Chapter Two

Day One

Val prepares to leave

Coming down for breakfast, he met up with a rather too excited Osric who thought that Val had woken up on the wrong side of the bed.

"I just had a nightmare about my task." Val shuddered, "And it wasn't just the once. Every time I managed to fall back asleep, the nightmare would start all over again. The same one, too."

"That sounds horrible, Val." Osric replied, sobering up. "Do you think it's like a warning nightmare, perhaps?"

"No, can't be. Mom says it's just my anxiety presenting itself as I transfer to this new stage in my life. I have a week to prepare, and she said that I'll feel more comfortable about all this, eventually." Val recited. His mom made sure he knew that it was alright to be scared to leave the safety of the valley. "When do you have to leave?"

"Tomorrow morning, I'm borrowing Uncle's boat that Pa choose for me. I've already got everything packed. And, soon, I'll be back here with a boatload of whatever I catch in those two short moons. I heard you only have one moon though."

Val shrugged. "Even though I have a week to prepare. I just don't know how I'm supposed to pull this off though. Mom wanted me to be looked after by Eir, but…"

"But what, Val?"

"I haven't told anyone, not even Níkleua… but Eir said she was too busy up in Asgard. She brought Loki with her, said that he was going t..."

"Loki, Prince Loki?" Osric was amazed. "Wow, that's amazing! He hasn't been seen since before our Marmar was born. You're lucky."

"Yeah, I guess." Val shrugged, then asked. "Hey, Osric, do you need any help?"

"No thanks. Aumanil is the Deity that's looking out for me. He said that my parents and uncle were the only ones who could help me. Sorry." Osric apologized.

"Yeah, no worries. I wish you all the luck in the world." Val said just as the bell that signalled that breakfast was ready sounded. "Hey, I'll race you to breakfast!"

Osric rolled his eyes. He knew how competitive his cousin was, especially because of Níkleua's really long legs. She had a growth spurt when she left the village, and she came back, from her task, taller than their mother. Though Val had never said anything to him about it, he always looked to his sister more than his parents. Running after his cousin, Osric tried to win by flying above him. The hallway was tall enough for him to squeak by even the tallest people of the village.

"Hey! No fair! Running only, come on Osric!" Val called out jumping up to reach Osric's ankle. With Val's extra weight Osric came back down. They ran the rest of the way, both the same speed, tied the rest of the way. Laughing, Val went to find his sister, while Osric went to find his uncle.

That morning Val quietly finished eating his breakfast and went off in search of Níkleua and the perfect ram. His thoughts were entangled as he walked down the long hallways to the old stable. The old stable had been originally used for the first two horses in the village. Now it only held the aging ewes and rams that were too old to have lambs anymore. Val continued on, heading outside to the newer stables that were across the feeding field.

'How am I supposed to lift a ram that's like as heavy as I am?" Val thought as he walked through the tall grass trying his best to avoid any excrements that had been left hiding in the grass. His thoughts continued nagging him. '…And an entire cycle of the moon without any family, alone and only the Gods will know where - hiding my wings the entire time! Will I be able to talk with anyone for a whole cycle of the moon? Argh, this will be the worst first trip ever!' His thoughts continued to toss and turn around his head for several more minutes.

"Val! Hey, Val! Slow down!" Níkleua yelled out, slightly out of breath from trying to catch up to her little brother. Even with her long legs she had the hardest time catching up, with Val, so far ahead of her. "Man! Some days I wished I had wings. That way I can beat you to a race… from here to the stables!"

"Well, at least you didn't have to hide yourself when you went out on your journey." Val called out rather dejectedly, he slowed down, turning back to Níkleua. He didn't have to wait long before she caught up to him. His wings seemed to ruffle in the wind for a moment. Níkleua knew that his wings were moving, more because Val had a hard time hiding his emotions when he was anxious, than the wind rustling through them. Once Val had spoken, he realised how rude it sounded. "Oh, I'm sorry, Níkleua! That was so rude of me. I didn't think."

"Hey, now Val! Don't apologize! Sometimes, I'm kind of envious of you guys. You can fly across this entire valley faster than I can run from here to the beach. I've always wanted to have that choice." Níkleua squeezed his shoulder, and smiled. "But hey, it's alright, Dove. I don't need a Gift from the Gods to feel more like myself. I am who I am, and I'm O.K. Hey, cheer up. I know that you're not going to meet anyone out there because of your wings. And that's alright. They don't need to know about this part of you to know that you're a great guy! Now, Eir said that you had to go to a farm, right? Well, why don't you sneak our ram in and sneak their ram out? A secret trade. They probably won't even notice."

"Yeah that could work. Thanks Níkleua. I wouldn't be seen by anyone, which would please Eir, and then I'd be able to come back within the month that she said I had. Alright, let's find a ram that I can carry!" Val cheerfully declared. His wings settled back again to their regular relaxed position against his back.

"So, what's gotten into you? Just yesterday you were quiet but excited, you know, about leaving Asgarðr and seeing what was beyond the mountains. Did something happen?"

