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Skylan Ivorson trudged through the deep snow up the mountain, keeping his head bowed against a biting wind, trying to find Torval’s longhouse—the Hall of Heroes, the hall where those warriors who had died a hero’s death came to spend the afterlife with the god and fight the battles of heaven. Skylan carried his sword in his hand to show the god he had died in battle, slain by his cousin, Raegar.
Aylaen had survived. Skylan had breathed his last in her arms and although leaving her had been harder than dying, he took comfort in knowing she would live and keep his memory alive.
Lost and wandering in the storm, Skylan was growing more and more angry. Freilis, the dark Goddess of the Tally, who searched the battlefield for heroes to bring to Torval, should have escorted him to the hall. He had been forced to find it on his own, and he was cold and tired and alone.
He came to a grove of tall pine trees, standing straight and tall as sentinels, and pushed his way through the snow-covered boughs. The scent of pine was sharp and crisp. The trees blocked the wind. Snowflakes fell lazily from the gray clouds. And there was the Hall, an immense longhouse with a vaulted roof, built by giants who had labored on it for many centuries. According to the songs, the giants had ripped up mountains to build the foundation and dragged enormous trees from the ground for the logs that formed the walls and the cedar shakes of the roof. A thousand shields of brave warriors decorated the outer walls.
Skylan recognized many of the shields and the warriors who had borne them from the old stories. These valiant warriors had died with their swords in their hands, fighting for the honor of their clans, fighting to defend their homes; all manner of heroic deaths. Skylan pictured his own shield hanging among them and he was both proud and humbled.
The door to the Hall was made of oak and banded by iron. It stood wide open, welcoming. He could see within the orange glow of a roaring fire and he longed for its warmth, to ease the chill of death. Riotous sounds of singing and music, jests and laughter filled the eternal night. Warriors were carousing, dancing with their womenfolk or fighting mock battles. He was no longer alone.
He looked for familiar faces and was pleased beyond measure to see Chloe, the daughter of Legate Acronis, watching the dancers, clapping her hands with joy. Skylan had promised the dying girl that he would dance with her in Torval’s Hall and he looked forward to taking her by the hands, leading her in the dance.
Moving nearer the door, wading through snowdrifts, he searched until he finally found Garn talking with a man who initially had his back to Skylan. When the man turned slightly, Skylan recognized Norgaard, his father. The two were deep in conversation, laughing, moving nearer to the door.
Skylan was shocked. He had no idea his father had died. Skylan had so much to tell his father. He had so much to make right.
“Father! It is me, Skylan!” he called.
Norgaard and Garn must not have heard him, for they walked past the open door and vanished amid the crowd in the hall.
As Skylan continued toward the Hall, he wondered irritably why Torval wasn’t here to greet him. Certainly the God of Battle must be expecting him. Skylan started to walk over the threshold.
The door slammed shut so suddenly that Skylan walked right into it, bumping his nose and banging his head.
Shocked, he drew back to look at the Hall. The light and warmth had vanished, leaving him in darkness that was cold and deep. He could still hear the noise and laughter inside and he was chilled and resentful.
Skylan reached up to the amulet he wore around his neck, the silver hammer, symbol of Torval, to touch it, thinking perhaps he had somehow offended the god.
The hammer was gone.
“If this is some sort of jest, it is not funny!” he cried angrily. “I am Skylan Ivorson and I have a right to enter!”
He could hear only the wind sighing among the pines.
Skylan pounded with his fist on the door and continued to shout, trying to make himself heard above the raucous noise inside. His voice sounded very small and his cries seemed to float off into eternity.
Skylan was now truly outraged. The god Torval should have been ready with a hero’s welcome, not treating him like a beggar pleading for a crust of bread.
Skylan beat on the door until his fist was bloody. Finally, someone must have heard him, for the door swung open. Torval stood within.
The god was wearing his armor made of the finest steel, his breastplate embossed with a dragon’s head—the symbol of the Great Dragon Ilyrion, whom he had slain to gain rulership over the world. His helm was trimmed with silver and gold, his boots were fur lined, and a fur cloak hung from his broad shoulders and brushed the floor.
His armor was splendid, yet Skylan observed that the helm was dented, the hem of his fur cloak was soaked in blood, and his breastplate was splattered with blood. Judging by his fresh wounds, some of the blood must have been his own.
“Fish Knife! What are you doing here?” Torval demanded.
