~ Heathen Stories and New Myths ~
Tower At The Edge Of All
world was reborn every morning, for I resided in the Tower of Winds.
*Long lived are the Aeslirlingas compared to the fox and the crow and the wolf in its fen. Longer lived, still--compared to the Aeslirlingas, whose lives are measured in but a handful of ten-years--are the Aeslir. Thus the Aeslir were as Gods to them, especially the Eight who ruled in Odyn’s hall of Gladsheim Vlaskjaf, the northerly wing of the Fortress beyond All, called by the Aeslirlingas, Valhalla.
None of the Gods I would have called brother or sister ever came to see me in my Tower.
I grew very lonely. I missed even Loki and his merry, cruel laughter under my window. During the years Yg led our people out of Midgaard, I missed his scheming and planning, even his boasting, for he wasn’t often there to do so. I missed him in my bed, for I still had need to feel a warm body next to my own.
I could guess what need in him these visits filled and it had nothing to do with my body. I was the only one with no choice but to keep his secret, that he’d schemed his way to becoming the AllFather--betrayed not only me, but the Fellowship. Kept them from a chance at the World Throne.
And yet, I’ve always found Yg's need for absolution totally out of keeping with what I know of his character. I once asked him why he bothered to confide his fears, his betrayals, his plans to me.
“In whom would I confide these things, if not you? Loki?” The AllFather laughed bitterly. “Loki knows many of my secrets. . . yet I wouldn’t trust him with a dog I liked. There is nothing of honor or loyalty in him.”
“And there is in you, Yg Bolverk?” I’d asked curiously, watching him pace to my window-sill, his long, brawny frame more solid, more real than any Aeslir I can remember.
“A little,” Odyn answered thoughtfully, not at all put out. We were, I thought, long past playing coy with one another. “Mostly there is a purpose and plan driving me. And desire. . . Loki is all tricks, spontaneity and desire. He has no real purpose, no plans, no goals save instant gratification and amusement. He doesn’t understand the need for plans, or even the smbition for power.” Odyn shrugged.
I remembered the watchfulness in Loki’s eyes while he watched his oath-brother enter the Fortress as if he’d already owned it. I remembered the gloating laughter drifting up toward my lonely room from outside, that I’d never seen Loki without a smile and a quick joke, yet had also never seen those dark grey eyes be anything other than watchful, no matter how merrily they twinkled.
Loki who eventually won the love of the Aeslirlingas. . .
I remembered all of this and was silent. If Yg-Odyn couldn’t hold the World Throne, he didn’t deserve it.
And if Loki were ever to become AllFather, I could step outside my Tower-room to take a walk in the ice gardens Ullr builds around the fortress. To greet the Fimbulwinter surrounded by such beauty as I know Ullr is capable of creating would be divine. Foiling the Form-changer’s plans, whatever those were, would be icing on the cake.
“What of Ullr--“ I began, but Odyn made a dismissive gesture and a rude noise, “--or Braggi, the Skald? Ullr talks to no one but Skade and she doesn’t care for the affairs of the Nine or the Aeslir. She cares only for the hunt. Braggi is your son, your chronicler. Surely he is to be trusted?”
From the pained look in his eyes, I saw that while Odyn may not confide in Ullr because of the woodsman’s meek and morose nature, he didn’t confide in Braggi because the boy worshiped him.
“Your pride, Yg Bolverk, will be your own undoing,” I said, almost smiling. This person I’d at turns hated and loved--but never trusted, never that--who’d done any number of unscrupulous things and not cared who knew, was afraid he’d lose face in the eyes of his adopted, half-Aeslir son.
“As yours will be the end of you. I have no doubt of it.” Odyn smiled at me, his teeth white in his ruddy, craggy-featured face. “But my undoing will be my own. Not yours, or Skade’s, nor that idiot brother of yours. And it won’t be today, or tomorrow or even when you finally take your walk upon the Fortress battlements.” Odyn came over to me and sat. His eyes were older than old; the eyes of a raven on a battlefield, the eyes of a wolf in its fen. The eyes of one who survives and prospers at all costs.
I shivered, looking away lest I be mesmerized the way Aeslirlingas were no doubt mesmerized by him.
Odyn tsked and poured me a cup of warm mead--a detestable drink, or perhaps I only thought it so because it was Odyn’s creation--then coaxed me into bed. Not that he had to coax very much. He’d never had to, really.
I remember one night, shortly after crossing the Kjellgar, Ran lay silent and frozen, too depleted to even shake. The necromancer’s frail body was nearer to death without being dead than any I’d ever seen.
We were camped several hundred yards inland from the Kjellgar Sea, at the southern foot of the Bifrost, the Rainbow Bridge that leads over the craggy wastes of Niflheim, into Asgaard and the other Seven Worlds. Yg Bolverk stood, not quite touching it, gazing as far down its shimmering length as he could. There had to be Nine of us to cross it safely. Heimdal, the Watcher, would let none of us across without the other Eight. Nine draupnir, nine bearers, nine Tasks set to those who braved the Bridge and the Watcher.
If Ran were to die--all would be in vain.
Finally, dragging my bedamned eyes from Yg, I looked down at the grey, still form in my arms. Never had the sorceress looked so small, her huge, dark eyes were not sparkling with moonlight, but shut; she spoke not with the voices of the dead, but was silenced. She was dying, freezing unto death.
I wished for the roaring fire of my father’s hall, back in distant, lofty Fensalir. I wished for Freyheim, where Freyir’s sister Friyya was eternally baking, and mothering any young Aeslir who wandered into her hall. I wished for a way to save Ran.
“Please,” I breathed on her cheek, hugging her close. Her body was colder even than the ice we lay upon. “You must wake, you must fight, for we’ve reached the shore and are at the foot of the Bifrost. We cannot do this without you. We will fail. Wake, and be our salvation, sorceress. We have need of you, yet.”
“Do not waste your breath, she is dead.”
I looked up at Auryandil the Bold with eyes too cold to cry, holding Ran close to me. “We will not give up. Her sacrifice--and if it weren’t for her, we would have died crossing the Kjellgar--will not be in vain. I would sooner cut your throat and drag your lifeless body across the Bridge than let you attempt any direction but forward, Defender of Sokkvabek. Now sit you down and be silent.”
Auryandil drew back as if slighted and Yg Bolverk turned his contemplative eyes from the Bifrost to me. I ignored him and Auryandil, who stomped off some dozen yards hence and began cleaning his six-edged sword. I knew I’d slighted him, but I did not care at that moment. All I could think was that Ran, my closest friend, was now dying at the foot of a vast, burning rainbow.
“Wake, wake,” I urged, rocking her slight body, willing life back into it, though I was not the healer of our group. Frigg, healer and nurturer, had declared Ran beyond her best efforts.
“Oh, really, this is too tiresome, is it not, brother?”
Loki’s omnipresent laughter grated like a handful of gravel. He knelt by Ran and me, his watchful, empty grey eyes boring into mine. I didn’t know what I saw in them, only that I mistrusted it, as ever I have.
Loki was the only one of us not literally freezing unto death when he woke every morning; and he was able to start fires on little more than air.
He reached out a hand towards us. It threw off such an alarming heat I drew us away, fearing more for helpless Ran than for myself. Loki’s mouth twitched at the corner, as if he was suppressing a smile.
“What would you give me for this one’s life, dear child?” he whispered, his mad eyes steady, nothing of mirth or jokes in them now. I felt a rage such as I’ve never known flare within me, warming me despite the terrible chill of the Frozen Shore.
Before I could think it, my dirk was out and pressed to his long, pale throat. Unlike the rest of us, Loki only wore a light jerkin over his tunic; his trews--one pair of trews, not several: leather trews over wool over leather over wool, as many of us had done--were made of a coarse, indifferently woven wool.
“I would give you your sorry life, Form-changer, Fire-starter, worthless Prankster of the Aeslirs, which is more than you deserve. If you can do aught to save her I would do it now, were I you.” I pressed forward with the blade, drawing blood.
Loki smiled at me, his eyes strange, vaguely sympathetic. I suppose it was the closest he ever felt to comraderie with any of us save Yg Bolverk.
His burning hand suddenly dropped to Ran’s chest and her clothing began to steam. Her eyes flew open--wide, staring, in pain--and she screamed silently. Stunned, I sat there as the writhing, steaming woman in my arms began to scream in earnest, finding her voice at last. Her screams sounded flat and lifeless in the twilit gloom of the level shorelands. Soon, I had to let go of her, for the heat had singed my clothes and was starting to burn my skin.
Loki laughed long and loud like a crazed dog, and his draupnir glowed like the heart of a star.
I hoped Ran would pass out again; her poor body jerked and thrashed mindlessly while I sat there, frozen and horrified. But Yg finally came up behind Loki and hit him on the head, at the base of the skull, with the pommel of his dagger. Both laugh and scream cut off abruptly as Loki’s slim body toppled over on top of Ran’s.
Yg glanced at me over the bodies of our friends. I was the first to look away and when I did, Yg picked Loki up and carried him off towards Auryandil. I swore softly, for I was now in Loki’s debt, thus, in Yg’s debt.
But that would have to await later pondering, for Ran was moaning again, shivering. I hastened to cover her with blankets and cloaks, as many as could be spared.
She slept for three days, at turns sweating and shivering, fevered and chilled, mumbling insanities that I wish I’d listened to at the time. Surely no one in the company would try to rule from the World Throne. It was madness. We were sent to protect, to prevent Ragnarok, not gain dominion over the Nine Worlds. . . .
The day after healing Ran, Loki woke in fine spirits, acting as if nothing odd had happened the night before, telling his jokes, playing his tricks--hiding Frigg’s blanket, replacing Aurya’s sword with a stick--and otherwise himself. He had to have seen the furtive looks cast on him by Bil and Ullr, the way Skade fingered her bow whenever he got near to her. The way I glowered at him like a bear interrupted in the middle of hibernation.
He merely went on as ever he had, though Yg stuck by him much more closely after that.
When Ran was well enough to make the trip, we climbed the Bifrost. The bridge was at least as wide as thirty strapping Aeslir lads across and many miles long, it's colored flames giving off light, but no heat.
