Day 6, Jotunheim: "I am the lost child of the Iron Wood."
I crossed over in Jotunheim in the morning, sad to leave Vanaheim behind. Everything here is so huge....the trees are enormous, incredibly tall, big enough to carve houses into, which many folk seem to have done. The mountains are easily as big as the biggest ones I've seen, and I've seen the Alps. I came out onto a large, heavily rutted road, with wagons traveling up and down, one every ten minutes or so, loaded with Jotun folk, hay, and animals. I figured that wherever they were headed was probably civilization, or what passes for it in Jotunheim, so I followed them. They gave me some curious looks, but didn't call out or engage me.
I never got all the way into Utgard. Instead, I ended up at the guard encampment on its outskirts, and spent the day among the guards. I hadn't been on the road for more than twenty minutes when I was "pulled over", as it were, by a cadre of tall, heavily armed Jotun, all wearing the same badge, which seemed to be as much of a uniform as they get around here. They asked my business, and I showed my tattoo and told them that I was a shaman, and Hel's Own, and that I was on my way to Utgard, and then to the Iron Wood. That surprised them, and they stood back. I think they would have let me go then, but I asked if they could guide me to Utgard. They stopped off at the encampment outside the city - we could see its stone walls rising up close behind, and smell quite the odor - and I decided to stay there instead.
They were a rough sort, but I figured that they ought to have decent advice as to where was safe to go… and besides, it was a safe place to spend the day. I impressed them by having my "invisible servant" deliver meat and whiskey to them; I promised to bring some, and then the lunch bell rang down at the hermitage - Josh was bringing food. "There it is," I said, and fetched up a leg of mutton cooked with onions. Joshua had thought to add a bottle of Jack Daniels; it was what he thought that Jotuns might like. I don't know if all Jotuns would have liked it (although I suspect so), but it was just the ticket for the guard encampment. They warmed to me immediately after that.
The guard regiment of Utgard are both male and female, seemingly all living together without trouble. I sang for them until evening. When they found out that I was going to the land of the dead, they were excited and insisted that I take messages to their loved ones. I memorized what names and messages I could, and then started taking notes. The most poignant one was from a young male giant with a snubbed nose and a bulldog-like face who was grieving the loss of his lover. I wasn't clear on how recently she had died, but his companions were chiding him for having lost his spirit, and being unable to fight due to mooning around after her. He said that her spirit was haunting him, and he needed her to set him free.
We also talked about things, and they gave me advice and information, from their perspective anyway. The Iron Wood, according to them, is where the cannibalistic barbarians live. Much of Jotunheim is reasonably civilized (or nearly unpopulated), but the tribes of the Iron Wood live in a rougher style. They are shorter than most Jotun, not much more than human height, and often deformed monsters, or half-beast, or werebeast. The place is a sinkhole of magic, and they way they spoke of it was almost as if it was radioactive. It creates both deformed mutants and gods; the monsters come out of there, as do the Jotun deities. Mama Hel was born there, to Angrboda, the Hagia of the Iron Wood. My bloodline, according to Loki, leads back to that place.
I also got some information about the sort of animals that populate the place. According to the guards, the animals of Jotunheim are much bigger than those of Midgard. As they described them, I recognized creatures that once walked our world, before the time of humans. They may have long died out here, but they still live in Jotunheim.....the megafauna. The woolly mammoth elephants, the great cave bears, the dire wolves, the sabertooth. Different Jotun tribes and clans have different megafauna totem animals. One, particularly big and shaggy, boasted of his clan's mammoth totem. He smacked the earth with his club as he spoke.
As evening drew on, a tall Jotun dressed in black came down to see me. I could tell by the way that the guards moved that he was important. He wasn't dressed any finer than them - fairly understated, actually - but as he walked in, they moved aside and came to attention in a way that was clearly trying to downplay the fact that they were coming to attention. They closed in behind him as if protecting his back. I knew without being told that he was the guy in charge, the Lord of Utgard. Did that mean that he was Utgard-Loki, the sorcerer? I don't know, but he politely asked if I was the utlander shaman, and would I be willing to soothsay for him? I was startled, but the On Duty light seemed to be rather permanently on, so of course I agreed and got out my runes.
The question took me aback. According to him, in the past several years - I was unclear on how time in Jotunheim lines up with us - there had been a steady rise in outlanders coming into his realm and wandering about, often bothering Jotunfolk who were just going about their business. By outlanders, he clearly meant outworlders, people like me. Probably journeyers. He wanted to know what was to be done with them: should he try to create alliances (against the Aesir, was the unspoken fine print to that), or run them off, or declare it tourist season (as in deer season, or squirrel season) and let his folk have at them? The answers, according to my reading, were that there would be few alliances - most of the folk have put themselves on the side of the Aesir - but that he shouldn't have them killed without judging them on an individual basis. He thanked me and left without comment.
