Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Gathering of Jarls (Blood & Iron prt 5)

The sun was high in the sky when the Jarls of the various clans, not yet at war with each other, gathered in the shadow of the holy oak tree that dominated the sunlit clearing that was cut out from the dense forest a few miles from Kveldulf’s village. The natural perfectly circular patch of high grass, although mostly buried under the snow, was enclosed by a row of menhirs that stood erect, some at as much as 15 foot to the sky. Upon the rugged surfaces were carved intricate patterns of vines and entwined animal forms, runes and sacred symbols pertaining to the sun, the moon as well as many of the gods and goddesses that populated the rich pantheon of the Nordic tribes. At the center of this circle stood the great oak tree some say was planted by the gods themselves as a shrine for men to gather around and converse with the high ones. No one was permitted to as much as cut off a piece of its sacred bark less they be struck down by Donnar, the thunder god himself.
The sky was clear, the air coo and invigorating and the wheel of sun dominated the heavens.

Twelve chieftains came to Kveldulf’s call. The Jarls of the clans from the western borders with Svealand as well as the clans from the east, near the Ukrvorod borders, land of their sworn enemies, and as far as all the way north, where the snow swallows a man whole and never melts when the spring awakens after a long hard winter’s cold. 12 men with their armed companies, traveled by day and by night to gather in this protected place to discuss the fate of their land and the bond that links them. Beside Kveldulf, stood Thörgrimr, fully armed and eager to speak his mind.

Kveldulf, as host, engaged the matter at hand, standing straight and raising his right fist to his heart, he spoke with his natural rugged deep voice;

“Hail to all that came to this gathering today.”

“Hail!” Clamoured the Jarls in an almost perfect unison. Then the Jarls seated upon smaller stones within the larger circle, in silence save for the clanging of weapons and the wind singing through the conifers. The armed guards remained standing. After a pause in which everyone gathered murmured secret prayers to the one-eyed All-Father in the halls up high for his protection at his sacred circle, Kveldulf spoke again first.

“You have all read the missive I have sent you by my riders. You know why I have summoned you here under the ever watching eye of Odhinn. Let there be neither lies spoken here nor evil machinations brooding in any man’s heart. Odhinn reads man’s innermost thoughts and his spear will strike dead, he who breathe over and give life to the embers of deceit. By this blood of mine, pure as the white flame that forges the steel with which I draw it, I swear to this oath of blood and iron.” With his seax knife, Kveldulf cuts deeply into his left hand and by tightening his fist, lets his blood fall upon a patch of earth cleared of snow. Solemnly, all the other Jarls do the same ritual, thus linking their chieftain’s honour and bond of friendship under the gods, to each other and the sacred earth.

It was Ingvar, of the western clan near the Svealandian territories, which spoke first now. “Kveldulf-” Spoke in a coughing voice as if afflicted by some illness to the throat. “Long have I, during my travel here, pondered the matter addressed here today under the oak. And I must speak frankly-“

“As we all should brother” Cut short Kveldulf, a hand raised in salute.

The Jarl paused a second. Ingvar was a large man with a bulging belly. Short legs like tree trunks and thick arms restrained by large silver arm-rings on his biceps. In the burning heat of summer or the frozen blizzard of winter, Ingvar always wore his sleeveless black wolf-skin coat, impervious to the cold to show off his arm rings. He wore the traditional marks of the chieftain; a long breaded beard and the heavy bronze and silver Tork around is large neck. Wrought with four wires twisting over and under in a near full ring ending at each extremity with magnificently sculpted animal heads in pure gold. The various totem beasts associated with the spirit of the clan. His was the bear. A large bladed sword rested sideways upon his dear hide covered knees and a heavy wrought iron Donnar’s hammer upon his chest.

“Indeed we must, and I say that there is matter for debate over this conspiracy against the clans. Yes we have been quarrelling with other clans through the years for the same reasons our fathers and their fathers before them have; land to prosper on and sovereignty over them.”

