Anne and I were the last ones back to the kitchen.
Hildr nodded and waved for us to follow her, speaking in that resonating voice of hers. “We go. The initial moments of the journey as we pass through the portal will be short, but disorienting, and then there will be a few minutes of walking.” She peered closely at us, one after the other. “You should not grow ill as you pass through the portal, but if you do, it will be minor and pass in a few moments.”
We followed Hildr and Sigrun out the front door, and they each picked up the reins of a white horse that had been ground tied in front of the house. Hildr put her helmet back on, and picked up her mount’s reins with her left hand. Immediately after she picked up the reins, she made a little whistle noise and her horse moved so it was standing directly behind her, facing her. Sigrun had not been wearing her helmet before, and left it at her belt, walking over and rubbing her horse’s mane briefly before picking its reins off the ground and tying them loosely around the pommel of its saddle. She also made the same brief whistle.
That’s a western saddle.
I tried, but I couldn’t stop from asking. “Did the vikings invent the western saddle? Why didn’t they call it the northern saddle?”
Pops groaned. Anne gripped my hand a little tighter and looked at me.
“Hmmm?” Sigrun turned to me, and her horse also moved so it was directly behind her, like Hildr’s, but Sigrun’s horse was maintaining the position without reins.
Very well-trained horses, both of them.
Hildr chuckled. “This one’s yours, sister. Why don’t you spin a tale while we make the trip, to help the time pass faster across the bridge?” As she spoke, she loosened the mouth of a pouch tied to the right side of her belt, reached into the pouch with her right hand, and pulled out a small cloth-wrapped object, which she began to carefully unwrap.
“By the time Hildr has the portal created, I’ll have the story ready, Zeke. I have to make sure I remember all the details right, OK?” She dropped her voice down a little. “It’s an old story, and I don’t want to misremember it.”
How could it not be OK? They’re Valkyries, I can’t make them do anything.
“Thank you Ma’am.”
Sigrun nodded at me, and then looked away, chewing her lip a little, clearly trying to remember all the details of the story.
This should be cool!
Hildr had draped her horse’s reins over her left arm as she finished unwrapping the package from her pouch. Under the outer wrapping was an inner cloth container, a cloth with two pockets and a long flap that wrapped around the two pockets several times, and was tied with a string. Inside the pockets were two little silver objects, mostly obscured by the pockets that held them, the gleaming tips not giving much of a clue to their function. Moving slowly and carefully, Hildr tucked the strings of the inner container and one corner of the outer wrapping into the left side of her belt, carefully, before withdrawing a tiny hand-bell and mallet from the two pockets. After withdrawing the bell and mallet, she allowed the now empty container to fall and flap against her left thigh. Hildr immediately, carefully, raised the bell and tapped it once. A bright, piercing tone resonated through the air after a moment, she said a single word. “Opnask!”
Immediately, the ringing sound ended, and a large oval hole popped into existence. There were cobblestones and nearby stonework forming a wall visible where the grass of the yard and the trees at the end of the clearing around the house and barn had been visible before. A cold breeze heavy with the scent of salt blew out of the hole in the air.
Hildr carefully, but quickly, replaced the bell and mallet in their pockets, rolled and tied the container, and then rolled the cloth container itself in the outer cloth covering and restored it to the pouch she had removed it from to begin with.
None of the family had moved, all of us were staring in fascination at the hole in the air. Coyote looked bored.
Anne muttered to herself, barely audible. “I’ve never seen teleportation like this.”
Hildr turned to us. “Mrs Collins, we Valkyries do not need devices to travel between Asgard and Midgard, either by ourselves or when guiding the dead, but when guiding living Midgardians, we need a tool or device to travel a different way. I was provided with such a device by my liege, in order to bring you to Asgard.” She paused a brief moment, and then continued. “I will lead. After I enter, and beckon for you to follow, you should pass through the portal, one at a time, please. Sigrun will follow last.”
