A free story for you today!
A news story made the rounds on social media a few months ago, about a girl who regularly fed crows and the crows, in return, brought her little trinkets as gifts. So I wondered, what would happen if those crows were ravens? And those ravens were Munin and Hugir? And what would happen if they brought a little girl something more important than a bit of plastic?
And what happens when Odin, the All-Father, is forced to understand the challenges of a girl growing up in the modern world?
The Gifts of Ravens
Odin had a problem.
It had not started out as a problem. It started out as a charming mishap, as most disasters do. Munin and Hugir may have been his memory and reason, but they were also ravens. The birds regularly brought back tidbits and treasures from their daily trips to Midgard. Sparkling things are, after all, the domain of all black birds everywhere.
But the day Gugnir went missing was the first time they took something to Midgard.
Gugnir, his treasured spear, which changed to fit the hand of the wielder. He really should have been more concerned what two, fickle black birds would do with such a prize. Odin didn’t even realize the spear was missing until the birds returned from Midgard that evening, empty clawed and nothing in their beaks but gravelly news. He suffered a rare moment of dread when he put it together. The ravens had not delivered his prize weapon to Astur, Lord of Chaos, at the very least. They had not returned it to the dwarven realm. They had not even delivered it to Loki and his tiresome, troublesome schemes.
Upon reflection, that might have been preferable.
Instead he found himself in a busy park, shabbily disguised and sweating under a long coat as he frowned down at a park bench. A park bench that held a small human child. A child with dark, bushy hair and sticky hands.
“Give it to me.”
“No,” The girl raised her chin but barely looked up from the device in her hands as her legs swung in a wild meter beneath her. “Finder’s keepers.”
“As I explained, I am the rightful wielder of Gugnir–“
“Nah, I call it Galadriel. I twisted it into a ring, see?”
The girl held up one hand to display a bit of silver wire twisted clumsily around her forefinger. Familiar runes winked at him and Odin felt a decade stolen from his immortal life in a spike of horror.
“Gugnir is not a elf! Or a ring for a passing adornment! It’s–” Thunder interrupted his words and Odin paused to bring his frustration under control. He sought for words that a child would understand. “It’s a weapon. For adults. For Asgardian adults. I must wield it when we ride to herald in Ragnarok, to slay the mighty wolf Fen–“
“Slaying people isn’t very nice,” the girl interrupted him. “Yelling isn’t nice either.”
She was not wrong, Odin had to admit. He attempted to lower his voice. “I have not the time for this, young one. I will take back the weapon–“
“It was a gift.”
Odin halted, knitting craggy brows together. “Excuse me?”
“It’s a gift. From the black birds. They bring me things, sometimes. Broken earrings, bottlecaps, string… Because I feed them.”
The little girl wiggled her hand towards the flock of birds pecking stray crumbs out from between the sidewalk cracks. It was a mad assortment of black birds, crows, starlings, and the occasional raven. Odin mentally cursed his birds again. “Every day. I bring them food. Sometimes they bring me things too. It was a gift.”
Odin did not like the look that had appeared in the girl’s over-large brown eyes, “Be that as it may–“
“You told me your birds are actually you, right? Like, your thoughts and stuff?” The girl did not wait for agreement before barreling on. “So if they gave me the gift, it’s like you did, right? You can’t take back a gift after you give it. That’s rude.”
She paused, adding as if clarifying: “No take-backs.”
Odin stared at the girl with his one good eye. There were such rules of hospitality in Asgard. He did not think such a rule applied here, but being a god meant being more concerned about proper customs than was healthy, and so Odin suddenly found he could not take the sword from her by force. His fist bunched in his beard as he considered.
“Fine, human child. I will honor your Notaykbaks and return in a fortnight with a gift more fitting for a child of man. And then you’ll accept a trade?”
“Maybe. Sure, whatever.” The girl said, attention already fading back to the small, dark device she held in her hand. “Just don’t be late. If you’re here when Mom picks me up she’ll be pissed.“
“I swear you shall not lose honor with your war chief,” Odin promised then hesitated. “What do they call you, girl?”
“Sophie. Sophie Thompson.”
“I trust Gugnir to your care…for now, Sophie, daughter of Thom. Until we next meet.” Odin intoned and disappeared in a thunderclap that startled all birds but two.
Odin had considered for a long time what to bring back to the little girl. She was a mortal child, a slip of one at that, and he supposed he could have won back his spear with any grand thing in his sizable treasury. But honor–and, Odin was forced to admit, pride–required him to offer something that was worthy of trade for Gugnir. Like for like. But what was legendary enough to be equal to the weapon of a god, yet appealing to a human girl?
Perhaps because it was prior to the evening feast, Odin had settled on apples.
It had taken a veritable fountain of sweet words and powerful promises to get Idunn to part with one of her precious apples. Odin did not have Loki’s flair for negotiation. He could have ordered Idunn to grant him one from her orchard, but he had lived too many ages to not understand that when pressed, Asgardian women simply take their due in a different manner. Finally, a promise to honor the goddess and her husband, Bragi, at the next feast, allowing Bragi the opportunity to perform one if his interminable poems, won him an apple.
