The eight silvery hooves of Sleipnir beat a rhythmic pattern against the clouds as Odin hurtled through them. The air over the northeastern mountain chain of Jotunheim was frigid; he had gone from an Asgard summer to a Jotunheim winter in moments as he crossed the Thund Thvitr, and the tears froze to his cheeks and beard. He wiped them away with a hand that only trembled a little. Not now, he told himself. I am the Lord of Asgard, and there is work to be done, desperate work. I cannot afford the luxury of mourning until it is all over. Let my poor Frigga do that work for me, until I can close myself in my high tower at Valaskjalf and weep and rage for my son. My best, my most beautiful son. No, not now. Think of what lies before you.
The thinking side of his mind closed out the fresh memory of blood and his wife's screams, the fallen golden figure - No. Like a flutter of black wings, thought took over. There are only a few women of any sort in the Nine Worlds who have the gift of traveling through time. Hyndla, but she is too old, and well guarded besides. That seer in Muspellheim, but she has two husbands who would get in the way. I will not even think about the Hag of the Iron Wood, no, that way lies disaster. Unn, sixth of the seven daughters of Ran... He spared a warm thought for the pretty mermaid, but then it ran away like water on a stone. Aegir let him get close to his daughters once; that would never happen again. No, it has to be Rind, Billing's child. She is young enough, unmarried since her last husband died, and she has the Gift.
Sleipnir's hooves slowed as they came in sight of the great stone hall that was Billing's winter home. Billing would not be there to interfere; he spent the winter in Vanaheim, trading and building up his obscene wealth. Odin had checked in his tower's mirror, just before leaping onto his horse. Still weeping, but scheming already. Scheming desperately. Asgard was in an uproar. For the moment all was mourning, but by tomorrow there would be talk of revenge. No, by tonight, he amended that thought, remembering the red rage in Thor's eyes, even as he wept in a bewilderingly childlike manner. And he will be expecting it, expecting Thor and Heimdall and all my other sons. For all that he has played the shivering fool in the past, none of them really understand how powerful he is. And he knows them, knows their weaknesses. If he is fighting for his life on his own terrain, he might kill them. Yet only a son of mine can avenge another son.... I need a son that no one knows about, and I need him now.
He dashed the last of the tears from his beard, hoping that his eyes were not too red, hoping that there would be no foolish maids to get in his way, hoping - the thought crept in behind his schemes in spite of everything - that Eir had managed to get one of her potions into Frigga and that the poor woman had been brought to bed. All the work she had done to keep Baldur safe, by Urd's Well... He had not the heart to tell her that it would all be for nothing. He had not the heart to tell her anything about the whole situation. It would have rent apart their marriage. The heaviness of his great secret weighed on his heart like an iron anvil.
The eight-legged horse spiralled down into the courtyard, and Odin leapt from his back, gathering all his power into one great charm. There was no time for wooing, no time for sweetness. And anyway, he had tried that before with Rind, and got nowhere. Why must it be her, the one whose love I could not win, no matter how hard I tried? Are the Norns laughing at me? Well, what he could not win, he would take. There were too many things at stake. He could not afford to think of niceties at this moment. The situation was too dire.
As he strode forward, the door to Billing's winter hall opened, and an etin-woman stood in the doorway. Yes, she had seen the shadow of his horse, she knew who her visitor was. There was no time for disguises, anyway. Every minute counted. His hands twitched with the galdr that he was ready to throw, as soon as he could assess the situation.
Rind was tall, taller than he remembered, clearing him by a head. But slender, statuesque. Not one of the usual giantesses who have shoulders that could bring down pine trees and great ham-fists that could crush a man's skull. Her skin was white, with that faint blue cast that those of nearly pure frost-etin blood kept, even when they had been born outside of Niflheim; her features, though not beautiful, were narrow and not bad-looking. Her black hair swept down to her knees, and she was clad in layers of white and grey that fluttered in the winter breeze and emphasized her height and slender body. A movement of her hand, and the breeze was still, at least in the courtyard. "Well met, Master of the Aesir," she said, and there was an ironic tilt to her voice. Odin remembered how damned intelligent Rind was; a brilliant woman indeed. "What brings you here on this day of all days? For surely this cannot be a mere pleasure visit."