We, in our arrogance, think that the Nine Worlds exist for us, just as we mistakenly think that they revolve around Midgard. We think that all their denizens exist to entertain or educate or inform us, and that they are timeless and eternal. That we interact with them, but they do not interact with us. We couldn't be more wrong. The Lord's request showed that they are aware of us, that our intrusions disturb their world. Of course, in Jotunheim, I had little worry that our foolish curiosity-seekers would disturb things too badly, or they'd just get astrally killed and eaten. Tchippakan commented later that it would do some folk good to get eaten by giants.
As it grew dark, I took my leave of the Utgard encampment, and headed off in the direction of the Iron Wood. Took me over two hours of crashing through the woods to get there, but I finally came out in a clearing that I managed to line up with our field., except our field is flat and this was the sloped and rocky side of a mountain. The full moon hadn't yet reached above the level of the trees, and somehow it seemed important to me that I make no move until I could see it. So I huddled cold on the mountainside, in my leather jacket with the furs attached, holding a bowl of organ meats that Josh had sent down for an offering. It felt like hours that I waited there, getting colder and more scared. Waiting is great for letting your mind play tricks on you. Why am I doing this? I asked myself. What the heck do I think I'm going to find here? I'm a human, fergodssake. I will not smell right, and they won't believe that I have their blood in me. Besides, I still have to find Mimir's Well before the night's up. This is ridiculous.
I heard the dinner bell, but I stayed longer, telling myself that I could eat after I'd dealt with this. But the moon took forever to come up, and I finally chickened out. It's no big deal, I told myself. I'll go eat and go see Mimir, and that will be enough. After all, I rationalized, if Josh has left me fire on the doorstep as he usually does, I'd better go make sure that it's taken care of before it goes out. The predator in me, the bloodthirsty part of me that I restrain so well behind so many iron bars, grumbled and snarled as I walked back. Coward, he said. Coward. If you won't do it, let me do it. Let me out and I'll take care of the Iron Wood.
Out of the question, I told him, gritting my teeth, and made my way back to the hermitage. As I'd been afraid of, there was a candle on the steps getting dangerously low. After my first night, when I'd accidentally knocked over the candle and put it out, and had to eat my dinner in darkness and go straight to sleep, I learned to immediately light the punched-tin lantern and the oil lamp as soon as the flame arrived. Make more fire immediately, was my lesson. I took care of that, and then noticed that there were extra baskets. Dinner was some extravagant Indian food Josh had cooked for me, and there was a basket of gifts for Svartalfheim that everyone had picked out - chocolate eyeballs, a lovely red glass apple with a "smash me" feel to it, and a bottle of Crown Royal for the duergar. And there were notes from my daughter, and Julie, and Lydia, and Nahi, and of course Joshua. Various people were promising to send me energy and give me what aid they could. Even Thomas, who is Christian and admitted that mine was a very foreign land, offered energy of pure intention for my use.
I ate ferociously, and then laid out my cloak on the bed and cast runes on the section of the map that was the Iron Wood. The central rune, representing me, was Os - the speaker, the divinely inspired God-Mouth. The problem was Tyr, the warrior. I was specifically told by Hel not to journey with armor or weapons on this trip - I assume because that's like going out with "Looking For A Fight" tattooed on your forehead - and I was basically unarmed, but I smelled a fight of some sort coming. I laid out two runes for my resources, and got Fehu (wealth) and Gyfu (gift). I looked at the notes and the basket, and knew exactly what that meant: My value is measured by the gifts that I am given. I know that I am something damn special, because that many people think that I am worth all that effort......so I had best get my ass out there and deal with those barbarians, because they're counting on me to do this Right, and that's part of it. I almost cried, and I ended up laughing instead.
Besides, said my predator, we don't want to have to face Mimir after an act of cowardice.
So I marched back to the field, and back to that empty hillside, and the moon was up over the trees, casting a white glow on half the field. Dogs were howling - lots of dogs - in my world. I would later ask my family if they'd heard anything, and got a negative, but I swear that the howling started in my world, and then began in Jotunheim. So I howled myself, and they howled back....and then the dark shapes began to come out of the woods.
They stayed in the darkened part of the field, out of the moonlight - I don't know why I thought the moon would give me an advantage - and they surrounded me, slowly. I could smell them, wet fur and leather and smoke. I could barely see them in the dark, but there was something a little off about nearly all of them, some not-quite-normal way of moving or being shaped. Some were clearly half beast, with hair covering their face and body. Let me out, said my internal predator. Let me out. I'll handle this.
I've never fully let him out, and I didn't intend to now. No, I told him. This will require diplomacy. You're not diplomatic. You're a killer.
You don't know what kind of diplomacy they use here, he snarled, but at that moment something else distracted me. One of the larger ones - I don't know how I knew he was male, maybe the smell - suddenly shifted shape to something big and shaggy and canine-like, and then, before I could say a single word, he jumped me.
