Light flickers over her consciousness now and then. It’s muted, and she cannot move her eyes from it, because everywhere she looks is the same. At times the light fades, or she fades from it, and then she dreams of the rain on her face and the screaming of dying men, twisting and pulling the threads of the battle so that the best may fall and be brought to their rightful home. She dreams of men locked in valorous combat, of twisting a thread just so that one stumbles, of watching the look on a shieldmaiden’s face as she sees her in her raiment and realizes where’s she’s destined to serve. Remembers the fierce joy of riding in the thunderous wake of eight hooves, following the Warfather - her father -
And the pain of sinking away and slumping down in sleep -
The light is back. It’s brighter than it has been, and she stops her tossing, turns towards it and feels the warmth, and realizes for the first time that it is the fire that surrounds her.
“The cheerful child is silenced, I see,” the fire whispers, curling around her ears. “Her bright eyes are shuttered still.”
She stays still, feeling the warmth play across her skin, sinking into her chilled mail. The fire flickers, sways away and then towards her again.
“One-eyed wanderer hefts his spear, yet it grows heavy and he tires.”
Why tell me this, through twisted tongue?
“You do me wrong; in this my tongue is straight. I tell the truth, and it suits me to speak.”
It doesn’t reassure her in the slightest. And why speak to me, Crooked One?
The image of fire in her mind flickers, first twisting into a serpent, then into the outline of a wolf, then into the rough shape of a man. It turns to face her.
“Fire was never meant for fence. In short, I am bored.” The form snorts embers, and turns around, seating itself on an indistinct shape. “The Allfather binds what he does not understand, and restrains what he cannot control.” Its voice has sharpened somewhat, though its posture remains relaxed.
Men and giants and immortal gods all are roped by fate’s web. Why rail against the Allfather, and not the Norns? Brünnhilde counters. It’s a weak defense, and she knows it, but bitterness like chains rises in her throat and chokes her from speaking more.
The shape’s mouth turns upward. “Not all, daughter of Wotan,” and it lets that phrase dig in for a half second. “Not forever. And not in all ways.” The outline of the man shifts into the outline of a wolf, flames burning brighter, and its smile shows teeth. “I know it will unravel.”
The wolf stays in that posture for a second, then the tension melts from its muzzle. “I cannot tell when and why - or by whom - the web unravels.”
Brünnhilde hesitates for a moment. She does not think the name, but hope rises in her as broad and deep as the call of horns to battle and glory.
The wolf breaks down, paws scattering into ashes that dance and reform into the familiar shape of the god she’s seen in the tapestries of Walhall, only his shape is traced by fire and his eyes flicker like the darkest coals. “Laughter has been changed for wisdom, child, as so it seems to me,” Loge says, coming closer in her mind’s eye. Brünnhilde feels the heat sear across her, and is grateful for her shield. “What secret causes you to smile?” The flames grow warmer still, and she does not flinch away. “Do you know which way the weft is wound?”
Only the wisest of women, she thinks mildly, know the whole of the weave.
“And yet those who reap the harvest of battle must be counted among their number,” the god counters, rolling a thread of fire between his palms.
Don’t speak to me of them. The cowards shied from my father’s wrath. They refused to shelter the mother-
She breaks off, but Loge has leaned back, and a hint of a smile crosses his face. It is no less disquieting for the bluntness of his teeth in this shape. “I think we may profit from each other, daughter of Wotan.”
She ignores the epithet. A spear aimed at the same place twice does not injure the experienced warrior. And how may I benefit from you? Wotan holds you and I both bonded. You cannot free me. You are no hero.
“True,” Loge says, mouth twisting as if he’s tasted a snake’s venom. “And I am held here, as I am bound by every hearth. But a barred window may still be seen through.” He twines the thread of fire around his fingers, shapes it into a band that burns pure as gold for a moment around his hand, then snaps his fingers. The ring of fire unravels and falls to the ground, straight as a spear, and he grinds it with his heel into the dust. “You fear for this mother.”
She is silent.
“Do you think,” Loge asks, tapping his fingers that flare into flickers of fire against his chin, “that those heroes you favor fear for those they leave behind?”
Loge well knows when to twist the shaft and when to let it rest, knows that this lance has struck some target. His form melts into a snake, leaving bands of fire across her closed eyelids. She shakes off the memory of Siegmund’s stormy expression as he turned away from her, and does not flinch at the heat that beats on her through her armor.
Most mortals do not dare to set themselves against the Allfather, she thinks instead. The coils twitch. Well may I fear for a pregnant mother, who holds the hope of the world in her womb. Wotan has set himself against her race, those whom he once loved most, and she is left alone.
The snake stills, then melts away, reforming into the god. The crackling of the flames resolves into chuckling. “Perhaps your fear is justified, and yet I have never heard of Valkyr troubling herself with mothers. Is that all, child? Or is there more?”
She treads carefully, feeling unsteady ground. Is that not enough? Wyrm and wolf roam the forest; ever the wanderer feels unwelcome.
Loge shakes his head, still chuckling. “And again, never have I heard of a mother capturing the heart of a Valkyr, of she who has been deemed a heartless child.” His eyes light up. “Or has Brünnhilde, perhaps, fallen in love?”
His words startle her. My concern hight concern, nothing more.
Remembering Sieglinde’s fierce gaze, remembering the iron will behind it, she is not sure if the words ring true in her heart. That is no concern of the fire.
“Be not proud, Valkyrie daughter,” Loge chuckles, but the god’s eyes cast over her intently. “Many before you have fallen to the same illness, if it indeed be. And what is the name of this mother?”
