Odin

by Leo David Orionis

"There used to be lots of monsters, and lots of kinds of monsters," said the Oldest Man Alive.

"Monsters, Sir?" said the interviewer.  "What do you mean by monsters?"

"To begin with," said the Oldest, "people varied more than they do now.  The average height was between maybe five feet and five eight, but quite a lot of people were shorter, all the way down to four feet without being unusual; and taller, almost to eight feet.  Even in a very small group there were very skinny individuals and very wide ones, very light ones and very heavy ones, nearly hairless ones and ones who were as shaggy as bears, and so on."

"They were considered monsters because of that?"

"No, the monsters were the ones who were even stranger, and the strangeness usually didn't show until they began to age — or rather, until they didn't."

"Ahh," said Ramiro, beginning to understand.

"Some people just never seemed to stop growing; they kept getting bigger and bigger, and needed to eat to support the growth, and were quick to anger, probably because they ached all the time from the growing."

"Giants?"

"Giants," agreed the Oldest.  "The biggest one I ever saw was about three times my height, and dead.  From a heart attack, I think.  Gigantism wasn't a particularly viable variation; they were too conspicuous.  Even if the 'normal' folk didn't kill them, eventually something gave out from the strain."

"Why would people kill them?  Hadn't they grown up with them?  People didn't travel much, did they?"

"Depends when we're talking about," the Oldest said.  "You're right, the giants were mostly gone by the time there was much individual travel, as opposed to travel by tribes.  But you can wear out people's tolerance, even if they've known you since you were a child."

"The thing to remember is that most of the very different kinds were mean.  That's why they were considered monsters.  You get some kid who never stops growing, who's getting bigger and stronger all the time, he'll start swaggering around thinking he's special, which is true, and that he can do anything he wants, which isn't.  Sooner or later he'll piss off the wrong person and get a rock to the head or a knife in the ribs and it's bye bye, monster."

"Wait.  Stronger?"

"Yes.  That's what most of these variants had in common.  They lived longer, they needed less and less sleep, and they kept getting stronger.  Oh, and most of them — the giants were an exception to this — ate less as they got older, too."

"That's an interesting set of traits for survival in a primitive environment," said Ramiro.

"Isn't it?"  The Oldest Man flashed perfect teeth in a grin.  "Take the trolls, for instance."

"Trolls?!"

"Or dwarves, same thing really.  Here's someone who ages very slowly, starts getting stronger and stronger.  He doesn't get any taller, but his hands and feet keep getting bigger, and his shoulders wider.  He needs less and less sleep and less food, and he gets tired of people looking at him like a freak instead of a tribal elder, just because he isn't feeble and shriveled up.  So he leaves.  If he acts like a normal person, people who meet him call him a dwarf.  If he loses his mind and starts killing people and eating them, he's a troll."

"Did that happen a lot?  Going mad, that is?"

"After a while it happened to most variants, which is why they came to be regarded as monsters even when they hadn't done anything wrong yet."  The Oldest Man leaned forward in his chair.

"The problem is memory.  The human body isn't designed to last much longer than it takes to pass on the genes, and the brain is only there to run the body.  The layers of the brain that support the mind are the youngest part of us."

"So you get to be a hundred or so, in a preliterate culture, and the people you grew up with are all dead.  Already you can't remember much of your life — people, faces, voices, your father teaching you to make a spear, your mother's touch, your first wife's kiss — and it just gets worse.  The years begin to fly past like birds in a strong wind, and everything that happens is just like everything that ever happened, and matters less and less.  After a while, say when you're a hundred and fifty, two hundred years old, killing a man matters no more than swatting a fly.  Plenty more around, and it'd be dead tomorrow anyway."

"A fly's relatives don't get upset," suggested Ramiro.

The Oldest Man nodded.  "If you're fast and lucky, you run away before they can kill you.  Sometimes you can find others like you.  But there aren't many others, fewer all the time; and many of them are loners."

"That was a lesson I learned the hard way, from Thor and Tir."

Daniel woke to utter darkness and still air.  It was very cold, and a faint stench told him that something had died, long ago.

He was lying on hard stone, fully dressed and wrapped in a full cape.  Buried in honor, then.  He remembered the last battle, the flung spear that came out of nowhere and went through his gut.  It had jerked him fully awake for a moment, to see the shock on his friends' faces, before he faded, wondering if this were death at last.

Apparently not.  Questing fingers found traces of a scar, perhaps more visible than tangible, but that would have to wait for light.  I wonder who won? he thought, and sat up cautiously, finding rock just above his head.

He put a foot down onto the floor and something snapped underfoot, like a stick.  The sound seemed loud in the perfect stillness.  A more careful foot found nothing on the other side of the slab on which he'd been lying.  He stepped down.  His outstretched arms reached from his resting place to the stone wall.  He shuffled around the chamber in which he'd been buried.

They'd been generous.  Besides the scaled shirt he wore beneath the cloak, he found a helmet, a round wooden shield with a bronze boss, a spear, an axe, and a sword.  A warrior's burial, then — a chief's, in fact, in a narrow stone-lined chamber.  He hoped he could move the stones that sealed him in, but was confident he could get out the sides, if the top proved too heavy.

At the side of the slab, where first he'd stepped, his sweeping fingers found a jumble of sticks and cloth; a man, who'd died and rotted there, leaving the trace Daniel's keen nose had discovered.  One long leg bone was snapped from his careless foot.

There in the bones he found a torc, such as chiefs wore around their necks, and a sharp dagger.  There was no torc on his own neck, nor dagger on his own belt.  A thief, then, come to rob the grave, only to be strangled by the corpse.  Daniel hadn't even woken up; but the man was dead anyway.  If he'd cut Daniel with the stolen dagger as he died, the wounds were long healed.

Where one can enter, another can leave.  Daniel looked behind the bones, where the dead man would have entered had he gone straight to where Daniel had slept.  Nothing.  But it must be right.  If he'd come in the other side, the weapons there would have been disturbed.

He reached up, then, and found a softer place, earth not rock, whether made that way originally or by the thief.  He began to dig with the spear, piling the dirt at the foot of the wall and then standing on it, until at last he felt a cool breeze flowing into the still pond of the tomb's air.

Then with fresh air and renewed energy he widened the hole with the edge of the shield, until he could shove the spear and shield through.  His other goods upon him, he wiggled out the hole, and stood on a grassy mound under shining stars.  A cool wind kissed the sweat on his face and neck.

He shoved what dirt he could back down the hole, then with great effort moved one of the rocks to cover it, nervous lest it fall in, or the roof of the tomb collapse.  Neither did, and presently he was satisfied that he'd covered all signs of his emergence as well as he could.

Where next?  He didn't recognize the place of his mound, a flat meadow between some hills and a forest; but a lot can change in forty years.  Maybe the trees hadn't been there.  But the land itself changes more slowly; as the sky lightened in the east, he thought he recognized a mountain's profile as one he'd been accustomed to seeing full on.

South, then, away from the sons and daughters of those he'd known in his last life.  South in any case, because he was tired of the North.  It was time to see how the Germans were doing, maybe, or what was happening around the Mediterranean.  He began to walk, shield slung on his back, spear light in capable hands, as the birds began to sing up the sun.

