Chapter Two:

Trouble in a God's Heart

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    On the south side of Asgard, less than halfway below the long mountain's summit, a barren valley one hundred paces wide opened onto a sheer cliff. Broad domes of quartz stood high over both sides of the valley's precipitous end. The western of those domes had cracked on its southeastern side, a large chunk of the cloudy quartz having pulled away from the rest of the dome, and the crack had filled with rubble, becoming a smooth-floored little valley fifty paces long and ten wide. At its southern end that little valley opened onto the cliff and at its northern end onto a steep descent to the floor of the larger valley a tall tree's height below.

    From cracks in the north wall of the little valley water seeped with a soft sputtery hiss. A gray vine as thick as a man's arm grew from the gravel moistened by the seep, spreading up the wall and clinging to it as ivy would. Branches bearing broad silver-green leaves grew outward, away from the wall. The viney tree's delicate white flowers were streaked with deep violet and its fruits resembled apples, their translucent amber skins flecked with gold.

In the little vale of Eplisbjorg, high on Asgard's flanks,

grows a strange, sprawling vine-like tree, to which the Gods give thanks.

Sun, air, and water are all it ever needs.

Pollinated by aurora's light, its fruit grows without seeds.

This is Asgard's greatest wealth,

The source of eternal life and health,

Brought to the Gods when day is done,

Golden apples of the sun.

    A tall, stout woman, her long blond hair braided and coiled atop her head, attended the tree. Wearing a silver-green dress into which flowery patterns were woven with violet and golden threads, she might have blended into the tree but for her movements. She levitated up the cliff, searching from branch to branch. When she found a fruit that she deemed ready, she cupped her hand under it and lifted gently, thereby making the fruit's stem separate cleanly from the branch. Then she descended to the mossy carpet that covered the little valley's gravel floor and put the fruit into a basket resting atop a flat rock. She had just put another fruit into the basket when Freyja flew into her valley from the southern end, pitched herself upright, and landed on her feet by the flat rock.

    "Idun," Freyja said in greeting. She pulled a parchment scroll from her belt and offered it to the tall woman. "This is the poem that you wanted."

    Idun accepted the scroll and clutched it to her breast as a look of happy anticipation filled her face.

    "The one about the dark-haired man by the waterfall?" she asked.

    "In the poem he will fill all of your wishes to their brims," Freyja said with a nod.

    Idun tucked the scroll into her belt.

    "Sometimes," she mused, "I can almost believe that reading one of your poems is better than being held by a man."

    "Oh, I wouldn't give up men for a poem," Freyja said.

    "Neither would I," Idun agreed. "But your poems do for me what no man has ever done. Men touch only my flesh; your poems touch my soul. You create happiness in me that I didn't know before."

    Freyja shook her head.

    "I don't create happiness; I merely find it. Happiness is like a salmon hiding in the water; you don't know it's there until you catch it in your net."

    "Well, you weave a fine net," Idun said, "and you know right where to cast it."

    "That's not such a rare talent," Freyja said with a giggle. "Your flattery is fishing up a boatload of happiness for me."

    "I'm not flattering you," Idun said a little coyly. "I'm laying out a path that I want you to follow. I want you to take your finest net and fish up a special catch."

    "And into what pool shall I cast my net for you this time?" Freyja asked with a smile.

    "Into Odin's soul," Idun said, "to find out what's troubling him."

    Freyja's smile vanished under a look of astonishment.

    "Odin?!" she said hesitantly.

    Idun stared silently at the ground for several heartbeats, idly putting her right hand on her chest and running her thumb up and down the hilt of her dagger.

    "Freyja, I swear by Day's light," she said, "that Odin has begun to act as though some demon has taken possession of his soul. Why, just last Fourthday he sat at the table and ate nothing. He stared off into blue sky as though none of us existed and he...," her voice trembled with half sobs, "and he picked up his apple and smashed it on the table." A tear slid down the side of her nose.

    "I certainly wasn't present when that happened," Freyja said. "Likely I had already left. I've heard hints that Odin had done a discourtesy, but I didn't suspect...." She put a hand on Idun's shoulder. "The sight of Odin abusing your gift must have hurt you deeply."