She remains silent for a moment, and Loge tuts. “Come now, what else is there to talk about?” His eyes begin to gleam, and the fire in his pupils burns blue. “Every hearth is a window to me. If your woman sets herself near a fire, there I can be also.” He smiles, inspects his fingernails. “But every favor has its price.”
Brünnhilde takes a moment to think it over. What does it matter, if the god is convinced of some dream of love?
And what is your price?
“That depends on what you ask, Valkyr. And after all, who knows if she yet lives? The forest is, as you said, no place for a pregnant mother. Has she sword and shield, strong arm and stout heart, to protect her? Who is she?”
You are indeed curious, Brünnhilde thinks, and the image of the god smiles. Why so eager?
“I have my reasons,” the god says lightly. He is sprawled on the ground, and his foot has started twitching. “And I am so very bored. So tell me but the name of your woman, and I will find her, wherever she happens to be in the Nine Worlds, so long as she is near a fire.”
She is no mere woman, Brünnhilde thinks after a moment, but a Wälsung. Sieglinde is her name, and you will know her by the fierceness in her eyes.
The fire roars around her, dissolving the image of the god into itself, and then she is alone but for the patterns of light against her eyes.
Time passes slowly in the fire-dream, and Brünnhilde reluctantly learns patience in the endless flicker. She is not sure how long it is before the fire stirs before her closed eyes again, and the thin figure of the god appears, smiling as ever, but it has been long enough that she is glad for the company.
What tidings, Loge?
The fire-god collapses with a sigh. “Is that all fairest Wotan’s daughter greets me with? No inquiries to my health, no pause for the loyal searcher to catch his breath or refresh himself in the shade of the mountaintop?”
Be thou welcome to Brünnhilde’s heim. Refresh yourself, traveller, with the finest offerings; feast on bare rock and drink of the dust. And then tell me what tidings you bring.
Loge mimes raising a horn to her, and his eyes are thoughtful. “Tell me, Valkyr, is it true that your kind practice seiðr?”
His words are a touch too casual, his bearing a little too relaxed. Brünnhilde wishes she could stir herself, lean in or rest her hand on her spear or do anything to get her point across, but her body is still wrapped in fetters, and so all she can do is humor him.
In battle we may, perhaps, but not in sleep. She stays silent after that, and Loge, after a moment, begins his tale.
“I did not have to search long. The forest is indeed inhospitable; it does not harbor many hearths. Yet one I know well, for a smith works there, and toils and curses over his craft. Once he won sympathy, now he inspires contempt, for the hands that once wrought treasures gained their craft from power never his. And now he curses over a great labor indeed; the labor of a Wälsung.”
This smith attends her at childbirth?
Loge leans back against the rock, twisting two threads fire between his fingertips. “He attends her indeed; the hearth is woken, boiling herbs for the Wälsung’s draught, according to what little skill he possesses.” One of the threads of fire sputters, drawing out a flickering spark, and Loge watches it, his eyes reflecting the flame. “I never knew Mime of old as such a chef,” he says, speaking ever slower. His eyes rise to pin her down. “But he has learned other craft, it seems. Subtler, and invisible, so the working may not be so admired as his past, but hemlock is cheaper than gold.”
The thread of fire splits off further, but Loge doesn’t touch it. His eyes are fixed on her frozen form. “These, then, are my tidings; the dwarf brings the horn to the mother, and schemes on how he may gain the world by gaining the son. The draught is near boiling. And now, Brünnhilde, Loge asks you. What is the Wälsung to you?”
Can you save her?
“Is it not the lot of the Norns, to break the thread or keep it whole?” Loge says, still reclined, and his face darkens. The third thread of fire breaks free, and he twines it around his hand, frowning. “Or can a Valkyr’s will change fate? Will you halt the fraying thread with your craft?”
Brünnhilde watches the second thread flicker, and her thoughts are steel. Save her.
“If I do,” Loge says, letting the three threads dangle from his hand, “you will owe me a life for a life.” He blinks lazily, but his posture is as a coiled snake’s. “The draught boils over. Shall it be spilled into the dust, and are you willing to pay the balance?”
The flames flash higher, reaching into the sky, and she sees them seize on piled ash logs, blaze at giant-built foundations, licking at the corner of the tapestry of Baldur that as a child she had once played with. She sees her father on his throne with sunken head; on his shoulder, the raven Muninn with a charred thread in his beak, the end glowing. The fires die back, and there is only Loge, dark eyes like coal watching her, and there are two lives hanging in the balance, hanging in a fragile web.
And yet it is still a web. There are still strings that can be pulled. And though Brünnhilde is not a Wala, yet she knows how to weave.
I swear, Brünnhilde thinks, on my word as Brünnhilde, and on the spear that binds all vows. Save Sieglinde.
Loge grins a terrible grin, and disappears in a rush of fire, and she is left alone to sink deeper into sleep.
She is left largely alone after that, although there are times that she feels the silent presence of the trickster god flickering around her, and other times when the dark outline of Huginn's wing flashes across the sky of her fire-dream. This is her lot and she allows that to sink into her, hollowing out a space inside. But she never repents, and the truth of conviction like a pure candle's glow grows to fill that space.
When a pair of soft lips just barely graze hers, when she wakes to the two of them, when Siegfried offers his arm to her to sit up, shining eyes like his mother's radiating concern, she knows she has chosen rightly.
Her mail holds her tight like strong ribs of ship's hull, and the candle flame burns inside her steady heart, and her hands are steady as she raises them in thanksgiving to the bright fire's lord.