There was a moment today where I was filled with awe and gratitude for what it means to belong to a God. The path of Odin that I follow is that of Gangleri. This is how He comes to me most of the time, and when it comes to ordeals and challenges that define the boundaries of my spiritual life, they tend to be dictated by this aspect of Odin’s nature. I had a moment today where I realized what that truly means and how deeply and significantly it can impact one’s life.
There are things I want or want to force into a specific shape so badly that I would rip my own entrails out in order to be able to do so. There are things for which I ache, actions I wish to take driven by raw emotion, desires, life paths I want desperately to follow, even the indulgence of certain emotions and I cannot – no matter how much it feels like not reaching for these things will tear me apart – I cannot because of obligations I have to the Gods, because of my reason for being, because of whom They have made me, and whom I’ve agreed to be with Them. I cannot do and be in some ways that I want (healthy or no, good or no) because to do so would be to abandon everything I have promised my Gods; and sometimes I hate it (such a mild word – hate—for the cyclone of emotions embedded in all of this) and I rage and it takes me to a point of almost suicidal despair. If I have also neglected my devotions, if I am unable to slide my heart and mind and spirit into a place of receptivity, humility, and deep love for the Gods, if I am unable to sense or touch Their reassuring Presence than it is very easy to go to that darkest of places, to feel oneself being drawn to within a hair’s breadth of that precipice. But if I am able to reach out, and if I’m given the grace of the touch, barest touch of Their presence, of Odin’s presence, everything changes and I am restored.
It happened ever so briefly today and I realized that in carrying my own pain and rage and disappointments, I carry His. Perhaps this is a small bit of what He goes through, over and over, this most passionate of Gods Who must sublimate everything – even His own desires– to His own higher purpose, His own question for power and knowledge and that which will enable the Gods to maintain cosmic order. Perhaps this is what it means to be devoted to a God, to belong to a God. If I can re-position my own struggles thusly, it allows me to connect so intimately and so directly with Him. It changes everything. Then these things are a glory to bear, and they carry sweetness because they lead to Him. Then, bearing them lightly becomes part of my spiritual work and a joy.
I wish to Gods I could stay in this head space always. I can’t do that though and so I have to bring myself consciously back via prayer and meditation. Still, the mark of that initial grace remains and I am grateful. I wish gratitude to always be the motivating force in my relationships with Them. It resets the soul. It cleanses and restores. It brings a joy so deep that the soul laughs. It lightens and sustains. It restores focus and with Gangleri, it’s all about that ultimate focus. I praise Him, now and always.
“Synir Bors drápu Ymi jötun, en er hann féll, þá hljóp svá mikit blóð ór sárum hans, at með því drekkðu þeir allri ætt hrímþursa…” (Gylfaginning, 7) (1)
Yesterday in the Hudson valley we had such a great storm that it seemed as though the end of the world were here. Trees came crashing down, property was destroyed, live electrical wires lay crackling in the streets. There are tremendous power outages and coming home, it took me five hours to go less than eight miles. One news report said it was a tornado, but I’m not sure I believe that (I think the damage would be worse). That leaves us today being the only house in the neighborhood with power (thanks to my mother and her foresight in gifting me with a generator as a housewarming present) and since it really isn’t all that safe to go out and about, it also gives me plenty of time to catch up on some of my writing. Thanks to something my husband was watching when I came downstairs this morning, I was inspired, with almost a creative frenzy, to write about our creation story. I’ve written about this before, so now I’m just going to dive in.
Oðinn with his two brothers Vili and Vé slew the first being, the proto-giant Ymir and from his corpse fashioned not only the world of man, Midgard, but the scaffolding of the cosmos. From the very beginning, the Aesir defined the boundaries of their worlds by violence. It’s a compelling moment in our mythology. These three Gods (Oðinn, Vili (Hoenir), and Vé (Loður/Loki) (2) slaughtered, violently hacking to bits, their eldest ancestor. The narrative in the Gylfaginning tells us this in only one or two lines and then moves on to the structure of the cosmos, why we have seasons, the movements of the Sun and Moon, and other cosmological structures. I think, however, that this one moment defines our cosmology and repeats itself again and again throughout the corpus of our cosmological stories. It is the defining moment, the defining act within our cosmology, itself re-enacting the dynamic of Muspelheim and Niflheim coming together in the moment of creation. It’s a synergy that is repeated again and again and again throughout our mythology, one in which we too participate as we work to restore our traditions. Likewise, given that the entire scaffolding of our world and in fact all the worlds was created from Ymir, their very being-ness partakes of the primordial potentiality.
