The Barbarian Bard

Tales and Musings by Michael A. Espinoza

Archive for the tag “mythology”

Skaði, Mistress of Winter

Hail to you who, in your might,
took up weapons of war to set wrongs right,
who alone marched on Asgard’s walls,
unafraid to fight or fall.
You, so bold, facing all odds.
You, unaided, against the gods.
No war-party at your back,
no allies in your brave attack.
Seeking recompense for your father’s doom,
you claimed a prize: a worthy groom.
From the halls of the gods, you claimed your mate,
that the Aesir might avert your hate.
But oh, Fair Lady, you found despair,
for you could not claim that god most fair.
Wed you Njord, God of the Sea;
a marriage that simply could not be.
And now you are alone once more,
up on your mountains, and him by the shore.

Oh Winter Lady, hail your might!
Hail your strength to set wrongs right.
True power it takes, to be as you are:
unafraid, unshaken, as you travel so far
across wintery waists and barren lands.
None may hold you under their command.
It might be easy for you to conquer us all.
We would fall at your feet, as you stand so tall.
But true might is not the strength to reign.
It rests in the power to spare others from pain.

And so, My Mistress, oh Lady Fair,
I rest well knowing that you are there.
You watch me closely, as I take my sleep,
you stand over me; my guard you keep.

I offer you a mighty hail,
for I know, Dear Mistress, you shall never fail.
Of your kindness I avail,
whilst I honor you, and tell your tale.

We Are Heathen

Hello readers,

Today I’d like to make a personal statement. It has been said by some that authors should avoid getting into politics, as it can shrink their fan-base down to those who share their exact views. But in this case, choosing to remain silent is an act of complicity that I cannot abide.

I am a heathen. No, not a lawless, godless fiend, as the pejorative connotation suggests. No, the word in its truest form, refers to a worshipper of the Norse gods. I have been a heathen since I was 15 years-old, and heathenry is a very important part of my life. I will not get into the details of my faith or my individual practices, because my point here is something far more vast than any one person. There exist, in our world, those who abuse heathen symbology, those who corrupt our runes, emblems, and lore to suit a twisted political ideology of xenophobia and genocide. These people claim they have studied the history of heathenry, and the lore of our faith, yet they abuse it in the most vile of ways: by using it to preach hatred and bigotry in the names of our gods. These “heathens” believe in a world wherein only people of their “folk”–that is to say, only white-skinned people–can worship “their” gods, as though they, as humans, hold ownership of the mighty Aesir.

I am Mexican. While my mother’s ancestors are European, my father’s are Mexican, and I take after his forebears in appearance, as well as feeling very at one with their culture. This fact allows me to prove the inherent flaw in the mindset of the “folkish” heathens; those who would restrict access to our gods based on the tint of a worshipper’s flesh. They claim it is a matter of ancestry, that anyone with European ancestors may be called to the worship of the heathen gods. Yet I, who have European ancestors, but (proudly) have the appearance of my father’s folk, am barred from the halls of these sorts of folk. And gladly so, as I’d rather not keep their company anyway. But the truth becomes clear in how I am responded to by these types: ancestry has nothing to do with it; to them, it’s all about skin color. And ancestry shouldn’t matter at all anyway; it is not our business who is or is not motivated to honor the gods. But when these men make the claim that “it’s all about ancestry,” it should be noted that lived experience proves that they do not speak truthfully, and that their discrimination runs far deeper. They ignore the fact that many of our gods are mixed race, that the Norsemen and Vikings traveled far and interacted peaceably with people from all over the world. To those who coopt our faith, it is all about whiteness.

Why, you may ask, am I telling you all this? Because the voices of these racist “heathens” are loud, and they are magnets to the media. The quiet, peaceful heathen who welcomes all into their hall is not a good news story, but the swastika-emblazoned neo-Nazi with a Mjolnir tattoo will really make headlines. So, it is time for the quiet heathen to get a little less quiet. It is our duty to show these wicked folk that there is no place for bigotry in our hall, that hatred and prejudice are poison in our well, and that we will not have our faith dragged through the mud. Going about our business as good, peaceful people seemed at one point to be a good way of showing the world who we are. But that point has passed. With supposed leaders in heathenry getting media attention and “representing” our faith in the news by using it as a shield to hide behind as they openly espouse ideologies that would set the people of the world at each other’s throats, the quiet heathen can no longer afford to be quiet. I am not speaking here of becoming militant or evangelical in my faith. I am speaking here of lighting a beacon that illuminates the compassion, love, and tolerance that the lore of heathenry truly advocates. I am speaking of thousands of these beacons coming alight, showing the lingering ghouls of bigotry and hate that they are unwelcome in our hall, and that our way of life has nothing to offer their agenda.

Heathenry is open to anyone; we do not evangelize, we do not convert. If you feel compelled to join us in our worship, we are glad to have you. Unless you subscribe to an ideology that would restrict others from enjoying the same freedom you possess. It is time we assured the world, who knows so little of our ways, that we are peaceful people, we are loving people, we are multicultural, multi-racial, economically and socially diverse people. We are people of all genders and walks of life. We will not stand for hatred, oppression, or intolerance. We are human beings who value the worth in each other. We are heathen.

The Fall of Jehros

Hail readers,
Below you will find an older story of mine; my earliest attempt at sword and sorcery fiction. While rereading it has reminded me just how far I’ve come as a writer in recent years, I still hope you find it an enjoyable adventure.

PART I: Battle at Midvang
Wrath. Wrath was the only palpable emotion Brynjar felt as he crawled on his belly like a dog across the snow, which itself lay strewn with corpses. Some were clad in gleaming mail, now stained red with their blood and that of their adversaries, while others lay naked save for loin-cloths about their waists and sword-sheaths strapped to their sides. Never had a host from the south ventured so far into the mountainous keep of the realm of Asaheim. Yet never had the southern-folk encountered the wrath of the men of this land either, which proved advantageous for the bewildered Asa-men, who knew not why they were besieged so readily by the scarlet banner-waving ranks of the southern peoples.
Of the nature of this attack, Brynjar knew nothing. Why had it happened, why had the Gods let such a vengeful host sweep death across their mountains, where strife amongst indigenous clans was frequent but short-lived. Brynjar knew only that Thorgrim, his brother, lay beheaded upon this blood-shot waste which once had been a beauteous plain of glimmering snow. Every muscle in Brynjar’s body strained against him, beseeching him to surrender himself to blackness and sleep, to forget the pain of life and nestle against the warm bosom of death. But this was not the way of his people, who would rather bleed themselves dry crawling home than lay waiting for death upon the fields for war. Such were Brynjar’s own actions now…
When the Southern Raiders attacked a small village just south of the plain on which this bloodshed had begun, Brynjar’s home village, Ulfdalir, received swift word. Fighting men were dispatched, and the powerful women of Ulfdalir readied themselves to stand in defense of their home should the tide of battle turn against them. Brynjar and his brother Thorgrim rode side-by-side upon their horses, swords sheathed at their sides, their blue eyes alive with the fiery temper so legendary of the northern people. As Brynjar’s dark hair flew out behind him like a banner, Thorgrim turned to him, his shaven head glistening in the sunlight.
“You should cut your long hair, brother,” he laughed, “would you give your enemy such an easy handle for your beheading?”
“I do not plan to die a captive,” Brynjar shot back with brotherly spite, “so I take no cowardly precautions thusly.”
Thorgrim spurred his horse onward, digging his bare feet into its sides. The horse let out a loud cry, and charged ahead across the uneven terrain, seeming as anxious as its rider to leap into the thick of battle. Brynjar did as his brother, not one to be outdone, especially by his younger sibling. And soon they beheld the host of Raiders that had come unbidden into their lands to bring doom to the people and spread those accursed scarlet banners. The clangor of swords was deafening, but the two brothers, the twin sons of Bjorn, did not cower from the flashing of swords and the cries of death that sent so many others running for the safety of their hearths. Instead they looked to each other and shared their ancestral battle-cry: “For our Father, for our family, and for freedom!” as they leapt into the midst of the swirling madness.
Blades ablaze with sunlight whirled and clashed, sparks danced across the already-dazzling snow, and screams of the mortally wounded filled the air. Asa-men, almost as a rule, wore no armor but their loin-cloths, compensating for this lack of protection with unparalleled strength, tireless thews, and legendary brutality in combat. The sons of Bjorn were no different. Back to back they stood, horses having been cut down swiftly, encircled by their somewhat-armored foes, who darted in to strike at Brynjar or Thorgrim, before pulling back swiftly when their blows were parried easily away. After a short while of this defensive game, Brynjar grew tired of testing the Raiders, and leapt toward those amassed around he and his brother.
The Southern Raiders fell back, save for an unlucky warrior who thought himself brave and found his skull split by Brynjar’s weapon as a result of that fatal courage. Like a wedge, Brynjar cut through the Raiders, as other Asa-men waged struggles with small groups of these invaders. Crying out, frothing at the mouth, and nearly delirious with bloodlust, the dark haired Asa-man clove his foes left and right, heedless of minor wounds inflicted on his bare flesh by glancing blows. In fact, it seemed those very wounds, those stinging, nagging little shallow lacerations were in fact invigorating the warrior to an even more frenzied state. He was a death bringer, a flesh cleaver, a warrior beyond any of his enemies.
Thorgrim did not share in his brother’s blessing of bloodlust, for while he loved battle, he was younger and more fearful than his older sibling, whom had seen many clan skirmishes and much death. But Thorgrim was no coward. He fought with a more defensive style, blocking his assailants’ onslaughts and then singling them out, one by one, for destruction, rather than wading into their midst as did his brother. But it was Thorgrim, not Brynjar, who somehow found himself facing a mail-clad man, a Raider who held high the scarlet banner. Clearly this brute of a man was their General, for his armor and sword were far more ornate than those of his compatriots.
The invading forces formed a wide circle around their General and Thorgrim, clearly anxious to see the barbarian cut down beneath the blade of their noble leader. A battle thus began that was swift in and of itself, but whose repercussions, in the months to follow, would shake the very world upon which all beings did live. Thorgrim blocked a disemboweling stroke from the General’s weapon and moved in, eager to earn glory this day. His foolishness was rewarded. Even as Brynjar plowed through the circle to aid his brother, the General marshaled the recoiling force of his parried blade into momentum for an arcing slice that sent Thorgrim’s shaven head rolling from his shoulders, falling like some ghastly stone, and then thudding dully upon the earth.
No words came to the mind of Brynjar to describe his reaction at the sight of his brother’s lifeless corpse on the ground, and the disgust that filled him when Thorgrim’s head was crushed beneath the metal boot of a Raider bearing a double-edged axe. He remembered only charging forward to face the General, as the Raiders cried “Hail our General, hail Olaf, hail the Skull-Cleaver.” He remembered moving on foot, his horse left for dead early on in the first throws of the confrontation, when Thorgrim had been by his side. The memory of the stroke of Olaf’s blade that struck him was a hazy recollection for Brynjar. An icy, burning pain in his belly was the only thought that came to mind as Olaf laughed with great mirth at the dying savage, leaving Brynjar to bleed out upon the snow and rallying the Raiders into formation to move northward, toward Ulfdalir…
Slowly crawling, clawing his way across the craggy land, leaving behind him a wake of his own blood, Brynjar pulled himself onward, toward his home. The women, left behind to stand guard, would prove just as apt a match for the southern folk as had been the fighting Asa-men. Thus, given Brynjar’s current condition, he held out little hope that his town could be saved. But west of Ulfdalir was another settlement, where a small tribe of the Asa-folk lived. Surely if a horse could be found, Brynjar could ride for this village and receive the medical aid he so desperately needed. With this in mind, this mission locked into his focus, the dying man crawled with tireless vigor until at long last he beheld the ruin that only this very morning had been the town he knew as home.
Even from the very edge of minuscule Ulfdalir, for the Asa-folk believed not in over-crowding their land, Brynjar could tell his village was laid to waste. Fires raged in fields, fences had been cut down entirely, and the corpses of those ridden down by the Southern Raiders lay lifeless. Death seemed to surround Brynjar, it lingered from whence he’d crawled and now it met him in his own home, for here lay his village, here were his folk: decimated. But even to the dying man, a curious observation rang out. Though bodies could be beheld, lying dead before him, women with their shields split and their swords knocked away, their ivory bosoms now still with lack of breath for the rest of eternity, there seemed to be a strange lacking of bodies with regard to the population of the town. Should not more women lay dead in the primitive street if the Raiders had come, as it would seem they had? Should children not be lain out, butchered as well? Should not the men who stayed behind to guard alongside the women lay bloody and ruined? This could mean only one thing, and even the slowly fading consciousness of Brynjar could piece this puzzle together: the Raiders were rounding up slaves to take back to the southern lands. Surely these slaves were meant to serve in the Order of Jehros, for whom the Raiders themselves served as a military arm.
But these thoughts were quelled quickly when the trotting of hooves caught Brynjar’s attention. The son of Bjorn turned his head and beheld a wandering horse, loosed from its stall but left alive, spared the fate of much of the rest of Ulfdalir’s livestock. Unafraid, it walked to the fallen man, and waited expectantly. Summoning every last vestige of strength, Brynjar clambered aboard the horse’s back and dug in his heels when he had the horse facing a westward trail. The beast galloped swiftly, but not so much so as to unseat its rider, who slipped at last into a mercifully unconscious state of mind. And so Brynjar would have found himself borne into the midst of his western neighbors, had the horse not been met along its way by overgrowth on that disused path, and thus wandered astray…