Skylan felt his anger grow. The god had called him by the disparaging name of Fish Knife, an insult to a warrior who deserved to be thought of as Torval’s Sword, not a puny knife used for gutting trout.
“Let me inside!” Skylan demanded. “I belong in the Hall with my comrades!”
“When you are dead, come back. We will discuss it,” said Torval.
The god slammed the door in Skylan’s face.
Skylan stood staring at the closed door in shock at the god’s words.
When you are dead, come back …
“But I am dead, great Torval,” Skylan protested. “You can see the wound in my back, pierced by Raegar’s spear!”
He found himself talking only to the closed door.
Skylan was completely at a loss to know what to do. He was dead. He knew he was dead, yet Torval didn’t appear to think so. Wearily, Skylan eased himself down onto the snow-covered ground and sat with his back propped against the timber walls of the Hall of Heroes, his elbows on his bent knees, and tried to make sense of what was happening to him.
He didn’t want to be dead. He didn’t want to leave the world of the living. He longed with all his heart to go back to his beloved wife, Aylaen, and once more sail the seas in his swift dragonship, the Venejekar to continue his quest to find the five spiritbones of the Vektia.
Yet, all men must die sooner or later and Skylan had died a hero, which is the way men are meant to die. If he had to be dead, he at least deserved to be honored by Torval.
But Torval had said he wasn’t dead and wouldn’t let him inside.
Skylan gazed out dejectedly at the enormous fir trees that surrounded Torval’s Hall, shielding it from the view of his foes. The sky was gray and the wind was freshening, presaging more snow. He noticed now that the snow on the ground outside the hall was trampled and stained with blood.
Skylan decided he would make one more attempt to talk to Torval, to try to find out what was going on, when he heard the sound of footfalls crunching through the snow.
He jumped to his feet and gripped the hilt of his sword. He was in heaven, but heaven had become a dangerous place these days with the Vindrasi gods fending off attacks by their rival god, Aelon, and his demonic forces.
These footfalls didn’t sound like those of a warrior, however, for they were accompanied by a slurred voice singing a bawdy song. Then came a thud, followed by muttered swearing, as if whoever was approaching had fallen in the snow. The footfalls resumed, as did the singing, and the source of both lurched out into the open.
Though Skylan had never met the songster, he recognized him, for Aylaen had walked among the gods and she had described the God of the Revel.
“Joabis,” Skylan muttered.
The God of the Revel carried a wineskin slung over his shoulder and he would pause every so often to tilt it to his mouth and shoot a stream of purple liquid down his throat.
Aylaen had described the god as fat and jolly, his face ruddy and flushed with merriment. That must have been in the glory days when the gods of the Vindrasi ruled heaven and the world below. Joabis appeared vastly different now that the gods were fighting for their lives and one of them was dead and another gone mad.
His plump body had run to flab, his skin sallow and sagging. He wore festive clothes, but his soft lambskin tunic was torn and shabby and stained with wine. His fur cloak was soaking wet from where he had taken a tumble in the snow. He generally wore no armor, for he took care to be far away from the fighting, but he must have borrowed a helm. It was too big for him, however, and had slipped over one eye. He kept casting frightened glances over his shoulder, as though fearing some enemy would jump out of the shadows and stab him in the back. When Skylan called his name, Joabis leaped into the air in fright, slipped on the way down and landed in a sodden heap in the snow.
“Don’t kill me!” Joabis cried, raising his hand over his head. “I am no one important! Only a servant!”
Skylan eyed him in disgust.
“You are Joabis, God of the Revel, and you stand before the Hall of Heroes bleating like a stuck pig,” said Skylan angrily. “Be gone! You have no right to breathe the same air as those who have died valiantly in battle!”
“I have business with Torval,” said Joabis.
The god picked himself up, straightened his clothes with an air of inebriated dignity and, having managed to hang on to the wineskin, took a restorative gulp of wine. He staggered back a step, staring at Skylan with narrowed eyes, perhaps trying to bring him into focus.
“Fish Knife! Is that you?”
Skylan scowled. Maybe Torval had the right to call him that name, but not this drunken sot.
“What are you doing here among the hero dead, you cowardly cur?” Skylan demanded.
Joabis gave a sly grin. “One might ask you the same thing, Skylan Ivorson.”
“I am no coward!” Skylan returned heatedly.
“Nor are you dead,” Joabis said.
Skylan was growing frustrated. “So I am told, but if I am alive, what am I doing here?”