A bit of comparison might be useful here. In Genesis, Yahweh moves over the waters, creates and sees that it is ‘good.’ Our Gods, however, look out across the primordial landscape of meta-creation and see potentiality and then They bring that potentiality into concrete being by violently smashing the old paradigm. (3) It is Ragnarok in microcosm: destruction of old structures in order to bring about renewal and restoration, to restart, reorient, re-create. (4) In Genesis, creation stops once Yahweh pronounces everything to be ‘good.’ In our creation story, it is forever ongoing and we are constantly participating in it.
At that moment when the three Brothers destroy Ymir, we have a moment of chaotic potential (a world filled with Ymir and hrímþursar and not much else) reshaped, brought into order by means of tri-partite divine will, that will made manifest through violent action. Oðinn with His brothers becomes an ‘agent of choice confronting an infinite landscape of potential’ and by this act of conscious will, They elevate Themselves, separate Themselves from the other þursar and become Aesir.(5) They become divinity, lifting Themselves out of the primordial chaos of undifferentiated being. They make Themselves something more through the conscious enacting of their will yoked to mindful forethought, yoked to an awareness of the inherent potential in chaos (and a ruthlessness to bring it into being).(6) This means, by extension, that chaos is important. Order cannot exist save in relationship with something. It must, by its very nature, be defined by its purpose: transforming chaos into something else. Quite often in contemporary Heathenry, we find chaos being viewed as something inherently negative, and moreover, ranked in opposition to divine order. In reality, divine order is formed from chaos and cannot exist without it. That chaos is a necessary building block for all the work that the Gods then do. It is Their primary tool that allows itself to be transformed into anything that can be imagined and willed. It is the chaos that gives order meaning.(7)
Likewise, we see frenzy, will, and holiness (the etymological meanings of Oðinn, Vili, and Vé respectively) working together. The capacity to transform chaos into meaning is a sacred act, but will or frenzy unyoked to holiness (which for humans includes devotion, humility before the Gods, piety) is dangerous and damaging. The three must work together for something ‘Good’ to result. It’s a type of divine homeostasis and where that balance is lacking, ultimately destructive chaos ensues.(8)
Oðinn is the driving force behind this creation through destruction. Immediately before the slaughter of Ymir is discussed, the Gylfaginning notes that “ok þat er mín trúa, at sá Óðinn ok hans bræðr munu vera stýrandi himins ok jarðar.”(9) [And this is my belief, that he Oðinn and his brothers must be ruler/controller of heaven and earth]. Oðinn mentioned first and specifically is given sovereignty over everything that is created. His will to order holds the parsed bits of chaos together in a complex, functioning whole. This is why He cannot afford entropy and is constantly, throughout the mythic cycle, pursuing greater knowledge, greater power, greater ability to transform and transmute reality.
Our creation story contains within itself the underlying telos of our entire mythology. It is a complex and coherent system, re-enacted again and again by our Gods and heroes. I’ll be revisiting this again over the next few months, because not only does this provide insight into our creation story, but also into Oðinn’s nature as well. We can learn a lot about our Gods, Their natures, and the cohesive nature of our cosmology through ongoing examination of these stories.
1. “The sons of Bor slew Ymir the jotun; and where he fell there spurted forth so much blood from out of his wounds, that by means of it they drowned all the tribe of the Rim-thurs…”(translations mine unless otherwise noted).
2. While the identification of Loki as Loður is not universally accepted, there is skaldic evidence for this attribution both in Völuspá 18 and Þrymlur I-III 21. See this site and his article on “Loki’s Roads” for more information.
3. I’m quoting a phrase from Jordan Peterson’s interview (my husband was watching this interview when I came downstairs this morning and agree or disagree with him, Peterson is brilliant and I rather admire the way he can think through an idea or argument, even when I seriously disagree with some of his conclusions).
4. Perhaps this is one of the real cosmological meanings behind Ragnarok before Christians got their hands on it. This conception of Ragnarok also allows for the Gods to recreate and restore Themselves.
