A Nordic life – Chapter 2
The wheels of a carriage pulled by two elks cut through a road transformed by a thin layer of frost, classic in this spring season. The sun pierced through the clouds and caressed the faces of the Nords walking in rhythm next to the vehicle covered with a woven linen fabric.
“Well, in this weather we could go for a swim huskarl let loose as he watched the sea of ice filled with frost-killed trees.
A southerner would have choked in fear at the mere thought of getting wet in this perfect white setting. While the warmth of the sun was a welcome comfort, it did not prevent large puffs of steam from escaping from the troop’s food. There were about twenty of them, advancing in unison along a weathered road, squarely surrounding the wagon. Even an observer unfamiliar with Mannheim customs would have recognised them as a group of wealthy men, an elite force capable of facing any threat. The frailest of them was six feet tall, and they wore the most elaborate equipment of the Tresdolm clan. They were superb ulfberhts of remarkable steel with wrought-iron handles, rectangular wooden shields with a rounded upper edge, entirely covered with artistic friezes, iron armour and heavy mesh covered with bright blue and red fabrics. Like needles of bright colour in the dull and grey surroundings, they were real targets in the desert. Yet, until then, no one had attempted any action against them.
Jarl Ornac watched his personal guard advancing, trying to read their thoughts in their eyes, partially covered as they were by heavy helmets. But there was no need for mind-reading to see that they were all focused on their primary objective—to accompany their leader to his destination, no more, no less. The one who would have been called “count” in the South had a heavy sigh and chose instead to follow the landscape. The pyramid-shaped tent was open at the front, towards the carriage driver, and at the back, towards the road. In the distance, a giant worm-like creature rose from the ice and fell back to the soft, fertile ground in an explosion of frosty powder. A spectacle that did not surprise many in the troupe.
Sitting on a bench in front of his sovereign, the faithful counsellor Irnalf was half asleep, covered with a heavy polar bear blanket and dressed in black nobleman’s clothes. On the surface, everything seemed to oppose this thin, dry, clean-shaven man with his gigantic, massive, grey-bearded, nearly primitive Jarl! Even his outfit was richer than his Jarl’s! Made of hemp and linen braided by the hand of expert old women from the Western Clan and enhanced with platinum, his clothes would not have rubbed off at the court of a king of the World-In-Over-the-Ice. In fact, he had copied the idea of his clothes from a very rich huskarl who had been married in this outfit far away in Aarheim, the largest city on the continent. Opposite, Ornac was dressed only in rough clothes, of good workmanship but closer to the craftsman than to the warrior leader. Of course, he wore chain mail and heavy blades on his flanks, but it did not go much further, apart, of course, from the care taken with his hair.
In appearance, therefore, the two men were totally dissociable, and one could have concluded that it was the same for their personalities. That was also true. Yet they were united by an unfailing friendship, like two brothers who had lived everything together. They read each other like an open book, they understood each other like a pack of wolves or a group of sharks, acting together for a common goal. This time Irnalf felt indecision and anxiety in his friend.
“Are you still thinking about the children? “he said in a sleepy tone.
Silence answered him.
“I’ve already told you—you can’t do anything about it. That’s the way Guerann is, and that’s the way Klothild is. They would have left one day or another.”
The old Jarl sniffed loudly and replaced the cushion under his buttocks. His back was hurting like hell.
“I could have stopped them, Irnalf. I was just too lax with them, that’s all. You know what I should have done the second Trorion told me about their discovery? I should have grabbed Guerann by the scruff of the neck and put him in a cage with chestnut soup and seawater for three weeks until he even forgot he’d found something! That’s all the punishment this kid ever understood, “the chief answered angrily.
“And all you would have done was to justify his departure a little more. That’s your problem, Ornac, you never knew how to understand young people, even when you were one. “
Again, no answer. Touched to the quick, the accused preferred to retreat into silence.
“You should have let him go a long time ago, even if it meant he wouldn’t come back. “
“But Klothild? Brunwolf? Svulf? The others? We lost a dozen young warriors in one night, and you’re telling me I should have let him go? We lost the descendant of a god, damn it! Three months you’ve been saying the same words to me, Irnalf, and they still sound like crap! “The sovereign took off, raising his arms high in rage.