Behind him the shadows still owned the mound where he'd slept away two generations, the tomb that now had only one occupant again.

 

There were four of them, tall big-boned heavy-fleshed men of the North, long-haired, long-bearded, fair-skinned, light-haired, fur-clad.  And he, just as big, but ash-slender, darker-skinned, sloe-eyed; a Southron.  A stranger.  Fair game.

"Hello, boys," he said cheerfully.  "Out looking for meat?  I saw some prize elk back that way, where the beavers made a clearing," pointing with the heavy spear in one hand, as if it weighed no more than a wand of willow.

They looked at him; and he knew what they saw.  Loot, mostly.  A chief's helmet, good scale armor, an axe and sword and spear that likely all had names, so fine were they.  A stout shield, a sturdy sheaf knife on a good leather belt, and a golden torc.

"What's your name, stranger?" the biggest blond said.  His hair in pigtails hung to his belt.  He bore no armor, not for the hunt, but his bow was ready in his hand, arrow nocked if not drawn.  A good sword hung at his side, though not as good as the southerner's.

"Call me Raven," the stranger said; a name of ill omen.  For ravens and wolves ate the flesh of the dead, feasting when the battle was over; and ravens were the souls of the dead, and their messengers.

"Right you are," the Northron said.  "And you can call me Wolf.  This big red fellow is Bear, and these two are Fox and Badger."  His friends laughed.

"Nice to meet you boys," Raven said.  "If you hurry, you can catch up with those nice fat elk before they wander too far."

"Well," said Wolf.  "Elk is a lot of animal.  I'm thinking we need better weapons if we're going after elk."  And he grinned in self-appreciation.

"Better hurry, then," Raven said.  "All the way back to your village, wherever it is, to pick up weapons, all the way back here again, those elk'll be moving the whole time.  Don't let me keep you."

"We could save time," Wolf said, "if you gave us your weapons."

Raven laughed:

"My weapons?
Forged in sunlight, cured in blood,
These weapons?
Blessed in the hunt, bane in battle,
This shining axe?  This thirsty sword?
Better keep your own, my friends,
This spear was made for giants, not men."

"You're no giant," said Wolf.  "Don't you know a Raven can't beat a Wolf?"

Raven answered,

"Eagle wanted to see the world,
So he cut a piece from the cloak of Night,
Wrapped it around himself, called himself Raven.
Flew around as a Raven would fly,
Bothered no more than a Raven was.
But still had the claws of an Eagle,"

and cast the spear.  Into Wolf's breastbone the heavy oak plunged, through his heart, through his spine, into the dirt of the North.  Done to death by a giant's strength, the new corpse leaned back on the upright shaft, hot blood trickling down.

"He wanted my spear, and now he has it," Raven said.  "Who wants my fine sharp sword?  Who'll have my gleaming axe?"

"What, no one?" he said to the fleeing backs.

 

The man who'd been known as Daniel, but now calling himself Raven, watched the village for several days before approaching it.  He wanted no trouble at his back; without a horse, or better two, angry locals could ambush him as and where they chose, using paths he didn't know.  Better to meet it head on, and settle it if he could.  So he followed "Bear" and "Fox" and "Badger" home, with "Wolf's" bow and arrows added to his weaponry.

There was one advantage to the North: life was hard, clothing and architecture had to be functional, and people changed reluctantly.  As near as he could tell, the language was the same, and dress nearly so.  There was a new kind of brooch the women wore, and swords were a little longer, with a different shape to their pommels — that was all.

 

He was called Elm, and he was as straight and tall and fair as his name.  Chief he'd been for ten years now, of this village his father had founded; he missed the old man every day.  For one thing, his father had known how to deal with rascals like these; they kept sliding away from Elm.

"One more time," he growled.  "Where is Wolf?  Is he out making trouble?  I promise you, the next time any of you bring trouble to this village, I'm going to stand aside and let it have you.  Understand?"

The three he was talking to, along with the missing Wolf, were a fifth of his fighting men, but at least half of his headaches.  Elm was beginning to think that if he got rid of the four of them, the other sixteen males of fighting age would have very little to do.

Grim, who was ill-tempered and slow-thinking, flushed under his gaze.  "We was hunting meat for the village," he said.

"And came back empty handed, and without Wolf!" Elm agreed.  "What happened?  Did you run into the brothers of someone you murdered?"

"Nothing like that," said Grim's red-headed brother.  Fire was his name, but in his own mind Elm called him Trouble.  He danced around the truth like flame on a log, or to put it plainly: if his mouth was open, he was lying.  "Why, the last time I saw Wolf, he was leaning on his spear, as peaceful as if he'd been asleep."

Elm snorted.  "Tell me another one!  His spear's in his hut, and he's not.  What about you, pretty boy?  What've you got to say for yourself?"

Grim and Fire were the sons of Giant, who'd been one of the best friends of Elm's father Oak.  Elf, or "pretty boy," was the son of Elf, who'd been another.  Elm was about ready to throw them all out for good, just the same; and Elf knew it.  He was a skinny yellow-haired man with a streak in his hair, where it had come out white from a head wound in a fight.  He flushed.  "Fire's telling the truth," he protested.  "Wolf was leaning on his spear.  He stayed there, we went another way, and that's the last time I saw him."

"So where is he now?" Elm demanded.  Elf shrugged.

"Stranger at the gate!" the gatekeeper called.  "Ho, stranger!  What do you want?"

"A word with your chief," answered a loud voice.  Elm had the satisfaction of seeing Grim, Fire, and Elf go pale.  The freckles on Fire's face stood out like blood stains on white cloth, and Elf swayed as if he were going to faint.

"Know that voice, do you?" Elm said.  No answer.  "All right, come with me," he said, and strode off to the gate with them behind him.

 

Raven looked about with interest; he'd caught glimpses of the inside of the stockade only when the gates were open.  About a thousand paces from the forest, about the same again from a big oxbow lake, the village was surrounded by a palisade of tree trunks sharpened with axes at both ends, and one end driven into the ground.  Ropes linked the logs near the top, and huts and sheds leaned against them inside.  In the center of the compound was the long house; meeting room and mess hall and barracks for the single men all at once, with the chief's house and the community's store rooms on the second floor.

It looked like a good place; too bad he was only passing through.  These weren't downtrodden peasants raising grain for a god-king, like he'd seen in the land between the two rivers, but sturdy folk living under no power greater or more remote than their chief.  At a guess each of the huts would hold a married couple with two, three, maybe four children, which would give the village about forty fighting men if a neighboring village made trouble.  About half of those would be prime fighting age, the rest a little young yet, or else past best use in battle.

Here came what had to be the chief, by his firm stride and the torc around his neck, with "Bear" and "Fox" and "Badger" behind him.  Other villagers, the women and children and old men who weren't out in the woods or out on the lake, were looking on but hadn't started to gather yet.

"Good morning, sir," Raven said to the chief.

"Good morning, stranger," said Elm.  "Who are you, and why have you come to my village heavily-armed?"

