Chapter 16 – Dance of the Munin –

(Click here to read from the beginning)

Grisella’s fish were long dead by the time we reached the front of the castle, and my wife was shivering in shock. The lower half of her green dress remained soaked, and despite my warming arms around her, I kept hearing the rattling of teeth.

Ganglati stood solemn before the great doors, barring our way. No torches burned in welcome, and only the moon illuminated her wrinkled face. All was quiet around the castle, the dead resting in their mounds no doubt.

“I’ll be taking those fish, miladies,” she said with unusual gentleness. “They need to be prepared for the feast. May I ?”

Reluctantly, Grisella’s hands parted from her chest. Still clutching the hem of her skirt as a basket, she left an opening for Grisella to reach in.

“Thank you, Milady,” said the maid with a smile, “I’ll be taking good care of them.”

My wife nodded, and we watched Ganglati head for the kitchen entrance to the left.

Mordgud stepped around us to grasp the door handles. “Now that this is settled,” she said grimly, looking down, “we have a funeral feast to attend.”

I nodded, bracing myself for hours of wailing. Surely there would be professional mourners, veiled in black, pulling at their hair and crying out the loss of those three who were sacrificed. Hlin would love to see how they do it here, I thought. It was likely around three in the morning and I was less than enthused at the prospect of staying up all night for this.

When Mordgud pulled open the fresh pine door and its rotting wood companion however, the sounds of a great of a celebration poured out. She gave a crooked smile and winked as she waved us in.

The hall was brightly lit with torches and filled with people of every epoch – men and women drinking, feasting, dancing. I’d never seen the place so alive!

“What the Hel is going on?” I gaped. “Who are all these people?”

As we entered, many came to shake Grisella’s hand, pat her on the back, or embrace her. Eventually, my very damp lady retreated into my arms, and they left her alone. I caressed her hair, trying to soothe her.

“Do you know what this is?” I asked.

“Th-they,” she stuttered, “the fishes.”

“What fishes? I don’t see any fish on the tables.”

“N-No… they be the fishes,” she said, looking up into my eyes and then hiding her face again in my neck.

My eyes went wide. Were all of these people her munin, the remains of her past lives? There had to be hundreds of them!

Mordgud was further in, dancing without any restraint in a circle of a dozen women – if jumping up and down could be called dancing. Only a loincloth covered the dark brown skin, along with row upon row of jingling bead necklaces bouncing on their chests. Their hair was also full of beads, spread along many tiny braids. A few of them were beating complex rhythms with sticks.

I watched for a few minutes, cooing soothing words to my lover, before the Lady of the Bridge joined us again.

“Ah,” she said with a satisfied smile, “I haven’t danced a Mok’tah in ages.”

“Mok’tah?” I asked.

Very old dance,” she commented, brushing a damp strand of dark hair away from her face. “Easy to learn. Good exercise. Too bad there’s no drums, but those were invented later. Better without armor, but I’m still technically on duty.”

No drums? Mordgud’s dark eyes became pools of eternity in that moment between breaths, reflecting a tiny image of myself and my lover. How old is she? I wondered. I was over two millennia old, but suddenly felt like a toddler at the feet of her wrinkled grandmother, unable to comprehend the length of her life. I was barely an adult in Alfar terms, and we were long-lived, but this?

“Don’t go there,” she chuckled, patting my shoulder, “you’ll only break your brain. Just enjoy the celebration. Think about it later. And you,” she poked my wife, “get a handle on yourself! Are you a Hel-maid or a mouse?”

Grisella took a breath, squeezed me tight and then let go.

“I am… a Hel-maid,” she said, standing up straight.

“Good,” the giantess nodded, “then go play with yourself. You are their hugin, they’re all hoping for a moment of your time.”

Grisella nodded, squaring her jaw, and wandered to a table where men were arm-wrestling. Beside it was one covered with wooden bowls, each filled with a colorful paste. People were scooping it up with a sort of flatbread, so I assumed it was food rather than face paint. That was in the bowls one table over. I laughed along with the rest when someone ate it by mistake. What a face they made!

