Bogerd sipped white brandy and thought of his daughter and his grandchildren, far away in the land of the Franks. Ingrid trailed an index finger across the inside of his left forearm, traced an old scar and then paused. He looked up at her, looked at the full, soft curve of her cheek, so much like Erika’s. He sighed and was suddenly aware that he was much too old for such as Ingrid. He realized this, to his great surprise, with more amusement than horror. He patted her hand and said, “Nay, Ingrid, not tonight. I need my pillows after my cup.”
Ingrid walked toward the stairs at the rear of the hall. Her round buttocks leaped beneath her skirts like playful dolphins. She stopped at the foot of the stairs, looked over her shoulder and stuck out her tongue.
Bogerd laughed. “Go on, girl! Have a word with young Erlund.”
Ingrid flipped her loosely bound blonde hair over her shoulder and proceeded up the stairs.
Bogerd raised his goblet to take that last restful sip of brandy when a light tapping sounded at his great hall’s main door. He lowered his goblet and stared. A house-karl would have thrown open the door and entered. A friend would have thumped the oaken staves heartily. What meant this meek tapping?
The tapper tapped again.
Bogerd snorted with irritation, set down his goblet, rose with a grunt and walked to the door. He pulled the latch, opened it and peered out into frosty, starry darkness, empty darkness.
A quiet chuckle came from around his knees. “Here, Bogerd, down here.”
Bogerd started and looked down.
Gimp, the king of Nordheim’s beggars, looked up at him. Gimp’s legs had gone to the belly of a great fish in the southern ocean. His life as a sailor done, he’d become one of Nordheim’s maimed poor. It wasn’t many years before his energy and intelligence made him their leader. His usual mode of transport was a low, four-wheeled cart, which he propelled at a great rate of speed with his long, massive arms. Off his cart, he was able to swing himself up stairs like a swift-scuttling crab. He could pivot, too, off of one stony fist and crack heads with the other. No one required more than one blow from Gimp’s fist to come to agreement with him. Though the worlds of thane and beggar seldom touched, there was respect between Bogerd and Gimp.
Gimp inclined his head slightly. “Sorry to impose like this, Bogerd, but I need to speak with you tonight.”
Bogerd opened his door wide. “Come in, then, Gimp. Rest by the fire. It’s as cold as a banker’s brass buns tonight.”
“Thank-you, Bogerd.” Gimp swung through the entrance. Bogerd closed the door and followed him to the hearth. Gimp lowered himself onto warm flagstones as Bogerd settled into the extra wide chair reserved for him alone. Gimp, hesitant and nervous, studied the fire. Bogerd leaned back and waited, but offered Gimp no refreshment. He knew that doing so would make the man even more uncomfortable than he already was.
At last, Gimp looked up. “I don’t know where to begin.”
Bogerd shrugged. “At the beginning.”
“Right.” Gimp looked back at the fire. “Rus slavers took twenty girls from Nordheim this night. One of them was my daughter.”
Bogerd was unaware Gimp had a daughter. He let that pass and asked, “How did they avoid the watch?”
Gimp shrugged. “Slaughtered them.”
Bogerd leaned forward. “All six?”
Bogerd grunted. “They will be avenged. Where was your daughter?”
“In the school of Freyja’s Søsteren”
Bogerd straightened. “What of the sisters? Are they safe?”
Gimp looked down. “Two died. Two were taken. The rest were raped and left.”
Bogerd’s teeth ground together. “That’s an evil deed. The sisters help the poor and are poor themselves! They do good work in this sorry world.”
Gimp nodded. “Aye, and they offered no resistance. The Rus simply wanted to kill.”
Bogerd squeezed the arm of his chair. “Once the thanes of Nordheim learn of this, they’ll form a force and give chase.”
Gimp shrugged. “They’ll talk tomorrow, leave the day after and that will be two days too late. You know the Rus. Besides, in the unlikely chance that Nordheim warriors catch them, they’ll kill all of their captives before giving battle. We have to leave now to have a chance at saving them. I can’t make the journey alone. Will you help me?”
Bogerd rose. “You and I, alone?”
Gimp nodded. “Yes.”
Bogerd muttered, “Freyja’s Sisters.” He looked up at the trophy hung above his mantle. To all other eyes, it was a rusted morning-star, a spiked iron ball connected by a chain to a stout oaken stave. To his eyes alone, it appeared as the Brysinga, a necklace of twelve large diamonds and immense magical power. Stolen by Loki, Bogerd had rescued the necklace some years before. Freyja herself made him its guardian, its user at need in her name. What greater need could there be? The Brysinga leapt from its hooks and dropped into his hands.
