I was stunned, and stopped walking until Anne tugged on my hand and I started walking again. “Odin buys stuff for Asgard through the Seer’s Catalog?”
Sigrun “Not anymore Zeke, but he has. These days, we use the internet. There’s a warehouse in Sweden that we maintain for purchasing goods. There’s no internet connection between Midgard and Asgard.”
“The what? What’s an internet?”
Everyone started laughing, even Mom.
“What’s so funny?” I could feel myself beginning to get a little upset. “I don’t get it.”
Danny spoke up behind me. “They’re just making fun of you, Dad. You don’t remember the internet because it barely existed thirty years ago. I’m sure Grandma and Pops didn’t have internet then. Mostly it was universities on the internet back then, and some big companies.”
Dad?! Oh that’s right.
Danny is my son.
That’s so weird.
Mom had just finished saying something and was holding up a little black and silver box in front of her that looked like a picture frame for a small photo. I searched my memory for what she had just said and was able to remember. “Still don’t. Except for the phone anyway.”
Then it hit me. Nobody had said how many years it had been. Maybe I had been afraid of thinking about the numbers. I hadn’t really tried to figure it out. “It’s been thirty years?” I tried to wrap my mind around that. Thirty years. I was missing more than three quarters of my life.
Gone. Thirty years.
Anne and my mother pulled their hands out of mine, exclaiming in pain. I looked down and my fists were clenched tightly. “I’m sorry Mom and Anne. I didn’t mean to.”
Mom was rubbing her left hand with her right. “Son, don’t apologize. You’re hurting, and us laughing at you isn’t helping.”
Anne reached out her right hand and put it around my left. “Not much longer, Zeke, and Odin will try to make you the man you used to be, like we agreed.”
“I hope it’s soon. I feel stupid.”
Pops stopped, and I almost bumped into him as he turned around and planted himself in front of me with a stern expression on his face. He reached out and a little up, cupping my chin in his right hand, lifting my head up, where I had been looking down at the cobbles. “Zeke, you ain’t stupid.” He held my eyes. “You’ve been hurt. Trying to be funny is just our way of trying to deal with the pain of seeing you hurt like this. We’re going to get you help now, so you can get better.” He paused. “After Odin gives you your mind back, we can talk to Sigrun about that leg she just stole from you.”
Anne turned to Sigrun. “Did you make that story up on the fly, or did you change another story to make it fit?”
Sigrun nodded. “From scratch. A few thousand years of storytelling and listening to storytellers adds up. And Hildr likes to test me.” As she finished her sentence, she made shooing movements with her hands towards us. “Move. Odin has some patience for those who are not his subjects, but dawdling will be looked upon as possible disrespect.”
“Sorry I stopped us, Sigrun.” As he was talking, Pops turned around and started walking again, and the rest of us started walking as well. Hildr had not stopped walking while we were talking, but was drawing close to the large stone building at the end of the bridge. We walked a little faster to catch up.
A large man stepped out from the arched tunnel in the center of the bridge. He was nearly as tall as Hildr, but perhaps a little wider in the shoulders. As they both stopped, facing one another, they both reached out towards one another with their right arms and each right hand clasped the other’s right forearms with a jangle of metal on metal.
“Hildr, I see you have brought company. Are they the same as we were told to expect?” The man was wearing a helm, but his ice blue eyes were radiant as he looked over us as we stopped behind Hildr.
“Yes, Heimdallr, this is Zeke Collins, and his wife, son, and parents.” Hildr smiled. “Of course you know Sigrun.”
“Is someone going to introduce the little one?” Heimdallr asked as he faced Anne’s dog.
Anne noticed where Heimdallr was looking, “Oh. Sorry. This is Fifi. Fifi, meet Heimdallr”
Fifi looked at Heimdallr, barked once, and then looked back at Anne.
Hemidallr nodded. “Fifi, you must stay within a few of your body lengths of your charges while in Asgard. Do you understand?”
Fifi barked once, and Heimdallr nodded.
Heimdallr turned to his left, towards my right, and looked at Coyote, saying nothing for a moment. “I’m expected to allow you entry.”