“If six years ago you had let him go at his first hint of adventure he would have gone off on his own, or almost. And don’t talk about them as if they were dead, for Odin’s sake! Look at me, they said I was dead too during my first travel. “The tone was that of the worst insolence.
“During your first trip, you went away for a fortnight and came back frozen. They had been gone for three months, and there is no news of them. “Ornac, somewhat of a fatalist, finally gave up.
A heavy silence fell in the tent above the wagon. Irnalf turned his head towards the driver who pretended not to hear anything. He would be paid handsomely in kvas, meat, and women so as not to reveal any of the secrets he heard during the journey, on any subject whatsoever. This was the privilege of his office, as well as his danger—the death penalty awaited him if words leaked out.
For an hour, not a single word rose up between the thin walls of cloth of the wagon. Weary, Ornac opened a trap door under his feet to place the luggage, pulling out a heavy wineskin and a talharpa. He handed the second one to his companion and gave himself a large shot of mead.
“Here, sing us something, “he ordered.
Irnalf looked up to the sky, smiled then grabbed the instrument.
“Do you want anything in particular? “he asked, gently amused.
“A song to keep me awake! “he answered, laughing.
Delighted to see a spark of joy in the eyes of his Jarl and friend, the counsellor stood up, leaving his old aching joints cracking in the process, before going to sit down beside the carriage driver, facing the great landscape. In the distance, coniferous forests were breaking up the white plains, rocks as sharp as a troll’s teeth were gushing out of the earth, trying to bite into the sky, hordes of animals galloping under the sun. The atmosphere was ideal, so Irnalf, after a little effort to find an acceptable song, began the exercise—he placed his fingers contact with the strings, elbowed a few times to check the beauty of the sound and set off on the epic.
In Ragnarök’s time, when the Jötnars and their allies attacked Yggdrasil with flames and steel. The gods fought valiantly, fighting hard for every meter of ground. Odin, armed with his famous spear Gungnir violently slaughtered a flock of little evil creatures encased in metal armour. At his side, Thor, straight and valiant, destroyed with his Mjölnir a group of sniggering centaurs brandishing long spears made of wood and steel. Unstoppable, he obliterated minions by the dozens before they could react. But the tide of monsters seemed endless and perfectly ordered rows of nightmare creatures caged in steel and carrying blades of cold iron still advanced. In the distance, grimacing demons pointed at the gods of Mannheim and gave the orders to attack while taking great care to stay away from the fighting.
Isolated on a balcony, Freya stand up to a trio of vultures with flaming wings. The three creatures spat torrents of fire at her and attacked with their shiny, sharp talons. But valiantly, sword in hand, the goddess pushed them back, again and again, without faltering or retreating. Then one of them made a mistake, driven confident or made wild by the length of the fight, and launched a clumsy assault that ended in him being sliced in half. The second soon joined him when the warrior threw his weapon into his belly! She was leaving to grab a spare axe when the last bird spat magma in her face. Burned, wounded, Freya threw herself at him, and they both fell from the heights of the World Tree. Yet, more was needed to kill the beautiful woman who nevertheless stood up, her body charred by the infernal fire of the bird.
Exhausted, in bad shape, seeing that the front line of the gods and their noblest servants were retreating, the goddess understood the last chance of Yggdrasil —to reach Valhalla. Heimdall was dead, this traitor of Loki, his name a thousand times damned, had killed him by deception and treachery. The best warriors in the world could not wake up to save their gods from the end of time. Worse still—if the divine domain burned down, the brave would no longer find the rest they deserved, and the heroes would never again be rewarded for their valour. Only cold and emptiness would remain to welcome the souls of the glorious dead.
