Trial by Ordeal
Read the first chapter from Trial by Ordeal: Valda & the Valkyries Book One:
Starting the Fire
Thirteen Years Ago…
The fire was intense, its heat streaming out of the forge to fill every last corner and crevice of the stone chamber. The glow of the fire reflected from the rows of meticulously polished tools, from the rich veneer of the hand-rubbed wooden workbenches, but most of all, it reflected in the eyes of the two men standing in front of the forge. Most people would have stepped back from a fire like that: heat sucking the moisture right out of your skin; bright flames blinding in their intensity; the crackling of the flames like the growl of a hungry beast. Neither man so much as flinched.
Loki towered over his companion. This is not surprising since Loki is a god and has the blood of giants running through his veins. Most people know him as the Trickster God, although they would not call him that to his face. No flame, not even one of such raw, focused intensity as this, could ever bother him. When Loki’s temper flared up, and it always did sooner or later, people said the giant half of his heritage made him act that way.
Loki also towered over the other man in the room because that man was a Dwarf. While Bofdir had not been born next to a forge he had most certainly been raised next to one-this one, as a matter of fact, right here in the Dwarf city of Jordenheim. The heat and the flames were old friends to him. They were as much a part of his life as his tools and his family. Dwarves were known throughout the Nine Worlds as the very best craftsmen. If you needed a magical item made you went to a Dwarf. Bofdir was one of the legendary sons of Ivaldi, master-smiths without equal, famed for creating items as beautiful as they were magical. Countless generations of his family had worked with the tools on display in this forge. Each generation added to the skill and the knowledge of the previous one until it was said there was nothing the sons of Ivaldi could not make.
It was relatively quiet in the forge. The only sounds came from the roaring of the fire as the Dwarf carefully watched the contents of a crucible that sat in the very heart of the raging flames. Molten gold filled the crucible and Bofdir was waiting for the liquid metal to change to a very precise shade of white before he could start working. The color told him the temperature of the metal as readily as any thermometer ever could. Centuries of experience told him what precise shade of color to watch for. Ten degrees hotter or cooler and he would have to start all over again. He was creating a magical item of the highest complexity and the rules for making such items were particularly demanding. Bofdir tugged at the thick leather gloves that shielded his hands. Just a bit longer and the metal would be just right.
Loki’s eyes shifted back and forth from the Dwarf to the crucible. The Dwarf was nervous. To a casual glance Bofdir was the epitome of concentration, but Loki was a master at reading all of the hundreds of subtle signs that people make. You have to know people deep down and be able to read them in order to trick them. Loki had earned his role as Trickster God thanks in no small part to his skill in reading people.
He moved over to one of the workbenches against the wall. It was built to accommodate a Dwarf, making it the perfect height for Loki to sit on. He did sit down. Loki knew this would annoy Bofdir. The Dwarf was in the middle of a delicate task that he was doing for Loki. Common sense would lead you to believe you shouldn’t bother someone who is doing something especially for you. But Loki was feeling a touch antsy himself. He was never totally comfortable visiting the Dwarves in their mountain home so far beneath the surface of the world. The roof was solid rock but that didn’t stop Loki from imagining it collapsing underneath the weight of the mountain above, crushing them all to a thin paste. The thought put Loki ill at ease. So he sought some little amusement to distract himself and what amused Loki the most was needling other people. “You seem a bit glum today, Bofdir.” Loki’s voice was as soft and soothing as a summer rain. “That surprises me.”
Bofdir grunted and kept his eyes fixed on the crucible and its contents.
Loki allowed himself a brief smile. “You have many good things going on. A challenging task to perform, a healthy price being paid for that task, and what else had I heard? Oh yes, a new member of the family. You have a new grandson. Congratulations.”
“Granddaughter,” Bofdir said.
“Oh,” Loki’s voice dripped with insincerity, “I am sorry to hear that.”
This time Bofdir shot the god a quick look. He did his best to hide his growing annoyance, Loki was a customer after all, and Dwarf customs had very specific rules about how you had to treat a customer. So Bofdir bit back the harsh words he wanted to say. Nevertheless, the Trickster had caught that quick look and the animus behind it brought joy to his heart.
Loki said “It’s just that a boy could have taken over the forge for you. Your son-in-law hasn’t shown any passion for working with metal. Plus, your Dwarf way of life is so dominated by men. Women don’t seem to have that much to do.”
“Dwarf customs have served us fine for centuries,” Bofdir snapped the words out as he snatched up a pair of long-handled tongs.
