The Jekyll Legacy
Victorian alchemy meets modern science and magic.
What could possibly go wrong?
Who is she that looketh forth as the morning,
fair as the moon, clear as the sun,
and terrible as an army with banners?
The Song of Songs [6:10] (Circa 900 BCE?)
“Next stop, Vanaheim, Azusa and Cuuucamonga!” Wildflower shouted from behind Phil and his wives, who had pride of place because the portable bridge between the local worlds was, after all, his magical gadget. Everyone toward the front turned to look at her in puzzlement, because her last few words had made no sense at all.
She blushed. “It’s a running gag from the old Jack Benny radio show,” she explained, “which had gone off the air long before I was born, but I saw a special retrospective once on the net…. There were small towns called Anaheim, Azusa and Cucamonga in southern California, and people thought that their names sounded funny, or at least Jack Benny did….”
After an extended silence, she rolled her eyes and said, “Never mind!”
“Radio?” asked Rhea.
Wildflower tried to explain, “It’s what they had before the Net, but it wasn’t interactive.”
Rhea scoffed, “What was the point, then?”
“It’s hard to explain. It was like a constantly streaming news and entertainment feed, and you could set up a primitive sort of filter by setting a particular frequency on what they called a ‘radio tuner,’ so you could pick out particular shows to listen to, but only at the times that were published. It was all before the phrase ‘on demand’ actually meant anything except in a restaurant.”
Selene nudged her with an elbow. “It’s like school, Sweetie. If it’s one o’clock, it must be Mr. VanZandt’s boring civics class, but if you want to hear the lecture and discussion, you have to show up on time.”
She rolled her eyes. “What a stupid way to do things! I don’t know why he didn’t just do an interactive video feed from the classroom anyway, so you could check in from anywhere. Mrs. Hively let us do that for American Lit, and almost everyone really liked her class, ’cuz you could sit outside and get some rays while you read passages from Silas Marner and stuff. I think VanZandt just thought that the heat in those old classrooms would bake his lectures into our brains.”
Selene shrugged. “I don’t know, but misery loves company, they say. I just think that he hated teaching, and did his best to make us all just as miserable as he was.”
“He sure succeeded. I still can’t hear the words, ‘War of 1812’ without a faint twinge of nausea.” She thought for a second. “Of course, lately I can’t hear the words ‘Good morning’ without a twinge of nausea either, but that’s just morning sickness.”
“Good point,” Selene observed. “VanZandt made me sick of American history as well. I couldn’t believe that he had us coloring maps with rainbow pencils to show the various stages in the battles! It’s like he was stuck back in the Dark Ages, before online CAD programs and interactive displays!”
“I,” said Rhea, “was surprised he didn’t have us chiseling our maps in stone! Then spraying the outline of our hands with red ochre to sign them!”
“What a dweeb!” they said together, laughing.
“Oh! Look! We’re almost there!” Selene said.
“Good!” said Rhea practically. “I have to pee.”
From high in the air, descending toward the surface, Vanaheimr was a green and pleasant land of forests and lush meadows, rivers and lakes, with sufficient mountains and hills to make it interesting without making it tedious to travel from one place to another. Every few miles, or dozens of miles, there seemed to be small holdings or settlements near special features in the landscape, a sudden drop in a stream that might power a water mill, a particularly fine forest of old-growth timber, flat terrain that made farming easy, or large lakes to encourage fishing and trade with other regions. A few of the settlements were large, regional centers, perhaps, or seats of government, whatever passed for government here. They were descending, just as they had the last time, at the very edge of the precipice that marked the edge of the island ‘world,’ but the opaque layer of clouds below Vanaheimr was just as distant and mysterious.
Looking down, they noticed another difference in their landing place; they had a welcoming committee, most mounted on horseback, with banners flying and arrayed in tight ranks that would have done any Marine Drill Sergeant proud. Looking closer, they saw that the smaller group at the very front of the mass of troops, — for that’s what they were, on close inspection — was much less formal, and they were all women, chatting idly among themselves whilst watching their visitors descend smoothly toward the ground.
One of the women, a strikingly beautiful and tall blonde woman who carried herself with regal grace, spurred her mount forward, saying, “The bridge looks like Dwarvish work, but you are neither Dwarves nor Giants. Who might you be, strangers? And why have you come to Vanaheim?”
The Empress spurred her own mount to meet her and replied, “I am the Empress D’Larona-Elvi of Myriad, a world far distant from your own in both space and time. We come because our own world is under attack, we think from a land you call Múspellsheimr, but are not intimately familiar with your people, so can hardly tell friend from foe.”
The woman glanced at her lady companions, then replied, “I am Gefjon, Queen and Goddess of this land. I well believe that the Fire Jötunn, the Sons of Múspell, dwellers in Múspellsheimr, may look toward other worlds to wreak their peculiar havoc, since their hatred of life and all green things is boundless. I bid you welcome, if you come in peace, but warn you that you face a powerful foe if you are not.”
The Empress acknowledged her challenge with a graceful inclination of her head, then replied, “We have no quarrel with anyone not demonstrably an enemy.” She gestured toward the rest of their force, who were spreading out on either side as the bridge carried them down to the landing place. “You’ll notice, I’m sure, that most of our number are women, just as are your own warriors here displayed to welcome or challenge us, so I suspect we may easily find common ground. Please rest assured that we are not nearly so quarrelsome as the inhabitants of the land of Giants we just left behind us, nor even the Dwarves, whose bridge was a gift to one of my companions, the Master Wizard Phillip Cohn. The man just behind me, is Master Wizard Akcuanrut, Dean of the Imperial College of Wizards. Both they and I are what you might call Völvas, workers of magic, and in my own case a Scryer, what you might call a Seer, although I believe the definitions thereof and areas of expertise may vary slightly between our worlds.”
“We don’t usually see men as Völvas here,” she said suspiciously. “Most male practitioners of the arts of seiðr, galdr, and spá tend to be malevolent, and craven besides.”
“Nor male Scryers either, or so I believe, but I assure you that neither man you see before you has any taint of evil, and Phillip here has a fine sense of intuition, and will, I believe, eventually develop into a Scryer of some note, which is as rare in my world as male Völvas seem to be in yours. Of course, Phillip is from a world intermediate between yours and mine, so of course the various powers may sort themselves differently, and do in my own limited experience.”
“So you and your party are not from the Nine Worlds that we know?”
“Not at all. Our own party includes denizens of two worlds outside your personal experience, and in very fact we have persuasive evidence that there are an infinite number of worlds, more worlds than there are grains of sand on the shores of a thousand oceans.”
She seemed dumbfounded, then said, “This is difficult to grasp, as I’m sure you’ll realize. For hundreds of generations the Nine Worlds have been a matter of both history and legend, with no hint that there was anything beyond.”
“Imagine my own surprise, then,” the Empress responded, “to discover incontrovertible proof of two inhabited worlds where I had always assumed that there was only one, and then come here to find that the very foundation of your worlds is vastly different to my own, since mine is a round ball that floats though space, circling a central sun, where your sun appears to circle all your worlds at once, an arrangement almost as incomprehensible to me as ours must seem to you.”
She considered this statement carefully before replying, “Yes, I suppose that must have been disconcerting.”
“To say the least, but life goes on whether we understand exactly what’s going on or not, doesn’t it?”
At this she laughed and said, “You have children then, I see.”
The Empress smiled. “I do, a boy and a girl. Both grown now, with families of their own, but still my babies. And yours…?”
“All girls, for which I’m thankful, and each of the three by different fathers, so as different from each other as siblings can possibly be.”
The Empress smiled. “Well, it can’t have been boring, then.”
“No,” Queen Gefjon said. “It was never boring, but you have grandchildren? My own daughters have never been inclined toward maternity, not that I blame them, taking all in all.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said the Empress, “but my daughter has two boys, six and ten, while my son has three girls, one twelve and the twins the eldest at fifteen, already mad for boys,” she said….
…as the wizard cleared his throat, “Esteemed Ladies,” he said delicately, “perhaps this isn’t quite the time to engage in the mutual exchange of anecdotes and fond remembrance. We have a mission of great urgency, and a purpose that cannot wait on matters of mere polity and precedence.”
Both women turned to look at him with something more like pity than condemnation. “Even as we speak, Sir Wizard,” said the Queen, ”my servants are gathering supplies to speed your onward journey. Please don’t believe that the world outside your immediate purview is frozen into an unproductive stasis, or that there is no communication between our worlds. I’m well aware of your overt mission, because King Alvís of the Dvergar has had gifts and runes delivered to my hand in an effort to both please and obligate me. Times being what they are, I was fully prepared for his protestations to be an elaborate ruse, but we two Sovereigns have been subtly engaged in mutual negotiation and reassurance by calling attention to the fact that we each have a foothold on the future, and are not minded to recklessly hazard our separate futures through trickery or hostile actions. In short, Sir Völva, you know little of statecraft, nor of women. Why aren’t you married?” She enquired with some suspicion.
Akcuanrut’s mouth gaped open and shut, like that of a fish out of water, and he blushed like a boy. “I… unh… I haven’t had the time, I suppose… my, unh… duties… duties have been all-consuming of late, so….”
“You must rectify this problem immediately, Sir Völva! A man without a wife is only half a man, and not necessarily the best half either.”
Rhea and Selene, who had been watching all this palavering with ill-concealed amusement, both laughed loudly, “Oooh! Phil!” they chorused, “you must be at least a man and a half! Probably even more, if you can count our many sisters, and we definitely think you ought to.”
“My strength,” he said modestly, “is the strength of ten because my heart is pure.”
“The strength of three hundred and twenty-three,” they said, “by our calculations, since you’ve thoughtfully knocked up six hundred and forty-five wives, and paid their dowries and bride prices very properly and in accordance with local custom, with the addition of kiddushin and ketubah to sanctify and safeguard them, only nisuin having been delayed for reasons of practicality and survival.” she arched one brow at him in warning, a subtle gesture echoed by her sister wife. “We have at least three hundred of your many wives with us right now!”
“And all of them pregnant, which makes you the rough equivalent of a hundred and fifty men,” Selene added helpfully. “At least by my hasty reckoning.”
“Well,” he replied, “sometimes you two like it a little rough. It must be that barbarian thing you’ve got going….”
“Now, Phil, dear,” Rhea chided him, “please don’t exaggerate. We never draw blood….”
“Or hardly ever,” Selene amended honestly, looking very slightly guilty.
The Queen, the Empress, and the Wizard were all three of them looking more than slightly bewildered, since they’d obviously never encountered Americans before, so hadn’t run into all that many people who didn’t really know how to behave around royalty and high officials of the realm, nor truly care, if truth be told.
As seemed to be the custom in these parts, the Queen had invited them to a feast the next day as casually as an Englishwoman might have suggested dropping by for a cup of tea, so Phil had taken quite some pains to create quite a few unique necklaces and other jewelry in gold for her in the interim, taking into account both the local popular taste, which ran toward excess, and the individual preferences shown in her dress and personality. He noted that the locals seemed to set great store in enchanted items, so he’d practiced on Rhea and Selene until he had a reliable beauty spell — which had drawn their attention almost as much as the enchanted swords he’d made for them as bribes to encourage their patience as he’d experimented — in several variations ranging from mere enhancement to the ‘all shall love her and despair’ variety that inspires both lust and war. His wives had particularly liked that one, since it tended to make male jaws drop — and quite a few female jaws as well — which both of them thought was an excellent feature, especially as a distraction in battle, since a stunned opponent is discommoded in very many ways.
Thinking about that, he’d put his mind toward magical protection as well, and incorporated spells of invulnerability, strength, and tirelessness into the general mélange, mindful of the battle in the church with Na-Noc, in which both his dangerous and charming wives had fought themselves to weariness. He’d rooted the power of these in both the general magical field and the magical powers — if any — of any putative assailant, so as to cover at least two potential situations in the real world, and increase the potency of the magic by simultaneously decreasing the strength of their opponents.
He’d smiled when he’d realized the improbability of the notion that the ‘real world’ might include actual magic having ever occurred to him before his encounter with Selene and Rhea at the ‘Big Game,’ back when his only real plan in life was to somehow make it into a decent university and graduate in Physics, or something like it. ‘How time flies when you’re having fun,’ he thought, which suddenly made him exquisitely conscious of his many blessings, and of their astonishing improbability, a thousand lucky ‘heads’ face up in a thousand tosses of a coin.
Then, as an afterthought, because he didn’t normally think that way, he’d added a mild curse to everything he’d made, the affliction of extreme clumsiness on any who dared to steal either sword or both, a similar awkwardness to any unauthorized holder thereafter, until the weapons were returned, and a proportional lack of both beauty and charm to the thief and every succeeding wearer of the jewelry until it was returned to its rightful owner, or her heir. All in all, it had been a good afternoon and evening’s working. Phil was quite pleased with himself, and both Rhea and Selene were very pleased with their gifts as well, which left him a little tired the next day.
They’d both been incredible athletes in school, dominating the cheering squad, the balance beam competition — despite their height — and unparalleled on the asymmetric bars. They’d also been outstanding on the vault and in floor exercise, and a killer combination on the basketball court, of course, as well as key members of a local camogie team, although neither camogie nor field hockey was offered for young women by their high school. They’d been approached by the US Olympic Committee when they’d turned fourteen, with a view toward the India Summer Olympics coming up back then, but had both declined, Rhea because she didn’t want to work that hard on just the one thing, and Selene because she didn’t want to leave Rhea behind. They’d been almost inseparable since they’d been Campfire Girls together, where they were sometimes known as ‘The Bobbsey Twins,’ ever since kindergarten and grammar school, but had never liked the nickname very much at all, since one of each pair of twins in the stories was male, which they didn’t like at all. Few had been so bold as to call them that to their face, since they’d had a peculiar ability to instantly pummel any opponent into submission and heartfelt regret for their unwisdom and temerity, even as little girls, and moved so quickly that there were very few (as if anyone would have dared) people who could truthfully say exactly how young Johnny came to have a bloody nose, just that he had one, and the two girls were laughing from half a block away.
