Mine Shaft

A quick story I wrote for a post of r/simpleprompts while I put off studying for finals. The link to the original post is at the bottom.

“I’ve waited…I’ve waited all these years,” Arnold huffed as he staggered towards the mine shaft.

After years of endless search and suffering Arnold was finally nearing his goal. He wasn’t as spry has he had been when he first set out. Age and injury had taken that from him. Ten years on the road can be hard on a man, and several broken legs had left him with a permanent limp. Nor was he as handsome. There was a time when he could have drawn the eye of every woman in town but those days, he knew, were long over. His hair had greyed, he had let his beard grow long and unkempt, and a grisly scar now disfigured his face. Others may have been dismayed by these changes. But he had long ago stopped caring about such things.

All that mattered was his hunt. That hunt was about to end.

He had hardly believed his luck when he had found his foe making camp in the mine shaft. For a decade the beast had been one step ahead of him. Always just a little out of reach. Finally, Arnold had the drop on him.

The task had required great care and some measure of skill. He had bought dynamite in the nearest town claiming he was a prospector looking to revive a few abandoned claims. He spent hours in the dead of night wiring the mine shaft to blow. It had taken all his self-control not to lash out, not to call his foe out right there. That, he knew, would have been futile. He would have lost.

Finally, as the sun crept up over the horizon he retreated to the detonator and cried out.

“Come out here you bastard! Come and face me!”

As soon as he saw movement in mouth of the tunnel, he pressed the detonator. Now he stood at the tunnel’s mouth. Sore from the exertion, tired from the sleepless night. There had been a time when he had dreamt of this moment. In his dreams he had written speeches that he imagined he would give over the creature’s corpse. Written epitaphs for any future traveler’s who found it’s grave. He did not care about any of that now. He just wanted it to be done.

Wearily, he drew a large hunting knife from his belt. A gun wouldn’t do. Then, from his pocket he drew a smaller knife and with it he pricked his thumb. Blood would be needed.

With his bloody thumb he traced on the blade the rune that he would need to kill the creature. In some ways his discovery of the rune had been a miracle. He had laid down drunk and defeated in a gutter, convinced that his quest was futile. In the course of that night he had contented himself with the prospect of drowning in the runoff. It would have been an ignoble death, but he and others would have been able to write it off as an accident, allowing him to go into the next lift with a comforting lie. When a strange man with a knowing smile had approached him and promised him the solution to all his ills.

To another man the rune might have been a curse. It was an evil thing. One not meant for this world. Its very presence was an affront to life, to warmth, to all that was good. It was Arnold’s only hope.

The simple act of writing it on the blade drained his strength, looking at it made his eyes ache. Already he felt the rot festering inside him. Holding the knife for too long would bring him ruin. Thankfully, he only needed it for a few moments more.

With his weapon prepared he entered the mine shaft.

There his foe lay buried beneath mounds of rubble. The snarling face was stuck somewhere in between man and beast. The blast had caught him in the middle of his transformation. In his enemy’s eyes, Arnold saw a flash of recognition.

He did not hesitate. There was no time for doubt. Every minute wasted was another minute that the creature could use to escape.

Moving carefully, he knelt down beside the beast, who lashed out with clawed hands but was unable to reach him. Arnold took the knife in both hands and raised it far above his head. His body trembled. The rune was sapping his strength. He was running out of time now. He had to act.

He took a deep, sobbing breath, and rammed the knife into the thing’s chest.

 

“I waited…I waited all these years” from SimplePrompts

 

Snake Oil

The sudden jolt brought Maynard out of his reverie and into the present. All at once he was aware of the muggy evening air, the hard bench beneath him, and the incessant squeal of a wagon axel in need of grease. He had hit a small hole in the road, he realized. His horses May and Bay had avoided stepping on it. Maynard on the other hand was nowhere near as attentive as his horses. Silently he praised the horses and cursed himself. The wagon’s rear axle was bad enough without him breaking it further. That last thing he needed was to become stranded on some mountain trail. But that would be a problem for later, he still had a long way to go until the next town.

In the west, the setting sun was of far greater immediate concern. Wolves, he knew, prowled the mountains, and might see a lone traveler and his tired horses as a rare opportunity. But his worried were dominated by a far greater threat. He feared that the shotgun he carried across his lap would deal with them as effectively as it did wolves.

