|Award copyright © 1998 Peter F.|
Guenther; used with permission
I am Harald of the Harfagyr.
I have seen twenty-eight winters, here, at the edge of the world, where sky and stone and sea meet. Here, where the gulls keen and ride the north wind, the ghost-white spirits of those gone before me.
Many have died by my hand: Arab and German, Frank and Goth. Whether they are the fiercest of knights, the meekest of Christian monks, I am not particular in dealing out cold steel or
fate. Let earth be their lover and the wolves their mourners.
What of me?
I am strong. Cunning. Wicked. My arms are as nicked and scarred. My legs are bandy and bowed. Where I stand nothing short of a lightning stroke will fell me. My belly is flat and pale, like that of a sea serpent. My fingers break rock like old tree roots.
I am not pleasing to the eye, and many prefer my iron helm to my face. I have looked upon myself, from time to time, in the deep still pools of icy springs. From the blackness, a visage. Great staring pale eyes under brows like sea cliffs. A wide, slack mouth fringed by a mustache and beard more lichen than hair. And what of hair? What little I have clinging to my head like ancient cobwebs, neither blonde nor gray nor white.
And my skin. Curious. It is mottled and peeling. The sun has no sway over it. And no woman will touch it, for no woman will touch something that reminds her of old limestone and rotting seaweed.
Monster, is what the warriors of Tyrggvason's meadhall
called me. As if I were no different than a troll or a frost giant; warty and matted and greasy with the fat and blood of men.
As if I were no different than the beast they call Nindhoggir, who lives under the dark waves that part and crash against the unforgiving cliffs; Nindhoggir, who is said to be older than either the sea or the rocks, who comes forth when men sleep and the moon is dead.
Gunnar Tyrggvason was a brave man, and a good king, is what the songs say. I lay hands and head upon his knee and took my oath. He was old then, with a beard white as snow-blindness, aloof and proud. I remember his knee, under his silver-threaded robe and against my cheek, feeling rather like a stone worn smooth by water. I do not think he, or his lovely, coltish, red-haired wife Hetta, were pleased to have me. Even then I was strange to my fellow men.
They are gone now. Ashes and bones. Meadhall, maidens, men. All gone.
Gunnar Tyrggvason was a fearsome foeman. The Franks were quick to learn this, as were the Anglo-Saxons. I served him well, though he was reluctant to acknowledge my bravery and loyalty. He grew rich and rewards fell upon his followers like the rain in spring: horses, oxen, fat pigs, Carolingian swords pried from the hands of dying Frankish knights, gold and silver rings twisted like serpents, shields, virgin brides white-shouldered and harvest-scented. All for the taking of his warriors.
And I? An old axe and some breeches of beast-hair: moldy,
moth-eaten, smelling faintly of urine and sweat. They laughed at me -- the men, the women, and the children.
"That will put an end to his smell!" Ungarth said. He was a warrior, as handsome as I was ugly, a hunting falcon beside a toad. I hated him.
Lars, the king's favorite, was eager to best Ungarth's jest. "But what is better, I ask? To smell of old bear, or dead fish?"
"Old bear or dead fish, either one might have been his father!" This was Wulf, who was as cruel as his namesake.
For it is true: my beginnings are strange and weird and lost to knowledge. I have heard tales, however. Terrible stories that few will bear to hear.
I walk the world's black rim.
It is said that I am not of Tyrggvason's hall. I am from another, much older clan, the Harfagyr, who lived close to the sea, among the wet weed-strewn rocks.
Of the Harfagyr little is mentioned. Tales speak of them as blasphemers, who turned their backs upon Wodan and Tyr and Uller.
They instead made sacrifice to other beings: demons and blood-drinking ghosts and things unspeakable. Terrible legends surrounded their dark and brooding rites, the madness of their unholy devotion.
The Danes would scarcely speak of the things the Harfagyr worshipped, though there were whispers of a great sea demon, a Grand Kraken, winged and clawed like a dragon and tall as a mountain. The Harfagyr believed that the Grand Kraken would someday rule in the stead of the gods, whom he far exceeded in age and corrupt wisdom.
"One thousand years and one day after Ragnarok the Grand Kraken will arise from his tomb, when the gods are dead and the giants are smoldering bones. Then the sun shall be blinded and the moon will die. The rivers will become as poison and the dead will stir in their graves."
That is what the Harfagyr say.
Nor were they the Grand Kraken's only servants. Other things, men who lived in the icy sea, likewise worshipped Him, and they desired to bring his cult to those who lived on the land. Nor was that all they were said to desire, and there was great traffic between the Harfagyr and the fish-men, who were said to be cold and scaled, and who gave gold in exchange for favors. Some of the race, according to the Harfagyr, was gigantic in stature, nearly twice as tall as a man, and broad as an ox.