Or at least he tried to jump me. I'm still not sure how it was managed, but before he was halfway to me, still in mid-leap, my internal predator pushed out the bars of his cage and took over. Actually, it was more like the bars suddenly weren't there any more. I asked him later how that happened, and he wouldn't tell me, he just implied that it had to do with the radioactive magic of the Iron Wood. I'd shapeshifted before - the astral body, not the physical body - but I'd never shapeshifted so grindingly fast, or so violently. A growl and a high yelping sound that was utterly unlike anything canine tore itself from my throat, and suddenly I was bigger than my attacker. Much bigger. I hit him before he hit me, and knocked him to the ground, and got my teeth in his throat. He yelped, sounding very canine, and my predator let him go. He slipped out from under me and moved quickly away, shifting back to a humanoid form. It came to me that this had been a challenge, a test of my mettle, not a lethal attack. It was a test of strength, although it probably would have gone badly had they found me wanting. Diplomacy indeed.
I shoved my predator back, shapeshifted back, and stood up. Now was the time to speak, and the words just came out of my raspy throat. I took off my jacket, held up my arm, and showed my tattoo. "I am the lost child of the Iron Wood," I called out to the circle of predators. "I've come here seeking my birthright. Speak to me of my birthright!"
They closed in again, but this time it was not to attack me. They sniffed me, touched me, stroked my pelt, made murmuring noises that slowly resolved themselves into words. "Your birthright is the taste of blood." "Your birthright is the moon among the clouds." "Your birthright is the scream and the leap." "Your birthright is the loyalty of the pack, the protection of the tribe." "Your birthright is the scent of carrion." "Your birthright is the heart of Jotunheim."
They moved away, as silently as they had come, and began to vanish back into the woods, all except for three of them, who remained stroking me. I could tell that they were female, and that they wanted me, but I moved away. Two gave up, but one followed me, and finally I gave in. It was fast and hard and I couldn't quite make out what she looked like in the darkness, although there was long dark hair and something weird about her face, and she definitely had a tail of some kind. After I was done, I picked up the heart out of the bag of organs and shoved it into her mouth. It seemed to be the correct thing to do.
Later note, as I type this in: By the time I got home, I still hadn't figured out what the heck I'd shapeshifted into. I always referred to that part of me as "my predator", but I didn't associate it with a wolf or bear or lion or other obvious creature. I'd never seen its true shape until that moment, and since I'd only felt it from the inside I was still in the dark. I catalogued what I'd felt - large, really large, bigger than the other guy who was wolflike, but bigger than any wolf I'd ever seen in a zoo. But I wasn't a wolf, not exactly.
Things that were canine-like: I was mammalian, and furred, and four-footed, and pawed, and clawed. I had a muzzle with teeth; clearly flesh-tearing and not grass-chewing teeth. I had ears that stuck up. I could smell, better than I normally do. I saw in black and white.
Things that weren not canine-like: Although he was narrow all the way from front to back, like a dog, I was much broader and higher in the shoulders. There was bristly fur in a ridge along those very broad shoulders. My leap and my running felt more uneven than canine movements. My cry was higher and very different....and most obvious, I had no tail. No tail! I didn't have time to check out what anything else looked like.
When I talked to my wife and boyfriend and daughter about the experience, and described the beast-form, Josh just laughed and said that it was probably something prehistoric, and I'd probably see it on the Discovery Channel or something. Bella said that she already had. She had me describe it again, and then told me that it matched best with a giant hyena - the hyenadon. The predator that is as much a scavenger as a predator (my other two totems, Raven and Skunk, are scavengers), whose females are all so soaked with male hormones that they have phalluses. I thought of my intersex condition, of the hermaphroditic Midgard Serpent, of the fact that hyenas are matriarchal. My daughter pointed out that the first child in our family is always a girl, and she inherits the powers that seem to have originated in Loki's family. "It's our tribe's animal," she said with certainty.
It was time to find Mimir's well. After that spectacle, that beheaded bastard couldn't frighten me. I did the Raido-Laguz spell again and again, but I couldn't get it to line up with any of the bodies of water on our property. Grrr. It kept wanting to go east, so I took my drum and shouldered Bag, and hiked off to the street. It was the middle of the night, but there was the occasional car going by. As they passed me walking on the side of the road, they would swerve suddenly away. I was still pathwalking the whole way, and I wonder what they saw.....or if going by me made the road warp.
Mimirsbrunnr lined up with Moose Horn Pond, the fishing pond near my house. It took about fifteen minutes to walk there. I threw a silver coin into the water and called him, and after a while, he came up and asked me what I wanted.
"I'm not sure," I said. "I know that Hel wanted me to come here. I don't know what I'm supposed to get from you."
"I can answer questions," he said, "but you'll pay a price. I can tell you the date of your death."
I thought a moment. "Actually, I'm not so sure that I want to know that," I said.
"I could tell you the date of your loved ones' deaths."
"I don't think I want to know that, either." He offered me more esoteric knowledge, but it all seemed either to be stuff that I realized that I could live without, or that I didn't think that Hel wanted me to know, or that I was pretty sure I'd find out eventually anyway. I slowly came to the realization that there was nothing he had that I desperately wanted, and I told him so. Then I poured the last of the Jack Daniels, which I'd saved, into the water near his floating head. "Remember me as the one who gave you something for free," I said, and then I turned and walked away, feeling lighter than I had in days.