There had been four of them, each with a mean look in his eyes and a six shooter on his belt. Maynard had come upon them while they were resting on the side of the road sipping whiskey. All four had given him cold looks as he had passed by. For his part, Maynard had tried find a balance between looking non-threatening and looking like he’d put up too much of a fight to be worth robbing. The shotgun in his lap had been held is as confident and non-threatening way that he could manage.

Soon after he had seen them following him. Always just beyond the last bend, just barely in sight. He had thought they might be planning to rob him. So far they had not. Still, he was worried what they might do after dark. And so he was in a hurry to get to the next town. If he could at least camp at its edge it might discourage them from attacking. He ran through a few quick scenarios in his mind, and none of them looked good. He was a soothsayer, a man with a magical gift for persuasion. But it was always hard to persuade someone who had already settle on aggression. Violence turns off the reason in men’s brains, and Maynard knew better than to test it. At best, if the men decided to rob him, he might be able to pay them to leave him alone. But with the valuables stowed in his wagon he thought that unlikely. They’d shoot him and take what they wanted.

As the sun finally set over the mountains, a number of distant farms came into view. Their locations were given away only by the dim light of their hearths that shined through the windows. He glanced nervously behind the wagon. If the men were going to attack, this would be their chance. Lights from the town ahead were beginning to come into view. Soon he would be surrounded by more witnesses than most bandits would care for.

“You there. Hold!” yelled a voice from the darkness.

Maynard jumped in his seat and brought the horses to an abrupt stop. The four men? Come to stage an ambush? He considered running. But he had already stopped, and four riders would easily out pace his wagon. No, his best option was just to stay calm, wait, and hope.

An armed man came out of the shadows on horseback. He was only just barely visible in the moonlight. Maynard could barely make out the outline of the carbine held in the man’s hands.

“Your business?” asked the figure.

“Just a travelling merchant looking for a place to set up his store,” answered Maynard. The figure shifted, and Maynard saw moonlight reflect off of a silver star on the man’s vest. He let out a sigh of relief. Not an ambush then.

The deputy was silent for a moment. “Alright,” he said finally. “But don’t camp outside of town. There have been some unfriendly folks on the roads lately. Go to the village green, next to our office. You can make your camp there.”

Maynard thought of the men he had seen earlier. “Thank you kindly, sir,” he then added a bit of magical weight to his words. “Might I set up shop there in the morning too? I have many wares and little coin.”

The Deputy’s eyes narrowed. “What’re you looking to sell?

“Oh, a bit of everything,” said Maynard. “Medicines, tonics, tools, books.”

“Candy? Toys for the children?” asked the deputy.

Maynard put on a smile and nodded. “I have some, yes.”

“You can set your shop up for the day. But no hassling anyone. These folks have had enough trouble.”

Maynard thanked the deputy and urged the horses forward. As he did he saw other figures standing behind the deputy. Militia? He thought again to the riders he had passed. Fugitives? No. Why would they have been following him towards town. Perhaps the deputy was looking for someone else.

It was quiet when he finally reached the town. A few patrons were still visible through the windows of the saloon, but no music was playing and there was none of the usual raucous that Maynard had learned to associate with such places.

He soon found the sheriff’s office, which occupied one corner of a building that appeared to also function as town hall. The village green in front of it hardly lived up to its name. It was instead a patchy quilt of mud, gravel, and dead grass, tamped down by cart wheels and foot prints. He hitched his horses to a post in front of town hall and fed them from a bag of oats he kept in the wagon. Then he turned to making his own bed. He decided that a campfire and tent would be uncouth, as he was in the village green and not out in the mountains. So he elected to instead create a small sleeping space for himself inside the wagon. There, squeezed in between stacked rolls of cloth, sacks of flour and boxes of trinkets, he did his best to get a decent night’s sleep.

The sun woke him as it did most mornings. His breakfast consisted of a piece of bread and some dried fruit that he had stashed in the wagon, which he ate while he set up his stall. He first unfolded two light tables that he places in front of his wagon before placing his selections of trinkets, pocket knives, cloth, and tonics out on the tables. He only paused when he put his hands on a box of odd artifacts. Most of them were worthless trinkets, although judging from his admittedly week second sight he had surmised that some of those trinkets might hold some magical potential. Even then, to most people they would be worth little. They were things he acquired in the course of his travels and kept because they took up little space and might be of interest to a collector or two. Nothing in the box was of any real interest to a bunch of farmers, but he set them out anyway as curiosities; something to attract the public’s interest while he sold them other things.

