Huldred and Ilsa spent the day tending to the children, of which, there were thirteen, ranging in age from five to twelve; cooking gruel, millet mush and tubers, and making the damaged chieftain’s hall livable. This was no easy task for there was a nasty layer of soot on everything. Huldred had instructed the older boys, Sigar, Guttorm, Alf and Hrolf to haul water and keep it coming.
Although, at this time of year, there was no actual sunset, there was still a waxing and waning of light. No complete darkness would arrive until mid-winter. Nevertheless, Garr, Dolf, Tykk and Helmut had put in a long day and the relative comfort of the chieftain’s hall brought that realization to bear, and the fact that it was late was evident.
Tykk plopped himself down on a pallet of straw exclaiming, “Gaw, but the time takes wing when there’s busyment. Huldred, take a gander at what the puppies found.”
At that moment, Garr and Dolf were coming through the door with a good sized sack each. As if in response to Tykk’s commentary, Garr said, “Huldred, it gives me great pleasure to pronounce you wrong about the provender. It seems that the trulls wearied of pissing on our stores and left us a considerable amount.” He stood, hands on hips, looking as if he had just solved all the Earthland’s problems.
“Still the cocksure potentate, aren’t you Garr!” said Huldred, bending over the kettle of bubbling gruel, ladle in hand and serving. “I don’t suppose it occurred to you that that very fact could bode ill, did it now?”
“Lay off him for once, will you, you old fart!” said Dolf, ignoring her caustic glare. “It just so happens that Garr pointed out that very same revelation to me not ten minutes ago. I’d say he’s aware of a great deal more than you give him credit for.”
Garr stood dumb-struck at Dolf’s outburst and was beside himself when Huldred calmly said, “Perhaps you are right. Old habits are hard to break. Now, we must all eat and then is time for serious talk.” They were all thankful for what Garr and Doff had found, for there was smoked meat, lutefisk, jerky, cheese and hard tack to complement an otherwise bland and tasteless fare. Certainly, no-one had ever accused Huldred of being a culinary artist.
After their modest but satisfying meal they all helped in the cleaning up. With the chores all tended to, Huldred bade them gather round the hearth-fire. “We have all been through much these past days,” she said, lighting a pipe packed with moss and dried mullen flower. “We in this hus are the last of the Josdahl tribe unless any remain of Snorri’s party, which I doubt for reasons that I won’t go into.”
“Hold it right there, Huldred,” said Tykk, holding up his ham of a hand. “If yer gonna be the harbinger of foul tidings, fine; that’s really nothin’ new anyhow. But after what we’ve all seen here, and I mean the younguns especially, you durstn’t be withholdin’ any information you might have about any of this. Yer a sage-woman, ‘tis a fact and none here will argue that, but now is no time to be totin’ secrets about.”
“But…,” started Huldred, but was cut short by the sound of Tykk’s broad palm slapping his thigh.
“But me no buts,” he said. “This is survival, woman, and I fer one, aim to get any edge I can. I didn’t get as old as I am by taking everythin’ at face value. So if you know somethin’, have out with it, please. We’re all gettin’ the feelin’ that this whole thing may’ve happened ‘cause them trulls was lookin’ fer somebody and if that’s so, then my guess’d be that that somebody is Garr, seein’ as he’s the chieftain’s heir and all. And if you think fer one minute that any of us’ll be satisfied without as much information as we can get to help pro…”
“Tykk! For the love of Freyja, will you shut your blabberin’ yapper fer one heartbeat and let the poor old woman talk!” said Helmut. He could see Tykk’s commentary beginning to snowball.
When Huldred was sure everyone was ready to listen, she said, in a very deliberate manner, “Thank you, Helmut. Well. I suppose that every one shares Master Feitmann’s opinion?” She could see by the lack of negation that the answer was an affirmative one, so without hesitation, she resumed. “Very well, I will not stand on my laurels, and anyway, I suppose Tykk is right. Garr, I won’t be redundant, so suffice it to say that, I advised you to contemplate friendships because you are going to require the love and good council of close comrades in the days weeks and perhaps even months to come; more than you have ever before. I told you once that you have not been an easy student, and that is fact. But fact it is also, that the most difficult of my students have always been the most successful in their endeavors. That you are successful in your endeavors, Garr Guntarsen, is of paramount importance. Now I am going to tell you, all of you, to listen and comprehend like you never have in your lives before, because what you learn and remember now will be your most powerful weapon. None of what I say now must be put into writing.” With that, she stood and said the Elfin “Chant of Clear Thought”
“Vesh ta sinn veks lomma
apen lykksam una blams.