PART II: The Wrath of Donnar
Swift were the shoeless feet of the hunters who stumbled upon the unconscious Brynjar and his aimlessly grazing steed. Fiery-eyed glances and silent discussion carried on between them before they plucked the wounded warrior from his mount, allowing the horse to wander free and graze to its heart’s content. Fate would find that noble beast a mate in the forest, and together they would sire unto the Earth a herd of wild stallions unparalleled in speed and grace. But such was not the concern of the hunting party, who now bore in their midst the war-weary man, so he may meet the destiny of all who came unbidden into their most beloved land.
These folk were not conquerors or settlers, they did not own their land. Like other Asa-folk they paid homage to Donnar, their mighty God and his many brethren and elders, yet these folk were not common beings. Legend shrouded their lineage and had reduced the idea of their very existence to little more than tales told around camping fires. They lived in a state of peace with the land in which they dwelled, their village was small, unobtrusive by all accounts. Simple homes radiated in all directions from an altar, a shrine to Donnar bedecked with runic inscriptions and sacred replicas of their God’s mighty hammer. It was here, upon this altar, that Brynjar was laid, prostrate and naked but for a scrap of cloth covering his most grievous of battle wounds.
From their modest homes came the villagers, all of them tall and sinewy, with eyes only for the intruder who lay now upon their altar. As custom dictated, the mightiest hunter of their folk would slay this man with the sacred spear Gungnir, as an offering to Donnar in trade for the continued harmony they enjoyed with their untainted land and the animals therein, beasts who lay hidden to even the other Asa-folk. And so strode forth their greatest of hunters, Gungnir firmly clenched in her unyielding grip, her gaze fixed upon the altar and the figure thereon.
“A pity he shall dine in Donnar’s hall this night,” spoke she to a near-at-hand priest, “for a suitable mate he would make if his wounds were nursed and his strength recovered.”
“Such is the will of Donnar,” the priest replied in a somber tone, “and we would be fools to disobey. This man shall know no harm, but shall awaken in Bilskirnir with all fallen folk of Asaheim. He shall not be lonely amongst his ancestors.”
“So it is,” the huntress noted, “this much I know. I mourn only for what could be, not what shall.”
“Good enough,” relented the priest, “but be careful, Zusa, lust is rarely a guide safe to follow.”
Zusa nodded and stepped forward, the stone of the altar cold beneath her padding feet. Gungnir, the spear believed to have passed from the very hands of the Gods unto this humble tribe, felt heavy in her fair hands. A smile crossed Zusa’s red lips, for the spear was not heavy with melancholy or sorrow, but instead carried the weight of duty, of responsibility, of great troth with the Gods from whom it had come. Up high its gleaming tip was raised, poised to plunge like the darting beak of an eagle, squarely into Brynjar’s beating heart.
“May Earth consume thy flesh and bone,” quoth Zusa from ancient lore, “may rain drink deep thy lifeblood, may thunder resound with thy cry of battle, and may thy soul fly free to Donnar’s hall.”
A crack of sudden thunder shook the altar where it lay, even as lightning split the dusky sky. Snarling bolts of wrath struck the land, scattering villagers like mice before a farmer’s broom. Zusa’s grip on Gungnir was unwavering, but now she cast her eyes about anxiously, seeking guidance from a priest or elder. No such guidance was forthcoming, until the heavens did speak for themselves. A gust of wind, like a tendril from some unseen plane, wrapped swiftly round Gungnir and wrenched it from Zusa’s hands with such force that the huntress nearly lost her footing. The spear spun high into the midst of the massing storm, vanishing from sight before returning Earthward, its tip up-turned. Gungnir landed well away from the altar… Donnar’s message was clear.
“The wanderer lives,” spoke the priest, no longer besieged by Donnar’s angry lightning.
“How can he live,” spoke another villager, as a light mist of rain began to fall, “look how he lies, wounded and near-death.”
“Near-death is still living,” the priest answered, “and Donnar has spared him the fate of our sanctified ritual. Only the Gods know of the fate toward which he shall walk.”
“Shall we let him be then, leave him to gain strength and depart from our midst?”
As if in reply to the question posed, the storm picked up again. A column of lightning, wavering and maddeningly bright, struck the ground behind Zusa, who stepped forward instinctively, closer to the body of the dying Asa-man. Again, the intention of their quick-tempered God was clear.
“Zusa,” the priest proclaimed, “shall care for this man, bring him back to health, and then send him on his way. Until such a day as he is strong again, he shall live in our midst, a member of our clan.”
“Me!” Zusa spat with distaste, though the idea of keeping this man in her abode was not altogether an unpleasant notion to entertain. “Why should I be charged with playing nurse to a dead man?”
“He would be dead if you had sent Gungnir to its mark,” retorted the outspoken priest. “It is thus your task to see that the life he was granted this day be lived to its fullest.”
“Very well,” Zusa acquiesced, a devious smile playing across her lips, “then I shall keep him and heal him… and his life shall be well-lived.”
So it was that Zusa lifted the body of the would-be sacrifice, carrying his considerable weight with relative ease back to her abode. She set about to making up a bed for him, which consisted largely of a cloth blanket beneath him and another to cover his unmoving frame. Yet before covering him, she carefully went to work upon his wound, cleaning it of dirt and pebbles, which had accumulated in the laceration during his homeward crawl. If he lived, he would make quite the mate indeed, she thought to herself, for such strength it must have taken to mount a steed and ride in his state. Soon enough, the wound was clean and wrapped in cloths, bandages to stem the flow of fresh blood, and this was all that Zusa could do. Until he rose she could only sit and watch him for signs of waking, which she did with great vigilance until he at last stirred on the second morning he spent in her care.