“Do you need a promise from me, or is being invited enough?” Coyote was standing straight, cane held behind him with both hands, looking very dignified in his immaculate white suit. His tongue was rolling out the left side of his jaw.
“Being invited is enough, of course.” Heimdallr spoke slowly, carefully. “I would not dare insult a guest of Odin’s, no matter how accomplished a sneak thief they might be.” He paused. “In fact, I have been allowed to offer the honor of an escort to this group, in order that Hildr and Sigrun might attend to their other duties.”
Hildr bowed slightly to Heimdallr, and he nodded back to her. “Thank You, Heimdallr, I could feel our sisters preparing for something, but needed to finish this task first. Are the Jotunn massing again?”
“They are, of course. It’s been nine days.” Heimdallr shook his head. “They never learn.”
Hildr turned to us. “Ceremony will certainly be short today. If the Valkyrie host is forming, Thor will take to the field with the warriors three to lead the einherjar, and Odin will not wish to delay them over-long with speaking and court when there is fighting to be done. Sigrun and I must go now. Heimdallr will arrange to escort you quickly to court.”
Heimdallr nodded. “Transport waits. We need to go now. Dallying, especially now in the face of a battle, would invite ire.” He turned clockwise away from us, waving his left arm over his shoulder in a wide arc as he turned. “Follow.”
We waved and thanked the Valkyries as we began to follow Heimdallr. Hildr and Sigrun nodded towards us, mounted themselves on Brightarrow and Starshine, and then wheeled both horses the way we came. The horses rapidly reached a gallop running back along the bridge away from the fortification we stood next to, and both Valkyries disappeared into thin air.
Heimdallr walked us through hundreds of feet of tunnel formed from heavy stone block, making several ninety degree turns. “There is, unfortunately, no time for sightseeing today. Still, if you look around yourselves as we travel, you may find things to hold your mind’s attention.”
We emerged beyond the massive stone building into a courtyard, where a vehicle was waiting. A large, open topped, wooden carriage, with no wheels, being pulled by goats.
They buy saddles from humans through the internet thing, whatever it is, but their cars are pulled by goats?
Oh, and it’s floating in the air, too.
I looked from side-to-side. I’d already been laughed at once today because I didn’t understand something. I was relieved to see that the rest of us seemed as confused as me. Everyone else had stopped, Heimdallr was stopping and turning towards us. I saw an opportunity to get a little back.
“What? You’ve never seen a magical, floating, goat-drawn carriage before? Heimdallr said we should hurry. C’mon.” I started walking forward again.
Pops snorted, and started walking again. The others around me laughed a little nervously, but we all started walking. Heimdallr said nothing, but I thought I saw a little smile behind his beard in the shadows under his helmet.
The carriage looked like an oversized version of an open-topped passenger horse carriage. Four rows of padded seating with room for two large people, or three normal people on each row. At the front of the carriage, still in the passenger compartment, there were two single seats that faced one another, so that the people seated in them would face towards each other, across the center of the carriage.
Why turn the front seats to the side?
Maybe for tour guides, or so parents can watch their kids?
An armored man with no helmet, about Danny’s size, opened a door in the side of the cart, and pulled out a step from under the carriage with the toe of his boot until there was a click. He put weight on the step, and stepped back, nodding and clearly satisfied as he held the carriage door.
Heimdallr spoke as we drew near the carriage. “Coyote will ride in front with me, please.”
Sitting up near the driver is so boring.
Nobody challenged me, so I hopped up into the carriage and sat in the middle of the back seat.
The four lightly armored men standing at each corner of the carriage, and the one seated up front gave me puzzled looks, but said nothing.
Anne laughed, and stepped into the carriage, sitting down next to me and bumping me with her hip like she always did when we got on the bus.
The memory retreated as I chased after it.
Anne nudged me with her elbow. “You OK, Zeke?”
“Another memory, Anne, something about a school bus. It’s gone again.” I could hear the frustration in my voice.
Anne raised her right arm and put it over my shoulders, cupping my right shoulder and pulling me against her. “It’ll be OK soon, Zeke.”
Everyone else got into the carriage. Fifi had gotten in at some point, and was curled up on Danny’s feet. Mom and Pops were seated on their own bench. They could have gotten on the same bench as Danny, but Pops was a pretty big guy, he probably didn’t want to crowd Danny.