A powerful sorcerer was the clan elder, rich as a king, able to call up mighty winds and make old bones walk. The Harfagyr themselves were savages, little more than beasts. But they did not lack for wealth, either; of gold, they were especially blessed, so that their rivals soon took notice.
Gunnar and his henchmen were hardly more than bandits in those days. Vagabonds and castoffs from the siege of Paris, the sack of Luna, any number of bloody faraway campaigns. They heard of the riches of my clan, the gold and the silver, and flamed with jealousy and greed. They ran their fingers along the blades of their swords, counted their spears, and made their decision.
To hear old Lars, one would think that my kinsmen deserved their fate. Perhaps they did. I cannot speak for them. I was a mere babe at the time. Nor did the accounts of Tyrggvason's warriors necessarily agree; they are quarrelsome as the men themselves. Each tried to best the other's wild tale of the numbers he faced, the foes he slaughtered, of the wounds he endured, and of the songs he sang all the while. Then they would argue over fine points, in their attempts to impress their liege. Occasionally they would come to blows, and old Gunnar would laugh and goad them on.
Pitiful, noisy fools.
The battle came upon a weird winter day, muted and soundless. The clouds hung low. Snow fell from a sky smudged and bleary as the eye of a dead fish. The sun was thin, greasy and faint. As for the slab-stone village, gray-green with lichen, crusted white with salt-spray, no living thing could be seen. Only the stink of rotted fish spoke of inhabitants. Tyrggvason looked upon it, and said that the collection of rude huts and caves reminded him of a pile of skulls, picked clean by some unnamable thing.
Drums beat all the while, slowly, like a great heart.
Many of Tyrggvason's warriors claimed that the sky darkened in a way that was not entirely the work of the season. All shadows disappeared in a deepening gloom. Did not the waves crash more furiously than before, and did not the sickening steady pulse begin to beat forth more loudly from the slimy holes before them, a slow solemn dirge, struck upon bones and stretched skin? Nor was that all. A chant rose from the depths. At first it was little different than the voices of beasts, hooting and gibbering and howling, and yet words began to emerge from the din, or what might have been words, horrible and slurred, as if corpses long-dead had sudden reason to speak.
Cthulhu fhtagn, was what they heard. Again and again, weaving its way through the inhuman chant like a firesnake, black and burning and poisonous. Cthulhu fhtagn. Cthulhu. R'lyeh. Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn. Again and again, the words -- if they could be called that -- beat upon them like the sleet that fell upon their helms.
Some of Tyrggvason's warriors quailed at the sound. One even went so far to claim that he had glimpsed a beast of some sort, black as pitch and twistingly formless as a Kraken, pulling its way through the leaden sky high above their heads, swift as a falcon. Several of the Danes saw it and threw themselves down into the snow in their terror. They believed it to be a messenger from Hel herself, sent to take them to the underworld.
But Gunnar was made of sterner stuff than that. He took a horn of ivory and beaten copper from a shieldman, and blew a thunderous blast upon it, a sound fit to cleave the sky. It echoed so among the slimy rocks and black caves that it seemed as if a mighty army, and not a mere band of raiders, was approaching.
"Come forth, Harfagyr! Come forth, blasphemers and eaters of
men!" Gunnar roared, and, longsword and shield in hand, he bounded like a wolf toward the dwellings of the Harfagyr. The Danes followed, shouting the praises of Tyr and Wodan, of their rude simple gods. Swords and hammers, battleaxes and javelins, they saw the chanters emerge from their holes. Baffled at first, the Harfagyr became enraged at the sight of others, and came forth bearing rude clubs edged with bone and stones and spears.
The howling mobs drew up a few paces short of each other. The Danes clashed spear and shield. They hurled insults and challenges, but were soon silenced by the cacophony of their foes, who roared and barked and moaned like beasts, who gesticulated and slobbered and scrabbled among the rocks. Some hopped like frogs. Others went upon all fours, bearing their teeth. Still others shrieked like women in the heat of labor, or carrion birds gloating over dead flesh. They croaked and bayed and gibbered.
Even worse than their frenzy, were their faces and form. Some were simply madmen and madwomen, wild with matted hair, all broken nails and spidery limbs. Yet an awful curse lay upon many. Some were narrow-headed and hairless. Some had folded skin of a greenish-gray cast, while their fingernails were blue like those of drowned men. Strangled formless words and sounds they made with cracked wide mouths. A few, especially befouled, were without ears or noses. But most terrible were their eyes -- watery, bulging, colorless, unblinking. No memory of hearth or meadow-grass or kinsman lived within them; only madness and bloodlust.
