Everything Dead After a Time

R. Earle Harris


Copyright Notice

Everything Dead After a Time is copyrighted 2012 by R. Earle Harris (rearleharris@tuxfamily.org)

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.


 

Part Three - The Way of Honir

 


Midgard

 

This War of the Flowers is not going well.

I'm keeping this journal because I don't expect things to get any better. It is not a diary. I'll have to write at length when I can and try not to leave out anything useful. If I can't do better than Snorri and Hod and Breid, then I will be as dead as they are and our work will be left unfinished. Maybe leaving behind a record of what I do will help whoever has to carry on. Maybe not. It comforts me somehow to write this way. Maybe that's enough of a reason for me to do it.

We are leaving Midgard and not coming back. At least, not as Heimdaller. The guarding of Midgard has failed. And we can't go back to living anything like the old way here until Honir and the Flowers are dealt with. The people of Midgard are on the defensive now, like all the other worlds. But Midgard weapons are horribly destructive. And we Aesir are different enough from the natives to be regarded as threats. I'm not interested in our dying here uselessly. It's too bad that Midgard weapons are useless against the enemy. But that is the way of all blind and technical things. In the end, they are no match for intelligence and reality.

We are only eleven now. Three Aesir: myself, Kreggi, and Dreng. Lit, my favorite Svartalv. Otulf the Friendly Giant. And of the brothers, six remain: Runt, Lionel, Monster Mash, Bloodshot, Stone. And Breid's Yvonne. Poor Breid.

We lost Delroy after the ambush which separated us from Breid and the others. He was cut down by horsemen as we tried to leave the Wards the first time. He died protecting our rear as we fled back inside. The best leaders always die this way, sacrificing themselves. The worst leaders are like Hod who provide the stupid plans that get our real leaders killed. Delroy died leading his men and sacrificing himself for us. My Snorri died that way too.

And so did Breid. Again we were ambushed in this stupid Heimdall city in Midgard and again a good Aesir died. Poor Breid. He got stepped on. Otulf took it very hard. Breid was holding his own against the trolls in his almost indestructible new metal body from Nidavellir. The trolls made a push. Breid was knocked down. Otulf was forced back and he stepped on Breid's head. What can you say? It was fate. Otulf, of course, blames himself.

I have better things to do than comfort mopey giants. But I am the leader now. And I need this giant. I even like the big baby. So when I found him sitting against Kreggi's ruined walls, full of guilt and sorrow, I pulled up a step-ladder and sat down beside him. I told him that I needed his help. I understood how he felt about Breid. But we are so few that he is now the most important in his way. Each of the rest of us is only one warrior. Each can kill a troll or two on a good day. Otulf can kill as many trolls as he can pick up and pull the heads off of. I told him he was our Great Warrior now and that without him we would be less than half as strong as we are with him. I do not think he has ever felt really important before now. I can see that it makes him happy. It makes him shy, as well. Which is good. I don't need a barn-sized egomaniac under my command.

Problem children, problem children. Maybe I am the egomaniac for thinking almost everyone is a problem child. Maybe I am just bitter because my Snorri is still dead and Ragnarok eons away. And Kreggi refuses to take command. So instead of wallowing in my grief, I have to be a big girl and lead. I'd like to shove Kreggi up Odin's Blue Butt sometimes. No offense meant to Odin. But then, truly, Kreggi more or less leads better from the passenger seat than from behind the wheel. And it's not as if he ever fails to let me know what he thinks. So I have the benefit of Kreggi's experience and wisdom. Then if anything goes wrong, I get all the blame. The perks of leadership.

Kreggi is merely an irritation for refusing to take my place. He's a good brother Aesir. And, of course, Lit and Runt are no problem. Both of them are all I could ask for. Lionel is a good-hearted soldier too. I trust him. Monster Mash and Dreng are both good enough in a fight. Neither of them is stupid. But neither of them bothers to think when they can fight instead. They're like big dumb loaded guns. So either of them could get any of us killed if I'm not careful.

That leaves three: Breid's Yvonne, Bloodshot, and Stone.

Stone is new. And unreadable. Runt tells me he can fight. But, apparently, he can't respond to anything like a normal person. He does what he's told without delay or visible resentment. But also without any indication of what he's thinking. Or of what he might actually do in a pinch. He is silent with me, with Lit, with the brothers. Runt said Stone asked to join us but I can't imagine why. He gives me a bad feeling. But I am wary of my own feelings. I am not myself since Snorri died. And the people of Midgard are not just weaker versions of Aesir. They are different. They are of their own. I will have to see what kind of different this Stone is.

Bloodshot has been with us from the first. His name comes from the state of his eyes: light, yellow-brown, and perpetually bloodshot eyes. He too is silent with everyone, except with his other brothers. With them he talks quietly and they seem to like him. And trust him. I'm sure I will come to trust him too if he is worthy of it. All I know of him now is that he has survived this long. Some people are always in the background of a group. But our group is now too small now for any background. Everyone is in the foreground, in plain sight. We will see Bloodshot more clearly now.

