Image by Michael Marshall Smith
The fog had settled in the valley. The contours of The Great Tree were visible and the blue hue seemed to vibrate with potential, with magic. I could feel it in every bone in my body. My skull was ready to explode as I rode down the mountain. The slope was steep, but my steed was exceptionally well equipped for the difficult landscape. I knew I’d find what I sought down there, the excitement never left my body, kept my attention sharp and my heart pounding in my chest.
This was The Ash. This was The Tree and the valley would bring me the wisdom I sought.
Have you ever wanted something so badly that you would do anything to get it? Anything at all?
I was a man on a mission. My long, black hair a clear symbol of the years I had spent seeking this place. My mission was that of a madman, I knew that, but that didn’t slow me down the least.
The Ash is something you never get used to, no matter how often you lay your eyes on it. The tree at the centre of the Universe. Its branches endlessly reaching to the far edges of the world. I had sought for the well for so long, vowing not to cut my hair before the wisdom of the blue water could be mine and now there I was.
It was all I longed for, all I wanted, because while my people thought that all the power you needed could be found in large muscles and in swinging a sword I knew that true power came with wisdom and so after mastering the skill of the swordsman I went to seek what I lacked.
Sleipnir took me down to the valley without a problem. The large mountains surrounding me looked insurmountable. The valley was quiet, the blue fog hiding anything but the bare outlines of The Ash. I leapt of the horse, caressed his mane to let him know that he could roam free. He would hear me calling if I needed him. He whinnied and sped off, kicking his hind legs in a quiet greeting.
I couldn’t see any life at first which surprised me, but then I noticed the ravens in the sky. A flock of birds resided high up in the trees surrounding The Great Ash.
I walked around, trying to locate the spring. The blue hue engulfed me and the warmth made me drop the fur I was wearing on my upper body. I also took off my footwear. It felt natural to go about this place wearing just linen pants.
The fog was thick and it emanated from the spring. The growth seemed determined to keep me at bay. I had left the sword with the rest of my belongings, this wasn’t a place for weaponry, this was a place for cunning and so I carefully avoided the plants that looked poisonous, but still had to tear my way through to the water.
Slowly I found my way over grass, bushes and through some birch trees. The water poured out of the earth, ran down a slight slope creating a small but beautiful waterfall that fell into the well. I wanted to bathe in the creek, I wanted to soak up the knowledge I hoped this spring could give me.
I knew it wasn’t that easy though. If I leapt into the water without permission even my bones would dissolve and I would simply be absorbed by the water. I would simply become a part of its potential, a thing out of myself. A none thinking essence in a powerful world.
I found Mímir on the other side of the spring. Or what was left of him, which was just the head. He was lying in the grass, grotesque sinews and a bone sticking out of the neck it stood on. Mímir’s severed head.
I approached it with caution. I didn’t have my weapon with me and I missed it because though I didn’t think I’d need it I was still rattled by the sight of the severed head of someone I revered so highly.
“I’ve heard so much about you,” I started.
“You’ve come for the wisdom? What is your name?” he asked, the mouth moving, his eyes glaring.
“I go by many names,” I told him. Hoping to impress him somewhat. “They call me Bragi. They call me Víðir. They call me Yggur.”
“They call you Óðinn, the mad one, the poet,” he said and I could but nod my head.
“If you want to drink from the water there are two things you need to do. You need to find the secret of the runes and you will need to sacrifice something in return.”
“The secret of the runes?” I said. “How can I find the secret of the runes without tasting the water first?”
Seeing the severed head laugh at me was more than I could take and I had to gather all my mental strength not to kick the head far into the blue haze.
“You show me your resilience and I grant you the wisdom,” he told me.
I looked into the water. It was crystal clear, the blue hue seemed to promise answers, images appeared and disappeared but I couldn’t make it out from where I stood.
I sat down to contemplate things for a while. The Ash was beautiful, reflecting in the spring. One of its roots stood in the middle of the spring. I knew there were others, but they were in different places, in different springs. Its magnificent branches stretched out over everything around us.
Suddenly I knew what I had to do.
It was crazy, but only the wisdom of a madman can bring you ideas so astonishingly disturbing that they might work. I took off my linen pants and found the place closest to the root of The Ash. Then I ran and jumped over the water I knew would kill me if I failed and I grabbed onto the branches. Once I was there, I held on to my dear life while I tied my feet to the tree, then I swung down to look into the water.
I hung there. The tips of my hair alarmingly close to the surface of the water. At first I noticed things around me, like Mímir sighing on the bank. I didn’t know if it was in awe, or if it was to express alarm over my madness. I didn’t care. I was on to something.
