The tavern could have been on any of a hundred worlds or realms or space stations; and like most taverns, the chief provisions it offered were shelter, camaraderie, and beer. The latter was of a variety labeled yrrg by the locals, but the name didn't matter. Whether you called it that or riverbread or aul or hops-wine, you knew it for what it was the minute you walked through the door and saw the tankards and smelled the mingled yeast and grain.
The tavern itself was notable for two reasons. The first was that it was partially carved out of the rock beneath a cliff overhang; the rest of the building was finished with rough timber sealed together with liquid plastic. This lent the interior a fragmented atmosphere that was only partly allayed by the many fires dancing merrily in their hearths beneath stone and wood alike, but what mattered was that although the wind moved cold drifts of snow through the dark outside, the inside of the tavern remained warm and wind-tight.
The second was the location of the tavern—the relative location, not the specific. While it was not on a city-plenty or some busy trade-route, the tavern was close enough to certain avenues that it received visitors. There weren't so many that their numbers caused trouble, but there were enough to lend a little color and interest, enough, in other words, to make for a good story.
And as years turned to decades and decades to centuries, the tavern began to count a number of notables among its travelers. It played host to heroes, generals, and luminaries, villains and monsters, petty criminals, thieves, outlaws and rogues, space pirates and refugee kings. It played host to Kree and Shi'ar, Titan and Terran, Brood and Skrull and scores of nameless things; it played host to a builder, a watcher, a warbird, and a madman. It even played host to gods.
On this particular evening, though, the luminaries had been dismissed in favor of less infamous company. Conversation and drink both flowed liberally through the crowd, the majority of which had known one another for their entire lives, and eventually the talk turned from the best way to hunt wolves to a topic that was popular throughout the realms—namely, how to kill a frost giant.
"What you need is one of those—what're they called? Those laser rifles!" said Old Corff.
"That's stupid, laser rifle will blow it apart and ruin the meat," said Meg. "You need a great bow like the elves use. Those things have got one-fifty, two hundred pounds of draw on 'em. Shoot clean through a wolf's head."
"Have either of you ever even seen a wolf?" said Charlie, who was their granddaughter and thought they were both full of it.
The stranger near the fire snorted. "I find it unlikely," she said. The keener-eyed and more sober among the throng noted she wore a fur collar over her shoulders; a few even knew what the fur meant.
"What," said Corff, "because I suppose you've killed so many wolves yourself?"
"Yes," said the stranger.
Corff set down his tankard. "And what's your preferred method for hunting 'em, then?"
In the firelight, the stranger's eyes glinted; one of her brows twitched upward at the challenge in Corff's voice, and a crooked smirk tugged at the corner of her mouth.
"Barehanded, of course," she said.
The crowd roared. There was an air of capability around the stranger that added just the right note of authority to her boasting, and anyway, she was on her second mug of yrrg, which demonstrated an appreciation that very nearly rendered her trustworthy.
"And do you require of the wolves the same courtesy?" called a heckler from the back.
"The wolves are welcome to arm themselves however they please," said the stranger, and she lifted her tankard in a toast.
Another round of laughter rippled through the crowd. "You've really hunted wolves?" said Charlie. "What's that like?"
"What you need to remember about wolves," the stranger said, "is that they have families. When you are tracking one, you must also guard yourself against his brothers. There are other wolves, too, of course, the kind who have been driven from their packs. The solitude makes them mad."
There was a moment of silence as the crowd contemplated this. It felt profound, although that might have been the yrrg.
One of the mercenaries who turned up every now and then scoffed. "Wolves!" he said. "Hunting a mindless beast, that takes no skill."
"What would you suggest instead, then?" said Meg. "People?"
"Nova Corps!" someone called out.
"Those Chitauri bastards!"
"Whatsisface—that one politician. You know, with them gamblers."
"The Avengers!" called out the heckler.
"Naw," said the bartender. "The Avengers are good. They saved my whole planet."
"Busybodies, more like," said Corff.
