I thought I’d posted this back when I wrote it, but apparently I didn’t! This is a sequel to my story contained in Paragenesis, “The Rune-Throwing.”
Title: Death Gifts the Unimaginable
Word count: 6,044
Death Gifts the Unimaginable
Ottar cursed his friend under his breath. Hroth had gone off on another vision quest, deep in the woods near a fjord a couple of leagues away from Freygard. It wasn’t that Ottar was worried per se, but usually Hroth sent at least a whisper-light thought his way, a picture or glimpse of the places he was travelling in the far reaches of harish dreams and mysteries. He kicked against the sides of his horse as he called out repeatedly to Hroth via mindtouch. His cries went out into a vacuum, and that worried him more than anything else. He guided his horse, anxiety creeping insidiously in his blood as he began calling Hroth’s name aloud. After cantering through a particularly dense copse of trees, Ottar saw the edge of the water. He let out a sigh of relief. Hroth was there.
As he drew closer, Ottar’s dis-ease returned. Something was wrong. He hurried his horse along and then hastily dismounted. Hroth sat in his usual crossed leg position, but he was far from still.
“Hroth? What’s wrong?” he asked with rising panic.
Hroth’s fingers dug into the cold earth around him, muttering all the while. Ottar listened intently, but whatever Hroth articulated, it wasn’t a language that Ottar recognized. It was guttural and seemed ancient. But for all Ottar knew, it was total gibberish.
He gently ran his fingers through Hroth’s hair. His thick braids were dishevelled, and sacramental ink was smeared across his strong features. He’d drawn symbols on the back of his left arm, and his one hand was in a state of constant motion, scrabbling at his stump, then the pebbles on the ground, then in his hair. It was Hroth’s eyes that made Ottar gasp aloud and his hands tremble like aspens. Hroth’s warm, ageless eyes were glassy, though he seemed to be focusing on someone or something not far in front of him. There was nothing to be seen save the dark water of the fjord, ambitious fingers of ice stretching greedily from the shore.
“What do you see? Where in Thor’s skies are you? Talk to me!” he begged.
Hroth’s muttering went on. He turned to look at Ottar, whose smile approached his lips and then slunk away. Hroth did not appear to recognise him, instead he continued to speak in some language that seemed to Ottar like some ancestral human tongue.
“I’m getting you out of here,” Ottar murmured fervently.
Thankfully Hroth put up no resistance, but he was a strong, muscled har and it took some work for Ottar to get him in the saddle. He took the fastest way back to Freygard but didn’t ride at full speed for fear that Hroth would fall. His mind raced— what had happened to one of their most advanced spiritual leaders? Hroth was their Hienama! He’d survived the butchery of humans early in his harish life, but now he was acting as though he’d lost his mind. Ottar had only been har for a year or so now, but he’d never heard of any har going insane. As he bolted back to Freygard, Ottar realized that he might simply have been sheltered. Panic guided him to the house of Hroth’s oldest friend, Hansggedir.
“Who’s chasing you? Loki venom-eyed himself?” the older har asked.
“It’s Hroth. I found him in meditation, but it’s like he’s stuck in some trance and can’t or won’t return to us. He’s acting… crazy.”
Hansggedir looked amused for a moment, then got a good look at his friend, and swore. “We could purify this place, or better yet, go to the Hall of Voices. There are small rooms for rituals off of the main hall. I’ll alert Boðid that we’re coming.”
“He’s gone into deep meditations before, but now he’s chattering with something or somebody. Did some spirit grab him—?”
“Not to be rude, Ottar, because I care about you, but shut up,” Hansggedir barked. “I don’t know what to do, I only know where to go.”
They were halfway through their precarious ride, dodging around hara shopping from street vendors when Hansggedir yelled over his shoulder, “Thank you for finding him.”
“Of course! I just had a bad feeling about him. And you’re welcome.”
Ottar was ready to dismount from his horse as quickly as possible once they were at the Hall doors, but to his astonishment, he found the massive portals were open and Hansggedir rode straight through. Ottar followed, the clip clopping of their horse’s hooves reverberating loudly as though they were an army. An acolyte to the Surhienama rushed out, his wolf pelt trailing behind him.
