Chapter Three: Mysts over the Danelaw

The deep of night, December 15th, 1001,

A village on the Nene river East of Peterburh Abbey, Anglia, The Danelaw

 

With the moon recently set, darkness loomed over the small collection of longhouses sitting upslope from the waters of the slow moving Nene. The lonely mill’s wheelhouse stood close to the shallow bank. It was long past the middle of night. All of the candles and fires in all of the longhouses had been blown out or tamped down. All save one. All of the longhouses lay quiet. All save one.

One single longhouse emanated deep drunken laughter. One single door-frame leaked out a thin aura of warm light into the dark wet night. Inside, deep orange flames curled around the sides of the well seasoned oak and maple logs sitting in the sandstone hearth at the center of the narrow home. A thick thatch roof insulated the building, holding in the heat of the flames. The air smelled of moist thatch, old soot, hot stones and sour beer. A number of candles were lit, standing on wrought iron holders hammered into the wooden posts. Their flames tinged the air in the long-house’s tight quarters with black smoke that twisted into an acrid braid hanging heavy beneath beams of oak and braces of alder. The thatched roof was visible with thin alder frames to support the sodden grass above. A naked hole over the fire was ringed black with soot. The floor below was a packed dirt that ran the length front to back.

On a long worn maple table, two wooden plates were greasy with the remnants of pork, beef and venison sliced from the bones, and what was left of a few rounds of soft cheeses. A few apples and a handful of raisins sat in a large wooden bowl. Bread, dry and crumbling, sat next to a near empty bowl of butter.

“Come on I’ll take three of you at once,” the big red haired man laughed, waving toward the group of four that he faced, and stumbled a bit before catching himself. He seemed to fill the main hearth area all by himself. “We have to make it fair somehow.”

“Go mate with one of your father’s sheep you braggart,” Egil shouted back, his face twisted and red. He jabbed a finger into Bjorn’s chest. “Just because you’re stronger and bigger than any one of use doesn’t mean you have to rub our faces in the horse manure.”

Where moments before he had been looming over everyone in the longhouse,  Bjorn’s handsome, boyish, features transformed from drunken happiness to stricken sadness. Standing nearly seven feet tall and with a thick barrel chest and massive arms, he was huge in comparison to any of his comrades in the longhouse, but now he seemed inches shorter as he hunched his shoulders and held out his hands, palms upward, beseeching his friends forgiveness.

“Egillllll,” the big man whined. “You know I didn’t mean anything by it. You know I don’t…”

He stopped there at a loss for words. He was visibly upset that his friend thought of him that way. Fair-haired Egil, stood there still for a moment, swaying in his own drunkenness, then stepped up and punched his big friend straight in the chest. It was a blow that would stagger, or even knock down, most men. Bjorn just grunted a little bit and put his hand to the spot where the punch landed. Then Egil’s face split into a grin.

“You, my friend, need to learn to be less like a girl and just knock me down when I say something stupid like that. I on the other hand need to learn that what you just said is true and not let my temper get the best of me. What do you say Valsten? And you Kraka? Do we take this big pile of cow dung outside and show him what happens to men who challenge more than they can handle?”

Valstan and Kraka both agreed but the other three occupants of the longhouse decided they were done for the night. They encouraged Bjorn and his friends to take their fun outside until they could be quiet. Egil jeered at them for being unmanly and they answered back that they would all discover who was unmanly come morning. They all laughed together as Bjorn, Egil, Kraka, and Valsten headed toward the door. Valsten opened it and stepped through only to freeze with one foot outside and one foot in. Bjorn ducked his head to go through the door right behind him, not realizing that his friend had stopped, and barreled right into the smaller man.

“Valsten!” Bjorn exclaimed hotly as they both fell sprawling to the ground. His mouth opened, ready to berate the other for stopping in the doorway, but his words stuck in his throat. “Wha.. What?”

