Gerda's Three Weddings

(As told to me by Gerda.)

When Gerda was only a young girl, just about to come to her womanhood - which comes early to etin-women - she went with her family to Vanaheim for the first time. Her father and mother had gone to Vanaheim before, as the Jotunfolk who dwelt near the coast often put their hands into the trading between Vanaheim and Jotunheim. Gerda had seen the wooden carts, heavily laden with casks and boxes of foodstuffs, come trundling over the rough roads carved by giant hands through the jagged mountains and immense trees. She had tasted the soft, fine grains, better than any grain that could be grown in her heavily forested world, and the good ale from Aegirheim brewed with Vanaheim barley, and the great cabbages like giant green flowers sprouting from the Vanaheim soil, more fertile than any other in the Nine Worlds.

But it was nothing like finally walking on that soil, to seeing another world. Vanaheim was the first world other than her own that she had seen, and they traveled across the sea to get there in a ship that made her clutch the bow and try hard to still her stomach. Her mother fed her honey brewed with spicy roots to ease her belly, but even so she remembered that first trip as little more than a misery. She envied her older brother Beli his easy, cheerful climbing about the deck, and his mocking of her cramped misery did little to help. When he tormented her for the final time, waving a half-rotted fish at her and jeering, she got up unsteadily on her feet and threw a heavy coil of rope at his head, which knocked him overboard. Then their father had to fish him out by grabbing the other end of the rope, and their mother slapped and scolded her, but Gymir was laughing. "Don't push our quiet little Gerda too far!" he roared proudly. "She may seem like a mushroom, but she has the soul of a tiger-cat under there!" But Gerda sulked and chewed on the end of her black braid of hair until the trip was over.

The first thing that she noticed about Vanaheim was how open the land was. "Where are all the trees?" she asked, used to the thick crowding forests of her home; here, the woods were short and small and further between, and much of the land was patterned like a great quilt in fields of golden wheat and barley and rye, the red of kale and the feathery green plumes of dill and fennel, the yellow of mustard-flowers and the blue of flax-blossoms. They stayed at Billing's great hall on the Jotunheim-facing coast, for he was the master of all trade between the two worlds, and much respected in both. And when the hot summer was at its peak, they went to watch the sacrifice of the Corn King.

It was the first time that she laid eyes upon Frey, the Lord of Vanaheim. He came to his yearly duty, tall and golden and smiling. He rode down the dusty road on a great white horse, and the people called out, "Ing! Ing!" as he came. The small knot of watching Jotunfolk stood to the side, a small pool of silence in the cheering crowd, and Gerda stood in the center of it. She watched him dismount in the wheatfield, where all but the last sheaf was cut down. The sickle flashed in the hand of someone clad in ragged grey, and the sheaf was swiftly wrought into a wreath to place on Frey's golden hair.

Gerda's mother and father, and even her older brother, had seen this rite before, and they hardly flinched when the knife went in and the golden-haired god fell to the earth, his blood soaking into the stubble-clad field. There was a scramble to get the cup filled and passed around, so that as many as possible might drink. After all the cheering, it seemed as if there was dead silence in the air, as if every voice had died with the golden Vanir. Gerda did not wish to break the silence, so she waited until they had started down the road to Billing's hall before she said, "That was a shame, to kill him. He was a fine-looking man."

Her brother burst into jeering laughter, and even her mother chuckled. "That was Frey, one of the Lords of Vanaheim," her father told her, "and he dies in that way every year. If the ritual is done properly, he will be back to life by tomorrow night and walking about, good as new."

"Every year, father? But cannot another take his place sometimes?"

Her father shrugged and said that he did not claim to understand the way of the Vanir. "But this is what Frey was born to do, it is said. It is part of the secret of Vanir fertility. And now we should take our supper."

Gerda had one more question, but she did not ask it, because she did not think that their father nor her mother had the answer. So she tucked away into the box of unanswered questions in her head, which was a very full box because she was still quite young.

Many years later, when she was a grown woman and most of her questions had been answered, a messenger came to her father's hall in Jotunheim. Gerda had grown into a tall woman, pale-faced with long hair the color of the dark turned earth. She was still quiet, but even her brother had learned by then not to push her too far. Once he ruined a thing of hers and laughed at her when she demanded weregild, and she turned into a lean black leopard and leaped upon him, scratching his face with her claws. It took her father ten minutes and three different shapes to pull her off of him, and it took her mother a month to properly heal Beli's face. After that, Beli walked cautiously about his quiet sister, and did nothing to make her eyes flash red at him in the shadows.

Gymir's hall was surrounded by a wall of fire, that no enemies might enter, although of course it wavered and split aside when any member of his household approached it from the inside, or a friend approached it from the outside. Yet this stranger came rushing through the flames on a blood-red horse, and the horse seemed not to be touched by the flames. As the folk of Gymir's household piled outside, her brother came up beside her, his hand on his sword-hilt. "A rune-charmed horse," he said. "This man must be sent by someone of power."

Her father came up beside them. "Mayhap," he said, "but I am the lord here, and he must still do courtesy to me." And he called out to the man to speak his name, and his errand, or a hundred arrows would lodge themselves in his head.