5. Again, I am taking a phrase from Peterson here, for my own purposes. His video actually annoyed me a bit. In it, Peterson talks about working toward the Good, and ascribes this to Christianity when in reality what he was saying was very basic Platonism. Let’s give credit where credit is due. This idea of the Gods as Good and reaching/returning to the Good was not something invented by Christians. Polytheistic philosophers developed it long before Jesus was a blip on the historical map.
6. Of course, the question of the difference between a Jotun and a God is a curious one. The Jötnar were the primal divine race. Until the moment Odin and His brothers decided to create the worlds, the beings that sprang from Ymir’s body were Jötnar. At no point in the surviving creation story is there a single moment where suddenly some of them are transformed from Jotun to Ás,’ unless it be the moment that Odin and His brothers decided to slaughter Their ancient kinsman Ymir to create the worlds. That is the only defining period in the creation epic where differentiation occurs. Suddenly these three Gods Odin (frenzy), Vili (conscious will or desire) and Vé (the numinous, the holy) decide to act in a way that transforms everything that comes after. If ‘Aesir’ refers specifically to a clan of Powers focused in some way on creating and maintaining cosmic order, and there is enough in the surviving myths that scholars like Dumézil certainly thought so, then membership into this clan might be somewhat mutable, all Aesir having begun as Jötnar perhaps? We likewise know that there are other clans of Gods like the Vanir, whose cosmological focus is different. Perhaps it is such cosmological foci, however enduring or transitory, that ultimately determine membership in these divine clans.(quoted from my forthcoming paper “The Demonization of Loki in Modern Norse Paganism” which will be appearing in the Summer 2018 issue of Walking the Worlds).
7. This of course makes the Jötnar in general and Loki (whom scholar Dumézil, in his work Loki, describes as the ‘unquiet thought,’) in particular absolutely essential to the proper functioning of divine order. And if we accept, as the skalds did, that Loki and Loður are the same being, then it is Loki who forms the bridge between these two states of being: undifferentiated potentiality/chaos and divinely crafted order. Perhaps this is why it is Loður who gives good hue…which implies a healthy circulatory system, the pumping of the heart, the flow of blood, warmth, and what the Greeks would call βίος. It is from the God who is able to move between both states that we are invested with potentiality (i.e. chaos), carefully contained in ordered flesh. Unordered bodily chaos for us, brings death. Like Ymir, we bleed out, but contained within the order the Gods have decreed, it brings health and ongoing life and the potential to affect our world and to remake it at times according to our will.
8. Just as excluding Loki may lead to entropy and rigidity.
9. Gylfaginning, 6.
Not too long ago, a reader contacted me with the following:
I have a friend who honors Odin and was part of a group where it came up about the story of the rape of Rindr. This friend of mine merely mentioned that the story existed and that gods aren’t all about sweetness and light and to love Them is to understand that.
This friend was then shamed in every way. She was called brosatru; she was called pro rape and pro rape culture – and her intelligence and knowledge were insulted in the process. She was told even mentioning this was unacceptable and that clearly, she has no real connection to Odin whatsoever. As you can probably imagine, she was disgusted, deeply hurt and ended up leaving the group and understandably, is quite shaken by the whole affair.
I was just hoping on your insight with how to best respond to such people in a way that might actually get them to stop and think, or is it better to just stay as far away as possible?
Well, I think getting our communities to actually think is a greater task than even the Gods can manage. As Schiller said, “Gegen Dummheit Kämpfen die Götter selbst vorgebens.”(1) Moreover, our communities will look for any excuse to drag our Gods down to the worst human level.
That being said, I think that on a human level, the issue of rape is so brutal and horrifying that it’s difficult to sit with such an act being ascribed to our Gods. It’s difficult to get into the headspace where we can look further. It’s crucial, however, that we DO look beyond our immediate sense of betrayal and disgust.
There are several issues at hand here, the first being how exactly are we meant to interpret the stories of our Gods that have come down to us? Are we meant to take them literally, allegorically, philosophically, or some other way? Should we consider cultural factors, language, and the shifting meaning of words? (2) Do we assume our Gods are unchanging, as static as characters in a story, or do we – as the ancient philosophers did – look for hidden meanings in these tales? Do we see the tales as mystery plays in which our Gods perform specific parts to impart something of Their Mystery, or some other way of equal significance?
