A knock interrupted the quiet, and Signy poked her head around the door mid-shout. “Sigrid! I knew you were in here!” She grinned evilly, jumped backward a couple of steps, and threw a dagger directly at my head.
I snatched it out of the air and slammed it into Volund’s old workbench, where it lodged to the hilt. “Really?” I said. “You really want to —” and I launched myself at her mid-sentence. I’d hoped to take her by surprise, but she was ready for me, and the two of us flew through the doorway and landed in a pile on the swampy ground. I leapt to my feet for barely a moment before Signy kicked my legs out from under me, and then we were wrestling, rolling through the mud, fists and hair and feet and elbows lashing out wildly. Signy finally found her feet and tossed me into a tree so hard I felt my wing crunch. Pain knifed through me. I rolled, gasping for breath, and kicked out at empty air. I scrambled to my feet just in time to dodge her next kick. From that crouch, I rose up to punch her in the jaw with the force of my whole body. The punch whipped her around, but she grabbed my shirt and used my momentum to throw me bodily over her hip. I landed rolling, and she kicked me in the back, right next to my broken wing.
I screamed, a simultaneous expression of pain, adrenaline, and joy. For the next few breaths, I simply lay on the ground, gasping. Signy leaned with her hands on her thighs and panted. She grinned at me. I grinned back, and the next moment I had leapt to my feet and was hugging her tightly, nearly crying in joy at seeing her again. She hugged me back and hummed happily as we rocked back and forth, alternately laughing and crying, holding each other at arm’s length and then throwing ourselves into each other’s arms again.
After some time, the two examined each other. We were covered in mud, blood, and rapidly darkening bruises. One of my wings hung awkwardly, sending shivers of agony down my spine and into my shoulders, and I could see that the left side of Signy’s jaw had swollen to the size of a plum. She grinned at me again with one side of her mouth, and winced. “I think it’s dislocated,” she said mushily, though broken teeth. “That was a hell of a punch, Sigrid. Nice one.”
“I missed you, too.” I smiled back and took a couple of careful steps as the adrenaline left my body and I started to actually feel my injuries from the fight. “Do you want help with that?”
“No, I can do it.” She waved a hand at me and then massaged her jaw, sliding it back into the proper place with an audible crack. Immediately, the bruising around it started to fade and turn greenish with accelerated healing. “You’d better let me reset that wing bone before it heals wrong.”
I sighed, turned around, and gritted my teeth as the pain in my wing, which had faded to a persistent ache, seared through my body. I could feel Signy’s fingers reaching through my feathers, forcing the bones straight, and a moment of sudden relief as the pain crested and alleviated. I breathed again, and spread my wings experimentally. The right one felt tight, but functional. I itched where I could feel the bones knitting themselves back together.
“Thanks,” I said, “You set it just in time.” I turned back to her just as Volund came rolling over the marsh-ground from the main hall, followed by Olrun and Signy’s brother Sigmund. My voice trailed off as I watched them approach. The way Volund’s thick, sinewy shoulders contracted and relaxed as he pushed his wheels, his full, scraggly beard, the way his ears stuck out slightly, his still muscular thighs clenched around a large bucket – I hummed quietly in appreciation.
Signy laughed, then winced as her jaw cracked. “Yes, I know, it would have been a pain in the ass to rebreak the bone. See something you like?”
“Of course she does,” rumbled Sigmund. “We have beer. Are you two finished clawing each other like bears or should we come back another time?” He strode by and unfolded a wooden table from the side of Volund’s cottage, then started pulling up a bench as Volund rolled up and ever-so-gently placed the bucket on the table with five drinking horns that he pulled from somewhere in the side pockets of his chair. A little beer sloshed over the side onto the table; it smelled divine; like bark and honey and bitter moss. After all that time trying to imitate the beer in San Francisco, I’d forgotten how much I missed that smell.
I sat on the end of the bench next to Volund and gave him a big, sloppy kiss. He tasted like beer. I didn’t object in the slightest. Signy handed out the horns and then raised hers. “To battle!” she said, “and to a new story, for once! We missed you, Sigrid; it’s been strange not having you here nagging everybody with your restlessness and dumb ideas all the time. I wouldn’t have thought it, because as time goes it’s been barely a blink, but there you are. It’s the biggest change we’ve had in ages, you leaving; at least, it was the biggest change we’d had until today. We have some catching up to do.”
Volund squeezed my shoulders and added, “You have to tell us what Midgard is like now, and why you went to such a strange part of it. Olrun could follow you a little, but it was hard for her to explain what she saw. Are you serving mead to regular men, like a thrall? She says that in the place you are now, there are more people than we’ve seen together in even the greatest battles, and yet fights happen between only a few people at a time, that they ride iron serpents around their city, and that all the streets are made of a strange stone.”