And finally, Breid's Yvonne. Now a widowed Fury. Or that is what she reminds me of. Perhaps she reminds me of myself, after losing my Snorri. She has lost her love and like me she would like to kill someone for it. Many someones. Not Otulf, fortunately. Yvonne bears him no grudge. She has spent more time than I have comforting him. But I'm sure she would like to kill uncountable trolls for her loss. Or enslaved Svartalven. Or Honir. Some people get angry-violent in grief. But some of us are plunged into a deep and abiding violence that broods and waits. I see this in myself. So I can see it in her. I trust it in neither of us.

No one came to help us with Breid's funeral as they did when Snorri died. Snorri had been larger than life somehow and my life is smaller with his passing. Breid had just been life itself. He came back twice from death. So I half-expected his return this time. But he remains wherever he has gone down to. I only hope that he and Snorri are together again. They loved each other, Aesir to Aesir.

I wanted to give Breid a funeral before we left Midgard. But a bonfire was out of the question. It was hard enough to keep us out of sight while we prepared to leave. We found an old factory near Kreggi's, with giant-sized doors, to hide our giant in. Otulf didn't care for the city. Too many lights and too much noise for him. He liked to go sit in the ruins of Kreggi's building and try to find the stars that he knew. But the stars of Jotunheim do not shine above Midgard.

It was Lionel who solved the problem of Breid's funeral. He found a fifty-five gallon metal drum, put it inside the factory building, and filled it with diesel fuel. He put a barbecue grill on top of the barrel, which was plenty big for all that was left of Breid -- only a head, after all, since this tale of troubles began. We waited until dark, closed the big doors, and let the fire consume our brother Breid. I thought that Kreggi or Dreng might complain that this was a travesty. Or that Yvonne would think we were belittling Breid's death. No one objected. Kreggi brought out a keg of mead he had hidden out of harms way. He said it was his last. But he says that of every keg. So we drank and even sang while Breid's head burned. Lionel refilled the metal drum once so that nothing remained of Breid but tiny ashes that rose into the air.

And so, Breid too is gone.

Breid's dwarfish metal body went to Mimir. Breid had healed Mimir's insanity but not his desire to be alone. Mimir was uncomfortable with all of us. He missed the Alven, he said. He wanted to go back to them. He had lived with them so long and then failed so miserably at stopping Honir that I think he no longer cared what happened to the nine worlds. If he could be with the elves again, he would be happy, even if this great doom of ours consumed them too. I need to be happier than that. After we had removed Breid's injured head from the metal body, we placed Mimir's head on its neck-hole. The body seemed to grasp the living head. As soon as Mimir was attached, the body came to life again. It was clumsy at first. But in a few days Mimir could use it comfortably. He bid us farewell the morning after Breid's pyre.

It is not my way to hold big meetings and talk things out. I understand Mimir wanting to be alone. I prefer to be that way myself. I stayed with everyone until we had said farewell to Mimir. And then I went to see my dog. She was still with my old friend among the homeless people. I took my dog to the woods near where the brothers had lived before this War of Flowers broke out into the worlds. Now the projects were shattered and empty. Human weapons had been used here against the trolls soon after Breid had last passed through. But the woods were still alive and I spent a day not thinking about the Way of Flowers or Honir or even Snorri. I spent it being with my poor dog, who still loved me, and with the trees and the sky. It was a winter day. But almost a warm one. Clouds blew through, scattering a cold rain. But they never completely blocked the sun and were gone by late afternoon. As it turned toward Night, I took my dog back to my friend and said a last goodbye to both of them.

The next few days we gathered ourselves together. I talked to everyone, learning all I could of what Breid and his followers had been through. I tried to learn more of Stone and Bloodshot, without much success. Bloodshot is brooding, I think, because his family died in the projects, in this senseless War of the Flowers. He is already a reliable soldier. Maybe the desire for revenge will make him a better one. Often, that desire has the opposite effect, making people thoughtless and sloppy. I will have to watch him. Stone is still unreadable. He is like his name. I feel neither trust nor distrust for him yet. He offers nothing to hang a feeling on.

I try to handle practical things. Our group is small. We won't be looking for any fights except those which might make an end of Honir. Breid's group learned that the shotguns work in close proximity to giants. So maybe they will work on trolls with a proper load. Kreggi and three helpers are reloading buckshot rounds with single steel bearings which I hope will blow chunks off of stony trolls. I suppose that as the beings of the nine worlds tend towards an inanimate nature, they no longer affect technology so strongly. We will still need to deal with Svartalven and other enemies at close range the hard way. So we are all taking short two-handed axes with a single edge.

I don't like groups where there are few leaders and lots of followers. We are leaner than that, hunters now, hunters of Honir. So I have divided us into three groups. I have put Monster Mash and Bloodshot with Kreggi; Otulf and Dreng with Runt; and the remaining three with Lit. I trust Lit more than anyone here. I cannot say I understand him. But I empathize with him and he seems to understand and trust me. I offered Lit my job when Kreggi wouldn't take it. He said he thought I would be the better of the two of us. When I asked him if anyone else among us would be better, he said, no, not even Kreggi. His vote of confidence touched me.

I am writing this upon the Way to Jotunheim. When I learned that Otulf's mother was one of the Wise, I decided to visit her before making any real decisions about what to do next. So far as we know, even Balder on Hlidskjalf does not know where Honir is. And I don't have any real wisdom of my own. Only strong opinions and a sense of what needs to be done. If Otulf's mother is truly wise, I hope she will share that wisdom with me.


