The Cycle of Axer Carrick
Part III -- Frostmelt
by Henry Wyckoff


Chapter 5


The bar was the kind of place where unemployed lumberjacks hang out. The walls were covered with fake-wood paneling, the carpets were red and black plaid, and a small TV hung in the corner, where a bunch of drunks watched the football game that was being broadcast on the other side of the border.

The only one seated at the bar was a long-haired and bearded guy who looked like he stepped straight out of a lumber mill. Even his pants had sawdust all over them.

"Well?" asked Axer. "Where is this god of yours?"

"He'll be here. Why don't you just sit over there at the bar and wait for him, while I send Kate where she can get some real food?"

"Is this that kind of place?"

"No."

Kate smirked while Axer's eyes widened. "I see. How long are you going to be?"

"Myself -- just a few moments, but Kate might take a little longer."

Axer shrugged and sat down at the bar. The miller looked at him and shrugged. The guy looked like he was pretty drunk, but not falling down yet.

"What'll you have?" asked the bartender, a young man who looked like he wasn't even old enough to serve drinks.

"Give me some St. Andrews with a shot of Glenmorangie."

"Do you want a Scotch-Bomb or should I serve them separately?"

"Separate." Axer stared at the guy, and he backed off uncomfortably.

"Oh, of course, sir." He scurried off to the refrigerator, grabbing the bottle and giving it to him.

Axer shook his head sadly. "You have no experience with anything other than Bud Light, do you?"

"Er... no. Everyone usually wants a Bud."

"Let me give you a quick lesson in drinking, laddie boy... Beer isn't served in a bottle unless you're a construction worker or a driller -- or you're trying to show off your low breeding. Real beers are served in glasses or mugs. This, laddie, is an ale. Ales, stouts, and such are poured *straight down* into the glass. You *want* the foam. See? The English *really* know their beer. If they see that the foam isn't just the right height -- they won't drink it -- even if they're so drunk that they can't even hold onto a blade of grass.

"And scotch -- you don't *bomb* it into a beer! That's what yuppies do with sake and that horrid drink the Japanese call beer! I say: if you can't drink your Water of Life neat -- then you'd better put your diapers back on!"

The bartender was openmouthed in astonishment -- nobody had ever treated him with such disrespect in his life, or ever told him how to do his job. He didn't quite know how to react to this man.

"Don't look so shocked, laddie! You, working in a lumberjack bar, ought to be thinking I'm downright polite -- unless you've been expecting me to talk like a New Jersey driller all along!"

The other guy drinking at the bar had tried so desperately to keep from laughing, but he failed miserably. His head hit the table as he collapsed in hysterical laughter, his hand pounding the table. When he was eventually able to stop, tears openly rolled down his face from bloodshot eyes.

"Oh," he spoke in a Minnesota accent, the slurring in his voice making it hard to understand him, "trust a mad Scot to tell you how to drink -- and serve!"

"I'm not Scottish -- I'm Welsh."

"A Welshie, eh? Same difference."

Axer thought for a moment, trying to make sense out of it.

The man held out his hand with a golden smile -- all his teeth were gold -- "Doug Adams."

"Axer Carrick. Is that a Minnesota accent?"

"Sure is. In between jobs right now -- I used to be a woodworker, but the place closed down today. I'm spending my severance pay." He didn't seem too distressed about it. "Twenty years of faithful service, and all they give me is a hundred -- and a good luck wish!"

"What's your pleasure?"

"You're buying me a round? I think I'll try what you're having."

Axer looked meaningfully at the bartender, who was just now regaining his wits. But he poured a jigger instead of a shot. Oh well...

The drinks kept coming, and time passed, but both of them were enjoying the ale and scotch so much that time didn't seem to matter. Perhaps that's why it didn't occur to Axer that the conversation was taking an unusual turn.

"Tell me, what do you do for a living?"

"Me?... Not much. I used to be a professional executioner, and I got tired with the job. I later became a scientist, but lost my funding when the budget cuts came. Now I'm somewhat retired, except I got pulled out of retirement."

"What pulled you out?"

Again, it never occurred to him that he should be keeping his mouth shut. "Some old war buddies of mine decided that I'd swung to the other extreme. 'Obsessive-compulsive', the General said. So he took the initiative and told Kate enough to make her suspicious... And I had to tell her -- and almost lost her." His face fell as he became introspective.

Doug quickly jumped to the rescue, his eyes becoming more focused. "You were going to tell me why you got pulled out of retirement..."

"Oh, yeah!" His face became more animated. "Mostly a bunch of interesting but useless stuff that's more fitting for archaeologists and mythologists. You see, Powys believes he's a priest of Loki, and said that Loki told him to do all these things -- part of them being to pull me out of retirement and send me off to the tip of Canada. I like tundra land -- I've a home away from homes hidden away up there -- but I don't like being told all this mystical crap!

"Vikings who travel to Canada so that they can guard something... Vanishing... Coming back... What the hell does he think I am, a New Ager?!"

"What part do you have a problem with?"

Axer thought for a moment. The alcohol was impairing his ability to think clearly -- his vision was already going -- and he downed his tenth double shot. What came out was the raw truth, "The idea of gods, and gods telling Powys to do things. Look, we've outgrown all that nonsense. There aren't any gods of fire, wind, and so on. I can prove and explain just about anything in existence by science and mathematics, and work out the rest with logic. I just can't see gods fitting into it."

"Yet you believe in the Great Mother."

"Did I tell you that?" he was a bit confused, but shrugged. "I do. But you never asked me what claims I made. I believe that the Great Mother is the 'life' that permeates everything, the 'drive' that makes everything move, and the 'death' that takes us and starts the cycle again.

