The Healing of Dísa: A Wednesday Snippet

Here’s an extract from Twilight of the Gods for your Wednesday reading pleasure . . .

Let me set the stage.  Dísa is a young Geat, one of the Daughters of the Raven, that slender minority who act as priestesses to their village’s immortal protector, the so-called Hooded One (Grimnir, for those keeping score).  She is fifteen, head-strong, and wishes more than anything to be a shield-maiden like her mother.  She was not happy to be chosen to serve the Hooded One — which she sees as tantamount to a life of slavery followed by a cold, unmarked grave — but rather than kill her or send her away, Grimnir has decided to make a weapon out of her.  Sadly, she is no kaunr, and hard blows his folk would have shrugged off prove deadly to the young Geat.

Halla is a troll-woman who sought shelter beneath Grimnir’s roof centuries ago.  She’s become a combination witch, counselor, cook, and surrogate mother . . .

 

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Beneath the foundations of the longhouse, down twenty-seven steps of damp stone carved from its earthen mound, lay a cellar. No storeroom, this; nor was it some ragged and lightless hole where a lifetime’s worth of detritus was left to molder, out of sight and out of mind. No, its measurements were precise: eighteen slabs of rune-carved stone, each a foot wide, lined the length of its walls; nine more lined its width at either end. Beams of fire-hardened ash formed a vaulted ceiling, with heavy posts carved from the same wood at each corner. A single stone slab rested flat in the dirt floor of the cellar. All of this was Gífr’s handiwork – Gífr, who was the eldest son of Kjallandi and brother of Skríkja, Grimnir’s mother; Gífr, who had been wise in the ways of seiðr and galdr.

Here was where Grimnir brought Dísa. He placed the girl on the stone slab. Her body trembled, wracked by convulsions, and the whites of her eyes showed through half-open lids. “Faugh!” he muttered. “I did not hit her that hard, I tell you.”

“You fool,” Halla snarled. Her tone brooked no argument. “Go. I will do what I can, and pray it will be enough. Go, I said!” The troll-woman sucked her teeth; she dismissed Grimnir with a terse wave as she hurried about, collecting the things she might need. She heard the cellar door snick shut, then went to Dísa’s side and sat with her knees folded under her. The blow to the girl’s temple had cracked her skull; healing such an injury was beyond Halla’s art. She would linger in this state and be dead by nightfall, unless . . .

Unless . . .

Around them, a constellation of deeply-cut runes, silver-wrought and glowing, provided an unearthly light. By this faint radiance, the troll-woman sang in a lilting voice:

“Out of Ymir’s flesh | was fashioned the earth,
And the mountains | made of his bones.”

And as she sang, she used a stone pestle to crush together ingredients in a skull-sized mortar. Hemp seed and amber, first . . .

“The sky from the frost-cold | giant’s skull,
And the ocean | from his blood.”

Then, waxy green verdigris scraped from a bronze ingot . . .

“I remember yet | these giants of yore,
Who gave me life | in the days gone by.”

And filings of iron from fiery black rocks the Gods themselves hurled down from the heavens . . .

Nine worlds I know, | the nine in the tree
With mighty roots | beneath the mold.”

Finally, Halla poured a measure of raw, uncut wine from an ancient pottery jar, brought over land and sea from the vineyards of the Greeks, and stirred the concoction together with a wand of rune-carved ash.

“Hear me, spirit of this land, vættr of root and bole,” she said, raising the mortar over a patch of bare earth. “I seek your help. Come forth. Partake of the Wine of Gunnlöð and let us speak together.” Halla decanted half of the potion into the earth and waited.

At first, nothing happened. The mixture of wine and arcane sediments dampened the soil; it pooled in divots and ran from furrow to furrow until slowly the earth drank it in.

Halla watched. Her brows met in an impatient scowl. She poured out just a bit more . . .

There! A pale, wriggling thing broke through the mantle of soil – like a worm, only fibrous. It sought out the dampness, questing through the loam until it reached the wine-soaked earth. Another followed. Then another. Halla knew them for what they were: tree roots.