“In here!” He motioned behind him, taking hold of the reins of Hansggedir’s and then Ottar’s horse. “Bring Hroth.”
The next few minutes were a blur as Ottar stumbled along behind Hansggedir’s burly form and the more willowy acolyte, straining to listen to Hroth’s murmurings, which had grown quieter since they’d entered the Hall of Voices. He’d been to several of the sacrificial rooms; it was here where he and a very few others had been incepted a little over a year ago. As Hroth was gingerly laid on a granite slab covered with a riot of deerskins, tears sprang unbidden to his eyes. Memories of the night of the rune-throwing, when this fearsome, one-handed and infinitely tender har had been chosen for him, assaulted Ottar like a flock of gulls. Where was Roc, Hroth’s familiar?
“Ottar, go to the sacred fire basin. I’ve placed a screen on it,” the Surhienama said. “The runes are on the plinth. Pray to the Aghama and select a runestone, then place it on the screen to warm it. Hansggedir, do the same. I’ll select the remaining three,” Boðid rasped tersely, lighting sage and gesturing intricate patterns over Hroth’s body. Hroth’s lips still moved and he continued to undulate his fingers, but he didn’t appear nearly as possessed as when Ottar had first found him. Rich, intoxicating incense began to fill the small chamber and Ottar felt his stomach clench.
“I think he’s still out in the spirit lanes,” the Surhienama said at last, his expression grim. “Hroth was journeying to places none of the rest of us has gone. He must have found company.”
“What the fuck do we do?” Ottar was beside himself, a storm of helplessness, fury and panic. “Can’t you speak to him in mindtouch, or somehow trace his spirit or something?”
“I’m going to set the runestones in his hands— well, in the one,” Boðid corrected himself. “One under each foot, and one on his chest. My hope is that they’ll draw him back from whatever or whoever doesn’t want to let him go. I’d also—”
“Call me crazy,” Hansggedir interrupted, earning a scathing look from the Surhienama, “but maybe we should engage in something more tactile. Aruna heals and joins souls.” He fixed his gaze on Ottar. “He was your first aruna partner after your althaia. If we can bring his body to flower, would you at least see if you can reach him, or see what he’s seeing?”
“Of course!” Ottar exclaimed, his fox pelt vest halfway to the floor before he’d uttered the words.
“Steady on. He’s not going anywhere.” Hansggedir patted Ottar reassuringly on the arm.
Boðid seemed to give his approval and stoked the fire, for which Ottar was grateful. The incense had gone to his head, now dancing with fanciful visions of black flames above an ice field. He padded over to Hroth, his fathomless eyes still fixed on a point in a nether world nohar else could see.
“I’ll need to cut a chunk of hair from each of you,” the Surhienama demanded.
“Don’t question him, just do it,” Hansggedir said in a tight voice.
Boðid took his knife and cut some of Ottar’s hair, then moved to Hroth’s unkempt plaits. Hroth was still clothed, but Hansggedir unlaced his leather leggings and Ottar was astonished to see that he was already somewhat aroused. He’d thought that, given his babbling, fitful state, Hroth would be soume, but apparently his body had other ideas. A hastily created braid of the hair from each of the four hara was laid on Hroth’s neck.
Impulsively, Ottar leaned over to the barely-moving lips, hoping that even the lightest sharing of breath might give him a glimpse into the realm where Hroth had been taking. The subsumption was instantaneous. Black heat; feral passion; an intoxicating, compelling and demanding mist traipsed from Hroth’s breath and into Ottar’s heart. He stumbled backward, swearing.
“Well?” Hansggedir yanked Ottar’s arm to steady him.
Ottar’s loins ached. His soume fires burned, an unquenchable flame whose only relief would be aruna with Hroth. Chills shuddered up his spine at his realization that he’d be joined with not just Hroth, but the malevolent spirit possessing him as well.
“Ottar,” the Surhienama said urgently. “What did you see?” His flaxen hair seemed to dance excitedly around his face.