He drew his disguise around him and returned to Midgard with some confidence. What child, after all, could resist such a sweet treat, and eternal youth as well? Loki was not the only one who was clever. Odin was in such a good mood that when he located the child and she announced she was hungry, he indulged her.
“Your best cut. Elk if you have it.” He ordered the butcher grandly.
The man behind the small, metal stand gave a flat-eyed glance between the All-father and the girl. “You want mustard on that?”
“No thanks.” The girl accepted a strangely tubular cut of meat between two squat slabs of bread. When the man stood staring at Odin, the girl nudged him. “You gotta pay ’em now.”
“Oh, yes. I keep no debts.” Odin reached into the depths of his cloak-like coat and sorted through the contents before dropping three gold pieces on the butcher’s stand. “You have my blessing.”
They left the man where he stood at the gold pieces. Odin hummed with a particularly magnanimous feeling as they found the girl’s typical park bench surrounded by birds.
He presented the apple and he was still internally congratulating himself on his wits when the girl struck her blow.
Odin sputtered, “No? I am offering you a chance at immortality, eternal youth and beauty. An offer the likes of which have not been made to a mortal in an age and you say…nah?”
“Why would I want to be a kid forever? Older kids get to do all the good stuff.” The girl chewed on her food and peered up at him with a scrunched up face, “Besides, I don’t like apples that much.”
“Don’t like…” Odin wiped a long hand over his face before he gathered himself up in his long coat, holding himself with all the dignity the All-Father could manage. “Take the apple.”
“I command you to accept this gift, daughter of Thom!”
The thunder got away from him this time and his voice reverberated around the park, backed up by a rumble that shook the trees and spooked the food vendor into moving his cart inside. The old god stifled a sigh and with a wave of his hand the clouds parted again.
“No thank you.” The girl repeated the word like a oath, bottom lip taking on a particularly stubborn jut.
She played with her silver ring–spear, Odin corrected himself–and winced as she twisted the ends tighter. The girl then swung her small knapsack to her back. She waved as she turned to run down the path. “Thanks for the hot dog, Mister Odin.”
It took Odin time to calm down, but when he did, he believed he’d found a proper trade for the Sophie’s ‘ring.’ The apples had been silly, in retrospect. He was thinking too grandly. She was a child. Never trust the young to value youth. A foolish mistake, but the All-father had it now. He returned to Midgard with the answer wrapped up in a fine velvet cloth in his pocket.
When he arrived in the park, he was surprised to see Sophie already entertaining company by her bench. Three boy youths clustered loosely around her, one tall, one short, one fat. Odin found it difficult to gauge their ages–they would have been blooded and married in times past, but they bore the bearing of children. The light shoulders and inward-turned hearts of spoiled youth.
Odin couldn’t hear the shouting until he drew closer.
An argument was underway, about what, Odin couldn’t discern. Sophie stood back up against the bench, looking fierce with her chin upturned as she scowled at the boys. Even the squat one was several inches taller. The tall one dangled Sophie’s familiar purple battered knapsack in front of her until the girl, moving faster than anticipated, leapt to snatch it back. The short one rolled his eyes, “Jeez, bird girl. Don’t freak out.”
“She’s such a creepy bird girl. Heh. Turd girl!” The chubbiest of the boys seemed to hit on a winner and the others took up the chant, “Turd girl and her turdy hair.”
A small hand flew to her puffs of corkscrew pigtails and Sophie’s face screwed up tight. In the next moment, the girl threw herself at the nearest boy. She hit him solidly in the stomach and, despite her smaller size, they tumbled to the ground with a grunt. “Take it back!”
The boy recovered enough to grunt a refusal. He drew his knee up and kicked as Sophie swung again, but Odin had seen enough. He came to a decision and was across the remaining grass in a thunderclap.
Interjected between the girl and the boys was not an old man in a shabby coat. It was Odin, All Father, staff in hand and dwarven chainmail worn over flowing robes the color of stormclouds. Lightning trailed from his one eye as he turned his gaze to the youths.
Once he had their attention, he drew his power around him like a cloak and glowered at the gap-mouthed children. “Be gone. Do not return until you’ve found honor in battle.”
The boys scrabbled off the sidewalk and fled. Presumably to battle.
Odin slowly diminished as he turned, until only an old man in a shabby coat and wide-brim hat reached down to help Sophie up. “You acted with honor in the face of brigands, daughter of Thom.”
“Mom said you gotta stand up to bullies.” Sophie retrieved her knapsack, grimacing at the tear that had appeared in one side. “Oh man. She’s going to kill me.”
“Perhaps if you bring home a treasure worthy of the gods, she will see mercy.”
Sophie made a disgruntled face which was universal even when Odin was young. “Ok, ok. What do ya got?”
“I think you’ll find this far outshines your ring.”
Odin produced the velvet cloth with a flourish. He flipped back one end to reveal the rippling cords of gold, looped in countless delicate braids. Pearls as pale as Idunn’s skin dotted each complicated knot. The necklace was worth the net wealth of any number of modern kingdoms.
