Mortals and gods have been a bad combination since the two began to exist together. It's ironic that we always somehow get wrapped up and involved with them for various reasons--whether for the potency of their passions or the fervency of their worship. Then there are the Ka'amok... a yet bigger mess that nests rather close to home for me. I never expected to have one for a son-in-law, nor for a granddaughter. It has put me in an interesting predicament indeed...
--Idun Yggdrasil, Elder Guardian of Asgard
Asylum Before the Storm
Bannor and Sarai cringed in an anteroom as two gods raged at one another in the hall outside. Bannor's teeth hurt from gritting them. The volume of the two deities' voices made his ears ring. The energy emanating from them made it feel as though his face was being pressed into a wall of needles. Sarai, his elven mate, ears and body more sensitive than his own, shivered against him, burying her face in his chest.
The cavernous passage reverberated with Thor's voice. The vaulted ceilings trembled. On the walls, the coats of arms, weapons, and other accouterments of war rattled on their display hooks. The huge immortal brushed a wrist-thick braid of russet hair over his shoulder. He smoothed at his mustaches and gripped mighty Mjolnir by the hammer's short haft. His tunic and leggings of black broadpaw fur bristled with static.
Nose-to-nose with the goddess Idun, he spoke in a voice easily heard a league away. "Lady Idun." Bannor felt flakes of ceiling mortar falling on his head. "This child's game of words wastes my time. Give me the mortal, Bannor Starfist, or Father Odin's wrath will fall upon you as it did your daughter." He raised a clenched fist that crackled with lightning. The room filled with the scent of storm-ravaged air.
Bannor caught a glimpse of the thunder-god's blocky reflection in the mirror surface of Idun's silver raiment. The goddess tossed her head, shimmering gold hair forming a nimbus around a breathtaking face. Jewelry and rings flashed on her fingers and wrist as she pointed a glowing finger at the greatest warrior of all aesir. Her eyes shone like green stars.
"Thunderer," she said in a flat tone. "Best remember you are a guest in my house and bound by hospitality. I'll not be bullied by you, or your father." She paused, voice low, but every bit as menacing as the thunder-god's. "Threaten me at your peril. I am not some babe frightened by your deafening bluster."
Bannor swallowed and rubbed at his bandaged ribs. He hoped and prayed that the two deities wouldn't start fighting. Everything within fifty paces of the creatures would be incinerated, including Sarai and himself. The spires of Idun's fortress silhouetted against dazzling blue skies were visible through the chamber windows. Clouds had boiled out of nowhere. A thrumming went through the stone underfoot.
Sarai looked up at him, amber eyes filled with pain and trepidation. Her full body trembled. He still hadn't grown accustomed to her new face, dark waves of hair flicking around dusky skin, fleshy cheeks, and an over-wide mouth. The Sarai he grew to love more than a summer ago had been pale, with violet eyes set in an angular face. Her hair had been silver-blonde and fine, he had loved its silky feel and herbal scent. That changed four days ago when Hecate tried to take her from him. Only the intervention of immortals had brought Sarai back in this other body. The form once inhabited by Meliandri D'Casar, a handmaiden who served Queen Kalindinai of Malan, Sarai's mother.
Of everyone in that terrible misadventure, Meliandri had been the worst victim. Dragged from her home in the Malanian capital, twisted to Hecate's will, and stripped of her very soul. In the end, no-one fared well. For the crime of killing Hecate, Odin punished everyone who participated by sentencing them to Nifelheim, the realm of shadows. That included Sarai's mother and sister, Idun's daughter, grand daughter, and son-in-law, Irodee the Myrmigyne, and Laramis De'Falcone her husband.
Incensed by Odin's attack on her family, Idun had no intention of leaving them in Hella's cold domain. Bannor and Sarai being the only members left from the fight against Hecate, Idun gave them the task of performing a rescue. Apparently, gods had no power in Hella's realm.
If Odin's supporters caught them though, they wouldn't be rescuing anybody. Bannor wasn't anxious to learn what Odin had in store for him.
It had been quiet in the hall for a distressingly long time. Neither god had moved. Bannor sensed Idun's prickly warmth and Thor's icy sharpness. They appeared to be locked in a staring match. Smoldering green eyes bored into iceberg blue. Hands able to rip continents asunder clenched and loosened.
