Long ago, in the time of gods and myth . . .
The old man and the girl moved slowly up the narrow and rocky pass under the watchful eyes of the sentries. "You see, child," the man murmured, "even here one can sense the coming darkness. They cannot see the armies, but they watch the birds fleeing the northern forests. They do not hear the horns, but they listen to the crash of thunder from beyond the mountains."
A viking clad in war leathers stepped forward to block their path, axe held at the ready. "Who comes?" he demanded. Behind him, another warrior wielding a short sword lifted a torch, casting flickering shadows across the stones.
The girl stepped between the old man and the vikings. "He is Bragi," she said, hands on her hips. "Storyteller to king's stronghold and village longhouse alike, singer of the Saga of Andhrimnir--"
The old man laid a hand on the girl's shoulder and she fell silent. "You must pardon Jun, warrior. She is young and prone to youth's impertinence. I am indeed a skald traveling the land, and we seek only shelter from the night and its dangers."
For a long moment, the viking stared at the pair from under a knitted brow. Finally he stood aside. "Well met, then. Welcome to Wotankeld." As they passed, he brandished his axe and growled, "No trouble, hear?" Jun glowered at the warrior, but the old man simply smiled, nodded, and moved up the pass.
As they continued around the bend, Jun kicked at a loose stone. Slipping into the shadows, it broke with a crack against the walls of the pass. "Why do you let him speak to you like that?" she complained. "And why are we here? The eddas will be told of great battles and terrible bloodshed, not inconsequential villages! "Learn the craft," you said. "Seek out the legends!"
The old man smiled. "Your place for now is to watch, and to listen. In doing so, you will come to understand our purpose."
Wotankeld was larger than most viking villages, built in a rift between the high cliffs that surrounded it. Enormous longhouses sat side-by-side along the streets that took Jun and the old man toward its center. The entire town seemed on edge. A woman passed carrying a bucket of water, but refused to meet their eyes. When a small boy ran up to them shouting a greeting, he was quickly pulled away by his older sister.
They wandered through the settlement until a sudden burst of laughter erupted from between two longhouses. "Finally, something interesting," Jun muttered. Following the noise, she found a crowd of viking warriors who cheered and bellowed as they watched two men circle in the center of the group. The first was nearly twice Jun's height and moved with the strange grace born only in battle--experience further betrayed by the scars on the mail that protected him. He wielded an enormous broadsword pointed unwaveringly toward his opponent, a younger man wearing only a quilted tunic and carrying a short sword in one hand while a small wooden shield covered his other arm.
As Jun watched, the young man--really little more than a boy--slid to one side then the other, weapon at the ready, then darted in to strike. The combatants traded a flurry of blows, until the larger man's broadsword came around in a sweeping arc that cracked the boy's shield and knocked him off his feet. The collected vikings roared with approving laughter, and Jun watched as the boy slowly sat up.
She shook her head and walked back to where the old man was waiting. "They may know that the darkness is coming, but if he's defending the village it'll be in deep, deep trouble."
The skald smiled again. "Perhaps," he said, scratching his chin thoughtfully. "Though all too soon that boy will be the one defending not this village, but all of Midgard. . ."
"Him?" Jun said incredulously.
"His name is Ragnar," said the old man. "And he has only begun his walk down the path of destiny." The pair turned to look back at the young warrior.
Grunting as he climbed to his feet, Ragnar retrieved his sword and threw aside his splintered shield. "Sigard!" he yelled, and his massive opponent turned from where he was being congratulated. "Again!" said Ragnar. The larger man shrugged and collected his broadsword from a friend. Shouting their approval, the assembled vikings crowded closer. Jun climbed atop a nearby barrel for a better view.
The combat had already begun, Ragnar and Sigard circling warily. Suddenly Ragnar rushed forward and brought his blade up in a violent swing easily parried by his opponent. Ragnar attacked again, only to be blocked by Sigard's shield.
As Ragnar leapt back, Sigard used the flat of his blade to clout the young warrior on his sword arm. Clutching his forearm to his chest, Ragnar spun--and suddenly came back, his sword arcing under Sigard's shield and into a gap in the mail on his side. The larger man grunted in pain, and Jun heard a cheer from somewhere in the crowd.
Ragnar closed with a flurry of blows as Sigard kept his shield clutched tight over his wound. Sigard finally managed to bring his broadsword around in a clumsy one-handed swing, and Ragnar dived under the blade and away.
Roaring with rage, Sigard threw his shield aside and rushed forward. For the next few moments, Jun watched Ragnar do his best to stave off a rain of hacking blows that visibly chipped the edges of his sword.