"Indeed not," said Odin forthrightly. "I need your aid, Mistress Rind, and the hour is urgent. I must speak with you. Will you not let me in, so that we can discuss it?" The galdr required that he be in her home, with nowhere for her to retreat to. Since she had already proved herself immune to his charm, he tried instead to look honest and straightforward.
She stared at him for a moment, and then nodded. "You may come in, and drink my father's ale, and speak to me," she said, "but remember that I owe you nothing."
"I am well aware of that," he said. He did not smile; there was enough dishonesty in this without that. As he stepped across the threshold, he lifted his hand and traced a rune, and sent it straight at her. It flashed pink for a moment before it found its unwitting mark, and Odin let out his breath as the aim proved true. This, at least, had gone properly.
Her dark eyes grew wide, and she sucked the air into her lungs in a great breath. For one moment, a terrible cramp overcame her, which was the first part of the spell - making sure that her women's parts were suddenly, fully fertile - and then it subsided. She let her breath out hoarsely, and then clutched her hands to her breasts. The second part of the spell was one of desire. It was designed to make her want him between her legs, want that more than anything. Her thin fingers clawed the air for a moment, jerked towards her lap as if to claw at the offending, disobedient parts, and then with an effort of will, she moved them away and balled them into fists. He watched her dark eyes closely; first bewilderment, then realization, then rage. Faster than he would have thought. She was a brilliant one indeed, with a frightening amount of self-control, he thought with admiration. "You bastard," she gritted out between clenched teeth."My husband is not a year in his grave, and you would do this to me?"
"The sooner that we get it over with, the sooner you will have your body to yourself again," he said soothingly. "I promise that I will make it a pleasure for you, Mistress. I would not do this if it were not necessary."
"I will fight this," she said between gritted teeth. "I will have my servants cast you out, and then there will be an end to this!"
He shrugged. "You can try," he said. "But did you think that I would throw a geas on one such as you that would end with me merely out of sight? No, it would overpower you and you would come crawling to Asgard, begging. You don't want that humiliation, and frankly, I don't want it for you. You are too good to be lowered in that way. By the end of the day today, it will all be over, and we will be done with each other. That is all I want - this one day. Will you give it to me?"
Her hands clawed at her skirts, and she cast him a venomous look. He marveled at how staunchly she fought a spell that had taken every ounce of his power. Calculations ran through her head; he could almost hear them ticking over. In spite of the screaming in her loins, her head was still cool enough to consider her options. What a cold woman. Will she stab me in the height of passion, I wonder? She would be one who would be capable of that, I think. The thrill of the danger ran through him, and did not deter him for a moment.
Finally her breathing slowed, and she lifted her head. "If I go willingly with you," she said gratingly, "I will ask this as my price: Honesty. You will tell me everything, Bolverk. Everything."
Her voice was caustic as she deliberately called him by the name that he had used to seduce poor Gunnlod. Bolverk. Evil-worker. In spite of himself, he flinched. The first stab, he thought, and her aim is also true. "She chose her own way," he said, momentarily thrown off guard. "Her love was true. There was no magic involved."
She growled, deep in her throat, and the wind suddenly screamed outside the hall and battered at the windows. "Honesty," she snarled. "I am no fool, Bolverk. I know that your son lies dead on Gladsheim's floor. The birds took that news in a thousand directions as soon as it happened. All of the Nine Worlds know that Baldur travels the Helvegr. I cannot imagine that you came here to take me against my will merely to salve your grief!"
For a moment Odin stood entirely still; he had not realized that he would not be catching her unawares. Then his shoulders slumped. Honesty. At this point, he might as well. "I need a son," he said.
"You have dozens," she retorted.
"I need a son who has not yet been born, who can be trained to kill my son's murderer. A son whom that slayer has not yet met, who will be able to take him unawares. Whose mother can travel through time, so that I can send her away, and at the end of this day she will be able to return with him full-grown and ready to be Baldur's avenger."
Her eyes widened and then narrowed as she realized the full scope of his machinations. "All this to slay a helpless blind man?" she asked mockingly.
He held her eyes with his. "You and I both know that Hodur was only the unknowing tool of someone else." And this, though it is no lie, this you will not get the full truth of. Let it stay at the point where this will lead you.
