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.