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The valkyries and all of the Aesir were gathered in Gladsheim. Odin stood on one of the tables.
"...and if that happens," he was saying, "the Norsefolk will be doomed. So now, I need your help."
"You have needed our help since you got this world in trouble," Idun said. "Why did you wait so long to ask for it?"
"I made a mistake," Odin said with a shrug.
"One of many," Thor grumbled.
"How do we know, then," Brynhild asked Odin, "that stopping Freyja won't be another mistake?"
"How dare you...," Odin snapped.
"That's a fair question," Thor interrupted sternly.
Odin's face reddened.
"You know the story that Freyja sought to spread," he said, struggling to suppress his anger. "You know the Rune that she had to cast to validate it. That Rune has not been cast and Freyja has not gone to the place where her story must begin. So even if she were right in her new story, we must now conclude that she has gone wrong and must be stopped." He glared at the valkyries as silence fell over the Aesir.
The silence was quickly broken by a commotion on the west side of the hall and Urd's voice calling out.
"Make way!" she said. "Guide me to Odin!" Pale and trembling, she came up to the table on which Odin stood.
"You found something?" Odin demanded.
"Something found me," Urd said in horror. "The web of futures that we wove for this world with our Runepower--it's gone! Another web ripped ours asunder and devoured it!"
"Another web of futures!?" Odin exclaimed. "By what power?"
"I wish that I knew," Urd said.
"What does the new web look like?" Tori asked.
"I saw only glimpses," Urd said, her voice quavering. "I saw...I saw giant shiny spears laid end to end on both sides of a trail and I saw a giant iron ox pulling a hundred wagons on the spears. I saw great stone ribbons laid across the land, even over the mountains. Carts and wagons, some as big as houses moved by themselves, moved faster than the wind, on the ribbons. I saw a village that filled a wide valley to its brim. The houses are made of stone and jewels, houses piled on houses like hills. And the people of the village," she said with a sob, "had captured the aurora and made it dance in their village at night. In one house I saw serving tables covered with an abundance of food of kinds I have never seen. I saw a clan carry strange instruments into a great cavern that they had built and make music so beautiful it nearly broke my heart."
"What foolishness!" Odin sneered.
"I saw a place of fire where glowing iron runs like water and fills vats as big as houses," Urd continued. "I saw a field covered with iron serpents running between towers and some of the towers were spewing flame into the sky. I saw a barn full of looms that move by themselves and weave cloth, enough in a day to clothe a village for a lifetime, in all the colors you have ever seen and more. I saw men and women go into another barn and attach jewelry to shingles and put the shingles into boxes and then I saw that the glass on the boxes was showing visions of people in faraway places."
"Nonsense," Odin declared.
"They have giant boats that blow smoke and travel upon the Ocean Sea without paddling," Urd went on. "I saw a great flat field where giant shiny birds were roosting. I saw a whole clan being fed to one of the birds. Then the bird flew to another flat field and vomited out the people unharmed and unsoiled. The people went into a longhouse on wheels and the longhouse rolled away and took them to a village."
"Madness," Odin snarled.
"They have giant mirrors," Urd said in awe, "that let them spy on the stars and glasses that turn the starlight into little fans of color that they examine to learn the stars' secrets. They use iron nets and strange vines to eavesdrop on the sky and listen to what the sun and the stars say to each other. And even that doesn't satisfy them. I saw men wrap themselves in fire and rise up to touch the moon!"
"Madness!" Odin shouted.
"Yes!" Urd shouted back at him. "I took these to be visions of madness. But now I know better. I know that these are futures that the mortals can choose for themselves."
"How is that possible?" Thor asked.
"They swim in wisdom," Urd said, "though I know not its source. In every village I saw little villages to which the children are brought every day. In those little villages all of the children, even the girls, are taught to read and become skalds. I saw giant houses filled with flattened scrolls full of the deepest wisdom. Eddas upon Eddas. Eddas of Eddas. They need special Eddas to tell them how to find other Eddas. And, as if that's not enough, they use the boxes with vision glass to teach Edda to everyone in the village with skald after skald teaching daylong and nightlong without pause. I saw the mortals enjoying power and wealth far beyond what we can offer. Yet they cast no Runes. The mortals make all of these wonders for themselves. It would seem that your problem has been solved for you," she said to Odin, "though I know not to whom you owe gratitude."
"This new web," Odin said. "It has a source?"
Urd paused to compose herself. "I know not the what of the source," she said, "but I can tell you the where of it. You will find what you seek in Trollhavn Fjord."