“Are they…” I asked, searching for words, “sentient? I’m… I’m only used to dealing with full souls in Valhalla, those of the recently dead.”

“More or less,” Mordgud answered, crossing her arms. “About as much as fishes, usually. But while Grisella is here, she is their hugin. That lets them think and reason, much as they did when alive.”

I ran a hand through my hair. “Are they named after Odin’s ravens?”

“Other way around, blondy-locks,” she grinned. “Hugin and Munin are named after this rite, the dance of the munin. Power of names and all that, I bet Odin was trying to tap into this ancient power of mind and memory.”

“How does this…” I started.

“Calling up the ancient dead like this, it’s like opening a book,” she explained while opening an imaginary book. “These folks here, they’re just memories, dormant, until some intelligence makes them come alive again. Then they go back to sleep on the bookshelf.” She mimed the closing of a book. “Oooh!” she pointed to kids sitting in a circle on the ground. “A game of knuckle bones. I love knucklebones!”

She wandered off to play with them, while I was approached by an elderly man in blue robes wishing to discuss philosophy. Curly gray hair, dark skinned, Amadi made many good points on the nature of friendship and love.

That conversation was interrupted a while later when I realized the dagger Oath-Breaker was no longer at my belt. Looking around as I cursed, I spied a red-haired young woman holding it up with a mischievous grin. Her hooded cloaked flapped behind as she led me on a merry chase around the hall. The game was on!

She hand vaulted over tables, hid behind a large man, pushed a lady into me as she giggled, and used every trick in the book to avoid capture as I ran after her. While I could run like the wind, I’d have to topple over everyone in my way to do so – like a mad game of cow-tipping. On one occasion where she hid, I turned my back to her, pretending to have lost sight of the thief. Well, she had to regain my attention of course, so she came closer. That’s when I jumped up for a back-flip, sailing over the people so as to land behind her, and then pushed her down.

Before she could scramble up, I got her hands pinned to the ground. Both of us were laughing when she turned serious and said: “I am Kala. None live to remember me now, my deeds or my name, nor was I found worthy on this night. Would you carry the memory of me after I return to the lake? Tell Grisella the tale of our chase so that she too can remember?”

“I will, I swear it.”

She looked in my wife’s direction. “Be good to her. She is me.”

I nodded, and let her go, oddly touched by the rogue’s words. She winked before turning away, planning more mischief no doubt. I looked to the many faces filling the hall. This is who I just married, I thought, all of them. I never realized how much soul these mortals have. What we see is truly the tip of an iceberg.

The double doors to the kitchen opened then, and everyone quieted as Ganglati brought out a dish: three cooked fish on a wooden trencher, which she placed in the middle of an empty trestle table next to the wall.

That silence was broken by a gaggle of ape-like humans wearing animal furs. Turning my head, I saw them assembled at the front near the throne. The men grunted a rhythm, while the women started throat singing. Their strangely beautiful song gave me shivers.

People made way for me as I strode to where Grisella took seat before the dish. I sat on the bench across from her, elbows on the table, wishing I’d partaken of the dishes on other tables as my stomach rumbled. I was glad to have passed on the worm-grub though. Yuck.

Mordgud stood at the end of the table to my left, Hela at the right, while Ganglati leaned on the stone wall behind Grisella.

“I think,” I said in teasing, “that you’re supposed to eat them, not just stare at them.”

“They were good people,” she said softly as she picked up a small knife, then pressed her lips.

“All the more reason not to waste them then. Go on, lover, this is apparently how it’s done here.”

She nodded, and carefully sliced the salmon’s flesh from its bones. Her eyes lit up with the first tentative bite. “It be really good!” she said, and soon was devouring the fish with gusto.

I swayed to the complex beat of the grunting while I watched, lightly tapping the table with a finger. Her five spirals were swelling, new tendrils growing within them, fat and bright. Partway through the trout they acquired the corona I see in lesser gods, and by the end of the catfish her head nimbus had expanded to three times its original size. Hela and her crew were all nodding slowly in approval as she put down the knife.