Jotunheim

 

I decided to go into Jotunheim on my own, taking only Otulf. Kreggi was against this. He kept telling me about some Midgard general named Buster or Custer who split his troops and lost a big battle against the Indians. I am fairly certain that the part of Midgard we had lived in has never been at war with India. So I told him he must be mistaken. And even if he was right, I wasn't splitting my troops. I was leaving my troops all together, to camp near the exit of the Way, while Otulf and I went into Jotunheim on our own.

Kreggi then told me that there were not enough of us with him to fort up inside the Way. I told him that I could count as well as he could and that I didn't expect them to fort up and fight. I expected them to lay low and hide. I told them all that we would be doing a lot more hiding and running than we would be fighting and to get their minds firmly wrapped around that idea before Otulf and I got back. I told them that as far as I was concerned, we few were the only ones who could find Honir in time and we couldn't do that dead.

And we ARE probably the only Aesir who know to look for Honir. Breid learned that Balder's vision from Hlidskjalf and his connection to his black birds were both breaking down. So we have to assume Asgard doesn't know about Honir yet. And I doubt whether Mimir himself will bother passing the word, even though Alfheim is just beyond Asgard in the upper realm. He is such a loner. So I have to find a way to let Balder know about Honir without spending any precious time doing it. Which will be impossible. I lose either way.

When I am forced to lead like this, I'm not big on melee fighting with the boys. Snorri and every other male Aesir I have fought beside have always chosen to fight first and lead later, if possible, maybe. But definitely fight. I think this gets too many people killed. Leaders should lead. But going in with Otulf to Jotunheim, I took one of the shotguns, with plenty of the new steel-ball shells. It was a good thing I did.

The giants were responding to Honir's troops and the encroaching weirdnesses of the Way of Flowers by sealing themselves off completely. They had been working up to this when Breid had passed through. When Otulf and I exited the Way, we were met with flat-out hostility. It didn't matter that Otulf was a giant because giants were no longer associating with strange Aesir. This made him suspect and they were killing ALL the usual suspects. It was simpler than asking questions. Our gate was guarded by two giants, young and hot-blooded and fortunately without much combat experience. Amateur brawlers. Otulf had seen the real thing and broke the first giant's neck even before I fully understood they were set on killing us without talking first. The second giant was more trouble.

He and Otulf both wore the heavy leather armor of the giants. Both had axes with blades the size of your normal house's front door. Otulf's opponent had a giant-sized buckler and knew how to use it. Because our exit led straight out into a ravine, which put Otulf in front of me and blocked my view, I had to climb up-slope to get a shot at our enemy. As soon as I could do that, I went for his eyes. I put one of them out with my second shot, the pain broke his concentration, and Otulf split his skull. But not before Otulf had taken a heavy wound to the shoulder himself.

One thing I hadn't thought to bring was a big spare tent to cut up into bandages for giants. Big bloody wounds weaken you fast even if you are giant-sized yourself. And by breaking into Jotunheim this way, we were likely to end up in another fight there on the doorstep if we didn't make ourselves scarce. Otulf helped me strip a huge leather jerkin off one of the two fresh corpses and we fashioned enough of a bandage to slow his flow of blood. I was still worried about him because he couldn't seem to focus after the fight. Shock. So rather than have him leaking blood as he slowly walked at my best pace, I had him carry me on his shoulders and let him take his best weakened giant-strides towards home. We walked into the setting sun and into the hills.

Otulf won't talk your ear off. But he usually likes to chat a bit in Broken Aesir or Bad English as he goes along. This time he was silent. I told him to talk to me so I would know his wound wasn't about to drag him down. He began to cry quietly and told me he was so sorry to have killed his two fellow giants. He wished they had let him talk so he could tell them how good his Aesir friends were. I asked him why he fought them instead of falling back into the gate. Otulf said that what we were doing was too important to ever turn back. If we did not hurry, the Flowers would eat the nine worlds. I was surprised he understood things so well. Perhaps I should stop underestimating my friends.

I told Otulf that he was right, that our search for Honir was important, and that we couldn't help it if our search put us in a hard place sometimes, where we had to do what we would never really want to do. His people were only trying to protect their world. We were sorry to have to kill them. He nodded and soon stopped crying. We rested by one of the rare streams that run through the bare hills of the giants. There I let Otulf drink and rest a bit before we walked on again through the starry night. It was so beautiful and cool that I did my own walking and stared up at the stars more than I watched where I was going. I could see why Otulf had missed his stars back in Midgard. The sky of Jotunheim was magical. Stars of yellow and orange and blue and green. Stars larger than the brightest stars seen from Asgard or Midgard. Stars that seemed to make a singing sound in the night.

I realized I was making it hard on both of us by doing my own walking. Otulf was four times my height and there was plenty of room on his good shoulder for me to ride. Otulf never complained about walking with us. But I could tell he was happier taking his normal long strides than he was hobbling along to match my little ones. Of course, not having to walk gave me more time to think, which is never a good thing for me. I'm not so direct as my Snorri was. But I still don't like to dwell on what I'm doing. I pick a course and follow it and don't think about it again unless something really goes wrong. But sitting on Otulf's shoulder gave me plenty of time to reflect on this War of the Flowers and our current hunt for Honir.

