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Pyramid Power: Chapter Eleven
Last updated: Monday, April 16, 2007 18:40 EDT
Even from here Marie could smell the wave of old booze sweating out of the man. She’d got a whiff of it on their way out, but at the time there had been other things to think about. Now the smell and the sight of the tremor in his hand brought it all back, sharply. It didn’t take a glance at Emmitt to realize that it would do the same to the boy. Her sister—Emmitt’s mother—had been in that state often enough.
The big red-bearded man looked at the broken stone chair. “I did that?” he asked, warily.
“I reckon so,” said Marie. There was frost in her voice, despite the situation they were in.
He actually looked as if he was about to start crying. “I didn’t mean to. I don’t remember…” He tailed off.
“I never can remember.” He sniffed. “Look, I’m sorry. I’ll try and get you another one, but I’m… er, a bit broke right now.”
Marie looked at him silently.
“There’s more, isn’t there,” he said, looking uneasy.
“There always is, isn’t there?”
He hung his head. “Sometimes,” he admitted.
She still stared at him.
“Look. I’m sorry about the chair.” He started wringing his huge hands.
“It ain’t my chair.”
He stood up shakily and groaned. “Oh, my head. Then what’s the problem?”
“You are,” said Marie. “Or rather, your damn drinking is. It’s not just chairs you’re wrecking. It’s yourself.”
He held his head. “That’s not something I can fix. I wish I could.”
“It can be done. If you want to enough. If you’re determined enough. If you’re strong enough.”
He staggered over to the rock window, took a handful of snow and wiped his brow with it. Then took another handful, stuck it into his mouth and sucked on it.
He looked down at his clothes. It was fairly plain he’d been sick on them. He swallowed. “I, Thor, am the strongest of the Æsir. I will do this thing, or die in the effort.” He looked at his clothes again. “I don’t like waking up like this.”
“It’s a first step,” said Lamont, dryly. “But do you think you can keep it up?”
“Thor?” said Emmitt incredulously. “You mean, like, the hammer-thrower?”
Thor nodded. And then plainly wished he hadn’t. “Yes. I am the master of Mjöllnir.” He went and sat down again, leaning against the wall. “Never again,” he groaned.
“So if you are Thor… let’s see the hammer!” demanded the boy.
Thor shook his head carefully. “I… er, sold it.”
“What for?” asked his audience.
Thor looked sadly at them. “Drink.”
“Look, I can accept this part about powerless over alcohol. Every one of the Æsir is unable to stand against something. Frey is weak against the frost Giants, Heimdall against Surt’s minions. And it’s true my life has become unmanageable. It’s a mess.”
Thor now gave Marie a stern look. “But this second step nonsense! This ‘we came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity’ nonsense. I am a power greater than myself. I am one of the Æsir. I’m a god, you idiotic woman. And I’ve tried, and I couldn’t restore me to sanity. Sif tried. Heimdall tried. Idun tried with curative apples. Nothing works!. When the drink gets in me nothing will calm me down but another drink.”
“Strongest? You don’t look that strong,” said Ella doubtfully.
Thor attempted to haul his belly in. “I am Thor of the Æsir. Mighty Thor!” He patted his midriff. “I admit I have let myself get a bit out of condition, lately. But with my girdle of strength…”
Liz laughed. “Girdle. It’d have to be super-strong to keep that gut in.”
“I think he means a sort of belt, like a boxing champion’s belt,” said Lamont, with a grin. It was hard to take this wasted bleary slob too seriously, even if in this world he was a god.
“Heavyweight champion,” said Liz. “And there I was going to ask where he bought it.”
“Well,” said Thor, completely missing the sarcasm, “it was given to me by the giantess Grid, when she heard we were coming to Gerriodur’s castle.” He lifted his tunic and looked in puzzlement at the acreage of white belly. “It’s not there,” he said, worriedly. “I promised I would return it. I, uh… seem to have lost mine.”
“You seem to have lost this one too.”
Thor looked around, more worried than ever. “You haven’t seen Thjalfi anywhere around?”
“Is it a person or a thing?” asked Ella.
“My bond-servant, along with his sister Roskva,” said Thor. “I don’t see the gauntlets of iron or Grid’s rod anywhere either.” There was the edge of panic in his voice.