Gerda did not know that Frey, the Golden One of Vanaheim, had climbed the steps to Odin's tower Valaskjalf, the throne in front of the great window that looked out upon nearly all things. He had gone there just weeks before in order to search for his sister Freya, who had long been missing, searching for her lost husband Odr. The great wolves at the foot of the stairs, Geri and Freki, growled at him but let him pass, for his errand was good, and indeed he saw his sister turning back toward Asgard and returning to her summer home.

But then, as he would tell her himself much later, the glass shifted and showed a hall in the middle of a ring of fire, in the snowy winter of Jotunheim. Frey blinked, for until this time nothing in Jotunheim had interested him much, but he did not look away. The door to the hall opened, and an etin-woman stepped out and looked up, and for a moment it was as if she had locked eyes with him.

She locked eyes with him for only a moment, but it was enough for him. Frey, the Golden One of Vanaheim, sat on Odin's throne like a statue, his heart seemingly stilled in his chest. All he could see was those dark eyes, and her frown of concentration. He watched the wintry sun glint off of her nearly-black hair in its tight, elaborate braids pulled sharply back from her pale face, saw her height and broad shoulders and ample figure and the way she held her head high. Nothing else existed for him to see in that moment. Then she called out to someone in a voice that he could not hear, and waved, and he realized that she had not seen him at all. Her glance had been for someone beyond the gaze of Odin's mirror. Then she stepped back into the hall and closed the door.

Frey could not move from the seat of the throne all day, though he knew that Odin would be wroth if he found him there. He sat with his breath harsh in his throat, waiting only for one more glimpse of the etin-woman. He got one, just as the Sun was sinking over Asgard and he knew that folk would come looking for him. Night had already fallen in Jotunheim, and she came outside with a basket over her arm, accompanied by two other etin-women. The other two laughed and talked gaily, but she only smiled with that same self-enclosed look about her. Frey studied every inch of her face, her profile, the movement of her hands as they helped brush back the snow from a small cellar and pull out roots to fill their baskets. He drank in the pale flash of her throat as she adjusted the mantle around her shoulders, the same dark-earth color as her hair. He watched her braids fall forward as she stooped, and his heart fluttered as they brushed against the snow near her knees. Then she went back into the hall with her maidens, and the door shut behind them, and though he sat for many more hours, all was dark within the great carved-tree hall and no one came forth.

Finally he left the tower, and wandered up and down the moonlit road as if in a trance. When dawn broke and Odin seemed to be busy elsewhere, he returned desperately to Valaskjalf in the hopes of seeing her again. Geri and Freki growled at him and would not let him pass, though he ordered them and pleaded with them, for they could sense his desperation and felt that his errand was not pure of heart. Weeping, he fled to his father's hall on the shores of Asgard, Noatun, the white curved building given to him by the Aesir for the time of his hostaging.

Njord saw his son's red-rimmed eyes and haunted glance, and brought him to sit before the fire at his fireplace, the mantel of which was the bow of a ship. "My son, what ails you?" he asked in concern.

"I have seen a maiden," said Frey, and then realized that he would have to tell of being in Valaskjalf. But this was his father, who would put him before the Aesir, and so he told of it. "You have been to Vanaheim with the traders, my father," he said. "Do you remember a hall, near the shore, carved from a single giant tree as the giants often do, and surrounded by a ring of fire? Do you remember a tall girl with hair the color of turned earth in braids to her knees, with eyes as dark as shadow, with skin pale as Niflheim snows?"

Njord was silent for a moment and then shook his head. "A hall in a ring of fire, yes, that is Gymir's place. He is an etin-lord of great power, my son, and if your heart is set on his daughter, I can think that it will only go ill for you. Forget her, my son. There are hundreds of women in Vanaheim who would willingly be your bride, or if you will not have your own kind, there are fair ones here in Asgard as well. But the etin-women are fierce, and I see that you would have to endure great loss for her."

Frey raised shadowed, sleepless eyes to his father's face. "And why should I, who go willingly to the blade every summer, fear loss? What is it that I must lose?"

Njord was silent again, and said, "Of all your possessions, what is most fine to you?"

The golden god's hand went to his sword. "This," he said. "For it was a gift from my mother and from you, and the last thing I received before coming here as a hostage."

"You may have to give it up," said Njord, "if you continue on this path."

Frey unbuckled his sword-belt without a pause and flung it on the floor. "Then I will give it up," he said. "It is only a sword. This is far greater."

Njord took up the sword from the floor, and placed it back in his son's hand. "When you took up this magical blade," he said, "you swore an oath that it would be the only sword that you would ever wield. If you give it up, you will have no sword again, ever, and you will be defenseless. Please, my son, think again."

Frey stared into his father's eyes for a long time, and then he spoke. "I cannot live without her," he said. Then he turned and rushed from Noatun, clutching the sword, and spent many hours pacing up and down the roads weeping. He would not speak to any who saw him, and they wondered, and were concerned, for the Golden One of Vanaheim was never seen in sorrow.