"Yeah I was… I am! I just had nightmare last night. I haven't been able to shake it."

"A nightmare?" Níkleua asked, "Are you thinking that it was a cautionary type of nightmare?" remembering her night before leaving Asgarðr. She too had had a frightening dream the night before, but once she was out there, in the world, everything was good. More than good. Free. She learned more about her place in the world, outside of the village and in it. Her thoughts were interrupted when Val finally started talking. He was so quiet at first, she barely heard him. But as he spoke, his voice became louder, even if it trembled a bit.

"I'm not sure. The dream started nice enough. I was flying over the mountains. I didn't recognize the area, though. Nothing was familiar, it was all sharp peaks and deep lakes. I was holding the ram tight to my chest, its weight was pulling me down. I was struggling to just stay in the air. This storm came out of nowhere and there was this lightning strike. It hit me, and I must have dropped the ram because when I looked down he was falling. I felt fine, even as the lightning's energy streamed through me. And then I was falling too. And I could smell myself. I was so hot and heavy all of a sudden. I stank of burnt flesh. I had to let go. My fingers wouldn't work and I tried to grab this tree, you know to slow me down, but the ram and I just kept falling. I knew before I hit the water that I to be able to save the ram or myself. I wasn't fast enough. And I failed before I even began!" Val sat down. They were only halfway to the stable. A large half rounded stone, one section of it dented perfectly for two people wanting to sit, placed in the long grass. They sat down, Val's palms sweating as he began to remember the nightmare in all of its detail. Níkleua gave him a hug, she was at a loss for words.

'Why would the Gods give my little brother this quest for his coming-of-age, and then scare him with this horrible nightmare. Why?' Níkleua thought. Val was trying not to cry, but the tears still rolled silently down his cheeks. His shoulders shaking. "Hey, hey. Shush. It's alright, Val." Níkleua said, giving him a firm but gentle hug. "You know that Eir will be taking care of you when you leave Asgarðr. You won't be completely alone! The Gods wouldn't have given you this important task, if they had any doubt you couldn't do it. Hey, can you try," She wiped his tears from his cheeks. "for me?"

"I guess so. Yeah!" Val tried to be positive for her, wiping the snot from his nose on the back of his sleeve. "It just depends if we can even find a ram that's light enough for me to carry over the mountains. What if I'm not strong enough?"

"Oh Val. Take one breath at a time. Do your best. You're human, just like me. Would you rather say that you tried and did your best or never tried at all, hmm?"

"If I do my best, of course!" Val said, feeling a little bit better. Even though the nightmare had been pushed back, it still hung there, in the back of his mind, like a reminder ready to pop back up if he started to feel the slightest of doubt.

"Alright then let's go find a ram for you to fly with. Maybe Lavinia has a runt of a ram that fits all of Eir's qualifications!" Níkleua pulled her younger brother forward, past the acre of buildings made for the animals to spend winter in; out to the fields that held the sheep, cows and pigs. The two dozen dogs, that protected the various animals from wolves and helped herd them home, greeted Níkleua and Val with warmth.

"Hello, my little guard dogs. How are the fields today? Nice and safe, huh? Yes, good job you guys." Níkleua asked, rubbing the dogs' backs in quick circular motions. Val swore that she was able to touch each dog in the ten seconds that they rushed her. Each dog encircling her legs before moving off to continue their job. Val just shook his head, before turning to see where Lavinia was. She and Analia was always near the dogs and the flock.

"Níkleua! How nice to see you! Do you have another apprentice for me, today?" Lavinia called out, flying above their heads, just to land, gracefully, in front of them. Níkleua stopped in her tracks and grinned up at her friend.

"Oh no, Lavinia! This is just my brother, Valmathe, not another apprentice. Sorry. Yesterday he met with the Goddess Eir for his coming-of-age task and he has a problem that we were hoping you can solve."

"And what can I do to help you?" Lavinia asked glancing between the two. She had an idea of what they were going to ask, since Shrii had come around last week asking very specific and cryptic questions about the different herds.

"Val needs-" Níkleua started to say, wanting to speak up for Val. As his big sister, Níkleua often spoke for Val before he even had a chance. Over the years, he allowed her to, often thinking she didn't notice what she was doing. But today was not the day for it. He was going to be an adult soon, and he was going to speak for himself today.

"I need a ram that is light enough for me to carry over the mountains." Val blurted out, his hand resting on Níkleua's arm. He was an adult now and he didn't need his big sister to speak for him, no matter her intentions.

"And by 'carry over' you mean fly, right?" Lavinia asked, her own wings rustled in the wind. Lavinia's wings were colored like bright autumn leaves that had fallen onto her back and never left. The red, brown and dark green colors that looked splashed on her back were elegant and beautiful in her own way.