“Aren’t you ready yet?” Rhea interrupted his reverie with an arch look as she popped her head inside their tent, as fresh as a daisy despite their late night. They were still bivouacked beside the vast chasm that marked the edge of this world, although they’d been invited to stay at the Queen’s Great Hall — Kvænhöllr, as she’d called it, or sometimes the Kvænhofr, the names seemed interchangeable, like the White House and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue back on Earth — but the hall was still at least a half-day’s quick march from where they’d landed, and they were more than tired. The centaurs and horses needed quite some time to eat enough for any sort of trek in any case, since they’d been on the road for quite a while, and rations had been short through Svartálfheimr, where hardly anything that grew was truly edible, and Jötunheimr hadn’t been much better, despite the eventual coup d’état by the Empress, so they’d gone through their stores at a prodigious rate.
“Pretty much, but I’ve been busy thinking about all we have yet to do, and worrying that I may have missed something essential.”
“Phil, sweetie, if God had thought to ask your advice beforehand, this sorry scheme of things wouldn’t be nearly as slipshod as it’s turned out to be.”
He laughed and smiled. “Well, Sweetheart, it’s nice to know I’ve got a fan club, anyway.”
“Fans? Heck, you’ve got a gosh-darned army. If you only had a rowboat or two, you’d qualify for foreign aid.”
“Foreign aid?” Selene — who rarely missed much — called from outside. It seems to me that we’ve been handing it out in bucketfuls, so our ‘diplomatic status’ back in the USA seems to have carried over to this crazy place as well. It’d be nice to have some ‘foreign aid’ handed back to us every once in a while.
“Now, Sweetheart,” Phil temporized as she squeezed by Rhea, who was still standing in the entry, “King Alvís gave us a perfectly nice bridge, which has certainly simplified getting around, and Queen Gefjon looks set to give us a bunch of supplies for our journey, which we would have had to pay for otherwise. I think their culture is centered on conspicuous generosity — aside from the odd murderous assault, that is — so I don’t feel particularly put-upon by making presents for the Queen, nor even in handing out bribes for the Empress’ new retainer back in Jötunheimr. He did put on a decent feast, and the gold costs me nothing but a little effort, with most of the power behind my creations supplied by the ambient magic around me. In some ways, I’m an artisan, making use of materials I find lying around to create useful objects that are more valuable than their ‘natural’ state, like a man might whittle a whistle out of a twig of willow. I’m beginning to appreciate Akcuanrut’s viewpoint as well, that gold coins in and of themselves have little or no intrinsic value, but are only a magical guarantee of quality and quantity that people can trust. It’s the objects those coins can be turned into that have real value, whether they be utilitarian rings or candleholders, sculptures, or fine jewelry. One would have to be a fool to melt one of my rings into mere metal, because the ring itself is worth at least twice to three times what the metal’s worth.”
“Why do you say that the gold has no intrinsic value? People have valued gold for thousands of years; were they wrong?”
“Not at all, because the reason gold was valued is because it was and is amazingly useful. It’s easily worked, fairly durable, and almost entirely unaffected by oxidation, so objects made of gold retain their luster and beauty for many, many years. Even in our own era — aside from gold fetishists — its primary uses in the real world are in the creation of objets d’art — like the stash of jewelry I made for both of you — and the manufacture of durable electronic devices, in which it’s still very valuable, but it’s not alone in being beautiful and useful all at once; platinum, for example, often called ‘white gold,’ shares many of gold’s properties. It takes a durable polish, has a pleasing luster, and is relatively resistant to any form of oxidation, unlike silver, copper, or brass, which all tarnish in some situations, but are commercially-valuable for their electrical and other properties. At one time aluminum was very difficult to extract from its many ores, and was considered so very rare and valuable that they made jewelry and fancy dishes from it, but of course it’s not nearly as haut mode these days, and you see people toss aluminum beverage cans away, despite the fact that they’re almost infinitely recyclable, and aluminum is still very useful as a coating for astronomical purposes, because it’s both amazingly reflective and resists corrosion so well.”
“Phil,” Rhea said philosophically, “I’m often surprised we weren’t better friends in school, since you’re simply first rate as a science nerd.”
“It was fate, my dearest darlings,” he answered promptly. “Without the alluring aura of mystery, we might never have fallen in love.”
On hearing this, Selene suddenly grinned, caught him up in her arms, and carried him back to their pallet, followed closely by Rhea, who whispered in his ear, “You certainly have the gift of blarney, you cheeky rascal! Whoever said that silver wasn’t just as good as gold?”
“Phil? Selene? Rhea? Aren’t you ready yet?” the Empress called from outside their tent.
“Just finishing up,” said Phil hastily, as both of his wives started laughing hysterically in the dimly-lit interior. He began frantically trying to arrange his kilt in some sort of good order, but then couldn’t find his sporran, which he’d come depend upon after all this time.
“Taking care of some last-minute preparations,” Selene added unnecessarily.
“It’s delicate work,” Rhea murmured, stifling a giggle.
“Well, we’ve all eaten,” the Empress said in rather frosty tones, “so we’re ready to go as soon as your gear is packed up and loaded.”
Phil sighed as Rhea and Selene burst out laughing again. “Now, look what you’ve done,” he said. “I’ve got to work with her, and it seems to me that you were baiting her a bit.”
“Probably,” they said in unison. “What she’s really mad about, though, is the prospect of a long expedition with no nookie.”
Phil was scandalized. “But… but she’s the Empress!”
“What?” Rhea scoffed. “So that means she never gets a little randy? Didn’t you notice the lovely round bed she keeps in her little ‘workshop?’ Do you think it’s there so she can think deep thoughts about the organization of the universe while she gazes up at the fancy mobile on her ceiling?”
Selene added, “Trust me on this, Phil, she may be thinking ‘deep thoughts,’ but that love-nest-in-the-attic of hers is about as subtle as the Honeymoon Suite in a Poconos hotel.” She shrugged. “It’s a little gaudy for my taste, but whatever floats her boat is fine by me.”
Phil blinked in surprise, both that Empress D’Larona-Elvi seemed to be a fairly ordinary human woman, and then that Selene and Rhea had insights into her intimate life that he hadn’t had a clue about. “But how do you know what she does in her Orrery?”
They both laughed and smiled fondly at him in that peculiar way that women sometimes have, as if he were some sort of precocious child, in a manly sort of way. “It was obvious, Sweetie, but it’s a girl thing,” they chorused, and then were somehow fully-dressed in the blink of an eye, but in the leather maxi-skirt outfits they’d had made for them in New York, with the addition of matching longbows held casually in their left hands, but prepared, he knew, for instantaneous action. Their quivers, stuffed with a variety of arrows, were ready near the entrance.
Phil, on the other hand, was still looking for his socks.
When Phil finally made it outside, he saw that their camp was already mostly packed and loaded onto the carts, with quite a few of the women lounging around under trees, and most of the men-at-arms were playing some sort of gambling game by the side of the road. Whatever it was, it held their attention as they shouted encouragement to whoever it was who seemed to be winning, and placed side bets with a few among their number who seemed to be touts or bookies. The Empress and Akcuanrut were well out of the main campsite, gazing out across the island worlds that poked up from the distant clouds that covered the abyss. He walked over to the cart assigned to the wizard — recognizable by the painted symbols on its side — and dropped off a leather duffle containing the Queen’s gifts with the man who seemed to be in charge. Then he walked over to where his mentor stood talking with the Empress.
Akcuanrut smiled and said, “Ah, Phil! Up at last?”
“I’ve actually been up for quite some time,” he said cheerfully. “I have quite a pile of enchanted presents for the Queen, and one or two for you both that I thought might possibly come in handy.” He reached into his sporran and took out two golden pendants and their golden chains. One of them was decidedly more feminine than the other.
Both Akcuanrut and the Empress arched their brows in mute inquiry.
“They’re a sort of magical ‘battery,’ ” he explained. “Each medallion contains a very large ‘charge’ of undifferentiated magical power, which can be drawn upon if we encounter any situation like that on Earth, where magic is depleted or otherwise unusable for any reason.”
“How interesting,” said the wizard. “I can’t think of any equivalent in our own system of magic.”
“I got the idea from you, Sir, actually, or rather from the battery-operated power tools which had so fascinated you back on Earth. Since we were visiting exotic worlds with magical regimes which had unknown properties — as we saw back in Niflheimr, where the magic was somehow predisposed to trick or betray the wielder of it — it seemed as if a known source of magical power might be desirable, so portable power seemed to me an idea whose time had come, although I hadn’t yet discovered how to manage it, but I could foresee situations in which a handy source of dependable power might be invaluable. These medallions are the result, and are designed to filter out the worst of the bad stuff and channel the rest into more-or-less innocuous paths.”
The Empress was puzzled. “So these are charged with the magical energy you were able to focus on Earth?”
Phil shook his head. “They are not. Until we entered Svartálfheimr, I’d never experienced a magical field like that which we found in that world. I was able to use it to create the magical gift that I gave the King, but it fought me, almost as if there were some mischievous sentience behind it intent upon starting quarrels and doing harm. This quality is much less obvious here in Vanaheimr, although there’s still a muted undercurrent of trickery and malice which I’m sure you’ve both noticed. I was able to focus that impulse outwards, however, in the form of a curse, since I’ve taken the advice of King Alvís to heart: In these lands, all the best magical items have a curse attached, which has an obvious corollary, that without a curse, the mischievous magic bound up in any magical item will find the path of least resistance, which in most cases leads straight to the owner and user of the object.”
“And what exactly is this ‘curse’ of yours?” Akcuanrut asked skeptically.
“Once these have been in contact with your skin for any length of time, they become ‘attuned’ to you, so they won’t work for anyone else, and they will release their energy quite suddenly back into the general magical field if they’re separated from the wearer by any ‘safe’ distance, which varies by how much magical energy is currently stored in them. The effects of this sudden release of energy might possibly be deleterious to anyone nearby, but I imagined that the most likely reason for them to leave the vicinity of their owners was being carried off by a thief. It wouldn’t do to have this magical technology exposed to our enemies.”
“Can they be recharged?” the Empress D’lon-ra asked practically.
Phil smiled. He was particularly proud of this feature. “They recharge themselves, through a rather clever trick that I’m very fond of, but only where the ambient magic itself is not truly inimical. In that respect they act as something of a filter, or sieve, such as one might use to strain the water taken from a stream to free it from leaves and insects.”
“Very impressive,” the Empress said.
“Thank you,” Phil said demurely.
“And now,” she said, “are we finally ready to travel?”
“We are,” he said. While they’d been talking, the men-at-arms had packed up their tent and gear, stowing all their paraphernalia and luggage away with the rest of the luggage.
With a nod, the Empress signalled to Selene and Rhea, who’d taken over day-to-day leadership of the expedition, and they both let fly two piercing whistles, each rising in tone, and then a final lower tone. “Let’s go!” they shouted in chorus as they vaulted onto the centaur mares who’d volunteered to lead the loose assemblage of foraging horses and centaurs that formed their cavalry, with the men-at-arms either riding horses or walking, as it suited their individual inclinations.
As their little band of adventurers made their way into the interior of Vanaheimr, the true nature of the land, or world, became more apparent, a pastoral contrast to the worlds of Dwarves and Giants they’d seen before, with extensive forests of what looked like cedars, spruces, aspens, and firs surrounding large meadows filled with grasses, a few oaks, low stands of wild berries, wildflowers, and the occasional farmstead, the last spread wide upon the land with scattered fields melding almost seamlessly into the meadows around them, and a central core consisting of what was obviously a hall, much like those they’d seen in Jötunheimr, but with more intricately-carved and beautifully-decorated exteriors, including brightly-colored painted decorations, together with outbuildings that must be barns, threshing floors, and the like. It was all very bucolic, something like a Currier and Ives colored lithograph of the American landscape. In fact, it looked quite a bit like an older version of the upstate New York landscape they’d so recently left behind, at least if you discounted the utter lack of macadam highways, automobiles, and jumbo jet contrails overhead.
“It’s nice, isn’t it?” Phil observed as he rode up beside Rhea. She was riding one of the centaurs, but he was on horseback, an interesting experience in a kilt, but he’d been wearing his Halloween costume for so long that he’d not only gotten used to it, but preferred a kilt over pants these days, so he’d traded in his inexpensive costume version for a bespoke version made to order. Of course, he didn’t have a tartan of his own, so he’d used one of the ‘generic’ designs that went well with his complexion. He especially liked the sporran, because it gave him a way of carrying stuff without stuffing things into his pockets, which always looked nerdy, and it was very handy in other situations as well, much more comfortable than trousers in that regard.
“It is, but how in particular?” she asked.
“There’s no junk noise here,” he said, “sounds that have nothing to do with real life, but are only the end result of a satellite or other wireless transmission of some fossilized performance jammed out into the world in hopes of finding a listener. Everything we’re hearing, from the sound of the wind in the trees, birds singing, people chopping wood, to the sound of our own movements and voices, is being produced right now, unedited, and raw, by someone or something we could actually see, or even reach out and touch, with a little effort.”
“True, but on the other hand, there’s no Mount Sinai Hospital, no New York-Presbyterian, and no NYU Langone, any one of which would be awfully nice to have readily-accessible when we get closer to delivery.”
“I agree, and that was actually part of the need that first spurred my interest in magical batteries. With one of my batteries charged in Akcuanrut’s world, or in my stone circle, I can guarantee instant transport to almost anywhere on Earth, including the hospitals of your choice, once we get back….” He paused for a moment, then said, “I might have to scope out some handy and discreet landing spots near whatever hospital you choose, of course. My thinking hadn’t quite stretched that far,” he admitted sheepishly.
“No worries,” she assured him. “You managed to steer us clear of the local OB/GYN before we left, since it’d be awkward to have a two-month baby turn out to be a three-month baby four months later.”
“Right. The time differential could easily have tripped us up, if we’d wound up staying in the world of Myriad for any length of time, but it might be just the opposite here for all we know. We could wind up getting back the day after we left, or arrive a hundred years later, like Rip Van Winkle.”
“Or two hundred years before we left, so we could say hello to the lazy loafer himself.”
Phil thought about that for a while before he answered, “I’m not sure if that’s possible, and if it is, it’s worrisome, since the Dark Gods could learn from their mistakes in their first encounters with us and go back in time to finish the job properly before we had a chance to become more powerful and capable of combatting them effectively.”