"See," said the mercenary, "the problem with the Avengers isn't killing them, it's making sure they stay dead. Back when I was in the employ of—well, never mind who it was, but I killed three of 'em in one day, and they were all alive again by noon."
"Always sticking their noses where they don't belong," Corff continued, like he hadn't heard anything. "Just some crazies from a backwater world nobody remembers, but no, they're always off starting wars or finishing them—"
"You shut it," said Old Meg.
"What about frost giants?" said the bartender.
"Frost giants?" said the stranger. "Would you like to know how to kill a frost giant?"
The crowd traded glances. Frost giants, those were what you told children about to give them a scare or keep them from running into the forest; but there were a few present, a very few, who remembered the frost giants, and who they were, and what they had done.
"What do they look like?" Charlie asked.
The stranger sipped at her yrrg and swallowed. "Fearsome," she said. "Beautiful, too, although I am no judge of beauty. Their skin is blue, their eyes red—but I have known jotun who assume a fairer form."
"Do they eat you?" asked the bartender.
"If you ask nicely," said the stranger, and she winked. Meg laughed so hard she almost fell off her stool, although most of her fellows didn't catch on.
"And if they ask meanly?" called the heckler in the rear.
"Then I eat them," the stranger called back, "and use teeth!"
"You've hunted everything," said Charlie, who was old enough to drink but young enough to remain impressionable—not that there were many who'd blame her; the stranger wore a sword girded at her side, and although she could have easily been a mercenary herself, no one there mistook her for a sellsword. Warrior, maybe; or simply huntress.
"I have tracked a flea from one end of the Glowing Desert to the other," said the stranger. "I have run demons to the ground until they dropped dead of exhaustion. I have fought dragons, and I have won. But none of those have given me half so good a chase as the frost giant I hunt now."
"He's wily, huh? The bastard giving you a good chase?" said Corff.
"Very wily," said the stranger. "Exceedingly wily. And yes, as you say, a bastard. I have tailed this one for sevenscore and seven years."
"And what will you do when you catch 'im?" asked Meg. "How d'you kill one of their kind?"
"Stab him through the heart?" said the bartender.
"No," said Corff, "that won't work on frost giants. Everyone knows you've got to catch them with a silver net in the moonlight."
"That's werewolves," said the mercenary. "I think."
"No, no," offered Cammie, who ran the garage down the street. "Frost giants you have to burn alive. Rope them up to something, douse them in oil, light 'em up. It's 'cause they're ice, see?"
"That doesn't make sense," said Meg. "If they're ice, they'd just melt and put the fire out."
They all turned together to the stranger, who was draining her tankard. When she was finished, she wiped the foam from her upper lip with the back of her hand and looked expectantly at the bartender; he gave a little leap when he noticed her regard and hurried to draw her more yrrg.
"Well?" said Corff.
"Well what?" said the stranger.
"Well, how do you kill a frost giant?"
"Ah," said the stranger. She half-rose to receive her mug from the bartender and then had to flick the tail of her red cloak out of the way as she sat again. "Killing a frost giant is easy. You have to smother them."
"Smother?" said Cammie; she'd been hoping for something more inflammatory. "Like, with a rope?"
"That's choking," said the bartender. "Smother is with a pillow."
"You smother frost giants with your pillow?" said Corff.
"Not with a pillow, no," said the stranger.
"With your thighs!" called the heckler.
"Shut up, not with her thighs," said Corff. "Not with a pillow—maybe with a blanket?"
"Sand," said Meg.
"Come on, Meg, you can't smother someone with sand—"
"You sure can!"
"She's right," said the mercenary. "I saw it done once."
"Well?" said Corff again.
"No," said the stranger, and for the first time she looked—distant, rather than ferocious or amused. Her gaze saw something far away, and she said, "You smother it with warmth."
There was another moment of silence as the crowd digested this, and then Cammie, her voice quietly hopeful, said, "You mean, like...setting it on fire?"
"I mean that you take it, and you keep it, and you give it names," said the stranger. "When it falls, you fall with it; when it rises, you feel glory. You let it take you in its arms, and you take it in yours. You chain it with promises and deeds and words that are honest, if not sweet, and you forget it is not tame. You keep it warm. You surround it and shroud it and suffocate it with warmth."
