And so, the banished returned as the savior. Where before there had been filthy curses and mocking laughter, they were now songs full of hope and brave deeds. I endured them as best as I could, these Danes, noisy as birds after a spring rain. The skalds wove my name into their epic poems. I smiled and feigned gratitude for their gift of immortality. I feasted and found the food to my liking. Roast pig, stewed hare, leavened bread, goat's cheese, smoked meat -- brought to me by quiet, fearfully smiling girls hoping for my benevolence. I grunted and nodded and ate and drank. They all feared me, I knew, but they feared Nindhoggir even more, and hoped I was the solution to their dilemma.
Gunnar, his wife and his diminished circle of warriors endured my presence, as if I were the memory of an unforgivable deed or a long-gone murder. A thistle among a bed of roses. Their talk was mostly of the monster, especially so when night drew its star-jeweled cloak over the world and the fire grew sullen and low. Then the Danes were wide-eyed and restless. Tyrggvason sat
upon his carved throne as if lost in thoughts of sunnier times. Wind often set the old hall to creaking in its beams and joints, and then all would listen, still as rabbits. Hetta would cling to the arm of her king -- useless old bag of presumptuous bones, mistaken in his notions of greatness.
Lovely Hetta, wasted upon a scarecrow. I could have laughed, but I felt something else, a curious unease. The dark, smoky meadhall pressed in close upon me, and smelled of foul things. Grease. Sweat. Old hides. Cooking meat and straw and pine needles. I longed for salt air, unbound sky and depthless sea.
In due time my armor was finished, and it was one of the few
things in that place that pleased me. The scales were thick and gleamed like silver shavings. The mail lay heavy upon my shoulders and neck. My spear was sturdy and my sword pattern-welded, inscribed with the runes none of the Danes would utter aloud. Indeed they gave me my sword wrapped in furs, they feared it so. The handle was wrapped in silver wire. A beryl stone was set in the pommel -- beryl, to ward off enemies. An old superstition.
The helmet pleased me most of all. It was of steel, sheathed in bronze. Hinged cheek-plates hung to either side. Noseguard and crest, as I had desired, were stamped in the likeness of the head of the Grand Kraken, so that his long snaking bronze tentacles shielded my nose and cheeks, and from his empty black sockets gleamed my own eyes, cold and pale.
And so we waited.
Nindhoggir would not come.
Tyrggvason and meadhall, goat and kine, hopelessly lost traveler upon the midnight moor, none were molested. The nights passed in silence, but for the scrape of crickets and the snap of watch fires. The vassals, long hidden in their huts and halls, began to stir, like mice after a long winter. Huntsmen returned to the woods and meadows. Heavily guarded, the tribute-wagons began to roll through the long grass again. Stone was set upon stone again. There was talk of a great curse passing, and that perhaps the Grand Kraken was not as omnipotent as some believed.
Autumn came and the leaves burst into color; scarlet and gold. Meadow flowers withered and returned to the soil. The days grew cooler, shorter. The priests of the Danes burned fires, cut the throats of terrified lambs and let the blood pour hissing into the hot coals. White bearded old fools, accorded undue respect because they mumble and moan and make the proper gestures. They told the Danes what they wanted to hear: that their impotent stone idols were pleased. Tyrggvason's people had suffered long enough. Nindhoggir was no more. A season of death come to an end! Some of the Danes wept with joy, and thanked the indifferent idols, the blue vault of the sky, the roar of men gone mad. Others were not so easily moved, and listened with hard eyes and folded arms.
I knew better, of course.
"He will come," I said, stilling all talk in the meadhall as surely as if I had drawn my sword. The faces before me were expressionless, rather like the idols of the idiot priests. I knew minds ground like stones behind those masks, and I could almost hear the slow drip of dread within the hollows of their skulls.
"He will come. Soon. Your priests are fools. I have watched the stars and know it to be true. Unlike your gods, you cannot appease them. They care nothing for bribery. They do not lie. Nindhoggir will return."
Wulf rose from his seat at the table. Ale had clouded his wits. His plate was heaped high with greasy bones and he swept it to the floor with a great crash. Out came his sword, a metal snake reared to strike. His face flushed and his eyes rolled white, wild.