“Oh. I never thought of that,” she said cautiously. “If they could do it, so could we, and we’d all be trapped in an endless recursive spiral of attack and counterattack, our own private version of the torment of Sisyphus.”
“Yeah. It’d kind of take all the fun out of saving the world, or worlds. I get the impression that all the worlds we’ve seen so far are related to each other, because everywhere we’ve been could arguably be linked to the world of the ancient Mediterranean, and that of the Viking lands of northern Europe before Christianity transformed them, essentially Western Europe, where the story of a final conflagration that destroys the world is almost universal, from the Ragnarök to Phaëton’s foolish mishandling of the chariot of the Sun, so it looks like there’s a natural limit on the scope of our task here. Presumably, we’ve missed the Dream Time of Australia, the various Heavenly hierarchies of the Orient, and many more, but these tend toward cyclical creation rather than malevolent — or accidental — destruction — at least to my knowledge — and we can’t solve everything.”
“Good,” she said. It would be nice to retire to some sort of quiet life, once the babies are born. Adventuring is all very well, but Selene and I will eventually need a safe harbor to build our little nest.
“I agree,” he said, “but it may be difficult. Assuming that your particular gifts are divine in origin, the Goddess who gave them to you may have other ideas in mind, and there’s also the question of whether your martial prowess is inherited. As I recall, there were an entire series of movies and graphic novels featuring your archetype, so opportunities for derring-do may present themselves whether we invite them or not.”
“Oh,” she said, pursing her lips. “Drat!”
“Indeed,” he agreed philosophically, “but it comes with the territory, so I’m open to whatever happens.”
“Are you sure? Aren’t you afraid that you’ll wake up one day and think about missing the quiet life you could have had?”
“Not a bit of it,” he said. “You know, Selene offered me the chance to back out that first night, before we all met at the church, after carefully explaining that I might be hurt or killed. In fact, she did her best to insist on leaving me behind, but I refused. If I didn’t bug out then, before I really knew either of you — much less fell in love with and married you — what are the chances I will in the future?”
“She did that?”
“She did.” He nodded. “If you hadn’t noticed before, I’m very decisive when push comes to shove, and I’m really stubborn, despite my mild-mannered air of amiable affability. Where your safety is concerned, I don’t mess around either. You’ll notice that there are several Jötunns pushing up daisies now who’d dared to lift a finger against you.”
She laughed. “I did notice their slapstick demise, yes.”
“Well — while I’m sure that either of you could have handled them if they’d come within range — their cowardly ambush from the heights was an ideal time to demonstrate the power of heavy artillery. Akcuanrut could have done the same of course, but his interest is and was decidedly less personal, so I was somewhat quicker off the block.”
A sudden look of concern washed over her face. “Phil! You’re not risking… you know… by killing our enemies like that, are you?”
He shook his head. “No, I’m quite sure that there’s no particular danger there. In the first place, protecting you in that sort of situation is a mitzvah, and I was using my best judgement and efforts to minimize any further loss of life. I applied minimal force, a sort of spiritual Tai Chi which used the momentum of their own attacks to thwart their intentions, and then loudly warned any listeners nearby to back off if they had any similar ideas.”
“And they did back off, didn’t they.”
“They did,” he assured her, “until the Empress put them all in their place with a similar warning and example in response to Loki’s more subtle threat. We all labor under similar constraints, so she’s no more eager than I am to inflict needless pain or suffering, but she’s also a natural leader with the responsibility for countless lives, so the buck, as they say, stops with her. My own writ is not quite so broadly defined, but I’m an official Justicar of the Empire — or so I’m given to believe — just as Akcuanrut and the other Masters of the College of Wizards are, so I have the high justice and the low within my scope, as well as a license to mint official coinage of the realm.”
“Oh, jeeze!” she said. “You’re a cop!”
He grinned. “I suppose I am, in a way, but considerably less constrained by rules and regulations. More like Judge Dee in the old mysteries.”
“A fictional character based on the historical Tang Dynasty Magistrate Di Renjie, who was what they might call in France a ‘juge d’instruction,’ an ‘investigating judge.’ In the stories, Judge Dee is the detective, prosecutor, judge, and jury all in one, which makes a very tidy bundle for a detective story, since whatever conclusion the detective arrives at is exactly what the court decides, sort of like a Perry Mason episode with no messy arguments from the DA, who always had it wrong in any case.”
“It’s a lucky thing that Perry’s clients were always innocent, then, wasn’t it?”
“It was, but both systems have their advantages, and in reality our own system has a bit of that involved as well, although it’s popularly supposed to be strictly adversarial. The defence lawyers are supposed to withdraw from the case before suborning perjury or other crimes, since both the defence and the prosecution are officers of the court, and the judge does quite a bit of investigation regarding the laws which are being applied in the prosecution case, and can ‘sanction’ either party if the rules aren’t being followed, which acts to level the playing field and hopefully ensure that justice is done.”
She thought about that for a few seconds, then said, “That’s sort of what we’re doing now, isn’t it?”
Phil considered her words for quite some time before he said, “I suppose it is, since we have only the ancient centaurs’ guesses for clues, although it certainly sounds like Surtr and his gang might be the ‘Dark Gods’ we’re looking for. In other ways, we’re a more-or-less traditional military punitive expedition headed toward hostile territory, since we can expect that the fire giants won’t be happy to see us, and there seems to be no doubt that the Dark Gods are to blame for the oppression experienced by the inhabitants of Akcuanrut’s world. Our only real question is whether the fire giants and the ‘Dark Gods’ are one and the same, although they seem to be playing for the same team.”
While they’d been riding along talking, the nature of the landscape had gradually changed, and they turned a bend in the forest road to find themselves looking out across a broad plain of grasslands bisected by a river about a mile down the valley with a range of snow-capped mountains out in the hazy distance. There were only a few stands of trees visible, and there were large herds of cattle peaceably grazing on the grass and minding their own business. “We seem to have wandered into Wyoming,” Rhea said.
“Or something like it,” Phil said. “It’s certainly cattle country.”
“I wonder if they have cowboys, too?” Rhea mused, looking up and down the valley, but there were none visible, although there seemed to be one of those now-familiar hall and outbuildings complexes becoming visible around a bend in the road they were following into the interior.
Phil studied it as they approached. “I wonder if that’s the ‘Kvænhöllr’ the Queen was talking about?” he said. It seemed, at least from a distance, to be much bigger than the farmsteads they’d passed earlier.
“Possibly. She didn’t mention a description, as far as I know, just that we’d recognize it when we came to it.”
Once around the bend, it seemed almost as if they’d ridden into another valley, because suddenly there were trees and meadows around them again, and what seemed like hills, although there had been none visible before they’d turned the corner, and they were still on a level road, as far as they could tell, but the tops of the hills were shrouded in a bright mist, so the total effect was somewhat ætherial. “This must be the place,” they both said simultaneously, and then they laughed.
“So! What are you two laughing about,” Selene called out as she rode up from behind them.
“Nothing much,” Rhea said, “except that we decided that this must be Queen Geyjon’s Kvænhöllr coming up.”
Selene took a long look around, noting the sudden change in the landscape, and the general otherworldliness of this new bit of Vanaheimr, and agreed. “This is the place,” she said. “It’s obviously the only place like this place, so this must be the place.”
As they drew closer, they could see people strolling about in the glades, or merely sitting under trees talking to each other, although most looked up and stared as they passed by. There seemed to be more women than men, for some reason, and as they drew nearer the hall they could see that the Kvænhöllr was huge — larger even than Loki’s former hall in Jötunheimr — but far more beautiful. Where the Giant’s hall had been somehow squat, despite its height, and had hugged the wide expanse of rocky courtyard it sat within, the Queen’s hall soared above the meadow, almost as if it were an eagle with wings uplifted, caught in the instant when it left the grassy lea with widespread wings. It was shaped like an enormous seagoing Viking longship, including the characteristic curves and detail of a lapstrake hull, with a tall prow whose upper reaches were carved into the shape of a dragon’s neck and head, while the stern looked like a dragon’s tail, and every square inch of it above the gunwale was carved with intricate runes, intertwined stylized snakes, and the side of the deckhouse that they could see had an intricately-carved swan wing running down the length of it, with the sculpted wingtip and flight feathers rising well above the cabin top, the entirety of fir. The entrance was broad, but located well above the ground, with what can only be described as an enormous gangplank — also of fir — stretching up to it. The mast reached toward the bright sky, disappearing into the brilliant mist before its full height was visible, and a square sail edged with gold — with the lower half of a golden sun embroidered on the visible portion of the red canvas — was set on an invisible spar somewhere above the misty clouds. It seemed almost to be sailing, and in fact there was a strong feeling of motion about it, even as it sat placidly on the ground.
“Dang!” Phil said in awe, as they rode up to the gangplank, at the foot of which Queen Gefjon was waiting on horseback with her retinue. The earthbound vessel rose up behind her like a wooden cliff, the graceful curves of the hull overshadowing the ground beneath it, despite the generally directionless nature of the light from the overcast sky.
“Welcome, warriors!” The Queen cried out. “All men and women of courage are welcome to Sessrúmnir!”
Empress D’Larona-Elvi approached her and they leaned toward each other to do one of those hug and kiss-the-air greetings that women do, both still comfortably astride their horses, followed by both Selene and Rhea with Wildflower and whichever centauress was carrying Selene — Phil had even more trouble telling the new centaurs apart than he did Selene and all her sisters, although there were subtle differences — as the Queen said simply, “Shall we go inside?” and reined her mount around to ascend the gangplank.
Riding up a gangplank was a little scary, or at least Phil thought so, although all the women, perhaps better horsewomen than he was a rider, seemed to think nothing of it as they chatted gaily, ducking slightly as they rode through the accommodation hatch, or whatever they called a honking big door on a boat.
Inside, the light was very dim, dimmer even than in the Dwarvish halls underground, or Loki’s hall in Jötunheimr. Looking up, he saw that most of the light was supplied by the bright daylight outside the hull, some refracted through prisms of glass set into the deck above his head, and more through the open hatches above wrought iron braziers which held glowing coals for heat. These were supplemented by a few open torches scattered along the walls and on uprights that evidently supported the deck, which seemed particularly hazardous, in Phil’s opinion, although he detected an undercurrent of magic which bound the ship together as an integral whole, and might be proof against fire, although he hesitated to pick at the separate threads of the spell. The interior was beautiful, or what he could see of it was, far more richly carved than Loki’s hall, and the carvings were more graceful and… feminine… than the giants seemed to favor.
The Queen turned her mount aside, toward a large open area beside the ‘doorway,’ and dismounted gracefully, along with the members of her entourage. “Please feel both safe and welcome in my hall, brave warriors; you have my word that you are all safe and welcome.”
The Empress followed closely, dismounting as gracefully as their hostess, saying, “Peace be upon this hall and all who dwell in it, you have my word that we mean you no ill, but only good, and will follow the universal customs of hospitality and mutual obligation.” She turned toward Phil and said, “Phil, would you mind presenting our gifts to Queen Gefjon?”
Dismounting less gracefully than either of the ladies, but not as disreputably as he might have some months before, he said, “I’m at your service, ladies,” and turned toward one of the carts — his own — just rolling through the hatch, waving down the driver to pause briefly while he snagged a small coffer from the top of their luggage, grunting a little, because it was heavy, though not nearly so heavy as the box he’d given to his wives.
With the box in hand he walked over to where the Queen and Empress stood and said, “I’m not sure of the local etiquette, but if you’d like to look at the contents at leisure it might be best to have a table fetched, since there are quite a few pieces here.” He opened the coffer with one hand, still supporting it from the bottom with his other hand, and lifted off the covering layer of cloth, displaying the most impressive pieces carefully arranged, several showy necklaces, bracelets, earrings, rings for the fingers, and hair ornaments. “If you’ve been in touch with King Alvís, you may already know that I’m a metalworker of some skill, so I fashioned a few bits of jewelry last night that I thought you might like, as a hostess gift of sorts, since we are guests and sojourners in your land.”
The Queen smiled when she saw them and said, “How well you know me, and on such short acquaintance, to fashion treasures so close to my own tastes. Your many wives are blessed indeed to have such a husband, since I see that they are richly endowed with gems and jewelry to rival these gifts, yet each is unique, carefully crafted to complement the beauty of the wearer.”
“I do my best to please,” he said smiling.
She smiled back and then closed her eyes and chanted,
“Rich gifts you’ve given, bold enchanter and warrior,
Yet one gift you lack, a blade at your side.
Sore will your need be, in the dark days that follow,
Queen’s friend I name you, and gift you with Brenðr,
Ever sharp it will be, and a friend in the fight!”
She reached out without a word to a servitor behind her, who stepped forward as she finished speaking and handed her what appeared to be a sword in a black leather scabbard furnished with modest silver accoutrements and hangers. A plain leather belt with a silver buckle completed the outfit. She took held it fore her — raised on high, as if it were the Host — then knelt before him to buckle on the sword.
When she rose, she said, “You are my Champion against the Dark, Sir Phil, mark it well. This sword, once lightly tossed away, will return to you ever, until the worlds’ ending.”
Phil was both startled and embarrassed. “But I know nothing of swordplay, Queen Gefjon!” He made as if to unbuckle it, but was halted first by Rhea, who kicked his ankle violently, and then by stern glances from both his wives, so he grimaced and left off.
The Queen, observing this domestic byplay, smailed and said, “Never fear, Sir Völva. This weapon will turn out to be exactly what you need. Never let it stray far from your hand, because you, and you alone, will have need of it on your quest.”
He looked down at it, then really looked. “It’s ensorcelled!” he cried.
Queen Gefjon laughed. “Of course it is, my Champion. Whatever good would it be to you if it weren’t?”
He’d just started to say something when Selene hissed in his ear, “Don’t be a dolt! Just thank her very nicely and back off.”
Involuntarily, he glanced over toward Rhea, looking for some sort of sympathy, but there was none to be found in that quarter. “Thank you, Queen Gefjon. I’ll study it and put it to the best use I can, please rest assured.”
The Queen smirked. “All you’ll have to do, my Champion, is to whip it out, and I’m sure that your wives are well able to school you in that particular skill, if you’re not already familiar with the motions.”
