“Then tell me,” the woman commanded. “For if your mind empties, and the thoughts are not gathered, the reasons will be lost forever. Can Thought fly where there is no Mind? And can Mind perch where there is no Thought?”
“Bah,” moaned Einarr. “Flying and perching? Mind and Thought. Muninn and Huginn. That’s what you mean. Odin’s ravens. Don’t be so clever if you want to appeal to both pit and gallery. Neither thrall nor farmer nor jarl have time for riddling. And here we are, in the pit. You want to talk to me? All right. So climb down. Down into the muck, with me-- If I can’t convince you to leave.”
“Not the most pleasant words I’ve heard. But then, where those two gather, there is often an unkindness.”
Einarr closed his eyes in exasperation. “This chatter is ill-suited for my tent. Is that how you waste your days? Such mystifications?”
“How did you waste yours?”
Einarr shouted. “I wasted nothing! I defended my home and my people with the last drop of my own blood! I was out there not an hour hence killing for my chieftain! That raiding party is no more. If I wanted a final crucible, I would summon the patron of thieves and invite him to steal my dignity. I would battle his wits, not yours. Unless you are him in woman guise? No, I wish to-- to-- leave in peace and ignorance.”
“I pray that great thief will not show his face here.”
“Oh, you pray that? Take heed, the hearing of the gods is turned this way and that, and there is no telling. No Loki? Did he not fatigue my ancestors? If not me, he will befog my progeny, surely.”
“Do not say his name, if I can trouble you to keep him anonymous.”
Einarr grinned. “Oh, your mettle is porous now, is it?”
“If we must speak of him-- He gave birth to wolves, serpents, and lies. What did you give birth to, Einarr?”
“Why did you leave? Tell me.”
“If I tell you, will you go?”
“Tell me,” answered the woman.
“Would it really matter if I crossed the threshold of this world without you knowing? Am I not allowed a single secret intact? The fact is, I left. Will knowing why change anything?”
“The threshold before you is but one of many. Your secret, as you call it, may not only be a burden in this world, but also the next. And in other worlds, besides.”
“More than two? I do not like the sound of that.”
“Einarr, every thought is a new world.”
“Not of equal veracity, I admit, for secondary worlds depend on the primary for shape. Offspring can be different, but in them you will find clue of their parentage.” The woman waited a moment before adding, “There is a world where you did not abandon Kára.”
“Abandon! Honeysuckle, choose another word.”
“It is the word I mean.”
“I delivered her to a better father!” Einarr yelled. “I dreamt of a world where she was queen,” Einarr whispered. “I didn’t have my father. And that suited me just fine.”
“No. It didn’t.”
“Oh Aesir above and Vanir below!” shouted Einarr. “Hear my plea! Grant me strength to wrestle this valkyrie and put an end to her slings and arrows!”
“You think me valkyrie, then?”
“If not, I died hours ago and you are my comeuppance for a foul deed I cannot name.”
“Your mind is featherless. Your thoughts are wingless. What you think you did for Kára is a curtained archway. It keeps the players separate from the spectators. Your thoughts, featherless, wingless, are like new plays on the same theme. Your mind, featherless, wingless, tests each new world in isolation, where it is safe to do so. Unfolding numerous possibilities, but in the brief. Then you arbitrate their mysteries against what is already known.”
“I am slow to put your words in order, but I believe I have nearly finished this game-like task.”
“Einarr, did you think of what might have been? If you had not abandoned your daughter?”
“Yes, I thought of that world. I also thought of a world in which she was never born. Not for her sake, no, but for mine. Gods help me.”
“Was that a confession? I am not here to alleviate your guilt, Einarr.”
“If I had my sword I would run you through.”
She laughed. “You would find that the most difficult task of your life. And your last.”
“I sense no boasting from you, I freely admit.”
"Good, because no boast was made.”
“Tell me, since you know so much of these other places, is there an Einarr is each of Kára's worlds?”
“In name only. But each Einarr is as unlike you as a stallion from a goat.”
“Well,” said Einarr, blowing air through his nose.
“Describe for me this world in which Kára does not exist. The one you regret.”
“No, I was young when I thought of it.”
“But how is that different from this life? You did not teach her, did not clothe her, did not feed her. To you, it's as if she never was.”
“No! Because I can imagine her happy. She is better off without me. Owing to the family I left her with, and to the friends no doubt populating her life.”
“You mean her life as you imagine it.”
“Well, well yes. As I imagine it.”
“I wonder how far it is from the truth.”
“I do not know.”
“But do you? Want to know?”
“How could her life not measure up to my hopes? Is my imagination so poor? Why would Odin grant her less?”
“Yes, that one’s imagination is greater, Einarr. But that doesn’t mean her life would not be injured by your absence.”
“Then who writes the line of my action. If it is me, I did what was right to give her future happiness. If it is Odin, I am likewise beyond reproach, for then I merely performed as I was bidden.”
