February 17, 2011 § Leave a comment
Thus Begins The Tale of Einar, Son of Egil the Foolhardy, known as Dreamslayer
When the sword finally shattered, the shock of it running up the bones of my forearms like the first pain I’d ever felt, I drove the jagged remains of the blade into a greenish throat and seized the hammer from the corpse before it had a chance to fall. I then resumed my work. When the haft of the maul finally groaned and cracked apart, I was forced to use it as a club until an ambitious creature with hide like a cobblestone road, huge and angry, saw his chance to crush me once and for all. He got close enough that I could throw the splintering remains like a spear into his eye. He fell and I stole his axe.
It was quite an axe.
The head of it was an enormous wolf, jaws wide, the edge an arc joining them. The back of the blade tapered down into a length of metal that traveled down to the handle, coiling until it reached the end and climbed back up. It ended in a snake’s head resting against the wolf head.
That axe flashed as I hacked at them. Understand that they aren’t subtle. Their idea of strategy is to double their numbers. Then again, doubling your numbers is a very effective strategy at times. Surrounded, with hours to go before sunset, not that I knew then what would happen at the sleep of the sun, I didn’t have much choice but to keep myself standing as close as I could to the dolmens and use the sides of the ring to funnel them up to me, giving me the twin advantages of high ground and a narrow gap to keep them from bringing all their numbers to bear against me. They kept climbing up, and I kept killing them.
Their blood smells remarkably like pine.
The noises they make when they die are the same as anything, though. To be covered in sweet smelling ichor, your arms so tired they burn with every move, your lungs desperate for every breathe and pains from dozens of shallow slashes and aching muscles stealing away your strength even as fear shoots new energy through you, admiring the beauty of an iridescent patch of scales just as you bury an axe in the rainbow feathers crowning something’s head. To be a killer waiting to die.
I’d failed to notice as the sun slowly crept along the sky, but when the flash of ruddy light caught my attention I nearly sobbed, even as they cackled and screeched and hissed and roared in dismay. They fought harder for a moment, but then had to tear themselves away and roll back into the darkness, desperately seeking their hiding holes in the earth before the coming of the moon. I had not expected this. Indeed, I had thought the end of the daylight would be the end of my life. Instead, the end of the day saw them melted away as quickly as they’d come.
Leaving me surrounded by the dead, both my own and theirs. Everything hurt. I was panting like a hound that had just run down a deer, and everywhere I was cut I could feel myself stinging where their blood and mine was meeting. I went through Rodi’s pack and found a flask, pouring the liquor everywhere I could find a cut, twitching as the pain leapt but sure it was better than letting the blood of the wood demons mingle with my own. The whiskey was preferable to that.
In the light of the rapidly rising moon, I took a shaky breath and then another. It seemed absurd that I wasn’t dead, since I’d been one of twenty when the morning had fallen upon us. I knew that I couldn’t stay there. Only their greed for human flesh had saved me, I knew as I looked upon the ravaged faces of Gunad and Hoarl and Jheryi. If they hadn’t fallen to squabbling over their food and had joined forces, they’d have killed me too. So I scavenged what I could find, Terln’s bow and almost forty arrows, a set of wolfskins to replace my own mostly ruined clothes, for the nights grow cold and I wanted to avoid death in all its forms. What we had for food consisted of some dried fruits and nuts and half a loaf of black bread which I seized and then I ran, clutching that axe like it was my mother. I would have preferred to burn them, but I wanted more to live.
I headed directly away from the place the sun had gone to sleep. Our boat was that way, along with the others. I could only hope they were still there. I didn’t see another option but to try and get as far as possible, as fast as possible, before they came back out of the sleep. If we’d been able to understand what it was the Skraelings had been saying, would we have even come to the ring?
Probably. Rodi and I were fascinated by the story of it. Old Leir had rambled on in his cups, of a ring of stones like the ones in Eiru and the Welshlands. So far from home, I’d thought, what were the odds of such a thing. And Rodi, with his Irish blood, he told tales of the wealth of the barrow people who’d ruled Ireland before time began, the people of this goddess Dana who’d left the islands for lands of the west. Well, Vinland was west of Eiru, there was no arguing.
But if these were the people of this lost Irish goddess, they’d done poorly since they’d left. They were more like the svartalvar who hide in caves like the maggots that infested the great ice giant Ymir’s body than any tribe of men, much less those chosen by a queen and a god to bear her name. Then again, the many among the Irish who have accepted the White Christ made me fear. Is this the fate of all who cross him?
