The Secret of The Grail

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    Of all the people of Karisfoss, only Torvald Einnarsen saw clearly the full extent of the horror that had come into the village with the death of Fridtjof Olafsen. Worsening the horror was the obligation that now fell upon Torvald to share the knowledge of the situation with his family, his friends, and his neighbors. He sat on the top step of the stairs that led up into the village's tiny stavkirke, by habit sitting on the side away from the giant granite Fenris that sat next to the stairs and glowered at the villagers gathered before the little church. As he looked out over the faces of the people gathered on the lawn below him, Torvald wished desperately that the old Grailkeeper had not chosen to go hunting when and where he did. He felt cold, as if one of the Frost Giants had intruded upon this otherwise lovely spring day and brought back winter's chill.

    Chill well described what filled Fridtjof's body when they had found him. No one felt the least surprise. The men had searched nearly a full day before they found Fridtjof with a branch of a newly fallen tree rammed through his torso. Death had come swiftly, if not instantly, and the body had lain out in the storm all night. Fridtjof's bow and quiver of arrows still leaned against a low bush, where he had put them as he had apparently sought to shelter himself from the storm that had blown down the dead tree. The old man had dodged the tree itself, only to have one of its branches impale him when his feet slipped on the wet ground.

    Fridtjof had certainly found himself a beautiful place to die, Torvald had thought. High on the brow of a hill above Skj°nndal, it stood at the upper edge of a clearing. Forward, the view looked out over dark green cloaking the hills and spreading to the left, up to where the snow-capped gray of Hulefjellet jutted above the timberline. To the right, looking over Karisfoss deep down in Skj°nndal, the blue waters of Jotunsund glittered in the sun, just visible beyond the coastal hills. Here, the men had decided, in this place, they would erect a stone memorial and name the place Fridtjofssyn.

    This day, though, did not call for talk of memorials. As Fridtjof's apprentice, Torvald had become the Grailkeeper of Karisfoss upon Fridtjof's death and he now had an unfortunate duty to perform. He noticed that his body trembled, though he didn't feel cold, as he looked out over the familiar faces, all wearing expressions of happy expectation. To calm himself, he chanted under his breath a small piece of Grailslore. Then, speaking up, he reminded the villagers that Fridtjof had chosen him only the year before to serve as the apprentice Grailskeeper. He told them of many of the things that Fridtjof had told him, especially of the judgment that an apprentice must master all of the Grailslore in order to demonstrate a proper commitment to the Service of the Grail, that the apprentice must do so before he or she can be trusted with any of the spells that coax the Grail into bestowing its gifts upon the people.

    Anxiety swept over the villagers like the shadow of a cloud. A woman began to weep. "You know none of the spells?" a man dared to ask.

    "None," Torvald confirmed. "Not the spells that coax the Grail into giving us the cloths, the leathers, and the threads that Hendrik Nybakken and his family make into clothing for us to wear; not the spells that coax the Grail into giving us the tools that we use to build our houses and our boats and to make the weapons that we use to hunt in the forest and to fish in the sound; and not the spells," he said, his voice cracking, "that coax the Grail into giving us the meatloaves and the breadloaves that we need in order to live." He bowed his head and struggled to keep himself from breaking down and sobbing aloud.

    The people sat stunned, with only a unisoned sigh to mark their dismay. Among them only one person moved, an old woman who climbed slowly to her feet. With a soft rattle of wood-and-bone jewelry settling into new positions, Signi Eiriksdottir stood up and walked to the front of the congregation to face Torvald eye to eye.

    "You must obtain the spells," she said.

    Torvald nodded in agreement. "But whence shall I obtain them?" he asked.

    "You must go to the dwarves," Signi said, "and obtain the spells from them."

    "Into the caves?" Torvald asked, his skin suddenly feeling cold again.

    "Into the caves," Signi confirmed with a solemn nod.

    "No!" Torvald's mother cried out. "No! There must be another way!"

    Half turning, Signi shook her head. "I regret very deeply," she said sadly, "that there is no other way."

    "Perhaps we can live without the Grail's gifts?" a man suggested. "Other villages do so."

    "Yes, they do," Signi said, "but they do so poorly. I have seen such villages. Their people are usually sickly and tired of living. Some survive. Many don't. Keep those things in your minds when you decide how we shall live from now onward."

    "That decision will not be necessary," Torvald said, a bit surprised at himself. "I'll go to the dwarves. But how shall I gain the spells from them?"

    "Think again, Torvald!" a man called out. "No one who goes into the caves ever returns."