Kraka stood at the door with his mouth open and his eyes staring. Egil stepped up beside him, still laughing with their house-mates, until his brows furrowed and he glanced outside himself. When he did he too was struck dumb, his jaw dropping open, and reached out to grab the jamb of the door to steady himself. Bjorn was sure he’d need something to hang onto if he wasn’t already on the ground. All around them was the thickest fog he’d ever seen. The sky was completely blocked out. His mother and father’s house, which lay only a stone’s throw away across the center green was completely invisible behind a curtain of mist. Yet even that was not the most surprising thing. More disquieting even than the thick haze were the foot thick masses of an even thicker vapor swirling within the greater body of fog itself. And even more disturbing than that was the lights that floated along the lengths of the swirling masses. Glowing orbs gave off a ghostly greenish-blue light as they flowed along the tendrils of thick vapor like a line of ants bringing food back to the nest. They were all frozen in stunned silence for a while until a voice from inside the house erupted.

“Close the door you fools! It’s cold out there damn it!”

“Odin’s blood,” Egil shouted, finally torn from his malaise. “What is that?”

“It’s the Wild Hunt,” Kraka exclaimed. “Odin rides with his warrior’s this night.”

After that everything was chaos. All four of them started to talk at once. Valsten and Bjorn scuttled back towards the longhouse. Shouts came from inside the house until one of the sleepers came out and became as confused and fearful as the rest. Finally all seven of the young men who lived in the bachelor’s house were speaking at once, wildly gesticulating, trying to say what they thought and be heard over all the rest. Bjorn stopped speaking as the chaos overwhelmed him, his hands raising as if to cover his ears.

“Quiet!” he shouted as powerfully as his big lungs could manage. “Everybody just be quiet.”

The rest were stunned into peace for a long few heartbeats. It was enough. They were all able to take a few calming breaths. Quickly Bjorn noticed something else. The world was cloaked in total silence. All sound they should have been hearing was not there. No sound from the river rushing by only fifty yards away. No sounds of the swamp frogs. No wind whistled through the branches of nearby trees. In fact he felt no wind at all. There was a complete stillness, all except for the lights moving along the thick ropy tendrils of mist. Chills ran up the length and width of his broad back, causing him to shiver. All of the others, though calmer now, still looked out into the eerie fog with wild eyes glancing back and forth as if looking for something to jump out at any moment.

“Shouting and waving gets us nothing,” he continued. “We can’t look at that if we want reasoned discussion.”

He shoved Valsten back into the house and followed him inside, shutting the door. He turned to Kraka.

“What do you mean Odin rides tonight?”

“Your father has tried to be a good christian since coming here so he hasn’t told you much of our old gods,” ” Egil replied for his friend. “Or let you stay when others here in the village discussed the legends of our people. Tonight is the first night of Yule, but it is also the first night of the Wild Hunt when Odin leads the warriors of Valhalla out to gather the animals for the feast in the mighty hall.”

“I saw it,” Kraka added. “I saw Odin on his eight legged horse.”

“Horse dung,” replied one of the sleepers.

“No, I saw it too,” Valsten stated, coming to stand shoulder to shoulder with his friend. “More than the Wild Hunt though I think. Did you see the serpent in the fog? I think it is Jormungandr letting go of it’s tail. Ragnorok is coming!”

“Well I don’t know,” Bjorn said, before anyone else could interject. “I didn’t see any of that. But I know that this is stranger than anything I’ve ever heard of. Should we wake anyone else? Or do we wait to see if this lasts before alarming anyone else needlessly?”

“I say we wait,” Egil said. “We should watch and see what happens. What if this is just something we’ve never seen before. We’ll get yelled at for waking them for nothing.”

“How can you say this is nothing?” Kraka exclaimed, his voice rising and then cracking. “Whatever it is I’ve never even heard of it before. We should wake our fathers and let them decide what to do.”

Once again multiple voices rose up, and arms waved about. All seven young men argued for different ideas. Some wanted to wake their parents. Others argued for waiting and not looking foolish later on if it turned out to be nothing. Voices were raised and tempers began to flare as the argument ran on for some time.

Then there was a knock on the door. It was so out of place, and so loud, that all of their voices quieted and they turned back to the door. Brow furrowed with confusion Bjorn reached out for the handle and pulled it open. Standing outside the door was an old man. His hair was white, wild and so thick that when it hung over the left side of his face nothing could be seen beneath it. His clothes were old yet well-mended and while he looked like he should be dirty he was in fact clean, though he carried a smell of sour beer, sour mead, and something else that Bjorn couldn’t at first identify.