I fingered the hammer of Thor at my neck as I ran, full of questions and having no answers. So far south from Iceland, from Greenland, none had ever been to that part of Vinland, and the Skraelings who inhabited it were different than the ones up north. Other than a party of them that had attempted to stop us from landing with stern looks and words we couldn’t understand, they had left us be.
Two hours later, I crested a hill and stopped.
The boats were gone.
The fires were carefully extinguished in their pits, the camp struck, no signs of a struggle. It seemed clear that no one had attacked, nor forced them to depart. It seemed more likely to me that Leir had finally impressed upon them all the dangers he’d been babbling about since Markland, and they’d simply left us here to ply the road of whales back home.
It occurred to me at that point just how far away from Leif’s camp I was. Though warmer and more pleasant, I also didn’t doubt that those things from the stones would track me down and kill me with the coming of the morning. So I was in despair, and held closely by the wolf’s habit, clutching my axe and cursing my stupidity, that of Rodi (although since he and the others had paid the price for it, I cannot but argue that he was a most excellent man and friend, and I’d eagerly fight alongside him when we reach the fields of Virgirthir) and in general, trying to decide where along that sandy coastline would be the most suitable place to stand and face my death.
At this point, I thought to make myself prepared to die. Others, perhaps, can simply accept that at any moment they may walk the deck of the ship of fingernails, but for myself it required me to gird up to it. So I recalled how my previous trip to Vinland, with Freydis Eiriksdottir, had ended in slaughter and bad feelings. It was cursed, that I was certain. They accuse her of killing the women in her camp but those weren’t women she killed, no matter what shapes they wore. I should have been more prepared, but a man lies to himself when he hears the jingle of the earth’s knucklebones. For gold Rodi and I had been prepared to risk much. We brought no livestock on this trip. Go in, go to the stones, dig up the gold and depart.
If, at some point in your life, you find yourself in one of those rings and you feel the urge to dig, dig a grave. For you’ll need it. Within an hour of the first bite of the tooth of the rock-eater, we heard the sound. Like a dog yoked to a serpent, and both in time with a carrion crow that sang with a goat, foul noises so inhuman that we stood there until Hoarl and Einar actually saw them coming out of the trees.
The rest you know.
So agitated, I paced the beach and worried at the remaining time with my jaws like a hound, trying and discarding plans for my own survival. It had only taken me a pair of hours to reach the beach. Within two hours of sunrise, then, I could expect them to find me. By abandoning the high ground, I had in effect decided my death, but they would have killed me there, too.
I did not notice the approach of the Skraelings until they were well within bowshot of me. Startled, I looked away from the ocean and my brooding, looking at their dark skin, like the beer the south Anglemen brew, reddish-gold. In the moonlight they almost looked carved from wood to me. There were ten of them, led by a stern-faced elder whose graying hair was tied back in braids. I prepared for the first one of them to launch an arrow at me, determine to at least kill the man who killed me, but no arrow came although they all carried bows.
The stern one spoke to me, but as I did not know his language, I could only try and gesture that I did not understand him.
Then he made a face and gestured for one of them, a younger one, who even in the moonlight I could see was not entirely similar. Something about his eyes. That one stepped forward and walked half of the way to me.
“Are you from Eiru?” he said, in Irish. Now, from my time raiding there and my youth with Rodi’s family I spoke that language. “Do you know of Brendan?”
“No knowing of a Brendan have I, but of the Irish I know, but am not.” I replied, somewhat unsure where a Skraeling had gotten himself the tongue of the Irish.
“You Fiann? Warrior?” He pointed to my axe. “That weapon is Oisin’s. He left it behind when Fionn MacCool came to aid our people against the demons of the winter, the Fomor who had fled his land and come here. Where did you come upon it?”
“In the hands of creatures who killed all of my men.” The names he spoke meant little to me. A shame Rodi was dead, for he had a hunger for such things, and could speak of the Irish and their deeds until one was sick to the belly on them. “Who is this Brendan? Who is Oisin? And for that matter, who are you? My name is Einar, son of Egil.” I lowered my stolen axe to show that, while I was not a sheep to be butchered on their whim, neither was I seeking battle with them when there were demons to kill.
“I would be called Swift in your language, for I am.” I didn’t bother to correct him, being that I felt I was fortunate merely to find a common tongue between us and not being of a mind to provoke difficulties for myself. “You must speak to The One Who Speaks. Come, and I will bear meaning between you.”
Not having another idea, I agreed.
