Runemasters of the Tree

            Every once in a while, a door is opened into Ginnungagap, and something comes through.

            The first opening of the door was Surt, and no one speaks of this, not even Surt. There were others, but they are lost in the mists - of Niflheim, of history. It may be that the Vanir opened the door and entered, and made their own world. It is certain that the Alfar came from outside, from whatever layered fey-worlds came also the Sidhe and other elven races. The door opened, and something - someones - came through

            But to open that door from the outside is one thing. To open it from the inside, to call something in through the blackness of Ginnungagap, that is something else entirely. Only once has it been done in the Cosmos of the Tree, and that was when Odin offered himself up as a sacrifice, and wrenched the door open from his side, and pulled through the spirit-powers that are the Runes.

            It is known that Odin hung nine days on the Tree. What is not known is that when he opened that door with the force of blood and pain and suffering, his life force trailing down the tree to be taken up as thread by the Norns and spun into a great spell, the runes that came to him were not the only ones that came.

            They were the first spirits through the door, aye, and they came all as a set together into his bleeding hands, but others followed thick and fast. Some buried themselves like meteors into the earth of many of the Nine Worlds, where they still remain to be found and uncovered. Some shot past into Ginnungagap, perhaps to circle the Tree, perhaps to become stars, perhaps to vanish into the blackness.

            At the moment that Odin opened that door, everyone in the Nine Worlds looked up. Some knew what had happened, and gasped, or their faces froze intently as they sensed the influx of power. Some knew nothing, except that the air was strange and still, as if every particle was holding its breath. After a while, perhaps they shook their heads and went back to work, their skin prickling but none the wiser. There were four, though, who knew more than this. Four, in all the Nine Worlds, besides Odin himself. They did not know of his act until it happened, and at that time their minds were elsewhere...but the rune-spirits who had been released into the world scented them out, found them, and filled them.

            In Alfheim, Dain was the head of a great Alfar house, a prince among the Fair Folk, but he had hidden himself in the cellar of his great hall, a knife clutched in his hand. His beloved lady was dead and gone, her soul swept away to Hela, and there would be no seeing her again. She would not reincarnate among his people, as most of them did. His heart was an deep, empty well of desolation, and he had no more will to live. "She was my life," he whispered to himself. "Half my soul is gone with her." Though his folk would cry out and stop him if they knew, he was toying with the thought of giving himself also to Hela, to be with his beloved again. In Death I will find you again, he thought. The knife traced the edge of his wrist, and its sharp point caught, releasing a few drops of blood to stain the edge of his flowing sleeve. The pain felt good. Take me to my beloved, then. He placed the knife at the side of his throat, and began to press.

            In Nidavellir, Dvalin, one of the first fathers of the Duergar, was gravely ill. Every remedy had been tried, and all had failed. His wives and children knelt around his bed, weeping over his wasted form. He had fought for long weeks, gained ground and lost it again, but now he was tired and weak and it was overtaking him. In spite of this, he fought still, his hands clutching weakly at the bedclothes as he struggled to stay alive. "I - will - not - give - in!" he gritted through his teeth, and all wept to see such strength and courage brought low. His breath grew harsh in his throat, rough and ragged, but his eyes still stared wide at the single lamp that lit the darkened room like a crack of sunlight.

            In Midgard, Duneyr lay dying in a ditch. Cunning man, herbmaster, the patchy bits of lore that had trailed down from greater beings had come to him. A gentle man, he spoke to the spirits of the plants and the wights that lay beneath the ground...but mortal men seldom trusted those who worked with magics, even small magics. And all the Gods help you if their grudging trust was betrayed...say, for example, by a patient whom you could not save. He had tried to heal the lord's sickness, and the man had made an almost miraculous recovery from his deathbed, but the fool had taken this miracle as reason enough to go back to his old ways of drinking too much ale, eating only rich meats, and bestirring from his chair only to grasp at the breast of passing servant-girls. The ill-tasting medicines that Duneyr had given to him were quickly forgotten, and it was only a matter of months before he relapsed, and died. Desperate for someone to blame, his sons sought out the herb-man with murderous intent, and here he lay broken, dying of internal wounds too great for he himself ever to have healed. This is wrong, he whispered soundlessly. Surely I was not meant to die this way, O Norns? I have helped many, I deserve this not! His last thought, as sight faded from him, was that his daughter would be waiting dinner for him, and it would likely burn. He could almost see the spark from that flame...