Heimdallr and Coyote were facing each other in the two seats up front. Heimdallr was obviously pretending to not be watching Coyote very carefully, and Coyote was obviously pretending he wasn’t aware of, and enjoying, Heimdallr’s clearly fake lack of concern over his presence.
The step was pushed back under the chassis of the carriage, the door was closed, and then all four armored men next to the carriage stepped up onto little platforms at each corner. Four posts raised several feet out of the frame, one from each corner, giving each man a firm grip for one of their hands. They also clipped themselves to the carriage with short lengths of heavy cord.
The driver looked at each of the guards, and they nodded. He turned to the front and started the goats walking with a little up-and-down motion of the reins that any farmboy knew well. He slowly guided the goats and carriage onto a marked roadway, stopped in the middle of the road, and then waved towards a man in a little kiosk next to the road. The man in the gatehouse looked at the driver, and then at Heimdallr. Heimdallr nodded and raised his right hand in a thumbs-up gesture. The man in the kiosk started moving his hands rapidly but precisely over the desk in front of him, and speaking either to himself or with people who weren’t in the kiosk with him.
I noticed that the crowds of people on the road were rapidly clearing. As the road began to clear, I noticed that the cobblestones were changing colors. Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet. The colors were cascading down the cobble road, towards a huge building in the far distance.
By the time I realized something really strange was about to happen, Danny spoke quietly. “Shouldn’t we have seatbelts for what it looks like we are about to do?” As he spoke, he raised his arms across the length of the top of the bench he was seated on, and clamped his hands onto the surface, at full arm extension.
Coyote shook his head. “No. Enjoy the experience.”
Heimdallr chuckled. “Odin would be rather upset with me if I were to bring you to him in dire need of healing. There is no danger here.”
How fast can goats run, anyway?
I looked at the goats. We’d never raised goats, but I’d seen quite a few at State Fairs and a couple of our neighbors had a few that they raised for their own table. These goats were far larger than any I’d ever seen, about the size of mules. Then I noticed that, like the carriage, the feet of the goats were not touching the ground.
I leaned back in my seat. “Anne, Mom, Pops. I don’t know if you noticed or not, but the goats aren’t touching the ground.”
Danny’s head moved slightly and his grip on the bench-back got visibly tighter.
Anne stared briefly at Heimdallr, who just smiled back, and chuckled, but never turned far enough away from Coyote that he couldn’t see him with both eyes.
Mom and Pops actually relaxed a little, and Mom spoke. “They want us there in one piece, don’t insult them by being afraid. It looks like they have done this before… a few times.”
Danny’s fingers relaxed, a little.
I looked down the road with the flashing cobbles. There were what looked like police officers of some sort walking onto the road and helping stragglers get clear. A few people helped to push a wagon off the last few cobbles.
The man in the kiosk was clearly watching something at a level below what I could see. I looked at the glass behind him, and in that reflection, I could see what looked to be a huge bank of lights, mostly green, a few red. As I watched, the last few lights turned green, the man spoke a few words, and pressed a red button.
Along the sides of the road, I could see a translucent border forming, and it grew over the road in an arch, growing together at the apex, sparkling where if joined.
The goats were starting to shift their weight from leg to leg, seeming more eager than anything else.
With an audible snap, followed by a strong hum, the rainbow road shifted from alternating colors across the road, cascading away from us, to solid stripes, starting where we were, and leading off beyond vision, towards the building far away.
All four goats shook their heads, and looked back at the driver, and the driver looked at the man in the kiosk, who gave a thumbs up.
The driver shook his reins once. The goats started walking.
That was underwhelming.
The driver shook his reins again, and the goats accelerated to a trot. On the third shake of the reins, the goats started into a canter, and on the fourth, a gallop. I couldn’t hear their hooves hitting the road, because they weren’t actually touching the road, but I could see their legs moving well enough to see their gaits.
All of this within a few seconds. We were accelerating rapidly, it reminded me of Pops’ truck, when he let me shift gears for him. The driver flicked his reins again, and the goats accelerated again. Another flick, another acceleration.
This is pretty fast. No wonder they blocked off the road.