"Yes. Over the mountains and to a farm were Eir has told me to exchange the ram for another that I will then have to come back with. The only thing is that I need a ram that has produced at least one lamb. That was the condition she told me was important. Do you think you can help?" As Val was asking Lavinia this, her apprentice, Analia, had run up - ready to talk to Lavinia when we were done. Analia was a polite girl, barely 14 summers old. Unlike Lavinia, Analia was wingless. Her long black hair was braided around her head, her plain brown work clothes still clean in the morning dew.

"Of course I can." Lavinia told Val confidently. She turned to her apprentice and asked "Can you gather up all the rams that are less than… let's say three years old and bring them here. Thanks!"

Analia nodded and ran off, gathering three dogs to help her. She quickly had a temporary coral set up where she separated a dozen rams from the rest of the herd. Val thought that more than half of them were too big for him to even wrap his arms around but he didn't say anything until Analia had finished bringing them over.

With the help of the dogs, Analia had the rams laying down in a line. Val looked over them one by one. Some of them were way too big, that was obvious. While one of them was small. A little bit too small, so small that Val thought that the ram couldn't have possibly be old enough to have produced a lamb already.

"Has this one – how old is this one?" Val asked pointing at the smallest one. Val looked at the rams and realised that he not one iota of an idea about sheep or how to take care of them.

"That one is Onni. He just turned two years old yesterday." Analia responded looking at the ram's stitches that covered the ram's left ear. Someone had sewn little bits of information that once read, you'd know all about the ram's life – pretty much from birth to death. Val suspected that Analia had all the rams memorized, just to impress Lavinia, but that he kept to himself. "Onni has sired a lamb with Cassandra just three weeks, and two days ago. The lamb is healthy and hasn't shown any health problems. Looks like neither Onni nor Cassandra has never had any major health problems, though Onni was caught in that rain storm, just over a year and a half ago when he was just a wee little lamb."

"Right," Lavinia said, snapping her fingers. "he was the last lamb that we found in that dreadful storm. After we got them all in, Analia and I found that Onni had had a small cough that we were worried about but it cleared up without any problems. Everyone just calls him Onni which means 'Luck' in Finnish."

"Luck, huh. That's perfect." Val smiled, thinking that it was just what he needed on his task.

"Val, did you want to try and hold him for a test run?" Níkleua asked.

"Well I suppose, he doesn't look very heavy." Val shrugged and reached for the ram. His arms barely went around Onni's middle. Val tried to haul him in the air, a moment away from getting a running head start into the air. And, that is when Onni gave him a warning nip right in Val's face. "Ow, okay then. That's not happening."

"Are you alright, Val?" Níkleua asked, pushing Onni away from him. She checked his face, grateful that Val hadn't actually been bitten by the ram.

"Onni didn't bite me, I'm fine. He snapped at the air, that's all. I… shouldn't have grabbed him so suddenly." Val had put a bit of space between himself and the ram. Unsure if it was a temperament problem, or rather a one-time warming. Val hoped for the latter.

"I haven't seen Onni display such… aggressive… behaviour before." Analia said slowly. "I'm so sorry, Val."

"It's alright, really, Analia. I shouldn't have grabbed him so roughly, it was my fault." Val repeated, wiping off some wet grass off his pants.

"Why don't we see if any of the other rams… connect with you?" Lavinia asked them, taking Onni's collar and leading him back out to the field. Free, Onni ran back to the group that Val thought was Onni's partner and child.

"He seemed to be the perfect size," Val said wistfully. "that's too bad." Turning his attention back to the rest of the rams laying on the grass. "Those five are a bit too big for me to carry, I think." Val said, pointing to the five largest of the rams. Even with their wool sheared for the summer, they were just so… fat and heavy.

"That's alright," Analia said. "even I would have a problem carrying these guys in an emergency. Hup, Hup!" and with that Analia separated the bigger guys out and sent them back to the field. They seemed happy to go, with a bit of a hop, skip and jump in their step.

Val looked at the rest of the rams. Six remained. The three biggest ones were still too large even for Val to pick up, although just. When he tried to get off the ground with them, everyone agreed, that Val would never be able to get above the mountains, never mind fly the distance.

"Alright, we have three left. Which one do you think you'll bring with you?"

"Is this one a female ram?" Val asked, checking the underside of the woolly ram.

"Rams are boys, silly!" Níkleua laughed before looking at what Val was pointing at. "Oh, I think you're right. Analia?"

"Oh! Ha, my mistake. I guess that leaves just these two." Analia said, pointing to the last two rams before bringing the ewe out of the pen.

"What can you tell me about these last two?" asked Val. He just couldn't choose between the two. They were both about the same size and looked just a smudge too big for him to carry. 'Had I been able to walk across the mountains, any of these rams would be good. Why did Eir specify that I carry him over the mountains?' Val thought, listening to Analia as she talked about the first ram.

"This is Dumuzid, he's going to turn three years old in five days from today. He has two lambs, with two partners. He's had a mild case of summer wool fungus, and has been infection free for six whole months. Try picking him up, and if you can, take off with him."