He blushed, embarrassed to be the butt of a rather crude joke by the Queen. Somehow, it hadn’t seemed to be the sort of thing that queens do, but local customs here were obviously more liberal than they were on Earth. He’d seen several documentaries about Elizabeth II on the local educational station, and in not one had anyone mentioned a penchant for cracking penis jokes. “Thank you again, Queen Gefjon, for reminding me that I can always count on my wives to raise my courage. When I’m feeling down, and really need a boost, I’m sure that one or the other will give me a leg up, so very soon I’m feeling much better.”
The Queen laughed. “That’s the spirit,” she said. “I do love to see a man with a firm… sense of purpose.”
“I always aim to please, Ma’am.” ‘Okay,’ he thought to himself, ‘so it sounds like the locker room before a big game, I’ll be switched if I let a bunch of darned farmers outdo me in repartee! And in front of Rhea and Selene, no less! They’ve got some nerve!’
Suddenly, one of the onlookers, a big beefy man with grizzled hair and an eyepatch over one eye, shouted out, “Enough! Poltroon! Varlet! How dare you bandy naughty words with my wife!”
The Queen sneered at him. “In your dreams, little man. You forfeited that privilege when you took up with that giant slut in exchange for a glass of mead, not to mention all the others. And just to remind you, your two brothers are both better hung than you ever were, and twice as good in bed!”
“Strumpet! Whore!” he blustered and fumed in rage.
“Be quiet, old man! You’re in my country now, where it’s only men who must be faithful, not that you’re all that much of a man, as crippled and old as you are, while I’m still ever-young and lithe. No decent woman would have you, so you raped the helpless Rindr while she was tied to her bed, but her father had you up the ass first, while you were dressed up as a girl, so I guess you had your real fun there.” She spat on the floor with exquisite disdain.
This time he roared! “Blasphemy! I am the Lord of all! All-Wise, All-Father, all men worship me….”
She cut him off. “Pooh! You always were a liar, saying black is white and vice versa until we were all disgusted with your vainglory and pretensions. That’s why we finally kicked you out of Ásgarðr and why you spend all your time wandering on the road. My high seat Hlidskjalf, where I sat to create the worlds, was mine long before you ever crept up on it to spy on other women… and men, I suppose. You were never much of a husband in any case; the best you could get on me was that vapid little pretty boy Baldr, and he was even more of a fool than you are.”
“Liar!” he shouted. “He was the best of all of us, as beautiful as a maiden, as….”
She laughed, her voice filled full with scorn. “It’s so very interesting that you liken the looks of young boys to women, precious. Not only your brothers, but the giant Þrymr, all three have fathered bold and healthy children on me, while the only real women you screwed — once I tired of you — had beards! One can’t help but think, after all, what with dressing up as a girl whenever you could, and finding yourself with a man between your thighs every other night, that you just might have found your true calling.”
With an inarticulate snarl he threw himself toward the Queen with murder in his eyes, his hands outstretched and fingers grasping for her throat….
…and Phil straight-armed him with an illegal tackle to the face, pushing him right down to the deck, where he immediately rolled the old man into a cattle catch neck crank to keep him pinned. “Naughty, naughty,” he said disapprovingly. “Didn’t your mother ever teach you that it’s not nice to hit girls?”
“Mmmf!” he said, struggling to free himself, which put more pressure on his neck. As it turns out, it’s very difficult to speak if you can’t open your mouth, and it quickly becomes apparent to most opponents that breaking one’s own neck is not an effective option.
Phil was not particularly sympathetic, and said so. “You know,” he murmured quietly, his words meant only for his opponent’s ear, “I feel a particular loathing toward rapists, so I wouldn’t mind at all if you managed to break your silly neck through struggling, so please feel free to continue, although I’d hate to cast a sombre mood over our little party here by having to haul your lifeless body out the door and dump it in the trash. On the other hand,” he added thoughtfully, “I have the impression that many here wouldn’t be terribly disappointed to see the last of you. It might even be an occasion for rejoicing in some circles, and,” he raised his voice so all could hear, “I’m getting bored just lying here, so, if you’d prefer to avoid this lethal dénouement, please signify your total surrender by tapping your hand on the deck three times in quick succession, but please know that if you break your parole I’ll have no choice but to kill you, since I won’t be able to trust your word of honor again.”
The grizzled thug tapped out, so Phil let him up, but when the villain managed to struggle to his feet, still breathing heavily, but with an evil look of hatred on his face, the guy whipped out a wand of ash and began to chant in some strange tongue….
…and the Queen cried out, her voice gone shrill in alarm, “Seiðr…!”
…as Phil felt a deadly power building in the room, centered on the old man, so he whipped out his brand new sword — moved by an impulse he couldn’t identify, and only realized that the weapon’s blade appeared to have been fashioned of solid gold as it flew toward where it needed to be — and stabbed the hateful wretch expertly through the heart before his chant could be completed. “I warned you,” he said calmly, as the big man toppled lifeless to the floor. Then he looked at the sword more closely. It was as light as a feather, but the blade looked to be as sharp as any razor, undamaged by its passage through the man’s breastbone and as pristine as if he’d just had it polished by a goldsmith, in short or long, a mass of contradictions, and then it suddenly sheathed itself, as if it were modestly retiring until it was needed again. He looked up.
There was a moment of stunned silence before the Queen walked up to the corpse, spat on it, and said, “We’re all well rid of him, but you’ve made a few enemies, Sir Champion.” She paused, thinking, then said, “His brothers most ought to be concerned, since he was their kinsman, but he was in the midst of assaulting me, which they won’t be happy about either, and he was caught in the midst of breaking his sworn oath, and so brought further shame on his family. I think that they’ll be satisfied with a minimal wergeld, which I will pay of course, since you acted quite properly on my behalf.”
“Please don’t trouble yourself at all,” Phil said. “I have essentially unlimited funds available, and can easily pay any reasonable amount, if that’s the custom here.”
“It is,” she said, “and that should be an end to it.” She gave orders to her servitors to have the body hung upon a tree, as a warning to oath-breakers, but none of their party were minded to go watch it done.
As the small ‘funeral’ party left with their burden, Phil turned to his wives — who were still in some kind of daze — and said, “This is definitely not Kansas.”
They only nodded, wide-eyed and silent, for a change.
The Queen said formally, “Will someone please fetch the Lögmaður? I will pay his fee.”
“Of course, my Queen,” said one of her servitors and immediately ran off out the hatch.
“What’s a Lögmaður?” Phil asked.
“The Law-speaker, a man both learned in the law and of such an even temper that he’s able to fairly judge between rival claims,” she answered.
“Who would be the rivals, then? Are his brothers here?”
“No, but the Lögmaður will take their legal interests into account, as well as mine and yours. His brothers aren’t required to accept the judgement, but any dispute would have to be settled by private revenge, which would quickly mount in cost to the point that even a very wealthy man couldn’t afford to pay it.”
“How would the costs increase? Surely one can hire thugs, but they might have retainers of their own who would essentially work for nothing.”
“But the wergeld will have to be paid for every person killed in the prosecution of their feud, and you clearly have an army at your back, all of whom appear to be what we would call ‘prestigious,’ and thus require the same wergeld as the man who was killed. the costs mount quickly under our system of laws, and it has the advantage of being self-enforcing. If someone isn’t able to enforce the judgement of the Lögmaður for any reason, that individual can sell his interest to someone who can, and that party can collect the payment.” She paused, then said, “While there are hotheads who refuse to settle, their relatives soon bring them to heel, since they’ll be responsible for the payment of the sum total of wergelds if he can’t pay for any reason.”
“Such as being dead,” Phil said.
“Exactly! It’s all about family, and coalitions of families, so the wergeld represents the approximate worth of a person’s productivity in generating wealth for his or her family, but only roughly approximate, since each class in society has a fixed wergeld, and the richest man is worth only twice as much as the meanest free man, and even a thrall has significant value as a human being, somewhere between one and two years wages for an ordinary working man.”
“What about women?” Rhea asked.
The Queen smiled. “Women of child-bearing age, of course, are worth far more than men, because they are the creators of families, three times more, in general, but if a pregnant woman is killed, the wergeld is increased by the value of her child, which is generally calculated at half the value of an adult, except that if the fœtus was a girlchild, she’s counted at the full value of an adult woman. Twins, of course, raise the stakes considerably. No one in their right mind would dare assault a woman with murderous intent, because their own family might well kill them rather than bear the cost and shame of outlawry.”
Selene grinned. “What a sensible system! Just when you think that everything’s crazy, along comes something that seems so reasonable that one is astonished that no one else has thought of it.” She called out to the assembled throng, “Just so you know, both my sister-wife and I carry twins, and come from very prominent families.”
Rhea rolled her eyes and said, “Enough with idle chit-chat! I’ve got to pee and I’m hungry!” She scowled at Phil. “The rest will have to wait.”
The Lögmaður must not have lived too far away — or perhaps he’d been one of the guests —because they didn’t have long to wait. In fact, he arrived on the scene just as Rhea finished speaking. “Well, well, a pretty mess,” he said, glancing down at the blood on the deck, clearly visible in the diffuse sunlight that streamed through the open hatch he just walked through. “Would someone mind telling me what happened?” He was a hearty man, red-faced and a little portly, but with the iron muscles and callused hands of a farmer. He seemed quite affable, but there was a piercing intelligence in his eyes.
“It’s fairly straightforward,” the Queen said, stepping toward him. “My former husband here,” she indicated the congealing pool of blood as if the body were still present, “was quarreling with me. Words were spoken, tempers flared, and he took it upon himself to attack me with what seemed like murderous intent. The warrior Phil here,” she indicated him where he stood aside near his wives, who were seated at one of the long tables, “came to my rescue, taking him down with his bare hands and then pinning him with as neat a wrestling move as I’ve ever seen performed.”
“And how, exactly, did purely a physical contest turn to manslaughter?” the law-speaker interjected.
“I’m coming to that,” the Queen said, “because it lies right at the heart of the matter. As I said, my former husband was pinned to the ground by the superior strength and skill of my Protector here — whom I’d named and to whom I’d given gift of arms before the witnesses here present, and in this very spot, in very fact, just a short time before — My Champion asked, very reasonably, I thought, if he would yield and give his word to behave himself within my hall. At first, he struggled to free himself, several times, in fact, but upon the question being repeated he assented, pledging himself to peace — for the nonce, at least, you know how he was — so my Champion let him up and stood back to allow him to collect himself.”
The law-speaker asked again, “And what happened then?”
“My former husband took out a wand of ash — I have it here, and it’s clearly dedicated to seiðr of the most vile sort, since the tip of it is carved to resemble a man’s virile member — and began traitorously chanting an evil spell of seiðr, whereupon I screamed, ‘Seiðr!’ as the power of the chant began to affect me, and my Champion stabbed him to the heart with the weapon I had given him, thereby saving my own life, I think, for the witchcraft was directed primarily at me, but also threatened the life of my Champion, because he was at the secondary focus of the spell.”
“In short,” the Law-speaker said, “he broke his oath of peace and committed an unmanly act against a guest in your house, as well as persisting in his evil intentions toward you?”
“Yes,” the Queen said simply.
The Lögmaður turned to the crowd and asked loudly, “Are there any who can reasonably dispute this account?”
One man spoke up, “I can’t dispute the bare facts, since the deceased started the quarrel by calling this fellow here degrading names, but I thought that the Queen’s response to his insults was more than a little intemperate, and almost any man might have been tempted to rage.”
“She’s admitted as much,” the Lögmaður said, “but that’s not a particular excuse for breaking one’s sworn oath, and by no means a license to attempt a coward’s revenge through using magic. If he’d wanted to claim that the oath was extracted under duress, and so resume their quarrel, he should have asked his leave and stepped outside to where they could have continued the fight outside the hospitality of the Queen, and without disturbing her peace and and the pleasure of her guests.” He paused and looked around the room, evidently waiting for anyone else who might wish to speak. “Well, if that’s the situation, I’m ready to enter my judgement; who will pay my fee?”
“I will,” said Phil, “since it was my hand which slew him, and I will pay the wergeld, since it would be unmanly to have a woman pay on my behalf, although the Queen has offered me this boon, since I acted to preserve her life and safety as well as my own.”
“Nicely spoken,” the law-speaker said, “and here is my judgement: The wergeld is remitted, because the dead man was an oath-breaker and subject to outlawry for violating the peace of the gathering, and for practicing evil seiðr on persons there present. None-the-less, in consideration of the power and strength of his family, and to avoid further insult, I would recommend that you voluntarily offer a gift of one thousand ounces of silver in lieu of the wergeld to his brothers, for them to share out among his relatives as they think best.”
Phil spoke up immediately, but quietly as he moved closer to the law-speaker and the Queen — who stood near each other — so as to continue with as much privacy as possible in a public space. “I agree, of course, and in consideration of their eminence, and in recognition of their loss, do voluntarily increase the amount of my gift to one thousand ounces of gold, to honor both them and the former prominence of their dead relative, who may well have been touched by madness due to his dabbling in forbidden arts.”
The law-speaker blinked his eyes in obvious surprise. Evidently this was the point at which people might normally haggle. “This is a very handsome offer, Sir Phil, and shows a fine sense of delicacy in a matter of family honor, since I notice that you’re well-supplied with armed supporters. You do realize that my fee is normally a small percentage of any fine?”
“I assumed it, actually. What’s the usual amount?”
“Five percent, but I’d feel terrible about accepting that much of the large amount you propose.”
“And I’d feel terrible if you discounted your usual fee, since your judgement seemed both reasonable and fair, and I believe that your advice was very sound, and doubtless saved me no end of trouble, since I am unfamiliar with your laws. Please accept both my gratitude and my payment. I’ll have the full amount delivered by one of the Queen’s servitors, if she allows this, as soon as I can arrange it, which will be very soon. I assume that Queen Gefjon knows the proper etiquette involved in handling the payment to his brothers?”
“She does,” he said.
“I’ll ask her to have someone attend to these details, then, since I’m a stranger in these lands, and would hate to offer any insult to anyone through ignorance of your customs.”
The law-speaker looked at him carefully. “This caution does you credit, Sir, and shows a commendable reluctance to insert yourself into quarrels whose origins lie in the distant past. Most of my clients tend to be loud-mouthed idiots who let their emotions run away with their common sense.”