Among them were several taller creatures, far gone into decay and corruption, so that they were little more than living corpses. Mottled grayish-blue, livid with slime and cold as death were these things, the Danes said, with great white blind eyes like boiled eggs and gaping shapeless mouths. They were like bearded fish, like frogs, and yet in the semblance of drowned men. The Danes drew back with their shields raised. No less grotesque were their trappings: gold tiaras and headpieces fashioned in the fantastic manner of the Muslims, delicate but freakish to behold.
The din subsided at a gesture from one of the gold-clad things. The Danes saw that its fingers were webbed.
It spoke, and again there were gasps and muttered imprecations. Its voice was that of an old man, but gurgling and throaty, as if its throat were choked with muck and sand. Its words were broken and labored.
"Who comes unbidden?"
Wulf stepped forward. "His Lord, Gunnar Tyrggvason, has come hither to put an end to your devil-worship! Gunnar Tyrggvason has come to spill your blood and take your gold! To hell with you?"
The thing spit and snarled. A great green-black tongue lolled about its small, sharp pike's teeth and over its wet beard. It choked on laughter rotten as carrion. It came toward the Danes, leaning on a gnarled staff of driftwood from which depended tiny bones and bleached seashells. "If ... it gold you desire, then leave. If it is blood you seek ... it will be shed. Great Cthulhu wills it so. The fish-men ... will it so ...
It reached for Tyrggvason with one knobby, clawed hand.
Wulf brought his warhammer up in a sweeping arc high over his
head, and crushed the thing's skull with a dreadful crack. Black blood and brains sprayed in all directions. The blind eyes went dark and the thing fell in a heap, gasping, dying, and its hideous life ran out over the stones.
The other creatures went absolutely mad.
A shower of stones and bones greeted Tyrggvason's men. Rocks bounced off shield bosses, skulls clattered against iron helms with ghastly grins. Several Danes were driven to the ground, stunned by blows.
Near the same moment, Tyrggvason cried, "WODAN! WODAN!" and Ungarth cried, "DEATH TO THE BLASPHEMERS!"
A great mingled roar burst forth from the Danes. They threw themselves into the midst of the howling beasts. A titanic din filled the lowering sky and still winter air. The Harfagyr fought with stones and teeth and claws. The Danes fought with swords and axes and spears, driving the creatures back. Stone clashed against shields. Swords cleaved skulls and severed limbs. Dane and Harfagyr slipped on rocks wet with blood and slush. The Harfagyr bristled with crude spears, but the Danes hacked their way through the thicket of sharp points. The Harfagyr fought with wild abandon, but clumsily, and against the battle-hardened, mail-clad Danes, they were outmatched. Soon their twisted, broken bodies littered the rocky shore, hewn and pierced and cleaved. Several fell for every Dane killed. The Danes in turn, fought with a berserk fury, wild with disgust at the squirming, shrieking things before them. Their revulsion was hardly stymied even upon the death of these beasts. Many men hacked long and hard at the bits and pieces, which were curiously reluctant to die.
And then, it was ended. The deed was done. The Harfagyr lay
dead, disemboweled, the stones black and slick with their blood. The Danes drove many over the cliffs, and they fell shrieking to split open on the rocks below. The curious gold headpieces were taken from their mutilated owners.
The wormholes of the Harfagyr, however, were another matter. They stank of mold and limestone and rotting fish, were slick with layer upon layer of heaped seaweed and slime. Hardly a man could enter one without sickness and retching, such was the exhalation of decay and corruption. The very darkness seemed alive, liquidly sinuous and malignantly aware as a cuttlefish. Staring. Hateful.
One of Tryggvason's warriors, a man named Walda, swore that it withdrew from his lit torch like a living thing. Bones, human and animal, leered up from the muck. Many grinned as if at a joke only they understood.
That is where they found me. In the darkest and coldest of the caves. Unmarked. Flawless as a pearl. Beautiful.
Walda presented me to Tyrggvason, I am told on one knee, as if I were a prize greater than all the hoarded silver and gold of the Harfagyr -- of which there was little to ease the lust of the Danes, I should say. They discovered the tales to be largely that: tales. This made them furious. They cursed filthy curses and swore and hewed at the dead, threw the dying into the heaving foam-flecked sea, which is ever hungry. I believe I too, would have been offered to waves, when Gunnar Tyrggvason took me from Walda, who bowed and stepped away. I believe I would have joined my dead kinsmen, had not the clan elder spoke again.
