Chapter Three:

Courting the Runes

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    In the deep winding valley that nearly cuts Asgard in two, defining the mountain's northern and southern parts, there was, behind a boulder, beneath an overhang, a wide crack in the rock. Slipping through that crack, Odin entered a small cave, a passageway that curved downward into the mountain. Water, in cold clear droplets, dripped from the ceiling and ran down the walls into a rill that ran along the path, watering the luminous lichens whose pale blue glow lit the path. Odin had not walked far before the passage opened out onto a wide cavern whose top and bottom were not visible. The trail continued to the right, along a ledge that ran halfway around the cavern and disappeared into a tunnel on the opposite side. The rill spilled its water over the lip of the ledge, but no sound of water splashing onto rock came back from the abyss. A violet-sparkling mist rose through the cavern, its faint glow illuminating the trunk of a giant tree.

Its roots dig into the Creation of the World, the Milky Way's ensnared in its crown.

And even tumultuous Ragnarok won't bring this ash tree down.

What magic flows within its sap, what powers no one knows.

It's on this unshakable Yggdrasill that the deadly Runeforge grows.

    Where the ledge was widest it touched the tree. Just above that point a blaze, somewhat higher and wider than a man, had been cut into the bark. Gold-glowing sap flowed across the blaze as though bark still covered the wood. Freyja, transparent as a ghost, was fixed to the blaze by a spear that she had rammed through her side and into the wood. Her hands still gripped the spear's shaft and blood soaked her dress. Sap flowed along the spear, into her wound, and circulated within her body in gold-and-red currents and eddies.

    "You pass away much time in here," Odin said, "to the neglect of the sea shrines."

    "The shrines shall endure," Freyja replied. Her lips did not move nor did her eyes, though Odin paced from side to side in front of her as he spoke.

    "The Norsefolk need assurance of the sea god's continuing favor," Odin said.

    "And his daughter must appear frequently to remind them of it?" Freyja said. "Really, Odin! What assurances do they truly need? They don't venture beyond those calm, gentle fjords and they know that we ensure a plentiful supply of fish for their lines and nets. If they dared to venture onto the Ocean Sea, the situation would be different."

    "Some have so ventured," Odin reminded her, "and we have seen the funerals. You don't know how important your assurances are then."

    "When there is another funeral," Freyja said, "I will go. Otherwise...."

    "You're neglecting your responsibilities," Odin said.

    "Ah, good," Freyja said. "Let's talk about responsibility. Especially let us talk about the responsibility to fill the empty expectations that one's promises have created."

    "I will fill up the vessel of my promises," Odin said, "but I will do so only when the time is right."

    "Agreed," Freyja said. "All responsibilities should be carried out at the right time."

    "Do the guardians of my heart detect a private meaning hidden in the thicket of your words?" Odin asked.

    "The guardians of your heart may detect whatever you wish them to find," Freyja said, "but I have hidden no special meaning among my words. Like you, I will carry out my responsibilities at the right time. I will offer the Norsefolk my 'father's' assurances when they truly need them. Otherwise, the assurances shall be offered according to my convenience."

    "You're flying toward trouble," Odin said angrily.

    "Am I, indeed?" Freyja asked innocently. "Are the guardians of your heart now detecting a thunderstorm hidden in a cloudlet? Be strong, Odin! A sword that loses its temper defeats few of its master's enemies."

    "I did not come here for a flyting," Odin said. "And your mockery adds nothing to my strength."

    "Then I shall give you words that will make your strength grow when you think of them," Freyja said. Three black-and-blue, fist-big blisters grew on the blaze under Freyja's feet. "I want you to show the council of your thoughts how powerful my assurances will be when I can cast well-shaped Runes for the Norsefolk. Show the council of your thoughts, too, that you grant the Norsefolk no favor by keeping the Runecraft to yourself alone: wisdom declares that power grows fastest and cleanest when it is shared." Each of the blisters broke open with a soft, wet pop and ejected a thumbnail-small discus that rang on the stone of the ledge. "And draw further strength from the fact that I will learn the Runecraft--with your guidance or without it--I will know the Runes!" She pulled the spear from her body then and fell to the ledge, regaining solidity when her feet touched the rock. Her dress was not torn and no blood stained it. She turned the spear point upward and offered it to Odin.

