The Great Hall of Asgard stood as it had since Odin called it forth when Time began, but it was now little more than a shadow of its former grandeur. As Mardroma strode imperiously through its faded glory only her eyes gave any indication of the shock she felt at the decay that had fallen upon this home of the gods. She noted the lacklustre sheen of the once glorious marble-and-jade columns, the dullness of tapestries that had shone with light, and wondered how such a thing had happened in the few short decades she had been absent. She wondered also what it augured for the future.
A tall woman, slender yet with great strength, Mardroma moved catlike, with an easy grace. Her hair was as black as a starless night and her flawless complexion was pale, as befits one who lived for the dark hours. She wore a cape of midnight blue and under that her tunic, a form-fitting garment of deep, dark red, added to the powerful aura she projected. Her eyes, which rarely smiled, were of an aqua so pale as to seem devoid of any colour at all; they were cold and without mercy. Her mother was Nott, Ruler of the Night, and Mardroma was herself the personification of Nightmare. Her weapon was terror and her power was great.
Asgard had ever resounded with laughter and merriment, with revelry and music, but was now all but deserted; even those few souls who strayed there were subdued. Mardroma was respectful in this hallowed place for she knew there was still much that she must learn. Loki had been her master, she his sole pupil, and she was anxious to learn from him still.
She found him in his chamber.
“My lord, Loki,” she said, “what has happened here? What is this misfortune that has befallen us?”
Loki turned to face her but the mischief that had danced in his eyes was gone. He was stooped and had aged—something Mardroma would not have believed possible—and his body showed the merest signs of wasting. He still wore the bright colours of old but, like the columns in the hall, they had lost their sheen. Yet still there was about him a feeling of power, as though a younger Loki remained within this weakened shell and longed to seize once again the authority that had been his to command.
“Mardroma! Is it you? Have you returned at such a time?” He walked to her and embraced her. “It is meet. I have much to tell you and must soon depart. Sit with me.”
He led her to a couch and, as he had passed knowledge to her many times before, he began to speak.
“The evil that besets us began long ago, fifteen centuries past as men measure time, and far away so that we had no warning of the danger to come.
“To the south, beside the Warm Sea that lies at the centre of the Earth, lived a young man, a Carpenter. He claimed no mortal father but professed to be the child of a tribal god. He went about the countryside teaching those who would listen, and calling people to his cause. Their numbers were few at first, but increased after his death, for it was said that he did not truly die, and those closest to him claimed to have seen him returned to life.
“The story was passed from nation to nation by the soldiers of the Roman conqueror for they, who daily put their lives in peril in the service of their emperor, found much comfort in the teaching. This Carpenter had promised that his followers would live forever.”
“And people thought they could become immortal, as we are, by following such doctrine? Why would they believe such nonsense?”
“It no longer matters why,” said Loki. “What's important is that, eventually, his followers brought the new religion to the North; as people turned to it, their faith in the old gods waned. The power we drew from them, the power we used for our very survival, is no longer available to us, and we are in decline. Odin, Thor, Freyja, Nott—most of the mighty ones—have already withdrawn to the frozen north. I leave soon to join them. When we are all gone Asgard will cease to exist.”
Mardroma's eyes blazed with anger and purpose. “I do not choose to retreat,” she said. “I shall fight this scourge. I will find a place where this Carpenter is not known and build a stronghold for myself.”
Loki nodded, thoughtfully. “There is such a place,” he said, “but it is a sun-blighted land so far away that not even the scholars by the Warm Sea know of its existence. It is peopled by primitive tribes and is home to animals so strange that they have no parallel in the North.”
“And these primitives, do they also follow the Carpenter?”
“No, they have had no contact with his followers. They revere a god they call the Rainbow Serpent who, in their lore, created the world, long ago in an era known as the Dreamtime.”
“Dreamtime Loki? I know all about dreamtimes for am I not the mistress of dreams? Dreams are my province and the night is my preserve. I think I might suit this southern land and its Rainbow Serpent. They have no other gods?”
