3 - Fergus

I took my time on the way home, crossing easily back into the air above the Pacific and alighting on a large rock just off the coast of the city, in sight of Land’s End and the Sutro Baths. Nestling in a hollow in the great, craggy rock, I lost myself in the crashing of the waves and the salt spray. The cold wind and rough stone reminded me of my childhood haunts on the coast of Sweden, but now that I was no longer human, the chill affected me differently, and I found a comforting nostalgia in allowing the cold to creep into my chest and numb my body. The elements cleared my mind, replacing my worries with a thundering backdrop of sea and spray, fog and gray skies. The afternoon dimmed toward evening. The sun began to set unseen behind the clouds. As the wind whipped strands from my braid and ruffled my wing feathers, I imagined myself dissolving, opening my mind to the sea’s power, and I understood the rock as a kindred spirit, a barrier between land and sea, water and sky, solid and yet totally transformed by those opposing worlds. I let my mind drift for a long time.  Finally, I stretched and worked some feeling back into my limbs before taking off toward the Sunset District.

My bar is named Eikthyrnir, after the stag in Valhalla whose horns create the rivers of all the worlds. I knew when I made the sign that few people would recognize it or pronounce it correctly. I wanted something familiar to come home to in this strange, modern city, so I made myself a bar near the sea, with the ale-rune over the door, where, even if I found no souls to reap, I could at least fill my Valkyrie-inspired need to serve beer. So far, I’d served mostly the occasional surfer and a few neighborhood regulars. Eikthyrnir only offers beer and mead, all with names I either copied from popular modern beers or made up. I’ve done my research, tasting beer all around the city and recreating the ones I like most. I have them all on tap, connected to the Pacific Ocean right next door by way of the Otherworld, the misty alternate space which the bar and my own upstairs apartment also inhabit.

The advantage of my own interworld existence: when I first found myself on the streets of San Francisco, fully armored and still a little drunk, I walked until I found the sea. A few streets away, near the corner of 46th and Irving streets, I found what I was looking for: the ghost of an old wooden building, destroyed a century ago. The tall, narrow, two room structure, coexisting with a windy alley, took almost a full day to pull just a little farther into my new reality. It took energy to drag an Otherworld ghost into a living street and energy to keep it there. Luckily, the street still contained stones beneath the surface that had existed back in the time of the building. I was able to anchor the house to the stones, keeping it constantly in the world of the living without undue exhaustion on my part. When I left, I would loosen those anchors just enough that passing humans felt slightly uncomfortable about the place. I remembered from my years as an active Valkyrie that most humans instinctively avoided places on the border between worlds.

I changed the house in stages as my time in San Francisco continued. I found, wandering the city in search of souls, that people often left perfectly good furniture on the sidewalk. After the first few stares and comments about my strength, I stopped carrying heavy furniture during the day and kept those expeditions to late nights and early mornings.

In the evenings, I kept the building fully anchored and  watched customers trickle in, mostly neighborhood old-timers whose memories of the building felt fuzzy but who liked the coziness of the dark wood paneling and crackling fire on foggy nights. They paid for their mugs of beer with strange cloth money, which I learned represented different amounts of gold somewhere else. It was a bit like magic, that, and as time had passed, I’d learned to think of many aspects of San Francisco that way. The machines that trundled and screeched down the streets like great beasts; the little squares people used to speak to each other across distances. I wished I’d paid more attention to Olrun’s mead-scrying; her stories of how Midgard had changed. Yet, those early days walking the streets, listening to conversations in dozens of languages, taught me something I could not have divined from afar: the anxiety, the rush, the joy and pain of people’s lives emerging in a familiar anthem through all the crowded strangeness of the city.