"And damn you if he does!" Wulf cried. He pushed himself away from the table, and began to pace the meadhall, gesturing wildly with sword and hand. Old Gunnar watched helplessly, seam-faced and frail, Hetta's hand on his arm.
"I'm of a mind to think you're in league with the thing somehow, what with your talk of stars and runes and helms forged in the likeness of sea monsters! By the gods! We sit and hide like rabbits in a burrow, and all the while this -- this thing sits our table and eats our food and plays at prophecy! He is a Harfagyr, my liege! He is one of them!"
This brought on a round of angry muttering, nods and venomous
stares, all in consensus with the drunken declarations of Wulf. Olaf sat with bristly lips in a thoughtful pout. Wulf nodded in agreement with those who were in agreement with him. Ungarth struck his tankard hard on the tabletop. Hetta flinched in surprise at the sharp noise. My eyes were torn between her and the stupid Wulf, made loud and brave by drink.
Gunnar raised one white hand. The uproar subsided, like a cloudburst speared by the sun.
"Continue," he said to Wulf, who stood expectant, a dog waiting for scraps or a kind word. Sword and arm hung at his side. He looked out of breath, somewhat bemused by his own outrage. Stroking his pleated blond beard, he was at a momentary loss. I watched, patiently, and thought him quite ridiculous.
"Yes," I said. "Please continue. Without the theatrics."
Wulf glared, cleared his throat, and said, "All I am saying, my liege, is that we fight a monster, and yet one lives among us. You -- all of you -- were there the day we slew the Harfagyr. You saw what happened afterward. It returns to you on moonless nights in a cold sweat, does it not?"
"It was Walda who brought him forth!" a thane cried.
"How was I to know his true nature?" Walda replied, equally indignant. True, who is to know my true nature? Even I cannot answer that riddle.
"Even flowers spring forth from the mud," Olaf observed with cool wisdom.
"And shit springs forth from your mouth in a never-ending torrent, you talking hog," Wulf said, pointing his sword at the gap-mouthed counselor. The fat man shoved his stool aside and drew his own sword, a short stabbing weapon rather like his own tongue.
"Shut up, all of you," I said.
Reluctantly, the Danes took their seats. Quiet fell over the hall, but for the whip crack and snap of the hearth fire. I took a long draught of mead, watching them all the while.
"Well, Harald?" Gunnar asked.
"Well, indeed," I replied. "Nindhoggir will return. He is not through with you yet. True, he has wrecked your roads, slain man and beast, and driven away your vassals. But he is not done yet."
Olaf struck his meaty fist upon the table. An idea had occurred to him. "Perhaps if we return to him the gold diadems and tiaras we took, he will be satisfied."
"No," Tyrggvason said, "I will not give tribute. I will not appease a monster with gold."
"But why not, my liege?" Olaf asked, suddenly amiable and full of wisdom, with an answer to all riddles. "It is but gold, after all."
"What if it doesn't want gold?" Ungarth asked.
"It wants nothing of the sort," I said, my patience wearing thin as cobwebs. "Where it is from, gold is as earth is to you. Commonplace. What it wishes for, is your utter destruction. It will not rest until no two stones are left standing on one another.
"I would send your women and children away, my liege, to the hall of a vassal, for he will come this very night."
A convulsive groan went up at my words, an eerie ululation of tears and laments from the women, who hid their faces in their hands and wept. The children clung to their skirts. The men, and some older boys, commenced to shout, a cacophony of orders, declarations of honor and revenge, the names of various gods, and who would fight at my side. Before they had been ready to brand me the beast's half-brother. Now their eyes were alight, hot white coals full of bloodlust and violence ... and not a little fear.
Hetta rose. She was like a white blossom in the smoky gloom.
"I will remain here with my husband."
"No, Hetta," Gunnar pleaded, taking her hand. "You must leave."
She pulled her own hand away. "I will remain here. This is my hall as well as your own, my liege. This is my home. I will die here, if I must."