    "When I took my turn and tried to touch the Runepower," Idun said with a nod, her voice still a little quavery, "all I got was the ability to grow these funny little apples. It's such a small power, but I take pride in using it well. In all the time that I have brought the Runepower's health to my family and friends no one has ever abused one of my fruits, so I never suspected how much such a thing could hurt me. But when Odin smashed his apple, I felt as though he had ripped out my heart."

    "I know that Odin tends to act before he thinks," Freyja said, "but that is too careless. His behavior has become strange. When he led me to touch the Runepower and saw that I can grasp it, he seemed delighted and eager to teach me the Runes, but then he started avoiding me and putting me off. This past week, instead of teaching me the Runes as he had promised, he went hunting for valkyries." She exhaled a sigh of exasperation. "Can you tell me what value he can find in a pack of valkyries?"

    Idun shrugged and sniffled.

    "I suppose that they'll make nice cushions when they're stuffed," she ventured to guess.

    "But he's not going to stuff them," Freyja said. "He's keeping them alive. He brought one of them up a short time ago."

    Idun's eyes went wide and her lip curled in disgust.

    "Here?" she asked in a horrified tone. "In Asgard?! No! Not even Loki would do anything so foul! What has possessed him?!"

    "He even wants me to teach them how to fly," Freyja continued.

    "You didn't agree!" Idun said indignantly.

    Freyja waved her hand in a gesture of dismissal.

    "I told him that fish walk before I teach valkyries to fly."

    "Then you will try to discover what's gone wrong with him?" Idun asked.

    Freyja sighed.

    "I don't know what good I can do. You've known Odin longer than I have and yet...." She shrugged.

    "The Aesir are not known for subtlety," Idun said. "It is the Vanir whose finesse is prized. I believe that is why you can see so deeply into our souls. We need that ability applied to Odin soon. Everyone will agree."

    "How shall I begin such a task?" Freyja asked. "I've shaped and polished my skills to advise people in matters of love. What do I know about demons in people's souls?"

    "Begin with this, then," Idun said. "We all love Odin. If some demonic thing is tormenting him, we want it stopped."

    "And what if the demon turns out to be one that Odin created for himself?" Freyja mused, more to herself than to Idun.

    "Freyja, please," Idun said, her voice gone quavery again.

    Freyja clasped Idun's hand between hers.

    "Of course, I'll do what I can," she said. "I will apply my finest skills to the task that you have set before me, though I freely admit that I don't know what they will gain for us."

ef

    Approaching Asgard from the south and from above, a big, heavily-muscled young man flew a shallow descent along a course that would take him just east of the mountain. Bright red hair and beard fluttered and billowed in the wind. The broad leather belt that held the man's trousers in place also held, in addition to a dagger in its scabbard, a thick leather pouch, one deep enough and wide enough to admit a man's clenched fist halfway to the elbow. Casually the man rolled himself into a wide, lazy left turn, aligning his shallow glide onto one of Asgard's deeper hanging valleys.

    What appeared to be a stubby-winged goose the size of a two-horse wagon followed the man, wobbling slightly as it flew. Seen from another angle, the goose clearly had no wings at all, merely an overly broad body whose contours suggested wings. Streaked with iridescent blue and gold, the creature's pale gray covering was certainly not feathers and the goose's head was that of a snake, not that of a bird. Following the man through his turn, the goose added a small side-to-side slewing to its wobbles as it lined up its flight path to enter a small box canyon with a waterfall and a pool at its closed end.

    Gliding into the valley, the man pitched himself upright and landed feet first on the moss-covered floor near the little brook that ran from the pool to the valley's open end along the south wall of the valley. The goose followed the man's example, rearing up and lowering a pair of scaly legs to land on the moss. It immediately waddled ponderously toward the pool and the man was obliged to trot to get in front of it. He made emphatic pushing down motions with his hands and the goose hesitated, stopped, and slowly sat down on the moss. Craning its neck to look down at him, the goose snorted at the man.