    "For now you must navigate within the Runecraft without my help," Odin said as he took the proffered spear. "I can only hope that you cast better Runes than Loki does."

    "Loki is careless," Freyja said. "He pushes his desires upon the Runes instead of seeking the Runes that wish to fill his desires." She stretched out her hand and called, "Wohiki tot!" The three brightly-colored disci leaped off the ledge and fell into the palm of her hand. "He is too deeply obsessed with self-indulging endeavors to court the Runes properly."

    Odin pointed to the Runes in Freyja's hand.

    "And how were those Runes courted?" he asked.

    Freyja put the Runes into a small pouch on her belt.

    "I invited them to come with me to a wedding in Trollhavn," she said.

    "For the benefit of the people," Odin asked, "or for the glory of Freyja?"

    "What harm follows if it's for both?" Freyja asked peevishly. Then, without waiting for a reply, she turned and walked up the trail.

    Odin watched her disappear into the passageway, sighed, and then mounted the Runeforge. He levitated, put his back against the blaze, and rammed the spear through his side and into Yggdrasill's wood. He went rigid and turned transparent as the tree's sap began to circulate within him. No sooner had he begun the Ritual of the Runecall than he heard a soft, rhythmic swishing - pausing, resuming, pausing again - approaching from down the trail.

    "And are these Runes being cast for the benefit of the people or for the glory of Odin?" the woman asked in a mocking tone. She wore a black dress and over it the source of the swishing, a hooded cloak made of thin, transparent, membranous "waterskin" that had been tinted black. Her black hair was disheveled under the hood and she would have been a pretty young woman but for the fact that where her eyes should be was only smooth, freckle-spotted skin raised in two lumps the size of hen's eggs.

    "The flyting continues," Odin commented in a sarcastic tone. "Now Urd must take her turn. Tell me, O, Nornish One, since the truth does not concern you, tell me what you believe."

    "I believe that the teacher has become the pupil," Urd said. Keeping one hand on the cavern wall, she walked along the ledge to the spot in front of Odin. Ripples of gold and violet light shimmered across the smooth fabric of her cloak.

    "Freyja teaches me nothing," Odin said.

    "I did not mean Freyja," Urd said, "though you would do well to listen to her and welcome her words into the council of your thoughts. No, it's from your other pupil that you learn the slippery art of twisting words and deforming them to make bad seem good."

    "I take no instruction from Loki," Odin said. "What words have I twisted out of true?"

    "Val kyrie," Urd said, enunciating the words slowly. "Chooser of the Slain. These are words of horror, words that make men shun combat and dissolve the differences among their opinions peacefully and intelligently. Only the stupid ones feed the valkyries. But soon the mere whisper of 'valkyrie' will make even the best of men eager to rush to the battlefield to maim and to kill and to be maimed and killed. And to what purpose? Perhaps this land and its people shall not suffer enough misery?"

    "They shall suffer too much," Odin said. "My plan will decrease the misery, not increase it."

    "Through deceit," Urd said.

    "Through poetry," Odin replied. Five black-and-blue blisters grew on the blaze at his feet.

    "To excuse an error of judgement," Urd said.

    "To correct an error of judgement as far as it can be corrected," Odin said angrily. One by one the blisters popped and ejected the disci within them, sending them ringing onto the ledge. Four of the disci were blue and white, the fifth was pink and brown.

    "Where you erred once, you will not err twice?" Urd asked.

    "A man who stumbles once can still walk," Odin grumbled. "I still judge clearly enough---"

    "To declare that this thickly congealed reality is awash with Runepower!" Urd cried out in interruption.

    Odin pulled the spear out of his body, dropped down to the ledge, and regained solidity. Turning the spear upright, he put it against the blaze, to which it adhered. Golden sap flowed over the spear a became a low violet flame. Stretching out his hand, Odin called, "Wohiki tot!" and the five disci leaped into his palm. As he put the disci into a pouch on his belt he asked the Norn, "What would you have me do?"

    "Teach Freyja the Runes," Urd said, "and tell her the whole truth of what has happened and of what shall happen."

    "When you tried to touch the Runepower and it took away your eyes," Odin said, "did it also take your mind?"

    "The Runepower gave me to see what mere eyes cannot see," Urd replied. "Perhaps it also gave me to think what mere minds cannot think?"