Vesh ta blams bitu fritbor
shem ta fo hoff kunshap.
Vesh ta kunshap bari ta
frish hoff pis lomma,
Wimsa eena ta conta
hoff ta sinn.”
Which literally translated would read:
Allow the mind to grow
and open like unto a flower.
Allow the flower to be rich with
the seed of knowledge.
Allow the knowledge to
bare the fruit of peace,
And prosper in the womb
of the mind.
The composition of this particular chant, by its phonetic nature alone was enough to induce a state of mind bordering on hypnotism, a peacefulness conducive to meditation. Much of the elfin speech was like that; essentially expressive by sound alone. When and if a human learned the language, every sentence could be a mantra, each phrase rapturously intoxicating until one became accustomed to it.
But the chant was this time, unfortunately, being used as the ground work for some rather unpleasant revelations. When Huldred was certain she had their undivided attention, she began.
“In my crystals, as you all know, I can see many things; some things very lucidly and some things I see and do not fully understand. To use the crystals one should possess a great deal of perspicacity; much more, I am loath to say, than I seem to possess. I have seen many things of late that I cannot accurately decipher. That is why I told you to cancel your hunting trip, Garr. I could not have you traipsing off about the land when I was not sure about my readings.
“But of these things I am sure,” and here she squinted-one eye and displayed a palsied, bony finger. “One: There is something on the move in the Voldsom Mountains, something dark. Two: This activity is in coincidence not only with the trull raid, but also Garr’s coming of age. Two days ago marked the day of a little known prophesy’s culmination. That prophesy, made by the archmage, Arnaald Hardrada foretold thusly; ‘On the day of the seventeenth birth celebration and concurrent coming of age of the first-born man-child of Guntar Bloodaxe, High Chieftain of the Josdahl tribe, a scourge of trulls from the dark north will put to the test, the valley of the geese with sword, axe, halberd and torch. Unless the first-born’s birthright is preserved, the son will die this day, thus ending the bloodline of the mighty Josdahl lords.’ That prophesy was made on the day of Guntar’s blooding, his seventeenth birthday. When your father failed to return from the quest for your birthright, Garr, your mother forbade me, or anyone for that matter, to ever speak of the prophesy or the birthright’s part in it ever again. I loved Elsa like a daughter, but she was wrong to ignore the will of the Norns. She was Chieftess and I could not defy her but I prepared you as best I could for the event that left only we few to tell the tale. One cannot change or manipulate to his own will, a fate. But my heart leapt when your decision was to go to the springs.
“The Norns have hurled an ironic bolt into hunt. It is now more than two days past prophesy’s apex and you, Garr Guntarsen, are indeed very much alive, which sets the stage for my third revelation. If you are alive, then according to the prophesy, so must your birthright be in safe keeping and not at the bottom of the Greydeep, as we all presumed.”
Until this moment, everyone (including Tykk) listened with open ears and closed mouths. But now everyone was on their feet, all talking at once and Huldred waited until the din died down to continue.
As she began to speak, a small green and brown bundle dropped from the rafters with a “WOOSH… PLOP…OOF!”, and there lay the little nissa, flat on his back at the center of the circle of humans, ogling the giants warily. Then he grinned inanely, “Oops… heh, heh!”
Huldred was evidently mortified at the intrusion. She jumped to her feet and barked, “What in the name of Odin’s poxy arse is this?”
“Umm…it’s a nissa,” said Garr, squirming in his discomfiture. “I know WHAT he is. What is he doing here?”
“Well, uh, I…When I was at the springs, it seems I made a dent in him and h…
“Impressed him. He impressed a nissa,” Tykk interjected.
“Whatever,” said Garr. “Anyway, he’s obviously taken a shine to me and he’s been following me around ever since.”
“Oh ja! Quite a shine,” Skruff chimed in. “Shine, shine, shine! Skruff a good friend for Garr. Fact it is, ja!”
“Well, I’ll be,” said Huldred, trying desperately to suppress a smile. “You certainly do take your assignments seriously, don’t you, boy? I can’t help but wish you were as adept in all your lessons.” She looked down at Skruff and sighed resignedly, holding out her hand to help the nissa to his feet. “Are you alright… Skruff, is it?”
