Chapter One

The meeting with the Gods

"You'll never catch up to me!" Val laughingly said to his cousins behind him as they ran down the hall. Val was taking the lead – but Osric and Friggia were not that far behind. They were all excited for this new stage in their life. To meet the Gods as Adults for the first time – not as the children they were yesterday. With luck, the Gods would send them out of the valley where the rest of the world awaits them.

As Val raced through the long winding corridor, his soft leather boots barely made a sound on the smooth, worn stone. His wings flapped behind him lending speed to his race. His tawny feathers had the look of being dipped in autumn leaves - earth brown spotted with dashes of auburn. The Bell had rung, letting everyone know that those who had come of age this spring were now to come into the Sacred Hall of Asgard.

Val looked behind him, and to his delight he saw only Friggia and Osric, as they too were trying to get to the Hall before anyone else. Turning the last corner, Val almost bounced right out of his skin when his sister, Níkleua, squealed as she threw herself at his fast-moving body. After a quick, tight hug, Níkleua released him, looking sternly at his ruffled clothes.

"You have to slow down, Dove! They'll still be waiting for you in there, no matter how long you took. There was no real need to run here you know. Here, let me straighten you out a bit." Níkleua smiled as she looked him over, straightening out his shirt and vest. His sister was seven years older, thin as a branch and with long legs that had won her best runner in the village two years in a row. She was a good two hand spans taller than him.

"Alright, our parents and even Mormor Sesi is in there, waiting just for you. Do your best and I'll be right out here when you're done. I love you no matter what kind of assignment that they give you, you know that… right, Dove?"

"Right…but you're not going to be coming in with me," Val said a little disappointed. When Níkleua's face fell, he added, "but yes, I love you too, Magpie!" he said, slightly out of breath, as he proudly leaned up to kiss her on her forehead.

"You better tell me all about it when you come on out! So head on in there, and I'll see you soon." With a loving smile, she waved him on into the room. The last he saw of her before turning through the doorway was Friggia as she rounded the corner with Osric close behind her. Val turned, going into the sacred Hall, barely able to breathe because he was so excited.

Just outside, Friggia slowed down in front of Níkleua and shook out her clothes, checking for creases, she slowly finished walking up to Níkleua. She'd always looked up to her, but today she was getting sweaty palms about what was about to happen and who she was going to meet behind those double doors. Osric rounded the corner and tried to stop himself from running into the two women. He splayed his wings to propel himself backwards a few inches, but he was too late.

"Ah, Nik-" Friggia started to say, as Osric bumped forcefully into her. She winced in pain, and gave him a reproachful look. "Ow, Osric, watch it," She warned, furrowing her eyebrows.

"Sorry," he mumbled, stepping back as Níkleua inspected Friggia's clothes and hair. Osric curled his grey wings around his shoulders and waited respectfully in line as the two girls went through inspections.

"What I was going to say..." Friggia said slowly turning away from Osric. "Was that … you're the Inspector this year! That's awesome!" Friggia squealed giving Níkleua a bouncing hug.

"I know, right! I was so excited to be chosen." Níkleua said, rather excitedly. Níkleua remembered yesterday when two of the elders, Nauja and Serafina, approached her. She had thought it odd, usually the Inspector was an elder. So for them to have chosen her this year, her – Níkleua – barely 24 years old to inspect these children and invite them into adulthood – was an honor. And one that she could not refuse.

Friggia didn't have many layers to straighten out. Her simple grass-green dress flowed straight down to her knees, where her dark green pants could be seen flowing down to her ankles. Light brown sandals with straps that crisscrossed around her ankles completed her look. Níkleua was pleased, thankful that they were clean and presentable, so far.

She'd heard that a few years ago, one of the young men had came in covered in mud, he was sent into the Hall by that year's , but the Gods were not pleased. After a meeting involving everyone of age, Níkleua heard that he'd been sent to help the blacksmith to teach the child some responsibility. Within a month, he had grown two inches, and exceeded all of the Elders expectations. By the time spring came 'round again, the Gods and the elders were pleased to send him out into the world.

