Chapter Eight:

A New Story

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    Freyja sat at one of the tables in Gladsheim and sipped from a horn of mead as she gazed out over a clear sky and far distant clouds. A scroll lay unrolled before her, one end weighed down by an inkpot and the other by her cupbearer beetle. Putting the horn into the cradle formed by the beetle's carapace, she took the quill from the inkpot and scratched out a word just as the valkyries flew into Gladsheim. Brynhild, Borgny, and Tori landed on the opposite side of the table from Freyja and sat down on the mushroom-shaped stools; Kari landed by Gladsheim's little brook and began filling her mouth with water, sloshing the water around, and spitting it back into the brook

    "Why is Kari doing that?" Freyja asked in puzzlement.

    "She's trying to wash away the memory of a bad taste," Brynhild said.

    "She forgot your warning about flying low over swamps," Borgny added.

    "It took most of the morning to pick all of the bugs out of her teeth!" Tori said in wide-eyed horror.

    Freyja rapped twice on the table to get the attention of the stonecutter ant sitting on the rim of the table's nearest service well and then held up four fingers.

    "I thought you went looking for your dinner," she said.

    "We found it," Borgny said, "but it's not ready yet."

    "Stupid mortals," Freyja muttered.

    "Not stupid," Brynhild said. "Deceived."

    Kari came up from the brook and, still looking pale, took the seat next to Borgny.

    "They only appear stupid to you," Brynhild continued, "because you know the truth and they do not. Because of Odin's story and...because of us, they believe that they will live on in Valhall if they die bravely in battle. If you want to see whether they are truly stupid, show them a clear path to the truth and see then whether they follow it."

    "And how shall they follow such a path," Freyja said, "if some god comes along and leads them astray with a pretty story?"

    "Perhaps people shouldn't listen to gods," Kari suggested.

    "Sometimes they shouldn't," Freyja agreed, "but they do nonetheless."

    "Hey," Borgny said, "it keeps fresh meat on our table, so let's not complain too insistently." To Freyja she said, "Already my cousins have forgotten what it's like to be hungry."

    "We can fly now," Brynhild said. "We can harvest a wider area. We don't need all of the extra meat that's being slaughtered."

    The ant returned and perched on the edge of the well. Four cupbearer beetles, each carrying a horn of mead, came up out of the well and took up positions in front of the valkyries.

    "Better too much than not enough," Borgny said. "Besides, Odin's story is already changing men's hearts. Did you see how those men waved to us? There's nothing anybody can do to stop the butchery now." She rubbed her hands together gleefully, then picked up her drinking horn and took a deep draught from it.

    Brynhild glanced at Freyja's scroll. "Except perhaps tell a prettier story that will seduce men away from Valhall?" she ventured to guess.

    "You know how to read?" Freyja asked, astonished.

    "No," Brynhild said. "But it's not hard to guess what you're doing."

    "Oh, please tell us the story," Tori said.

    "It's not ready," Freyja said. "It's like a new road through a forest; marked out, but not yet cleared."

    "We don't need a road cleared to see whither it goes," Kari said. "Please tell us whither your story goes."

    Freyja shrugged. "Well, it might be a good thing for me to walk the road again," she said. "The council of my thoughts has now convened in the hope that perhaps you will help me clear the way." She leaned back in her chair, drinking horn in hand, and said, "The story is about a young woman and her husband. They have been married only a short time when he is called away to battle. He fights bravely and skillfully, but he is killed and is taken to Valhall."

    "That's Odin's story," Borgny said.

    "Yes, it is," Freyja said. "People already believe Odin's story, so if I make it part of my story,...."

    "It makes your story seem more real," Brynhild said. "That is so sneaky!"

    "Yes, it is," Freyja said with a grin. "Sometimes I can be even sneakier than Loki."

    None of the women noticed the slight choking sound coming from the ant.

    "Anyway," Freyja went on, "the young husband is now in Valhall and he looks down and sees his wife all alone. Day by day, year by year he watches her mourn him and grow old."

    Tori wiped tears from her cheeks.

    "One day she dies," Freyja continued, "and her spirit goes to the Blessed Islands beyond the sunset. The Blessed Islands are a soft, warm land full of sweetness and light, where work is easy, it's always summer, and everyone remains young and healthy forever. There the woman must remain alone and pine for her lost husband, whom she shall never see again."

    "Oh, that poor woman," Tori sobbed.

    "It's only a story," Borgny said.

    "It's still sad," Tori bawled.

    Borgny put her arm around Tori and rubbed her back. Brynhild used a napkin to wipe tears from Tori's cheeks and then gave Tori the napkin.