Odin leaped off the table, bounded out of Gladsheim, and dove into the sky. Thor ran, leaped, and flew in pursuit and the other Aesir followed his example. Soon all but Urd and the valkyries had flown out of Gladsheim, flying south in a disorganized flock.
"Can you fly?" Brynhild asked Urd.
"Yes, I can," Urd said, "though I have a little difficulty in navigating and some considerable difficulty in landing."
"We will be glad to help you," Brynhild said and the other valkyries made comments of agreement.
Urd smiled. "I would like that very much," she said. She shrugged off her membranous cloak and laid herself flat upon her levitation. Brynhild took her left hand, Borgny took her right hand, and together the two valkyries towed her out of Gladsheim with Kari and Tori following close behind. When they had gained some distance from Asgard, Brynhild and Borgny released Urd's hands and then, with Urd in the lead, the valkyries floated into their migrating-geese formation and followed Urd toward Trollhavn.
The critic held the tiller, guiding the boat up Trollhavn Fjord. The sun was low in the sky and the wind was at his back. "This is surely a charmed journey," he said as he watched the cliffs glide past. "I was certain that we would be obliged to paddle up the fjord, but I discovered instead that we can ride the wind all the way to Trollhavn."
"The charm lies in knowing just how to pray to the Gods," Graybeard said.
"It also helps to know that the wind usually blows away from the Ocean Sea and toward the land in the afternoon," Freyja said. "Prayer is nice, but only knowledge gives you the power to do things for yourselves."
"I put little trust in knowledge of facts, my lady," Graybeard said. "Are there not, after all, truths beyond matters of fact?"
"There are," Freyja said. "But they will always lead you, by one path or another, to matters of fact. Any alleged truth that does not lead you eventually to some matter of fact is false and should be shunned by the council of your thoughts, if not killed from your heart. Be not reluctant to test knowledge as you would test any other claimant upon your heart's loyalties. Well-grown and well-tested knowledge is the closest you can come to having your own Runes."
"Fine words," the carpenter said. "Well spoken. And agreeable to my experience. The knowledge of how to build this boat and of how to make it move has brought us power, yes? Then more knowledge will bring us more power."
"Perhaps," Graybeard said. "We shall have to see to what matters of fact that truth leads us." Freyja smiled and nodded in agreement as he suddenly pointed to the sky above Trollhavn and cried out, "But look and see! The Gods favor us nonetheless!"
The Aesir landed on the steep side of the hill just west of Trollhavn and stared out over the fjord in astonishment. The Trollhavners, all who were not out in the forest hunting or cutting wood, ran to the hill to greet them and then stopped short halfway up the hill, looking back and forth between the Aesir congregated on their hill and the strange boat coming up their fjord.
"I have never seen anything like it," Odin said.
"I see no one paddling," Loki said. "How can that be? What makes it move?"
"The wind," Tori said smugly. "They have used the net hanging from that tall pole to catch a wind and make it pull them." She poked Borgny with her elbow.
Borgny rolled her eyes and groaned.
"Amazing," Thor said in awe. "That they should use their world's own nature to do their work for them is certainly a new thing to me. What more will they be able to do?"
"I agree that it's amazing," Odin said. "But it's only one boat. How can one boat change the whole web of futures?"
"You misunderstand," Urd said. "For now there is only one boat, but soon there will be more like it. But it is not the boat that has changed the web. That is why I could see the where of the new web's source but not the what. The source of the new web is not a thing to be seen with the eyes, like a boat, but it is rather a thing to be seen with the heart. It is the story of how to build such a boat and more like it and of how to use them, that is the source of the change."
Odin was incredulous.
"A single story can change the whole web of the futures!? No, it can't be true! No single Rune has such power!"
"Runes change the shapes of things," Urd said. "Stories change the shapes of thoughts and those thoughts can show people how to change the shapes of things for themselves." She paused briefly. "Yes, I can see clearly now how it will happen," she continued. "Someday these mortals will come to understand that it is this story of the boat and other stories like it that turns their feeble strength into great power. When that happens, when they come to that understanding, then they will begin to dream new stories for themselves. They will pile story upon story as they pile house upon house and there will be no limit to their ultimate power."
Odin looked around him, at the Aesir, at the Trollhavners, and at the boat in the fjord. Then he motioned for the Aesir to follow him. "Come along, then," he said. "Let's go and introduce these people to their new futures."