“They are nature worshippers and have imbued the land with all manner of minor deities. Rocks and streams are their sacred places and only their initiates are permitted to visit them. The spirits who inhabit such sites grow stronger, as we once did, from the energy of these people. In some places the very land itself has enormous power.”
“Could such places be of use to us?”
“Anything can be useful to us, Mardroma, for we can remake what is there and build it closer to our own liking. There is one place you would find eminently suitable. Deep below a mountain range called Dimmiga Berg is an enormous limestone cavern, nay a series of caverns. These you would find to your liking, for there you could build on the things I have taught you; there you could develop your strength and influence. There also, deep below the mountains, you would be sheltered from the infernal heat of that land. From such a stronghold you could control a whole continent.”
“Would I want to control such savages? Where is the power in that?”
“It will not always be so, Mardroma. The people of the North will one day come in tall ships to settle this land, and when they do you will already have established your dominance.” Loki allowed himself to smile, though it was a sad smile. There was wistfulness in it.
“What of Svartalfar and the dark elves? Have they yet departed?”
“Their time is finished but they will not be permitted to join the gods in exile. Take them with you by all means, and the satyrs. They will prove themselves useful labourers, and they have gifts of their own that you may find useful.”
Loki clapped his hands once and a woman appeared; she arrived so quickly that she must have been awaiting his signal. She had an exquisitely sculpted face with alert, intelligent, green eyes; her hair was blonde and was worn in a long braid that extended below her waist; she was slim, but her body was covered in a shapeless, hooded robe of dull brown. This was Dom, Loki’s personal servant.
She bowed low before raising her eyes to meet Loki’s. “Summon Svartalfar,” he commanded. “Bring him to me.”
“At once, my lord.” She lowered her head in obeisance and backed out of the room.
“My lord Loki,” said Mardroma, “You spoke in the first person when you said that ‘we’ might reshape this land. Do you then plan to join me there?”
“Who knows? I must venture first to the North but in time I may come. It would give me pleasure to join you in this venture. We shall see.”
They were interrupted by the arrival of a creature, swarthy of skin, and dressed in a tunic of tanned leather. His feet were shod in boots above which a leather thong, encircling muscular calves, held in place leggings of goat’s hair. His arms, which were bare, were powerful and scarred from battle. On his head he wore the horned helmet of a Viking and on a wide leather belt he carried both sword and knife. He would have been short for a man but his body was thick with muscle, and vitality seemed to surge in him. This was Svartalfar, the captain of the dark elves.
He strode towards Loki and dropped to one knee. “My lord,” he said.
“Svartalfar, as you know, when the last of the gods have departed, Asgard will be no more. You may not join us on our journey but neither will you be able to stay here. What are you plans?”
“When you have no further need of me, my lord, I and my band will carve out a place for ourselves among the mortals. They may not like it,” he smiled grimly. “They may fight; but they will offer us little resistance.”
“There is an alternative that you may find attractive, in another land where the winters are warm, the food plentiful, and the people mostly peaceful. Mardroma, my pupil, will travel there to tame this land and to prepare a place for me should I follow. She has much power and will rule in my stead. If you choose to accompany her you will obey her without question.”
For the first time the elf acknowledged the woman. He turned to her, bowed his head in acquiescence, placed a hand on his sword hilt in salute, and said, “My lady.”
Loki spoke again. “Take Graffa and his satyrs with you. They have served me well and are worthy of a reward. You may find them useful. And Mardroma, you must take my little Dom with you. She has been my confidante and helper these many years and will be a valuable helper as well as an intelligent companion. It will give me pleasure to find her awaiting me, should I come.”
And so the decision was made. Mardroma, with Svartalfar as her lieutenant, set out for the great land that lay beyond the Centaur, beneath the five bright stars she knew as Sodra Kryss but which mortals called the Southern Cross.