~ Heathen Stories and New Myths ~
(In honor of Vanatru. Fortunately the reports of his death that led to the writing of this piece were false, but the sentiment remains the same.)
The road was windy. Bursts of cool air bowed grass blades and the trees rustled knowingly. That's all that the lore man could think of right now. What had it been? A blood clot? A heart attack? How long ago? He couldn't remember now and it was no longer important anyhow. Before him stretched the long Road. He knew what road it was. It lay before him clear and broad. It was an avenue clouded with his hopes, dreams, and memories draped across the landscape. It was changing. It was always changing, shifting to match the heart of the one walked upon it. Here a house and there a field, all of them familiar in some way. Each chimed a bell in his memory however distant its tone. The lore man had passed others. And they too had shaped the road with their dreams and memories. But the lore man walked in confusion. He knew from all his time pouring over books and treatises where this road led and he knew as well that it was not the right destination for him. When he first crossed the borders he had listened for them. He had listened for the hoof beats he knew had to be coming, the clarion calls of golden trumpets, and voices like glimmering silver. But he never heard them. Only the road had made itself known. How long had it been? A day? A week? Did time matter here? Was there always a delay, he wondered? The lore man knew where he was supposed to be and he knew that this place was not it. They were supposed to come for him.
Before time had changed his circumstances he had been a leader. A great Gothi of his folk. Oh how he had read and studied. How many books had crammed his makeshift library from floor to ceiling and he had read them all. He knew all that there was to know about the Aesir and Vanir. He could recite the myths by heart, word for word as they had been written down by others. He knew the history of the lore, too. He'd gathered every scrap ever written about the ancient Germanic and Scandinavian peoples. Oh the dates he could spin off, the births of kings and the deaths of kings. The hours of long forgotten battles and the moon phases they had been in. He could describe anything ever used by the old people from cooking pots to fence posts; from ships to shovels he was an expert. And what’s more he more than knew, he believed.
There was his faith. He was an Asatruar born and bred ever since he had split with his first faith, a desert god impressed upon him during impressionable years. He had been the very model of a modern Asatruar. Every morning he had woken and performed his daily ritual. He prayed and honored the gods with great fervor and frequency. He never missed a single holiday or feast day. So much was his care and devotion that he stretched out and granted his massed knowledge with an open hand to all who were confused. The lore man had spent so many hours pouring over his computer correcting those poor ignorant fools out there on the net who just could not get things right and leapt to the most idiotic conclusions. How the lore man had written. Two books lay in dusty manuscript forms somewhere across the borders which proudly bore his name. They were definitive. They told the fledgling Asatruar everything would need to know to follow the righteous way. How to act, when to act, what to say and what not to say. What was right and what was wrong; what was good and what was evil. All such invaluable knowledge he had lovingly penned into his tomes. He knew in his heart that they were truly the bibles of the Asatru faith.
And yet here he was, on the road to the land of mists where one or another hall would welcome him. But they had not come for him as he knew was his due for being so devout and learned. The Valkyries had not come.
The wind blew a grassy scent into the lore man's nostrils and he recognized his own yard and a vision of his cluttered study before him. The books, so many books. His great wisdom and the wisdom of other like minded people. The sun whinnied in the sky and pebbles stirred at the lore man's feet.
What was that? The lore man looked down and saw the small rocks jump in anticipation. They cavorted in the air with glee for that ephemeral interval of vibration. The tremor in the ground became stronger and worked its way up the lore man's legs, but before it reached his knees the lore man was hopping himself, for he had heard what he had been expecting to hear for so long. Hoof beats were thundering towards him with great speed and force. But even as the lore man completed a quick skip of joy he heard another sound mingling with the hoof beats. This sound was far off, yet it rang with an unaccountable clarity in his ears. The lore man heard gunfire, rapid and distinct. It mixed with shouts, cries of command and screams of pain. The road was changing again. It was shifting to the wish of an incredible will which brought destination to traveler even as the traveler went to his destination.