Olrun smiled. “Well,” she explained, “You know I can’t hear when I’m scrying – I only see the pictures in the bowl. I’ve been seeing those metal serpents for years. Now you can answer all of my questions: you can tell me what they are called and what they sound like; you can tell me how people speak down there. I want to know how music has changed! I want to know what San Francisco smells like, and how the sea tastes, and what that strange little rolled up food is made from, and what the drinks taste like, and if they are strong or weak.”
She gazed at me with such avid and intense curiosity that I had to laugh. “Olrun, what’s gotten into you?” I asked. “You said that the world was too different for us to understand now, that people no longer had the warrior spirit, that the reason we became trapped here was because we were no longer needed. You called me Sigrid the Restless, Sigrid the Eternally Unsatisfied. Were you just dying to go down there the whole time?”
Sigmund took Olrun’s hand and looked at me with that dour, bad-natured look he got when he was particularly certain and particularly thoughtful. “Sigrid, Olrun’s wanted to go down to Midgard for longer than any of us. Even before the break, she hadn’t gone down in centuries. While you were fighting, killing and collecting warriors on the fields of Gotland she was still here, serving mead and beer and watching everything that went on below.”
Signy nodded. “She’s the oldest of us. You know that. She can’t leave the Great Hall with no one to stand watch over it. Her code would never allow her to take off without any ability to return. That’s what you did, Sigrid, in your loud, drunk, reckless anger; even Odin didn’t believe you would return.”
Throughout this, Olrun remained quiet. I looked at her, and wondered what it had been like to watch Midgard change over centuries, never being able to touch it, never knowing the smells or sounds or textures of those visions. I had misjudged her. I’d thought of her as stoic and unambitious, content simply to watch the world from afar. Now I realized that, all this time, her desire to explore that world had grown and festered into a hard ache inside her, a lump of amber trapped in her chest as she poured drinks for warriors with her strong arms and checked on Heidrun the celestial goat. As she swung her mace across the daily fray, she had dreamed of reaching through that film of foam in her scrying bowl and touching the world in which she was born.
I drained my horn in one long gulp, refilled it, and shook myself like a dog. All this insight was making me feel a little uncomfortable, even guilty, and I wanted to return to those feelings later, when I was alone.
So I grinned at all of them, my friends and lovers over the long years, and said, “Well, I did return, didn’t I? And I’m still as drunk and reckless as ever. Do you want to hear my story or not?”
They wanted to hear my story. So I told them. I talked myself hoarse explaining the things I thought I now understood: cars, buses, huge vertical halls called apartment buildings, the strange clothes, and the stranger vegetables at the market. I talked about the endless number of people with different skin colors and accents, about bicycles and baseball, about the flat boards the surfers used to skate over the ocean like snow. Olrun contributed, telling us a little about how our descendants had moved across America like a low-lying storm, some following the English as they conquered and killed, but most arriving later, when their home countries had succumbed to famine. She told us all about airplanes, which I had occasionally flown beneath, and asked me a thousand questions about the smell of every possible machine.
Eventually I had to stop. My friends stared at me, waiting for me to continue. I stared back. Finally, Sigmund spoke up. “So? How did you find this warrior, Rufus Dopeslayer? What is dope, and how does a person kill it? Was he in a battle when you discovered him?”
I realized, with a shock, that in my fascination with the minutiae of modern Midgard I had completely forgotten the point of my story: that I had indeed returned to Valhalla, contrary to even my own expectations, and that I had yet to explain or even understand myself how that had happened.
“You know how I left here,” I began, and my friends nodded.
“You were drunk, you were shouting that this could be a new era, that if Odin could take his head out of his Ymir-sized asshole and remember the wanderer he had once been that Valhalla would no longer be a stinking swamp fermenting under 800 centuries of shit,” reminisced Volund, chuckling, before his expression sobered. “I remember exactly what he said,” he told me. “How could I forget? There was a huge rush of wind, and Odin grew as tall as the tree over my house and cursed you. He was furious, but his voice became quiet. It sounded like the creak of a noose.” Volund gave himself a moment to remember the words and timbre and began, “What drunk creature is this who crawls and stammers, snarling and snapping, forever dissatisfied? Sigrid, you take no thought of your tongue, you bring down your own bright doom. You wish to wander, then be warned: it is hard on earth, and only nine nines of heroic dead will open your way home. You have one year.” He shook his head, returning to his usual demeanor. “That’s 81 souls, Sigrid! Yet you have returned bringing only a single warrior.”
