The fires of Valhalla guttered in the strong breeze. The night was almost over and the warriors had succumbed to slumber, leaving just their host awake and watchful over the gathered throng. And at first glance it appeared that Odin, too, was sleeping the sweet sleep of the justly tired with his great hat pulled low over his face.
But he wasn’t asleep. He was simply watching and listening and waiting.
A flutter of wings and a shrill cry drew Odin’s attention from the snoring revellers. It told him that this part of his wait had drawn to a close: Huginn had returned. A moment later and he could pick out the black form of his raven winging its way across the hall.
“What news?” Odin asked even as the raven settled itself on the ornate backboard of Odin’s chair.
The raven cawed, the noise a harsh shriek in the otherwise silent hall. Understanding flowed into Odin’s mind.
“He is found then.” Another caw. “And caught.” Odin bowed his head and closed his solitary eye against the sharp prick of tears for what would come on the morrow. “He will know justice. This I swear.” But the words were hard to speak around the lump that had filled his throat.
Was it sorrow for a lost son or sorrow for a lost brother? Odin was unsure. Both losses were equally tragic. Both losses were things that he felt he should have prevented. But how could he have thwarted fate?
He had known what was to come, but he had been bound. Compelled, by the Seer who had imparted that poisonous knowledge, to speak of it to none but those who already knew Fate’s wishes. That had meant he could talk to neither son nor brother. That had meant there was just one person he could confide in, and she had provided cold comfort.
At the sound of a soft step, Odin’s head snapped up. His eye now open, he cast around the room, seeking the intruder. As if conjured by the simple act of thinking of her, there she stood. The one person who had shared his burden in fact if not in spirit: his wife, Frigg.
The dimming firelight played over her and cast her in both shadow and light as she moved gracefully between the slumped warriors. She finally came to a halt just beneath his throne and looked up.
“He is caught?” she asked.
Odin inclined his head in a deliberate nod. “He is.”
“Good.” And in that one word lay a lake of venom.
So much so that Odin recoiled.”Surely you knew this day would come.”
“And knowing that is such a comfort for a grieving mother?” Frigg tossed the barb back like a well-aimed spear. “I will not know peace until I know satisfaction. I cannot know that until our son’s true murderer has been brought to justice.”
“Even knowing that by bringing him to justice I am dooming us all?”
“What are our lives in the face of such treachery?” Again the words were flung angrily. “If you do not punish him, he will simply grow more bold. He will find some other way of dooming us. He or one of his unnatural spawn.”
The truth of that statement was hard to refute and yet Odin felt he had to try, for the sake of the brotherhood he had sworn. “He is my brother. That vow is unbreakable. I cannot do this.”
“It is only unbreakable while both parties uphold it,” Frigg replied, her words low and cold. “He broke that pact when he allowed his jealousy free reign. You know that as well as I and yet—” She snorted, bitter laughter coming to her lips. “And yet you cling to it in the hopes of his redemption. Husband, you are a fool.”
“Woman, have a care what you say to me in this place.” Odin’s temper roused. “Yes, I cling to that vow. Yes, I hope for his redemption. What brother would do otherwise?”
“And what father would permit his son’s murderer to walk free?”
And just like so, Odin felt all the heat and the fire and the fury flow out of his body, leaving him slumped over and hollow. That was the crux of the matter. As much as the bond of brotherhood could not be broken, his son had deserved a far better fate.
“You will bring him to justice.” Frigg’s words were hard and certain.
“Yes,” Odin whispered. “I will.”
As they had been talking, the last of the Valhalla fires had gone out and the sun had slowly risen over Asgard. A new day had begun, but no gentle sounds of daily life drifted in on the breeze. Instead, it was a clamour that filled the air. A clamour that grew louder with each passing moment.
“This is their return,” Frigg said. “Do as must be done.” And she turned and she swept regally from Valhalla.
Odin watched her leave and took a moment more to wallow in his guilt and disgust. Then he drew himself up and cloaked himself in a hard shell of aloof dispassion. No matter his own feelings on this matter, he had to appear to everyone that he was prepared to do his duty.
As he strode towards the door, Odin heard the sounds of a woman’s sobs mingling with the shouts and cries. For a moment he wondered at the sound; then he nodded grimly. He knew who that was and before this day was out, he would have to deal faithfully with her and her children as well.
In the harsh sunlight, everyone had gathered, waiting and watching and crowding together in a tight knot to hem in the prisoner. At the centre were those who had captured the miscreant: Wise Kvasir, head bowed in sorrow. Watchful Heimdall, eyes blazing in anger. Proud Skadi, her hunter’s weapons ever ready. Mighty Thor, face set hard in fury. And then, at the heart of the group, was the prisoner himself.