            In the great forest of Jotunheim, Asvid lay gasping on the ground. Enemies of his clan had come upon him and they had fought, fought gloriously, but they were too many and had outnumbered him. Still, he had killed over twenty before they had hammered his great, solid mountain giant's body down into the soft forest earth. My father might be proud of me, he thought, if he were not beheaded and stuck down a well. Or perhaps he would not be proud to know that I had fallen just yards away from his cave. If he turned his head, agonizedly, he could see the dark mouth of Mimir's cave, under an arch of stone next to the great bulk of the World Tree's protruding root. Forgive me, Father, he said silently. I came to greet you for the first time since my childhood, and it has meant my death, and I will not even be able to see you.

            His wounds were bleeding out, now, and he was beginning to fade. Even as the spinning tree limbs filmed over in his sight, he felt something strange. The dark claimed him, but in that dark was a window of light, opened in the Universe. With a sense of awe, with senses stretched by being no longer wholly in his body, he realized that this was a hole opened by someone's sheer force of will, an arm reached through the Well of Wyrd and an aperture rent in the very fabric of Ginnungagap. Through it spilled a cascade of sparks, souls, lights, colors, shapes that started to take form only as they passed from that place to this. He saw hands reaching out, heard the screams of the one-eyed form bound to the Tree in his agony, saw him seize a double handful of those light/color/shape/soul/sparks, and fall back away and out of sight.

            His own cry echoed that of the one-eyed one, and he reached forward as well with his great hands, grasping after them like a drowning man after a rope. He knew not what they were, nor why he must hold them; only that it was more important than anything else he had ever done with his life. As he touched them, they burned his hands, and he fell back, gripping them to what had been his heart. They took on form in his hands, his blood, his scent; they became symbols that he could understand. As his flesh eyes opened onto the canopy of trees, he vaguely heard other voices cry out like a high, wailing song in the darkness....

            ...and Dain, his lifeblood pouring from his throat, realized what Odin the Aesir King, gone these nine long years, had done. His unseeing eyes saw the magics like gilded, glowing threads wending their way into the world, and in the darkness, light entered his heart for the first time in many days. As his scream died away, those threads twined themselves around his fingers, and he pulled them in to him, weeping. Was this the Universe giving me weregild for the loss of my beloved? he wondered, as the elf-runes took form between his fingers, healing him, taking life from his spilled blood and giving it back to him. He laughed, for the first time, as if reborn, and barely heard the hoarse cry that faded as soon as sounded...

            ...and Dvalin sat bolt upright in bed, face white and bloodless as that of a corpse, fingers reaching out and seizing something in midair. "Yes!" he shouted, and then his emaciated features bent into a gaunt grin, and before his unseeing eyes lights formed in the air. His family cried out, also, in fear and wonder, and hid their faces before his croaking laughter. His first wife buried her face against his knee in gratitude, understanding only that somehow, her husband would live, and that was enough. The dancing shapes that firmed with his breath, between his hands, that would matter later....

            ...and Duneyr was the only one who did not scream. Instead, he smiled, softly, wondering in his delirium whether he had been saved by firefly-lights. But no, they were no longer fireflies, just symbols chalked in ash on stone, marked in blood in the dirt, written in wrinkles on his hands, sliding in lines of energy across the ground. He understood them, although he did not know how. But that seemed like something to explore once he was home, safely away from the road and the eyes of those filled with hate. Struggling to his feet, he marveled at how light he felt; if he was not certain that this was his body, he would never have believed that he was still alive. Alive, and with a stomach to eat supper with his daughter, and perhaps not even late after all. As he walked down the familiar road, his stride stronger with each step, he did not even find it unusual that the symbols appeared in the dust of the road ahead of him, one in each muddy footprint, like serpents that squirmed from one pool to another. After all, stranger things had happened to him that day, like being snatched back from the road to Hel.

            Odin came down from the Tree and went home to Asgard, where Frigga welcomed him with open arms, and returned to his throne. That part of the story, everyone knows. The other parts were quieter, for no one trumpeted the returns of the others, save perhaps the family of Dvalin, and the great old Duergar himself preferred to shrug it off as merely a recovery from illness. Where he had once been a boastful sort, brash and loud, he was now found to be quiet and full of wisdom; he ceased to lead war parties, but stayed home and counseled those who came to him, and more often than not he counseled against a direction that would take lives. The Duergar-runes he taught to a scant handful of his folk, the craftspeople whom he judged not only the finest in art but the most upright in morals as well. They in turn limited their teaching of them, at his request, to small and secret number. Each of them swears in turn never to let them pass into the hands of outsiders, and if it has ever happened, it would have been done by one who broke that terrible oath, and would be slain by his brothers were it known.