Finally Ragnar rolled to one side and leapt to his feet. Once again he and Sigard squared off, circling inside the ring of vikings. Suddenly Ragnar stopped and threw his sword aside. Sigard stood straight and grinned at the crowd. "He yields!" he shouted--as Ragnar stepped forward drove his fist directly into Sigard's jaw. The massive viking's head snapped back, and he wobbled for a moment as his broadsword fell from his hand. Then his eyes rolled and he slumped to the ground.
The assembled vikings fell silent as Ragnar retrieved his short sword and wiped it clean on his leather leggings. He turned to the crowd before speaking: "I am a viking warrior. I will never yield." Jun joined the crowd as it erupted in cheers, the vikings raising their weapons in salute.
A warrior clad in both leather and mail stepped forward, longsword and dagger strapped to his hips and an enormous axe slung behind him. Boiled and stretched leather had been formed into guards that were strapped over his shoulders and reached almost to the edges of his helm. He raised his hands and waited for the cheers to calm. Finally he put his hand on Ragnar's shoulder and spoke. "As speaker for the thane, I declare the holmgang at an end. Ragnar has proven himself through combat, and will be recompensed with three silver marks. . .once his opponent awakens. With that, the closing of this matter shall be recognized by both gods and men. So say the Laws of Odin."
"I thank you, Gudrek, and I thank the gods," said Ragnar, nodding his head solemnly.
"But there is one more matter," said the thanesman, and Ragnar looked up, puzzled. Reaching into a pouch on his belt, Gudrek withdrew a medallion, a silver disk engraved with crossed sword and hammer inside a ring of runes. Jun noticed that both Gudrek and Sigard wore similar medallions, as did others in the crowd. "Ragnar's show of courage and ability against this village's most skilled warrior has this day earned him the greatest honor we can bestow." Ragnar bowed his head and Gudrek hung the medallion around his neck. "Today he takes his place among the greatest warriors of this tribe. Today he joins the Odinsblade!" As the assembled Vikings cheered again, Jun watched Sigard rise to his feet and angrily push his way into the crowd.
Only the warriors had been allowed in the ceremony, so Jun and Bragi resumed their wandering through Wotankeld. "I suppose it's not such a bad place," Jun said. "Nice, in its own way." It certainly had a beautiful stave church, and as they studied its many carvings of gods and creatures, Bragi told Jun the stories and legends behind each of them.
They were just making their way back into the village when they heard the faint peal of a war horn. It was quickly joined by others, and Jun saw Gudrek step from a nearby longhouse. "To the pass!" he bellowed, and Viking warriors spilled from alleys and longhouses and made their way towards the gates.
The horns built and echoed off the peaks above the village as Jun and Bragi followed behind, and when they reached the mouth of the pass they found the warriors gathered around a dark-bearded man listening intently to a gasping runner. Gudrek pushed his way to the front of the crowd. "What's happened, my thane?"
The older man held up a hand to silence the thanesman as the runner continued. "Conrack's men . . . They side with giant warriors . . . armed with strange, terrible weapons. Messengers down on. . . the beach." A viking handed the runner a skin of water and the thane sat on his haunches for a moment, fingering the charm that hung around his neck--a Hammer of Thor.
Finally he stood and turned to the vikings. "The Betrayer's men are raiding Kopperud. Many of you were with me in Utherby. Those of you who were not have heard the stories--villages in ruins, men and women alike hung with spikes and marked with strange symbols unlike any rune."
"Now Conrack's armies have come to our lands, and would attack those who lie under the protection of the runestones. With this news, and accounts of his forces, I begin to fear that he has betrayed far more than the Laws of Odin. We cannot allow this to stand. I call upon the Odinsblade--to the ships!"
Vikings scattered to collect their weapons and armor. Jun turned to leave, but Bragi held her arm. She turned back to see Gudrek still at the thane's side. "Jarl, there's something I should tell you," he began, as the thane turned and saw Ragnar standing nearby, the silver medallion of the Odinsblade hanging around his neck.
"When did this occur?" asked the thane quietly.
"After the holmgang," explained Gudrek. "With only a short sword, he nearly bested Sigard. I might have waited for a true trial, but with Conrack's men so near, we'll need every skilled warrior in the village at our side. . ."
The thane walked to where Ragnar waited and placed his hand on his shoulder. "This will be more than a battle against some misguided peasants, Ragnar. From the tales we've heard, you could believe we are setting off to face the very forces of darkness."
