For Mother’s Day, I thought I’d share the longest “short story” I’ve ever written (I think it may qualify as a novella), the tale of how Odin became King as told from the viewpoint of His mother, Bestla. While I was writing this, I began to affectionately think of it as “the Asa Saga.”
(© 2007 from Water from the Well and Other Wyrd Tales of Odin)
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you need to know is that I was trained as a priestess from birth, raised in the service of the First—Aurgelmir, our god-king, whom you know better as Ymir. I was born into one of the priestly families he established from the beginning, and those families grew in strength and power as his own strength waned.
Now, I am old enough to remember Aurgelmir—not in his prime, but as the proud, aging king who still cared for his people, still took an active part in our lives. I remember being perched on his knee—and an enormous knee it was by that time—when I was still but a babe. I remember that huge hand reaching down to ruffle my silvery-blonde hair when I had hardly begun to walk. Aurgelmir loved and doted on the children, especially those of us who were born into his special service. That much I do remember—and even that was uncountable ages ago. Yet the days of his glory when first he set up the kingdom of Nifleheim, hand-selected his chief servants from among his eldest children, established the great families and helped them erect their fortresses—of those days, I know only what I have been taught. And much of it was learned at the feet of my high priestess, eldest and foremost of all Aurgelmir’s servants, who some say was also the first of his many children— Urda.
It was Urda who trained me, from the day I was old enough to be taken from my own mother, who I barely even saw afterwards. Urda was mother and grandmother to me, yet most of all she was my beloved teacher. It was her hand that schooled me in all the priestly arts—in spinning and herb craft, the making of charms and medicines and, yes, poisons, in scrying and taking omens, and the subtle weaving of Wyrd. Most of all, from her I learned the arts of sacrifice, which took on an increasing importance as Aurgelmir grew steadily weaker. It was she who taught me to listen for our aging king’s commands, picking up on even the unspoken and barely formed thoughts in his mind after he could no longer speak his own wishes, and finally divining his will by casting lots when even the most ephemeral thoughts could no longer be heard. It was she who taught me to choose the sacrifices that were brought to him once a month at the time of the full moon, after he was long past the ability to choose them for himself.
For this was the reason I had no memory of the vigorous, strong king Aurgelmir had been in his mighty youth: unlike all of his progeny, as our unfortunate king aged he had grown progressively more enfeebled, until finally he could neither move nor speak. And more than that, while the rest of us stopped growing after reaching maturity, he had—inexplicably— continued to grow as he aged. He grew until he was larger than the mightiest of his many children, and then larger than the tallest tree, and then larger than the highest mountain. And then he grew larger still. By the time I reached adulthood, he had made a resting place for his gigantic body in the center of Ginnungagap—the vast wasteland from which all life had come—after leaving orders with Urda that sacrifices of cattle and sheep (and, when we could get it, honey) should be brought once a month to feed him, to keep his body alive for as long as his consciousness endured.
This was to be the last direct order he ever gave. Soon afterwards he lost the power of speech altogether, and Urda— with the help of her daughter Verdandi and granddaughter Skuld, who was my own age—took over the running of the affairs of state. Meanwhile, I was put in charge of the monthly sacrifices.
Month after month, year after year, I would dutifully scry, cast lots, and do whatever else was needed to divine the king’s will, to read the omens, to choose the offerings he could no longer choose for himself. I also arranged trade agreements with Muspelheim—the neighboring kingdom to the south beyond the wastelands of Ginnungagap, for at that time there were not yet nine worlds but only two. Muspelheim was a powerful and prosperous land whose ruler, Surt the Black, was rumored to be the oldest being in existence, older even than our own king whom we called the First. Yet unlike Aurgelmir, he had neither grown untenably large nor weaker as he aged; instead, he had only grown in wisdom, power, and wealth, and under his hand Muspelheim had prospered while our own land and people languished. I sent emissaries to Surt’s court, led by my own brother Mimir, who had been fostered there in childhood and was a friend of the Black Lord himself, and so it was arranged that we would trade furs and our hand-spun wool and flax for the honey that was Aurgelmir’s most prized delicacy. For Nifleheim was too cold for bees, and it was only there, in the south, that honey was plentiful enough that it could be sold, bartered away, and even fermented to produce a sublime drink that my brother had boasted of when he returned from his time there, and that it was said Aurgelmir had also greatly enjoyed in his youth.
At about the same time Aurgelmir lay his ever-expanding body down in Ginnungagap and issued the last orders that were ever to pass his lips, I met a young man who was to shape not only my own Wyrd but, indirectly, that of all the worlds. He had been born in our lands but was just returning with his brothers from having spent many years away in Muspelheim. He was the son of a frost giantess mother and a father of whose lineage no one was certain, except that it differed both from ours and that of the Muspeli. This father, who was known as Buri, had simply walked into our village one day, having traveled across the ice from someplace in the wilds of Ginnungagap—or at least, so I am told, as all of this happened before I was born. When asked where he had come from, all he could say was that he had come out of the ice; and so his origins remained a mystery. He had then married into one of the old priestly families and proceeded to have a number of children—several sons and a daughter or two. Their entire clan was tall, golden-haired and handsome—in contrast to both the thin, cold pallor of our own people and the swarthy, stocky folk of Muspelheim—and they called themselves the Aesir. The children were fostered at Surt’s court, as was the custom among our aristocratic families, for in Muspelheim promising young folk could be exposed to arts, culture and refinements that even the most prosperous among us could ill afford.
They had been away for so long that I barely remembered having known this boy, Borr, and his siblings in my childhood; so imagine my surprise when I literally bumped into him one day when I was at the marketplace bartering some of my spun flax for grain to feed our sheep. I had just turned away from the grain merchant’s hut, a bag of feed clutched in my arms, when I collided with someone who was hurrying in the opposite direction. I was knocked off balance, the bag slipped out of my grasp, and grain went flying in all directions. With murmured apologies, a golden head bent towards the ground, and large yet graceful hands set about deftly collecting the grain and restoring it to its bag. Then at last he stood up, and I saw the gleaming golden hair, the dazzling blue eyes, and the devastating, heart- stealing grin that he would pass on to our sons. He had grown taller and more handsome even than his father. We were married barely a month later, and within the year I was pregnant.