“I can’t describe… Fire. Lust. Destruction. I…”
The pungent sage and herbs sang in his senses. Hroth no longer mumbled and his arms were raised in invitation, the one hand beckoning him to join him in sacred aruna. A ragged cry of need tore from Ottar’s throat as he leapt onto the fur-strewn slab, straddling his deranged mentor. He sank down onto his flowered ouana-lim, moaning Hroth’s name as the wide stalk filled him.
Hroth had spoken, and yet he sounded godlike. It was a loving demand, possessive and urgent. His eyes were clear now, focused solely on Ottar’s face.
“My Hroth, I’m here, I’m here.”
He rose and fell, his soume-lam grasping around the Hienama’s organ buried deep inside him. He fell forward, bracing himself aside Hroth’s head. They shared breath, drinking deeply of each other. Ottar was lost, a fire dancer, a spinning dervish. The spirit held them in vertiginous thrall: Ottar thrashed madly against Hroth, hearing as from a great distance the chanting of protective spells by both Hansggedir and Boðid.
An unintelligible name thundered in Ottar’s head, pulsing in Ottar’s sikras as Hroth drove repeatedly into him. All at once, Hroth’s passion changed. His one hand smoothed along Ottar’s sweaty back, his strong fingers undulating on the skin. He breathed into Ottar, a nurturing scent of warm currants, and Ottar inhaled deeply. Far within himself, through a hazy painful pleasure, he felt the sting of Hroth’s butterfly tongue. It struck impossibly deep into a realm Ottar hadn’t known existed until then. He jerked his lips away, looking into Hroth’s wild eyes. He was mumbling again. Ottar felt his own release, an earthquake that wrung him into exhaustion, moaning and gasping. The spirit still possessed Hroth, this seeming wraith of aruna, fierce and devouring.
“Let him go!” Ottar cried out, seeing Hroth’s gaze go again to that awful, distant reality.
Boðid’s chanting grew low and urgent. Hansggedir moved Hroth’s sweaty hair and kissed his forehead, speaking to him in such low tones that Ottar couldn’t hear the words. His body trembled, and for the first time he felt a soreness in his soume-lam. Gingerly he uncoupled them and draped himself across Hroth’s wide chest.
The intense energy that throbbed in the room eased, a thundercloud rolling away until all that remained was the earthy sage and piny incense the Surhienama had burned. Ottar released a heavy sigh.
“It’s gone,” he whispered against Hroth’s clammy skin. His body seemed too still.
“No. No, no, NO!”
Hansggedir tottered back. Primal rage roared from him as he shook his fists toward the smoky ceiling. In disbelief, Ottar slowly raised himself up and looked into Hroth’s glazed eyes, his immobile face. He heard a pitiful whimper, then realized it had come from his mouth. The Surhienama swayed before regaining his composure, though his pallor was sickly as he walked toward the sacred table.
“You fucking devil!”
Hansggedir’s rage filled the room as Ottar tried desperately to fathom the impossible.
“Why?” he said in a small voice, unable to tear his gaze away from Hroth’s visage, his expression placid and unmoving. “Why did the spirit take him? He can’t be— No har has actually died, has he?”
“Not that I’ve known,” Boðid said helplessly. “Why do we exist at all? I didn’t think we would have the same vengeful gods as our human ancestors.”
Hansggedir was ranting, beating the wall with his fists before abruptly turning around and slumping to his knees.
“My kinshar,” he moaned through a syrupy sob. “My kinshar, my blood-giver.”
Ottar was paralyzed with denial and terror. To the sounds of Hansggedir’s low, rough crying, Ottar slowly lay back down on Hroth’s body and closed his burning eyes.
* * * * *
It’s only appropriate, Ottar tried to rationalize to himself as he numbly watched Boðid incant the final prayers of farewell and then lowered his torch into the boat. Ottar couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge that in addition to the kindling and pitch-soaked rags, Hroth’s body burned, consumed by the hungry fire. The Viking boat drifted off away from the shore, flames licking up from the hull. A wind caught the square sail, snapping taut and changing the boat’s course. Hroth was heading out to sea, along the southern coast. Whether clustered on the beach or along the rocky hills, now everyhar in Freygard could see their former Hienama’s funeral boat, burning its way across the icy sea.
