The Bard’s Gift officially launches tomorrow (but you can really get it now, almost everywhere).
The mead of poetry was a real element in Norse mythology. It was made by dwarves who mixed the blood of the murdered go Kvasir with honey. The dwarves gave it to a giant in payment of a blood debt. Odin stole it for the gods by tricking the giant’s daughter into letting him have three sips. In three sips, he drained the mead, turned himself into an eagle, and flew back to Asgard with the treasure.
This excerpt is all about how Astrid comes by her gift. Braggi is the Norse god of eloquence and poetry.
Astrid made her way down the long center aisle of the longhouse to her place on the wide bench. She pulled her straw pallet, blankets, and the white bear pelt out from the storage space beneath the bench, and wrapped herself up to sleep.
Warm and full, Astrid drifted quickly into sleep and into a dream. In her dream she stood on a headland, the wind off the ocean blowing her hair back from her face. But this wind was cool, not icy. She turned landward to see a broad grassy land. Hilly, but much less steep than anything she’d seen in Greenland. There were even a few clusters of trees. It certainly wasn’t any place she knew, although she could see the long hummocks of several longhouses down below. A strange bird with a long naked tail and colorful wings circled high above.
A young man walked up the slope toward her, carrying a drinking horn. Torolf? Her heart did a little flip in her chest.
Astrid started to look down out of sheer habit, but realized to her delight that her dream self wasn’t blushing. The thought of talking to Torolf didn’t scare her, either. If only she could feel this way when she wasn’t dreaming.
Her eyes narrowed as she watched the young man approach. Yes, he looked like Torolf, but also not. His face wasn’t end-of-winter pale and gaunt. His cheeks were full and ruddy and his eyes sparkled in a way she’d never seen Torolf’s do. Not that she’d met Torolf’s eyes that often. There was something else about him, though. It took her a moment to recognize it. The way he held his body, his gait as he strode forward, were not at all like Torolf. Neither was the smile he gave her as he stopped just a few feet away.
“You’re not Torolf,” she said.
The man smiled. “No. Though this form seems pleasing to you.”
“Who are you?”
“I am called Braggi.”
The name was familiar, but Astrid couldn’t quite place where she’d heard it before.
He pressed the cup into Astrid’s hands. “Drink.”
The sweet smell of fermented mead rose to her nostrils. Astrid shook her head. “I don’t drink mead.”
“This is a very special brew. Drink it, Astrid.”
Astrid wrinkled her nose. She didn’t like mead, or, more properly, she didn’t like how mead made her feel. “No, thank you.”
Braggi’s eyes almost seemed to glow. “I insist.”
She tried to push the cup back toward Braggi, but found that her arms wouldn’t move in that direction. Every attempt to push the cup away from her only resulted in bringing it closer to her lips. Braggi’s eyes seemed to bore into her.
Her arm trembled, but the liquid didn’t spill. Astrid tried to turn her head away, but that didn’t work either. Instead, her face lowered to the cup until her lips touched the rim. Her heart hammered in her chest. There was no way she was going to escape drinking this, whatever it was.
“Don’t fight it so hard, Astrid,” Braggi said. “You’ve wanted this. It will give you the ability to speak–yes, even to Torolf. It’s also for the good of your people. You must trust me on this.”
Trust was about the last thing Astrid felt. Everything she tried to do ended up as something else, as the very thing she was fighting against. She could feel sweat popping out on her upper lip. She clenched her jaw, but none of her muscles seemed to be obeying her. Instead of locking her mouth shut, the effort caused her lips to part.
The sweet smell of the mead filled her nose. She could feel the liquid against her teeth. Braggi put a hand to the bottom of the cup and tipped it upward, so the liquid filled her mouth. She would not swallow. She wouldn’t. She tried to spit the mead back out and once again her body did the opposite of what she intended. She swallowed and felt the liquid burn as it slid down her throat.
All at once, the spell or whatever it had been was broken. Astrid’s legs folded beneath her and she crumpled to the ground. She threw the cup away from her, but Braggi caught it, holding it reverently.
“Careful, Astrid. There’ll be no more of this brew until the end of the world. It wouldn’t do to spill it.” He raised the cup above his head and another hand reached down from somewhere else to take it from him.
Whatever the drink was, it was different than anything she’d tasted before. Unlike mead, this seemed to make her mind clearer, not muddled. Her body, now that it was hers again, seemed to pulse with life. “What was that?”
Braggi smiled and offered her a hand to help her stand up. “That, Astrid, was the mead of poetry. And now you will become the bard of your people. Their guide to a new and better life.”
“Me? I’m no bard.” The thought of trying to sing or speak or tell a story in front of anyone made her feel slightly queasy, even in her dream.
“You are now. When the time is right, you will know the stories your people need to hear.”
She was still shaking, but she pulled her chin up in an attempt at defiance. “And what if I don’t want to tell these stories?”
Braggi shook his head. “Oh, Astrid. There’s more of your father in you than I allowed for. You may fight us, but you can’t expect to win. In time, you’ll realize that what we do here is for your good and the good of your people. Then, maybe, you’ll accept the gift we offer with better grace.”
Although the sky was clear and there was no hint of recent rain, a rainbow appeared behind Braggi. He turned and stepped onto it as if it were a bridge to another world.