We all murmured our agreement; Hildr turned, stretched her arms over her head and behind her back, briefly, and then walked through the portal, leading her horse behind her. After stepping through, she turned a full circle, slowly, before gesturing for us to follow. I wanted to go next, but Pops put his hand on my chest, and walked forward. Mom was frightened, I could tell, looking from side to side, wide-eyed, but she quickly stepped in my way, and then followed Pops, grabbing onto his arm when she reached him on the other side.
Anne poked me in the back and whispered in my ear. “Go give your mother a kiss on the cheek and hold her hand. She’s scared. We’re all scared, but… Nevermind.” She kissed me on the cheek. “Go to your mother.”
I’m not scared. But Coyote said I was a little broken so I couldn’t be scared.
As I walked through the portal and up to Mom, I saw that Coyote was already on the other side, sniffing the air. I leaned down and kissed Mom on the cheek, and then held out my right hand to her. She grabbed my right hand with her left hand while her right hand was holding onto Pops’ left arm tight enough that there was white skin outlining where her fingers gripped his forearm.
As I turned back, I could see Anne and Danny obviously arguing, until Anne finally ended it by walking stiff-legged through the portal, clearly angry. Danny hopped through a second later, smiling. Sigrun followed moments later with her horse close behind her.
Anne poked me in the side. “He’s definitely yours.”
Anne looked at my face, and smiled sadly. “Don’t worry about it, Zeke, Danny reminds me a lot of you, is all.”
I looked over at Danny. He was clearly a strong man, and he was watching around us. I felt a little safer when I noticed how he was watching everything, a lot like Pops seemed to be doing. “Good. I feel safer with Danny here. When my mind is right again, I’ll help you feel safer too.”
Anne took my left hand, and squeezed. I felt my knuckles grind together a bit but it didn’t hurt.
After her horse had cleared the portal, Sigrun tapped her staff on the ground and said a word that I didn’t hear over the breeze. The portal rapidly shrank, collapsing into a pinpoint of light. The remaining pinpoint jerked back and forth a couple times, before it flew in a circle around all of us then started to spiral rapidly inwards towards Hildr. When it got very close to Hildr, it swooped into the top of the pouch she had put the bell in.
“Cool!” I said, but not too loudly.
“Magic can be beautiful, Zeke.” Sigrun commented. “We’re ready to go now. Hildr will lead, I will follow. Coyote will do whatever he feels like, I’m sure, but he will need to stay with us when we approach the gatehouse.”
I turned to face where Sigrun was facing, and Coyote was there, staring off the side of the bridge. There didn’t appear to be anything there for him to look at, except for stars, from what I could see. I looked away. The walls of the bridge were high enough that we couldn’t see below the bridge without getting close to the walls.
Hildr whistled a short pattern, and her horse stopped standing behind her, and moved a couple paces to her right, keeping a taut but not tight rein. Hildr reached into another pouch and pulled out what looked like a round peppermint hard candy. It made loud crinkly cellophane noises as she unwrapped it before tossing it in a slow toss towards her horse. “Good girl, Brightarrow.” The horse caught the candy in its mouth, and made clearly happy noises. I heard a few clicking noises, and realized Hildr’s horse hadn’t swallowed or chewed the candy – it was holding it in its mouth like a human might, sucking on it.
Brightarrow is apparently a smart horse.
Sigrun’s horse made a snuffling noise, and I turned around to face that direction in time to see Sigrun start to smile. “Oh, don’t you start with me, Starshine.”
Starshine whinnied, a short little noise, with a clear note of something close to begging at the end.
Sigrun smiled. “Yes, you’ve been a good girl too, I suppose. I hope I haven’t run out of peppermints. Let me check.”
Starshine snorted and her eyes got noticeably larger, she was clearly alarmed.
Definitely really smart horses.
Sigrun snaked her hand into one of the several pouches at her belt. As soon as I heard the first crinkling noise coming from Sigrun’s pouch, Starshine apparently heard it too; she blew out a heavy breath, clearly relieved.
A couple seconds later, Sigrun unwrapped the candy, adjusting it carefully in her hand a second before tossing it over her head. Starshine tracked the candy like a hawk, cleanly grabbing it out of the air without any of her hooves leaving the ground.
