“It is against my wishes and advice that you do this, Guntar.” The ancient mages’ eyes where always hard to meet when his ire was up, even for a battle-hardened Viking chieftain like Guntar Bloodaxe. The two old friends stood on the weather washed rock escarpment overlooking the sea, trading looks of defiance. “Ignoring the advice of a friend of some forty years, though regrettable, is understandable. But, keeping me in your employ for the purpose of rendering said advice and then disregarding it… well, that is just bad business at the very least of it.”
Guntar knew the wizard was right. He also knew that his friend was concerned for his welfare, even if he chose to express it in an obstinately brusque demeanor. And, if Arnaald Hardrada was worried, so was Guntar.
“Arnaald, old friend,” said Guntar, “spare me your pragmatic lecture now of all times. I agree that tempting the Norns is risky, but you know as well as any, that I have built my fortune taking risks. Besides, what choices have I but to return by sea? How can I ask my captains to beach their ships and follow me overland just because you divine disaster with your crystals? These men have invested all that they had in these fine ships and gained precious little on this campaign. Indeed, I alone have seen success in recovering my sons’ birthright; everyone else has seen loss and hardship. These men have followed me without so much as a complaint, all this out of loyalty because they consider me fearless. Would you have me betray that loyalty by asking them to leave those precious vessels to the foul machinations of the trulls and follow a coward overland?”
If the wizard was moved, he did not show it. He remained stock-still, eyeing Guntar from beneath pitched brows, opalescent eyes reflecting the steel gray of a storm wracked sea and sky.
Finally he breached the silence. “I would not, nor have I ever asked you to do anything in the name of cowardice. The truths that I have seen with my crystals are unimpeachable. In the face of such evidence, any other action but avoiding sea passage is foolhardy. Guntar, I have never known you to confuse values and priorities, especially in the face of danger. Please, my friend, this is not just danger, but near certain destruction. A brave man will take a sword by its hilt and a fool will grab the blade. Neither may be cowards, but there is a right and wrong way to handle everything. You, Guntar, are about to grab the blade.”
Guntar turned to evaluate the sea’s mood and through the surface was certainly rough, it didn’t seem to be worsening and he drew what optimism he could from that fact and turned back to Arnaald, who was still watching him. Arnaald squared shoulders with him and put both of his massive gnarled hands on Guntar’s shoulders and said, “Take your comfort where you will, but never in the sea. Calm now guarantees nothing for the future. You know that as well as anyone. Guntar, I could never sway you when your mind is set but consider this; if we test the sea and lose this time, we risk much more than the lives of many good men. There is something much greater than we know for certain coming into play. There are signs, signs that started you on this quest, signs that directly involve your son, Garr, and his birthright. You have risked everything to attain the birthright. If the ship carrying it founders at sea and is lost, then very likely, all will be lost.”
Guntar clasped his friend’s arm and said, “Which is exactly why I’m sending you overland with the birthright.” He saw Arnaald’s eyes narrow and held up a staying hand to ward off any objection. “I am not a young man, Arnaald. If it is my fate to go down at sea, then I at least will die with my sword, leading men and not have to suffer the indignity of succumbing to ages infirmities. You know that I must do what I was designed for, old man, and no one will change that.” As their eyes met, Guntar was shocked to see what he was sure was a tear in the old mage’s eye.
“To argue the point further would be to insult you, something I would not presume to do. If you will not be moved, then at least take this council: Stay as close to shore as possible and fly your dragon post at all times… and may you rest in Odin One Eye’s hall should you find death.” As certain you will, old friend, he thought.
“Ja, and thank you for the years of loyalty, Arnaald Hardrada,” said Guntar and after a long moment, turned and strode to his horse with a steadiness that belied his years, and unlashed a parcel wrapped carefully in rawhide and furs. “Here is the birthright,” he said, handing Arnaald the package. “I charge you with one last request. See to it that Garr gets this along with the proper instruction to make it of value to him. This I implore you.”
“Consider it done,” returned the mage. “I shall leave now. Fare you well, Guntar Bloodaxe.”
“And you, Arnaald.” He mounted his roan and rode to the whip where his men waited.
Arnaald Hardrada made the necessary preparations and mounted his white stallion. He rode to the top of the hill where he watched with tears flowing freely now, for there was no one to see but himself and the stallion, Torfax. They waited until the last sails were out of sight and Arnaald shouted to the winds:
“May you be victorious
In every fight,
And take you at will
As you feast and take grog
In Vallhalla tonight…
For no one deserves it more than you, Guntar Bloodaxe,”
Arnaald wiped his eyes and turned Torfax southward. It would be a cold and lonely ride.
In the yard behind the long chieftains hall was a veritable mountain of logs; birch, poplar, spruce and oak. Gar was fond of the task of splitting wood, for he was strong and lean and considerably taller than most boys of sixteen summers. Bare to the waist, he was well aware of the workings of well defined muscles straining beneath his skin as he wielded a heavy wedge bladed axe. Huldred Blodkvinne would, and often did, chastise him for his pride, saying that it would bring his demise as surely as a well aimed blade if he did not get it under control. “Pride is a two edged sword,” she often said. “It is a necessary thing for heroic chieftains. But you, an untried green whelp without so much as one campaign under your belt, have no right to such pride. You, in you short years, have gutted your head fat on pride without ever savoring the flavor of it, and if you don’t vomit up a little humility soon, my fine, pompous ass, you will not be long for this life. Mark me well.”
He knew full well what Huldred meant by undeserved pride, and he was not so foolish to completely disagree. But, he was Garr Guntarsen; sired from the loins of Guntar Bloodaxe, the most fearless chieftain in all of Norgeve. Did that not count for something?