“The lines are yours, Einarr. The action, yours. Every heartbeat, every breathe, your own. If you are the skald.”
“And what of the other warriors of Reidun? The farmers and the traders-- Those of every village under the King's care? Men and women under foreign lords and praying to foreign gods? A play of many authors would be quite a tangle. Each dipping the quill of life in their wells, finding blood not ink. If this is so, then leave. Let me scrawl and then utter my soliloquy alone, as it should be. The silent spectators can judge my staging. Though I have a feeling they will withhold their applause, comparing my actions to their own fathers, and the fathers they have known. Not receiving their satisfaction, I will bite my tongue to the void. I am satisfied with this outcome. So leave me.”
“No,” said the woman. “Tell me. Tell me why.”
Einarr took a long inhale through his mouth. “I was poor! How could I raise a child? I could barely take care of myself. A grown man? Not so. Beaten. Hollow. With nothing to give.” He sighed. “No little girl should have to live with that. That wasn’t her burden to bear. It was mine.”
The robed figure did not hesitate. “There are greater burdens than an empty stomach. Or hand-me-down clothes.”
Einarr turned over. He faced her. Agony coursed from his wound and down his legs. He gathered and contained the pain behind the gates of his teeth.
He could not see her for the darkness, but rather glimpsed a long, blue shift under a gray overdress. And over both, a pair of long, blonde braids hanging low out of the shadows. Einarr’s half-lit carvings behind the woman now seemed to contain her in their images, include her in their scenes, and claim her as one of their own. The sunset merged them all into one story.
“Say it plain!” Einarr demanded.
“Never seeing your father,” came the answer.
That would have been enough for Einarr, but more recriminations followed.
“Convinced he didn’t love you,” said the woman. “Thinking no one can,” she said. “Or should,” she added.
The woman shifted her posture on the bench and moved closer to the dying man. The fading light then revealed the woman’s face from the cheeks down, and her eyes shone like tiny pin-pricks in the veil of the encroaching night. “These are seeds that grow into mighty trees,” she lamented. “With roots stretching deep.”
Einarr flared his nostrils. “You’re putting all that on me? No, no, I won’t let you.” He turned over, giving her his back once again. His pain redoubled, and he broke out in a new sweat from the exertion.
Einarr considered the small table beside the bed. Its empty wine cup was so near, but so useless.
“How will you stop me?” the woman asked.
Her question was a call to arms, and the embittered Einarr felt the renewed urge to grip a knife.
“Those people. They took good care of her. I would have done much worse,” Einarr growled. “Don’t argue with me! And right before I--” but he trailed off, for his fear now gathered to assail him.
“Hmmm?” the woman pressed. “Before what?” She waited, but when Einarr refused to reply she wondered aloud, “What do you think you’re doing here?”
“Waiting,” answered Einarr. “For judgement.”
“So you think I’m here to judge you?”
Einarr fumbled for the small charms on the leather strap tied to his belt. His favorite was the silver version of Thor’s hammer. It was tiny, but it was manageable. And it put the power of a god in his mangled hand. Tonight the charm was slippery, covered in blood from Einarr’s crooked fingers.
“If you’re not here to judge me, then what do you want? Have I merely imagined your purpose and power? Then you are no valkyrie? Are you a shield-maiden come for revenge, then? Did I slaughter your brother defending my city Reidun from brigands and raids? Does he lie even now in the ruddy mud before my tent? The sump that was nearly my grave?”
“No. My name is Hildr. You killed no one I know. And I care not for whatever crossing of weapon occupied you outside these-- These canvased walls.”
“Why do you torment me?”
“We all have personal interests.”
“This is a hobby, then,” Einarr chuckled. “Torture, is it?”
“Oh, I wish I had the strength to flee,” Einarr moaned. “But I am trapped in our dialogue. You say my deeds and words are mine, but my wounds keep me here. I wish I was far from this place. Maybe on that same naked rock I was born on. Yes, that’s where I should heave my last. Now that’s poetry!” Einarr squinted. “Hildr. I don’t want Kára to see me like this. Take me away or leave me to the void.” He could feel the corners of his eyes turning damp. He wiped them with his good hand. “I’m thirsty. Bring me wine!”
Einarr reached for the empty cup before him, but only knocked it over. It rolled toward him, a quarter turn on the small table, as though to taunt him with its emptiness.
Einarr whispered, doing his best to convince himself. “Kára deserves better. I, I worry for h-”
The shadows of Hildr shifted. Her form suspended over the bench moved closer to the bed. “You’re lying.”
“Go away,” was the most Einarr could muster.
Outside the sun finally set, and at its parting all light drained from the tent.
Hildr stood up and went to the candle at the foot of the bed. She cupped her hands around the wick.
Einarr rolled onto his back and saw the tiny flame. The light was not strong, and in his failing sight it remained out of focus.