Ottar was plagued with dysphoria, sluggish as he stood listening to the murmurs of nearby hara. All of Freygard was in mourning, but Hroth’s final hours were still a hushed, disturbing mystery to most of the community. Hara were curious, and while Ottar tried not to fall apart, he heard the conjecture of how Hroth had died buzzing all around him.
“Solvi said that he was possessed,” an eager voice said behind him.
“By what?” his companion asked. “Or who?”
“Loki,” the first har replied, his tone grown cautious.
“You ridiculous har! He’s a legend, and a human one at that. Get rid of those gods and stories. We have our own.”
“No we don’t!”
“How do you explain our Hienama going crazy, then?”
Despite his heavy limbs, Ottar turned around and in a voice that could have warmed an iceberg, said, “He didn’t go crazy.”
Two pair of light eyes confronted him in confusion and curiosity.
“How do you know?”
“I was there.”
One of the hara looked at him down a haughty nose. “Who are you?”
“Ottar. Hroth was picked for me during my Rune-Throwing.”
The har’s expression morphed to one of sympathy. “Oh. I’m so sorry.”
Ottar shrugged, a futile movement. “Not half as sorry as I am.”
His gaze drifted across the sea of golden hair until it rested on Hansggedir, his own mane shorn just below his ears in a gesture of mourning. He must have felt Ottar’s eyes on him as he turned, looking intently into the crowd until he trained on Ottar. With a slow nod, Ottar knew it was time for them to go to Hroth’s humble house. Together they would go through his few belongings. He plodded along until he met Hansggedir at the base of the street, the uneven cobbles irritating Ottar in a way they never had before. He’d felt out of sorts and anxious in ways he couldn’t explain since that terrible day and the aruna they’d taken in the presence of the god or devil, whatever it had been.
“He incepted you?” Ottar said at last as they neared Hroth’s front door. His breath hung in the air before mingling with the vapour from Hansggedir’s heavy breathing.
“Yes. We were kinshar and roon friends, too.”
Ottar nodded. He and Hroth weren’t chesna, but he’d grown increasingly close to the mystical but grounded har since his althaia and first aruna. Once inside the house Hansggedir went straight for the Hienama’s liquor, a bottle of brenvin that an enterprising group of hara had been distilling for a few years.
“I’ll make a fire,” Ottar offered, his tone as hollow as he felt.
Once the kindling and logs were alight, he sank to the floor. Hansggedir sat down in the chair next to him and Ottar leaned against his legs, nursing the potent drink.
“I’ve always liked his house more than mine,” Ottar said plaintively.
“It’s full of good energy.”
“Maybe I could move…” Ottar paused as a flurry of motion in a nearby window caught his eye. “Roc! Oh! Let me—”
His drink sloshed as he staggered to his feet with the grace of a drunken mountain goat. He tripped over his feet in his rush to open the window and let in Hroth’s familiar. The raven flew down and paced in front of the hearth while Ottar shut the window and took his seat again.
“You know he’s…” Ottar cleared his throat. Tears welled in his eyes and trickled down his cheeks, a relief after three days of parched, awful emptiness. Roc looked at them with his beady black eyes. He didn’t caw; instead he tilted his head and snapped his beak.
“I wish you’d talk to me,” Hansggedir said in a gruff voice.
The raven preened a wing and then walked over to Ottar, clicking his beak. Only Hroth had possessed the ability to communicate with him. As Ottar cried in silence, he felt a prickling awareness that he knew Roc wanted him to stay in the house. He would protect him there, and any other har who might come into his life. Roc croaked and flapped his wings.
“I’m supposed to stay,” Ottar said to Hansggedir, sniffling.
The older har laid a wide hand on his shoulder, his thumb rubbing the knobs at the top of his spine. “I won’t mind having you for a neighbour.”
“So let’s not go through his things. They can all stay for now. I have the feeling that I’ll know if I need to perform a ritual around any of them.”