“You plan to take that antique head-crusher, do you?” asked Gimp.
Bogerd nodded. “I do.” He looked at Gimp. “Can you ride?”
“I’m fine in a pack bag if you’ll lead the horse.”
Bogerd leaned down and clasped Gimp’s right hand. He grinned. “I’ll lead the horse. Let’s get your daughter back!”
Fierce as a snow tiger, Gimp squeezed Bogerd’s hand and grinned. “Aye!”
Snow upon the crest of a low hill glowed beneath stars and a sliver of new moon. Bogerd halted his horse upon the crest and peered ahead. A breeze with a crystalline edge made his eyes water. He sheltered them with his forearm and studied the broken ground beyond the hill.
Gimp pulled himself up from the depths of a canvas sack. “Why’d you bring such huge horses?”
Bogerd did not turn. “Even with no legs, you’re not a lightweight and we needed extra supplies. Besides balancing your weight, the other pack has items that will help us get those girls back to town alive.”
“Bah!” complained Gimp. “And we win; we can take what we need from the Rus.”
Still studying ice towers and boulders below, Bogerd said, “We’ll take what we can, but it’s best never to plan on getting anything useful from an enemy.”
“Raiding isn’t my business, but it seems we should be traveling lighter.” Gimp peeked out of the pack and quickly ducked down. “It is a mite cold, though.”
Bogerd mused, “The Rus veered north into the cold waste instead of riding straight east into the taiga. Why? The trees are their home.”
Gimp shrugged, “Maybe they just wanted to fox the pursuit.”
Bogerd turned and looked at Gimp. “I smell smoke.”
Bogerd wiped his knife, a long and heavy dirk, on a bit of rag he’d brought for that purpose. He slipped it back into its sheath and looked at the dead Rus sentry. Skinny, dirty and clad in rags, he was obviously the lowest ranking member of the raiding party and would be the only guard on such a cold night.
Bogerd rose and walked silently back to his horses. Gimp raised his eyes above the rim of the saddle pack. “Trouble?”
“Let’s go, then.”
Bogerd looked at him skeptically. “Will you need help?”
“Just get me into the middle of them. Then they’ll need help.”
Bogerd nodded and mounted. “Six are still by the fire. The rest are in their furs. We’ll start with the six. I’ll go left. You go right.”
Gimp growled in reply.
Bogerd thumped his horse’s ribs with both heels. The big animal broke into a canter and breasted the rise. Its even bigger mate, lead tied to the saddle behind Bogerd, followed.
The Rus were light cavalry. They preferred using their bows and drew their curved swords only when pursuing or when forced into close fighting. Their bows were now unstrung because of the cold. The men by the fire drew their swords.
Ten yards from the first fighter, Bogerd cast the throwing ax he held in his right hand. It spun through the air and split the fighter’s face. Bogerd’s left hand cast sank haft deep in the chest of the man standing next to him. Bogerd pulled his fighting ax free and leapt from the horse.
He landed between two red-haired fighters. Experienced hands, they stepped apart and made a coordinated attack. Bogerd knocked one slender blade away with his ax. He deflected the other with his right arm. The blade skittered off his vambrace, though it inflicted a shallow slash as it bounced away.
Bogerd knew he had no time for fancy fighting. Momentum was everything in a fracas like this. He jumped inside the sword arc of the man on his right and punched him hard over the heart. The man’s breath exploded out of his chest in a cloud of silver vapor. He dropped his sword and fell. The point of the other man’s sword stabbed into Bogerd’s torso near his left kidney. His chain shirt was dwarf-forged steel and would keep the sword from plunging deep, he hoped. The head of his fighting ax whistled in a backhand swing, hunting for the second swordsman’s throat. A gurgling cry indicated a successful hunt. His return stroke made sure that the winded man would never catch his breath. Bogerd turned to help Gimp.
The two fighters facing Gimp had never fought or imagined such an enemy before. They kept their sword points on him and feinted half-heartedly. Gimp grinned. In both fists he held half-moon shaped blades. Knuckles to the ground, Gimp hopped left, right and left again. Both Rus fighters stepped back. Gimp spun on his left knuckles, thrust with his right stump and launched himself to the left of the leftmost fighter. The man’s sword went over Gimp’s right shoulder while he twirled. His right hand, blade extended, came round and sliced through the fighter’s thigh. The man cried out in horror and collapsed on the ground. Gimp twirled on, off one fist and then the other. A double bounce on the left fist and a stump thrust again launched him into the air. He flew toward the remaining Rus with his left hand knife extended. The Rus slashed at him. Gimp caught the slash on his left hand blade, deflected it. Then his right hand blade descended in a vertical arc. It cut the Rus from shoulder to groin. He fell without a sound.
