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In the first four volumes of the Book of the Gods, Fred Saberhagen brought a new perspective to the classic gods of Greek mythology. Now the legendary creator of the Berserker and Lost Swords sagas turns his gaze northward toward an entirely different pantheon of immortal deities . . . the fearsome and ferocious gods of Valhalla.
Haraldur the Northman once joined Jason on his fabled quest for the Golden Fleece, but now he wants nothing more to do with gods and adventure. Returning to his homeland for the first time in many years, he hopes only to settle down on a farm of his own -- until he comes across an impenetrable wall of eldritch fire and a lovesick youth determined to breach the wall at any cost.
Behind the towering flames, he is told lies a beautiful Valkyrie trapped in an enchanted sleep, as well as, perhaps, a golden treasure beyond mortal reckoning. It is the gold that tempts Hal to agree, against his better judgment, to assist the youth in his quest.
But to find a way past the fiery wall, they must first brave gnomes, ghosts, and the wrath of the gods themselves. For a mighty battle is brewing, and Hal soon finds himself caught up in a celestial conflict between Thor and Thunderer, Loki the Trickster, and most powerful of all, Wodan, the merciless Lord of Battles!
Saberhagen offers classical scholarship, wit, and a brisk sense of pacing in this coming-of-age story that should appeal to readers unfamiliar with the Swords books and attract Swords-familiar readers in swarms. -- Booklist
Saberhagen is a masterful storyteller. . . I have every intention of reading the next book in the series. Saberhagen has given us a rich new world. -- Absolute Magnitude
A rousing tale of love and adventure, spiced with humor and likeable characters. -- Library Journal
Fred Saberhagen once again shows his remarkable talent for being exotic, exciting, and comfortable all in the same work. -- David Drake
--Tom O'Bedlam's Song, Anonymous
Never before had Hal seen any fire as strange as this one. Its hungry tongues seemed to feed on nothing at all as they went burning and raging up toward heaven, from the flat top of a thick spire of stone that rose steep-sided from the broad river valley. Rarely had Hal felt the glow of any blaze this large. The wall of light and heat went up straight, unnaturally straight, into the air for a good thirty feet. To right and left the wall of fire swept out in a great, smooth convex curve, making a barrier as high and nearly as solid-looking as a castle's outer curtain. For all Hal could tell by looking at it, that might be just exactly what it was, the magic wall of some great god's or monarch's stronghold.
The shape of the flaming barricade strongly suggested that it went all the way round the top of the rocky crag in a smooth curve, which would make it an almost perfect circle, and Hal thought that if it did that it must enclose a space some twenty-five or thirty yards across. From where he was standing now, on a little saddle of land well outside that enclosed space, there was no telling just what might be contained within it.
Ought such a magic wall to have a gateway in it? From this angle he could see nothing to suggest there might be one.
Hal had been standing in the same place for several minutes, getting back his breath after the steep climb, while he studied the amazing flames. He marveled at how steadily they maintained their position, so frighteningly artificial and regular, neither advancing or retreating, not letting the chilly evening breeze push them even a little to one side, as any natural fire must have wavered. For several minutes now Hal had been certain that the fiery tongues were born of magic, for they were feeding themselves on nothing, seemingly nothing at all but the rocky earth from which they sprang. But as far as he could see, the ground directly beneath the tongues was not consumed, only blackened by the heat out to a distance of a yard or so.
Overhead, the glare of the fire obliterated whatever stars might have otherwise been coming out now that the sun was down. The strange, unnatural blaze created its own local domain of light and summery warmth. This zone included the spot where Hal was standing, and extended for yards beyond him down the broad grassy slopes and rocky outcroppings surrounding the crag on every side. The sound made by the tremendous fire was not really loud, though it was very steady, a muted roar that blended with the background murmur of rushing water. During Hal's long climb up here from the valley he had noticed several small streams, all plunging down steep hillsides to the river some four hundred feet below.
He was a stocky man, standing with his powerful arms folded under a well-traveled cloak. A few flecks of gray showed in his once-fair hair and beard and mustache. His weatherbeaten face was fixed in a thoughtful expression.