The stranger looked out at the crowd, and she took another swallow from her tankard. "Or," she said, "I hear you can stab it through the heart. That, I have found, is a reliable way to kill most creatures."
"And have you not done both?" the heckler said.
"I have done both," the stranger agreed. "I will do more."
"How strange," said Charlie. "And how sad."
"It's nonsense. I told you to stab it, didn't I?" said the bartender. "Stabbing almost always works, doesn't it, Erch?"
"Right you are," said the mercenary. "Stabbing almost always works."
The stranger shrugged. "Believe me, or do not," she said. "You asked how to kill a frost giant, and I have told you."
"I liked hearing about the wolves," said Old Meg. "Tell us about the wolves again."
"She doesn't know about wolves," said Corff.
"She does, you sod—"
"Well, what's her credentials?" said Corff. This brought a general cry of agreement from the more lubricated individuals in the crowd.
"Her credentials?" said the heckler. Odd, how when you looked for him, your eyes would slide away; Charlie and the bartender had both noticed it earlier and then promptly forgotten. "She is wearing her credentials."
"A sword doesn't mean anything," said the mercenary. "Lots of folks have swords."
"I mean her wolf-pelt," said the heckler.
"She could have bought it at a market," said Meg.
"She could have," the heckler agreed, "but she did not. That pelt belongs to one of the dire wolves of Asgard. Only the All-Father's berserkers are allowed to hunt them, and only the All-Father's berserkers have the skill to kill them."
The stranger swore, but it was too late. "A berserker," said Charlie.
"An Asgardian!" said Corff.
"You've hunted dragons?"
"How old are you?"
"Have you really taken a hundred lovers?"
"That old one, whatshisname—"
"What about those fancy apples?"
"Why did the bridge shatter?"
"Do you know the prince—"
"More yrrg?" asked the bartender.
"Yes," said the stranger. "More yrrg is certainly in order. And then, if you are all quiet, I will tell you of the dragon."
Nobody noticed when the heckler slipped quietly from the back of the room. He didn't go far; it was as cold outside the tavern as it was warm inside, but the cold didn't bother him. Once he had been bothered by the not-bothering, but he was older now, and more seasoned, and had learned to take every advantage he could.
It was very late when the crowd finally flooded into the street. They went laughing and slurring back to their homes, although none of them saw the heckler, who stood in the middle of the road watching the stars whirl in their firmament. Finally and last of all came the stranger, who had drained twice as much yrrg as any other and yet was still steady on her feet.
The stranger came to stand beside him. "I should hit you for that," she said.
"Or smother me with your thighs," the heckler suggested.
"Your sense of humor is as crude as ever."
"And you remain delightfully appreciative," said the heckler. "How long has it been?"
"Years," said the stranger. "Longer, maybe. Since I last threw you down from Hlidskjalf."
"Years? For me it has been ages, and that fall is long gone from my memory."
"You still lie," said the stranger.
"Would you know me if I didn't?"
"No," the stranger admitted. Snow had started to drift down from the sky; it fell gently, silently, in thick white flakes that caught in her dark hair.
"The night is cold," said the heckler.
"And you are colder."
"But you have fire enough for us both, do you not?"
The stranger looked startled, and then, although she was long out of practice, she laughed. "Are you asking me to extend tonight's truce?"
"Until morning," the heckler said. "And perhaps beyond that."
"I won't make peace with you," she said. One of her hands was clasped over the pommel of her sword, as it had been from the start of their conversation. "Whatever else you might be, you are still a traitor."
"Come with me tonight," he said, and he offered her his hand. "I promise you will have no peace, not unless you beg for it."
The stranger looked at what was offered her, and then she reached out and set her hand in his.
"I will not beg," she said, "not before morning, but yes: I will go with you."
"Good," said the heckler. "Although this time, I would appreciate it if you kept your teeth to yourself."
"Only if you ask nicely," said Sif.