Those nearest him scrambled away, like frightened crabs. The clan elder made to rise, but could not. His blind eyes were dark and his head was an empty, crushed eggshell dripping gore. His mouth worked and blood and ichor poured forth in a great torrent. Finally, he stood, leaning upon his strange staff. He strove to speak. The words came, thick and slow.
"There is one ... who is forgotten. There ... is one, who is not of Harfagyr blood. You ... will know him. The son ... of ... Dagon. He has no name. You ... will name him Nindhoggir.
He will come ... for what is rightfully his ... he will come ... and you will weep ..."
Did the greasy, sickly sun dim further upon the uttering of those words? That is what Walda told me in hushed tones once. Did the wind grow yet more bitter and bleak, sending the snowflakes into wild patterns and uneasy shapes? So it is said. The sullen murmur of the sea pressed close upon the ears of the Danes, like a formless dream. The clan elder, ancient beyond words, collapsed like a thing of mud and sticks.
And a hideous thing took place, a thing that made men groan aloud. The dead Harfagyr, the severed limbs and heads, the broken bodies pierced by spears and swords, the entrails gone black and cold, all that had not been cast to the waves -- all commenced to move, to quiver, to twitch and to creep. It was movement without mind or purpose, like that of dying insects. Corpses shambled over the rocks and each other, like children in the garb of their elders, clumsy and fumbling. Purple guts heaved and slid through drying blood. Arms clawed and scrabbled for purchase. A mindless, mewling groan filled the winter air. Whispers. Unintelligible words. Faint mocking laughter. It was the sound of Chaos itself. With the painful slowness of a nightmare race, the shattered remains of the Harfagyr crawled and crept over the stones, to fall to the sea below.
And they were gone. Last, the clan elder, the great sorcerer, whose eyes burned with a cold inner light -- he was the last to disappear over the frost-rimed cliff. His shattered head dangled upon his scabrous chest. Crab-like, he crawled on his back to the edge and then over it. Silence fell, thick as the snow. The drumbeat began again, that vital pulsation from far beneath the ground, far beneath the waves. Cthulhu ftaghn. Cthulhu ftaghn. When the spilled black blood began to bubble and chuckle and palpitate, as if still alive, the Danes had decided that they had seen enough, and gathering their few dead and wounded, made their long way back to their meadhall. Snow stung the flesh of their faces. The wind hooted and whined in their ears. None spoke so much as a word.
Except for me. I wailed and cried and puled such as not been seen since the world was born out of boiling gases and the tree Yggdrassil took root; Yggdrassil, the very tree that Great Cthulhu, the Grand Kraken, will tear from the earth one terrible black day, when the sun is blinded and the moon is dead.
Fifteen winters passed. The fame of Gunnar Tyrggvason spread like flames and he grew rich as a Byzantine, and proud. His warriors soon were without equal in the northern kingdoms. Forth they went, to pillage and loot the lands of the Germans, the Franks, the Anglo-Saxons. Home they came, and in their hands they bore gold necklaces, silver chalices, jewels from the east, silk cloaks, and iron weapons blood red in the firelight of Tyrggvason's meadhall.
Other kings and warlords paid tribute. They brought forth daughters dewy as meadow flowers. Wagons heavy with shocked grain. Bleating fat cattle. Skillful goldsmiths with cunning callused brown hands. The skalds sang his praises in the cool of evening, when the Danes were ruddy with drink and their dogs gnawed on the bones.
And I? I was his greatest warrior, most fearsome of all. Yet I was of Harfagyr blood, and deemed to be more beast than man. My beauty was as fleeting as spring. The toothless babe grew into sullen, flat-eyed youth, whiskered like a fish but thin of hair, and a swimmer without equal. Fearless explorer of bottomless pools, of freezing rivers swollen with the thaw, of the dark soundless spaces of the sea.
I caught fish with my bare hands.
I fought like a wild animal.
Once, the neighboring lord of a meadhall away across the hills brought a tamed bear to Tyrggvason. It was fat and black, thick-haunched, and stank of grease and old meat. The two petty kings, each of whom thought himself arch and clever, agreed that I, Harald, halfing child of the earth and the sea, should fight this bear for a sum of silver. Men and women and children gathered to witness the contest.
The bear was young and strong. But I was stronger. We fought under the hot sun. His teeth and claws tore at me, but I felt little pain. Try as he might he could not pin me to the ground. Finally, I seized the beast by the jaws and pulled them apart until his skull cracked and the blood boiled forth. The king from across the hills choked and spluttered and cursed, red with rage. He waved his sword above his head. I was given the skin of the bear, as my reward.