I winced a little at the memory. That curse had left me a headache as bad as any hangover I’d ever had in my human life.
“Then you just disappeared,” Signy said. Her smile vanished, replaced by a cruel twist of her lips as she told me, “Honestly, I didn’t think you’d be back. Even before the stasis, Valkyries could only enter and exit Valhalla with the direction of a warrior’s heart. Odin threw you out at a time when we all thought no warriors were left.” Her pale eyes smoldered with rage as she recalled that moment, and I wondered if Odin had stuck around to face her fury. Signy is, without exception, the most terrifying resident of Valhalla. Her brother Sigmund has half her ruthlessness. When she was alive, she witnessed her own husband murder most of her family. Her revenge swathed a decade and left a trail of bodies across western Gautland, including, eventually, her own. Not that any of us is a stranger to revenge. Nobody travels to Valhalla on a path of kindness.
“Rufus is definitely different from the einherjar preceding him,” I mused, “and not just because of his lack of experience in our style of warfare. It seems as though he has fought a battle of the spirit. This “dope” he mentioned is a substance they have in San Francisco, like cursed alcohol. It enslaved his mind and stole his family and even his ability to care for himself. When I looked in his mind, I could see that parts of it had physically been eaten away, and he could no longer access whole swaths of memories and abilities. Yet, he seemed excruciatingly aware of his own dependence on the substance. Its absence and his desire for freedom killed him mid-stride. He had fought for so many years that he did not at first realize his own death, but continued his fight unawares as his spirit strode in my direction.”
“He appears skeletal and weak,” Signy said doubtfully. “I wonder if he can even lift my spear. What sort of weapon could he possibly wield against the Jotuns?”
“That’s more or less exactly what Odin said,” Olrun told her, “But I think Odin knows more than he pretends. I could sense the magic of that curse: it was like nothing I have felt in centuries. 81 is a powerful number, especially for him. He may have needed to use it to counteract whatever has been keeping us here.”
I turned and stared at her, surprised, and slightly bemused that I would miss something so obvious. After all, Odin is the Allfather, the Plan-Maker, the Deceiver. He discovered the runes and drank from Mimir’s Well. Of course he was keeping secrets. “Have you noticed anything in particular?” I asked Olrun. “Do you think he knew I would be back?”
“That’s not how foresight works, not even for the Allfather,” explained Olrun. “There are no certainties in it, you all know that. Though your revenge was foretold, Signy, it only happened because of the choices you made. It’s the same with all of your stories. And Sigmund, if Signy’s husband hadn’t killed your brothers the way he did, perhaps you and Sinfjotl would never have found those cursed wolfskins, and that strange lycanthropy certainly led to your marriages, the birth of Sigurd, and all the strange and epic sagas to follow. It’s the same with you, Volund. Your captivity and torture, your escape from slavery, and your vengeance were an integral part of everything that has happened since then. Sigrid, you, too. Your mother knew you would be a warrior from the moment of your birth, but she did not know it would result in her death. We don’t always understand how events are connected.”
“Well, you don’t have to always remind me that Sigurd is the only reason my name continues on Earth,” objected Sigmund, only partially in jest.
“But that’s my point exactly!” continued Olrun. “We simply can’t predict which of our lived experiences end up immortalized in the sagas, in the knowledge of Midgard or the tales of the Aesir, and we certainly haven’t a clue what they will lead to. But I’m certain. At this point, there’s a feeling I’m not sure I can explain—a shiver in my bones, a smell of snow from the bowl—honestly, all I can say is I know that what I’ve been seeing now, Sigrid, is leading to a greater story. It’s been centuries, and it’s as if we’ve been trapped in time. I think Rufus is the pebble that diverts a river. I think that, with the right collection of events, the sun will start moving again over Valhalla.”
We stared at her. Volund peeked surreptitiously over his shoulder at the last bits of escaping twilight. I looked, too. The length of the days had not changed since the last einherja crossed our threshold. For 800 years, we’d been reliving the day after Autumn Solstice, fighting daily in the same chill, damp air. As far as any of us could tell, today was no different. So why did I feel a shiver in my spine as Olrun spoke? Why did I glance toward the northeast expecting a different quality of darkness?
I sipped the last of my beer slowly and reached for Volund’s hand, expecting to find comfort in his familiar blacksmith’s calluses and firm grip, but instead his forearm dissipated, smoke-like. Lurching to my feet, I found that all of it – the table, the faded twilight, and the dark eaves of Volund’s shack – had all vanished in the swirling mist. I was drifting on an updraft somewhere far out over the Pacific Ocean. I circled higher on the wind, reaching out as far as I could into the worlds of the living and the dead, and I felt nothing. Valhalla had disappeared.