"Call me Raven," said Daniel, who'd decided it was a good-enough name for now, though first spoken to intimidate.  "I apologize for carrying so many arms into your village, but I'm passing through, and these are all I have."

"Well, Raven, a wise man on a journey might want to lighten his load a bit by laying down some of those arms.  That bow, for instance, and those arrows."

"It's a fine bow, sir, and good straight arrows, but you may have them back if you want them.  They belonged to one of your men, as the boys behind you have doubtless told you; but he has no more use for them."

"And why does Wolf have no more use for his best hunting bow, Raven?"

"So his name really was Wolf?  Well, backed up by Fox and Bear and Badger there, Wolf thought he would steal my weapons.  So I gave him my spear, and the boys ran away, while Wolf went on the journey no man comes back from.  Then I took my spear back, and his bow and arrows for my trouble."

"I see," said the chief.  "Well, Raven, my name is Elm; and these three are called Fire, not "Fox"; Grim, not "Bear"; and Elf, not "Badger".  Though maybe we should call them Rabbit, Squirrel, and Deer, after this," he said scathingly.  The three flushed angrily, but hung their heads, not sure what to do without Wolf to lead them.

"Pleased to meet you, Elm," said Raven.  "Don't be too hard on the boys.  Wolf was dead before he knew it, so they had to bear his shock along with their own; and that's a hard thing to do."

"You're too kind," Elm said.  "Keep the bow, if you like; and if you're looking for a place to settle, you can have his hut, too."

"Thank you, sir.  A good village you have here, and a noble offer you make me.  But I'm just passing through, as I said."

A slender white-skinned girl with shining golden hair and dazzling blue eyes chose that moment to step out of the crowd that had gathered around.  "But surely you'll stay for supper, at least!" she cried.

"My daughter, Gold," said Elm.

"Well, maybe for supper," Raven said.

 

"We were married before the winter came," said the Oldest Man, "and were happy for a few years."  He fell silent, then, thinking of those long-ago days.

"Did you love her?" Ramiro asked.

"Love her?  I loved her enough, at the time.  I don't know if I knew what love was, back then.  I'd seen very little of it; and of course the modern notion of romantic love hadn't been invented.  What we called love, back then, as far as I understood it then — we had that.  It was enough to keep me there for a lifetime, which was all I could expect."

 

If Raven was dazzled by the chief's daughter's shining golden looks, so different from the dark-haired, dark-eyed beauties of the South, she was equally smitten with his foreignness.  And yet he wasn't merely an outsider, attractive as that was by itself.  By any measure of a man — hunting, fighting, strength, courage, skill — he was the best the village had, except perhaps for her own father; and he was careful never to challenge the chief in any way.  Instead, with Elm's permission, he began training the men of the village in the hunt, in tracking, in mock battles and single "combats", never mocking them or making them feel small, but showing them by example what a man could do if he wished — and then going on to teach them how to start gaining those skills themselves.

By a woman's measure of a man, too, he was more than she had dreamed.  Elm's people attached no special virtue to sexual ignorance, yet Gold was a virgin.  She was a beauty, and knew it, and the chief's daughter besides; no one had seemed good enough for her.  The unmourned Wolf had been one of the greatest warriors in the village, but his bullying of others hadn't won her heart; Grim was strong, but stupid and bad-tempered; Elf altogether too vain; and Fire totally contemptible: sly, two-faced, good at striking behind a man's back, or running away.  And every other man too young, too old, or already married.

Foolishly, Gold felt that she had known someone better was coming along, and had been waiting for him.  When Raven continued to treat her with kindness, months after they were married, and when he took her to bed and brought her delight in ways she'd never dreamed of, nor ever heard of from another woman — why then, she was sure they'd been fated to meet.

If there was a flaw, it was that she didn't get pregnant.  Being a virgin wasn't important, but being a childless wife was another matter.  She felt that the other wives — the regular, child-dropping cows! — were laughing at her.  It helped only a little that Raven himself had no word of reproach, even suggesting, gently, that he was the one at fault.  Ridiculous!  As if so strong, so brave, so passionate a man could fail to be the father of many sons!

So matters had stood, for two years from their wedding, when the bear came.

 

Raven motioned for silence and parted the branches before him carefully, knowing by the sound what he would see.  The beast that had been stalking the village's cattle, and which had slain the only herdsman brave enough to fight it, was stripping berries off a bush at the far side of the clearing from where Raven and half the men crouched, armed with heavy spears.

But, though the stink and the droppings and the tracks of the marauder said bear, Raven hadn't been prepared for a bear like this!

To begin with, it was the tallest bear he'd ever seen, in all his long life.  Blinking, he could swear that the creature was a full 12 feet tall, easy to see because it stood on its hind legs as comfortably as a man.

"Demon!" whispered one of the younger spearmen, and the beast's head whipped around, glaring.  Rather than signal it to charge by letting the branches swish into place, and giving it someone to chase by getting up and running away, Raven froze; and held the branches still; and held one arm out behind him, willing the men with him to freeze, too.

For a wonder, they did.  The nearsighted bear glared in their direction a moment longer, growling under its breath; then sniffed hugely, and returned to its berry bush.

Raven glared, too, until the young idiot dropped his eyes in apology; then returned to studying the bear.  Not only was it the biggest he'd ever seen, it was the oddest.  Neither black bear nor brown, it had a coat that was an almost bluish-gray, with silver tips.  The powerful muscles of the long arms (impossible to think of them as fore legs) were anchored in a hump between the shoulders, like the bison used to have, before they were hunted out.  And the claws on those hands were long and sharp as knives.

Raven didn't know whether this was some kind of bear he'd never been unfortunate enough to see before, or whether it was a freak bear, as he was a freak man.  But he was sure they didn't have enough men, or long enough spears, to deal with it.  This was no beast to fight hand to hand!  This monster begged for traps, arrows, or fire, possibly all at once.

Keeping an eye on the gluttonous beast, he raised a finger for attention, then pointed back up the trail: Get out of here.  Silently, carefully, the men withdrew, making sure their spears didn't catch on brush…

Then one of them caught his foot under a tree root arching out of the ground, and fell flat on his face with a crash.

"Run!" cried Raven, as the bear whirled around and roared.  A man can't outrun an ordinary bear — a devil bear like this one, who knew?  It was literally a case of "devil take the hindmost."

Only Raven hadn't trained, worked, lived with these men, just to see them shredded by a monster.  "Give me that, idiot!" he said, snatching a spear out of a man's hands.  "Drop everything, fools, and RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!"

He spun around, as the bear crashed through the brush they'd been crouching behind, and jammed the spear into its breast bone.  The monster screamed, and Raven felt a moment's hope.

But the strength that had thrown a heavy spear right through a human being couldn't force one through the bear's tough grizzled hide and leathery muscles; and the strength that let Raven hold a full-grown cow overhead couldn't stop the bear for more than a moment.  The beast outweighed him a few times over, and the forest litter gave his frantic feet no purchase, and nothing to brace against.  It shoved him back and back, the spear keeping the murderous paws from his life; to fall down was to die.

