The weather was surprisingly mild for Jotunheim in late February, which is to say it was only snowing about a quarter-inch per hour and the wind was gusting to no more than 40 miles per hour out of the northeast. The ranger on duty at Tindalos National Park Gate 17, one of the smallest and least-used entrances to the park at the best of times, was surprised to see anyone out this far in any sort of weather, much less one of the Small Folk - and on horseback, no less.
"Well, how about that," he said, emerging from his guard shack and crouching next to the road. "You're a long way from home, shortpockets. You get lost looking for the highway to Utgard?"
"No," said the black-cloaked, hooded figure who sat astride a matching horse. The guard had never seen a horse that was entirely black before; usually they had a bit of white on them somewhere, on the face or the legs, but this one appeared to have no other color anywhere.
"I'm exactly where I mean to be," the man continued. He brushed back his hood, revealing hair as jet-black as his cloak and his horse - except for a silver shock in front that drooped over the Æsir brand on his forehead.
The Jotun park ranger blinked, wondering when the surprises would stop with this strange visitor. "You mean to be riding into the Tindalos at this time of year? Here? Do you know where you are?" He gestured up the road, to the hulking mass of stone and ice that lay mostly obscured by the snow and cloud a few miles further on. "That's not just any Jotun mountain, friend. That there's Ortrûlcánd. Matalde the Red makes her lair there."
The visitor nodded. "I know."
"You mean to visit her?" The ranger scratched his head, dumbfounded, then shrugged. "Well, it's your funeral, Asgardian. Frankly, I'm amazed you made it this far. No one ever reaches this post on horseback. Horses won't come anywhere near Ortrûlcánd. The very smell of the place drives them mad with fear miles away."
Corwin Ravenhair smiled very slightly.
"Svartlyn fears nothing," he said, and then he put up his hood and rode on into the Tindalos.
The ranger stood looking after him until he and his black horse disappeared into the snow. Then, shaking his head, he turned and went back into his hut.
Corwin was passenger more than pilot for the last league or so of the journey, letting Svartlyn find her way along a trail that was more impression than reality. If the surroundings of Mount Firebrand really did have some power to induce fear in horses, she ignored it. Indeed, when they reached the mouth of a cave halfway up the mountain's flank, she seemed annoyed that Corwin was leaving her there; she pawed at the ground, whickering and nudging him with her nose, as he dismounted and dropped the reins to the cavern floor.
<Easy, girl,> he said to her in Norse. <It's not because I think you'd fear Matalde.> Then, with a wry smile, he gave her a sugar cube and added, <If anything, I'm afraid you'd start a fight.>
Svartlyn snorted and tossed her head, as if to ridicule the very thought.
<I'll be back shortly,> said Corwin. <I have to do this alone.>
He made his way into the mountain's interior by the light of an International Police Space Force handlamp, which was less romantic than a torch or bullseye lantern but a good deal more practical, and eventually he emerged from the ever-descending tunnel into the hollow heart of Ortrûlcánd. The heat, which had been growing steadily as he descended, hit him in the face like the blast from an opened oven as he stepped out into the main chamber. There was no open pool of magma here, as the popular conceptions of volcanoes so often pictured it, but from the great heat radiating from the stone platform in the center of the room, a person could be forgiven for expecting it.
That platform stood perhaps twenty feet high and was fifty yards or more in diameter. Basking atop its flat surface lay the simultaneously sinuous and robust shape of a great dragon.
Unlike Corwin's childhood companion Nall, who was by lineage a prince of the panther dragons of northeastern Alfheim and was thus covered in dense white fur, Matalde the Red was a western wyrm - one of the classic dragons of European myth - and her hide was armored with a million shining scales. Westerns, Corwin knew, came in all the colors of the rainbow and more besides, including a good many whose scales had the crystalline glint of polished gemstones. Matalde's, on the other hand, had a metallic cast in the dim light filtering into her lair from the opening at Mount Firebrand's pinnacle high above. They were a dull cherry red, the color of hot iron, and seemed almost to glow from within like an overstoked stove.