Up the first twenty miles of the bridge, Yg grumbled to anyone who would listen about missing his horse, Sleipnir; an eight-legged, foul-tempered, iron-mouthed brute who never let anyone near him save Yg. (It was a measure of how much the Quest was wearing on us all that quiet Ullr was the one who told Yg to be silent about his thrice-damned horse for awhile. Yg’s mouth tightened and his eyes narrowed but he trudged along silently thereafter.
Loki’s mouth twitched as if he’d laugh, but he was also thankfully silent, for once.)
Up the Bifrost we went. I carried Ran if she grew tired or relapsed, but we went on, our pace barely slowed. There is no rising or setting of the sun, here at the edge of AllThings, just endless twilight. We slept as our bodies demanded and walked when we were able. As one, we would rise for another march, or we would stop, ready to fall into the heavy, dreamless slumber that barely renewed us, only gave us enough strength to climb for a little while longer.
Of us all, I was always the second to awaken. Yg always woke first. I would see him, sitting by the remains of Loki’s fire, staring into his draupnir. It never occurred to me until after my interment in the Tower that he probably didn’t sleep at all.
I did, however, wonder what he saw when he stared into his ring. The jewel that dominated it was a misty, blue opal that seemed to swirl like a small tidal pool. It was as unfathomable as Yg’s eyes.
The draupnir in Loki’s pendant was set with a fire opal, swirled ‘round with orange, yellow and red. At its core was a white glow too bright to gaze into for long.
Skade and Ullr, who were as one Aeslir in all things, even this quest--there were ten people in our group, yet Skade and Ullr were never counted as two separate people--wore identical necklaces, each set with half a greyish-pink diamond that seemed to swallow light.
Ran‘s draupnir, she wore in a circlet upon her shadowy tresses. It was a gauzy, dreamy lavender at the edges and a drowned, darkened purple-blue at the center, the color of Aegir’s grave.
Bil’s pearly white stone was set in a linked bracelet on his wrist.
Aurya’s draupnir was a fierce red gem set in a huge ring. It seemed to flash warmly or angrily, depending on Aurya’s mood. Of late, it seemed to flash not at all, which saddened me.
Frigg’s was a dainty topaz set in a brooch on the lapel of her jerkin. Tyr, the left-handed, wore his intensely green emerald ring on his left index finger.
Mine, also, was a ring, with a cabochon set in it, hung from a necklace given to me by my mother shortly before she died.
With the draupnir, we were told, nothing could harm us, no hand, whether Jotun, Svartalf, Muspel or beast would be raised against us, no thought turned against us. Our native strengths would be tripled, though so would our weaknesses.
So armed, we met the Watcher and his Feats with the strength of our amplified selves. Heimdal set us nine Tasks, part of which was figuring out who was best suited to handle each task. Frigg mothered and tamed the wild beast-men Heimdal sent to hunt us. Loki got a rooster to crow in the Eternal Twilight by tricking it into thinking the sun had finally risen on the icy waste. Aurya went against one of the Svartalfs in a battle of smithing, winning our lives and the spear, Grugnir, which he gave to Yg.
Ran used her water sorcery and her necromancy to immobilize the Drowned Ones Heimdal sent to harry us.
Bil, with the speed of a God, wove us a camouflaging blanket with as many colors as the Bifrost, to hide us from Heimdal’s scouting eagle. And when Heimdal made the Bridge invisible to our eyes, it was Skade’s tracking sense that kept us from wandering off the edge of the Bridge and plunging to our doom on the merciless crags of Niflheim waiting below.
When Heimdal, in his anxiety, threw up a forest of thorns and brambles, Ullr’s axe clove through it ceaselessly until there, beyond the last bramble stood Heimdal: a tall, ancient sorcerer with eyes like holes in a face gone blue from cold and loneliness.
Heeding my instinct, I leapt for the sorcerer, wrapping my arms around him. He twisted agilely in my embrace, like a snake, his fierce yellow eyes glaring into mine. Though he repulsed and frightened me I met his gaze squarely and held on through his subsequent struggles and feints with his fangs at my eyes and throat.
After what felt like several minutes, but I was told was actually several hours, he went limp in my arms and whispered something to me, something I’d thought I’d never hear, a secret I thought gone with my true-mother.
Heimdal told me my name. That was my own prize for outlasting him. My prize for my patience.
From then on, Heimdal led us further along the Bifrost, silent, bent, weary. We followed, adopting silence as well, not trusting the old sorcerer enough to let our guards down. Even Loki was silent and unusually grim in those final days.
Until at last, we left the Rainbow Bridge behind and came upon the Fortress beyond All, it’s vast, grey bulwark suddenly visible through a giant storm that seemed local around the huge, stony demesne. With each mammoth gust of wind, a new portion of the Fortress was revealed, then was quickly covered once again.
Heimdal led us through this maelstrom, beyond the Fortress, with nary a word. Our world was swirling white madness for an eternity until in the midst of the white was a grey slash, a blob of faded brown.
The slashes and blobs resolved themselves into a massive, skeletal tree that looked old, rotten and on the verge of collapse.
“Grimnir’s bane. . . “ Loki breathed, his voice colored with awe; his unreadable grey eyes flickered and flashed. Yg Bolverk spared him a sharp glance before stepping forward, hands held out as if waiting for someone to tie them, which Heimdal began to do. Aurya leapt forward, his sword drawn.
“What new insanity is this, Yg? You stand mute, like a cow to the slaughter, while this old sorcerer trusses you up?” Aurya’s voice was screeching and strange in the storm. He sounded like a scared, old fishwife, calling her husband home from the docks.
“No!” Ran, who’d been leaning on me tiredly since we stopped, reached out a hand toward Aurya. It was her voice more than anything, that stayed him, for he has always feared the ways of sorcerers and necromancers.
“This is the final Task. Yg’s Task. You must not prevent him from completing it, Auryandil.” Ran stood on her own now, still shaking. Her small pale face was lit with wan, grey brilliance.
Aurya stared at Ran, mouth hanging open, frozen in place. Then his sword arm drooped; he looked back at the Watcher and our leader. Heimdal had twisted another part of the rope into a noose. Yg was staring down at his hands, his mouth slack and his eyes empty. His normally animated face was utterly still and--I had this strange feeling he was already dead. . . .
“Yg!” I called out, frightened and dismayed by more than the thought of never gaining the Fortress. Heimdal looked at me, his merciless old eyes glittering under his white brows.
“Begone from here, Great Snake. This is not your Task any more than it is Auryandil’s.” He waved one gnarled claw of a hand and the world was an explosion of light. . . .
I regained consciousness at the Asgaard foot of the Bifrost. Curled up against my right side was Ran, her breathing so light as to be barely noticeable. At my left was Auryandil, who snored with such determination I wondered how long I’d have to shake him to wake him.
Twenty feet away, Ullr and Skade lay tumbled over each other like puppies who’d played then fallen asleep wherever--or on whomever--they happen to be. Not far from them, Frigg and Bil lay sleeping back to back, Tyr an arm-length away from them was sleeping on his side.
“It’s about time you woke up. I thought you were going to sleep the age away,” Loki’s jocular voice teased, and from behind me, the place I liked him least.
I bolted up groggily, looking around at him. Despite the merry, watchful eyes, he was fidgeting nervously, glancing in the direction the Fortress lay.
“What--what--“ I began, struggling to clear my head. Loki interrupted me impatiently.
“No time for questions, slug-a-bed. Time for walking. You’ve been insensate for three days and I’ve no idea what that old legerdemain may be doing to Yg. We must away. Now.” Loki reached out to me, but rather than let him touch me, I jumped to my feet, feeling about my person for my weapons: my daggers, bodkin, dirk, and sling.
“Why did you not wake us sooner, Loki?” I demanded. He matched me glare for glare.
“I could not. Heimdal’s magics are more subtle than mine. Had I tried to wake you with the Fire . . . I might have killed you.” He shrugged, starting off in the direction we’d already gone once before.
Behind me, Auryandil began to stir.
Six days it took us to return to the giant, dying tree. Loki had named it Ygdrasil, or Yg’s "Horse”, (his own term for a gallows). Though I did not find it funny and neither did Loki, I suppose it was impossible for him to go completely against his core nature.
Pushing ourselves to the limits of our strength, stopping neither to eat nor rest, through the swirling white storm, we came to the tree at last. Of Heimdal there was no sign, but Yg--
Yg hung from the tree by his feet, at least one hundred feet from the ground.
He swayed and swung, to and fro, batted about by the fierce winds, sometimes blocked from our sight by gusts of wind and snow.
Loki was the first of us to recover from the shock and act. He ran at the tree, hands glowing white, so bright I could not bear to look upon them. When I realized he was about to burn the tree down to get to Yg, I ran after him.
I caught him quickly--no mean feat, since one such as Loki is no doubt well-practiced when it comes to running--and tackled him. I had to fight to keep those burning hands from my throat and face.
“You’ll kill him! Burn the tree down and it will fall!” I kept screaming for--I don’t know how long before Loki finally stopped trying to murder me. "He will die, Loki! There has to be another way -“
“And while you sit and ponder the how of it, oh, great thinker, Yg is dying or dead?” I ignored the treachery implied by his voice, though I wanted to make an end to him right there.
“We have a plan. . . ." a mumbling voice interrupted Loki’s and my murderous accusations. Surprised, we both looked at Ullr, who stepped forward with a glance at his sister, who shrugged indifferently.
Ullr, speaking for himself and his Skade, briefly outlined their plan. When he finished, Loki stalked off, calling it crazy, saying it was better to burn down the tree than follow such a time-consuming, foolish scrap of a plan.
“Even you would not burn this tree, Loki. Know you not that this is the Laerad? The Grimnismal? It is the World Tree that you would see burn,“ Ullr said softly. For the first time in our travels I realized that Ullr had the most resonantly beautiful voice I’d ever heard.
Loki laughed. “Don’t tell me you believe that old nonsense about a tree with roots and branches that extend into the Nine Worlds?” His voice dripped contempt, but his eyes darted to each of our faces nervously.
“Yg believed,” I said, more to myself than to anyone else, though all eyes turned to me.
“He believed if one hung from the Laerad for a certain amount of time, that person would gain something very valuable, did he not, Loki?” I asked the trickster. He met my eyes, but said nothing. I turned to Ullr, now, this unexpected font of legend and lore. “What would be the gain for surviving nine days suspended from the Laerad?”
