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Sailing the River of Ghosts

The River of Ghosts meandered through the ages, from the time that lizards spoke and wore iridescent feathers to a sky filled with roaring birds made of iron and glass.

“I’ll bring the heads of all our enemies, pickled in brine!” Einar had boasted to his bride. “A demon dog with three heads to guard our farm and coffers, ah, filled to the brim with amber beads and the crowns of Christian kings.” He smiled. ‘Or something even better. For we are going where no one had dared to go before.”

“Just return,” Igrith had answered. “No need to prove you are a man. I already know that.” She rubbed her belly.

Three ships hoisted their sails and slipped into the twilight, riding the moonbeams. On the prow of each ship, a shaman stood, intoning the words that opened the way to the other six worlds nestled in the branches of the Great Tree.

One after the other, the ships grew transparent, winked out.

Spring turned into a summer so scorching hot that winter seemed a preposterous drunkard’s tale.

Still, autumn moved in from the north at long last, turning the leaves of the trees into frozen flames.

The sun sank lower and lower, dipped below the horizon and still the raiders hadn’t returned.

Every full moon Igrith walked to the shore. She had the witch sight so she could discern the Gate’s outline in the misty moonlight. On each trip, Igrith wore the blue trousers from a time yet to come which had been a bride gift of Einar’s father. She also took the silk parasol from far Han which had been in their family for generations and would never fade or wear out. Rubbed with beeswax it was also quite effective when the rain swept down from the gray clouds. She might be a Viking woman who could wield the war ax and battle hammer as good as any man, but she didn’t believe in suffering needlessly.

Snow now covered the land but the River of Ghosts was still flowing, of course. No Fimbul winter could ever touch her waters.

Igrith’s belly was growing bigger and she felt her son kick, no doubt as eager as she to meet the father.

A stir in the mist: a single ship solidified and she saw men standing on the deck. She waited for the other two drakars to emerge but it was just one. The mainsail bore Odin’s entwined drinking horns: this must be Einar’s. No doubt that was him, holding the steering oar.

No one greeted her, though, when she hailed the returning raider.

She waited for the sails to shift or for oars to appear, but the ship just kept going, blind as a log of wood.

Ten heartbeats later, the ship beached, the prow plowing into the sand. So close to her she had to jump aside.

She clawed up to the hull, pushed past the shields, and jumped down to the deck.

The men were still standing along the boards, clad in splendid, no doubt stolen, finery. Their faces were coated with a translucent layer of ice and icicles hung from their beards.

She chased in dismay, ran past them to the aft. There her husband was still clutching the steering oar, his white fingers frozen to the wood.

“O Einar,” she sighed, “You were always too rash for your own good. Trying to raid the ice giants with no more potent weapons than tarred torches and arrows?”

She looked into his eyes, but they were marbles, blank as walrus ivory.

It isn’t fair! she thought, no doubt you are carousing in the Great Hall right now, yes, hunting the bristly boar and drinking mead. Kissing the Valkyries. While I, I have to raise your child.

She lifted her ax and hit him on the shoulder. His body shattered in a thousand shards.

It wasn’t hard to light a fire on a beach littered with the driftwood of many worlds and throw a torch on the deck.

The drakar instantly turned into a funeral ship, the flames leaping across planks sucked utterly dry by the cold of Jotunheim, climbing the sails.

Three hours later only sputtering ashes were left, and she put a hand on her belly.

“Listen, my son,” she said. “It is so much better to have a brave father lost on the Ghost River than a fool returning only to be buried. He and the others, well, all would call them mooncalves and we two would be the laughingstock of the village.”

A kick was the answer, and she smiled. “I thought so.”

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