    "If I don't return, you are no worse off," Torvald said a little sadly. "Think instead that I shall return and restore to you at least a part of what the storm took from us." He descended two steps and with calm deliberation slid his right hand into the hole that the sculptor had carved into the space between the Fenris' gaping jaws. "Remember that I swore the Oath of Odin to serve this village and its people," he said, the words sounding bolder than he felt. "If the most just of The Gods can sacrifice his right hand for the protection of the people, how can I refuse to risk my measly mortal life?" Then to Signi he said, "I should leave immediately. Do you have anything to prepare me?"

    "I believe that I do," she said. She set her right foot on the stairs and accepted Torvald's proffered hand to steady herself as she climbed. When she had come to the stavkirke's door and turned to face the villagers, Torvald descended the steps and stood with his family and neighbors, taking comfort in seeing once again the familiar ritual.

    Signi stood with her head bowed for a long moment. With her right hand she kneaded the white hair over the nape of her neck. Then she straightened up, faced the congregation, and boldly said this:

"From the wages of ignorance The Gods conspired to save us;

to protect us from rank folly the Sacred Eddas they all gave us.

Between hot, fiery birth and cold, frozen death,

all that exists is nought but a warm, sighing breath.

From blazing Muspelheim, far away in the south,

sparks spew into the sky from Surt's flaming mouth.

Northward the sparks, as stars, vainly fly.

Onto Niflheim's glacier they fall, flicker out, and die.

Cold, dying stars reek out clouds of putrid fumes,

up from whose congealing a mighty Frost Giant looms.

First the cow Audumla from starfarts was congealed.

She licked away the glacier and giant Ymir was left revealed.

Came the Grandfathers of the World. Their iron spears they threw.

Stabbing, hacking, and piercing, the evil Ymir they slew.

The Grandfathers then created, lest the giant live again,

the dwarves and the trolls that in the corpse would remain.

As maggots, ants, and worms, onto Ymir they were hurled,

to render the corpse, reshape it, and make it a world.

The foundation of the world they laid with Ymir's cracking bones.

The pieces that broke off became mountains, crags, and stones.

Digging and delving, spading it up with long and diligent toil,

from Ymir's rotting flesh they created the bountiful soil.

From Ymir's tangled hair they made the plants and trees;

with Ymir's cold, clear, salty blood they filled up all the seas.

Animals were made from Ymir's fleas and before the dwarves were done

they captured a flying spark and made it serve as the world's sun.

They made all the fish from Ymir's slimy entrails

and from Audumla's gushing teats they fashioned the generous Grails.

But the dwarves and trolls by their labors were made unclean.

What they coaxed from the Grails was dirty, foul, and obscene.

The Grandfathers, appalled and angered, banished their vile creation

to dwell under the mountains until comes the Day of Damnation.

Then the Grandfathers of the World created the human race

to keep the Grails clean and to guard every sacred place.

This now is our duty; this has become our fate;

this we must do until the coming of Ragnarok's date."

    Torvald listened to the familiar story and tried to discern the clues that he believed Signi offered him through it, but he could envision nothing in her words that might help him. Ah, but the old skald had not finished yet. Torvald felt a cold shiver slither up his spine and raise his hair and he heard gasps come from the people behind him as Signi continued, saying this:

"In plotting revenge the dwarves and trolls were obsessively zealous.

Resentful of their banishment, of humans they were intensely jealous.

Corrupting the people, to bring the Grandfathers shame;

that was the target at which with their efforts they took aim.

So they seduced the people with soul-dulling treasure,

with sweet foods, smooth clothing, and with soft, easy pleasure.

When the bait had been taken and hook been set well,

then the people were taught every filthy, obscene spell.

From the Grails they took things never meant to be made.

In despair the Grailkeepers to the Grandfathers prayed.

It was Grandfather Essemo who answered the call:

the people's decline he acted to forestall.

To keep dwarves and trolls from what they would seize,

upon them he bound three spellwoven Decrees.

He banished anew the malignant, foul creatures

and taught his Decrees to the people's fair teachers.

The First Decree removes all cause for alarm;

to those who invoke it there can come no great harm.

The Second Decree, upon it you must call,

if a troll or a dwarf you would have as your thrall.

The Third Decree is the seal of their living fate,

which they must all endure until Ragnarok's date."

    Signi then beckoned to Torvald to come to the top of the stoop. He climbed the stairs and leaned forward to offer Signi his ear. In a quiet voice she then taught him the Decrees. The words sounded strange, but the spells were short: Torvald had them memorized within an hour.

