I was still a girl when I first noticed the man who ended the world. He was just a boy, like so many of our village, all them half wild still. They were like a pack of dogs, who fought among themselves, and threw stones, and hit each other with sticks, and wrestled in the mud. The youngest would hang around the edges of these games, fascinated yet fearful. The oldest boys would drift away bored, to hang around the Warrior’s Hall, watching the older men wrestle and spar in the dirt yard at its back, or sneaking inside to skulk in the corners and listen to the older men boast and gossip and drink.
This boy was different, even then. I remember watching the boys fighting in the field at the back of Mother Rejka’s House. She had two boys, and two girls. Her older daughter was a vicious sneak and I tried to avoid her, but her younger was sweet and would often share her softbread with me. I didn’t know her boys, they were like all the others, ignorant and dirty. But I was of the age when I was beginning to find the sight of them strangely fascinating yet could not say why.
And so I often found myself hanging on the gate of Rejka’s field, watching the boys struggle and yell at each other. It was then that he caught my eye. And I found I couldn’t look away. Young boys had no personal names, not until they earned their first nickname among their fellow warriors in their first battle. Children are always named for their Mother and he was the Third Son of Bestla, in our language ‘Burr Bestla Thrir’. Yet I discovered later that even at this young age he had a nickname, though he had never been in battle. He was known among the other boys as Tack, which meant ‘Thanks’. I asked my brother about this and he said it was because of the boy’s odd politeness. My brother, like all boys, had no manners, and so this must have been strange to them.
Tack’s oddness of manners did not cause the other boys to dislike him. The contrary in fact. When I noticed him that first time he was standing in the field surrounded by the others, talking to them. I had never seen a group of more than one boy stay quiet for long enough to listen to anything, not without a mother to take them by the ear. Yet for whole minutes this crowd of dirty ruffians hung on his word. Then quietly and quickly they rushed off, two groups each running to the opposite side of the field. I could not understand what they were doing.
But Tack walked out to the middle of the field and raised a stick high in the air. Tied to the tip was a scrap of red cloth. He waited until the two groups had reached their end of the field. And then he gave a great yell and plunged the stick into the dirt. And the boys let out a wild cry and raced towards him. One boy reached the stick first, and grabbed it out of the earth and turned and ran back to his side, while his fellows tried to protect him. The boys from the other side tried to get to him, attacking his companions to get past them. The boy with the stick was caught, and tripped. And the stick was raised up by another who ran the other way. I was fascinated. But not by the game, with its rather basic rules.
I was fascinated by Tack. He stood, calmly apart from it all. And his eyes watched everything like a hawk. And when the game was finished, one boy reaching his own side, and whooping with joy at his victory, Tack called them all back to him. And they all came, and gathered around him to listen as he spoke. I could not hear what he was saying, but I felt a shiver run up my neck.
It was soon after this that my Mother’s lessons began and so I had little time for watching boys. Yet even so I noticed Tack occasionally around the village. He was easy to notice. Tall for his age, with broad shoulders and firm, lean flanks, and legs like a colt. I wasn’t alone among the girls to notice him, and I began to dream foolishly about taking him for my own, though I was many years away from digging my own hearth.
The next summer however he wasn’t around. And though I kept sneaking away from my mother whenever I could I saw no sign of him, and my friends could report nothing either. He would still be too young to be allowed into the Warrior’s Hall. But we wondered among ourselves whether he had managed to gain entrance anyway. I asked my brother, but he didn’t know and didn’t care. If he wasn’t part of the boys’ games, then for my brother he no longer existed.
That Harvest my Moon’s Blood came, and so that Year’s End I attended my first Winter Solstice. It both terrified me and transformed me. Before the Solstice, even with my Blood, I was a girl, yet after, I was a woman. There was no physical change in me, but I knew it in my bones. I asked my mother to braid my hair and I stopped trying to sneak away to play with the girls and look at the boys. I had responsibilities now, and I felt them as a weight upon my neck.
I sat at my mother’s feet and listened to her words, and watched her quick fingers dance across the loom. Spinning was slave work, but weaving was women’s work. My mother was an artist with the loom, able to draw out scenes that caught the eye and fascinated the mind. I watched her work every day wishing I had her skill, and as she worked she spoke softly to me. It was not just of the Weaving of the World, but of other things as well. Of our ancestors, of the village, of the valley. Of the clan and of our tribe.
She told me the stories of our people, our history and our place in things. She told me of tragedy and calamity, of war and famine and plague. And she told me of miracles and salvation, of the Goddesses blessing and the Gods’ strength. Our God was not the only God of course. There were many, and she taught me their names. There was the Lady Gefn, the Giver, and her consort Mundilfari, the Mover of the Ways. He ploughed the heavens to create the courses for the Stars to travel, and for Gefn’s children Lady Moon and Lady Sun to race across.