            Dain walked out of the depths of his castle like a cloud parting with the great light of the sun, his face suffused with a new hope, and he opened his hands and taught the Alfar-runes to any Alf who would come to him. Where before he had been a great lord, he now gave up his castle and lived with no home, traveling from place to place and teaching. All doors in Ljossalfheim were opened to him, and he was much loved. For years this was his mission, and he became famed for it among his own people, although they too kept this knowledge apart from other races. It is even said that alone of all the light-elves, he willingly went to Svartalfheim and taught these runes even to their darker kindred, so intent was he that they were the inheritance of all Alfar....and it is also said that he alone among the Ljossalfar is as welcome there as in the world of his birth.

            Duneyr taught no one of the runes. He wrote them down, carved them onto trees and stitched them onto his clothing, but he used them not where other mortals could see, and he never spoke to anyone of his experience. His heart had been made too distrustful of the goodness of any other man, and he feared that the runes might be used for ill by those with malice in their hearts. At first he feared even to use them himself, but one day he came home to his hut where he lived alone (for he had left his daughter's hearthside out of fear for her safety) and found a giant sitting by the fire. "Greetings, Man," said the giant, standing to greet Duneyr, but not fully for the ceiling prevented it. "How are you named, my friend?"

            For a moment Duneyr could not speak, so surprised was he, but then he stammered, "I am called Duneyr." Since something else seemed to be needed, he said, "It means 'restful' in the old tongue. My mother named me so for being the easiest of all her babes."

            The giant laughed. "Restful you are, I am sure, but I am equally sure that your life has not been so to you! Well, you may call me Durathor, as that means Sleeping, and we shall be a pair, you and I!"

            "If I may ask, sir," the slender, frail, grey-haired man said haltingly, sidling about the room without taking his eyes off of his tall, burly, black-bearded guest, "what have we in common that we should be any kind of pair?"

            Durathor's eyes held his with a keenness that seemed to cut through his soul. "You know that as well as I, friend. You and I were both dying on the day that One-Eye tore a hole in the Darkness, and we both received into our hands that which cannot be easily Named. One-Eye, myself, you, a fair-haired Alf, and an old Duergar. We are all the same, in that way... or at least, the four of us who simply took the leavings from One-Eye's table. Ah, but what leavings they were, aye?" His eyes unfocused for a moment, seeing a memory inside his head. Duneyr knew exactly what he was seeing.

            "What would you have of me?" he whispered. "I - I have done nothing, worked no ill with that which came unlooked-for-"

            "That's just it, my friend. You have done nothing, all these years. I, I was a great warrior, did you know that? But then the runes came to me, and I carved them into the bark of the Tree, of the root that springs forth near my father's well. After that I gave up fighting, and became a magician, and healer. I passed the runes on to those I deemed worthy among my folk. Dvalin and Dain, they have done the same...Garm's pawprints, Dain has spread them across the length and breadth of his land! Even One-Eye is teaching his runes where he will. Yet you have not passed on this gift to anyone."

            Duneyr sat by the hearth and stared into the fire. "There are none that I deem worthy," he said. "I do not know your people, or the Alfar or the Duergar, or least of all the great Aesir, but I know mortals. We are vicious and untrustworthy, all of us, save for a few...and they are weak."

            "Weak, like yourself, my friend?" A great hand came down upon Duneyr's shoulder. "Then I will give you another gift. I will teach you to be strong, and perhaps in time you will feel safe enough to give from generosity, and not from fear."

            So it was that Duneyr and the giant who called himself Durathor became fast friends. Although Duneyr protested that he could not possibly learn the skills of a warrior, being of middle age and grey-haired and stiff in the joints and nearsighted in the eyes, Durathor insisted that it was not impossible. Slowly, slowly, he learned to use his body as a weapon, and to use the runes as weapons as well. His friendship with the giant was strong enough that one day he offered to teach Durathor the rune-magics that he had learned, and so the two traded knowledge. So it was that some human-magic made its way into Jotun runelore, and vice versa. It was then that they realized that both sets had one in common: the rune that Duneyr called Odin's spear, and Durathor called Odin's horse, but which meant the world tree on which he had made his sacrifice. Because he had been the one to open the door, each set of runes would bear this rune in his name, save his alone.