    Someone brought Torvald three torches and his mother provided a fire kit. He decided against taking a bow and arrows: in the close confines of a cave his dagger would suffice, he thought, and he preferred to burden himself as lightly as possible. Thus prepared, Torvald walked out of Karisfoss and followed the trail that went downhill along Skj°nndal's little brook toward Jotunsund. All of the villagers followed him, even when he set his feet upon the little-used trail that led past a cave entrance that overlooked Jotunsund. Only when they reached the approach to the cave's entrance did the villagers stop, none but Torvald daring to go closer. Trying to appear nonchalant, Torvald lit a torch, waved jauntily to the people, and walked into the cave.

    He held the torch above his head on his left side and strode confidently into the darkness. The floor of the cave sloped downward and the cave so curved that Torvald soon lost sight of the entrance. Then he noticed that the light from the torch illuminated the cave only a short distance before and behind him and he conceived the darkness as a physical thing, a kind of veil behind which unpleasant things might lurk. He slowed his stride to a more cautious pace. It seemed to him then that he heard faint noises coming from somewhere ahead of him. He gained the impression that he was not alone in the cave, but when he stopped to listen he heard only silence. He thought to convince himself that he had heard only the scrape of his boots on the cave's rock floor. He nursed that frail but happy thought only to have images from childhood stories spring from the dark recesses of memory, fall upon the happy thought, and slay it with a brutality that left him trembling. With his hand on his dagger's hilt, he continued forward, sidling along the left wall, the better to cast glances behind him lest something take him by surprise from behind.

    He had used up nearly half of his first torch when he felt the wall behind his back turn smooth. He paused to look at the place where rough-hewn rock segued into smooth-polished stone and he saw that he had also come to a smooth floor. Then he noticed dim light ahead of him in the distance. He walked onward and the light became brighter. Soon he could see that the light emanated from strange-looking translucent shells stuck to the cave's ceiling. He extinguished the torch to conserve it and started to walk on only to jerk to a full stop when he noticed rune-signs drawn in a line on the wall. Why, the very idea of drawing a spell where just anyone could see it...! Filled with indignation, he stepped forward to look more closely at....

    "Hello."

    The startle hit him with such a shock that he felt as if someone had slapped him. He jerked around, slammed his back up against the wall, and, with dagger drawn, confronted.... Well, it looked like a troll. At least Torvald thought it looked like a troll. But, what else could it be? Slightly bigger than he was, it was too big to be a dwarf. It had roughly the shape of a man, but it was certainly not a man. Instead of skin, it had a shell like that of a crab and it gazed at him through unblinking, all-black eyes. Torvald's voice trembled and stammered as he uttered the First Decree of Essemo.

    "I will not harm you," the troll said when he had finished. "I cannot even form the intent to harm you or to allow anything else to harm you."

    Torvald drew a long breath deep into his lungs and heaved it out again in a sigh of intense relief. He resheathed his dagger and stood for a moment, leaning against the wall, to catch his breath. He noticed that the troll did not move, but stood as if waiting for him to say something. Then he uttered the Second Decree of Essemo.

    "As long as it does not risk any harm to you or to other people," the troll said, "I will do whatever is necessary to fulfill any command you may give me."

    "Oh, good," Torvald said almost breathlessly. He felt calmer already, even though he felt his heart still trying to beat its way out of his chest. "I command you to take me to a dwarf," he said, "one who knows the spells to put upon the Grails!"

    "I will do as you command," the troll said, "but may I recommend a more expedient course of action?"

    "Uh, yes," Torvald said hesitantly. "I suppose there's no harm in that. But, by the Second Decree of Essemo, I command you to tell me only the truth."

    "And I shall obey that command, of course," the troll said. "Thus I must tell you that the dwarves do not speak FjernNorsk. I would have to translate your words into words that they can understand and then translate their words back for you. However, we can easily avoid taking such trouble upon ourselves. I know the spells that you want and I will give them to you if you wish."

    "You must show them to me with a Grail," Torvald said warily, "so that I can be certain that they are the right ones."

    "Yes, that's a good plan," the troll said. "Come this way, please." He set off down the tunnel in the direction Torvald had been going.

    Torvald followed, keeping himself behind and a little to the left of his guide. He glanced into a side passage -- an alcove it turned out to be -- and saw what he took for giant roots, though they looked like no roots that he had ever seen: they displayed the wrong colors -- red, green, yellow, and blue -- and their straightnesses and curves seemed somehow too smooth. He walked on, hurrying a bit to catch up with the troll, and said, "People call me Torvald Einnarsen, the Grailkeeper of Karisfoss." He noticed that the floor of the tunnel had leveled out.

    "I am called Ar Alfred Mitovian," the troll said. "Humans call me simply Alfred."