“Of course, of course. Don’t mind me.” Loki waited for Bofdir to settle back down to his work. “As long as I am here anyway, how about making me a spear that never misses its target? You know, just like Gungnir, the spear you made for Odin.”
Bofdir slammed the tongs back down and whirled around to stab a leather-covered finger into the god’s chest. “I would never! Gungnir is unique! That is how the gods wanted it and that is how I made it. The gods come to me for one-of-a-kind items and that is what they get. You expect me to go back on my word? You expect me to defy the gods?”
The fire that flashed in Loki’s eyes was hotter than any forge. “Perhaps you forget that I am a god.”
Bofdir lowered his hand but he did not back down. “You need me, Trickster. You came in here and asked me to make a wig out of gold. You want me to take a lump of metal and turn it into something that acts like real hair. There are two Dwarves who have the skill to pull that off: me and Brokkr. You made him look quite the fool when you cheated him out of his pay that last time. If you crawl and beg enough he just might do this task for you, but I doubt it. So you’re stuck with me. You think I can’t guess that this is to cover up one of your infamous pranks. Shall I go through the yellow-haired goddesses until we figure out which one you angered this time?”
All the bravado went out of Loki in an instant. “It was Sif.” he said in a voice so quiet it barely carried over the noise of the flames.
“Sif?” Bofdir was thunderstruck. This was especially appropriate because Sif was the wife of Thor, the God of Thunder. “What made you think of angering the wife of Thor? He is not known for his patience and understanding. He is known for taking that magical hammer of his and smashing things.”
For once Loki didn’t have the words to explain himself, so he just shrugged.
Bofdir shook his head slowly, stunned by the enormity of trouble that Loki had brought down upon himself. Despite the niggling warning in the back of his head, Bofdir felt bad for Loki. “I will help you,” the Dwarf said. “Not with a second Gungnir. I am not stupid enough to make more than one version of anything I make for the gods. But I will make the hair.” He glanced over at the crucible and made a sour face as he noticed the metal was now too hot and he would have to cool it down and start all over again. “You will get out of my workroom now and let me work in peace.” Loki protested but Bofdir stayed firm. “If you want me to make this golden hair then you will leave. Now. Wait outside. I’ll finish quicker without you yammering on.”
Loki drew himself up to his full height. This would have made him look intimidating if he hadn’t banged his head on the Dwarf-sized ceiling in the process. With a final sneer, he stomped out of the room.
Bofdir walked into the home he shared with his daughter and her husband and closed the door behind him with a weary sigh. He loved his work as a smith and everything about it. Everything, that is, except for working with people like Loki. At least he had a fat bag of gold to make up for all of his hard work. That wasn’t always the case when you worked for Loki. He cheated those who helped him more often than not. But Bofdir had come out ahead this day and was almost giddy at his good fortune.
He heard his daughter Mabryn in the other room. The smell of the dinner she was cooking drifted out to tantalize his nose and make his mouth water.
“Gimal?” she said, calling out her husband’s name.
“It’s just me, daughter,” Bofdir answered. “I need to put something away in my workshop and I’ll be right out.”
“Fair enough,” she answered. “Food’s almost ready. I’m just going to pop in and check on the little one.”
Bofdir couldn’t help smiling at the thought of his granddaughter. It would have been nice to have a grandson that he could train and pass his knowledge on to, Loki had been right about that. But “the little one,” Valda, was a source of unending joy to him anyway.
Bofdir had a small workshop here in the family home. Nothing elaborate, just a place where he could work on minor things or sketch out ideas for big ones. He also had a safe in there, which is what he went to now. He had just finished putting his new bag of gold in the safe and locking it back up again when he heard Mabryn scream.
Bofdir shot out of the room in a flash, racing through the house and skidding to a halt in the doorway that led to Valda’s room. Mabryn was there, bent over the baby’s crib.
“What’s wrong?” Bofdir demanded.
Mabryn looked over her shoulder at her father, her eyes wide with shock and fear. She tried to speak but the words wouldn’t come out. Instead she mutely picked up the baby and held her up so that Bofdir could see.
The baby was fine: her cheeks were pink and healthy; her brown eyes filled with delight; her tiny hands waved in the air. Bofdir took in all of these things in a fraction of a second. That’s all the time he had before he noticed the hair. There, right where her beautiful, curly locks of brown hair should have been, was a mass of golden ringlets. Not just gold in color, but gold in truth. The unique gift that Bofdir had made for the gods, and only for the gods, was now adorning the head of his own granddaughter.