"I know, father," said Ragnar. "But you know I have trained with every weapon in this village since long before I was bearded." The young warrior dropped to one knee and held his sword before him. "In battle I will earn this honor. This you know, and this I swear."
Jun watched as the thane considered Ragnar for a long moment and then said, "Very well. Go collect my weapons and armor, and arm yourself with anything else you can find. Gudrek will not be able to command Conrack's men to grant you mercy."
Thane and thanesman watched as Ragnar dashed off. "He cannot be a true member of the Odinsblade until he passes the trial, Gudrek," said the thane. "Do you understand what you've done? If my son is lost in battle today, he will not be recorded on the stones."
"He will be on the stones, Jarl," Gudrek said. "He is young, but one of the most skilled warriors I've ever seen. It will be his deeds recorded, not his death."
The thane began his walk down the pass. "I only hope the gods agree."
"We're following the vikings, right?" said Jun, though she knew Bragi led them toward the heart of the village.
"Many others will be taking that path," said the old man, as a group of children hurried past them carrying sheaves of oats. "For now our place is here. There is still much you must see."
"But what about Ragnar?" she complained. "Shouldn't we find out what happens to him?" The old man paused. Concentrating, he reached out and placed his hand on Jun's forehead. She felt a sudden chill and closed her eyes...
Ragnar settled into a place at the oars. Two rows before him, his friend Alric mounted his shield over the gunwales and took up his own oar. Throughout the longship the village's bravest warriors checked their weapons and tightened their armor. Mindful of his oath, Ragnar vowed that he would fight to the death against Conrack's raiders to prove his courage--to earn the medal of the Odinsblade and a place in the halls of Valhalla.
On the shore sat the tiny boat that had carried the messengers from Kopperud. Only one had survived, and he looked to be mumbling incoherently as a woman treated his wounds. Ragnar's father and Gudrek stood nearby, until the woman turned and shook her head.
Walking down the beach, Gudrek helped the thane aboard the longship. The thane took his place at the ship's prow, while the thanesman made his way to the rear of the boat and the steering board and barked, "Ready oars!"
Alric looked back at Ragnar and grinned. "Ready, warrior?"
The thane raised his axe. "To glory!" he cried. Pushing the ships through the crashing surf, the last warriors clambered over the sides. Then fourscore warriors pulled as one and the ships moved out to sea--
Jun's eyes snapped open. She was still in the village, near an amused Bragi. "I . . ." she stammered. "I could hear his thoughts like the waves on the shore! I could smell the sweat on his leathers, feel the planking beneath his feet! What. . ." The skald simply put a finger to her lips and continued to smile.
They walked in silence to where the villagers had gathered together around a roaring fire in the center of the village. Shielding her eyes from the flames, Jun looked past the fire and through a set of open gates. Beyond them was a small lake surrounding an island of rock, on which sat a circle of enormous stones covered with runes. And in the center of that circle was an even larger stone.
"The Runestone of Odin," whispered Bragi. "Cast down by Odin himself and a holy artifact to the people of this village and the surrounding land. Its wisdom has shaped viking law for generations. Around it the people have gathered stones to record their own history, to remember great deeds and to dedicate them to the Aesir."
An older man raised his arms and the murmuring crowd fell silent. "We call on the Aesir--on Odin, on Tyr. We call on Thor and Njord. Protect the warriors of this village as they enter your spheres, knowing their triumph is your glory." Villagers throughout the crowd whispered private prayers, then stepped forward with offerings to the gods--barley, oats, rye, a slaughtered goat--and cast them into the flames.
The crowd stood silently, and Jun joined them as they bowed their heads and closed their eyes...
Rowing to the rhythm of a war chant, Ragnar glanced over his shoulder at the horizon. Flashes of lightning illuminated dark clouds that rode across the surface of the ocean. Yet Kopperud lay on the far side of the storm, and to reach the village before Conrack's army had razed it to the ground meant traveling through the storm's center. The breeze that had propelled them out from shore rose to a steady wind, and several men left their positions at the oars to tend the woolen sail that stretched above the ship. Strange, Ragnar thought. Usually the wind blew away from storms . . .
Though the fire burned low, the villagers remained, listening to Bragi's story. "But Mimir was hampered by the weight of the mountains he held on his shoulders," he said. "So Nidhogg simply tightened his coils even further. 'I am the devourer of corpses, the enemy of Ygg,' hissed the serpent. 'Though you bested Odin himself, I will not be so foolish.' "”
Jun listened to the story, but she found herself watching Bragi's audience. They were smiling, their eyes bright, and occasionally she even heard children laughing at Mimir's bumbling companion Bikki or gasping at the evil serpent Nidhogg. The dark rumors, Conrack and his army--too soon those worries would return, but for this brief time Bragi had banished them to a faraway place.