“I didn’t say you were alive,” Joabis replied. “I said you weren’t dead.” He jabbed his thumb in the direction of the hall. “Old Graybeard didn’t explain?”
“If you mean Torval, no,” said Skylan shortly.
He had no intention of discussing either his life or his death with this god.
Joabis tilted the wineskin to his lips, but nothing came out. Shaking his head, he tossed the empty wineskin on the ground.
“You should go talk to the Norn,” Joabis suggested. “If anyone will know, they will. I’ll come with you, if you like. I know the way.”
Skylan considered this. Every person had his own wyrd, as did every god. The Norn were the three sisters who lived beneath the World Tree, weaving together the wyrds of both men and gods to form the tapestry that is life, cutting the threads of those whose wyrds had come to an end. The suggestion was a good one; yet Skylan was on his guard. There had to be a reason why the drunken god had taken this sudden personal interest in him.
“I thank you for the offer,” said Skylan, “but I can find the way on my own.”
“Oh, I very much doubt that,” Joabis said, chuckling.
Skylan frowned at him. “I thought you had business with Torval?”
“That can wait,” said Joabis.
He latched on to Skylan’s arm, and before Skylan could divest himself of the god, who stank of wine, the forest and the Hall vanished in a swirl of blinding snow. The wind rushed about Skylan, roared in his ears. He could see nothing for the blinding snow, not even the god who had hold of him.
And then the snow stopped. The air cleared and grew extremely warm and humid, smelling like wheat fields after a summer rain. Skylan found himself standing at the foot of an immense oak tree. He had to tilt his head back until his neck ached to look up the gigantic trunk to the strong, leafy branches spreading far above him. He could see through the leaves the sun and the moon and the stars wheeling about the universe, and he felt very small and insignificant.
“Stop gaping like a peasant,” said Joabis, adding in a whisper. “Those are the Norn! Be careful not to offend them!”
He pointed to three old women seated comfortably on wooden stools at the base of the tree, laughing and talking as they worked. The three were small and shrunken with age, their white hair drawn back into neat, tight buns and their black, bright eyes barely visible through webs of wrinkles.
One held the distaff of life under her arm, spinning wyrds on a wheel until they formed a fine, shining thread. This sister would cut the thread, beginning life, and hand it to the second Norn, who wove the wyrds of gods and men into the vast tapestry. The third Norn wielded a pair of golden shears, snipping the wyrds, ending life. Some of the threads were long, spanning many years. Others were quite short—a life cut off almost before it had begun. The Norn worked busily, their movements quick and deft, paying no attention to their visitors. The sisters were far too interested in their own conversation, as they gossiped about all those lives that passed through their bony hands and cackled with glee when they cut one short.
Skylan shuddered and even Joabis appeared daunted, for he was sweating profusely, mopping his brow with the sleeve of his tunic. Skylan wanted nothing to do with these terrible old women, but he stood his ground.
“Talk to them,” said Skylan, turning to Joabis, only to find the god trying to slink behind the trunk of the World Tree.
Skylan seized Joabis and dragged him back.
“This was your idea,” Skylan reminded him. “You’re a god. Speak to them. Ask them what happened to me.”
Hearing his voice, the three Norn stopped their chatter and turned their bright eyes on them.
“Well, well, if it isn’t Joabis,” said one.
“He looks a bit sickly to me,” said another.
“That he does, Sister,” said the third.
Picking up the god’s wyrd in her hand, she waved her sharp golden shears perilously close to the fragile thread.
“No, no, no!” Joabis gabbled, clasping his hands and falling to his knees. “I beg you! Let me live!”
“I think he pissed himself,” said one.
The Norn laughed uproariously. The sister holding the shears thrust them into the pocket of her apron dress.
“What do you want, you old sot?” said the one with the distaff. “Make haste. We are busy.”
Joabis clambered to his feet.
“I’ve come about him,” said the god and jerked his thumb at Skylan.
“What about him?” asked one in disdainful tones.
“Who is he?” asked another.
“And why should we care?” asked the third.
As the three laughed again and started to go back to work, Skylan saw the sisters steal sly, amused glances at each other. He strode forward to confront them.
“My name is Skylan Ivorson and you know who I am. I died in battle this day, yet Torval and this god both claim I am not dead. I want to know what is going on.”
“Should we tell him?” asked one.
“Might prove entertaining,” said another.