"Alright, I'll try." And Val did. But no matter what position he tried to hold Dumuzid in, Val just couldn't get off the ground. Putting Dumuzid down, Val asked, "what about the last one there?

"This is his twin brother, Dumuzie. He's had one lamb. Oh, oh never mind…" Analia said squinting at the stiches.

"What? What is it?" Val asked, looking down at the small stiches in the ram's ear. "What's wrong?"

"Oh this is just sad. Their lamb died after only three days. Heart complications. We've prayed for another, successful, lamb, but… I'm afraid that until we have more information as to why… I don't think that he should come with you. Just to be safe."

"Oh that's sad. The poor thing. Mnn," Val thought again of Onni, the only ram he was able to pick up easily and just might be light enough for him to carry over the mountain. "What about Onni? You said that his lamb hasn't had any complications, right?" Val asked, "and he was so much lighter than any of the other rams. Maybe if I get to know him a bit better, over the next six days, we could find a way for me to carry him over the mountain."

"That's a good idea. Come back tonight. Be prepared to spend the night with Onni, Cassandra, and little one. Perhaps more time is all that Onni needs… before you can fly with him."

"Thank you Analia, Lavinia, I'll see you tonight. Thank you."

"No problem, bye!" and with that Lavinia was off to watch the various herds from up high, and Analia turned to herd all the individual rams back to the grazing field.

"It's almost time for the midday meal, isn't it?" Val asked his sister, as they walked back. "'Cause I'm starving!"

"Val?" Níkleua asked, "Would it be alright if I met up with you later? Danzhu asked me if I could help her as soon as I was done here."

"No problem, I really should take a nap before whatever Analia has planned for me and Onni tonight." Val yawned. His jaw cracked with the force of yawn. Tears fell down his cheeks from the force of his eyes scrunched shut.

"Go to bed, Owlet. I'll wake you up for supper." Níkleua said, pushing him down the path, "Goodnight!" with a wave goodbye, Níkleua headed off to Danzhu's hut unsure why she asked for Val not to know of their meeting.

Danzhu's home was under three large oak trees. Their large branches provided shade on the hot summer day. "Danzhu, are you home?" Níkleua asked, poking her head in the doorway.

"Out here, love." Danzhu called out. Her voice seemed to come from behind the small hut. The smell of honey and smoke could be smelt on the wind.

"What can I help you with today?" Níkleua asked, putting the spare net-hat on before approaching the beehives.

"Oh?" Danzhu asked, turning to face the younger woman. "Oh, no. I don't think I explained myself very well this morning. Dear me! I'm sorry, Níkleua, I was wanting to help you and your brother! Not the other way around."

"Help us with what?" Níkleua asked, confused. Her mind was on plans for Val's trip and the next lessons for her class tomorrow.

"Your mother mentioned that Val has to fly his ram over the mountain. How does he intend on doing that?"

"We haven't figured that out yet. A harness I suppose, but I'm not sure how much strain that's going to put on Val's body." Níkleua confessed. "He's just so young!"

"Yes, yes he is. And that is why we are going to get their measurements and make a harness that will get him home safely. Nothing would please me more." Danzhu took her heavy work gloves off and pulled Nikleua into a hug. "Can you do that for me?"

It didn't take Níkleua long to sneak into Val's room and measure him from head to toe. He was already passed out when she entered, and no matter how much noise she made, he didn't stir. Tucking him back in, she kissed him on the forehead and whispered. "Sleep well, little brother." Then, with Analia's help, they measured Onni as well.

Danzhu had a few sketches made by the time she got back. One was for the ram carried on his shoulders, the harness stretched to keep the ram tightly in place. But they soon realized that that was not going to happen. Val would be severely over weighted on his upper body, and would not be able to fly like that. Never mind take off.

With measurements in hand, they started to try other harness types. With Danzhu drawing different styles, and positions, Níkleua soon realized that the only position for Val and Onni would be to travel holding Onni underneath him, their body's in sync. Head-to-head, belly-to belly. They thought that that was the only way their weights would be distributed properly.

The supper bell rang too soon. "Oh, I was supposed to wake Val up before supper!"

"Go on then, I'll finish up here." Danzhu told her, waving her out the door.

Níkleua raced out, with barely a wave goodbye. It took only a few minutes to race through the field, up through the large hallway and into Val's room. "Val! Get up, it's supper time!"

"Whaa- go away, it's too early!" Val tried to say, covering his head even deeper into his pillow. Níkleua smiled, shaking her head.

"It's supper time, you know. Come on, time to get up. Let's get some food in you. That way when you see Onni, you'll be wide awake, yes?" Níkleua pushed her brother out of bed, making sure that his feet were solidly planted on the ground before moving him, one step at a time, out the door. "Come on. You must be hungry by now."

"Mnn, food…"

It didn't take long for Níkleua to wake him up. Especially with the smell of food and coffee coming from the kitchens, Val began to look more and more awake. By the time they reached the dining hall, Val was wide awake. Val was eager to drink a bit of coffee before heading off to see if Onni and him would get along at all. Shrii stopped Val before he was able to reach for his plate.