I guessed we were probably moving significantly faster than the fastest horse I’d ever ridden. Maybe even highway speeds.
The driver kept on flicking the reins. The goats kept accelerating. Every time they accelerated, it was only a couple seconds, but the acceleration was enough to push us back in our seats a bit. Every three seconds, there was another two seconds of acceleration.
I lost track after thirty-two accelerations, after I turned to the side to see what we were passing and saw that everything to the sides of us was a blur. I could make out people, barely, if I looked ahead of us and watched them carefully as they got closer.
I looked at the goats. I could no longer clearly see them moving, their limbs were too fast, their heads moving too quickly to help counterbalance their running.
Coyote yawned, looking at me.
Weird. When he was making us fast, nothing was blurry.
I smiled at Coyote. He was right, this really wasn’t that fast compared to him.
Still, it’s faster than goats should be.
Horses and ankle-biter dogs shouldn’t be able to communicate with people so easily either.
I heard a chime, and the driver started drawing carefully back on the reins. I could feel the carriage begin to slow, gradually, steadily.
In a few minutes we passed another kiosk like the first. The carriage drove out of the end of the protected roadway, the kiosk operator hit a button, and the roadway returned to normal. No more rainbow cobblestones. No more translucent protective arch over the road. As I watched, people immediately began moving back into the road again, going about their business. Children were pointing at us in excitement while being dragged off by patient parents. The carriage quickly left the road behind, and entered a tunnel in the base of a mountain that had been carved into the likeness of a building. Or perhaps it was a building that had been constructed to look like a mountain. I wasn’t quite sure which.
We passed several sets of immense stone and metal doors, each set of doors was watched by heavily armed and armored men. It didn’t take long for me to realize that each door was almost immediately after a sharp turn in the tunnel. There was a reason for that, I knew, but I couldn’t remember it. On the far sides of each set of doors, there were smaller doors leading into the rock. On the near sides of the doors, there were lots of holes in the walls and ceilings. Arrowports and murderholes.
Finally, we reached a large open room, hundreds of feet across, with many carriages like ours lined up along the walls in front of windows and roods carved into the rock. Inside the windows, I could see quite a few men and a few women dressed like our guards and drivers. Many of them looked our way as our carriage stopped, and then, after a moment’s looking, they turned away. The door in the side of our carriage was opened, the step pulled out. The footman who had opened the door and pulled out the steps stood by the door and held out a hand for Mom as she stepped down, which she took advantage of, thanking him as she stepped down. After Mom had both feet on the ground, the same hand was returned to a ready position to help the next person. Pops just looked at the outstretched hand as he stepped out of the carriage. The footman didn’t seem annoyed by the fact that Pops didn’t take advantage of the offered help.
Danny got out next, with Fifi circling around his feet, looking at everything, sniffing and turning her head from side to side rapidly.
Anne and I followed, with Coyote behind us, and Heimdallr last exiting the carriage. A dozen men in heavy armor and laden with weapons arrived at a fast march, coming to a halt with a crash of metal on metal. They stood ready in a line, a few feet from us. They each had a white tunic over their armor with an emblem of two raven heads, facing away from one another. They said nothing.
As he stepped down, Heimdallr cleared his throat to get our attention. “The ceremony will take place in the outer courtyard, since the Einherjar and Valkyries prepare for battle. It will be short. Coyote, walk beside me, if you would. The rest of you, follow me.” He turned to the armored man at the rightmost end of the line facing us. “Raven Guard, standard escort, please.”
Heimdallr started walking at a sedate pace, and Coyote joined him. They started speaking to one another, but I could not hear the words. The armored men formed up, six to a side of us, as we walked in a disorganized group behind Heimdallr. As we continued walking, the family was silent. The place was immense. It was hard for me to imagine talking here. I felt lost.
As we walked away into another tunnel, I glanced over my shoulder and saw our carriage driving away towards the walls where the other carriages like it were parked. After about a hundred feet, there was a right turn in the tunnel, and as we advanced, I started to see the most detailed door yet. This door was copper, with molded images of four men in armor, each with a long spear at the ready. The engravings of men appeared to be walking out of the doors towards us. Their spears extended several feet out of the door in our direction as we approached. Their expressions were immobile, yet watchful. Unlike the rest of the doors we had passed, these doors were closed.