Gunnar stared at her in disbelief. His mouth worked, but no words would come. He passed a hand over his forehead, and then brought his fist down upon the arm of his throne.
"Harald of the Harfagyr!" Tyrggvason cried. There was still power left in his withered, ropy throat, and his voice smote down all others, like a lightning bolt that leaves a tree black and bare. I rose to my feet. The women, their faces wet, looked up in dim hope of some salvation.
(Not at me, of course. I was some vague uneasy dream to them, an armored thing whose rings and scales clattered like bones, whose eyes burned outward from darkness. A man? A walking corpse? One of the fossergrim, who live in waterfalls? A fish? A horseshoe crab, perhaps?)
"Will you fight?" the old man asked.
"Yes," I replied.
"And I will fight beside him," Ungarth declared. "I will not hide in this hall like a child."
"I, too," Wulf said, not to be outdone. Several other warriors, thanes, and even one or two boys made their solemn pledges. I was certain that in some of the men, mead was talking. Their memories of Nindhoggir had faded and now their words were full of blood and anger. Even fat Olaf, fearing shame, offered a blade rather than words.
"If you triumph, Harald," Gunnar said, "you shall be richly rewarded. It is not for flattery's sake alone that I am known as the greatest of Danish kings."
"It is not gold I desire, my liege," I replied. Faces wrinkled and brows furrowed, but I continued. "I have seen what gold and greed for it brings. No, but you recall my words on the sea cliff. I said that if I should triumph, I will take one of your women for my own."
The old king's expression curled and darkened, like burning birch bark. His mind was licked with the flames of sudden doubt. Gone was the kindly, beloved magistrate. In his place was the old robber, the backstabbing schemer, his face a notched knife.
"I will take your own. I will take Hetta."
A pall descended on all gathered, as if each had foreseen their own lonely death somewhere, far away from others. Olaf declared it an outrage. Hetta recoiled upon her throne. I half-expected a scream, or tears, but she only turned the color of cheese. I was faintly amused. Perhaps she was made of sterner stuff than these barnyard animals before me, after all.
"So be it," she said.
"Yes," old Gunnar said, his words smoking with venom. "So be it."
Evening came, and clouds began to build upon the horizon. They were the shade of sea foam and old bones, bleak mountains at the edge of the world, darkening the hills. The Danes lit fires, and stood around them. A cold wind set hair and capes to trailing. Hot ash fluttered like black moths in the autumn air. No one spoke. In the grass, insects trilled, a monotonous dirge that set men's teeth on edge, while the cows and pigs milled in their muddy pens, snorted and stared. Then, lightning shimmered, the clouds flickered white, and the ground trembled as thunder rolled through the sky like a great stone. All but the gods and field crickets observed the tense, listening silence, it seemed.
The thunder swelled, rumbled, echoing, vast drums high above us. The wind was in the trees, and they swayed back and forth as if they wished to flee this place. A chilling, misty drizzle began to fall, dappling the red and gold leaves, dripping off axe blades and sword points. Men would not look at each other. No warrior wished to reveal his fear, or see it in his fellow man. And so I waited with them, my sword in hand, my spear driven into the mud beside me.
The sky darkened. The clouds loomed like a great wave, purple as a king's robe, crested white at their peaks. Lightning crashed, striking a tree somewhere, and the Danes flinched.
Then we heard it. Faint horn blasts, coming closer. The alarm had been sounded. I strained to peer into the wet gloom ahead. I saw nothing at first -- tall yellow grass, scrub pine, hawthorn and hazel, and then -- a young man on horseback, riding swiftly through the mist. He lashed his terrified mount on to even greater speed. As he came closer, his distorted features became clear. One of the lank-haired boys of Tyrggvason's hall it was, out of his wits with fear.
The Danes gasped at what happened next; the great black shape lunged through the rain with the speed of a serpent. I went cold at the sight, its spidery angles, its stooped shoulders and overlong arms, the lunatic glow of its unblinking eyes. Above its spiny pitch-colored head it held something scarcely smaller than a wagon -- a great stone, I realized, one of the powerless stone effigies so revered by the moss-bearded priests. It seemed to smirk with irony at what was unfolding.
