“Thou, Valfather, wouldst have me tell the ancient histories of men as far as I remember.”
I leaned on the leafless oak enveloped in a pool of blood. It overflowed in my lap to drip down my shin on the thawing snow. Dáinsleif the Deathbringer lay at my side, unsheathed and dirty. The fingers of my left hand twisted in the dark curls of a young man.
The wind whispered through the branches, dusting my shoulders with new-fallen snow. Far away, a headless body was devoured by crows. They fought each other for the morsels, cawing in frustration as they stripped the corpse to the bone in search for the tongue and eyes. Which they’d never find for the head was with me.
It took me several blinks to settle the world back into place and drive the fog from my eyes. The trees were no longer fuzzy and misshapen and the world stopped spinning left to right.
I opened my right hand. The bruised petals of a tiny rose bloom fell in the snow. For a lingering moment I stared at the flower and my gut coiled in disgust. I exhaled and the air turned to mist. With a fury only a Valkyrie was capable of, I lashed at the bloom and pounded at it with my fist, driving a hole in the slush.
I may have cried. I may have not. The memories are foggy.
Night was coming. Sol, the bright bride of the day sky was chased into the desolate forest by Hati the Wolf. I feared to raise my eyes above the line of trees because I knew a little cabin in the woods, with a moss covered roof and stained glass windows would peak at me between two weathered pines. It was almost dawn now, the time when the white swans in the windows would catch the sun and turn a shade of lilac. The time when the blueberry pies would rest on the windowsill and permeate the air with their smell. The time when Helgi would return from the forest with an armload of mushrooms or some scavenged goose eggs and favor me with his big, bright smile. The time when I was at my happiest.
In summer rose vines would crawl around the windows, mixing their tendrils with honey locust flowers. The water in the bird fountain would sparkle in the sun, and the corolla of the sky would crown my home with the blessing of the heavens.
Now they were grey and ugly and where once had been my happiness, I only saw a squated dying troll. I should have burned that bloody house to ashes the same day Helgi’s flaming boat had sailed on the Lysefjord for one last time.
I raised the dead man’s curls and turned the head around. A young and noble face looked back at me with sunken eyes. Black curls, blue eyes, pink lips had Hrodmar’s son, but again, I only saw the grey.
I dropped the filthy thing.
The boy could have been a hero, a conqueror of men, blessed by Hildr herself. But he was dead now, his body eaten by the crows, his head rolling at my feet.
A worm had burrowed in my soul. It fed with the wrath and hatred that had been my compass for months. I picked it now with scarred fingers, but it lay limp and powerless since the deed had been done. I wish I could have had the power to crush the worm as I have crushed the rose, and let my protege’s killer live, but my Maker had not made me to be forgiving.
Now I paid for my weakness with despair.
My thoughts were chaotic. They chased each other like newborn wolves, denying me a hold on reality. I dropped my chin, closed my eyes and took a deep breath.
I craved the abyss and the abyss came for me.
҉ ҉ ҉
I lost the grip on the passage of time and the grip of my own self. When I returned to my senses, the rays of a shy sun pushed through the clouds.
The bracelet on my wrist caught a sunray and glinted. I brooded at the scales of the serpent eating its tail.
“Forever and everlasting, our love shall bind us, and we shall be one, in life, in heaven, and in hell,” I whispered. “But you ruined this, didn’t you, son of Hrodmar?”
The spirit world pressed on my shoulders, whispering accusations in my ear. They cackled with mirth. “You broke the laws of Odin, swan maiden. You, who are not Hildr, the Conflict Weaver, but the Giantsbane, who should not murderer men.”
“Shut up,” I told the wind and flung away the head.
My father’s ashes must be glowing like cinders in his sunken boat. I’ve used his sword to cut Helgi’s killer, a boy not yet eighteen, and then I brought his head with me to sit under the oak Helgi loved.
Life has come full circle. The Fates were laughing at me.
I crushed the bracelet, stood and threw it away. I howled and the forest trembled with my anger.
A heavy boot stepped on a twig. The snap raised my hackles. I narrowed my eyes at the sound.
“Are you done feeling sorry for yourself, Sister?” Her voice was like the crack of a whip, sharp and vicious as a viper’s bite.
“Leave me alone, Hildr. I’m not in the mood.”