Pops spoke, wonderingly. “That’s a pair of powerful smart mares you have.” Both of the horses blew through their lips, and as I looked from one to the other, they were both nodding.
Mom seemed to come out of her shell a little bit. “They’re beautiful too.” I looked back and forth between the mares, and they both held their tails high and pranced a little at the praise.
“They have almost perfect conformation for eventing, too, but they are a little heavy.” Mom continued.
Both horses went from happy prancing to a stiff legged stance, giving Mom a flat look, staring at her. Mom was watching the two horses as they changed behavior, and grinned as she turned her head back and forth between them. “Girls, that’s not an insult. I see who rides you, and even without the armor they wear, you would need to be heavier than a normal eventing horse to carry them around. You’re big and beautiful, both of you, maybe the most beautiful two horses I’ve ever met.”
Both horses looked at Mom carefully a couple seconds, clearly weighing her words. Starshine nodded first, and after a few seconds, Brightarrow nodded as well. After they had both nodded, they both tapped their hooves lightly on the cobbles in unison a couple times before ducking their head low towards Mom.
Anne laughed. “So smart. I bet your foals are into everything, and painfully cute.”
Both horses nodded, strongly.
Hildr cleared her throat. “If we allow this to continue, Sigrun, we’ll never hear the end of it. From either of them. Are you ready to tell Zeke about how the Asgardians got western style saddles while we walk?”
Sigrun nodded, with a smile. “I am, Hildr, after we get moving, I’ll start.”
We started walking along the bridge towards several flags I could see flying above a structure crossing the bridge from side to side. Hildr walked ahead, Brightarrow far to her right, so we wouldn’t be walking through whatever she might leave in her wake. Pops carefully lifted Mom’s hand off his arm and made a little hand gesture at Danny, pointing behind me. Danny nodded, and fell back behind me.
Pops then turned to me. “You walk between your mother and Anne, OK, Zeke? Keep them safe.”
Anne and Mom both squeezed my hands. It felt good.
I saw Coyote to my right, beyond Mom, apparently staring off into nothing again. To my left, I saw a little black and white dog with so much hair that it appeared to be floating along the ground. It wandered up to Anne, and bumped against her leg.
Anne leaned down. “Hello Fifi, good girl. I want you to stay close to me here, OK? It looks like a big place.”
Fifi wagged her tail, yipped once, and then walked a few feet off to Anne’s left where she continued to keep pace with us.
Pops commented, quietly. “Looks more like a tumbleweed than a dog, but she’s smart. Lots of smart animals today.”
Fifi clearly heard, and growled very briefly. After the grief grown, she sniffed the air and tossed her head.
I realized Danny hadn’t said anything recently, and turned partway around to look at him. He looked worried, and was scanning left and right as we walked, turning his torso back and forth enough for his peripheral vision to let him look directly behind himself. Sigrun was smiling as she watched him.
After we were walking a few seconds, Sigrun started talking. “Zeke, one of our sister Valkyries, Svipul, is the sort of person who is always looking for a better way to do things. For thousands of years, Valkyries rode bareback, and if you’ve ever done that for a long time, you know it’s pretty hard on the rider and the horse.”
I nodded. “I’ve ridden bareback, it’s uncomfortable compared to a good saddle.”
“One day, Svipul approached our liege, Odin, and asked him on bended knee if it would be acceptable if she went to Midgard.” Sigrun continued. “She asked to go without all of her regalia, dressed as a commoner, to see if mortals had a better way to sit a horse.” Sigrun stopped talking, and I turned around to look at her. She was biting her lip a little, but as I looked back at her, she started talking again. “We Valkyrie rarely ever spend time amongst mortals. Even in recent centuries when there were few new warriors of the Norse faith to bring to Valhalla, there were skirmishes and battles aplenty in other realms besides Midgard. It is also our duty to serve mead to warriors at feasts, and judge contests of strength, endurance, wit, and skill, all of which are common events in Asgard.”
“So did Odin let her go?” I asked, quickly, looking around to see Sigrun’s face.