I look at the story of Rindr and Odin as showing us something quite innate and important to Odin’s character: He is ruthless and will do anything necessary to achieve His goals. In this case, the goal involved turning the tide of Ragnarok. Odin is as brutal and demanding of Himself most of all and it is exactly that level of brutality depicted in the story of Rindr to which He exposes Himself to as well.
Secondly, your friend is correct: our Gods are not always sweetness and light. They will not always adhere to our sense of situational ethics. They are quite often not ‘nice’ and if we are devout, we deal with that. I am often asked if I “trust” Odin and my answer is this: I trust Odin to be Odin. To expect anything less or more of a Deity is to elevate our human frailty above the Gods. The stories that we have, however imperfect their transmission may be (and with the Eddas it is quite problematic), exist in part to give us insight into the nature of our Gods. What can we learn from Them about the stories in which They take part? Now some may say “well, we learn that Odin is a bastard.” Yep. And why is that? What is His function, His timai, His sphere of influence within our cosmology? Why is He willing to be so incredibly brutal? What is at stake. That’s the real question: what is at stake if He wavers? We know from the stories we have, that the stakes are incredibly high: the order of the cosmos and all creation that the Gods have wrought, its sustainability and ongoing existence. For that, yes, He will violate any boundary and count it an easy price to pay. Those who don’t understand that, don’t understand Him.
I would take that a bit further: Divine politics are not for us. I also think it is a spiritual fallacy to project modern ideals and values onto these stories, which reflect the time in which they were written or received. Odin generally surrounds Himself with powerful women: Frigga, Freya, He consults the Seeress in the Voluspa, He speaks highly of the wisdom and knowledge of Gunnlod, those who work His will are the Valkyries, and in our modern world, He certainly has a penchant for claiming women as His own in one form or another. I would go so far as to say Odin likes women quite specifically and respects them. (3) He even put Himself in a female role more than once to learn seidhr. I don’t think that gender, sexuality or anything else is particularly important to Him if by ignoring it He can gain power and knowledge. This story however, has greater cosmological (and even eschatological) significance.
When I see the story of Odin and Rindr, I see two Holy Powers re-enacting the moment of cosmic creation. Contained within Them and Their antagonism is an echo of the tension of Muspelheim and Niflheim, a reordering of the worlds, and through Their very antagonism, They tap into and re-center Themselves in that moment when Being and Matter were created. The violence inherent in that story is a necessary part of that engagement. By this continual re-enactment of that moment, the fabric of Being is reset, at least a little, and our Gods given greater purchase. The antagonism that we see in the story of Odin and Rindr echoes throughout our cosmological structures. From the moment Muspelheim and Niflheim grind together in production of Being, the Northern world is structured around opposing forces and the productivity that comes from Their engagement.(4) In this, Rindr becomes an equal player, and in fact a powerful contributor to the restoration of the worlds. She can only hold that position, vis a vis the cosmological model above, by embracing continued resistance to Him.
It is right and proper to condemn rape in all its forms in our world. When we are talking about our Gods, however, I likewise think it’s important to understand that there’s more going on than the obvious.
In the end, I would urge your friend to cultivate her relationships with her Gods, and seek out those who are likewise devotionally minded. I have never found the overarching Heathen community to be much use in developing devotion or nourishing spirituality. In fact, I find they tend to do exactly the opposite. Like all things miasmic and polluted, they’re best engaged with in small doses. Bathe afterwards.
- “Against stupidity even the Gods struggle in vain.”
- In the story of the ‘rape’ of Persephone by Hades, for instance, (which inevitably comes up in discussions of Gods and rape) was not technically rape. Hades behaved quite properly according to Greek custom. He went to Zeus, received Persephone’s Father’s permission to marry and then went to collect His bride. There was no rape either linguistically or culturally (Zeus maybe should have informed Demeter that He’d arranged a marriage for Their daughter but that’s a whole other can of worms). The word in Latin usually translated as ‘rape’ is ‘raptus,’ which likewise doesn’t mean sexual violation. It means to seize or carry off, strive for, hasten, but also to be carried away with passion. Later Christian mystics used it at times to describe the direct experience of their God. So, one could interpret the story of Hades and Persephone as Hades contracting a proper and lawful marriage with Her and then hastening to take Her to His home. She becomes Queen of the Underworld and later stories show Her as a powerful and occasionally implacable figure. To assume victimization here is to elide both Her agency and power.
