Ul’vade regarded the large raven next to him with great respect. “This bird,” he said cautiously, “assuming this is actually a heard of Odin, must be either Hugin, or Munin; Thought, or Memory.” Lorcan looked at Ul’vade warily, so he added, “As personal servants of the Allfather, they fly across all of Midgard, scouring out wisdom, experience, and new ideas, and they bring them back to Odin. Nothing nefarious.”
Lorcan looked down at the bird, which was gazing fixedly at him. “So, which one are you then? Hugin or Munin?” he asked in a bored voice.
The raven cawed loudly, which Lorcan heard, but at the same time, had the most curious thing cross his ears. Within the sound of the bird’s call, he heard it speak in perfect English. “I’m Munin, for Thor’s sake! Why does everyone ask that? We don’t even look alike!”
Lorcan jumped. He really hadn’t been expecting that, and he’d had quite enough surprises for one day as it was. No bird that he knew of, not even those of Woodland had ever spoken before. (He was also surprised that the bird could fit three whole sentences into a single CAW, but that wasn’t what he was focusing on at the moment.) He stuttered, “I-I’m sorry. I did-didn’t mean to be rude.”
Ul’vade looked confusedly at Lorcan. “What?”
Lorcan looked back at Ul’vade, incredulous. “What do you mean, ‘what?’, the bird just said his name is Munin.”
Ul’vade’s face passed through a range of emotions. Confusion, worry, then interest. He opened his mouth slightly, as if going to ask Lorcan if he felt alright, then closed his mouth, understanding dawning on his face. Awe, fear, then excitement crossed his features, and he exclaimed, “You can understand bird speech! Just like the legends! You’re already gaining powers from the dragon heart!”
“He’s right,” cawed Munin. “To have me guide you to Mimir, you needed to be able to understand me. That’s part of the reason you had to kill this dragon here.” He gestured with his wing over at the dragon skeleton close by.
“So,” began Lorcan, who had begun piecing things together, “You’re here to guide me to Mimir’s Well, and then what? I suppose you are going to ask a price as well?”
The raven turned its head to the side, as if sheepish. “Well, no, actually. Odin has his reasons for sending me to help you, and he didn’t ask for any price. Though,” he turned his head toward Ul’vade’s pack, “I wouldn’t say no to some of that venison jerky your friend has.”
Ul’vade raised his eyebrows. “What’s he saying? What does he want?”
Lorcan smiled slightly. “He’ll guide us to Mimir’s Well, but he’s asking for a price.” Ul’vade winced, and Lorcan’s smile widened. “He’s going to want that venison jerky you have.”
They set off for the Well soon afterward, following Munin through the basin, and avoiding the pools of filth and acid left by the dragon. Lorcan was a growingly uneasy as they walked however, as they didn’t seem to be heading toward any particular route out of the mountains. He was no expert, but he expected to find this Well a good distance away. It was then with great apprehension that he followed the raven closer and closer to the mouth of the dragon’s cave. He tried to protest, but he had difficulty speaking over Munin’s constant chatter. He spoke incessantly about how Odin always used him as messenger, how little he was paid, the lack of attractive female ravens in Norway, and so on. It was only as they reached the edge of the cave entrance that Munin paused for breath, and Lorcan was able to interject. “Woah there! We can’t go in there. There’s no saying what that monstrosity did to this place.”
“Nonsense! It’s most likely perfectly safe,” chided Munin. “You need to grab something in there that’ll open the door to the well. You’ll need it as a key of sorts. We had to hide the passage into the Well centuries ago. Too many mortals waltzing in and losing their minds, you understand. Can’t have the door left swinging wide open, can we?” He chuckled a little, as if he were remembering something amusing.
“What will I be looking for, some manner of ancient-looking key?” asked Lorcan.
“Hm? Oh, no, no, nothing like that. Far too obvious, and hard to carry around. No, it’ll be a ring. A powerful one at that, crafted ages ago by the dark elves, and gifted to the race of men. The power of the ring, coupled with the right phrase, will open the pathway to you.”