Then Freya entered the most revered place—Valhalla, home of the brave and the best. They were all there, the most fantastic heroes, sleeping on beds of swan feathers under glass coffins and roofs covered with gold and gems. The din of the battle did not reach this quiet, secret place, hidden by a thousand spells and invisible to the eyes of the world. The goddess then approached Iridall, her favourite Einherjar, and laid a burned hand that must have been beautiful on the protective glass. Slowly, she took her breath and concentrated her magic, infusing the object with all her power so that it would release the formidable sleeping warrior. Freya’s immense knowledge and incredible sorcery were not enough; however—the spells cast centuries earlier on these places were the work of many deities and could not be undone by the work of just one, however important she might be.
Then Freya collapsed from fatigue and grief, falling onto that terrible glass that condemned a hero to eternal solitude. Gathering her strength, she nevertheless got up and admired Iridall one last time, peaceful in her sleep. A single silvery tear ran down her cheek and fell on the coffin, without even drawing the attention of the one who had shed it. Freya, still burned and with unsure legs after such an exercise in magic, stepped back to the doors and sealed them. She came to the surface and, seeing that the gods were now retreating into the trunk of Yggdrasil, grabbed the sword of a dead Ase and threw herself into the fray. She was never seen again.
No one could have predicted it but this tear, filled with the power of a fierce goddess, flowed slowly but surely through the glass. Slowly, year after year, it pierced through the layer to finally flow over the hero’s heart. Then it penetrated his clothes, his famous dragon scale armour, his white bear fur, and slipped over his heart. He woke with astonishingly wet eyes and a great sadness gripping his soul, and, in his right hand, a pearl that he had never seen, perfect beyond words.
“Pretty song, but it won’t pay what you owe! “
Angry at being interrupted in his epic singing by a fat and vulgar voice, Irnalf looked up at the track, followed by Ornac, who was also very unhappy that his entertainment was being spoiled. In front of them, a few meters away, a score of Nordic men in bad fur clothes held the road, weapons of bone and steel out of the scabbard. Recognising the symbols of their clan was not very difficult—the Jötmet clan, looters too poor to go to sea and who were content to survive inland by snatching their possessions from the few travellers. Both by instinct and by training, the huskarls formed a wall of shields in front of the elks, their long shields planted in the ground like a wall.
But they were few in number. Barely six opposed to three times as many. It would be a matter of holding the line of defence. Yet the assault did not come, and it was a tall, strong Nordic man who sprang from the ranks, shirtless despite the terribly low temperatures. His body bore all the evidence of a warrior’s life—covered with scars, frostbite and burns. There were no steel wounds on his back because he had never weakened.
“There the travellers have two choices. Go home naked in the snow or take their chances against Kornos the Eviscerator. So, what will it be?”
Without a word, Ornac got off the carriage, telling his adviser to stay inside. The chief bandit recognised him immediatelyHe took a coin out of his pocket, passed his gaze between the portrait on it and the one opposite, and then burst out laughing. Sonorous laughter shook the ice steppe and shattered the eternal glaciers so large that they formed mountains, shook the frozen dead trees, and terrified horrors sleeping under the snow.
“I recognise you, the coin in your effigy is everywhere on the continent… Ornac, the Cowardly Jarl, the Coward, the Shame of the Eirnenjhars! Have you decided to leave your palace? Aren’t you afraid that a terrifying southerner will come and stick a sword in your torso?”
He laughed so hard that a tear ran down his cheek and he had to wipe it off in a hurry before it froze on his eye. A huge smile passed from one ear to the other, a smile that was missing.
“At least it will be easy. Come on, you’re going to calm your women down, and you’re going to start by giving up your weapons. At the slightest mov…”
His speech was cut off by the presence of a throwing axe in the middle of his forehead. At an incredible speed, the Tresdolm clan’s Jarl had grabbed the weapon from his belt and threw it in the face of the bandit, who now only spoke in a hoarse gurgle. The body appeared to stand for a few seconds longer, and the arms moved in a semblance of life before collapsing for good. The stiffness behind him retreated a step back, both surprised and frightened by the show of force. In their ears, Ornac sounded like the name of a coward, a coward who had humiliated himself many years before in front of the gathered clans! This brutal behaviour, this colossal size… They expected the opposite.
“So, are you coming? “grunted the Jarl, beckoning his men to come forward with him.
The charge was brutal.