It throbbed in his head. Gymir's daughter. An etin-princess, child of a powerful lord. His friends had warned him about etin-women. They desired them, it was clear, but they also feared them - not as much as an Aesir might, but enough. One did not seduce an etin-woman; they came to you on their own terms or not at all, and one certainly did not try to take her unwilling, or you might find yourself beaten bloody or torn to bits. And indeed, there were hundreds of fair maidens of his own race who would gladly - and indeed already had - shared his bed and considered it an honor, and if this should not be enough, nearly any unmarried woman of the Aesir - and some who were married - would fall willingly to his charms. Why bother with a woman of the Jotnar, a barbarian who would scratch you as soon as look at you, and whose kin would likely do worse?

But Frey spent the rest of the week wandering up and down the road, as if he could not decide where to walk, as if it no longer mattered where his feet took him. His friends tried to distract him with the usual delights and comforts, but his eyes merely stared into the distance, seeing darker ones that locked with his. He did not speak, and hardly ate or drank; when he arrived in Asgard, he went straight to his room in his sister's house, and would not speak to anyone.

Over and over, he recalled what he had seen of her. He wondered why she wore a covering dress that reached from her neck to her ankles, instead of the tendency of most young etin-women to dress in furs and knives, showing off their tall, strong bodies. He wondered if it was modesty, or merely a strong sense of privacy; he wondered what it would be like to see that dress pooling around her ankles. He wondered what her voice sounded like, and how that pale skin would feel beneath the touch of his hand. As the Golden One of Vanaheim, he had lain with more women - and men - than he could easily recount, yet he somehow felt that if he could be with this woman, all the others would fade away by comparison.

He knew also that if he lay with her the one time, he would never wish to leave her... and that was not done. His own people would look askance at an etin-bride; the Aesir to whom he was pledged would be even more disapproving, and the Alfar even more than that. Etin-women were to lie with and then leave; one would then take a civilized wife who would follow you about respectably and faithfully keep your household and raise your children, including any that you happened to make with such side-trips. You could lie with her, and then forget her, he told himself, and then he laughed. No, you will never forget her. And she deserves better than that.

Getting up his courage, he sent a message to where Gymir held summer court on the coast of Vanaheim, but the message was refused at the gate, for Gymir did not want a Vanir courting his daughter. The messenger was turned away, and Gerda did not know. When the letter was delivered back into his hands unopened, Frey was plunged into a deep sorrow. He did not leave his rooms at Sessrumnir, and spent many hours lying on his bed and weeping. A cloud of grey seemed to engulf him, and his golden light was dimmed entirely.

Freya came back to Asgard at this time, and though many of the Aesir came to welcome her, with tears or heartening words, her brother was not among them. And she was downcast to see this, and asked about him, and was told that he had not come out of his room in many days. She asked in fear if he was ill, not wishing to lose yet another of her kin, but Loki said, "Ill, yes, with an illness that you know well, Lady of Love, and that only one thing can cure. He has lost his heart to some woman who will have him not, and he will not speak to any of us of it."

Freya came to him at once and cried out to see him red-eyed and tossing in his bed. "Who is this woman who has done this to you?" she cried. "Only tell me her name, my brother, and I shall place a bewitchment upon her so that she might fall helplessly in love with you, and then this will all be over!"

But Frey refused her gift. "I would win her on my own terms and hers, for if she loved me by the power of magic, I would always fear that it might fail, or that without it she would care nothing for me." And Freya wept and kissed his forehead, and though she nodded she did not speak, although it tore her heart to see her brother this way. But it was now her time to go back to Vanaheim for the winter, so she bade him to try and sleep, and left his side.

Finally Skirnir, an Alfar who had been a friend from his youth, the first who had befriended the lonely golden-haired youngster when he had first arrived in Asgard, stormed his room in Sessrumnir. "My friend, what has become of you!" he cried. "Whoever this maiden is, we will get her for you, unless she be wedded to another, and perhaps even then, for marriages have often been broken beneath the plow of a handsome god! Who is this woman, my friend? Tell me and we shall plan our attack!"

Frey hesitated, but the truth burned within him, and he yearned to tell someone. When Skirnir heard, he laughed uproariously, and said, "So the Golden One of the Vanir is in love with a barbarian etin-maiden! This is fun indeed! Do you actually intend to marry her, or do you merely mean to plow her furrow, Fertile One?"

"I would do both, if I might," Frey said, "and more than that still, but I cannot even speak to her. She is well guarded in her father's hall, and her father likes not my suit, and sends back my missives. If I go there myself next summer, I would be killed, and at any rate I cannot wait that long. I think that longing for her might kill me before then."

Skirnir shrugged. "I could go there," he said, "and I could take a message. No oath binds me here. Of course, I would be risking my life, but I think that I could get through Jotunheim and impress some barbarian lord and his daughter."

Frey drew in his breath. "Would you court her for me?" he asked. "Would you arrange a meeting? I will be forever in your debt."

"What would you give me," said Skirnir cannily, thinking of Frey's great wealth, "if I were to do this for you?"

"Anything," Frey replied. "My horse, my boar, my ship - what do you want?"

Skirnir's eyes fell to the magical sword at Frey's side. It had been forged by the Duergar for Nerthus of the Vanir to give as a gift to her son, and its hilt was wrought like golden wheat and its blade was inlaid with many runes. "Give me your sword," he said, "for I want something to use in my hand, to stay by my side."