I hope so. Butt blisters are no fun, and bareback riding can hurt the backs of horses.
“Not immediately,” Sigrun answered, smiling. “Odin asked her why she had brought this request to him, and she answered truthfully that many of us had heard comments from new arrivals wondering why we rode bareback. Some of those new arrivals had mentioned things called saddles, which sounded truly useful. Some of them had been able to draw crude pictures, and even help us make a couple very simple saddles out of leather straps and blankets. Those saddles did help immensely, both for rider and horse. Every saddle we made though, the mortals would tell us were far inferior to a properly made riding saddle.”
“Odin bade Svipul to show him some of the saddles we Valkyrie had fashioned, and he was pleased with them, and asked why they were not enough. Svipul said that they were, indeed, enough, but pointed out that bareback was enough for thousands of years, and the saddles we had at that point were so much better. She begged to allow some of the mortals who were experienced riders and knew saddles to tell tales to Odin about what they could do in a saddle.”
“Did Odin talk to cowboys?”
“Indeed he did, Zeke. Some of the Norse ways were still around in the American West, but he talked to a lot more cavalrymen from the European wars in the last few hundred years. None of them, however, knew how to make saddles. It was apparently a very secretive art, and good saddles were very complex.”
“So, he let her go, you said, right?” It was so annoying having someone behind me telling a story as we walked. I wanted to sit down at a table or in a couple chairs with her and listen like I did with Pawpaw.
I looked at Pops’ grey hair and was afraid to ask, but I needed to know. “Pops, is Pawpaw still alive?”
Pops’ fists tightened a little and his shoulders hunched. “No, Zeke. I’m sorry. He passed when you were not much older than you seem to think you are now. I was the youngest of all my brothers and sisters, remember? He never knew exactly how old he was, but he would have been well over a hundred and ten years old, at least, if he were alive today.”
“I’m sorry Pops.”
“Don’t be sorry, Zeke, he loved us, he lived a good long life, and when the end came, it was quick for him.” Pops raised his head and took a deep breath, and let it out slowly.
I wish I remembered Pawpaw better.
For a few seconds I walked in silence, thinking, and then I remembered Sigrun had been telling a story. “I’m sorry, Sigrun, I interrupted your story.”
“That’s perfectly fine, Zeke. Memories of our elders who have passed are precious. I can see you loved your grandfather.” Sigrun stopped talking.
“Please continue your story, Sigrun. Pawpaw never liked telling half a story.”
I heard Pops chuckle. “You remember that much right, Zeke.”
Sigrun started speaking again. “You asked if Odin let Svipul enter the world in mortal guise, and he did, but he required that she must not come back with half a solution. She would not be allowed to return to Asgard until she not only found a better way to ride a horse, but also found a way to provide for all of Asgard, so that all Asgardians might ride more comfortably.”
“How long did it take her to learn to make saddles?” I asked, turning around to look at Sigrun so I could see her face. Anne and Mom were watching me, smiling.
Every time I looked around to look at Sigrun, Danny turned his head away from me, watching around us, like he was avoiding looking at me when I looked at him.
Is Danny mad at me?
Sigrun shook her head and smiled. “She never did, Zeke. She was a woman, many years ago, and it was very hard for a woman to learn a trade, even if she was a head taller and a lot stronger than almost any man. She learned to make some of the parts, but the masters were all men, and the apprentices were all boys. Svipul, like all of us Valkyries, is a very full-figured woman. There is no way any of us could possibly pretend to be a boy or man.”
“You can say that again.” Danny muttered.
“Danny!” Anne let go of my hand and turned to Danny. “You apologize right now.”
Hildr laughed “Mrs. Collins, there’s no need for Danny to apologize. Sigrun and I have lived thousands of years around men of the Norse faith, and the gods they worship. There are very few human women built like us. We know a real compliment when we hear one, and aren’t offended when we hear them. We are what mortals make us, and if Danny likes what he sees, well, that means he’s just affirming what many men before him have liked when they saw it. We wouldn’t look like this if we hadn’t been attractive to millions of men over the centuries.”