“And riches too…” All turned their heads toward Ahnbrenn, chieftain of the clan in the deep forest just north to Kveldulf’s. A tall thin man, too thin for the usually large and bulky northmen, with eyes like that of dear protruding from his skull and thin lips pointing down, like his lean nose, as an eagle’s beak. He alone wore a much shorter beard but hair reaching to his knees. He tried to hide his skinny and frail looking body with many layers of linen shirts and thick leather armour. Yet not successfully reaching his desired effect, he looked like a weakling compared to all the other warriors. Also, he had yet to demonstrate his valour in battle to his kin as much as he had already shown his enthusiasm when talks of money and wealth and possessions of material things was brought up. To no surprise, his Tork bore the heads of snake at its ends.

“For some indeed” snapped Thörgrimr at Ahnbrenn’s intervention, a sneer of disdain on lips and irony in his voice.

“Thörgrimr!” Retorted Kveldulf, signalling with his hand at his son. The giant warrior in full leather lamellar and mail shirt with sword at side did not care much for those whose priority in life centered on themselves and the gain of personal wealth over the well being of their own folk. A foul character trait not worthy of a chieftain in his mind. For an instant, the two men eyed each other across the circle of stones. It was not permitted to insult a guess at this meeting and this remark caused some unease amid the group, but after a few seconds of staring into the blazing steel-blue eyes of the man towering before him, Ahnbrenn judged prudent to release his bony hand from the jewelled hilt of his sword, a wise choice indeed.

The men focussed their attention back to the discussion at hand, but their body guards kept a watchful eye on Kveldulf’s impatient son. A light wind arose blowing from the south-west, carrying the warmth of the ocean even though miles away at the mouth of the fjords.

Kveldulf resumed. “At the last battle against the three clans, we lost many men. What my son brought to my attention, although I would not listen at our victory’s feast then, was their may be someone, or many individuals working to bring strife to the various clans so that they wage war on one another thus clearing the path.”

“The path for what, an invasion?” Thundered the deep voice of Böli. By far the most imposing amongst the Jarls and the entire inhabitants of Nordheimr. A man with the stature of a giant, at least a full head above Thörgrimr himself. His gentle pale grey eyes buried under a thick golden mane that shun in the sun betrayed the massive bulk of his body. Adding to his gigantic stature, he wore a heavy boiled leather armour with chain mail to his knees, a huge white mountain goat’s fur rested on his massive shoulders. Buried in the snow at his feet, lay his famed long battle axe by which countless foes have met their bloody doom at its sharp edge. He bore the heavy accent of the people from the far north.

“What manner of a coward works his evil through manipulation and deceit instead of facing its enemy face to face on the battlefield like a man?” Spitted out Boli while gripping his great axe’s long handle in his head-crushing grip.
“The ones who have no courage or honour.” Answered Thörgrimr, folding his iron mailed covered arms upon his chest.
“I believe my son has something to say to this council.” Announced Kveldulf showing his son to advance and present himself to the circle of chieftain.
“Many of you already know me. For those who do not, I am Thörgrimr, son of Kveldulf the grey wolf. The reason you are here today is mainly because of me. I am no diplomat nor do I care to learn about the political twist and turns, and all too often treacherous ways, of power. While wealth and a carved throne might make one chieftain in his own hall or in his own head, I raise a mead filled horn to he who has won his Tork through the sword and deeds of honour. Birthrights are all too easily taken for granted these days and fail to bring forth the scars of a hard fought right to lead a people and be called Jarl.” To this, all the Jarls let out a great Hail as weapons banged on shields. Only Ahnbrenn remained silent looking about, an untold hatred aflame in his raven eyes.

When the clamour calmed down Thörgrimr resumed. “For far too long we have been at war with one another for both valid and foolish reasons. On all sides we have spilled our enemies’ blood. That blood has been that of your brothers, your fathers, your sons. And although our swords did sing in the fury of battle, their songs have not all been that of victory and glory.