PART III: Amongst the Wolfriders
From the fragments of tattered dreams, slivers of unconscious rambling, Brynjar rose. Recollections of his fallen brother were chased from his mind by the sudden sensation of warmth, of cloth upon flesh, of a roaring hearth fire. The vision of Midvang, the field whereupon Thorgrim lay slain and rotting, flickered like a candle-lit image, before winking out, its presence usurped by utter darkness. But this black was not the icy grip of death, for he heard not the sounds of horses coming to lift him on high to Bilskirnir. No, this stygian veil was permeable! The warrior found he could push through it with his mind, like a blind man groping for a familiar surface to act as his guide.
And there it was, a substantial object, something of flesh and blood, not of vague dreams and whispers of thoughts intangible. It felt soft and warm in his hand. In fact, upon exploration of it, the item felt as if it were itself a hand. Curiosity overwhelmed his state of pain and confusion. Brynjar opened his eyes and beheld a face.
Her hair was long and fair as gold, lustrous and flowing. Her eyes were a blue that matched his own, and they were set against a face with skin like ivory. Her lips were full and red, curved into an ever-playful smile, like that of a cat who desires to toy with a newly found rodent. She knelt beside him, so the dazed warrior could not guess at her height, but he imagined it to be equal to his own. Her frame was tough and muscular, but lean and agile, like a panther, ready to spring at a moment’s notice into battle. For garb she wore a few feathers in her hair, and a loin-cloth bound about her waist, much like that which Brynjar had himself worn into battle.
“Be you a valkyrie?” rasped the dry-throated Brynjar.
“A valkyrie,” came the semi-musical, semi-snide laugh of his benefactor, “no not I, only a huntress of the Wolfrider clan.”
“The Wolfriders?” Brynjar cried, attempting and failing to rise.
“Indeed,” Zusa confirmed, pushing him back to his prone position, “we are real, son of Ulfdalir.”
“How know you of my town?” enquired Brynjar.
“Only Ulfdalir has met such a fate as your appearance would suggest,” Zusa explained, eyeing his wound.
Brynjar looked down at his bandaged belly and reached to undo the injury’s bindings. Zusa slapped his hands away like a mother angry with her child, and chastised him for wanting to undo all her work at saving him. At length she recounted the story of his discovery, near sacrifice, and placement in her care. Brynjar did not much like the idea of being kept in anyone’s care, much less that of this somewhat domineering hunter from a clan that existed only in myth.
In the days that passed, the son of Bjorn told Zusa-largely against his wishes-tales of his village. She learned of his coming of age, of his hunting trips with his father and brother, of his learning to slay a beast and make use of its every part, and of his yearning to start a family of his own. For this had been his dream, to fight in glorious wars alongside Thorgrim and then sire many mighty sons by a fair woman of Ulfdalir. Now, he told her, this dream would never be. When Zusa demanded elaboration, the still healing man told her of the Southern Raiders’ attack, of the battle on the field Midvang, of Thorgrim’s death. He spoke to her of his lust for vengeance, of his longing to spill the blood of the Raiders’ general and of the man known as Jehros, whose order of worshippers controlled the mighty Southern Raiders themselves.
“So this is why you were borne into the woods on horseback?” Zusa asked as she unbound Brynjar’s wound.
“Aye,” he replied, “my horse wandered from its path and your hunters found me.”
“It is good they did,” Zusa stated flatly, “for you would be as dead as your brother had you not been found.”
Brynjar fell silent at this somewhat cold remark. As a warrior, he was quite accustomed to unflattering speech, but talking of Thorgrim’s death somehow made it too vivid for him to tolerate. His eyes fixed Zusa with a hard stare, which she ignored, eyeing his wound. The Asa-man’s thews were strong indeed, and perhaps a gift of the Gods had lent him aid, for a scar stood out boldly on his flesh, somewhat caked with dried-blood, but he was otherwise unscathed. Surely some internal damage still remained, for the blade had sliced him deep, but he had been sitting up and moving slowly about Zusa’s home in recent days, so she felt content that his healing was reaching its gradual end.
“You are strong, Brynjar,” she at last spoke, the admiration in her voice masking something else entirely, “you will sire fine sons.”
“I have no longing for sons now,” the sullen warrior murmured, “only the scent of my enemies’ blood brings excitement to my heart.”
“Perhaps you look in the wrong places for excitement,” Zusa offered, moving to sit beside him on his blanket, “perhaps you dwell too much in past memories of wrong-doing and future yearnings for vengeance and death-dealing. Look to the present, son of Bjorn, what brings you excitement there?”
“There is no joy in healing,” Brynjar growled, unmoving as Zusa’s arms entwined his hulking form, “only in growing strong enough to cleave Olaf’s skull and slay that damned Jehros, whose cult came unbidden to Asaheim in search of slaves.”
“But there is joy in waking,” Zusa purred, her breath upon his neck like a summer night’s breeze, “and in feeling. Is there no joy in being alive for you, Brynjar of Ulfdalir?”
“Spare me your advances,” snapped the wrathful man, “for I have no lust for you.”
“I see,” Zusa replied sharply. “Then it comes not to a matter of seduction, but to one of debt. By the Gods’ charge I cared for you, but you are still obliged to honor my hospitality with a gift, are you not?”
With this fact, Brynjar could not argue.
“Then give me this gift,” Zusa continued. “Give me your flesh and your passion, your beating heart and pounding veins; set free your lust, son of Bjorn.”
Grudgingly, much against his desires, Brynjar relented to her demands. He fell into her rapturous embrace, enthralled like a lesser beast in the unrelenting clutches of a serpent. Weak he was, still recovering strength, or he would have cast her aside and later repaid her in gold for her hospitality. But from the force with which she pushed him to his back and moved astride him, Brynjar knew that even at his fullest strength, Zusa would have been a formidable foe. Seeing no alternative, he let his will be thwarted, and entwined himself with the huntress now upon him, and thus they wiled away the time of day, both helpless in the savage clasp of lust.
Many long days Brynjar spent, slowly regaining strength. First walking around Zusa’s hut, then around the village, and soon he was running at his old pace again, though for shorter distances than before that battle at Midvang. Time would return to him his endurance, but his skills in combat would only lessen with disuse. So he regained the use of his warrior’s prowess, sparring with the Wolfriders in friendly competition and joining them to hunt the strange beasts that lurked in the woods where they dwelt. Quickly he earned fame for his strength and brutality in battle, and his efficiency on the hunt. The Wolfriders welcomed him as their own native son.
By night, Brynjar grew increasingly fond of Zusa. They spent their days together, hunting and fighting, each honing the other’s strength like a blade in a forge. By dusk they ate together in the privacy of Zusa’s hut, sharing tales of childhood and discussing Brynjar’s plans to avenge Thorgrim. And by night, they both quite willingly entwined their forms and shared in an intimate union of flesh the likes of which neither had ever dreamt. This was the way of life for Brynjar amongst the Wolfriders, and for a half year he lived in their midst. Finally, as he knew it would, the day came when he found his full strength returned, his skills refined, and his passion for vengeance burning stronger than ever. Now was the time to strike, this he knew, and this he told Zusa one night as they lay, breathing heavily in each other’s embrace.
“You will ride out tomorrow,” Zusa whispered as Brynjar’s lips caressed her ivory throat, “this I know, Son of Bjorn. I’d not try and stop you any more than I would stand in the face of a whirling wind and demand it to falter, but I will ask of you to do for me two favors.”
“What are these favors?” asked the feverish barbarian.
“Lay with me again this night,” Zusa said, “so I may remember you in your absence.”
“And the other favor?”
“Let me ride by your side into battle.”
There was silence in the hut, only the sound of heavy breathing and insects chirping outside in the wilderness. Zusa clung tighter to Brynjar, as if trying to crush the life from him, or absorb him into her very flesh. She needed no light to see the shaking of his head, his answer was plain and clear.
“My battle shall be great,” spoke Brynjar, “my victory momentous and grand. Look for a sign in the South and then ride to find me, fair daughter of the Wolfriders.”
“This I will do,” she whispered. “But I shall long for you each day we sleep not entwined.”
“Then I shall give you a vivid memory with which to recall me,” Brynjar growled like a beast stalking its prey.
“Your actions will outweigh your words,” Zusa taunted. “Prove yourself to me. And tomorrow, we shall select for you a steed and send you on your way.”
The moment the sun rose, Zusa and Brynjar stepped from their hut and padded across the hoar-frost toward a small stable. Eagerly, Brynjar thrust open the door and bounded inside, only to recoil and leap clear of the building in anticipation of an attack that was not forthcoming.
“Why do you cower, mighty one?” Zusa asked playfully.
“Wolves,” Brynjar said in a manner of near disbelief, “as vast as steeds, massive and rippling with strength. They lurk in your stable!”
“We earned the title of Wolfrider for a reason,” Zusa smirked. “Did you think it was but myth?”
“I’d somewhat hoped so,” Brynjar muttered.
“Come,” Zusa beckoned, “come with me, for a steed must love its master if they are to ride together, and I think I know the wolf for you. At birth, we Wolfriders choose our steeds when they are but pups,” she explained, “and they age alongside us, for they are divinely blessed with long life. Yet you had no opportunity to choose a pup, for you were not born into our ways.”
Into the stable Brynjar cautiously stepped, mindful of the door behind him and wary of the gleaming, baleful eyes that stared from closed doors. The doors themselves only enclosed the stable, the great wolves were free to roam in an enclosure behind the small building at their leisure. This was for the best, as these creatures were surely spawned in some far off realm which humans could never reach. But then how had they come to ride in partnership with Zusa’s folk?
Brynjar’s thoughts were knocked from his mind by a sudden gnashing of teeth and a deafening roar. One of the wolves lunged hard at its door, slamming again and again against the wooden planks, its gaze fixed precisely on the giant of a man who had accompanied Zusa into the stable. Its thunderous roar shook the rafters, and it frothed like a man possessed.
“What feral wretch is this?” Brynjar scoffed. “Surely you would not have me ride such an evil monstrosity.”
“This is my steed,” Zusa replied with a smile, reaching her hand into the stall and scratching the wolf beneath its chin.
Instantly the creature was silent and content, licking Zusa’s hand and nuzzling at her through the door. Brynjar marveled at the kinship Zusa had with her mount, for it looked into her eyes and seemed to understand her as she told it not to fear Brynjar. Such intelligence! Were these wolves truly so clever? Zusa spoke now to Brynjar, drawing him to a stall set apart from the others. Here was his mount.
“This one shall be yours,” Zusa said, “this much I can tell.”
“How come you to this conclusion?” enquired the curious and cautious Brynjar.
“It is violent, temperamental, and does not treat the other wolves kindly,” Zusa explained, “nor will it let any Wolfrider approach. It only wandered into our midst and now will not leave, as though it were lingering in wait for something.”
The wolf in question stood a head taller than any other steed in the stable. From its nose to its tale it was the finest of white, gleaming even in the dawn, its coat like fresh-fallen snow. Its mood was quite the opposite. Its growl was as loud as the roar of Zusa’s wolf, and it was clearly holding back its full potential as it knocked the wooden door to its stall from its frame. Zusa sprung away, ready to defend herself against the on-rushing wolf, but the lumbering monster instead padded to Brynjar and lowered his head, whining like a puppy.
“Then I was right,” Zusa spoke with great relief, “and you can indeed tame such a creature. This alone is worthy of earning you a name amongst my people.”
“And what name shall that be?” Brynjar wondered.
“Well,” Zusa thought aloud, “your village lies burned, and none but Asa-folk know of your father, Bjorn. Your name must ring across the lands, a swath of blood carved in its wake. Let your enemies lament in the presence of… Brynjar Whitewolf.”
And so did he ride from the village, a sword by his side, gleaming in the sunlight. Like a banner behind him flowed his long, dark hair, as his eyes came ablaze with the fires of war. And also behind him stood the Wolfriders, his newfound folk and family, raising many horns to toast Brynjar’s victory and ask the Gods to protect him. With Zusa leading them, they cheered his name as his great steed bore him into the distance, “Hail Brynjar! Hail Brynjar Whitewolf!”