Then the butt of the spear hit a tree right before Raven did, and the spear shaft cracked in half.  Raven half-fell, half-lunged around the bole, low to escape the raking claws, and started to run in earnest, the bear right behind him with the broken spear jiggling in its chest.

"Catch!" someone cried; Raven looked up and snatched another heavy spear out of the air, ducked around another tree, and as the bear did the same, shoved the spear through its foot.  He didn't stab the foot, he stabbed through the foot, trying to put the spear as deep in the ground as he could.

It was an inspired move for stopping the beast, but not so great for his own safety.  As the bear fell forward, its paw slashed into his face.

 

"Easily the dumbest thing I ever did, in all my life," the Oldest Man said.  "I really didn't deserve to survive that."

"What kind of bear was that?" Ramiro asked, too engrossed in the tale to turn to his intrinsics.

"They were called 'grizzly bears'," said the Eldest, "because of the silver tips in their fur, and they lived mostly in the far north of North America, what we used to call 'Alaska' and 'northern Canada'.  I can only imagine how one got across the Bering Straits, and walked across Siberia, to get to where it almost killed me.  Much smaller ones, many centuries later, were deadly dangerous even to people with firearms."

 

They took Raven back to the village, though no one expected him to live, with his right eye gone and all that side of his face hanging in tatters from the bone.  Then all the fighting men armed themselves for war, and with the stoutest spears they had, the strongest bows, and the bravest dogs, went after the bear.  They ran it to death, wailing from the spear through its foot; shot it with arrows whenever they could, until they put out both its eyes; put a spear through its other foot, now that it couldn't see; and set the dogs on it.  Some dogs died, but no men; and in the end, the monster bear was dead, too.  They skinned it, let the surviving dogs eat what they wanted, and brought the pelt back, either to bury Raven in, or to hang in memory of him, however Elm decided.

But Raven didn't die.  With an eye missing, and his face in ribbons, he still refused.  Out of his head, he lay in his bed and raved, often in languages no one knew; or, if in a tongue they could understand, speaking to unknown gods about places no one had heard of.  Gold and the other women tended him all that fall and winter, while the flesh of his face healed in great white scars, and the fever burned high as a bonfire.

And while they wiped him down, on his new bed of grizzly-bear fur, and while they fed him soup and water and anything else liquid they could get down him, the legend began and grew.

That was no bear!  What bear was ever that size, or that color?  What bear ever fought that way, like a man, against a man?  It was a god, come looking for the best, carrying a gift — for a price, they said, pointing at their eyes.  Just watch, he'll live through this — but he'll be different.

And so it seemed, when the fever broke, when he could, with help, sit up — he was withdrawn, looking past the people in the house, at things they couldn't see.  He often didn't reply when spoken to; if he did, it seemed he answered at random, and often in a foreign tongue, as if he couldn't bother to recall where he was.

Gone was the laughing man, the patient teacher replaced by a scar-faced, gray-haired stranger (the same color as the bear's, the villagers said, nodding).  Raven had been confronted by death, and had his confidence shaken in his immortality.  The plain fact was that he didn't know whether his eye would grow back, and the prospect of eternity with one eye was grim indeed.  He went over and over his past lives, and found no answer; he simply hadn't ever suffered the loss of a limb or an organ before.

Fire approached Gold away from Raven's hut one day, and suggested that since Raven was now ugly, Gold should look for another husband.  Himself, for instance.

Gold was so astonished that she almost forgot to dump the full water jug in her hands over his head.  "You sniveling!" she said.  "You nithling!  Ugly?  Ugly?  Those are the marks of a hero, you worm!  You think I'd push a hero out of my bed to make room for a sneak?  Get out of my sight!"  Everyone in hearing laughed as Fire slunk away; not least Elf, who'd been thinking of making the same proposal.

That night sharp words were spoken in Raven's and Gold's hut.  "I am sick and tired," Gold said, "of living with Death!"  (A couple walking by outside winced and shivered, and hurried on.)

Raven just looked at her, then looked away.  "No, look!" Gold said.  "Look at this!"  She pulled some of her hair forward and showed it to him.  "Gray!  Gray in my gold hair, from worrying over you!  If you're going to make me an old woman," she pleaded, "can't you at least look at me?  Talk to me?  Something?"

The impossibility of talking to someone so short-lived filled his throat and stopped his mouth.  The chief's daughter took it for disdain, and walked up to stand right in front of him.

"Talk to me!" she said, and slapped him.

"Look at me!" she said, and slapped him again.

He grabbed her hand before she could swing again, a red mark on each cheek.  "How about I just beat the crap out of you, golden-hair?" he growled.

"If you must," she whispered.  "Oh, if that's what it takes to bring you back!  Only come back to me," she said, and leaned forward, and kissed him.

He growled, and kissed her back, running his hands over her body.  Then he picked her up, carried her over to the bed, dropped her on the bear skin, and beat her.

Or made love to her.

Or maybe both.

 

Gold has brought the dead to life, the village said.  He has fought the god-bear, paid an eye to know things that left him half insane, and hung suspended between Death and Life; but she has brought him back to life!

Gradually Raven learned to accept that he'd just have to wait and see whether his eye regenerated while he slept, and to do without it for now.  He resumed training the men of the village, and now he was training himself as well, to fight and hunt with only one eye.  The men, for their part, because accustomed to the eye patch, the scars, and the gray hair.

And then, one day in early winter, he returned to his hut in the morning and found Gold in bed.  She woke, and stretched langurously.  "I dreamed you came back, and made love to me, and then I woke up, and there you are," she smiled.  "Silly man!  Why didn't you wake me all the way up?"

Raven frowned.  Before he could say he'd just walked in the door, she put a hand over her belly in a gesture he'd seen many, many times before.  "Don't ask me how I know," Gold said, "because there's no way I could know.  But I think — I hope — No, I think that this time, we've started a child."  She lifted her eyes from her belly to his face.  "Oh Raven!" she cried, glowing.  "Wouldn't that be wonderful!"

"More than wonderful," he said, thinking of all the hundreds and thousands of years, when he'd never, ever (as far as he knew) fathered a child.  "We'll just have to see," he said, and kissed her.  Her lips had an odd taste.  Some kind of drug, he thought; when I find out who did this, he'll die slowly, I swear it!  He'll wish the bear had gotten him.

But who could have raped Gold, after slipping the drug between her sleeping lips to make her half-awake and willing, thinking she was dreaming of him?  Who knew of such things?  As far as he could uncover, asking careful questions the next few days, no one in the village.

The obvious suspect was Fire.  He was sneaky enough, and desired her enough.  Also, it would be revenge for her spurning him, and revenge on Raven for winning her.  But did he know about such drugs, and could he get them or make them?  As far as Raven could learn, no.

Raven relieved his feelings a bit and tried to shake loose a confession by roughing up Fire, ostensibly for his proposal to Gold.  It didn't work; Fire had plenty to say, but none of it was confessional.  The beating earned Raven some disapproval, for once, from the majority of the villagers, who weren't used to seeing him act like a bully, and felt Gold had given the matter all the necessary attention with the water jug.  Gold was the only one he pleased; she thought he was being extra attentive to her reputation, because she was carrying his baby.