“Now what?” she looked up to all of us.

“How do you feel?” Mordgud asked, hands down on the table.

“I feel… amazing! Like I could knock down mountains.”

“Such things,” Hela commented dryly, while Ganglati removed everything from the table, “will not be necessary.”

Grisella turned her legs around and stood up on the bench, stretching as if after a nap, then smiled down to her public. Matching the head nimbus, I now noticed another glowing cloud around her feet.

I stood as well, moving around the table on the left to Mordgud’s side.

“What of the middle cauldron?” I asked the tall giantess.

“That comes next,” she winced, “and is far less fun. Let her enjoy this part while it lasts.”

Grisella bit her lower lip, eyes sparkling, then launched herself up with a jump.

“Woooo!” she yelled, arms up as she sailed through the air, moving far higher and slower than one would expect. The throng of people tried to move out of the way, but they were packed too close to make that possible.

They gasped as she lightly landed on a tall woman’s head, and jumped up again without as much as disturbing that lady’s brown curls. Greatly amused, I watched her hop around like that to the cheers of the crowd. Hela was shaking her head but Mordgud grinned.

She eventually bounded back onto the empty table, breathless and ecstatic.

“I can… I can see the glow around them,” she exclaimed, “and push off like it was solid! This is amazing, what else can I do?”

Hela’s crew remained silent, so my wife just pointed to the strongest looking man around.

“You! I’d like to arm-wrestle with you!”

The pale bald man nodded and pushed his way through to us. Twisting his mustache, he regarded his smaller opponent with a smirk. Then he clapped his hands and banged his elbow down on the table.

“The waif,” he intoned in a deep bass, “does not scare me. I shall show her why she should have chosen me.”

She only giggled and got into position, grabbing his hand.

“One,” she said, “two and three!”

He strained, but her arm did not move.

He huffed, his face turning red, veins bulging in his neck.

For her part, my lover dramatically mimed a yawn with her free hand. Then looking into his eyes, she slammed his fist onto the table.

“Perhaps,” the man said as he rubbed his banged-up hand, “you have chosen more wisely than I thought.” That was worth a few laughs from those around.

“Well played, sir,” she said as she went down to one knee on the table before him, “it not be a fair contest, and you did well.”

He nodded, and she embraced him.

Then she lifted him up entirely, before putting him down.

Still, the underworld staff remained silent.

“The strength,” she told me with a drunken grin, “it be incredible, not even an effort, I…” She got a puzzled expression, putting her hands to her stomach. “What… be…”

The crowd of munin started becoming transparent as light filtered in from the stained glass behind the throne. Finally, I could make out the scene it presented: a mother birthing her child. My eyes went wide. Holy Frigga! That’s exactly like…

My thought was interrupted by the sound of metal clattering, and my gaze drawn to the dagger that now lay on the floor.

Kala… I forgot to take Oath-Breaker back from her. I could still see the cloaked lady, barely, gazing down at the prize she could no longer carry. Looking up, she pulled back her hood and waved to me as I waved back, my eyes clouding with tears. I will miss you, you silly thief.

“Sunna rises,” Mordgud grimly announced, “I honor the munin for sharing all that they are and were with us. We will remember.”

“We will remember,” chorused the rest of us who remained.

Even Hela seemed chagrined, looking down at her clasped hands.

Within a few minutes they faded out entirely, with Grisellla’s face showing more and more pain. Ganglati had just returned, in time to help Morgud lay my lover down onto the table.

“What be… happening?” she moaned out.

“Hold her head,” Hela ordered me, “so she does not hurt herself.”

I moved to do just that – first shedding my gambeson as fast as I could. Ganglati pressed her left shoulder down, Mordgud the right, while Hela herself held onto the feet.

I winced as she started screaming, thrashing, eyes rolling back into her head. The hall was suddenly back to its empty, dusty self, just as I’d seen it when I first arrived to Helheim. All traces of the celebration were gone.