“Oh ja! Skruff Fluktfinger at your service, noble crone-lady.” Skruff stood before her grinning fit to burst and rocking to and fro on his tiny heels.
“Yes, hmmm. Well, take a seat with the others now that you are here,” said Huldred, wagging her old grey head.
When Skruff was all settled in and obviously pleased with the way Huldred had accepted him, Huldred gazed into each face, purpose1y impregnating the pause for effect. The woman was a virtual master of emotional cause and effect. Finally, she said, “There is always some form of magic that comes into play when a prophesy is consummated and I can feel it at work now. There is much more to this raid, as our rotund Master Feitmann has so adroitly indicated, than meets the eye. Yes, I do agree that the trulls were searching for a person and, yes, I do believe that person is Garr. In fact I’m certain of it.”
Here she stopped and searched Garr’s visage for any tell-tale hint as to how such news affected him, and was somewhat surprised to behold an inappropriately detached expression that caused her some mild concern. She said in a low voice, “Are you with us, boy?”
“Are you alright?”
“Yes, I’m fine. I find this very interesting. Please go on.”
Well, obviously the lad was not in shock from emotional stress, which is what she had suspected, so she shrugged and continued.
“On the day of the raid I saw something that I had seen before, many, many years ago. Through the smoke of the burning village, as we floated out to sea, I thought I saw something on the hill to the north. But there was too much smoke and too much distance to be sure that what I was seeing was what I believed it to be, so I used my crystals. What I saw made my heart sick with chilled blood.” She stopped and took a deep wheezing breath as if it was painful to say the words…”Manion draugs, two of them on ormhest steeds, overseeing the raid. I am certain of what I saw.”
“But how is that possible?” said Helmut. “They all quit the Earthlands when Doden perished at the hands of Haakon the Nibelung.”
Now the conversation had Garr’s rapt attention and he said, “Wait a moment, please. I don’t understand any of this. Doden, manions, nibbling…”
“Nibelung, boy, not nibbling. Alright, I suppose for clarity’s sake I had best start at the beginning.
“Many, many generations ago, there was a race of men in the Earthlands that were mighty warriors with the power of magic coursing through their souls, a true race of heroes. We, in the northern climes of Norgeve, Svea, and Roktyk call them Nibelung. In the southern lands of Ishdah, Gernham, Skaatalund and Ongerlund, they are called Druids. Eventually, after unimaginable hundreds of years of interbreeding with the various compatible races of the Earthlands, this wonderful race of beings are gone, absorbed. When it became evident to these Nibelunga, what was happening, a handful retreated to a valley they called Bolle, in the Voldsom Mountains, to segregate in an attempt to preserve the bloodline. But their women, those that didn’t succumb to the harshness of that northern climate and terrain, left to make a life as best they could in the more southerly lands. My own Hulder heritage carries much of those noble ladies’ blood, I am proud to say.
“But the remainder of the Nibelung men took on the celibate mantle of mage priesthood, and though they lived many hundreds of years, eventually faded, one by one, into history. To my knowledge, Arnaald Hardrada was the very last. And now I am not so sure that he is dead, as we have all believed for all these years. The perceptive sensation I divine from my crystals tells me that there is little doubt that I am correct in this. I believe that he is alive and well, and in possession of the Josdahl Hammer line heirloom; Garr’s birthright.”
As soon as she stopped to catch a breath the room was filled with the chatter of a multitude of questions being asked simultaneously.
“Please, please! Everyone, please, hold your questions until I am through. This whole situation’s a quandary as it is for me to explain, without all of you further obfuscating the issue. (Pause) Thank you!
“Now, where was I? Oh yes, the birthright. No doubt you are all curious as to what, exactly, the birthright is. Well, I can’t tell you that because I don’t know. It was always kept under lock and key, right there in that little alcove.” She pointed to a small recess in the log wall and paused to light her pipe. When she puffed a few times and made sure it was kindled to her liking, she continued. “Your forbearers, Garr, were very secretive and ceremonious about their treasure. It certainly was nothing useful for everyday purposes, so I am inclined to believe it to have some religious or ritualistic value. However, that is nothing more than the speculation of an old woman.
“To answer your question, Tykk, or I should say, to clarify your statement; there is no proof that Haakon the Nibelung did, in fact slay Lord Doden. After all, Haakon never returned to tell the tale. All we know for certain is that the dark activities stopped soon after Haakon traveled north to Fryktholde, Doden’s dark fortress. Let us not forget that Doden, himself, was a Nibelung before he gave over to the morkstemme.”