By the turning of the year it was plain that Gold was with child; in high summer she had it.  "Red hair," Raven said.

"Yes!" said Gold.  "Father will be so pleased.  His father had red hair, and his father's grandfather.  And a boy, too!" she cooed at the newborn.  Raven accepted everyone's congratulations as if he were overjoyed, then went looking for Fire, with murder in his eye.

But Fire had left as soon as Gold went into labor, with no word to anyone.  It would be years before they saw him again.

 

Days passed by like fish in the lake; season followed season like geese in a flock; year followed year, each with its own deaths and births.  Raven's hair stayed gray, but his strength and vigor returned, and didn't lessen with the years.

Others weren't so lucky.  Fire's brother Grim died in a battle with some of the new people who were wandering in from the East in dribs and drabs.  They were essentially the same as the locals, just a little different in their ornaments, their gods, and using some words borrowed from the languages of folks who lived a bit further east yet.  A dozen of these tried to steal some cattle and horses one evening, as Grim was bringing them in from the field.  He slew three or four of them before the rest slew him, which took long enough for Raven and the other fighting men to come running.  They dealt with the rest of the thieves, but it was too late for Grim.  They buried his body with the dead raiders at his feet, and Elm and Raven praised his courage and skill.

Elf suffered a different fate, when he fell in love with a younger girl, newly a woman, who scorned him and wouldn't sleep with him.  He began wooing her to change her mind, and before he knew it was wooing in earnest.  When at last he proposed marriage, she accepted; and shortly after they married, she got pregnant.  By the time Elm's grandson Aspen was six years old, Elf was nothing but a besotted husband with two boys and a girl, and his old reputation as a lecher was a faint memory.

So the old women put down their spinning and helped with the children, until they died; while the men quit active duty as village fighters, and later hunting, and died in turn; while new children were born, older children grew up, and young men came to be trained by Raven.  By the time Aspen was eight, few ever thought of the day, now a dozen years past, when Raven came to the village.

 

Elm and Raven were sitting on a bench in front of the long house, soaking up the warm sun of what a later, calendared age would call May or June.  Shrieking children ran everywhere, playing some running game whose rules were incomprehensible to anyone over ten years old.  Barking dogs chased the runners, adding to the noise and confusion.

Somewhere in the last dozen years Elm had turned old, going from slender to old-man skinny, golden hair now white, liver spots on his hands and arms.  He wasn't feeble or sickly, but neither did he have the strength of his youth; and the bald spot on top of his head gleamed in the light.

"Grandaddy!" shrieked a blur of arms and legs, tipped with red hair.  Aspen came charging out of the mob of children and threw himself at Elm.  Elm caught him with an oof! and a laugh, hugged him close, and kissed his grubby little-boy face.  Then he passed him to Raven.

"Daddy!" said Aspen.  "Aspen!" said Raven, and turned the boy upside down, so his tunic fell down around his arms.  Then he put his lips to the boy's belly button and blew, making his son shriek; turned him right side up and set him down, and sent him back to the game with a swat on the butt.  Aspen ran off laughing.

Gold came out of the longhouse door and stepped up behind her husband and her father, putting a hand on each shoulder.  Each man covered her hand with one of his own, and they watched the children play, smiling.

 

"Strangers at the gate!" cried the sentry the next day.

"Who are you calling a stranger?" replied a querulous voice.  "Can't a man take a trip without being insulted in his own village?  I am Fire, son of Giant, brother of Grim; and I bring important guests.  Let us in!"

"Wait!" called Elm.  "Raven, Elf, Pike, come with me."  He strode to the gate, for the moment very like the chief he'd been, with Raven, Fire's surviving crony Elf, and Pike, a promising fighter of the younger generation, at his back.  The gate was opened only a little, and they went out.

Fire stood there, his red hair streaked with grey, and sporting a short beard the same colors.  His face was set in anger, and the depth of the lines showed how usual was the expression.  He was dressed in the brooches and tunic of the newcomers from the east, and wore an eastern sword at his belt.  An amber necklace hung around his neck.

With him were two easterners in truth: big men in the flush of youth, tall, wide, hard-muscled; like enough to be brothers, one with red hair, one yellow.  They were clad in expensive armor, true mail shirts down past their hips, torcs around their necks, long eastern hand-and-a-half swords on their backs.  The three horses whose reins Fire was holding had capes rolled up behind their saddles, and two of them had helmets and shields hanging from their saddles as well.

"Welcome, strangers," Elm said, ignoring Fire.  "What brings you to my village?"

"Thank you for the welcome," said the yellow-haired man, grinning through his beard and mustache.  "I am Thunder," he said, fingering the hammer pendant hanging from his neck, "and this is my brother War."  War nodded to the chief, unsmiling; the bird pendant at his throat jingled, making its semi-detached feet swing back and forth.

"Bold names!" said Elm.  "I am Elm; this is Raven, Elf, and Pike."

"A likely band," Thunder smiled.  "And you have us outnumbered four to three.  Yet what if I—"

"Four to two," Raven said.

"Don't interrupt the chief!" Fire said.

Raven looked at him.  "He's no chief of mine," he said.  "As for you, if you keep very quiet and behave very well, I might let you leave here alive."  Elm nodded agreement; Pike, too young to have met Fire before, said nothing.  Even Elf didn't protest Raven's words.

"He'll leave here when I do," said Thunder.  "He's with me, and you'll treat him as you would me."

"And who are you?" Elm said, astonished at the stranger's effrontery.

"I'm the new chief here," said Thunder, taking a step forward and reaching out for Elm.

Before he could touch him, however, Raven's right arm shot out, and he caught Thunder's wrist.  "Show respect for the chief, or I'll have to teach it to you," he said mildly.

Thunder frankly gaped at the grey-hair who'd seized his arm.  "Old man, that was a mistake.  I'm going to make an example of you now."  He reached towards Raven with his right hand, his left wrist still in Raven's right hand…

Raven seized his other wrist.  "Don't make me hurt you, boy," he said.  Inwardly he was amazed.  Thunder was inhumanly strong, though not as strong as Raven.  He had to be another immortal, though probably not as old as Raven.  And what about War, the other one?

Outwardly it seemed Thunder and Raven stood there, neither struggling; but the snarl on Thunder's face told a different story.  ["Brother!  Are you all right?"] cried War in an ancient language spoken by mammoth hunters north of the Black Sea.

["Stay back!  He's too strong!"] said Thunder in the same tongue.  ["I think he's a troll!"]

["Oh, really,"] Raven said.  ["You call me names?  You're the one acting like a troll."]

Thunder and War froze in shock, and Raven spilled Thunder over his hip onto the ground.  Thunder got up, still staring.  ["You speak our language?"] he said.

["And many others,"] Raven replied.  ["I'm a lot older than you, if that's your native speech.  A lot older, and a lot stronger."]

["Then why aren't you the chief here?"] asked War.

["He's a good man,"] Raven said.  ["Why shouldn't he stay chief, while he lives?  And then my son, his grandson, can be chief when I have to leave."]

["You have a son?!"] they cried.  Thunder added, ["I never knew one of us who could father children."]