- While He does caution in the Havamal that women are inconstant, His very next stanza talks about the equal failures of men. As an aside, in Skaldskaparmal, Freyr’s retainer Skirnir lays some pretty heavy and vile curses on Gerda to compel Her to marry Freyr and I rarely see Heathens getting upset about that. Skirnir was acting on Freyr’s behalf therefore anything He did in that capacity can and should be laid at the feet of the Golden God. (For a very thought-provoking piece on just this story, I recommend Margaret Clunies Ross “Prolonged Echoes.” Odense University Press, 1994).
- One could look at Váli then, as re-enacting the moment Odin and His brothers slaughtered Their primal ancestor Ymir. He is stepping into Their role, birthed as was Ymir of opposing forces, it is a child of opposing forces that will journey forth to reset the worlds once again during Ragnarok. As such, His parentage had to encompass that antagonism. He had to carry within Himself the twin and violent forces of the original creation to rework and restore that original cosmic balance again.
Thinking on Odin today and ordeal and all the many places He’s had me walk in my life. There is a place in service to one’s Gods where everything else is stripped away. We’re not male or female or anything else, not black, not white, not skin, not bone, nothing but fire in the mouth of our God. It’s there that secrets open, Mysteries, there initiation happens. Make me fire in the mouth of my God, that is the prayer for the mystai, for those who seek to tear open their scars, so that their souls may be dragged out shrieking through that gash. And it happens. It happens through ordeal, it happens through so many other ways. This world is loud, it’s cacophony blinds the senses to the soul’s cry and blinds us to our Gods and sometimes it takes the press of pain and surrender, humility and ecstasy to mute that noise and raise us up to deepest communion with our Gods. Sometimes scars are too hard, a will too bent, to fierce, too raw…pain is the only one who can guide us through the barren lands to the place where immolation dwells. There are some places that cannot be reached by walking paths of light. Some require the terrible nourishment of darkness.
I met Odin when I hung for Him. It wasn’t about the pain. Pain is irrelevant. It’s a byproduct, nothing more. It’s the horse some of us ride to get across thresholds unapproachable by any other way. It’s never, ever about the pain. If this happens without pain all the better. But for some of us pain is our teacher, guru, and guide. Whether we will or no (but I so willed) he drags us across the gaping gaps that lead to those places our Gods dance in ecstasy, to those places where They rage and shriek and spit power weaving worlds. If you want it easy follow a God who left His place of pain. Odin is always there. Pain brings the humility one needs to be taken up by His ecstasy. Such a clever word that. It does not in any way imply the shattering ripeness, the furious violence, the orgasmic delight of His presence when it fills ever synapse, every atom, every molecule. We burn away in it happily. Let there be nothing between me and this God I love. Nothing not even myself. I am a living sacrament to Him and I was reminded today of what it means to bear His marks on every inch of my flesh. It is His calling card, a reminder to me that even His kindness comes with fury, and to others that what comes through my flesh is terrible danger. Human no more, I am marking time until I am no more, taken up fire on His tongue to be spat out in service. Unmake me, Oh my God, that You may restore again Your worlds.
I walk halls hallowed to another and I wait and twist and turn in an agony of suspense and for what? I have forgotten to Whom I belong. There is only one truth that matters, only one, One for Whom I should writhe and that is Odin and I will go where He will have me go, and do what He will have me do and I do not care for anything else. The meanderings of my still too human heart are nothing in comparison to His presence shrieking through my synapses whispering, laughing, reminding me of paths we tread long ago together. There is nothing but what He would have me do and where He would have me go. Step out of the way.
Pain teaches humility in the face of the Holy. May you eat of it, you who would mock holy things. May you be rung out in your human skins with it, who mock the Gods and Their works. May you learn. I do not care. They have reality for me, only those who likewise burn. I have no time for shadows. May you burn up in the light. May you be nourished by the darkness.
by S. Stockton
Howl, Hangi, and hear my prayer.