She looked away. "You want a son trained to kill Flame-Hair?" she murmured, shaking her head. He saw how, in spite of herself, her body moved towards him like a magnet. He caught her around the waist and stroked her back reassuringly, and she did not move away.
"It is the only way that I can think of," he said. And then she gave in, and he bore her away to her bed, although her body was tight as stone and she would not kiss him. It did not take long, and he could smell that she had conceived his son. She lay there among her white furs, shaking, and asked him, "I must stay away a long time, then, if I am to raise a son to be his brother's avenger. I may become lost in time. How will I get back?"
"I shall hold your thread," he assured her. "I will not allow you to become lost. This is too important."
She beat a fist upon the bed. "My father will be furious," she said. "Perhaps it is best that I am gone until my son is old enough to go to Asgard, and let me be done with this, and with you. But it will be many years, away.... Where in the past shall I go?"
"Not in the past," he told her. "In the future."
She gasped and sat up, clutching her robes about her. "The future? But that is unknowable. I cannot travel to the future."
"I can send you," he said. "I have consulted more seers than you can imagine. I know the shapes of many different futures. I will give you the picture of the place; all you need do is to go there. And at the end of the day, I will fetch you back."
Rind stood up, turning her back to him. Her dark eyes, he saw now, were sweeping about her room, planning what to take and what to leave. Her body no longer welcomed him; from its closed-in stance he saw that it was quite the opposite. Cold woman, he thought again. Only such a one could raise a son that could get a jump on Loki. My blood brother, I am sorry, he mourned to himself, but these are desperate times. I play many games, and I must sacrifice for the greater good. I must sacrifice my son.... and my brother. The tears threatened to overwhelm him again, but he stilled them in an act of supreme will. I will not weep in front of this ice-woman whose life I have just ripped apart. That, at least, I will not do. It would be an insult to both of us.
It was the end of the day for Odin; the sun was setting over Asgard like a bowl of blood running down onto the fields. Sunna mourned too, he realized; she had loved Baldur. The morning's carnage had given way to the afternoon's work, as many hands toiled to build the greatest funeral boat ever built in his land, out by the shore. The place had seemed deserted when he had returned; all had gone to the coast for the boat-building, and only his wife and her women remained to cleanse and watch over Baldur's corpse. He had given Frigga what moments he could of comfort, hoping that she would not notice, in her grief, that he bore a giantess's scent freshly upon him. Then he had called for Hermod, the only son he could spare, and sent him off to ride the Hel-road, to beg for his brother's life. It was a long shot, and Odin privately doubted that it would work - Hela was too implacable, there was no bargaining with that cold bitch, colder even than Rind - but it had to be tried, if only to show Frigga that he had done everything possible.
He sat on his throne in Gladsheim, staring out over the empty hall; one hand idly stroked Freki's head while the other held tight to an invisible thread - Rind's soul-string. It did not lie quiescent, but jerked and danced like a mad thing; time was running much faster on the other end. He did not wonder what she was learning, there in the future. If he had thought too much about that, he would have considered it unwise to send her, and then the whole situation would be moot. There would be time enough to ask about that, later; to get what he could from her.
The last rays of the sun sank behind the hills, and Odin could see the lights of the procession coming back from the shore. Even with their grief, the people must eat. He slipped off of his throne and went out into the courtyard of Gladsheim, gazed at the twilight sky for a moment, and then pulled on the thread in his hand as hard as he could, praying desperately that it would not snap off.
It did not. One moment he was alone, and the next Rind was there in a blast of cold wind, wrapped in white furs that sparkled with rain. Her dark eyes met his levelly; there were lines around her eyes and she seemed older, more worn. "It took you long enough," she said.
"Is he here?" Odin asked, almost holding his breath. Had this mad, impossible ploy worked? "Is he grown and with you?"
In answer, she gestured behind her with a sardonic smile. A young man stepped forward, tall and slender like his mother. Tangled black hair brushed his shoulders, and he bore a sword. His face was serious, awed, smudged with grime. "Vali," she said, "this is your sire. I will not call him your father, for he did none of the work of fathering you save for the first five minutes. But you are of his blood, and you exist because he wished you to, so greet him now if you will."