Danny spoke up in a small voice. “Sorry, Mom. Hildr and Sigrun are pretty amazing though. Not that tempting, because I’m taken, but bigger than life in a way that’s really hard to not appreciate.”
Pops spoke from ahead of me, humor in his voice. “Danny. You’re just digging a deeper hole. Stop while you are ahead. Trust your elder.”
Mom reached forward and slapped Pops on the right shoulder with her right hand, but said nothing.
Hildr and Sigrun howled in laughter, in unison, their voices seeming to blend in a strange way.
Anne turned a bit red, and grabbed my hand. “Men!” Fifi barked once, ran in, around Anne’s feet, and then back out to Anne’s left. Coyote was walking to our right still, his head turned to watch us and his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth.
I don’t get any of this.
I looked ahead, we were close enough to the building that sat on the end of the bridge that I could see individual stones, and people moving around in front of it. “Uh, Sigrun, do we have time for the rest of the story?”
“Sure, Zeke.” Sigrun cleared her throat. “Svipul tried and tried to learn how to make saddles, so she could fulfil Odin’s requirement of not only having a better way, but being able to provide the better way for all of Asgard as well, but she could not find a teacher. She began to grow old, after spending decades on Midgard. She grew desperate one day, and went to a man who had lost an arm in a war, a man who had once been a maker of saddles. The man was a drunk, unwashed, and homeless. She gave him a room, a bath, and kept him from drink for a time, giving him enough that he would not grow mad from the lack of drink, but little enough that he was able to converse.”
“Did he teach her to make saddles?”
He must have!
“No, the man would not teach her. She had a workshop, the tools, all the leather he might possibly need, all the metal pieces and cloth, but all he wanted was drink. Whenever she did manage to get him to enter the workshop, he would leave soon after, the mental pain from the loss of his arm driving him harder towards drink as he remembered the work he once did. She grew desperate and actually told him, when he seemed most lucid, what her mission was – that she was commanded by Odin to learn about saddles and be able to provide saddles for the needs of the riders of Asgard.”
“What did he say?” I couldn’t help but ask. I tried to stop walking and turn around to face Sigrun fully, but Mom and Anne kept me walking, so I was only able to turn and keep her in my sight that way.
Sigrun smiled. “The man still refused to teach her, but he offered to give her an answer that would solve her problem; he only asked two things of her in return. First, a bottle of wine, and second for her to leave him alone. At first, Svipul thought the man was being insulting, and she nearly threw him out onto the street, but then she realized that if she gave him the wine and a promise of privacy, and he did not live up to his end of the bargain, she could still throw him out on the street after giving him the bottle, and then leave him alone, and the cost to her would be only a little cheap wine. She decided that even a small chance that the man was being truthful was worth a cheap bottle of wine, and after so long trying to get the man to teach her, the idea of giving him a quick, powerful kick in the ass as she threw him out had a mighty attraction.”
“Didn’t you say Svipul had gotten old? Wasn’t she afraid he might hurt her?”
She was a woman, an old woman.
She might not be able to beat the man.
Sigrun chuckled. “Danny, you’re a young man, and strong. If you, for some reason, had to fight your grandfather, what would happen?”
Danny didn’t even hesitate “I’d be lying on the ground trying to figure out what truck hit me. Pops couldn’t catch me if I ran, but if I tried to fight him, it would be a bad day for me.”
Pops didn’t turn around, still looking ahead as he chuckled. “We could fix that if you came to the farm for a few months, Danny. You’d lose that runner’s build though, and that smooth skin on your hands.”
“Ah, thanks for the offer, Pops, but I’m engaged, going to college, and trying to learn how to run a company, all at once.”
Pops raised his hands into the air, tilting his head back and looking up at the sky in mock exasperation. “Don’t say I never tried to give you anything, Danny.”
“Thank you for the offer of blisters, splinters, sunburn, lower back pain, and extra muscle mass, Pops, but I’ll pass this year.”
Anne was looking back and forth from Pops to Danny and clearly barely able to avoid laughing. Mom was staring at Pops’ back, clearly annoyed at him, but when she looked back at Danny, she grinned too.