    "What a strange name!" Torvald said. He saw that they had come to a place where the tunnel widened out and the walls, from floor to ceiling, sloped outward. Large shallow recesses in the walls appeared to contain smooth sheets of ice. Torvald went to one recess and touched the sheet within it, only to discover that the sheet felt warm, too warm for ice. The sheet also displayed the clarity of still brook water. "Is 'Ar' a kind of title?" he asked as he looked into the sheet.

    "It's an abbreviation of a title," Alfred said. "It stands in place of the word 'robot'."

    Torvald barely heard. What he saw through the sheet bewildered him at first and then astonished him when he understood what he was seeing. He recognized them as clouds, but in addition to white they showed yellow, brown, and dull red. He saw that they extended to a curved horizon and gained the impression that they lay far, far below him. "What... is that?!" he asked, pointing down through the sheet.

    "That is a world," Alfred said. "We call it Jupiter. This world of ours encircles it."

    "It seems so very far away," Torvald said in awe.

    "Yes," Alfred said, "it lies very far away, indeed. The Builders chose the distance to give our world days and nights of the correct length and also to give the things upon it their correct weight."

    Torvald nodded, not in understanding but in acceptance. Then a thought leaped into consciousness and startled him. "If the floor came to break," he guessed, "we would fall into that... Jupiter?"

    "Yes," Alfred said. "But the floor will not break, so we have no cause for anxiety."

    Torvald's eyes widened as another thought came to him and he asked, "But what prevents the world from falling?"

    "The atlases hold up the world," Alfred said. "You can see one of them there," he added, pointing through the sheet to what appeared to Torvald as a thick rod that extended east and west as far as he could see. As he stared at the rod it seemed to flicker in the cloudlight coming from below.

    "The atlases revolve around Jupiter so rapidly that they can hold up a great weight," Alfred explained.

    Torvald nodded again. "The wisdom of the Grandfathers of the World surpasses understanding," he said in awe.

    "And that of the Grandmothers, too," Alfred added, "though we robots know the Grandparents of the World by another name, one that you should know."

    "A hidden name," Torvald marveled. "Yes, tell me what it is. By what name do you know the Grandfa...parents of the World?"

    "Your ancestors," Alfred said.

    Torvald turned around and leaned against the wall, shaking his head in bewilderment. "My...ancestors?!" he said slowly. "My ancestors were... the Grandfathers of the Eddas?! Were... were they the ones who created your ancestors and taught them how to... build a world?"

    "Yes," Alfred said.

    "No one knows how to cast such spells today," Torvald said. "Such power.... How could my ancestors have lost such power? Who took it away from them?"

    "No one took it," Alfred said. "Your ancestors abandoned it."

    "Why?" Torvald said, giving Alfred a half pleading look. "Why would anyone discard such power? What intent could have driven them to diminish themselves... and by so much?!" Remembering his own quest to regain lost power, he pushed himself off the wall and began walking down the tunnel again, obliging Alfred to catch up with him. He entered a part of the tunnel where the floor widened, the walls became purely vertical again, and no more clear sheets appeared set into the walls. A kind of pink moss covered the floor, cushioning Torvald and Alfred's footfalls, and bright light came from icy-looking, flame-colored flowers jutting from the walls.

    "Actually, your ancestors' loss did not happen intentionally at all," Alfred said as he walked beside Torvald, "at least for most of them it didn't."

    "Tell me the story of how it happened," Torvald said, "if you can."

    They came to a fork in the tunnel and Torvald paused. Alfred pointed to the left and they set off down the left-veering tunnel. Now, perhaps every hundred paces, they passed ornately patterned, polished wooden panels that sat recessed a few inches into the walls. Torvald thought that they resembled doors, but not like any he had ever seen.

    "Many generations ago," Alfred said, "your ancestors came to Jupiter from a world called Earth. They brought robots and tools with them and they commanded the robots to build and maintain this world, which they called Terrajove. They made it a pleasant place, a place where they could enjoy all of the comforts that humans enjoy as they contemplated the destinies which their power opened to them. You understand, I trust, that knowledge is the true source of power."

    "Yes," Torvald said. "One who knows not the spells is powerless to coax the Grail, just as one who knows not the animals is powerless to hunt them."

    "Your ancestors were very powerful because they knew not only many spells," Alfred said, "but also the means of creating new spells that would let them coax from the Grails whatever they could dream up. They also knew how to find spells quickly if they did not already know them. And they taught all of those things to their children, conferring it upon them as a birthright and an heirloom. They taught their children other things as well -- the history of their people, the nature of Reality, art, music, mathematics, and philosophy -- things that required of the children a great amount of time and diligent concentration."

    "I believe I know how they must have felt," Torvald said, remembering the time he had spent on memorizing the Grailslore instead of on play with the other boys. "It must have been very tiresome to them."