Pieces began to fit together in Liz’s mind. “This Thjalfi. Has he got a fake beard? About the same height as Lamont, but fatter. Wearing a bilious green tunic thing?”
Thor looked puzzled. “Nay, Thjalfi has but a little wispy beard. Barely fit for a weasel, let alone a man. He is of a height with the svartalfar here”—he pointed at Lamont—”and I think his cloth is green. Yes. It is. It made me feel very unwell the other morning. Something always makes me feel unwell in the mornings.”
“And what is this ‘Grid’s Rod’?” asked Marie.
“A staff of iron which can neither be bent nor moved. It will grow, too, to press against the foe, be they ever so far. We used it to cross the Vimur river. Gerriodur’s daughter Gjalp was making it flood.”
“Ah,” said Liz, grimly. “I think we can tell you, then. It’s your servant Thjalfi who has your iron gloves, and your rod. I’d guess that he probably has your belt too. He tried to kill us. Damn near succeeded, too.”
Thor looked at them in puzzlement. “Thjalfi? With my gauntlets of iron?”
“Unless they’re common fashion items around here, I’d give you long odds that your servant has helped himself to them.” Liz’s voice began rising a little. “And tried to kill us, and we’ve lost Jerry because of it, to say nothing of one of those idiots.” Liz pointed at one of the PSA agents.
Thor looked doubtfully at the man. “Even in a Valkyrie such skirts are hardly decent.”
“He’s a man,” said Lamont, enjoying the discomfort of the agent. He was still quietly furious with the PSA and its agents for having gotten his family into this mess.
Thor blinked. “Is it customary among you svartalfar—the pale ones, anyway—for warriors to dress like that? Does it make them more courageous, because of the mocking? Loki and I got ribbed for months when we dressed as Freyja and her bridesmaid.”
“They thought we were going to a place where the men dress like that.”
Thor made a face. “Lucky you came here, eh? But I still want to know more about what game Thjalfi thought he was up to. He’s getting above himself, acting on his own like this. We don’t want him picking needless fights with svartalfar, too.”
“Oh, he wasn’t alone,” said Liz.
“So he had a bunch of his low-life friends around and he was showing off,” said Thor with enormous tolerance. “I’ve done the same myself. You get a bit carried away.”
“This was a tall man with just one eye,” said Liz. “Sound like someone you know?”
“What!” bellowed Thor furiously.
“And a bunch of warriors he called ‘einherjar.’ They were hunting for us.”
“How dare he!” Thor’s face, florid before, was now beetroot-red. A huge meaty fist slammed into his palm, like a thunder-crack. Suddenly making fun of him being the most physically powerful of the gods seemed a stupid idea. Energy seemed to almost crackle from him.
“Thjalfi is my bonder! What’s Odin up to messing with my man, and bringing his men here. Where the Nifelheim is he? This time I’ll—”
“I don’t think he’s around anymore,” said Marie. “We saw him giving advice to Sigurd, and then he rode off in the other direction.”
Thor sighed. “Don’t tell me. I was drunk and he’s been… and gone, hasn’t he? It always seems to happen that way these days. And now I’m the one who has to try and explain to Grid. At least I know I have to start on Thjalfi. I don’t remember him being like this, before. I wonder where he’s got to?”
“We didn’t see anyone,” said Tolly.
“And you can see the whole hall from the place where that bridge thing broke off,” said Ty. “The fires look like they’re going out.”
Marie sighed gustily. “What have you two been up to this time! Why must you always wander off the minute that no adults are looking at you?”
“Maybe we should nail one foot to the floor,” said Liz, giving the two boys her best basilisk stare. Ty seemed to find the idea funny. His friend Tolly looked a bit more wary. With Medea as a mother, you never knew if things like that were a real threat or not.
“Look, you two just stay in sight from now on or I’ll be tempted to let her do what she threatened,” said Marie, crossly. “I’ve got enough to worry about without chasing around after you.”
“I thought we saw Babe Ruth being abducted by aliens. We had to check that it was for real,” said Tolly.
“In an eighteen-wheeler,” corroborated Tolly.