The raven cawed twice and flew back over to the windowsill.
“I’ll get it,” Hansggedir said, walking to the window and opening it so Roc could fly away. After turning back, he gave Ottar a melancholy smile, his warm brown eyes full of sorrow. “You’ve really changed since I first saw you,” he confided, easing back into his chair. Ottar handed him his drink and he took a long swallow before continuing, “I suppose I’m nothing like I was when I was first incepted, either, but you’re different.”
“I’m not blond.” Ottar barked a messy laugh before wiping at his eyes.
“Not that.” Hansggedir ran his fingers through his own short, shaggy layers. “I like being har, but I’m not one for all of the esoteric stuff. Hroth was, and you’ve been a sponge, soaking it all up.”
Ottar shook his head, feeling more lost and hopeless than ever. “I know I’ll survive, I’ll get along without him. But it was just so… sudden. And something’s changed,” he said, looking furtively at Hansggedir, who swirled the last of his brenvin in his glass.
“Care to be more specific?”
Ottar sighed. “I don’t know. I can’t explain it very well.”
“Normally I’d suggest that you settle into a long meditation, but, well…” His apologetic voice trailed off.
“I don’t think so. Maybe in a couple of months.”
Ottar took a healthy swig of liquor, appreciating the burn as it went down his throat. He leaned against Hansggedir’s legs, the warming deerskin soft against his cheek. He closed his eyes, releasing a long breath as the older har began idly to play with his hair.
“Do you think we’ll ever see Roc again?” Ottar asked.
“I doubt it. I never understood how it was that Hroth could talk with him, and I think now that he’s gone, maybe Roc was saying goodbye.”
Ottar nodded. Despite himself, he found he was remembering the last few blissful moments of aruna with Hroth and his groin throbbed at the vivid recall. He knew he wasn’t psychologically ready to be with anyhar else quite yet, but the memory of Hroth’s dead eyes had kept him awake as he’d lain in bed alone.
“Will you stay tonight?” he asked, rubbing his face against the buttery leather of Hansggedir’s trousers. “I don’t think Hroth would mind. Not for aruna,” he clarified, turning his head to look up into Hansggedir’s bloodshot eyes. “Just company.”
“Of course. Given what happened to your last aruna partner, I’ll pass for now on that front.”
Ottar flinched; he was assaulted by a wave of nausea and gagged.
“Sorry, Ottar.” Hansggedir looked wretched. “I come with a black sense of humour. It’s how I cope.”
“It’s all right.”
An uncomfortable silence drifted between them like ash. After a few moments Hansggedir dispelled it by offering to get them more to drink. Ottar agreed, stretching out on the bearskin rug and closing his gritty eyelids. Before Hansggedir returned, he’d fallen to sleep.
* * * * *
Ottar stared in disbelief at the bloody sac in Bergfune’s arms. His eyes burned from the sweat that trickled down from his temple and his voice was hoarse from yelling.
“What…” He licked his cracked lips. “What is it?”
Hansggedir took the misshapen egg form and wiped it off with a warm rag while Bergfune tended to the mess between Ottar’s legs. After cautious, gentle introspection, Hansggedir put the expelled sac on a pile of furs at Ottar’s side. He looked at Ottar, slowly shaking his head. He poured two glasses of brenvin, handing one to Ottar, who took it with trembling hands. Hansggedir waited until the healing har had completed his inspection of Ottar’s body and had him tucked into clean sheets before toasting him, clinking their glasses together.
“From everything I can tell,” Hansggedir said in a voice full of trepidation, “you’re a father. I think there’s a…” He downed his drink and went to pour another as Bergfune ran his long fingers over the leathery, shell-like pearl. “I think there’s a har child in there. That freakish aruna, when Hroth was, well—”
“You know that’s what it is,” Bergfune interrupted, his expression awestruck and humble as though looking into the face of the Aghama himself. “Ottar, somehow you and Hroth conceived a harling.”
Ottar was caught between a sob and wanting to vomit. “I’m male!” he insisted, wiping sweat off of his forehead. “Was! That’s impossible!”