Bofdir was back in his workshop, perched on the very edge of a stool as he rapidly flipped through the pages of an enormous leather-bound book. The book was old and fragile and filled with priceless knowledge, still he flipped away, desperately looking for a solution to the problem at hand.
Mabryn, clutching Valda protectively in her arms, paced behind him. “You have to fix this, father.”
Bofdir raised his hand to make what he hoped was a soothing gesture in the air. “I will. I will. It’s just that all of the spells and charms I’m finding are about turning something into gold. I don’t think anyone has ever wanted to turn gold into something else.”
The baby fussed as Mabryn put a bonnet onto its head. “How did this happen? I saw a lock of golden hair in the baby’s crib. I thought you must have put it in there, some sort of gift for her.”
“It wasn’t me.”
“How was I to know that? It was there and I just held it up next to her head. Just on a lark. It stuck on! It started growing until she had a whole head full of golden curls. We have to fix this! Valda won’t fit in if she’s the only Dwarf in all of creation with golden hair!”
Bofdir stood up so quickly he knocked over his stool. He slapped his hand down on one of the pages of the book. “Yes! This will work!” He immediately began rummaging through the vast number of drawers and cubbyholes that lined an entire wall of his workspace, pulling out all manner of items and tossing them into a pile on his workbench.
“What is it? What is it?” Mabryn’s voice rose in pitch as she got more and more frantic. Finally her father stopped and grabbed her shoulders in his big meaty hands. “I can fix this. Okay? A variation of a simple concealment charm. I’ll use the last of those special emeralds to focus it. Everything will be fine as long as…”
“As long as what?”
“It will be a charm…” Bofdir explained. “A pendant for a necklace. She must always, always, wear it. The hair by itself is so magical that the charm must be close to it to have an effect.”
For the first time since all this had started Mabryn looked hopeful. “I just want her to have a normal, happy life.”
“It’s what we all want,” Bofdir agreed.
They both jumped in alarm as they heard the front door slamming shut. “Honey?” a voice cried.
“It’s Gimal!” Mabryn fussed with Valda’s bonnet again.
“Why bother with that hat?” Bofdir said. “You could leave it off and that husband of yours would never notice anything is different.”
“Father!” Mabryn swatted him on the arm. “Don’t start in on Gimal now. You get to work and make that charm.” She hurried out of the room.
Six Years Ago…
When Dwarves move into a new mountain the first thing they do is mine for precious metals and gemstones. The second thing they do, even before starting work on their homes, is build a library. For Dwarves value books and knowledge almost as much as they value gold.
Every Dwarf city has a library, but none of them have as many books on as many subjects as the Great Library in Jordenheim. It is in a class by itself. Scholars come from throughout the Dwarf world to browse its shelves and lose themselves in the voluminous stacks.
This vast treasury of knowledge, this shrine to the written word, was ruled by a woman. Not officially, though, because that would go against Dwarf custom. Men hold all positions of distinction in the Dwarf World, so Elder Janke held the title of Library Administrator. But in all of the ways that really counted, in all of the day-to-day decisions to keep the Great Library running smoothly, Head Librarian Belya’s word was law. Her desk was on a raised platform behind the counters where patrons checked out their books. The book stacks were laid out like the spokes of a wheel so that she could be the literal as well as the figurative center of the Great Library.
From her lofty perch she saw something that caused her pinched face to tighten even further. It was Valda Gimaldottir, that girl as all of the librarians referred to the child. That girl was constantly straying off from her classmates and wandering into sections of the library no good child should want to explore. Belya got right up and marched on over towards her.
Belya found Valda sitting cross-legged on the floor, deeply involved in reading a book and oblivious to the world. Belya recognized the book as ‘Rengor’s Legends of the Elves’—hardly suitable material for an eight year old child, let alone an eight year old girl. Belya quietly cleared her throat. “Excuse me, dear, this is the adult section of the library.”
Valda didn’t even bother to look up. “Yes, ma’am. I know.”
Belya gestured towards the North wing. “Wouldn’t you like to go read with the rest of the children? We have the new edition of ‘The Merry Miner.’”
The girl shook her head. “I like these books.”
“These books are not proper for children.”
Now the girl looked up, her light brown eyes filled with curiosity. “Why?”
“They contain big words you might not understand.”
Valda’s face lit up and she patted another book that was next to her on the floor. “That’s why I have a dictionary.”