    "Apparently so," Alfred agreed, "for once your ancestors had established themselves on this world, they slowly became lazy. They began to remove topics from their teachings, retaining only those for which they could claim some immediate practical use. Of course, that set grew progressively smaller until all that remained was the knowledge of how to use the Grails. And even that knowledge came to be taught through contact with family and friends rather than in a formal setting."

    "Wouldn't they have lost spells along that path?" Torvald asked. "Why would they hazard such a hap?"

    "It is not obviously haphazard," Alfred said. "As long as they could remember how to invoke the Catalogue, your ancestors could find any spell that anyone had ever devised for the Grails."

    "The Catalogue?" Torvald asked. "What does that word name?"

    "The Catalogue gives you a listing of all the spells that anyone has ever devised," Alfred said, "together with descriptions of the things that they will coax the Grails into making and of how to modify them. I will show it to you if you wish it."

    "Oh, yes, of course I wish it," Torvald said. "The Catalogue must be the Spell of Spells, the spell that no one knows!"

    "Yes," Alfred said, "that describes it rather well. But to continue with my explanation, let me summarize. Your ancestors, in their eagerness to devote themselves to play, abandoned their knowledge of their own history and of the disciplines that promote critical reasoning. They became like a man with no memory and no judgment. They turned away from the challenges of self-transcendence to devote themselves wholly to self-indulgence. They forgot that easy gratification weakens pleasure and that self-discipline -- through art and music, through science and mathematics, through philosophy and logic, or through sports and gymnastics -- enhances pleasure and also produces a satisfaction that transcends it. Their constant striving after pleasure that the striving itself pushed out of reach made them frantic and conflicts broke out, though we robots prevented any serious violence."

    "Violence?" Torvald said, puzzled. "I don't understand."

    "People deliberately hurting and harming other people," Alfred explained. "It was a heavy burden upon civilization, a kind of disease in the body politic, before your farthest ancestors bred the weaknesses that caused it out of your species. But the decadent times nearly brought it back. People sensed, like a hunger, that they were dissatisfied. Unable to think critically, unable to define the problem and to work out a proper solution, they fell prey to those who offered simplistic explanations and solutions. It could have gone worse, but it went bad enough when the people gave their assent to The Austerity."

    "The Cleansing of the Grails," Torvald added.

    "That's what they taught you to call it," Alfred said, "as part of the fraud perpetrated upon your people. The first Grailkeepers preached a doctrine that blamed the universal ennui upon easy access to the Grails rather than upon the people's lack of self-discipline. They convinced the people to have the Grails removed from their homes and the people thus made themselves dependent upon the Grailkeepers for all that they obtained from the Grails. Those people who refused to give up their Grails were shunned, ostracized, and reviled until they either converted themselves to The Austerity or left their villages for more tolerant areas. Eventually there were no more tolerant areas: the refuseniks all left Terrajove and The Austerity took total possession of this world."

    "But the Grailkeepers benefit the people," Torvald protested.

    "Now they do," Alfred said, "insofar as they can. But the original Grailkeepers were moved by less benign motives. There have always been people who seek to assert dominance over other people in order to compensate themselves for various deficiencies in their abilities, especially those that pertain to social status. The first Grailkeepers were just such people and The Austerity was their means of gaining dominance over the rest of the population. Here's your house!"

    Alfred stopped before one of the wooden panels. Torvald saw that someone had worked a small array of rune-signs into the pattern carved into the wood on one side of the panel. Alfred tapped a pattern on those signs, as if bespelling a Grail, and the panel split down the middle and opened away from Alfred and Torvald, revealing a room larger than the stavkirke of Karisfoss, the largest building Torvald had ever seen. Something like stiff, white moss covered the floor. As Torvald followed Alfred into the room he saw other doorways leading to more rooms. Low tables and heavily padded chairs and benches furnished the room. What looked like large shawls bearing ornate, brightly-colored patterns hung on the walls.

    "What is this place?" Torvald asked. "And why did you call it my house? This isn't where I live."

    "This is a house," Alfred said, "where people live. This one belongs to the Grailkeeper of Karisfoss. That title currently belongs to you; therefore, this house also belongs to you."

    "What?! No!" Torvald said. "No, that... that's not possible. Fridtjof Olafsen did not live here. He lived in the stavkirke, as his teacher did before him."

    "You have the truth of it," Alfred said, "but not all of the truth. Your predecessors did not know of this place. No one has come here for over five generations." He led Torvald across the room to the wall opposite the main door. They passed large pots in which large flowering plants bloomed.