All too soon the story had come to a close. "So it is that Nidhogg lies beneath the rubble-strewn Kjolen Plains," said Bragi with a flourish, "and Mimir sits in a place of honor near the throne of Odin himself. As for Bikki, well, his strange journey home will wait for another day." The audience jumped to its feet and cheered as Bragi took a short bow.
Jun made her way up to the skald as the crowd broke into knots of two and three people. The old man was surrounded by small children, but for a moment he looked up to share a smile with Jun. Accepting a bowl of plums and berries from a woman, Bragi shared the fruit as he and Jun made their way around the fire. "That, my girl," he said, "is the power of storytelling. A short while ago we were strangers. Now we are welcome, from the simple gift of a moment of happiness."
But already the moment had ended. As they walked through the crowd, Jun heard snatches of conversation:
"--said that Conrack's men were accompanied by a band of goblins! No taller than a man's belt but with glowing red eyes and wielding the weapons of those they've devoured--"
"--a trader from the banks of the Iving who told of enormous beasts moving through the mountains of Jotunheim. And those who journeyed to see them were swept up by the air itself and cast against the rocks!--"
"--days ago, Menja's son returned with the strangest fish I had ever seen pulled from the sea--it looked like a lizard, but lived underwater. Smelled terrible, but roasted with juniper berries it tasted surprisingly good . . ."
"--stories that Conrack's men journeyed to Nidavellir and returned with powerful magics. Entire battlefields have been found covered with men rent in two by their terrible power!"
Dire times, perhaps, Jun thought. But at least they were interesting times. She wanted to stop and listen, but Bragi took her arm and led her onward . . .
Jun followed the old man across a narrow bridge to the island and its runestones. Though only a short distance from the milling villagers, the island had a strange stillness, a respectful silence.
Passing each of the smaller stones, Jun ran her hand across the runes carved into their surfaces, some freshly cut and others nearly worn away by the wind and rain. Those she could read told of harvests and famine, of judgements and duels, of heroes and omens from the gods. At their bases lay brooches, charms, and glass beads--offerings from the descendants of those named on the stones.
Finally she came to where Bragi stood near the Runestone of Odin. The runes covering its surface had none of the imperfections of those carved by men, and they even seemed to glow faintly. The old man was tending a small fire burning in an iron pan at its base, but even with the extra light its runes were strangely unreadable.
Jun waited for a moment, then said, "Will Ragnar's name appear on the stones?"
"What do you see?" asked the old man. Jun closed her eyes...
Another wave crashed over the bow and swept the length of the ship, tossing two oarsmen from their seats. Above them the remaining tatters of the sail whipped in the raging wind as lightning ripped across the sky. Ragnar wrenched at his oar and watched the waves rise around them, taller than the village longhouses, taller than the highest trees.
Each clap of thunder seemed to be followed by peals of mocking laughter and screams of fury that drove the waves higher and higher. As they reached the top of an enormous swell, Ragnar realized that in his awe he had stopped rowing. So had many of the others, and together they watched the crest of the wave turn white with foam and spill away before them. Behind them Gudrek yelled, "Heave!" The vikings wrenched at the oars as they dropped into the blackness waiting below. . .
"He's in great danger," Jun admitted.
Nodding, the old man reached into his tunic. From a pouch he measured out a fine powder and tossed it into the fire. Smoke billowed outward, and Jun saw strange shapes darting just beyond her sight. Finally the smoke flowed together and hung in a dense curtain just outside the circle of runestones.
"Ragnar will return to the village," said Bragi. "But there are many obstacles he must first overcome." Through an opening in the smoke Jun saw caves lit by an odd bluish light, strange sea creatures swimming through the shattered hulls of ships. "A familiar yet faraway place," said the old man. "Full of things he will recognize yet find strangely unknowable. His path will take him deep into its heart, where he will become both hunter and hunted."
The smoke swirled again, and opened onto a fiery field glowing with heat. Cresting a distant ridge were figures rimmed with flame, shambling toward an unseen goal. "Here Ragnar will have only his blade against she whose armies are without honor or number. Only an untainted spirit will carry Ragnar across these plains of burning earth."
Erupting around them, the smoke coalesced into pillars of stone that stretched away into darkness. In the shadows Jun saw scores of burning eyes and gleaming teeth. "Goblins," she whispered.