["And I never knew two brothers who were both immortal,"] said Raven.  ["A truce and a feast while we talk it over?"]

"Truce," Thunder agreed.  "It could be we were too hasty."  He looked at Elm.  "May we guest in your village tonight, sir?"

"No!" cried Fire.  "You promised me—"

War seized Fire's throat in one hand, his left, and brought the scatheling's face up to his, effortlessly holding him in one unbraced arm, as if he weighed nothing.  "You don't say 'no' to us," he told Fire, who had no air even to gasp.  "Keep your mouth shut while you still have an uncrushed throat."  He took the reins of the horses from Fire's strengthless hand, and dropped him into the dirt.

 

So they had a feast, with all the village crowded into the longhouse, except for the men whose turn it was to watch the stockade and the stores, and the women watching over the children too young to attend.  Thunder and War sat at the high table with Elm, Gold, and Raven.  Fire was seated elsewhere, much to his resentment; nor was he pleased that Elf had little to say to him, or that Elf's wife plainly disliked him.  He was also shocked to learn that Grim had died fighting eastern raiders.  Clearly Elf and Grim wouldn't be backing him for whatever he had in mind.

"Why shouldn't we be kings of as many villages as we can take and hold?" Thunder was saying.  "Do you know anyone more fit for the job?  We already have a dozen of our villages giving us obedience, and a dozen of yours.  If we make them one people, they won't be fighting each other over cattle, horses, or women; and we'll be so strong no one can challenge us.  Why shouldn't we have an empire, like the Hittites did, or the Babylonians?"

"Yes!  Hear him!" said War.

"I could answer that empires are evil," Raven said.  "I've never known one where anyone was happy except maybe the people on top.  But let me ask you instead, why should you have an empire, or be kings?  What's the point?  What do you get out of it?"

["After all, in 40 to 80 years you'll have to sleep anyway,"] he added.  ["It's not like you can pass your throne to your sons."]

["We could always adopt sons,"] Thunder said.  ["Or we could share power with you.  We have only about 40 years before we have to sleep, and I gather you just woke up?  The three of us could rule together, than you could keep things going while we slept, then we could share again, then you could sleep…  And if your son turns out to be immortal, so much the better.  The more of us there are, the stronger our empire."]

["How do I know I could trust you?"] Raven said.

["We're willing to trust you,"] War said.  ["Forty years from now, you'll trust us; or you won't."]

["I don't like it,"] Raven said.  ["You'd end up with a race of immortals ruling a race of slaves."]

["So what?"] said Thunder, smiling.  ["You'd be one of the immortals.  The rest will all be dead in the blink of an eye, anyway.  And meanwhile we'd take better care of them than they ever took care of themselves."]

["They aren't for 'taking care of',"] said Raven.  ["They're people, just like you and me."]

"You have a tender heart, brother," Thunder said.  "Drink up, and let's talk about something else for a while."

 

"Imagine how different history would have been, if they'd succeeded," Ramiro said.

"Oh yes," said the Eldest.  "And they could have succeeded, too.  Even without me having children, there were still plenty of oldsters around, and sooner or later we'd have recruited all of them, assigning each an area and a 40- to 80-year 'shift'.  Eventually we'd rule the whole world, and any new immortals would join us as a matter of course, blessing the luck of their birth."

"There'd be no progress, no science, nothing that brought an ordinary man up to their level," Ramiro said.  "They'd rule like gods, and people as a whole would never become immortal."

"Sure they would," the oldest man said.  "There would always be thousands of mortals for every immortal; in time, millions for each one.  Sooner or later their empire would fall, either to mortals, or to one of the alien races we didn't know about back then.  But I thought it would be better if it never got started."

 

"You lied to me!" Thunder accused Raven, a couple of days later.  "Aspen isn't your son, he's Fire's — just as Fire said."

"Fire lied," Raven said.  "He always lies.  It's true he raped my wife with a drug — something he learned from your people, I assume? — and he'll die for that.  But Aspen is my son, and I love him."

The woods they were standing in were green and lush.  Raven, Thunder, and War had taken horses and gone well beyond the village's usual hunting grounds, looking for big game to replenish the stores.  It also gave them a chance to talk freely.

"I don't care whether you love him or not," Thunder said.  "If he's not your seed, then you can't have children any more than we can."

"It doesn't matter whether I can have children, because I'm not going to let you set yourselves up as kings," Raven said.  "It's wrong, and the people here deserve better."

"To Hel with you!" War said.

"Yes, to Hel with you," Thunder agreed.  "I'll come back with five villages' fighting men, and then how will you stop me?"  He snorted, and turned to get on his horse.

Raven grabbed him, pulled him around, and punched him in the face.  "Fight me, coward!" he said.  "If you win, I won't be around to stop you.  If I win, your plans are done."

War cried out in anger, and jumped down from his horse; but Thunder stopped him with an upraised hand.  He worked his bloody nose with a grimace, then deliberately spat blood on Raven's tunic.

"My brother and I could kill you here and now," Thunder said, "and come down on your people with sixty or a hundred warriors.  But I don't want to waste your death.  Let's go back to the village.  I want to show them that no one stands up to me, not even bear-killing heroes."

"Lead on," said Raven.

 

Thunder and War, in mail and helmets, stood before the crowd.  Thunder had the hand-and-a-half sword in one hand; War bore a large round shield, over three feet across.

"I'm building a kingdom," Thunder told the village.  "The more villages are part of it, the better we'll all do — we stand together against enemies, we share food, we trade among ourselves.  Fire told us of your village, so we came to annex it."

"What, all by yourselves?" said Elm.

Thunder looked at Elm.  "Yes, all by ourselves.  Just like the one before, and the one before, and the one before that — 24 so far."

"We would have made this man chief here," Thunder said, "and chief of other villages we added around here — for he is a hero like us, kingly like us, strong and bold and battleworthy."

"We already have a chief, and it's no business of yours," said Raven.

"Hear him!" cried Thunder, pointing one-handed with the great-sword.  "He decides who your chief is; he says I am not king; he says you may not even decide for yourselves!"

"I don't recall you asking us anything," Pike said.  "You said, 'I'm the new chief' and would have laid hands on Elm."

"So now we'll return to the original plan," Thunder said, ignoring the young warrior.  "We'll kill this mighty hero, to show you that no one defies us.  Then we'll make Fire the chief here, as we promised him.  As further reward he may have Gold for wife, and his son Aspen to raise and be chief after him."

"Over your dead bodies!" Gold cried out.

"Aspen is my son!" Raven said.

"I have spoken," Thunder said.  He looked at Raven.  "Where is your second?"

"My second what?" said Raven.

"Duels are fought holmgang style," Thunder said, as if it were a law of nature.  "War will carry my shield, I'll use my long sword.  Who will bear your shield?"

"What, you haven't the guts to fight me one at a time?" Raven said, astonished.

"Sir!" said Pike.  "I'd be proud to carry your shield."

"Thanks, son," said Raven, clapping him on the shoulder.  "But we haven't practiced it; we'd only get in each other's way.  Why do you think they fight that way?  I'll take these two 'heroes' by myself."