"Val, wash up. You smell like a… wet sheep." Shrii's nose crinkled. "And when you're clean, I want to talk with you about what you're going to wear out there. So hurry up!" Shrii's wings fluttered around her head, trying to wave the stench of her son away from the more delicious smells coming from the kitchen.

"You know that he's going back out to those 'wet sheep' as soon as he's done eating. Right?" Níkleua asked, before grabbing a glass of freshly pressed apple juice and joining her father at the table.

"I know, it's just decent though. Not to stink up the whole eating room, right before a journey."

"Mor! He's worked really hard to find the perfect ram. And one that fits all the requirements set by Eir. Do you know that he had nightmares last night of failing you both, and the Gods… and himself, really? Can you be more supporting of him, when he comes back? I'd really appreciate it."

"Yes, I can my love. I'm sorry." Shrii apologized, turning her attention to her husband. "How's that map that Eir gave Val coming along, Årne? Did you see anything that needed to be added?" She asked, sitting down beside and taking a sip of water.

Årne finished chewing his food and then replied, "I'm almost done. I have a few more people I want to talk to update it and all."

"Do you think you'll be done by tomorrow night?" Shrii asked.

"Hmm, by this time tomorrow, I should be finished the map completely."

"Good." Shrii smiled

"Although…" Årne continued. "I'm worried that if Val loses the map, it will give someone a chance to find us. Why do you think Eir gave Val a map instead of directions?"

"Hmmn, I'm not sure. But if Eir had a reason, I'm sure it's a good one, yea?" Shrii said, nodding a bit. Årne nodded as well, though he didn't seem content with his wife's answer.

"If the Gods deem it so, so mote it be." Mormor Sesi whispered, rather cryptically, as she sat down beside Níkleua. Shrii and Årne shared a glance, one that said – what is she talking about?

"Shrii!" Danzhu called out, over the usual conversations that ranged from whispered, giggles to louder arguments in the room. Most tried to keep their conversations to a minimum, eating as quickly as possible, so that they could get back to work or play depending on the person.

"Danzhu! How you doing!" Shrii smiled at the shorter woman, as Danzhu slid into the bench that lined the long table.

"I'm good thanks. I was wondering if Val needed any help preparing for his journey." Danzhu asked, her frizzy hair looked like it was wanting to come loose from her thick leather braid.

"I was actually going to come find you after we'd eaten! How'd you know?" Shrii laughed. Danzhu had that ability to be exactly where she was needed, and it had become a joke between the two women was they grew up.

Danzhu shrugged, looking around. "Where is your son? I thought he'd be starving by now!"

"He's still cleaning up. He came in smelling to high heaven." Shrii replied, and Níkleua almost snorted soup out of her nose.

"Mother!" Níkleua exclaimed.

"What it's true." Shrii shrugged.

"Yeah but… he was training with Onni all day." Níkleua replied her voice muffled slightly as she blew her nose with her cloth napkin.

Shrii waited for her daughter to finish blowing her nose before she responded. "That doesn't mean that he can come in smelling like that. He is an adult now." Níkleua only rolled her eyes and looked to her father for support. But Årne was fully absorbed by the excellent soup before him. Shrii ignored her daughter as Níkleua gave her another eye roll, instead she directed her question to Danzhu. "Why don't you join us? I'm sure that Val will join us soon."

"Sounds good! I'll be right back." Danzhu replied, getting up to get her own plate of food. Shrii watched Danzhu for a few moments, a thoughtful gaze on her face. As soon as Danzhu stopped to talk with a young mother and her child, Shrii continued to eat. Níkleua ignored her mother. As she often got lost in thought when something was bothering her. A few minutes later, Val came to sit down with his own plate and Danzhu wasn't too far behind.

Danzhu, coming back with a plate of salad and a bowl of vegetable soup, exclaimed when she saw Val. "My! I swear, you grow bigger every time I see you!"

Val blushed at Danzhu's words and set down his own plate. He was so hungry he had been thinking about eating an entire cow, that is, right up until Danzhu spoke. Trying to think of an appropriate response, he simply picked from his salad, chicken wrap and the fried fish on his plate as he waited for Danzhu to say why she had come. There was always something. When she didn't say anything, Val ventured a "Hello, Danzhu, how are you today?"

"I am well today, Val, thank you." Danzhu replied, nodding over a fork full of salad. "I was just inquiring if you need any help in your preparations."

Val looked up, startled. "Oh thanks, Danzhu. I'm not sure. Níkleua helped me find a ram this morning, and I'm going to practice flying with him soon. Mom's making me some traveling clothes and we're making a harness so that Onni's more comfortable during the flights. I'm not sure what else is needed." Val shrugged, he was sure he hadn't thought of everything, but he wasn't going to tell Danzhu that. There were rumors that Danzhu was even older than Mormor Sesi. But he'd never had the courage to ask her to her face.

