Chapter Five:

Dining in Asgard

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    Dusk was drawing night's darkness over the Norseland. Light and warmth were rising up out of the valleys and fjords, lingering briefly on the mountaintops, then fleeing west with the departing day. Asgard's peaks still caught the sun's rays and flung them about for all to see, but soon the rays would rise beyond even Hlidskjalf's reach.

    In Gladsheim stonecutter ants scurried about, setting up poles to which giant fireflies were bound; each pole was split in two at the top, the halves curved away from each other, and a firefly was bound to the end of each half under a honeydripper. Other ants swarmed over the tables, piling up platters and bowls loaded with food and setting horns of mead and ale on cupbearer beetles. Young men and women were arriving, flying in to land in the hall's entrance, strolling around the tables, talking and laughing, and taking seats. The valkyries, resplendent in their new white dresses, stood together against the window by the entrance and watched in fascinated horror.

    Borgny fanned herself with her hand as though ready to faint.

    "Are we truly going to be obliged to eat that...stuff?" she asked quietly.

    "No, I believe not," Brynhild said. "Freyja told me that Odin wants us to wait for him here and to do nothing else."

    Thor flew into Gladsheim with a woman whose hair was the color of pure gold. She whispered something to him and he responded by walking over to Brynhild.

    "I know that it's not what you are accustomed to eating," he said nervously, indicating the tables with a sweep of his hand, "but you ladies are welcome to join us and try it."

    "Thank you for your sweet words," Brynhild said. "We would accept your kind offer, but Odin asked us to wait for him."

    "Ah, yes, of course," Thor said. He made a short bow and then joined the golden-haired woman at the table, where large portions of boiled ox, among other delicacies, awaited his attention.

    "That was nice of him," Tori commented.

    A commotion at the tables, someone shouting "for the love of decency!", attracted the valkyries' attention. Following the gazes of the angered diners, the valkyries saw Odin standing in the entrance to the hall. More to their dismay, they saw that he had the body of a young warrior, still dripping blood, slung over his shoulder.

    "Brynhild!" Odin called. "Bring your sisters!"

    Trying to make themselves look as small as possible, the valkyries followed Odin out the entrance and to the edge of the cliff. They stopped short when they saw Odin continue walking down a ledge that jutted from the cliff. The width of the ledge was less than the length of a man's foot. Looking beyond the ledge, they saw twilight's glow on a lake that would have delayed their progress by a day had they ever been obliged to walk around it: it appeared to them now small enough to fit in the palm of one hand. Finding the place where the ledge was a calf's length below the top of the cliff, they sat down on the cliff's edge, one by one, and slid onto the ledge, then sidestepped along the ledge, using their levitation to press themselves back against the cliff wall. Thus, spread flat against the cliff, they edged their way to an alcove that had a waist-high wall enclosing it. Several firefly poles set into holes in the top of the wall filled the alcove with light.

    Odin had laid the warrior's body out on the man-big slab that ran down the center of the alcove. Kari and Tori walked onto the bench that jutted from the cliff and Brynhild and Borgny walked onto the bench that jutted from the enclosing wall, on the opposite side of the slab. Brynhild confronted Odin, who was standing on the wall at the south end of the alcove.

    "You truly hurt us back there," Brynhild said.

    "I don't see how," Odin said. "I offended some of my friends and I regret having done so, but I don't see how my offense damages you."

    "It makes us less welcome in Asgard," Brynhild replied. "If we are ever to fit well into your society, we must avoid reminding your friends of what we eat."

    "Yes, that's why I made this alcove for your dining," Odin said. "But..., well, I did not show myself that thought today."

    "You didn't?" Borgny said incredulously. "What is thought meant to do if not to look at our plans and to advise us before we turn them into acts whether they shall lead to a good place or a bad place?"

    "My thoughts are concerned with important matters beyond here and now," Odin said. "The council of my thoughts has not the time to examine little plans. However," he said to Brynhild, "your complaint is justified and I will be more careful in matters concerning your feeding."

    "Thank you," Brynhild said. "We want our relations with the Aesir to be as smooth and as sweet as fresh blood."

    Odin fell backward off the wall and flew away, leaving the valkyries to seat themselves on the benches. A stonecutter ant appeared at the entrance to a small tunnel in the cliff above the alcove and dropped a bundle of napkins into Borgny's lap.

    "Pooie!" it squeaked.

    Borgny half rose from the bench and crooked her finger to beckon the ant. "Come here, little morsel!" she said.

    "Borgny! Be nice!" Brynhild said as the ant retreated into the little tunnel.

    "Why?" Borgny said. "It wasn't nice to me."

    "It doesn't know you yet," Kari said.

    "Yeah," Tori said. "When it does it'll be extra nasty."