"NINDHOGGIR! THE MONSTER IS HERE!" Wulf cried.
The boy vaulted his foam-flecked horse over a goat pen. Mud sprayed and his mount fell with a scream, cutting short the boy's final horn blast. Men shouted, roared, and called upon long dead ancestors for luck and courage.
Nindhoggir came crashing through the stockyards. The cows and pigs and goats panicked. Their din nearly overwhelmed the hoarse, guttural bellow of Nindhoggir himself, who stood among them, stone raised. About the monster they streamed, like living water about a great black poisonous tree.
With great deliberation he began to smash the idol down on any of the animals too slow or bewildered to escape, beating them to bones and jelly, and they began to rail and scream. The idol dripped with blood, mud, matted hair, and bits of bone. The rain fell even harder.
"NOW!" I yelled, and a flurry of arrows and ash-spears flew, like black steel-tipped hornets, at Nindhoggir. Many were turned aside by his iron-hard skin, but some stuck in the livid flesh of his belly and throat. I kept my own spear beside me, ready.
Nindhoggir hissed in pain. With a clumsy lurch, he threw the stone idol at us, a mighty lob that sent it crashing into our midst in a torrent of mud and water. The ground shook at the impact. None of Tyrggvason's men were hit, but they quailed at such brute strength and unreasoning fury, so that I raised my inscribed sword and cried, "Stand your ground!"
Nindhoggir paused only to pluck a few arrows from his throat and belly, and then he lumbered toward us. His talons swept the air before him like scythes, his voice, a murderous burbling hiss. Two thanes rushed him with maniacal yells. He seemed to consider their madness before he knocked them aside contemptuously, like flies. He fell upon one of the archers and snapped his head off. The remaining Danes began to back away, uneasily casting about for a place to hide. I cursed when I saw Wulf, and then Olaf, run for the meadhall. Bastards.
Ungarth, however, leveled a great spear at Nindhoggir, threw it, and lodged it firmly in the monster's upper leg. A drilling shriek, fit to crack stone, filled the air. Furious, Nindhoggir again came at the Danes, swiping at the thicket of spear points in his way. Tyrggvason's warriors gave ground. The gap between Nindhoggir and the meadhall narrowed, the pitiful expanse of mud and broken men. He sliced at the Danes, bit, beat them down, crushed them underfoot -- crushed Ungarth underfoot, too, his shield raised in vain.
I stepped between the monster and the meadhall. Sword raised, shield at the ready, a murderous thickness was in my throat and I could not breathe deeply enough of the wet air.
(By the Grand Kraken himself, I believe I was ready to give my life for old Gunnar Tyrggvason, that self-styled bandit-king, that stealer of gold, beloved of lying skalds and murdering thanes.)
The slimed juggernaut came at me, his hiss that of a red-hot sword thrust into cold water. His webbed long fingers worked like great spider legs, each tipped with a curved talon. A ghastly funeral reek went before him -- smell of wet limestone, of black mud, of still stagnant water, of the deep lightless wastes of the world. Lunatic light burned in its lambent eyes, full of rot and ruin and hideous joy.
The sword I held was alive with power. My hand was half-numb with it. With a roar, I came at Nindhoggir and swung, a blow to spilt a man in two. The monster sidestepped me on its great black legs, so much like the scorched trunks of young trees, blighted with luminous spots. Again, I swung. It stepped away and snarled, a horrible blood-choking chest-wound noise.
Like a viper, Nindhoggir's horrible head coiled, and then sprang. I brought my shield up, and the huge stinking mouth closed down on oak and bolted iron. Teeth long as knives gnashed inches from my arm. I struck at his plated head with my sword, and opened a long shallow gash. Suddenly, I was jerked upward, my arm pinned to the leather straps of my shield. Nindhoggir began to shake me from side to side, a dog seeking to break a rat's neck. I cried out in fear. The world became a pendulum blur -- mud, fallen Danes, misty rain. My sword fell from my hand. I was thrown through the air, to crash violently against the stone idol. White-hot pain exploded in my back and burst through my body.
