Trapped (The Iron Druid Chronicles, Book Five) (7 page)

BOOK: Trapped (The Iron Druid Chronicles, Book Five)
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“That is wise, especially where fighting them is concerned.”

“Why so?”

“Patience, Siodhachan. I’ll tell all, even as he told it to me.”

Ages ago, even before the Tuatha Dé Danann had come to Ireland, the king of the Álfar—for there was only one kind of elf back then—commissioned a map of the Nine Realms of Yggdrasil. Asgard, Álfheim, and Vanaheim at the top were well known, but less was known of the six lower realms. The lowest three, in particular, were almost complete mysteries. Niflheim was a land of ice, and it was within that realm that Hel reigned over the moaning, inglorious dead; Muspellheim was a land of flames, where Surtr and the fire jötnar lived, awaiting the day of Ragnarok, when they could burn the whole of creation; but there was another land, both between and underneath them, subterranean and dark, beyond the jaws of the great wyrm Nidhogg, that did not even have a name, and no one knew what waited there in the black silence.

The largest party of Álfar was sent to explore this land, and none returned. All other parties returned and the map grew into an atlas, yet the king was displeased by the loss of the last crew. Another party, half again as large, was sent to seek them after forty years, but they did not return either. Ailing and old, this king—whose name has been purposefully forgotten by the Álfar—sent out a series of single adventurers. They were told not to explore but rather to discover the fates of their forebears and report back.

The answer to the mystery came three years later. Five strange beings appeared at the court of the Álfar king. Dressed in robes of a white material that looked like silk yet shimmered so that other colors reflected from its surface, they very nearly sparkled when they moved.

The beings appeared to be elves, except that instead
of the light flesh and light-blond hair of the Álfar, this company had skin of obsidian. Each had a single queue of jet-black hair growing from the very top of his head, bunched together in places with silver circlets and falling down to the waist. Their eyes were green and abnormally large. They carried weapons unlike any the Álfar had seen, longish curved daggers that were not quite fit to be called swords, crafted not of iron or bronze but of some dark material; hilt, blade, and guard were all made of the same inky substance.

Approaching the throne, the strangers bowed but did not kneel to the king. He demanded to know who they were.

The one in the middle answered: “We bring greetings from Svartálfheim, the ninth realm of Yggdrasil.”

“What do you say? Explain.”

They were descendants of the first party he’d sent to the subterranean world, the entrance to which lies between the Ylgr and Vir rivers, and they had come to tell him and all Álfar that it was named Svartálfheim.

“You’re elves, then!” the king cried. “My subjects!”

“No, not your subjects. The sons of your former subjects.”

The king was not pleased by this show of independence but not inclined to argue the point. He was not sure he wanted them for subjects, for in his eyes they were strange.

“How came you to look thus?”

“We were given the
Gjor at Reykr
, the Gift of Smoke. We are now Svartálfar, as you are Ljósálfar.” This was the first time the distinction was made between the two races.

“What nonsense is this?” the king demanded.

“Svartálfheim is nothing like Álfheim. The caverns have changed us. We are no longer like you. But, for the
sake of our former kinship, we would have ties with you so that both our kingdoms may flourish.”

“Both our kingdoms?” the king spluttered. His face grew red and he stood from his throne. “You have some king other than I?”

“Of course. You are Ljósálfar, not Svartálfar. We would not suggest that one of us lead your people.”

“And that is as it should be! But you owe me your allegiance! I funded your expedition! I supported the families left behind!” Thinking of this, the king decided they should be his subjects after all. “And, despite your dark skin, you are Álfar! Acknowledge me as your sovereign!”

“Our sovereign is in Svartálfheim. We are but ambassadors of his goodwill.”

“Goodwill would be acknowledging your rightful king. If I am not your sovereign, then you and your ancestors are deserters and traitors.”

The five Svartálfar stiffened. “We are none such,” one of the other dark elves said. He was not the spokesman, but none of his companions bristled at his interruption. “We are a different people now, as your senses must clearly report. We acknowledge our debt to you and will gladly repay your generosity. But we will not subject ourselves to your rule when you are none of our own.”

Perhaps a less prideful king would have found the strength to negotiate from this point. Perhaps the dark elves had said enough to provoke any king beyond all endurance. Regardless of might-have-beens, the king of the Álfar roared for his champions to take the dark elves and throw them in his dungeon.

“We wish all here to remember that we did not begin the violence and that we offered to pay our debts to the Álfar,” the spokesman called loudly. “You cannot prevail against our martial art,
Sigr af Reykr
. Send to Svartálfheim when your new king wishes to talk in peace.”

It was an odd thing to say, since they had yet to move, but the reason for it became clear shortly. When the Álfar champions tried to seize them, the Svartálfar became incorporeal, their white robes falling to the ground and their silver hair ties clinking after them, as something like coal dust bloomed where they had stood. Their strange knives did not fall to the ground but transformed with them. The dark elves became solid again outside the ring of champions, naked, holding those wicked curved blades, as black as their bodies. They could have slain all the Álfar then with a twitch of their wrists. Instead, they waited for the champions to turn, and this time the champions tried to use their weapons. Swords and axes swung at the dark elves but swished through nothing but black mist. Four clouds swirled back out of reach, but one wove sinuously through the air toward the king. The spokesman for the Svartálfar became solid at the bottom of the steps leading to the king’s throne, black knife in his left hand.