Frey was silent at this, and his thoughts warred with one another. His father's words echoed in his ears, and he looked back and forth from Skirnir to the sword. Finally he said, "Ragnarok is far away, and may not ever come. This is now." And, he thought, if anyone had to hold his sword, at least it would be his friend Skirnir. He held out the sword to Skirnir and said, "Go to Jotunheim. Convince her for me."

And so it came to pass that Skirnir came bursting through Gymir's wall of fire, armed with Frey's magical sword and riding Frey's magical red horse, Blodighofi, who did not fear fire. He backed the horse to the door and made it kick with its hooves, striking loudly. "Do we let him in?" growled Beli to his father.

"He may be rude and a fool," said Gerda, "but by the rule of hospitality he is owed a drink. And aside from a mark on the door, by which you and your own friends have done worse, my brother, he has not attacked us." And she went calmly to the door and welcomed him.

Skirnir introduced himself and his errand, and when Gerda heard that missives had come and that she had not heard, she cast a disgruntled glance at her father. Skirnir opened his pouch and showed her the jewels that Frey had given him, and promised her more if she might marry his master, Lord Frey the Golden One of Vanaheim.

As she stood staring at the jewels, Gerda's heart skipped a beat in her chest. She remembered the tall fair-haired man whose throat had been cut, and how fine she had thought him. Then she hardened herself. Why did such a man not come before her himself? Why did he send some minion to bribe her with gold, as if she was a thrall to be purchased? "Take your gold and jewels to other maidens," she said. "The daughters of Jotunheim are not so easily bought."

The Asa-man's face darkened, and he drew the sword form his belt and waved it around in the air. "Agree to marry Lord Frey or meet your doom!" he cried.

Gerda stood her ground. Behind Skirnir, two dozen men had their blades half out of their sheaths, watching for the word from Gymir. She set her jaw and glared at him. "Threaten the daughters of men with your blade," she said, "but do not try to frighten a giant's daughter with such puny things."

Skirnir's face turned red with rage and he began to rant, cursing her with a long litany of deaths and disasters if she did not submit at once. She stared at him, wondering if he had gone mad. Then the sword flashed through the air, and accidentally struck a beam, and one of the lamps fell to the floor with a crash, and everyone ducked, cursing. "Shall I kill him now, Father?" hissed Beli, his eyes gleaming.

Gymir gritted his teeth visibly. "Not yet, my son. I have an idea." Then Gymir pulled his daughter aside and spoke to her where only her family could hear. "You are my child, and I will never force you to wed where you would not," he said, "but my business is often in Vanaheim, and a marriage to the Golden One might be advantageous. At least meet with him, speak to him, and if you find him hateful I shall shelter you from all harm."

"But this fool is in your hall now, my father!" she hissed. "What shall I do with him?"

"Pretend to be frightened," said her father, "and say that you will meet with his master. That will get him out of here before he sets the ceiling on fire and we must slay him for it."

Gerda sighed and shook her head, for she was not one for dissembling, but she awkwardly knelt before the ranting Skirnir and pleaded with him to stop, that she would meet Frey and discuss marriage with him. "Where?" Skirnir demanded.

She thought of asking to meet him in the Iron Wood, and bit her tongue, trying not to smile. Perhaps somewhere in Vanaheim was best, she thought. "In the Barri Woods," she said, remembering the thick stand of trees where she had played as a child while visiting the coast of the Vanir. That reminded her of the one time she had seen Frey, which had been his death. Could I marry a man who dies by the knife every year? she wondered. "In nine days," she added, giving herself time to think about it.

Gymir stood forth then. "We must discuss the bride-price," he said, and Gerda was reminded that her father was very much a merchant. Still, it might distract this raving Alf. "My daughter is no mere milkmaid, to be had for nothing," he said.

The sword wavered in the air, and dropped. Finding now no opposition to his demands, and faced with an etin-lord ready to haggle, he was no longer on sure territory. "What would you ask, my lord Gymir?"

"That sword," said Gerda, pointing to it. "If he wants me, he will give his sword to my family." It was one way to get it out of this lunatic's hands, she thought.

Skirnir looked dismayed. "But Lord Frey promised it to me for my service here-" he began, but Gymir cut him off.

"No, no, if he will have my greatest treasure, I will have his! Tell your lord that no other bride-price will do, and that if he wishes to bargain, his wedding will be much delayed," said Gymir. "And you may leave that sword here, in token of your good will."

The Alf stared at the sword, and at Gymir, and perhaps it occurred to him that Frey was in such a state over Gerda that he would gladly give away the sword to this family of Jotnar rather than delay the wedding for weeks while they haggled over precious stones and bales of grain. "Very well," he said sourly, "I will leave it here, by your threshold. But none may touch it until she is delivered to their wedding night!" Then he stalked out of the hall and leaped onto the red horse to leave, and all the fists of Gymir's men relaxed on their sword hilts.

But Beli stood forth angrily and faced his father. "My father must value his daughters so little, that he would sell them so cheaply without a fight! Why did you not allow me to slay the rascal, and then we would have had the sword anyway?"

