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The Swordmaker

 

 

 

 

During the several days they were at sea, Gunther worked tirelessly and practiced combat every chance he could. One morning they sighted the coast of Thule. Gunther was amazed at how green the land was. They sailed up an estuary and beached the ship on an spit of land near a place called Glendalogh, where other Viking ships with their crew had already landed. All were under the command of Amlave, Lord of Black Pool. The first order of business was to build a rampart and a stockade on each side of the ship that could be approached by land. This took days of hard labor.

When the stockade was complete, in addition to his sword, Gunther donned a helmet, wore chain mail under a quilted jacket and carried a shield. After he lined up with the other men, they marched through heavy brush to the town which was protected behind a high stone wall. The Celt warriors, however, came out to meet them in a clearing before the gate. The Vikings lined up in rows in a tight formation, so that their shields formed a wall. As they quickstepped forward, Gunther’s heart pounded. This was it. He was really going to war. He felt proud, but also somewhat fearful, mostly because he did not know what to expect, from the enemy -- nor from himself.

Celts on the wall fired arrows. These were mostly ineffective as they bounced off the Viking’s shields. A few got through though, hitting men in the throat, face or chest. Gunther cringed as he saw men near him fall from this deadly rain. Meanwhile, the main body of Celts charged forward, screaming their war cries. Moments later, all was chaos. At first Gunther fought defensively, fending off the Celt’s weapons with his shield and sword. But as he saw men he knew being spitted and sliced, and even received slight wounds himself, his Norse temper flared. He whooped out a great war cry and wielded his sword as he had so long practiced. His strength was such that he was able to hew men’s head and limbs with one blow. Others he knifed through their guts, stomach and chest, at times needing to use his knees against the falling body to yank his weapon out. All around him were the screams of the dying, the wounded, and the hollering of men in a frenzy. Soon the roar triggered something in his brain that made him charge forward killing and maiming like a berzerker.

After a while he realized that the Celts were in retreat. It became a great race to see whether the Vikings could reach the great gate in the city wall before the Celts could close it behind themselves. Gunther ran so fast he passed Celtic warriors. These would never make into the city as other Norse and Danes cut them down from behind. When Gunther reached the great gate, only the width of two men could pass through before it was completely closed. With his great strength, he held it for several moments against the Celts trying to shut it, enough time to allow his fellow Vikings to pour into the city.

Eric was not far behind. He called a halt and got the men back into formation. As they formed a semicircle with their shield fending off the remains of the Celtic army, men were handed lit torches. When many had burning brands, Eric gave the command to charge. The Vikings spread out in all directions, throwing the flaming torches onto the straw-thatched roofs of the houses. As people emerged they were slaughtered. Soon the entire town was ablaze. Most of the Celts were dead, captured, wounded or fled. Young women and children were escorted back to the ships to be sold into slavery. Some were raped or tortured. Any living male over eighteen was beheaded. Gold, silver, jewelry and weaponry were thrown unto carts and hauled away.

Gunther was horrified. He had steeled himself to the killing of armed men in combat, but he was not prepared for this ruthless slaughter of innocent civilians. When the fighting was over, and the men were celebrating their victory, he approached Eric. “Must we kill and maim helpless people? I no longer feel like I want to be a warrior when I see men doing such things.”

Eric patted him on the back. “I do not like to see such things either, Gunther, but Amlave has ordered us to destroy the city and teach these cursed Celts a lesson. These Danes are not so kindhearted as we Icelanders. They have received worse from the Thule Celts and wish to avenge their kin. Believe me, if you continue in my service, you'll see much carnage. Perhaps Jorn was right. You're not cut out for this life.”

“No. I wish to remain. I'll shut my eyes to those things that are not to my liking and keep my mouth closed. I know what discipline is.”

“Good boy. I want to congratulate you. I was watching you. You handled yourself heroically. Holding that gate against the Celts was a feat worth much praise. Someday, bards will sing about it.”

Gunther lowered his eyes. “It's a thing that any strong man could’ve done. It was simple luck that I reached that gate before it closed.”

“Aye. You are favored by Odin. As a reward, I wish to take you on a special mission, one for which only a few men will be needed. I want only volunteers.”

“Of course I'll go. What is the mission?”

Eric pointed at a great hill that overlooked the town. “Up there is a Christian monastery. Monks always have treasure hidden somewhere. I wish to loot the place. But you must not speak of this. I do not want the Danes to know what I am about. I have no wish to share with them. Besides, they are Christians and may not like the idea of attacking a monastery.”

“I understand. When do we go?”

“Soon, I or one of my men, someone you know, will come to your tent in the night.”

* * *

It was high summer. Thus it was late before it was dark enough for the raid that Eric had planned. He came for Gunther, who was quartered in a tent in the courtyard of the Celtic king who had reigned in Glendalogh before the Viking's raid, at twilight when the world was in that hazy time of a summer eve between the heat of day and the breezes of the night. Only twelve of Eric’s most loyal men were to go on this raid. Gunther knew each by name.

