He jerked awake, bloody, in pain. He rumbled in confusion. This wasn’t the pain he was used to. His blood not shed like this.
He lurched to his feet and let out a bellow of surprise at the pain shooting through his legs and back. He could feel the sharp tugging of raw edges that scored his body. He shook his head to clear it and cried out again.
And the light -there was something wrong with the light. He knew and loved all the forms of daylight and remembered every kind of darkness, but this, this bloody flickering blackness, with neither sun nor moon… It looked, he decided, as if the world below was on fire.
He hadn’t died, he was almost certain. But he had, against all the rules, been in a fight. The agonizing tearing he felt in his muscles every time he moved, and the new flows of blood-yes, this feeling was in his memories.
Screams and the clash of steel sounded in the distance. Battle, which was right, but these were not the joyful noises of playful killing and maiming he was accustomed to. The crashing of weapons and cries coming to him were deadly earnest, no holds barred and everything to lose.
A suspicion was blossoming by the time his eyes focused, making him forget everything in terror. There was a tree trunk. It wasn’t grown of wood.
Iron! And in the dark wind, fluttered the bright blue tattered end of a broken ribbon. He was in the Iron Wood and Fenris was free!
Sick with fear, pain forgotten, he gathered his legs under him, heart pounding as it had not in thousands of years dying and charged through the wood.
His feet were knocked away from the loam. His head struck one of the great iron boles full on, tearing it up by its roots. The ground shook as the tree crashed down. New agony shot through his body and with the pain, Saehrimnir remembered.
Warm sun flowed over aching joints, cutting through springtime air, just a little too cold for bones so old, so scarred. He stretched, feeling anew wiry sinews and solid organs. He rolled over once on the long, sweet-smelling grass and bounced to his feet, shaking out the last kinks from the night before. He could feel his skin tugging at his bones, painfully tight every morning.
The ground shook as Saehrimnir, the giant boar of Asgard, eternal feast for Odin and his warriors, stumped miles across the green and sacred field of Ida toward the beckoning forest of thousand-foot trees. He shouldered his way through thick boles toward the best truffles and nuts and delicious mouldering things lying dark and warm under light-speckled leaves.
Clambering over the gnarled, up thrust roots and lumpy ground, he lowered his nose to the dirt to savor the scents. They were a feast of themselves and he wished he could spend the whole of the day simply digging his snout into the wonderful dirt and smelling. Rocks and trees and grass and mushrooms… light textures dancing on his tongue, smells filling his nose before the gluttony began -so many wonderful things to experience. But already the ravening hunger that forced Saehrimnir from his sun-soaked, renewing sleep was threatening to tear out his insides. Burrowing his tusks deeply, he tossed aside a pile of leaves and got down to serious eating.
But slowly at first, to enjoy every taste, every crunch of grit through his teeth, every sharp and sweet and bitter flavor. The heedless eating would be saved for later, as the day drew to a close. Even now, when he ate quickly to assuage the burning emptiness in his gut and fill out his shrunken flesh, he made sure to notice every sensation, every aroma. It was, Saehrimnir thought, almost a form of protest.
How could bones remember? Every night they were scraped clean of any last speck of meat, fat or gristle by unthinking barbarians. Blood and brain became pudding cheese sauce, all of it shoveled into mouths without any consideration for taste, texture or skill of preparation. How could bones cracked a million million times for their marrow remember that?
Sweet mushrooms and delicious fungus spiced and seasoned by all the creatures, which had crawled around them, flowed into Saehrimnir’s wet, eternally hungry mouth. There was little left of him when the sun started rising, only white bones in the refuse of debauchery. Yet those bones remembered. Worse, they learned.
Did passing through warriors’ intestines as they ate and drank themselves into raging idiocy cede to his bones thought and memory? When he’d first laid his neck to the knife to feed seven dead warriors, he was barely aware what a human was.
Roots stripped bare of everything edible, Saehrimnir passed to the next tree, many tasty acorns there. Already he felt his skin expanding as fat and meat were added to the wiry bundles that every sunrise sufficed to carry him into the forest seeking food. The ground shook as he delightedly stomped his back hooves in the dirt.
From the field he’d so recently left came the first sounds. Joints cracking, farts, yawns, the grunts and groans and complaints of over two million dead warriors who’d eaten and drunk too far into the night, facing the morning with swollen heads and tongues like wads of sackcloth in their mouths. Every night they drank and ate and sang and screwed until they were puking their bloated guts onto the straw-covered floor. Every morning they crawled off benches, floors, each other, hurting and complaining, and every night they did it again.