    "It has also met an obstacle," Brynhild said.

    "It shall meet many obstacles yet," Freyja said. "As I said, the road has yet to be cleared."

    "The obstacle that I see," Brynhild said, "is a big one that will not be cleared easily. It is true that people are eager to hear what the Gods have to tell them, but it is also true that they are reluctant to act according to what they hear unless they see some matter of fact connected to what they hear."

    "Yes," Freyja said, "that's why Odin needs you. Your appearance draws men's eyes to Valhall. Now I shall need something to catch men's eyes and draw them toward the Blessed Islands."

    "Whatever you choose," Brynhild said, "it must be either a hidden thing, like ourselves, or a rare thing, so that people won't wonder why they never noticed it before."

    "A rare thing would be better," Freyja said. "The effort needed to make the scheme succeed shall be small and the people who see the evidence will feel especially privileged, so the seeing will make a deep impression upon their hearts." She paused and gazed at the sky. "Perhaps when some great man or woman dies," she mused, "someone truly important, emissaries from the Blessed Islands could come in a wagon and take the body away."

    "The Blessed Islands are across the Ocean Sea," Kari said. "Shouldn't the emissaries come in a boat?"

    "Not in any boat like the Norsemen use," Borgny said. "The Ocean Sea's smallest waves throw those over and smash them."

    "Yes, a boat," Freyja said. "One too big to be thrown over, perhaps as big as a house."

    "You could even make it like a house," Tori said, still sniffling and dabbing her eyes with the napkin. "You know, hire a carpenter to make it out of wood planks."

    "Wood!?" Borgni said. "Wood is too heavy. Boats are made of branches and animal skins." To Freyja she said, "The council of her thoughts has overindulged in some exceptionally strong mead." She hefted her drinking horn suggestively. "Give her so much as a poorly-marked path and she will follow it truly, but ask her to mark a good path where none has been before...." She shrugged. "You might as well try to catch the wind in a net."

    "You could catch the wind in a net," Tori said defensively, "if you wove the net fine enough, like cloth."

    "And if I were so foolish," Borgny said, "what would I do with a captive wind? It would be like trying to hold onto a runaway horse." She rolled her eyes, sighed, then, looking at Freyja, hefted her drinking horn again, before taking a draught from it.

    For a long moment Freyja stared over the valkyries' heads, out into the far distance, barely breathing, as though reluctant to taint the silence with so much as a sigh.

    "Yes," she said slowly. "Yes, the council of my thoughts judges Tori's thoughts to be good ones, ones that might even succeed." She shook her head. "But I don't wish to use anything that the Norsefolk could make for themselves; that would take all the magic out of it." She gazed dreamily out over the distant clouds and mused, "No, I see a better vision. I see a giant boat, one as big as a house. The branches are tree trunks made of gold and the animal skins are sheets of amber. The boat will paddle itself with gold paddles that come out of its sides like a duck's legs. The boat shall come to the dead man's village in the afternoon, the emissaries will take the body away onto the boat, and the boat shall go away into the sunset. As it paddles into the sunset it will become a cloud of fire that blends with the sky and disappears."

    "Oh, what a pretty vision," Kari said. "Could you draw a picture of the boat?"

    Freyja turned her scroll over and the valkyries leaned in close to her as she began to sketch. "It will have to look like the boats that the Norsemen use," Freyja said as she drew the lines, "but the paddles will go on like this."

    The ant perched on the rim of the service well slowly crept down into the well and, when it was out of the women's sight, scurried down into the cavern below. The ant hurried past cauldrons of mead and ale and racks bearing drinking horns. It hastened past the entrances to other caverns, kitchens in which food was being prepared by child-big cutmaster mantises, and into the tunnel that led to the cliff just above the valkyries' alcove. It dropped onto the slab, rose up, and turned into Loki. With a sneering glance back toward Gladsheim, he dove over the wall.

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    In the nethermost depths of Asgard there was a forest of stone. Set close together, the trunks of stone trees, tall and straight, filled a giant cavern. Luminous lichen growing in the trees shed a thin gray light and an endless drizzle misted the air.

    The trees opened out onto a small clearing at the base of a cliff whose top was hidden in the mist. From cracks in the cliff water spilled into a mossy beard at the cliff's base. The water flowed clear and cold out of the moss and over a wide polished-flint slab that sloped gently to disappear under the gravel-and-pebble bed of a brook that carried the water into the forest. Here and there the flint slab sparkled and from each sparkle a thin, rainbow-hued ripple of light spread across the stone.