Hildr had turned to watch out of the corner of her eye as she continued leading us, and Sigrun had stopped walking for a moment and guffawed, bending at the waist and slapping her left knee.
After pounding her knee twice, Sigrun stood and took several long strides to catch up with us, and continued her story. “As you can see, Zeke, being old isn’t always being weak. You knew this but didn’t really think about it. Sure, for mortals, living long enough will eventually make one old enough to be weak, but Svipul was like your father. Growing old, but still young enough to be strong. She had no fear of a one-armed man who had been eating poorly for years because he was homeless.”
“So did she buy him the bottle?”
“She did, and after she brought him the bottle, he went out to the outhouse and brought back something he found there, and handed it to her as the solution to her problem.”
“What? Wait, I don’t get it.”
The outhouse! But that’s where…
“Sigrun, are you sure about that part of the story? We had an outhouse in the North pasture because it was so far from the house. I know what’s in an outhouse, and it’s not saddles.”
Pops was shaking so hard, I thought he was going to collapse. “See, even my Pops thinks that’s funny, Sigrun.” Pops started shaking harder, and Mom started to shake too.
They both think it’s so funny.
“Ah, but it’s true, young man. Svipul looked at what the one-armed man gave her and it was the answer Asgard needed. Svipul knew enough about saddles to help the Asgardians learn to understand them in time, and the outhouse gift would help to provide saddles to all of Asgard.”
That can’t be right.
“But…” I started to try to talk.
Sigrun kept talking over me and I stopped talking.
She’s older than me. I have to let her speak first.
Sigrun looked me in the eyes and smiled as I twisting at the waist to look back at her. “Svipul made an offering to Odin to gain his attention and beseeched him to allow her back into Asgard, as she now had the knowledge and the means to supply Asgard with saddles. Odin looked down upon her from on high in Asgard, and asked her if she were certain. He could see she was aging, and he wanted to be sure she hadn’t succumbed to a moment of weakness under the burden of mortal age. He warned her that if she did not meet the terms of their agreement she would be returned back to the mortal world to age and never allowed to return to Asgard.”
“What do you think happened then, Zeke?”
“I bet she had to think real hard. Did she know enough about building saddles to fake it? That’s got to be it. She fooled Odin into letting her come back, and learned to make lots of saddles.”
“No, Zeke, Svipul told Odin that she had exactly what Odin required of her, and Odin sent me to pick her up, like we did with you today. As we walked over the bridge, I tried to make Svipul tell me what she had found, even as she grew younger and stronger with every step. She wouldn’t tell me, her own sister-in-arms! Odin wanted to speak to Svipul immediately, and verify her claim, and I was fearful for my sister, because she would not prove to me that she had done as Odin asked. All she would offer me as a hint was that Odin would laugh when he saw it.”
“Did he laugh? Did he laugh all terrible-like and strike her down with lightning?”
Hildr broke in, with a serious tone. “That’s Zeus, Zeke, not Odin.”
“Oh, Sorry. Did he laugh and then send her back to Midgard to die of old age?”
I can’t see how she’s going to get away with this!
“Well, we went to Odin immediately, because you don’t ever make Odin wait when he says ‘immediately’. Svipul kneeled on the last step before the base of Odin’s throne, and out of a bag, she pulled what the one-armed man had brought her from the outhouse. She held it in her hands outstretched, with her head down, as an offering to Odin. Odin leaned forward slowly, peering intently at the gift, and then carefully reached out to take what was in her hands.”
Off to my right I heard someone stumble and Coyote’s voice, quietly said “Ow, my toe.”
I had twisted at the hips again to look at Sigrun; she was smiling a big smile, but looked like she was holding her breath. “Are you OK, Mrs. Sigrun?”
She coughed twice and cleared her throat. “Yes, Zeke, I’m fine.” She coughed again. “As Odin slowly lifted up what was in Svipul’s hands, a great smile grew on his face, and I was able to see what he held.” Sigrun paused just a moment and then continued. “A Seer’s Catalog”