Bogerd looked back at the camp. About a dozen Rus still remained. Most were out of their skins and fingering their swords. One mead-soaked warrior close to him still struggled to crawl from his furs. Bogerd stepped forward. His ax rose and fell.
Wide-eyed Rus stared at him and began to murmur, “Berserker, berserker, berserker.” Indeed the flame-lit, blood-splashed Bogerd looked like a monster Berserk, dripping ax raised to hell in tribute.
Bogerd took an unhurried, purposeful step toward the Rus and growled deep in his chest. They turned and ran for the line of horses beyond the fire. Bogerd hissed over his shoulder, “Come on, Gimp! They’ll run now if we keep moving toward them.” Gimp, still grinning, swung forward. Bogerd hissed again, “Not so fast! We want to scare them, not catch them!”
The Rus threw blankets on their ponies and plucked reins from the picket line. Some threw loaded saddlebags across their horses’ backs. Some didn’t. In less than a minute they pounded down the snowy trail and disappeared in deep blue darkness.
Gimp, his deep breaths thrusting ice plumes into the firelight, looked up at Bogerd. “They won’t come back?”
Bogerd lowered his ax. “They won’t come back. There’s nothing here but death.”
Gimp looked around the shattered camp. “The girls,” he breathed, “aren’t here.”
“No, they’ve already been sold.”
Gimp glanced at the ice wilderness outside of the fire’s circle. “You don’t mean . . . “
Bogerd nodded. “The Rus sold them to Gerutha. The ice witch has them.”
Gimp whispered, “The ice witch.”
Gimp looked down at the mouth of an ice-bound cave. “We’re not two miles from where the Rus made camp.”
“That’s where the trail leads.”
“They probably felt safe camping close to Gerutha’s cave.”
Bogerd shook his head. “She cares nothing for them or any human. Her father was of the Elle-folk and her mother was a dwarf.”
Gimp looked up. “She has the twisted, rotten back?”
Bogerd nodded. “It is her weakness and her shame.”
“She’ll go wild with rage if you mention it.”
Bogerd shrugged and stared at the frozen black mouth. “Let’s go.”
“Ah,” Gimp looked at him, “We’re taking the horses?”
Bogerd shook his head. “We can’t ride horses into that cave. They wouldn’t go.”
“Well . . . “
“Don’t worry. I’ll be your horse for a time.” He bent down. “Climb on. And be careful with those cursed knives of yours!”
Gimp pulled himself onto Bogerd’s broad shoulders. Bogerd grunted and straightened. Measuring his steps carefully, he strode toward the cave.
Gimp hissed in his ear. “The witch will have magical protections.”
Bogerd nodded. “She will. We have some of our own. Whatever you see, stick close to me until I tell you to let go.” He felt in his belt pouch and grasped the Brysinga. He muttered, “Freyja, with me now!”
As they came near the cave, two hairy heads, each the size of a wolfhound’s, rose from shadowed coils on either side of the opening. Four eyes, cold and green as new sea ice, stared at Bogerd and Gimp.
Gimp gasped, “Snowsnakes.”
Bogerd added, “Enchanted snowsnakes.”
“I’ll wager a barrel of good ale my ax won’t bite on either of them.”
Gimp muttered, “A drop of their poison will melt a man’s bones. What should we do?”
“Let’s not get bitten.”
The snakes’ tongues flickered in the dim light as they uncoiled and slid forward. Then they stopped and reared, mouths agape, fangs dripping yellow ichor. Bogerd held up the Brysinga.
Gimp peeked over Bogerd’s shoulder and growled, “That old morningstar won’t do us any good!”
Bogerd muttered, “Hold on tight.”
The snakes hissed and struck together.
Bogerd hopped to his left. The right hand snake struck low and missed. Bogerd’s left hand flashed out and seized its furry neck right below its jaw. Drops of golden poison splattered his beard and tunic. Bogerd squeezed hard. The snake’s fifteen foot body spasmed violently, and its mouth opened wide. He shoved the Brysinga past dripping fangs with his right hand.
There was a noiseless explosion and a cloud of ice crystals hung in the frosty air where the snake’s body had been.