Bitter, yet triumphant, I raised my scarred mottled arms up to the heedless sky and cried words of terrible, cosmic potency. Words that the Danes had not heard in many a winter, words that turned the king pale and weak, words which banished me to the outer reaches of Tyrggvason's realm.
Nindhoggir came later, but three years later, inevitable as sunset and implacable as death.
First, there were signs. There are always signs.
Moss grew up the sides of ancient standing stones, and withered and died within hours. Animals fell silent and afraid. Wolves cowered beneath the shelter of fir trees, like old men beaten and wary. Hunting falcons would not take to the air. Dogs barked frantically at something that could not be heard or seen, something that frightened them out of their senses. The sun seemed distant and indifferent, while the moon pressed close, dead and bloated. The dark woods hissed and muttered, an unintelligible language of wind and leaves that left hackles raised and sword-arms trembling.
The portents grew ever more dire. Herring began to die in great numbers, so that Gunnar Tyrggvason was forced to take more and more food from his vassals. In turn, his subjects no longer lingered in his meadhall. The stink of rotting fish had grown so that scented fires were kept burning day and night, and pine needles thrown upon the floor. It was to little avail. Everywhere, the smell of wet limestone and still pools, and the wood began to rot and crumble.
Tyrggvason made merry, however, and insisted all things were well and good. And, for a time, his people believed him. They hunted game, cleared land, lay stone for snaking roads through the salt marshes, and the sun glittered on their swords and bright shields, and they thought themselves immensely clever. The Harfagyr were no longer. Their strange god with its absurd, throat-clearing name, the Grand Kraken, was a myth, a delusion. Were not savages forever enamored of brutal idols, hoping to seem fierce in the eyes of others? And what foe had not promised revenge from beyond the grave? But neither ignorance nor merrymaking drove away the gathering evil. Children might as well try to sing away the approach of a storm. The signs grew more and more grim. Travelers who tarried late at night began to disappear, usually in or near the salt marshes, and when the Danes lit torches and went forth to seek them, nothing was ever found. Oh, they might hear something -- a distant scream cut short; the rip and crash of a great tree falling to the ground; the ponderous tread of something as it shadowed their progress, something cloaked in fog and darkness. Then the eyes of their horses would roll white and the men would whimper and curse softly. Whatever it was, it did not fear their pitiful flames or their childish weapons, though it kept to the thickets and the vines. Yet sometimes it was so close they could hear it breathe -- a sodden, murky, phlegmatic exhalation that stank of rotted seaweed and dead fish, a sound felt in the bones, like a waterfall.
Lars saw its eyes once, before he died. They were like distant fire, he claimed, the glow of iron-forges far beneath the earth. A corpse-light.
Frightful footprints began to appear in the mud, ever closer to the meadhall -- footprints more akin to a great clawed hand, wide as a shield. The dogs at first barked madly, and then were cowed and refused to sleep outside. Men, hardly less frightened, left the cattle, pigs and goats in their pens. Perhaps they hoped whatever demon ill fate had brought upon them would be appeased by animal flesh.
There was wild talk, too, among the less steady of the warriors, of offering the nameless thing gold and silver. Were not dragons similarly bribed, and thus villages and occasionally entire provinces spared? But Gunnar Tyrggvason would have none of it. Through clenched teeth the old man growled, "NO!"
Nindhoggir, however, would not be appeased. There is no placating the things that squirm and crawl in the deep places of the world.
One frost-stiff evening in the still of a haggard spring, toward sunset, a mist arose. Damp and cold, it filled the hollows and dells, and soon the black trees and yellow meadow grass were lost in bleak gloom. Water dripped from leaf-bud, branch, helm and cloak hem. Torches and lanterns guttered fitfully in the wet, and men grumbled and blew on their numb fingers. Unease filled their minds. The cattle and pigs were restless, pawing at the muddy ground, lowing and snuffling. Nothing could be done to
calm them. The guards talked little, for the muffled silence was that of a burial mound, thick and close. Cow shed, goat pen, wall of stones, post -- each more faint than the last in that murk. Even sound was muted and made strange, so that all seemed remote, as if each man were alone on an island far from others.
That was when Nindhoggir struck. The air went suddenly foul and fishy. A rushing presence gathered form in the fog, a shape tall as a tree but swift as a wolf, stooped upon impossibly long arms. Black flesh greenishly iridescent with scales big as the palm of a man, livid with spots like phosphorescent bruises. Claws like swords, which smashed through the fences and pens, casting the posts aside as if they were twigs. A vast mouth like a hinged gate, ringed with teeth and wet with slaver. And eyes larger than shield-bosses, eyes filled with the lambent hellish glow of the green depths where lies slime and bones and crawling nameless things.