I heard her boots slosh through the thaw as she came closer. She placed her hand on my shoulder in comfort, but I jerked away from her touch.
“Hildr,” I warned.
“Hedin is dead, Svava. His head lies at your feet. What more do you want?”
“I want the one he killed resurrect in Valhalla.”
Hildr shook her head. “Hel has claimed him for herself. Helgi is in Niflhel, he had ridden over the Gjallar-bridge. Nothing can be done. You must forget Helgi, son of Hjörvard.”
I spun to face my sister. She, to whom loss knew no meaning. She, whose heroes only knew how to spew the conflict of war in Midgard. She, whom men called the Bow Stormbringer. What did she know about my plight? What did she know about the impossibility of forgetting the man who had touched the darkness in my heart and had brought me to the light?
“They will sing of your husband, Sister,” she said. “I’ve asked the Norns. Helgi will be remembered for a thousand years. But you have to let him go. And you have to let Hedin, his killer, go too. Hedin, son of Hrodmar, is not yours to keep.” Hildr took my hand and placed a necklace there. “You have been idle long enough. Odin has a mission for you.”
I narrowed my eyes on the silver necklace. A twisted rope with three hundred threads as thin as hair, one for each spoken tongue. “This is Hoar-Frost,” I said, glaring at Hildr with suspicion.
“Yes, it is.”
“The Alltongue Speaker. What does our Maker expect me to do with it? Strike a conversation with whatever monster he wants me to slay?”
“I do not know,” Hildr shrugged, and I could see in the curl of her lip it bothered her not knowing. “Skuld said you should wear it.”
“Skuld?” The name left a bitter taste in my mouth. One of the three Valkyries of Fate had an interest in me now? I wanted to laugh. When I begged Skuld to show me the fate of my lover she had only smiled and shrugged.
“You need to leave this place. You have sat under this tree with a rotten skull in your hands for two years.”
I froze. My head flipped wildly, my eyes searching for the cabin, but I only saw a pile of burned logs. I had no memory of this.
“Was I berserk?”
The white of Hedin’s skull shimmered in the melting snow. The eyes and tongue were gone, the bone polished. A headless wright loomed, hiding between the forest trees, not daring to approach my small clearing.
It wanted its head. It would not find peace without it.
“I thought I killed him only yesterday,” I said watching the ghost.
My feet took me between the pines where my home had been. It had been upright only moments ago.
“When we go berserk, Sister, all awareness ceases to exist.”
The sculpted hilt of Helgi’s axe struck through the pile of rubble. I pulled it loose with a trembling hand. It was my last memory of Helgi. No, not my last. I turned toward the oak where I had leaned. The place where all began. Where Helgi build a snowtroll for me.
I passed by Hildr, axe in my hand and grabbed the head. I threw it in her arms. “Make sure this is pinned on my trophy wall next to the others.”
She looked at me with disgust. “Svava, there is no dignity in this.”
“When ever was I dignified?”
“Give him to Sigrun. Let her resurrect him with her magic for the Everlasting Battle.”
“No. As long as Helgi is with Hel, this one does not go to Valhalla.”
“Svava! Helgi was killed in a duel. The fight was honorable and just. Hedin was the winner. He should be part of the Einherjar.”
I disregarded her words and went to pick up Dáinsleif. She knew nothing.
“Sister, I beg you! Remember the law of the gods: give kind heed to the dead, sick-dead, sea-dead, or word-dead; treat their bodies with respect and see that they are laid to rest with respect.”
Her words were the sea spray in the veils of my ship. The sea sprays, the ship went on, unstoppable.
“Fuck the gods,” I said.
I cleaned the blade on my cape and replaced it at my hip. Several feet away I found the winged helmet I have thrown in rage. It was covered in moss and crawling with critters, untouched for many years. I cleaned it up in the snow and placed it on my head.
When I felt ready, I stepped in front of the oak. I raised the axe and came down hard, cutting the bark. I raised again and again, deepening the gap. It took the entire night to fall the tree. During this time Hildr watched without uttering a word. When I was done, I threw away the axe, and turned to face my sister.
With a shake of my shoulders I unfolded my swan wings and regarded the Conflict Weaver.
“Now tell me, Hildr, what is this mission?”