Soon would come the sounds he’d learned to identify as sword play, dead men and women hacking at each other with delight. Sometimes the pig’s curiosity would lead him to forage on the sun-dried edges of the forest to watch this strange activity.
Soon or late, Ida would be bloody chaos: warriors tearing each other apart with the skill of ten thousand years. In an hour or several, the countless ranks would be broken down into component body parts. No more than one or three would be left standing, and those would dig around the scattered parts till they found a few that matched, press them against each other and keep at it until they produced a person. Each new warrior joined in until all were whole again. Then Saehrimnir would have to race back into the woods and gorge himself heedlessly on anything in sight to complete the filling out of his body before sunset.
He idly scratched his bristly back against a five-hundred-foot tall oak, pushing it off its roots as his skull brushed the upper branches. Day by day, year by year, he’d grown bigger to match the need, as Odin and his wild women brought in ever more dead soldiers for him to feed.
It had occurred to him more than once, that he might walk away from the axe. He outweighed the largest warrior-barring Odin -by more than a thousand pounds. The only thing bigger was the wolf chained at the edge of the wood where the trees turned to iron. But feeding the dead was his reason for being and he had nowhere to go.
Oh for the days before knowledge! Where he relished eating as much as he could hold all day long and went to Valhalla at night knowing only that smiling Odin waited for him there. It was bad enough when he first started fearing the axe, but to understand the duty was worse.
As if in answer to that, he felt the first surge of hunger. The emptiness in his gut was shredding away coherent thought and forcing him back down toward the unthinking scrabble for food.
The boar raced deeper into the giant-wood, tearing up tubers and grubs and anything else at all edible as he went, leaving a path of destruction worse than any army ever dreamed. Which the warm blood soaking into the soil and flowing downhill from Ida would soon heal. He felt himself growing as he ran, flanks expanding, thighs filling with tender young muscle. His heart, lungs, liver were all bursting with life and vitality, each a meal for a hundred men.
He skidded to a stop, sending up showers of dirt and leaves before and behind as the trees turned to iron. He could hear the wet growls from the depths of the chained wolf’s throat, there was a hideous grinding of teeth on something so thin as to barely come between them, and the cackling of the Hag as she tended both beast and trees.
Saehrimnir knew it was foolish to be afraid of the giant wolf, it was tied securely. The Hag said so when she came -ever more frequently -to torment him and steal his food for that terrible creature. He had to forage into the forest of iron trees when she did and then Fenris would snarl and bare his teeth, forgetting for minutes at a time the pretty blue ribbon wrapped around his legs, cutting into the flesh of his deadly paws.
Today Saehrimnir sensed a need to push further in than ever before. The Hag hadn’t stolen his food, but Odin and his Valkyries were taking more warriors every day. Warriors with ever stranger costumes. The latest were of extraordinary, slick, shiny materials, covering the entire body, even masks for the face. Centuries ago the Valkyries had started bringing in women, as strange and scarred and wild as the men, as Odin’s need increased.
Saehrimnir worked his way forward carefully through the sour fruits of the Ironwood, shivering to hear the growls and sniggers in the dim light. The part of him that remembered years where fewer than a hundred had been gathered wondered why Odin forced him to brave the terrible smells, heart racing in fear, to seek out such unpleasant foods.
Only the hot, foul wind of Fenris’ breath saved him. The wolf had nearly snapped his bonds this time, stretched them farther than ever before, to take Valhalla’s feast for himself. Backing away, Saehrimnir’s tusks snagged the delicate, unbreakable bonds holding Fenris to the earth. The ribbon did not break, and if razor-sharp tusks left a tiny snag, neither pig nor wolf noticed.
Heart pounding, brain borne back down to instinct, Saehrimnir leapt back and sideways, racing out of the Iron Wood, trees crashing and splintering in his wake. Once free of the steely confines, he tore through the growing forest, searching for every scrap of food in the free and green wood so that he wouldn’t have to go back.
When it was done, Saehrimnir could think again, hunger assuaged, fear fading away. The boar shouldered his way back out to the field, knocking over two more trees in passing. Ida lay empty now, its limitless span thirstily soaking up the last of the shed blood, grass already springing back.