Hal was still puffing slightly from his tedious climb. During the final part of the ascent, climbing the last long slope of grass and rocks, he had felt the heat of the great fire grow steadily more intense on his face and hands. Now he was about as close to it as he could comfortably get, and he could tell that the occasional streaks of flame that rose up green and blue were the hottest, while most of the light was coming from tongues of fire that glowed bright orange.
Part of what made the fire fascinating was that its colors were in constant change, varying rapidly from one part of the bright ring to another. Bands of greater heat and greater light were continually changing places, seeming to chase each other around the circle. What caused the variations was impossible to say.
It had been late afternoon when Hal, making his way north through unfamiliar land along the valley, had first caught sight of the strange burning. At that time it had struck him that for all the flame there seemed to be amazingly little smoke. Now, inspecting the scene at close range, he thought there were certain indications that the peculiar blaze was no more than a few days old--there, for instance, a tree stood just at the outer limit of destructive heat. Trunk and branches were now bare and charred, darker on the side toward the fire, good evidence that no tree could possibly have grown in that location while the fire roared.
It seemed the fire was going to tell him nothing new, however long he stared at it. By now Hal had ceased puffing, and he determined to go completely around the ring, getting a close look at it from every side--if he could manage to do so without frying himself or falling off a cliff. He had what he considered to be good reasons, going beyond his usual curiosity. This process of circumambulation proved somewhat difficult, but Hal persisted, though once or twice the irregularities of the slope brought him so close to the object of his study that he might have roasted himself some meat for dinner--had he any meat to roast. The fire was not merely some kind of magic trick, an illusion that a man might be able to pass through with impunity.
At one point he passed the head of a steep, narrow ravine that went plunging down to end exactly on one curving bank of the broad Einar. The drop-off was so sharp it made him a little dizzy to look down. The polyphonic murmur of a chain of little waterfalls came drifting up--he had taken note of them during his climb. Their noise now blended with the soft roar of the tall flames.
The surrounding landscape was one of rocks and scattered vegetation, and mostly unpeopled. For miles, in all the directions he could see, there were only very occasional sparks of other flame to see, the signs of settlements or farmhouses lighting up against the night.
Halfway through Hal's pilgrimage around the fire, he was taken by surprise when a certain small object in his belt pouch suddenly twitched and jumped. It felt like a tiny animal in there, but he knew that it was not alive--unless sheer magic counted as a kind of life. Opening the pouch, he pulled out a small object--to a casual inspection, this gave no sign of being anything but a scrap of dirty cloth. But the bit of fabric behaved in an extraordinary way, glowing and brightening (though without fierce heat or flame) in the man's hand even as he held it out and moved it about.
When the strange fabric tugged most strongly at his fingers, Hal reached straight down into a tuft of long wild grass at his feet. The thing that now revealed itself to him was half covered by loose sand and hard to see. Hal spotted it nevertheless and picked it up--a broken fragment of yellow, heavy metal. There was enough of the thing to see that when intact, it must have been part of a crescent shape about the size of Hal's broad hand.
A groove ran halfway round one of the thing's flat sides, holes had been punched through the groove, and one or two of those holes were still occupied by iron nails. The nails were still wedged in place, though this piece of golden semicircle had been somehow torn loose from whatever object they had once held it to. After a long look he stuffed the object into his belt pouch.
He was frowning by the time he had returned to his starting point. without having discovered anything like a gate or entrance to the enclosure of flame. The only thing the circumambulation had really accomplished was to remove any lingering doubts that the fire made a complete and regular circle, almost perfect in its shape.
Obeying a sudden impulse, he bent down once again, snatched up a small stone and flung it uphill. Just before the pebble disappeared into the flames it flared incandescent, as if at that point in its flight the heat had truly been great enough to turn it molten.
Hal gloomily shook his head.
Turning his back on the fire at last, frowning more thoughtfully than ever, Hal retreated to a comfortable distance. He took a morsel of dried meat from his pouch, and stood chewing on the tough fibers while he thought things over. Had he had any fresh meat, he wouldn't have tried to cook it on this particular hearth. These flames were too obviously unnatural. He possessed no real skill in magic, but none was needed to see that. The near-perfect regularity of their ring offered good evidence, as did the fact that they showed no tendency either to grow or to diminish.