“Odhinn bestow upon the moment of our birth, the burning flame of his breath of life. This spark which turns into glowing embers which in time become a blazing fire, thus forging the indomitable iron will of our race, is the very thing that links us all. By his sacred spear, aren’t we all his flesh and blood?” Another loud unanimous Hail resounded among the stones.

“Just a few days ago, I stood in the gelid valley of Thrundall, my sword black with gore and the snow about tainted with the blood of hundreds of my kinsmen. I did not revel in their slaughter. And although I was forced to defend my clan against their attack, I secretly wished it was not so. If by this I have offended the war gods, than let their wrath strikes me down now.” All kept silent for a moment as if expecting the skies to rip open in a terrible blazing fury of storm clouds and lightning to slay the blasphemer before them.

The sky remained clear, and Thörgrimr stood there, solemn and motionless in this moment of judgement. When no vengeful doom from the heavens manifested, he took a deep breath and turned to his father. The great Jarl gave his son a nod of approval. Thörgrimr turned to face the gathered throng of men half attentive, half still expecting some godly intervention.

“I am not a man to speak about what I do not know, but I do know when my gut is telling me something. And that instinct of mine tells me that we are all being moved by some unseen hand, be it natural or no. In the short period of three moons we have battled more than in the last thirty years. What say you to that?”

The men look at each other with questioning eyes and low whispers. Then Ahnbrenn stood up, is knee-long hair dancing in the soft wind. “My clan has never been attacked thus far since I have been Jarl. And I fail to see the relevance between your allegations of some phantom force working to bring our downfall, with what we have always done in the past; fight each other. I feel no blood bond with no one here and why should I? In two days from now, anyone of you present could besiege my village on a whim. Or perhaps the true conspiracy lies with you trying to gather the clans under your banner to conquer all the lands.” Ahnbrenn pointed a long accusing bony finger at Kvelfulf, his thin lips etching a malicious grin.

“Spawn of Fenrir, you snake!” Thörgrimr unsheathed his long sword, spitting curses as his eyes gleamed a raging bale-fire, ready to leap across the circle as a mad wolf, but a powerful hand gripped his arm. It was Kveldulf’s, still sitting calmly facing the man that had just accused him of conspiracy before the whole council of Jarls. By now, all the chieftains were standing weapons drawn yet none moved. It was not permitted to openly insult another Jarl, especially the host. Kveldulf rose from his bench still holding his son’s tensed sword arm with an iron grip. Out of respect, Thörgrimr remained still but a vengeful fire burned in his icy stare.

“The only reason you are still alive at this very moment Ahnbrenn, usurper of your father’s throne, is because my son respect’s his father’s wishes. And I wish not for you to die a painful death here before the gathered chieftains. I would certainly not offence Odhinn with your coward’s blood upon his holy tree. Nor let this sacred earth be poisoned by it. And I, will not raise my axe against you for what honour would I be given to battle a weakling who has never even killed another man before he sat upon the throne as chieftain? Be gone worm. Do not dishonour this place with your cowardice and the filthy words that hiss from your foul mouth. As a snake you have come here, and as a snake you shall leave. Be gone I say!”

The man shot a long malicious stare at the assembly which was still standing, weapons drawn. Without uttering a word, he threw his dark woollen cloak over his shoulders and mounted his horse. Followed by his cohort, he trotted away from the circle of stones without looking back, cursing with every breath the clan that insulted him.

The remaining men sat down in a noisy hubbub of interrogations, bemused and lost for words. Kveldulf motioned them to calm down so that they may proceed with the reunion as planed, but Ingvar interrupted.

“Why by the hammer of Donnar, haven’t you split open that wretch’s head?”

“Because, my old friend, for once I have sought the path of wisdom instead of brawl.”