“Your orders gave our people life,” he said, “but we will let no one order us into submission. Rethink your orders and let us talk peaceably, or else you and you alone will suffer for overreaching.”

“Slay them all!” the king ordered, and his bodyguards rushed down to meet the threat.

The dark elf waited until their weapons were descending upon him, then he turned into a plume of curling smoke and rose up the steps toward the king. Seeing this, the king drew his sword. His bodyguards would not recover and reach him in time. He swiped at the tendrils of smoke, to no effect. Long wisps of it entered his mouth, and he coughed once before he died.

The dark elf solidified with his right arm down the king’s throat. He yanked hard and tore free the king’s jaw and unmoored his throat from his spine. The gush
of blood showered the elf in gore, but he turned to mist again and the blood fell like rain as the king’s corpse tumbled down the stairs to meet his bodyguards, a silent testimonial to their utter failure. This, then, was
Sigr af Reykr
, Victory from Smoke.

The stunned court of the Álfar noticed two things as the Svartálfar retreated: One, the dark elves never kept their incorporeal form for more than five seconds—they always solidified for at least a full second before dissolving again to mist—and, two, they could be killed. The latter was discovered just before the Svartálfar exited the audience chamber. An archer, high on the balcony surrounding the court, had been closely observing the changes and movements of the dark elves. It was he who realized their smoke form could last no longer than five seconds. He nocked an arrow and carefully followed the movements of a single dark elf. Once the villain turned to smoke, the archer counted to five and released his arrow at the center of the mist when it was but ten paces from the door. The dark elf became flesh a split second before the arrow lanced into the space between his shoulder and neck, spearing his vitals and ending his life.

He collapsed before the door and the champions bore down on him, stabbing him again and again for surety, but in all likelihood he was already dead. Within seconds the body began to crumble in on itself, smoke rose from the corpse, and inside of a minute all that was left was carbon mixed with fluid, a wet puddle of tar with the archer’s arrow in the middle of it. The blade, too, dissolved into the mess.

From that day to this, the Svartálfar and Ljósálfar have hated each other. The dark elves have held peaceful if rather tense talks with the Æsir and Vanir, and they have traded well with the dwarfs of Nidavellir and with the denizens of Jötunheim. On Midgard, as you might
imagine, they have found employment as assassins. But in Álfheim they are forever attacked on sight for their unforgivable treason and regicide.

When Manannan fell silent, I prompted him to continue. “Go on,” I said.

“That’s it.”

“What? That can’t be it!”

“That’s all I was told. I can tell ye it’s more than most people know about them.”

“There has to be more though. Centuries of war and rivers of elfin blood, battles that lasted for three months—come on!”

The sea god shook his head. “No. The Álfar despise the Svartálfar as traitors but refuse to go to war on their own kind. Between you and me, I think they fear entering Svartálfheim and being corrupted in the same way. The turning-to-mist trick seems like a fabulous plus, but they make awfully messy corpses. The Álfar think it unwholesome somehow and a high price to pay to exterminate traitors who are otherwise doin’ no harm to the realm.”

“Which realm?”

“I misspoke. No harm to Álfheim.”

“Yeah. Tell me more about that trick of theirs. What is the ‘Gift of Smoke,’ precisely?”

Manannan shrugged. “Some kind of mutagen.”

“Hey, look at you busting out the modern words!”

He scowled at me. “Not all o’ the Tuatha Dé Danann believe the mortals have nothin’ to offer us.”

“I’m of your mind, Manannan, and have been for a long time. I approve. No one knows what this mutagen might be?”

“Theories abound, but the Svartálfar refuse to discuss it and no one has delved deep enough into their realm to
see it. They meet envoys and conduct trade in a couple o’ large chambers not far down from that dark stair they built. What’s going on deeper inside, no one knows.”

“Sounds like North Korea. Can’t believe one of the Álfar told you this though. It wasn’t exactly flattering to their king.”

Manannan nodded. “They are nothing if not an honest people.”

“So if this story is true, it means the dark elves aren’t inherently evil.”

“No. They are a proud people and will not hesitate to kill, but they seek no lands beyond their own and have no wish to dominate others.”

“You’d never know it from the way people talk about them, myself included. I mean, I’m not going to stop thinking they’re creepy as hell—because if your body turns to tar, you’re fucking creepy, right?—but I’m frankly shocked to hear they don’t want to destroy us all. They need to get a good PR guy.”

“What’s a PR guy?”

“They’re kind of like the old Greek sophists who played with words until you believed up was down. PR guys get paid to make people believe that a pile of shit is an investment in soil fertility. Professional liars.”

“Ah!” Manannan’s expression lit with comprehension. “They are politicians?”

“No, they’re smarter and less pretty. They advise politicians.”

“Oh. Well, I thought ye should know the dark elves are seeking ye.”

“I appreciate the thought. It is bizarre. Two years ago, you say? I wonder what set them sniffing after my trail.”

“I wondered that myself, lad. Hoped ye might have an answer.”

I had a possible answer; thanks to a certain rendezvous six years ago, three of the Norse gods knew I was
alive. One of them could have let slip the truth, intentionally or not. But since I had no way of knowing, I just shook my head. “No. But it’s one more enemy to watch out for. I’d love to see that map of the nine realms.”

BOOK: Trapped (The Iron Druid Chronicles, Book Five)
13.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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