When he was done he stepped back to admire his work. His wagon was hardly impressive, with its peeling red paid and worn gold lettering, but it certainly drew the eye, and he felt that the wares he had laid out would be of suitable interest. Just then he remembered that he ought to know the town’s name before he tried to make any money off them. He cast his eyes about the green, before finding it. Its letters, which were peeling like those on his wagon, read WELCOME TO ACRE.

With his stall set up and no customers yet in sight he decided to brush the horses while he waited. The morning was off to a slow start for a farming town. He would have expected to see more people in the streets, but so far his only company seemed to be the saloon owner whittling on his porch down the street. Maynard thought back to the deputy and the riders. Something had the people of Acre spooked.

By the time he saw the posse return it was nearly mid-day. The unlikely assembly walked past him without a word, although he attracted a few glances. Most of them went on down the street to the saloon where they were greeted solemnly by the owner. The deputy did not go with them. Instead he hitched his horse beside May and Bay and went inside the sheriff’s office.

An idea came to Maynard’s mind after seeing the exhausted looks of the men. He quickly brought out his camp stove and started a pot of coffee to serve as bait. Eventually the deputy emerged from his office and leaned on the porch railing to watch Maynard. His eyelids sagged, and he leaned on the railing in such a way that Maynard suspected he might collapse from exhaustion at any moment.

“Want some coffee friend?” asked Maynard while he filled a tin mug and held it out to the deputy. The deputy eyed him suspiciously for a moment before accepting the cup. On his face he wore an expression of both simple tiredness and defeat. “Rough night?” he asked after the deputy had taken his first sip.

“Been a few of them.”

Maynard nodded sympathetically. “I saw some riders on my way here. They had mean eyes. Those the folks you’ve been looking for?”

The deputy was suddenly alert. “Where?”

“Just before I ran into you,” answered Maynard. “They followed me for a ways. I thought they might try to rob me until I found you.”

The deputy stared into his coffee. “I reckon they were Pauling’s men.”

“Pauling?”

“Small time cattle farmer. Lives up on the north end of the valley,” answered the deputy. “A few months back he found gold on his neighbor’s land. Now he’s trying to muscle his way into owning half the valley. He’s brought in a few brawlers and third-rate gunfighters from Dorster too. Lot of people have been robbed or otherwise roughed up lately.”

“Is that you reason for your patrols?”

The deputy nodded. “Enough of that. You’ve got customers.”

Maynard looked away from the deputy and his coffee. Coming down the street were the men from the night patrol. Each looked like he was on the verge of collapse. When they reached Maynard’s table they picked through his merchandise in silence. Normally he would have launched into a sales pitch, but he could tell the men would have no patience for it, and he suspected the deputy would notice if he attempted to enchant them into buying something.

A few of them picked simple things; boxes of matches, rolls of cloth. A few were looking for children’s toys, and Maynard made a point of giving those men free candies to take home. An action that he though might have brought a brief smile out of the deputy.

One member of the militia hung back until the others had found what they were looking for. The man was dressed like any frontier farmer. Rough spun clothes that showed years of wear, and calloused hands that were well acquainted with hard work. He had stood to the back of the posse, holding an old pepperbox in his hands that were well acquainted with hard work but unfamiliar with violence. While the others had looked through Maynard’s wares he had stood staring at a single point. Maynard followed the man’s gaze and saw that it led to a box of old trinkets.

Only when the rest of the group began to disperse did he approach the table. As he did, Maynard could see signs of a recent beating on the man’s face. The bruising around his eye had faded and was now a sickly yellow, and his nose looked like it was still in the early stages of healing.

From a box on the table he drew a small necklace and held it up. “How much?”

Maynard took the necklace from the settler, who seems to cringe as it left his grasp. He did not remember where he had picked up the trinket. It was a worn, carved piece of gray stone tied to a leather strap. Hardly larger than a button. Etched lines circled the stone starting on the outside edge until they reached the center. Looking at it he felt as if he could trace the lines for hours. Impulsively, he opened his second sight as far as he could and it instantly overwhelmed him. He felt as if he was standing on the edge of a precipice and about to fall into the amulet’s swirling lines. He panicked and shut his third eye before he could be drawn in any further.

“You know friend,” he said with his charmed voice. “I have many more splendid trinkets available if you would like. Ones that are much finer than that old thing.”