"Then get your helmet and shield," War said.  "You're wasting our time."

"The more I waste, the more you have left," Raven said.  "Treasure it."

"Elf!" he called.  "Bring me a spear and a shield, if you don't mind."

"Thanks," he said when Elf had done so.  "Keep an eye on Fire, so he doesn't get away again."

"Count on me," said Elf.  "He'd bring the warriors of a dozen villages back, to make him chief here."

"Kill them all," Gold said, holding Aspen by the hand.

"I promise," he said, kissing her.  He looked down at Aspen.  "Be a good boy, son.  Do what your mother says."

"I love you, Daddy," Aspen said.  Raven kissed him, and waited until all the villagers had drawn off to one side, leaving him and the two brothers lots of room.

"Ready to die now?" Thunder said.

Raven looked at them, mail bright in the noon sun, light flashing from iron helms.  Thunder held the great sword upright with one hand wrapped around the hilt down by the pommel.  The other hand gripped the hilt just below the cross-guard, almost like a quarterstaff stance.  War held the big shield in both hands, using a pair of handles.

Raven chanted:

[["My bear is before me,
My lion is in me.
Hattushas is on my right,
Mittani is on my left,
Horus stretches his wings over me.
I cannot be defeated."]]

["Try again in a known language,"] Thunder said.

"Ah, you ignorant children," said Raven:

"You want my life?
Come and take it — come and try!
My life is Ocean, it circles the world.
Come and take it — come and die!
My life has no end; but yours is over!"

"We'll see," said Thunder.  The two brothers advanced in perfect, practiced unison.

But Raven had fought with a shield man for a partner, both in chariots and on foot.  He knew the strengths and the weaknesses of fighting that way, and how to train them out of a partner, and how to take advantage of them in others.

So he used the speed of his lightly-armored, stronger body to take his enemies' shield for his own.  When the long sword whistled through the air at him, he jabbed his spear at War's face, forcing him to heave up the shield for protection.  The greatsword bit into the edge of the shield, and caught momentarily.  While the sword and shield were locked, Raven swept his spear point down and jabbed it into War's inside thigh, just below the mail.  Then he leapt back, as War cried out in rage and pain.

"Bastard!" said Thunder.  He swung again, and Raven leapt to his right, so that the blond man had to pull his blow to keep from chopping his brother's head.  As he pulled it, Raven jabbed with the spear again at War's eyes.  War threw the shield up again, and stumbled back, fouling Thunder.  Raven jabbed War in the other leg, twisting the blade, and was rewarded by fast-spreading, bright-red blood.

"One down," he said, as War's leg gave out on him.

"War!" said Thunder, running forward.  He started to kneel at his brother's side, but Raven's spear flashed at his eyes.  He jerked back.

"Bastard!  He'll die!" he snarled, blocking with his sword.  Long as a spear, it was less suited for holding level and jabbing; and he had no shield now.

"He will," Raven affirmed.  "So will you.  I told you your lives were over.  You threatened my people."

"We'll go away!  We'll leave you alone!  Only let me save my brother!" Thunder cried.

"I can't afford to believe you," Raven said.  "Even if you mean it, you could change your mind any time, and come back with as many men as you wanted.  Dead men can't change their minds or break their word."

War sighed, and fell onto the big shield.  The grass was a lake of blood from the severed artery.

"Anyway," Raven said, "too late now."

The cruel remark drove Thunder out of his mind with rage, just as Raven had intended.  Screaming incoherently, holding nothing back, the would-be king attacked full out, with great two-armed swings of his long sword.

But Raven had a spear, a shield, and cold calculation.  Thunder was younger, hence weaker; Raven encouraged him to wear himself out, blocking with the sword, jabbing with the spear when he could.  When at last the spear was hacked too short, he dropped it and drew his sword.

He almost waited too long.  Thunder's head was clearing, and he was beginning to believe, really believe, that he wasn't going to win the fight.  Before he could look for Gold or Aspen or other people to kill, Raven went on the offensive.

Close was the key now; distance favored Thunder's long sword, and gave him time to block at need.  Raven closed to the best range for his sword, blocking with his shield with the other arm, and stayed there.

Thunder's mail was better than Raven's suit of scales, and his sword more massive, capable of cutting right through a shield or armor in a full roundhouse blow with all of his strength behind it.  The trick was to deny him those blows, by crowding, by blocking his arms with the shield to hamper the swing, to cut at the face and head and neck with the shorter sword.  Shorter, but wielded with even greater strength, by a man less weary and fighting in cold reason for people who mattered to him.

Time after time the great sword's swing was halted by the iron-rimmed shield, or aborted to try to block a stroke.  Thunder was used to fighting people less experienced than he, much weaker than he, in battles whose terms he'd set.  Now he faced someone stronger and better.  Thunder and War had never fought anyone better, so they'd never had a chance to improve.  Rare is the man who can invent new fighting techniques!  Raven couldn't, himself; but he'd fought many who were better than he'd been, down the centuries, and had learned from them all.  He'd also fought, many times, at a disadvantage of weapons.

Now the tenth blow to the same spot broke links at Thunder's neck; another made a wide swath droop like sheared cloth; and the last chopped into the neck itself, blood spurting wide.  The great sword fell from the blond's open hands, and he fell over on his side, staring from sightless eyes.

For a moment the villagers were afraid of the grim survivor in the waning afternoon light.  Then he laid down his shield, laid his sword on it until he could clean it, and fumbled with the straps until he could pull off his helmet.  He dumped it on the grass without ceremony.  Even as it went clunk and the attached mail skirting went ching!, he was taking off the helmet padding.  He shook his head, and drops of sweat flew far and wide.

This familiar act broke down the strangeness; the whole village rushed forward, Gold and Aspen and Elm and all.  Pike picked up Raven's sword and began cleaning it of blood, his brother Hawk picked up the shield, while other young men gathered around the bodies of Thunder and War, marveling at the great cuts in the one's mail, and the half-dry lake of blood around the other.

"What now?" asked Elm.

"You're the chief," said Raven.  "But my advice would be, gather them up, every least bit of cloth and metal they brought with them, and let it drag them down into the deepest part of the lake.  Butcher their horses and scatter the bones, lest they be recognized.  Burn the grass where their blood was spilled, and more besides, to leave no pattern.  When they don't come back, and no one knows where they went or what happened to them, their 'kingdom' will fall apart."

"There's still one more mouth that needs shutting," Gold said dangerously.

Most of the villagers gaped at her like she'd grown a second head suddenly; but Elm and Raven both nodded.  "Elf!" cried Elm.  "Bring your prisoner!"

"Find him!" Raven snapped, a moment later, when there was no answer.  They scattered in search.

They found Elf dead, his throat slit at the side where a man's life is easily reached by a small, quick knife.  His wife and children cried out at the sight, and fell upon him in anguish.

Fire's horse was gone, but Thunder's and War's were not; probably he feared to take them, in case one or both of the brothers lived.  Which meant he'd killed and fled while the fight yet raged; which meant he had a greater lead.  Raven made a swift decision.