They had managed to make the wind drive the boat up onto the gravel beach near the place where two double-prowed animal-skin canoes had been hauled out of the water, a point on the shore just west of the meadow below the village's shrine. While the other three men lowered the spar and rolled up the sail, Graybeard took the rope tied to the boat's prow, threw it toward a large rock on the beach, and leaped out of the boat. He wrapped the rope around the rock and tied it off. Freyja stood behind the prow and, when she saw the crowd coming down to the bank above the beach, she half hid her face behind her fox-fur hood.
As Odin came to the lip of the bank he called out.
"Welcome to you, travelers, and to your strange boat."
Graybeard bowed. "Thank you, My Lord Odin," he said. "A god's welcome always gladdens the heart, but now my heart is overwhelmed that I see so many of the Aesir assembled together. I hope that we have not intruded on a private matter."
"It may be that the intrusion is ours," Odin said. "The matter that makes me bring my family and friends to Trollhavn seems to be your new kind of boat. May we know whence it has brought you?"
"We left Gullskog this same morning," Graybeard said. "Today the rising sun escorted us out of Breivangen Fjord, smiled down on us from her path high above Midgard as we rode upon the Ocean Sea, and saw us float safely up Trollhavn Fjord before going over the edge of the world."
A murmur of astonishment rippled through the crowd as people repeated Graybeard's words in terms of disbelief. The Trollhavners were doubly astonished to discover that the Aesir shared their astonishment over Graybeard's claim.
"An amazing feat!" Odin said. "To harness the wind like a horse and to challenge the Ocean Sea is a sport that must certainly draw out the best in men."
"It will be more than sport, my lord," Graybeard said. "With such boats as this we shall fish upon the Ocean Sea and we shall travel upon it to trade and to explore. To all Norsefolk these long boats will bring great wealth."
"And in whose name is this great enterprise to be undertaken?" Odin asked, glancing at Freyja.
A look of puzzlement came over Graybeard's face and he looked to Freyja.
"My lady," he said, "the Lord of the Runes would know your name."
Freyja hesitated for a few heartbeats, then pushed back her hood.
"Freyja Njordsdottir!" She thrust herself upward into a leap out of the boat and floated slowly down onto the beach to stand next to her boat's prow.
Followed, after a heartbeat's hesitation, by Borgny, Tori, and Kari, Brynhild leaped down onto the beach and knelt before Freyja.
"Behold, Lady Freyja!," she said loudly. "We have brought the Gods as you commanded, that they might witness for themselves the gift of power that you bring to the Norsefolk."
"Why those treacherous little---" Odin growled.
Thor put a hand on his shoulder.
"Think before you act," Thor said quietly.
"I didn't ask you to bring anyone here," Freyja said to Brynhild.
Brynhild got up off her knee and spoke quietly and quickly.
"This boat of yours has changed everything," she said. "The web of dark futures has been killed and eaten by a new web full of bright futures. It's your story of building and using boats like this that wove the new web."
"How do you know this?" Freyja asked.
"Urd told us," Brynhild replied. "We and all the Aesir were with Odin when she came to him and told him that some new thing near Trollhavn had destroyed her web and replaced it with a new one."
"And what new thing," Borgny asked, "is newer and stronger in its newness than your boat?"
"Oh," Freyja said. "Yes, I...I see that you can only be right." She looked up at the bank, where her friends, mortal and immortal, stood in silence.
"If she barfs up that story about those stupid islands,..," he muttered.
"Lord Odin," Freyja said loudly, "I hope that the Aesir are pleased to see the new kind of boat that will enable your chosen people to travel upon my father's domain. I hope further that such boats will bring the Norsefolk much wealth and power and will lead them to spread the good news of Valhall to the farthest corners of the world."
At the mention of Valhall Odin's face lit up with astonishment and delight, then Odin turned quickly and gave Loki an angry glare. Loki could only shrink back and shrug.
Odin turned back to Freyja.
"Let all ears hear this and all hearts remember it" he declared. "I am well pleased with this strange wind-drawn boat and with Lady Freyja...Commander of the Valkyries." His smile took on a tinge of malice at that, but then softened again. "This is a happy event," he declared, "one that must be celebrated with much food, drink, and merriment." He reached into the pouch on his belt, withdrew a Rune, and threw it high.
The little discus gleamed in the last rays of the setting sun, then fell into the meadow near the shrine and exploded with an air-shaking thump. A roiling cloud of multicolored mist covered half the meadow and then pulled in on itself to become five heavily laden tables arranged around a large fire. No sooner had the tables appeared than Aesir, Trollhavners, and Freyja's boatmen began walking up to the meadow.
Thor walked with Odin and Loki.