“No. This one will do.”

Maynard was not quite sure how to respond. Every rational thought he had screamed at him not to sell the amulet. Whatever was drawing the man to it couldn’t be good, and it was enough to allow him to resist Maynard’s magic. A man in as weakened a state should have been easy to charm. He looked again with his second sight. This time he was careful to avoid looking at the amulet and instead directed his gaze at the man.

An aura of black storm clouds writhing with lighting enveloped the man. From the hand holding the amulet radiated a sickly yellow light that was slowly intertwining itself with the storm clouds. To his horror, Maynard realized that there was nothing that he could do for the man. It would require a far greater Talent than his to dispel whatever curse had been laid on him, and his charms were clearly too weak.

In a last attempt at dissuading him. Maynard resorted to the only thing he knew to have absolute control over men’s hearts. “Two crowns,” he said finally.

“Done.”

Although not entirely surprised, Maynard was saddened by the man’s response. Two crowns was no small sum. He had a strong sense that whatever the amulet was it might very well ruin the man. Still, he knew better than to deny the sale. Whatever had its hold on the man wouldn’t let a shopkeeper like Maynard get in the way of obtaining the amulet. Reluctantly, he wrapped the amulet in a bit of tissue paper and sent the man on his way.

As soon as the farmer had gone out of earshot Maynard turned to deputy and asked who that had been.  The deputy told him that the man was a farmer named Ernest and was one of Pauling’s neighbors who had been pushed off his land. “He’s lost,” said the deputy in reference to the trinket. “People get desperate sometimes. They fixate on things. Maybe he wanted it for his wife. These times have been tough on her too.”

Maynard nodded noncommittally. He had a bad feeling in his gut. But there was nothing he could do.

By then it was well past the time that the town should have woken up. People should have been out on errands or working. He saw business owners like the saloon manager and gunsmith out, but by all accounts, it seemed that business was slow and the owners didn’t stray far from their front doors. Meanwhile the deputy went about brushing his horse, still sipping the coffee that Maynard had given him.

Maynard could not help but admire the man. It was well past noon and the deputy was still up after having spent the night patrolling the valley. As he sat there Maynard began to feel a strange sympathy for this man that he hardly knew.

“I think I know something that will help with the exhaustion,” he said carefully.

“Pardon?”

“The exhaustion,” said Maynard. “You’re obviously tired, I think I’ve got something that will help.”

The deputy narrowed his eyes. “I ain’t looking to buy anything.”

“Cost to you is nothing,” Maynard replied and started digging through a box full of tonics. “It’s a gift.” He held up an unbranded glass bottle with ALERT written in uneven block letters on the label. It was one of the tonics he mixed himself as he travelled, and he was quite proud of it. “Nothing quite beats sleep. But if you’re not going to be getting any, then this will keep you much more alert than just coffee.”

After a moment of hesitation, the deputy accepted the bottle. “How am I supposed to take it?”

“Just add some to this,” he said and handed the deputy a second cup of coffee.

The deputy nodded his thanks but stopped short of adding the tonic. His eyes narrowed as he focused on something down the street. “Looks like our friends have found you,” his hand went to the revolver on his hip.

Approaching them on horseback were three of the men that Maynard had seen the night before. Those who we in the street hurried to go back into their houses and shops as the trio rode down the road. Maynard noticed that members of the deputy’s posse had returned to town and were watching the riders carefully from the alley ways. Most of them held rifles or shot guns at the ready and were looking to the deputy for guidance. Maynard felt the urge to grab his scatter gun from the wagon, but he realized he didn’t have time for that.

The lead rider dismounted and walked up to Maynard’s stall. “We don’t want any trouble deputy. Just need to buy something from this gentleman,” he turned to Maynard. “You got anything for snake bites?”

Maynard stared at him blankly. “Oh, yes!” he said as he regained his composure. “I’ve got something right here,” he produced a small jar of salve from the same box he had stored the deputy’s tonic in. “Simply apply to the wound and then cover with a bandage.”

“How much?”

“One crown,” Maynard said. As he spoke another idea came to him. Adding magical weight to his words he went on to suggest that the men purchase a tin of coffee, then new bedrolls, additional tonics, and so on until he had sold them his entire stock of wilderness supplies. By the time they rode off he had convinced them to spend the equivalent of a laborer’s monthly wages. As they finally left town Maynard caught the deputy smiling openly for the first time that day.