    "Now who's twisting words?" Odin snarled. "Trust my judgement on this, blind witch: the days shall pass more smoothly if you attend to your business and I attend to mine." He turned and strode up the path.

    "Guiding your business is my business," Urd called after him. She waited for a moment in silence and then turned and made her way back down the trail.

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    Near the east side of Asgard, in the valley that nearly cut Asgard in two, part of the northern wall of the valley was the side of a great high dome of rock. Only Asgard's highest peak, Hlidskjalf, rising high on Asgard's north side, loomed over it. The east side of the dome had broken off, leaving a sheer cliff, and the dome's top appeared to be pressed down into a wide, shallow bowl.

    Within the bowl tree-thick gold beams grew from the quartz. Bending over and branching, they met and joined above the circular space they defined. Sheets of quartz, as clear as still water, grew in all the spaces between the beams except the easternmost, the widest. The roof was a thatchwork of bundled silver reeds. A channel cut into the polished quartz floor led water from a stone-filled hole at the center of the room to the cliff. Two tables, the width of an arm's length, curved around the north and south sides of the room, almost meeting on the west side. The tables were supported on hollow pillars, each as wide as a man's forearm is long, a body's length apart. Wide holes in the tabletops opened into the pillars' interiors and pairs of stonecutter ants, each the size of a man's forearm and seeming to be made of dark, polished wood, clung to the raised rims of the wells thus formed.

The tables are piled high with food and there's drink enough for all.

Hunger and thirst are easily defeated in this great dining hall.

It's here the Gods all congregate to share their news and schemes.

It's here, in Gladsheim, the Gods all sit and share each other's dreams.

    Thor sat in one of the high-backed chairs that were arrayed along the outer sides of the tables. A slab of polished wood was lying on the table in front of him, its top surface divided by fine lines into a pattern resembling nested arrowheads and spearpoints, a pattern that seemed almost repetitious. The spaces thus defined were colored brown, gray, and blue and a collection of green, red, and gold markers was arranged upon them. At Thor's right hand a large cupbearer beetle trembled under the weight of a giant drinking horn.

    A thin-faced young man, with black hair and beard, sat across from Thor, sitting on one of the moss-covered stone mushrooms that sprouted from the floor along the inner sides of the tables. His right hand hovered over the Jarls board, moving toward one piece and then toward another. He pulled gently on his beard with his left hand and seemed to be oblivious to the board though he was staring straight at it.

    "Farm, trade, or fight?" Thor prompted.

    The other man stared at the board for another dozen heartbeats. "Fight," he said at last. He picked up a red marker and moved it to confront one of Thor's.

    "Stone, sword, and cloth," Thor said, raising his fist. His opponent also raised a fist. On the count of three Thor opened his fist out flat while the other man brought his down still clenched. "Cloth defeats stone," Thor said and he removed his opponent's piece to the gamebox lying next to the board. Staring at the board then, to contemplate his own move, he said, "No, Loki, I wouldn't call it a hunt, even as a courtesy."

    "Something was sought, found, and taken," Loki said. "That makes it a hunt."

    "Nothing was sought," Thor said. "Seeking means stalking the prey. It means searching through forests, mountains, and storms...making an effort to find the prey. Odin did no seeking. He sat three days and nights in a tree by a battlefield and waited for the prey to come to him." He drew six green pieces from the gamebox, handed three to Loki, and arranged the other three on his side of the board.

    Loki shrugged as he accepted the game pieces. "He sought a place to which his prey would come and he laid a trap."

    "And was it a prey worthy of even such a small effort?" Thor went on. "No. Not the debris of poorly cast Runes that he has always hunted before. This time he went after a pack of valkyries. Filthy...stinking...disgusting...valkyries."

    "They're not so different from Odin's usual prey," Loki said. "Midgard will be a happier place without them."

"At Asgard's expense," Thor replied. "He's not going to hang their heads and skins on his trophy wall."

    "I should think not," Loki said. He swayed from side to side, examining the game board from several different angles.

    "No," Thor said, "he's going to keep them alive. When they came to him, he did not take them with spear and sword as a proper hunter would do. Instead, he cast a Rune that put them to sleep. Now they are here in Asgard and he is giving them the power to fly. And do you know why? Do you know for what he's expending so much effort?"

    Loki slowly and carefully placed his game pieces upon the board.