“Babe Ruth? Aliens? Are you crazy?” demanded Emmitt. “Can’t you even come up with a believable lie, Ty?”
Ty did his best look hurt. “Any myth can be true here, Dad said…”
“Myth, yes,” said Lamont, rolling his eyes.
“We were looking for something to eat,” admitted Tolly.
Lamont nodded. “We’re going to need to feed everyone. Especially these kids,” he said. He turned to the two surviving PSA agents. “The paratroopers had rations last time that we could share. What have you got?”
Thor thought that they were addressing him. “Goats,” he said. “Tanngnjost and Tanngrisnir. They pull my chariot… Well, they used to pull my chariot back when I had a chariot. Thjalfi had to borrow one last time I needed one and we had to walk this time, because of the little accident I had with it. So we can eat my goats.”
“Goats. Oh, we can’t…”
Thor interrupted, waved a generous hand, completely misunderstanding her reaction to goat. “So long as the bones are intact I can bring them back to life the next day. And the way those two goats eat its just as well to kill them at night. One of them ate my bed-clothes one night… I’d, um perhaps had a little more mead than I should. I nearly froze to death before I woke up. I’ll call them.”
He turned to the window and bellowed. How one pair of lungs could produce such a volume of sound was beyond belief. Even the walls seemed to vibrate.
Thor turned back to them. “They’ll be here presently. Why don’t we go and find those fires the boys talked about. We’ll need a spit of some kind.”
“It has to be warmer there,” said one of the agents. “And then we really need to look at strategies for us to get back. We have an… assignment to complete.”
Liz snorted. “Trust me, someone else will have to ‘complete your assignment.’ The only easy way back is dead. And thanks to you we’re all stuck in this mess and thanks to one of your idiots we’ve lost Jerry, who was our best chance of getting home. I want to find him. And if you want to survive you’re going to have to give up playing tag-along and be useful. And get with the local clothing. You look like you’ve escaped from a circus to the locals.”
“Don’t take that tone with us, ma’am,” said one of them testily. “You’re not an American citizen, you know.”
“And this isn’t America, you jackass, in case you hadn’t noticed,” snapped Liz. “Now shape up or ship out, whatever your name is. We’re going to look for heat, and a spit. You’re sort of pretending to be a warrior. Act like one. Now, lead out. We’ll keep you on point, and maybe you’ll get back to the US sooner than you thought possible. Move!”
Lamont chuckled. “You better listen to ‘Sir’, Mister. And you’d better introduce yourselves. If we need to yell a warning, a name helps.”
“And Agent Stephens,” said the other, as if providing ID to people of no importance was physically painful. “Look, it is unfortunate that you people got involved but our assignment is vital to national security. We need your cooperation.”
“Let’s put it this way,” said Liz, shooing them ahead of her like hens. “You certainly need our cooperation. Now you’ve just got to convince us that we need yours. And so far, you’ve been more of a liability than an asset.”
They went out, arranged the ladder and descended. “Don’t stand under the ladder when Thor comes down,” said Marie, quietly.
Only the last two rungs broke.
The fires in huge main hall were definitely dying. Patches of dead coals shared space with the sullen glow.
The place was eerily quiet in the half-light. Here and there the fire flared, sending shadows chasing. The few remaining torches guttered in their sconces, and the huge, dim hall seemed even dimmer. It was an eerie place and the dead trolls did not make it any more appealing.
The clatter of goaty hooves nearly frightened Stephens into an early grave and a quick transfer back to Chicago. Goats, in Liz’s experience, were evil-minded cantankerous creatures. These ones looked the part. And they were huge. More the size of a pony than a goat.
One of them took a long goaty look at the strangers surrounding Thor and lowered its head. It raced towards them at full acceleration. “Tanngnöst!” yelled Thor, loudly enough to stir the embers to flames.
“Get out of its way!” yelled Liz. They scattered, Lamont assisted by a sideward toss by the goat that shunted him some ten yards across the floor. Thor stopped the goat with a solid thwack against the head, that made it sit down on its goaty tail.
Liz felt something tugging at her skirt. It was the other goat. Liz took it by the horns and leaned into its face. “I see by your beard that you are a billy goat. You’re billy goat gruff right now, but you’ll be billy goat treble after I’ve finished with you.”