҉ ҉ ҉
I was on the shore of a foreign sea, in a foreign land, with Dáinsleif sheathed on my girdle. Midgard celebrated the equinox, and in Norway it was the time to celebrate Ostara, the Spring Goddess.
Spare the leviathan, but kill the rook. Bring back the blood to the Norns. Don’t fail.
I obeyed. I wished to mourn Helgi for a thousand years, but Odin’s word was law among my kind for he was our Maker and I had no free-will to stand against him.
I followed the path to Austre, away over a desert and over the tallest mountains I have seen. I reached a sea.
I was Odin’s bloodhound, and when he gave an order, sniffing the prey down to the deepest bowels of the earth became my only reason to live. It was an instinct he had put there, deep inside my core to connect the strings of all the souls to my own. I would see a sea of white cords connecting together all living creatures of the world to one larger giant ball of light. In that sea of white, the prey turned red, and it was only a matter of time before I found it. The perfect tracker. The perfect assassin.
This time, the red string had taken me further than ever, on the foreign shore of a foreign sea, far, far to the east. I lurked for half a night on a beach, watching a crescent moon reflect on the calm surface of the water. Hildr had told me I was to wait for a fish to turn into a bird. What odd things lived in Midgard.
The sea slumbered through the night awaiting for daybreak to touch her nightgown and yank her out of bed. The audacity of the first sunrays enraged her and she awoke in turmoil. The surface glass reflecting the stars disappeared and tall waves stood as high as giants.
The shoreline was scattered with tumbled rocks where seagulls made their nests. There was an overflow of seabirds, as if they knew no predators. Some flew overhead searching for shells and fish among the chunks of driftwood tangled with seaweed, crying as they dived for food. Some preyed on the bloated jellyfish, who fought back with their poisonous sting. Some just watched the sun rising above the horizon, the waves rolling inland dissolving into foam at their webbed feet.
I listened to the crash of waves as they spread across the sand, tasting the salty air.
Soon. The leviathan would come soon.
A rustle of leaves harmonized with a wind that picked up speed, and the coppice of alien trees I could not name lining the shore behind me began to whisper. The whisper grew louder until it turned into an eerie buzz not unlike a hornet’s nest.
My vision was blemished with a flickering taint of red. I saw with the corner of my eye the small trees sprout buds of roses. I turned to watch a rose opening in bloom.
Their perfume reminded me of what once had been home and of the vines crawling around my cabin’s windows. Watering them and caressing the softness of their petals had become a morning ritual. I didn’t use to care much for the flowers, but that changed when I met Helgi.
I craved to feel the petals of these roses that strangely grew in trees, but a whirlwind was stirring in the sea, announcing the leviathan.
My hand was on my hilt when I heard the beast roar, and the euphoria of my berserker blood sprung in my veins. Today I was in full control of it, and that’s when I was at my most dangerous.
The swish of the wind shifted, turning unworldly, haunting and hallow. Clouds gathered overhead in layers, spinning the sky to blend it with the sea, becoming one tornado.
A gentle call like a siren’s lullaby emerged from the depth of the tornado. I saw the head break through the surface and smiled at what I saw. In all my grey world, the leviathan was of deep dark blue. It had a lizard’s head but scaleless, on a whale’s body. The horns of a blackbuck on its head, and hair as pale and silky as lady Sif’s famous golden mane. A line of blueberry colored thorns, a shade darker than its body stretched from its nose, up its skull, and down its spine till it reached the flapping tail. A pale goatee gave it a waggish charm.
It spotted me, and tilted its head to observe. It kept the tornado at its back, a bridge between heaven and sea.
I found myself called to the sea by its eyes. Round like two full moons, they smoldered with ancestral knowledge. The seabirds ceased to fly, and stood silent and patient on the rocks on the shore.
Apart from the seagulls, the beach had been empty before daybreak, but now began to crowd. A deer limped forward from the coppice, leaving a trail of blood. It stopped on the wet sand and lowered its body in the foam. A monkey and her cub followed, a pack of wild boars, an ill fed mule, and to my surprise two old grey wolves and a tiger. They spread on the beach, the sea touching their paws and feet.
There were creatures in the water as well. Whales, and sharks, and massive fish circling the tornado. When they breached the surface, I saw their eyes were white and blind.
