When C brought me into the fold, he took it upon himself to catch me up with my brothers. There were private tutors involved, of course. And lots of yelling—on my part. Other than the fact that I had no patience to sit still and be taught, after being out of school for this long, it was frustrating, seeing boys younger than me do better in math and history. I’m man enough to admit that I didn’t try hard enough, especially when I considered the subject to be useless.
As far as teenaged-me was concerned, World Mythology was classified under the Useless Subject tag. I couldn’t see why the fuck I had to learn about gods who, unlike my brothers and me, weren’t real. I retained the important part about Valhalla—it was full of warriors, who fought all day, and ate and drank all night—but for some reason, I envisioned it as a humongous base camp, where the dead warriors trained in open fields. Some reason might be because I dozed off a lot during those lessons.
The enormous structure up ahead is nothing like the images in my head. It glows gold, despite the lack of a visible light source, and rises in a field of grass so green, it looks painted. Hulda throws back her head, whinnies, and charges forward, straight into the solid, windowless wall facing us.
I clutch Tilje more tightly, but force myself to loosen my grip when she lets out a gasp. “We’re going to crash,” I say in a remarkably conversational tone, considering we’re about to fly into a wall.
“It’s okay.” She pats my freaking hand like I’m a kid in need of soothing.
You know what? Let us crash. I’m probably not gonna die. And I may be able to cover her body with mine right before impact.
I’m about to do just that—and possibly fall off the horse—when double doors that weren’t visible a moment ago swing open and Hulda glides through the opening.
I don’t even register the landing. My mind is short circuiting at the sight in front of me, because it is what was in my head. The outer walls aren’t visible from this side; there are open fields for as far as the eye can see. There are also log cabins—bunkers?—and men, wielding swords. A tree rises high above the masses, toward the open skies stretching where the ceiling should be. A swiveling throne is woven out of its branches, as if nestled into them. And in it, overlooking us all, is a male in golden robes, an eye-patch covering one eye.
I know who he is, too. Odin. He fits my mental image of him perfectly. Like C, he has perfectly white hair, but C is always clean shaved, while a thick, white mustache and beard cover the bottom of this guy’s face. And if you’re thinking Santa, nothing about Odin’s build or demeanor says jolly old guy. The man’s got muscles on his muscles.
Without giving my movements much thought, I hop down from the horse and pat her flank. Flawless execution. Guess I’m a natural, after all.
Tilje arches an eyebrow at me, before sliding down too and motioning at someone behind me. I turn to see two fully armored men striding toward us. Swords hang from belts slung low on their hips, but their demeanor is casual, their hands loose on their sides, instead of hovering over their hilts.
If they do attack, I have nothing but my bare hands to defend myself with, unless I can get to Tilje’s blade. What was I thinking, coming in here unarmed?
But I feel no threat emanating from the men. When one reaches out, he has berries in his cupped hand, and Hulda inhales them in no time.
Tilje says something in their language, and the guards smile and clap me on the shoulder. They answer in the same language and lead Hulda away, petting her neck and wings. She swishes her tail from side to side, the clopping of her hooves indiscernible beneath the clanging of blades.
“Come.” Tilje gestures for me to follow. Something’s different about her. She’s no longer the bubbly blonde with the wicked-sharp sword who came to ask for our help. She’s an army general, shoulders square and gait certain. She doesn’t check to see if I follow, but of course I do. Who wouldn’t follow her?
She reaches the roots of the throne-tree and looks up at Odin. He has his back to us, but turns and looks straight at her, as if he felt her presence. Or they share a mental link, like she does with her horse.
Odin splays his hands, and walls come up around us, as his throne lowers to the ground. I should be panicking—I’m trapped in a golden cage—except I’ve been here before, too. And if I drop back, throw pillows and fur rugs will cushion my fall.
Yup. I try it, and I’m sprawled on fur, arms folded behind my head.
Odin’s face is lined, but like that of a man in his late forties, not his few-centuries-ies, and creases more when he arches an eyebrow at me. “Someone has made themselves comfortable.” He sounds amused, not upset.
That changes when I pat the spot behind me, for Tilje to join me.
“Valkyries do not sit in my presence unless I invite them to.” His scowl is made no less dramatic by the eye-patch. “Tilgivelse, bring our guest a cup of mead.”
I bite down on my irritation that he talks to her like she’s his servant, because that’s what she is. Until I mate with her and make her a goddess.
Odin snaps his fingers, and when Tilje blinks out of sight, leans back in his chair. “Welcome, old friend,” he says.
I can’t read his intentions—because he’s a god?—but he sounds genuinely happy to see me. Then again, I feel a kinship to him I haven’t shared with anyone except my brothers.
“You realize that, for me, this is the first time I’ve ever been here?” I say.
