Chapter Four:

Buzzards or Eagles?

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    On a south facing cliff that looked out over the Norseland and rose up to a pair of tall, slender spires, clinging to it as a bracket fungus clings to the trunk of a tree, a small hall gleamed green and gold in the mid-afternoon sun. Gold beams and pale-green slate jutted from the cliff to define top and bottom of the hall, bracketing between them tall windows, clear as still water, that ran the full length of the hall and wrapped around its ends to merge with the translucent-gray rock of the cliff. From window to cliff the hall was twenty paces wide and it was fifty paces long.

The Norsefolk all know that beauty and grace

have taken up residence in this enchanted place.

Sorcery and poetry in visions come from here,

woven on Freyja's magic loom in the hall called Sessrumnir.

    A shallow bowl of a stone hearth two paces wide rose knee high in the middle of the room. A low flame, alternating blue and gold, ebbed and flowed within it, rising and falling in waves and here and there swirling up in glowing microtornados. Freyja lounged on piled up cushions near the hearth and gazed into its flame. A man-big mantis, apparently made of pale wood, crouched next to her: it held a parchment scroll open on a short plank and steadied the plank on one of its knees. Reaching a decision, Freyja plucked a sharpened quill from its holder on the mantis' forearm, dipped it into the inkpot in the mantis' thorax, and in a delicate hand drew the characters of the Futhark on the scroll, stringing them together into a poem of celebration.

    She was distracted from her work by the faint sound of women's voices, their music tinged with the shrill notes of panic. Putting the quill into its holder, she waved the mantis away and, when it retreated, she levitated herself off the cushions and floated over to stand by the window. She saw storm clouds in the far distance and then she saw Odin: he had a bundle tucked under one arm and was towing what first appeared to be four dirty-brown little clouds. The valkyries had learned to float on air, Freyja saw, and they were clinging desperately to the rope that Odin was holding. Worse -- she saw Odin towing the valkyries straight toward the entrance to her hall. She strode over to the hole, three paces wide, in the floor at the west end of the room, leaned on the waist-high wall around its rim, and glared at Odin as he brought his cargo up through it.

    As soon as their feet touched the pink-moss carpeting the valkyries, still dressed in dried blood and tatters, released their grips on Odin's rope, slunk over to the hearth, and stood trembling in a tight clump. Odin tossed his bundle onto a waist-high pile of cushions.

    "I don't want those disgusting things in here," Freyja whispered harshly.

    "Judge not what you know not," Odin said quietly.

    "I know what valkyries are," Freyja said quietly in dark tones.

    "You know not enough," Odin said. "Take a little time to know these better." He beckoned to the valkyries. "Brynhild, come introduce your sisters to Freyja!"

    The red-haired valkyrie shyly walked over to Odin and Freyja with the others trailing close behind her.

    "We're truly only cousins," she said, "but we stick together like sisters." She pointed to the girl with mousy-brown hair and said, "This is Borgny. And Tori," she said, pointing to the raven-haired girl, "and Kari," pointing to the blonde, "and I'm Brynhild," she finished, giggling self-consciously.

    Borgny nudged her.

    "She knows that already," she whispered. "Ask Odin about our dresses."

    Brynhild turned to Odin.

    "You told us we were coming here to get clean and get some new clothes."

    "Ah, yes," Odin said. "Let me show you these before you go to bathe."

    He unfastened the strap binding his bundle and laid out on the cushions undergarments, boots, and four white dresses that had Runish patterns embroidered on them with threads that shone iridescent blue, gold, red, green, and violet. Each dress had a broad, waist-length capelet attached at the shoulders.

    "Oh, goody!" Borgny said with mock enthusiasm. "We're going to be butterflies!"

    Freyja smiled in spite of her distaste for these befouled creatures.

    Holding up a dress, Odin said, "The fabric can't be cut and won't burn or tear. It's easy to clean. Even blood won't stick to it."

    Brynhild picked up one of the four foot-long scabbards that were attached to worked-leather straps and half drew the dagger. She marveled at the glittery, translucent silver-blue blade.

    "Sharp enough to cut bone," Odin commented. "It'll never break, never dull."

    Brynhild slid the dagger back into its sheath and set it with the others.

    "That will make dining a load easier," she said.

