Nothing in the Songs: part 6
My legs burned as I climbed higher and higher into the mountains. It didn’t take long till I heard the crunching of frost beneath my feet. I wore the torn sail as a blanket wrapped around me to stave off the cold, though it did little. My breath smoked in front of my face. Ice formed on my beard.
I stopped often to build a fire to warm up. Each time I did, some sort of creature howled. The terrible sound echoed all through the mountains, or maybe there were more of them answering the call of the first. What kind of creatures could I face in these mountains?
I continued on, always keeping my eyes and ears open. I didn’t know if I was going the right way. Upward seemed like the answer. Snow began to fall and showed no sign of letting up. Finally, I found a path. I followed it winding through forests, along cliffs, and up gorges, until I came to a bridge made entirely of ice.
No wider than my shoulders at its center, the bridge spanned the gap between two cliffs with a sheer drop between them. As I approached the bridge, a massive creature came charging out of the woods. Gray skin stretched tightly across a barrel chest. Its hands and feet were massive and bare to the elements. A bulbous nose took up most of its face with a twisted grimace behind. The only clothes it wore was a loincloth and a vest made from some sort of leather. It rested a massive club on its shoulder and a string of charms hung around its neck.
This must be a troll, I thought.
“Travelers pay to cross,” the troll said.
I made a show of patting myself down. “I have nothing.”
“Not good for you to have nothing,” the troll said. “Good for me. I’m hungry and cold. I make more coverings.”
Just then, I realized the troll had made his clothes from human skin. I couldn’t imagine it made for warm material. He would not have my hide, however.
“You may make warmer clothes with a bit of this sail I’m wearing.”
“I could squish you and take the sail anyway,” the troll chuckled.
“If we fight. It would be bad for both of us,” I said as I opened the sail to show my sword.
The troll bellowed laughter that seemed to shake the mountain. I drew the sword with a flash. The troll took a step back when he saw the lettering on the blade.
“If we fight, you will certainly kill me,” I said. “But you might lose an arm or an eye. Perhaps both. This Ulfbhert will make sure you pay dearly for your victory.”
“You must propose,” the troll said. “I shall not allow you to pass without pay.”
“I have proposed,” I said. “You may have half of this ripped sail to make into clothing and you may keep your arms and your eyes, or we can fight and you will be left blind and bleeding on this mountainside.”
“This is the deal?” the troll asked.
“This is what I offer,” I said.
The troll wrinkled his brow in deep thought for a long time. Finally, he stepped aside and held out a massive hand. I tore the sail the rest of the way and placed it in his hand. The troll sniffed it, rubbed it on his face, then draped it over his shoulders. It hardly covered his massive body, but he seemed to be pleased with a wide brown and yellow grin.
I walked past him before resheathing my sword. He watched me go and said nothing more. Toeing the edge of the cliff, I looked over into the chasm, but I could not see the bottom. I kicked a rock over the edge and it clattered downward endlessly.
Carefully, I made my way to the bridge. The ice crunched under each step. As I walked, the bridge grew narrower near its center. I could look down and see over the edge on both sides. I slowed to a shuffle at this point, too afraid to pick my feet up.
A moaning howl rode upon a slight breeze that threatened to nudge me over the edge. I looked over my shoulder to see what had made the sound. Dozens of lost spirits floated out of the trees and moved toward the bridge. I recognized the spirit at the front as one of the spirits from the cliffs, and I was sure I had killed the man in battle in life. I knew he would see my soul lost in death.
The troll stepped between the lost and the bridge. Before he could say one word, dozens of spears pierced, swords slashed, and axes hacked his gray flesh. The troll fell in a bleeding ruin on the slope and the spirits continued unchallenged to the ice bridge.
I ignored my fear of heights and replaced it with my fear of those lost souls. I ran to the far end of the bridge on slick ice. I dove into a snowbank on the other side free from the risk of falling to my death. The spirits were nearly halfway across already.
What could I do? Break the bridge. I cast my eyes about me and found a tall pine tree close enough to the edge of the cliff. I drew the Ulfbhert from my belt and swung it into the thick truck. Though the blade was sharp, it was no substitute for a good ax. The blade cut deeply into the tree and I was able to pull it out without bending it. I struck again, freeing a wedge of wood. Again and again, I cut, praying the blade would hold up to such abuse.