The next morning Maynard packed up his stall and rode out of town. He was escorted by the town’s militia past the point where they expected there to be any danger from Pauling’s men. After all that he had seen of Acre; the gunfighters, the patrols, and the amulet, he was happy to get out. He couldn’t help but feel that the Dorster region was like a powder keg, and he wanted to be as far away as he could when it finally blew.

 

 

 

 

A Fondly Remembered Abduction

I responded to another writing prompt on reddit. The original post can be found here: https://www.reddit.com/r/WritingPrompts/comments/9jowun/wp_you_lie_in_a_grassy_field_on_a_sunny_day/e6u5dos/?context=3

When most people imagine being abducted by aliens they imagine being woken up in the middle of the night by little grey men who poke and prod them. The reality is really quite different.

I had just left my friend Tom’s when I met them. It was Tom’s birthday and he had decided to throw a rager. I’ll admit that I had a bit too much to drink and on my walk back I tripped and fell into the path of a moving car. My head hit the pavement, and everything went black. I was sure that this would be the end. But they saw.

I woke up in an examination room. Everything was grey, cold, steel and plastic. I’ll admit that at first, I had a panic attack. I thought that I woke up in the morgue. That someone had mistaken me for dead and that I was about to be cut open. In my muddled state of mind, I searched around for something that I could use to defend myself. A pair if scissors on the counter was all that I could find.

I waited there for what seemed like forever. I was convinced that at any moment the morticians would rush in and tie me to table before cutting me open while I was still alive. But I couldn’t have been more wrong.

When the door finally opened I was greeted by a diminutive figure, who by my guess was only about four feet tall. Its big amber eyes looked at me, and then down at the scissors that I was holding out like a cross as if I was trying to fend off Dracula.

“You,” it began. “You know that isn’t really needed, right?”

I kept the scissors pointed towards the creature. “What do you want with me?”

“Want with you?” It seemed confused. “You just looked like you needed help. That car was about to squash you. So, we teleported you here to our medical bay. I can promise that you are in good hands.”

My body wouldn’t stop shaking but going against every instinct I had I lowered the scissors. I remembered the car, but why would they help me? Why wasn’t I dead?

“Why?” I asked tentatively. “Why would you save me?”

“Normally we wouldn’t,” it said. “Our mission is simply to observe. But we saw that you needed help and we couldn’t just stand by.”

I let the scissors drop to the floor. I didn’t entirely believe them yet. But I didn’t have the energy to fight and decided that I might as well take this creature at its word. It wasn’t like the scissors would have been much good anyway.

“Anyway,” it continued. “We could use your help justifying this to our superiors.”

“Justify?” I asked, a little confused.

“Yes, justify. You see, we have very strict orders to not establish contact with any humans. Command was very specific after the Roswell incident; no contact.”

“But, you saved me?”

“Yes well. We happened to be nearby, and we couldn’t just do nothing. We’ll need something from you in order to justify this.”

I reached for the scissors again and paused. “What exactly do you want?”

As it turned out all the aliens wanted was the rules to football. They had some of the most advanced technology that I had ever seen but despite their best efforts they couldn’t figure out the rules of the game. I spent an hour or so explaining yard lines and touch downs to them. Then we split a case of beer and watched super bowl reruns.

I spent two days just hanging out with them. As it turns out aliens are pretty chill. But in the end, they told me it was time to leave. Having learned the mysteries of football they couldn’t justify keeping me any longer. In my time on board their ship I had already seen them answer a few calls from their higher-ups. They seemed pretty heated.

I was sad to go. Hanging out and watching football with aliens was way better than going to work every day. I like to think that they were sad to see me go as well. They sure seemed it. They promised that they would keep looking out for me, and I like to think that they kept their word. It’s nice to have some guardian angels of your own. It’s even nicer to know that you’re both rooting for the same team in the play-offs.

 

 

Imposter Syndrome

A cold wind swept over the surface of the tiny lake, buffeting Erik as he sat down on the gravel shore. He shivered, he had been gone a long time and was no longer used to the weather. Behind him, his new body guards stood ever watchful and seemingly unbothered by the wind. He looked out over the lake, examining the curve of it’s shoreline, and the gentle ripples that travelled along its surface.