At first all I could see below me was haziness. I could as well have sat down comfortably on the bank and stared into the blue fog that surrounded everything in the valley, the cloud tufts floating around aimlessly.
Then I started seeing shapes and I saw figures. The longer I hung there the clearer the images seemed to become. My body was throbbing, aching from the strain of hanging upside down. It’s an unnatural position, a torturer’s weapon, but it was the only way to see clearly what I needed to see.
I saw the symbols starting to form in the water, slowly I saw them appear and I wanted to plunge down and grab a hold of them, though I knew that to be lethal. I tried to write the shapes I saw, in my minds eye, I tried to write their shapes and comprehend their meaning but to no avail.
Women cackling. I’d seen them before, the three awe inspiring sisters. The witches who guard the fate of humanity and make the muddy brew that keeps The Ash alive. Once each morning they arrive with their bringers, not from the valley but from underneath the spring, crawling out of the water hands first. The first one seemed ordinary at first, her body oozing out of the water, voluptuous flesh, sores on her hands and knees, her face seemed stuck in a grotesque grimace, her nose long and crow like, the dark-grey hair hanging in tufts around her shoulders and on her back. I knew her name to be Urður.
The next one was beautiful, blond shiny hair, beautiful pouty lips, loins that would make any man mad and a smile on her lips that seemed kind and forgiving. Verðandi. She was a bit bow-legged and on her face I saw a scar, as if someone had tried to carve runes on her face but not cut deep enough.
The last one was grotesque and her body wasn’t tangible. She seemed to float out of the water as if she was a part of it, she was quick and she had a terrifying visage. I knew her to be Skuld, the most intimidating of the three sisters.
They were all wearing white capes with hoods and this clothing seemed to show off and hide their bodies at the same time. This aroused me, it was like seeing their whole being without seeing anything at all.
“Look sisters,” Verðandi said, “There is a man hanging by the feet in The Ash.” She laughed, her laughter sounded like music, soft and soothing.
“Sturdy looking fella,” Urður said. She was the oldest of the sisters, her wrinkles showed sign of resignation and wisdom and for a while I was sure the secret I sought could be read on her skin. If I could only lay it out and read it like a scroll.
“You can lay her down,” Skuld cackled at me as if she’d read my mind, “and maybe in the act you can read her body, but that won’t be all you do.” Her sisters laughed with her.
They went about their business. Smearing the root of the ash with the goo they had brought with them. When they were finished I could hear the third one whisper to Mímir, “Do you condone this? Or is he a madman?”
“I don’t see how one excludes the other,” Mímir said. “He’s certainly quite mad, but I like his style.”
Skuld didn’t so much swim as float over towards me, I couldn’t see her clearly but I felt her gaze upon me.
“He’s not mad, nothing I see indicates madness,” she said. “He’s different, but there’s no madness there, just determination and something else as well, exclusion, sadness? No, I can’t tell.” She swept up towards me and I could feel her weightless, aerial body clinging towards me. She tickled me, aroused me and left me, not with a giggle but with a sigh.
Her sisters stood down in the water, watching. Then the three of them wordlessly vanished down into the water again.
For a moment after they vanished I thought I saw the magic I needed to learn written on the water and I reached out to touch it, as if I could claw the symbol out of the succulent surface. The pain I felt when a single drop of water touched my skin was immense. I pulled back my hand, like a burned child I wailed in horror as I saw the skin dissolve on the finger, the bone protruded and I half expected it to vanish too and the wound to grow until there was nothing left of me.
I screamed. I don’t know if I stopped screaming all the while I hung there. I saw the symbols again on the surface of the water, the liquid transforming at will, taunting me.
I heard Urður and Skuld laugh. Verðandi looked displeased however. She looked sympathetic almost.
I hung there until life seemed to drain out of me. I saw visions before me. The women crawling out of the water again and again and with each time their visage seemed to become more and more hideous. Their cackling louder and their insistence and innuendoes clearer. Then I started seeing more things in the water. The women and their abode, the way they wrote symbols in the air. I saw Verðandi chanting and for a while I thought she was teaching me, that she was telling me the truth about the runes. I saw her write them again and again in the surface of the water, reaching up to write and in my minds eye I tried to mimic her movements. I saw the truth in the symbols and I saw the töfrar surrounding the rune. I didn’t always understand but I grasped something, something intuitive, corporeal and insubstantial at the same time. I was learning the ways of her magic, it comes instinctively with the words, it comes with the poetry of the runes and not with hard wisdom.
I hung in The Great Ash for a long time. The head of Mímir was quiet, but the sisters were there all the time. If not crawling out of the water then down below, going about their business. Verðandi teaching me everything she could, and then asking her sisters for support. She had taken pity on me, I don’t know why, and on the ninth day I could almost feel realisation enter my body as if it was a symbiosis of some kind, finding a host.