The Head Librarian thought she was being sassed. Sassing, and loud talking, were two of the many things she never allowed in her library. “Put that book back, pick up your things and march right over to the Children’s Wing. Now.” She had raised her voice to a normal talking level, which is the same thing as shouting for a librarian.
Belya watched Valda trudge off, making sure that the girl was heading in the right direction. Belya returned to her desk. She was sitting there calmly a half hour later when one of the other librarians moused her way over. Belya had a premonition what it would be about. The other librarian hemmed and hawed for a bit and then finally said. “It’s about that girl. She is in the adult stacks… again.”
“Dwarves remember.” Elder Snorri read the words aloud to the class, his voice as cracked with age as the parchment in his book. His scrawny finger trembled its way along in synch with his reading. “We remember every promise and insult. We remember every grudge and friendship. We remember… Valda!”
For a brief flash, so brief it was almost nonexistent, Valda’s jaw dropped and her eyes bugged out. She smoothly recovered, offering up the serene look of innocence she had practiced for years. She looked at her teacher, flashing a smile that was a thing of sweetness and light. “Yes, Elder Snorri?”
Elder Snorri wasn’t buying it for a minute. One finger marked his place in the text book while its twin rose to focus his ire at the young Dwarf girl. “You were daydreaming.”
“Oh no, teacher, I was… seriously considering your words.”
“If that is the case then you should have no trouble repeating what I was saying,” Elder Snorri allowed a cold smile to twitch the corners of his mouth.
Valda stood up beside her desk, automatically smoothing her brown leather skirt so the panels would not stick out at odd angles like they usually did. “You were reciting the Dwarven Code, the words that form the start of every treaty and pact our race makes. For example, it is at the start of the Pact Between Dwarf and Elf, agreed to 700 some years ago. That particular document lays out the rules for when and how our two races shall aid each other in times of mutual distress and..”
“That’s enough,” Elder Snorri cut her off sharply. “We will not be talking about that particular document today.”
“Why not?” There were groans from several places in the classroom and Valda distinctly heard Furgil Orekson mutter “Here she goes again,” but she didn’t let that stop her. She never let what the other kids thought stop her.
“Why aren’t we going to talk about the Elves? Or Aelfheim, their home? Or anything, really, that happens outside of this mountain?”
“Valda,” Elder Snorri’s voice had a distinct warning tone, but she was too worked up to stop now.
“I mean it’s bad enough ‘Dwarf customs’ won’t let the women go outside the mountain. We can’t become miners, or gem-cutters. We can’t hold any of the fun jobs. At least let us hear about it. It’s stifling is what it is.”
Elder Snorri slammed his hand down on his desk. “That’s enough! Custom sets out what men and women can and cannot do. That is how it has been for hundreds of years. That is how it shall remain.”
“But none of the books say that,” Valda protested.
“The books I read to you in class most specifically do cover those issues.”
“There are other books. Older books.”
“Yes, there are.” Elder Snorri carefully closed his book, making sure to straighten it so that the book’s edge lined up precisely parallel to the edge of his desk. “There are books other than the ones we read in class. There are books your young minds are not quite ready to handle. They contain ideas which are a bit complex and you haven’t the experience yet to judge them properly. That is why they are placed in the restricted wing of the Great Library.” He looked at Valda as if a thought had just occurred to him. “Speaking of which, the librarian has mentioned to me that you were found in the restricted wing of the Great Library… again. That makes the third time this year you’ve snuck in there.”
Valda wasn’t about to back down, “Well, that is where the most interesting books are kept.”
Furgil snorted. “That’s where all the Elf and Human and Giant books are kept.”
Valda waved her hand in Furgil’s direction as if batting away some minor pest. “Like I said, the interesting books.”
“Do you hear that, Elder?” Furgil’s face was turning red, like the coals of a fire stoked to a high heat. “It’s like she doesn’t even want to be a Dwarf.”
“Maybe I don’t,” Valda snapped.
Several of the students gasped aloud. An uneasy silence fell as everyone looked to Elder Snorri. Valda remained standing, a defiant look on her face. Her hands, however, fidgeted like crazy, betraying her nervous worry that she had gone too far. Defiance won out, though. She was simply too stubborn to take back the words she’d said in the heat of the moment.
Elder Snorri looked up at the ceiling, his lips moving silently. After ten long seconds, for he was in fact counting to ten, he looked out over the classroom. “We’ve covered enough for today. Class is dismissed. Everyone may go.” He paused for a beat. “Everyone, that is, except for Valda.”