Until Honir and the Flowers, the nine worlds had always seemed complete and eternal. We Aesir had been the easy-going masters of everything and had been happy to let that "everything" go more or less its own way. We took what we wanted and lived our simple lives. With Honir's power play and the impending breakdown of his high magicks, the worlds are now fragile and incomplete. The Aesir, small and weak. Disorganized. The worlds have all turned into isolated provincial fortresses, struggling alone against the encroaching doom. No one seems particularly wise or powerful anymore. We are all smaller than whatever it is that Honir has unleashed. And I for one would be surprised if even he will be able to undo what he has done. We will be fortunate if we can learn from him exactly what he did and how he did it. Hopefully, knowing that much, we will have the intelligence and wisdom to unwind this nine-worlds-sized snarl.

My long memories of Snorri make me reluctant to ever return to Midgard. But a growing sense of doom makes me recoil from the idea of entering the Way of Flowers again. To me, it is a great cancer that Honir has nourished among the worlds. Its Flowers are like the sweet rot of decaying flesh. Its monotonous tracks and hills make me feel my own emptiness, the emptiness of all our efforts to overcome it. I would rather be thrust into the gray void of Ginnungagap, like Mimir, than to dwell in the empty, twin-sun-lit hills of Honir's madness. Madness. I expect that when we find Honir, he too will be insane. He must have been insane to begin this, insane to believe there was anything to gain this way, insane to believe he could control what he has unleashed. He had only to look at Balder to see what a mindless bore it would have been to rule the Aesir. How could he not be happier without that stupid burden on his shoulders? Balder had been the best of us before Loki tricked Hod into killing him before last Ragnarok. But even so, reborn Balder is a poor, second-rate imitation of Odin. Lacking both Odin's blood lust and Odin's humor, Balder comes close to boring the nine worlds to death with his well-meaning desire to do well by everyone. I prefer Odin's bloody and peremptory justice. Most people do not deserve well and the worlds are better served by hanging most of the offenders up for the ravens.

I seem to avoid entirely the question of where Honir might be. If the vision from Hlidskjalf is failing, Honir could be bloody anywhere and I can't turn the nine worlds inside-out looking for him with eleven men. The word "hopeless" bangs on the doors of my mind. But I am not interested in hopelessness. Writing this down, I can see that I am no optimist. But I believe in fate and in luck and in fortitude. Even if luck and fate turn against us, I will never give up. Life is only and ever a struggle. If Honir's stupid greed for power were not defining my struggle right now, something else would be. Honir I can understand. Honir I can probably defeat. If I can find the bastard that cost me my Snorri, I'll find out how to undo the mess he's made with his stupid flower magick. Or I'll have Otulf pinch his head off. I'll probably have Otulf do that either way, just to make us all feel better. I know I feel better already just thinking about it.

Otulf woke up ill and weakened from his wounds. Among the hard and barren hills of Jotunheim, there are no lush and shady dells to rest within. So we found what shade we could and rested a while longer among the rocks. We had brought a few days' rations with us. So we found a place with a trickle of water where I could make a soup for strengthening the big baby. I don't care for cooking. Or cleaning. Or anything similar. But I can cook. My natural ability with a soup or stew is more than edible. And the natural ability of most men is often barely chewable. And I needed Otulf. So I spent more time than I would like to think about fixing him enough soup to make him happy and drowsy. Then I sat on a shady rock and listened to him snore.

He awoke in the moonlight and was still happy. So we walked on. Riding on his shoulder, I asked him about his mother and the Wise of Jotunheim. The rulers of Jotunheim, he said, spent their time fuming over their jealousy of the Aesir and plotting with their magicks to settle old scores with us. But while the ruling family of the giants lived in their palace of Utgard, the real decisions of the giants were made by the Wise. These Wise were mostly women and women governed the Wise. Each of the Wise women was allowed her own voice in the council. Each was the equal of the others when it came to making a decision or in the passing of a judgment. The giant men of the Wise had only one voice between them and no vote in the council. They were a chorus of conscience and were consulted after every discussion and before any decisions were made.

I asked Otulf how he felt about the role of men in the Wise. He seemed to think it made perfect sense. He knew how wise his mother was. And he knew no men as wise as she. In his mind, women were wiser than men. Bless his little heart. Wisdom is rarer than hens' teeth and if it prefers one sex to another, I couldn't tell you which. In my experience, the clamor of fools drowns out the wise at every turn.

When we arrived at Otulf's lonely farmhouse in the hills, he made a clean breast to his mother of having killed the guardians of the gate. His mother listened to him carefully but kept her eyes on me. She sent one of her younger children as a runner to pass this news along and only then took the time to tell Otulf that his brother had been killed by an incursion of the trolls. Otulf wept. His mother embraced him and sent him off into the hills to pay his respects at his brother's graveside. As soon as he was out of hearing, she asked me about Breid.