The cart carrying the sun was nearly to the edge of the horizon, her wolf pursuer ever-closer behind. The last rays fell warmly on his body, chasing away the final aches just in time for the bones to be shattered and mouthed by two million warriors.
His hooves left deep imprints in the sward as he stumped slowly to Valhalla, a hall so vast one end couldn’t be seen from the other, with its thousand doors. Dead warriors were streaming in.
He heard the whine of axe-blade on whetstone and the first shiver of fear went through him. Did Odin, who saw everything, know what his bones remembered?
He stopped once and dropped to the sweet grass to roll, the dirt and leaves had scratched bugs and itches away, now the cool green washed off the last flecks of bark and soil. Then Saehrimnir rose and quickened his pace.
Two doors lay open before him and he passed through, great, bristly shoulders scraping gilt veneer from the posterns. Ranks of warriors stretched farther than his eyes could see on either side. The room went up in an earth-shattering cheer as he entered. Three Valkyries smiled and patted his giant sides with sword-calloused hands as he made his way through to the huge central fire overhung by a spit that would take the strength of both Odin and Thor to lift once his gutted body was speared.
The great god waited for him, steel-helmet brushing the ceiling, single eye shining. But his smile was worried and concern lined the planes of his face.
Odin hefted the axe over his shoulder and smiled indulgently as the boar reached him. “Ready Pig?” he asked, gruff voice reverberating through the endless room.
The giant boar nodded his great head and bowed, baring his neck to the blade. But before the axe could bite, Saehrimnir felt a shuddering that worked its way through all the worlds. Deep in his bones he felt the waking of warriors and kings who’d never set teeth to his flesh and bones. Sleeping through millennia, waiting for this moment. He felt the tops blowing off mountains, caverns cracking open as the Sleepers awoke, already girded for the Last Battle.
Deeper down, down in the spaces where he went when he died, he felt others rising, reaching up from the darkest pits to challenge the assembling warriors. He felt them crawling and sliming and swarming into the open air to demand dominion on the earth. From Odin’s hesitation, Saehrimnir knew the god felt it too.
Even the drunken louts awaiting their feast fell silent and sober, as the shaking continued till it rose high enough to make Asgard itself tremble. Then came one long, sweet call of a horn, clearer and cleaner and stronger than the shaking or the sliming. The men and women leapt to their feet, snatching up their weapons and pouring outside as the doors of Valhalla came open all at once.
Odin remained one moment longer, single eye grim and shining in anticipation of the battle to come. “Any who fall this day do not rise again. Take freedom from your duty and do with it what you will.” Then he too strode through one of the great doors.
Saehrimnir shook himself, free of all the things that had bound him to the feast. His broad shoulders tore the supports asunder as he shouldered his own way outside. The sun was a blazing fire on the edge of the horizon, he could see the wolf, closer to her than it had ever been, but still she circled proudly, lighting the warriors’ way as long as she lived.
Memories caught up to Saehrimnir’s flight. He and Fenris had crashed into each other, one running toward the battle, the other away. From his condition, the boar hadn’t won, but he was alive. He remembered rolling through the trees, hooves and fur and teeth and blood. Fenris breaking away and running.
Saehrimnir stopped his headlong flight at the edge of Ida. There were no sounds of pursuit. Before him, grimly real was Ragnarok, the Last Battle. Odin’s forces, bolstered by all the heroes who ever were, waded through oceans of blood to meet all the unnamed horrors from the bowels of Nifelhiem and Muspelheim.
Down on Midgard he saw fire. The sun was gone, sucked down the throat of her pursuing wolf, leaving the fighters only the light of the burning world. In the distance Fenris ran, driving destruction before him, the other half of the broken ribbon trailing behind. The Hag followed in his wake.
The air of all the worlds was rent with the cries of battle and the screams of the dying. The giant boar of Asgard stared at the chaos, frozen in freedom and fear and watched the heroes, watched Odin, fighting against terrible odds.
Saehrimnir’s tusks were sharp, his muscles strong. He had fed warriors for ten thousand years and had a choice to make. The nine worlds were being ravaged by those he’d felt rising from Hel’s kingdom and the frozen north. He would not gently lay his neck to their blades. He strode from the wood into the melee. He charged forward and trod the Hag to a bloody pulp beneath his hooves. Saehrimnir was free and he would go down fighting.