“Knowledge. . . to rival the AllFather’s. Or so it is rumored among Skalds and Volvas.” Ullr shrugged.
“Is that all?” Aurya snorted, glancing doubtfully up at Yg, who still swayed in the winds.
“Is that not enough?” Frigg murmured. At least someone else besides myself was disquieted at the thought of Yg Bolverk having such knowledge.
“Enough talk--everyone, take off whatever clothing you can spare, he’ll need it once he’s on the ground. Bil, get out the many-colored blanket and place all the other blankets atop one another in the center of it. There has to be some sort of cushion between Yg and the ground just in case. I want Auryandil at one corner of the blanket, Tyr at another. Ullr take another corner and I’ll take the last. Ran, you’re to take my side, Skade take Ullr’s, Bil take Aurya’s, Frigg take Tyr’s. Loki -“ I looked the shape-shifter in his eyes. “Loki, you must climb the Laerad and burn the rope that suspends Yg on our signal.”
“This is a stupid plan,” Loki said dully, but marched off toward the tree.
So, freezing and white from the cold, the Seven of us stood, holding the huge rainbow blanket--and whatever we could spare to cushion Yg's fall--high above our heads. The winds threatened to tear the blanket from our numb hands at any moment, the snow to blind us to Yg’s descent.
“Loki! Now!” Aurya bellowed, his voice still strong despite the winds best efforts to snatch it from him.
“Which way does he fall?!” I called over the wind. Skade’s hawk eyes somehow tracked Yg’s descent through the blizzard.
“To the left! Six feet!” she cried, already moving in that direction. We followed, hoping the wind wasn’t strong enough to blow Yg’s body farther left than we’d moved.
The first I saw of Yg was his pale, naked form slamming into the blankets. We had a split second to brace ourselves before his bulk drove the blanket down.
But never once did the blanket or Yg touch the ground.
All of us, despite our aching arms, rushed spare clothing onto him. Aurya pouring mead--how Yg had managed not to drink all his mead in the very first days of our Quest was beyond me--down Yg's feebly-moving throat.
Loki was down the tree in a flash. I wondered fleetingly what form he’d taken to get up and down so fast; what form he’d taken to stay anchored in the tree, defying the winds. . . then Loki’s burning hand was reaching for Yg’s chest. I looked away, glancing up at the World Tree. It’s topmost branches were so high, I could not see them.
Yg was up and about only a few minutes after Loki took his hand away. His eyes--formerly the blue of sky and lake--were now the twilight color of the endless sky above us.
“What did nine days on the Laerad gain you, Yg Bolverk?” I asked him quietly, while the others folded the blanket and packed up our gear. He looked away, those tired, twilit eyes full of secret knowledge and shadows. I felt another tickle of unease.
Yg unerringly lead us back to the Fortress. When the snow blew the right way I could see a tall, grey Spire that jutted up above all the other battlements and turrets. I shivered to look at it.
We approached the drawbridge; Yg strode across fearlessly, as if he owned the Fortress, which should have told me something. I followed him cautiously, along with the others; we were, I think, expecting Heimdal to pop up and set us another Task. But he did not, and Yg opened the door set into the side of the wall. It was massive, and even Aurya shouldn’t have been able to move it, let alone Yg.
That tickle of unease turned into a shout of alarm which, to my discredit, I ignored.
After going up a flight of stairs and through a short tunnel, blessedly warm and lit with torches, we found ourselves in a great, bright hall. It had eight different entry-ways, not including the one we came through. In the center of the great hall, on a wolfskin rug, was a huge chair made out of what appeared to be oak and covered in old, worn hides. Carved onto the top of its back were two huge ravens.
“Eight wings for the Eight directions. . . .“ Tyr murmured, setting off towards one of the entry-ways. It was then that I noticed, while I’d been staring at the ratty old chair, the others had moved off to the entry-ways: Yg took the North, Frigg took the Northeast. Aurya took the Northwest. Ran went to the West. Ullr and Skade took the East entryway, Bil took the Southeast. Loki took South, Tyr took Southwest.
Which left me, standing in the empty, drafty hall with the ratty chair I suspected was the World Throne. I paced around the it twice, thoughtfully, but in the end did not dare touch it. Just looking at it sent a chill racing up my spine and, weary as I was, sitting in it was unthinkable.
So my legs carried me where they willed, back toward the entryway. I supposed once we got the lay of the Fortress, made sure there were no nasty surprises lurking--such as Svartalfs, Jotuns, Muspels or any of the creatures that may or may not have inhabited the Fortress--we would find the AllFather and figure out how we were supposed to guard the World Throne.
I took a torch and wandered back down the passageway we’d come in through, uncertain of what to do with myself until the others returned. I paused when I felt a chill breeze across my face: it seemed to blow in a straight line down the length of my body. . . .
I put out a hand in the warm darkness and encountered a knob.
When at last I had pulled and pried that door open, I thrust the torch forward and peered in; there was only a stairway.
I climbed for what seemed like hours, until my breath came rasping out of me and my side cramped. Finally, there was a glimmer of white light ahead of me and I rushed toward it. When I burst outside again, my torch was instantly snuffed by the whirling wind and snow. I looked around me, saw gray walls, more snow and, in the northern distance, the Laerad, it’s branches extended into the clouds.
To my left, several hundred yards across the battlements, was the Tower I had noticed before. I was moving towards it before I could stop myself.
Numb with cold, I finally reached the Tower. I felt my way along its side until I found another knob. I put my aching arm into opening this door, but that was unnecessary, as it swung open quite smoothly, spilling me onto the floor of a small vestibule.
This stairway was not lit, as the first two had been, yet I had no trouble seeing, which I merely numbered as odd and kept going. I climbed the stair without trouble or exertion, though it was easily twice as high as the other two combined. At its top was another door, this one already open. There was warm firelight reflecting off the walls and the smell of newly tanned leather and roasting meat coming from within.
I stepped cautiously to the door, sure there was someone in there. I peered in--
The room was decorated in leather and hides, paneled with mahogany. The fire in the great stone hearth roared roared welcome. There was a haunch of meat on a spit above it.
Directly in front of the fireplace was a fur rug, and some yards beyond that a large bed piled high with pillows, blankets and skins. A table and chair sat near the one window, which had no glass, but the snow and cold didn’t seem to come in at all.
On the walls hung tapestries, probably depicting deeds great and fell. On the mantle were a lute, a wood pipe and several leathern dishes and goblets. There were shelves, mostly empty, save for a few carvings, chunks of wood and several scrolls.
It was then that I noticed the old party crouching near the shelf by the window, peering at me from eyes so filled with pain and hunger that I took a single step back before I caught myself.
“Are you all to rights?” I took in the sparse, white hair and skin so wrinkled it was impossible to determine a sex. The robe this person wore was of leather so old and worn it moved like the finest silk from the shivering of its wearer.
“Do not be afraid,” I said stepping forward slowly, up on the one step that was the threshold. “By my oath, we're only here to -“ and then I was over the threshold, falling forward, darkness nibbling away at the corners of my vision. The room went dark, but not before I saw the room’s sole occupant turn into a cloudy mist and drift towards me, towards the door. I felt the cold of its passing, then knew no more.
*I do not know how long I slept, but when I woke, I was in front of the fire, a goblet of wine near my hand, a plate of sliced meat in front of my face.
I had drunk the wine and nearly finished the savory meat before wondering how I’d gotten in front of the fire, who’d supplied the meat and--where had that strange old person disappeared to?
I stood up and looked around the room. The door was closed, but I was not afraid. I went to it, meaning to go tell my friends what had happened, bring them here to see this room.
The door would not open.
Oh, I yanked and cursed and pulled and yelled, but the door remained firm. Finally, convinced I would not get out until my friends found me--and they would find me, for Yg Bolverk is very clever--I began to look closely my surroundings. The wooden floor was warm and solid under my bare feet--I didn’t even wonder how my feet got that way, I knew I’d get no answers any time soon--the bed demanded to be slept in, but I did not give into the urge. Instead, I examined the tapestries.
The first one I looked at showed a small figure, hanging from what looked like a tree; eight figures surrounded the bottom of the trunk. . . .
The one to the right of it showed a figure with arms made too huge for the body, hugging what seemed to be a yellow-eyed snake -
My disquiet was shrilling alarms at me, alarms I was finally paying heed to--perhaps too late.
The tapestry to the immediate left of the first I’d looked at showed nine figures on a gray background. In their center was a chair that glowed bright yellow.
I moved to the next tapestry: a figure reaching the top of a long stairway. . . .
In the next tapestry: the same glowing chair, with a figure standing in front of it, his back to the viewer. . . not that I needed to see this person's face to know who it would be, to know who could be--who would be so presumptuous.
In the very next tapestry, Yg Bolverk sat in the yellow chair. . . though the maker of the tapestry had badly obscured his right eye.
There were other tapestries between that one and the very last, but I rushed to see the last -
The last one, to the left of the doorway, was a huge rendering of a snake's face, fangs bared. In its mouth, was a city with nine tall spires. It looked much as Fensalir looked from a distance. The snake's hungry, yellow eyes burned into mine and as I watched, it seemed as if the snake was about to shut its jaws on the city, destroy it.
Above the snake's mean, triangular head were two runes: the rune for my name and the rune for Ragnarok.
Shaking my head I went to the door, ready to pound it to slivers to escape this room. I yanked on the knob and the door swung open as if it had never been locked. A happy sob escaped me and I would have left that room forever, had I not glanced at the two tapestries before the last one:
On the first was the back of a figure in a grey robe, it's dark hair worn short, like my own. This figure was stepping out of a curving room that bore a strong resemblance to the one I was in. . .
The second last showed the same figure walking across the Bifrost, only it wasn’t a person any longer. Not entirely. It’s face--again, bearing a striking resemblance to my own--was markedly grey and rough-looking with the suggestion of scales. The body seemed elongated while the limbs were still their original length and vestigial-looking. . .
I lost consciousness, overwhelmed.
When I awoke, I was lying on the bed, feverish, parched, weak. I moaned, trying to get up, to close the door, but strong hands pushed me back into the bed.
“You must rest. . . you’ve had a shock and have been delirious for many days. . . rest awhile, yet.”
Somehow I mustered the strength to turn my head and found myself looking into the eyes of Yg Bolverk.