Bannor pulled Sarai closer and felt her arms tighten, making his sore ribs twinge. Three days and already they were being hunted. Their wounds from the clash with Hecate were still raw. It took effort for him to walk the length of a corridor. Sarai lost her control of elemental magic with her old body, and still had to adjust to this larger, more 'robust' frame; a subject of much invective. Being 'clumsy as a cow' was the least caustic of her complaints.
With a growl, Thor looked away from silvery Idun. "You test me sorely, Lady," he muttered. "Invoking hospitality is thin. The delay is pointless. The mortals will be ours, whether they hide 'neath your skirts or not."
Idun raised her chin. Dark light crackled around her body like storm clouds boiling around a mountaintop. "It is my prerogative, Odin-son. Will you honor the rites of my hold or not?"
Thunder rumbled, echoing through the fortress. "Aye," he grumbled. "None shall say Thor violated the laws of hospitality." He paused and his tone turned brittle. "'Ware Lady. Next I come to these demesnes, it shall not be as a guest." Lightning cracked the sky.
Idun sniffed. "Of that, Lord, I have little doubt. Now, begone."
Thor nodded and bowed. His tone became formal and forced. "The house of Odin thanks your forbearance, Lady. The sup we took was most--" He gritted his teeth. Thunder rumbled again. "Enlightening." He turned and strode from the hall with ground shaking footsteps.
Bannor let out a breath, heart still thudding. "Praise be. It's over."
Sarai sagged against him. "Yes, and none too soon. My head feels ready to explode."
He ran a hand through the thick waves of her hair.
Idun turned from watching Thor leave. Her pale face was flush, and her body vibrated with tension, making the mirrored robes she wore scintillate in the torchlight. The goddess appeared to swell, growing taller and broader until she was even larger than the thunder-god had been. Sparks crackled around her like a swarm of agitated glow bugs.
"The audacity of that whelp," she growled. Gusts of cold air swirled through the room as she stepped into chamber where Bannor and Sarai had been hiding. "To think I nursed his sire at my breast." She sizzled through a pause, teeth grinding. "How soon they forget." Arms folded, her fingers drummed, wisps of smoke curled upward from burning nails.
Bannor sidled toward the window drawing Sarai with him, trying not to be overt about wanting to keep as much distance as possible from the goddess. This creature could shatter cities with a gesture, and kill with a thought.
Sarai shrank against him, back pressed to his chest so as to keep an eye on the fuming immortal.
Idun composed herself after a few moments. Glowing green eyes focused on them. When she spoke, her voice echoed. "You heard the thunderer. Time is short. You have but a few days to make yourselves ready."
Bannor's stomach tightened. Even if he were at his full strength, neither he nor Sarai knew anything of this place or its denizens. He hoped the goddess didn't expect them to try to mount a rescue now. They were practically helpless.
Bannor craned his neck to look at the now huge Idun. "Majesty. I--I don't know if we can be ready that fast."
Idun's fingers stopped drumming. She fixed more attention on him. He was glad she expressed surprise rather than anger. "Why?"
Wasn't it obvious? It must not be. The little he'd spoken with the goddess led him to believe she wasn't stupid.
Sarai put a hand on his arm, and cleared her throat. "Majesty, we aren't fit. We have--well," she paused.
"Yes?" Idun loomed over them like a wave ready to crest. "What?"
Bannor felt beads of perspiration work down his forehead. Sarai took a breath. He felt a shiver of tension run through her body. "Majesty, you've been gracious in harboring us. Aside from the clothes given to us when we first arrived, we have nothing to get ready with."
Idun's eyes narrowed. "Preposterous. Of course, you--" She stopped. Closing her eyes, she shook her head. "Mortals," she mumbled. "You are both--mortals." Unfolding her arms, she steepled her fingers at her lips. "This is my daughter and grandchild. Whatever you desire. It is yours." She reached out with a glowing finger and touched Sarai on the forehead.
Sarai gasped and her skin grew warm. She seemed to shake off a momentary dizziness. "Well, we need--" A glowing sword appeared in her hand. At the same time, a golden bow and a quiver of arrows shimmered into view looped around her arm. A hauberk of fine-linked mail and shield flickered into being at her feet.
Sarai gasped, fumbled the weapon, and was forced to catch it. Her eyes widened at the sight of the precious bow, the exquisite armor and shield.