Heimdallr walked between the spears of the two middle men, and slammed his fist into a flat spot on the right side of the door, hard. The crash of metal sounded almost like a detonation. “In the name of Odin and in respect for his guests, open the copper gate!”
After a few seconds, mechanical noises could be heard. Heavy grinding. Puffs of dust appeared around the edges of the doors, and after about ten seconds, the huge slabs of copper started to move ponderously, smoothly. As they separated, I could see that they were at least two feet thick, and extended into the wall at least two or three feet beyond what had been visible when the door was closed.
Probably to protect the hinges.
After thirty seconds, the doors impacted the walls of the passage with a thump that I felt in my bones, through the floor. The copper soldiers who had been at the ready, with spears facing us, were now at attention, their spears pointed upwards. I had never seen them move. They didn’t appear to have any joints.
As we started walking forward again, I tripped over something. A metal ring, set into a wooden block that had been inserted into a hole in the ground. There were other wooden blocks with rings like it, all of them set in a line right behind where the copper door had been while it was closed. I looked up, and it became clear why the blocks were there. A massive portcullis was suspended in the air above us. When the copper door was closed, the wooden plugs would be removed, and the portcullis dropped into place behind the door. The bottom of the portcullis would insert into the stone itself.
I would love to see how they move all this stuff!
Danny was also looking up at the portcullis. I looked at him and, without saying anything out loud, simply mouthed the word “Wow!” He looked at me strangely for a second before he smiled and nodded.
Anne, Pops, and Mom were all staring at something else. Beyond Coyote and Heimdallr, there was yet another huge open area, well lit, with hundreds of people arrayed around a circular indentation in the smooth stone floor, filled with sand.
Where is the light coming from?
I didn’t see any light sources, and shook my head.
Heimdallr stopped at the edge of the circle of sand, and turned halfway around, towards Coyote, so he could see us, whispering under his breath. “Form a line, with the injured Mr. Collins at the far end to my right, and his wife by his side. The rest of the family may be in any order.” He shook his right hand, slightly, for emphasis. “Coyote and Fifi to the far side on my left.” His left hand twitched slightly.
We obeyed his command, and I saw what Heimdallr’s body had blocked me from seeing before. On the opposite side of the circle from us were three figures, one seated, two standing. Despite being nearly a hundred feet from them across the circle of sand, I could see them all clearly.
The one in the center was seated upon a wooden seat carved to look like a tree. He was a large, heavily-built man, with a long, thick, salt and pepper beard. His face was deeply lined, and he wore no patch to cover the eye socket that was missing an eye. As my eye caught on that feature of his face I was drawn to the darkness there for a moment. It took me a moment to look away, shivering as I averted my gaze. I carefully avoided looking at his face again. He held a spear in his right hand, the butt of the spear wedged against his chair and the floor, angled away from him slightly. His left hand was alternately scratching the heads of two dogs to the left side of his chair.
I knew they were wolves, even though I didn’t know how I knew.
Motion above Odin’s head caught my attention, and I saw two large black crows above his head, sitting on a couple of the larger branches of the tree-throne that were above Odin’s head.
Ravens. Not crows.
Odin simply stared at us as we lined up as Heimdallr had told us, saying nothing.
To his right side, there was an armored figure, a heavily-built man of a size with Odin, but his beard was bright red, his hair long, nearly to his waist. Both his beard and head hair were braided, a single thick braid for each. The face was nearly obscured by the beard, which climbed far up his cheeks. What little was visible of his face was ruddy, with heavy freckling, the skin of a fair skinned person who spent far too much time in the sun. He suffered from a serious unibrow, and his brow hair was almost comical in its thickness. His eyes were that bright, bright blue that so many Asgardians seemed to possess, and in his face, the bright eyes were contrasted heavily, making them even more striking. His armor appeared to be much the same that Hildr and Sigrun had worn – silver and with a visible texture like fish scales. He held his helm trapped between his left arm and his body. Like the helms of the Valkyries, his helm had wings. To his side, hanging by a strap from the base of its pommel, was a stone hammer with an absurdly oversized head. His right hand lay on his belt, next to the handle of the hammer. I’d seen pictures of real warhammers, and they looked more like big roofing hammers with extremely long handles. The man simply stood with his feet shoulder width apart, looking at us.