I started writing the runes in the air around me. Practicing like the madman I was as I hung there from the tree’s branches upside down. I hadn’t had food nor drink for nine days but my mind was clear. I was halfway there. I grasped the essence of what I needed to know to be able to drink from the spring of Mímis Well and I saw the runes whispering in the air around me, they turned to fire and vanished before my eyes.
In the evening he opened his mouth for the first time since the day I arrived.
“You have shown yourself worthy. Now what you need to do is make a sacrifice and in doing so you will receive a form of sixth sense. Drink from the well Óðinn and be ready.
I could hardly hear him, so I hung there until Verðandi came crawling out of the water. She raised herself into the air and cut the pants I was tied with, a single swipe of her fingernail and I plummeted down. The fabric tore in two and I plunged down into the water, screaming with fear of the poisonous liquid.
And as mesmerising as it had been to see the truth of the runes appear before me, to finally grasp, it was nothing compared to the sensation the water gave.
“Only drink a mouthful,” Mímir told me from up above. But I was immersed in the water. I swam in it. I felt it surround my body, rejuvenate me and then I let a mouthful in between my lips and swallowed.
This is how men become gods! Not with a lightning strike but with a stroke of pure luck and the help of good people. Verðandi swam with me in the water, her hair flowing around me as I tried to grasp the thing happening inside me.
It can’t be described with words, it can’t be described with runes either though they come closer to the essence of what I felt. The outlines of the most revered spell bound in rune is powerful, but nothing compared to that sensation.
It was pure bliss, bliss in the face of the knowledge I felt in my bones more than I could form as ideas in my mind yet.
“It is not enough to taste the water,” Mímir said after I’d enjoyed myself for quite a while, floating around in Verðandi’s arms was something quite exquisite.
But now it was time to pay the price and I knew what I had to do. They didn’t need to spell it out for me, they didn’t have to tell me.
I climbed out of the water, looked over The Great Ash one last time and then I turned to face the haze. Verðandi lay her arm on my shoulder and handed me the knife. I felt her arm continuously on my shoulder, demanding and soothing at the same time.
The pain wasn’t the worst part. Digging into your own flesh, to pry your eye out of your own socket is deprived, mad and intolerable. The sensation of loosing a sense of depth overwhelmed me. I fell into the grass, bleeding from my eye socket and the drops of blood had to be tears enough. Then I tore at the eye and threw it into the water.
I could feel it slowly sinking, finding the bottom, right below the root of The Great Ash. I could feel it being absorbed by the water and as I sat there on the banks of the well of Mímir I felt deprived and privileged at the same time. I had lost depth, but found a dimension.
And I rose to my feet, not merely a man, but a god. Not an almighty one with demands and rules, but one with the capabilities of fending for his people. One with wisdom to guide and with the runes, the poetry and the magic the women had shown me to pave my way. Verðandi stood beside me, her arms raised in the air. Her sister Skuld stood beside her, her outlines uncertain and her visage grim. Then they held hands and pointed to the sky. The ravens were flocking.
“You get two,” Verðandi said.
“They will be your eyes and ears,” Skuld whispered. And two of the birds came flying by, they flew in three circles around us and then they sat themselves down on each of my shoulders.
I was terrified that they’d start picking at the wound, picking at my bleeding eye socket, but instead I heard whispers and I saw images, a birdlike view of the women beside me. Skuld suddenly became more substantial, tangible, not more humane, but real and even somewhat desirable.
I spent some time with them on the banks of Mímirs spring. A time well spent. And I fell in love with Verðandi, not because of her beauty but because of her understanding and her spontaneity. She’s a woman far out of my reach, a witch of no extraordinary means and a beautiful creature and though I see the worth in her sisters as well I will never have as much reverence for them as I have for her. The woman who saved me from myself, the one who showed me the way and paved way for what was to come. The woman who saw something great in my madness.
Mímir bid me farewell with reverence and told me to seek his guidance when I needed it. The witches cackled at me, said I would serve their purpose and I guess that’s the way it is and not the other way around. Then I whistled for Sleipnir, found my gear and rode out of the valley, without pants I might add – as only a god can do with dignity. On top of the mountain I looked over the valley one last time. The blue fog covered everything, the contours of The Ash looked like a silhouette of a monster and I saw the birds again. Huginn and Muninn flew high above, gracing me with their tales and their whispers.
I’m a rich man, with a strange fate, a god if you will. And I will lead my people, stride up against the Ragnarrök that I know is coming. Skuld has shown me images, but Verðandi soothes me with her promise, not of tomorrow, but that of today.