Their sister Sinthgunt the Nightwalker, who gave birth to the maiden Gefjun, the Bountiful, who danced upon the earth and wherever her feet landed plants sprang from the soil. And Lady Moon’s manservants Hjuki and Bil, who follow her silently across the night sky and cover her face with their cloaks whenever they grow jealous of her beauty. And older than all of these there was the God Ymir, the First God, who was killed by the Goddess Fjorgyn to make the earth from his body and the seas and rivers from his blood. For the earth itself is a God, forever being killed and reborn by the Goddess.
But the good goddesses were not the whole story. There was Hel also, the Dark-Faced one, the Ever-Hungry, who ate all things, and could not be satisfied. There was Narvi, the Oppressive One and his daughter Nott, the Night, who drain the warmth from the earth, and the light from the Sun and Moon, sapping strength and wisdom always. And then there were the nine deadly Voracious Ones. There was Eistla, the Mother of Storms, and Atla, the Argumentative, Angeyja the Harasser, Eygjafa, the Scar-Giver, Gjalp, the Roaring One, Greip the Grasping, Imthr the Wolf and Jamsaxa of the Iron Knife. And finally, Ulfrun, the Wolf-Rune. My mother taught me of them all. She taught me to fear them, and to guard against them. For the Devourers may be deadly, but they are not as powerful as the Lady and her Sisters. And the Goddesses will protect us, if we listen to their wisdom and obey.
But my mother did not teach me of our God, or of the rites that brought him back to life each year. For that was the secret knowledge of the three Kindly Ones, who wove the fates of us all. They were the Norns, and they were only ever three. What they had been called by their mothers was for them alone to know. But we called them Urdr,” Fate”, Verdandi “Becoming”, and Skuld “Future”. They lived at the Well of Fate, in a cave beside that ancient tree that, each year became Yggdrasil, the Tree of the World, upon which our God was hung and died, so that he could rise again.
Only the wisest of us, and those most knowledgeable of the Goddess could become a norn, if a place became available. Most women who wished to partake in the mysteries merely became Ladies, known as Fylgja. We had twenty Fylgja in our village, who accompanied women in childbirth, in breastfeeding and weaning, in wakes, funerals, and all manner of other rites. But they lived together in the Lady’s Hall at the Grove, separate from the village. They lived apart from the other women, they could take no man, they could bear no children, and they could own no property of their own. As children we held them in both awe and fear. And as I grew older I became convinced that I wanted to become one myself.
This was a tough decision. My loins were coming aflame, and the strange fascination I used to feel when watching the boys at play was now an almost all-consuming obsession. Each spring the norns studied the stars and the flights of the birds, and proclaimed if it was a good time for war. And the Warriors beat their shields, and blew their horns. And the women of the village gathered and pledged what men they could spare, a slave or a housebond, or a son.
And the men who had been pledged to the Shields marched behind the Queen’s own Warriors to the Queen’s Hall, and demanded their God King. And after pledging their loyalty anew to the Queen and the Goddess, the Queen permitted the two strongest to enter, to raise our God upon his great shield, and carry him aloft between them, parading him through the village with his face painted red, wearing a bright green cloak, and the thick black fur of a bear, and a crown of hammered gold. And the woman sang, and beat their drums, and the men roared at the tops of their voices, and the young men leaped as high as they could, and the old men beat their spears on their shields.
And us young women who had not dug a hearth, or taken a housebond of our own, sat on our stools at the side of the road out of the village. We wore our brightest dyed robes, and gold bejewelled torques and rings our mothers had lent us, and flowers in our hair. And we looked imperiously at the men who strutted past, young and shy and blushing and pretending not to stare at us, their flowing hair hanging down their backs, their muscles straining against their tunics. And afterwards many of us ran straight to our mothers and insisted that we were old enough for a man of our own.
It was not encouraged for young maidens to seek relief with the unattached boys of the village. It was considered unbecoming and that it would lead the boys astray. But many of our mothers turned a blind eye, remembering well the heat of their own youth. I was proud though, even then. And while my friends came whispering and giggling of their trysts in the woods, I held my back straight and refused to allow myself that comfort. I would have a man of my own, or not at all.
Yet still, at the back of my mind, that yearning for the deeper mysteries remained. I plagued my mother with questions about the Ladies. And when she could not answer my curiosity further she took me to them herself, walking alongside me as we went.
Our village was one of the biggest and most important in the valley. The Queen and her King lived there herself. And by custom our warriors were personally responsible for protecting the Well of Fate, and the Lady’s Grove. Yet it was still quite some walk to those sacred places. The road led us up from the village, climbing away from the river towards the foothills of the mountains that towered above us, one line of peaks on either side.
As we climbed up along the Sacred Way, I was too nervous to talk to my mother, and she was not one for small talk anyway. She pointed out an occasional landmark, or a bird perching on a shrub. But otherwise remained silent. I had travelled this way before, but usually only at night, for Festival. We avoided the road otherwise, afraid of meeting a Lady coming the other way who would ask us what we were doing. Yet for the whole journey we never met anyone else.