Thor. Thor and Mjolnir. Not a warhammer.
I knew that was Thor!
Someone was telling me things into my head, and I couldn’t tell who. The ravens cackled and shook their wings briefly.
I saw movement to Odin’s right, and shifted my interest there.
Another man, tall, and muscular, but with the build of a runner. The movement I had seen was him gesturing towards a Valkyrie that was walking behind him. Jet-black hair was all pulled back to come together behind his head, where the bound-together hair fell to collar length. His thin, distinct brows, were also jet-black and he was clean shaven. Bright blue eyes contrasted against porcelain-white skin. He looked extremely bored, carrying a golden goblet in one hand, and a staff in the other. The staff was black, black to the point that it drank light, and dripped darkness from a short curved blade at the end above the left hand that held it. Despite his bored appearance, simply looking at him gave me the impression that he was watching everything. When our eyes met, he stared at me.
Not polite to stare.
I dropped my eyes, feeling somehow dirty after meeting his gaze, shivered, dry-washed my hands, and then wiped them against my pants legs. I looked up to see the Valkyrie walking away, and the man drinking from his refilled goblet, looking towards my family and me.
I was getting irritated.
Who is that in my head? That’s not polite.
Only what you need to know. Court knowledge.
Who decides what I need to know?
The ravens both cawed at the same time and ruffled their feathers.
We do. Odin cannot command us, yet we are his tools. Silence now, it begins.
Odin ruffled the fur of the wolves with his hand one more time before gathering himself and standing, proving himself to be of a size with Thor, but a bit narrower across the shoulders, and a bit wider at the waist. He moved slowly, but with no sign of pain, just measured, careful movement.
After standing upright and looking slowly around the entirety of the gathered crowd around the circle of sand, Odin began speaking. “Today, we have uncommon guests, uncommon for Asgard in any case. A man and his family, both his elders and his offspring, with wife accompanying. In addition to family, he also has beside him a temple guardian and a member of another pantheon with a measure of interest in the man’s future.”
Odin looked at me. “This man did a favor for Asgard once, and I had him marked. He does not recall that favor though. His mind was damaged. Damaged by the same being that he killed in a battle only a few days ago for us, but more than two months ago for him. Damaged by the rigors and sacrifices of a terrible cost for survival.”
Odin turned to his right, took a couple short steps, and then continued. “I knew that he would need a boon in the future, but did not know why. One of many such gaps in my knowledge. Frustrating holes. All of us who are gods or major magical beings of other sorts have experienced such strange gaps and holes. The gods who were once human tell us that the feeling, for them at least, was much like a missing tooth that a mortal might experience. It’s a hole. It’s strange. It’s irritating. You know there’s supposed to be something there, and your thoughts keep coming back to it.” Odin paused. “We now know that this wasn’t some form of dementia, no analog to mortal madness. An ancient being, older than man, older than non-magical life on Earth, older than the very moon itself, that being interfered with us as we were formed, or before we were gods. Some of you might know of him as the Jinn named Ahmed.”
Loki spit onto the sand, and that spot in the sand smoked.
Odin stared at Loki. “Indeed. While the emotions might not be the same, my son and I are both highly upset. Ahmed controlled us. He controlled the gods. All the gods.”
There was a murmur of disbelief.
Odin raised his right hand with the spear. The murmurs went silent. “Not a full control. Ahmed could not tell me to send Thor and the host to attack Zeus. He couldn’t even tell me to raise my left hand, if I didn’t wish it. He could, however, control my emotions, what I remembered, what I forgot. This allowed him to have a large degree of control over my actions, even if he could not tell me directly what to do. And it wasn’t just me, it was all the gods, all the powerful magical beings. If he had wanted me to send a host to attack Zeus, he could have made it happen, over time, by interfering with my mind, and the mind of Zeus, driving us together into conflict.”