On reaching the place where he had decided to spend the night, he made his simple preparations for settling in.
Winter was definitely coming on in this part of the world, but this close to the great mysterious burning a man ought to be able to stay comfortably warm. In his preliminary scouting Hal had discovered what he thought would be an ideal spot to sleep, on a small saddle of raised land almost as high as the burning crag, and separated from it by only thirty yards or so. There the generous Fates, as if feeling some concern for the weary traveler, had caused soft moss to grow upon a handy patch of soil. On this bed Hal now lay down wrapped in his cloak, shadowed by a small outcropping of rock from almost all the direct light of the untiring fire. Still, by moving his head only a little from side to side, he could see a large part of the slope to his right and left, brightly lit by the fire above. He ought to be able to get a good look at anything or anyone that appeared in the area during the night.
The traveler's peaceful rest behind the rock had not lasted much more than an hour when some subtle change in his surroundings woke him up. He came awake with the inner certainty that he was no longer quite alone. Opening his eyes, he lay for a few moments without moving, his battle-hatchet ready in his hand beneath the cloak. Nothing and no one had come very near him yet. Cautiously Hal raised his head and from his niche of wavering shadow studied the slope immediately below the flames, first on one side and then the other.
In a moment, the figure of a young man had walked into his view, no more than a moderate stone's throw away from Hal, but seemingly unaware of his presence.
The fellow was tall and active, dressed in boots, trousers, and a kind of quilted jacket, but wearing no armor except a plain steel helmet that left his almost beardless face exposed. His movements had a kind of nervous recklessness, as well as the jerkiness of deep exhaustion. At the moment he was certainly not on his guard. A short sword was sheathed at his side, and his clothes were so begrimed and tattered that it was hard to guess whether they had originally been of rich material or poor.
This newcomer's attention was entirely centered on the great fire itself, whose gentle roar went on unceasingly. The youth continued a methodical progression, as if he were intent on making his way entirely around the ring of flame, reconnoitering just as Hal had done. He even seemed to be making the same tentative efforts to approach the burning wall as closely as he could, but of course the heat kept him yards away.
Carefully the concealed watcher sat up, peering first around one side of his rock and then the other, to see more of the steep, rough cone of the hillside. He saw enough to satisfy himself that the young man, who presently reappeared, had come here quite alone. Hal rose to his feet, stretched, adjusted his cloak, seated his hatchet once more in its holster at his belt, and remembered to pick up his horned helmet from where he had set it aside when he lay down to sleep. Then, feeling as ready as could be for whatever might develop, he stepped out firmly, striding back across the little saddle of land toward the fire.
The youth's back was turned to Hal, and his attention remained entirely absorbed in the spectacular wall of flame. When Hal had come within thirty feet without being noticed, he judged it wise to halt and call out a few words of greeting.
The tall lad spun around at once, clapping a hand to the hilt of his sword. Hal was waiting open-handed, arms spread in a sign of peace; but even so he realized that his appearance, that of a powerful armed stranger, could hardly have been very reassuring.
"Who are you?" the other demanded, in a hoarse voice that quavered with some recent and excessive strain. Extreme stress and exhaustion were plain also in his young face. "What do you want?"
"No harm, lad, no harm at all." Hal kept his arms spread wide, and made the tones of his own gravelly voice as soothing as he could. "I'm a traveler, just passing through. My home's hundreds of miles to the north. I was heading that way, following the river, when I saw these flames."
After a pause, in which the other did not respond, he went on. "My first thought was that some farmhouse was burning. Then, when I had climbed halfway up these rocks, I thought maybe it was a castle or watchtower--not really farming country just along here. But now I'd be willing to bet there's no building at all inside that fire. It's a strange one, isn't it? Certainly it has to be more than natural."
"They are Loki's flames." The words seemed choked from the youth by some intense emotion. "They feed on nothing but magic. They need no fuel to keep them burning."
"I see." Hal recognized the name, but took the claim in stride. "So, the gods are involved. Can't say I'm surprised. I never saw another blaze like this one." And he shook his head on its thick neck.
