Chapter One:

On the Wind Roof of the World

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    Lying upon the wind that fluttered his blue cloak, with only bare mountains and glaciers visible far below him, the young man flew along the front of a towering thunderstorm. The wind clawed at his jet-black hair and beard, combing them out into shuddering flags, but however forcefully it blew it could not move the black patch held over his right eye by a spider's webwork of thin black strings. Holding his hands up over his head, using them to control his orientation, he tried to shrug as a man might do to relieve sore and fatigued muscles. The expression on his face was one of weariness. He might have descended and alighted on some mountaintop to rest, but his cargo would become even more of a burden if he waited too long. Gritting his teeth, he flew on.

    His cargo was a petite young woman with pale white skin. Dried blood and filth covered her, matting her bright red hair into a clotted tangle. Her dress, more a loose collection of tatters than a garment, was similarly soiled, so much so that its true color could not be seen. Her wrists had been tied together and the man had put his head and left arm through the loop thus formed by her arms. With the woman dangling on his back he had then tied a rope around their waists. Now, lost in a deep enchanted sleep, she rode on his back and weighed him down.

    Tired though he was, he nonetheless eyed the storm cautiously, seeking...and finding. He lifted his left hand and dropped his right hand to roll his body to the right, then lifted his right hand to stop his roll and pitch himself in a wide right turn toward a gap in the clouds. Surrounded by darkening gray mist, he followed a clear corridor within the storm and found the strong updraft he had been seeking, a wind blowing upward through a cloud chimney. Pitching himself upward, he rode the updraft, using it to help him gain altitude. The blue-white flash of lightning flickered within the clouds below him and a few heartbeats later the bang thumped his body. He was shuddered again as thunder rolled over him. Buoyed by the updraft, he rose ever higher, into the light of the sun and high above the storm. He rode the updraft as high as he could before he leveled off and resumed his northward flight.

    Dazzling white and darklingish gray under deep blue were all that he could see in any direction. With no landmarks or skymarks to guide him, he chose his course on intuition alone. It was just as well that he did not have to think about his navigation, for all of his conscious attention was devoted to keeping the altitude that he had gained. But for all his effort of will, he sank slowly toward the clouds and then down into them. Blind in the swirling fog, he flew onward. Soon the fog lightened and was yanked away as he emerged into the plein air beyond the storm. And he saw, off to his left, his goal.

    It seemed to float on the wind as the clouds do, this mountain of translucent pale gray stone. Made of virtually solid quartz veined with gold, broad domes, tall peaks, and lofty spires clustered together, separated from one another by a maze of hanging valleys, some broad, some little more than clefts in the rock. Palaces like colored jewels clung to the cliffs as shelf fungi cling to the trunks of trees, giving the mountain a glittery appearance. At the mountain's base solid rock appeared, disappeared, and appeared again, as if washed by a ponderous invisible swell. Around the mountain's base, mostly separate from the mountain, transparent spires rose on their own rocky pinnacles and shone with an amber light.

From deep beneath the Dream Sea into our northern sky

this palaced magic mountain rose and no one can say why.

Waterfalls surround it with rainbowed mist and foam.

The Norsefolk call it Asgard: the Gods simply call it home.

    Slowly, wearily, as though the maneuver might break him, he rolled and pitched himself into a wide left turn. His gaze fixed on Asgard, he didn't notice the petite young blond woman in a yellow dress and silver-feathered cape float into a position above and behind him. Concentrating all of his attention fully upon other matters, he did not notice the woman following him through his approach to Asgard. As he flew past one of the amber beacons he could see that he was too low to make a proper landing in Asgard. Distracted, he failed to notice that he was flying straight at an outcrop of rock that supported a buttress-like arch. The woman lunged forward as if to grab him and pull him aside, but she fell back when he rolled over to his right, shifting his flight path away from the collision. She copied his rollover maneuver and continued following him as he flew under the arch and cruised along the cliff toward a narrow ledge.

    Though he tried to slow his flight, the man hit the ledge hard, skidding along it and coming to rest lying with his back against the cliff. His left hand groped empty air and he saw that his left arm dangled over the end of the ledge.

    The young woman landed lightly at his feet. Quickly she knelt as if to grab him lest he roll or slide off the ledge.

    "Odin!" she called to him. "Are you hurt?"

    Dazed and somewhat bewildered, Odin looked up at her.

    "What? Freyja?" he answered. "Oh. No, I'm not hurt. Intensely tired, yes, but not hurt." He looked down at the mountains below Asgard, at the house-big boulders at the foot of a glacier looking like grains of sand, then looked back up at Freyja as if noticing her for the first time. "I didn't see you on the way up," he said.