PART IV: The Tower of Ascension
Far off in the eastern lands, there once dwelled a man called Jehros. From humble roots he’d risen, for his father worked in wood-craft and his mother held no work, as was the custom of the eastern people. But Jehros had one day, perhaps even from birth, felt a divine inspiration placed upon him, a strength of will and a yearning for fame and glory. At a young age he did set forth from his parents’ home and begin to amass followers, people who believed that Jehros’ strength of character was not a mere gift from the God of their land, but instead that it was a result of direct lineage. Jehros was the son of their God.
With blinding speed, Jehros’ cult grew powerful, gaining the support of kings. Jehros now dined in ornate halls, feasting upon succulent meats and thick slabs of bread. He surrounded himself with a harem of enslaved women, who followed him night and day, ever worshipful and exuberant to stand in his presence. Jehros likewise assembled an army, first comprised of mercenaries, but which soon gained the following of the great armies of kings. Jehros’ warriors, known as the Southern Raiders, for they hailed from the southern provinces of the eastern lands, swept across the deserts like a rolling tide of steel and death, spreading the word of the son of God, and purging the land of those who would not abandon their old ways.
But in time, the East was conquered. All those eastern-folk, of significance, now knelt before Jehros as he strode across the sands and spoke his words of love, salvation, and vengeful fire that would rain down upon his enemies at his command. For he could speak directly to their God, he could command the wrath of their God, and only he could claim lineage from their God. But still he felt the limitations of mortality weighing heavy upon his back, for he could not yet rise to join his father in the sky, he could only shout of love and death. And thus began his quest of ascension.
A great tower of stone to take him straight to the sky; this was the will of Jehros. His followers, his willing slaves, would accompany him as he crossed the sea, moving northwest toward the shores of a new, unconquered world. There they found a great desert in the south, wherein they made their home. And then they did set about the task of rounding up more slaves, from the northern mountains of ice and snow, known as Asaheim. There Jehros’ army did go, for there they would find strong slaves, people who could be coerced to worship the mighty Jehros, and who could be set to work crafting the great Tower of Ascension for Jehros, the Almighty Son.
But never before, in all their death-dealing, had the Southern Raiders encountered a brutish tribe quite like the Asa-folk. Jehros preached with all his heart, urging them to forsake their devilish, red-bearded thunder God Donnar, imploring them to abandon their primitive ways and step into the realm of enlightenment, to worship the son of the True God. But, unlike many others, the Asa-folk were not so ready to believe all their ancestors were wrong. Whatever slaves the Raiders gained were taken after considerable loss, until at last the day did come that the Southern Raiders retreated from Asaheim, back to the desert they now knew as home, to set their slaves to work. But one day, as the foundations of the Tower of Ascension were being laid upon the earth, a man, bronzed by the son, and naked but for a loin-cloth, did walk into their midst and insert himself, willingly, into the ranks of the slaves.
“Who is this man,” asked Jehros of his most trusted General, Olaf, “who is this man that comes forth and so willingly yields beneath the whip of the slave-master?”
“He will give us no name,” Olaf replied, “and we can only guess at his origins.”
“And what has your guesswork revealed?”
“His skin is bronzed by sun,” Olaf began, “but his voice carries the rough bite of the Asa-folk.”
“Then he worships that degenerate hammer-throwing God, Donnar?” Jehros enquired.
“At first I would assume so,” Olaf ventured, “but from his willingness to work in your servitude, I’d say he is quite willing to worship you, Master.”
“Well keep watch upon him,” commanded the Almighty Son, “for I would be a fool to let a wolf camp amongst my sheep.”
Neither man knew this willing slave by name, though Olaf should have recognized the scar upon this slave’s belly. For he, Olaf, had dealt a death-blow which would have yielded such a scar, had his victim lived. But never once did this cross the General’s mind, for what is one victim in battle, how could one possibly hold in mind all the lives he’d taken. It was this ruthless forgetfulness on the part of Olaf that allowed this slave to go undetected as he worked diligently and bided his time to seek his revenge.
Brynjar was not recognized by his fellow slaves, even those of Asaheim. His accent made clear his homeland, but never before had they seen such a tan-skinned Asa-man. Amongst the slave ranks, Brynjar saw many men and women he had known from Ulfdalir and its surrounding towns, but never did he speak up and make his name known. It would do him naught but harm to alert the Asa-folk that Brynjar still lived, and was indeed amongst them at this very moment. With the son of Bjorn in their midst, the slaves would surely rally, defy the Raiders, and be cut down in mere moments. No, this was not the way things would be. Brynjar’s plan would take great time to unfurl.
And so the slaves did toil upon the burning sands, beneath the blazing sun and the stinging whip, laying stones upon stones to craft Jehros’ great tower. With time, the ebon pillar rose to pierce the sky, its surfaces smooth but for hand-holds on all its sides, with which Jehros would one day climb when came his time to join his father. This was the Tower of Ascension, the edifice spoken of in the great tome Jehros held always by his side, the tome from which he preached his words and passed his judgments. Now, from its pages at last had risen his crowning achievement, the great monument that would channel his very body up from this mortal plain and into the hall of the eastern God, Uriel.
The day following the completion of his tower, Jehros gathered all of his worshippers and slaves to behold his grand work. Standing before the gently swaying column of stone, he raised up his arms, the sleeves of his white-collared robe fluttering in the stinging desert wind, and he spoke to his people.
“Children of Jehros,” rang his clear voice over the dunes of sand, “my sons and daughters, blessed are ye who follow me as I now ascend to dwell in the halls of my father, Uriel.”
“Blessed be,” replied the congregation, save for a few slaves who still held as best they could to their old ways.
“From my father’s halls,” Jehros continued, “I did descend to bring a mighty sword, to purge the evils and the non-believers of the mortal world. Now in thy midst I shall climb up to the height of this tower, to the very pinnacle of ascension, and fly into Uriel’s keep. But think not that I leave you, for I shall return with the armies of war, who shall descend, screaming from the heavens, to lay waste to the sinners of the land!”
A roar of applause went up from the congregation, many of them screaming praises of Uriel and his son with the vigor of frothing wolves, slavering and flailing about like men possessed. With the attention of the crowd upon him, Jehros turned to face his monument and placed his hands upon the first rung of the hand-holds that encircled it. Then with maddening speed he began to rise, climbing hand over hand with such swiftness that it seemed as though the tower itself were propelling him up to its heights. Tirelessly he rose, and so fixed upon Jehros was the attention of the crowd that none seemed to notice when a slave slipped from his ranks and charged at the tower.
“Hail Asaheim!” came a mighty roar as Brynjar tore across the sands toward the base of the great pillar.
No warrior, however skilled, could have stood in the path of this rampaging wild man. A great bounding leap carried Brynjar a good distance up the side of the Tower of Ascension, where he secured his grip before climbing at a careful, measured pace toward its height. Having a great head start, Jehros reached the summit before the angry warrior was but half way up the side. The eastern man stood then in his meditative pose: head tilted skyward, arms outstretched perfectly at either side like majestic wings, and his eyes closed in contemplation. Though the tower swayed, he did not move.
But the Southern Raiders, though caught off-guard, were swift in their response. Many charged to the tower’s base, standing ready to cut down the rebellious slave, should he fall into their midst. Several paces back, archers notched their arrows and waited for an order from Olaf to fire. But Olaf dismissed them, bidding them hold ready their bows but loose no arrow until he himself could fire upon this unruly dog. With the ease that comes from many years on the battlefield, Olaf notched an arrow and pulled back the string, drawing his target into his sight. Yet, as he prepared to fire, bracing himself for the recoiling “twang” of the bowstring, a strange noise stopped him in his tracks.
Were the sky not cloudless, many would have called it thunder. Perhaps it was a roaring wind, but the sand sat too still for a storm to be so near. The sound echoed over the hills and mounds, a low rumbling entwined with a high-pitched howl. Only after many moments did Olaf recognize that awful din. It could be no thunder from the halls of the heathen God Donnar, nor the swirling sands that signaled Uriel’s mighty wrath. For there was but one thing, in all of the natural world that could yield this evil sound… the coming of wolves.