“Is this normal?” I shouted over my bride’s echoing wail.

“It is,” Mordgud confirmed, “And it will get worse before it gets better.”

My heart ached with worry nonetheless, and watched in horror as her spirals went to war with each other. Blue-green tendrils on my end battled with reddish-orange ones further down, threatening to split her in two.

Even with all the strength of my half-giant heritage, I could barely hold her in place. Hlin is luckier on that front, I reflected, our Sky Etin clan is better known for their howling than their heavy lifting.

“What’s going on?” I yelled.

The sword clash of tendrils above her was replaced by vicious spearing, this time inside the body. Where they struck, little clouds of crimson and sickly green erupted within.

“Guilt, shame,” Hela rasped, her soft voice somehow cutting through the clamor, “defeat and despair. All those unresolved rips in spirits are being forced out. Three full lives of them.”

Now I understood why she’d only been allowed to absorb three of her munin, and desperately hoped she could handle that much. I knew the pain of childbirth personally now, and hers was tripled, on top of the shock of being reborn.

“It’s too much!” I protested, “She can’t possibly handle this much pain.”

“Too late,” Ganglati said as she leaned over to me, “must finish or break.”

“Frigga, do not let her break,” I prayed, “please give her strength. I know I’m not worthy of asking, but she needs your help. All-Mother, have mercy on her soul!”

Tears streamed down my cheeks as Grisella convulsed, foaming at the mouth. I held onto her head with all my might, her soft golden hair matted with sweat. Please, I thought at her, please survive Grisella. My bride, my lover, my friend, I need you to survive. If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for me. You are strong, you can do it.”

Her face was almost scalding my fingers with a fever like none I’d ever seen. Her clothing had dried, but now was drenched again.

Finally, she stopped convulsing, though I wasn’t sure if baking and being motionless was any improvement. Her breathing was slow and deep. Was that a good thing? A bad thing? The tendrils from her spirals drooped down like elecampane flowers during a drought.

I caressed her forehead with one hand, wishing I knew.

“She’s burning up,” I said. Holding her was getting painful.

Finally, her middle cauldron erupted, a third nimbus blooming around her chest. Everyone around me smiled, even Hela, and let their hands drop.

I sat on the table beside her head, continuing to caress it softly as her fever broke.

She opened her eyes.

“Welcome back,” I said sweetly, “you gave us quite a scare.”

Her eyes darted around, but there was no recognition in them.

“Grisella,” I said as my brows creased, “Are you well?”

“Grisella?” she asked.

I whipped around to face Hela and demanded: “What is wrong with her?”

The Queen merely cocked her head as she inspected my wife.

“Answer me, dammit! I went along with this whole affair on trust, but now I demand answers.” Still, the Queen ignored me, my rage beneath her notice.

I felt darkness seeping out of my pores, skin growing tight against the bones of my face as my fury unleashed the full might of a Hel-maid. I stood, gloom amassing around me, and raised my hand to grab her by the collar. I wanted to shake that heartless bitch around like a dog does a chicken, almost as much as I wanted answers. I was certain my eyes had become red hot embers, flaming in the darkness of my eye sockets.

With each step I grew more fearsome, angry, determined.

Just as I was about to reach her, Hela flicked her hand at me without even looking up. It was like blowing out a candle flame, that simple gesture blew away my dark mist and death aspect. Within moments, I was back to my normal self.

She took the time to turn Grisella’s face one way, then the other, before looking up at me. Her voice shook my very bones as she spoke, resonating across the great hall in whispers of doom:

“Remember where your power comes from, child. You try my patience.”

I shrank back, right into Ganglati, who put her hands on my bare arms. I regretted rolling up my sleeves as worms crawled inside my body, burst out my eyeballs, pierced my skin, and I collapsed to my knees.

“Ap… apologies, my Queen,” I murmured, head down. Inspecting my arms and hands, I found there were no worms – the sensation had gone as soon as I slipped out of the maid’s grasp.