To tell you all that we spoke of would tax your patience. So forgive me that I attempt to tell you plainly what took much. The stern-faced Skraeling explained to me that his people had long known of the Irish, who they merely called Eastmen in their own language. Apparently, long ago a band of creatures invaded Vinland from the east, the monsters I had so recently met. They had harried and raided the Skraelings so far beyond bearing that the call had gone out to the ones who dealt with gods and spirits for an answer to their misfortune. Those ones… the stern one was apparently of their order, a speaker to things unseen… had asked their allies in the lands of the dead (at least, that is what I think he said) for help.
“For things of the east, seek men of the east.” Came the reply, and so these speakers set out across the lands of the dead until they reached the Irish, and convinced a warrior named Finn and his men to travel west and do battle with these Fomor, for they were vulnerable not to the stone arrows of the Skraelings, but only good iron and steel were their banes, able to do them harm. They hate the sun, which is the symbol of the one who defeated them, and it fills them with rage so that they attack, but they fear the moon, the symbol of the goddess whose people won the lands of the Irish from them. After many battles, this Oisin, son of Finn and one knowing of such things, constructed the ring of stones to hold the Fomor in check, keeping them trapped between this world and the land of the dead, for there were so many Fomor that no matter how many are killed more will come.
I was not pleased to hear this.
So having done, Oisin left behind his axe in the hands of a band of Skraelings to use in case the Fomor ever returned and departed East again. It was therefore greatly disturbing to Swift and The One Who Speaks that I had it, since that meant the Fomor had most likely taken it from them through force of arms. Later came this Brendan, who, finding that the dreams and visions of the Skraelings still reached the Irish from time to time, sailed west to meet them and spent time learning and teaching among them before sailing to the south in search of an Island where he could live forever. Such, at least, is what they told me. I made myself eat the few scraps of food I’d found on my friend’s bodies while they spoke.
The sky was lighter when they were finished talking, the old stern one and his younger voice, and I saw this and grimaced.
“Well, be these demons Irish or of this land, there is no changing the fact that I apparently must now die. You should go forth to your people and tell them what misfortune I and my crew have unleashed upon you, while I stand here or head back to the stones to meet my wyrd, that black chain that has led me ever onward to find the Grey Man waiting for me here.” I stood, pleased that I’d come up with such a fine way to express myself. A man’s words upon his death are important. As I hefted Oisin’s axe and prepared to face the Fomor, The One Who Speaks said something to Swift, who then spoke it to me.
“Be not so quick to die, man of the east. For what has been done can yet be undone. While the Fomor make their way here to kill you, following the smell of you which is rank and hard to miss, we may conceal you from them in the very place that once held them prisoner, so that you can make your way back to the ring of stones and set right that which you have set wrong.”
Part of me wanted not to hear these words. But my greed had set me on the path, and it fell to me to do what could be done, so I nodded my head at these words.
“You will most likely die anyway.” Swift added. “The Fomor will come to kill you, but at least if you do this, they will not be able to replenish their numbers, as each one you kill will again be trapped in the place that is not a place.” He reminded me much of Leir with these words, but they sounded true enough in their telling of my fate, and I embraced the knowledge of my doom again.
The Skraelings explained to me that what had to be done could be done quickly, and led me to the edge of the water, where the stern-faced one made much speech and gathered up wet sand and briny water and threw them in my face.
I suspect he did this in part as rebuke, and not as any part of what came next.
For he then danced around me, and from a hide pouch on his belt he removed something which looked to be made from sticks and the skin of an animal, waving it about in a manner not entirely unlike the bear shirts before they enter battle. Then, as I wiped at my face, he thrust this object at me, and Swift made me know I was meant to take it.
I did so.
I cannot clearly tell you what happened next… how do you explain to a man who has never seen the ocean how vast it is? How do you tell the man born eyeless of the beauty of a sunset or a maid? I took the twined sticks and skin from him, and then I was in a place like and yet unlike the one I had been in. The sand burned. The sky shimmered like the shark’s palace under a high sun. It was as if everything had become more of what it was meant to be. I had never seen anything like it.
In my hand, the axe of Oisin threw off sparks that ran up my arm and caused me no pain at all. In my other hand, I clutched at the green vibrancy of the twigs and skin, knowing that I was only there by its power.
Knowing I had but little time, I ran, and I was fast as a deer. In that place, the exhaustion and pain of the night before was gone from me. I was strong, unhurt, and the wind felt like the sigh of a woman.
I am no poet, unfortunately.