It was apparent that the dragon’s heart gave her the power of speech with birds and animals, as well as lower life-forms, like the local Norse gods turned drunks. Tanngrisnir had let go hastily, before Thor even got there.
Marie helped Lamont back to his feet.
“Well,” said Thor. “We have dinner, although I must admit my stomach doesn’t really feel much like red meat.”
Lamont felt his derriere. “More like a revenge killing than dinner.”
The goats looked decidedly wary, and started looking around for the best way out. There were some disadvantages to this translation spell, Liz realized. It didn’t make the animals any cleverer or more human—things like the ravens were clever to begin with—but it did allow them to understand what their destiny was about to be.
“I feel like fish,” said Thor. “But Thjalfi never brought any. He likes eating goat. It’s a pity we don’t have a cart or we could just head home to Bilskínir. Thrud always sees that there is a bit of fish for me. She’s a good girl, really. Not like my sons Modi and Magni. I hardly ever see them these days.”
“What about having a good look around first?” said Liz. She had no love for goats, either alive or as dinner, and she wasn’t squeamish, but having your dinner eye you warily was a bit off-putting. Besides, they might just get some idea of what had happened to Jerry. He could still be here, or there could be a clue as where he’d got to. “We might find a chariot or a cart or something you could hitch up to them. How far is this Bilsk… this home of yours?”
“Were I to have my chariot, we could ride there fast enough. My goats do not entirely tread on the earth,” said Thor, with a twinkle.
“All right. It’s chariot hunt time, then,” said Liz.
They didn’t find one.
“Trolls don’t really approve of the wheel,” said Thor, gloomily. “They’re very conservative. They think the horse is too much progress and a bad thing, except as dinner.”
“They make metal things,” said Lamont, gesturing with the smoky torch he was carrying. Fortunately they’d found a supply of pitch-soaked torches early on. “This is a smithy, obviously enough. Those are chains. Those are tools…”
“They’re capable enough craftsmen,” said Thor. “Not a patch on the dwarves, of course. But they have tools.”
“For making weapons and things to imprison people,” said Liz.
Thor blinked. “That and brewing kettles, naturally, woman. What did you expect? Plows?” He seemed to find the idea funny.
Lamont shook his head. “Some people would find plows more useful. Me, for one. I could make you a cart here, but I think it would take too much time.”
“What about a sled?” asked Liz, looking thoughtful.
“Not enough snow,” said Marie. She was sounding tired and in pain again.
Liz wagged her hand back and forth. “That’s not really a problem. In South Africa all the rural people use sleds. And most of South Africa doesn’t see much snow. They use oxen to drag sleds made out of a fork of a big tree.”
“There is much snow between here and Asgard,” said Thor, thoughtfully. “If we go west.”
“And it was snowing when we came in, Ma,” pointed out Ella. “Quite hard, remember.”
“I guess. But we still need to eat and stay warm. If it is snowing, it’s no weather for going out.”
“But soon enough Gerriodur’s troll castle must freeze. The fires die without the trolls to feed and stoke them,” said Thor. “While, ahem, my Bilskínir is not as well maintained as it used to be, Asgard is warmer, or it least it will be until the Time.”
“We could pick a room, close it off, and at least wait until morning.”
“This one would be good, but we still need food.”
Lamont turned on Stephens. “What’s in the pack?”
Of the two surviving agents he was the only one who still had his “authentic Greek leather bag.”
The vegetarian agent looked wary.
“It’s that or goat. Nice meaty goat,” said Liz cheerfully. “And if we have to eat it, you will.”
Agent Stephens blenched. “I do have some K-rations. And some Ramen noodles.”
Liz slapped her head and burrowed into her own bag. “I forgot. I have some candy bars I picked up for the kids when I heard you were coming.” She blushed slightly. “And a box of multi-flavored jelly beans. Let’s see what the transition to this place has done to those.”
“Transition…” said the agent, frowning.
“Yep.” said Lamont. “In case you hadn’t noticed, it affected the assembly mechanism on your weapons. I reckon you’ll find that they’re still threaded. The threads would just match the engineering skills of the Norse. In other words, as good as a blacksmith working them by hand could make. You’ll find the same has happened to your other toys. The paratroopers found that their stainless steel had suddenly started rusting.”