As he sat there a singular thought consumed him, the same though that had occupied every waking moment he had had for the past week; he should not be there. No, he decided, it was more than a thought, it was a feeling, an instinct. One that reached deep into his core. He was neither worthy enough, nor suited for the task before him, and yet it was he who had been chosen.

He reached into his pocket and retrieved the crumpled letter that had been delivered to him just days before. When it had arrived, they had found him living in a small fishing hut in greece, the valkyrie that had delivered it was stern, as was typical for her type, but through her facade he had sensed a deep worry. It was then that he had found out that his brother Poul had died two weeks earlier, and he had learned what was to be his own fate.

You, Erik. Who have strayed far from northern shores and wandered for these past eight years, have been chosen by decree, vote, and fate, to rise to the demands of destiny. This is both a great honor, and burden, one that you have been judged capable of bearing. You will return to the land of your fathers with all haste. All travel arrangements have been made. Synnove, whose presence now indicates both the validity and urgency of this message, shall be your guide in whatever path you choose. We, your humble servants, eagerly await your return.

It hadn’t been a choice, not really. Returning home would have been the only way to find out what happened to his brother, and he knew that Synnove would have killed him if he refused. It never helped to have potential rival claimants running around. A flight out of Athens, with a connection through Germany, had brought him to Stockholm. Where yet another plane had waited to fly him to the little valley in which he now sat. All through the journey, Synnove had been a perfectly silent and infuriating travel companion. As she stood behind him now he was just as annoyed by her imposing presence as he had been when she watched him sleep on the plane.

Not that she was the only one watching him. A score of valkyries had dispersed themselves around him, trying their best to look disinterested. Meanwhile, if he looked around the lake and to the compound that sat on it’s northern shore, he could see security details bearing a dozen different family crests. Each house was especially suspicious of the other. He had learned on arrival that his brother had been killed in the most recent of ten assassinations that had taken place over the previous year. Everyone he had asked had heard a different rumor, all about a supposed new and unnamed Loki that was behind the assassinations. A few, although those were in the minority, thought that this might finally herald the arrival of Surtur, and the beginning of Ragnarok. Erik was partial to the idea that some foreign actor was trying to drive a wedge between the houses, but he didn’t go so far as to claim that this was the beginning of Ragnarok.

In such a tense environment each of the houses was accusing the others, and all feared that someone might interfere with the coronation. The Norns had bowed to the intense political pressure and allowed each house to send security details, on the condition that only the valkyries would have direct access to Erik.

Taking another look at the openness of his surroundings, he was surprised that his guards had let him come outside. Without trying he could spot half a dozen places around the lake that would be perfect for a sniper. No doubt Synnove was cross with him. The thought of her seething beneath her expressional face gave him a small amount of satisfaction, but was of little comfort.

Poul’s reasons for choosing him were clear. As his brother, Erik was unlikely to have killed him, and being away for eight years meant that he was distanced enough from the local politics that the houses would accepted him as a relatively neutral party. Thirdly, his travels had been extensive, and for a community that could at times become so consumed by its internal affairs that “worldliness” was correlated with wisdom in their minds. He glanced up at the compound, there was still time to escape. Not that the valkyries would let him get that far. He pushed those thoughts away. It was his duty to go on with it, both as a northman, and in memory of his brother.

A bell tolled in the compound.

“It’s time to go,” announced Synnove. It was the first time he had heard her speak in days. Erik brought himself to his feet. Might as well get it over with.

They followed him to the lake’s northern shore, where a set of covered stone stairs led up to the rest of the compound. The stone stairs were ancient, Erik would never have dreamed of trying to guess just how old they were, and the Norns weren’t inclined to reveal much about themselves. The steps were lines by wooden columns carved into the shapes of trees that supported sculpted roof of wooden leaves. To Erik’s displeasure it didn’t do much to stop the wind.

The stairs winded him. There he was having spent eight years walking across Europe, and still he could be defeated by a set of stairs. “Some All-Father I’ll be, huh?”

“A fine one indeed, sire,” said Synnove beside him.

Erik looked at her, surprised that he couldn’t detect any hint of sarcasm. “Do you think so?”

“Of course,” Synnove replied. “The best leaders are the ones who don’t want to be. It keeps you humble.”

“I hope you’re right…say, which way do we go now?” They had reached the top of the stairs, putting them in the middle of a long, curving hallway that went along the outside of the building.