    Drizzle patting softly on the waterskin of her membranous cloak, Urd stood at the lower end of the flint slab. Under her hood she wore an ornately carved tiara made of what looked like gray ivory. Gray vines sprouted from the sides of the tiara and fell across Urd's chest, where they joined themselves into one vine that fell to Urd's waist and then looped up to merge with the top of her staff as though growing from it. The staff, as tall as Urd, was ornately carved with deep grooves and hollows. Seemingly made of dark gray ivory as thick as a man's wrist, it turned lighter gray, almost white, at its base, where its roots, like the tentacles of an octopus, slithered and writhed over the flint slab. Urd held the staff in both hands and slid her fingers in its grooves, her fingers pressed into its hollows.

    Freyja paced back and forth across the upper end of the slab, splashing through water a finger's width deep. She wore a hooded cape covered with brown-and-gold feathers that shed water as the feathers of a duck do. She held the cape closed in front of her with one hand.

    "It must be someone important, someone prominent and well-loved," she said.

    "The range of choices available to us is wide," Urd said. "Many men and women have accomplished much and are much loved and admired in many villages. But if you seek one who shall die soon, the range narrows considerably."

    "What are the possibilities," Freyja asked, "starting with the earliest?"

    "In one month Freydis Ulfsdottir will die in Laksfoss," Urd said. "The next is in three years in...."

    "We can't wait three years," Freyja said, interrupting. "By that time Odin's story will be so much a part of these people that nothing can change what it does to them."

    "You need not wait," Urd said.

    "Murder? No," Freyja said. "That's what I'm seeking to stop."

    "One life...for the benefit of many."

    "And how shall I choose?" Freyja asked. "How can I justify taking away even one year of an inoffensive man's life? No, no, I couldn't.... I...." She made a sour face and ground her teeth. "If only the death could be feigned,...." She brightened. "One of us! Yes, that's the answer. Oh, my goodness, yes! I sought to make a deep impression upon the hearts of the Norsefolk. How deep an impression would witnessing the death of a god make?" Her bright smile faded to a frown. "But who could I use in such a plan? Who among us is well-loved over the whole Norseland and yet would be willing to forego seeing that sweet and beautiful land and its people ever again?"

    The dripping of water and the gurgle of the little brook seemed to become louder in the silence that fell over Urd's clearing. "Balder," Urd said after a long pause, "radiant Balder who has never dared to touch the Runeforge lest he discover what gift it has for him. You could send him to your Blessed Islands beyond the sunset and all Midgard would be awash with tears."

    "Balder would never agree to be part of such a plan," Freyja said.

    "He will after I talk to him," Urd said in tones as dark as thunderclouds.

    Freyja made a rude noise.

    "I would no sooner deprive Balder of his freedom than I would deprive a man of his life. No, I shall apply my story to Freydis Ulfsdottir."

    "And if you fail?"

    "The failure won't be total," Freyja said. "I shall dream a way to replace what fails, a way that does not involve robbing people of what is right for them." Her boot snagged a strand of moss and she kicked the moss aside. She saw that the ripples under the moss had acquired a brownish tinge. She knelt down and threw back a larger section of the moss.

    "No!" Urd cried out. "Odin forbids--" She fell silent when she clairvoyed Freyja putting her face close to the water and going rigid.

    Lightning flashed in Freyja's eyes and the vision came to her and showed her the charred remains of Trollhavn. Snow covered the ground, ice floated in the fjord, and dark gray clouds covered the sky. The vision then showed her a rock shelter in the cliffs to the west of Trollhavn. There, dressed in rotten rags, Glyn crouched shivering, rocking to and fro and shivering. A short distance away Amund, also dressed in rags and rotten animal skins, blood frozen on several deep wounds, knelt on the ground and scooped snow over a frozen baby. Freyja shifted her focus and watched fire and mass murder destroy Nidaros. She shifted again and the vision showed her half a dozen obese valkyries waddling through the ruins of Koppang.

    Freyja recoiled from the visions and looked up at Urd in horror. "Why are these futures hidden?" she asked, her voice trembling. "All of us should know of them so that we can guide this world away from them." The Norn stood silent and Freyja turned hesitantly back to the slab.

    "They are all like that," Urd said with a sigh. "All of this land's possible futures bear the weight of our folly. The shape of the burden differs from one future to another, but the weight of the misery is ever the same."

    "Our folly!?" Freyja said as she got to her feet and pulled the duck-feather cape closer around her. "I had no part in creating this situation, but I shall certainly take part in correcting it."

    "You know how to correct it?" Urd asked.