Arriving at the ring of stones, I saw the bodies of the creatures and my companions as black stains on a light made by a fire that wrapped bright limbs around the stones but did not burn them. The place where we had broken the ground was likewise black, and there was a great wall of gray and black to the north which looked so wrong against the clean colors everywhere else that I knew it was where the Fomor had been trapped, where they’d boiled into the world and most likely killed the Skraelings who had intended to guard against them.
I attempted to move them, but my hand was as air, and I realized that I needed to return to the cold colorlessness of my life in order to make amends. Sadly, I released the object and, as Swift had explained, returned to the mire of the flesh. Then I set to work, hauling bodies out of the circle… despite the pain it brought me to throw my friends about and the horror of touching the wood demons, the Fomor whose bodies we had worked to pile up the day before. It was grueling work, made worse by the certain knowledge that sooner or later they would reach the water, realize I was not there, and make their way back here to finish despoiling or consuming my friends and brothers, with whom I’d done the wolf’s work in many a village along the northern coasts.
Finally, I had them all outside the bounds of the ring of stones. Then I picked up the opener of the soil’s secrets, the flat head of which had opened the way for the creatures to trouble us all, and began filling in the hole with the same energy I would have expended in fighting.
No sooner had I tamped down the last of the spaded soil and said a prayer to Odin, Thor, the White Christ, and anyone else who might have been listening, I heard the sound again. The baleful baying of beasts not meant to wear even a half-human form. As swiftly as possible, I snatched the hammer from around my neck and laid it down on the soil, hoping that any little bit of blessing could only help. Then I shouldered the axe and stepped to the edge of the ring; then I saw them come again from the woods, howling and screeching and screaming. Remembering the blackness that had seeped away from their corpses in the place I had been, I knew that for my work to mean anything they could not be allowed to die in the ring.
So I forsook the high ground and stepped down to meet them, holding Oisin’s axe at the ready.
This seemed to surprise them. At the sight of the axe, they stopped and began chattering, barking, braying at each other, giving me time to really look upon them for the first time. They were each the ugliest thing I had ever seen until I looked on the next one, and then I would be surprised again by the one after that. Some were clearly bearing the blood of beasts as well as men, whereas others defied easy telling of the horror of their faces and forms. They continued on in this vain for several minutes before one of them stepped forward. Imagine if you combined a man with a bull, and then combined that with a dragon. Scaly hide, two huge horns that stabbed upwards from above its bright blue eyes, a smaller horn on the beak that stabbed from its pebble-hide face, and three fingered hands that ended in thick nails suitable for digging or rending flesh. A tail with a huge rock-like lump of bone on the end of it whipped about as it walked forward, stopping some twenty strides away.
I’d have preferred more.
“You claim axe?” It croaked. The language it spoke sounded half-way between Irish and my own, yet I understood it anyway, which I attributed to the axe. “You champion of Tuatha?”
All I could think to do was nod.
“I champion of Fomor. Arawn Ap Balor. Dread one, Stalker of Dreams. We do war. Winner get life and land. Loser lose head. We keep to the old ways.” I was of two minds on this. On the one hand, I had no idea what the old ways wereÖbut while Arawn Ap Balor was well and truly twice my size, with a beak that looked like it could crush rock and horns suitable for goring, I had to admit I preferred the idea of fighting one such monster to the idea of fighting them all.
Apparently there aren’t much in the way of preparations for this, because as soon as I had nodded my head, he charged, screeching and bellowing at once, the ground shuddering under his bulk as he came. I leapt to the side and used the axe to deflect a sweep of his massive head that would have speared me in the belly, then rolled to my feet and swung the axe, managing to rip a shallow tear in that tail of his as he swung it like a mace.
The rest of the Fomor has taken up this keening, beating their weapons against their shields if they had any, stamping what they used for feet against the ground if not. The sound was similar to what you could create if you had the intestines of a small animal prepared and used them as a musical instrument.
Arawn ap Balor whipped that tail of his again, and it caught me on the hip, sending me crashing to the ground. I could tell it was bad, but I struggled to get upright as he charged again, this time with little room to roll to the side or parry him, straight on he rushed at me and I didn’t have time to get the axe back into position.
So I reached out and grabbed his right horn, kicking off of the ground as I did. As I’d hoped, he snapped his head to the side in an attempt to gore me, and the power of his neck sent me into the air well above him. I slashed feebly with the axe in my right hand as I sailed overhead, dealing him a shallow cut above his eyes, and then I came crashing to earth and rolled as best I could back to my feet.