Sprawled in the mud, gasping, unable to right my world, I was hardly able to raise my head. The rain soaked me, ran into my eyes. Our battle had become a sickly blurred dream. The unknown stone god seemed to find it all faintly amusing. Tears of rain ran from its hollow eyes. False sympathy for the fallen.
Nindhoggir, all teeth and claws, came for me. I rose to my feet.
When his horrible leering head was close, I smashed my shield into it. This staggered the monster, but only for a moment. He slashed at me. Again, I was sent sprawling. My helmet clattered across the ground into a puddle. Had it not been for my armor, I would have been cut to ribbons.
I tried to rise, but could not. Cold muddy water leaked through my mail, chilling me. Ahead of me, my spear was still thrust into the ground, like a grave marker. I crawled toward it. Nindhoggir shrieked in triumph, a terrible half-bellow, half-scream. I staggered to my feet. The spear was only a few feet away. From behind me came the steady slap-splash of Nindhoggir's webbed feet. I turned, nearly fell. Towering over me, black scales beaded with rain, was Tyrggvason's bane, the idol held high over his head. I stared at death, broken and utterly exhausted. I waited, shivering.
But Nindhoggir did nothing. He lowered the idol, as if in confusion or sudden doubt. The terrible, darkly opalescent eyes flickered, glimmered.
He did not crush me. Instead, he circled warily, spines bristling like hackles. A spiteful hiss escaped him. He lumbered on toward the meadhall, the idol clenched in his claws like some terrible offering from an unknown universe.
Numb, nearly paralyzed with disbelief, I could do little more than watch his ungainly progress. Then I took my spear in hand, and began my slow, painful pursuit.
Lighting split the sky. It leaped across the dark clouds on jagged white limbs. In its harsh light I saw the black silhouette of the idol raised, and then brought down upon the roof of the meadhall. A splintering crash rent the air. Up came the idol, again, the crack and crash of wood. I broke into a trot, slipped and swayed in the mud. Thunder and the monster's shriek became one.
I circled around him, ash-spear lowered. Preoccupied, hell-bent on destruction, he took no more notice of me than a bull would a fly. The engine of death had other matters on hand. The roof of the meadhall was half stove in. Cracked beams protruded from the wreck like the ribs of a stricken animal. I could imagine the panic within, the tears, the useless prayers. One by one, Nindhoggir would kill them all.
Strangely, no sounds came from within.
One final blow would bring down the walls.
"NINDHOGGIR!" I cried.
Idol held high, he turned his head -- nightmare spined monstrosity, turret of a haunted castle full of dead light -- and glared at me. With a hoarse yell I charged and stuck the spear into his side. He screamed, and dropped the idol behind him with a earthshaking jolt. Blood boiled from his wound, or something akin to it. Berserk, beyond rage, he came for me, his eyes burning like torches in the drizzling curtain of rain.
And I stabbed upward with my spear, bracing my feet into the ground. Deep it went, into the creased greenish pouch of his throat, into his spear-tooth maw, up into his foul fevered brains. He shrieked, choked, and leaped convulsively away, tearing the spear from my hands. He shook his head wildly. He clutched at the ash shaft, broke it in half, but it would not come out. Ichor bubbled forth from the wound, bile poured from his mouth. Bits of bone and pieces of men. He stumbled about and I backed away from him. Throttling, choking, he clawed at his head in his agony. The terrible jaws worked and worked, and I thought of shutters buffeted by the wind.
He collapsed on his side with a shuddering, slobbery sigh. His sides heaved, and finally stilled. One of the shield-boss eyes stared at me in mute hatred. Its fell light faded, dimmed, and went out. The titanic trapdoor mouth opened once, weakly. Foulness seeped from it, and it stank so that I staggered away from him, gagging. The fingers trembled, stiffened, curled. Nindhoggir was dead. The uncaring rain fell, cold and remorseless, as if nothing of import had happened. White light flickered upon the horizon and drums beat doom somewhere high in the clouds.
Picking my way carefully through the splintered beams and snapped rafters, I entered Tyrggvason's hall.
