By K.L. Shailer
When we were kids, my brother, Harold, loved the movies that depicted Vikings as marauding invaders, tall muscular warriors who swooped in from the sea to pillage unsuspecting coastal villages, carrying off anything that wasn’t nailed down. Pirates on steroids. For Halloween he dressed up as Thor, the Norse god of thunder, and carried a cardboard lightning bolt that he’d painted yellow. My preference was Norse tales involving the lovely Freya or gentle Balder, god of beauty and light. We both were in awe of one-eyed Odin, but neither of us really understood the treacherous trickster Loki.
Only later when I studied Norse sagas at university did I realize the extent of Viking explorations, their settlements, and the Althing—direct democracy at work—or truly appreciate the warrior skalds who authored prophetic poetry and sagas that chronicled their feats, social structure, and values. “Cool,” said my brother when I told him about the skalds. He joined the army and took up poetry. I studied international relations, joined the Peace Corps, and went to work for the United Nations.
Now, at a conference in Norway as I wander through the wooded hills outside Bergen with a local colleague, I ask her if she believes Odin and Loki or Thor and Balder once walked these same paths.
“Of course,” is her unexpected response. “They were gods, but not immune to the most human of frailties: jealousy, anger, vengefulness, recklessness, and above all, arrogance.” She gazes toward the darkening sky to the east. “They deserved what they got.”
“Which was …?”
“The twilight of the gods—total annihilation. Ragnarök.”
I flinch at her words. Will we never learn? The image of Harold, my protector, with his lightning bolt looms large.
As we continue walking, we reach a wide meadow dotted with thickets of cloudberry and rowan intertwined with mistletoe. The glint of something metallic catches my attention at the edge of the path. It looks like the head of a small silver statue buried in the soil. I use my fingers to loosen the piece from the dirt, while my colleague tells me that all-father Odin and his blood brother Loki liked to play chess—the ancient game of war. To what end? I’m reminded that Loki launched the deadly assault on Odin, Thor, and the other Aesir. I rub my thumb over the half-familiar face of the figurine, worn with age, and slip it into my jacket pocket. A wolf howls in the hills above us.
That evening, rather than read the assigned paper for the next day’s seminar, I look up the details of Ragnarök. The TV news plays in the background. It started—Ragnarök, that is—with the death of Balder at the hand of his blind brother Hod. Brother against brother. Unwitting. Manipulated by Loki. Vengeance carried out with unspeakable cruelty. They knew the prophecy and still they persisted. I sit on the sofa and watch a convoy of tanks enter an urban neighbourhood while lines of refugees move like sleepwalkers through border check points. I’m overcome with fatigue and though my mind is in overdrive, I gradually give in to it.
Loud laughter fills the air. My eyes are wide open, but I cannot see. I hear the slapping sound of clubs and arrows as they are deflected from hitting my brother. It must be a game. Everything on earth has promised Frigg, our mother, not to hurt Balder. All but one—the lowly mistletoe. The laughter grows louder as more people gather round. I feel left out; no one seems to notice I’m here.
Then I feel a presence next to me; I know it is Loki. “I can help you join the fun,” he whispers. “Take this spear and thrust it toward Balder. You’ve heard what they say. Nothing can harm him.”
I grasp the spear and feel the leaves and tiny berries growing from the shaft. His hand guides mine. “Like this. Throw as hard as you can.”
Sunlight burns through the mist in my eyes. It is my brother’s loving gaze. I spin back toward Loki, grab the spear from his hands, and break it over my knee. “No,” I shout. “Not this time.”
An explosion fills the TV screen with fire and illuminates the room, startling me into waking consciousness. Disorientation gives way to a new realization. A newsclip shows a group of captured soldiers cowering with their backs against what is left of a brick wall. “We thought we were here to help. We never wanted to hurt anyone,” they whimper. Brother against brother, yet again.
I phone Harold and prepare to leave for the airport. He tells me he’s been deployed to eastern Poland. “Closer to Loki and his forces than I ever thought I’d be,” he jokes, “—a deterrence measure.” I swallow hard. If I hurry, I tell him, I can make the last flight to Gdansk and catch a train to Lviv where I’m needed. We may not see each other, but both understand we’ve been preparing for this moment since childhood. The stakes couldn’t be higher.
As I pull on my jacket, I feel the weight of the chess piece and take it from the pocket. In my hand, it gleams like a sudden streak of lightning. Time for a rematch.