"Alright," Níkleua said, giving Friggia a necklace with a Celtic symbol, Ailm, carved in wood. The symbol, a blue tree carved in a white birch tree, meant confidence. It was something that Níkleua knew that the young woman needed – even if Friggia didn't know it. "There you go, it's perfect!" and with the necklace, Níkleua was pleased to send Friggia into the Hall. "Just take a deep calming breath, my little Fuyo Owlet… alright, you go ahead now… the Gods are ready for you." She said smiling at the young adult in encouragement as Friggia straightened her shoulders and entered the room. She was proud of the youngsters, and each of them had been given a special nickname by her over the years; these pet names were indicative of their personalities.

"Now, Salmon," Níkleua said turning to the shorter, young man in question. Níkleua had always loved the way his spotted gray wings had a soft green shine to them; reminding her of the salmon she would catch in the river with her parents many years ago. "You need to work on stopping without warning and you'll do fine," She told him, as she crouched down and rebraided a bit of his loose hair, tucking it into one of the multitude of interweaving plaits behind his ear. "That should stay together long enough, I hope." She sat back on her heels and admired her work. Osric beamed at her and raised a hand to his hair. He tapped his newly braided plaits, feeling the nice texture under his fingers.

"Argh," Níkleua said, reaching out and gently grabbing his wrist. "Don't touch it! Go, go on before I see something else that needs fixing." She watched Osric quickly lower his hand to his side, and rush off after Friggia. As the next batch of young adults came around the corner, Níkleua took a moment to remember what it was like for her to walk through those doors only six summers ago.

"Hmm, yes, I'll see you in a moment…" she told them, lost in thought. She remembered the hope and excitement rushing through her mind as she walked through the doors. The last six young adults quickly gathered in a line ready to go through inspections. "I can't believe that was me just half a dozen summers ago" she thought, as she went to start her inspection on each of the assembling youngsters.

As they passed Níkleua's inspection and entered into the Hall of Asgard, they each encountered their families in a semi-circle. Each family contained one member from each generation – and though they stood in their own separate little circle, each was circle was a structured symbol forming the symbolized tree of Yggdrasil around the room.

Each student joined their familial circles, completing it. Nine families stood in the room. Nine students completed the circles. Nine planets represented. Nine statuettes in the middle of each circle. As the last young woman completed the last semi-circle, the statuettes began to glow.

A few minutes minute before in the Hall of Asgard…

"Gods," Val breathed, taking a second to look around the room with fresh eyes. It seemed like he had never been there before – though Val knew he'd been in this room hundreds of times before as a child. To ask the Gods for advice, or just to play hide-and-go-seek among the pillars, and hidden alcoves. Val straightened up and headed straight for the pillar at the center of his family's semi-circle. His mother, Saghani 'Shrii' Ayalik, smiled at him from her place beside her husband, Årne Veilorson and Val's Grandmother, Mormor Sesi Ayalik.

Val stepped up to the small statue made from the stone carved from these very walls and was in the form of his mother's Goddess, Eir. Eir was the one you would pray to if you need a healer or a midwife. Each God, chosen by the young adults family, had the task of coming up with something that the people of Asgarðr would need either now or in the future. Some of the young adults were sent past the magical barrier of protection that had been erected around the small village to find or gather something that could not be found within sight of the village. Others would be tested within the village or just on the border of the mountains. But each mission was to be stimulating and challenging for the growing young adult before them and yet help in some way to help the community grow.

Over the years, the Gods changed the task of each young man and woman with a task suited to their personality and abilities. Sometimes they sent them off to fetch an animal or a random plant from a faraway area. They always provided the young men and women with maps. Most of their children had never left the village. Sometimes one of the new adults would find something or someone lost in the world and bring them home. And sometimes just a question was asked for them to contemplate and then to return. Each quest, though made for the individual, was always time sensitive as no-one wanted to be stuck outside without protection when winter came.

As the twins, Erik and Lyla, holding hands, as though they were of one soul, entered their familial circle, a small bell rang, echoing off the walls. "Put your hands on the statue in front of you, and listen to your God or Goddess. Do Not Speak! This is your time to listening!" Ryuk Si-U called out, his voice seemed to echo loudly in the small room.