"Yes," said Bragi. "Deep beneath Jotunheim, where Ragnar will begin to understand the nature of his destiny." The vision darted up, through masses of granite and ice, and they looked out from a high mountaintop. "And in the lands of the Wendol, he will trust that fate to the wind itself."
The smoke collapsed inward, and the bright light reflected from the snow was suddenly snuffed. When Jun's vision cleared, she saw an immense fortress that sat high atop the mountains, yet was held in eternal gloom. "Thorstadt," said Bragi mournfully. "Once home of heroes, now seat to the adversary. Though Ragnar will arrive before he is prepared to face the enemy, a quiet route will lead him into the very heart of darkness."
Jun tore herself away from the vision. "Will he be alone through his entire quest?"
A gust of wind swept through the runestones, and the smoke wisped away into the night. "All too soon it will be time for our entry into these affairs," said the old man, leaning so close that she could see the runes carved into his tongue. "But until then we must tend to our own role, content to observe events as they are designed by god and mortal alike."
The old skald walked back toward the village, but as he crossed the bridge he paused. "Ragnar will travel alone. But there will be many spirits guiding him."
Jun turned to the Runestone of Odin. "Protect him, allfather," she whispered. "Protect them all." Then she followed the old man into the darkness.
Down in the village, preparations had begun for a victory feast when the warriors returned. From high atop the peaks surrounding the village, Jun watched the smoke rise from longhouses and roasting pits around the village. If they only knew; sadly, she closed her eyes...
Ragnar clung desperately to a splintered plank from the hull of his longboat. Still the current pulled him downward, deeper into the heart of the vortex, and with each stolen breath he saw another brave warrior vanish. Ulf burst through the surface a short distance away, then was pulled under by the weight of his own chainmail.
Ulf, the most powerful man Ragnar had ever seen--gone. The fearless Gudrek, who kept his grasp on the steering board until the sea itself wrenched both board and thanesman from the ship--gone. Ragnar had seen his father a moment ago, the thane clutching to a length of broken mast until a wave rushed over--and he was gone. Soon Ragnar would join them, warriors betrayed by nature--betrayed by the gods. This was not how vikings were meant to die. . .
The vision dissipated, perhaps for the last time. Jun found Bragi studying the northern horizon, the sea lit by flashes of lightning and the land by curtains of flame sweeping through the forests. When she moved to his side, he pointed out fires dotting the plains beyond. "Campfires."
"Conrack's armies," Jun said, and the old man nodded. "When will they arrive?" she asked.
"Two days, perhaps. Three at the most."
She sighed. "So many sagas and eddas, every one full of adventure and heroism. I suppose I expected seeking out new stories to be like living the legends. But it's much tougher than I thought." She paused to look back at the village. "Knowing so much, yet able to do so little."
Bragi turned to her. "One day you will tell of these times, and it is vital you have the perspective necessary to comprehend the nature of events--the truths that lie beyond the eddas. For each valiant hero there are unnumbered others who are helpless against the darkness. For each monster slain, a thousand innocents die."
"So why must we simply observe? Why can't we take part in the stories?"
"In telling the tale we play our part, nurturing the tales through the years so that they might take root in mortals. Thus the sagas preserve the seeds of heroism: hope. In the face of evil, hope allows mortals to steel themselves and persevere."
"But until then..."
The old man laid a hand on her shoulder. "There are others who are born to be heroes. And when Gullinkambi crows, we will march side by side to the final battle singing mighty songs of history and triumph--our words, their deeds."
Jun smiled gently. "I'd like that."
"Well, then," he said, starting down the trail. "Are you ready to seek out the next part of the saga?"
Following, she asked, "Can we work on his story along the way?"
Now the old man smiled. "Of course."
For a moment they walked in silence. Then she began: "Though it all should have ended after Ragnar won the trial by combat, that was only the beginning . . ."
He had waited so very long, endured so many torments. Even his wife had betrayed him, setting aside her bowl and abandoning him to fate.
But events were in motion, and soon those who had bound him would suffer their own torments--torments of his design. Around him skittered dark and terrible shapes formed by hate itself, only the merest fraction of the forces he had amassed. His agents were legion and spread across all the nine worlds. Soon, so very soon, they would rise up and shake the foundations of all creation.
Conrack had been a willing enough ally, but there was one more crucial to his scheme, one who had yet to be won over. Gazing into the acids pooling around him, he reached out with his mind until he found him--awakening in a subterranean cave, the first step on a journey that would bring him into the fold.
Through cracked lips, he rasped out the name: "Ragnar . . ."