“What’s that?” asked Garr.
Until that moment Skruff had been sitting at Garr’s feet, arms wrapped around his little knees, rabbit-like teeth protruding from a too-round face. His coal black eyes never blinked, completely rapt in Huldred’s narrative. Nissen love stories. But when Garr asked his question, he was elated at the opportunity to volunteer the information.
‘“Skruff know. Morkstemme Elvish talk, ja. Means ‘dark voice’,” he said and stood looking from Huldred to Garr and back again as if in search of approval.
Huldred nodded agreement and went on, “Problem is this, my boy; you’ve got yourself a fast gaggle of companions here that, I’d wager would do nearly anything for you.” Sounds of agreement and affirmation filled the hall. “That’s good because Garr is about to set out on a quest for his birthright and I’m going to bid all who love him to go along and help in any way you can. If Doden lives, then, Garr, you may well have to consolidate all the Norgeve tribes to the common cause of ridding the land of this blight.”
“Huldred,” said Garr. “I’m not contradicting you, mind. But I feel I’d be remiss not to pose the question, you see.” No doubt about it, Garr was more frightened and incredulous from what Huldred had just said than he had ever been in his life.
“Yes, what is it?” said Huldred, scratching her protruding chin.
“Well, it’s just that… Well, how in hell am I, a man of only seventeen years, supposed to kill a powerful dark mage, when the most worthy warrior, Haakon, could not do the job without getting himself killed in the bargain?”
“Well,” said Huldred. “In the first place, you’ve already taken the first step toward attaining that goal, probably without even knowing it.” She relit her pipe, stepped back and watched Garr out of the top of her eyes.
Garr relayed the silent question by standing with his mouth open and blinking.
Huldred answered, “Why, you just referred to yourself as a man. I, for one, have never heard you do that before. In the second place, Haakon went alone. In your case I’m suggesting that you assemble an army. In the third place, whatever your birthright is, I have a gut hunch that it will prove to be a powerful talisman. It may even provide answers to your questions. Who knows? In the fourth place, I never implied that you have a snowball’s chance in hell; you simply have no choice. You certainly can’t sit here on your arse and wait for the trulls to come back and finish the job.”
“Thank you, Huldred, I feel so much better now,” said Garr, submitting to the demon, sarcasm.
“The first thing we must do is tie up loose ends here and then go to Haarm. I have a cousin named Hogni Wiglaf Bjordyboffnoktopkaflapfart; everyone just calls him Hog. He owns the Maggie’s Tits Inn in Haarm. He’s quite wealthy and a real stalwart,” said Huldred, a might prideful.
“Ja, me and Helmut know him real good. That man has a nose fer everything that goes on. Ain’t nothin’ gets by that one, I’ll tell ya. Why, I had no idea you had relatives in Haarm. Indeed, I never thought o’ you as having any livin’ kin at all.”
“Wonders never cease, do they, fat man?” she said. “Anyway, it’s late and we’ve got our work cut out for us. On the morrow, Helmut, you and the fat jackinapse here should get to work on those weapons. They’ll be good to have. Two days at the most, then we’ll leave. So, good night all. Pleasant dreams. We’ll talk more tomorrow. Sleep on what was said tonight.”
As everyone went silently to prepare their individual pallets, Garr sat unmoving, calmly digesting all that he had learned tonight. He was sure that what he should have been feeling was panic, but that was simply not the case at all.
He looked down to discover that Skruff had not moved either and was eyeing him curiously. “Well, Skruff, you sure did pick a winner, didn’t you? I won’t hold you to this impression thing if you should decide that you’re not up to this. You heard Huldred; there is going to be considerable danger, you know.”
“All the more reason you will need-Skruff. Skruff little nissa, but no coward, no! Skruff a very good sneaky-foot and Garr may well have need.” He reached up and stroked Garr’s hand with his own furry little mitt, ebon eyes filled with pride.
Garr rose from his seat saying, “Yes, Skruff, I’m sure you will be a boon to the company. Well, good night and thank you.” He turned and started off to his own pallet and was aware that, instead of doing the same, Skruff just watched imploringly as he left. Maybe it was the impression, maybe just intuition; but whatever the reason, he realized that he could read Skruff like a book. He stopped in his tracks, turned and smiled saying, “Alright, come on,” and off to bed they went.
Plans are formulated and solidified and against all hope the group girds their loins and hardens their resolve.