The youth had turned slowly round until he had his back almost to Hal and was staring again into the multicolored, undying blaze. His lips moved slightly, as if he might be whispering a word.
The man from the far north cleared his throat. "My name is Haraldur; most call me Hal, to save themselves a little breath and effort. And who are you?"
The tall one turned slowly back. He relaxed slightly, out of sheer weariness it seemed. His hand still rested on his sword's hilt, but as if he had forgotten it was there. "My name is Baldur," he announced in his strained voice.
"I see," Hal said again. He nodded encouragingly.
Slowly Baldur went on. "I live--I once lived--only ten miles from here." His words had a wondering tone, as if something about that statement struck him as remarkable. Presently he added: "Some of my family--my mother-- still lives there."
Hal, exercising patience, grunted and nodded again. Fortune had now blessed him with a chance to talk to a native of these parts, and he didn't want to waste the opportunity. There was information he desired to have.
Baldur now gave the impression of nerving himself, gathering energy, to make some serious effort. At last he went on: "Do you see--anything--strange about me?" He spread out both his hands and turned them this way and that, presenting them for inspection. "Do I look to you like a dead man?"
Hal strolled a few steps closer, and stood with folded arms, looking the young fellow over from head to foot in the fire's clear light. After a moment he raised a couple of stubby fingers to scratch under the rim of his horned helmet.
"I have seen some strange folk here and there," the northman announced at last. "Yes, a fair number who might be described as really odd. And several others who were seriously dead. But I'd say you don't fit in either category." He held up a cautionary hand. "Mind you, I may not be the very keenest judge. I once spent several months as shipmate to a god, and never guessed who he was until he told me."
But the youth had no interest in some stranger's tales of adventure. He had the attitude of one with more than enough of his own. His cracking voice grew no easier as he said: "Three days ago, I was leading a squad of men in battle, when I was cut down." Baldur reached up with large and grimy hands to his plain steel helm, and gingerly eased it off his head, revealing the fact that the steel was dented. When he bent slightly forward, corn-yellow hair fell free, stained and caked with the reddish-brown of old dried blood. "See my wound!"
Hal grunted again, squinting in the bright, just slightly wavering firelight at the head that loomed above his own. He saw what little he could see without getting any closer. There had certainly been a copious flow of blood, but it had stopped some time ago. The wound itself was quite invisible under thick hair and clots.
The northman renewed his efforts to be soothing. "Looks nasty, all right, but maybe not so bad as it looks. Scalps do tend to bleed a lot. Anyway, you survived."
This soothing attitude was not exactly welcome. "I said I fell!" the youth choked out. Baldur's teeth were bared now in a kind of snarl. "I tell you that I died!"
"I see," replied Haraldur in a neutral voice. "If you say so. That's interesting." He resisted the urge to back away a step, compromised by shifting his stance slightly. Head wounds sometimes brought on bizarre ideas and dangerous behavior.
Baldur was still staring at him, not so much threatening now as if pleading silently for some kind of help. After a moment Hal cleared his throat and asked with polite curiosity: "What happened next? After you--as you say-- died?"
"What happened?" Now there was outrage, though not directed at Hal. "When I opened my eyes, I saw that the fighting was over. A Valkyrie came flying over the battlefield, to choose a hero from among the dead." The voice of the self-proclaimed dead man was turning shrill. "That is what the sworn servants of Wodan can expect, when it comes their turn to fall!"
"Ah, yes, a ride to warriors' paradise." Hal was really a stranger to this land, but some information about its gods and customs had inevitably traveled beyond its borders, enough to rouse his curiosity. Over the past few days he had been doing what he could to find out more. "So, you are a sworn servant of the god Wodan. I see. And if I remember correctly what the stories say, the Valkyries are handsome maidens, who come flying over battlefields on their magic Horses--"
"Have a care how you speak of her!" Baldur had dropped his helmet to the ground, and his right hand had gone back to his sword. His blue eyes glinted wildly in the uncanny wavering of light.
Brain damage, thought Hal again, and now he did retreat a pace. But he persisted in his quest for knowledge.