    "Right, of course," Borgny said, sitting back down and setting the napkins on the bench. "You crows keep on clapping your beaks. I'm going to eat." She drew her dagger, examined the corpse, and was astonished to see how easily she could cut through the man's thick leather belt.

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    In Gladsheim, strolling in a kind of half dance, Idun went around the tables with her basket on her arm and handed each of the diners one of her apples. Even Thor stopped eating long enough the accept his apple with a broad smile and warm thanks. Finally Idun gave an apple to the golden-haired woman sitting next to Thor.

    "And this one is for you, Sif," she said as she set her basket on the table at the place where she usually sat.

    "You have four left," Sif noted, pointing to the basket.

    "Yes," Idun said, her voice trembling a little nervously. "They're for...Odin's guests." She put her hands on the table as though to sit down and she hesitated. "I wonder whether I should eat before...or after...I go---"

    "Eat hearty," Thor said. "I will take the weird sisters their apples if you will permit me."

    "Oh, Thor, that's a sweet favor that you offer me, and I accept it with deep gratitude," Idun said and she sat down.

    "Can't we have the ants take them?" Sif suggested.

    Thor shook his head.

    "No, it would be rude," he said.

    "It would also be unnecessary," Freyja said from her place next to Thor. "I told Brynhild to bring her cousins up here when they are finished eating. I would not send anyone, not even Loki, to a valkyrie's table."

    Thor blew a sigh of relief.

    "I have made the acquaintance of a thought that I would introduce to the council of your thoughts, one about Odin's Valhall story," he said to Freyja

    "You found out whence the story comes?" Freyja ventured to guess.

    "No," Thor said, "but I believe that I can see whither it might go. It may go beyond curing the Norsefolk of their fear of valkyries and make the men eager to fight in the hope of going to Valhall."

    "Oh, what a horrible path to follow!" Sif said.

    "Yes, it is," Freyja agreed. "But I doubt that the Norsefolk would behave so stupidly. Life is too soft and sweet for them to want to risk losing it so easily. No fantasy, of Valhall or of anything else, can be strong enough to push them off the path they walk now."

    "Oh, no, dear Freyja," Idun said, "the council of my thoughts disagrees. My memories are testifying that some of your fantasies have filled me with urges that pushed me onto paths that I would not have followed otherwise. And I followed some of those paths even though the following seemed contrary to good sense."

    "Yes," Sif said, "but Freyja's stories led you to greater happiness. Odin's story shall lead the Norsefolk to great misery. Surely they will see that misery waiting for them and shun Odin's path."

    "To the mortals," Idun said, "the goal may seem worthy of the journey. Oh, Sif, show the council of your thoughts the hardships that they eagerly endure now in order to trade a few simple possessions among themselves. No, if I were a mortal, I might be willing, even eager, to trade the happiest of short lives for eternal life in the home of the Gods. Can you say truly that you would decide differently?"

    Thor mused to himself, "I wonder whether he ever lets an intelligent thought examine his plans before he turns them into acts." Then to Freyja:

    "Idun has spoken well to my point, so I'll not defend it further. I ask only that you bring this question to trial before the council of your thoughts: How shall it be for the Norsefolk if I have guessed right and we act as though I am wrong in my guess."

    "Yes, I see what you mean," Freyja said. "I do believe...well, hope...with all my heart that your guess is wrong, but I can see this as clearly as I can see you now; the safest path we can follow for the sake of the Norsefolk is the one on which we feign to believe that your guess is right. We must at least pretend to believe that Odin's story will inspire the Norsemen to go out into battle and kill each other."

    "Now," Thor said, "we must weave a plan of our own, one that will show us the best way to accost Odin's story and slay it before it acts."

    "Send a warrior to fight a warrior," Idun suggested. "We shall send a story of our own to combat Odin's." To Freyja she said, "Your stories are the most compelling. Weave one that makes the Norsemen forget Valhall and we will all help you to spread it."

    Freyja frowned in doubt.

    "Deceit upon deceit," she muttered. "It may be better that you talk to Loki and court his advice."

    "Loki uses deceit to lead people away from the truth," Sif said, "and he hides his schemes from those who are competent to judge them. You use deceit to lead people to hidden truth and when you do, you open the council of your thoughts to all of us. Only you can be trusted to help us in this important matter."

    "My stories are all woven to make people feel good," Freyja mused, "not to push them from one path to another. This will be something new."

    "It could be something good," Thor said.

    "Yes, that seems possible," Freyja said. "I'll do it, and we shall see what happens."

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    Borgny contemplated a tibia to which a booted foot was still attached, then gave it a backward flip over her shoulder to send it whirling into the abyss. Tori let out a loud burp, wiped her lips, and tossed her blood-stained napkin onto the others on the now-empty slab.