    Odin pointed to a knee-high wall that stood two paces out from the cliff. Luminous tunnels led into the cliff at the wall's ends.

    "You'll find a bathing pond over that wall," he told the valkyries.

    The valkyries scampered to the wall, lined up along it, and looked over it.

    "You didn't need to bring them here," Freyja said to Odin.

    "It would be unseemly for me to keep them in Valaskjalf," Odin said. "I have already heard more remarks than I need to hear or want to hear about my declining taste in women."

    "How deep is it?" Brynhild asked.

    Borgny put her hands on the wall and leaned over to get a better look.

    "It looks deep," she said. "He said it's a bathing pond, so it must be deep enough."

    Overhearing the valkyries, Freyja called out to them.

    "Hey, I keep that water a little chilly."

    At the same time Brynhild, without looking and in one smooth motion, brought her hand around, put it on Borgny's back, and shoved. Borgny tumbled over the wall with a yelp, a splash, and a shriek.

    "It's cold!" Borgny screamed.

    "Yes, it is," Freyja said to no one in particular.

    "Is it deep enough?" Brynhild called to Borgny.

    "It's deep enough for me to drown you!" Borgny screamed.

    Brynhild let out a whoop and vaulted over the wall, hitting the water below with a splash and a squeal. More splashing and squealing followed. Tori and Kari sat themselves down on the wall, their legs dangling over the bathing pond, to watch.

    "The Runes only gave them the ability to fly," Odin said to Freyja. "I need you to show them how to turn that ability into skill."

    "I told you that I would not," Freyja said.

    "No, actually you did not," Odin replied. "You told me something quite different and you did so free of any duress."

    He took the pink-and-brown Rune from his beltpouch and gave it a light underhanded toss. It hit the floor and gave out a soft whump as it exploded into a small cloud of swirling pink-and-brown smoke. Tori and Kari turned their heads to watch as the cloud pulled in on itself and became a large salmon whose lower fins were elongated into legs shod in little buckskin boots.

    "Oh, flyspecks!" Freyja said as she watched the salmon march resolutely across the floor. "You know the skill as well as I do," she said to Odin. "Why don't you teach them?"

    Alerted by a heavy dripping sound, Tori and Kari hurriedly tried to get up off the wall. Brynhild and Borgny rose up, grabbed them, and all four valkyries disappeared behind the wall with a loud splash, followed by shrieks, squeals, and more splashing.

    "I don't have the time," Odin said. "It is urgent that I spread my story as quickly as possible before the Norsemen weave their own conclusions from the sight of Brynhild and her sisters carrying bodies away from battlefields."

    "I don't understand the urgency," Freyja said.

    "Hey, wait!" Tori called out. "Don't touch me with that! What is that stuff?"

    "It's called soap," Brynhild said. "It's only dangerous to scum and dirt."

    "Run for your life, Tori!" Borgny cried out. "Don't let her touch you with it!"

    "Do you remember," Odin asked Freyja, "what happened when Loki tried to create three women from a corpse, a dog, and a snake? Do you remember the stories that the Norsefolk wove on the looms of their imaginations? And even Loki, with his cleverest wiles, could not unravel those stories and reweave them into the truth once they were shared around."

    "And he will never forgive the Norsefolk for that insult, will he?" Freyja said.

    "No, of course not," Odin said. "The incident hurt him badly and he still uses the memory of it to torment himself and thereby keep his anger fresh. But what I am pointing out to you is the necessity that I plant my story quickly enough and securely enough that no other will grow in the Norsefolk's minds when they hear about flying valkyries."

    Freyja laughed sarcastically.

    "To what chaos is the world coming? First Loki strives to weed out lies and nurture the truth and now you want to plant a lie before the truth can grow. What comes next? Shall Thor become weak? Shall Idun's apples bring us senility and disease? Shall I write songs and poems of misery and hate?"

    "A new age is coming," Odin said warily, "and bringing with it new opportunities. It will be an age in which even valkyries can be stainless clean and can soar proud as eagles."

    "More like buzzards," Freyja commented.

    "If you would not speak of them in such words," Odin said, "they would offend you less. Their stay here shall be easier for you to endure if you perfume them with sweeter words."

    "For how long a time do you intend to store them here?" Freyja asked.