Val swallowed, and with a small nod from his parents, he reached out and touched the statue. As his hand touched the small statue's outreaching hand, Val could see small rainbows arch between his statue and everyone else's statues. The largest rainbow originated from the "root" of Yggdrasil tree. It arced and split into three smaller rainbows that each split into three rainbows arching through the nine "branches" that made up each of the nine young men and women gathered in the Asgard Hall for this special ceremony of adulthood. Val's rainbow solidified into two people. Eir and Loki. Surprised Val crooked an eyebrow. He had thought that only Eir would show but the second younger God, though a surprise, was still welcome. Val took a quick glance around to see why everything had suddenly become quiet. The room, which had been almost full of people was now filled with a glowing fog, none of his family members, who were but an ell away from him and yet all he could see was the white fog that glowed unnaturally all around him. It seemed to all the world that was just Val and the two Gods in the Hall.

"Valmathe ShriiÅrne, oh my, how you've grown!" Loki said, reaching out to chuck Val's chin.

Eir took a breath, and crossed her fingers before speaking. "I have brought Prince Loki of Asgard here today because, as I suspected, your mother has chosen my statue to represent you on your journey. However, I have much business to attend to on Asgard, and so Loki will be the one to look out for you when you go on your journey." Eir said giving Loki the get-your-shit-together-and-become-the-God-that-Val-can-look-up-to look. Val nodded, a little unsure what kind of journey the Gods had thought for him, even as he wondered why he needed the God of Mischief to guide him. "Now I have become aware that we are in need new blood in our sheep herd." Eir said, continuing. "Your job is to pick out a ram that is light enough for you to fly with and that has produced at least one lamb. This way you can be sure that he is of good stock. You are to fly over the mountains," Eir gave Val a map, rolled and tied with twine, "and then exchange him for a new ram. You are to make sure that this new ram is healthy and has already giving at least one offspring to his previous owners. You will then bring this new ram back here. This should take you no more than a full cycle of the moon for you to complete. You have 7 days to prepare, and yes, you may speak to everyone in Asgarðr about this, should you need any help," Eir held up her hand as Val opened his mouth to speak, forgetting for a moment that he wasn't allowed to.

Once Val had, respectfully, closed his mouth and began to listen to her, Eir continued speaking. "as long as they help you with your preparations. Now, I know you have never been out of this valley, and I know that this can be exciting but this journey you're about to go on will also be frightening. So, I have marked on the map all of the farms that have sheep and are also within flying distance of Asgarðr. There are a few that are crossed off. Do not, under any circumstances, go there! I have my reasons as to why. Now, about your wings..." Eir paused. There was no delicate way for her to say it to the child. So she put it out there as bluntly as possible. "No one outside this village knows about nor has been Gifted with wings by us. This means that no one outside of this village can know that you have these." Eir reached out, touching Val's shoulder where his wings were tucked up close against his back. "You will have to hide your wings from everyone you meet out there and this is where Loki comes in. He will be keeping an eye on you as you travel. If you get into any trouble, it will be his responsibility to get you out, using Lesser magic only." Eir gave another one of her looks to the younger God, emphasizing the word for him.

Loki only smiled mischievously at Val and winked. Val smiled back nervously. He had heard from his grandparents that it was Loki who had originally given their family the gift of wings. Though it was said that he did it unintentionally, and only because he'd been struck by lightning at the same moment his original spell of transportation was taking place. Thankfully, everyone survived. Val had imagined about the many things that could have gone wrong all those years ago. With a small nod in Eir's direction, Val began to plan for his journey - making as many preparations in his head as he could.

"All right Val," Eir continued. "you're to avoid all contact with humans outside of this village. If you meet anyone on your journey then you may talk with them only if these conditions apply; if help is needed and you are able to continue to hide your wings, then talking is permitted. If Loki appears and tells you to do something, you will obey. But under no circumstances will you show your wings to anyone outside this valley while you are on this mission. Is that understood?" Eir internally shuddered, thinking that they would have enough trouble if any human found Val while he was on his journey. As Val nodded in agreement, Eir only said "Good Luck.", before both of the Gods vanished once again into the Bifröst leaving him once again surrounded by his parents and Grandmother.

"Come," Shrii said hugging her son warmly as they walked out of the Hall and with Níkleua, continued down to the grand dining hall were their celebratory feast had been cooking for the last few hours. "Let's have our supper while you tell us about your task. Let me guess what it is... hmm, are you going to be designing a new wagons perhaps? Or are you going to be bringing Danzhu some new plants?"