“I’ve got no dog in this fight,” Phil said, then saw that both the Queen and the law-speaker were momentarily confused and added, “It’s an idiom of my country which means that I have no personal or financial involvement with any party in the case. My only concern was that a big bruiser of a man was attacking a woman, which is cowardly behavior in any man, I think, and in any country, aside from the fact that every real man has an inherent duty to protect women and children from danger if at all possible. The fact that the queen had named me her particular champion didn’t alter my duty as a man of honor to succor her to any significant degree, and in fact I didn’t think of it at all within the immediate context of the altercation which followed. If the craven cur had assaulted a serving girl, I would have acted in exactly the same manner.”
The law-giver laughed. “You’ve got a set of balls on you, that’s for sure. Few would have taken up a quarrel started by your formidable opponent, if only out of fear.”
“If you’ve heard any rumor of our mission, you’ll know that we have more ‘balls’ between us than most, despite the fact that most of us are women.” He grinned at that, and indicated Selene and Rhea, still seated, but visibly interested in whatever was going on.
He nodded. “An army of women, no less, against all of Múspellheimr! You’ve either got balls or no brains, perhaps both.”
“It remains to be seen, of course, but such women, and we do have a few men along, to take care of spiders, mice, and other unpleasant things that the women tend to be squeamish about.”
“Indeed, I’ve noticed how shy and retiring your wives seem to be, and most of the rest look just like them. Sisters?”
“More or less. Cousins more like, but sisters is close as well. It’s a complicated story.”
He nodded, content to mind his own business. “So, what do you do when you’re not smashing spiders?”
“I work in metals, something like the Dwarves, I think, but not quite so short.”
He laughed uproariously. “Not so short! That’s rich! Do you have any samples of your work?”
“I do. I just presented Queen Gefjon with a nice assortment, which she may be willing to show you, but I always carry a few items of my stock-in-trade.” He reached into his sporran for a little velvet wallet and took it out, placing it on a nearby table and carefully unfolding it. “Do you see anything here that strikes your fancy?” There were an assortment of gold rings, earrings, and necklaces spread before them, each in a cleverly-designed sewn-in pocket to protect it without hiding much of it when the wallet was opened.
The law-speaker’s jaw dropped. “Like Dwarvish work indeed! These are exquisite. Are they for sale?”
“Of course, it’s my trade, as I said. Each piece is priced at exactly triple its weight in gold, although there is a minimum charge for tiny items, so if you want Njal’s Saga engraved upon a pinhead, it will be quite a bit more. You have a wife, perhaps? Would you like something for her?”
“I do, and I would. Our local smith turns out nothing so fine.”
“I do custom work as well — same price. If you could sketch or describe something, I’d be glad to incorporate anything you’d like, a particular rune, perhaps, or a flower, or an animal, anything which has meaning for her. If you’d like a ring, of course, it would be best if she came by, so I can fit the ring to her hand. The same is true for necklaces, but the fit is much more general. Usually, anything within two inches of the length she prefers will do, but some women are more fastidious. It has to do with how they rest upon the bosom, or so I’m told.”
“We’ll be at the feast later on, so perhaps we can drop by and I can return a bit of my fee on my wife’s behalf.”
“I’m sure she’d like that, and there’s nothing quite so nice as a happy wife.” Phil grinned at his fellow husband, another member of the community of men who’d aligned themselves with particular women and taken on their family responsibilities, feeling a sense of camaraderie that was becoming increasingly common as he became aware of the experiences and issues they often shared, so they stood there chatting for some few moments.
“You’ve been married long?” the law-speaker finally asked.
“Not all that long, but of course having two wives accelerates the accumulation of the wisdom one requires in a household with a pair of women in charge.”
He laughed, but then asked, “Two wives? Is this the usual custom in your country?”
“No, not at all, but they were inseparable as girls, and it seemed a shame to break up a matched set like that.” he smiled to indicate that it was a little joke. “In any case, we wound up as we are, and are all three of us happy about it. I do know that most such marriages in foreign parts are much less a woman’s choice than a man’s particular arrogance, but that’s not at all the case here, but more of a mutual understanding that crept up on us almost without realizing that it’s what we’d really wanted all along. I suspect sometimes that I’m not quite at the hub of our marriage, but just a little off center. It all works out, though, and I’m very happy with both my wives, a double blessing for which I’m very grateful.”
“Well, any man who’d dare to thwart old Ásagrimmr — and then plan an expedition to tweak Surtr’s nose — undoubtedly has the strength to cope with two wives, but I have to confess that one is all I can handle. She runs me ragged as it is. I shudder to think of what she and her sister could do to me if they were in league with each other.” He smiled to let Phil know that he could makes jokes as well, so they parted in good humor, just as Selene and Rhea walked up from the table they’d been sitting at, surrounded by the hubbub of voices and clattering palates and silverware that suffused the huge cabin.
“What’s up, Sweetie?” Selene said. “We noticed that you were thick as thieves with the law guy there. Did he have any good advice?”
“He did, actually. He suggested, and I think it’s very wise, that it would be circumspect to offer a payment to the angry guy’s next of kin, the same brothers who’ve evidently been sleeping with his former wife from time to time. He floated the notion of a thousand ounces of silver, since it’s not every day one kills a God, and I countered with an offer of the same amount of gold, which he thought would surely do the trick. I then sold him on the notion that I was an artificer in jewelry — which is perfectly true, of course — because it seemed wise to me — considering how suspicious they are of men who use any form of magic not directly related to the arts — to play down any hint of magical powers that I might, or might not, possess. In fact, I think I’ve made a sale; he wants a few pieces for his wife, so that will serve as further cover. All in all, it’s been a very profitable interaction.”
Rhea pouted. “You’re making jewelry for all sorts of women these days, Phil. We liked it better when we were your only clients.”
“I’ve just killed God, sweeties, which I think is public notoriety enough for us right now. For all our collective safety, it seems wise to be Simple Phil the Goldsmith and his lovely wives for a while, at least until the heat dies down. The guy had sons as well as brothers, and at least one of them is a hotheaded dolt, or so I’m given to understand.”
“What was it with that sword trick, anyway? Have you been holding out on us, Phil? That move was as quick and as sure as anything we could have done.”
“Not my doing, actually, although I’m sure it looked like it was. The sword that Queen Gefjon gave me is heavily infused with magic, and it’s actually intelligent, although it’s not at all talkative, for which last I thank my lucky stars.”
Rhea instantly saw the implication. “Like the Heart of Virtue?”
“Something like that, only this particular supernatural intelligence is on the side of life and light, with a particular impulse toward protection. You could think of it as a sort of metallic Lassie, except that this particular dog is willing to bite.”
“It sounds a lot like that sword that Freyr gave to that sneaky creep,” she said.
“It does, doesn’t it? I have no idea how Queen Gefjon might have wound up with it, or something like it, but it was very handy when whatchamacallum started chanting seiðr at the Queen and me.”
“How does it work?”
“All you have to do is lay your hand on the hilt, and it appears to assess the threat level and then take whatever actions it deems appropriate to save its owner.”
“Cool!” Rhea sighed, awestruck. “It’s like one of those cyborg things they had in Killer Zombies from the Eighth Dimension, with that bald-headed guy, what’s-’is-face….” Then she frowned. “No fair! Why can’t em have one of those?”
“What?” Selene asked. “Having the spirit of a pre-historic Goddess from Atlantis guiding and protecting us isn’t enough?” she said rhetorically. “Wouldn’t we be mixing genres then, with who knows what kind of crazy outcomes? Here we are in some kind of ancient Scandinavia having the time of our lives, and not once did we have to go through airport security thanks to our Phil here!” She frowned. “But how far do you think we’d get if we had titanium steel and positronic artifical cyborgs built into our bodies? Beep…! ‘Would you mind stepping over here for a full body scan and cavity search, Ma’am?’ Get real! Eventually we may want to go back to New York, if only for the shopping, and I’d really like to see a few of those Italian shoe designers up close and personal, in hopes of commissioning some really stylish pumps in my size. Most all the tall-girl shops in the City had shoes designed for midgets.”
Rhea sighed. “Okay! I get it! Just sayin’, was all.” She pursed her lips and added glumly, “It would have been cool, though….”
“And I’m sure you would have carried it off very well, Dearest,” Phil said, temporizing, “but don’t you see how nicely things are coming together for us? It’s like in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, where the perfect team is assembled — almost through fate or something — with exactly the set of skills and alliances required to save the world. We’ve got the wizard — or three, actually — two mysterious warriors with mystical powers, even the Dwarves, if King Alvís comes through for us, and he’s already helped us with that bridge of his.” He thought for a moment and said, “And I almost forgot the sword that was lost!” He hefted the hilt of his sword slightly, unwilling to draw it without need. “There are even prophecies that seem to say that this thing is one of the keys to saving the world.”
“Okay,” Rhea said, slightly mollified, “but what about the elves? Don’t we need some elves?”
“And what’s the next world listed on the centaur map?” he asked her.
“Alfheimr, why?” Then she thought about it and said, “Oh….”
When Phil woke up, there was a hand on his private parts, which wasn’t so very odd, considering, but then he remembered that he’d dozed off in a workshop that the Queen had set aside for him, since he’d sold a boatload of jewelry at the feast. One woman after another would lead her husband up to the table, look over his samples, and demand, ‘One like this, only…’ until he’d thought that his head would spin. But now it was spinning, after a conjuring session that had lasted well into the night, producing rings and things and fine array for the ladies of the court…. Then he felt someone clamber onto his erection, by now stiff as a board, and it was enveloped in a familiar warmth, “Rhea?” he said. No answer, only motion. “Selene?” More motion, much more urgent, and it was very near to coming to its inevitable conclusion when there was a tremendous flash of light! and he saw two very angry but familiar faces staring down at him from a very odd angle. “Rhea? Selene? What’s going on?”
“Our thought exactly, Phil,” they said in chorus, never a good sign. “What the heck is going on here?”
“But,” he said, as the blonde straddling him raised her head and he recognised the Queen. “Gah!” he shouted, or tried to, as his wives both wrapped their hands around his throat and squeezed.
“Didn’t I tell you, Sir Phil?” she said. “This is one of the perquisites of the Queen’s Champion. I thought you knew.” She didn’t seem flustered at all. In fact, there was a very pleased expression on her face, of satiety and… triumph?
“Urk!” he tried to struggle, but his two wives were very angry and very strong. Then — just as his vision faded to a swiftly-closing tunnel of black — he ejaculated, though there was no pleasure in it, and there was nothing….
Phil had a headache like he couldn’t believe as he struggled to recover his bearings. He was flat on his back, his head was spinning, and his thoughts were fuzzy and confused. “Wha…!” he managed to gasp out, but he couldn’t tell if he’d made any noise, because there were women laughing, talking loudly somewhere nearby, and they didn’t seem to hear him.
Then, a fuzzy shadow loomed over him and a familiar voice said, “Oh, good, you’re awake. It’s about time; almost noon, in fact.”
“Mmmf,” he was barely able to grunt, because his mouth was as dry and foul-tasting as a old gym sock full of cobwebs, and he didn’t seem to be able to move his tongue.
Another voice, also familiar, said from the other side of his spinning head, unless his head were really spinning, “The Bitch-Goddess here spiked your beer with opium, she says, mixed with some local mushroom juice. She claims that it’s both safe and foolproof, so we’re not mad at you any more.”
“We’re not terribly happy with her, of course,” said the other familiar voice, “but it seems that local custom gives her certain ‘rights’ in regard to travelers, especially Queen’s Champions, a tiny little factoid that she conveniently forgot to mention.”
“Urgh…,” he said cogently. His vision, still blurry, was getting clear enough that he could see that it was Rhea and his right, and Selene to his left. They were both looking down at him with expressions of amused concern, which irritated him for some reason. He tried to swallow…. It didn’t work; his mouth was still dry as he tried to move his lips, which hurt almost as much as the rest of him. “Whuh…, whuh….”
“He’s not very coherent in the morning, is he?” That must be the Queen, because these careless words were followed immediately by…
…both of his wives in angry chorus saying sharply, “Only when he’s been poisoned the night before, Miss Thing. You’d better be a little more pleasant around us, Queenie, because you’ve seen what he can do, and he’s a regular pussycat compared to even one of us. We don’t care what kind of Goddess you are, because if you want to get on our bad side, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”
“So far,” Selene said judiciously, we’ve been good sports about your little trick, Gefjon, dearie, because we’re guests here, and customs vary in different countries, but neither are we patsies when we’re not being treated with courtesy and respect.
“If you’d wanted to borrow him,” Rhea added, “the polite thing to do would have been to simply ask, not drug him and then rape him while he’s unconscious.”
Selene chimed in — they were always good at tag-teaming, even as little girls — “Wasn’t that exactly what you were taunting your late and unlamented husband about? just before our Phillip killed him, I mean?”
“Or should that have been more properly described as goading?” Rhea said, shrewd and calculating, as ever. “Maybe we should give that Lögmaður guy a shout and ask him to reconsider the facts as we know them, why don’t we.”
Phil was getting a little tired of this bickering, so he closed his eyes and tired to concentrate, conjuring a nice mouthful of pure hydrogen dioxide; he could easily visualize the shape of the molecules…. ‘At last!’ he thought, swallowing, then coughing up some sticky mucus that had been stuck in his throat, which caused immediate consternation in the room. “Was anyone ever going to get me a little bit of water to help me clear my throat?” he asked drily.
“Phil!” Selene and Rhea screamed in chorus, rushing in different directions to grab not one, but three mugs of water and one bottle of what looked like whiskey, all of which were presented to him in the blink of an eye.
He smiled, selecting one of the mugs. “Water will be fine, thank you. It’s a little early for whiskey, since the sun’s not over the yardarm — as far as I can tell down here in Bright Mistyland —and I don’t drink the stuff in any case; it muddles the head.”
Rhea blushed. “Oh! I didn’t know what is was, actually. It just looked wet.”
“I only look like Indiana Jones. I don’t have his taste for booze, and neither do I share his philandering ways,” he shot the Queen a contemptuous frown, “despite the compromising appearance of recent events.”
