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No man shall scratch runes.

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Eydis did not walk on Midgard often, preferring other, higher branches of the tree. But at times like this she did what she had to. So she walked through the forest to the hut she had seen from far above, and politely knocked on the door.

It was answered by a man with a beard and a harried expression. On seeing her, bewilderment broke through his stress. “Evening, ma’am. Are you a traveler in these parts?”

“No. I am not. May I come in?”

The man let her in, the confusion on his face continuing unslaked. She made her way past him towards her aim: a bed in the corner, where a woman lay wrapped in blankets, and beneath the blankets, black robes, and a black scarf covering tight-woven braids.

“She is sick,” Eydis said.

The man approached her, three companions around him. “That she is. May I ask your name?”

“I am Eydis. You?”

They introduced themselves. Halvard, Kjeld, Torben, Vidar. She stored their names in her short-term memory; mortals rarely required more than that. The mortal woman on the bed, though, was another matter. Eydis already knew her name (Aslaug) and her current sickness very well indeed. She knew the woman herself very well, better than these men who counted her a stranger.

“She is sick,” Eydis said again. She put a hand on Aslaug’s forehead and felt an inhuman coolness there.

“We found her in the forest this evening, collapsed on the ground. She likes to take long walks…she had been missing since morning, but we didn’t think…”

Despite the coolness, there was still sweat. Eydis brought her hand to her mouth and tasted the moisture. She could diagnose the sickness exactly.

“Wrought by a fishbone,” she declared. “And runes used unwisely—as much her own fault as any, she knew what it was she risked.”

The men looked at each other. Torben cleared his throat. “Would you like some food, ma’am?” People in these parts were hospitable even in the most unusual circumstances—it was why, when she visited Midgard at all, Eydis usually stopped around here.

“I would like some bark and a piece of charcoal, please.” When they paused, she put her hand out and waited. The tools were brought to her. She scratched on the bark with the charcoal and then placed the bark under Aslaug’s pillow.

“She will be well. I will accept whatever food you offer.” She smiled. Mortals found smiles reassuring, right? And accepting offerings was only polite. She sat down at their table.

What they had to offer, as it turned out, was not much but not bad either. One of them had been to town lately and bought bread. There was stew, too, and even some meat in it. Nothing like Eydis was used to but she expected no more from worshippers in this part of the world, worshippers like these. She ate it all. Aslaug still had not woken, and the men were looking uneasy. One of them checked on Aslaug every couple minutes.

Eydis said, “I will return your hospitality with a performance if you like.”

“A performance?”

“I play a flute better than most. Sit down, calm down, and listen.”

She played, and as she played Aslaug stirred. She sat up slowly, and the men all rushed over to gather around her. But she looked through them and straight at Eydis, who merely continued to play. One could not break a tune for just anything.

“Aslaug! Here, we’ll get you something to eat…”

“Eydis?” Aslaug said, her voice cracked.

Kjeld said, “You know her?”

“I…” Aslaug trailed off.

“Yes, we know each other,” Eydis said. “Come to the table, Aslaug. There is a feast to be had.”


 

After they ate, Aslaug pulled Eydis outside. It was fall, and there was no snow yet but the air was chill. Eydis said, “This cold will be bad for your sickness.”

“You cured it already.”

“It lingers. Be careful with your body.” Eydis’ eyes trailed down it. “You know it doesn’t just belong to you.”

“Yes. Yes, I do. I wanted to talk to you for a moment—away from the others.”

“Well, here we are.”

Aslaug wet her lips and hesitated. At last she said, “You are…You are.”

“I showed myself to you before, didn’t I? You cannot have doubted my existence.”

“Yes, but…how are you here? You don’t…”

“I don’t usually come down, but I can if I want. And I was needed.” Eydis crossed her arms. She had been in a good mood because of the food, but now she was remembering that she had been annoyed. “Because of your foolishness! Have you never heard that ‘no man shall scratch the runes, not being able to use them well’? These things are not for mortals. You almost harmed yourself—you did harm yourself, and without my help it could be much worse.”

“But that verse means that you should not use runes without study, and I did study.”

“I was there when the poem was written. I know what it means. No mortal really knows runes well enough—you’re lucky you didn’t do something worse.”

Aslaug bowed her head. “I know.” But there was a smile twitching at her lips, and she looked up again much too quickly to be really penitent.

Eydis shook her head.

“You know I only did it to see you.”

“I send visions in my own time.”

“Yes, but it had been so long. But now it doesn’t matter. You’re really here.”

She reached out and put a hand on Eydis’ cheek. For a mortal it was utter arrogance. Eydis allowed it. Aslaug prayed often enough that she might as well indulge her, and besides…she was rather fond of Aslaug really, as presumptuous and reckless as the woman could be. Of all her worshippers, Aslaug was not the most devout, but she was the most…individual.

“I woke up to the sound of the flute and I thought I was dreaming again. But you were there. Standing right behind Halvard, and he didn’t…none of them saw what you were at all! All dinner I wanted to laugh.” Aslaug did laugh, a high, quiet sound. “But who could know? Goddesses don’t often walk the earth.”

“No,” Eydis agreed.

“And you came for me,” Aslaug said, “goddess.”

“I could not have done otherwise.”

Aslaug laughed again. Then, continuing to presume, she embraced Eydis whole-heartedly. A warrior woman, her arms were very strong. Though there was something else in the strength of her grip, too. It reflected, Eydis thought, the strength of her devotion. Her ridiculous love.

Maybe not so ridiculous. She presumed to love a goddess but Eydis always held her in favor. And, if that love was returned, maybe the presumption could even be called proper.

“Will you stay long?” Aslaug asked.

“I will be gone by morning.”

Her grip tightened. “May I come with you?”

It was a question Eydis hadn’t expected, though maybe that was her own blindness. Mortals did not generally leave Midgard, but…

“If I leave you here, you’ll just keep on messing up runes, won’t you?”

“Yes,” Aslaug said, “and they’re very, very dangerous.”

“Well then. You may come, but be warned. The realms above Midgard are dangerous too.”

Aslaug said, “I love an adventure.”

It was Eydis’ place to scold her, but she didn’t. Couldn’t help it. Besides, Aslaug might be useful—she was strong and willful enough, likely a good companion. Well, they’d see. “Gather your things, then, and say farewell to your friends. We have a long journey ahead of us.”