Årne laughed as he saw that Val's face was plunged into serious thought. "No Shrii, it can't be anything like that, our son is too energetic for that. I think that his task is going to be more like yours." Val perked up this. Will he be able to hear this story again? He loved it when his father told stories.

"Mnn, do you remember Níkleua... when I told you how I met your mother, Anna, long before I met Shrii? Anna was beautiful, like you Níky but she had one desire. She wanted to travel the world." Årne's eyes always twinkled when he told this story. "Now travelling with just two people, especially as a young newly married couple is wonderful. The world is an exciting place, with a new thing around every corner. New people in every city. We were happy, especially when you came along. You were a beautiful scrap of a baby that soon grew into that adoring child that would wander off in search of everything. The world grew two - no, three times bigger when you, my beautiful, daughter came into my life. So we traveled all around Sweden and Finland. When you were just six years old, we circled back, determined to visit family, and show you beautiful chubby face off. But that fateful day..." Årne started to have tears coming to from his eyes. He was always sad when he told this part of the story. "I've always been so grateful, every day for Shrii to come when she did. Did you know that the Gods tasked her with coming to the very town that Anna and I were in, to pick up potatoes? Had they tasked her with anything else, Shrii would not have been able to save Níkleua from those horrible wolves."

"Unfortunately," Shrii explained, "I wasn't able to save Anna." hugging Årne close to her before continuing to walk down the long hallway.

"Yes, my Dear. I know, it's still hard sometimes." Årne cleared his throat, before continuing. "Those wolves, may have taken your mother but they helped us reach this place of safety. And you, Val … I think your task is to travel in search of something? Yes?"

Before Val could answer, Níkleua spoke up, her soft voice was lost in thought. "I still remember that day. The first time I saw you, Shrii, I had thought that you were a beautiful warrior angel, even though I was but a child." Níkleua told her mother, leaning her head on Shrii's shoulder as they walked.

Shrii smiled, wrapping her arms around both children. "You're keeping us in such a suspense. So tell us, Valmathe, what has Eir given you? Are you to go out to sea and catch us a fish as tall as you?"

Val looked to the map still clutched tightly in his grasp. "Eir, yes she-" Val paused unsure if he should mention whether or not that Loki was there. Deciding not to, so that his mother had one less thing to worry about, he said, "Yes, Eir told me I am to journey with a ram and exchange it for another. I will have to travel beyond the mountains to find a farm." Val showed the map that Eir had given him to his sister, and parents. "I have to make sure that both rams have produced a minimum of one offspring and then I will have to come back within full cycle of the moon." Val recited, his thoughts still on how he was going to actually going to transport this ram within the time limit.

Val knew that walking would be too slow, as he would have to walk up and down the mountains just to get to the nearest farm on the map – well, that was at least two full moons away. He would have to fly, Val decided, the thought of the weight of it all already bringing him down. He was never the strongest of his age group, average, but never the strongest. So why is Eir choose this for him? Val thought that it was to test his strength, but it would no doubt test his resolve. No matter what he would do this for the Gods, and for his family. When he came back, he would be an adult in their eyes.

"When do you have to go? Tomorrow?" Níkleua asked as they accepted a plate of steaming hot food from a server, who was making plates of food for everyone and passing the plates out of a small window in the kitchen, and walked with Val to one of the long tables.

"I have a seven days to prepare and a full cycle of the moon to travel there and back again. How can I carry a full-grown ram with me? Aren't they rather heavy?" Val wondered aloud as he dug into the mashed potatoes.

"Hmm, yes, quite. Well, I guess it depends on how old and fat it is. Did Eir say anything about how old the ram had to be?" Shrii inquired, as Val shook his head.

"Just that the ram had to have produced at least a single offspring." Val wasn't sure if he should tell his parents that even though Eir did come to him when he touched her statue, she had also brought Loki, the God of Mischief. And he was going to be the one looking after Val when he left home. Not Eir.