The looks his wives gave her, on the other hand, were tinged more with homicide than disdain. “She explained that, Dearest,” they said in unison, but not happily, then Selene added, “Evidently, it’s the local minhag, meant to preserve the seed of heroes, for the good of the community.”
Rhea said, “And from the looks of at least some of the locals, they could use an infusion of healthy genetic material. We’ve decided to think of this as something akin to donating blood, and please don’t make any jokes about visits to the blood bank, either now or in the future. Believe me, we’ve already thought of all possible variations.”
“What, no cookies and apple juice?” he said, looking around the room.
Both women groaned. “Okay, so we didn’t think of that one….”
“Just so you know,” Selene said parenthetically, “little Miss Hot-to-Trot here is already pregnant with your child. Evidently being a sex and fertility Goddess has its perquisites, plus she’s a prophetess, or what they call a spækona locally, so she already knows that it’s a boy, and that he will live to perform great deeds, whatever the heck that means, which deeds she claims the time is not ripe to reveal, so we’re aunties, again, to someone who will eventually be famous. Whoopie….”
“We’ll be able to do bulk rate mailings for our holiday wishes cards,” Rhea chimed in, “which is a cheery thought, in spite of everything.”
“Oh, crap,” Phil said scathingly. “Another baby, just what we need….”
“Oh, come on, Phil, everybody likes babies.”
“Oh, I like babies alright, I just hadn’t ever, even in my wildest dreams, ever thought about having six or seven hundreds of them. It’s a lucky thing we’re as rich as Crœsus ever was, because we’ll be able to endow an entire university just with the tuition fees. Fifty-two million bucks ought to cover it, but what the heck, I’ll plan on two hundred, what with inflation and all.”
Selene clucked her tongue at his bad mood. “You’re just being grumpy, Phil, and there’s no excuse for it. The children are innocents, even hers.” She looked over at the Queen with disapproval, and if her glance had been even slightly more dismissive of the Queen, she would have been dead, but it wasn’t, the Queen was still alive, and they all had a problem. She looked over to Rhea, raising one eyebrow, and Rhea sighed and nodded, then said, “Phil, honey, you know we have to offer our protection, if only for the sake of your child.”
Phil rolled his eyes toward the heavens, jutted out his jaw in frustration, and said with tight control, “Queen Gefjon, None of us are very happy with you right now, but I’m honor-bound to tell you that you have the right to claim our protection and love, for the sake of our child, but only if you desire it and are willing to abide by our customs.”
The Queen looked at him scornfully, raising one brow. “Why should I care? I have my own warriors to fight for me.”
“We have a ritual of binding, a form of marriage which requires that the parties dedicate their lives to each other in what we call a consecration, a ‘setting apart’ from the vagaries of the world and its inconstancies, that has proved in the past to be an effective shield against some, but not all, creatures and weapons of the Dark. The conditions attached are very strict, and to avail yourself of this protection would require that you undertake to be bound by them.”
“What do these duties entail?” she asked carelessly, a sneer upon her lips.
“For one, you must promise faithfulness, ‘chastity,’ in fact, which means no ‘fooling around’ with other men, or indeed anyone outside your marriage.”
She laughed and laughed, then gasped out through her laughter, “Surely you jest, Sir Phil. I am the very essence of promiscuous sexuality, and the fulfilment of every desire. All acts of love and passion are my rituals. To deny this would be to deny my very nature, my ‘soul,’ and the soul of my people, the Vanes.”
“It’s your choice, of course,” he said, “and you’re under absolutely no compulsion to accept. My own duty ends with my offer, but know that we intend to destroy Surtr and all his minions, and all these worlds will change. For a thousand years or more your people, and the people who absorbed you, have been stuck like flies in amber, frozen into a pattern of self-defeating ennui, moping around fretting about the end of the world as you know it, frightened of so-called prophecies that foretold doom. But at least one prophesy isn’t coming true, because the man the wolf is supposed to kill is out there rotting by the side of the road, so I’ve changed the future. That particular prophesy is and was a lie all along. Maybe they’re all lies. We, my wives and I, and all those who fight with us, will change the future for everyone. The only question is where you choose to be when the future catches up with you, whether standing on your own two feet and figuring out the best way to move forward, finding your own path toward survival, or being carried along by the ghosts of long-dead prophets, following a script that was written for you before you were born, pathetic marionettes caught up on strings of gossamer, cowering in the middle of a spider’s web, stuck fast until the spider comes to suck the blood from your veins.”
Rhea sighed. “Isn’t he just the dreamiest?” she said to no one in particular. “He’s just bursting with sincere enthusiasm, and the way he strings words together is just like spun sugar candy.”
Selene moved over to take Rhea’s hand. “My Mom always told me to hold out for a man who can make your heart sing with his voice alone. I’m so glad I did. And he’s pure beefcake too, so you feel all girly when you’re with him, which is important when you’re as tall as Rhea and I are, and you simply wouldn’t believe how clever that man is with his hands. Have you looked at his hands, dear? Yum, yum.”
“Too true, Selene dear. It’s a drag hanging out with a guy who looks like your kid brother, and a man who can’t actually do things is a waste of space.”
She laughed. “Phil is definitely nothing like a kid brother. Gefjon, honey, you cheated yourself by drugging him, you know, and now you’ll never realize how great he really is in bed. ‘Acts of love and pleasure,’ my ass. I don’t care how long you’ve been around, you’ve never had anything like the undivided attention of our Phil, so bye-bye, sweetie, see ya in the funny papers.” She stalked off into the darkness, headed toward their quarters.
“Ta ta, honey,” said Rhea as she turned to follow Selene, and then she turned back around and said, “Oh! I almost forgot.” She handed her a bulky package. “Phil made these for you, as a parting gift, since he said that your hall would be much more beautiful with a little better light.” She left in no particular haste, but merely went.
“You made this for me?” she said. “What is it? You’ve already given me more jewelry than I’ve ever seen in one place.”
“Oh, nothing, really, just a dozen portable lights. You have to hang them in the sunlight during the daylight hours, but then they’ll burn all night long, and you can recharge them again for the next night. The little ivory button on the side turns it off and on, so go ahead and play with them. You’ll figure it out. I hope you enjoy them.” With that, he turned to follow his wives, leaving the Queen alone in the dim light that filtered down through a single deck prism.
Idly, she opened the package, which seemed to be a largish wooden box wrapped in some kind of soft cloth. Inside, the box was partitioned into twelve individual spaces, all identical, each of which contained some sort of contrivance made of brass. It looked almost like a normal candle lantern — albeit much more beautiful — but instead of pierced tin, it had a translucent white glass globe nestled in a cage of brass. On the side of the base, which was oddly thick, was the ivory button he’d described. Curious, she pressed it… and was almost frightened when the interior of the workshop was suddenly illuminated with a light that seemed as bright as day, so bright that looking directly at the brilliant shining globe almost hurt her eyes. She looked around, noticing that the walls and floor looked almost tawdry, so filmed they were by dust and dirt. She pushed the button again, and was plunged again into the familiar shadows, and the faint light from the deck prism — the light that had seemed perfectly serviceable for many lifetimes, hundreds and hundreds of years — suddenly seemed inadequate. “Damn that man to Hel!” she said aloud.
The feast that night was somewhat strained, because the expedition had been packing up all day in preparation for an early start on their passage to Alfheimr and because neither Phil nor his wives felt quite as well-disposed toward Queen Gefjon as they had previous to her taking advantage of Phil.
The Queen herself seemed a little miffed as well, since the Vanes seemed to regard sex as a rather delightful activity involving little, if any, emotional connection, so weren’t terribly bothered by the notion of playing a sexual ‘trick’ on someone like Phil, which they regarded as more of a droll practical joke than either a ‘sin’ or a personal affront. Sharing that general attitude, and the local customs, she obviously felt that Phil and his wives were being bad sports over what had been, for her at least, ‘just a little bit of fun.’
Phil also realised, belatedly, after talking to some of the people wandering around, that all the Vanish divinities were what the people back on Earth would call fertility Gods and Goddesses, all of them associated with some aspect of human sexuality, love, sex, childbirth, and so on, in countless variations. He was trying to be understanding, but he’d grown up in a much more sexually repressed society, and didn’t subscribe to the casual ‘hook-up’ approach to sexual encounters that the Vanes did. It was not, he’d convinced himself, ‘just like shaking hands,’ so he was still feeling rather aggrieved, but also felt somewhat awkward, since he was usually the first to defend some degree of ‘cultural relativism,’ but here he was being an revanchist absolutist when push came to shove… so to speak.
The Queen herself not nearly so, he thought, despite the fact that she obviously believed that all three of them were being ‘pills’ about the fact that she was only doing her job, after all was said and done, to preserve the seed of heroes setting off into battle, in case they didn’t survive, and to ensure the long-term health of their community, although she obviously didn’t have any scientific understanding of genetic diversity, nor of the need to maintain it. Phil could see her point, though just barely: Their situational imperatives obviously made strength a matter of survival. Their whole culture glorified warfare and competition for relatively scarce resources in a closely-linked group of difficult worlds, worlds in which they’d had the good luck to land in one of the best, in the middle of summer, with the harvests in and plenty of food for everyone, but the winters must be brutal, and not every world was equally blessed — even in Vanaheimr there seemed to be a Vanish Goddess whose primary realm of influence was skiing and snowshoeing, plus hunting with the bow, something like ‘Diana the Huntress’ of the North, although how that fit into a Vanish sexual paradigm Phil was reluctant to guess. He’d actually met her, Skaði she’d said her name was — so survival was at the heart of many of their customs. Even the seemingly ubiquitous duelling and feuds he’d seen and heard of — participated in, however unwillingly — at their heart were probably fairly efficient methods of selecting for the fittest males, much like the centaurs did with less lethal results, and he could see that Rhea’s parents had fitted themselves into this system with what seemed like relative ease, so Emily, now Thundercloud, was a polygamous stallion with hundreds of wives, and Herbert, now Wildflower, appeared to think nothing of it at all, other than as a source of pride, that she was part of the most prestigious herd there was, and that her former wife was the most powerful stallion of them all, able to contain and meet the exacting standards of the mares of a larger herd than had ever existed before, even in the ancient centaur past. Phil shuddered, anxious lest his own memories and past be rewritten to ‘fit’ into a new timeline, but how would he know, and would he even care, once the process was complete? Intellectually he knew that his wives had once been male, but it was… difficult to focus clearly on the memory, because he also remembered them as young girls. He remembered Selene telling him about being Jack, but the knowledge had been of minor importance, and made as little difference to him as it would have if she’d told him that she’d had an appendectomy as a child, but was all better now. Somehow, he thought, he ought to have been shocked, but he hadn’t been, even then.
The Queen, in the meantime, was being her usual self, imperious and charming by turns, dispensing dispassionate justice as efficiently as any bureaucrat when two or more of her subjects crowded forward, asking for a judgement, which task she performed with all the apparent wisdom and compassion of Solomon himself, and then gave advice to the lovelorn, or prescriptions to cure infertility, or remedies for any of the thousand natural shocks the flesh and mind are heir to, with the same feelings of inherent love and kindness he’d seen so often in his own mother, never refusing any interruption, no matter how trivial it might have seemed, because her people needed her. He began to soften his former harsh judgement of her actions, finding excuses for her behavior. She was, after all, the mother of one of his many children, and his own duty demanded that he treat her with the same sort of kindness she was showing to the people who depended on her. It was, he thought, a matter of honor.
She’d hung several of the new lights he’d given her around the dais, with the rest scattered through the hall and a special concentration on the aisle that led from the main hatch to the dias, but she’d had them covered with patterned silk scarves to dim the light a little, so as not to startle the attendees, and because too much of this bright new light made the place look a little… tired, but softening the lamps with a partial shade was a pleasing compromise. The total effect wasn’t half bad, although it was somewhat reminiscent of a hippie commune from the Sixties back on Earth, although the Queen herself wasn’t aware of it.
“It’s clever, what you’ve done with the lights,” he said in a quiet moment when there didn’t seem to be anyone pestering her too closely, “and I’m very impressed with the love you show your people; it shows a gentle heart, and an impressive understanding of human nature, and how best to reconcile their conflicting desires.”
She blinked, surprised perhaps to hear him speak anything more personal than, ‘Please pass the salt,’ or something equally banal, since the four of them had been maintaining a relatively stony mutual silence, for the most part, beyond mere superficial courtesies. “Thank you, Sir Phil. It’s a difficult task at times, and often thankless, but it’s my duty, so I make the best of it.”
“I see that, and have to apologize, since I see now that you were acting as you thought best for the good of your people, for which I can’t fault you, however much it jarred my personal sense of propriety, and those of my wives.” He shrugged with Yiddish eloquence and made a dismissive gesture with his hands.
“I have to ask your pardon as well,” she said, “since I’d assumed that you were familiar with our customs, because you speak our language so fluently. I thought that, perhaps, you were so worn out in ministering to your wives that you needed a little ‘encouragement,’ and of course we are the mistresses of this art.”
The light dawned in Phillip’s mind. “I think I understand, and the confusion was perfectly natural, since I’m not speaking your language at all.”
In response to her puzzled look he went on, “In the world of the Master Wizard Akcuanrut and Empress D’Larona-Elvi, there is an ancient spell that causes the languages of that world to be intelligible to others, and vice versa. Now that there’s a small English-speaking population there, I assume that English has been added to the mix.”
“So this mutual understanding is a spell?”
“It is, but not in the usual sense, because it’s both infectious and promiscuous, requiring no effort on anyone’s part to duplicate itself when it encounters a new world. To me, it’s as if you’d been speaking English all along, which is a language on my world that’s distantly related to your own, I suspect, because we know something of your story, at least third-hand, which supposedly happened in our own distant past. I should have realized what was happening, but it seemed so unremarkable, since the first world we visited was Akcuanrut’s, where the spell first took effect, that I didn’t even notice.”
“Your past? But how can you be here, then, now?”
“The time differential between the worlds depends on exactly how you approach the journey, I think, and I know that we spent between two and three months at most on Akcuanrut’s world during my first visit there, yet when I got back to my home more than six months had gone by. There’s a magician on my world named Albert Einstein who discovered the principle in theory, at least, before I was born. He called it ‘relativity,’ and proved that — if it were true, — it would come into play most noticeably when one traveled at very high speeds. Some years later, his theory was tested using very accurate ‘clocks’ — a device used to measure time the way one might measure a length of wood — and proved to be an accurate description of how the world works.”