"With how many of my men dead?" asked Gymir. "And even if you did kill him, then we would have the Aesir down on us, and a war would begin. Now, I do not mind a war or two, but the spring shipments are ready to go across the water, and-"

"These are the words of a trader, not a warrior!" cried his son. "You have sold my sister for credit in Vanaheim!"

Gerda put a hand on his shoulder. "I but promised to meet him and speak of marriage," she said. "I can still reject him, or if it comes to marriage, I can divorce him if I like him not. I am sure that I can find ways to make him sorry that he fell in love with me." And she bared her sharp Jotun teeth, and Beli snorted and went to look for some ale.

When Skirnir thundered back over Bifrost, he found Frey waiting anxiously by the gatehouse, next to where Heimdall kept his watch. Frey ran up and seized his stirrup. "Tell me what happened," he said urgently. "Before you even get off my horse, tell me!"

Skirnir tossed him a grin. "She is yours," he said. "She will meet you in nine days in the Barri Woods to discuss the wedding with you."

Frey's face went from dark to light to dark again. "Nine days!" he moaned. "It will be nine days of agony. But at least she will see me!"

Skirnir dismounted and pulled him aside. "There is one problem," he said. "Her family asks for your sword. I told them that you had promised it to me, but they were adamant."

Frey rent his hair. "Then they must have it," he said finally. "I give you my horse, Skirnir, as a gift instead." Then he went to Odin, and flung himself on his knees, saying that there was a family matter in Vanaheim that he must see to, and giving his word that he would return as hostage in one turn of the Moon's path. Odin saw his reddened eyes, and though he did not guess at the cause, he released Frey to go home for one month.

She met him in the woods, in the darkness, so that she would not have to look into his eyes at first. He brought a torch, but she called down a gust of wind to blow it out. He saw her only as a tall figure in the shadows, waiting for him, and it seemed that he saw as well the flash of red eyes in the darkness, and the graceful shadow of a great cat. She stood alone, draped in her dark cloak the color of the turned earth, her hands clasped before her. "So you are the one who has gone to such trouble to woo me," she said. "My father likes not your messenger. Why did you not come yourself?"

"I was afraid, Lady," Frey replied, and his voice was soft.

"Afraid of my father? He might have spitted you on a pike, that is true," she said.

He shook his head. "I would walk through many pikes merely to speak to you. No, I was afraid that I would fall to my knees before you and beg you to marry me, and that would shame us all in front of your family. I could not trust myself, so I sent Skirnir."

She was silent for a while, a still figure in the darkness. "You would have done better to come yourself," she said finally.

"Skirnir says that your father asks my sword as a bride-price," he said.

Gerda lifted her head proudly. "I ask that price," she said, "in exchange for my pledge to you. It was no idea but mine. Am I not worth your finest possession?"

"If you will marry me, you will be my finest possession," replied Frey. "I will gladly give up my sword to you. I would give you anything I have. But I am bound by my hostage-vows to fight with the Aesir, and if Ragnarok comes, it may be used against me."

"Then we shall have to make sure that Ragnarok does not come," she returned. "But I warn you, I will not dwell in the lands of those who killed my kin."

Frey shook his head. "I cannot break my hostage-vows. My father and my sister and I swore them on terrible ancient powers. I must live in Asgard or Alfheim for two-thirds of the year, and only visit my home during the autumn."

She was silent for a moment. "Vanaheim is not so bad in the autumn," she said finally. "I could live with you there at that time. And for the rest, I could spend the springtime in Alfheim, though I like it not, and I expect that the Alfar will like me little as well."

"I am not without power in Alfheim," Frey said, smiling. "They will treat you well, or hear from me about it."

"But in the spring," Gerda said, "I will go home to my family's hall, and you must go make peace with your hostage-masters, and we will be apart. There is no hope for that. I will never go to Asgard." And Frey could see from the tilt of her chin that nothing could move her on this point, and so he agreed. It pained him to be caught between his oaths and her pride, but his love for her was great enough that being together for half the year was worth losing her for the other half.

She stood still again for a moment, as if she had not expected him to agree, as if she was only just realizing the full force and depth of his love for her, and she looked for a moment lost, like a girl who is unsure of what to say. Then he stepped close to her, and decided that the time had come to go beyond speaking, and he kissed her, and his golden aura enveloped her like the sun rising behind a dark standing stone. And soon her long cloak fell to the ground, and her dress pooled about her ankles, and they spent the night there together in the Barri Woods.

Just before dawn, as the sky was beginning to lighten, Gerda asked the one question that she had carried with her in her heart all these years. "What is it like, to die and return?" she asked him as they lay together under the trees.

"Cold," he said. "It is cold, and dark, and I walk the Hel-road, and every year the guardian says, 'Greetings, my lord. It is good to see you again.' And every year I am afraid that they will open the gate for me, but they always turn me back, and then I awaken to my body."

"Do you remember the pain after you have awoken?" she asked him.

"Always," he said, and kissed her.

When the sun rose, Gerda and Frey set sail in his magical ship to Jotunheim, where they landed on the shore near her father's hall, and Gerda took him to meet her family. Gymir looked upon the Vana-lord who would have his daughter's hand, and saw that he was scratched and bleeding, and smiling so brightly that he shone like the sun, and Gymir said, "I see that you have satisfied my daughter." And he laughed, and all his folk roared with laughter, but Frey laughed too just as loudly, and opened his shirt to show his scratches, and this opened their hearts to him. Frey and Gerda pledged their troth there, in front of Gymir and Aurboda, and the wedding was planned for a fortnight hence.