"You took wise action with Freyja," he said quietly to Odin.
"I took no action with Freyja," Odin said.
"Sometimes no action is the wisest action," he said.
Odin nodded, then angled down the bank to intercept Freyja. Thor walked to the meadow with a despondent Loki.
"You told us that you dislike Odin's Valhall story," Borgny said to Freyja.
"I still dislike it," Freyja said. "But I believe that as long as the Norsemen are using their new boats to make good lives for themselves they won't be eager to fight. It's better, I suppose, than giving them another false hope." She picked up her pace and went to walk with Odin.
"You know that those twirps are stuck to you forever, don't you," he said when they were too far away from the valkyries to be overheard.
"Yes," Freyja said, "but it's no heavy burden. They're not so bad once you get to know them."
"Yes, well," Odin said, "speaking of getting to know things moves the council of my thoughts to decree that the time has come for you to get well acquainted with the Runes."
"Oh," Freyja sighed, "I wish that everyone felt as good as those words make me feel." She paused and then said, "But a wise thought now joins the celebration of gratitude in my heart. That thought tells me that we should not cast any more unnecessary Runes while we remain in this reality. We have given the mortals a new web of bright futures. It would be a shame to risk darkening any of them."
"That wise thought has also been a guest in my heart," Odin said, "and I had hoped that you would entertain it in yours. But now a thought friendly to it speaks and says that on the first day when we come into a new reality, one through which the Runepower runs deep and swift---"
"Agreed," Freyja said.
"Oh, no," Odin groaned. "A bad thought has now come to me and spoiled the celebration in my heart by telling me an evil thing. It tells me that the Valhall story is no longer needed and that now it truly will lead to unnecessary misery."
"And it's too late to tell my story," Freyja said, then after a brief pause she said, "and perhaps not. Before I can know the whither of it," she mused, "I shall have to talk to Balder. And I will need a favor from Loki."
"That you shall have," Odin said in dark tones full of menace. "For whatever task you devise, Loki will be the appropriate Rune. But do you reasonably believe that you can repair the damage that I have done?"
"Yes, of course I do," Freyja said. "We're gods: we can achieve anything."
"Yes, you're right," Odin said. "I'm just now beginning to understand that I truly don't know what I would do without you."
"You'd make a complete mess of things."
"Look at that," Loki said as he and Thor strolled some distance behind Odin and Freyja and saw Odin throw back his head and laugh heartily over something that Freyja had said. "Now he's going to spend all of his time teaching her the Runes and he will leave me to learn nothing. It's not fair. I have Aesir blood. I'm closer to him."
Thor shook his head.
"It's not common blood that makes people closest," he said. "Common dreams are what bring people close and bind them together. If you would bring people close to you, you must welcome their cares into your heart and cherish them."
"But that's so hard to do," Loki complained.
"Yes, it is," Thor agreed. "You must often guess at what people love and when you guess wrong, oh, the embarrassment! To give yourself extra courage to face that risk you must remember that a man does not become strong by doing only easy things." He clapped Loki on the shoulder and went on, "But no hard things tonight, I say. Tonight I would see your good cheer restored to you, so I will tell you that I know a pretty woman in this village who is easily beguiled and who is easy to please."
"You would have me...beguile...?" Loki asked in astonishment.
"A smooth tongue is not itself evil," he said. "It's what you do with it that's judged good or bad. Use your skill kindly, genuinely seek to be a true friend, and this woman will bless you. Oh, yes, and you may wish to think on this, Metamorphic One: she's quite fond of otters; thinks they're cute."
"Sometimes I don't know what I would do without friends like you, Thor," Loki said.
"You'd make a complete mess of things."
The valkyries trudged up the meadow.
"I suppose we're going to have to look like we're eating their food again," Borgny grumbled.
"Compared with what we get in return," Brynhild said, "it's a small price to pay, though I agree that it doesn't seem so at the time of payment."
"Hey, listen," Tori said, "that stuff that they call pork tastes a little like real food."
"Truly?" Kari said. "Perhaps we should all give it a try. It seems a harmless thing to do and it might gain us the solution of our problem. What could we possibly lose by it?"
"Yesterday's dinner," Borgny moaned.
"I know just the medicine for you," Tori said to Borgny. "Drink four or five big horns of mead. That will foment such a happy celebration in your heart and so bewilder your thoughts that you won't know what you're eating."
"Wow, thanks," Borgny said in a voice totally devoid of enthusiasm. "I don't know what I would do without you."
"You'd make a complete mess of things."
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