Chips flew over my shoulder, dropping into the abyss below until the front cut was deep enough. I moved around to the back of the tree and watched several spirits push others off of the bridge. They could only fit one at a time across the middle just as I had.
Lowering my head, I swing into the back of the tree with all my might. After several strikes, the trunk began to crackle. I threw my shoulder into the tree to push it over. My feet slipped in the snow and I pushed with all my might. Finally, the tree went over and I stepped back.
The pine struck the center of the ice bridge, shattering it. The lost spirits fell down into nothingness in the icy rubble. I peered over the edge and watched them disappear below. I watched for a long time after they were gone before backing away from the edge. I am safe. None made it across to challenge me.
Holding the Ulfbhert up to my eye, I inspected the blade closely. I expected chips and bends but found none. The blade was pristine. Not even a roll on the edge. The craftsmanship was truly remarkable. I sheathed the sword and once again began my climb up into the mountains.
I trudged up the steep and winding path further into the clouds. My feet sunk deeper and deeper into the snow as I went.
A sound echoed around me and I flinched, but it was not a sound of danger. It was laughter, loud, and booming down from further up the path. I kept moving and soon, I smelled sweet meat cooking over a smoky fire. The scent alone seemed to draw me forward.
I rounded a spur and twinkling lights peered down at me from above. I squinted into the dusk. A mead hall was nestled between two great peaks, light pouring from every window and smoke rising from three chimneys.
Heartened by the sight, I strode onward with renewed vigor. More laughter erupted from the hall, shaking the sloped around me. The hall grew larger and larger as I neared it until it towered over me. The biggest mead hall I had ever seen.
Images of great warriors doing battle with evil creatures had been carved into every inch of timber. I approached the large doors with some apprehension. Could this be a trick of this strange place? What creatures would spring out at me?
I gripped the massive knocker and rapped twice. Not a moment passed before the doors swung wide, bathing me in warmth and light from inside. I squinted into the light. Several figures crowded around the entry. Four large, bearded warriors and two tall shield maidens wearing magnificent armor stared at me for a moment. One of the men turned inward to the mead hall and lifted his arms up.
“He made it,” he called out in a booming, jolly voice.
Hundreds, no, thousands of warriors cheered in unison. The hall was gargantuan from the outside, but inside, the room seemed infinite, stretching on forever in all directions. Long tables overflowed with fine food of all kinds. Roaring fires blazed in every hearth. All across the massive expanse, warriors, raised horns, goblets, mugs, and tankards to me, with all manner of drink spilling from each.
One of the shield maidens ushered me inside and the doors closed behind me. One warrior thrust a horn of ale into my hand as another slapped a shank of lamb into the other. I was guided further into the feast by dozens of hearty slaps on my back in congratulations.
A firm hand on my shoulder put me in a seat with a mountain of food on the table in front of me. I lunged at it, stuffing anything and everything into my mouth, gulping mead and ale to wash it all down. I nearly drained my horn when I set it down to eat again, but each time I picked it up, it was filled to overflowing.
“Tell us of your adventure,” a berserker demanded from the other side of the food mountain.
I looked up to find dozens of eyes on me from the warriors who sat all around my place at the table.
“Let him eat first,” a shield maiden said.
“I have,” the berserker said. “There will always be food in this hall, but I hunger for this fresh tale of adventure.”
The shieldmaiden conceded with a shrug and the surrounding warriors gathered closer to hear my story. I put my half-devoured chicken down and took a long pull from my horn. I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and cleared my throat.
“Four of them surrounded me, spears, and axes in hand. The battle was over. We lost. The evidence was all around me. Dead and dying men, hacked, poked, and flayed. I would not survive this, but I must not submit. Cowards are not admitted to the hall of my fathers.”
The warriors cheered and gulped from their horns and mugs. When they settled, I continued.
“And so I sneered, baring my teeth and tightening my grip on the haft of my ax. Still, they circled. They knew they would end me, but they also knew I would fight them to my final moments. How many would I take with me to the afterlife? And so they waited for more of their warriors to finish off the last of my carls.”
I told my story, holding the attention of all who heard me. And when I was done, others wanted to hear. I told my tale over and over and listened to the stories of others. They told me of their lives and their struggles through the land of dusk to the hall of our fathers.
Nothing could have prepared me for the splendor of this place. The songs could never do it justice.
Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed this short series. I enjoyed writing it. Be sure to let me know if a series is something you enjoy so I know if I should do more in the future.
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