“And what is this path of yours so that we may trod upon it and profit from that same wisdom ourselves?”

“All my life I have been nothing but a hard headed bull with an axe for a brain, and this has not always guided me on the right path. I do not regret anything I did, but I will not let my stubbornness jeopardize the future of my clan. My eldest son Gruttle his destined to become Jarl when I join my fathers at Odhinn’s long table. I won’t ruin that by letting my anger, although boiling in me as I speak, prevail over what is right. Besides, as I have said, Ahnbrenn’s blood is tainted with the poison of weakness and we all know how he managed to sit is bony hind on his father’s throne. I shall not suffer such dishonourable wretch at my side.

“Would I go against the will of the All-Father on his holy soil, I would attract his wrath and doom upon my people and my bloodline. No. If Ahnbrenn must perish, it will be when at war with him on an open field, under the burning eye of Odhinn.”

“For all we know, Ahnbrenn could as well be that conspirator you suspect so much Kveldulf.” Exclaimed Boli, his thick roots-like fingers groping through his beard.

“Let us not too easily be fooled by our rage here.” Intervened Thörgrimr. “As much as this idea has crossed my mind, I seriously doubt that Ahnbrenn possesses the necessary intelligence and strategic mind to plot such a scheme.”

“Then who by Odhinn’s ravens?” Asked Ingvar thumping the snow with his furry boot. “Are we to sit here for days squabbling about something we do not even know is real?”

“Calm down Ingvar the westerner.” Begged Kveldulf. “We are not without any hope of having some light shed upon this darkness. The attention of the group was now captured. “As perhaps some of you know, my wife’s mother was a völva. She could know things we men could not or wished not to know about, for such witchery is of the domain of wenches and not of warriors. Our daughter, Gunnhildr, has that ability. Seidhr she calls it but that matters not, what matters is that she, my wife and also my son Thörgrimr seem to believe her visions have something to do with our problem.”

The Jarls looked at each other amazed by what they had heard from the lips of a man renown for his untameable down-to-earth spirit. Upon hearing this, Ingvar spat in the snow and pointed a inquisitors finger at Kveldulf.

“Do you mean that we have to base our judgement upon the senseless dreams of an adolescent girl? Hear me my friend, I do believe that some of our women seem to have the gift of sight, whether it be bestowed to them by the gods or cursed by Loki, I believe this is very thin a thread for us all to bond with.”

The circle became agitated with murmurs and interrogations. Kveldulf stood up and tried to bring order in the group. Finally the calm was restored. Midday was now upon the sacred circle and the light of the sun shimmered upon polished helmets and unsheathed steel.

“I am not implying that we must blindly believe everything my daughter claimed to have seen, but there is motion for discussion nonetheless. For she revealed to me things that she could not have possibly known at her young age. She spoke of a battlefield filled with the lifeless corpses of my clan amongst that of all your men, a dark form was midst the bodies. She also spoke of a temple in the woods breathing with evil, and…” Kveldulf hesitated for a second.

“And what?” Asked Ingvar impatiently. “What else is she not supposed to know about?

“She mentioned…Gröndr.”

Silence instantly fell upon the whole gathering, a moment earlier noisier than a hundred galloping war horses. In a second; tanned, rugged complexions turned to deathlike paleness and stares like that of horrified children disfigured the burned battle-forged faces of men who’s courage were carven deep in their fabrics like an artisan carves the prow of a long ship in age-old oak. A long forgotten terror from a time since before the migration of the sons of Vindsvàlr awoke in their hammering hearts. And they lost all attention as each man reminisced through the cobwebbed corridors of his own blood-memory.

The skies darkened with clouds that seemed to come from nowhere. The air grew cold as the wind gathered. Only Thörgrimr’s voice shattered the icy silence. Unwavering with control yet not immune to the same immemorial fear that now seized the hearts of all his kinsmen.

“Aye, she knows its name”

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