PART V: A Test of Will
When Brynjar reached the desert lands of the south, after many days of strenuous travel, he dismounted from his wolf and stood before the great creature. Such a great bond a man can form between himself and a beast when they spend such time together, each relying upon the other for survival. Gazing into the eyes of the vicious wolf, Brynjar gave it a few simple commands, hoping that it understood, and then sent it off along its way. Such was his faith in his mount, that he would intrust his life to its comprehension of his carefully timed plan.
Fate dealt favorably for Brynjar in this venture, for the mighty white wolf returned to the keep of the Wolfriders, who received it readily. But they knew from whom this wolf had come, and Zusa was instantly struck with fear, fear that Brynjar had fallen and his mighty steed had returned home for lack of a rider. This, it was revealed, was not the case, for the wolf did not weep as did those whose riders had perished. It did not lay dormant and dying, like a hawk without its mate. Instead it urged the Wolfriders to follow it, howling through the night until they would listen and give heed to its message.
In the time between Brynjar’s departure and the return of the white wolf, Zusa had been set upon by many a troubling dream. Slaves abused by their masters, great stone towers, and a wicked man from foreign shores, played through her sleeping mind. On occasion she saw Brynjar, his skin darkened by the sun, but just as strong and fiery as ever. When at last the wolf returned and, through its actions, bid the Wolfriders to follow, Zusa was quick to comply. She pleaded for others to join her, beseeching them to come and aid her in what was surely a fight for Brynjar’s life.
“We cannot go,” spoke their high priest, “we cannot leave our village unguarded for so long.”
“You would turn your back on one of your own?” howled Zusa with anguish.
“Brynjar was like a son of the Wolfriders,” the priest proclaimed, “but he chose to leave us, this was not our doing.”
“Will none of you come to fight with me?” Zusa pleaded, holding tight to the hilt of a gleaming sword.
Fortunately, Brynjar’s hunting and combative prowess had afforded him renown amongst the Wolfriders. Many men moved to stand behind Zusa, signifying their will. A party of ninety men swore their allegiance to Zusa and Brynjar, to serve under Zusa’s command in an effort to aid Brynjar in what surely was a deathly trial of steel. Oaths taken, shields readied, and blades sharpened, these chosen Wolfriders mounted their steeds and bounded forth, Zusa at the head of the pack, following the swift-moving white wolf that would lead them to their goal. This, Zusa thought, was surely the sign for which she had been told to wait, this was the sign of which Brynjar had spoken. Now, she would ride with all the vigor in her soul, to find him again and bring him home.
It took many long nights of near-ceaseless travel for the Wolfriders to reach the outskirts of the southern desert. When finally they made camp, riders and wolves both collapsed by the campfires, eager to rest until the next day. Sleep overtook them all, save for Zusa, whose heart beat too swiftly for rest, but whose body yearned for slumber. She gazed into the desert, the blackness of swirling sand that stretched out before them beneath the night sky. Vaguely, she could discern a strange shape, standing tall and stationary, far in the distance. This would be where her beloved one lingered, of that, Zusa was sure. For what a strange obelisk it was, clearly not a thing of nature. Surely Brynjar lingered there. Any clever warrior, seeking to be found, would wait near a noticeable landmark, would they not?
Zusa pushed doubts from her mind. If Brynjar was not there, then perhaps someone there may know of him, perhaps he might be nearby, heading for this very camp, unknowing that Zusa herself lay yearning for him. Oh how she did long to feel his muscular frame writhing beneath her again in the throws of ecstasy, how she lusted after his fiery kisses and the caress of his war-toughened hands. Shivering with excitement at the vividness of her imagination, Zusa pulled a fur blanket over herself, and drifted into sleep until the sun again was chased above the horizon.
By the light of day, the ebon tower was revealed, starkly contrasting the light desert sand. Some aura of horrible fear, of oppressive wickedness exuded from that awful construct, as it stood and swayed in the hard winds, yet never tumbled down. Many men were anxious about approaching it, fearful to tread near such a strange and evil device as this. But Zusa spurred them on, assuring them of great battle and glory to be won on this day. Mighty shouts of praise to Donnar flew up from this small army, whose wolves howled in unison as they charged toward this dark tower.
Olaf had no time to fire the arrow from his bow, to bring Brynjar down from the tower, into the swirling swords of the Southern Raiders. Even as he turned to give an order of attack to his men, the Wolfriders came down from the hills, their steeds fleet-footed and their swords deadly. Olaf beheld a fair-skinned female, beautiful and cruel as an angel of death as she swept toward him, cleaving his bow in two.
“Raiders,” called the mighty General, “let not these heathens spoil the ascension of the Almighty Son. Let the sand run red with pagan blood in the name of our lord!”
“Go,” Zusa snarled, “and join your lord, see how he welcomes you, murderous swine!”
No reflexes of any man were quick enough to counter the blow Zusa dealt. Olaf, still fumbling for his blade in its sheath, was cut down, his head rolling from his shoulders and trampled beneath the feet of charging wolves and the horses of the defending Raiders. With their General so abruptly slain, the Raiders fell into chaos, breaking ranks and madly slaying any who stood between them and the outskirts of the fray. If only they could break free of this assault, then they could charge southward to the safety of a mighty fortress that was still held by many high-ranked Raiders. From this vantage point, battle with the Asa-folk would be much more in their favor.
The true mistake of the Raiders was made instantaneously, not in their formation or their breaking of ranks, not in their servitude of Jehros, but in their natural tendency to forget those whom they felt were beneath them in the grand hierarchy of the world’s order. Such was their undoing, for the slaves of Jehros, no longer bound by fear of the whip and brand, took up the blades of fallen Raiders and Asa-folk alike, and loosed their vengeful wrath upon those who had so cruelly enslaved them. Surrounded by foes, the Southern Raiders could not hold. Too small was this battalion, too vast were its foes. The tides of war had turned against them, and thus they were swept away like so much sand at the mercy of the ocean.
High above the slaughter, another battle began to rage. Brynjar at last reached the summit of the tower and now stood before Jehros, who still lingered, meditating, making himself ready to leap up to the sky.
“Open your eyes, dog,” Brynjar snapped, “I’ll not kill a man who cannot fight me.”
“You cannot kill what is beyond your comprehension, heathen,” calmly spoke Jehros.
“My Gods give me strength.”
“Your Gods are devils! They are idols and deceptions!”
Long months of pining for revenge welled up within the thews of the Asa-man as he seized Jehros by the shoulders. Yet as he pushed forward, hoping to throw the self-righteous pig from his evil throne, Jehros swung forth his arms and locked them with Brynjar’s, entering a grappling stance. Now began a fatal game of strength. Brynjar noted how much it was like the wrestling matches from his youth, each man trying to topple the other. But soft grass and cold drinks of mead did not await either combatant in this more lethal game. Only death for the defeated and glory for the victor. Such was war itself, the very idea of battle made tangible in the struggle of these two mighty men.
Gazing into each other’s blazing eyes, both men strained their every sinew, hoping to gain but an inch in their favor, hoping to slowly tear down their adversary’s resolve. Brynjar was astounded by the strength of this thinner man, who would have easily thrown anyone from the tower whose strength was not of that honed in the mountains of Asaheim. As swords clashed below, like some dissonant tribal song, Brynjar snarled through his teeth at his foe.
“Your war-dogs killed my brother,” the Asa-man spat coldly, “and now they are slaughtered by my wolves.”
“Those who you call dogs are of a superior breed to you,” Jehros said, ever calm and tranquil, “for they worship my father, Uriel, and I, his son. Such strength you have, barbarian. Would you not join my flock?”
“I would rather live a moment as a wolf, than serve a lifetime as a sheep,” retorted Brynjar, barely able to speak for all the effort he put forth in maintaining this battle.
“Your Gods will fail you,” Jehros laughed, “for only I know the path to true divinity, only through me shall you be saved. See how they failed your brother and brought you here to the brink of death?”
“You knew not my brother,” Brynjar hissed, “and your words are meaningless. Thorgrim died in service to our Gods. Better to die as such than to be your slave.”
“So readily you heathens serve your perversions of faith,” Jehros snarled, “so willing to leap into the fires of the abyss. I condemn you, Asa-man.”
A sudden surge of strength passed through Jehros, and Brynjar could only hold his ground, no longer was he able to push forward. All his might was failing, his muscles tensing and aching with the strain of the struggle. As his body began to edge backward, Brynjar lifted his head and cried to the skies above him.
“Donnar,” boomed the voice of the nearly-fallen man, “send me your strength, send me your hammer! Thorgrim, my brother, come down from Bilskirnir, that the twin sons of Bjorn may together spit into the face of death!”
It seemed then that the land was darkened, perhaps by a cloud, were not the sky so clear. Chilling winds whipped about the tower, rocking its very foundations, as rain began to fall. Lightning like tongues of fire descended from the sky, striking the sand with great sizzling hisses like angry snakes. All at once, Brynjar beheld-if only for a moment-the shaven-headed image of his fallen brother, floating in midair upon a mighty steed. Surrounding him, upon horses that galloped effortlessly through the sky, were the maidens of battle, the fierce warrior women who came to take the fallen dead to the land of the Gods. The valkyrjar.
A scream like no mortal man could make bellowed from Brynjar’s throat as he lifted Jehros high and heaved him forward from the tower. The Almighty Son tumbled, his arms outstretched as he fell, as though he were meditating in mid-flight. Looking up from the slaughter, Zusa saw the falling body cloaked in black robes, and seized the spear at her side, the mighty Gungnir, and threw it forth, letting the wind carry it to its final home, in the heart of Jehros. A resounding crunch echoed across the now silent field of war as Jehros hit the sand, his body posed perfectly in his meditative stance, save for the broken spear that now pierced his throbbing heart. Zusa strode forth and smiled maliciously down at the fast-dying man, before seizing Gungnir by its tip, and firmly twisting it in the wound. Though Jehros was an evil foe, Zusa admired him for going to his gruesome death without a cowardly scream.
No time was there for celebrations though, for the Tower of Ascension still stood, if only for the moment. It seemed to sense the death of its creator, or perhaps it was struck by the hammer of Donnar. Whatever the case may have been, the great pillar of stone began to tremble. Brynjar, kneeling on the tower’s surface, leapt skyward the moment he sensed the impending collapse. As the tower tilted, Brynjar landed on its now steeply angled side and began a half-run, half-tumble to the sand below, jumping clear of the collapsing structure.
And there, ever loyal, its muzzle stained red with the blood of the Southern Raiders, stood Brynjar’s wolf. As the Tower of Ascension fell, Brynjar rose onto the back of his steed. Zusa charged to him, leaping upon Brynjar with such force that she nearly unseated him from his mount. Again and again she kissed him, clawing at him and clinging to him with the passion only a lover could muster. Brynjar responded with equal intensity, returning her kisses and holding her against him in his tired arms.
“Where shall we now go, Brynjar Whitewolf?” Zusa panted with excitement.
“A castle still stands to the south,” Brynjar replied when his mouth was free to talk, “where still they hail Jehros as the Almighty Son. Let us go and wipe clean our land of the Southern Raiders.”
“You are tired,” Zusa admonished as she clambered onto her own wolf, “and your back is ablaze with still-fresh wounds from the slave-master’s whip. Let us go back to our camp for the night, Brynjar, let me care for you this evening.”
“Very well,” Brynjar relented at long last, “let us go to your camp, Zusa.”
With the Wolfriders and newly freed Asa-folk trailing behind them, Brynjar and Zusa made for camp. As much as he yearned for the sensations of war, for the clash of steel on steel, Brynjar now desired, more than anything, the firm caress of Zusa’s gentle hands. She had gone through this battle unscathed, such was her prowess. Yes, Brynjar thought to himself as he surveyed those who followed him, tonight they shall camp and rest, tonight he and Zusa shall entwine themselves again. But tomorrow, the southern castle shall learn, by the wrath of unforgiving steel, of the fall of Jehros.

—–

If you enjoyed this tale, I encourage you to check out my novel, Bla
des of Cairndale
.

A Call Home

Disclaimer 1: I wrote this story several years ago as part of a challenge. The nature of the challenge, you ask? To see if I could coherently combine several things I loved into one story and have it make sense: zombie fiction, Norse lore, heavy metal, and walruses. Did it work? I don’t know, but I do think the result was pretty fun.