"Mother," the youth protested. "I cannot go among these people in their great hall now! I have just come from the hills, I have not washed my face or combed my hair - they will think me a swineherd fresh from the pens!"
Rind smiled ironically, coldly. "Do not be ashamed, my son," she said. "At least you come by your filth honestly."
Odin stepped forward, exultant. The lad was well-favored, and clearly Aesir, and he had no doubt that Rind had taught him to fight. Perhaps there was a chance that this would work. "My son," he breathed. "Do you understand your purpose here?"
The lad drew in his breath. "I am to avenge my brother's slaying," he said, in a low voice.
"You are correct, my son," Odin replied. "And after that work is done, you have a place with me and your brothers in Asgard forever. I will not shirk my responsibility to you. Whatever life-pension you wish, I will give it to you." He took Vali's arm and led him into the hall, which was filling now with the boat-builders, come back for food and drink. The hall was quieter than normal; people spoke in low voices as they seated themselves. Frigga was up from her bed, seeing to the food and drink, but her face was shadowed and her hair disheveled. "My people!" he cried out. "Attend me! This is Vali, my son, who was born to avenge Baldur's death and slay his killer! Make way and give him honor!"
Across the room, Thor's head jerked up, eyes glittering. He would be angry, seeing his chance at vengeance ripped from his fingers; Odin opened his mouth to call out to his eldest son and calm him, but then noticed that Vali had left his side. Turning, he saw Hodur being led out to eat by two of Frigga's handmaidens. The blind man seemed even more stooped and grey with the burden of the murder he had inadvertently committed, and perhaps wondering who among them blamed him. I will absolve him publicly tonight, Odin thought, and then saw Vali moving toward Hodur's grey, shaking form.
The youth approached him almost respectfully, and touched him on the shoulder. "My brother," Odin heard him say, "I am sorry." The words were not spoken loudly, but they somehow fell into a lull in the conversation and everyone looked up. Even Thor was distracted.
And then Vali's sword leaped from its sheath and whinged through the air, and through Hodur's neck. The blind man's head toppled from his shoulders, and his body collapsed like a pile of rags. Frigga's scream rent the shocked silence. A second son lay dead, less than a day after the first. Odin's heart banged in his chest, and everything seemed to slow down.
Vali stooped and lifted Hodur's head, and held it high. "I have slain the one whose hand slew my brother," he called out, only a little uncertainly. "I have fulfilled my oath to my sire." His eyes sought Odin's, and blinked; his forehead creased in worry at the expression the All-Father knew must be on his face.
Wrenching himself out of his paralysis, he whirled around to see Rind's cold, cold eyes. "I have kept my word," she said, with only a little spite in her voice. "I have delivered up a son-avenger to you. That is all you will get from me. Vali is yours; do what you will with him." Leaning closer, she whispered, "If you wish to murder your blood-brother, Lord of Asgard, you will have to do it yourself, with your own hands, and you know it. No one else can do it for you." Then she turned and was gone, just before Hodur's spreading blood reached the place where they stood.
Odin looked down, opening and closing his empty hands as if groping for something that he had lost. Gamble lost. Vengeance for vengeance. In my pain and desperation I underestimated her. And now, since I had not yet absolved Hodur, Baldur is avenged and Loki is... free? For a moment hope leaped in his heart, but then he quashed it sternly. I am the King of Asgard, and many futures are in my hands. If I must shave off pieces of my heart, one at a time, to twist the future as I would have it, then it must be done. It is the price of rulership.
But I cannot kill him, not with my own hands. I cannot. I could more easily slit my own throat. It was a hard admission, but true. No one would understand, but he could not be the one to slay that wild spirit. And, he realized, sending another to do it would still be his hand. There could be no fooling himself on that matter, not any longer. Rind's aim had been true. I deserved it. I did her great wrong. A man can do many foolish things, in his grief. Now pay the price of your folly, Great King. Be good to her son.
As he moved forward to say the right things to that poor bewildered young man, a hapless pawn between two cold sparring wills, one thought flickered willy-nilly through his mind. Did she see something, in the future, that forced her decision?
That, I suppose, I shall never know.
He thought that he heard a chuckle from someplace that was not in the room, and wondered if the Norns were laughing at him again.