A turtle came on the shore to sit next to the wolves. It was unseeing too.
Hoar-Frost tingled my skin, one of the silver threads warming with purpose. It had been made from the hair of a silver horse that every night and day galloped on the Bifrost, circling the earth. I kept it hidden beneath the breastplate.
You are far away from home, child of heaven, the leviathan drawled. What brings you to my shore?
“I am not here for you, beast, but for the rook,” I said in my own tongue.
The leviathan sunk under water, its spiked backbone slithering underneath in a sinuous bend. I wondered if it had understood me, if Hoar-Frost had done its job. The beast came back with a question confirming that it had.
Why do you seek to harm the rook, but not the leviathan?
“I have my orders.”
An order from your god?
It sighed and the animals turned their heads to look at me. An eerie light flickered in their eyes. The leviathan continued to wound its hunched back in and out of water, circling the tornado. Its voice was carried with the haunting wind.
Heaven’s way is like the bending of a bow. When a bow is bent the top comes down and the bottom-end comes up. So too does Heaven take away from those who have too much, and give to those that have not enough. Man’s way is not so. He takes away from those that have not enough in order to make offerings to those who already have too much.
Is this why I had to carry Hoar-Frost? For a lesson in foreign philosophy?
“My Maker is no man.”
He’s more man than I am.
“And you are one that has not enough?”
Not I, but them. Why are you here, if not to steal for others what is not yours?
I spared a glance at the animals. The pity in their eyes confused me. Then angered me. I have not travelled to the place from whence the Sun rises to be judged by mindless beasts.
“My gods say you lived a billion years. They say you are impossible to defeat. I have come to test those rumors.”
The leviathan disappeared beneath the sea. I heard a chuckle.
I have existed before Heaven and Earth when all that was was sea. I was then formless, yet content. Without sound, without substance, dependent on nothing, all pervading and unfailing. Then the seas pulled back to unveil the land, and the cry of life split the heaven from the oceans. I fell in love with the creatures of the land and they in turn loved me. It was then that I realized I was not yet complete for I knew only one side of life. I mastered the depths, but knew nothing of the land and skies. So I became the rook to master these as well. That might have happened a billion years ago. Or might have happened yesterday. Time does not exist in my world, child of heaven.
Odin wanted the blood of the rook. I rubbed the hilt of my sword. “What makes your blood so special?” I asked. Did it have healing powers? Resurrecting powers? Could it kill a god? My eyes widened. “Could it kill a god?”
Who knows? Why do you need it?
I shrugged. “I do not know what my Maker cares to use it for. But he wants it.”
If you harm the rook, you take away the Chi from the creatures that willingly lay their life for my metamorphosis. I cannot shift without their help.
“If you rule over the beasts, I question the ‘willingly’ part.”
You are too young to understand. They come to me and I rear them in, but not lay claim to them. I control them, but never lean upon them. I am chief among them, but I do not manage them. It was not I who gave them birth but Tao. It was Tao who shaped them according to their kinds, perfected them, giving to each its strength and to the Tao they shall return. Not to your Maker.
I pulled Dáinsleif from its sheath.
“Sadly, I cannot disobey him.”
Tao offers everyone the power to choose. And nothing is beyond Tao.
The leviathan jumped out of the water into the tornado, spanning its whale like flaps, their immensity leaving me speechless. The animals lowered their heads just like Valkyries bowed when Odin passed through Asgard.
Spare the leviathan, but kill the rook.
A flash of lightning froze the world, making a tear in continuity, slowing time for a heartbeat. The first to fall and turn to dust was the mule. The hogs died next, the monkeys followed, the seabirds and the deer, and all the other creatures. The tiger closed its eyes last. Spheres of light gathered their tendrils from the dust and levitated towards the tornado. It sucked them in and all became as one. I closed my eyes to the blinding light.
A black rook dashed out of the tornado with such a force the rose coppice was levelled to the ground. It bounded south and I darted after it, the red string pulling me to it.
I was a hummingbird chasing a crow as large as a mountain peak.
They called me Svava Giantsbane because I fell four giants. And all of them I blinded first. The rook would not get far.
Dáinsleif had been smithied by the dwarfs. Its blows never missed the mark, and the wounds made by it never healed. It was cursed to be the death of at least one being whenever it was drawn. I used it only on the Jormungand monsters.