Lorcan hesitated. “Wait, so you aren’t actually going to guide us there?” His face hardened. “I went through all of this to receive a guide directly to the well. I don’t even have a guarantee that a ring is in there, or if it even works. How can I trust you?”
Munin sighed. “Oh humans, always so needy, always wanting everything done for you. Very well, let me clarify for you. I’ll speak slowly so you can understand. Listen, the doorway isn’t in any one place. The World Tree has openings all over the nine worlds, and they’re always moving around. If you cast the right spell, and ask the guardian of the gate politely enough, they’ll usually move their gate to you. But, you’ll need the ring to get Mimir’s attention, otherwise, you’ll just be being polite to thin air.” If a bird could grin, Munin was.
Lorcan looked skeptical. “So, that’s it? Just wear a ring, ask nicely for someone to open the door, and I find the Well?”
Munin frowned (or made the avian equivalent of a frown). Don’t think that this information is given lightly boy. Odin doesn’t allow just anyone to have the ring, or much less, enter the Well. The only reason you aren’t endlessly wandering the countryside is because the Allfather has seen fit to give you that right. For whatever reason he has, you’ve been chosen for this honor. Now, if you want to learn how to open the door, place your hand on my back. Don’t question why, I’m tired of mortal badgering.”
Lorcan tentatively placed his hand on the bird’s back, and was immediately pulled in a sideways direction. It was curious; it was not a physical movement, Lorcan could feel his body standing still, but it was as if his mind had been pulled elsewhere. He began seeing things as if in someone else’s body (He surmised that he, in fact, was), and was aware of thoughts that were distinctly different from his own. He was determined, hardened, and filled with purpose. Whoever he was, he was facing a stone wall, contemplating what he was about to do. He knew that he was about to be put through a great trial, and despite his years as a warrior, he feared it. But, he had work to do. He raised his fist, and pointed it at the wall, and spoke a phrase, something that he faintly recognized as Old Norse. Something on his fist that Lorcan could not see began gleaming bright gold, and a blue light sprang into existence on the wall. The blue light shaped itself into lines and curves, creating a door-shaped space on the wall…
The vision faded, and Lorcan’s mind was pulled back into his own body. Lorcan gasped, and pulled away from Munin, his heart racing. “That,” said Munin,” was a memory. That’s kind of a specialty of mine. One of your ancestors was in possession of the ring, and he too sought wisdom from Mimir’s waters. He, though quite strong, didn’t survive the test.” Munin’s voice was serious. “He went mad, and in the end took his own life. We’ll see if you do better. Now, if you don’t mind, I have other things to do.” With that, Munin cawed once more, flapped his wings vigorously, and took off.
Ul’vade and Lorcan looked at each other uncertainly. Both gazed into the cave, which smelled as strongly as it was dark. Ul’vade exhaled exasperatedly. “So, that was a rather one-sided conversation, but I gather that we have to find a ring in there, say the magic words, and the door to Mimir’s Well will appear. Anything else I should know?”
Lorcan shrugged, trying to dispel Munin’s words about his ancestor going mad. “Well, there’s an astonishing lack of attractive female ravens in the area.”
Ul’vade laughed. “Oh, poor bird.” He gestured into the cave. “If you’re feeling alright, shall we?”
Nodding, Lorcan cracked his knuckles. “We should have died horrible deaths about 4 or 5 times already, and I don’t suppose our odds are any worse in there. Let’s move.”
Without further waiting, the two quickly strode into the cave. They would have been walking in complete darkness, had it not been for Ul’vade’s quick thinking. At the edge of the light reaching into the cave, he found the rib bone of some creature, as well as some tattered cloth (Lorcan tried to tell himself that they were not human clothes). He wrapped the bone in the cloth, dipped it into a pool of stagnant acid, and lit it on fire. The flame burned a peculiar purple hue, but did provide consistent illumination, and made their journey much easier. They used their tunics to cover their mouths and noses, trying to lessen the decaying smell of the dank, wet air. After what felt like a half hours’ walk, the torch began to die, and the two began to fear, lest they be left in total darkness. Just as Lorcan was about to suggest they leave, however, they came upon a large shape ahead of them.