Gimp howled, “Bogerd! The other one!”
The other snake, now coiled at Bogerd’s feet, struck. Fangs extended, it arrowed toward Bogerd’s groin. Bogerd’s right hand flashed down. He thrust the Brysinga between needle fangs just before they lanced into his left thigh. Again a cloud of ice crystals erupted where the snake had been.
Gimp looked over Bogerd’s shoulder. “That was close!”
“Closer for me than for you,” growled Bogerd.
“Well how am I supposed to get out of here if you get killed?”
Bogerd shrugged. “Let’s see what’s inside.” He walked forward into darkness
After a few steps, Gimp -no stranger to darkness – complained, “Can’t see a thing! It’s like the inside of a cow in here.”
Bogerd said, “More like the inside of a dragon.”
Gimp didn’t like the change of comparison but asked, “Would Gerutha arrange bottomless pits or deadfalls?”
Bogerd shook his head. Gimp could feel the motion if not see it. “No. That would make life more complicated for her. The snakes would discourage most. Any who got past them would sound a magical alarm.”
Gimp gasped, “You mean she knows we’re here?”
“There’s a light ahead.”
Bogerd rounded a corner and stepped into a wide, tall cavern. Several torches guttered in sconces on the walls and a bonfire burned at its center. A bent, wizened woman stood before the fire. She wore a gray dress and a much-patched, hooded shawl.
She looked at them. “You know me?”
Bogerd nodded. “Gerutha.”
“Good. It is not convenient for you to be here.”
Bogerd grinned. “I suspect not.”
Gerutha smiled in return, if one yellow tooth can comprise a smile. “Yes, you’re right. I’m in the middle of important work. Most evenings, I don’t mind uninvited visitors. They can be entertaining. Not tonight.”
Gimp shook his fist at her. “Here now! What have you done with my daughter, Unni?”
“Unni?” Gerutha scratched her chin. “Oh, yes. She’s the young blonde.” Suddenly, a slender girl of about sixteen winters stood in Gerutha’s place. She tilted her head. Light from the torches and fire struck highlights from her golden hair as she did so.
Gimp shouted, “Unni!”
The girl smiled and said, “If I truly wanted to torment you, I would make you battle me in this guise.”
Gimp leaned forward, reached toward his daughter’s image.
“Or this one.” Now a tall, athletic woman in her late twenties stood in the blonde girl’s place. This woman’s dark hair flowed over her shoulders like smooth water. Her grey eyes sparkled and she smiled a wide smile.
Bogerd murmured, “Erika.”
The woman nodded. “Yes, Erika. I plucked her image from your mind. It won’t be as good as the other, but I see it’s good enough.”
Bogerd shook his head. “How . . . how can you do this?”
Gerutha-Erika’s smile widened. “After many decades of study and sacrifice, I can free my essence from my physical being, at least for a short period of time. I can then fashion any body I wish, any body known to me or to someone near me whose mind I may browse.”
“Any body?” asked Bogerd.
Gerutha-Erika nodded. “Any. But you’ve come on my special night.”
“This is the night of my final transformation. Once my essence is fully disembodied, I will be immortal. I will move from body to body forever.”
Gimp sputtered, “What of the girls, My Unni . . . “
Unni’s face turned to Gimp. “Their young lives are the coin required for my transformation. It’s a pity, but needs must. And now I must really end this conversation, enjoyable as it is.”
A monstrous blue-gray cave troll, twelve feet tall and eight feet wide, loomed where Unni had stood an eye-blink before. The troll said, “I find this body most useful in physical confrontations. There’s no need to use complicated sorcery to get rid of you two, I think.” The troll’s blunt, thick fingers curled. It took a step toward Bogerd and snarled.
Bogerd muttered to Gimp. “Off, now! Do what you can!”
Gimp dropped to the cave floor, pivoted on his right fist and swung away to Bogerd’s right. Bogerd hefted his fighting ax with his left hand and grasped the Brysinga with his right. He wondered how he might get close enough and live long enough to use either against this Gerutha-troll.
Gerutha-troll stepped closer. Bogerd feinted low and brought his ax up backhanded in a chop toward the monster’s face. Gerutha-troll’s right hand flashed out and blocked the stroke, hit Bogerd’s ax in the middle of its ash handle. The handle snapped like a dry stick. The ax head flew past the troll’s head, struck sparks against the wall and bounded into the bonfire.