He kept his gravelly voice as soft as possible. "I mean no disrespect, Baldur. Go on, tell me more. So you got knocked down, in some kind of battle, and when you woke up, there you were, lying on the ground with your head a bloody mess. Right? Then this Valkyrie arrived to carry you to Wodan's feasting hall? Isn't that how the story--isn't that what's supposed to happen?"
"Her name is Brunhild." Now the young man's voice seemed on the verge of breaking into sobs. Whatever threat had been in him was melting swiftly. "But she rejected me!" His gaze slid away from Hal's, fell to the ground.
"Ah, but you somehow learned her name. So--"
"She chose another man instead! She would not take me to Valhalla!" In a moment Baldur's legs had folded, leaving him sitting on the ground, face buried in his hands, while his shoulders heaved. It was not an attitude Hal would have expected to see in a man who had pledged himself to a god of war. But people were always doing unexpected things.
The northman cast a swift look around him, to right and left over the curving hillside. It was only a routine precaution. As far as he could tell, he and the agitated youth were still alone.
Approaching Baldur more closely, he squatted down in front of him, taking care to stay out of easy lunging distance--just in case.
"Tell me more," repeated Hal with quiet persistence. "I find this very interesting. The lovely and respected Brunhild came to visit you when you were killed--and just the sight of her made you feel better. But then something went wrong, and you were cheated out of a trip to Wodan's glorious feasting hall."
After a pause, during which Baldur said nothing, Hal added: "Well, at least she told you her name."
Hal had to bend closer to hear the muttered answer: "I knew her name already. In spite of everything, she took another man instead!"
"So you were telling me." The northman scratched his head again, trying to make sense of it all. He wasn't sure that the effort was worthwhile--but there was the gold he had just stuffed into his belt pouch. Beings who used gold for horseshoes might well be able to contribute a little more of it, even if unknowingly, to the retirement fund of a weary but deserving adventurer. Perhaps enough to buy him a small farm. "So, who was this other man? Why did your Valkyrie choose him?"
"All right, it seems he's not important. How did you come to learn her name?"
"So, where is the incomparable Brunhild now?"
A cry of agony burst from Baldur's lips, and he sprawled on the earth face down, one arm extended, pointing uphill, directly toward the wall of fire. Now he was screaming. "She is in there, surrounded by the flames, where no man may approach her! "
That was an unexpected answer. The case was only becoming more complicated. Or maybe it really was all brain damage. "She's in the flames, and not in Valhalla? But why . . . ?"
"Not in Loki's fire, but hidden behind it!"
"Wodan has bound her away from me forever, in an enchanted sleep!"
"I see," said Hal, trying to sound as if he really did. He decided to keep trying. "So Brunhild is being punished? For what offense?"
"For daring to look with favor on a mortal!" Baldur was still lying face down, talking into the grass.
"The mortal in question being not the man she actually carried to Valhalla, but--you, the one she left behind. Is that it? All right, I think I do begin to see." Now Hal grunted sympathetically.
He changed position so that his own back was to the fire, meanwhile automatically scanning his surroundings again, then sat down on the ground more comfortably. "That's too damned bad, son, too damned bad." He paused a moment before asking: "But how do you know she's in there?" He hooked a sturdy thumb over his shoulder.
Hal persisted. "Were you listening, watching, when Wodan passed his sentence on this girl?"
"Of course I wasn't there, in Wodan's great hall with the heroes. Brunhild cheated me of that!" The final words came out in a shriek of accusation.
"Aha," said Hal, trying to sound wise. He thought things over, shaking his head. So far there had been no mention in the story of any cache of gold, and that was where his interest lay.
But he was curious, as usual, about many things. He pulled a stem of wintry grass, and chewed on the dry fiber. "Still, I keep wondering how you know that she's now behind this wall of fire--did the fight, the one that you were, uh, killed in--did it take place here on this hilltop?"
"No, of course not! How could there be room for a battle here?" Shaking his aching head in exasperation, Baldur gestured at the narrow space between flames and the steep drop. "We fought in the valley, miles away."