But there was one among them who did not laugh, and who indeed sat scowling through the ceremony. Afterwards, Beli went to Gerda and pulled her aside, and told her, "You bring shame on all of us by marrying outside your people."

Gerda pulled away and said, "I do not live my life for you, my brother, and I shall marry whom I choose." And she went away from him.

As she walked away, he called after her, "He is now my life-enemy, sister who values not her own kin! If it comes to war, I will kill him!" But she did not look back or speak to him, and indeed it was years before she spoke to him again.

After a fortnight of preparing, Gerda and Frey came forth to be married. A thousand guests of her father's attended from all corners of Jotunheim, and some came even from Niflheim, and gruff Surt the Black and some of his many sons came from Muspellheim. There were cliff-giants from the mountains, and frost-giants with snow still in their beards, and wolf-folk from the Iron Wood, and many others. The skin of a great cave-bear, which was the totem of Gymir's family, was spread before them and they stood upon it. Their hands were cut with knives and bound together, and the blood shared between them. "And now you are our family," said Gymir, "strange as it may seem. May you both be happy together, or at least not too miserable." And all the Jotnar howled for them, loud enough to shake the rafters of the hall.

Then they mounted the ship yet again, and Frey took Gerda home to Vanaheim, where he brought her before his mother Nerthus. "This is my beloved," he said to her, "whom I have married according to the custom of her people, and I would have you welcome her as a daughter."

"According to the custom of her people, perhaps," said Nerthus, "but if you wish me to welcome her as my daughter, you must be married according to the customs of your own people as well. I will not see any marriage to my son the Golden One unless it is with the wheat-wreaths and the burning grain." So Frey and Gerda had a second wedding, and the Vanir came from far and wide to watch them, and his sister Freya came and embraced Gerda.

"I am overjoyed to see my brother so happy again," she said. "He has loved no one like this before, in all the days of his life. Indeed, we thought that no one could capture his heart! Yet here you are, and I do not have to fear for him any more. I will welcome you as my sister, if you will have me, daughter of Gymir."

Gerda wondered at this, and said, "Tell me, Love Goddess of the Vanir: Why did your brother choose me, when he could have had any woman of your people, or of the Aesir?"

Freya embraced her and said, "Love strikes where it will, and who knows this better than I? I do not begrudge him his marriage, though it be to golden Vanir or proud Aesir or fey Alfar-maid or bearded Duergar-woman, or yet to a tall and beautiful etin-bride. Love is love, and it is always good."

And on the morrow they were awoken by singing, and when they came forth from Nerthus's house, the Vanir crowned them with wreaths of wheat, and laid sheaves of wheat in their hands, and drew them forth singing into the winter fields where a great fire was burning, and their hands were bound together, and Gerda's braids were unbound and her long hair wrapped around Frey's shoulders. Bowls of grain were given to them to pour into the fire as an offering, and then gold rings were given to them to place on each others' fingers. They were taken to a bower made in a hollowed-out hayrick, and while they had a second wedding-night, the Vanir sang sweetly all around them.

The next morning, Frey said to his twice-wedded bride, "I fear that there must be a third wedding, for the folk of Asgard will not respect you as my wife unless we are married before them as well. And I will not have them say that you are some passing fancy that I will likely put aside when I am tired of you."

"But I have told you," Gerda said, "that I will never go to Asgard." And they parted in silence, with kisses and tears, and Frey went back to fulfill his oath, and Gerda returned to her family at Gymir's hall, where she sat silent in the wintry garden and stared at the withered herbs.

Her mother comforted her, and told her that many women went without their husbands; some were wed to sailors, or travelers, or men with other wives or families. It was not uncommon for giants to have more than one wife or husband, and to live apart. "Perhaps you should take a second husband, to comfort you when your golden lord is away," she suggested.

But Gerda shook her head. "I have seen no one I wish to wed," she said, and would say no more about it.

For himself, Frey was quieter than usual, and he did not join in the revelry of Asgard, and he was often seen to sigh to himself. But he took up again his duties and no longer lay weeping in his bed, and many of the folk of Asgard considered him cured of what had ailed him. However, gossip travels with a will of its own, and Skirnir's tongue was by no means discreet, so it was not long before all of Asgard knew that Frey had secretly married an etin-woman. So it was that Odin and Frigga called Frey forth to Gladsheim, and he came, knowing what it was they would ask.

It was Frigga who spoke first, as he knew that she would; marriage was her realm. "My lord Frey," she asked him, "we hear that you have wooed the daughter of an etin-lord. Tell us, do you intend to wed her, or is she merely a concubine you are visiting in Jotunheim?"

"I have already wed her, Lady," Frey said, "by the rituals of her people, and of mine. Gymir's daughter is my wife, and nothing shall change that."

At this a great clamor arose of many voices speaking at once. Some cried out against this union of Asa-sworn Vana and Jotun lady; some cursed Frey for a fool; some said that at least there had been no wedding by their own customs, so it was no real wedding after all. One woman's mouth spoke forth that this was the known promiscuity of the Vanir, and that it had finally brought shame on them all.