"Th--" She licked her lips, getting back her composure. "Thank--"
Idun made a dismissing gesture. "Bother me not with trivialities. Material goods, such as that." She flicked a finger at the armaments which, in Bannor's estimation, were worth more than most kingdoms. "Are of no moment. Make yourselves ready. Meet me for night's sup in--" She frowned in thought. "In three bells." She turned and glided away.
"Wait--" Bannor started, but Sarai put a hand over his mouth.
When the goddess was gone, Sarai let go.
"But, Star, I don't see..."
"My One, trust me, she took care of it." Her amber eyes were wide. She licked her lips, obviously struck by what she had discerned.
He frowned at her. "What?"
Sarai held out her hand. She narrowed her eyes. A line of light sliced across her palm. A thin shape coalesced, then flickered into being. It was a hand-axe identical to the one he lost in the fight with Hecate.
He blinked. He reached out and touched the weapon. It felt solid. The haft was even nicked exactly the same way his old one had been, gouges chinked in the ironwood by the claws of Hecate's demons. "How..?"
Sarai pushed his fingers closed on the axe. Then put a hand to his cheek. "Whatever you desire. It is yours. Idun meant what she said. I just wished for that axe, and it appeared."
Bannor looked at the weapon, hefted its weight. To a person with nearly limitless power, he guessed listening to their little 'mortal' needs was probably more trouble than simply giving Sarai the ability to grant her own wishes.
He hoped it wasn't like his garmtur Shak'Nola had been. He could make desire into reality too--with totally unpredictable side affects. The struggle with Hecate seemed to have burned his talent out though. He didn't know when, if ever, he would recover its use and the ability to see the threads of the cosmos.
Bannor put the axe down and rubbed his stubble rough face with both hands. He looked around the hall at all the splendor. They were in the realm of gods certainly that made more things possible.
"So what do I wish for?" Sarai asked.
"What we need--I guess."
Wishes. That's what started the whole thing, Hecate's wish, his wish, Sarai's... Now, Idun had a wish. A wish that promised to get them into more trouble than ever. Being at war with Hecate was bad enough. This promised to embroil a whole pantheon of gods. To go along was complete insanity.
Then again, they really didn't have a choice. Sarai's mother and sister were trapped, along with their friends. They couldn't abandon them, even if Idun would let them. He simply didn't see how they could possibly rescue the others. Even if Sarai wished up an entire army. It came down to them, and whatever assistance Idun provided. True, Idun was one of the greatest of the aesir, but she was one against many. Even if he and Sarai freed Wren and the others from Nifelheim, how would they stay out? Likely they'd all end up there, and Idun would share a cell with them.
Sarai straightened, put aside the bow and sword, and went to the window. This antechamber looked over several courtyards that made up the inner ring of Idun's fortress. Further out, gold spires rose above the domes and buttresses that formed the outer walls. Even during the day, stars burned in the sky like white embers. All the colors were so bright that it made his eyes ache. Men and women astride dragons, winged horses, and griffins flew patterns around the highest parapets. Armored guards in the tabards of a hundred nations patrolled the lower battlements.
Sarai turned and looked at him. "Look at all this. Why us? You don't have your power, and me--" She bit herself off. "It doesn't make sense."
He massaged her shoulders. "Idun thinks we have some special quality that'll help us beat impossible odds. She just doesn't realize we used up all our luck surviving the last fight."
Sarai sighed and nodded. "We must try and do something. So, what should we start with?"
Bannor shrugged. "Clothes, supplies, armor, weapons. I imagine we can have our pick of mounts." He watched riders on griffins sail by. "What we'll need most are people who know the way."
"The thing we really can't wish for--" She pursed her lips. "Allies."
He put his arms around her again and sniffed her hair. She didn't smell like the Sarai he remembered, and not as good, they hadn't found a place to bathe yet. "I think Idun has something in mind."
"Probably," Sarai agreed. She took a breath, and handed him all the equipment she'd conjured, and pulled him toward the doorway. "Let's go."
"Back to our rooms. If I'm going to fight gods in the morning, I've got some selfish wishes I want to make first. Starting with a bathtub and some hot water. If I have to die, I want to at least look presentable."
Three bells passed quickly. Bannor found Sarai's wish for a hot tub of mineral water admirably inspired. Sliding into the pleasantly warm waters next to his beloved was a welcome diversion. He was still adjusting to the new Sarai, he experienced a reflexive self-consciousness around her. Sarai noted the space that he put between them, however unintentional, and was quick to wrap herself around him and get reacquainted. She wished up a cask of Malanian fire wine and they sipped, soaked and cuddled. With the wine to loosen him up it wasn't hard for Sarai to make him pliable. She knew him well, and while she might not be pleased with her new body, she had endowments aplenty to arouse him. Their lovemaking was gentle and unhurried. The experience all the more pleasurable after having tendays of nothing but fear and pain.