His hands shook so much that he spilled part of his drink on himself, but then he gulped at it and coughed.
“You’re a hermaphrodite. We all are,” the healing har reminded him in a kindly voice. His tone fell on Ottar’s ears like the screeching of metal brakes.
“We incept humans,” Ottar insisted. “Given what we know about ourselves, we’re superior physically.”
“But in Freyhella there are almost no humans left,” Hansggedir pointed out. “We would die out in one generation if we didn’t find a way to procreate.”
“It’s fucking unnatural!” Ottar bleated, shoving his glass toward Hansggedir, who refilled it. “No matter what the circumstances of that terrible day. I don’t want to think about it.” He glowered at the sac, which was hardening into a large egg shape. “So I’ve birthed a freak. A harish baby. With Hroth, who died and was being controlled by a demon.”
He let out an anguished moan and then swallowed the brenvin, grateful that it was beginning to take the edge off of his pain and emotional distress.
“Why don’t you hold him?”
The healing har picked up the pearl-shaped sac and reverently placed it on Ottar’s chest. Instinctively Ottar cradled it, handing his glass to Bergfune. Hansggedir sat on the bed, eyeing the egg but not touching it.
“Him?” Ottar said weakly, feeling despite himself a connection to whatever was hiding within the protective shell. It had been growing — gestating? — for a couple of months inside of him, after all, even if it was absurd and impossible. Or, evidently, not impossible. “How long before it, well, he, hatches?”
“No har knows.” Hansggedir stood up and walked to the window as though to make sure no one was eavesdropping, then returned. “And if I were you, I’d keep this quiet. As soon as you’re healed, get back to your usual activities. I’ll spend time with it, too. I don’t want any har to get ideas and harm it.”
“Him!” Bergfune’s patience was pulled taut as a bowstring. “We all started out male. If we can somehow create more Wraeththu bypassing human inception, however you and Hroth did so, this new harling must be male.”
“We’re all hermaphrodites,” Ottar said bitterly, throwing back Bergfune’s earlier words. “This is a freak accident.”
The pearl was warm, the exterior now hardened. Even though the whole experience seemed like a vivid nightmare, Ottar couldn’t help but feel protectiveness for whatever was inside of it. His mind was spinning and he felt raw like a flayed fish, but whatever life had been growing in him had a part of Hroth as well, and therefore it was precious to him.
“I don’t want to be away when he appears,” Ottar stated.
Hansggedir scowled. “Suit yourself. But I still think you should get out each day. I can look after it when you do.”
“I’ve sent for Boðid,” the healing har declared, gathering up the stained, wet sheets. “I’ll take these to our laundry.”
“You could burn them,” Hansggedir suggested, only half-joking.
Bergfune gave him a withering look, hoisted the soiled bundle, and headed for the door. Once they were alone, Ottar asked for a mug of goat’s milk. Hansggedir seemed relieved at having a task to do. After giving Ottar the milk, he lay down on his side, tentatively running his hand along the sac.
“If, somehow, this is a harish child, I should just say this. I can’t fathom trying to raise him alone.”
Hansggedir gave him a pitying look. “Freygard has more hara than some smaller villages, but news travels fast. Especially after Hroth’s sudden death, hara will want to focus on something as novel as a har child. I think you ought to worry about it getting too much attention.”
Ottar smiled ruefully. “True enough. You knew Hroth better than I did, and for longer. Will you, well, be another parent for him? If that’s really what this is?” He leaned down at the alien object that had come out of his body and a shudder of excited fear twitched through him. “What are you?” he murmured before looking over at Hansggedir.
The older har let out a long sigh. “Yes, I’ll help,” he said at last. “I know it’s what Hroth would have wanted.”
Ottar felt some of the tension in his body relax, and he held the pearl closer to him.
“I’d like to share my memories of Hroth with you,” Hansggedir said. Tears welled in his eyes though his voice was as steady as granite. He leaned over and pressed his lips to Ottar’s. Ottar closed his eyes and breathed in Hansggedir’s memories with a bittersweet heart.