“Is the door closed?” I husked and Yg nodded solemnly. I swallowed, and could hear the dry, clicking noise my throat made. Yg held a goblet to my mouth and let me sip wine until I began to cough.
When the fit was over, Yg bathed my face with a cool, damp rag. He refused to meet my eyes for so long that I finally realized:
“You knew,” I caught his hand in my own, knowing I was too weak to hold it if Yg did not want me to. But he let me, and looked into my eyes. “You knew what would happen to me. You let me come here knowing I could never leave this place until the end of All.”
Yg sighed. “I knew. I knew when I woke up after you cut me down from the Ygdrasil--“ Yg sat on the bed gently, squeezing my hand. “The AllFather sits in the World Throne, then makes the journey to the Tower of Winds. He never leaves till the next AllFather comes to take his place in the Tower.”
“But you are the AllFather, now, are you not?” I demanded weakly, ignoring the burning in my eyes and my chest.
“I am . . . but I had no wish to stay in this Tower for the length of my reign. Someone had to stay here, though, once the World Throne was claimed, or the Fimbulwinter would be on our heels right now.”
“And that someone was me?” I croaked, closing my eyes. An abyss seemed to open behind them. One I could never escape unless I wanted to see All destroyed.
“I left the Great Hall first because I also had no wish to see who would climb the Tower in my stead,” Yg evaded. I laughed tiredly. My heart was a dead coal, my dreams a pile of ash. My life had been forfeit for all time.
“You knew it would be me, Yg Bolverk. Or Grimnir, AllFather--whatever you’ll be calling yourself, now.”
“The Ygdrasil has renamed me. I am Odyn, now,” Yg said softly, stroking my cheek. His touch made my skin crawl, though it wouldn’t forever.
“Odyn. . . Odyn AllFather.” I laughed again, still numb, still weak, still trapped. “You will rule the Nine Worlds while I stay shut in here, holding Ragnarok at bay.” I looked into his twilight eyes for reprieve or regret--for some sign that he felt my imprisonment as a blow. I was disappointed, but not surprised to see nothing I could easily read.
“Yes,” the new AllFather said plainly, without his usual dissembling, for which I was grateful.
My eyes were blurred beyond used with tears, with rage, and I turned away.
When I was well, surely I could leave, Yg would find a way. He surely would not leave me in here to go mad. . . .
But I knew I wouldn't and I knew he would, or the Fimbultwinter would be loosed. There is no deal-making with Fate. The day I left this place would be the day I unleashed Ragnarok on all of Creation. The thing inside me would be loosed on the world. On all the Worlds.
This, so Yg Bolverk could finally have the power he'd always craved. "I hate you.”
“As well you should.” Yg-Odyn brushed a few strands of hair off my damp forehead and stood up.
“One day I won’t care that it brings on the Fimbulwinter, Yg." I opened my eyes to see him at the door, already turning the knob. "One day, when I’m old and mad, I’ll leave this room and come looking for you . . . and I’ll bring Ragnarok with me. One day. . . I will leave this room. Do you believe me?” I was mostly asleep when I said this--those first years I spent almost entirely asleep, prey to a strange, deluded madness, but I remember that moment very clearly. I’ve had ages since of nothing to do but remember.
“I believe you,” Yg sounded for the first time--and last time in my presence--uncertain. I smiled a little. It was all I could manage.
“Good . . . remember that for every moment of your reign . . . Odyn AllFather.”
I was gone before the door closed, and stayed that way for many years.
Thus began my interment in the Tower of Winds.
For ages, my life was that room, and madness and slumber. Then the madness began to subside and Odyn’s visits increased. There came, after a fashion, whole visits during which I remembered not only who I was, but who he was. Sometimes I grew violent, but mostly I did not. Even maddened, I knew there was no point. I was the God, but I held power over nothing but everything.
More often than not, I simply cowered in my bed and wept, till he left. It would be decades before I could stand to see him, and centuries before I grew desperate enough for touch to bear his, and enjoy it once more.
In the meantime, the Aeslir culture flourished. They ruled Midgaard and Niflheim as well as Asgaard and no hand or mind or heart was turned against them, no black feather fell at their door. Children were born who had never known Midgaard, knew only of its green plains and darkling forests--of grim, fallen Fensalir, and passed the stories onto children who were as gods to a people they would, by and large, never meet. The Aeslir sprouted strange . . . talents and powers, living in proximity to the Laerad, the Wellspring of All Worlds.
In time, I came to look upon the bearer of this news as my lover, rather than my jailer, my murderer, my own remaining link to the Worlds I vouch-safed. Things between us, I told myself, almost like the early days of the Fellowship of Nine.
The centuries and millennia rolled along steadily, like a placcid nightmare, until one night, the AllFather burst into my room at the top of the Tower, his face a thunderstorm of rage and despair.
“He’s gone too far this time. . . .“ Odyn was mumbling, pacing, clenching and unclenching his powerful fists. I put down my scroll and watched him silently until he calmed himself enough to notice me.
“What has Loki done this time?” And did you not know to be careful of him, Yg?
“He’s killed my son! Loki has murdered Baldr!” The AllFather looked close to tears. I’d never seen him like that.
“How? All things swore an oath to never do Baldr harm." This was true. Even I, in my Tower, swore to never harm this golden child, the light of the Aeslir people, called the White-As.
“Mistletoe,” Odyn grit the word out. “A plant. Barely more than a seed, too green and new to swear anything. Frigg thought no one would know and the plant itself is harmless! But Loki--“
Never had I heard a name spoken with such hate. And the hate only the God of Gods could summon.
“It but pricked Baldr’s skin and my son--“ Odyn hung his head. “I come to you on behalf of myself and Frigg, as well as Baldr’s siblings--“ Odyn actually went down on one knee before me, taking my hand.
“I’m begging you to intervene with Hel for Baldr’s life.”
Truly, that was the funniest and saddest thing I’d ever heard.
“Even were I able to leave these rooms without loosing Ragnarok--in all the ages of Creation that have passed since I’ve been penned here, my sister has visited me never.” I shrugged helplessly. “What makes you think Hel will listen to me? What has she to do with any of this?”
“Please--just say you’ll try to convince her that Baldr’s life is worth more to the Nine Worlds than his death.”
I sighed, brushing his silvering black hair away from his face. The face I loved and hated. The face I know Baldr had inherited.
“This I will do for you. Not for Odyn AllFather, but for my companion Yg Bolverk.”
Odyn's fierce embrace made it difficult to breathe.
So, I wrote a missive to my sister, Hel, even after Odyn admitted to me he could not bring her to the Tower because he’d banished her from Asgaard, beneath the farthest reaches of Niflheim, to the Underworld. Banished her immediately after the Norns prophesied some vague mystery or other involving her and my brother Fenrir trying to kill Odyn.
Fenrir, too, hadn’t visited me once, during my time in the Tower. He, too, had been kept out of the Fortress since the Aeslir arrived in Asgaard many centuries ago. Fenrir prowled Niflheim, howling out his rage and frustration. . . his loneliness. To the Asgaard-born, he was no longer a person, but the Fenris Wolf, a creature of myth and nightmare.
But to find out that Hel--sweet, shy Hel--had been kept away by the AllFather, forced to share a fate similar to mine and our brother's--
The missive I wrote came from my heart, however, looking as I did at Baldr through a proud father’s eyes. I believed if Hel was at all the woman I had known--she could not help but be moved.
Moved she was, and in her reply, she said:
Baldr must be unlike his father to be so worthy of your effort and mourning. I am not wholly without heart in this matter. Let Midgaard, and everything in it grieve for Baldr, that I may see the hole his absence has caused. Fill the wastes of Asgaard with grief and lament. Let All in these realms weep for him and I will set him free to roam those realms once more. . . .
Yg watched me read this silently, his face an anxious, miserable puzzle. When I read it aloud to him, a wordless cry of joy escaped him and he hugged me close to him, covering me in kisses and thanks.
Baldr, so well-known, so well-liked for his kind words and good deeds. . . he was, in these latter days, Loki’s opposite. Where the Aeslirlingas used to love and worship the prankster, they now loved and worshiped Baldr, and through him, the AllFather. Midgaard would weep for losing Baldr's light, perhaps more than Asgaard would.
Even I wept, I who had never seen him, and had seen no one but Yg-Odyn for long and long.
We wept. Everyone and thing in Creation wept for Baldr. Even the stones that littered dead Niflheim.
As one, the Aeslir people wept. . . except for a woman named Thokk. None of the us knew who her people were and she vanished without a trace before the AllFather could exact his revenge. Hel, who has no love for the AllFather, was not sufficiently moved to free Baldr from the Underworld.
As my family is unjustly imprisoned: my siblings in your Tower and in the wastes of Niflheim and I in the depths of the Underworld, so will Baldr be penned here with me, in Misery and Woe, until Ragnarok rages and Fimbulwinter creeps across the Nine Worlds. This I swear.
Time passed and Odyn’s ponderous visits increased. Ever has he been thoughtful, one for plans and schemes, as I have said. I knew his mind must have been whirling and teeming with both, but even in my presence, he kept his own council. One day, Odyn came to my Tower-room, his silver hair wild, his craggy face gone pale from the cold of crossing the battlements. In his hands were broken chains. I should say, chains that had been torn asunder, as by some great beast. On his shoulder were Thought and Memory, his pet ravens. They glared at me from the shelter of their master’s thick, disheveled hair.
Odyn dropped the torn links at my feet, chest heaving as if he’d run up the stairs of the Tower. I dragged my gaze from them and back to Odyn’s face, then gasped. . . there was a bloody hole where his right eye had been.
“Yg!” I hadn’t called him by that name--to his face--in many centuries. “What’s happened to you--?” I was already tearing my sark for bandages.
Odyn was smiling at me; his bloody face looked maniacal.
“I’ve been to the Well of Mimir to drink. . . it cost me my eye, but how clearly I see now. How obvious my purpose. . . .“ Odyn laughed delightedly, like a drunken child. I took me several tries, but I mastered my fear of him--for him--in this crazed and bloody state, and pulled him to my bed. He sat without objection and let me clean and bind his wound with what little I had. I told him he should have Frigg treat it. From the way he’d told me her powers were growing, there was even a chance, I said, that she could give him that eye back.
“No,” Odyn said firmly, his remaining eye holding my gaze. “The price of what I’ve learned was my eye. I will not compromise my honor on this thing.”