    Freyja stood up and leaned her back against the cliff.

    "I didn't come up," she said. "I was on the Runeforge. Urd saw your distress...." She shrugged.

    There was a hint of sneer in Odin's smile.

    "And sent a sparrow to catch a falling eagle," he said, finishing up the proffered half-statement.

    "I fly well enough for the task I was given," Freyja said.

    "Graceful is not strong," Odin said.

    "Rested is not fatigued," Freyja replied. "I agree that Thor would have been the better choice, but he is nowhere to be found. Thus I was given the task of ensuring your safe landing. I am certain, don't doubt me on this, that I could have lifted enough of your weight to fulfill that task and help you come to a safe landing somewhere in Asgard."

    "Hmmm," Odin mused. "Yes, I suppose you could." He looked again over the edge of the cliff, into a giant lake that appeared to be a mere handful of water, heaved a sigh, and said, "And I admit that I am grateful for your intent."

    "Grateful enough to fill up a promise?" Freyja asked casually.

    Odin screwed up his face as if he had bitten into something sour.

    "When the work I am doing now is complete, yes," he said. He untied the rope around his waist, untied the wrists of the woman he had carried, and sat up, swinging his legs over the edge of the cliff. "The faster my work goes," he continued, "the sooner you will know the Runes." He pulled his cloak around him, revealing the cargo lying under it.

    Freyja's mouth fell open and her eyes widened in horror.

    "What kind of work are you doing?" she asked, gesturing at the unconscious woman. "I seem to remember that we all agreed not to hurt the people of this world."

    "Yes," Odin said, "you remember as I do. The agreement that we all made is a good one and none of my actions has flouted it." He gestured at his erstwhile cargo and said, "Though I intend her no harm, this pseudowoman is not covered by the cloak of our agreement. Her father was a troll, after all. She's...."

    "A valkyrie!" Freyja exclaimed, curling her lip in disgust as she interrupted Odin's statement. Her right hand went to the hilt of her dagger, protruding above the neckline of her dress.

    "Yes, that too," Odin said with a touch of annoyance. "But I intended to say that she and her sisters are an important part of my work."

    Freyja took her hand off her dagger and shook her finger at Odin. "Your eagerness to begin this work of yours is too hot," she cautioned. "It would be best to let it cool, because you have something more important to do first."

    "I do?" Odin asked innocently.

    Freyja nodded.

    "Yes." She gazed out at the horizon and tilted her head as though listening to someone. "A thought just now came to me," she said, "and told me that you should return quickly to Midgard and retrieve what you lost."

    "I lost nothing," Odin said.

    "No?" Freyja said. She looked him over as though searching for something. "Where is your sense of decency? You must have lost it. If it were still in your possession, it would give you strong counsel against bringing this...," she gestured at the valkyrie, "filth into Asgard." Suddenly she jumped back, startled by the valkyrie moaning softly and trying to turn over in her sleep. "Odin, it's alive!"

    "I certainly hope so," Odin said. "I need my valkyries to be alive."

    "Snake dandruff!" Freyja exclaimed. "For the sake of decency, throw it over the cliff!" With both hands she made shooing motions toward the valkyrie.

    Odin shook his head.

    "That's not the right thing for me to do," he said.

    Freyja sighed her exasperation.

    "Perhaps you should introduce your thoughts of what is right to good sense and see whether good sense finds them acceptable as companions?"

    Odin lifted his right hand, palm up, in a half shrug, half plea.

    "Some introductions should not be made too early," he said. "What I must do, what is right for me to do, will appear for a short time to be the enemy of good sense, but when the time is right, all will be made clear and good sense will accept my plans as close friends. For that short time, though, let yourself trust my judgement. I assure you, decency shall not be offended. Once my valkyries have been cleaned up and taught a few simple courtesies, you shall find them easily tolerable."

    Freyja's eyes narrowed in suspicion.

    "I shall find them tolerable? No. It appears that the flight up has fatigued your mind as much as your body. When both are well rested, you shall not truly believe that I would ever get friendly with your little buzzards."

    "No, no, of course not," Odin said, waving his hand as though dismissing the thought and sweeping it away. "I want only for you to teach them how to fly."

    Those words shocked Freyja.

    "What?!" she croaked.

    "The Runes will only give them the ability to fly," Odin said. "I need you to shape that ability into skill."

    "When salmon wear boots, I will!" Freyja snarled. She raised her arms over her head and levitated up the side of the cliff.

    Odin sighed and leaned back against the rock. Idly he pulled a strand of blood-clotted hair out of the valkyrie's face.

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