    "Yes, I know," the man said apologetically. "Unload!" Then he corrected himself and said, "Dump!"

    The goose's back split down the middle and folded outward like the spreading of wings to reveal the body's hollow interior. The goose then rose up into a crouch and reared up. Three petite young women, dressed in tatters and covered with dried blood, filth, and gobs of glistening gray slime, spilled out onto the moss and lay unconscious. With a slight hop, the goose got up onto its feet, trotted to the pool, and, with its back still open, jumped into the water and put itself directly under the waterfall. It looked back at the man and made a deep flatulent noise.

    "Yeah, I don't blame you," the man said. Sensing another presence, the man turned and saw Odin fly into the valley with the red-haired valkyrie slung over his shoulder.

    "Thor!" Odin called as he approached the pile of valkyries and pitched himself upright to land on his feet. "How did the flight go?"

    "As well as could be expected," Thor said.

    Odin laid the red-haired valkyrie onto the moss and gave the other valkyries a brief inspection. "Did the wagon give you any trouble?" he asked as he straightened up.

    "Ever see a wagon throw up?" Thor asked.

    "It didn't harm the valkyries, did it?" Odin asked. He knelt down to inspect the women again, careful to touch them on the few places where their clothes were relatively clean and rolling them over.

    "Unfortunately, no," Thor grumbled.

    Odin stood up.

    "Has the wagon regained its well-being?" he asked, casting a glance at the goose, which was still wallowing under the waterfall. Seeing Thor nod, he then asked, "If the valkyries made it sick, how did you gain its cooperation?"

    "I promised to fill it up with something substantially more savory," Thor said, "such as rotting fish." Seeing Odin's sour look, he shrugged and said, "I promised that tomorrow I would take it on a quest for a load of the sweetest-smelling fruits we can find. Besides, once it got airborne and blew some fresh air over its gills it perked right up."

    "Ah, good," Odin said. "I regret that the wagon got sick and when I have time I will make proper amends."

    "A fine offer I'm sure," Thor said, "but what peeves me is that all of this effort is unnecessary."

    "Truly?" Odin said. "And how did you shape that opinion?"

    Thor looked at the ground and scuffed at the moss with his boot.

    "Well, it's no secret that you have seen no women for some time now."

    Odin shrugged.

    "I've been busy."

    Thor raised his hands in a defensive gesture.

    "I understand your reluctance to discuss it," he said. "The problem is a hard one to acknowledge, even to one's own self. All I want to tell you is this: I believe that you would serve your needs better if you consulted Freyja rather than...," he slid a glance toward the valkyries, "degrading your taste in women."

    Odin's sudden laughter echoed off the walls of the little valley and brought a frown to Thor's brow.

    "Oh, Thor!" Odin said. "How you misunderstand! I'm not going to dally with these foul things. No, the pleasure that I gain from my valkyries will be the pleasure of creating a great thing, one new and useful."

    "What useful thing can you make with valkyries?" Thor asked.

    "A great legend," Odin answered, "one that will inspire the Norsemen and fill them with boldness of spirit."

    "Hah!" Thor chortled. "I have yet to hear any woman complain that the Norsemen lack boldness."

    "Not that kind of boldness," Odin said. "It's the boldness of a warrior that my legend will nurture in Norsemen's hearts."

    "To what end?" Thor asked in astonished horror. "Those folk are too eager to kill each other as it is. How do you think these things...," he poked the toe of his boot into a valkyrie's belly, "stay sleek and fat?"

    "Yes, well, now their habit will become part of a great cause," Odin said. "I have heard that you and Freyja will be conducting a wedding in Trollhavn."

    "Yes. Next Firstday," Thor said.

    "If you have an opportunity to do so," Odin said, "if you can do it without being obtrusive about it, would you begin to plant the story of Valhall in the Norsemen's minds?"

    "Certainly," Thor said as he turned to leave. A puzzled look came over his face and he turned back to Odin. "Have I missed out on something?" he asked. "What is Valhall?"

    "It's a long story," Odin said with a broad smile, "but I will be happy to tell you everything about it."

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