Flee not from my feeble flesh, but dance in my dead heart;
Your devouring dervish demands devotion, and the damnation of decadent desires.
Madness unmakes the mightiest of men, but all mad minds are yours, Yggr.
Guide and goad me, Sigtyr; stain my soul all shades sacred.
Cruel yet kind, my blood crusted at the creases of Your wry smile, scream Thy song into my every sinew.
There is release in the languishing laughter let forth in labor for You.
Evermore may my adoration endure, Odin.
Ode to Odin
by Grant Emile Hodel
The one-eyed wonderer,
the cyclopean voyager,
the fury of warfare,
the father of the slain.
Father of the thunderer,
rider of the gallows horse,
walks across the nine worlds,
seeking wisdom to save his son,
so that Ragnarök may never come.
May he find what he seeks,
so that order reigns over chaos,
for all time.
For Óðrerir’s Brewer
You kindled in me a love for brewing
Water, honey, yeast
Sacred magic, old magic
Kvasir’s brood, your spit
Relaxing and maddening
Teasing out the ties
Growling forth from each sip, each gulp
May each brew be a worthy working
Each bottle a sacred vessel
Each glass a welcome offering
Alliterative Poem to Odin
Wind and wound
Scream and spell
Health and harm
Scar and sense
Wrath and release
Power and purpose
Grey and gold
Eye and iron
Hanged and hale
When the Sons of Borr took up the spear
No ravens flew or wolves roamed
Nifelheim was far too cold
Muspelheim far too hot
They dreamed of more than ice and mist, fire and smoke
A World teaming with life, with warmth and with cold
A World full of flowing waters and rain
A World between the the Worlds
So when They slew Ymir
The Sons of Borr took up the best of all Worlds to make Midgard
Fire from Muspelheim gifted by Surtr
Ice from Nifelheim taken from Ymir
Fertility from Vanaheim gifted by Freya, Freyr, and Njordr
Wildness from Jotunheim made by the Jotnar
Riches from Svartalfheim dug deep by the Dvergar
Liminality from Alfaheim made by the Alfar
Death from Helheim overseen by Hela
Potential from the Ginnungagap woven by the Nornir
Within the Middle Yard each World was woven to the others
Crafted with care by the Sons of Borr
This is a new translation of the ‘Havamal,’ that takes into account the varying metrical structure in the original. Because it is so long, and because WordPress won’t allow me to maintain the spacing, i’ve uploaded it here as a PDF. It is by C.L.T.
This lovely portable shrine to Odin is by Ellen.
(Remember, folks, the Agon for Odin runs through December 31, 9pm EST. There is also, concurrently, an Agon to Hathor right now through the same time and date. She only has one submission to Her agon so if anyone has poetry, prayers, or art that you’d like to submit, please consider doing so. There are prizes for both agones).
One for the Wishgiver
by Dr. E. Kelly
Kara stood a moment in the doorway of her home, looking out over the snow-covered hills. Everything was tinged with the evening sky’s deepening blue. Stars studded the night already, gleaming bright as wolf’s teeth. Kara’s mother had told her these were the best stars for wishing. The shadows had already melted into darkness. With a quick whistle, Kara brought the geese and goats inside the heavy beamed doorframe and whisked them behind their partition of nimbly interwoven sticks. She paused a moment to pat the tall billy goat with the black patch around one eye. This would be the last night she would do this chore. Kara had never thought she would miss it.
It was Yule. Kara’s whole family had gathered from the nearby farms to enjoy each other’s company and share a few horns of mead together. Everyone was so happy for her. “What a fortuitous match!” her father’s sister said. “What impressive gifts!” complimented her younger brother. “What an important man your husband Iorek will be!” chattered her cousin. Kara’s bridal wealth was packed and stowed and ready for the ride to Iorek’s family’s home, over the pass a day’s ride, close to the sea. It was a large hall, empty much of the time. Iorek’s brothers’ had all taken wives from a family that had long feuded with Kara’s. A short time ago Kara’s father laid claim to a much larger farm than he did now. He did not talk much about it. Iorek’s sisters-in-law were involved somehow, and an agreement had been broken.