They had reached the end of the cave, and something huge lay in against the back wall. It was a pile of come cloth-like material, strewn about haphazardly or piled up in the center of the passage. Ul’vade looked at it interestedly. “I think this is some kind of…nest. I would assume that this is normally where the dragon’s hoard of gold would be, but I assume he didn’t really have any.”
Lorcan smiled drily. “A peasant dragon?”
Ul’vade laughed. He mumbled to himself, “peasant dragon…” as he stepped forward to inspect the nest. He reached out and touched the material, then wrinkled his nose. “I…I think this is skin. The beast must have shed from time to time, and built a nest from the remains.”
“Skin?” asked Lorcan, a slightly disgusted look on his face. “Do you mean that my…father…became a dragon slowly? Like a…I don’t know… like a butterfly from a cocoon?”
“I would warrant that it was a lot less beautiful than a butterfly,” said Ul’vade, “but I think you have about the right idea.” He turned the skin over in his hands, talking to himself. “Pity, no dragon scales left over. Skin could still be useful though.” He turned to Lorcan. “I assume the dragon would have kept whatever valuables it had in the nest. I’ll hoist you up, and you can look for the ring inside.”
“Alright,” grumbled Lorcan. He let Ul’vade give him a leg up, and climbed the unruly, shifting skin. As he reached over the edge of the nest, he rolled into the nest, doing his best to cover his face. Fortunately, he didn’t have to look long for the ring. In the middle of the nest, there came a faint gold gleam that stood out amongst the black folds of shed skin. Lorcan edged his way over to it, trying not to fall over on the unstable surface. He reached into the skin, pulling away strips of it, an uncovered a familiar gold ring, which he grabbed. It was one of the rings his father had always worn. It bore what Lorcan had always thought to be the MacBroin crest: a diamond shape, with weaving lines forming square-like designs throughout. He had always hated this ring, as he had been struck by it many times as he grew up. But, it turned out it had magic, so he needed it.
It was with relief that Lorcan climbed down the side of the nest, and landed next to Ul’vade. “Did you get it?” asked Ul’vade eagerly. As Lorcan handed him the ring, he inhaled sharply, fascinated. “This is a Norse rune!” Lorcan looked pointedly at him, so he added, “This is the rune for Yggdrasil. It’s quite powerful, I can feel it. This was meticulously crafted.” He handed the ring back to Lorcan. “If ever there was an object that could open a Yggdrasil gateway, this would be it. Do you remember the phrase to open the door?”
Lorcan nodded. He turned to face the wall, and put the ring on. It glowed brightly for a moment, and Lorcan felt a wave of peculiar energy move through him. He paused for a moment, interested, but realized he didn’t have much time to wonder. Their torch was going out, and he didn’t want to risk this ring not working. He pointed his fist at the wall, and said loudly, “Mimir, åpne døren din. Jeg søker visdom i din brønn, og jeg er villig til å betale prisen.”
The ring glowed brightly, and a blue light began to emanate from the wall. The shape of a door formed, the light tracing glowing lines on the rock, creating a large doorway, inlaid with runes and letters that Lorcan didn’t understand. As the shape was completed, the rock it covered disappeared, opening into a huge cavern within. Determined, Lorcan strode through the opening, Ul’vade close behind, and walked into a cavern, illuminated by daylight, which streamed through small openings in the ceiling far above.
In front of them stood a large statue, or rather, a large head of a statue. It was very well made, and carried a strong, scrutinizing look in its face. Behind it lay a vast pool of water, deeper than they could see. As they approached the stone head, glowing runes appeared on the ground in front of them. Ul’vade translated, “Seeker of wisdom, should you wish to drink from the well, you must pay tribute to me.” Ul’vade read the next part, and flinched. He said reluctantly, “The price of the Son of the Raven, is to endure a flyting.”
Lorcan looked confused. “Wh-what’s a flyting? It’s not…maiming, is it?”
