The Barbarian Bard

Tales and Musings by Michael A. Espinoza

Archive for the tag “Norse”

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.

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…

Victory’s Price

The shrill calls of ravens split the cloudy sky, the black shadows of their wings made misty by the ever-present fog that choked the land in its grey embrace. Like metal shells strewn on some unearthly beach lay the armor-clad bodies of countless soldiers. Old, young, man, and woman, the dead lay as they had fallen; some on their backs with eyes turned ever skyward, as if searching the up-heavens for some answer as to their sudden demise, whilst others lay in broken heaps, limbs or skulls shattered into ivory-hued splinters that lay scattered on the red-stained snow.

The conflict had been fierce, and whilst it had seemed to last for a full day in the minds of its participants, the battle had taken a mere hour to resolve. Ehrhardt the Usurper’s war band, wind billowing their crimson cloaks, had come screaming through the valley on horseback, making for the pass that ran between the Iron Tusk Mountains. Sigvarth the Champion and his loyal host exploded from their hidden hollows and sprang from behind great bolders and rises in the land, converging in a tight formation on Ehrhardt’s raiders, whilst archers from both forces peppered the air with hissing death.

The horses were the first to die, fatally shot from afar or skewered by Sigvarth’s pike men. For all their posturing, Ehrhardt’s men were unprepared for the ambush. Frantic warriors leapt from screaming, dying mounts and closed ranks, slinging shields over their arms and forming into a well-practiced shield wedge. Sigvarth’s men pulled back, and his archers held their bowstrings taut, ready to exploit even the slightest weakness in Ehrhardt’s formation. For his part, the sable-haired Sigvarth pulled his sword from the corpse of a slain adversary and rallied his men behind him, forming their own wedge to engage with the ruthless enemy.

Ehrhardt, his dark eyes ablaze with hatred, fixed his gaze on Sigvarth and spat on the snow, cursing his attacker. With a bestial roar, each leader spurred his men into a charge, and the great shield walls smashed together with a mighty clash. There is nothing like the press between shield warriors; men stood face to face with those they would kill, not knowing who might be their bane, pushing forward, never giving even a single footstep. Swords were neglected in favor of long-knives and short-hafted spears, the best suited weapons for sticking a man in the gut or below the hem of his mail shirt. Some warriors dropped to their knees, hacking at the legs of their opposition and counting on their brethren to keep the shield formation closed. Even the most minuscule of errors–a misstep on the blood-slicked snow, a shield held too low or two high, or watching the wrong man in the opposing formation–spelt instant and painful demise. The first blade wounds were not often lethal, but leaving one’s self open or falling beneath the feet of even one’s own allies wrought a bitter end for many a fine combatant.

Neither side gave back, not Sigvarth and his defenders, nor the wild-eyed Ehrhardt and his savage raiders. Men fell away from their formations like leaves stripped from a tree by biting winds, until both wedges grew too small and dissolved into a frantic skirmish. Soldiers split off in clashes of single combat, knives and spears now cast aside in favor of sword, axe, and hammer. The individual fights moved in a haphazard fashion along the narrow valley, each man left to his own trial.

Sigvarth and Ehrhardt faced each other, their expressions naught but masks of the manner of deep hatred born of a grudge that festered for years like a corpse left to the summer heat. The Champion of the Hearth swung his great blade with both hands, delivering a blow that ought to have shattered Ehrhardt’s weapon, but the Scarlet Usurper had seen that attack many times and nimbly leapt to avoid it, countering with a thrust of his thin, needle-like sword. Sigvarth twisted away from the strike, letting his momentum carry him in a full spin and bringing his broadsword up in a vertical cut.

Ehrhardt fell back and the two circled for a moment, lost to all the world in the haze of bloodlust. Ehrhardt advanced first this time, feinting a high swipe but dropping to one knee mid-swing and converting the attack into a thrust at his rival’s abdomen. Sigvarth parried the thrust and cursed aloud when a sharp pain erupted in his right thigh. Had his eyes been less befogged by battle madness, he might have seen his challenger deftly palm a tiny knife and send it streaking from his hand like an archer’s arrow. He stepped away and, in one agonizing motion, wrenched the keen-edged missile from the corded muscles of his leg, hurling it aside and regarding Ehrhardt with venom in his eyes.

Blood spilled down Sigvarth’s leg and the pain burned like a hot brand, but he was not to be deterred. As though the injury had waked some slumbering fiend within him, the Champion sent a howl up to the dome of the sky, his features contorted in inhuman fury. This time, when he pressed the attack, he swung his reddened sword as though it were an extension of his very arm. Muscles coiled and extended with supernatural grace and speed, and Ehrhardt the Usurper could do naught but parry the blows that forced him into a steady retreat. Before long, Ehrhardt felt the cold, unyielding presence of a bolder behind his back; there would be no escape, only triumph or death.

The Usurper’s flesh stung from multiple wounds along his arms, where Sigvarth’s blade had broken the links of his mail. In turn, Sigvarth’s leg shook and gave forth what seemed to be an endless torrent of blood. More than once, his knee had buckled, but such was the ferocity of his advance that Ehrhardt had yet to seize the advantage. Both fighters breathed heavy, and anger warred with exhaustion upon their scarred faces. At last, Sigvarth gave too greatly into one swing, which sailed high over his cornered quarry, and Ehrhardt struck like a viper, the tip of his weapon gliding neatly through Sigvarth’s mail.

Yet, the Champion was not undone. Even through the searing pain, his lips curled in a vicious smile, like a wolf exposing his fangs. He plunged forward onto Ehrhardt’s blade like a skewered slice of meat, but did not succumb to the brutal impalement. Instead, his calloused hands seized Ehrhardt by the throat, his muscles expended the last of their power, and he squeezed until tendons snapped and the Usurper’s eyes rolled back in his head. Only then did Sigvarth the Champion fall back–his vision blurred with the mist of fading mortality–to crash like a felled oak upon the snow.

As if moving of their own volition, his nigh-lifeless fingers grasped at a sturdy cord about his neck and prized from beneath his shirt a tiny disk, etched with his family insignia: a wolf with its jaws opened to engulf a silvery full moon. Mere feet away, Ehrhardt the Usurper’s hands clasped over the very same wolf and its gleaming prize. In silence, but for the cries of carrion birds, brothers divided in life were united in death.

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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