“Suit yourself, AllFather.” I spread my hands placatingly as he turned away to gaze into the hearth. After a few minutes, Odyn laughed again and caught my hands in his own.
“I adore you,” he said softly, reaching up to caress my face. I flushed, though we were millennia beyond being shy with each other. “I’ve loved you more and treated you worse than anyone I’ve ever known.”
“I won’t argue the point with you,” I said, hearing traces of bitterness in my voice. I’d thought I’d gotten past his betrayal, ridiculous as that sounds, but every once in awhile, the immensity of my loss is driven home with new and ever sharpening pain.
Odyn squeezed my hands, held them within his own. To be so lavish with his attention and sweetness, I had to wonder what he was up to.
“What would you think if I told you it might be possible to leave the Tower soon?”
“I’d think you’ve grown inordinately fond of torturing those already bent to your will, AllFather. A trait I might have associated with Loki, but never with you.”
“You can leave the Tower. . . not right now, of course, but soon. In a matter of ten years.” Odyn’s eye burned like the evening sky set afire. I could feel him willing my belief, yet I did not know why. Why would the AllFather want my belief so badly? I knew he had no desire bring about Ragnarok, and the death of All in his care.
If he said I could leave, then he was telling the truth, wasn’t he?
“But how?” I breathed, afraid this really was some cruel joke, or that this was Loki, come to me disguised as the AllFather. Come to wring from me the despair he’d never been able to before.
Odyn, if Odyn he was, shook his head slowly, his smile enough to stop my heart. No smile could fill me, exalt me and leave me feeling bereft and empty as Odyn’s. This was Odyn.
“How. . . is being worked out. But I am certain, that with some planning, you could walk out of here in a short time and take your rightful place in Valhalla. With me.”
I opened my mouth to say yes, to weep with relief, to thank him for this gift beyond gifts. Then, like a dash of cold water, I was able to look away from that smile and remember who I was. Who we both were. “What makes you think that after all you’ve done to me--I would have anything more to do with you, were I free to leave this place?” I asked quietly, still on the verge of tears and once again amazed at the gall of this man.
The brightness of Odyn’s eye dimmed and he let go of my hands.
“Would you still see me walk out of here, knowing I would leave you forever?” Tears scalded my eyes and heated the suddenly cold skin of my face. “Knowing I would spend the rest of whatever days are left to me trying to forget you even exist, would you see me walk out of here still?”
Odyn looked into the fire, his mouth tight and bitter, the lines in his face more pronounced than I’d ever seen them. “I would. I would never stop you from getting as far away from me as the Nine Worlds allow. But I would hope. . . .“ Odyn’s eye drifted to mine and he took my hands again.
“I would hope,” he said softly, “that you would reign in Valhalla with me.”
“What of Frigg?” I asked. Though we had never been friends, Frigg had always been kind to me.
“Frigg is not my wife,” Odyn reminded me with infuriating indifference.
“Such care you show for the mother of your favorite sons. I can only imagine how you’d treat me. . . .“
“I loved Frigg for a long time, but I’ve loved you for longer. And I never stopped. Even when I condemned you to this Tower, I loved you. Even when I loved Frigg, I still loved you, and more. I can no longer bear sacrificing you and doing without you.” Odyn’s smile was sad, small and bitter, his face haggard. He stood, pulling me up with him. “When the time comes, will you walk out of this Tower with me?”
“Yes,” I said. It was all I could say. All the dreams I’d been too wary to have, knowing they were hopeless, were about to come true. In ten short years, I’d be free and--
“Will you stay with me?” he asked, pulling me close.
“Yes.” I laid my head on his shoulder, putting my arms around him. I took a deep breath, filling my nose with his scent: a combination of leather and horse, wool and sweat.
“I love you,” I said, for the first time. I could feel Odyn’s sigh against my cheek.
“I love you,” he returned. "I have always loved you."
I wanted to ask him if he loved me more than Asgaard and Midgaard and the other Seven Worlds. . . I wanted to ask so badly the tip of my tongue thrashed against the prison of my teeth.
In the end I did not speak, only accepted the gift of his affection.
Later, I woke alone, as usual. The AllFather has several weakness. The most endearing and frustrating one is: he cannot bear to say goodbye.
When he leaves, he never wakes me, only leaves as silently as he may.
I lay in my bed, wondering if it had all been just a dream and a scheme. Odyn had some plan in the offing, no doubt of it. But my part in it seemed small and clear: it began and ended with me leaving the Tower.
But to what end? Odyn does nothing without the promise of some gain or desired outcome.
The question was, did I believe that I was his only gain, the promise of a life with me his only desired outcome?
Watching the flicker of firelight around me I came to the conclusion that no, I did not believe either of those things. Odyn was still Yg and I did not trust him. I never had, though I loved him, to the ruin of my own life. Whatever his plan was, I decided, I would walk out of the Tower with him. If Fimbulwinter greeted my first walk in Asgaard in ages. . . .
So be it.
I pulled on my robe and went to the window, looking out into the snow and wind. The storm has continually lessened over the years, only very sporadically resembling the perpetual maelstrom that had protected the Keep. Now, it was lighter and less vicious than the storms that had blown around ancient Fensalir in winter. I could see lights and figures down below: Odyn’s Einherjar, preparing for the final battle at Vigrid, as always.
Then, I wondered: if Ragnarok was no longer going to happen and Vigrid, the last battlefield, would never come to be, why then were Odyn’s Berserks and warriors holding their mock wars on the battlements, as they had every night for ages?
Perhaps, I thought, my prescient dis-ease returning to settle on me like a blanket. Odyn doesn’t want to tell them, yet. Perhaps this plan of his hinges on stealth and secrecy. It wouldn’t be the first time.
“And perhaps you care too much, think too much. Take his word and be content. For once,” I muttered, disgusted with and tired of myself. I turned away from the window and nearly cried out:
Sitting in the chair Odyn had sat in was Loki, his boyish, merry face was pale under his platinum hair, except for two hectic red spots on his cheeks. Strange. . . Loki never felt the cold. Or perhaps the wineskin in his lap was responsible for that flush in his round cheeks. . . .
“You do think too much, child; unfortunately not about the right things.” Loki sighed mischievously, his grey eyes taking in my room with a sharp and dismissive glance. I instinctively reached for my daggers, then realized I hadn’t had any weapon on my person or within my reach for three thousand years.
I had to settle for glaring at him--I’ve been told my glare is heart-freezing, but by Odyn, so I don’t know if that’s truly so--and stalking over to him as threateningly as I could.
“Get out.” I pointed at the door, which he had closed behind him; I couldn’t abide that door being open. It was hard enough resisting the pull of Outside even without that damn door hanging open like an invitation to destruction.
Then I remembered that was soon to be over.
“‘Get out’?" Loki sounded terribly amused. "Don’t you even wish to know why I’ve come to visit after all these centuries?”
“I don’t give a fimbuling damn why you’ve come. Leave my room and never come back,” I said, but as I said it I realized I welcomed even his intrusion. I hadn’t seen him in so long, yet I remembered Loki's ways as if I’d last seen him yesterday.
“You’re shivering, dear child. Sit, please. . . don’t stand for me.” His grin was as infuriating as Odyn’s shrugs, but I sat on the edge of my bed, for I was shaking and feeling unsteady. My room felt suddenly small and tight. I’d had no one in it but Odyn for so long. This felt wrong, somehow. . . .
Very suddenly, I couldn’t breathe. I could hear great gouts of air whistling into and out of my nose, yet I felt dizzy, as if I would faint.
“You’ve been penned in here alone for so long.” The sudden compassion in Loki's voice nearly undid me. I turned my face away.
“Why. . . are you. . . still here. . . go. Now, or I shall tell Odyn,” I threatened, not entirely sure I would.
I could hear Loki stand and walk over to the bed. He sat next to me, pressing the skin of wine to me. “Guaranteed relaxation. Take a few sips only, though,” he warned, like a worried mother.
I took it, opened it, squeezing a healthy swallow into my mouth, then I nearly spit it out.
“Mead,” I said disdainfully. Loki laughed and took back his mead. “Of course. The official drink of Valhalla. Just you try to find ale or wine or even milk around here, of late. What warrior wants milk in his moustache?”
I took a few more swallows. I was used to the stuff. . . it was all Odyn seemed to bring in those last decades, but I’d been hoping for wine. I’d have done anything for a sip of milk.
Loki's grin was charming, maddening. “While I have you in my power, I’ll tell you why I’m here.” The smug, murdering bastard took a mouthful of mead, winced and swallowed.
“You killed Baldr,” I panted, looking up at him. “Tell me why you did that and perhaps I’ll hear whatever else you have to say.”
Loki tilted his head curiously. “On the contrary: I did not kill Baldr. Odyn killed Baldr. I won’t deny I had my part in it. . . .“ he sighed, putting the mead on my lap. “Baldr was a good boy. I don’t know how he grew into such an noble man, with Yg as his father and the rest of the Aeslir for role models. He would’ve made an excellent AllFather when his time came. . . ." Loki glanced at me, then stood up. "Baldr was the best of us, and with him died our hope and our honor.”
He paced around the room, made an entire circuit before turning to face me again. His eyes were grim, measuring. “The Norns wouldn’t tell Odyn something he wanted to know very desperately -“
“What thing?” I interrupted. Loki shook his head no.
“I will not speak of it just yet. I will say that for Odyn to get what he wanted Baldr had to die. And die Baldr did--”
“Leave." Warmed by mead and anger I felt my strength returning. I was seconds away from picking him up and tossing him down the Tower stair. "I will not hear this abomination, Loki.”
“Do not judge Odyn too harshly on this count, or me: he is not the first father to sacrifice a child of his flesh and he won’t be the last. And if Odyn has his way, Baldr’s life will be restored in the end. Everyone left alive will live in peace and harmony under the AllFather’s benign rule. . . .” Loki slumped back into my chair and stared bitterly into the fire, as Odyn had done.
“Why should I believe a word of your lies, Trickster?”
“Because I saved Ran’s life all those years ago and I’m calling in my debt, here and now.” Loki’s voice was inflectionless, hard, all traces of light-heartedness gone. The intense hilarity was gone from his eyes, replaced by another kind of intensity, but one no less unsettling.
“I knew this would come back to haunt me. . . what is it that you want? My complicity in whatever wickedness you plan?”