Disclaimer 2 (and mild spoiler warning): The Norse Ragnarök does not in fact specifically resemble a zombie apocalypse. There is some mention of the hordes of Niflheim returning to Midgard, and I just kind of ran with that for the purposes of this tale.

Ragnarök, the Fate of the Gods, the end of the world, and the birth of a new age, a second chance at building a world free of the corruption so prevalent in our time. In all my years as an Ásatrúar–a worshipper in the gods of Nordic lore–I never truly believed that Ragnarök would happen. If it did, I always thought it would happen while I was no longer alive. I never thought I’d hear the great wolf howl in the dead of night, never thought I’d see the terrible hordes of Niflheim writhing again in the streets. I always thought that it could never happen while I was alive. The gods would outlive me, there was no way such terror would befall the world while I was still mortal. Gods, how I wish I had been right.

The first day was terrifying, it was beyond anything I’d ever imagined in even my most morbid and fantastic of dreams. But I’ll come back to that, in good time. Before a story truly begins, a bit of back story needs to be set; a foundation for the architecture of the end times. We’ll start before the beginning, and end after the end, if I can manage. My girlfriend and I had just returned from a trip to Sea World, a big surprise she had planned for our anniversary, based almost solely around my long-standing adoration of walruses. It had been one of the most amazing vacations I’d ever taken, for two great reasons. Firstly because my girlfriend was there with me. Alice was an amazing girl, beautiful beyond compare, and perhaps the sweetest person I’d ever had the good fortune to encounter. We met at a concert a few years back and kept in touch, though we didn’t see each other in person again for a long while. That all changed when we resolved to attend the same university, having decided we were an “official” couple.

The first day we met in person again was astounding, even better than our first encounter, since we knew it was coming and were so exhilarated to be seeing each other on a more regular basis. I took one look at her–standing a few inches taller than myself, with beautiful blue eyes and hair that the aspiring writer in me might have described as “like flowing gold”–and I lost all my nerve. All that bravado I’d spoken with over the phone and through emails fell to pieces like a chandelier cut loose from a vaulted ceiling. Luckily for me, she was just as nervous and we spent that whole first week getting to know each other all over again. Perhaps one of the best weeks of my life. I’m not the kind of guy who gets sentimental at a moment’s notice, not the kind that gives his heart and soul to every pretty girl I meet, but by the Gods I just couldn’t help myself. We shared a love of everything, of the Ásatrú faith, of views on the people around us (most of which were very cynical views), and a passionate affection for the music of the Scorpions. I would often sing “No One Like You” to her over the phone, while struggling to play a halfway-passable iteration of it on my Les Paul. We liked to call it “our song,” largely because of are equally shared love of being cheesy beyond compare.

The second reason our vacation may easily have been one of the most memorable experiences of my life was the walruses. When I was much younger I had a stuffed walrus, a cuddly little plush recreation of the Arctic dweller that I kept close whenever no one judgmental was around. But of course I grew up, I got older, I matured… Now I had three of them. Knowing my strange, entirely silly affection for these creatures, my girlfriend orchestrated an elaborate surprise trip to Sea World, with particular emphasis on the new walrus exhibit, culminating in a chance for me to hold a baby walrus named Nereus, who had been rescued from a floe in the Bering Strait. For his part, Nereus responded to my presence by curling into a pudgy little ball and trying his best to roll around and be playful. My girlfriend took pictures, I smiled like an idiot, and the animal handler demanded his payment for our time spent in proximity to the walruses. In summation, it was the best day ever, and a well-spent anniversary.

That all fell apart when we returned to college. Alice was too tired to head back to her dorm. As rain started crashing outside the window, accented by intermittent bursts of thunder, we curled up under the blankets in my dorm room and began drifting off to sleep.

“Thor is driving his chariot hard tonight,” I said quietly after a particularly violent burst of thunder that caused Alice to squeak in alarm. “The Jötunns must be giving him some kind of trouble.”

“Should we ask the vaettir for protection?” she asked sleepily, barely even wakeful.

“No no,” I replied, patting her head, “you need to get some rest. Odin is watching over us, we’re as safe as always. Goodnight, Alice.”

“Good night, Erik,” she replied as her pretty eyes fluttered shut.

I stared out the window, holding Alice close as the rain put forth a respectable effort to ventilate the pane of glass. Lightning cracked the sky and for the shadow of a moment, my ears rang with a disquieting howl. It sounded like a train’s whistle from far away, like wind rushing over craggy faces of rock. But somehow it was more “animal,” more alive, and more malign than anything I’d ever even tried to imagine. I shivered, Alice shrank down under the blankets in which she was already thoroughly entangled for fear of thunderstorms. She let out a little yelp of fear and I did my best to comfort her, but I was never very good at making people feel better, particularly considering that I spent an overwhelming amount of time dedicated to making sarcastic comments.

“Erik?”

“Yes,” I whispered.

“Will you keep me safe?”

“Of course,” I said with a bit of a smile creeping across my face, “nothing’s going to hurt you. I’m a viking warrior! I’ll kill anything that even looks at you the wrong way. Like that ticket taker at Sea World.”

“He didn’t mean anything by it,” she murmured into her pillow.

“And I won’t mean anything when I drive a sword through him,” I countered, and she giggled like she always did when I said something threatening.

“Erik?”

“Yes?”

“Did you like the vacation? And the walruses?”

“I loved every part of it,” I said, yawning slightly as exhaustion started to set in, “especially that little walrus.”

“What was his name again?” she wondered aloud.

“Nereus,” I replied, “and he was the cutest thing on Earth. Besides you.”

“Besides you.” she repeated. “Oh, and Erik?”

“Yes?” I said, really wishing she was a heavier sleeper.

“Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Alice.”

Despite my yearning to do so, I still could not force sleep into my mind. As Alice drifted off and I gazed out the window, another sound coursed through me, but much less chilling than the first. It was like a horn blowing, a war-horn enthusing its troops, a heartening call to arms, a song that felt like it was calling me home. It was so enthralling, so warming to my tired body that I felt at once energized and at peace. I didn’t even think back to my knowledge of the lore of my faith. The great howl of Fenrir the shackled wolf, the beckoning sound of Heimdall’s horn Gjallarhorn. Ragnarök…

* * *

Screaming woke me in the morning, shrill calls of terror from every direction. It was as if everything in the world was screaming all at once, like every wall and every window and every object in my room was acting as a transmitter for that awful sound, an amplifier for the horror going on outside. Leaping out of bed, I ran to the window and looked down to the streets one floor below us. There was a crowd amassed outside the dorm, it looked like a riot. But no riot was ever quite like this, no mass act of unrest so disturbing. Even as I watched in sickened silence, the rioters dragged a person out from the doorway of the building. I’d met that kid before, he and I had a music theory class together. He struggled in their hands but it wasn’t even a fight, he was weak and scrawny, pale and acne-scarred. They were frenzied and thirsty for blood. A female rioter fell upon him, and for a baffling moment it looked as though she was nuzzling his neck. Then she pulled away and her mouth was dripping with tattered red tissue. His neck was a hideous gaping maw where once a throat had been.

He screamed, or tried to do so. Blood bubbled out from beneath his torn and flapping neck flesh, but even his blood was not right. The ruby torrent fizzled on his skin, scorching his already mangled flesh and leaving hideous burning streaks on his face and on the ground around him. Then everything: the wounded boy, the blood, even the ground beneath him disappeared under the press of the horde. There must have been twenty of them. Blunt teeth ripped flesh from flailing limbs that thrashed in desperation and then lay still. Invigorated, the mob clawed and bit at anything they could reach, even one another, but they seemed to feel no pain, only a disturbing lust for violence.

It was only when I hit the floor of the room that I realized I’d passed out. My head was swimming, my body numb with shock. Shakily I stood and tried to get my bearings. Alice stood at the window, transfixed by the mob scene outside. I very gently tapped her shoulder and she nearly leapt through her skin.

“Erik,” her voice cracked, “what in Hel is going on out there?”

“Why would I know?” I groggy reply was unsatisfying even to me. “I just woke up a few minutes ago and saw them kill that kid. They just tore him apart.”

“Look.” Alice pointed down to the street.

I looked, and then my voice joined the screaming. The boy, who only moments before had been ripped to shreds, now rose alongside the rioters in their efforts, moving with the vigor of a man who had not just been torn asunder. Scraps of flesh cloaked him, hanging like misshapen rags on the exposed organs of what had once been an acquaintance of mine. As I watched him, his movements caused a loop of his intestines to fall like a discarded rope to the ground. They burned like napalm, leaving an impression like a skid on the pavement that was quickly covered as the rioters pushed forward into the building.

“They’re not alive,” I muttered, over and over again, a mantra that did not calm but incited a hand of ice to take hold within my chest. “He was dead, but he’s walking around. They’re not alive.”

“The legions of Niflheim,” Alice stammered, gripping the window ledge hard, “the guests in Hel’s hall. Ragnarök.”

As if in reply, the screaming died. Peering down I saw the horde migrating into the building, flooding in like insects swarming over a freshly found corpse. But they were corpses themselves, and we were the ones trapped like flies in a web. The body, the thing that had once been a human, that was ripped apart and then rose up again, now lay in the street, its legs having given out from the severity with which they had been gnawed down. As silence reigned over the now deserted street, his semi-empty eye sockets oozing with what had been left behind by those awful human scavengers, turned upward toward the window, seeming to stare directly at us. Slowly, his mouth opened, exposing the ragged, bloodied stump that had once been a tongue, and somehow that body without a throat let lose a moan that sounded like wind flying lonely through a frozen forest, like a thousand hearts weeping for a salvation that had failed to come.

“We have to go!” Alice said with startling sternness in her voice, jolting me out of my trance as that thing in the street continued its unearthly groaning.

“Go?” I repeated in astonishment. “Where would we go? Those people, those things are on the ground floor, where do we go.”

“The student parking garage is right next door,” Alice said, “we can take the fire-escape that links this building with the top floor of the garage and head down to the first floor. We parked my car there last night, remember?”

Vague memories of parking the car late last night rushed back to my head, but it seemed a year had past between then and this morning, when all of Niflheim broke loose outside our dorm. But there was in fact a rickety metal bridge, a safety measure that linked a fire door here to the parking structure’s second floor. And just below that, on the ground level, was Alice’s vehicle, our only chance of getting out of here and to where I did not know.

“I’m not running through that dark garage without a weapon,” I commented, realizing just how foolish and fatal that could be.