His smile dims a fraction, and his nod is solemn. “I understand you may not have all your memories back yet, but something inside you must recognize this place.” He studies my face, while I mull his words over.
“It does feel familiar, but not on a conscious level.”
Odin gives a dismissive wave. “Conscious thought is overrated. If you took the time to think, we would not be having this discussion.”
It takes me a heartbeat to realize what he means. We’ve been talking in Old Norse, which moments ago, I had no clue I spoke. I gape at him for longer than I’d like, before forming a response. “My ascension is near. My powers must be growing.”
He nods slowly. “Three of your brothers have already ascended, though. Why did none of them come to our aid?”
The feeling of inadequacy I’ve been fighting most of my life and rarely admit to squirms in my gut like a snake. “You know, you could say thank you. I did drop everything to come and help. And I volunteered because I wanted to see Valhalla.” I won’t mince words when facing Odin, the All-Seeing, but I’m also not telling him who Tilje is to me. If he really can’t see the future outside Valhalla, he doesn’t know about our upcoming bonding, and seeing his power-display over her before, it’s for the best that he doesn’t find out.
With a smile, he says, “Thank you, but that was curiosity, not reproach. We are a pantheon you have not dealt with in this incarnation. It would make sense for someone with divine powers to feel safer among us than—”
“A mere mortal?” I keep my expression calm, although my annoyance is escalating to anger. “I am not a mere mortal. You try to harm me, and I will go down fighting and take many of your men with me.” Though nobody stays dead in this place.
“You do not need to make threats. You may not remember it, but you have always been welcome here. There is very little you can do to change that.” He steeples his fingers together and stares at me until I sit up and prop my elbows on my knees.
I consciously choose not to see that as a challenge. It’s possible he’s buttering me up because he needs our help, but I do feel like I belong here. “Tell me what you need from me,” I say.
“I will tell you the story, and I hope we will figure that out together.” He holds out his hand, and Tilje appears.
Damn, Hollywood. I trusted you, and you let me down. This Valkyrie’s armor goes up to her neck, totally covering her boobs, and her skirt is horribly, impractically long. And thick like a burlap sack. I can’t make out the shapely legs beneath it.
She hands me a cup without meeting my gaze, and is gone when Odin does a little finger-wiggle thing.
“I do not know how much Tilgivelse has told you, so I will start from the beginning. It was centuries ago, when I foresaw a threat to the world balance that would end creation. I’m sad to say I initially believed it came from your father, Zeus. I was wrong. Though he interfered with matters not his to affect, he was not the culprit.” Odin studies my face, as if mention of Zeus should have some impact on me, but I feel no kinship to the long-lost god, and from what I hear, he wasn’t exactly the solid parenting figure the first time around.
“Rhea,” I say. The Titaness, mother of gods, who stopped Kronos from eating their children, was obsessed with returning Zeus into existence. Odin must be talking about her.
Odin shakes his head, expression grim. “Possibly, though all I saw of this other party was darkness. My options were to fight or save what I could. I told the Æsir and Vanir, but not everyone believed me. Those who did not listen, gradually faded from human memory—and therefore from existence—but the rest agreed to join me in this… suspended existence, I suppose you would call it.”
I’d call it time bubble, like Tilje did.
“Every day is to be the same in here, with the exception of what news Tilgivelse and Loki bring me.” Odin huffs—a little theatrically, if you ask me. “Time has no meaning, so it may have been weeks, months, or a year ago, when I felt a tremor unfurling up Yggdrasil’s trunk.”
At my blank look, he explains, “The tree that holds all worlds.”
“I see,” I say, although I don’t. If the tree holds all worlds, what does it stand on?
I should have fucking paid more attention in mythology class.
“When Loki found that your Titans were rising, we believed it would be them who would end the world after all. Only, they seemed focused on bonding and being happy. Happy gods do not threaten the universe, but Loki kept watching them anyway, and that led us to you.” Odin’s gaze is expectant, like I’m supposed to put pieces together.
When I do, I purse my lips. “You think we’ll upset the balance.”
Odin lets out a frustrated growl. “I do not know. I cannot see.” He makes a sweeping gesture with both arms, and the walls around us become invisible, except for where they meet each other, where their edges shimmer like lines sliced across the scenery. “While I am in here, I cannot see, but my going outside may topple Yggdrasil for good. I do not know how to fight an enemy without an army. I do not know how to maintain the balance. I just do not know.”
Rage radiates off him in near-palpable waves. I know how he feels. I know what it’s like to realize the one thing you could always count on was an illusion.
“We’re not planning on upsetting anything, but I can’t promise more than that,” I say.
“It is not enough,” he roars. We’re walled in again, as he buries his face in his hands. “I need to see the future, and for that to work, I need one of you to allow me to link my conscience to his.”