I told her all the high points of his adventure and his return with Mimir. And then I told her of his death. She thanked me for returning her son as if we were sparing him our revenge. I told her that we were keeping Otulf because we needed his strength and his good heart. As we were down to eleven men, I said I'd rather she took her pick of the others to adopt rather than rob us of her son. Sitting on the ground beside me, she took my small hand in her giant ones and thanked me for my praise of him. She knew he could do more good with us than as a gate guardian at home. Tears came to her eyes as she thanked me for letting her see him again.

I explained where I had left my troop and that Otulf had been my guarantor of safe passage to her. So far as I knew, my small group was the only searcher for Honir. We had no contact with Asgard. And no idea of where our enemy was hiding. Otulf's mother was already aware of the failing of Hlidskjalf. The giants' own ability to watch Asgard through the Pool of Mimir in Jotunheim had also failed. She hoped that all this was no more than a combination of the destruction of Bifrost and a cautious defense on Balder's part. But she was afraid that there was more and worse to these recent changes among the worlds.

The Wise of Jotunheim had sent out a small party of themselves, along with a handful of soldiers, to investigate the Ways of Flowers. Otulf's mother had been one of these. She, like Lit, sensed that Honir's magicks were beyond his ability to keep stable and that they were unraveling. But she also perceived this destruction as an expansive growth. Whatever this Flowery Way among the worlds was made of was growing stronger and denser wherever it touched the nine worlds. It was pushing itself through the gates.

I told her that we had seen only a few Flowers spreading out into the worlds they touched. But she wasn't talking about the Flowers. She was talking about the substance of the Way, whatever that meant. She said that as it weakened in its inward reaches, it was strengthening on its outer edges. And these "edges" were the tiny points where Honir's Way joined the other worlds at their gates. She seemed so upset in telling me this that I had to stop her explanation and ask her to tell me why this seemed so important.

She put her head in her great hands and was quiet for a moment. Then she said that all the Ways among the worlds pass through the same emptiness. The Way of Flowers was expanding in this emptiness even as it was dying in its center. Passing from the Ways into the worlds was difficult and that slowed the spread of the Flowers. But passing into and through the Ways between the worlds, the Flowers met almost no resistance. They were not only crowding into the worlds, they were crowding out the other Ways. Otulf's mother and many of the other Wise believed that the Way of Flowers would destroy the other Ways and, in the end, leave the nine worlds isolated. Most of the giants thought this would be a good thing. But Otulf's mother shook her head as she said this. To her mind, the nine were one and the isolation of the nine would be the destruction of all.

I love it when people make me feel like an optimist. I did have a moment where I wondered if all this would happen so soon that Kreggi and the rest would be stranded where I left them, leaving me stranded on Jotunheim. A brief moment of fear, you know, that leaps into your heart like that. And then it passed. I can only do what I can do. Beyond that, it's really not my problem.

The next day, Otulf's mother took me to speak with more of the Wise. She knew that I needed at least an intelligent guess about where Honir could be hiding from Hlidskjalf's view. So we went to the Far-Seers. This was an old couple who lived up in the hills above some beautiful, high, grazing meadows. A couple of women, actually. They were, said Otulf's mother, older than some hills and had been up in their own hills ever since they had met each other as young giants. Marriage in Jotunheim is an arranged affair. And being wise, both these old women had been wiser than their families, their matchmakers, and the men who had been chosen for them. They happened to meet one day in the marketplace of one of Jotunheim's villages. They had joined the line for warm bread at the baker's house and before they had gotten their loaves, they'd eloped. That's how Otulf's mother put it: "eloped." Good for them.

They had known they were different from the time they were children. And their shared aloneness in the hills had magnified this difference and turned them into the Far-Seers of Jotunheim. They certainly seemed different to me. Men giants generally wear leather armor and clothes made from patched-together cowhides. The women wore dull colored skirts and shirts cut like hauberks. Always browns and grays. I think the giants "feel" big, as if that makes them vulnerable, and wear what helps them blend into the background, at least at a distance. The far-seeing sisters wore the brightest colors I ever saw in Jotunheim. And with no sense of color either. The clash of hues made the colors almost disorienting. And they smiled a lot too. Such happiness was good to see.

They had built their house below a high lake in the hills which was known for its large fish. There's no point in fish for giants unless they are large, you see. The fish in this lake were as long as my arm or longer, flattish, and fat around the middle. Before the Far-Seers took up residence, giants came here often to fish. But the Wise are held in awe by the rest of Jotunheim, even its rulers in Utgard. So these two women had the lake to themselves. They were fishing when we arrived. They put me to work, tending a fire, and Otulf's mother to work, skinning and battering and frying fish. I ate more of those delicious fish than was good for me.

We talked about the impending doom of the nine worlds in a kind of by-the-way, meandering fashion. It got about as much attention, it seemed, as the fish and the weather and the impending marriage of Otulf, which was news to me and would turn out to be news to him. For a time, I tried to turn the conversation back to Honir. But the sisters were not to be guided. One or the other would fall silent for a few moments and then come back into the conversation in a way that changed its course at right angles.