The lore man gaped; he was not sure for the first time in his life. Was he ready to meet who he knew was coming? Was he presentable? Was he afraid?
A line of horses burst into view and at once the lore man's fear both dissipated and became certain at the same time. The Valkyries came. They rode on strange horses whose flesh seemed to have the sheen of steel and were clothed for a battle that had no time. For all manner or war gear adorned them. Chainmail flowed into kevlar which flowed into plate mail. Leather mingled with spider silk. Lexan held place with steel rings and insignia of an eternity of strife bloomed across their appearance. The flags of a thousand nations and the designations of a million ranks lay cunningly hidden and woven into their battle tackle as they raced. The great steeds charged with impossible speed straight at the lore man. Straight near the lore man, and then straight by the lore man. The rising dust clouded the air about him.
He did not even realize it at first. He was so elated to see the host of Asgard come to fetch him that he had not even thought that their errand might be elsewhere. The lore man's look of elated surprise lost its felicity rapidly until the crawling roots of confusion furrowed deep creases across his countenance.
He watched, eyes wide, as the cavalcade of warriors raced by him and his face turned to follow their backs as the wind of their passing tossed the lore man's hair about in a dusty shambles. And then there was a different cadence to the pounding hoof beats; a set that did not mesh. Too fast. Too many. Too quick. The lore man looked back at where the riders had burst into view and he saw Him. The lore man stood astonished, afraid. For the visage that rode towards him was one he was not prepared for at all. How many images had the books had? The wise one? The great chieftain? The near Greek effigy reclining in a throne with twin ravens perched calmly about His head? But for all his knowledge the lore man could not look upon the face of Ygg the terrible, the lord of War upon his errand.
Books do not prepare one for the sight of conflict and the road became a road of strife. The buildings were drawn by the Wanderer's will and purpose. War weary structures came at His purpose and the lore man shrank back.
The eight hooves sent sparks flying out to bite at the now dust choked air. His armor looked like a thing well used. Cuts and creases marked its surface and the grime of battle, too long upon it, could never be completely cleaned away. The great spear rose and fell with the rhythm of Sleipnir's footfalls and the sound it made was a sleek scream upon the air as it cut though it with a razor's edge. The croaking of ravens was unmistakable as the great and terrible figure rode by the stumbling lore man. The crack of his cloak sounded like an explosion as He hurtled past with his handmaidens.
The lore man fell back on his rump into the now hot and dry road. Gritty sand scraped the lore man’s palms as he tried to sit up. His eyes were watery and his ears full of the sounds of strife that still seemed a ways off. He watched the last of the company thundering away and he was suddenly caught up with the incorrectness of it all. It could not be. It simply could not be.
The lore man vaulted up and seized what courage remained in his heart. His legs moved of their own accord powering him hard toward the fading company of riders as his lungs gripped the acrid air and solidly forged a plea which he hurled at the fate he knew to be his.
"Wait! Waaaaiiiiiit!!!!" It sounded on the air like an echo of longing as the last rider faded from view. The lore man watched and waited, his heart hollow.
Then there was a whinny of protest from beyond the lore man's view and a lone rider wheeled about. The lore man's smile returned as he saw a single Valkyrie cantering back toward him.
The lore man's enthusiasm and confidence returned full force at this sight of hope. At last this dreadful mistake would be rectified and he would come into his own.
The rider paced up to him and somewhere behind the helmet the lore man knew she had to be lovely. They all were, so the books said. But what the lore man saw of the face was enforced politeness. The angst in check in a person who has something very important to do and is being interrupted.
"What is it?," she said in a voice that was not angry but none too pleased either.
"Lady," the lore man said and paused. Was that the right form of address? "I...," he stammered. A gleam of impatience crossed her eyes and the lore man decided he'd better out with it. "Lady I am here. There is no need to ride further. I am Valfather's true servant and if he is seeking me up the road he need not look so far."
