Garr decided to take his sabbatical at the hot springs, a place where he could be certain of privacy this time of year and also enjoy a hot, soothing bath. He hadn’t been up to the springs in almost a year and he looked forward to it with no small anticipation. As a small boy, he spent many hours daydreaming while immersed in the effervescent, hot little whirlpools of mineral water.
After packing his bedroll, tinder box, small cook pan and a fist-full of dried venison, Garr put up a full bin of wood for his mother, Elsa. “Mother, Huldred has told me to go away for two days. I am leaving immediately, is there anything you need done before I go?”
Elsa walked over to him from her place by the pantry, wiping her hands on a linen towel and smiling. “No Garr,” she said, “you are truly you father’s son. You take good care of Ilsa and me. But tell me; why is Huldred sending you away?”
“Oh, you know Huldred, Mother. Her reasons are as secret as her age. All she would tell me is that I must spend the time ‘evaluating friendships’, as she put it.’ Garr noticed the smile on Elsa’s face fade to a look of mixed emotions, and asked, “What is it, Mother?”
Elsa’s smile returned. She kissed Garr and said, “Nothing, Garr. But I want you to use your own judgment in things from now on. I have known Huldred all my life and regard her as nothing short of fair and well-intended, but as for her advice, well… it was at Hundred’s bidding that your father, Guntar, set out on his last campaign in search of what that wizard, Arnaald, called your ‘birthright’. All I know is, because of that advice, you have neither birthright nor father. I don’t discredit Huldred. I say that it is wise to keep your own council as well.”
Garr smiled at the thought that it was nice to know someone considered his council of value. “I will, Mother,” he said. “If there is nothing more I can do, I will be on my way.” He turned and opened the heavy wooden door only to feel it strike something hard and then he heard a distinct “OOF” and something plop onto the ground outside. As he peered cautiously around the door, he saw Ilsa sitting on the ground in a cloud of dust, holding her head.
Garr quickly threw down his pack and stepped over to where his sister sat, offering her his hand. “I’m terribly sorry, Ilsa,” he said. ”Are you alright?” She looked at him dazedly, then took his proffered hand and stood up.
“Oh, my head!” she said. “Yes, I’m alright. I have a bad habit of watching my feet as I walk. Where are you going in such trull-chased hurry?” He helped to dust off her backside and then he explained to her where he was going and why. “To the springs?” she tittered, bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet. “Oh. Garr, may I go… pleeease?”
Garr shook his head, “I don’t think so, Ilsa, I told you what Huldred said; that I must…”
“That you must have tranquility for thought, if you quoted her correctly. The springs will provide that, and after all, Garr, you don’t have to be alone to find tranquility.” She watched him think as he pursed his lips and assumed he was trying to concoct an objection so she clasped her hands and donned her most pitiable demeanor. She continued, “Please Garr, I haven’t been to the springs since before Papa di…, since before Papa went away. I’m afraid to go alone. Oh please, I won’t be any bother. I promise!”
Garr never could refuse his little sister when she, (as he put it) “got the pleeezes’ on”. He ran his hand over his face, rolled his eyes and smiled. “Go pack,” he said. As she ran off to her cubicle in the hus, he added, “Bring only what you can carry, we’re not taking ponies.”
By the time they got under way, it was late morning and the sun was warm on their faces. Garr felt like nothing could be wrong in all the Earthlands on such a day, and it turned out that he was glad for Ilsa’s company. Unlike all the other siblings in Josdahl, Garr and Ilsa shared a loving relationship. Garr supposed it was because he had grown very protective of his family since the demise of his father, but whatever the reason, he viewed Ilsa as more of a friend than a sister. Also, he believed that their close ages had a lot to do with it. He was only a year and a half older than Ilsa.
The trail out of the village led past the establishment of Helmut Muskelmann a blacksmith of-no small talent who settled in Josdahl after the rebellion in his home country of Gernham, many leagues south of Norgeve. There was talk, in the village that Helmut was wanted for the murder of a tax collector in Gernham, but Garr paid little attention to such talk. Besides, even if it were true, he was still a free man in Nargeve and the people of Josdahl were proud to call a man with his talent a tribe member. Sometimes, when things got slow in Josdahl, he and his traveling companion, Tykk Feitmann, would pack up the portable smithy and tour the neighboring villages, but they never failed to return to Josdahl. All that was known for certain about Helmut and Tykk was that they were mercenaries during the Goblin Wars, where they became inseparable friends and that they seemingly, never stopped bickering with each other. And both cussed a lot.
As Garr and Ilsa neared the smithy, they heard the two men bellowing like a couple of bulls, one at the other.
“Coal, I need coal you stupid son of a bitch. How in hell do you expect me to make a fire hot enough for steel with charcoal, idiot?” Helmut’s spatulate face was as red as a beet and the veins in his neck threatened to rupture.
“I am not in charge of policing for the mountain dwarves, you flat-faced-boil-on-a-buzzards-bum!” retorted Tykk. “They shut up the mines at Skerry and you would have me travel a hundred miles to open them up again and mine the filthy stuff myself, is that it? And I resent being called a son-o-ma-bitch!”
“Son of a bitch, say it,” said Helmut, squeezing Tykk’s fat cheeks together so that his mouth resembled that of a fish, “Say it, SON-OF-A-BITCH, s-o-n-o-f-a-b-i-t-c-h… Anyway, that’s what ya ‘ar if ya ‘spect me to believe there ain’t a cart-full o’ coal t’ be had in all of Norgeve.”
“Oh, there’s cart-loads alright, if you got the price of cart and pony t’ throw into the bargain. They been shippin’ it in from Ish-Dah since the mine shut down and, well, you and me, we just can’t afford shipped-in coal. If ya care what I thinks, I say we take up the weapons again and go a warrin’. There’s a pretty little war goin’ on down in Ish-Dah and that uppity little snipe, Wilfred is payin’ big for a good sword arm and…”
“Bah, a pox of pusy boils on his arse! You worked for him before and you’re a flashing success ain’t ya now, Mr. I-ain’t-got-the-price-of-a-load-o-coal! That little snotty-face is at war because of his debts and you know it.” Helmut was adamant. “Besides, Tykk, you know full well, I came north to get away from that kind of indiscriminate slaughter and so did you. I think what I really need is some kind o’ vacation.”
“Come with us, we’re going to the hot springs,” came the small voice from the doorway. Garr was aghast. He couldn’t believe his ears, even when he heard Ilsa go “oops”. He just closed his eyes and sighed.
“Garr, Ilsa, come in, come in,” said Tykk exhibiting a wide, gap-toothed grin. Garr thought it odd that a man possessing a temper vile enough to permit him to test his mettle in countless bloody battles, could be so genuinely warm-and congenial. He had always known both of these men and he respected and admired them. They might be a couple of irascible hot-heads, he thought, but they were certainly honest, hard working and were not afraid of much. All qualities he admired. And as much as they were alike, they were also very different.
Helmut was a tall man with a flat visage, broken nose and a torso packed with rippling muscles. He wore his hair cropped very short to keep cool while working at the forge. Though he seldom laughed out loud, he often smiled, especially while working.
Tykk, on the other hand, was not very tall, fat but certainly not flabby. His arms were easily twice the circumference of Garr’s thighs and Tykk was very fond of laughing. Indeed, he had a belly-laugh that could be heard from one end of the village to the other when he got going. He wore his long, auburn hair in a tight braid halfway down his back and his wide face sported a long, frizzy beard.
“Welcome, folks,” said Helmut, extending his huge, calloused hand. As Garr shook hands with Helmut, Tykk positioned a wicker chair he had just finished so that Isla could sit, saying, “Do me the honor of letting yer petit little bottom be the first to grace this fruit o’ my labor.” Ilsa blushed and thanked him, smiling at his crude but well intentioned attempt at eloquence. Then he turned and went through a pair of worn burlap curtains only to return seconds later with a wineskin and one wooden cup which he gave to Ilsa, filled with mead, said “Enjoy, my dear.” and then, grinning ear to ear, walked over to where Garr and Helmut were exchanging friendly conversation and offered the skin to Garr. Tykk clearly enjoyed company.
Garr nodded his thanks, took a long, deep draught and came up wide eyed and smiling his obvious approval.
“Honey mead all the way from Haarm, some o’ old man Fatbelly’s batch,” said Helmut smiling knowingly. “That, there stuff’ll sure as dip stiffen up yer… oooff!” He remembered Ilsa as soon as his ribs remembered Tykk’s solid elbow.
“Mind yer sty-bred mouth, Helmut, You forgittin’ we got a lady visitor?” snorted Tykk reprovingly.
Helmut looked sheepish, “Sorry, Ilsa:
“Not necessary,” she said, thinking how odd it was that this monster of a man could seem so cute.
“So, yer goin’ up t’ the springs,” said Tykk. “Well, I fer one’ll take up yer offer of the jaunt. Could use t’ soak the old bones loose.” He eyed Helmut and said, “And I’d suggest you go t’ boil away some o’ that cantankerous nature… if that’s possible.”
That was all Helmut needed. “What? Me? Why, you stinking little toad. What a gall! ‘Why, I oughtta…”
Garr stepped between the two antagonists disregarding the risk. “Whoa,” he yelled as if trying to dissuade a pair of mules. “Don’t you two ever tire of scrapping? Listen, Huldred has ordered that I go to the springs for a sabbatical. Now, you two are more than welcome to come along but I must insist you leave your animosities at home.”
The two hulking ex-warriors stalled for a moment then unballed their fists. Finally Tykk let out a laugh that made Garr start. “You are a fearless pup, ain’t you, Garr?” he guffawed. “Why, if any man tries to tell me that you ain’t the progeny of old Guntar Bloodaxe, why, I’ll cut off his face and serve it up for him to eat! HAR…HAR…HAR!”
“Well, be that as it may, it isn’t getting any earlier,” said Garr.
“Ja, right you are,” agreed Helmut and soon all four were heading out of the village on the winding ten mile path to the hot springs singing a traveling song:
“Ol’ lady Kelley
had a pimple on her belly.
She cut it off,
She boiled it down,
And put it up fer jelly
And then she rode away singin’
hey dilly, silly Willie,
Then she rode away, dilly day.
Laddy tell me, where ya goin’?
Be it east?
Or be it west?
To follow rills-a-flowin’
Then ya ride away singin’
hey dilly, silly Willie,
Then ya ride away, dilly day.
Once upon a time
found an oak tree fit to climb
I climbed about
and then fell out
and broke my jug o’ wine.
Then I rode away singin’
hey dilly, silly Willie,
Then I rode away dilly day, yes,
then I rode away dilly day.”
With songs such as this to help pass the time, their gait was wide and lively, and the time passed much faster than any of them expected it might and soon they were standing at the edge of the spring with plenty of day left to spend as they saw fit.
The first order of business for Tykk was to lay out his bedroll and glean from it one of six wineskins that he had rolled up in it. Garr was amazed that this boulder of a man could carry all the weight of six large skins, his cookware, two melons, a huge battle axe (which he always carried) and his own hulking three hundred pounds, ten miles uphill and arrive ready to dance.
“Ho, ho… this is more beautiful than I’d remembered!” Tykk roared, picking through his assortment of delectable elixirs. “What’s yer favor, Helmut, old boy? We gots brandy, ale or Fatbelly’s best.”
“Ah, brandy, by all means,” came the reply. “Garr, Ilsa, what’s for it?”
“Oh nothing for me, thank you,” said Ilsa. Garr decided that a drink of ale sounded awfully good at the moment.
After a moment of reminiscing about earlier outings to the springs, when the whole family was together, Ilsa felt a bitter-sweet twinge touch her heart. Although she was quite young, barely nine, when Guntar went away, she had fond memories of the man. He was a good husband and a loving father. She missed him sorely.
She could have just stripped down and gone in and no-one would have blinked an eye. But Ilsa was very modest about such things and more than a little self-conscious about her newly blossoming womanhood. So she went in search of a sheltered pool to do her bathing.
Meanwhile Garr, Tykk and Helmut disrobed and lowered themselves into the bubbling, hot waters. “OOOOHH!… Gaw, but ain’t that the gift of ol’ one-eyed Odin himself!” Helmut sighed. “Pass me the skin my fat-arsed friend. I’m goin’ to drink til I drown.” Tykk laughed until the whole pool was fraught with little waves from his bouncing joviality. Garr laughed too and made no attempt at moderating the flow- of ale down his gullet. Soon all grew still and the scene, virtually glowed from mild but sublime intoxication, as much from the water as the imbibement.
Garr’s mind began to wander. He thought of his father and the day he saw him last, mounted on his powerful roan, and then it hit him; his father’s last words to him: “I go to attain your birthright. Though you are young, you are still the son of Guntar Bloodaxe, my heir and the designated protector of the clan while I am away. Trust Huldred to guide and council you and ignore the advice of the Council of Elders. They are a self-serving flock of witless ninnies that would have you on a leash to do their bidding. Son, every campaign a chieftain undertakes could well be his last and though it is not my wont to carve omens, I would be remiss in my responsibilities to you if I did not give you this advice: Hold honesty above all human qualities. Treat treachery with a cold heart and a swift sword. And this above all else, take the utmost care and deliberation when choosing friends. Never forget these words or that I love you.”
There it was again, that emphasis on friendships. This caused him to wonder what irons Huldred had in the fire regarding his future. What did she know that he didn’t? Indeed, why was here contemplating friendships? Did she divine some precipitous change in his life? Whatever the answers, the questions themselves were sobering enough. His eyes snapped open.
Helmut was fast asleep, hunkered down, the waterline to his strong chin. Any further and he may, indeed, have drowned.
Tykk was still sipping on his beloved brandy and watching as Garr jumped to attention. “Was’a-matter son, night scaries?”
“No, not really. Just something that’s been worrying me a little,” he admitted.
Tykk had another swig without taking his eyes off of Garr. “Mind if I ask what that might be?” he said.
Garr thought for a while then said, “Well… you went Viking with my father didn’t you, Tykk?”
“Oh, ja, often,” he replied and pointing to Helmut added, “and that handsome, drowning fellow, too. We’d both be drinkin’ his health in Valhalla right now if we wasn’t away when, he left. Why do you ask?”
“For the same reason anyone asks,” he quipped, “to gain answers.” He just couldn’t help himself.
“In the first place, sonny, answers ain’t always gains. Secondly, not everyone asks for the same reasons. Remember that.”
Garr sighed. “You’re right. I’m sorry.” Why couldn’t he have kept his big mouth shut? “Tykk, what do you know about my birthright?”
“Only that Guntar thought-it was important enough to die for,” he said, capping the wineskin and looking directly into Garr’s eyes. “Now tell me Garr, my friend, what’s this all about?”
“Tykk,” said Garr. “Huldred suggested th… no, let me rephrase that. Huldred ORDERED that I take some time, two days to be exact, to reflect-on the subject of friendship, and I just remembered that my father’s very last words to me were much the same thing that Huldred said. The point is this; I feel that there is something of great import in the works. And that’s not all. I’m just a little distressed to realize that, although I know many people, I can count my true friends on one hand.” He held up his hand and started counting. “There’s you, Helmut, Huldred, Ilsa and Doff Ildsted. That’s five”!
“Six,” said Tykk. “Don’t forget your mother.”
“I didn’t forget her, I just didn’t count her. She’s my mother.”
“So, she’s not your friend? I doubt she’d want to hear that.”
“Alright, six,” admitted Garr. “But you do see my problem, don’t you?”
“On the contrary, Garr. Fact is I envy you. My only real, life or death friends are you and this’ gorgeous specimen, here,” he indicated Helmut’s reposed countenance. “That puts you four up on ol’ Tykk. Garr, have you ever felt bad about how many friends you got before now?” he asked.
Garr thought about it then shook his head.
“Well, if you don’t miss it you ain’t lost it, I always say. Garr, you ain’t a stupid fellow. You oughta know that it ain’t how many friends you got, it’s the quality o’ those friendships.”
“Damned if you’re not right,” said Garr. “I guess that’s what Huldred wanted me to know. But she’s my teacher, why didn’t just teach it to me?”
Tykk shrugged. “Don’t know. Want some brandy?”
Just as Garr decided to brave a sample of the strong liquor, the spring’s inherent quietude was dashed by the sound of an earsplitting scream.
Helmut was suddenly full awake and out of the steaming pool with a cat-like agility that startled Garr every bit as much as the scream. In only seconds he was racing toward the sound broad sword in hand, cursing every time his bare feet landed on a sharp stone or twig, annoyed more by the fact that it slowed him down than the pain itself.
Soon Garr had retrieved his own sword and was in hot pursuit with the lumbering Tykk bringing up the rear. As the naked, dripping trio rounded a rocky hillock, they saw Ilsa standing by a small pool soaking wet, knees together, ankles apart, wrapped in her shawl and shivering.
“Ilsa what’s wrong, why did you scream?” asked Garr, while Tykk and Helmut scoured the area for anything suspicious.
“Well, I… umm. I was in that pool…” she said gesturing with her hand, “and I was almost asleep, when suddenly I felt something fuzzy touch my cheek and at that moment I realized that I could smell lilies of the valley just as though there were a bouquet under my nose. Anyway, when I opened my eyes there was this tiny man, or something like a man, standing there staring right into my face. Actually, I think I was more startled than anything else. When I screamed, he ran over the knoll and into that stand of birches.”
By this time Tykk and Helmut were standing near-by listening to Ilsa’s account and both looked at one another and simultaneously said, “Nissa!”
Gar turned to them and said, “What’s that? What does that mean?”
Tykk snorted, “Hmph! Could mean anything.”
“What he means,” said Helmut, “is that where a nissa is concerned there ain’t no guarantees. Anything could happen when a nissa shows up.”
“Oh, well now,” said Garr, throwing up his arms. “Thank you. That certainly does clear things up. Exactly what is a nissa?”
Tykk pulled on his earlobe and Helmut scratched the back of his neck and both of them said something like, “Umm…well, it’s… sortta like…it’s kind of…uhh… hmmm…” Garr rolled his eyes, and finally Tykk said, “Let’s go. I’ll tell ya back at the camp, or I’ll try to but right now we’re standin’ here naked as the day we was whelped and the sun’s sinkin’ quick. Come.”
After they dressed and started a fire, they sat chewing on dried venison as Tykk explained:
“Well now… Nissas. Nissas. Far as I know nissas is an offshoot of the gnomey race which, we all know, is asstinked now. The nissa race is almost asstinked too but there’s still a few around here and there. Anyhow, they been known to attach themselves to a certain farm or homestead or even, sometimes, to a family like a ghost or a draug’ll do. They ain’t all bad. Some’ll tend the gardens and livestock for the exchange of food or money. But they never works for nuthin’; always got to get paid something, even if it’s just a cup o’ goat’s milk. An’ if ya don’t pay ‘em, they’ll make mischief for ya, that’s certain. I count ‘em a race of skinflints if ya want to know. Excellent little thieves too…BUUURRRP… ‘scuse me! Truth be told, Garr, your o1’ man swore it was nissas what stole yer birthright and sold it to that stinkin’ Hedsall clan up north.
“Well, ‘least it’s at the bottom of the Greydeep Sea ‘stead of in the Hedsall’s hands now,” said Helmut. “The elves was passin’ the word soon as it happened; Guntar fairly wiped that bunch out, and I says ‘good riddance’.” Helmut spat into the fire.
“Ja,” said Garr. “It was an elven runner that brought in my father’s dragon post.”
By the time they finished talking, eating and passing the wineskins, it was time to turn in. Garr was feeling more than a little tired from the walk up to springs in combination with the ale and had no trouble nodding off, but before he did, just as he was dozing he thought he saw a small pair of eyes blinking just beyond the firelight and a dream-born voice whispering, “NISSSSSSA.”
The next day was spent bathing, talking, walking and of course drinking. Early that morning, Tykk woke the whole camp screaming, “AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHRRRRGGGGGGHHHHH….!!!! That miserable little scum swillin’, bile bucket of a cutpurse!”
“Hey, oaf! Do ya forget we got a lady visitor?” sneered Helmut, doing his very best Tykk impression as he threw a rock at Tykk’s head.
Tykk blocked the stone with almost un-noticing ease and yelled, “He stole my brandy. The nissa stole my brandy!”
Just then, the empty wineskin came flying out of the underbrush in a protracted arc to smack Tykk full in the face. The others watched in unabstracted awe as the man went berserk. Grabbing up his axe, he went charging off into the underbrush, hewing clear a path eight feet wide and one hundred and fifty deep.
Helmut laughed like Garr had never seen him do before. “HO, HO… HAR, HAR, HAR, WOOO, that nissa better be a fleet-foot or there’ll be nissa parts from here to Mount Gundarbad… WOOO… HAR, HAR!”
By the time Tykk came slogging back to camp dragging his axe and sweating, it was mid-morning. Garr and Helmut were soaking and Ilsa was stretched out on a slab of granite absorbing the warmth of the sun. When she saw Tykk she sat up to get a better look at the axe, scrutinizing it for traces of blood. She looked balefully up at him and asked in a quivering voice, “Did you see him?”
“Oh ja, I seen ‘im alright,” he said. “Cornered ‘im in that bunch o’ rocks away yonder.”
“Well… did you…?”
Tykk smiled down at her and tousled her hair. “No, sunshine, I didn’t.”
Whaaat!!! I don’t believe it. Why?” came Helmut’s slack-jawed response. He took a long draught of Fatbelly’s piquant mead and threw the skin to Tykk.
Tykk hesitated for a moment then muttered almost inaudibly, “‘Cause he was cute.”
Garr and Helmut both shook their heads and blinked. “‘Scuse me, old friend,” said Helmut cupping his ear. “I don’t believe I heard ya.”
“Wassa matter, you got sheep-dip in your ears? I said ‘cause he was cute. Ya happy?”
That night nothing was stolen and the next morning Tykk awoke covered with a garland of sweet smelling flowers.