After we had eaten, we all lay on the grass and looked up and away from the hills into the sky. The clouds seemed fringed in gold. The conversation slowed, to allow for digestion. And then, finally, the far-seeing pair began to quietly muse about where one could hide from Hlidskjalf. Interestingly, their first idea was Valaskjalf -- Odin's Hall. Now Balder's Hall. My first thought was that it wasn't all that large. So how could Honir hide there? But then I remembered how magical Odin had been and how devious. There were probably plenty of places in Odin's crib that Balder would never stumble on. So I decided to keep it in mind, even if I didn't think it was very likely.

Their second idea didn't please me much either: Muspellheim. The Land of Fire is somehow not one of the nine worlds. It is home to Surt who is said to sit from Ragnarok to Ragnarok with his fiery sword on his knees waiting to consume nine worlds with flames. I suspect there is more to Surt than that. The race of Muspell is not friendly to the Aesir at any time. So while I was willing to put Muspellheim on the list above Valaskjalf, I was glad the sisters had more ideas than that.

I was surprised to learn that both Hel and Niflheim were opaque to Hlidskjalf's view. It made sense. Odin was always sending people there, messengers that is, to find out this thing or that. If we had thought about it, we might have guessed he couldn't see into the realm of death.

But the big surprise was the last idea of the sisters. They thought that the best place to look was in the Iron Hills. The Iron Hills are the home of the trolls so finding Honir there would make sense. And then I realized how little I knew about the Iron Hills at all. I knew that Thor was always going there in the old days to kill trolls, presumably for his own amusement. Thor was dead now, waiting in Valhalla with the rest of the Bloodlust Boys for their next Ragnarok.

I couldn't think of anyone else who would know where the Iron Hills were. Maybe Lit would know. So I asked the sisters. They told me that the Iron Hills were not really a part of the nine worlds either. The Hills lined the rim beyond the World Ocean, which encircled Midgard. Apparently, beyond the ocean was a rim of rocky hills full of trolls. So, all this, if you think about it, makes for eleven worlds counting Muspellheim and the Iron Hills.

Geography confuses me.

I dreamed of Snorri last night. At first it was a dream of memory. The old days. On campaign with Napoleon in Russia. Snorri always loved a hopeless fight. And the cold. He loved the cold. I think it was his nostalgia for the cold of Asgard that led us there. And, of course, I went along because I loved him. We went as hussars. It was the longest he ever went without Aengnir at his side. The French we rode with were amused by Snorri's mangling of their language and by his broad use of the cavalry saber. But they were in AWE of his blood lust.

I provided my share of awe and amusement as well. At first they were amused by my wearing the uniform of a hussar which they took for a whim of Snorri's. They took me for a camp follower and asked Snorri to share me with them. I was pretty in those days. Sort of. I don't feel so pretty now. Snorri said that any man who could beat me at arm-wrestling could bed me and I broke two arms before the awe settled in. Somehow, after that, I was one of the "boys" and an open secret among the squadrons.

At one point, an inspector of some kind got wind of "la femme hussar" and we found ourselves in a ridiculous parade of inspection during a gale-force icy wind. Our commander and, indeed, all my hussars insisted I was the son of some French marquis and all but dared the inspector to say otherwise. Hussars are the most unruly, and lovely, of noblemen and the inspector signed off on my masculine identity. Those were the early, victorious days of the doomed campaign and I was the pet of the squadron and the envy of many another troop of swaggering horsemen. Fighting is fun for everyone when you are winning. Happy drinking. Happy singing. Happy destruction of the more European among Russia's cavalry troops. And then the real winter set in.

And the Kazakhs appeared.

Snorri loved Russia because it was our Midgard peoples, the Russ, who started it all. The red-haired Russ were Vikings, of course, who had conquered the Slavs and taken everything east of Poland and Hungary for their own. And Snorri loved his fights. But he was always a little down after helping the French kill off the great-great-oh-so-great grandchildren of Odin's fallen children on Earth. I never shared Snorri's nostalgia for Norsemen. I was happy with the attention of several score hussars and enjoyed my share of blood lust too. Snorri and I knew fighting and we knew the cold. But the unrelenting juggernaut of a Russian winter and the ferocity of Kazakh cavalry was a shock to both of us.

Snorri and I were separated from the rest of our troop during a bad snowstorm and had our first encounter with the Kazakh Turks all by our little lonesomes. Turks were what they were. Not the civilized Turks of Constantinople. But the wild, almost Mongolian, Turks from the barren wastes of Asia. And such fighters they were. Really, they were lovely fighters. One moment, we were riding on the far end of the line of our hussars. A reconnaissance in force. The next moment a wall of snow passed over us. And cloaked within that blinding white were the Kazakh warriors. The snow was so thick that if Snorri and I had not been riding thigh to thigh we might have lost each other. Together we met the swords of those grass steppe Turks. And not since Ragnarok had I been so afraid of dying.

I consider it a blessing that we Aesir are at the mercy of our blood lust. In the worst of times, our desire to enter into the chaos of death overwhelms our fear. And, usually, our enemies. It saved us in that storm. Snorri took a sword wound in the thigh and another across the brow that clove his great heavy hussars' hat of beaver fur. Or bear fur. I forget which. My side was torn so deeply by a lance that I still wear the scar to this day. And then everything turned into a red roar and the next thing I remember is riding up to the survivors of our troop with four Kazakh heads dangling from my saddle, a wineskin in my hands, and Snorri and I singing some obscene French song. When our battered hussars saw my blood-streaked horse and uniform and the trophies on my saddle, they cheered. I was more than the squadron pet, after that.