"The Great Mother isn't some idol or god that I cower in front of, blame for all the things that go wrong in my life, and so on. She's a symbol... a metaphor... something that gives existence meaning. Do I believe that she's an intelligence? No. Maybe a spirit."

"What do you mean by 'spirit'?"

Axer thought for a moment. "Un momento, por favor?"

Doug smiled, nodding. "Good for you I spent my college years in Mexico."

Axer tried to get up, but he almost fell down. Doug jumped in and helped him out. "Where do you need to go?"

"Help me get to the musician over there," he slurred. With some help, they made it to the place where a grizzled old man was playing some country songs on an old, beat-up twelve-string guitar. He wasn't too bad, but he wasn't too good either -- just enough to break the silence without any complaint.

The old man had finished his last song, and was sipping some Bud. He looked up at the two approaching men and wheezed, "Can I help you?"

"Yeah," smiled Axer, "I was wondering if I could use your guitar for a moment and show my friend here something."

The old man looked doubtful, and said, "Let me feel your fingers."

Axer held them out, and the old man felt the tips of all his fingers, and felt the muscles between the thumbs and forefingers. "OK.," he nodded. "Just wanted to make sure you weren't some drunk going blackout on me."

Doug laughed pretty hard at that one, and helped Axer sit down. He took the guitar and started tuning it a bit finer than the old man had it. The old man nodded, and for some reason smiled.

"Now, you asked me what I meant by spirit," said Axer. "Take a look at this guitar. Leave it alone, and it just sits there -- aging, and eventually going back to the elements, but pick it up, and it changes."

He started loosening his fingers with some arpeggios and scales, "Once you start playing, you get sound, but there's still something missing."

Though he was drunk enough to topple over, his fingers came alive, playing one of those Scottish songs that everyone from the old country could probably recognize, but never name because it was too old and off-the-beaten path. He played it in a traditional fashion, with the expected mood, tempo, and chords. "So now you have something that's pleasant to the ear, and gets a few people interested..."

The old man leaned back a little, his expression that of one deep in thought.

"But then, the missing spark is added." Like a light was flipped on, the song became the underlying foundation for a sound that took the whole room. Everyone stopped what they were doing and listened intently to the wordless song that painted a picture of a heart-gripping blue and green of a forest. Eventually, the words came in a soft whisper, but they were in a language unknown to all -- it didn't confuse anyone, but rather augmented the sound in a way that made it much more powerful. Then the song ended.

The room erupted with the sound of hooting and hollering that died down when Axer gave the guitar back to the old man. "That, Doug, was the 'spirit' I mean. It can't really be defined, but it's real enough -- and it's not this mystical crap you have to 'believe' in. What's more, it won't save your soul or make you walk on water.

"Maybe I should say spirit is when science becomes an art."

Doug smiled at him, "It sounds like you've become quite a craftsman."

"The best scientists are craftsmen," Axer smiled back. Then his guts rebelled. "It looks like I'm getting old -- my guts won't let me drink like I used to."

"That was a lot of scotch you drank -- I'd be afraid to see how much you used to drink."

"You should have been at Tam O'Shanty's a while back!" he laughed. His guts protested again. "Help me to the bathroom?"

Doug helped him up. "It's that bad?"

"You don't want to know. Come on!"

Axer made it to the Porcelain Throne just in time. Doug politely looked the other way until Axer had finished and needed help to get off his knees. He shook his head, "You don't look so good -- your face is white as a sheet, and you don't have a tan to begin with."

He smiled weakly. "I've had worse. Feel hungry for Polish sausage?"

"You're ready to eat at a time like this?"

"Better living through chemistry! Eat Polish sausage and buttered crackers, and drink water super-saturated with baking soda, and the worst of the effects will end half as fast -- and no hangovers!"

Doug looked doubtful at him.

"Come on! What are you waiting for?"

Axer was looking much better when Powys and Kate returned. She took a good whiff of him as she got near and saw the look of his face, and blanched pretty well for a pale-skined vampire. "Axer!" she nearly shrieked. "What happened to you?"

Doug pulled her away a few feet and whispered something in her ear. She nodded, the look in her face becoming more and more worried, but also more irritated at the same time. After a few moments, she came back and helped him to stand up.

"OK., you big drinker," she said in annoyed tones, "let's see how well we can walk now that you've emptied the whole bar."

"I didn't drink *that* much!" he protested as she helped him out -- using some of her augmented strength in the process.

"Oh, really?" She had been born in Ireland, and heard almost every excuse imaginable. It was a good thing that nobody else understood the things she said in Irish -- which Axer could piece together well enough to get the general meaning of. This evening was bad enough, but it was going to get a hell of a lot worse.

Axer turned around to look at Powys. "A few hours waiting for your 'Heimdall' and he didn't even show up!"

Kate tugged at him, forcing him to concentrate on walking.

Powys smiled fondly at the two leaving the bar -- they would do well, he decided. He looked at Doug, asking, "What do you think, Golden?"

Doug smiled fondly at the two as well, "He has his scars, but I see a good man there. A good thing he didn't meet up with Thor -- poor Thor would have been on the floor by now. I would be too if I hadn't slipped a note to the bartender asking for apple juice instead of scotch!"

"How much *did* he drink?"

"A whole bottle of single malt, not to mention fifteen bottles of St. Andrews!" He made a face. "Too hoppy for my taste!"

Powys shook his head. "He's backsliding. That must be the equivalent of at least two or three hundred ounces of beer!"

"No. He's not backsliding -- he's using painkiller for the days ahead."

"You really think so?"

"Oh yes... He has much more... hope in his eyes. The next few hours might put them both to the test, but I think Fate gave both of them a good turn."

* * * *


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