* * * * *
Boðid tried unsuccessfully to wave his staff over Tyr, but the harling scampered away and crouched on a pile of furs. His eyes were bright and defiant.
Wolf-eyes, Ottar thought to himself. Inhuman eyes.
The Hienama began his chanting again, and this time Tyr remained where he was, his expression one of vague interest. When clothed, he looked like a human toddler, all except for his eyes.
Do you think he’ll always be wild? Ottar asked Hansggedir via mind touch.
No, came Hansggedir’s vehement reply. He’s only a few weeks old and look at all he can do!
But he doesn’t talk. He’s like a destructive bear cub.
“Tyr, har child of Ottar and Hroth Risefingen, I welcome you as a member of the Frey clan and kinshar to us all.”
Boðid took sacramental oil and rubbed it in a symbol of power and protection across the harling’s forehead. Tyr promptly smeared his fingers through it and licked it off before spitting it out with distaste. He looked over at Ottar and Hansggedir, both in ceremonial furs, and stood on his short, lean legs. He wobbled a bit, but then planted his feet.
“Home,” he said in a clear voice, green and light like a sapling. “Ottar, home.”
Ottar was still reeling at the words when Hansggedir said, “What about me? Can you say my name?”
“Hans,” Tyr declared.
Hansggedir turned and looked bemusedly at Ottar. “Our wild child seems to be civilized after all.”
Boðid appeared to be as shocked as Ottar, but he regained his composure and gestured to the harling.
“As a last part of the ritual of becoming kinshar, you need to pick a rune stone.” He pointed at the large bowl filled with stones, each with a different rune carved into its surface. “That will be your symbol and when you’re older, you will go to the beach and pick two stones of your own and make your mark on them.”
Tyr looked at him without a shred of interest, but he dropped to his hands and feet and scurried over to the bowl where he played with the smooth stones. He rummaged around, an intent look on his face as though searching for something. The clattering of tumbling rocks stopped. He held a moss-coloured stone in his hand and gazed at it for a moment, then put it in his mouth and sucked on it.
“Tyr!” Ottar exclaimed, fearful that his son was about to try and swallow the runestone. He strode over and held out his hand. “Give that to me.”
Obediently, the harling spat the rock into Ottar’s palm. “Thank you,” he murmured.
Tyr smiled and pulled a chicken bone out of his pocket and began chewing on it. Ottar wiped the saliva off of the runestone and felt an electric shock when he gazed at the symbol.
“Ottar?” the Hienama asked. “What is it?”
He walked over slowly to Boðid and held it up to him. “Raven,” he said, his voice cracking. “That was Hroth’s rune.”
“Roc!” Tyr said delightedly. “Roc!”
“Runestone,” Hansggedir corrected him.
“Roc!” the harling insisted.
Ottar, suddenly overwhelmed by exhaustion and melancholy, walked over and dropped the runestone into the bowl with a clatter. He turned to face Boðid, who gave him a sympathetic look.
“I’ll write his name and runestone in the Book of All. Tyr will be officially introduced to the community at the solstice celebration.”
“I know it’s soon, but when exactly is the Longest Night?” Hansggedir asked.
“Eight days. I’ll send Solvi out into Freygard to remind hara about the event.
“Solvi?” Ottar wasn’t the best with names, and until recently, he’d kept a fairly small circle of intimates.
“One of the acolytes. He was here you brought Hroth in during his last vision questing.”
“Ottar, let’s go. Thank you, Boðid, for blessing Ottar’s cub,” Hansggedir said, bowing his head.
“Well, should something like this happen again, I’ll be far more prepared,” the Hienama said wryly.
Ottar scooped Tyr up from the floor and put him into the fur carrier Hansggedir had draped on his back. Their return walk was quiet, punctuated by Tyr’s exclamations of places and names, especially his own.
“Yes, we know it’s you!” Hansggedir sounded exasperated.
“Hans home,” the harling replied, squirming in his carrier like a trapped fox.
“I need a drink,” Ottar muttered as he opened the door.
“I’ll second that.”