I was their Fury.

That was my dream last night. All those long unremembered moments in Russia. That first battle with the Kazakhs. And through it all, I ached for Snorri. In all those old moments, relived in my dream, I wanted nothing more than to lie alone with my love, naked somewhere, in roaring silence. And so, I woke up lonely and angry, here in Jotunheim, on Otulf's wedding day.

Even though the giants welcomed me and offered me their home and hearth, I had chosen to sleep in the barn where Breid and his men had slept. I'm not interested in houses after my time in modern Midgard. And the furniture here is too big. It makes me feel like an over-aware child. So I slept in the barn. And woke up angry. I miss Snorri every day. But that is sorrow. That I can bear. What I cannot bear is missing the reality of him. Missing him physically. It's too real and too depressing. So I got up in the cold and walked around the giant's barnyard, suppressing my physical need for Snorri with my anger.

Loki's Bound Balls, I hate being a woman sometimes. I wish I were a stone. I didn't ever plan on loving Snorri so much that I stayed with him and faithful to him for an age and an eon. And now that he's gone, the worlds are half-ending and the prospects of falling in love again, or even of a rollicking good affair, are pretty grim. Let me write about something else. I'll tell you about Otulf's wedding. Not that knowing about hope in Jotunheim will help you find Honir if I have failed. But because any hope is better than the alternative that batters on the door of our minds these days.

Otulf learned about his wedding -- and his bride -- after I did. The day before it happened. These things are arranged in Jotunheim -- I mentioned that. The women, including the bride, all know what is happening. They plot and plan for months. The men haven't a clue. Not that our men have a clue. Aesir weddings are the afterthought. Aesir men generally take the woman they want, carry her off, and bed her. Aesir women are allowed to use any means necessary to prevent any of this, should they not wish to go along with it. Their disapproval is usually in more or less violent fun. But there have been one or two Aesir men unable to have children after a bad date. Then if things get to the "bed her" part and go well from there, the girl's family has the privilege of footing the wedding: feast and dance and song.

It seems to work for us. And it can even be romantic in its way. The better Aesir men court before they carry, if you see what I mean. Then, it is fun. Snorri never did any of this for me. I courted him. If he had been any more of a big lug, I would have had to carry HIM off and bed him.

Since he left us, I've been trying to remember our first night. But I can't. The humans of Midgard, I sometimes envy them their short lives. At least they can remember most of it. After my dream, I did remember Snorri was particularly hot just after we were almost murdered by wild Kazakhs. Near-death experiences always get our Aesir hormones going.

So, as I was saying, most men are pretty clueless about weddings. Otulf was stunned by the news of his and then, by the beauty of his bride. All the peoples of the nine worlds can be beautiful in their own way. Lit even admitted once to me that he is considered quite good-looking among the Svartalven. And I can see why. I still wouldn't kiss him though. Otulf's bride was almost a giant Aesir-beauty and everyone who saw her knew it. This had something to do with why Otulf was moping around, out of sight from the farmhouse, while I was trying to get over my roaring dream-lust. He seemed startled to see me.

But he needed to talk. He said he wasn't worthy of such a girl. And he didn't mean just her looks. He meant her sweetness too. And her earnest nature. Given all this, he couldn't bear marrying her when he knew we needed him and when his heart was really set on coming with us. He said he felt it would be like marrying her to a dead man. I told him that none of us were dead yet. But I knew what he meant. We had both seen plenty of us die. I told him to talk to his mom.

Mothers being what they are, Otulf's mother found us walking back down the swale that led from the farmhouse up into the nearest hills. Men being what they are, Otulf didn't say a word. So I did. Otulf's wise mother told us that his bride already knew that Otulf was bound to the War of the Flowers and was an ally of the Aesir. For all his bride-to-be had known, Otulf was already dead among the nine worlds when she had approached Otulf's mother. The girl had known Otulf, only a little and from afar, while growing up and was taken with him in the way children fall for each other when they discover the first hints of what falling means. But she had also lost a brother in this war of ours and had fallen deeper and into a more grown-up love with Otulf before he joined us.

Her menfolk were warriors among the giants and after Otulf left with Breid, her father was killed on a foray into the Flowers. That was the last serious attack the giants had attempted before they had chosen to bar their gates instead. And so she had come to propose her wedding to Otulf's mother while he was away. I found all this very sweet. But I told Otulf's mother, whose name is impossible, that I could agree with her son about his prospects. We few were the walking dead, with small hope of finding Honir, yet doomed to search for him anyway.

So she explained to me the hope of the giants. In their minds, married couples were always together, no matter how far apart they might come to be. Most giants don't get out much. And they do get along with their marital partners better than they get along with anyone or anything else. They are the unexpected poster children for marriage among the nine worlds. In their minds, as well as in their daily intimacy, they are inseparable. Otulf's bride knew, probably, as much as I did at this point, where we and Otulf were going and what that meant. She wanted the bond of her marriage to give him strength, perhaps enough strength to succeed where brother and father had failed.