    "First I must spread my story over the entire Norseland," Odin said, "and at the same time keep the valkyries properly fed. Then I must teach them how to fly so that they can validate my story and feed themselves. Then I can cast a Rune that will provide a house for them." He sighed. "I knew that I would need help with this task. I was relying on Loki to help me."

    "Hah!" Freyja barked incredulously. Then she sighed and said, "If I teach your valkyries to fly, how shall I shorten their stay in Sessrumnir?"

    "By more than half," Odin said.

    "If I'm lucky," Freyja muttered, "they'll fly away and get lost." Then to Odin she said, "Agreed, then. I'll teach them how to fly."

    Odin and Freyja then became aware that the splashing and squealing had stopped. Looking toward the bathing pond, they saw four wet valkyries peering over the wall at them.

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    The valkyries waited until after Odin had left before coming over the wall to dry themselves. Once they were dry and their old clothes discarded, Freyja was obliged to help them dress in their new clothes. She was obliged to explain the use of undergarments, with which the valkyries were unfamiliar, demonstrate how to wear them, and then showed the valkyries how to secure their daggers lest they be lost in flight.

    When the valkyries were dressed and had become reasonably comfortable in their new clothes, Freyja showed them the basic moves of flight. She told them to pay special attention to her hands, then she raised her arms over her head, dipped both hands, and fell forward. She stopped her fall and levitated herself back upright.

    "That's called pitch down, because if you do it when you're flying level, it will put you into a dive." She lifted both hands, fell over backward, and then levitated back upright. "That's pitch up," she said. "From level flight it puts you into a climb." She dipped her right hand, lifted her left hand, and pirouetted to face to her left. "That's a roll to the right, because it's what you do to go into a right turn." She lifted her right hand, dipped her left hand, and pirouetted to face to her right. "And that's a roll to the left," she said.

    "Because that's what you do to go into a left turn," Brynhild said.

    "Correct," Freyja said. "Pitch and roll are all that you truly need to know to guide your flight."

    "What's this called?" Borgny asked. She raised her hands over her head with the palms of her hands facing each other, tilted both hands to her left, and leaned to her left.

    "That's a yaw to the left," Freyja said. "You won't use yaw much and when you do, it comes to you as a natural gift from the spring that nourishes your thoughts."

    "But wouldn't we use it for turning?" Tori asked.

    "No," Freyja said. "If you try to yaw into a turn, you will only end up flying sideways. Air is slicker than ice, so you must use your levitation to push you through a turn. If you see a place whither you wish to go, roll until it appears to be above you and then pitch up and levitate strongly until you are flying straight at it."

    While the valkyries contemplated what she had said, she admonished them to acquaint their thoughts with all of the ideas that she had shown them. Then she showed them some levitation exercises to practice, levitated herself to the hole in the floor, and dove through it.

    Emerging beneath Sessrumnir and falling along the cliff, Freyja pitched up and levitated. When she saw that the horizon had come down to only slightly above her line of flight, she rolled left and added a gentle thrust to her levitation, putting herself into a climbing left turn. She rolled right again when she saw deeply shadowed cliffs to her left, straightening her flight path into a shallow climb along Asgard's eastern flanks. With the mountains and glaciers of the Norseland far below her, clear pale-blue sky above her, the horizon far away, and the shadow-darkened cliffs of Asgard floating majestically past her, she savored the wind, luxuriating in the feel of it flowing over her hands and arms, brushing back her hair, and caressing her body from head to toe. She rose until she could see Gladsheim, then she rolled left again and turned until her flight path was a shallow glide aimed at the hall's entrance. Concentrating her attention on her approach to landing, she was only faintly aware that the cliff under Gladsheim looked...a little different. She pitched up, played thrust and levitation against gravity and her own forward motion, and came to a dead stop, landing on her feet in the hall's entrance.

    Thor was still there, lost in thought. When he saw Freyja come into the hall, he called a greeting to her and asked whether she would offer suggestions on suitable gifts for the wedding in Trollhavn. She agreed to help him with his selections and invited him to join her in the Cavern of Choosings. Together they went to the wide well on the west side of Gladsheim and, thrusting to slow their fall, they descended the shaft to a cavern that curved further under the mountain.