The Valkyrie's eyes panned as she inherited the look of confusion that the lore man had left on the road minutes earlier when the troupe had ridden by him. A crack of gunfire punctuated the air.
"He," the valkyrie paused, "is not seeking you."
The lore man's face sank for the briefest of moments as he gathered this trite news in and within a few heartbeats he decided it was wrong.
"That's not possible," insisted the lore man, his chest inflating reflexively. "He must have come to collect me. None in Midgard have studied and worked as much as I." His cheeks flushed and his voice took on the tone of a parent disciplining a child. For telling people what was right was a thing the lore man was well practiced at. He knew exactly what was going on here.
Unfortunately for the lore man the Valkyrie knew it better and her countenance became grim. The lore man felt it first in the air as he caught the faint whiff of blood and sweat as he watched the eyebrows of the valkyrie begin to knit with displeasure. Of all the things in the nine worlds, she was no child to be talked down to, especially by this man. The color faded in her battle tackle and the lore man now quite remembered what form of spirit he was dealing with. Her breath hissed out in air that smelled of steel and strife.
"You," she said with icy deliberateness, "are not the one to tell me the business of the host I ride with. My errand lies there." She pointed into the distance with a battle streaked hand to where the sound of an explosion was made poignant by a sudden rising plume of smoke. "There is where a hero lies who has drawn Valfather's attention this day. His deeds now in a minute ring louder than yours in a decade. When the Gjallarhorn sounds he will be worth a thousand of you."
The lore man was about to respond. He was reaching down into his well filled word horde to grasp at fact and reason that all pointed to his verification. But the Valkyrie did not wait for him to speak. She wheeled her horse and with a rattle of the armor of ages she thundered off down the road and into the ruin.
The lore man was left there on the road listening to the din of conflict. He clapped his hands to his ears to shut out the unfamiliar sounds. It was not the clashing swords of the movies. It was neither the silvery tink of rapiers nor the measured countenance of marching. The sound from the road was the sound of real war and the lore man could not stand it when it was not muffled by the buffer of many pages and many years. He fell to his knees on the verge of tears at the awful and unfamiliar sounds. But little did he think then that there are some to whom those sounds were no longer strange but had become a part of who they are. The lore man could not conceive of those who gave up the shelter of ages for what they believed, and for whom they loved and honored.
And so he stayed there for a while until the sounds receded. The will that had brought them was farther away and tending to its errand. The lore man reclaimed his fortitude and because he had much to spare he reclaimed his indignance too. How could a handmaiden know the entirety of the master's will? He thought. No, no, no. This was still wrong. Perhaps it was a test. The cunning of Valfather was working its wiles on him to test him; to try his patience. For the lore man still knew he was the foremost servant of Asgard and his guidance to the faith, and the faithful was worthy of a reward in Valhalla or Sessrumnir. Oh yes, the lore man knew his halls and he knew his place to lie in one of those famed gables. Perhaps he should follow the host to... No. The sounds, the fear, the strife... the lore man could not follow. Ahah! But the host had come by this road to head to their destination, and doubtless they would be back. Ah yes, thought the lore man, and then he would confront Valfather personally and see to it that this mix up was straightened out. He would pass Odin's test and see to it that he received his reward.
The ruin of the road faded, carried back to where it began by the Wanderer's wake. The green returned as the lore man's location reasserted itself but the road was still there and the lore man was going to abide by his plan. He found a round cut log from somewhere in his memories and rolled it out into the center of the road. Unless they rode him down the host would have to stop. And there the lore man sat in surety as the sun continued to gallop across the sky.
What passed for time passed, and the lore man waited in the road perched on his stump. Some others came by; talking on their way of their past lives and new futures to come. The lore man gave them a brief nod, not knowing who they were nor caring to ask.