Gerutha-troll smiled and firelight gleamed on its wet tusks. “Didn’t think I was that fast, did you?” Its left fist closed on Bogerd’s tunic, gripped hard, pinned his arms and raised him into the air. At that moment Gimp swung close to the troll’s left foot. Knives gleaming, he spun and slashed, spun and slashed.
Gerutha-troll yelped and looked down. Black blood seeped from two shallow slashes on its warty ankle. The troll growled, “You nasty cripple! Those cursed knives are sharp. Take that!” The troll stomped with its right foot. The cave floor shattered a few inches from Gimp’s left fist. He pivoted wildly. The troll’s left foot crashed down where that pivot should have taken Gimp, but he wasn’t there. He’d thrust both fists straight down and launched into a backwards somersault. Two rolls left him several yards from the raging troll.
Gimp shouted, “Show me your lovely back! Perhaps I can carve a little off your rotten hump.”
Gerutha-troll growled like boulders falling and stepped toward Gimp.
Bogerd fought to breathe. The troll’s grip shifted as it reached for Gimp. Bogerd’s right hand came free. Gleaming between his fingers was the Brysinga.
A spark of white light caught the troll’s eye. It stopped and looked down at Bogerd.
Bogerd whispered, “Freyja, strike!”
“Oh, my!” Gerutha-troll said, “You’ve brought me a pretty!” Then fear washed across its flat features as it recognized the magical token.
White diamonds became a white blade. The blade, curved and two feet long, looked something like one of Gimp’s knives. Bogerd’s made a weak stroke at the wrist of the hand which squeezed him. The blade touched trollskin and bit deep.
Gerutha-troll howled and disappeared in a cloud of ice crystals. A piercing blue light bounced between the cave walls and then out into the night. A wailing cry followed it. As the cry faded, Bogerd smashed into the cave floor and knew nothing more.
Bogerd’s eyes fluttered open some time later and he looked up into a pair of calm brown eyes. “Eir,” he said, “you live.”
Eir, one of the captured sisters, nodded and wiped Bogerd’s brow with a wet cloth. “Yes, and I’m in a good deal better shape than you are.”
“My girls are safe, thanks to you and Gimp and the Brysinga.” She dabbed at Bogerd’s brow again. He looked up at her with mild alarm.
“Yes,” she continued, “I can see it too. How could a sister of Freyja not?”
Bogerd made to rise. Eir put a restraining hand on his shoulder. “You stay right there. You’ve got one stab, several slashes and at least four cracked ribs, not to mention a dozen other bruises and bashes.”
“But we’ve got to get you and your girls out of here. We’ve got to escape.”
Eir shook her head. “I judge that we’re safe enough for the time being.” She glanced toward the spill of shining diamonds beside Bogerd. “You need rest before we try to move. Besides, you’re not getting any younger, Bogerd.”
Bogerd gave up for the moment and lay still. At last he asked, “What happened after I hit Gerutha with the Brysinga?”
Eir smiled. The smile took many years away from her strong, lined face. She said, “That’s another reason why I think we’re safe here for a time, safe enough to summon help from Nordheim. I saw it all from our cell across the cavern. That bouncing light was Gerutha’s essence being flung back to her real body. Her scream voiced extreme pain at being violently disembodied by your Brysinga stroke.”
“Is she dead then?”
“No. You’ve seriously inconvenienced her, perhaps for a long time, but she isn’t dead. Her essence flew back to her real body, which is likely concealed in an ice crevice many leagues from here and guarded by frost giants.”
Bogerd sighed, “That will have to do.”
Eir patted his cheek. “It will do very nicely. In the meantime, we’ll enjoy Gerutha’s stores and facilities. We’ve already put your horses in her stable. It’s well away from the magic in this cave so they’re not uneasy. When the weather moderates, I’ll send Gimp with two of the girls to get help.”
“Look for yourself.” She pointed to her left.
Bogerd looked. Gimp sat on cushions before the fire. His hand was in Unni’s. He smiled as he listened to her quiet talk.
Eir continued, “No, Gerutha is not dead. When she recovers from her wounds, she won’t think kindly of you, Bogerd.”
“No, she won’t.” Bogerd continued looking at Gimp and Unni. Unni smiled and squeezed her father’s horny hand. “I hope to make her unhappier yet!”
Robert Walton is a retired teacher, lifelong mountaineer and experienced writer. His novel, “Dawn Drum”, won the 2014 New Mexico Book Awards Tony Hillerman Prize for best fiction. Most recently, his “La Loca”, was published in Principia Ponderosa, the Third Flatiron’s Volume 18. He and his wife make their home in King City, California.