Hearing this made me want to cry. I hugged Otulf's mother instead. She was sitting down beside me, on the rocky ground, so I could hug her shoulder and not just wrap my arms around her knee. She patted my shoulder and then we both told Otulf to pony up and make himself a worthy husband of such a wonderful bride. This made him happy, if still a little weepy too.

We stayed for the wedding. And the wedding night. Which was about as loud as you would expect for giants. They play a lot of drum and horn music through it all, trying to cover up the cries of giant ecstasy. I was half afraid all that heat, you know, would set me off again in my loss and need for Snorri. But it made me laugh instead. Hearing their raucous joy was like watching horses mate. You can't believe that any man-thing could be that big or that any woman-thing could kick her man as hard as that. I fell asleep laughing with their joy.

This morning I will speak again with Otulf's mother and two of the Wise who came for the wedding. Then, Otulf and I will rejoin the others. And I still have to decide where we are going.


The Circling Shore

 

We wait here on the beach for a ship to take us to the far shore. Kreggi has blown the horn the giants gave us and soon, or on the morrow, or who knows when, a Ship of the Winds will arrive to bear us to the Iron Hills. The Wise in Jotunheim spoke of this ship at once as a plain wooden ship and as a thing of dreams. Sitting here on the long world-encircling beach, I half-expect our ride to bear the colors of Niflheim and to be manned by the dead.

At a breakfast table, with Otulf and his bride laughing beyond the open door, the giants and I discussed where first to search for Honir. They were agreed that, beyond Ginnungagap where Breid found Mimir, only three places lay beyond the sight of all: Muspellheim, the Lower Realm, and the Iron Hills. They were agreed that nothing would buy Honir a sanctuary in Muspellheim. Fire and ice don't mix. And while anyone can go to Hel or Niflheim, coming away again is more than most would risk. The Lords of Death keep their own and considers all visitors to be permanent guests who have simply chosen to arrive before their time. I can see their point.

So it was agreed we would first try the Iron Hills. And while the Iron Hills and their waste bound the far shore of the World Ocean, I learned that only a small part of that waste was hospitable to life. The Iron Hills of the trolls, where we hoped to find our rogue Aesir, possessed the only fresh water in all that rim. The remainder was rock and dust beyond the far salt water shore. And none knew what, if anything, lay beyond the Hills. Since we have nine worlds plus Muspellheim, the Iron Hills and Ginnungagap, a thirteenth world no longer would surprise me. The giants agreed to escort us through Jotunheim and lend us the horn to call the ship. But that was all they could do.

I told them that they were welcome to come with us on our search. They said they could not. They must remain in Jotunheim for its defense. I saw that they could not be persuaded and I let them be. They seemed in no doubt as to the importance of what we sought to do. And they sent Otulf with their blessings. But that was all. Their earnest, honest desire to defend against a doom greater than their defense could ever be made me understand how we Aesir, and perhaps the men of Midgard, were different. We Aesir are unwilling to wait for our doom. We seek it out and are willing to kick its teeth in if it isn't to our liking. It made me wish that Snorri were there at that breakfast table. I could feel his Aesir truth in me and I wanted to look in his hot blue eyes and see it laughing there too.

The next night, in the moonless dark, Otulf and I passed back through Jotunheim and entered the Way that ran back to Midgard. That was the first bad news, going back through Midgard. To get to the Iron Hills, we had to go back through Midgard to a place called Texas, where a Way would take us "safely" between Svartalfheim and Nidavellir to these shores I sit on now. The last place I wanted to travel with a giant was in Midgard. They didn't even believe in giants. Of course, they had recently come up against the reality of fire-slinging trolls and Svartalven slave warriors. So they would probably just say, 'Oooh, there's a really big one!' before they nuked us.

But we had no choice. The Ways from Jotunheim to Asgard and Alfheim had been closed on the far ends. The other Ways, with their encroaching Flowers, had been shut by the giants. But the giants were willing to open these for us. None of us thought it would be a good idea to travel a great distance through the very carrier of the gray and crumbly Flowery plague that threatened the worlds. The fewer Flowers from this point, the better. When I told them how hard it would be to move Otulf through Midgard, they said that the other clear Way from Jotunheim also led to the Circling Shore. But it passed through Niflheim, the long way round. Hey, my Snorri was there now. But he was dead and nothing I could do would ever change that. If I could do something about his death, I would have gone down there right after he died and let the nine worlds sort themselves out. But dead is dead and I knew from experience that the lower plane was no place for the living. I chose Texas instead.

I let Otulf carry me back through Jotunheim with our honor guard while I brooded on how to move three Aesir, a Svartalv, six heavily-armed African Americans and an armored giant from the Great Lakes to Austin, Texas without getting us tactically nuked. But I needn't have worried so prematurely. Trouble found us before we even reached Midgard.

The boys, and Yvonne, had been good in my absence. Kreggi had kept them amused and in good spirits by teaching them how to "fight dirty." I hadn't known this about Kreggi, but he had spent a good part of his uncountably many years studying the art of coming out on top by any means necessary. He had the boys demonstrate a few of his simpler techniques for me. And I blushed. I hadn't known that you could


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