Lars was the first to die. Nindhoggir's claws tore through his chainmail as if it were no more than gossamer. He fell in a gout of blood and entrails. Next to fall was Vidkun, who threw a
spear that the monster knocked aside like an insect, and then struck the man a blow fit to fell an ox. Ungarth was luckier. Sword held high over his head, half-blind with mead and madness, he uttered a cracked war cry and in a frenzy rushed Nindhoggir. He struck at the thing's long, snaky black arm. The sword was turned aside with a ringing clash. Ungarth might as well have attacked a tree. Nindhoggir shoved him roughly away, and the Dane went sprawling into the mud.
When Nindhoggir stooped to catch a guard and bite the screaming man in half, the others threw their spears and ran for the great double doors of Tyrggvason's meadhall. It was only just in time that they closed them again, and dropped the great wooden bar, when Nindhoggir took heed and threw himself against the barrier with a terrific crash. The doors buckled but held. Dust sifted down from the carved rafters, onto the heads of the terrified Danes. Women sobbed, children screamed, men muttered prayers. The great fire burned low and no one dared to feed it. Gunnar Tyrggvason sat upon his throne and winced at every blow on the walls and roof, sick with fear. Soon, a choked silence fell over all, as they listened in terror to the noises outside. The monster, rebuffed by the meadhall, had begun to wreck everything nearby. It slavered and gurgled and hissed, the sound that of a cat vomiting. A great ruin was begun outside the hall, and wood
snapped and crackled like huge bones broken for their marrow. Ominous silences were followed by terrible sounds: screaming, groaning cattle, wild bleating of goats, the shriek of a dog discovered hiding. Trees crashed into ruin. Outbuildings crumpled like ships upon rocks.
And finally, silence, but for the agonized moans of the animals outside and the whimpering of children within. The fire became ash and red baleful cinders. Eyes stared into the blackness, but none dared move.
Gunnar Tyrggvason sat with his face buried in his hands.
Soon, Tyrggvason's vassals were too fearful to make tribute, even upon threat of death. They kept to their own halls, and lit fires, and fingered their swords and spears. They whispered of the ruin of their lord, of the deaths of many of his greatest warriors. They shuddered to hear of Nindhoggir's blind ferocity and demonic malice. What he did not devour, he mutilated, so that goat and cow and pig lay in broken, bloody heaps, their dead stupid eyes glazed with terror.
Some of the animals they found in hidden places, in hollows thick with hazel and briar and purple thistle-bloom. There they found them upon great porous blocks of stone, old beyond reckoning, the ground blood-soaked. Many were in fragments, and arranged in geometric patterns that suggested the inner workings of a thinking yet profoundly alien mind.
Nor was this all. Animals would not abide the monster's
presence. Gunnar's prized hunting dogs eventually fled, as did his war falcons. Game became ever more scarce, and bowmen ever more reluctant to seek it in the still, windless stands of tamarack and pine. The birds no longer sang. Only crickets and tiny marsh frogs dared speak as the day dimmed, and even they would fall silent when Nindhoggir came forth, black and stinking of rot, dead wormwood comet upon an eldritch, draggling course.
He tore Gunnar's roads to pieces. He sank the stones deep into the marshes, or used them to smash the skulls of his victims. Those rocks that were left he fashioned into curious patterns beaten into the earth, or suggestive mounds, and wise men that dared to look upon them wondered if Gunnar's foe might know something of magic and ancient sorceries.
Indeed, Nindhoggir knew something of runes, too, ancient sigils much more potent than the paltry magic of bumbling hedge wizards, forever obsessed with turning lead to gold. Only the eldest of priests could even begin to read the eldritch scrawls left in blood upon the stone idols of the Danes. There was fearful talk among them of unknown things; of stars in alien courses; of the ancient Aklo tongue of sorcerers; and of the weird glyphs of R'lyeh. Of the signs, some were crude pictographs, obvious enough, though familiarity did nothing to diminish their terrible import.
A long, roofed structure was shown -- the meadhall of Gunnar Tyrggvason -- under a starry sky.
A being much like Nindhoggir himself was depicted, upon a great altar of some sort. Other fish-men, much smaller and dissimilar in appearance, made obeisance to him. Among the fish-men capered the Harfagyr, like savages, in extreme terror or orgiastic joy, at something that the fish-men offered their brutal god, something the priests of Wodan could not -- or would not -- guess.