“Yes,” the troll-witch said. “Come forth, great vættr. Come and drink.”

Suddenly, the ground around the stone slab writhed. Hundreds of roots – ash and oak, willow and rowan – boiled up from the earth. They knit themselves together, twisting and creaking, cracking and rubbing, until an eerie shape took form . . . an homunculus, a manikin wrought in parody of the human form and suspended fetus-like in a bier of tangled roots. Halla recognized the suggestion of a spine, the braided rootlets that hinted at ribs, the knotted skull-like protuberance atop narrow shoulders. The cellar smelled of damp earth and rich sap as the vættr opened its hollow eyes.

When it spoke, its voice was the rustle of leaves:

“Why do you vex us | daughter of Járnviðja?
The land is cursed | that lies hard by;
And we shall ever | in deep Miðgarðr dwell,
Till the Dragon answers his master’s call.”

“I seek your help, great vættr,” Halla replied. She put the mortar down in the soil at the edge of the slab. “And the Wine of Gunnlöð is my gift to you. Will you hear me?”

Tendrils of root crawled up the sides of the mortar and into the slurry of wine and sediment. The homunculus creaked and swayed in its bier.

“Speak.”

“Through root and bole, stock and stone, you feel the shifting of the earth. You taste the wind on leaves beyond number and feel the rain on countless limbs. You know the time of the Dragon nears. This child of Man who lies here—” Halla placed Dísa’s limp hand on the earth, where tendrils of root caressed it “—is a Daughter of the Raven. The prophecy speaks of her. She is the Day who gives way to Night. But she is wounded, great vættr, wounded unto death. The healing of this hurt is beyond me. Can you save her?”

There was a long silence, punctuated by creaks and sighs, by the rustle of unseen branches. The homunculus rocked as though buffeted by a phantom wind. When it finally spoke, its rustling voice bore the crackle of autumn and impending frost.

“No mortal-made hurt | is beyond our ken,
Troll-born daughter of Myrkviðr;
But this baleful wound | was wrought by another
Who soon must be brought to accounts.

“From beyond the fences | of this Miðgarðr
One comes to collect his due;
The gray wanderer, | enchanter of old,
Who bears the skrælingr’s doom.

“Long have you dwelled | in this Wolf’s shadow
Without drawing Allfather’s ire;
But, alas, if | this deed is done
He will twine your dooms together.”

Halla frowned at the vættr’s warning. Why this deed? Why would saving the life of this girl provoke the Allfather’s ire? Was there something in the warp and weft of Fate she could not see? Something the Norns had woven into the fabric of the girl’s life that called for her death now? But, no. Everything was foretold; every life was apportioned by those weird sisters who dwelled at the base of Yggðrasil, every triumph and every doom woven from birth. Not even the Allfather was beyond their ken.

Halla felt the weight of her years. She had seen the ages of the Gods, the ages of heroes and of myth, but those times were all but gone. An ancient sorcery kept this small corner of the world rooted in the Elder Days – a sorcery built on the sacrifice of Raðbolg Kjallandi’s son and strengthened by his elder brother, Gífr. But even this enchantment would not hold the Nailed God at bay forever. These were the days of prophecy, Fimbulvetr, the deep cold before the world-consuming fires of Ragnarök.

She would not – could not – abandon the prophecy now.

“Help her, if you can,” Halla said. “She is the Day who gives way to Night, the Allfather’s ire be damned.”

The homunculus shook, branches rattling.

In answer, hundreds of roots and tendrils crawled up Dísa’s arm. Serpentine, they wriggled over the edge of the stone slab to wrap themselves around her torso, her legs. The homunculus floated over her then slowly came apart as the roots that created it descended and wrapped themselves around Dísa’s broken skull. An eerie green light suffused the cellar; an odd smell rose from the root-bundled form – a smell of honeysuckle and fresh-turned earth, wet grass and hyacinth. A tremor ran deep beneath the earth, a faint temblor that touched even the deep-delving roots of Yggðrasil . . .

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