She turned to Phil’s wives, who were sitting on the other side of him, and asked, “Do you know of these ‘clocks’ that Sir Phil describes?”
“We do,” said Rhea, “and of Professor Albert Einstein besides. It’s quite a famous experiment, because it enabled the development of a weapon we call an ‘atomic bomb.’ ”
“A weapon? What’s a ‘bömb?’ ” she asked.
Rhea looked smug. “A ‘bomb’ is a device used in warfare on our world. Its primary characteristic is that it ‘explodes,’ releasing quite a lot of energy in a flash of heat and/or light. The device we used to create the flash of light when we discovered you molesting our husband was a type of bomb that releases only light, so it can be used to startle people, although it can also harm those who are very sensitive to light. Phil invented them after a run-in with a gang of dwarves who’d tried to kill us.” She paused. “It seemed pretty effective, don’t you think?”
“It was,” the Queen said drily. “I congratulate you on your quick thinking. I also have to apologize for the misunderstanding which led to my hasty actions in regard to Sir Phil. I honestly didn’t understand, since your notion of ‘marriage’ isn’t quite as flexible as it is in Vanaheimr, nor does it really exist among the Vanes in the sense you seem to mean.”
“Think nothing of it,” Selene said magnanimously. “We were only mad because we thought that Phil here was actually participating, but when we saw that he was a victim rather than a perpetrator, our sympathies quite naturally laid with him.”
“And now that we know that you’re pregnant with his child,” Rhea added, “we can’t really hold a grudge, since we’ll have an odd sort of ongoing family relationship, and will have to get along.”
Selene explained further, “Believe me, we’ve had ample practice in getting used to the idea, since our Phil has fathered six hundred and forty-nine babies in total, plus one of yours, which makes a nice round number.”
The Queen blushed. “I’m afraid not, since I’m carrying twins. That would make it six hundred and fifty-one babies, I think, although one never knows with men.”
“Really?” they said in chorus. “We’re carrying twins as well, so we have six of Phil’s babies between us! We do wish you come with us! It would be such fun having three matched sets, and we’d be sure to draw attention wherever we went!”
The Queen was nonplused. “But… why in the worlds were you so mad, then, if he’s done this so many times before? Quite frankly, I’m surprised, since it belies Phil’s words so recently expressed about ‘fidelity’ and the ‘bonds’ of matrimony.”
“Oh, that was completely different,” they said in unison, “because it was as much our doing as it was Phil’s!”
“In fact, we were the only ones he actually touched,” Rhea explained.
“It was magic, because we’d discovered a large number of victims of the Dark Gods we’re chasing down who were frozen in a sort of stasis, being tortured in slow motion,” Selene amplified her sister wife’s statement.
Rhea took up the narrative as if she’d merely drawn a breath, “So Phil and Akcuanrut cooked up this spell to bring them back to life and make them whole again….”
“…and almost of all of them” Selene said in turn, “badly needed healing, because the Dark Gods like to hurt people, and had chopped off parts of them, and done other terrible damage….”
“One,” Rhea continued, “our friend Blue Bell, had only been killed and turned to stone, so she didn’t have much else wrong with her, but was caught up in the general healing.”
“Necromancy? Surely those two would have nothing to do with raising the dead?!”
“Well, she wasn’t really dead, of course, but we’d thought she was dead, because her life processes had bee slowed to an incredible degree using some sort of Dark God magic. I myself was affected,” Rhea said, “but Phil cured me of the spell using the ritual he spoke of.”
“It’s that powerful?”
“It certainly is,” Selene said proudly. Our Phil is very powerful, the first wizard to pass directly from Apprenticeship to Mastery, and in the space of a few months instead of the typical dozen years or more, likewise the first ever to have done so. We’ve had his ancestry traced, and we believe that he may be descended from Miriam the Prophetess, the woman who invented the alchemical bain-marie which bears her name. We know that he’s descended from the Prophet Aaron, who lived at least three thousand years ago, maybe four; it’s difficult to say, since the stories date from before there was an official calendar.”
“That might explain,” said the Queen, “why the Empress described him as a Seer, then — what we would call a Völva — if he has a large number of Völvas numbered amongst his ancestors. The gift does run in families, although usually only in girl children.”
That piqued Phil’s interest. One of many reasons that Reform congregations paid no particular attention to kohanim was the blatant elitism inherent in almost every such invidious distinction, but if the human gift of prophesy were a Mendelian heritable trait, then the traditional recognition of its significance within a particular lineage made at least some sense, or at least it did when stripped of sexism, and of course that very sexism would have almost precluded the possibility of recognizing the pattern, since half the carriers of the gene sequences involved would have been utterly ignored, although Jewish tradition did recognize a very limited number of women prophets, one of them Miriam, the sister of both Moses and Aaron, and a case very much on point — both of the two brothers also counted among the prophets — plus Sarah, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah, and Esther. The list of male prophets was much larger, of course, which proves that it doesn’t matter whether one has the true gift of prophesy or not, if no one is listening; witness Cassandra and her many descendants. “What would be the likely result of the union of two such parents?” he asked.
Queen Gefjon raised an eyebrow. “I’m not sure, since it rarely happens that male ‘Völvas’ are all that attractive to women, at least in our Nine Worlds.”
Rhea frowned, instantly affronted by the obvious slur. “But you’ve actually put this quaint theory to the test, haven’t you, dearie? Was this a selfless inquiry in the spirit of dispassionate research, or did you find our Phillip strangely attractive, considering?”
“Yes,” Selene added, smiling dangerously, “do please share with us your expert opinion of his relative prowess, I mean… compared with all the others in your vast experience, of course.”
“Mind you, Selene, Honey,” Rhea interjected, “our Phil was unconscious at the time, so he may have seemed a little distracted, or so one might imagine. To be perfectly fair, he should really be compared only to other unconscious people.”
“Or dead people, Dearest,” Selene said thoughtfully, “we mustn’t neglect necrophilia. Our lovely hostess, after all, is an expert on everything related to sex, so is presumably well-acquainted with these matters.”
Phil eased himself into their pointed ‘casual’ conversation with some caution, “Now, now, dear hearts, I hardly think that she could ever have claimed any such thing….”
Both of his wives turned to face him directly, frowning with distaste. “Oh, but she did, Dear, ” they said in unison. “We heard her distinctly, ‘All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals,’ she said. Of course, you were dead to the world at the time, so you probably weren’t paying all that much attention when she said it. You’ll have to admit, surely, that if having sex with unconscious people is all about love and pleasure, it rather begs the question of exactly where acts of love leave off and exploitation begins.”
Rhea continued alone, “We were just exploring the boundaries, since it’s important to understand and appreciate every nuance of the cultures one encounters in one’s travels.”
“And dead people seemed the perfectly logical corollary,” Selene added helpfully, “although I’m having trouble visualizing exactly how the corpse benefits from all this frenetic activity. Perhaps our esteemed hostess can explain, on the basis of her wide experience in these matters.” She smiled in the Queen’s general direction.
The Queen, who’d been sitting relatively quietly though this baiting, suddenly screamed, her patience at an end, and yelled, “How dare you….” as she drew her sword….
…only to be instantly disarmed by Selene, who was nearest, and who held her easily with one hand on her right wrist, which she’d twisted into an awkward, and painful — to judge from the Queen’s expression — position. “Tut, tut,” she said. “Naughty, naughty…. These late night hours you’ve been keeping have obviously made you a little irritable, but you might actually hurt yourself playing with sharp things like that.”
Rhea added soothingly, “We worry about you, Queenie. You may be hot stuff locally, but out in the wide world, you’re bound to meet truly dangerous women from time to time, women who don’t have our madcap sense of fun and adventure, and who just might not understand your darling little jokes.”
“Now, girls,” Phil said, puzzled over how quickly the mood had turned toward mayhem, “the Queen has apologized for….”
“…and then taken the trouble to make a snide remark about you, Dearest,” Selene said.
“…a nasty slur, in fact, which impugned your manhood, not to mention that she arched one perfect eyebrow at us, and then twitched her lip, in a manner which seemed offensive, at least to me, and evidently to my sister here,” added Rhea.
“We took umbrage,” said Selene, by way of explanation, “just as she’s apparently taken our light-hearted banter rather badly. Tch, tch,” she clucked her tongue.
“People who can’t take a friendly joke really shouldn’t dish them out quite so freely,” Rhea advised her sincerely, “since one might easily bite off quite a bit more than one can chew.”
“We’d just hate for you to get hurt, Sweetie,” Selene said quietly, “just when you’ve got your whole life before you.”
“I’m told that it flashes before your eyes, right there at the end…,” Rhea said cheerfully, “so you might want to take careful notes next time… for posterity,” she explained.
There was an ominous shift in the mood of the hall, which bothered neither Rhea nor Selene not one little bit, and their three hundred-odd sisters — who were scattered through the seated assembly nearest the dais — all smiled.
Phil took his time standing up, but when he did, he did so with sangfroid. “Ladies!” he said loudly, “Please be at ease!”
He turned to the Queen and said calmly, but in a voice that carried through the hall, “Queen Gefjon, my wives seem to be in dudgeon, and I’d suggest that you find some way to apologize very sincerely, since they are undoubtedly in the right, and could easily obliterate your warrior class, if you don’t leave off this quarrel, not to mention the effect of the several hundred warriors of similar ability at their beck and call, should you, or any of your friends, choose to escalate the general level of hostility.”
“But…,” The Queen began to say….
“…But me no ‘buts,’ Madam,” he said. “While I don’t know exactly what happened, I can guess. Something in the seemingly affable good humor of my wives irritated you, possibly caused by some lingering resentment on their part of your highhanded assault on my personal integrity — for which I blame them not at all, although I’m doing my personal best to see things from your viewpoint and forgive you — so you decided on your own to ‘put them in their place’ through some sort of passive-aggressive feminine word game that seems to have targeted me, judging from their irritated responses, so they ‘upped the ante’ through more word games until you snapped, which of course left you at their incomplete mercy. You’re very lucky that you’re not dead right now, since you rashly wielded a weapon against them, and please believe me, if they were truly furious with you, or felt even slightly threatened, you would be.”
“But…,” she began to say again….
“…I said, ‘No more!’ he roared. You have your choice now; swallow your pride and live, or continue this pointless oneupmanship and bickering and die, along with a very large number of your people. I personally would hate to see this happen, but it’s entirely up to you.”
The Queen looked around the room, where many of her warriors were nervously looking around, while the many women who looked just like Selene were studiously casual and unconcerned, although a few had half-smiles flirting at the corners of their lips, seeming somehow perfectly aware of the oppressive tension in the room, but blithely appreciative of it, and happy, as if it were the electrified atmosphere of an oncoming thunderstorm, set to plunge the dank air into darkness and wash it clean again in a torrent from above. She’d heard of the berserker madness, even seen it, but this was different, more like joy, like children anticipating an unexpected picnic in a lovely meadow, with cakes and tarts and all good things to eat. If not yet madness, all these women were touched with something like divine frenzy, a state she’d seen in the late and unlamented Ásagrimm. “I surrender, Sir Phil. I yield myself to you and to your wives, and beg for mercy for my people, if not myself.”
Phil just looked a little tired. “Don’t you get it, Gefjon? — Queen Gefjon, I should say — I don’t want your surrender, and neither do my wives. We don’t really give a damn about your people either. If they want to fiddle around waiting for the world to burn to a cinder, let them. If y’ll want to play dominance hierarchy games fighting over who’s first in line for the slaughter house, go right ahead. We just want to get on with our job without any drama from the people standing around on the sidelines with their thumbs up their… never mind.” He closed his mouth, obviously finished speaking.
The Queen just stared at him, while the Empress and Akcuanrut looked off toward the walls — or bulkheads whatever one was supposed to call them — whether in chagrin or indifference he couldn’t say, and didn’t particularly care. With a glance and the twitch of an eyebrow he queried Rhea and Selene and received equally silent replies. They rose as one and left the hall, walking out into the hazy night air. There was no sun to see, of course, but there was a hint of something — perhaps a moon — above the dim fog of the sky, some hint of diffuse light that made the darkness more familiar. The trees and vegetation seemed to thrive, though, so whatever good there was in sunlight was present in the glowing illumination that suffused this land during the daylight hours.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Selene said, “if slightly odd. It’s a shame they see it only as a fancy backdrop for the inevitable Götterdämmerung.”
Phil laughed. “Twilight indeed! How appropriate for our current surroundings, but that was Wagner’s editorial comment on the ancient Norse ‘End Times.’ The original meaning was the ‘Fate’ of the Gods, but the Wagnerian ethos preferred to think of the ancient Gods and Goddesses — although of course the latter hardly appeared upon their radar — as the quaint relics of a time before the real religion of rational men came along. He wasn’t the first to think so, nor will he be the last, I suspect. Most people think that their particular collection of fantasies is the only set worth having, whilst those of others are the pathetic imaginings of barbarians and fools.”
“Well, aren’t they?” Rhea grinned, to let him know that this was her little joke, since they were all three of them the beneficiaries of a modern liberal education.
“Yeah, right,” he said, and I’m the Queen of Romania.
“Your Majesty!” they both said, and bowed low.
“It’s about time I got a little respect around here,” he said smiling, and they walked blithely off into the tenebrous woods, all three of them laughing.
It was beautiful. There was just enough light to see well enough to avoid hidden roots or rocks in the paths that seemed to lead through the woods at random, opening suddenly onto broad meadows, or looking out onto a rushing stream. They were standing under what seemed to be a willow by the side of one of those streams — or it may have been the same stream along a different stretch of bankside, with ferns and wildflowers in profusion all around — when Selene suddenly asked, “Where does the water go?”
Rhea answered, “Downhill, obviously, but which direction is downhill?” She looked around, trying to detect the lay of the land — which should have been obvious, since they’d descended down into a valley — but it wasn’t obvious at all. Other than the rushing stream at their feet, and the grass and trees, they could have been standing in a Kansas cornfield.