“You’re not worried about your daughter,” Hildr’s voice said as it returned to its place near Einarr. “You’re worried about you. Worried you’ll be reminded. Not of the wrong you did, but of the right you did not do.”
“Show me some sympathy,” begged Einarr, ashamed of the tears clinging to his eyes. The drops distorted the vagaries that closed in around him, filling the tent with misshapen myths, red and orange. “I ask you again. Take me away before she gets here. Or turn your back on me and leave me to the worms. Make your decision. I simply do not want her to know.”
“That her father-- is not perfect.”
“Don’t you think she knows that already?”
Einarr bellowed. “I am not going to apologize!” A surge of strength shot through him. Einarr snatched the empty cup and threw it at the foot of the bed and knocked the candle from its cradle. The fire extinguished before the candle hit the floor. The dragon’s mouth was empty of flame once more.
Einarr reached up and grabbed for the tall candle holder near his head. But his limbs were weak again, and he could only knock the stand back and forth in place. It wobbled for a moment, then resumed its static watch, and the dragon rattled no more.
Hildr reached over and gently pushed the candle holder. It crashed to the floor.
Einarr suppressed a grin. He summoned a grimace and said, “You smell good, but you are smug. I don’t want your help.”
“Talk to Kára. Listen to her.”
“No. What I want is to see Odin. My time is done, my years are spent. No more choices to be made. I want to die, Hildr. I want to die in the dark. And I want to die alone. Now. I bet Odin has wine for me. Plenty of good wine. If they didn’t drink it all.”
“The warriors. Isn’t the hall crowded? With good ones. The worthy.”
“Worthy?” she seemed surprised. “Hmmm, it’s true the dead have no number. And there are always more to come. Crowded? Yes. But worthy? Most die never saying what they meant to. Never hearing what they should. Made mute by fear-- and deaf by pride. That’s the reality of it. I would hardly call them worthy.”
“Aren’t you a ray of sunshine.”
“It’s bad enough dying old,” said Einarr. “Do I have to die depressed?”
“In any case, Einarr-- You will not be added to their number. I am not here on Odin’s behalf. This is my errand.”
“What? A chill consumes me, hearing that. It was not death that shook me before, but now I have something new to weigh on that scale.”
“You are not afraid to die, Einarr?” Hildr asked gently. She rose from the bench, gliding out of Einarr’s sight. She moved toward the candle holder at the foot of the bed. Hildr picked the holder and the candle up off the floor.
“No,” answered Einarr. He stared again at the hole in the ceiling. The canvas was unmoving.
“No?” Hildr asked, turning to him.
Einarr looked down the bed. He could see the candle burning again.
“Then what are you afraid of?” Hildr asked, sitting on the bench.
The candlelight flickered and grew strong. It danced across the nearest carving, the one flanking the right side of Hildr’s pale temples. The wood had been shaped into a woman standing over two men. She held a necklace. It was a simultaneous moment of death and rebirth, for the two men stabbed each other with their little carved swords but, caught in the moment of their passing, rose again. A confused instant captured by a nameless woodworker.
Einarr swallowed. “Well, they tell us the valkyrie can see if a warrior has a golden aura or not. That's how they decide who is worthy. But I don’t know what it means. This aura. So tell me, you tell me, do you see any aura? Because I don't feel anything, I don't feel any golden glow. I think, I think I am not clothed in worthiness like the warriors of old. Oh, I’ve defended Reidun all my life. Yes, I wielded both blade and spear, fighting off the enemies of my people. I’ve buried the sea-draugr, and returned them to eternal rest. But if you guessed I was a coward, you guessed rightly. Not in battle. No. In other ways. And for how long? Since the moment Kára was born. Yes, since that moment. The one and only time I held her in my arms. On that day the great Einarr was defeated. I stood over her dead mother in the cold of night. I cried, Hildr. What else was there to do? I knew I could not be both mother and father. Yes, I was afraid. And yes, I am afraid again. But not of death. I am afraid of what comes after. I am afraid I am going to close my eyes and then-- and then--”
“Then?” Hildr asked, concerned.
“Then nothing!” screamed Einarr, relinquishing the last of his dignity. “All will be silence. Nothing to say. Nothing to hear. Nothing. No hall of the worthy. No Odin. Nothing. Nothing.”
Hildr stood up. She moved past Einarr’s head. She loomed behind him. He tried to look on her, tilting his head back. But he could barely move, and the candlelight had no power there-- In the darkness-- Over his brow.
Hildr reached down and took Einarr’s face into her warm but calloused hands. He felt a sudden calm. Then she bent down, bringing her face close to his. The two together formed an inversion of human likeness.
“Then say it now,” she whispered. “Hear it now.”
Einarr wept. “Damn you,” he muttered. “Damn you!”
“Don’t you believe in kindness?” she asked.
“From puppies and grannies--!” he snarked.
“And forgiveness?” she asked.
“For everyone but me.”