Why Iorek himself had wanted to marry Kara seemed unclear to her. A messenger had been sent to woo her and gain her father’s permission to marry. The messenger had praised Kara’s beauty with unremarkable poetry, each verse as memorable as one egg is from another. She had not been impressed with the verse. Kara’s lips thinned in anger as a tear welled up in the corner of her eye. The rumor whispering around her family was that Iorek had chosen to marry her to spite his brother’s wives. Life in that cold, dreary hall with those knife-faced women seemed terribly long and heavy.
Kara’s gaze turned to the polished stone gaming pieces displayed by the fire on her family’s hearth. They had been her grandmother’s. She had once travelled with the old earl on his campaigns in the East and had served as his advisor in war. Those pieces might have once determined the life or death of men in battle. They were to have been hers, but were now being left to her younger brother. Iorek’s family did not approve of women in their war councils.
Iorek’s messenger was at the head of the family table. He beckoned her rather rudely to have a seat at the bench and she did so. He addressed Kara’s family. He reminded them of how lucky they were to be marrying up into Iorek’s family. Conveying this information seemed to take a great deal of dull speech and Kara’s attention wandered to the man sitting next to her. She was sure she had seen him around the place, a cousin’s cousin perhaps. He was rough around the edges, too wrinkled for his age and his beard was not well trimmed. The seams on his tunic hung open for want of mending. Everyone around the table had a earthenware mug full of fragrant wine, doled out as a gift from Iorek’s family; one cup per guest and filled less than halfway up. The old man held no such cup.
“Where’s you toast, sir?” Kara inquired. The man met her gaze with eyes of piercing blue and a smile transformed his bearded face. “Oh, they didn’t want to spread out the good stuff any thinner, let alone on a old man like me.” he said. “How awful!” Kara gasped. “How dare he treat my family so disrespectfully! I’m so sorry…uncle…” she trailed off and blushed a little in embarrassment. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I’ve forgotten you name.” “Oski.” The old man laughed. “And yes it’s a few generations, but we are related.” He patted her hand reassuringly.
Iorek’s messenger was still droning on, managing to insult Kara’s family repeatedly while appearing to congratulate them. Kara stared at his fat cheeks wobbling as he prattled on. “Just like a horse’s ass farting.” Kara said aloud, quietly. Oski choked a little with laughter. “You talk about your new husband’s envoy in such a fashion?” he asked. Kara felt cold and heavy and when she spoke it seemed as though her voice belonged outside herself. “I will never marry Iorek.” she said.
Iorek’s man had stopped talking at last, and lifted his mug to beckon others to drink. Kara had never tasted wine. She watched it circle around in the cup, red as summer flowers.
“I would like you to have this.” Kara said, and she placed her toast in Oski’s hand. She ripped a chunk out of the bread before her and passed it over as well. “To your companionship.” The old man took the drink down in a blink, as if he were used to such things. He smiled and his teeth looked just a little as if they were stained with blood. “Companionship”, he repeated. “May you have all you wish for.” The remainder of the feast passed uneventfully.
Later that night Kara sat up in bed, suddenly awakened from sleep. It was cold and deeply silent. Everyone was asleep. The wind had picked up in the night and howled through the rough beams of the wall, despite the insulating chinks of turf. Branches on a nearby tree scratched just outside. Her dream was still on her eyelids, a flash of white, like a swan with candle flames for wingtips. A sensation of flying free. It had been so beautiful. She had been riding with a host of others, tumbling over the dark blue star pierced sky. A column of smoke arose on a distant shore. Kara closed her eyes again and sleep came once more, thick and comfortingly dark. She rested peacefully.
Another messenger came early the next morning, with terrible news. Iorek, his brothers, and all their family had perished in the night, victims of a fire their own hall. “How distraught the bride must be!” he exclaimed. Lightning from the winter sky had set the roof ablaze and all had perished. “How tragic!” Kara’s family managed their condolences, though in truth they were relieved to be rid of those sisters who had plagued them with dishonest dealing all these years. Now Kara conveyed such terrible luck that surely no one would marry her. She would be alone! “How sad!”
Kara smiled. “Alone, here at home where I’ve always wanted to be, with my own kin.” She ran her fingers over he grandmother’s stone strategy pieces. She might get to deploy them on her brother’s behalf after all. Stars winked in the early dawm, where Kara had withdrawn outdoors to be with her grief. “Thank you, Oski.” she whispered.