bright grin, roaring over the storm. “Do you need a hint, little man? Or do you want the answer?”
Thrud still struggled against his walls, shouting at his brother. Gest looked up into the Beast’s eyes, looking for an answer. The madman’s great bulk loomed over him, hair white with the snow that swirled inside. All was frozen as the Beast’s words hung in the air before him.
Gest took a deep breath, the sharp cold air piercing his lungs like a blade. He looked over at Thrud. The madman’s enormous hands gripped the younger brother’s shoulders, and rank breath blew across his face.
The children screamed, their voices drowned in the howl of wind and thunder. The stone above was cracking, but no one noticed as Gest struggled in the incredible grip. The white teeth descended, bright to the wide eyes of the boy watching. Blood sprayed, steaming, into the snow, the blood of his friend.
The great boulder that formed the roof of the cavern split open with a noise like the end of the world. Snow flooded the cave, along with a cold so intense that the boy felt his nearly-numbed skin prickle.
His blood was freezing. The only sounds were the roaring of the storm and the laughter of his tormentor. Bits of ice and rock whipped into the boy’s cell, draining his body of its last heat and strength. His eyes clamped shut, and he tasted blood on the wind. The shrieking laughter of the man and the storm mocked the boy as he threw himself against the wall of the prison. He could feel, rather than hear, the cries of the others. The Malevolence ripped at him.
From out of the swirl of snow, the Beast’s face appeared, his thick beard red and dripping with Gest’s blood. A red grin spread across his face as he watched the children struggle. “Come and save the singer, if you can!”
But the grin faded as the children began to change. The boy felt his heart slowing, pounding cold in his chest. With his last breath, he wished he were one of the ancient giants, those who had loved the cold, who had been so mighty and so wise.
And to his surprise, the walls of the prison broke, ice and stone shattering into the wind. Intense pain shot through his frozen body, a sense of stretching, pulling, and expanding. His bones popped and cracked as though the Beast were chewing on him.
Everything seemed smaller. He was even looking down at the Beast, whose open mouth leaked a pink mist into the air as he stared up at the boy and his fellow children. When the boy swung forward, he felt a new strength, though his skin was an icy blue.
The Beast turned to run, but the gigantic children caught him up, struggling in their mighty hands. Frenzied with rage, they tore him limb from limb between them. He burst like an overripe fruit, his blood spattering on the frozen bones of those he had eaten.
Then the thundering blizzard buried them all in a rush of endless white.
When the Malevolence’s rage was finally spent, sunlight returned to the mountain, reflecting on the bright snow of the peak. The drifts were deep, burying the black spires of stone along with the corpses of the two brothers. Even with their newly elongated bodies, the surviving children had to dig themselves out. They blinked at one another in the brightness, staring at their blue hands, caked with blood. They didn’t feel the cold anymore.
The boy felt emptied. He said little as the children that had become giants picked their way back down the mountain. The few words they exchanged sounded hoarse and brittle, like ice grinding together.
When they caught a glimpse of Út, their town, something was different. Many of the buildings looked damaged or destroyed, even crushed under the heavy snowfall. They hurried down from the heights to find the place almost deserted. Those few who had survived the Malevolence were changed, just as the boy had imagined the giants in Gest’s stories. Tall and powerfully built, with hair the colors of ice and skin darkened and bluish, like corpses frozen in winter.
The boy came to the mead hall where he had heard so many stories. It had collapsed, broken timbers jumbled together and covered in snow. Slowly, as the others gathered nearby, the boy reached down and heaved up one of the fallen pieces. The other children joined him, and they began to rebuild the mead-hall of Thrud and Gest.
That winter went on and on, for the length of three winters in a row. It was the Fimbulwinter, and it covered the mountains in a frost that had never been seen before. Through it all, the village of giants lived on, building new homes of stone and ice in the heights. They built a mighty wall to defend themselves, and over time, the village became known as Útgard.
The boy took to living at the mead-hall, and wrote down this story, and sang it for generations to come. He never forgot the brothers that had saved him and taught him so much. Eventually, he took the name Mimir, and became famous for his wisdom and power.
This is where the saga of the Jötnar and the Fimbulwinter ends.
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