Liz nodded. “And my lighter, which used a flint—which the Greeks knew—and lighter fluid, which they didn’t. It changed too. The flint part stayed the same, but the lighter fluid became moth-ball smelling stuff. Jerry said naphtha was the basis of some flamethrower fuel that they used to call Greek fire.”
The agent dug into his pack hurriedly. His K-rations had become hard biscuit. The ramen… a sort of coarse-ground meal.
Thor sniffed it curiously. “Barley. We can make gruel out of it. Some goat soup maybe? That’d be easy on my digestion.”
Liz’s candy bars were some sort of honey and nut confection. Shared out, you could almost see the lightening of mood and the improvement in attitude among the snatchees, as the sugars hit their bloodstreams. Liz still wanted to get on and search this place thoroughly to see if Jerry might be hiding somewhere. Now, after one of the candy bars and one of the agent’s hard biscuits—which had a definite tang of pork-fat, to Stephens’ distress—getting the search organized and re-motivated was easier. Braving the rat-infested kitchen was not so daunting, even if it was just as smelly.
All they found, however, was a cleanable small cauldron—and, in an antechamber, three brace of rock ptarmigan, still with the feathers on. And some salt that didn’t seem too dirty.
“Do you think it’ll be all right?” asked Emmitt, looking at the grayish stuff doubtfully.
Liz grinned. “Possibly. Salt kills most bacteria. Mind you, any self-respecting bacteria would have left a while back.”
But the best find was a store-room full of furs, carefully packed and baled.
“Trading stuffs,” said Thor knowledgably, inspecting it.. “Trolls are good hunters. Good loot.”
“Warm loot,” said Marie. “And we’ll need it.”
Thor pointed at the two agents. “You could make them trousers. Good fur trousers.”
But of Jerry there was no sign. And it was now completely dark and snowing hard outside the troll-castle. Reluctantly, Liz had to admit that now was not the time to be venturing out, not to look for Jerry or even to avoid goat-dinner. So they retreated on the forge, and set about preparing a supper and keeping the place warm. Having bales of ermine helped, as did a plentiful supply of coals that they found in the smithy.
“Right,” said Liz. “I suppose I am the only person who has ever plucked and drawn a game bird. You two”—she singled out Tolly and Ty who were investigating a rack of sharp implements—”come. You’re about to learn how to do something quite revolting which will delight you.”
That was enough to get their co-operation. And it would get her out of sewing. Or, hopefully, cooking. She’d rebelled early against learning anything about either art. The only real worry was that it might not get her out of finding out just what multi-flavored jelly beans turned into in a Norse context.
For the next hour it was quite a happy little domestic scene. Three people sewing together with rough thongs enough furs to bankrupt a royal house, and give the entire “beauty without cruelty” movement collective apoplexy. Well, if they’d been here, the ladies would just have had to come to terms with reality. In that period of history, fur equated with warmth and everyone wore them. And, cruelty or not, the garments that were being roughly stitched with thongs weren’t beautiful anyway. But they would be warm.
Lamont was dividing his attention between supervising Agent Stephens’ attempts at sawing and Agent Bott’s attempts at cooking. Neither were going to win any prizes. Thor was bemusedly stirring barley gruel and also keeping a weather eye on Agent Bott trying to grill birds.
>Liz and her team were trying their hand at nailing a platform of riven oak together, using crude iron nails they’d found. And Liz was trying hard not to throw up at the lingering taste of one of the jelly beans she’d tried, too incautiously. What it had turned into, in Norse terms, didn’t bear thinking about. At a guess it had been the same dirty trick some Swedish fisheries scientists had tried on her in repayment for the mampoer trick she’d played on them. The memory of a rakfisk flavor bean would remain with her for always. Why couldn’t she have gotten arctic cloudberry, like Lamont? Still, even rakfisk was better than whatever flavor Agent Stephens had got. He had thrown up.
The plan—if they could get through the night without Thor going into the DTs—was to proceed to this Bilskírir of his in the morning on the sled they were constructing. Despite Lamont’s obsession with puns and useless information, he was a really good maintenance man when he’d wanted to be. The man was genuinely good with his hands.
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