I unlocked the door with my old skeleton key, flipped the sign, and headed upstairs to exchange my soaking wet armor for some cozy civilian clothes: a white wool sweater with slits for my wings, some soft brown leggings, warm socks and boots. I was so tired I almost didn’t bother putting my armor away properly. Only the years of training and living with Volund, who has a severe hatred of rust, caused me to carefully dry and wax my helmet and shield and oil my mail shirt before hanging them on the rack. Signy and Volund would never describe me as fastidious, but there are some rituals that have been drilled into me so often and for so long that I could do them in my sleep and probably have. A warrior needs her weapons to be clean, functional, and available. She needs to be aware of her environment and capable of using it to her advantage. I knew all of these things intimately. They’d been drilled into my bones even before I died, ever since my mother taught me to fight as a young girl. All of which made what happened next more or less inexcusable.

I didn’t even notice the mess in the taproom until I stepped in it on my way back downstairs. Broken glass littered the bottom stair and crunched under my boot. I peered around the corner, through the door that led to the main room. A puddle of beer and mead seeped out from behind the bar, two of the taps still running onto the floor. I froze in horror, appalled not just at the invasion of my space, but also at my own total obliviousness to it as I’d puttered around upstairs.

With my protections, an intruder shouldn’t have been possible. I’d felt so safe, so complacent, that I’d left my spear hanging next to my helmet and shield and swaggered downstairs without a care in the world. I crept back up the stairs, grabbed the spear, and flew down, adrenaline making my wings unfurl almost without my noticing. A growl sounded behind the bar, a growl and a strange whistling whine that raised the hair on my arms and neck as I hovered closer, spear in hand. I reached out with one hand and turned off the taps. In the sudden silence, I heard another wheezing growl, and possibly a snort. I leaned over the counter. Curled up in a puddle of beer with his mouth still open lay a tiny man in a red coat and buckled shoes. As I watched, he let lose another long, multi-part snore.

I nudged him with my spear, hard. The little man sputtered and rolled onto his side. I nudged him again, and this time he blearily opened his eyes.

“Yes yes, darling, gimme another whiskey,” he mumbled, and shut his eyes again.

Enough was enough. I reached over the counter, grabbed him by the collar, and lifted him into the air. My voice went cold. “What are you doing in my bar?”

He sputtered, opened his eyes again, and giggled soggily. Drool dripped onto his shirt. He didn’t reply.

It was time to take drastic measures. I took off. My wings sent gusts rustling the broken glass across the floor. In my fury, I barely noticed the energy it took to loosen the building’s anchors and let the walls become ghostly and thin. My upstairs furniture fell through the floor with a crash as I rose through both ceilings, dragging the little man up into the wind.

Clouds blew around us as grey-purple mist. The intruder gasped and shivered. I shook him, bringing his head close to my face, and snarled. “Well?” My voice was thin and creaky, needling its way into his skull. “What are you? How did you get in to Eikthyrnir? What kind of powers are you hiding? Are you a muspelsmeg? A dwarf? What?”

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, put me down!” the man squawked. By this time, his legs were thrashing wildly but his eyes had cleared significantly and he seemed able to pay attention to what I was saying. I thought I could even detect a gleam in his eye as he protested, “I can’t explain a thing up here, I’m freezing to death! You could drop me at any moment!” He gave a violent shiver, and I didn’t think he was faking it. Of course, seeing through falsehood has never been one of my skills, but in all honesty, his lips and fingertips had gone blue.

“All right,” I said, “but hold on. I don’t do this slowly,” and with that, I folded my wings and dropped.

We hurtled down through the winds and clouds until, just as the roof surged into sight, I spread out my wings and dragged at the air, landing lightly on the sticky, catastrophic floor of the bar. I put the still shaking, sweaty burglar on the counter in front of me and let the house fade back into existence. He stank of alcohol and fear, and something else I couldn’t quite identify, that could have been metal one moment and moss the next. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he became calmer by the second now that we had reached solid ground. He was already breathing almost normally as I glared at him and demanded, “Ok, creature, explain yourself. I know you’re no human. Even if a human could get inside the bar in the first place, they’d be dead from all that beer you drank. You’ve taken gallons!”

He looked surprised. “How can you tell?” He asked. “Those taps are limitless. It’s quite a trick you’ve got going on there. And don’t call me creature. I’m a clurichaun. I came here for a reason; I came to help you, if you must know. ” He stood up straight and puffed out his chest, looking extremely dignified and a little absurd with his beer-soaked white whiskers just starting to dry in the same haphazard position the wind had pushed them into. “I’ve come here to introduce you to the San Francisco Association of International Supernaturals.”