"All right. Keep calm. Let's go over again what happened. If you don't mind, I'd like to get it all straight. You were struck down in this little battle, and then--"
"Only an hour after Brunhild abandoned me, while I still lacked strength to move from where I had fallen, a messenger from Valhalla brought me the cursed news. As a courtesy to Wodan, Loki had created a ring of fire, inside which those who offend the gods can be eternally imprisoned. Then I raised my eyes to this cliff, and saw the fire, and knew that it was true."
Having finished that speech, Baldur sat up. Now he seemed to be making a start at pulling himself together; a tough young man, Hal judged, who must have been through a few hellish days, whatever the exact truth might be of what had happened to him.
Hal knew from experience how dangerous it could be to interfere with the gods' business. But it would not be the first time in his life he had accepted such a risk. He thought it couldn't hurt to try to learn a little more.
"What kind of messengers is the old god using these days?" When the youth did not respond to that, the northman prodded: "Maybe a black raven? Or a wolf?"
Baldur looked mildly shocked. "No such thing. Great Wodan's messengers are the Valkyries. Girls. Young women, like Brunhild herself." He paused. "I happen to know that this particular messenger's name was Alvit."
"Alvit, I see--another worthy name. Another Valkyrie you just happen to know--and how do these girls travel when they go on their errands? I've heard that they ride magic Horses through the air." Hal thought that he could feel the heavy little lump of gold in his belt pouch. "Most people in the world have never seen a horse, even the purely natural kind is something of a rare animal. But I have. Horses' feet are not like those of a cameloid or drom. They have hard hooves, and fairly often their owners fit them with metal shoes. Just nail them on. Then sometimes the shoes come loose."
But it was no use now trying to find out what Baldur might know about horseshoes and gold. The youth seemed to be drifting away again, back into his ongoing nightmare of grief and loss. He had regained his feet and was moving restlessly about.
He was mumbling now, and in his raving he kept returning to what obsessed him as a great horror and mystery: the fact that Brunhild had not counted him properly as a worthy hero among the slain, had refused to carry him away to Wodan's hall. The way in which he spoke of Brunhild strongly suggested to Hal that Baldur and the Valkyrie were or had been lovers. Which added to the mystery, of course. Now Baldur was groaning that he had lost both his beloved and his chance at glorious immortality as a member of Wodan's elite guard, one of those chosen to fight beside the Father of Battles in the final terrific conflict, the twilight of the gods at world's end.
"Tell me no more about glorious heroes, lad, no more," Hal muttered in low tones. "Down south I had my fill of them."
That evoked a twinge of interest. Baldur stopped muttering to himself and turned his head. "What do you mean?"
The older man took thought, and sighed. "Does the Golden Fleece mean anything to you? You've heard of Jason and his voyage?"
A blank look. "No."
Hal shrugged. "I thought the news might have reached these parts by now, but never mind. It's a long story. Tell me more about this fight in which, as you say, you lost your life."
He went on with his gentle but persistent questioning, and gradually Baldur disclosed more information, including the name of the lord whose army--or armed band, rather-- he had been fighting in, and something of what the fight had been about.
It sounded to Hal like a simple, more or less routine battle between two local warlords. That was something he could understand, and he took this turn in the conversation as a hopeful sign.
Presently he was nodding. "Then the trouble came down to a matter of gold, didn't it? Barons, minor lords of some kind, squabbling about gold." He added, as casually as he could: "I've heard there are substantial amounts of yellow metal to be found hereabouts."
Now for the first time the youth showed even teeth in a ghost of a smile. "That may be, but those of us who live above ground have never seen much of it. The gnomes have all the gold--or they did."
"Gnomes, hey? I know very little about gnomes," Hal added truthfully. "Practically nothing, in fact. Where do they dwell?"
"Underground." Then Baldur shrugged, as if to ask where else? "They have their towns and villages, some of them not very many miles from here."
Hal grunted. "And you say they--the gnomes-- did have all the precious gold--that means they've lost it somehow? Someone else has taken it away from them?"
The youth did not answer; he was swaying on his feet.