Hansggedir loosed the carrier and Tyr scampered off, chittering to himself before returning to the living room and looking disconsolately at the dark fireplace.
“Just a minute,” Ottar snapped at him, then regretted his response. “Come here, you wild thing,” he said, beckoning to his harling. “Let’s go burrow under the covers. It’s warmer there.”
Tyr retrieved the bone he’d been gnawing on earlier and stuck it in his mouth and sucked on it, sitting on his haunches like a dog with a treat.
“I’ll take care of the fire,” Hansggedir said as he approached with two glasses. “Why don’t you stay in here? You could brush his hair, though. It looks as though he’s been running in the woods. I don’t know how he does that.”
Ottar made a noise of agreement. Hansggedir had been working on the more practical aspects of harish suprahuman abilities and could now channel energies to create sparks to light fires without matches. It wasn’t glamorous ‘magic,’ and Ottar sense that he was at a higher level of awareness and ability thanks to his studies with Hroth. Then again, Hroth had not only been Hansggedir’s first aruna partner, as he’d been Ottar’s, but his own blood had changed Hansggedir from human to har. Ottar took a deep swallow of brenvin and went to retrieve Tyr’s hairbrush. The harling scooted happily into the vee of Ottar’s legs in front of the awakening fire.
“You do love having your hair brushed, don’t you, little wolverine?”
Ottar admired the dark tawny hue of Tyr’s hair, not chestnut like his own but noticeably different from the bright gold of most hara in Freygard.
“Just as vain as his father,” Hansggedir noted in a droll tone.
“I am not!” Ottar insisted, brow furrowed.
“I meant Hroth. You’re his… carrier, or something.”
Ottar kept brushing, then began to make a narrow plait in Tyr’s long waves. He though about Tyr’s picking the raven runestone, and suddenly felt separate and abandoned.
“Why don’t you stay here?” he asked Hansggedir.
“I’m here all the time!”
“No, I mean move in. As bizarre as this is, we’re a family now. And like you said, you’re barely at your own house anymore.”
Ottar paused in his braiding to take another sip of his drink while Tyr talked nonsense to himself. Hansggedir gazed levelly at him.
“My house doesn’t have the same spirit that it used to. I do want to help raise Tyr, even though I have the sense he could raise himself. I’ve given it a lot of thought, actually.” He ran a hand through his short hair. “I can’t help but believe that Hroth would approve.”
Tyr crawled away from Ottar, walking purposefully to the small shrine Ottar had created for his first aruna partner and mentor. To Ottar’s shock, the harling stuck his hand in the front pocket of his fur vest and produced the runestone he’d picked out of the bowl.
“When did he—?”
Hansggedir shushed him.
Tyr was barely on eye level with the tabletop, and he dropped the stone with a muted thud on top of the greenery Ottar had placed there.
“Hroth,” Tyr said boldly. “Good har.”
Ottar glanced at Hansggedir, who stared at Tyr, his bushy eyebrows raised. “Yes, he was,” he said. “He’s your father.”
“Good raven har,” Tyr declared, and then, almost as an afterthought, he said, “Hungry.”
“Me, too. I’ll start on dinner. Come with me to the kitchen, little wolverine.”
Hansggedir’s voice was warm, but Ottar could hear the undercurrent of loss threading the tone. Through tears that refused to fall, Ottar unfurled from the floor and went to stand in front of the simple memories, picking up the runestone Tyr had obviously taken from the Hall of Voices. It was strangely warm, just as it had felt when he’d selected it himself after his althaia had come to its end.
“I miss you,” he whispered, running his thumb over the symbol. “Though in some ways, you’re still with us.”
* * * * *
Ottar awoke deep in the quiet beating heart of night. Tyr was nestled against Hansggedir, who snored lightly. After taking care of his aching bladder, Ottar drank some water and walked to the window of the living room, drawn by the glistering light of the moon, high and bright in the sky. He stood there for a few moments before noticing the raven feather on the windowsill. He picked it up, fingering the gift with trembling fingers.
From that night on, Hansggedir slept at Ottar’s side, and he never questioned the raven feathers that graced Tyr’s hair, day after day.