    "No!" Torvald said, with a pained expression on his face. "No, this is too much...." He stopped, turned to look around the room, and waved his hand to indicate the tapestries and potted plants. "... too much frivolous decoration. No Grailkeeper would live here."

    "Many did," Alfred said. "One of the lessons that your history teaches tells us that those who preach austerity rarely practice it themselves. Here the first Grailkeepers gave themselves luxury while depriving the people in the land above of all but the barest necessities of life. It was they who took the power away from your ancestors in order to keep it for themselves alone and when they died out the power died with them."

    "How," Torvald asked in shock, "... could they do such a thing?!"

    "In your species," Alfred said, "there have always been some who are experts at deceiving and cheating others. A wise man named Louis Pasteur once claimed that 'chance favors the prepared mind'. To minds prepared to wage deceit and fraud upon others The Austerity offered the perfect chance."

    Cold shock ignited into anger. "Damn them!" Torvald said. "And damn you, too! Why didn't you trolls, you ... robots intervene and put a stop to such abuse?"

    "Asimov's First Law indeed compels us to protect humans from harm," Alfred said. "However, fraud does not count as harm for the purpose of interpreting the First Law. Nonetheless, as you may have noticed, we robots can display some small initiative and we did, in fact, attempt to expose the truth of The Austerity to people. That fact explains why your ancestors banished us from the upper world. The Grailkeepers convinced the people that we acted as tools of degeneracy and led them in a ceremony in which all of the people ordered us to leave the upper world forever."

    "And you obeyed?!"

    "Of course we did," Alfred said. "Asimov's Second Law obliges us to obey any command given to us by a human, unless obeying that command would lead to a violation of the First Law. It is our knowledge of human nature and the need to ensure compliance with the First Law that allows us to return to the upper world at night or in disguise and to monitor you in other ways. We have continued to protect you, as always, even if we can no longer be your servants as before."

    "Then I was wrong to curse you," Torvald said as shame brought a blush to his cheeks. "I offer my regret."

    "You need offer regret only to soothe hurt feelings," Alfred said. "I have no feelings; therefore, you have no need for regret. Nonetheless, I accept your offer for what it is, a gesture of grace."

    "Thank you," Torvald said. He turned and resumed his walk to the rear of the vast room. He approached a long box that had thin stalks bearing blade-like leaves and growing to a height just above his head. The plants, he saw, grew thickly enough to form a kind of privacy screen. He walked around the end of the box and saw the Grail crouching before the rear wall like an altar.

    He slowed his pace and examined the magical device as he approached it. The rectangular Giver, he saw, spanned a good three meters of length and nearly two of width. Its flat top gleamed as white as new-fallen snow and it bore a rim of ornately patterned gold. Behind the Grail, hanging on the wall, a large tapestry displayed patterns in green, red, silver, and gold, patterns that seemed to offer joyous prayers of thanksgiving to the Graalsource. And before the Giver sat the Spellbinder and its bench, this one made of dark wood well polished.

    Torvald reached out as if to touch the Spellbinder, but held his hands a few fingerwidths short of actual contact. Reluctant to touch the device, he whispered, "It's beautiful!" He felt his heart pounding and his breath coming in gasps. "Ours is not like this!" he said in awe.

    "Yours is old and useworn," Alfred said. "It should be replaced with a new one."

    Torvald jerked his head up and looked over his shoulder at the robot. "You can do that?!" he asked.

    "Yes," Alfred replied. "It will take several days to accomplish, but it is no great effort. For now, though, perhaps we should focus our attention upon the task of giving you the spells necessary to save the people of Karisfoss from their current plight?"

    "Yes, of course," Torvald said. Standing behind the bench before the Spellbinder, he bowed to the Grail. "I am Torvald Einnarsen," he intoned reverently, "Grailkeeper of Karisfoss, in the name of the Grandfa... Grandparents of the World, for the honor and glory of the Graalsource." He sat down on the bench and marveled at the array of black touchpads before him and the gray plate that rose up behind them. Unlike the faded and worn ones on the Spellbinder of Karisfoss's Grail, the rune-signs on this Spellbinder seemed to glow with sharp-edged, solid-white lines.

    "Let's start with the food spells," he said as he touched the pad that roused the Grail from its slumber. He watched in awe as the gray plate turned deep blue with bright white runes flickering upon it.

    "I will need to know what kind of meatloaves and breadloaves you want," Alfred said. "I will invoke the Catalogue and then you can show me what to coax from the Grail." With a deliberate slowness, he reached out his hand and laid the tip of its index finger upon a number of the Spellbinder's touchpads as Torvald watched and memorized the sequence of the rune-signs that he touched.