Blinded by the blood of the demigods flowing in their veins or simply mad with rage at this arrogant Jarl, the brigands threw themselves on the travellers, weapons in hand. The training and martial quality of the huskarl spoke, and a wall of ornate shields rose up between Ornac and its adversaries. A grimace adorned Irnalf’s face as he, in turn, drew a blade of great quality, supposedly forged in a faraway land in the south-west, a long time ago.
“Bold boys! Push harder! “shouted a voice from the band of bandits.
“Don’t let these women get to you, get out of their way! “replied Ornac as he joined the melee erupting.
The more rudimentary weapons of the looters struck in vain against the broad shields and resistant armour of the royal guard. The noble warriors, outnumbered, could not counterattack, trapped between the elks and the enraged barbarians! The situation ended in a stalemate.
Irnalf thought as usual, quickly and well. If the fight didn’t end quickly, the noise of the battle would make the northerners easy prey for the monsters of the surroundings. No way they could kill them all in a short time, so it would be necessary to break the opponent’s morale. But how? Alone he wouldn’t be able to do it…
“Ornac, leave your men, we’ll go around. Let’s stab them in the back. “
“Two against twelve?”
“You doubt yourself now? “sent Irnalf with a smile, returned by Ornac.
“Stupid… Hold on, lads! I’m coming back! “
The huskarls exchanged glances at each other while pushing with all their weight—what was the Jarl they were supposed to defend going to do? From the robbers’ point of view, they didn’t understand much about what was going on, the lack of organisation coupled with anger was definitely a very bad duo, and no one thought to look around.
Their surprise was complete when the silhouettes of two powerful warriors fell on their right flank. Ornac’s axe and Irnalf’s blade sliced through the life of the foe, who were pushing on the shields of the huskarl. The rest was indescribable, as the massacre was a one-way street—not so much because of the weakness of the Nordic people who lost them, but rather because of their disorganisation and excessive aggressiveness. Unable to defend themselves properly, deprived of their leader and unable to reorganise, they were soon forced to flee. Those who remained behind soon found themselves as corpses decorating the pavement. In a few hours, their bodies would be covered with snow, and the scavengers would come and devour their icy flesh. On the elite side, once the strictly defensive formation had clearly avoided the worst and once the initial shock had passed, the confrontation had been brief.
Ornac observed the corpses—hard figures, often young, thin and sick. No wonder, for this was Mannheim’s law—hunt or be hunted, kill or be killed. The phenomenon had become more pronounced since the beginning of the great departures southwards, which brought gold and comfort to the northern continent. The strongest were recruited by Jarls of good or bad fame and joined the crews of pirates who ravaged the weak southern kingdoms, taking their wives as lovers, their possessions as treasure and their men as slaves.
The weak, the rejected, the cowards… Those remained on the ground, denied and rejected. They roamed the desolate plains, attacking travellers, traders, and isolated villages.
“I wondered when we would finally come across some of them,” said Irnalf. “Usually they’re more skilful than that, we were lucky. “
“It’s good luck if one of them has mead. We’re running out, “replied Ornac with a surprisingly greedy air.
“I found a gourd, my Jarl! “called a huskarl and raised a bearskin thong high.
“Well, all will not be lost! “
A few minutes later, the convoy was on its way again, leaving the attackers in the open air. Who could have taken the time to bury them anyway? In Mannheim, every loss of energy was a risk, and the cold ground required much effort to dig. They would sleep here forever, and their bones would be devoured by the beasts, that’s all. For the bandits, no decorations or respect, just nothingness.
The last three days of the journey were supposed to be quieter. A band of marauding trolls made their way through the landscape, but without stopping at the skinny humans. They were, in fact, following in the footsteps of an enormous creature that would satisfy their appetite for a long time! In the same way, the wagon did meet an Ice Jötnar, dozing by the roadside with his white beard and heavy fur clothes. The sight of a Nordic troop walking on tiptoes and a dash of draught lowering its head was a rare but valuable sight in these faraway lands.
Soon the objective of this journey came to everyone’s attention—the Blue Woods, one of the wonders of the East.