"Hmmn, so we need to find a ram that is a minimum of eight months old, plus six – no seven months . . . alright that means that the ram has to be no less than 14 months old. So the ram would have to be about a year and a half to about two years old, Hmmn?" Níkleua murmured around a mouth full of stew. She had a habit of repeating facts aloud until she had a coherent thought. "Any older than that, and I think that the ram would be too heavy for you. Well, it might be difficult but I think we can find a way. We'll go to the stables first thing in the morning! Don't worry little brother. We'll find a way, because two heads are better than one! No problem!" Níkleua began shoveling food into her mouth, her eyes sparkling. Val could tell that she was excited as they began to plan for the journey. The knot in Val's stomach that had been tightening with worry since he had heard what was needed of him, began to loosen when he realised that he wasn't going to be alone, for at least another week.

"How heavy is a ram that is older than two years?" Val wondered aloud again, "Do you think I will be able to get over the mountains with him?" his thoughts going back to all the preparations. That was the one worry since he heard what his quest was. The fact that Eir had mentioned 'one full moon' made him think that something bad might happen if he stayed outside the village's magical barrier for longer than that. It concerned him more than he wanted to admit to his family.

"Hmmn. How about a harness?" Årne inquired, also thinking about how Val was going to go over the mountains and back again in such a short period of time. "Perhaps you could carry him below you while you fly."

"And while you two work on that, I will make you a new cloak. One that will keep you warm on those high mountain peaks, as well as hide your wings from anyone you meet. Like Danzhu made for me on my journey!" Shrii added, getting into the spirit of planning.

"I can help you with your travel bag. You'll need food that will last you there and back again, and a blanket. Oh and perhaps even a knife or a bow. . ." Níkleua volunteered, though her sentence dwindled as she thought about everything her little brother might need in his traveling bag.

"Not a bow, please Níkleua, it would just be too bulky." Val told her, so happy that they were wanting to help him. Beaming at his family, Val thanked them all profusely. He had been thinking about preparing by himself and leaving his home to be alone for an entire month, and how his task could be about becoming independent from his family. But as they continued to throw ideas back and forth about what he would need and how long it would take to get it all done, he realised that he wouldn't be completely alone, at least for now – in the planning stage.

Friggia sat down heavily beside Val. She seemed rather despondent.

"What's wrong Owlet?" Níkleua asked leaning over the table to hold her hand comfortingly, she always had a hard time seeing the youngsters so down hearted. "I thought you would be happy about your mission!"

"Oh, I am. . . I guess. . . I thought I would get a glorious task but all I'm doing is just collecting a few plants for four moons. How exciting is that?" Friggia sighed as she slowly told them, barely touching her food.

"I would have been excited at such a simple task! After all if the Gods believe you can find even a single new plant, does that not mean we may need this plant in the coming years?" Níkleua asked thoughtfully.

"Maybe, but why does it have to be so boring?" Friggia cried out. In her mind she was going to be on 'The Most Boring Task of the Year', and it seemed like no one could tell her otherwise.

"Are you comparing the task that the Gods have given you to someone else's task?" Níkleua asked "Because if you're able to choose a few names for the plants that you bring back. . ." Níkleua hinted, trying to lift the young girl's mood. She wasn't sure about why she was so unhappy about it, it seemed like the perfect mission for Friggia.

"Osric is going to sail and fish in the ocean and I'm not doing anything as interesting as that." Frigga wailed, pointing to the young man, sitting down the table from them, surrounded by his own closely-knit family. Val could hear them whisper about what he would need for his trip and how they could help him.

"Frigga, I believe that you're going to be awesome at your task, no matter what you do." Níkleua told her, reaching across the table for her hand. "If you find new plants, you can name them. Osric can't do that, can he?" Osric heard his name and waved at us. When Friggia saw his movement, the corners of her mouth twitched slightly into a grin. "Now go and join your mother! I'm sure she is excited to hear all about this plant finding mission of yours!"

"That's true. Thanks, Níkleua!" She bounced off, most likely in pursuit of her mother and Osric. Grinning, Val waved back at Osric, and looked back at his parents when he heard them sigh.

"I don't think that girl knows how lucky she is." Årne and Shrii said together, laughing as the synchronicity of their words sunk in.

Laughing with them, Val finished his food, and head off to bed, certain that he wouldn't get a wink of sleep. But the moment his head hit the pillow he was out. The rest of the night oblivious to him.