“Never would I ask you to stain your honor for me. I am not Odyn, and do not ask such things of those I care for.”
Before I could ask what he meant by claiming to care for me, Loki went on quickly: “The only thing I would ask of you is a suspension of your disbelief. Not your trust, I won’t ask such a huge thing of you." Loki sketched me a sardonic half-bow, but his eyes were grave. "I would ask that you listen to me, believe that whatever my other motives are, I would see the Nine Worlds flourish for as long as they will."
"Tell me first, then I'll decide what I believe for myself."
Loki sighed, giving his hair an absent-minded tug. "The thing Odyn wanted that was worth his son’s life was the answer to a question. He wanted to know how he could hold the World Throne forever, rule in peace and plenty.”
“That was Odyn’s big, ignoble act?” I tried to scoff, but it came out as a relieved sigh. “The one that should make me doubt him?”
“He it was, not Frigg, who let the mistletoe remain unsworn because of its youth. He it was who held the celebration where Baldr was felled. Everyone from Jotuns to Svartalfs were invited to toss boulders, weild swords, fire arrows or send poisonous snakes on Odyn’s son. But he was indeed invulnerable.
"Oh, all manner of cunning weapons and poisons were levelled at him and nothing could touch him. . . until Thor, whose turn was last, came up to his brother, grinning. Instead of hitting Baldr with his great hammer, he pricked Baldr's neck with a thorn. A mistletoe thorn . . . Baldr fell to the ground, dead before anyone knew what was happening.
"Never have I heard a cry of grief such as Thor’s, who meant his pricking only as a joke. Odyn was devastated. And thoughtful, as ever he is. Immediately, the Norns appeared to confer with him. Baldr’s body was not yet cold.”
Loki watched me, as if waiting for me to ask him something. I was too stunned to think of anything, other than, “What part did you have in this?”
“I was the one who suggested the 'joke' Thor was to play on Baldr. He asked me what would make Baldr laugh harder than he’s ever laughed before." Loki dropped his eyes and had the grace to look ashamed. "He wanted Baldr to laugh. Laugh he did, until the thorn went into his neck.”
“Well--why would you suggest such a thing?!” I demanded.
“Odyn, my oath-brother and best friend asked me to help him kill his son and I did. It was destined to be so,” Loki said simply. His mouth was no longer merry, but bitter and pursed.
“Ah. You let Thor carry out your murder for you with only the noblest of motives?”
“Nobility has nothing to do with any of it, child. I did what I did because this is how it was supposed to happen." At last, Loki looked up at me; his eyes were hard and grey, like the stones of my Tower. "Baldr's time in this world was over and he was to die by three different hands: his father’s, his uncle’s, his brother’s. But even after Odyn had his precious answer, he refused to accept the death of his favorite son. He tried to slip out of his bargain with the Norns and convince Hel to release Baldr. . . but that could not be allowed to happen.”
“Why?” That had become my watchword, it seems. Loki took a deep breath and let it come sighing back out.
“I loved Baldr. He was the truest, kindest person I have ever known, his soul the purest I’ve ever encountered. . . ." Loki smiled wearily and looked down at his hands. "People like that rarely live to a ripe old age. Baldr lasted longer than most, but he was fated to die. The Norns decreed it on the day of his birth. Every Volva that ever told his fortune told the same thing: Baldr must die. All things serve fate, whether they will or not. I serve willingly.”
Loki held out his hands, if he’d chop them both off if he could. In the firelight, they seemed to be the color of blood. “Fate does not question or falter. It makes things happen for its own ends. . . Odyn seeks to do the same, to be his own beginning and end. This will not be allowed to continue.”
His tone rang with cold finality, the voice of a Fate, hanging over a doomed newborn, and I shuddered, prefering the Loki who laughed up at my window to the one before me, now.
"Why should I believe you?" I asked softly, though I was beginning to believe him. If there's one thing, one great lesson my life has imparted me with, it's: Yg Bolverk is capable of anything.
"Odyn seeks to control the tools of destiny as if they were his own, including me, you and your siblings. And when he is done with us, he will destroy us. You three were the only ones who could stop him. But he's seen to that, mistake him not. . . ."
I sat forward, closer to him than I’ve ever been without either of us trying to murder the other. He had my ear and my belief. “What has Odyn done?”
Loki met my eyes and launched into his story without preamble:
“The Fenris Wolf has become so large and fierce that for some time, now, only Tyr has been brave enough to deal with him. Recently, the Aeslir decided to bind him, as killing is now forbidden in Asgaard. They made a chain of iron links called Laeding and Fenrir was bound by it.
“Of chain and Wolf, your brother was the stronger, and snapped the chain shortly.
“The Aeslir quickly made a new tether, from links larger than anchor chains. They called it Dromi. With this chain also, they bound Fenrir and again he broke free. Finally Odyn sent Freyir's outrider, Skirn, into the Nine Worlds. She was to find someone, anyone who could make a chain strong enough to bind Fenrir.
“Skirn's quest ended Svartalfheim, where she commissioned a rope. Gleipnir was it's name and it was made from the sound a cat makes when it moves, a woman's beard, the roots of a mountain, the sinews of a bear, the breath of a fish and a bird’s spittle.
“Skirn returned to Asgaard with Gleipnir and presented it to Odyn. He and the other Seven that had Quested with us managed to trap and incapacitate your brother, Odyn wouldn’t tell me how. Fenrir was taken to the island of Lenvai in middle of Lake Amsvartin. He awoke while he was being tied, angry and more vicious than ever. Tyr gave up his right hand trying to hold him. The Aeslir then took a chain called Gelgi and tied it to Gleipnir, then tied Gelgi to a boulder, which they drove one mile into the earth. On top of this, they placed an even larger boulder.
“The Seven then skewered Fenrir's jaws with a sword. Since that awful day, the price Fenrir pays for howling out his rage and loneliness is untold pain.
“And thus it shall remain, until the Fimbulwinter.”
“He could not do this," I said through numb lips, then corrected myself. “He would not.”
Nevermind that, for once, Loki was probably telling the truth (though certainly not all of the truth). Had I not noticed the absence of my brother’s roars from Asgaard?
Fenrir . . . braggart, bane, bully. Defender, supporter, brother. He's never been a nice person, and I have my doubts as to whether he's anyone's definition of good. In my life, the only other person I've loved and hated in such a confused mix was my mother, and Odyn.
My brother and I never got along. Sweet Hel was more than sister, she was peacemaker and go-between. He doted on her, as did I, and through love of her, we managed to stay civil with each other even after our mother died.
Would the AllFather bind me and my siblings forever because of his fear of Ragnarok . . . no. No, he would not.
Not if he truly loved me.
I didn’t realize I’d said this aloud until Loki laughed; but his eyes were solemn, rueful and met mine squarely. “You more than anyone knows that Odyn destroys what he loves. It's one of the reasons he and I once got on so well,” Loki adds absently. “And your brother is a boaster and a fool. He claimed that there was no chain, no fetter, no prison that could hold him, and that you were weak for letting Odyn imprison you. He further claimed he could leave Niflheim any time he wished and loose a crimson tide of death over the whole of Midgaard, and Odyn would do--could do nothing to stop him.“
I could not deny that this was something Fenrir would say. I could even hear his rasping, rough voice barking it in the back of my mind, if I tried. He'd never made a secret of despising Yg. Did nothing but belittle and slander him from the moment he and Loki arrived in Fensalir, till the very morning the Nine set out on our Quest.
“You'll live to rue letting this clanless bastard into your bed,” he'd said to me with resigned contempt. His parting gift along with the daggers that accompanied me to Asgaard, and saved my life on more than one occasion. “Or maybe you won't. Good journey to you,” he'd added, stalking out of the stable, leaving Hel to hug me, and weep, and beg me not to go. And Yg--and Loki, who never strayed far from his oathbrother--to watch and make of our family what they would. . . .
It's been ages since I felt regret so keenly as I did, staring beyond Loki, into my lonely fire.
“And Odyn paid credence to this nonsense? My brother is a boaster and a fool--he makes threats and enemies more frequently than Odyn sires bastards." I jumped up, blood thrumming through my veins, eager to effect something, to act. To take matters into my own hands, though I most definitely could not. "They should both know better!” I was pacing, my voice rising with my anger. It's an emotion I've grown unused to. My chest seemed to itch and burn.
Too much mead and too much upsetting news, I supposed.
“Odyn is paranoid; all he can see is the Fimbulwinter. That’s all either of us sees, anymore. . . ." Loki admitted wearily, his shoulders sagging like an old man's. "I do not think my Aeslirlingas would survive the final winter.“
"You speak of them as if they were your children,” I said, pausing my pacing to gaze upon Loki. His face was grim, drawn in guilt and concern; a phantom chill set me to shuddering. “Loki--”
"I placed them far south of Odyn’s sphere of concentration, afraid he would destroy them if he thought they were a threat, or a sign of Ragnarok, as is his wont. But it is useless to hide things from one who is constantly after the Norns. He has always known. And until recently he regarded them my pets, and nothing more.”
Loki's bright, pale gaze was like winter sunlight. My shudders didn't know whether to abate or intensify, and I was surely beyond informing them. “Though it would not stop him from slaughtering my children, saw he the need, Odyn is . . . fond of them, himself.”
“Fond . . . yes.” I was forced to look away from what I saw in his face. The Aeslirlingas became real to me, in that moment: small, helpless things, buffeted and beset by the twin curses of Odyn’s lust and Loki’s love. “From the stories he tells, one would think Midgaard is populated with nothing so much as his half-breed bastards.” I shuddered again, and tried to shrug it off.
The silence Loki let fall was heavy, weighted with offense and disapproval, only some of which was directed at Odyn.
“But why have you come here to my Tower, Loki?" I demanded, remembering the years of laughing under my window; his cold, avid eyes as he asked what Ran’s life was worth to me. With these memories, I forced my shivering and unease away. I had not feared this creature when Ran's life lay in his palm; I would not fear him while he was at the mercy of my hospitality. "What gain is there for you in this Tower?”