“Yeah,” Alice admitted, looking somewhat worried by the matter herself, “if we run into one of them, we need to be able to,” she paused before finishing in a sheepish mutter, “kill it. What about one of your guitars?”

“I’m sorry, what?”

“One of your guitars, the heavier electric ones. It won’t kill anything, but you can sure as Hel knock one of those bastards down.”

“We’re not using one of my guitars as a zombie killer!” I growled, edging between Alice and my two electric instruments.

The word “zombie” hung in the air like a thick cloud of rotting stench. It sounded too fake, too much like a B-movie to be real. Those things weren’t “zombies,” they couldn’t be. Yet they tore a boy apart with tooth and claw, and now he was lying in the streets, hungering for flesh, growling in a sick imitation of something living, as newly-acidic blood bubbled from his gaping wounds. Zombie was the only word that fit. As far as weapons went, there was no debating with Alice. She handed me a guitar from its stand in the corner– my favorite one–and took for herself a heavy flashlight from my desk drawer.

“Sure,” I muttered, gripping the gleaming black Les Paul by its neck, “you get the flashlight and I’ll just bash in skulls with a priceless axe, sounds good to me.”

“The price is getting out of here alive,” Alice countered, her mind strangely hardened by the situation. “is a guitar worth it?”

I was silent.

The sound of my dorm room door creaking open filled the empty hallway. Whether other people had fled earlier in the morning while we slumbered, or whether they were hiding and making no sound, remained a mystery, one we had no intention of unraveling. Alice and I, moving as quietly yet quickly as possible, darted into the hallway like furtive mice, ever watchful for the hungry jaws of a predator. But there was nothing on this floor, we could tell that for certain. But heavy footsteps, shuffling, and occasional shouts of fear echoed up through the stairwells from the first floor. Our time was at its limit. Knowing that, we both dashed toward the far end of the hall, where a fire door stood shut. There was no window in the door, it was a solid metal rectangle with a handle that needed only a firm push to open it.

“Waiting for a dead guy to come hold the door for you?” Alice asked with a bit of a laugh in her voice.

“Bad time for humor,” I replied before flinging the door wide.

Now one thing I’d forgotten about fire doors is that when you open them, it generally sets off a loud alarm… and sprinklers to quench the flames. But Alice and I ended up being the only things getting doused as high-pressure water jets coursed from the ceiling, soaking us through to the marrow and ruining my guitar strings almost instantly, not that I was thinking about the safety of a guitar when our lives were in danger. Such is the mind of a lifetime Metalhead, I suppose. But that same mind was quickly pulled away from thoughts on getting a new set of DR strings, when we stepped out onto the rattling metal fire-escape and found that we were not alone.

On the far side of the bridge stood what had once been a parking attendant. Still in his uniform, his stomach hanging open, exposing his internal organs like an open-faced sandwich. His right hand had been gnawed almost down to the bone, and one of his fingers was missing. He opened up his mouth, revealing bloody teeth; clearly he had claimed a victim already. Was the appetite of these former people so unsatiable that even now he was still mindlessly hunting? There was no time for reflections, not then and not for a long while. Alice screamed, holding her flashlight in a defensive posture. I hefted my guitar with a sad sigh. It was either it or us, I told myself. And in all seriousness I could never put an object above my girlfriend in any way, even one to which I’d grown so attached. Even thinking about wanting to protect my guitar made me feel like a dirt bag. Our world was falling apart, this wasn’t a time for music, it was a time for weapons.

The poorly constructed metal bridge trembled and clanged under the wait of the zombie as it staggered forward, hands outstretched. The skin on the palm of its fat left hand hung down, torn open by what I could only assume were the teeth of his attackers. A feral noise erupted from the depths of his body, something beyond even an animal’s capacity to generate. This sick roar echoed around us, seeming to reverberate within our bodies like an icy wind. The bridge clanged more and more, creaking under his weight as he stumbled forward, heedless of the fact that this precarious path had no railings or any detectable safety feature for that matter, excluding its actual existence. I could smell the waves of rot, the fresh hot stench of blood and exposed inner meat, the noxious odor of viscous secretions that had been voided by the corpse after death, possibly even before, when it was still something human. It was too close, its hands clawed the air, its teeth clacked together like a vice, slicing off a chunk of its own tongue, which slapped against the bridge and fell through the flimsy metal slats, down to the street below, wriggling like a dying fish the whole while. Gripping the guitar with knuckles now bone white, I swung its elegant, gleaming black body through the crisp morning air. The blow was devastating.

The upside to the situation was that I was no longer burdened by selfish, musical instrument preservation thoughts. The reason for that was much less than wonderful. A crunch like someone grinding a whole bag of chips beneath their heel resonated for an instant, less than a second, but it would stay in my mind until the day I died. The zombie’s head caved in on its left side, bone shattering and brain matter oozing down the side of its decimated face, which now vaguely resembled a water mellon that had been crushed to pulp by a hammer. My grip waned on the hilt of my weapon and the zombie clutched at it with his final burst of strength as he teetered on the edge of the bridge, before plunging toward the street. The impact was minor, but the psychological repercussions nearly knocked me off my feet. As he fell, holding my guitar in his arms, fleeting images of Eddie, the Iron Maiden zombie, soared through my head. But the impact removed all thoughts of singing “Children of the Damned” from my mind. Bones stuck out beneath dead flesh, the remaining half of his skull liquified in a putrid explosion as it struck pavement. He lay still, my guitar shattered in his lifeless arms.

“I’m sorry Erik,” Alice said, knowing that I had treated that instrument as if it were my own offspring. “I’m really sorry.”

“It’s okay,” I responded, tearing my eyes away from the street one floor below, “it was my guitar or us, I do have some priorities you know.”

“I know you do, sweetheart,” Alice replied. “You’re my tough viking man, after all.”

“Thanks,” I said, a hint of a blush creeping over my face, “I love you.”

“I love you, too. Now lets get moving, I’m guessing that guy wasn’t the only attendant on duty.”

“Probably not.”

We ran. As fast as our feet could carry us, we ran. I had nothing in my hands now to slow me down, nothing dear to me except the Mjölnir pendant around my neck and the girl running next to me, the girl holding a flashlight like a nightstick, the girl who only a short time before had paid an untold sum so I could cuddle a baby walrus. And so our progress went quickly through the dark, echoing hall that was the student parking complex. A few times we stopped to catch our breath, but not once did we see another zombie up close. On the first floor, we could see them across the street, milling about and pressing against windows and doors like children gazing longingly at the delicious treats just beyond their reach. Fortunately, Alice’s car was much closer to us than the shambling abominations. There it sat, our vessel of salvation, parked next to the bank of elevators that led to the second floor and the maintenance level below. Alice fished in her pocket for the keys, sliding the correct one into the lock. As if on B-Movie cue, a figure stumbled around from behind the elevator terminal.

This one had been feeding. Blood seeped from between its cracked lips. Its cheeks bulged with something chewy, something that it kept constantly grinding beneath its molars. Even as it gulped down a tremendous mouthful of Gods know what, it looked at us with glassy eyes, and a hungry growl. Alice wrenched the door open, yelling for me to get in the car. Fumbling with the handle, I yanked open the door, diving in clumsily as the corpse’s hands locked around the grill of the vehicle. Alice shut her door and started the engine, which roared to life as she began to back out of the parking space. The zombie didn’t let go, not as she pulled out of the parking spot, not when she turned toward the exit. Only when Alice floored the gas pedal and ran down the bloody-mouthed fiend, did it at last loosen its grip as it was pulled underneath the tires like a hapless swimmer catching an unexpected current. Two sharp thumps, that was the last I heard of the zombie.

“Alice,” I stammered in horror, “you just killed him.”

“And you knocked one off a two story bridge,” she replied. “We’re even.”

* * *

The first few days consisted largely of running, technically driving, but running on a cosmic scale. We stopped to fill up the gas tank when we could, but that was largely it. This wasn’t like a movie, no quarantine zones, no military road blocks, no safety. This was Ragnarök, pure and simple. We switched spots in the car repeatedly, each of us taking a shift driving while the other tried to rest, and failed miserably to do so. It was impossible to sleep when one looked out the window and saw a city bustling with activity: dead people walking to their next meal, buildings freshly remodeled with barricades meant to keep out survivors and zombies alike, and the living corpses going about their work, squatting over fallen humans and burying their hands and faces in the carnage. Luckily, from within the car, we couldn’t hear the snuffling, snarling sounds of their grotesque and frenzied feeding. But we could still see them, launching their heads forward like snakes, then rearing back, their mouths streaming with dripping red gobbets of meat, a prize they greedily savored before lunging back in for more. They never stopped eating, and we didn’t stop driving until the space between gas stations became far too much to cover.

The car trundled to a shaky stop on a deserted street. The nearest building was a speck on the horizon and the sun shone down, much too brightly since we’d turned off the air conditioner in an effort to conserve power. Alice swore, punching the steering wheel, eliciting one final honk from the horn of the car, a pathetic and dying sound. It too had died, our vessel, our hope for escape, it had died right around us, just like everything else seemed to be.

“Great,” Alice hissed bitterly, “this is just Gods damned great! Stuck in scenic nowhere just in time for Armageddon.”

“Ragnarök.”

“Erik come on, does it matter? We’re going to die out here.”

“Alice,” I said in a blatantly feigned soothing tone, a tone we both knew was just as much for my benefit as for hers, “don’t say that. Look, up the road there. I bet you that building is a hotel. We can take shelter there for the evening, at least until we have some idea of what exactly we’re going to do now.”

“You know,” Alice said bitterly, “you picked a bad time to become an optimist.”

But for all her anger at the situation, she didn’t protest as we left the shelter of the vehicle and set off toward the building. After a good long walk in the mid-day sun, the sand crunching beneath our feet and the wind pushing constantly back as if warning us away from some lurking horror, we arrived at the building. We were somewhat relieved to find that I was right, it was in fact a hotel. A one story building with a single car in the parking lot, the kind of hotel with thin walls and air thick with leftover cigarette smoke. Not exactly a five star establishment, but it beat sleeping in the car in what seemed to be the spot most devoid of life in a dead world.

Whoever had been there last never had a chance to lock the main door, so there was no need for a violent entrance. All the same, I shouted loudly as my boot smashed against the door, causing it to bounce off the far wall and rattle in its frame. Alice looked at me in an expression that clearly asked why I’d burst into the hotel like a SWAT trooper.