    "He intends to feed the mortals some cesspit soup," he said, "about how flying valkyries carry the souls of the battleslain to Asgard, where they shall become immortal and play their stupid little war games forever."

    "I should know that Odin would tell you the story first," Thor said sourly.

    Loki spread his hands in an appeasing gesture. "Of course," he said. "You are much too straightforward and honest. You're not well skilled in the art of smoothing honeyed words onto sensitive feelings. It's only natural that Odin shows his thoughts to me before he shows them to one who will find fault in them."

    Thor picked up his drinking horn to sip from it and the cupbearer beetle let out a small, squeaky sigh of relief.

    "I suppose he also told you the reason behind his actions," he said as he lifted the horn to his lips.

    "I told you the story," Loki said. "You tell me the reason."

    "You know that the Norsefolk fear valkyries," Thor said, "regard them as omens of misfortune."

    "Their usual confusion of cause and effect," Loki commented as he nodded and leaned forward in expectation.

    "Odin is testing an idea," Thor continued. "He wants to see whether his story can cure the Norsefolk of their fear."

    Loki rocked back in laughter.

    Bristling with anger, Thor set his drinking horn roughly onto the cupbearer beetle. The beetle squealed as its legs splayed out on the table.

    "Oh, sorry," Thor said to the beetle as he lifted the drinking horn. The beetle got back onto its feet and whimpered softly as Thor set his horn more gently onto it.

    Loki, still laughing, was waving his hands in a defensive gesture.

    "I'm not laughing at you, Thor," he said. "It's the thought of Odin straining mightily to solve such a small problem that tickles my heart so."

    "Then you also disapprove of Odin's scheme," Thor guessed.

    After letting out a few final chuckles, Loki took a deep breath and cast his gaze outward, southward to where gray thunderheads, like malevolent giants, towered higher than Asgard's peaks.

    "No," he said after taking some time for thought. "It occurs to me to think that while Odin is spreading his Valhall story, I shall be able to practice the Runecraft freely. I, at least, derive a benefit from Odin's folly."

    Thor brightened as an eager smile lifted his mustache and pulled the corners of his mouth toward his ears.

    "Do you intend to try again to create an easy woman for yourself?" he asked.

    Loki frowned.

    "If I do," he said in dark tones, "I will test the results far from the mortals' eyes. The stupid gossipmongers! You know the stories that they have been telling, I trust."

    "Let's see," Thor mused. "The stories seem to be multiplied by every swelling and dwindling of the moon, but they all seem to involve the same characters. There's Hel, the Tormentor of the Dead. There's Fenrir, the Demon Wolf. And there's Jormungand, the Midgard Serpent. Those must be the ones you mean."

    "My children, indeed!" Loki growled as he nodded. "Never mind the story about Asgard's wall and the eight-legged horse."

    "Perhaps you should practice casting simpler Runes until your skill improves," Thor suggested. "And if you want a woman's most precious favor, ask Freyja to show you the way to follow." He took a long draught from his drinking horn and thus missed seeing the look of startled rage that flashed across Loki's face.

    Loki quickly regained his composure. He shook his head.

    "No, I can only improve my skill by challenging myself at its limits," he said, "so I must forge the most difficult Runes."

    "And provide me with good hunting," Thor said happily. "But talk to Freyja anyway. Even an easy woman likes to be courted like a lady."

    "As usual," Loki said, "you offer excellent advice, a clear path through the thicket of my own thoughts. A difficult path to follow, though. Regrettably, Freyja and I see each other too rarely."

    "I believe that's a regret that shall soon be slain," Thor said. "It seems to me that you and Freyja shall be seeing each other frequently." He paused as though listening to something and then continued, "Yes, the council of my thoughts proclaims its suspicion that, with Odin off raining his fantasy down on the Norseland, you and Freyja will both be using the Runeforge for practice."

    With a pained look on his face, Loki groaned.

    "My thoughts did not show me that suspicion," he said. "But now that you reveal it, they confirm it. There's no doubt: Freyja and I both want to improve our Runecasting skills. We should meet and shape an agreement that will keep us far from conflict. Thor, I owe you a favor." He levitated up off his seat, tilted over to lie belly down on the air as he straightened out, and flew out of Gladsheim.

    "Just Rune me up a good monster," Thor called after him. Absent-mindedly he slipped his hand into the large, thick-leather pouch on his belt and savored the soft cracklings that attended his stroking of the object within.

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