Ul’vade shook his head miserably. “Perhaps it would be better if it was. A flyting is an ancient Norse tradition. It’s a formal challenge of insults between two parties. The two insult and degrade each other’s honor until one breaks. But, if it says you need to ‘endure’ a flyting, you won’t be able to respond. You’ll only stand and take a barrage of insults…from a god.”
“Oh.” Lorcan’s eyes widened. He tried to look hopeful. “This isn’t likely to…kill me though, right? I mean, I’ll still be in one piece, and I’ll be able to take the water.”
Shaking his head worriedly, Ul’vade looked at Lorcan. “Physically, a flyting won’t hurt you, but you may end up wishing it had killed you. This…this is meant to tear you to your core. The gods themselves received a flyting at the hands of Loki, and they were deeply affected by it.” He placed a hand on Lorcan’s shoulder. “If the depression doesn’t drive you insane, you won’t be the same person.”
Lorcan closed his eyes, bracing his spirit. ‘It’s not like there’s much worth celebrating in the first place,’ he thought. He let out a long breath, and looked up into the eyes of the stone head. “There’s no other way. Mimir! I accept your price!”
No sooner had the words left his lips, than the statue opened its eyes, glowing bright blue. A strong wind blew around Lorcan, tearing at him, and pulling Ul’vade away, and pushing him against a stalagmite, where he stood, alarmed and silent. He wouldn’t be able to help here. This was something he had to face alone. The wind subsided, and a voice called from behind Lorcan, “Well, look what you’ve done this time.”
Lorcan wheeled around to see, once again, himself, standing a short distance away, eyeing him with contempt. But this wasn’t like Haute. It was very much like himself, but a younger self, exactly as he had been years ago as a boy in Shalemont. He was pale, almost sickly, thin, and bored-looking. He had a dead look in his eyes, as if nothing around him interested him. He looked at Lorcan, smiled sardonically, and said, “Well, it looks like you’ve screwed up. Again. I honestly didn’t think you could sink any lower, but here you are.”
Lorcan tried to open his mouth, but found it magically sealed shut. His younger self said, “Oh, don’t try. You’re just supposed to listen.” He looked Lorcan up and down. “So, you’re showing your true colors now? You know why this has all happened, right?” Lorcan, now that he thought about it, he knew exactly what was happening to him. He supposed that he had known all along, but hadn’t wished to think about it. He didn’t know how his transformation happened, but he knew why. Young Lorcan continued, “This…thing that you’ve become, it’s not really a stranger to you, is it? It’s not a curse, it’s a revelation. This…this is the real you, the side of you that no one sees. Green, ugly, dangerous, greedy, comfortable in darkness, that’s the real Lorcan MacBroin. It’s funny that your skin is green, isn’t it? Oh, but your friend doesn’t seem to get the joke. You’ve turned green with envy!” His younger self laughed coldly. “Isn’t magic poetic like that?”
He strode up to Lorcan, staring him right in the face, his tone dark and disgusted. “You’ve always wanted what you don’t deserve. You want a warm welcome back to Woodland? As if they had any reason to miss you. You want more skill with a sword, more influence, more wealth, more popularity? Why? You never worked for it. There’s nothing special about you. You’re just another speck in the universe. All that you’ve done, all that you are, it doesn’t matter at all. You’re an ant among giants, Lorcan. And you know that. You’ve just been trying to delude yourself otherwise. You want the whole world to pander to you, make you feel loved, pat you on the back, ignore your mistakes, shout praises to your name around the weekly bonfire.” He smiled cruelly. “For a priest, you try awfully hard to make others think you’re a god.”
This pale, cruel version of Lorcan was digging deep into him. ‘He’s right,’ thought Lorcan, miserably. ‘I always wanted what wasn’t mine. What right did I ever have to think I deserved anything?’ But still, the apparition continued. “Oh! But I’d forgotten! A priest! The monastery!” ‘No,’ thought Lorcan, ‘please, not this.’ “You rode on the shoulders of those better than you, as long as you’ve been around people. Dorian, for example. The kind one, the smart one, the popular one. Lexaeus, the loyal, strong, self-sacrificing. William, the wise and soft-spoken. So on, and so forth.” His expression turned dark and angry. “And you let them all die.”