More space presented itself between the now and the then until the lore man finally saw the now unmistakable jump of the pebbles at his feet. He stood up knowing that now was the time for his performance. He loosened up his tongue in his mouth and prepared it to dribble honey.
No ruin came this time. There was neither gunfire rain nor artillery thunder to herald the storm of Odin's coming. Instead the life all around began to rally. Trees puffed up their boughs as if an old friend were approaching. The grass leaned its tufts towards the oncoming hoof beats as if they had something fantastic to say. The cavalcade burst forth from around a bend in the road just as they had the first time the lore man had seen them. Only now their pace was not hurried, their speed not impossible and indeed the sounds of laughter danced about the lore man's surprised ears. But he knew what he had to do. The lore man stretched his arms wide to present himself as as large an obstacle in the road as he possibly could and in a keening note that was half plea and half desperate wail considering the horses which were bearing down upon him he cried, "Hooooooollld!"
The riders reined in before the lore man, their faces bemused and inquisitive. Their armor shone now as if it had been newly polished, and color reigned in the courts of their garments. The smell about them was strange. It was clean and sterile as if they had been freshly packaged and placed in a hospital medical cabinet for a month. Perhaps that was merely where they had just been and that aura was even now wisping off as they continued toward whatever destination called to them.
The sounds of the end of hearty laughter were just fading as the whole of the company reached a halt. And there they stood for a moment a crowd of riders stopped before a somewhat silly looking man with his arms and legs splayed wide standing haphazardly in the middle of the road.
Without a command the column parted. Valkyries made way as the two men at the center of the column rode forward to greet their unassuming roadblock.
Gone was the countenance of Ygg and before the lore man Odin the great chieftain sat mounted upon Sleipnir. Well cared for armor glinted dully below the wise one-eyed face that considered the lore man. From a nearby tree ravens croaked news into the air for the Old Man to hear. Beside the Wanderer rode another man tall in his saddle. He did not have the young countenance of the brash youth. Rather this man was older, and wiser. He bore the look of a seasoned campaigner. One whose nerves had been pulled taut until they were in tune to play the music of the battlefield. Though rarely a pleasant sound it was one that only the right instrument could play well. The man's face was a mix of concern and relief. Although he had been getting on well with Valfather the lore man noticed that he gave a worried look over his shoulder to the distant field where somewhere an engagement of arms involving the man's team was still taking place.
"Lord," said the lore man sinking reverently to one knee. Odin's face briefly took on the strained look of a movie star who has been accosted by his 'most devoted fan.' "I have been awaiting your return with great eagerness. I realize that passing me by was a test earlier and I see that now." The lore man paused a moment in religious reverence and lowered his head. "I am ready to go with you Lord."
There was a moment of strained silence as Odin passed his gaze over the lore man and then toward the Einherjar riding next to him. He tossed the Einherjar a knowing glance that told the man that this was something that the Allfather had dealt with before.
"I know you well," said Odin in a smooth tone as he lowered his spear to point at the lore man. The croaking of the ravens ceased. "and it is not you that I have ridden for this day."
It was as if all the bones in the lore man's face suddenly refused to hold his skin any longer. His knowing smile and closed eyes split open in a torrential mixture of shame, astonishment, fear, and guilt which poured thundering into his heart.
"What!," the lore man all but shouted as his feelings caved in on him. "That's not possible!" Tears began to well in the lore man's eyes for an instant until they crossed the face of the Einherjar. Then the lore man was quick to discover jealousy and envy, which he eagerly added to the venom of emotion coursing through his mind. "It can't be!," continued the lore man, missing the warning of Odin's rising eyebrow. "I know the way it is supposed to be. I have read it!"
"Silence!" The command rocked the ground and suddenly the lore man remembered with a vivid clarity just whom it was that he was addressing. "If you are so sure of yourself, then tell me exactly what it is that you have done that is so worthy," said Odin in a tone that would brook no meandering of words.