"Well, it seems you've got everything planned. So I'll leave you this little present I made last year. And now I know just the person who needs it." Danzhu said placing an object wrapped in leaves, the length of her forearm, down on the table.

"Me? A present? Thank you." Val carefully pulled apart the leaves, not sure what to expect and found a delightful surprise inside! "A knife! Thanks Danzhu!"

The shiny black knife with its light brown leather handle looked beautiful as it lay nestled in the bed of leaves. Val was stunned. Usually presents were given on special days like a birthday or wedding day. So he hadn't expected a present for when he became an adult.

"The sheath can be put on either your ankle or wrist. Here's also a bag with flint and a whetstone. Oh and I put a bottle of salt and pepper in there as well." Danzhu explained putting a small leather bag on the table. "I do hope that's all you'll need on your journey."

"All the God's above." Val breathed, smiling at Danzhu. "Thank you!"

"It was no trouble. I had this feeling that you might be in need of it." Rising, Danzhu took up her plate. "Hey, Val?"

"Yes?"

"I wish you all the luck in the world."

"Thank you, Danzhu. If I need anything, I will come right over."

With a small smile, Danzhu replied. "I'm always around to help." And with that, Danzhu went over to where Osric and Friggia were sitting, their heads tucked together deep in their own planning.

"Val," Shrii said, "I'll need you for a fitting as soon as you're done eating tomorrow morning. Your father and I have drawn up some ideas and we'll need some fresh measurements from you."

Val murmured his agreement with a full mouth, and nodded. Slowly, he turned the knife. The light glinted off of it, making the sharp edge look even sharper in the bright light of the hall.

After supper, Val headed down to the winter shed. Partners like Onni and Cassandra were kept in a pen of their own here at night so that they could be as close to their lamb as possible, during the night, and safe from the pack of wolves that often came for elderly or infant lambs. The guard dogs were often too fierce to let anything happen on their watch, but still one or twice a year the wolves managed to drag an unlucky animal away. Some said that starvation was too blame. The mountains were too tough for game like deer and rabbits to live on when on the other side, the humans from outside the valley hunted their areas almost to extinction.

"Hello?" Val called out, entering the shed from the underground hallway that led up from the main hall. "Is anyone here?" Three partners filled the corner pens, the rest were empty were during the summer months. Only ewes that were close to expecting were kept safely in the shed, the rest of the flock were left to find a place inside the quarter acre sleeping-paddock. Still safe, but more room for them all.

The first pen held three older rams. Their watery eyes telling Val just how old they were. Two pens over, a couple with a lamb just about to be done with the weaning process, look up at him, sleepiness written all over them.

"Ah, Val. There you are! Come on, let's see if Onni wants to be your companion. He's down here, in the corner." Lavinia said, showing him where Onni, Cassandra and the little one were. As Val came closer, he saw that Analia was separating Onni from his partner. She kept a firm hold on Onni's neck; thus keeping the young ram calm while Val approached.

"Hello. Do remember me from this morning?" Val asked leaning down to Onni's level. A good minute went by, their eyes locked on each other. Neither blinking, neither giving in.

"Are you going to be alright, down here?" Lavinia asked, "We have to get up early tomorrow." whispering into Val's ear.

"Oh, yes, I'll be fine. He's just assessing me. After all, we didn't start off on the right foot this morning. You go on to bed. Thank you!"

"Good night then. If you're sure."

"I'm sure, thank you, Lavinia. Good night!"

It didn't take much longer for their stare contest to finish off. With a huff, Onni trotted off. His back to Val. 'well, that went well, I suppose.' Val thought, shaking his head. It didn't long for Val to get all set up for the night.

He laid down, facing Onni and his partner. 'Maybe he can comfortable with me, and then tomorrow I can try to pick him up or even fly around with him!' Val thought hopeful that by the time he had to leave, Onni would be ready to leave as well.

Cassandra was very wary of the human in the corner of her pen. She thought that he was here to steal her baby while she and Onni were asleep. Her anxiety was so pronounced that she almost squished the little lamb as she tried to distance herself from the human. The lamb squeaked in protest as his mom's head squished him up against the wall. He barely had any room to breathe never mind get comfortable enough to sleep. With a kiss from Onni and a reassuring bleat, Cassandra was able to calm down. It helped that Val barely moved from his mat in the far corner.

Cassandra and the lamb were the first to fall asleep, with Onni and Val continuing to give each other wondering glances at each other. It came close to midnight before Onni and Val fell asleep. The quiet of the night working its magic on them.

That night Val dreamed.

Val opened his eyes and stretched. He was in the stables with Onni and Cassandra. But something was different. Instead of waking up in the corner where he had fallen asleep Val woke up curled around the ram and ewe. He felt small like he was their lamb, tucked between the two of them, protected. But then when Onni looked up at Val all thoughts of being protected vanished. Onni opened his mouth, and Val assumed he would make the regular bleating sound, but what came out instead was – "Why?"