The belly of a great beast -- that is what the dark, still meadhall was like -- a cunning old animal feigning sleep, biding its time. The darkness possessed an almost tenebrous quality. Dim reddish light burned in the hearth, the glow of coals like Nindhoggir's terrible eyes. I could see but little else. The faint forms of carved oak beams, decorated with wolves and falcons and bears and brave warriors and fanciful creatures. The great table, bare, empty of feasters. Gunnar, alone, upon his throne like an ancient white barn owl, watching me. Next to him, Hetta's smaller chair was empty.
"So, Harald," he said, "you've won."
"Yes," I said. I was scarcely able to stand.
"And you've come for your prize. Correct?"
"Yes, my liege."
Suspicion clouded my thoughts.
The old king sighed and spoke. He did not look at me, soaked and muddy and bedraggled.
"Yes. A fine prize, my Hetta ... with her lovely red hair. Her snowy skin. Her pale eyes like winter. The daughter of another chieftain, I might add, an important fellow. Egil, was his name I believe. Egil Redbeard. Scourge of the Lombards. He offered her hand to me in marriage as tribute. An interesting departure from what I usually expect."
"Where is she?" I asked. "Did you send her away with the rest of the women and children?"
Gunnar laughed, an unpleasant sound, a rattling wet cackle that made me think of ice grinding upon a gray sea.
"Oh, no. No, no, no, my fine Harald. She would have none of it. She believed it was her fate. Not even silver-tongued Olaf could convince her otherwise. Headstrong, I suppose, like her father. An admirable trait under most circumstances ... except these.
"So I let her remain here."
"Then bring her forth. She was promised to me, Gunnar Tyrggvason."
"Yes, indeed. A bride for Harald, greatest of warriors. A giant among men, even though he is cursed ...
"Bring forth Harald's prize!"
From the shadows, stepped Olaf, solemn and rich-robed. Contempt burned in his tiny toad's eyes, nestled in their folds of fat. His coat of mail bulged like a sail in a full wind. In one hand he held something. In the darkness, I could not guess what it was, but it was white and red.
With a slight bow, Olaf handed the bundle to his liege, who rose and held it forth by the hair so that I might behold Hetta's cruelly severed head.
"Here is your bride, Harfagyr!" Tyrggvason said.
He threw it at me. The head landed with a sickening, heavy thud on the table, bounced, rolled -- the hair like a wheel of fire -- to come to a stop near me. The winter eyes stared at my feet in mute, clouded incomprehension. The flesh of the neck was ragged, torn. A thin trail of blood had dried upon the parted lips.
I stared at Hetta's head, and then Gunnar Tyrggvason and Olaf -- robber-king and fawning toad, both madmen, both murderers.
"There," Gunnar said. "There she is, Harald, to keep you company when you return to your stinking bone-filled cave by the sea. Now you will always have someone to speak to, to confide in ... and something to gnaw upon when winter comes, you monster!"
With a mindless howl and a fury worthy of dead Nindhoggir, I came at Gunnar. I would tear him apart with my bare hands. But I was driven to the ground by a blow from behind, a blow to the neck that should have severed my own head. But the mail there was thick, and my life was spared for the moment.
It was Wulf, a sword clenched in his hands, eyes bulging with
"Here's your bride, bastard!" he roared. Spittle flew from his lips. The sword blade came down in a deadly arc. I rolled to the side and it bit into packed dirt. He was quite drunk, fighting clumsily, and I was able to get to my feet while he was still regaining his balance. He swung again, aiming now for my vitals, and I leaped away from him like a frog. His animal frustration mounted with each miss. He hewed at the table between us, at the carved post. I darted to the hearth, where coals smoldered and burned -- red and white, like Hetta.
I grabbed the untouched end of one of the branches.
"Come, love," Wulf snarled in a soft voice, his features made demonic by the glow of the flames. "Give us a kiss."
He sliced at where, a moment before, was my head. I twisted, and the blade whistled by my ear.
I struck him on the bridge of his nose with the half-charred branch. Red and yellow sparks flew in a shower, like frightened fireflies. He screamed and staggered away, hands hiding his burned face. Unintelligible curses and groans poured from his mouth. He became a ball of agony, like a wounded spider. As for his sword, I took it, and went for Olaf. Hardly a battle. The fat man swung desperately, double-handed. I parried, feinted, waiting for an opening, saw it and sent six inches of steel into his chest.