“Two good reasons,” I said in answer to her silent question. “First, if anything is in the building, it will come to us now before we stumble upon it later, in the dark. Second, I’ve always really wanted to do that.”

“Can’t argue with that logic,” she said with a grin, trying to make the best of the worst circumstances. “So what’s the course of action now, Captain?”

“Well,” I pondered aloud, “how about you grab a room key for us while I make sure we don’t have any guests that might come knocking later tonight.”

“Ah,” she chuckled, “don’t want to be interrupted?”

“Or eaten.”

Alice laughed. By the Gods, I loved that sound. Her laughter made this whole ordeal seem like a weekend road trip, like everything would be better on Monday when school started again. But our road trip was over, it had been to Sea World, and it had happened roughly an eternity ago. No cute, walrus-related surprises here, just silence and a palpable sense of impending death, waiting with open fangs for us to make one wrong move. Whether it was I who made the wrong move by encouraging us to split up, or Alice who made the wrong move by stepping behind the reception desk is a moot point. The only matter worth noting is that what happened did in fact happen.

As I was rounding a corner, looking for signs of movement, a piercing scream ripped the silence to shreds. I flew back to the lobby faster than I’d ever run in my life. Alice was backing away from the reception desk. The remains of a desk clerk had its one good hand wrapped firmly around her right ankle. The body of the clerk had been so badly mangled that there was hardly any way at all to identify what it had looked like during life. Most of its flesh had been flayed away, revealing bones that were dripping with an unearthly, greasy substance that both stained and burnt through the carpeted floor. Could that possibly be blood? I gave it no more thought, there was no time for thinking just then, only time for swift, primal action.

Alice jerked her ankle free just as I brought my boot down on the clerk’s head. The bones felt like sponges under my heavy shoe, the brain squirmed underfoot like a gigantic grape as I reduced it to a slowly spreading puddle of muck that lay thick in the carpet. Panting and letting out little growls of savage rage I looked over at Alice. Her ankle was soaked in blood.

“Alice.” I didn’t have any other words.

“Erik,” she assured me, “it was just a scratch, not a bite, I’m fine, just a little scratch. And look,” she held up a thin plastic card, “I got us the bridal suite.”

“But what if it’s infected?” My voice rose in pitch.

“The bridal suite?”

“Alice, be serious! I mean the scratch!”

“I’ve had shaving cuts worse than this,” she assured me, “now lets hit the room. I need to lay down, and you can find me some bandages.”

I nodded, hoping for all I was worth that a scratch wouldn’t be the end of everything I had left. Letting Alice lean against me for the support she insisted was unnecessary, I guided us both to the bridal suite, sliding the card in the door and ushering my wounded girlfriend across the threshold. I have no memory of the room at all. There was a bed, and a desk with a first-aid kit in it, and a cheap lamp or two, that much I recall. But the walls could have been painted with rainbows and mating unicorns for all I cared of such trivialities.

Alice lay on the bed, and I practically emptied a whole bottle of peroxide onto her ankle. She screwed up her eyes tight, gritting her teeth and hissing profanities that would have made any old-time sailor feel uncomfortable. I kept trying to avert my attention from the wound, telling myself peroxide always produced a steaming reaction on contact. There was nothing wrong, nothing. Alice let out a contented sigh and drifted off to sleep after a short while, the pain appeared to have faded, at least for the time being. And I took that opportunity to leave the room for a moment, returning to the lobby for something important, something I knew would be there.

I cursed that desk clerk, kicking and in the process fragmenting his ribs as I tore open a drawer in the desk. There it was, just like I expected in a rundown hotel like this. Gleaming with a pure, radiant light, was a nine millimeter handgun. I released the magazine, revealing six rounds. Plenty. Slamming the magazine back in place, I slid the desk clerk’s would-be security measure into my pocket, covering its grip with my long shirt. Then, with the haste of someone wading through a stream of modeling glue, I walked toward our room, only picking up the pace when I heard music faintly through the wall. The lyrics were familiar.

“Girl, it’s been a long time since we’ve been apart, much too long for a man who needs love.”

I opened the door and stepped inside, bolting the door behind me. Alice sat on the edge of the bed, holding her iPod, which was plugged into a radio on the bedside table. I’d apparently overlooked that amenity on our arrival, but Alice had found and made good use of its audio input cable. She bobbed her head to the tune of the music and smiled at me. Her eyes looked hazy, like she was looking at me from behind a wall of translucent blue film.

“Listen Erik,” she called eagerly, “it’s our song.”

“There’s no one like you,” sang the radio, “I can’t wait for the nights with you.”

“It is our song,” I replied, sitting on the bed next to her, “but you need rest Alice, you don’t need to be headbanging to the Scorpions.”

“Rest,” she giggled, “if we rest now, we’ll be late for the walrus exhibit.”

I stared at her, speechless. My breath came up short. Walrus exhibit? She was flashing back, she was already delusional, already gone. I reached out and hugged her, holding her tight against my chest despite her half-hearted protests of how we would be late, how I had a surprise waiting for me at the water park. I just squeezed her against my chest, cradling her like a baby and gazing down into her now-glassy eyes. Hadn’t I just seen her looking at me with her normal blue eyes? Hadn’t I just heard her laughing?

“Erik,” she whined, “come on, we’ll be late for the walrus exhibit. Don’t you want to see the little baby one?”

“I uh… I do,” I replied. “But you’re hurt,” I paused, swallowing around a lump in my throat, “your ankle is too scratched up for you to walk on.”

“Oh don’t act like my mom,” she scoffed, “I’m not missing this exhibit because of a shaving cut! Come on Erik, I know you love walruses, don’t ruin the fun.”

She tugged at my shirt frantically, like an excited little child. I always thought it was so cute when she did that. Now, I grimaced as my shirt moved slightly, revealing the handgun. Alice’s eyes snapped right back into focus, locking in on the rugged grip of the weapon I’d hidden from her. She looked first at the gun, then up at me, then back to the gun.

“Erik,” she whispered quietly, now staring straight at me with more intense focus than I’d ever seen in her eyes, “it’s bad isn’t it?”

“Your ankle?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Yeah. I can’t say for sure, but I think it is getting pretty bad.”

“I can’t remember,” she mumbled, “where are we?”

“A hotel, sweetheart,” I replied.

“Erik?”

“Yes, Alice.”

“We’re not at Sea World, are we?”

“No, we’re not, honey.”

“I didn’t think so,” she stuttered, her eyes going glassy again. “But we’ll get there soon, right?”

“Yeah baby,” I said, running my fingers through her hair, “we’ll be there before you know it.”

She stayed silent for a few minutes. I stared down at her in dismay. Ásatrú didn’t really have codified sins; what was good in one instance was not so good in another. But was shooting your girlfriend ever the right thing to do? In this moment, I couldn’t convince myself that it wasn’t. I reached for the gun, ready to do what I had to do, and then Alice spoke again, knocking me from the fragile platform of my resolve.

“Erik look,” she chirped, pointing off at nothing, “look at the little walrus! What’s his name?”

“Uh…” I didn’t know how to reply. “Uh… The card says his name is uh… Nereus. They rescued him from the Bering Strait, where he was abandoned, and he likes to cuddle with his trainer.”

“He’s so cute,” she marveled, gazing with wrapped fixation at the plaster wall, “look how he curls up in a little ball like that! It’s so adorable.”

“It is honey,” I half-whispered, “it is so cute, just like you.”

“Are you saying I’m a walrus?”

“No no,” I said, repeating our exact conversation from that day. “I’m just saying that you’re cute.”

“Erik?” Alice asked once more.

“Yes baby, we can go meet Nereus, just like you planned,” I said, hoping to at least put her at ease in her hallucinations.

“No.” Her words came clearer, more direct. “I have a question for you.”

“What is it, sweetheart?”

She looked at me, her eyes were as beautiful as they always had been. “Will you keep me safe?”

“Always.” The word tasted like a lie.

“Goodbye, Nereus,” she called out, her voice wavering again, her hand waving farewell to that same empty expanse of wall. “Erik’s taking me home now, but we’ll come back next year.”

“Yes we will,” I assured her, “I promise we will.”

The gun felt hotter than a burning brand against my palm. The trigger was heavy, heavier than my guitar, heavier than that door I’d kicked down, heavier than Alice, who lay in my arms, giggling at a joke I’d made many days ago. The barrel shone in the dim light coming through the window. Alice wasn’t even looking, which was all for the better. I smelled the sweet scent of her flowing hair, I stared at her beautiful face for just a moment before the bullet would take it all away. I tasted the cold metal of the barrel as my tongue brushed against it. As I squeezed the trigger with all my strength, I heard the songs of valkyries, calling me home…

Thor’s Oak: A Poem in Memoriam

Where now are you, Ancient One,
who once stood in Hesse’s snow?
Has scornful time forgotten you,
forbade your memory so?
Where have the oak leaves fallen,
that once were comfort and shade?
Where flew the birds who, in your bows,
a sheltered home had made?

No footprints grace your time-lost grove,
no voices soar and sing.
The wights in silence guard your sleep,
and mourn grave suffering.
Plates of feast and horns of mead
have run rotten, cold, and dry.
The only sound persisting yet:
a raven’s baleful cry.

Ships from afar bore to you strangers,
bearing peace and sharpened steel,
and issued these men a challenge to prove
your master a being not real.
Axes fell as did yourself,
and timber your trunk became,
to build a house of new belief,
for the people rendered tame.

Where was your master, Ancient One,
on the day your body fell?
In Asgard did he venture far,
or roamed he the roads of Hel?
Where e’ere he walked, you need not fear,
for know you what they did not see.
Though he deemed not to fight that day,
still protects he you and me.

—–

This poem is inspired by the true historic landmark known as Thor’s Oak (or Donnar’s Oak), a sacred grove in Hesse, Germany. The tree was a center of worship for the tribe occupying the area, wherein they made offerings to Thor, one of the Norse gods. According to the chronicles of the life of St. Boniface, the tree was felled by Boniface when he and his men arrived and challenged the folk of the land to a test of faith: if their gods were real, then they’d stop the tree from falling, but if Boniface indeed preached a one true faith, then he would be able to fell the tree. He struck it down with an axe and used the lumber from the grove to build a church, thus beginning the conversion of the people of Hesse. I’ve always found this story very interesting, and thought it made worthy material for a poem.

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