“NO!” cried Lorcan, breaking free of the enchantment. He looked desperately at Ul’vade. “That’s not what happened! I…I…” his voice faltered, and he hung his head down. “I tried to save them. I…I did everything I could.”
His younger self laughed, his face completely devoid of mirth. “Save them? You ran at the first opportunity, and you let your friends sacrifice themselves for you, one by one.” His face changed, taking on the forms of Lorcan’s friends, one by one, each wearing the same look of accusation a betrayal. “You let your friends die, and your home burn. And you’ll do it again. This precious Woodland? When it comes down to it, you’ll let your ‘friends’ die for you, and justify it by saying ‘There’s nothing I could have done,’ and you’ll let the forest burn. And you, completely unscathed, once again, will just slip away, and find something else to ruin. All these people you envy; you call them dear friends to their faces, but you hate and scorn behind their backs, because they have everything you lust after.
Tears streamed down Lorcan’s cheeks. Who had he been kidding? He had never been worthy of the Terrasylvans. This creature he’d become? It’s true, it was the real him. Why had he been so jealous of others? They had earned what they had, and he should have been happy for them. Hadn’t he been given plenty? Was it not more than he deserved? ‘And,’ he thought, ‘he dragged Ul’vade into this. Ul’vade, who could be enjoying the woods, joking and laughing with comrades around the fire, protecting innocent people. He had put Ul’vade through one danger after another, making him risk his life to save someone who wasn’t worth saving.’ Lorcan looked up at Ul’vade, and sobbed “I’m sorry Ul’vade. I’m so sorry for everything.”
Young Lorcan cackled. “How very much like your father you are, crying and begging.” He made a mocking impression of a man with his hands together in the air, begging. “No, please don’t leave me my love! I’ll never strike Lorcan again! I’ll never drink again, I promise! Oh, please forgive me, please!” He lowered his hands. “So on and so on. Pathetic. Like father, like son. You know? Your grandfather was an abusive drunkard too. Beat your father every day, really made him look like a saint by comparison. Made your father just like himself. I wonder if you’ll be the same way? I mean, assuming you don’t complete your transformation into a dragon. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll just die alone and forgotten, drinking yourself to death.
“Stop…stop…” wept Lorcan. He was just like his father. Worse even. Surely, he had to be the most wretched thing to ever draw breath on this earth.
“The MacBroins have always been a disgrace,” continued the pale boy. “They have always been liars cowards, and failures. You though, are the crowning jewel. You’ll always be the pale, sniveling boy waiting for mother to come back.”
Lorcan knelt, weeping bitterly, letting his tears fall on the ground, making a small echo in the silent cavern. The pale boy knelt down next to Lorcan, and whispered, “You will always fail to do what’s right. You’ll see. When the time comes, and you’re faced with a choice between doing what’s right, and saving yourself, you will always choose yourself, and those around you will suffer the consequences.” With that, the younger, pale Lorcan faded away like mist, leaving him to sob and curse himself.
Ul’vade, now freed from the power constraining him, quietly stepped over to Lorcan, but kept a few feet away to allow him some privacy. It was a long time before either of them moved. They just stayed where they were; one, looking with pity on the other, and one, wishing for oblivion to fall on him and hide his shame. Finally, Lorcan unshouldered his pack, rummaged around in it for a moment, and pulled out a large bottle. He slowly stood up, not showing his face, and walked over to the pool of water. He knelt, uncorked the bottle, and dipped it in the pool. He filled it, corked it again, and turned around.
Lorcan walked slowly back to Ul’vade with his head down. The skin of the hand clutching the bottle seemed more reptilian now, more scale-like. Lorcan’s eyes now gave off a faint golden glow, just like his father’s had as the dragon. He lifted the bottle slightly, showing it to Ul’vade. “I have the water,” he said, his voice raspy and unnatural. “Let’s…let’s finish this.”