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by beetle
Rated: 18+ · Novella · Mythology · #1548139
"The world was reborn every morning, for I resided in the Tower of Winds."
The world was reborn every morning, for I resided in the Tower of Winds.


At the top of the world my Tower sat, unreachable by ordinary mortals.  It was hidden by the four winds racing out of their traces, sending blinding white sheets of snow for a thousand miles in every direction.  Thus, no ordinary mortal had ever stood upon the battlements of the Fortress of Ever, looked out on the frozen wasteland and whipping snow to see what truths there are to be seen.


The Nine of us were mortals, yes, but not ordinary. 


We were the cream of the Aeslir People, a thing that, in my foolish pride, still fills me with joy.  We were ranked among the semi-divine, implored to defend to the death the Fortress that stands at the edge of AllThings and the One who keeps It.


We Nine attempted the Prize among prizes, each of us secure in our fellowship and our individual abilities, secure that they would win us through to the Throne and the AllFather, whom we’d defend to our last breaths.  And what else would we find there, in the Great Fortress?  Who knows?  The Norns certainly weren’t telling any of us, only saying that the end of the Nine Worlds, Ragnarok, was nigh, and only the bravest of the brave, the most stalwart, the most canny—the most uncanny—of Aeslirs could, acting as a team, protect the Grey Fortress, renewing the worlds for another age.


I came to curse my pride every moment of every hour spent pacing the round room at the top of my Prison.


Yet I know that had I been the humblest of mortals my family, my proud, ancient lineage, would have hounded me to Ragnarok and after at the honor I’d passed up.  Of course no Aeslir could ever achieve Godhood.  To imagine such was surely blaspheme against the AllFather.  But to even come close to the Fortress, to be a part of such an under-taking—


And it would have been no dishonor to die crossing the Kjellgar, the great northern sea of ice that stands between the mortal, living world and the eternal twilight of the Frozen Realm. 


Surely similar thoughts flew through the hearts and minds of the others.  Bil the Weaver, kindest, quietest and humblest of the Nine, would often sit alone of a night, staring into the campfire, his dark, deep eyes gleaming in a way they rarely ever had before the gaining the shores of the Frozen Realm.  The grave and secretive twins, Skade and Ullr, were the only ones who seemed totally unaffected by the possibility of gaining the Fortress and confronting whatever awaited us within. 


Cold Skade, of the mighty bow and steel tipped arrows . . . it was said that never had an arrow fired by the great huntress missed its quarry, never had any quarry proved untraceable.  Ullr, a master woodsman in his own province, had proved invaluable as a camp-scout, forager and geographer.  His ax—larger than most Aeslir could lift, let alone wield—never grew dull. 


The de facto leader of our expedition was Yg Bolverk.


It is believed among the Nine—especially Yg, knowing as I do the over-wheening hubris in that man—that he was destined to be the one to claim not only the Stewardship of the Great Fortress beyond All and the Seat of Knowledge that was its greatest Treasure, but the Worlds as well.


Even I must admit to believing that Yg was destined to become the AllFather, just as he’d been destined to receive the most powerful of the draupnir.  It was only later, from Yg’s own mouth, I would find out how little destiny had to do with his ascension.


Of course, I had achieved the Tower and Godhood by then, and it was too late to do anything but mourn the wages of my own blindness.  Ever in my ears, like the wail of a bereft spirit, was the laughter of that braying jackass, Loki Form-changer.  From the sole window of my Tower, I would hear his mad, merry chuckles drifting up to me, at me and, in the beginning, it was all I could do not to fling open the tempting, unlocked door, and run out onto the battlements where Loki stood laughing.


It was my dream to cut Loki's throat and watch the blood pool on the snow until the first darknesses of the Fimbulwinter arrived, heralding Ragnarok. . . .


Those first centuries were . . . trying.


In the early days, Yg—who calls himself Odyn, now, another bit of vanity—would come to visit me, bringing dice and books and news of the Worlds, via the World Throne.  At first the Throne scared him; the visions it shows are not meant for the timid or foolhardy.  Odyn was neither, but ever is it his nature to be cautious. 


His early news of Midgaard and its happenings was patchy, brief, told reluctantly as I sat in my chair, staring out the lone window.  Sometimes, I deluded myself into thinking I could almost see the glimmer of distant Fensalir, my home city. . . .


On one such day, eight hundred years into my Godhood, Yg-Odyn told me of the diminishing of our people, the Aeslir, and the coming of the Small People.


“‘Aeslirlingas’ is Loki’s term.  They look much as the Aeslir do, only in miniature,”  the grinning AllFather had said, his wise, twilight-colored eyes lit with wonder.  I knew then that for him, the time of wariness concerning the World Throne was over.


“Do they?”  I’d asked because there was no reason not to.  After years of scorning the AllFather, the yearning for communication with another Aeslir had long since broken my resistance to his visits.


Yg-Odyn nodded, picking up one of my carvings.  He turned it over contemplatively.  “Aeslirlingas.  They’re very entertaining.  As an amusement, Loki showed one of them how to make fire and the poor primitives have worshiped him since.  They’ve even set up shrines to him.  Loki travelled the whole of Midgaard after that showing his pet Aeslirlingas how to keep themselves warm in the winter.  They call him such strange names, now: Mercury, Prometheus, Proteus, Lucifer . . . he has more names than I do.”  Yg-Odyn laughed, seeming genuinely pleased for his oath-brother. 


“Their females—women—are truly delightful creatures.”  When Yg-Odyn said this I just knew it heralded the end of his visits.  It was simply a matter of time, for the only thing that rivaled Yg’s pride for unchecked growth was his libido.  But I was wrong.  About a great many things, it turns out, but none has surprised me more than the continuation of the AllFather’s visits.


If those stopped, however . . . since no one wanted to visit me--or they weren’t allowed to, though I’d long ago surmised it was the former, rather than the latter, as it was in Yg-Odyn’s best interest to keep me content within my Tower—I would be well and truly alone after that.  Even Loki had left off laughing under my Tower window to amuse himself with these Aeslirlingas. 


I knew from Odyn that as our race withered and shrank, the snows that kept us hidden from the eyes of our kin in Midgaard lessened.  In slow trickles, the remaining Aeslir were led by Odyn out of Midgaard and into the Frozen Realm, which Odyn renamed Asgaard.


First from Midgaard came my siblings, Fenrir and Hel.  Then my friend Freyir, the agriculturalist and Idun the long lived, keeper of Fensalir’s orchards and my own cousin.  With them they brought their kin.  After that it was the kin of the other Eight; husbands, wives, lovers, children, brothers, sisters, parents, friends.  Except for Skade and Ullr, each of us had large families that flourished, though our race diminished.  Skade and Ullr had never married, though it was rumored even before the Nine left for Asgaard that the two were lovers and that he’d got a child on her.  Though how a pregnancy could be hidden and what would eventually become of such a child I know not.


*



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 these 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 whim.  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 hooded look 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 see.  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 hooded, 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 camaraderie 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, its 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 far 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 later told was actually several hours, he went still 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 and determination.


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 ankles, 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 an idea. . . ." 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 twin, 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. Its 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 knowledge 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 when he did not answer.


Skade 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 upon 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 though 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—


No one.


The massive room was decorated in leather and hides, paneled with mahogany. The fire in the great stone hearth 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 hundred 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.
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