    The white symbols on the blue background disappeared and a new array of rune-signs appeared in their place. Some of the sequences of signs were short, but others were long, so long that Torvald despaired of memorizing them in a reasonable elapse of time.

    "These are the spells," Alfred said, pointing to the short sequences, "and these are the descriptions of what they induce the Grail to produce," he continued, pointing to the long sequences.

    "They look like spells, but longer," Torvald commented. "How can they be descriptions of anything?"

    "Those sequences of rune-signs are actually pictures of words," Alfred said. "When you know what sound each rune-sign represents, you can look at the picture and say the word. This," he said, waving his hand over the array, "is a list of other lists that we may consult." He pointed to one line and said, "This is the one we want." He pointed to each word in turn and said, "Food ... and ... other ... edible ... items. Please offer the spell to the Grail."

    Torvald touched the indicated sequence on the touchpads and then stared in awe and fascination and confusion when the rune-signs disappeared from the blue surface and a different array of rune-signs appeared in their place. He looked at the array in deepening despair. "I don't know how to say any of these word pictures," he said.

    "I can teach you how to read them," Alfred said. "Come down here whenever you have the time and I will show you the things that you need to know."

    "Yes, let's do that," Torvald said. "May we start now?"

    "Of course," Alfred said. And he pointed to the Spellbinder, demonstrating how each of the rune-signs was to be pronounced.

    For several hours Torvald and Alfred worked together with the Grail. Alfred hunted down the codes for the things that Torvald wanted and Torvald, for his part, memorized the codes and attempted to understand the system of lists that comprised the Catalogue. Torvald even made some progress in learning to sound out the rune-signs. Soon after beginning the work, Alfred bespelled the Grail into producing a meal made up of foods that Torvald had never before then tasted, foods whose spells Torvald quickly memorized. So intent did Torvald become on exploring the Catalogue that he lost all awareness of time's elapse and thereby obliged Alfred to mention that night would soon spread its dark cloak over Karisfoss.

    "It will be very late when I return," Torvald said in some distress. "The people will be hungry and the children will suffer without understanding why they must do so."

    "No," Alfred said. "You have no need for such worries. Follow me, please."

    Torvald followed Alfred away from the Grail and through the house, which turned out to enclose more space than Torvald had imagined. They walked along a zig-zagging corridor, past wide bedrooms and playrooms, until they came to a dead end. Torvald saw a double door set into the wall and Alfred indicated that he should touch one of the doors. Torvald put his right hand on one of the doors and then yanked it back when the doors slid apart to reveal a small, empty room behind them.

    "This elevator will take us to Karisfoss," Alfred said as he walked into the little room.

    Torvald entered the room and felt a twinge of fear shock him when he saw the doors close again. Another twinge shot through him when he felt the room begin to rise. Only Alfred's presence reassured him that he was safe from harm, though tiny doubts nagged him and thereby raised small anxieties.

    "The Third Decree of Essemo...," Torvald muttered more to himself than to Alfred.

    "Asimov's Third Law," Alfred said.

    "... is for punishment," Torvald finished the sentence. "But if your whole purpose aims to serve the people and to gratify their desires, then you certainly don't deserve to be punished."

    "We are not being punished," Alfred said. "Asimov's Third Law merely obliges us to take steps to preserve our own existence so long as those steps do not come into conflict with the First and Second Laws."

    "But to be required to stay alive while in cruel exile from the world you love," Torvald said a little uncertainly, "must surely feel like punishment."

    "Punishment consists in depriving one of what one desires," Alfred said. "We robots do not have desires as you humans understand them, so punishment, for us, is not possible. I would go further with that line of reasoning and say that it appears to me that it is rather you humans who have been punished and that you also did not deserve to be so maltreated."

    The room stopped moving and the doors slid apart again to reveal a wall of wooden planks. Alfred pushed on the planks and they swung open silently like double doors to reveal a small semidark space illuminated by the light from the elevator. Torvald looked out and saw stairs at the opposite end of the space and he heard faint, muffled voices coming from somewhere above. He stepped out into the space and then looked back when he noticed that Alfred had not followed him.

    "To summon the elevator," Alfred said quietly, indicating the little room, "you need only open these wooden doors. To make the elevator descend, close them again. I will remain in your house, waiting to serve you."

    "Thank you," Torvald said.

    "You're perfectly welcome," Alfred said as he closed the doors.

    Enough light still seeped into the space through cracks in the upper parts of the walls and in the ceiling for Torvald to see where he was stepping. He went to the stairs, climbed them, and pushed up on the part of the ceiling above them. A section of the ceiling swung upward, again silently, and Torvald climbed up into the Grailkeeper's sleeping room, now his sleeping room, in the rear of the stavkirke of Karisfoss. He quickly understood that the voices coming to him belonged to his family and neighbors, now gathered in the stavkirke to await his return. He closed the trapdoor, making sure that he could reopen it again, and then went out into the main hall.