According to Huldred, it did not. Huldred was the tribe’s adopted sage. She was older than anyone at Josdahl, Garr’s homestead, could attest to. Some said she was living there when the tribe first settled into the valley over two hundred years ago. Indeed, she was there for all of Rollo the Hammer’s life, and Rollo was Garr’s great grandfather. It was no great secret that she was part Hulder, hence her name. But when he asked about her age she would just turn her wizened old face to him and say, “Worry more about your future and less about my history, puppy!”
Huldred self-ordained the task of schooling and training the young warriors of the tribe, but her main concern was counseling the chieftains and their heirs. Guntar enjoyed the time he spent with her, even though she was sometimes downright abusive. He understood her ways and never expected leniency. Sometimes he fancied though, that she showed him more favoritism than was her wont to spend on the other trainees. (Or was that just his overinflated ego talking?) He never permitted himself the luxury of dwelling on the subject.
He learned from her many things about the races of the Earthland and the heroes of his bloodline, which had a good deal to do with his pride. He learned from her how to survive in the wild; what was edible and what was not; how to spot a troll’s den. She taught him the protocol of the forest so as not to offend the light elves. From Huldred he learned his runes and how to decipher. She taught him leather work, wood working and tried, without much success, to teach him a few simple spells. The only one he really mastered was “Rolig”, a spell that enabled him to be completely silent. This was useful for hunting in summer and fall when the forest floor was covered with layers of dry, dead leaves. He owed the old crone much and he realized with a small twinge of surprise, that he did indeed love Huldred.
He also realized, as a flash of pain across his-backside woke him, that he had been day-dreaming. He whirled around to face the cause of this painful arousal. There stood Huldred, switch in hand, glowering at him through a sea of wrinkles. “Phaw! You stupid, deef son of a troll. Are your ears so stopped up with pig flops that you don’t hear me calling you from twenty feet away, or do you just ignore old Huldred and hope she turns to stone? Eh… what’s for it, puppy?”
“I… uh… well, if the truth be told,” Garr started, “I was just thinking…”
“Thinking; thinking is it?” she croaked. “Day-goggling is more to the heart of it. I know the kind of ‘thinking’ that gets done behind an oaf’s face like yours. Letting your loins lead your brain to the fancies of some young trollop, like as not.” Garr had to smile at the paradox. Huldred continued, “When you’re done smirking, oh, Garr the Great, would you please bring me a hod of wood? A few spruce, the rest oak and a faggot of kindling. Thank you.” She spun abruptly and shuffled off, flailing her switch and muttering.
Garr collected the prescribed wood and brought it to the crone’s log and thatch hut where he filled the wood bin. When the bin was filled he took an armful around to the door and knocked.
“Come, Garr,” come the voice, and Garr entered and deposited the wood by the hearth.
“Garr,” said Huldred as he turned to leave, “come over here for a moment, please.” Garr walked over to where she was dicing roots to season gammelost. She kicked a stool toward him and said, “Sit.” He sat. “I understand you are planning a hunting tour through the Daggernasty Mountains this fall. When did you plan to leave?” She spoke without turning to look at him.
“As soon as Snorri’s party returns, I am expecting them any day now. Why do you ask?” said Garr.
“I ask for the same reason anyone does so, to gain answers.” Garr always had to guard his phraseology around Huldred. He rolled his eyes but dared not bandy semantics with her. “I suggest that you don’t go this time. I want you to spend the next few days evaluating friendships,” she said.
“I don’t understand,” said Garr. “Why?”
“Is it not enough that I tell you to do it, boy?” She still hadn’t ceased laboring over her pots and roots and old cheese.
The mixture of stuff stunk. Garr could never differentiate between her cooking and her conjuring. One was more noisome than the other.
“Well, frankly Huldred, this trip is very important to me, not to mention the clan. After all, was it not your own prediction that we are to expect one of the worst winters in a lo…?”
“Damn my predictions, boy!” she screeched, whirling on him with such ferocity that he jumped up knocking over the stool.
“It has been six years since your fathers broken dragon post washed ashore in the Nornsfjord. I have watched over you and trained you as best I could. If your swollen head has perceived me relishing the task, then that head needs a sound throttling. You have not been an easy student and too much rests on my success with you. Suffice it to say that when I tell you to do something, it is, like as not, for the betterment of the clan and the homestead, perhaps all of Norgeve.” She seemed to deflate as she leaned against the hearth and gazed-at the floor’s smooth flagstones saying in an uncharacteristically shallow voice; “Indeed, perhaps you are somehow tied in with the fate of the Earthlands.”
Just when Garr was thinking that he had never seen her seeming so vulnerable, she pumped herself up to her usual haughty disposition. “Have I ever given you reason to doubt that I have sound reasons for guiding you in any given direction, puppy?” Garr just shook his head. “Good, then do as I say without back-mouth and when I figure out the reason I’ll decide whether or not to share it with you. Until that time, evaluate friendships; decide who your truest comrades are. Take two days and do this.”
She turned to her pots again and continued speaking. “I want you to give this matter as much consideration as if it meant your very life; as well it might someday. Do what you must to achieve tranquility for thought. Go to the mountains, make love, and chop wood, whatever. Come back in two days, not before. Good day.”
He watched her hunched back for a brief moment digesting all that Huldred had just dumped on him. He then turned and strode through the door to prepare for his two day sabbatical.
This is a novel I have been writing for quite a few years. It will be a trilogy upon completion and I am currently 3/4 of the way through book 2. I post it here for your approval and critique and will be posting subsequent chapters every few days. I hope you enjoy it.