At first glance, with Thor’s hand clamped on his neck to hold him in place, the prisoner looked cowed and remorseful but as Odin stepped forwards to complete the circle he knew the prisoner was simulating those emotions. The truth of that was borne out when the prisoner looked up, not with contrition but contempt written large across his scarred lips.
“Release me,” the prisoner hissed. “I am your blood brother and I claim right of sanctuary.”
“You committed murder here, on the sweet grass of Gladsheim,” Odin retorted. “You have forfeited your right to sanctuary and you will be punished accordingly.”
A crafty smile crossed the prisoner’s face. “But by your own vow, you may not kill me.”
Odin acknowledged that statement with a brief nod. “The punishment I intend shall fit the crime all the same. By your hand, Balder is trapped forever more in Hel’s domain. I cannot send you there, but I can see to it that you know the same unending torment. By your hand, Balder knows not of the passing seasons, so nor will you. By your hand, Balder may never more feel the warm golden sun on his face, and that too will be your fate.”
A little fear injected itself into the prisoner’s expression, though his response was sharp enough: “And how do you plan to carry out this punishment? I am the Trickster. You cannot hold me.”
A cold smile crossed Odin’s face even despite the situation. “I have the means to lock you in place until the end of all time. I can hold you, Sly one.”
“You haven’t the stomach for such a plan.”
“Haven’t I?” Odin glared balefully down at the prisoner. “You will soon see. Sigyn!” And he hailed the weeping woman who stood apart from the group but a part all the same. “Summon your sons to join us.”
“They are innocent!” she sobbed.
“They are monsters, spawned from a monster,” rumbled Thor, speaking for the first time. “Now fetch them and be done.”
Sigyn went, sobbing still and returned moments later with the two boys, Vali and Narfi. Both looked surly at the summons but a menacing glare from Heimdall was enough to see them hold their tongues on that account. Odin nodded once and then bore the whole party down into Midgard and into the darkest and most dank of all the caves in all of Nidavellir.
The prisoner’s face showed full fear in the dim light of the cavern. “You cannot do this,” he begged, panic hurrying his words.
Odin ignored the comments and waved Vali and Narfi forwards. Reluctantly, both took their places before him. “Born of a monster’s union and behaving as monsters clothed in human flesh, let us see your true form. Drop your human skin and stand revealed!”
Barely had the incantation finished than Vali’s form began to contort and ripple and change. A look of pure and complete terror passed across his face before it was lost in the haze of transformation. The same look was more permanently etched on his brother’s face as the transformation concluded and revealed Vali’s true, monstrous form.
“What have you done?” Sigyn gasped.
“What I must,” Odin responded, his heart heavy with despair.
The Vali-Monster gave an earth trembling roar and turned on his brother, ripping Narfi’s throat out in an instant. Heimdall and Skadi ran the monster off with shouts and up-raised swords, while Kvasir stepped forward to the fallen Narfi.
“Harvest his entrails,” Odin directed.
Sigyn began to sob once more, even as Kvasir did his work.
“I”m begging you; please don’t do this.” The prisoner’s voice had taken on a desperate quality now. “I”ll do anything – take any punishment – but not this.”
“It is too late; your punishment is at hand,” Odin replied.
With a wave of his hand, Odin gestured Thor to bring the prisoner into the centre of the cave where three boulders lay close together. Wordlessly, Thor hefted the prisoner into place and pinned him there while Kvasir wound Narfi’s steaming entrails around and around and around the prisoner’s body, binding him hard and fast and tight to the rocks.
“Leave me here and I shall make you regret it,” the prisoner warned, dropping the pretence of fear. “I will be the end of you all.”
“That is as maybe,” Odin answered as Kvasir and Thor stepped back from their handiwork. “But for now, you are bound. Encased in iron, you shall not move from this spot until the end of all time.”
The incantation spoken, the entrails hardened into iron and bonded to the very boulders the prisoner had been strapped to. It was done. Odin spared a glance for Frigg, who had watched every last moment, silent and sentinel. Only she knew the enormity of what had been set in motion, but as always, she showed no sign.
“It is done,” he called. “Let us leave here and speak of this no more.”
Others took up that cry and led the way out of the cavern and back to Asgard. Odin was the last to leave. He paused a moment and looked back. Sigyn had taken up vigil, supporting her husband despite his betrayals.
Odin nodded sadly. This was how the end began. “It is done,” he repeated softly, “and I have doomed us all.”