At this, Freya stepped forth and chided the crowd. "Do you all scoff at the power of Love?" she demanded. "Love has done this, and I say that it is well done. There is little enough love in the world; do not condemn love that has sprung up unawares!" And saying this, she remembered her lost husband, and turned away in tears.

Frigga stood also, and held out her hands to both those who condemned and those who defended, and also those who stood silent. "Rather than letting this be a division between these worlds," she said, "let it be a bridge and a frithmaking between us." And Odin stood forth with his wife, and although some still muttered about the weak words of women, the clamor was silenced.

Odin turned to Frey. "We will welcome your bride, if she comes here," he said, "but as you are a sworn frith-guest of ours, you must marry her by our customs, in our city."

"That, my Lord Odin," said Frey, "will be entirely up to her."

The next day an Alfar lord and lady came to Frey, and they spoke formally to him. "Lord Frey, you were set to watch and guard us by the Aesir, and we have long respected you, for you are a good and honorable man. But now we hear that you would take a giantess to wife, and we ask you not to do this, for it would bring shame upon you."

"Who I marry is none of your concern," Frey said. "I love this woman, and she shall be my wife, etin or no."

"My Lord, we beg you," protested the Alfar lord, "do not bring this giantess as your consort into our land! Do not force this bloodthirsty barbarian upon us!"

Frey smiled, thinking of Gerda, and how she had licked his scratches. "I shall do that," he said. "I shall bring my bloodthirsty barbarian etin-bride into your realm, and you will treat her with courtesy and hospitality, because I am the Guardian of Alfheim and I say it will be so." And though they pleaded with him, he would not hear them. And so it was that their marriage was condemned by as many as welcomed it, and from that time on any who would wed against the desires of their family or clan, or against the laws of their people, could call upon Frey and Gerda to bless their union.

In the meanwhile, while Gerda sat at her father's home, her cousin Skadi came to Gymir's hall. Skadi was a whirl of white furs and stomping boots, shaking snow off of her hood and doffing her doeskin gloves. "Greetings, Lady of the Snows!" cried Aurboda. "What brings you to Gymir's hall?"

Skadi's eyes lit on Gerda. "First, to congratulate my cousin on her wedding. Forgive me that I did not attend, but I was still in mourning for my late father Thjazi. Second, to tell you that I am going to Asgard to demand weregild for his death, and I hope to enter with my cousin when she goes to her husband."

"I have told my husband that I will not set foot in Asgard," Gerda said. "And what does your father's weregild have to do with me?"

Skadi's dark eyes gleamed. "It has much to do with you, my cousin. Why will you not go to Asgard? Do you not realize what a chance this is for your people?"

Gerda frowned at her, but the frost-giantess continued. "Those Aesir never let my father have a place in their council, even after he married one of them and inherited her land after she died! But they may let us speak, if we are married to some of them, because the Aesir underestimate their womenfolk. You are Frey's wife; you might have a chance to get your people's voice heard there in the White World. Why do you pass up this chance?"

"But you are no one's wife, Skadi," said Aurboda. "What is your plan?"

Skadi smiled coolly. "Why, I shall go and claim the property of my father and stepmother, and I shall ask for weregild for my father's death. I shall appeal to Tyr, and I expect that he will say my request is fair. And as weregild, I shall ask One-Eye for a husband. The Aesir believe that womenfolk all need fathers and husbands to protect them, they will believe the request." She threw back her head and laughed, shaking snow everywhere.

"But then you will have to marry whoever Odin chooses," Gerda said. "My husband is kind and beautiful; what if yours is not?"

"Then I will divorce him after a reasonable time," Skadi said, "and by then my voice will be well established there. Besides, I hear that Frigga's youngest is most handsome, and perhaps I will get lucky." She rubbed her hands together. "Come with me, cousin; we shall be as sisters there, and keep each other company, I promise."

Gymir stepped forward and touched his daughter's shoulder. "I would not force you to leave my household," he said, "but Skadi speaks wisdom. They would never let a warrior onto the council there who was not sworn to them, but you are a bride, and they would not see you as a warrior but as a woman; such are their ways. You could speak for your people."

So it was that Gerda dwelt on the matter for some days, and finally she agreed to go to Asgard, though her heart was heavy. And a message was sent to Frey, who rejoiced and began to make ready for their third wedding day.

But Skadi went ahead, in her snowy sleigh, armed with weapons and clad in her best snow-white furs, and railed for weregild at the gates of Asgard. And, as the tale goes, Odin allowed her to claim her inheritance of land, although no bloodline gave it to her, and he placed all the unmarried Aesir men in a circle around her. She allowed herself to be blindfolded, and was told that she must touch the feet of the men, and choose one only by their feet. So she chose the one that she felt had the best-formed feet, and lo and behold when the blindfold was removed she stared into the face of Njord the Vanir Lord of seafaring, the father of Gerda's husband Frey. And all the Aesir men breathed a sigh of relief, for they had feared to be forcibly married by Odin's word to the forbidding giantess. Skadi was a little disappointed that she had not chosen the beautiful Baldur, but Njord was a handsome man, and clearly kind of heart, so she was content enough with the way things had gone.