Odin turned around, and took four paces, stopping a couple paces beyond the other side of his throne. “This man ended Ahmed’s interference, killing him. That battle cost Zeke Collins his life. Not his heartbeat, or breathing, but his memory. That which makes us all what we are. He gave up his life, and we, not just the Asgardian gods, but all gods and powerful magical beings, gained dramatically from his sacrifice.” Odin paused. “But I cannot simply give his life back to him, it must be asked for. A boon, as you all know, must be given, and then defined. Allowing one with mental damage to define a boon has potential for mayhem.”
Odin turned back and walked a couple paces, standing once again in front of his throne, turning to face the circle of sand. “It is fortunate that his wife, Anne Collins, has the legal right in Midgard to act in his stead. Since they are both mortals, the symbolic rights of these mortal agreements are binding even here, so I can offer a warrior’s boon to Anne Collins, which she might use on Zeke Collins’ behalf.”
There was some small measure of clapping and muttering that sounded like people were pleased. Suddenly, there was a loud crack of metal on stone.
“Father, I object.” Loki stepped forward a step, closer to the sand circle.
Odin turned to his left slightly and looked at Loki. Both ravens, I noticed, also fluttered, and then stared at Loki, motionless. “Explain your objection.”
“Father, you said you are offering a warrior’s boon, and yet, he is not a warrior.” Loki looked at me, and I could not match that stare. I looked down. There was muttering around the circle of sand. “His mind is damaged, he cannot prove his worth, but perhaps we can find a warrior who will stand for him?”
Loki smiled, almost happily. “Eldest Collins. Are you a warrior? Speak truthfully. A lie could become extremely costly to your entire family here.”
Pops’ fists clenched and his neck muscles bulged. “No, I am not a warrior.”
Loki smiled and nodded slightly, his visage dripping false sincerity. “Thank you Eldest Collins.” After a moment, he continued, waving his staff at the rest of us. Do any other relatives of Zeke Collins claim to be warriors?”
“I will be a warrior for my father.” Danny spoke, softly.
Pops hissed, turning to face Danny, and Anne grabbed Danny’s arm.
Several persons started smacking their weapons against shields, and there was a cheer, which grew in loudness. Danny looked a little frightened, but straightened his shoulders.
Loki allowed the cheering and banging of weapons on shields to continue for a few moments before lifting his staff and tapping it on the ground. There was a crack of metal on stone. “Silence, as a prince of this realm, I demand it.”
The cheers and clattering rapidly ended, followed by some resentful muttering, which itself was quickly replaced by silence. “Youngest Collins, you are brave. Foolishly brave. You offer to become a warrior, yet you did not say you claimed to be one. You spoke no lie, I can see that.” Loki’s face became a caricature of sorrow. “The sad truth is that truth itself is often not enough. You are not a warrior now. You cannot vouch for your father.”
Fifi barked, twice. Loki looked irritated. “No, temple dogs don’t count.”
After turning very slightly to her left, towards Odin, Fifi barked again, several times. Odin spoke next. “You are a guardian, not a warrior, potent little one. The difference may be small, but it is there. Much of your behavior is forced upon you by your nature, you have less free will than a warrior. You have no fear to master.”
Anne spoke under her breath. “Don’t argue, Fifi. He said no.” I could see Anne looking at Coyote.
A moment later, Loki began speaking again. “The only member of their party remaining is a god like ourselves, Father, not a warrior at all. A god of thievery and trickery. Even our own Heimdallr doesn’t trust him as an invited guest.” Loki raised both arms, his staff in one hand, his golden goblet in the other, shrugging with outstretched hands as well as he could with his hands occupied. “Zeke Collins doesn’t qualify for a warrior’s boon after all.”
Loki gave a shallow bow to Odin and stepped back and turned to take a couple steps back to his place at the left of Odin’s throne. When he reached that place, he turned to face the sand. Nearly motionless except for his right hand and arm, his bright blue eyes sparkled behind the golden goblet as he lifted it to smiling lips.
Am I going to stay like this forever?
I wasn’t able to think straight. I was angry, worried, and starting to shake.
Odin spoke. “There are no warriors within your party who will vouch for you, Zeke Collins.” He paused, looking at Loki, who flinched slightly. “This is unfortunate, and yet not entirely unforeseen.”