On Hedin too, and that had been a sin.
I was above the rook now, hovering over its head. It flew in peace, not running from me. It let me make a choice between murder and clemency.
I had been formed to be a slayer. There was no choice for me.
Spare the leviathan, but kill the rook.
You do not want to do this.
“I have no choice.”
There is always a choice.
I threw my father’s sword like a spear. The sky thundered in outrage.
҉ ҉ ҉
When the sons of Borr slew the giant Ymer, the whole race of frost giants except one, drowned in the blood that flowed from his wounds.
When Ymer fell, Odin and his brothers carried his body into the midst of Ginungagap and made of him the earth. Of his blood they made the seas and lakes; of his flesh the ground, and of his bones the rocks. Of his teeth and jaws, and of the bones that were broken, they made the stones and the pebbles. Of the blood that flowed freely from the wounds they made the oceans. They took his skull and made thereof the sky. They split the blue in four, and sat a dwarf under each corner which they named Austre, Vestre, Nordre and Sudre.
I have drawn Dáinsleif, which the dwarves have made, dooming the rook to die. A billion years the beast had lived and now its blood would spill because Odin willed it.
The songs sang that when Ymer died the world of man was made. What would the future songs sing of today? Would I be made the villain?
The great bird dropped, its wings spread wide and frozen. The venomous slime of a giant serpent was coated on the sword, acting fast through the veins, paralyzing the body. It spread through the blood like wildfire.
The wind was sharp on my neck. I watched the beast fall. I saw myself in the reflection of one black, beaded eye–a silver armored, white, winged creature, growing smaller and smaller as the distance between us expanded.
I felt the tendrils of remorse creeping in my chest. Odin’s order had caught me with a heavy heart and a mood darker than a troll’s. I drowned the nagging thoughts of shame in the black pool burbling at the base of my being. The blood of this creature was on the judge, not on the executioner. Shame had no place with me. I was not at fault for this death.
Hedin’s headless ghost revealed itself to me. It was lost, haunting the Norwegian forest, looking for its head.
“I am not at fault for Helgi’s death. The Gods and Fates had willed it.” The boy’s last words.
A claw seized my throat, cutting out the air. I swirled, freeing myself, sharp feathers at the ready, prepared to slice and cut whatever had been there. I stared at the air. Nothing. An angry storm blustered all around. The claws ripped through my cape, tearing it apart. I gazed up at the clouds and that’s when I saw them.
They were translucent winged serpents that made the clouds rumble. They singed my wings with lightning bolts. They tried to bite and claw, but they were just spirits of the sky, born by the mating of the wind with the sea, while I have been melded by Odin’s hand from lightning and the mists of Ginungagap. My armour had been gifted by the Æsir. I was far away from home and Njord, the Wind God, had no domain here, so they couldn’t know what I was.
I did not wish to harm them for they were beautiful.
“Come at me,” I whispered. “Come and strike me down.”
I pulled my helmet with both hands and gazed in the eye of the storm. The long blond braid fell on my back, thick and heavy. I spread my arms wide, taking it all in. Sharp needles of frozen rain fell on my skin, cutting it. I closed my eyes and savored the mild temporary pain.
“I know,” I told the spirits as my wounds sealed back and my face turned unblemished porcelain again. “My greatest flaw is that I am indestructible. And for that I am sorry.”
The wind howled in rage. The sky hollered. Tall waves rose in the sea.
“I wish you could destroy me. I wish you could save your rook. But it had been pierced by Dáinsleif, and had been cursed to die.”
They tried to speak to me and Hoar-Frost was on fire at my neck.
“Don’t kill which is good, soldier of the Western gods, we beg you,” a choir of eerie voices cried. “Spare our big brother. He brings the storms to the people in the summer. He calls the typhoons. He is the best of us. Spare. Spare, we beg you.”
The best of them.
Didn’t this make me the worst?
“I’m sorry,” I said, “For I am the end of all whose breath is felt in heaven.”
I plummeted to finish the deed. Their sorrow grabbed at the walls around my heart, but barely moved one measly brick.