The next day, when Gerda came to Asgard, Frey kissed her in front of all of them, and said, "This is my beloved, and let no one speak against her." And Freya stood with them and spoke for them, and Frigga came forth to speak of frith and peacemaking and the sacredness of marriage vows, and finally Odin spoke forth and blessed their union, and no others spoke out publicly against them. And it came to pass that Gerda married Frey on the same day that Skadi married his father, and they placed their hands on Frigga's spindle and walked under Odin's spear, and there was feasting and dancing for days. Thrice-wedded, they went to their third wedding night as if it was their first.

Gerda tried to make herself at home in Asgard, and Freya gave her a walled courtyard at Sessrumnir to plant the cloistered herb gardens that she loved. Many of the Aesir were courteous to her, and came to value her, but though none dared mutter against her in her hearing, she heard many of them curse her kin, and her race, and speak ill of them. And Gerda was silent, for it was not her way to do battle in public over the words of others.

She finally spoke to her husband about it, but he bade her to ignore their hard words, and to remember that they were not speaking against her. Still, it ate at her heart, and she felt that an insult to her kin, or to her race, spoken in her presence, was indeed an insult to her. The months drew on, and she did not feel at home, and began to long for a place where she did not have to guard her tongue so. And after a long time of this, she discovered something that made her troubled heart weep, something she had forgotten until it came upon her.

So Gerda went to her husband and drew him into her walled garden, in the night while the stars shone down upon them. And she sat with him on the bench where they had sat many times before, and laid her hand upon his knee, and said to him: "There is life in my womb, heart of my heart. We have quickened us a child."

And Frey cried out in joy and would have embraced her, but she held him away from her and said, "I tell you this not as tidings of happiness, but of sorrow. For when our child comes of age, to whom shall he be forced to swear fealty? If battle should be called, what side will he be on? What geas shall be laid upon him before he is even born?"

Frey was silent, and then said, "As my father swore to be a hostage to the Aesir, so he swore also for his children, and their children and grandchildren. So I am hostage, and my sister Freya, though not our half-sisters who have other fathers. And Freya's daughters are also so bound, and so would be my children."

Gerda placed her hands over her womb in a gesture like an iron gate, and said, "I will not bear children to be hostages to anyone's whim. I will not give them life only to take away their freedom, especially as they have my blood in them, and will be scorned by many."

"Yet I cannot fulfill my oath otherwise," said Frey. "What would you have me do, my love? For this is your womb, and your decision. That is the way of the Vanir."

Then it was her turn to be silent, until finally she said, "If this is how it must be, then I will bear you no children at all. I will not have them torn between loyalties that they did not choose. I will still this life in my womb, and I will bear no more until there is peace between all our peoples."

Frey heaved a sigh. "That day may never come."

"Then I shall remain barren," said Gerda. And he embraced her in silence, and they both wept, but that night she gathered certain herbs from her garden and brewed them into a brew, and stilled the life within her womb. And so it came to pass that the Lord of Life, who gives such growth to the fields and flocks, has a barren marriage, and that Gerda turns often to her herbs to ensure that it is so, and that many women who need also to still the quickening life within them turn to her for aid and ease of passage.

And after having lived many years in Asgard, Gerda made ready to leave and go to her home in Jotunheim, for she did not feel that she could stay there any longer. She told her husband that she would meet him in his hall in Alfheim, and his home in Vanaheim when he was allowed to come home, and that he would always be welcome in her father's hall in Jotunheim. They wept again, and embraced, and parted, telling each other that their love would endure even such a yearly parting, and promising to see each other in the summer.

Gerda packed quietly, and would have left Asgard with no one knowing, yet Skadi got wind of it and came to her as she was clipping sprigs of herbs to take with her. "You would abandon me here in the White World, then, my cousin?" she asked.

"It grieves my heart sore," Gerda said, "but I must go. I cannot live among the killers of my kin and the haters of my race, though we both agreed to make this sacrifice. My sacrifice will be different, though."

"Then if you must go and leave me alone as the sole voice for Jotunheim," Skadi said to her, "I charge you with this: When our people come into councils, speak for me. Remind them why they sent me here, and why we work for peace against all odds. Be my voice, not that of your family. Do this for me, your cousin alone in the White World."

"Alone?" asked Gerda. "Is your husband, the father of my own beloved, not to your taste, my cousin?'

"His hall is not to my taste," said Skadi. "For the mewing of the gulls and the noise of the sea awakens me too early, and I stink of salt air. And he will not dwell far from the sea; my mountains make him long for the waters. He is a pleasant enough fellow, but we shall have to live apart for much of the year. So it seems, my sister, that we shall both be absent brides.... but my place here is now assured, and my voice will speak for our race, if you will speak for me."

"I will do this," Gerda said to her, and they embraced, and Gerda went forth from Asgard and never returned. She kept her word, speaking for Skadi in the councils of Thrym, and she spent the winter with her family in the snow, and then went forth to Vanaheim in the summer, much as she had gone forth so long ago as a young maid, to see the Golden One die by the hand of the priestess of the Vanir, and to welcome him back to life with kisses when he arose again.