The gleam of gold reflected briefly in Sophie’s eyes. Odin warmed in the glow of victory. The girl’s grubby hand, still wearing Gugnir as a bauble, reached out and carefully touched one of the jewels laid in gold. “What’s it do?”
“Do?” Odin had never had anyone question such a treasure’s functionality before. He furrowed his brow and searched for the most tantalizing answer.
“It is the finest dwarven craft, from Freyya’s own collection.” Odin did not dare describe what he’d had to do to part it from the goddess. “The beauty of it will make you desire of all men. The envy of all women. None who behold such beauty will be able to deny you anything, daughter of Thom.”
The light faded from Sophie’s eyes even before Odin finished talking. “It’s very nice, Mister Odin, sir. But my ring is better. Tell Miss Freyya thank you anyway. Sorry for the trouble.”
The girl’s rejection he could withstand, but pity? For the All-father, king of Asgard? Odin felt a stab of hot temper, beginning in his gut and starting to rise as he clenched his jaw. “And just how is Gugnir better for a human whelp?”
Sophie’s dark face broke into a sunbeam, pudgy cheeks nearly breaking at the grin. “It’s got power! Just like Galadriel’s ring. It brought you here when those guys showed up, didn’t it? We showed them good.”
The heat faltered in his chest as Odin considered. Then he called to mind the youths and the way the girl had flung herself at them, a tiny valkyrie, and his anger died completely. Odin was an old god, not prone to sentimentality or charity, but a thought grew in his mind. The old god grunted and straightened.
Odin reappeared a moment later, in a thunderclap that sent the pigeons flying. Sophie waited by the bench, though she fidgeted impatiently, dancing from one foot to another. Her eyes lit up when he withdrew a thin blade of silver.
“This…is Hrotti.” Odin said, schooling his face serious. “It is wielded by champions of Asgard and it’s bearer can not be struck any mortal blow. It imparts the skill of my people and it will always strike true.”
And then, because he saw the light in Sophie’s eyes and because Odin was not the All Father without having raised a few children himself, he pulled the blade back out of reach and added, “…if, and only if, the cause is just. Am I understood?”
Sophie’s eyes widened even further. She pulled her entranced gaze away from the blade to nod solemnly. “What’s ‘just,’ exactly? Is it like playing fair?”
“Yes and no.” Odin thought grimly that fairness and justice were never as close as they should be in Midgard. “Justice means not merely thwarting wrongs, but raising up rights. Fair ensures all start on equal footing, but justice ensures all have the same goal in reach.”
“Oh. Galadriel wasn’t very just then.” Sophie frowned down at her ring. “So more like Wonder Woman?”
Odin had no idea what gods she was speaking of, but it was farther than he’d gotten with previous gifts so he nodded uncertainly. “Will you return Gugnir if I grant you Hrotti?”
Sophie paused mid-nod. “Ma won’t let me keep a sword unless it’s the foam kind. There was a lamp, see, and…”
Odin could not stomach the thought of Hrotti exiled as a toy. His gaze fell on the silver twist of Gugnir, still a ring on Sophie’s hand.
“Perhaps I can see to that.”
The ragged edges of his coat fell over the blade as he worked, pulling runes with gnarled hands. A puff of light and he withdrew a small black cylinder to lay in Sophie’s hands.
“A pen!” Sophie turned it over with delight. She twisted one gold-capped end. “There’s no…trick with this, right? Not like the apples. Does it work on tablets?”
Odin had aimed for an inconspicuous tool of the law–he’d envisioned a staff or a book, himself–but rune magic was fickle and he didn’t have the heart to take it back as Sophie clutched the stylus to her chest. “No tricks. It will serve you well in any form. Now, Gug–…your ring?”
Sophie took care to stow Hrotti in her pocket and pat it tenderly. Then she twisted the silver off her hand and held it out with a somber face to match Odin’s.
“It will serve you well,” she intoned.
“It will indeed.” Odin’s beard hid the smile that he fought to contain. “Be just, Sophie son of Thom. The gods will be watching.”
The girl pet her pocket again before shouldering her pack to go. “You too, Mister Odin.”
The gods may not have watched, but one god did. As years passed, Odin found pleasure in hearing Munin and Hugir’s reports on Asgard’s youngest champion. He found himself retiring to the well of Urd and turning visions away from the future towards the present, as Sophie navigated the labyrinth of the modern world. He was pleased to see that, with Hrotti-the-pen, neither greedy acts nor hurtful words carved the scars in Sophie’s young soul that others carried. It was a pleasant surprise when he noted that Hrotti remained a simple tool, and Sophie grew into a rare warrior of words.
He was even more pleased to see when she turned her skill to defending others as a modern justicar, a law-yer. True to her word, Sophie was not just fair but just. She wore somber armor in courts and dueled in a way to make any Asgardian proud, and Hrotti was always in reach.
Which was why Odin did not intervene one day. On the day when a strange man broke into the courtroom, armed with desperation and a gun.
He only watched as Sophie shoved down her client and twisted, terrified and yet terrifying, Hrotti in hand. And in that hand there there was a glimmer of black turning to silver steel.
And Odin smiled.