There was a momentary pause as the lore man gathered his faculties. And then, with a stammer riding the last waves of Odin's rebuke and a lowering of his head, he began. "I-I am Gerhardt Egilsson." Odin's eyes narrowed for the briefest of seconds betraying his annoyance at already hearing something which was untrue. "I have been following the ways of the North since I was nineteen years old. I have been a devout believer and scholar of the Norse path. I have studied the history and the ways and can confidently say that there are none who know so well as I the...," the lore man searched for the right words,"... true path," he at last decided upon. "And I have not just studied lord. I have interpreted and written the way for others to see. I have endeavored to show the ways of the North to the world in the best possible light. I have led others to the Norse path. I have been Gothi to a kindred in your service for many years and I have seen them grow strong and devout in yours and the other Gods' praise. I have been your servant for all time and seek my place in Valhalla." The lore man paused a moment as if unsure he had said enough. It seemed terribly short to him. He let his words hang in the air and after another few seconds Odin decided that he had finished his speech.
"Hmmmm," rumbled Valfather, "judgment must be reached evenly on both sides of the scale." He turned on Sleipnir to face the Einherjar, "and what have you done that is worthy?" He asked the veteran.
The Einherjar looked back over his shoulder and his will brought his proof again towards the lore man and the riders. The blasted war torn town came closer like an approaching car in a rear view mirror. Screams, shouts, and gunfire again cracked the air. A look of concern and conviction crossed his face as he gazed at the scene which broken buildings just hid and flashes of muzzle fire cast shadows upon. Then the Einherjar turned again to look at Odin. The battlescape retreated rapidly as the Einherjar's want brought him close to the other place he was thinking of. Green grass in a quiet neighborhood shifted beneath the riders' mounts and all looked about at the quaint house which was drawn most poignantly toward them. There, like ghosts in a mirror, figures moved about. A mother was tending a blooming garden and a young boy played in the yard with a toy sword. The Einherjar looked at them with the fondest gaze the lore man had ever seen. A small tear formed in the corner of one of the Einherjar's eyes. Then, never having uttered a word, he turned his gaze back toward Odin.
"That is well said," murmured the God quietly. Then he looked down at the lore man who lowered his head in a reflexive response. "Oh look up for pity's sake," said the god. "Jonas Smith. You have buried your life in the search for knowledge of a path that would lead you to a certain hall. You know all about that life. But this man," said Odin cocking his head toward the Einherjar, "has lived it." The lore man's eyes began to well up in anguish. "But you are neither betrayer nor an evil being. You have your own hall where those like you have gathered since Ash and Elm were given form and passion. Valhalla is not your fate. Farewell upon your path." And Ygg, Valfather, Odin kicked Sleipnir's flanks and the entire company as one urged on their mounts. They reached a gallop soon and charged headlong toward a rainbow which began to shimmer out of distant mists.
The lore man stood in the road, looking upon the way it lead. He had a new lesson to learn and he started walking in the opposite direction to wherever his road would lead him.
“He’ll be alright,” said Odin to the Einherjar as they rode across the bridge, “If draupnir had given me another ring for every one such as that as I have seen these days Asgard would be groaning under the weight of gold. Most like that don’t even believe me when I tell them that there are other halls where they would be far happier. What place has such a bookish fellow among hearty warriors? The company of the killers I’ve amassed there over the ages is hardly a family in which he’d have any enjoyment.” Odin looked over at the Einherjar and picked up the thought he sensed from the man even before he said it. “I’ll go visit him sometime when he’s ready. He’s tried to be a friend to me and a gift deserves a gift.” Odin laughed aloud, “And if he’s still grumpy maybe I’ll invite him in for a drink, give him a sword and let him go butchering with my men some morning. Then maybe he’ll redefine his version of paradise!” And so, still laughing they crossed the rainbow bridge, where the gates of Valhalla swung wide to receive them.
© Matthias Wilson