"Father-in-law, dispose of the bodies.  I'll take these horses, and go after him.  But have well-armed men search on foot, too, in case he's hiding or doubles back.  Let them be cautious, and quick to strike.  Remember Elf!"

"We will.  Good luck," said Elm, and he clasped his son-in-law's hands with both his own.  "Come back to us if you can," he added.

"If I can," Raven agreed.  He swung into one saddle, his sweaty clothes and his scale still on him, and gathered the reins of the other.  Pike handed him his sword, and his brother hung the shield, helmet, and arming cap on the second horse's saddle.

"Wait!" cried Gold, running up with arms full.  "Cloak.  Food.  Water."

Raven handed the packages to the young men to tie to his horses, leaned down, caught Gold up and kissed her fiercely and deeply.  Then he clapped his heels to the horse's ribs, and took off eastwards.

"Was it a long chase?" Ramiro asked quietly.

"It couldn't be a long chase, or he'd get away.  There were just too many places for a man to hide.  But too short a chase, and he'd been in one of the conquered villages, spreading the news of what happened to Thunder and War, before I could catch him."

"So what did you do?"

"I had to gamble that the nearest village that Thunder had told me about, when he was still trying to recruit me, was in fact the closest place that Fire could get help.  I rode straight there, saw from a distance that there wasn't any excitement stirring, and turned back, quartering across the trails from Elm's village to that one.  Presently Fire came along, stopped and ran off at sight of me, and then it was my two horses against his one, my tracking skills against his attempts to sneak around me, his need to sleep against my 24-hour wakefulness.  I was too tired and disgusted and sick of the whole matter to give him the lasting death I'd planned; in the end, I just walked up to him and stabbed him in the heart."

"Then I went back and waited ten or fifteen years until Elm got older and died, and Gold got older and died, and Aspen grew up into a strong young chief.  After that I went on a trip and never came back — south for real this time, and after another forty years, a spell of sleep in another secret place."

"And when I woke, my hair was back to its regular color, and my eye had grown back.  You can't imagine what a relief that was!"

"No, I don't suppose I can," said the interviewer.  "When did all this happen?"

"I've never been able to determine that," said the Eldest.  "Too much slow gradual change going on, with no big events to fix dates; too little contact with the rest of the world; nothing really distinctive in the clothes, the pottery, or anything else.  I know it happened after the invaders that the Egyptians called 'The People of the Sea' destroyed the Hittites and the ancient countries of the Near East, and before the traditional founding of Rome; but a span of 2000 B.C. to 753 B.C. doesn't exactly pin it down."

"It must have been a shock the next time you went north again, and found people worshipping Thor and the rest."

"Yes; that was the clearest echo I'd yet caught of events I'd been part of, and it made me more determined than ever to stay out of the spotlight.  Thunder had become Thor, War was Tir, Fire or Trouble became Logi/Loki, Elf Baldur, Gold Sif."

He smiled.  "There were really two Lokis, you know.  In the older myths he's nothing but trouble, in the later ones he's more like one of the other gods.  I like to think that the first one's Fire, the second one Aspen.  But I'll never know."

He looked away.  "In the end, history rolled over them all.  The people living there, when I went back, were like the westerners some ways, the easterners some others; they seemed to remember conflict or merging between two peoples, and individuals from both sides.  Who won?  Who lost?  I couldn't even be sure it was the same village; a good site like that wouldn't stay abandoned for long."

Ramiro looked at his notes, away from the emotion on the other man's face.  "So Elm was Odin?"

"Well, no.  You see, in Norse mythology there are actually two sets of gods.  The Vanir came first, and their realm was called Vanaheim.  Then the Aesir came along, conquered the Vanir, and called the place Asgard.  Some of the 'Norse gods' were Vanir, and some were Aesir.  Odin was chief of the Aesir.  Elm was Frey, I think, if he was remembered at all: a Vanir, and the ruler of mankind."

"So who was Odin?"

"Oh come on!  Old One-Eye?  With his two wolves, Geri and Freki, and his two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, Thought and Memory?  Why do you think I was so shocked when I heard people worshipping him?"

"But Odin was Thor's father!"

"He was not only Thor's father, he was the All-Father.  Pretty ironic, when you consider I've always been sterile.  If I'd been able to have children, the earth would've been full of them, even in 1700 B.C. or whenever it was.  But this was folklore, not history."

"But here's the clincher," said the Oldest Man, leaning forward.  "Most pagan pantheons were headed by the god of the sky and the storm — Zeus is a good example.  But the Norse pantheon wasn't."

"No?" Ramiro frowned.  "Wasn't Odin the sky-god?"

"No, that's Thor.  Consider Odin: His familiars are ravens and wolves, his valkyries seize heroes when they die in battle, and he rides an eight-legged horse, Sleipnir."

"So he's a battle god, with familiars that pick over the bodies of the slain, and valkyries that harvest their souls?  But wait, wasn't Tir the god of war?  And I don't understand the eight-legged horse."

"It's a coffin," said the Eldest, "which is an old word for a box you put the dead people in, before you bury them.  A coffin is carried to the grave — the hole you put the body in — by a group of men, called pallbearers, the same number on each side.  An eight-legged horse is a coffin carried by four men, two on each side.  Four men, eight legs."

"That's fantastic!" said the interviewer.  "But… I see by the net that you're right, that is the accepted explanation for what Sleipnir represents.  I don't suppose they think that because you told them so?  No, I see it goes back long before space flight."

"Finally," the Oldest Man said, "Odin was one-eyed because he sacrificed an eye deliberately to gain wisdom, to learn the runes.  He hung for eight days and nights on Yggdrasil, the World Tree, to earn it."

"Which is a lot more mystical and ceremonial than fighting a god-bear," Ramiro said.

"But the sacrifice is the same," said the Oldest, touching his eye.  "And I certainly learned wisdom.  At least, after that I didn't fight any grizzlies with hand weapons!" he said, grinning.

"So why did they make you a grave-god?" the interviewer asked.  "Was it the 'back from the dead' thing, and surviving what would have killed anyone else, or the Raven name?"

"Or else they traced me back to the tomb I came out of before I met the 'Vanir', Elm's people.  Some combination of my rebirth, from a tomb or the bear fight, the conflict between Elm's folk and Thunder's folk, and my losing an eye, formed at least part of the foundation of the Norse god-stories."

"Amazing," said Ramiro.

"What is?" said the Eldest.

"If these events happened around 1700 B.C., as you suggested, you've given me a first-hand narrative of things that happened seven thousand years ago!"

"Oh, I have older stories than that," said the Oldest Man, standing up.  "But enough for now.  There's a mountain I haven't climbed," he flashed Ramiro the data, "that's calling my name.  So if you'll excuse me…"

"Sir!  May I come, too?"

The Eldest looked him over.  "Show me what mountains you've climbed, whom with, and with what equipment," he said.

Ramiro did.  The Oldest Man grunted.  "All right, but you have to take my orders and do it my way," he said.

"Yes, sir!"

"All right, let's go."

And they went.

Copyright © 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2007 by Green Sky Press.  All rights reserved.  The pictures used herein are ancient works of art in the public domain.