“See that it does not happen again,” Death admonished, her voice returning to its usual level of dread, “I have little time for your childish tantrums.”

Grisella, I prayed as I looked up, please be well.


 

 

Please throw a comment or theological discussion into the bard’s hat here. Comments are always a joy and encourage more writing. 🙂

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Comments
  1. Ly says:

    The description of rebirth as a goddess is pretty fascinating! The spirals, I’m guessing, are what we’d refer to as chakras.

    Poor Grisella, I hope that she remembers Gna soon!

    I was a bit amused at Gna trying to threaten Hela. Did she really think she could win that fight? Lol.

    Liked by 1 person

    • lofnbard says:

      Indeed, they are what alfar call chakras. They just count them differently, because seven isn’t a sacred number. There are five spirals in the body, extending at the front and back. The crown chakra at the top is the trunk, the root chakra at the bottom is called the root. Alternately they are called the Tree of Lights and Root of Yggdrasil.

      The chakras of the hands are generally not counted among the main ones in India, because they are in fact half-chakras. If you put the backs of your hands together, that makes the full hand chakra, extending on both sides like the other spirals. The same applies to the feet. The five spirals, hands, feet, root and trunk bring it to a total of nine which *is* a sacred number. The five spirals are associated with fingers of the hands in their magic, and also their five vocal chords (a detail mentioned earlier).

      If you’re using a color progression for them, the one at the feet is a very dark red, brown to black. The hands have no color, being the most versatile, but rainbow represent those. The far upper chakras, silver and gold, are called the moon and sun. The very top one is the deepest black void of potential, the connection to Ginnungagap. So including the ones outside the body, the total is twelve.

      Like

  2. Amber Drake says:

    Oh, wow, this was intense! And what a cliff-hanger!

    Liked by 1 person

    • lofnbard says:

      Gna has lived her life on the road with little in the way of personal attachments until she had a son. Now that she’s getting attached, she risks loss like the rest of us. Getting to meet someone’s past lives is about as intimate as you can get!

      I’m glad you liked this chapter. I had a hard time representing the transformation in a way that was understandable to us, with a witness to experience it, and make it exciting. I asked for some concrete way to show this. All I got was “she eats fish,” and later “the fish are her past selves.” Yeah, I’m really pleased with how this one turned out, and I do love those cliff-hangers. 🙂

      Like

  3. sonyjalerulv says:

    The thief… Every time I read it, I smile at her antics then my throat clench when she ask to be remembered and I get teary eyed when she fade away. Very strong moment.
    The rebirth process is very well done. It was fun to see her briefly enjoy her new found powers, jumping everywhere like a crazed kangaroo. 🙂 And then the less fun part…. Very good cliff hanger. You have a hang for this. 😉

    Like

  4. lofnbard says:

    Yeah, I like the thief a lot too. She’s the most spirited of her past incarnations. I actually came back during editing and gave her that extra sentence about being remembered, along with the dagger later clattering to the floor. That moment just guts me, her fading and being unable to hold onto it. Then Hela’s ominous announcement, “Sunna rises.” It makes me feel for the shades, a sadness that is found in the better vampire novels at the ending of night and all it holds. Sunrise can be sad.

    In my recent trip, I was reminded of the Roman word used when honoring the spirits of the dead as a whole: The Manes. It’s never quite clear whether they’re underworld deities or the souls of deceased loved ones. The word sounds a lot like “the Munin.” That’s interesting, and perhaps they too were honoring the shades of past lives.

    Augustine says: “Apuleius says, indeed, that the souls of men are demons, and that men become Lares if they are good, Lemures or Larvae if they are bad, and Manes if it is uncertain whether they deserve well or ill.”

    As for the fun super power times followed by ultra-sucky soul-wrenching. Well, TANSTAAFL. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. To get the cool powers, she has to resolve all the pain and wounds of those lives. All at once. You can’t just get the good parts, life doesn’t work that way.

    Like

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