    Giant fireflies, fastened to the walls and ceiling with spider silk, cast pale yellow light throughout the cavern. Here and there translucent-gold honey-spiders, the size of stonecutter ants, fed honeyballs to the fireflies. Twin streams of stonecutter ants flowed along ledges cut into the cavern's walls, the scraping of the ants' claws on the rock filling the cavern with a soft hiss. On the cavern's floor clothing, weapons, blankets, cushions, and other goods in bewildering variety were laid out in neat piles.

    "So, if I understand this story correctly," Freyja said as she searched through a pile of cushions, "Valhall is a place here in Asgard whither the valkyries will bring the most valiant warriors slain in battle and those warriors' souls will live there forever."

    "Not forever," Thor said. "Only until the great battle at the end of the world. That's when we and the evil Frost Giants will destroy each other."

    "What a strange story!" Freyja said as she moved on to another pile. "It has no happy ending. What good can there be in a story that leaves people feeling bad at the end?"

    "None that I can see," Thor said. "It's like a guest who insults you when he leaves your house. But what makes this story appear even stranger to me is the amount of planning and effort that Odin must have put into weaving it. The council of my thoughts tells me that such is not behavior true to one who acts before he thinks."

    Freyja held up what appeared to be a bearskin rug and examined it. The legs were stubby and had no claws and the head was overly broad and had no facial features.

    "Only a strong reason can compel someone to follow a path that deviates far from the path that he is accustomed to follow," she said. "Is Odin enacting a compulsion that he has hidden?"

    She laid the rug over Thor's outstretched arm, selected three more just like it, and draped them over Thor's arm with the first.

    "I believe that suspicion is likely true," Thor said. "The reason that he showed me for the story seems weak and defenseless, though I can't yet see how to defeat it. He claims that he is trying to relieve the Norsefolk of their superstitious fear of valkyries."

    "He spoke to me of a new age when valkyries are clean and soar like eagles," Freyja said as she walked over to a pile of blankets.

    "A new age?" Thor said. "Didn't the Norseland gain new age enough when Asgard rose up out of the Dream Sea?"

    "Odin seems to believe not," Freyja said as she selected a thick blanket and draped it over Thor's free arm.

    "I wonder what's truly being said in the council of his thoughts," Thor mused.

    Freyja selected three more blankets and draped them over Thor's arm.

    "Now, there's a fog in which I wish not to fly," she said. She looked over Thor's burden, sighed, and said, "This should be sufficient. Let's get it home." She led the way to a low, narrow dais that rose out of the floor in front of a small tunnel into the wall.

    "Freyja," Thor said hesitantly as she lifted the rugs off his arm and piled them onto the dais, "you have my sympathy for the way in which Odin has treated you. And I...well, I want you to know that you will be welcome in my home as long as the valkyries are in yours."

    "Thank you, Thor," Freyja said. She lifted the blankets off his arm and piled them on top of the rugs. "Your sympathy alone lightens this burden and I am deeply grateful. For now, though, I shall not intrude upon your hospitality."

    She stepped to the wall and blew a breath toward the ledge. Several ants paused, leaned away from the wall, and waved their antennae in her direction. She slipped her hand under the thorax of one ant, lifted the ant off the ledge, and allowed it to stroke her free hand with its antennae. Then she set the ant onto her pile of rugs and blankets. The ant scurried around the pile, then climbed the wall to the ledge, paused a heartbeat, and led a line of ants down onto the pile. Forming teams, the ants lifted the blankets and rugs one by one and carried them into the tunnel.

    "You may change your decision at any time," Thor said. "And please don't consider your stay in Bilskirnir an intrusion. Sif and I will both be pleased to have your company. And you will be able to sleep soundly."

    "Oh, I'm not afraid that the valkyries are going to bite me," Freyja said. "It's not fear that blows through my heart; the breeze is more that of a discomfort."

    "That's certainly understandable," Thor said.

    "It's not even what you are assuming," Freyja said, "though that habit of theirs certainly contributes richly to my queasiness. No, it's more.... Oh, Thor, whatever you do," she said, laying a hand on his arm, "don't let yourself get caught in the midst of a valkyrie blatherfest."

    I will keep that advice close to my heart," Thor said. Then he led the way deeper into the cavern to explore possible wedding gifts with Freyja.

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