    "Ah," Brynhild sighed, rubbing her belly, "it feels good to have a man inside me again."

    Kari held out her hand and waggled it. "Enh. We've done better."

    "Well, you can't reasonably expect Odin to be much of a gourmet," Tori said.

    "That's right," Brynhild agreed. "But we can endure his poor taste for now. Just show yourselves this thought: when we have learned how to fly and have become well practiced, we shall have the whole Norseland for our dining table."

    "Yeah," Borgny said, "and then we can find ourselves some truly good hunks."

    "And carry them up out of our competitors' reach," Kari added.

    "Fresh meat all the time!" Tori enthused. "No more of someone else's left-overs and picked-overs."

    "We shall need to take care that we do not grow too fat," Brynhild said with a grin.

    "Ah, but for how long?" Borgny asked.

    "Forever," Brynhild said. "For as long as Asgard exists and Norsemen fight, for that long stupidity will set us a heavy table."

    "That's what Odin told us," Kari said. "But can we trust him?"

    "Can a table stand on one leg?" Borgny commented.

    "No," Brynhild said, "our position in Asgard must be supported by more gods and goddesses. We must find a way to become such an intimate and necessary part of Asgard's society that none of the gods will want to lose us."

    "Are we going to seduce them?" Tori asked eagerly.

    "Not along the path that your fevered little heart is galloping to follow," Brynhild said. "Oh, you can try it and see what happens. I can't see any harm coming from it. But I have in mind the cultivation of friendships that touch souls, not bodies."

    "How shall we do that?" Tori asked. "Who would want to touch our souls?"

    "Freyja first," Brynhild said.

    "Freyja detests us," Borgny said.

    "No more so than the others do," Brynhild said.

    "She has more reason to dislike us," Kari protested. "We have been put upon her as a burden."

    "Then we will carry some of her other burdens for her," Brynhild said. "It's only fair and by being fair we shall nurture the growth of trust. We will demonstrate eventually that we can be trusted to carry even burdens of the soul."

    Enlightenment dawned on Tori's face.

    "We shall become a comfort to her," she said, "one that she will want never to lose."

    "But why Freyja?" Borgny asked. "Kari points out what I also see: we are an extra burden upon her. Wouldn't favoring someone upon whom we are not a burden be an easier task to fulfill?"

    "Easier perhaps," Brynhild said, "but futile. If we seek to favor others to the neglect of Freyja, those others will suspect our motives. Trust does not grow well in the soil of suspicion. I agree with you and Kari when you say that favoring Freyja is the greater challenge, but I say that meeting that challenge is what puts our feet on the easier path. All in Asgard know what we know in this matter, so if we can defeat Freyja's opposition and win her acceptance, the others' opposition shall weaken like warriors whose champion has been easily killed at the beginning of the battle. Follow the path of my thoughts a little further and you will see that Freyja is a poet of great persuasive power. If we can win her as an ally, she can defeat the others' opposition for us and gain us the acceptance of all the gods."

    "Until they remember what we eat," Borgny commented.

    "We will help them to forget," Brynhild said. "We will ask if we can have our food prepared in a way that disguises its origin and makes it look similar to theirs so that we can take our meals in Gladsheim with everyone else."

    "I don't want their food near mine," Tori said, curling her lip.

    "And they will not want ours near theirs," Brynhild said. "Mutual agreement also nourishes trust. Yes, we shall ask for a small table some distance from theirs, perhaps with a little wall of sweet-smelling flowers before it, and we shall eat a little apart from them. In time they shall come to regard us as sociable and considerate and that regard shall also nourish trust. Strong threads of trust will weave us tightly into the social cloth of Asgard," she mused. "As long as they remain unbroken," she added darkly.

    "If we truly want to be sociable," Borgny said sarcastically, "we should eat their food and abandon ours."

    "As a matter of fact...," Brynhild said, pausing for effect. Borgny rolled her eyes, let out a little whimper, and threw up her hands in despair. "There is at least one food of theirs that we must eat," Brynhild continued. "The golden apples that Idun will give us. They shall provide us with eternal life, perpetual youth, and perfect health. Eat them slowly and in small bites if you wish, but we must eat all of our apples and let none go to waste."

    "Why?" Borgny asked in wide-eyed horror.

    "Because Idun is much loved by the other gods," Brynhild explained. "Offending her would give the gods' opposition to us a strong warrior, one that we want never to see. So are we agreed now on all that I have said?"

    Tori and Kari nodded. Brynhild gave Borgny a hard look and Borgny, heaving a sigh, nodded. Brynhild stood up then, walked to the ledge, and began to edge her way up it, back pressed against the cliff. She went only a few steps, paused for several heartbeats, then thrust gently to push herself slowly up the smooth rock and over the top of the cliff. Borgny followed her example and then Tori and Kari did the same.

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