"All the Gods above! Are you talking?" Val was surprised, as he had never in his life heard any animal talk to him. Sure he had heard that Lavinia was able to somehow guess what was wrong with her herd, long before anyone else. But never had he thought that he would actually be talking with one. Before he was able to get over his surprise Onni had more to say. "Why are you here? In my home?"

"I'm here so that you can get used to me. In about 5 days from now we're going on a journey. Far, far away. And you won't be coming back." Val opted for the truth. He suspected that the ram wouldn't take a sugared version of it all very well.

"Why?" Onni asked again, this time getting up and standing over the young man. Val felt like as small as a lamb. His back was warm and was pressed against something comforting. But with Onni standing over him, Val could only stutter in fear. It was all too much.

"The Gods have asked me to trade you for a new ram. So that the herd won't become to. . ." Val wasn't sure how to say it. "to inbred. We've put it off for far too long and you're the perfect ram. You're light enough for me to carry you over the mountains, you've had at least one lamb, and you're young. So I'm sure that they will gladly take you in where you can have more 'Cassandra's' and little baby lambs like this one" Val tried to explain, though the heat in Onni's eyes was making Val sure that he had done it all wrong. Val looked around for the lamb that he knew was in the pen with them somewhere. But to no avail. The lamb was nowhere to be seen.

"I don't want to leave my child. Ever." Onni was angry and firm on the point. He was adamant that he wasn't going to leave.

"Hey, my child. Calm down." A male voice sounded from behind Onni. Val looked around the ram. 'Loki' he thought 'what's Loki doing here?"

"Onni, my child. Turn around. I need to explain something to you and I want you to listen carefully."

Onni turned from Val, looking up at Loki. He nodded once, and surreptitiously scuffed dirt into Val's face, making Val cough slightly as the small dust cloud puffed up around him.

Loki reached out and stroked the top of Onni's head, helping the young ram calm down. "I need you to listen to me. Val here has been given a job to do. He chose you to help him. This new ram that Val will bring back here with him, will help the future generations grow and be stronger, healthier. But not without your help. Eir gave him one cycle of the moon to get the new ram back here. And he can't do that if he walks you over the mountain. Val knows this that is why he didn't pick an older ram. That is why he picked you. The honour of saving your herd is all yours. And when you arrive at your new home. You will have many ewes vying for your attention so that your new herd will be strong and healthy as well. You understand?" Loki asked, the ram who had cuddled sadly onto his lap while Loki talked.

"Yes. But I have no desire to leave Cassandra and my little Daimy." Onni said, but he wasn't bleating/talking to Loki. He was looking across the pen and up, past Val, where Val noticed that it was Cassandra who had been warming his back and keeping him safe. Startled, Val looked up at Loki. But Loki only chuckled with a finger to his lips.

"Onni, my love. The gods have decreed that you are to leave. We must believe that they have made this decision for the best of the herd and that your child will have a better life because of this sacrifice." Cassandra said, rather mournfully. "Will I be able to say goodbye on the last day?" She asked snuffling a little.

"Of course. You and your child will have five days to say goodbye to Onni." Loki replied, "And Val I think it is time to…" snapping his fingers. "Wake Up!"

And with a snap of the Gods fingers, Val awoke in his own body. Loki was just standing up and Onni had already returned to nestle with his partner and child. "Come now, we will let this family absorb the knowledge of what has just happened while we discuss what just happened to you. Do you remember what your dreamt?"

"Rather vividly actually. I was dreaming that I was their lamb, I think. I was smaller than Cassandra and Onni, so small that I felt that I was a tiny little lamb! And they were talking to me! Asking me what was going on and why. I don't know what that was but I have never dreamed like that before. It was all so real." Val told the God, whose light steps were whispers compared to Val's. As they walked Val noticed that Loki smelled like freshly cut grass and fog.

'An interesting combination…' Val thought.

"You remember the story about your grandparents, and her sister? How um… I accidentally infused magic into their very bones. Well, we found out that any children that came from the trio would also have magic in their very beings. But they're gifts, they didn't bloom until they were mature 16-18 year olds. Now I believe that dream talking is your ability." Loki told Val, leading him out of the stables and towards the old grove that was lit with soft moonlight.

"So I can dream talk to sheep." Val said slowly, still trying to wrap his head around the fact that his 'dream' was real. He'd had a full conversation with a ewe, and a ram.

"Hmm, yes. It seems you can. I'm just not sure that it is only sheep you can talk to. You may find in the coming years that you can talk with more species, but I caution you. Not all animals will want to speak with you, and not all of them will have something positive to say to you. So I caution you to use this wisely."

Val nodded, something else on his mind that he needed to voice. "Loki?" Val whispered.

"Yes, Val. What is it?"

"I . . . I'm really not sure how to say this. And I'm not even sure if it's even a problem. It's just that-"

"Well spit it out. How can I say it is a problem or even fix it if you won't say it, hmm?" Loki replied, crossing his arms.