Olaf fell to his knees. Blood poured from the wound, soaking his finery.
"I've been killed!" he muttered. I kicked him and he collapsed, graceless as a dropped sack of stones. So much for silver-tongued eloquence.
And last, the old viper, the robber-king I had declared my liege, rising from his throne, longsword in one infirm hand, his beard like a white curl of flame.
"So," he said. "Now you will kill me as well, and the hall of Tyrggvason will be at an end, yes? The women will weep and the skalds will lament the passing of a great king!" He laughed bitterly.
"But you!" he said, pointing at me with an unsteady finger. "You as well are doomed! Nindhoggir is carrion ... I am a broken king ... and you are triumphant ... but darkness waits for you as well as me.
"What remains for you? Cold stone. The sea wind. Furtive hunting and fish bones and nasty little feasts with only your dead dreams for companions. All the while you will grow stranger to men. Ever less like them, ever more like the foul beasts that spawned you, the Harfagyr, the fish-men. Perhaps they would have received you. You were, after all, exalted along them -- the son of Nindhoggir, wrecker of meadhalls."
I listened in silence. Only the faint groans of Wulf disturbed the stillness.
"Yes. The son of Nindhoggir. So it was written on our stones by the great father of the Harfagyr ... though I am certain the rains have removed his scrawlings now, forever. Of all his children, you were the one most perfect. The others were hardly more than beasts of weak blood and feeble minds. You were to cast my kingdom down and rule in my stead. But now the Harfagyr are gone. The son of Dagon lies dead. And so you are alone, monster, until another, greater warrior comes forth to slay you as well.
"I have spoken, Harald of the Harfagyr.
"Go to the darkness that awaits you."
I struck Gunnar Tyrggvason down, a blow that split him from the shoulder nearly to the navel, the way a man might cleave a fish.
Rain drummed on the roof of the meadhall. Water fell in streams through the hole made by Nindhoggir. Gunnar's blood soaked the packed earth black -- water and blood, the essence of my nightmare existence.
I took a torch from the hearth, and went from tapestry to tapestry, touching them alight, blackening grand stag hunts and epic battles. They burned only reluctantly, but then the greedy flames began their work. Sparks flew, fires crackled, and thick smoke began to fill the high roof of the ruined meadhall. The inferno grew and spread. I backed away from the rising heat. Sweat beaded on my forehead. Half the hall was engulfed in fire. I clambered out of the wreckage, into the pouring rain of autumn, the spectral flashes of lightning.
And so my story ends.
Time has passed and I am very different now. My eyes will not shut. My hair is gone. My old skin has crumbled away, and that beneath is slippery and grayish, glistening in the moonlight.
I am stooped. Often I go about on all fours. I hop and I shuffle about the stones, and when I speak, no words come -- only a hoarse, barking croak that echoes among the cliffs. Yet it is
a language, nonetheless, a tongue older than man himself, full of secrets.
I have returned several times to the water, to the vastness of the sea, a kingdom to dwarf Tyrggvason's childish holdings -- his bower bird nest of sticks and earth and shiny useless things. Foolishness. I am ascendant. He and his Danes are naught but bones now, their women and children the chattel of other petty nobles and robber-kings.
Great cities lie beneath the waves, unknown to man -- this is what the other fish-men tell me -- gigantic edifices of coral and stone, beautiful and terrible, to mock the rude stone piles of the land dwellers. Y'ha-nthlei. K'Kligir. There they dwell in numbers uncounted, forever, awaiting the day when R'lyeh will surface, Great Cthulhu will rise from his tomb, and the sea will swallow the land.
I grow restless upon the land. Discontent fills me. My armor and weapons are now curious salt-corroded relics over which I brood on long nights. Who was this creature? Who was this creature?
I will go soon, to the water. The sea will close over my head one last time. There I will live among them, forever, until the sun is blinded and the moon is dead.
Created: October 21, 1997; Updated: August 9, 2004