Odin lifted his spear and then gently tapped it against the ground. The Earth rumbled, faintly at the gentle touch of wood. “Are there any warriors here who would vouch for Mr. Collins?”
A voice so deep that it took a moment for me to realize it was a voice spoke. “I will vouch for him. I have fought beside him. I died a good death in battle next to him.” A lot of people started moving to let someone pass them, but they didn’t block our view of the man walking towards the circle of sand. “Odin, Zeke Collins is a warrior. I, Chris Smith, say it is so, on my name and my honor.”
The man who was speaking made everyone else near him look like a child, standing head and shoulders above almost everyone else. Even the occasional person he passed that was shoulder-high to him looked small in comparison. He would have been huge without armor, but while wearing armor, he was almost comical in size. He dwarfed even Thor and Odin. His jet black armor with red highlights, so different from what others wore, didn’t appear to be mechanized in any way, but he moved smoothly and easily in it. As he stepped up next to the circle of sand, I saw that what I at first thought was a staff was actually a ten foot long box-ended wrench.
With no expression, Odin turned to Loki. “Your own chosen warrior stands for Zeke Collins, my son. What say you now?”
Loki stared at the huge warrior, Chris Smith. “Perhaps I was wrong.”
Odin nodded. “Very well then. Mrs. Collins, ”
“Wait Father, you misunderstood.” Loki inclined his head slightly, at an angle before raising his head again. “It has been three thousand years since I sponsored a warrior. Perhaps I chose poorly. I am not faultless, as I am sure you are aware.”
A loud, angry voice broke in. “Indeed, brother, in your name, today, I invent a new word, faultful. Thank you for enriching our vocabulary.”
With a half turn, and a twisted neck, Odin faced Thor. “You will hold your tongue, Thor, though I will admit to being enamored of your new word.”
There was no expression on Loki’s face as Odin turned back to him. “Loki, are you saying that you retract your support of this Einherjar, Chris Smith, who was selected by your own hand?”
“I do. I’m not sure what I was thinking, father.”
The warrior, Chris Smith, spoke. I had to concentrate again to hear his words properly. “Loki, I’ve wanted to do this since we first met, but you were my patron, and I was told to keep my mouth shut by those who befriended me. But now you abandon me. You say I am no warrior. I will prove myself to be a warrior. Against you. Here. Now. Face me in melee, with no channeled magic. I challenge you for my warrior status. If you won’t give it to me, I’ll take it from you.” The huge man stepped out onto the sand, walking towards the center of the sand.
Anne whispered. “Is that Trainwreck? He looks different, if it is him. Maybe even bigger than his human body before.”
I didn’t know, though I could feel memories clawing at the darkness in my mind, trying to find a way out. “I don’t know, but I can feel memories stirring. I knew him, I’m sure.”
Loki was smiling, and it appeared as if he was truly happy, which bothered me. “A duel with a troll. I think not. That ridiculous solid steel wrench you use as a staff is four feet longer than my staff, and you outweigh me by nearly half a ton, even without your armor. I happen to know that Jaxr left your spirit and body in fine repair, and far stronger than a mortal’s could ever be, even if you can no longer transform into a steam and iron golem as before. I have watched you fight in practice, I have watched you learn. For me to fight you would be foolish and embarrassing.”
“Do you acknowledge him as a warrior then, Loki?” Odin questioned. The ravens above him were agitated.
“Of course not, father, I wouldn’t reverse a considered opinion that easily. It’s taken me months to determine that I made a mistake. Chris Smith is no warrior, but he is a monstrous brute and can certainly defeat me in a simple battle of arms, as he stipulated.”
Odin looked at Loki and there was definitely anger there. “I am rapidly growing tired of your games, Loki. Choose your path. State your intent.”
Loki laughed happily, clearly amused and eager as a child at Christmas. “As the challenged, I name the contest. A single fall. Whichever fighter’s back touches the sand first, loses.”
There was a muttering in the crowd, and Odin stared at Loki. The Ravens also stared. All three looked very predatory, like they were prepared to attack Loki at any moment. Loki smiled a lopsided grin, smirking as he stared right back at Odin. “I call upon the ties of family for a champion. Thor will fight in my stead.”