The three sisters again stopped their work to turn to him.
“I was doing the spinning,” said the second, “when I saw my sister preparing to cut another thread. I asked her whose life she was ending.”
“‘The life of Skylan Ivorson,’ I answered,” said the third.
“‘Past time for that rascal,’ I said,” remarked the first.
“I held the sharp blades over the thread and began to cut,” the third resumed. “The wyrd was thick and stubborn and the shears were dull from much use. I hacked at the thread and cut apart strand after strand and finally there remained only a single thread. I tried to cut it, but my hand jerked and I dropped my shears to the ground.”
“We stopped spinning,” said the first.
“We stopped weaving,” said the second. “We stared in shock at the shears, lying on the roots of the World Tree, and wondered what to do.”
“What did you do?” Skylan asked.
“Nothing,” said all three together.
“Why not?” Skylan demanded.
The Norn pointed to a wyrd—a single strand finer than a spider’s silk.
“The thread of your wyrd is strong,” said the first. “You alone can break it.”
Skylan stared in shock. He had heard those very words before, the time when Sinarians had taken him and his people into slavery. He had been near despair, blaming himself, knowing that his arrogance and his lies and his failures had led his people to this sad fate. His friend, Garn, had come back from the dead to speak to him.
The thread of your wyrd is strong, Garn had said to him. You alone can break it.
“I don’t know what that means,” said Skylan.
“The gods have given you a gift, Skylan Ivorson,” said the second.
“Or a curse,” the third cackled.
Skylan looked from one to the other.
“Which is it?” he demanded. “A gift or a curse?”
The sisters nudged each other with their elbows, smirking.
“It is what you make of it,” they said in unison.
They turned their backs on him. One took up the distaff. The other sat down at her spinning. The third resumed her weaving and cutting. Skylan watched her gleaming shears snap, slicing a thread.
“Then, if I may choose, I choose to return to life,” Skylan said to the Norn.
The three old women frowned and shook their heads at him.
“We take life. We don’t give it. Be gone, Skylan Ivorson,” scolded one.
“And take that wine-soaked sot with you,” added the second.
The third pointed her bony finger at Joabis and menacingly waved her shears.
“We should go,” said Joabis, tugging at Skylan.
“I won’t go without a straight answer!” Skylan said in frustration. Digging in his heels, he easily shook loose of the god’s grip. “What do they mean, I may choose, and then they do not give me a choice?”
Joabis leaned near to whisper.
“Bah! Who knows? They’re crazy, these old hags! We should leave. I don’t like the way the one is waving around those scissors. I have an idea! Come with me to my island,” Joabis said in wheedling tones, once more taking hold of Skylan’s arm. “I have a wager for you.”
“I’m not interested in gambling, especially with you,” said Skylan, glowering.
“Here’s my wager,” said Joabis, pretending he hadn’t heard. “I’m passionately fond of a game of dragonbone and I hear you consider yourself a champion. If you win, I will return you to life. If I win, you must remain with me on my island.”
“If you can return me to life, then do so now,” said Skylan.
“Ah, but you must make it worth my time and trouble,” said Joabis. He heaved a deep sigh. “To tell the truth, I am bored. The other gods think only of their precious war. No one will drink with me or throw the dice. Come entertain me. Cheer me up. It’s only a game. What have you got to lose?”
Skylan considered. He did not trust this god, but, as Joabis said, what did he have to lose? Skylan did consider himself to be an excellent dragonbone player and this was not, after all, the first time he had played the game against a god.
He grimly recalled those dreadful matches aboard the ghost ship, forced to play dragonbone night after night with what he believed to be the draugr of his dead wife. He had later discovered the fearful ghost was in truth the Dragon Goddess, Vindrash, who had used the game to teach him about the five dragonbones and their importance in the battle against Aelon.
“I will take your wager,” said Skylan. “But we will not play the game on your island. We must go somewhere neutral—Torval’s Hall.”
“Torval is not neutral,” Joabis complained. “He despises me. And he will not let you inside.”
“You must convince him. That is my offer,” said Skylan. “Take it or leave it.”
“You drive a hard bargain,” Joabis grumbled.
He waved his hand and the World Tree and the three old women vanished. Skylan found himself standing once more in the trampled, bloodstained snow outside Torval’s Hall of Heroes.
Joabis knocked at the door and was admitted.
“Wait here,” he told Skylan.
The door shut.
Copyright © 2015 by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman