Early the next morning, Garr was packed and eager to leave. He fancied the notion that, now that his prescribed sabbatical was over and his lesson learned, Huldred might let him go on his hunting tour into the Daggernasties. He longed to go, not as much for the hunting and the meat that would be harvested from it, as the adventure. The Daggernasties were fraught with mysteries. He reflected on this as he sat on a rock at the edge of the woods watching the others pack.
Suddenly, he felt something tugging at his cloak and turned to see a small furry-knuckled hand pawing one of three shiny buttons that adorned the cloak, more for show than practicality. Garr maintained a detached composure as he let his left hand slip ever so slowly from his upraised knee down the length of his thigh. With lightening speed that surprised even Garr, he reached out, grabbed the tiny wrist and hauled the nissa from his hiding place beneath the sprawling mountain laurel.
Garr was incredulous. Here, before him, cowering and cringing, was a tiny being no more than two feet tall. Garr couldn’t tell whether he was old or young. His face was certainly wrinkled but large, round, cobalt eyes betrayed a lively expression of unmistakably youthful innocence. The chubby face sported a short but bushy beard more the texture of fur than hair and two large, protruding front teeth. Overall, the nissas combined features gave him a distinctly cavy-like appearance.
The nissa didn’t struggle, apparently resigning himself to Garr’s superior strength. But that didn’t dissuade him from groveling. “Oh please, sir… handsome sir, not kill Skruff. Be kind like mountain man. Let Skruff live… sir.” It was easy to understand, given the size difference, how the tiny nissa might describe Tykk as a mountain.
Soon Helmut, Tykk and Ilsa noticed what had taken place and came wandering over amazed. As they stood in a semi-circle around Garr and the nissa, Helmut drawled, “Well I’ll be! The lad’s caught his-self a dad-gummed nissa.”
“What do I do with him now that I’ve got him?” Garr asked. “Well; that all depends,” said Tykk. “Did ya hurt him?”
“Well… I don’t know,” he said, and to the nissa, “Did I hurt you?”
Skruff replied, “Oh no. Not hurt Skruff at all. Very gentle ruffian y’ar.”
“Well?” Garr implored.
“Well, if ya didn’t hurt ‘im then there’s a good chance you impressed ‘im,” said Tykk. He could see by the look on Garr’s face, that Garr misunderstood the concept of impression, so he went on to explain; “Not that kind of ‘impress’. When you impress a nissa, it’s kinda’ like you and the little feller share a little piece o’ yer soul. It happens sometimes. That’s why nissas try, at all cost, not to touch the skin of a human. They read ya and if they can’t find anything to hate, which they’re good at, then they have no other choice but to love ya and if that’s happened his fealty is yours for life. Nissas is definitely given to extremisms.”
“Oh, well that’s just dandy!” exclaimed Garr. “There isn’t enough of my soul to share. How do I know if I’ve … wadjacallit… impressed him?”
Tykk shrugged, “Ask him.”
The question wasn’t necessary. The instant Garr released the nissa he jumped over Garr’s legs and stood before him straightening his forest green togs. When he apparently considered himself presentable, he doffed his ornately embroidered cap and executed a lavish, sweeping bow and said, “I Skruff Fluktfinger, Nissa. I be friend for you, always, Garr Guntarsen.”
“You know my name!” Garr said.
“Oh yes. I know much. I nissa, Garr Guntarsen, son of Guntar Bloodaxe, son of Haraald the Great, son of Rollo the Hammer of the Hammer line of Josdahl and Gundergut before that,” said Skruff with obvious pride.
“How do you know all that?” asked Garr.
“I nissa. I impressed,” replied the little man.
“Me too,” said Garr.
“Skruff go now but I come and be there when Garr need a friend. Nissa-man be very, very good friend. So long. Good day.”
He turned then and dashed off into the underbrush. Helmut turned to Garr and said, “Boy, you got yerself a nissa.”
As Garr stood trying to digest the possible ramifications of such a relationship, Tykk leaned over to him and whispered, “Friend number seven.”
The road back to Josdahl seemed, to Garr, to be much longer than the road away from Josdahl. Perhaps it was partly due to the lack of traveling songs. But it was more than that, at least for Garr. He couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that he was due for some extraordinary changes in his life, but try as he might, he couldn’t pin down any specific cause for the effect. And it bothered him almost to the point of melancholy. The incident with the nissa was an odd one and Skruff was an enigmatic creature for certain, but hardly the stuff to inspire melancholia. What then?
As he walked, pondering somber thoughts, Ilsa kept pace with him occasionally staring up at him in a concerned attempt to discern the reason for her brother’s sudden sobriety. Finally she asked, “Garr is something bothering you?”
“Wha…? Oh, not bothering really, Ilea. It’s just something I can’t put a finger on, some feeling in the pit of my stomach like when you wake up in the middle of the night with the feeling that you’re falling. It’s not something I can explain, even to myself.” He looked down at her pretty little face and smiled, “I guess it showed, huh?”
“Well, I’m your sister, you know. I can spot these things.”
Ilsa’s natural effervescence was a tonic for Garr and he decided to snap out of it if only for her sake. “Hey, Tykk,” he yelled, “how about singing us that song about Halvdan waking up in the trull maiden’s bed?”
Tykk and Helmut, halfway up the next knoll had stopped as if listening for something. Garr hurried his pace to catch up and when he did he asked, “What’s going on?”
“SSSHH! …listen,” said Helmut.
As they all listened, Tykk was turning slow, full circles, eyes and ears taking in everything. Helmut stood stock still, reticent. “I don’t hear anything,” said Ilsa.
“Exactly,” said Garr. He was getting that feeling in his stomach again.
Ilsa knitted her brow and said, “You’ve lost me.”
“Somethin’ ain’t right,” Tykk volunteered. “When was the last time ya stood on this spot and couldn’t hear ol’ Bjarni’s sheep a bleatin’ and carryin’ on?”
Helmut ran for the ton of the knoll and the others followed close behind. When they reached the crest they could see Bjarni’s homestead; thatch roofed hus, wagons and corral full of little white spots they knew to be sheep, all nestled cozily into the valley, between hills. And beyond the next hill, rising on the wind, were wispy plumes of dark grey smoke.
Tykk, Helmut and Garr all exchanged worried glances. “Let’s go,” said Garr and started down the hill in an exited trot, followed by Helmut, Ilsa and finally, Tykk. Garr’s trot became a sprint.
As he neared the farm, his sense of urgency boiled to a feverish heart pounding. Something was direly wrong with this scene. And then he saw it: They were sheep in that pen alright, all slain, disemboweled. Some were beheaded, some even split right down the middle. The slaughter was heinously inhuman, but not the worst of it.
Garr stood transfixed for what seemed to him like forever, but in actuality was only a matter of seconds, when he remembered Bjarni. He ran around to the front door calling, “Bjarni… Bjarni Knuttsen are you h…” The sight that confronted him literally cut off his breath. Nailed to the front door was the carcass of a sheep, and sewn mockingly to where its head should have been, was the head of poor Bjarni Knuttsen.
Garr fell to his knees and wretched up his gorge until there was nothing left, and then he wretched some more. Then he remembered that Ilsa was not far behind. He forced himself to his feet and staggered back around the house. Ilsa stood at the corral in shock and disbelief, Tykk by her side saying, “Come child, don’t stand looking at this.” She buried her head in his massive chest and cried.
Helmut met Garr at the corner of the hus where Garr leaned panting heavily. “Bjarni?” he asked. Garr shook his head and pointed toward the door.
When Helmut saw what had been done, he said, “Oh, Gaw… poor Bjarni. This is trulls work, sure as hell! Sons of bitches!”
After removing the hideous abomination from the door, Garr, Helmut and Tykk erected a pyre and gave Bjarni a proper but cursory cremation, while Ilsa sat on the path sobbing pitifully. “I hate to see any good man sent out with such haste,” said Tykk in a low voice, so as not to alarm Ilsa, “but I think we all know that the smoke we saw is coming from the direction of Josdahl, and we’d be hoodwinkin’ ourselves if we ain’t thinkin’ there’s nasty afoot. So, what’s for it? Let’s git goin’.”
Garr didn’t want to think about it, but he knew Tykk was right. At the crest of the next hill, they would have an unobstructed, panoramic view of Josdahl to tell the tale. Under normal circumstances, that hilltop was a sanctuary for Garr; a place where he had spent many tranquil hours overlooking the bustling village. Now he was vexed by contravening emotions that nearly put his mind into a stall. He couldn’t wait to arrive at the last place he wanted to be; that hilltop. But when Tykk and Helmut started up that path, taking Ilsa in tow, he found his feet doing their own work. Before long he was moving with a purposeful vigor that snowballed into a run.
Upon cresting the hill, his worst fears were realized. The village was a black, smoldering waste. For a moment, his mind worked on lies to tell itself: Maybe they took the wrong path… maybe he was dreaming or hallucinating. But it was no good. Josdahl had been invaded and burned, and those were the facts, cold and hard.
Garr had been the first to reach the top of the hill and was unaware that the others had caught up until he heard Helmut say, “By the gods, it’s worse than I imagined. Well, Tykk, here’s your pretty little war. Better go see if anyone made it through.”
Garr turned to the rest, mouth agape; his dusty face streaked with tears and said, “By Odin’s bloody eye, Helmut, how in the name of Valhalla can you be so damned cold about this?”
It was Tykk who answered, “That’s not cold, boy, it’s callous. Comes from years of warrin’ behind a bloody sword and watching good men die.”
“Well I’m not so calloused. That’s my tribe and kinfolk down there and I’ve got to do something,” Garr snapped.
Tykk thought for a moment and said, “Ain’t no easy way to put this Garr… but we three may be the only tribe and kin you got left, ‘specially if this is the work of trulls, and I’m sure it is. Now, you can call me cold too if .ya want, but we got to keep our heads, now, if ever.”
Garr clenched his fists in frustration, turned and bolted down the path toward Josdahl. “Get him, fool!” yelled Tykk, urging Helmut with an unceremonious shove. Knowing that Tykk had no chance of catching the boy, Helmut, for once, took no exception to Tykk’s terse command, but instead took off after Garr hell-bent, long legs pumping as fast as he could persuade them.
About halfway down the incline, Helmut got close enough to execute a flying tackle which sent the two of them skidding and tumbling another fifty feet down the path in a roiling cloud of dust.
Garr struggled to extricate himself from Helmut’s powerful grip. When it became apparent that any such attempts were futile, he relaxed and said, in a pathetic voice, “Helmut, please. Why are you doing this?”
“To save yer impetuous little arse, that’s why. Do you think I relish the chance to roll in rocks and dirt?” Helmut answered; releasing his bear trap grip slowly to make sure Garr entertained no ideas of repeating the scenario. “Ya won’t be heipin’ nobody if ya go runnin’ down there into the waitin’ arms of a trull war party. Ya got to be usin’ yer head instead o’ yer guts, now, lad. Huldred must have taught ya somethin’.”
Garr closed his eyes, swallowed and nodded. “You’re right, Helmut. I’m sorry. Huldred would be switching my ‘impetuous little arse’ raw for what I just pulled.” He thought of Huldred and his mother down in the ruined village and shuddered. He couldn’t even guess at their chances of survival without ascertaining the intrinsic facts of this terrible event.
As they were dusting themselves off, Tykk and Ilsa came scrabbling down the slope to where they stood. “I hope you’ll not try a damned fool thing like that again, Garr, or you’ll likely get us all killed. Don’t you know what the situation is, boy? This ain’t the Hedsalls or even the Svea hordes. This is trulls, as sure I stand here, and in case you ain’t noticed, killin’ and torture is what them son-o-ma-bitches does fer fun. And ano…. mmpphh…” he was stalled by Helmut’s broad hand covering his mouth.
“I think everyone gits the picture, ya fat bag o’ wind,” said Helmut. “Right now I suggest you stay here with Ilsa while me and ‘Garr go down there and sc…”
“What? Leave ol’ Tykk on the hill while you to go off and git into a scrape? Not on yer life!” said Tykk.
“Tykk,” Garr said, “Helmut’s right. Someone’s got to stay here with Ilsa. You know full well we’re not going down there to stir up a fight. Someone’s got to scout out the situation, and though no one would be fool enough to question your battle skill, I think even you will admit, you’re not much of a pad-foot.”
Helmut eyed Tykk meaningfully. “You know he’s right,” he said.
Tykk took a deep breath and said, “I suppose so, but promise you won’t do anything til you come back for us first. If all’s clear, give us a signal and we’ll come in. Do ya have a plan?”
“We’ll leave our packs with you,” Helmut replied. “I want to get into that laurel thicket behind Guddolf’s stable. That’ll give us a good look right up the middle and provide plenty of cover. Garr, leave yer cloak. I don’t want those shiny buttons t’ give us away.”
After taking all the necessary precautions, they started down the slope keeping to what cover was available. Ilsa waved as Garr turned to glance back, and Tykk called softly, “Luck.”
Tykk and Ilsa watched until they were out of sight. Finally Tykk turned to Ilsa and found her standing stiffly, hands clutching an elaborately stitched handkerchief, with her eyes clamped shut. Her tremulous lower lip fairly dripped from the steady flow of tears running rivulets down her cheeks, and her breath came in gasps and tiny whimpering sobs.
Tykk thought he had never been so thoroughly touched to the heart, as that moment. He walked over to her, took her handkerchief, and attempted to stanch the flow of tears. “Don’t be afraid, Sunshine.” He assumed that the harangue he had given Garr was the cause of her present behavior, that he had scared her.
“Oh, Tykk,” she sobbed. “I… sniff… I’m not afraid… sniff, really I’m not. It’s Garr… sniff.”
“Oh, don’t worry. Helmut will take care of Garr,” he said.
She looked up at him with eyes cried red and said possibly the only thing that could break his stalwart resolve. “Tykk… oh, Tykk.” Again the tears flowed when she said, “Today is Garr’s birthday.” And for the first time in countless years, Tykk wept.
The closer Garr and Helmut got to the village, the bleaker things looked. There were no signs that this place had ever been a thriving community, imbued with social vivacity. When they reached the laurel thicket, they were close enough to see how bad it really was. It appeared that nothing had survived the invasion.
As they peered out of their cover, the sight in the foreground was one of horror. Not thirty feet from where they crouched, was a rude gallows made from the logs that had been Guddolf’s corral. And on the gallows was a sight every bit as grisly and atrocious as the fate of Bjarni Knuttsen.
The entire Council of Elders was stung up by their heels, backs split open and lungs partially extracted as they swung overhead in erratic spirals. The creaking of the ropes that bound them was the only audible sound other than an occasional gust of wind.
“Those stinking, filthy bastards!” cried Garr. “Is it not base and contemptuous enough to kill helpless gaffers? What sort of devil’s spawn would defile their bodies on top of it?”
Helmut debated for a moment whether or not to educate Garr, and finally said, “My boy, it’s time ya-knew what yer up against here. Them poor old folks had their breathers pulled out whilst they was alive… not after. It’s called the ‘Blood Eagle’ or ‘Blodfugl’ in the trulls gutter speech.”
Helmut had achieved the desired reaction. Garr could have broken down and cried, or let his hatred solidify his determination to have some margin of revenge. Even if there was no realistic way to achieve such a thing, the circumstances dictated a need for the latter. But Helmut was not prepared for what happened next. Garr sprung from his place beneath the laurel, brandished his sword in a high are above his head and screamed, in a cracking voice, “I, Garr Guntarsen, designated protector of the clan of Josdahl, Valley of the Geese, by my blood and my honor do hereby challenge any and all cowardly trull scum to dare my vengeant wrath!”
Helmut closed his eyes in uncontrolled exasperation and felt sure he would throw up. The only options open to him were, to die in the bushes like a coward or to die beside his friend, guarding his back. The choice was elementary; in one long stride he was beside Garr, crouched in readiness, sword in hand… waiting… and waiting.
Soon it was apparent that he and Garr were the only living things in Josdahl, at least from their vantage point. They had a clear view straight up the middle of the village and as far as they could ascertain nothing resembling life, human or otherwise, was evident. Upon closer inspection though, they were surprised to see that the chieftain’s hall, at the far end of the village, though badly charred, was still largely intact. Garr began the hundred and fifty yard walk to the hall with Helmut close behind, still wary.
Their cautious pace made for an excruciatingly slow tour of horrors. The scenes of carnage came close to putting Garr into a state of shock. People he had had daily social intercourse with all his life were reduced to lifeless hunks of meat. And the flies… ! Helmut kept a concerned eye on Garr but it seemed his anger and outrage was rendering the desired effect. He realized with a great deal of relief that Garr was a survivor, the son of a mighty chieftain in every respect.
Suddenly, the silence was broken by a low guttural moan. “Sssshhh, Helmut, did you hear th…?” He was cut off by another prolonged moan. “Over this way,” said Garr.
As they walked, listening with bated breath, the sounds led them toward the docks were the long ships were moored. “The ships, Helmut; most are untouched,” said Garr, amazed.
“Ja,” Helmut replied, “trulls hates water somethin’ fearful. They got no use fer boats.” The moaning came again, closer this time.
Then they saw it; the hulking body of a trull soldier began to stir. As they came closer, the trull appeared to be trying to roll over and having a hard time of it. “He must be near dead,” said Helmut.
“Well, I’m damn sure going to make certain of it,” said Garr, raising his sword for a slashing blow at the trull’s neck. With a sudden jerk, the quivering hulk rolled onto it’s back revealing the most profoundly horrific visage Garr had ever seen, and then it lay still, obviously dead. But a body was concealed by the trull’s huge form. It was unquestionably human, now visible, and it was alive.
“UGH…what… where’s the…ooohh!” said the person holding his head, smeared with blood.
“Dolf! Dolf Ildsted! By the Gods! Hold it, don’t move. You’re bleeding pretty bad.” He tore off a piece of his skirt to use as a bandage.
Dolf squinted through blood-caked eyes. “Is that you, Garr?” he asked in a trembling, weak voice.
“Yes, Dolf, it’s me,” said Garr dubbing at the nasty gash on Dolf’s clotted pate. “This looks pretty ugly, Dolf. Helmut, wet this for me, will you?” Helmut took the strip of cloth and Garr turned back to Dolf. “What happened here, Dolf?”
Dolf mildly irritated by Garr’s doting, shook off the attention and staggered precariously to his feet. “Garr, please, I’m alright. It’s probably less serious than it looks.”
“Ja, that’s a fair wager,” said Helmut, handing Dolf the soaked rag. “Yer visibly livelier than this maggoty hunk o’ dung.” He snorted and booted the trull’s lifeless body. “I’d sure like to know what it was that fixed ‘im though.”
Dolf bent over and pried open the trull’s grimacing maw, extracting a lethal looking dagger with a noise that sounded like cutting a fish in half. Holding it proudly aloft he smiled and said, “There’s the remedy. Offed him just before I went out. Let’s see, I remember Huldred and Elsa were rounding up what children they could find and piling them into a boat. I had gotten them all aboard and was making ready to shove off when I saw Elsa go down, arrow in her side. Then all hell broke loose. I was able to get the boat off but when I turned to see what was happening, this fat son of a whore and a bunch of his fellows came lumbering down on me. The last I can recall for sure is this one running at me with his mouth wide open, screaming. Everything after that is a blur.”
Hearing about his mother’s being shot brought tears to Garr’s eyes. “Then you don’t know for sure if my mother is dead or alive… or if they got away?” he asked, hanging his head.
Dolf shook his head sadly and clasped Garr’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Garr,” he said. “I know for certain that they got launched. Whether or not they away safely or n…”
“Yes, reasonably safely,” came a croaking voice that caused the trio to whirl on their heels. There, between the smoldering remnants of two huses, was an ancient, withered little person leaning on an ashen staff. A countenance that could only belong to…
“Huldred!” Garr yelled, as he ran up thee-slight incline to where she stood. “Huldred, it really is you! It’s only been two days yet it seems like an eternity. Why, I alm…” As she closed her old eyes and held up a palsied hand to quell Garr’s ecstatic tirade, Garr noticed that for the first time in his life, her manner betrayed her obvious age.
“I am gladder than you will ever know to see you alive, my boy,” she said, taking his proffered elbow, “yet my news is not glad. Your mother lies dying as we speak. Come, there is no time to waste.” As they walked she explained; “She has taken a trull arrow in her hip, Garr. Normally, such a wound would not be life-threatening, especially to a woman of Elsa’s mettle. But her malady is unique in two aspects; one being that this arrow was poisoned. The trulls sometimes soak their bolts in a noxious swill of their own foul excrements, and this was one such. The second hurt is, that while those heathen worm spawn were plundering the village, they were also keeping me from my apothecaries. I could do nothing but watch her worsen. And now, curse their eyes, it is too late for any of my tonics.” She stopped and took both of his hands in hers saying, “Garr, I know life has never been easy for you, and I have not served to remedy that. But I have tried to shape you as the Norns would have me do. And I think we have done well, you and I. I have never told you this, but I am very proud of you. You are going to go now and watch your mother die. Be strong for her, for she is proud of you as well. Where is Ilsa?”
When he explained about Ilsa, Huldred said, “Blow the hall horn. That will bring them in. Ilsa should be here. Go now, quickly.” Then she shuffled into what was left of the chieftain’s hall.
Elsa was laid on a makeshift pallet inside the chieftain’s hall, her usual rosy complexion reduced to a sickly jaundiced pallor, and every breath an effort. Garr and Ilsa kneeled on the packed earth floor to either side of Elsa, each holding a hand, Ilsa sobbing softly.
With incredible effort Elsa opened her eyes and smiled weakly at her children. To Ilsa she said, “Ilsa, my darling, I am so sorry I… will not see you wed and bare the fruit of your love. This will be my final council so, my dear, please mark it well. Huldred has told me that Dolf lives. In this I rejoice for he has a hero’s way, and I have seen love for you in his eyes. I don’t presume to choose your man, my child, but I am wise in such things. Do you not fancy his favor?”
Ilsa blushed unnoticed in the dim light and, choking back tears, said, “Yes, Mother, I have always cared a great deal for Dolf.”
“This puts much to ease for me,” said Elsa. “Every mother wants to see her daughter in the aegis of a proper warrior. You could do much worse than Dolf Ildsted, that is certain.” With that she touched Ilsa’s cheek and looked long and lovingly into her eyes.
Finally, to Garr she said, “Garr, my shining pride. You have come into a poor inheritance. Misery and despair has been sown for you to reap of it what bitter harvest you can. It is on your shoulders that the fate of this clan, what remains of it, rests. That is an unfair fate but life promises nothing. You have your father’s regal caste and no birthright but your strength to consummate it and that is the crowning injustice.
“I once planted the seed of doubt concerning Hundred’s council, which I must now attempt to exhume. I have seen in the past few days that she is much wiser than ever we had imagined. Take her counci1, Garr, and follow it to the letter. If there is a shackle on your fate, Huldred somehow holds a key. This much I feel deep within me. Let her guide you. Promise me, Garr.”
Eyes filled with tears, Garr said, “I promise, Mother.”
Elsa sighed and smiled, saying, “Good. Now come, children. Rest your tired heads on my bosom and let us spend my remaining time quietly remembering happier days. I love you both so very much.”
Those were Elsa’s last words. She died shortly thereafter, holding her beloved children and smiling. For a long time Garr and Ilsa sat silently beside their mother. Soon Garr noticed tiny droplets of something coming from overhead and when he glanced up he was surprised to see Skruff, the tiny nissa, in the rafters weeping. And where his tears fell, fragrant Lilies of the Valley grew.
Garr gets an unexpected friend.