I stared at him, feeling slightly dumbfounded. Whose tail had I stepped on here? It seemed I had set up camp in an unknown cave, fully believing it was unoccupied, only to light a torch and find eyes reflected all around me. I found myself repeating him rather stupidly. “The San Francisco Association of International Supernaturals? Could you have picked a sillier sounding title? And, what do you mean, help me? Help me with what? What in all the nine worlds is a supernatural?”

“Oh sweet Medb, did you think you were the only magical person in San Francisco? That’s all a supernatural is, love, is a magical creature, like you, like me. We aren’t human, but we exist around the human world; we grew up with humans. Some of the lads in the society claim humans created us; some say the other way.”

“So, you’re like a Valkyrie or an Einherja? Were you a living man once?”

He grinned. “Oh, no. I was born from the minds of living men, though. I leapt and swaggered into existence through hundreds of drunken songs and dances; I growled and thumped my way out of bars and back rooms, out of the grind and sweat of drunken love-making, and the tears of men drinking their lost comrades,” He did a little jig – a jig of such utter insobriety that I was sure he would topple onto his face at any moment, yet he did not. “I’m the essence of wild fists and choked laughter, the god of drink in a world without gods!”

Apparently, there was no limit to how astonished I was able to become. “What do you mean, a world without gods?” I asked. “What world has no gods? Even Hel has a goddess. The gods go everywhere.”

“I haven’t seen a god in centuries. I came here from New York, and before that I was in the old country, Ireland, and I haven’t seen one of my own gods since about a hundred years before that, miss -?” He looked at me with both eyebrows raised. “What was your name?”

“I never told you my name. It’s Sigrid Spearthrower. And yours?”

“Fergus Laughland.” He grinned again, and despite his merriment, I could see something dangerous beneath that grin, a glint of mischief in his eyes. Hmm…I thought. Fire spirit. Better take care. Yet, my impressions of Fergus Laughland seemed to change by the minute. No sooner had I noticed that strange look than I had a different, equally convincing impression of absolute sincerity in his bulbous, cheery face. I filed them both away for later, and finally invited him to sit down at a booth. I filled two pint glasses with strong mead and set them lightly on the ancient table.

“I’ve decided to trust you,” I told him, and didn’t even know myself if this was the truth or a bald-faced lie. “Tell me about the San Francisco Association of International Supernaturals.”

“It’s easier if I show you,” said Fergus, “but to put it simply, we’re a collection of spirits that have gathered here in San Francisco over the centuries. We arrived with our people. There have been Irish people in San Francisco since before the Gold Rush, for example, and when they traveled they brought their legends with them; they continued to share those legends for long enough that I was able to follow them here. Of course, not all of my power comes from the telling of my stories; I thrive around raucous drinking, singing, and laughter, which have always abounded in this city. It was, frankly, a good place for me to come, and I’ve been here for a good two hundred years now.

“But some of us have been here longer than others. Coyote, perhaps, has lived here longest of all, though he never stays in the same place long enough for anyone to be sure. Toci, too, has been here for centuries under many names.”

I tried the names out experimentally. “Coyote? Toci? They are magical people like me, and they live in San Francisco already. And they know about me; I’ve strayed onto their territory. Do they want to challenge me? I could fight them!” I grinned a manic, toothy grin, letting the bloodlust appear in my eyes. I hadn’t fought a new opponent in centuries!

Fergus recoiled visibly from my expression. “No, no! It won’t come to that! You just come to our meeting tomorrow at dusk, and they can all meet you and explain the rules of living here. That’s all. So. I’ll tell everyone to expect you, shall I?”

I nodded. “Yes. I’ll come meet everyone.” I may have been a little disappointed with the lack of foreseeable violence, but I was still curious to meet these residents of my new city.

Fergus handed me a card and downed the rest of his mead in one smooth swallow. “That’s the address. It was a pleasure, Sigrid Spearthrower.” And with a tip of his hat, he swaggered out the door into the night.