When one of Idun's servants came to fetch them for night sup they were both still splashing in the tub, an arsenal of armor, weapons, and supplies piled around the room like spoils from a war.
They both froze at the sight of the stiff looking man with a scar blotched face and red hair. The gent cleared his throat and adjusted his green tunic. When he spoke it was with a cracked voice. "The lady awaits your company."
For some reason Bannor found the man's serious demeanor funny. He let out a laugh before he could stop himself, which started Sarai giggling. Bannor forced himself under control. "Tell her maj-us-ty" He blinked to bring the man back into focus. "We'll be along--presh-untly."
The servant frowned. "Very well." He marched out.
The urge hit him again and Bannor laughed. He didn't know why it was funny, but it hit him that way.
Sarai chuckled with him, then whistled. She ran a hand through the dark waves of her hair, amber eyes glazed with inebriation. "Oooh, I think--" she picked up her glass from the edge of the scale-wood tub, swirled the crimson liquid around, leaned back and took a sip. "I think--" she slurred. "I think I made this stuff--too strong."
"No?" He grinned. "Really?"
She smiled back. "Really. You know--sitting at goddess' table--half drunk, isn't one--isn't one of our better plans."
"What? Whole thing makes me want to get drunk. She's going to get us killed. It's South-war all over again, and we're the fresh meat."
"Uh hmmm." She took another sip, then held the glass up. "Better stop. I drink anymore, I won't be able to walk."
"Sure you can now?" He pushed himself up out of the water. "I'm not. Oh arrgh." He felt twinges from his side and from his numerous bruises and contusions. With effort he supported himself against the waste high tub. A chilly fortress draft hit him like a sharp smack on the butt. His skin prickled. "Ie ie ie, we don't have anything to dry off with."
"Yesh we do," Sarai pointed to a chair. A pair of thick towels sparkled into being folded over the back. "Hand me mine, will you."
"Cheater," he mumbled padding across the cold flags, wrapping himself in one and returning with Sarai's. "You going to wish us some clothes too?"
"Uh hmmm." She replied, taking another sip from the glass she'd just said she shouldn't drink any more from. She pointed and his towel vanished to be replaced by a fine royal blue tunic and cyan-colored breeches. Soft doe-skin boots sheathed his feet. At the same time he'd been outfitted with a full array of jewelry, rings on half-a-dozen fingers, amulets, he even felt something in his ear.
"What's all this?" He tugged at his ear finding that he indeed had something there as well. He walked up to the tub, lifted her out, and wrapped her in the towel.
"Sh-tyle," she slurred again. "You're the One of a daughter of Malan, you might as well look the part for once."
He chuckled. "As her ladyship wishes."
She staggered a little and leaned against him. "We wish, dammit. You're--you're a good looking--man. You never--never dress like it." She blinked. "Mom thought--thought you were a bloody--beggar."
He sniffed. "Just like to dress comfortable that's all."
Sarai ran a hand through her hair and looked around the room like she didn't recognize anything. "You know--I really am drunk. Don't remember getting so--dosed--this easy."
"Different body darling. Meliandri was a Healer. I heard the south-land Healers made their members keep their bodies pure."
"Pure? Whatever--don't like it. Didn't stop her--stop her from eating too damn much. And what in Hades were these all about?" She dropped her towel and put her hands under her breasts and cupped them up. "What kind of breeding put these monsters on an elf?"
He admired the displayed cleavage with a smile. "Don't know, but that's some fine evolution you got there."
"Humph. You don't have to sleep with them."
"Oh, yes I do, and I look forward to it every night."
She shot him a withering glance. "You man."
Sarai wished a blue gown onto herself that matched the colors of his tunic. The neck-line was high, probably to spite him. She fixed her hair and arrayed herself as he'd seen her do for court before the King of Malan.
"Now, if you can get me down the hall. I'll try not to make a spectacle of myself."
"My Star," he gave her a hug and a kiss. "I love all of you; even your spectacles."
She laughed and hugged him back. Together they wobbled down the hall to hear Idun's plans for them, and the how they would rescue prisoners kept in the land of the dead.