            Eventually, Duneyr came across the sons of the ill-fated lord on the road, and instead of ducking his head and enduring their jeers, he knocked them off their horses with his quarterstaff, and placed a galdr-curse on them that turned their lives to muck until they begged his forgiveness, which he gave, being still a gentle man at heart.

            But news came into Midgard of folk who knew the casting of magical runes, and Duneyr knew that those runes were not the same ones that he knew. "'Tis One-Eye, teaching to those who pray to him," said Durathor. "You have waited too long, my friend; some folk have them now, after all. And you can guarantee that there will be battles of galdr-magic."

            "Then perhaps the time is right," said Duneyr, "to pass these on." And he laid a geas upon his runes, that all who use them might be peaceful and kind of heart. But the geas would not stay on the Jotun-runes, the etin-staves that he had learned from Durathor. "We are not a peaceful people," Durathor laughed at him. Still, he went out and taught the runes to three whom he deemed to be gentle and good of heart, but he would teach no more than this, no matter what his giant-friend said.

            Years passed, and Duneyr became an old man. One morning he awoke to find Durathor at his hearth, as was not unusual, but with him stood an elderly Duergar and a tall golden Alf of great beauty. "You time will come soon, my friend," said the giant. "Of all of us, you have the shortest life, so I would have you meet the rest of this group of unlikely brothers."

            "We have spoken among ourselves for many years," said the old Duergar, puffing on his pipe. "Alone among all others, we four have experienced the opening of Ginnungagap...well, we four and Odin, and he keeps his own counsels."

            "But it is time," said the Alf, "to speak of the winds." At Duneyr's confusion, he went on, "I do not mean the air that blows through the sky, but rather the currents that swirl through the Tree, between worlds. You know whereof I speak, do you not?"

            Duneyr nodded. He did know, and he had wondered if indeed those currents could be used to do again what Odin had done. He saw that the others had read his thought, and were nodding. "Indeed they might, and far worse wights than One-Eye," said the giant that he knew as Durathor. "That is why we have all agreed to give up our worldly lives and become guardians of those winds, that no others may interfere with the fabric between the Tree and Outside."

            "We come today to ask you as well," said Dain. "Will you join us, and give up your mortal life and existence, and guard this with us?"

            "We had not planned it quite yet," said Dvalin, "but we have all been using our runes for an oracle, and we knew that your time would be soon."

            The grey-haired man nodded. "I know it too," he said. "Let it be so, then! I would have a cause that goes beyond death, to protect these worlds. I have learned," and he smiled at the giant, "that fighters can be useful."

            "So be it, then," said Durathor. "And since there can now be no secrets between us, know that my real name is Asvid, son of Mimir of the Well. Come, my friend!" And he held out his hand, and Duneyr his friend took it, and the four of them joined hands in a circle and made a great magic, so great that it blew his small cottage to pieces. From its wreckage came four deer - one graceful dappled fallow deer, one short, stocky chestnut-coated roe deer, one great shaggy black elk... and one red deer that followed the other three with a bit of hesitancy, having never flown through the air before, nor yet left his world. The four stags circled in the sky over Midgard, the red deer looking back over his shoulder only once more, and then they were gone.

            Of Odin and his runes, much is least in comparison to the others. Asvid, Dain, and Dvalin are all known and honored among their people for being the first true runemasters, but little is spoken of them outside of those worlds. As for Duneyr, no mortal man ever heard his story, though his friend Durathor had passed it into the stories of the Jotnar, where it survives to this day. His runes are used by Jotun runemasters, and they know to bless and thank the mortal healer who passed them on, though it is said that to use them for long will make the most ardent warrior turn to peaceful pursuits. On the other hand, most of Duneyr's runes have been lost among humans, or are hidden in the minds of only a few, secretly passed down...except for a scant handful of the Jotun runes passed to him by his friend Durathor, which survive sometimes tacked onto the great original runes of Odin, for mortals are wont to force traditions together into one pot, hoping to make a stew that will turn out to be the ultimate truth.

            What was known by even fewer was the fate of the four Guardians. They are known in later lore only as the Deer of the Four Winds, yet few understand what that means, just as few understood that the experience of being dragged back from Death's door by Odin's brave and brash act had bound them all together in a way that superceded their loyalty to their own peoples. Never before or since had a Jotun, an Alf, a Duergar, and a mortal man all pledged friendship together, and it took the rending of the cosmos to do it. Still, they guard the currents of time and space, unseen and unrewarded, and so it is meant to be.

            All hail the Deer of the Four Winds! May they never tire in their task.