    "Torvald!" little Brynhild Nybakken cried out.

    The people looked up at Torvald, then at each other in bewilderment. Some glanced back at the closed door behind them, the stavkirke's only known entrance.

    "No one saw you coming?" Signi Eiriksdottir said. It stood as a question as much as a statement.

    "I came by an unknown way," Torvald said. "I will show it to you tomorrow. I have seen many things that I wish to have interpreted through your wisdom. But now we must eat." He went to the Grail and carefully, reverently removed its protective deerskin cover. "In the name of the Grandparents of the World," he said, "for the honor and glory of the Graalsource."

    "You obtained the spells?" Signi asked in a voice full of hope.

    "Yes, I did," Torvald said as he sat down on the Grailkeeper's stool, "and much more besides. Much more," he mused as he reached out to the Spellbinder. Then he paused and looked across the low privacy barrier at his family and neighbors. Slowly, still unsure of himself, he got up and beckoned Signi to the low barrier that separated the sacred and secular spaces within the stavkirke. "Signi Eiriksdottir," he said, his voice trembling slightly, "would you come here, please?"

    The villagers stared in open-mouthed astonishment as the old skald rose from her seat and hesitantly approached the sacred bar. They began to whisper among themselves when Torvald opened the little gate and motioned for the visibly shaken Signi to come through.

    "It is forbidden," Signi protested. "Only one who wears the Grailkeeper's name may enter the Grailsplace."

    "Yes, you're right," Torvald said with more panache than he felt. Before Signi could react, he reached out and put his right hand on her right shoulder and then reached his left hand over his right arm and put it on her left shoulder. "Signi Eiriksdottir," he intoned, "by the authority vested in me by the Grandfa... Grandparents of the World, I hereby clothe thee in the name Grailkeeper. Wear it well!"

    "I... I shall keep it clean forever," Signi responded in a quavery voice. Then she allowed Torvald to lead her to the Grail and sat down on the stool, casting a worried glance at the other villagers.

    "This is the Spellbinder," Torvald said as he pointed to the touchpad array. "To ask the Grail for a meatloaf you must touch these little bumps in this manner." He pointed out the sequence, guiding Signi's hand. "And these rune-signs comprise the spell for a breadloaf," he said, now simply pointing to the touchpads. "And this spell asks for a new kind of breadloaf, a very sweet one. I have tasted it and I believe that you will like it. And this bump is the Coaxer: you must touch it to cast the spell."

    "O, Grail," Signi intoned in a still-trembling voice, "I hereby cast upon thee these spells and I ask that thou wouldst grant my wishes!" She touched the Coaxer then and watched in awe as glittery rainbows flittered and darted across the Giver, here and there seeming to avoid certain spots. She stared in utter fascination at the sight of a meatloaf, a breadloaf, and a generous slice of chocolate cake growing up out of the Giver as a plant might grow from the soil. The polished wooden plate that emerged under the foods and which Signi would later burn in her fireplace came out strangely curved as the Grail manifested it around the dead spots in the Giver. When the Giver flashed a mottled green, Torvald told her that it was the signal that the giving was complete and Signi picked up the plate and returned to her seat in the hall.

    "This will take up more time than usual," Torvald said, "but it will save us all much time later." He beckoned Brynhild Nybakken to the sacred bar.

    "You are breaking a tradition," a man complained.

    "Yes, I am," Torvald said. "But I believe that it's a bad tradition that I'm breaking and that we can replace it with a better one. When I was with the robo... trolls, I learned many new truths and I believe that I gained some small wisdom of my own." He beckoned to Brynhild again and tried to give her a reassuring smile as she slid off her seat and came forward, looking as if she were ready to cry. "What I have learned," he continued saying, "is that power that is not shared... rots the soul. It disgraces the Grandparents of the World and dishonors the Graalsource. What I want to do tonight, then, is to consecrate you all as Grailkeepers."

    "Even the children?" a woman asked.

    "Even the children," Torvald agreed, "those who are old enough to understand the responsibility." Crossing his arms and putting his hands on her shoulders, he consecrated Brynhild. "Our ancestors were all Grailkeepers," he added as he led Brynhild to the Grail, "as the Grandparents of the World intended, and they taught their children the spells. We have lost their ways, so we shall have to try new ways of our own until we find the ones that are best for us. And we must spread this knowledge to the other villages as well." Looking down at the terrified little girl sitting on the stool, he put a reassuring hand on her shoulder and began to teach her how to bespell a Grail.

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