Then Selene said, “And why isn’t anyone working? I don’t know all that much about real farming, but I think that it’s really hard work; farmers are working all the time, but no one ever seems to work here, even during the day. Even the meals are simply ‘available,’ laid out ready on the tables, but I’ve never seen anyone carrying trays of food back and forth, or clearing away dirty dishes, for that matter. All we ever seem to do down here is eat, sleep, and wander around”
“Down here…,” Phil said, looking around, just as Rhea had.
“We’re in Heaven!” Selene said suddenly.
“Well, yes…,” Phil said, “it’s Vanaheimr, the home of the Gods and Goddesses — or half of them, anyway — but what’s that….”
“People don’t work in Heaven,” she said, “whatever they call it here, they just wander around playing harps, or whatever they do for fun, and evidently these people eat a lot and have fights with each other, then they come outside and wander around, just like we’ve been doing, except that they probably have sex while they’re at it, either in the hall or out here in the woods, which seem perfectly-designed pour les rendez-vous intimes, with lots of nice soft bowers under the trees to snuggle in, and perfect weather to avoid catching a chill in a state of déshabillé. They’ve obviously never heard of the ‘no sex’ rule, since they seem to have finessed the ‘no date-rape’ rule as well.” She scowled.
“They’re living just like they did during life, only without the hardships,” Rhea added. “There aren’t even enough rocks on the ground to really hurt yourself if you stumbled, just enough variation to be interesting. The stream isn’t deep enough to drown in, and I’ll just betch’a that you could sit under one of those trees for a thousand years and never once be hit on the head by a falling branch!”
Phil looked around them again. “This Gefjon woman is supposed to be the Goddess of Love, right?”
“If you can call it that…,” his wives said dangerously.
“But didn’t those Goddess types all come in threes? You know, Maiden, Mother, Crone? That sort of thing?”
“Uhm, yeah? So what?” Rhea answered.
“So wasn’t it Persephone who ate the pomegranate seeds and wound up ruling in the Underworld for half the year or something, and then she was the Queen of the May, or the harvest, or fertility or something, for the rest of the year?”
“Yeah! That’s her,” Rhea said, “She was so beautiful that Hades abducted her and carried her off as his ‘bride,’ but her mother pitched such a fit about it that Zeus came down and asked, pretty please, if they could have her back, but that’s just lame Greek stuff,” she said with confidence. “In reality, Persephone was the Queen of Hades all along, and the people had to sacrifice the prettiest boy they could find to her every year so they could have a good harvest, which she gave to them in her guise of Demeter, but this one guy, Hermes, was so pretty that Persephone relented and didn’t demand his immediate death, so Hecate, the other, other side of the Triple Goddess, led her back to the surface so she could be Demeter again with Hermes by her side as her temporary King. They turned it all into the Eleusinian Mysteries, which promises a wonderful afterlife to those who know the secret ceremonies revealed in the various levels of initiation, so you know the magical passwords to give that dog of hers — Cerebrus, the one with all the heads — and other fancy stuff.”
Selene and Phil just stared at her in puzzled looks on their faces. “Unh…,” Selene said slowly.
To be met with Rhea’s impatient cross-eyed look. “It was all in the backstory to Hermes in the Underworld! Don’t you remember? We watched it together! Didn’t you ever look at the bonus materials!? The CGI action stuff was kickin’, but the extra stuff they put in with the boxed set anniversary edition was dynamite!”
“You learned all this from a video?” Phil asked.
“Yeah, so? That stuff’s all accurate these days, or the RPG guys’ll pan’em in the blogs and the vids never get off the ground.”
Selene blinked. “You’re right, of course, about the hard-core fan base, but I hardly ever buy the special editions of even the vids that I really like. It ticks me off that they’re just looking for ways to get more money out of their audience. They should give you a discount somehow, if you already own the first edition, because you’re paying for content that you already own, plus a half hour or an hour of out-takes that were too lame to put in the original edition, plus maybe three or four minutes that they couldn’t decide on the first time around, and then the stupid simulcast narratives that just tell you what the director was thinking about during filming, but if he’d done his darned job right the first time, you’d already know what he meant by it.”
Rhea stared at her. “A true cineáste, I see. You have hidden depths, dear heart of hearts, that even I was never fully aware of. I’m in awe.”
Selene furrowed her brow slightly, unsure about whether Rhea was teasing her or not.
“No, really!” she said. “My own tastes run more to beefcake and action sequences, but you’re much more aware of the art of the cinema than I am, and I’m just a little jealous. I only wish I knew enough about the craft of making films to appreciate them like that. If we ever see one again, I want you to talk me through one — or more — that you particularly like, so I can maybe see something more of what you see in them.”
Selene reached over to hug her. “Of course I will, Sweetie. You were always the intuitive genius at science and stuff, where I had to work at it more, but I had nerd hobbies as well, which you rarely had the time or patience for.”
“I’ll make the time, Darling. I owe you my life! much less the privilege of watching a few of your favorite artsy-craftsy chick flicks with you.” She gave her a sly look. “We’ll make Phil watch them with us, so he can learn something as well.”
“Good idea!” Rhea said, as pleased as punch.
“Yeah, great…” Phil said, somewhat less so.
The next morning, they rose early, their carts already fully-provisioned and themselves well-rested for their journey to Alfheimr, the next step that led toward their final destination on the roadmap laid out by the ancient centaur portal scientists, Múspellsheimr, the world of fire. “How should we dress?” both Rhea and Selene were curious, and hesitating before committing to walking out the door of the room they’d been assigned as ‘guest quarters during their stay in Vanaheimr. They wore their bustiers, but with the leather skirts they’d had designed in The City, which seemed appropriate for almost any occasion, and they both knew that they looked hot in them, lean and lanky and fierce.’
“I have no idea,” Phil said. “I think you both look more than fine. I suppose that we’re headed further ‘south,’ but I’m not exactly sure what that means, since I suspect that it refers to some sub-space twisting of the branches on Yggdrasil, the metaphysical ‘tree’ that the nine worlds are arrayed upon. I wouldn’t expect Miami, considering the way people dress around here, and it’s not as if we started out with steamer trunks of outfits for every occasion.” He grinned at this idea and said, “I completely forgot to bring a tux, for example, so formal dinners are out. Remind me to take you out dancing, once we get back to New York.” He made a show of buffing his nails. “I’m a very good dancer, or so I’m told. I took ballroom dancing and ballet as electives in my freshman and sophomore years, ’cause someone told me it would be good for my plan to excel at football and get a sports scholarship to NYU — or maybe even Cornell or Columbia — if I was really, really, good.”
Rhea grinned. “Oh, you’re good, Sweetie, but I don’t know if there’s a regional league program available.”
“There’s an intramural competition, I think,” Selene mused, “but they don’t have many scholarships available, and I’m not at all sure that you can safely compete any more, taking all in all.” She looked askance at him, but with a smile on her face. “And if you’ll recall, you promised to take us to dinner and dancing when we were back in New York, but stuff kept coming up… as it were,” she said slyly, running one hand across his tight end.
He chortled and smiled back, carefully moving her hand away. “No, I don’t suppose it would be, but people are waiting, and I apologize for forgetting about missing our dinner date. I got distracted. Then too, I don’t really need a scholarship any more, and have the local equivalent of a PhD by examination and thesis. With our families scattered across two worlds, I have no idea where we’ll settle for the long haul, so I can’t rule out the need for further education for all three of us, one way or another, but I reckon we’ll have to wing it, based on what happens during our quest.”
“Feh!” Rhea said dismissively. “We’re going to succeed. I’ve got a feeling about it. Shall we go?”
Phil looked around the little room but there was nothing left behind that they weren’t either wearing or had ready to hand. “We should.”
As they walked out into the main hall, they saw that it was empty, so they walked down the empty aisles of tables toward the main hatch, then out into the full light of day. The yard before the ship was empty of almost everyone except their party, but for a troop of horsewomen which included many of the same women they’d seen on their arrival, the women who’d formed the close-knit group which had surrounded the Queen as they’d arrived. As they descended the gangplank, the Queen herself rode up, dismounted, and stood patiently waiting at the foot of the broad wooden ramp. She looked, not toward Phil, but to his wives, and as they drew even with her, she spoke, “Ladies, I humbly beg your pardon for any affront I’ve offered to you, or to your husband. You’ve confused me, unsettled me, because you have the appearance of the women who are my handmaidens, women who are sworn virgins, those who have vowed never to submit to any man, and who in turn I am sworn to protect and shelter.”
They stared at her, equally confused, but Selene spoke for both of them, “Queen Gefjon, we’re at a bit of a loss. In our culture, a married woman retains her independence, and doesn’t ‘submit’ at all to male domination. Marriage is a mutual declaration of love and respect, and is meant to last forever, but if it doesn’t either party is free to act to dissolve their union, and to resume their separate lives. We haven’t had bride purchase for many hundreds of years, perhaps a thousand years or more, depending on one’s culture. Within the tradition in which our own marriages occurred, there are admittedly elements retained from the ancient concepts, but these have been transformed in ways which don’t bind the woman, but rather free her to live a separate life if she chooses to do so. Men are bound to marry, but women are not, and our husband here has given us an irrevocable gift of gold and jewelry sufficient to keep us and our children in comfort — even luxury — to the end of our days, should we ever tire of him, or he of us, for that matter, although we might have to kill him if he did.”
“Now see here…,” Phil began to say….
…only to but cut off by Rhea, who glanced at him and said, “Not now, Dear, this is between us women.” She turned fully to face the Queen. “You may well have noticed that we are very young, and perhaps thought that we had been sold to Phil by our fathers in some sort of medieval arrangement whereby we were chattels to be bought and sold against our will at the whim of some male, but the only thing about this notion with any truth is that we are quite young to be married, within our own cultural context, and would normally have furthered our education, perhaps established careers, all before marriage in the fulness of time, but had been thrown together on an unplanned adventure that required us to take adult roles upon ourselves, and so claimed the privileges of full adulthood within the context of our culture, to be married, and to start a family in the normal way, because we knew that each moment might be our last, and we desperately wanted whatever happiness we could grasp.”
Selene now took up the narrative. “Both my sister wife and I came from well-to-do families. My own father was a distinguished… lawspeaker in your context, what we would call a lawyer. Rhea’s father and mother are both of them medical doctors and scientists, and well able to command high salaries, although neither one is particularly greedy for money as such. Phil came from a much more modest background, and worked very hard to make his own way in the world, which is good for the character, I’m told.” Here she smiled at Phil, and said, “It seems to have worked in his case, at least, because a braver and more loving man I’ve never known, and his fortunes have been greatly improved, as they often are in fairy tales.”
“Then again,” the Queen said, “I beg your pardon. You have the right of it, of course, and my own high-handed treatment of him was an error in judgement based upon an overhasty appraisal of your situation. I should have realized that you were the warriors, and that he was under your protection. I can only plead ignorance of your customs, because such arrangements are exceptional here, and women are far more often raped and/or forced to marry than otherwise, not that I tolerate any such thing within the limits of my own domain, of course, but this is a small enclave within a much more extensive set of worlds.”
“And we,” said Rhea, “apologize to you for baiting you. We should have realized how it must have appeared to you, two young girls bound, as it would have seemed to you, to a young man of uncertain ancestry. We ourselves have seen with our own eyes how cavalier the Jötunns are about trying to take women who don’t particularly care to be taken, but the last such, one Loki, was promptly put in his place by the Empress D’Larona-Elvi, and is now her thrall, not that she wanted him, so we left him behind us when we left, his former hall given to a lieutenant who was willing to swear fealty to the Empress.”
The Queen laughed in pure delight, the sound of her untrammelled joy releasing all who heard it from every care or sorrow. “I’d have given much to see that,” she said. “He’s been a trouble to travellers through Jötunheimr for many years. I want you both to know that I bear you no ill will at all, for humbling me before my people. I deserved that, and more.”
“Please,” Selene assured her, “It’s already forgotten. We’re friends again, and we’re both very sure that you’ve witnessed many scenes of trauma, or comforted the victims thereof, and that grief obviously triggered your emotional response to what you falsely perceived.”
“I’m in your debt, and I’d like to make amends, if you’ll allow me to do so.”
“There’s no need,” Selene said softly. “Your presence here, with your daughters and dear friends, is more than enough.”
“Thank you, ladies, but I’ve recently discovered that ‘moping around fretting about the end of the world’ is beginning to wear upon my patience, as your husband so wisely observed, and being ‘frightened of so-called prophecies that predict inevitable doom’ is becoming tiresome. I want to go with you. My brother was and is an idiot, your husband now bears his sword because I thought him worthy of it, even when I harbored resentment toward him, which I no longer do, and I’d like to demonstrate that there are at least a few Vanes with both courage and sense.”
“Of course you may,” they said in chorus, then Selene added, “Your companions are welcome as well, if they choose to go.”
Queen Gefjon nodded her assent, and then turned for the first time to Phil. “Sir Phil, my Champion, you generously offered for me once, and have gifted me with treasures beyond those ever given to any woman in our history, enough to make me proud. Will you take me now as your wife, despite my shabby treatment of you?”
“I will, of course; it’s your right, and my duty, but there’s also a nobility and beauty in you that makes me want you in our lives, and my wives have already agreed to accept you as their sister. I truly believe that we will all grow to love one another, and that our meeting was somehow a part of the true destiny we share, as opposed to the pessimistic sense of fate that I made light of. The great thing about one’s destiny, I think, is that it can change, and that human hearts can change it, because love is rooted in the heart of all the worlds.”
Queen Gefjon blinked back tears. “Thank you, my husband. It’s far more than I deserve.”
“Not at all; far less, in fact, than you truly deserve, which is to be loved and cherished and happy, in token of which I offer you this ring,” he plucked it out of his sporran, as ever supplied with every necessity, and went down on his knee before her. “It’s an exact duplicate of the rings worn by Rhea and Selene, you’ll notice, and Selene also has a gift for you, a ring sized to fit my hand, which I’d be proud to wear as token of my troth to you and them. Will you be my wife, before this company, and accept me as your husband?”
“I will,” she said, and blushed.
Copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002 Jeffrey M. Mahr — All Rights Reserved
Copyright © 2012 Levanah Greene — All Rights Reserved
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