Hal stood up, reminded of his own tiredness. He'd had a long day's hike along the valley, then the ascent of a few hundred feet of steep and rugged trail. Now this. His right knee creaked as he called on it to lift his weight, and for a moment the joint threatened to be painful. Not as young as he once was; in a few more years, provided he lived that long, he would have to worry about getting old. But a poor man could not settle anywhere in comfort, a pauper would have no ease and no respect. "How long since you've slept, lad?"
"Dead men need no sleep." Baldur's voice was slurring now in utter weariness.
"But live ones do. You're no more than half dead. Come this way, I know where there's a bed of moss."
"But Brunhild . . ."
"She's probably waiting her chance to come to you in a dream. If you never sleep, how's she going to do that?"
Five minutes later, Baldur, muffled in his quilted jacket, had sunk, like a drowning man, into the deathlike slumber of exhaustion. And a minute after that, Hal, who had pledged to stay awake and watch, was wrapped in his cloak and snoring almost comfortably with his back against the rock.
It was the middle of the morning before Baldur awakened; Hal, who had been up and about a couple of hours earlier, had patiently let him sleep. Meanwhile the northman quietly chewed another morsel of his dried meat, and thought things over.
When the youth did open his eyes at last, he looked and sounded more normal than he had during the night. When questioned directly on the subject of life and death, he was ready to admit that he was still alive.
"That would explain it, then," said Hal. "Why the lovely Brunhild did not choose you."
Baldur sat bolt upright, frowning, shaking his head impatiently. "No! No, you see, the Valkyries have that power, given them by Wodan, to decide the fate of warriors. She could have counted me as fairly slain. She should have done so, and then I would have gone to Valhalla." What more could a warrior ask than that? his tone and manner seemed to plead. Then again unutterable woe: "But she rejected me!"
Hal grunted and made vague gestures. "I wouldn't blame her for wanting to keep you alive. I'd have settled for a friend who did that. Most men would, I think."
The youth's lip curled. "True fighting men, heroes, do not fear violent death."
"That's fortunate for them, because they tend to find it early on."
Baldur's smile in response was almost that of a dying man--sweetly tolerant, expressing unbearable sadness, confronting someone who had no understanding, none at all, of his grief's tremendous cause. It was hard to tell which bothered the young man most-- the tragic fate of Brunhild, or her equally tragic failure to award him a place in Wodan's glorious company. Obviously they had both been stunning blows.
But Baldur was also very young. He might indeed have tremendous cause for grief, but he soon admitted that he was also ravenously hungry. He could not remember eating anything since before the fight, which as far as Hal could find out had been at least two days ago.
A long drink at one of the rushing mountain streams served both men for breakfast; Hal said nothing about his own remaining private store of food. Baldur was in no danger of starving to death, and Hal had the feeling that he himself might well be needing the little that he had. Nor did he mention to his new companion the two very unusual objects that he carried in his pouch. But he did persuade Baldur to wash some of the dried gore from his head and clothing before going home--there was no use frightening his mother or any one else to death when he appeared.
Now it was possible, in sunlight and with careful probing, to get a good look at the wound. Hal observed cheerfully that it would benefit from a few stitches; but he thought the operation could wait till the lad got home. The dented helmet was easier to fix. Using the blunt end of his hatchet, the northman pounded out the deepest part of the depression, leaving the metal almost smooth.
Turning the conversation around to the subject of Baldur's family, Hal more or less invited himself to pay them a visit. In matters not directly connected with Brunhild and Valhalla, Baldur seemed willing to be told what he ought to do next.
Together the two men set out on what Baldur said would be about a ten-mile walk, to the small house where Baldur said his mother lived. He made no mention of a father. Well, in families where men took up the profession of arms, there tended to be many widows.
When they reached the place where the trail descending to the valley took a sharp turn down, Hal paused to take one more relatively close look back at the enigmatic and unchanging flames, before descending to where they would be hidden by the shoulder of the cliff. They rose as high and fierce as ever, but now in the morning sunlight were pale and relatively inconspicuous.
Baldur had paused with him. "Somehow I will find a way," the youth pledged solemnly. "A way to join her there."
Hal shrugged. "I think you're right to go home first, take it easy for a while, heal that wound. They'll all be glad to see you there. Likely they think you're dead." Then when he saw how Baldur looked at him, he regretted his choice of words.