Loki’s smile was thin, unreadable--a smile I remembered from one hundred nights around one hundred desperate campfires. “My gain is not seeing everything I’ve created--my children be destroyed because Odyn is fulfilling the very prophecies he so fears, and eons ahead of schedule. When--not if, as Odyn would have us all believe, but when--the Fimbulwinter is upon us, there is a place, one of the Nine World, called Vanirheim. Vanirheim, he believes, will be safe from the last winter and the ravages of Ragnarok. Of course Odyn will choose who survives. Most of the Aeslir, minus a very specific few--“
“You?” I interrupted, thinking I had ferreted out his gain.
Loki nodded, “And you, child. Plus your siblings and nearly all of the Aeslirlingas.”
“Nearly?” I choked out, though Loki’s words filled my heart with despair. I was afraid to ask why Odyn might leave me behind. . . afraid that the reason would make perfect sense.
“Well, excepting his children, a few other half-Aeslir, and two Aeslirlingas to rebuild the whole of that race . . . incidentally, the two he has in mind were born ten and six years ago, respectively.” Loki’s tone was light, unconcerned and at war with the glittering of his eyes.
“Are you actually telling me," I began around a sudden, only slightly hysterical burst of laughter. "Are you telling me the AllFather seeks to purposely bring on the Fimbulwinter, and Ragnarok to restructure the Nine as he sees fit?”
Loki cocked his head in a familiar, considering angle. “For one who scoffs at the idea, you jumped to it rather quickly, and with little prodding.”
“I don’t have to be a farmer to know a cowpat when I step in it.”
“Just so,” was Loki’s response; he sipped his mead thoughtfully, no longer wincing at the taste. The urge to laugh had deserted me, dried up and blown away. After a few quiet minutes, I found his seeming complacence and silence unbearable.
“Ragnarok is not like rearranging the furniture in a room! It is ruin and devastation on such a massive scale--it’s--“ I groped for words that could describe the horror of the Fimbulwinter; brother against brother, earthquakes, wars, and fires that would rage until the death of all that was light was total. It would be utter chaos, it would be--
“Apocalypse,” Loki sighed, watching me from beneath the brush of his pale lashes. I shook my head slowly.
“I don’t know that word.” But the sound of it set me to shuddering again; if I'd cared to, I could have guessed its meaning.
“It’s an Aeslirlinga word, and the only word in any language that I can speak that truly conveys all that Ragnarok will mean for the Worlds.” He leaned forward, the firelight washing him orange and red: a devil who was, at turns, capering and sincere. “Odyn believes that the rebirth prophesied to follow Ragnarok is as sure as Ragnarok itself, but it’s not. The Nine may never recover. Never.” Loki snorted, swirling his finger in his mead. "Yet Odyn will risk all to have his way."
I attempted to absorb this, to turn it over in my mind like a stone in my palm, only to find it already settled into the very marrow of me. Such credulity had always been my besetting sin, and that night was no different.
“How long have you known of this plan?”
Loki’s eyes skittered away from mine, then back, narrowed in speculation. “Would it surprise you to know that I am now the oldest Aeslir alive, older, even, than Freyir and Friyya.”
“Nothing about you would surprise me, Loki. Nothing at all.” Truth in that, as well as rue, and I did not try to hide either.
“My,” he tsked, his eyes warming almost wistfully. “How jaded you’ve become, child!”
“That, and I know with whom I am dealing. I’ve come to expect anything of you, therefore nothing you do surprises me.”
The grin Loki granted me was as merry and predatory as the rest of him. “It would not surprise you, then, that I was already hunting my own food, when Yg came squalling into Midgaard. Long had I been set to watch for his coming, and on the day of his birth, the Norns bore this message to Odyn's mother, before she died in childbed:
“’From him will spring the Nine Worlds and through him, they will wither and die. Through him an age of great deeds, followed by an age of death. On the heels of his death, the Great Rebirth. Skoal, Yg Bolverk, Grimnir One-eye! Hail, Odyn AllFather!'”
Despite my skepticism, he had me, and he knew it.
"How do you know this?"
“I have my ways. . . .” again, his eyes slid away from mine.
“Of that, I am certain.”
He wasn’t lying--not this time--but leaving out bits of the truth . . . likely crucial bits. Doubtless he was casting himself in a less unfavorable light--I could easily picture him, a pale and prurient owl, perching over a dying woman’s bed . . . the better to hear the whispered the fate of her newborn--but there was more to his omissions than that.
“Yg’s coming was prophesied long before his birth, as was mine--and your own, it may, or may not interest you to know. Yours was particularly . . . noteworthy.” Loki toasted me with his mead. “But then the Norns have always been fond of dramatic prophecy, but that does not call into doubt their validity.”
“It is not the Norns that I doubt,” I pointedly reminded him. Loki snorted and set down his goblet with vague distaste.
“I don’t know how Odyn convinced you this was anything other than boar-swill, but then he’s always been a persuasive man.” Loki glanced at the rumpled sheets on my bed. To my dismay I blushed, and my next words came out more sharply than I would have liked.
“Keep your observations and judgments to yourself, Prankster.” I didn’t like Loki to know when I was upset--those sharp eyes catalog every weakness, and the mind behind them never forgets. “Get out.”
“Far be it from me to overstay my welcome.” He stood up, oozing charm like rancid honey. My head was aching from both him and Odyn--not to mention all the mead I'd consumed--in such short order.
And still, Loki watched me with glittering, pale eyes.
“You cannot, as yet, conceive how much has been taken from you, Godhood aside . . . but you will.” His voice seemed to ring throughout the room like a bell and for a moment, the room began to revolve; slowly, sickeningly. I could summon neither voice nor breath to silence him. The fire, always the same, perfect temperature was suddenly too hot for me, consuming every bit of air around me.
“One day you’ll understand, child . . . the Nine help Odyn and I when you do. The Nine help us all.”
Sick unto death of his nonsense, I stood, meaning to open the door for air and usher out my unwanted guest, but my body sank to the floor two steps from the chair.
For the third time in three thousand years, I fainted.
The next thing I knew, my tingly-numb body being turned over. When I was able to open my eyes, I was looking into Loki’s. They were neither mad nor merry, but determined . . . and empty.
He’d poisoned the mead.
The buzzing in my head calmed; slowed and resolved into thoughts, still quicksilver-bright in contrast to my sluggish, darker thoughts.
Enchanted, not poisoned.
It was Loki’s thought--his voice, though his lips did not move.
What magic is this? I wondered, terrified, hot and cold all over, but still unable to do more than twitch and blink.
Not magic. A talent, really. One you might have made use of, if you’d but known you possessed it, and bothered to hone it. He stroked my hair tenderly, brushing tendrils of it off my damp face. So many things have needed my attention since Odyn’s birth. Since the Aeslirlingas--
What are have you done to me?! I was screaming inside my own head, angry, scared, too furious to make sense of the nightmare I found myself in.
Loki closed his eyes for a moment and quicksilver-thoughts buzzed through me. When he finally calmed them, I could feel his voice throughout my being.
Of the three of you, you were the best. Strong, brave, sane. . . and that’s quite an accomplishment, considering your pitiful parentage, Jormengand.
The heat of the room seemed to fade under the assault of icy chills that name sent through me; a name I had never said, never thought for fear that which I had seen on the tapestries lining my room might come to pass.
How--? My mind whispered, paralyzed and frightened of what such knowledge might mean in Loki’s scheming hands.
Your prize for besting Heimdal was to know the name your true-mother had never told you, or anyone. And you feel the truth of who you are in your bones, do you not? Loki was gazing down into my eyes again, emptiness replaced by rue as bitter as any I’d ever known.
You and your siblings were abandoned in the woods just outside of Fensalir, shortly after your birth. Hel and Fenris’s names were stitched on their blankets while your blanket was bare. The Aeslir who found you took you home, kept you and raised you as his own children, but he was afraid to name the one who hadn’t been named. . . .
I tried to sneer but could not.
This is all common knowledge among my clan and our people. I have made no secret of my beginning, I thought viciously. If intent could kill, Loki would have been lying next to me, cold.
And his wife, Angreboda, what thought she of you? She loved and hated you all at once, did she not? he answered for me when I was silent.
Loki leaned closer to me, till I could feel his breath on my face, and spoke aloud.
“Know, then, that Angreboda was your true-mother, the one who bore you within her. You were not the children of her husband. When you were born, she knew that her . . . indiscretion would be discovered the moment he saw you. So she abandoned you in the woods, at the foot of an oak tree, to be found or perish, and told her husband that their babe had been stillborn. Three days later, he returned from hunting with three foundling babes, and hope of healing his wife’s broken heart over the loss of their child. . . .”
A wave of melancholy washed through me, bitter-sweet and breath-taking, and I could have sworn there were tears in Loki's eyes.
“Your father, the one who raised you, was a good man, and Angreboda thought her troubles solved. But she couldn’t erase the stigma attached to you. Bad enough that you were foundlings, but Fenrir’s unquenchable rages and Hel’s . . . strangeness did nothing to ease matters.”
You take joy in torturing one already at your mercy, this I know. But slandering my dead parents to my face is lower than I thought it possible for even you to sink!
I tried desperately to keep the faded memories of my kind, quiet father and fierce, sometimes cold mother from the front of my mind. Loki had no right to these memories. I would give him no more yarn with which to spin his lies.
And how could it be anything but lies, when he could not possibly know these things?
Loki searched my eyes, his own shining and pained. Then he leaned down and kissed my forehead. I felt a tear drop onto my brow.
"My poor, dear child," he murmured, sitting back to brush my with gentle, cool fingers, something Angreboda used to do whenever I lay unwell or fevered. One of the few signs of affection she allowed herself to show, and--I didn’t know if he was prying into my memories, but I suddenly thought of a snippet of conversation from earlier in the evening:
“Though it would not stop him from slaughtering my children if he saw the need, Odyn is fond of them now. . . “
Horrified, I looked deep into Loki’s damp, grey eyes, no greyer than my own. Platinum hair lengthened, became raven-dark tresses that brushed my face. Loki's own became squarer, sparer, sharper. Became Angreboda's regal, icy beauty.
“Odyn is, indeed, fond of you. Quite fond, but he does feel the need. He will kill you. And he will grieve for you in his own, selfish way, but only after he has stilled your life,” Loki whispered in my mother's voice. “And I . . . I will do whatever I must to save my children. As I have always done.”
Denial swelled in my being, like a poisonous bubble. Even as her long-missed fingers brushed away tears and cupped my face. Even as he leaned down and kissed my forehead. He smelled of pine and cool water. Of earth and wind. Of wild places that I would now never see.