A battle: the slaughter of the Harfagyr by the Danes. Stones ran with blood. Mutilated men and animals followed -- decapitated, disemboweled, their arms and legs missing, expressions of frozen horror upon their faces. Stars and strange whorls hovered above them.
Again, the meadhall appeared, but now it was in flames, the great fish-man smashing it with huge stones. Yet he was not alone. Another smaller figure in mail, hewed with a great sword at the Danes fleeing death. Bodies lay piled at his feet. The priests of Wodan could not fathom the nature of this unknown accomplice, until they studied his maniacal, roughly rendered face. The near-hairless head, the glassy staring eyes, the wide unsmiling mouth -- despite its crudeness, it was a chillingly familiar face, and one they had once known.
The Danes came to me, alone on my sea-cliff, between land and sky and sea. Alone but for the murmur of the waves and the keen and cry of gulls. I was content there. I had no wish to see the tattered envoy before me, scratched by thorns and rocks, desperate and sick with fear -- Gunnar Tyrggvason, his fat and pompous counselor Olaf, and his shieldman Wulf. There were five other warriors, thanes I did not recognize, clad in capes trimmed with fur that flicked in the salty breeze. Vassals who had dared to come forth. Now they were gnawed by doubt.
They did not see me at first, for I had learned to be quiet as the falling snow if I wished to hunt and eat. They mistook me for one more stone piled among many others, mute and enduring. One of the thanes nearly stepped on me. When I cleared my throat, they gasped and drew their weapons.
"Put away your swords and spears, Danes," I said.
"Who speaks?" Gunnar asked. His voice trembled like a leaf at the edge of autumn. Papery and rattling. He was in battle dress, heavy with mail, his arms ringed with gold, but he was
like a snuffed candle. No flame, no light, only a thin wisp of smoke in the darkness. I was of half a mind to laugh at him.
"Yes, who does speak?" I asked, and slid away from the stones like a shadow. The thanes kept their spears leveled, trusting none. "Who speaks to Lord Tyrggvason the broken? Lord Tyrggvason the unsteady old man? The walking corpse? Hmmm? Who is this changeling who lives between the land and the sea, mocked by fools, who speaks to the fallen king?"
My words shocked all, and all but Tyrggvason started forward. Faint sunlight glinted on their sword blades and spear tips. I crouched, axe in hand, ready for them.
"Enough!" Gunnar cried in a thin, brittle voice. "Enough! There is nothing to be gained by fighting over foolish words."
He passed a weary, bony hand over his shrunken face and beard, as if searching for the man he had once been. For the moment, sword and spear were stayed, though the men looked upon me with eyes of stone. I was the banished man Wulf and Gunnar remembered, knot-muscled and bowlegged, with straggling flax hair and pale emotionless eyes ... and yet I wasn't.
There was a bluish-gray tint to my skin, a sheen of some sort. My hair, nearly gone, while my beard was more akin to the barbells of a fish than he whiskers of a man. The flesh of my throat was as folded and creased as old linen. I breathed deeply of the sea air, as if oppressed.
"Gods," Wulf muttered, "he is cursed."
"Perhaps," I replied, unmoved. "But not as cursed as you. The one you call Nindhoggir leaves me well enough alone, if only because I am little more than a shadow living among the rocks. Like the Harfagyr."
One of the thanes spoke. He was an ugly fellow, with a face lumpy as a potato, and looked rather like a hog in armor. His helm sat upon his head like a milk bucket.
"We are here --"
"Well, it looks as if the best among you have already been slain, to judge by this lot," I said.
"Bastard!" Wulf cried, and stepped forward. Tyrggvason placed a hand upon the hothead's shoulder. I watched him evenly, unafraid. Wulf glared, but relented; again, like his namesake, he knew well enough when he was outmatched.
"We are here," the thane continued, as if nothing had happened, "to seek your help." His expression was that of a man who has swallowed something bitter, out of necessity. I half-expected him to sick up his pride. Vain fools and braggarts, all of them.
"And?" I asked.
The thane's face worked, as if he wished to spit something out. "Lord Tyrggvason of the Danes asks that you, Harald of the Harfagyr, go forth and slay the monster Nindhoggir. He knows your reputation as a warrior. You are unmatched in battle. Your --"
I raised a palm.
"Insincere praise and fathead talk," I replied. I was enjoying this ragged little play with its sour, embarrassed performers, and wished that they dance a little longer.
