The woman frowned and I swallowed hard.
"You lied to me," I said again, trying for a more moderate tone.
"We did and we did not," the woman said, her voice squishing like viscera. She lounged against one of the roots, draping herself like a corpse, like a sated lover. Her moist, full lips curved into something like a smile. "We told you what would motivate you. The inferences and assumptions were your own."
I shrugged uncomfortably. "Well, yes. And I should have known better than to take what you said at face value. You could teach the fae to bend truth."
Skuld raised an eyebrow. "Who says we did not?" She stood up and slinked over to a small pool of water. "Come, mortal. Let us find truth in what could be."
I stared at her. I'd been half certain she would strike me down for being rude, but, instead, she accepted the accusation as if it were fact. I shook away the thought. She hadn't outright admitted it, so it wasn't fact. Merely more assumption that she was directing, encouraging. I narrowed my eyes and followed the woman.
She squatted beside the pool and gestured to it. "Look, mortal. See what you can see."
I wriggled up against a root to get as far away from the Norn as I could as I squatted next to the puddle as well. "What am I looking at here?"
Skuld shrugged one shoulder. "I do not determine that. Just look."
I leaned over the water and peered down into it. Bright lights flickered behind my eyes and the sound of a thousand voices talking roared in my ears. I couldn't tear my gaze away from the liquid mirror, despite my growing fear.
A split second after it started, the images in the pool released me. I had been trying to pull back so hard that the release sent me flying back against the branches and roots. I groaned, suddenly feeling exhausted. I lay limp in a tangle of thick woody strands, staring up into the vines and branches of the tree.
It suddenly struck me that I must be within the roots of Yggdrasil itself. That was where the Well of Urðr was located. That was where the Norns hung out. Which meant I was staring up at the world tree, an embodiment of no small part of the multiverse.
The awe overcame me for a moment, then washed away as I laughed. "Frickin' multiverse is poking me in the butt," I muttered, shifting uncomfortably. I struggled off the nest-like tangle and hobbled back over to Skuld and the pool. "So, should I try again or what?"
The Norn looked at me. "Try?" She shook her head with a laugh that sounded like boots stepping in sludge. "You just stared into that pool for three hours. I doubt you'll get more out of it."
I gaped at her. "Three hours? But-" I shook my head. "No, it was only a few seconds. Right? I mean, I didn’t really see… anything."
"Such knowledge is not for you to remember yet, though much of it you had already glimpsed." Her eyes bore into me. "I am curious as to how that could happen."
I shrugged. "How would I know? I don't remember any of it."
The Norn was at my side in the blink of an eye, pushing into my personal space without apology. Her narrowed, dead eyes ran over my face and hair, then down my neck.
"Well, well," she murmured, reaching for my throat. "What have we here?"
Her fingers brushed my skin and I felt dirty, lustful and slimy at the same time. I nearly vomited from the conflicting, roiling sensations. I pressed myself back against the roots arching up behind me.
"A memory pearl? Where did you get such a thing?" Her eyes stared into the space about a foot behind my eyes.
I swallowed convulsively. "Uh, I don't-" Then I remembered. "It was during my initial quest. To help me find the first of the Runespells."
She leaned forward, her lips nearly meeting mine. "Tell me who."
"The ravens," I whispered hoarsely. "Please don't hurt them-"
Skuld was suddenly back on the other side of the pool. She waved her hand dismissively as she went back to lounging against the roots of Yggdrasil. "I wouldn't hurt them for that," she said. "They may have hedged a line, but they followed the rules in doing so. You do not have ready or easy access to those memories."
I gulped. "I do not."
"Then they will only help you when you trigger the knowledge. Now, it is time for you to go."
"Go?" I blinked.
"Do you want to stay?" Skuld asked, lifting her head to send a sickly seductive smile my way.
The Norn turned to scowl into the distance. "He approaches." She turned back to me. "His past is the key. You must find out more."
"Who-?" I began.
The creepy, familiar voice drifted between the roots.
"Oh," I said. "Him."
Skuld lifted her hand and, not even straining, peeled the bark off a nearby root. I gasped, seeing the silver-blue light of the bifrost within the limb.
"It is time for you to go," the Norn said.
With a nod, I stepped into the bifrost, somehow easily fitting into the two-foot diameter strand the Norn had opened. For a long moment, I struggled to clear my mind of the anxiety I felt about my pursuer. It wasn't easy. The feelings kept sneaking in around the edges of my consciousness.
After what seemed like a long time, I felt something comfortable and protective brush against my mind. I latched on to the feeling and stepped out of the bifrost.
I immediately felt a shiver of anxiety. I'd been trying to clear my mind of the lingering fear of Jehovah, but I knew it had crept in at the last minute. I wondered if that would affect where I'd come out. And, if so, in what way.
I stared in awe at the dense forest of linden tress, birches, and willows. Leaves of reddish-orange, yellow-gold, and yellow-green filled the branches and covered the ground.
In the center of an almost perfectly round glade, a young woman sat crying. Her golden light brown hair gleamed in the light, and a loose red-gold band peaked between the strands. The woman herself was truly beautiful, and I stood dumbfounded for a long moment.
Finally, she wiped her eyes dry and looked up. "You are Nicola? I have heard much of you."
She held one hand out to the side and let a handful of red-gold drops fall into the leaves.
I took me another moment to put the pieces together. "Lady Freya, it is wonderful to meet you." I hesitated. "I seem to have gotten myself lost."
Freya smiled. "So I see. Come to my hall, and we shall see what we can do about that."