He smelled like my mother and the bubble in me burst, spilling white hot hurt every where, till not even Loki's fast fingers could catch them all. All those years of wondering who I was--if I looked anything like my true-mother and father. Whose eyes and hair I had--had I inherited my strength from him, and my nature from her?
And how I would laugh at myself when sneaking gazes at my reflection! Laugh at myself for imagining my wide, up-slanted eyes and strong jaw somewhat resembled hers. That my coarse, uncared for hair could be compared, in passing, with hers. The Nine knows Fenrir inherited her sneers and temper, just as Hel inherited our foster-father's sweet nature and kind heart. Could I not have grown to resemble either of them in some small way, too?
I closed my eyes, to broken to feel as foolish as I surely should have. My life has been nothing but deceptions. Even the people I'd loved most were lies. The only ones who'd proven honest--thus far--were my poor siblings, banished and imprisoned, and my foster-father, who passed from this world due to age and poor health, the healers said.
Due to a heart that'd never mended or grown strong after his beloved wife drowned, says everyone who loved him. . . .
But there was another now, wasn't there? One who, if he'd survived the journey to Asgaard, was now immortal. Or near to, thanks to proximity to the Laerad and my Tower.
Loki . . . mother, I thought, the word imbued with more heartache and bitterness than any I've ever uttered. The fingers that rested on my cheek seemed to burn icy-cold, sear my heated skin with frost. Who . . . who was my true-father?
She smiled at me, at once reluctantly fond and coolly disappointed. This woman, who it is unlikely Loki would ever have seen otherwise, let alone long enough to memorize the way she moved and smiled, was my mother.
Dearest child . . . can you not guess? Her voice rang out silently, mocking me and pitying me in a way that has made me cringe since I was very small. Then the room around me winked out, taking her with it. I was still conscious, but the darkness that surrounded me was utter and impenetrable. And I was very, very afraid.
What are you doing to me? Mother, what have you done?!
I heard her voice as if from Worlds away:
For what it’s worth, I’m sorry, Jormengand. For being an awful mother, a contemptible companion and a piss-poor guardian. I’ve known what must happen since the Norns attended your birth . . . but I didn’t realize it would be so hard to do what I must do.
I realized her voice seemed to be drawing further away, though distance was a moot point in my current state. I panicked, nonetheless for that realization. What do you have to do, mother? Please--I cannot leave the Tower!
Or was I already without, and the first flakes of the Fimbulwinter dusting my limp and bespelled form?
Impossible for me to tell in that disorienting dark of the mind.
I have made it so that's no longer possible. . . the Tower will now always be with you and you will be with the Aeslirlingas. You will be their gauge, their watcher, that they can prepare as best they may for what lies ahead. When you at last begin to wake they will know the Fimbulwinter is upon them, bringing Ragnarok. I have given them you. I can give no more. I wish only that I. . . .
I strained to hear her voice. It was less than the breath of a breeze, and still dwindling.
It was gone.
Loki? Mother! I called once, into that darkness. Then, where there had been numbness was feeling. Itching, burning feelings starting from my chest, engulfing my entire body. I felt as if I were growing, expanding to fill some vast space. When I heard the creaking of wood being bent and snapped, felt a searing burn on my left side and the cool chill of stone on my left, I realized I was still in the Tower. I was growing within it.
My bones were liquid fire, tearing my burning muscles as they grew. My arms lost all feeling, as did my legs. My head hit more wood--the rafters--and broke them, too.
I grew until I was sure I would smother or pop inside the confining walls of the Tower. Then a strange thing happened--the walls of the Tower began to give. Not break, but to conform to the shape of my grossly flourishing body. It stretched like a tendon, easily accommodating me, its clamminess adhering to me like a second skin. Repulsed, I began to writhe, in an effort to shake it off of me, Fimbulwinter bedamned.
It was stuck fast.
I kept growing, the Tower now growing with me. I could see out the Tower window--feel the cold of Asgaard on the Tower walls like it was my own skin the snow swirled against. I shivered, trying to cry out for help to anyone: Odyn, Frigg, my old friend Freyir. . . .
Ran! Aurya! Anyone! Please!
My Tower-enclosed body fall to the battlements with a great crash that jarred loose my sense. Witless, I began to crawl off, needing to get away, afraid of something, though I didn’t know what. I crawled through the storm, more cold than I had ever been in my life, inching along on my stony belly.
From behind me, distant, I could hear a wild galloping sound. Though I had never heard the sound before, I knew it was Odyn, on Sleipnir, the fastest horse in All the Worlds.
I crawled faster, quickly getting the trick of moving that way . . . it wasn’t difficult, once I found the rhythm of it. I must have been moving quickly, for with my bleary, foggy vision I could see the Bifrost burning ahead of me in mere minutes.
All my instinct was telling me to hide; somewhere treacherous Yg Bolverk, Evil-Doer, could not find me. Somewhere Loki, Form-changer, Trickster-Mother could never spin his lies, truths and half-truths around me again. Deep in the warm earth of Midgaard, hopefully below the sphere of their influence.
But how? What hill could hide me? I was still growing, and the Tower was growing with me, and--
I was so tired and cold.
Nevertheless, I crawled across the Bifrost so fast I could only marvel at my speed. But Odyn and Sleipnir were gaining on me. I had to move faster. Ahead, lay the Kjellgar. I knew I would die if I set one scant inch of me in that freezing sea, but there was no other recourse.
But suddenly, the waves parted in front of me, until only dry--if cold--ground was left. I could hear a voice drifting to me from the twin walls of water to either side of me, the voice of my sister, Hel. . . .
Cross here, Jormengand. I will never let him catch you. . .
I wasted no time and began my crossing. As I passed, the waters closed behind me silently, so quickly I could feel the cold wind of it on my back. Shivering, I crawled on. I could no longer hear Odyn and Sleipnir.
In an age or an hour I was across, and slithering over flat land. I passed forest and mere and eventually the mountains, which I could only crawl around.
Crawl, I did--forever, it seemed, sometimes drawing away from my pursuer, sometimes feeling his intent on my back like hot sunlight. All that night I fled, it seemed, across the length of the world. I finally tired some many miles south of the lands I had known before I joined the Nine. Lands that I should have found strangely, disgustingly hot, but somehow felt just right. The musky scent of wolf pervaded the area for miles, and the sense of sleepiness was returning, more strongly than ever.
At last I approached a nameless tarn, deep, dark and still. Behind me, I could once again hear horse and rider.
Suddenly, an eery, deafening howl broke the night sky:
Hurry, Jormengand, it meant. Go to ground, and I will seal the way. He will never catch you. . . .
Ahead of me, not many miles hence, I saw a cave opening . . . huge it was, large enough to accommodate even me. I crawled to it, needing to hide, needing to sleep. Perhaps rest would see me feeling warmer, stronger, and clearer of mind. The night was too cold, even in these southern lands.
I crawled into the cave, tasting and scenting, moving carefully but quickly ahead. I encountered nothing and kept moving, even when the cave took a downward angle. My descent continued and continued, taking me west for a long while. Here, now, I began to grow again, until I had to keep moving just so I wasn’t smothered by all my extra yardage.
Not long into my descent another earsplitting howl, miles above my head, grew till it filled the earth and no doubt the sky. Until it seemed the very foundations of the world should crumble around me. And shake they did, so much that I could hear cave-ins above me. But I was not frightened. I kept moving deeper into the warmth and safety of Midgaard.
The howl continued at that volume, shaking the whole world. I kept moving.
There came a time, an eternal span during which the tunnel ascended, descended and plateaued dozens of times, when I bumped into something with a crash that resounded all around me. I felt a sharp pain in two places: the top-front of me and the top-back of me. . .
I flicked my tongue out and tasted--myself. Or the reptilian, earthstonedust smell I now recognized as myself.
Unless my instinct was deceived by some spell, it seemed I was . . . long enough to encircle Midgaard--the whole of Midgaard--to gird it, like an ugly belt.
No . . . that is impossible! I thought, shuddering. Above me, the seas churned; islands cracked apart and sank into the ocean.
Slowly, the howl faded, until it was no more than faint reverberations passing through silent earth.
I was free at last. Free of Odyn and his scheming, his planning, his Tower, thanks to Fen and Hel . . . protecting me when they could have slowed me enough to let Odyn catch me, thus gaining his favor, and maybe an end to their banishment.
The cost of hindering Odyn's pursuit of me would be terrible, and I feared for them both. I wondered what more Odyn--or Loki could possibly do to us. Our very lives were all that hadn't been sacrificed to their vision.
I am warm and quite comfortable. And safe from them both.
Had Odyn been chasing me to aid me? Or to end me? I had called for his help; the AllFather wasn’t completely without heart, though his finer sentiments made his ruthless streak all the more potent for the contrast.
Was Loki a tool of destiny, as he--she claimed? A wrongly-maligned AllMother just trying to hold the Worlds together for a little while longer? Or was she an insane schemer with pride matched only by Odyn's? Was it a combination of both those things, or some other unfathomable reason?
I know nothing. I know just enough to be tantalized and coerced and manipulated--just enough to make freedom of choice not seem a fool's dream.
I will never know the answers. Not on this side of the Ragnarok, anyway. Both of them used me for their own ends, no matter how noble. Despite their claims of adoration and caring, they had wasted and frittered away my life. They all did, ever near-immortal Aeslir godling, every Aeslirlinga that tilled his field while I rotted in a prison of stone, then a prison of earth.
Rage kindles within me, now: small, a barely-there spark. It will grow while I sleep, and on a distant day . . . I will emerge from this prison of earth, and my wrath will consume the Midgaard.
Such is my destiny. I know better, now, than to try and avert it.
The time has come to allow long-denied weariness to overwhelm me. I feel as if I could sleep for eons and Fimbulwinter itself wouldn’t wake me. . . .
I shrug once, twice, then twice more, till the earth settles around me just right. Someday, I will awaken, Fimbulwinter will blanket the Worlds, the battle at Vigrid will rage unchecked, and
I will have my vengeance.
Down below the lands, the islands, the seas and the mists, the Midgard Serpent sleeps, waits to usher in Ragnarok--the Twilight of the Gods, and the end of the Worlds.
© 2009 Rachel E. Bailey (Beetle at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.