For his part, Arawn ap Balor seemed wary now.
This suited me.
He circled me, snorting through his enormous nostrils, clacking his beak and smashing his tail into the ground. I gripped the axe more securely with both hands and stood my ground, letting him use up his strength while I hoarded mine. The smell of pine from his wounds, the screams of the Fomor and their pounding and bashing and hammering which matched well with my heart, which despite all my efforts insisted on being the heart of a man and therefore full of fear at the sight of them, the slow circling of the great leathery beast that walked like a man and the giddy sick pain slowly spreading through me… I felt myself already a dead man.
So I charged him, axe high at my shoulder, screaming out to Thor and Vidar, to the White Christ, to the goddess Dana and anyone else listening as I ran. It was the only thing I could think to do.
It caught him off guard. He reacted well, but for all his power and cunning, he was the arch-brute of a race of brutes. He was fast enough when he was charging you, but turn the tables and it took his ponderous bulk a few moments to comprehend what was happening, and that was enough time.
I hurled myself at him, and brought the axe down square into the center of his stomach, burying it so far in his guts that it actually got stuck in his spine. My hands were inside him, coils of him spilling out and that sickening pine smell spraying all over me as I pulled the axe out and swung it again and again, attacking him like a tree I needed to fell.
You don’t want to hear a scream like the one he let loose. Not ever.
My limbs wanted to freeze at that, but the demon that lives in all men, that wants to live past anything, it wouldn’t let me. His tail whipped around to crush me in his agony, and a swing of the axe lopped it off at the tip, sending that bone head tumbling away. Then, as he fell to his knees in pain, I buried the axe in the plate of bone between his horns and, upon hearing the crackling of his face as it folded in from the blow, my nerveless fingers lost their grip on the haft and I staggered back, numb and sick, and vomited up the bread and apples I had forced myself to eat the night before.
He sat there, his hands pressing in on the hole in his stomach, unaware for a moment that I’d killed him, a calm look in his bright blue eyes. Blue like the sky after Thor’s chariot has ridden past, blue like the back of the king of the whales. The axe buried in his broad flat face wobbled from the force of the blow and the sudden way I’d lost hold of it.
Then he fell forward, his horns propping his head up even as they sank a foot in the wet earth and lush grass, and died. I convulsed again, my stomach on fire but devoid of anything to release, and the Fomor keening stopped as they looked upon the ruin of their champion.
I made sure to take the axe out of his head as quickly as I was able. Seeing that they had no more stomach for fighting, and knowing I had little left myself, I allowed them to take their champion and depart for the place that is not a place, which they did, being honorable enough creatures in their way.
The rest is simple. I found wood enough in the forest and, piling the bodies of my companions and the Fomor, I built several fires and one by one, made the observations of their passing in the way my father had taught me for his own death. This took much of the day and into the night, but I was of a mind to do it, for this time the old Gray Man had come far closer to me than I had wanted to think about, and the ship whose deck is fingernails and whose sails are woven from dead men’s beards had gone so far as to extend its board to me. Being that Hel, in her grace, had not taken me yet I was in a mood to be grateful and in a sense that the dead on that field could easily have been me.
Then I rested for a day, until hunger forced me to my feet. Unsure what else to do, I made my way to the shore again, hunting and catching a deer on my way, which I prepared and ate as best I could, although there was much waste and I felt foolish for it. Then, on the shore, the Skraelings found me again while I was considering how to get back on the track of the fish, and suggested to me that I use a boat they had kept in their hands since the time of this Brendan, a round boat of the kind the Irish and Welsh often use. Having no other options, I agreed. Having taken from one of my companions a serviceable enough sword and dirk, I left Oisin’s axe with the Skraelings so that, if somehow the Fomor returned, they would have a defense of some sort.
Then I set for Leif’s Camp, which was a long sail north on the small boat, and which eventually led me right past Furdustrandir. We had avoided the coast heading south, but to me, it was only by following it that I could find Kjalarnes, where to my fortunes the ships of Leir Othmundsen had decided to harbor for resupply. I then killed Leir, as you know, for having abandoned me on the beach and led the ships back east, where we resumed the wolf’s work on the shores of the Anglelands.
And so now you know why I never again raided the Irishmen, and why I sail no more past the shores of Greenland, and so you should be quiet and content and press me no more on these matters, nor for tales of the land of the One Legged (where, indeed, I have never been and seen no signs of) or other some foolishness, but rather should respect your father’s father and leave me be.