“This way sire. We’ll take the long route.” Synnove led him down the hallway, which was lined on the outside wall with statues of past Odins and other warriors of note. Along the inside wall was the massive tapestry that the Norns labored on endlessly. Anytime something of note happened in the world the Norns wove its story into their great tapestry. Layers and layers of vibrant fabric were wrapped around the center of the building. Synnove took him to the leading edge of the textile, where a pair of younger norns were working on the tapestry.

His brother’s statue sat regally at the tapestry’s end, and upon closer inspection Erik noticed that they were adding his brother’s death to the weave. A stylized image of Poul was shown clutching a gunshot wound to the chest, and without any information on the shooter, an image of loki was used instead. The Norns had always favored style of fact.

“We don’t have time to wait,” Synnove reminded him. “Here, take these. They’ll help with the pain.” She handed him a pair of white tablets. Erik nodded his thanks and swallowed them quickly. Now that he was so close to the coronation he was filled with an overwhelming desire to get it over with.

The inner wall had a single arched entryway that the tapestry was woven around to accommodate. Inside was the great courtyard that took up most of the compound. In the center grew a massive oak tree, with a gray stone slab placed among its roots. The three eldest of the Norns presided over this slab, flanked by valkyries and various dignitaries. A host of arctic dwarves stood off to Erik’s left, and in the oak’s branches he thought he was able see the flutter of the elvish delegations. No words were spoken as Erik approached, and took his place at the slab across from the Norns.

“Erik Larson,” spoke the the most prominent of the three. “Do you accept the mantle that has been offered to you?”

“I,” Erik paused and looked around him. Most coronations were done with a sense of melancholy, it was a chance to say goodbye to the old ruler and welcome the new. He could see that his coronation would not be like that. On every face he saw sadness, worry, fear. It wasn’t about what he wanted, he realized. It was about what he needed to do. These people needed someone to lead them, who they felt they could trust, they needed him. “I do.”

Her wizened old face smiled sadly, and she nodded. Around the came the below of hunting horns, and a group a valkyries emerged from the arch behind Erik carrying a body obscured by  funeral wrappings.

The lead Norn drew a knife from beneath her robes and stepped around the slab. In unison they began to speak. “As we commend the body of the All-Father to the heavens, we welcome into our midst a new ruler. Erik Larson. Fate and circumstance have chosen you to lead us. Circumstances that once forced you away from our lands have now caused you to return, and fate decrees that it is you who will become our next Odin. Kneel.”

Erik lowered himself to his knees, and the Norn moved closer.

“Having accepted this burden you will now pay the price of wisdom. As have all those who have walked before you,” they declared.

Erik braced himself for what was to come. The lead Norn grasped his head and brought the knife close, and with a well practiced flick of the blade she removed his left eye. Erik recoiled and pressed his hand to the now empty socket. He fought every urge to cry out. He had to remain stoic. He had to prove that he could take the pain.

This was the price that every Odin paid for wisdom. It was felt that a leader could not lead until he knew pain. That before he declare war he must know something of it’s costs. That a leader must be willing to sacrifice for his people.

A pair of valkyries came and took him. Carrying him between them as if he were a sack of flower, they brought him around the slab, behind the Norns, where a small pond sat between the roots. He was dropped in, the strong arms of the valkyries holding him beneath the surface as he struggled for air.

Be patient, he told himself. He knew that this was just another part of the coronation, but what if it wasn’t? For a moment that thought entered his mind that it could have all been a ruse to eliminate the only person with reason to avenge Poul’s death. Where the Norns to blame? They were not ones to take such overt actions. No. He had to trust in the Norns, he had to let this happen.

As his struggling stopped he no longer felt the pressure exerted by the valkyries. A single hand reached down and grasped his, pulling him from the water. He gasped for air as he broke the surface and was pulled to his feet. Before him stood Synnove, his hand firmly grasped in hers. Behind her stood the Norns, watching, as they always did.

“Hail Odin! Father of all!” Cried the Norns. Synnove and the Norns bowed, followed by the host of assembled dignitaries. An attendant hurried up to him and kneeled at his feet, offering a lit torch. Erik accepted the torch and looked to the slab. The oiled and bound body of his brother had been placed upon on the slab, and piled high with oiled logs and cuttings from the tree.

Erik walked towards the slab. Reaching under his collar he pulled forth a medallion which Poul had once give him as a gift. He placed in over his brother’s heart, and lowered the torch to start the pyre.