Sensing his presence, Matalde stirred, then turned her great head and opened eyes the color of molten steel.
Juniper thought I was throwing her in at the deep end when we visited King Bahamut, thought Corwin wryly. I wonder what she'd have made of Matalde...
<Ah. Bahamut's godling protégé,> Matalde said, speaking Norse in a voice like a bubbling crucible. <I trust you are taking proper care of my egg.>
<Hail, Matalde Ironwinged, Terror of the Tindalos. Corwin Ravenhair of the Æsir greets you,> Corwin replied, bowing. <Your egg is well-looked-after; indeed, I came to thank you personally for placing the child within in my care. It means much to me that the Draconic Alliance wishes to continue the tradition that Nallénskuldgändr and I began - and that you yourself would entrust my family with such a boon.>
Matalde regarded him for a few seconds.
<I did not do it for you, Æs,> she said, <nor for your posterity. I did it because King Bahamut asked of me the one favor he has ever sought from me in my life. Because he is my liege lord, because he is my brother, and because he made it a request and not a command, I agreed. Had he demanded it as king, there would have been blood, I think... but he is wise.>
<That he is,> Corwin agreed. <At any rate, regardless of your reasons, I am grateful for your trust, and for the chance to welcome one of your august bloodline to my family.>
This elicited another few seconds' silent contemplation; then Matalde inclined her head slightly and said, <I accept your thanks. Know that it was not a decision made lightly, to entrust my only offspring to a barely-bearded Æs and a svartelven witch. And know one thing more before you leave my lair.>
Matalde rose to her feet then, standing at the edge of the platform looking down at Corwin, and stretched out her wings to their full span, the spikes along her spinal ridge bristling, her foretalons crumbling the stone at the edge of her bed. Gazing at him with a terrible solemnity in her molten-steel eyes, she told him,
<If any harm comes to my little one, Corwin Skuldsson, I will hold you personally responsible... and there will be nowhere in the Ten Worlds you can hide from me.>
Corwin didn't quail before the promise of the ancient wyrm's wrath. Instead, he looked straight back into her eyes and replied with cold precision in an older, more formal form of the Asgardian language,
<Thy child and mine will be companions, Red One. If aught harm comes to them, thy anger will be as nothing compared to mine, and thy vengeance will wait until mine is complete. Are we in accord?>
Matalde stared at him for a few seconds longer, and then one corner of her colossal mouth quirked into a faint smile, baring a single gleaming steel-colored fang.
<Well-bargained and done, Swordforger,> she said with a tone of faint respect, furling her wings and relaxing her spines. <Now be on your way. I tire of bandying words with you in your clumsy tongue.>
I would happily have conversed in Draconic, Corwin replied with a bow, had you first addressed me thus.
Matalde's tiny smile broadened imperceptibly, becoming a little bit of a smirk as she narrowed her eyes. I shall remember that, she replied, but be off anyway. And see that you give my child a suitable name. "Nallénskuldgändr" cannot even be rendered properly in dragonscript.
That was Nall's choice, not ours, Corwin told her, but I will bear it in mind. Good day to you, Dread Matalde, he added, bowing, and then he left.
If the Jotun park ranger had been surprised to see Corwin arrive on horseback, and more surprised to see them head off up the Ortrûlcánd trail, he was most surprised to see them return just before nightfall, apparently unharmed.
"Didn't think I'd ever see your lordship again," he admitted as he put his head out the window of his hut to observe the young Æs pass by. "Turn back before reaching the mountain, did you?"
"No," Corwin replied; then, with a faint smile, he added, "Matalde and I have an understanding."
Then he rode away into the gathering dusk, leaving the ranger once again scratching his head.
"Matalde the Red" - a Symphony No. 5 mini-story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
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