    "Don't you?" Freyja asked in shock. "Doesn't Odin?" She watched Urd for several heartbeats and then asked, "Has Odin made any attempt to cast the Runes that will solve this problem?"

    "The Runes can't solve the problem," Urd said. "They created it."

    "That's not possible!" Freyja declared indignantly.

    "It is if you cast more Runes than a world can support," Urd said.

    "But the Runepower runs deep and swift through this world," Freyja said.

    "That was also Odin's belief," Urd said. "When Asgard first rose into this world from beneath the Dream Sea, Odin found such an abundance of beauty and charm in the land of the Norsefolk that he believed no further tests were necessary. This world deceived him badly, though that fact does not excuse his negligence. In truth, the Runepower only seeps and trickles through this thickly congealed reality. By the time Odin understood his error, the use of the Runes had distorted this world's reality into a shape it cannot long bear. In only a short time, a matter of some years, Asgard will sink back into the Dream Sea and the Norseland will sink into a Fimbulvetr, a winter of winters, in which every day brings a month of cold."

    "This changes everything," Freyja said.

    Urd sighed.

    "Valkyries have a very poor sense of social timing."

    Startled by the abrupt change of subject, Freyja gave Urd a puzzled look. Then from a distance she heard Brynhild calling.

    "Yoo hoo! Urd!"

    "There were times," Urd said, "that I used for no other purpose but to regret my lonely vigil down here. Your apprentices have taught me the error of using time for such feeling."

    "I'll demand that they stop coming here if you wish it," Freyja said.

    "No," Urd said. "A halt to their coming is neither necessary nor desirable. I complain only to solicit a little of your sympathy, to share a little fellow feeling with one upon whom they have also been put. Your valkyries only ask me to find thunderstorms in which they can play and that's not a heavy burden."

    "My valkyries!?" Freyja said voicelessly as her eyebrows rose a finger's width.

    "Furthermore," Urd went on, "I rather like my new kenning."

    "You have a new kenning?" Freyja asked. "I haven't heard it."

    "Falcon's Respite," Urd said proudly as a queer little smile played across her lips.

    "Falc...!?" Freyja started to say. "They don't! Do they?"

    "Ah, you do, indeed, share my belief," Urd said, "that it is unseemly for those proud hunters of the air to be seen stricken with panic and flapping frantically in a frenzied effort to escape those who chase them for sport. So you see clearly that the little time I spend finding storms is time well spent, a small price to pay for maintaining the proper order of the world, yes?"

    "Yes," Freyja agreed. "It might be better, though, if I were to Rune up a permanent storm for them, one with ghost hawks for them to chase." She resumed her pacing of the slab. "But what shall we do, what can we do, about the burden that we're dropping onto the Norsefolk?" She sighed. "Flyspecks! We bring them misery and death and all that we can offer them in compensation is a pair of pretty stories. We have ruined their land for all time and...so...so let's send them to another land, one that's still soft and warm for them."

    "Where shall we find such a land?" Urd asked.

    "Hmmm," Freyja mused. "It would have to be...to the south, closer to Muspellheim. Yes, the lands to the south are gentle and kind and there will be room enough for all the Norsefolk. And the people who live there now shall certainly fill up full the gods' request that they welcome the Norsefolk as neighbors."

    "The Norsefolk must first trek far to the north and then to the east before they can go south," Urd said, "and already the ice possesses the lands through which they must travel. They correctly call those lands Jotunheim, even if there are truly no Frost Giants to live there."

    "They can't cross the water?" Freyja asked half-heartedly.

    "In what?" Urd asked. "In boats that will be thrown over and smashed as soon as they leave the fjords? No, they would need boats as big as your house-big amber canoe."

    "Yes, they would, wouldn't they?" Freyja said. "I would need to cast Rune after Rune after Rune.... Why, I might destroy this entire world with my attempt to save part of it." She stopped pacing, fell silent, and stared at the ripples rolling across the flint slab.

    The valkyries, wearing duck-feather capes like Freyja's, entered the clearing. Carefully watching their footing on the wet rocks that paved the trail, they didn't notice Freyja until Brynhild stepped off the trail and onto the flint slab.

    "Oh, we didn't mean to interrupt," Brynhild said apologetically. "We merely came to ask Urd to find a thunderstorm for us."

    "Thunderstorms are good for us to practice in," Borgny added hastily. "They truly help us improve our skill."

    "Improved skill is always good," Freyja said absent-mindedly. To Urd she said, "I know what must be done." She walked down the slab, stepped her way past the valkyries, and strode up the trail.

    The valkyries, taking care not to tread upon her staff's tentacles, clustered around Urd and examined the sparkling flint under their feet.

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