"Well Mother, and Father, and Níkleua and… well everyone, thinks that Eir is the one that will be keeping an eye on me. Not you. And well… I haven't been very honest with them." Loki raised an eyebrow, and even stopped walking. Val thought about what he said and tried to explain. "At first I was really busy thinking about all the plans and preparations. So I didn't correct anyone. And then later on when Níkleua said something to Lavinia, I still didn't say anything. Is it a lie if you don't say anything?"

"I believe that you have two choices. First is continue not to say anything and feel the same or more guilty about it, no one is harmed by it and your family has peace of mind because their choice of Goddess is taking care of you. Or two tell the truth. Feel better. And possibly have your family worry about you more on your journey. Some people believe that by not telling the truth right away you aren't able to or wanting to take responsibility for your actions and decisions." Loki put a heavy hand on Val's shoulder. "Every action and decision in your life will affect you as well as those around you. And a lie not fixed can lie heavily on you."

"That's the thing I didn't mean to lie by not saying anything. And Mother is so happy that Eir will be there for me, looking after me. But if I tell her that it's you and not Eir, I think that she'll be rather disappointed. Not in you, of course. You're a God! In me. That I'll need the God of Mischief, Mischief! To do something as simple as exchanging a ram and helping our village have a strong herd. Anyone can do it!" Val realised that he was speaking rather fast as well as loudly. With a slight huff, Val sat down in the long grass. After a moment Loki sat down as well.

"You do know that it's alright to not feel ready for adulthood. The responsibility, everyone looking to you for something to get done, and then the obvious... Parenthood." Loki whispered, before seeing the aghast look on Val's face, Loki realized that perhaps the young man wasn't quite ready for all that. "I know that last night you were a child. And today an adult. That can take some getting used to. I know that it took me some time."

"It did? But you're a God! How could being an adult be hard for you?"

"Think of it from my point of view. Back home, in Asgard, I'm not a God." Loki snuck a glance at Val and almost chuckled at the open-mouthed expression that the young man had going on. "At home, I'm a brother, a husband, a father, and to my people I'm the adopted Prince. Royalty, yes, but not of Asgard. Mother tries her best to treat me the same as Thor but you know how it is. There's always a favorite, and it's usually the oldest." Loki sighed, "But I'm also a mess-up. Thor's the golden boy, the Prince-to-be… the next King of Asgard. I'm just his little brother that messed up the easiest of magics all those years ago." Loki trailed off, wallowing in guilt from almost thirty years ago.

"This isn't your fault you know." Val said softly, his wing encircling Loki's shoulder. "You were trying to help my grandparents. If you hadn't helped them, that stormy night, I wouldn't be here."

"Yeah, I know. Sometimes I feel like I should have used Lesser magic to help your grandparents. Maybe then when the lightning hit me, it wouldn't have affected you guys so strongly."

"Hey, you stepped up, you saw that they needed help that night and you helped them. No one really talks about it, but Danzhu mentioned that Thor was with you. He brought you back to Asgard to heal."

"Yeah, that's right. What's your point kid?" Loki asked with a chuckle.

"If you hadn't been there, would Thor have done what you did? Would he have saved my grandparents from the storm, using magic to get them on to the mainland safely?"

Loki looked at Val, his eyes wide. He hadn't thought about what his brother would have done in that scenario. "My brother was only there because I was keeping an eye on your grandparents. I choose them, you know. Secretly. If I hadn't…"

"If you hadn't chosen to ask my grandparents to be here, I know you would have regretted it. Their special to you, and you to them. You know that right?"

"Thanks Val. But we were talking about you. What do you want to do?" Loki asked.

"I don't want to tell my mother. I remember how anxious she was when Níkleua went on her journey. Dad is sure to tell her, you know how he gets. Can't keep a secret for the life of him."

"What about your sister? Surely Níkleua is a good secret-keeper." Loki suggested.

"Yes she is..." Val answered thoughtfully. "Oh I know! I won't say anything before I go. But if something was to happen, then you could come here and tell my sister. Not my parents though, Mor worries too much about me as it is. Do you think you could do that?" Val asked hoping that Loki wouldn't mind too much in keeping this between them. After all what could go wrong? He was just going there and back again. Quick in, and just as quickly out. No difficulties, right?

"I can…" Loki replied slowly. "But it might sound better coming from you. After all if something does go wrong, she'll hear that you're hurt and that you lied to her all in one sitting. How would you feel if that was you?" he asked, not really wanting to put himself in such a terrible position. After all having Val as a responsibility, and the first that the other God and Goddesses have allowed him to have, well he felt that he so desperately wanted to good.

"Badly. I would feel horrible. Alright, Loki, I'll try, I promise."

"Alright, how about you head on in and get some sleep. You've got maybe two hours before the breakfast bell. And then you can try with Onni again tommorow. Now that he knows what's going on, I'm sure that he's going to be much more helpful."

"Yes, good night then." Val replied, heading off. And with a small twinkle of light, Loki vanished, his work for the night done.