“Welcome traveler,” he said, stepping back and beckoning inward. “Where do you come from that you are alone this late on Yule night?”

“Thank you,” the man replied in a gravelly voice, then he put a hand over his mouth before hacking a wet sounding cough. “I thank you, truly. It is cold and wet and this fog and the lights are strange. I have come from the east and I travel west. I did not expect to be so lost this night.”

“The east? It would have been dark already in Peterburh for you to leave there and get here by now.”

“Yes, Perterburh,” the old man coughed again. Bjorn automatically helped him to a chair while most of the others stood back, edging away from the sick old man. “Peterburh. I left before nightfall, but I lost my way. Then it grew worse with this strange mist. Glad I am to have found your home.”

“Sit here by the fire,” Bjorn continued, then casually tossed a few more logs on to bring more warmth to the hearth. “You must be cold and hungry. We still have some food left from the Yule feast. Would you eat?”

“No, no food, though I thank you for the offer,” the old man said. “Mead I would drink.”

“Of course,” Bjorn replied.

While the young man moved to get a horn from the table, the others slowly migrated to benches nearby, though none were next to the old man who continued to hack and wheeze. All of them were casting suspicious glances at him. Once Bjorn had poured the last of a small barrel of mead into the horn he voiced their concern.

“What brings you out of your home on the night of Yule?” Bjorn said, setting a wrought iron horn stand down on the table in front of the old man then setting the mead filled horn upon it. “Have you no family to stay with?”

“Family?” the old man replied. He picked up the horn and took a long draught of the golden liquid. Then smacked his lips and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. He examined the horn stand while he continued to speak. “I was away from my family, but now I return to them. I have a son that you remind me of quite a bit. Sadly my way back has taken longer than I anticipated. Who has done this work?”

His last question he emphasized by indicating the horn stand. Like all of Snorri’s work it was solid and well made but also intricate and beautiful even in it’s simple black coloration. This one was made of a single long square bar of iron that had been twisted over and over again, bent here and there for legs. A few spots were flattened in certain strategically located spots to allow the horn to set upon it without tipping, and shaped with a cone at the bottom to hold the point of the horn. At the top the twisted metal had been shaped into the visage of a fearsome bear.

“That is the work of my Master, Snorri,” Bjorn admitted. “I hope one day to have half the skill that he does.”

“Ahh, Snorri Half-nose,” the old man replied. “I know his work. He is indeed a man of great skill and honor. I would meet him someday.”

“But he is here now,” Bjorn said standing and pointing. “He lives in this village.”

“No, no,” the old man replied. “There is no need to wake him. Besides, I must go. There are many strides between here and where I go.”

The old man stood and turned up the horn swiftly draining it with a series of expert swallows. The young men all watched with admiration as the old man drank. It took a special skill, developed over time to be able to drink from a horn like that without spilling. The old man did not spill a drop. He set the horn back down into the stand and wiped his lips again.

“I am sure I’ll meet Snorri one day,” he said. “Do not wake him on my account. I am in need of being on my way and only stopped because I was thirsty and heard your voices through the mist.”

“I’ll go with you,” Bjorn said. “The roads can’t be safe at night. Especially not tonight.”

“Oh no,” the old man chuckled, then turned at the doorway to face Bjorn directly holding out his hand. “I can take no one with me. But I admire your politeness, your hospitality and your bravery to offer to guard a strangers back who you do not even know. Your father has much to be proud of and I’ll tell him so personally when I meet him… someday. But not this day. Get some rest boys, I’m thinking tomorrow will be a long, hard day.”

Bjorn held out his own huge hand and they grasped forearms. The old man stared into Bjorn’s eyes with his single visible eye. He had a very firm grip for an old man. A slight shiver ran up his arm from where the old man’s hand gripped his. The old man nodded his head, let go, turned, and strode through the door, letting it bang shut behind him.

An odd sensation lingered in his hand causing Bjorn to flex his fist, looking down at his palm for a few heartbeats, before looking up, his brows bent in thought. Suddenly he shook himself, grabbed the door and ducked through, but when he unbent from crouching through the door, the old man was gone.

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