The earth shook for ten thousand leagues when the large bird crashed over a forest, and it would be said that a mountain tore in half. I only saw the broken trees with their roots pointing to the sky, the squashed bodies of the animals scattered like bugs, and the surrounding millet fields levelled to the ground. It was carnage, but I sighed in relief because there were no villages around.
The beast opened its beak and cawed. The sound echoed down to the very roots of Yggdrasil, making the whole world shudder. Its back was broken and the venom boiled in its veins.
I landed on the yellow beak, close to the wounded eye. It had turned green, bulging and disgusting. I needed to release the rook from suffering before the pain would drive it mad. I pulled Dáinsleif free from the eye. The bird winced. The pain must have been unbearable. Blood gushed and I filled a small vial with two drops. That was all Odin needed. Two drops of blood, unwillingly given, and for this he had requested the death of the rook.
The firmament cried and drenched us in tears. “Don’t do it,” the spirits begged the deaf.
The Rook watched me. I turned my eyes from it. I was unworthy of its gaze.
“Forgive me,” I said, raising the sword to strike.
It is difficult to forgive those who steal our time.
“I steal your life away,” I said, “not for me, but for another.”
Young one, you are mistaken. You do not steal from me. You steal me from mankind.
҉ ҉ ҉
The raindrops fell again. I was lying in a puddle covered in dirt, my fingers clutching Dáinsleif’s hilt like a vice. I leaned on the sword to rise. Blood was coated on the blade.
The rook was dead. I walked to the large, unmoving body with my head bowed.
“There is no cure for Dáinsleif’s poison,” I said. “I am sorry.”
My emotionless wall took a hit and it shuddered. I dropped the sword and clutched at my heart. What have I done?
I heard the tiniest of cries, followed by a high pitched prattle. The rook had fallen on its back, but only now I noticed it had moved before drawing its last breath. It was laying on its side, one wing spread wide, one wing under its massive body. My feet moved by themselves, slow at first then into a run. There was something hidden beneath the wing, close to the rook’s chest. Something that moved and sounded like a baby.
I climbed the body, pushing one wing aside and froze. A human baby smiled at me, and his blue eyes shined like the summer sky. He stretched his arms calling for me, and when I did not move, for I was shaken by all this, he started crying. I ripped my cloak from my armor and glared at the tatters. I forgot the sky creatures had ruined it. I wrapped the baby as best I could in the material, then brought him to my chest.
The past came rushing back, throwing words I had spoken long ago like flaming arrows to my funeral sailboat.
I could make you the greatest hero that ever lived. You will rule the world, and I would be your guardian.
A memory of Helgi emerged like a tiger in the night, seizing my throat in its cold, sharp fangs.
I took off, flying high in the sky searching for a human settlement. I could not take the baby with me to Asgard. It would be in danger. What if I hid him? Raise him? Find another light again, the one brought by motherhood?
I flew over fields of grains, over forests and over lakes. I flew over a mountain covered in snow. I passed over a long desert. I passed through sand storms and sea storms. The vial with the two drops of the rook’s blood weighted heavily at my hip.
I broke down the door of a house nestled between two ridges in the Alps, far away from Odin’s eye. I had heard baby cries. In all this time the child had slept in my hands, never demanding food.
“Take care of him as well,” I ordered a frightened mother whose babe was suckling at her breast. “And I will give you the heavens.”
I was not going to return to Asgard, but I had to finish my mission, and drive away any cause for suspicion that I had a secret again. I reached Norway where I stopped by the beach. Wild horses played in the foam.
“Hildr,” I called softly to the wind.
She came after a moment. Wordlessly I passed her the vial. My eyes gazed at her delicate hand as it took the small glass away from me. I grabbed her arm and pulled her to me in a tight embrace.
“Do you love me, Sister?” I asked.
She tensed, my gesture unfamiliar. Then her arms covered the cold steel on my back. “What is the matter?”
I shook my head. “All is well now.”
The tension disappeared from her shoulders. She smiled. “Welcome back, Svava.”
I watched the foam die on the sand for the first time not imagining it was me.
©All Rights Reserved Xia Xia Lake
‘Giantsbane’ is my try to write a retelling from the Norse mythology. The story I used was that of ‘Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar’, a poem from the Poetic Edda (a collection of old Norse mythological poems).
The story of the rook and the leviathan is inspired by a Chinese folk story.