"Words. You cannot eat words. They do nothing to stay the bite of winter. You cannot lay with them in bed. And this is all you have to offer, should I do your bidding? What if I say no, Lord Gunnar Tyrggvason? What if I say, 'Go back to your wrecked hall and wait like frightened children'? Then what will you do? Pray to your addlepated gods? Where are they now, now that the Grand Kraken is at your throats?"
"Blasphemer!" Wulf growled. I laughed at him. Again, he went for me, and again, Gunnar pulled him back. All for form, really. The ugly thane cleared his throat several times. An awkward silence fell, broken only by the crash and boil of the sea far below.
"I am finished with you," I said, now cold and indifferent. "Go away. Go bury your noses in your cups. Dance around your stone idols. Pray things turn out for the best."
Away I began to climb up the rocks, hop and leap and scramble, like a mountain goat. To hell with all of them.
Then Olaf, Tyrggvason's pompous counselor, spoke. He was, if anything, even fatter and uglier than the ridiculous thane, though as richly clad as any that fawned upon the old king. His cloak was as bright as a butterfly's wings, of silver and blue and black thread, but his larded face was thick as a boar's with whiskers. A toad in furs, is what he resembled. Even his eyes were like those of a toad, small and crafty, black and copper. But his voice was old and melodic and soft, and against my will I was compelled to listen.
"Hear me, Harald of the Harfagyr. You speak with contempt of our words. You speak with contempt of a noble king fallen upon grave times. That is deeply unfortunate. You screech and cackle like a crow over a dying hart, and pick and tear at flesh and bone, and think yourself quite safe and clever, here by the sea. Ha! You hide, like all of us, from the meadhall wrecker! You hide among these shit-splattered rocks and fish-bones from the sea monster, and pray for the dawn!"
"Hear me, toad," I said. "I do not hide from your bane. I am banished from your noble king's hall. Don't speak to me of nobility or honor, who was thought no better than an animal, who fought beside you, who was first forgotten and last remembered. Now go, before I rain stones down upon your thick skulls. I will say no more."
Tyrggvason spoke, and though he was old and infirm, his voice was still compelling.
"Harald!" he cried. "Do not go! Stay and listen. We will not speak much longer. I know you well. I know your desire for honor and respect. I know you wish men to sing of you.
Great deeds lie ahead. Will you not heed your liege? Will you not come down from your cliff and fight?"
"No," I said, after a pause. Tyrggvason's face crumbled. "No, I will not heed you. And I will not come down and fight."
"Coward!" Wulf cried. "The monster will destroy both us and you!"
"I will give you gold, Harald," Tyrggvason said, his voice now weak as the bleat of a newborn lamb. "It is yours for the taking. Silver and gold. Whatever your heart desires."
I paused. Things had become interesting again. "Silver and gold, then ... what else?"
"Yes, 'what else?' All the silver and gold in the world is of no use to a man who lives alone by the sea, is it? What should I do? Count it? Skip the coins across over the water? Well ...?"
"Name what else you desire."
"Armor. Of good fine steel. I will be scaled like a fish, so that I glitter in the sun like clear water. Where scales are impossible, mail. Rings of metal, triple-forged. A shield, of oak and steel. And I shall want a sword, not a nicked and rusted battleaxe better suited for cutting wood. A sword that bites like a serpent. Your smiths will inscribe runes upon its blade, Gunnar Tyrggvason -- runes you will not wish to hear aloud, runes older than the mountains. But they must be there, if you wish me to win. I am a great warrior, but Nindhoggir is much older than I am, and may know something of magic."
"It will be done," Tyrggvason said.
(Wulf muttered something to Olaf, who nodded. I ignored them.)
"Yes. It will. And you will make me a helm of iron, with a hauberk of mail, like a turtle's shell. Stamped with the likeness of the Grand Kraken, much as you fear and hate him, upon the crest. It may strike dread into the heart of Nindhoggir, and it may not."
"It will be done."
"And, last ... should I die, Gunnar Tyrggvason, you will raise a great mound in my name ... if the monster doesn't take you all first and smash your meadhall to splinters. You will tear your beards and lament.
"But! But if I live, if I triumph, you will take me as one of your own. I will hunt with your warriors. I will eat and drink at your table, and not fight with the dogs for scraps.
"And last, I will chose one of your women for my own. Only one, but it will be whomever I desire, and you will not refuse me whomever it may be. Agreed?"
"It will be done." The old king's face had turned the color of ashes. Counselor and thane, shieldman and king, all stood mute and dumbfounded. They had expected to deal with a mindless brute, not a crafty, calculating thing that knew something of lies and desperation and hard bargains. I almost felt sympathy for them, but it was fleeting.
"Then let us get on with this business."
Created: October 21, 1997; Current Update: August 9, 2004