One had to imagine all the trees of the North united in one forest stretching as far as the eye could see. However, whereas in the rest of Mannheim only the conifers kept their leaves during the winter period, which lasted most of the year, here all the species remained in their best attire, as in the hottest part of the summer. If this was not enough to leave the passer-by stunned, the foliage was not green, orange, or red as in autumn, but of an infinite number of shades of blue, varying from the darkest to the sky. Each tree had its own peculiarity, its own vitality, and yet there was an impression of harmony and clarity.
“It’s so striking every time,” said Irnalf, his mouth slightly ajar.
“And when was the last time you saw him? Eight years ago, I think? “
“Twelve, I was absent from the last two councils. “
They remained for a moment in silence on the edge of the wood.
“Enough dragging on, let’s go. And remind me to bring back a snowdrop for Miralda. “
The path, previously almost invisible and neglected, became clear and maintained under the foliage. A few leaves on the ground cracked underfoot and showed resistance and hardness far superior to that of their green cousins. Some of the younger huskarls had never seen the place, having only heard rumours about it and admired the whole thing, unable to understand whether they were sleeping or not. After a few minutes one of them, absorbed by a plant wide open to the world and with petals of a bright opal, reminiscent of a rose, approached it to seize it as if hypnotised.
A violent blow with a stick reminded him of reality, and he looked up to see an old man. A black beard tempered with white, a brown and blue dawn of coloured linen and fur, a long sinuous stick ending in a swirl of carved wood, an incredible number of trinkets of bones, stones, and precious minerals. And, of course, there were also the multiple tattoos, with runic and esoteric symbolism enhanced by clearly visible ritual scarifications on his bald skull, evoking a tree whose branches ended at the level of a pointed chin. Severe features and an astonishingly gentle gaze, but within which shone a lively and ancient intelligence. A half-smile marked his face, which brightened, even more, when he heard shouting.
“Kelg! At last! I thought you’d never show up,” exulted Ornac as he got off the wagon to meet the old man.
“At my age, it’s not so easy to make the journey, but I always end up arriving, “replied the old man with a half-smile on his lips. “And hello to you, Irnalf the Traveller, son of Kulgar. “
“You don’t have to be so formal, shaman. “laughed the interested party. “You haven’t changed an inch since the last time, twelve years ago! “
“Don’t remind me of the passing of time! But come, we have a lot to discuss before the board. “
Then the wagon started moving again, the three companions walking alongside this time, a little ahead of the others, far from prying ears. There was no noise in the surrounding area except for the footsteps digging in the snow. Everything was calm and quiet. At first quiet, Ornac finally broke the silence and turned his heavy build, impastoed by the weather, towards the dry shaman.
“The session will always be directed by Jovolda?” he said in the slightly worried tone of the preoccupied officials.
“She died last year in an attack, probably a giant bear. Another valkyrie has since been sent—Danucia. She arrived about two months ago. “
Irnalf sniffed—these women had taken their time! And this new element was not to reassure him. All three knew the old Jovolda and her arrogance, her impetuosity and her warlike side. Would this replacement follow in her elder’s footsteps?
“Would she be killed by a bear? “asked the counsellor. “Astonishing, she had always been a terrible fighter. “
“She was also getting old. The old man shrugged his shoulders. “And the sons of the Eirnenjhars are sometimes terrible. “
Ornac cut short the discussion, showing signs of agitation.
“She joined the dead gods, so be it. But Danucia, what is she like?”
Faced with this decidedly political impatience, Kelg looked up to heaven.
“For the time being her ideas are mainly to sleep with all the forest guards and to organise orgies upon orgies to savour her freedom. I’m still struggling to get her to respect the songs of the trees, “he said grumbling. “She represents no danger and will bend when I order her to do so. “
Affirmative nods welcomed this statement and Ornac breathed heavily, reassured. Jovolda’s cowhide was no longer of this world and would no longer stand in their way, it was now time to play its cards.
“Speaking of news,” Irnalf whispered, “we have some disturbing news to tell you. A boat with a group of young people has left for the south. A few days before they had discovered the armour of a Red Underground. I think they are looking for them. “
Keg frowned and grimaced.
“So let us pray to the Storm that they won’t come back. “