To reach the monastery it was necessary to hike through a dark woods. They entered the forest with but one flare to light the way. This was held by Hermod, the scout, who had an unerring sense of direction. At a pace apart the others followed, Eric directly behind Hermod. Gunther brought up the rear. Their pace was slow. In the utter darkness, it was easy to trip over a rotted log or a sapling. From Gunther’s position, he could barely see the man ahead, and the light from Hermod’s torch was but a moving star bobbing up and down a long way off.

The strange forest was weird with its gnarled twisted trees and mossy humps. An eerie mist rising from the floor gave off had a musty, decayed stench and glowed softly with a peculiar violet hue. All around fireflies flickered. Gunther could swear that out of the corner of his eye, they seemed to be little flying beings carrying lanterns. He whispered to the man in front of him, “Ole, I do not like these woods. There is something of the supernatural about them.”

When no answer came, Gunther picked up his pace. Suddenly, he realized that the bobbing light ahead was simply another firefly, which winked out. “Ole,” he called out in a stage whisper, not wanting to holler in case an enemy should be near. Still no reply. He halted, gazed all around and listened carefully. He heard not a sound. Panic seized him. Somehow he had wandered away from his fellows and had become lost in Thule’s awful, unearthly woods. He turned in a complete circle, having no idea which way to go. The leaves above were too thick to see the sky,  it was too dark to recognize landmarks, and he had no idea whether he had been walking in a straight line or circles.

He took a deep breath to calm himself and tried to think of a way out of his predicament. Although it was against Eric’s orders, he felt that he must have light. He found a broken branch lying on the ground and using flint from his pack, lit one end. He decided to choose one particular direction and march straight ahead, marking trees with sword so that he did not go circles. Sooner or later, he had to exit the woods. When he did, depending where he wound up, he could decide how to proceed.

As he held the torch up, he noticed that the mounds seemed to have tiny doorways. He was about to have a closer look when a person with a sword leaped out from somewhere to challenge him. He quickly threw the torch to the ground and drew his own sword. By the flickering light he saw that his challenger was a young woman. She yelled something to him in the language of Celts. He assumed that it was a curse as the one word he did recognize was Dubh Gall, which was what the natives called the Danes. The next moment she was on him with her thin bladed saber. He quickly fended her advance, and they began to fence in earnest. Although he did not relish the thought of killing a woman, he could tell that he might not have a choice, since she was quite skilled. He wondered whether she spoke Danish at all. Perhaps he could reason with her. “Who are you?” he asked.

Apparently she was familiar with the language, for she replied, “Aoifa. Prepare to die, Viking dog.” 

“Look,” he replied, “can’t we settle this peacefully, each of us going his or her own way to join our respective friends and fight later.”

She laughed. “I would be a fool to let one such as you live. Look at the size and strength of you.” She renewed her attack.

Soon he realized that she was a better swordsperson than himself, proved by the fact that he was bleeding from several cuts, yet she remained unscathed. Gunther knew that if this kept up, he would soon be lying on the forest floor breathing his last. Although he had an aversion to harming a woman, he knew he must kill her or be killed. He feinted to the left, avoided her next thrust and with a mighty swing toward her neck in a manner that would part her head from her body. However, the moment his sword struck, she vanished.

Gunther’s mouth dropped open in amazement. He gazed all around expecting the woman to pop up from somewhere and attack him again. But, she was nowhere around. What was even stranger, all the wounds that she had inflicted on him were completely healed, not a drop of blood flowed from anywhere on his body. “Sorcery,” he cried and became terror-stricken at what else might befall him in these enchanted woods.

He picked up the torch and pressed on, more anxious than ever to escape the forest. After a time, he heard the voice of a woman singing. Ahead was small clearing in the center of which was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She seemed about his age, with the face of an angel, scarlet hair to the small of her back, a curvaceous figure and wearing a diaphanous gown that floated about her like a cloud.

When she spotted him, she smiled flirtatiously and greeted him in Celtic. Gunther was completely struck by her great beauty and asked in Danish, “Who may you be, fair maiden?”

“My name is La Belle Darne Sans Merci. And you are?”

“Gunther, son of Jorn, the Weapon Maker, from Iceland.”

“Come closer, so that I may see you more clearly.” When Gunther obeyed, she grasped his arm and said, “My, you are a muscular man. It is not often that I come across one so handsome and strong.” She placed a hand on his cheek, raised her chin, closed her eyes and pursed her lips.

It was an irresistible temptation. Gunther leaned down and kissed her. The moment his lips touched hers, he was lost, hopelessly in love with the temptress. They went on this way until they fell to the forest floor and did the inevitable.

Afterwards, they walked to a small lake. Gunther was happy to see the moon and the stars and open water. They sat on a rock and threw pebbles into the water. Gunther reached down to kiss her again, but she pulled away laughing. “I have had enough fun with you, Gunther. Now, I must leave. You will never see me again.”

“What?” he cried. “I cannot live without you. How can you leave me?” Somehow the female had taken his heart and crushed it in her hands.

Nonetheless, without another word, she ran off into the woods.

Gunther was so heartbroken that he did not even have the will to chase after her, but merely sat with his head in his hands weeping. He stayed that way for a long, long time, mourning  his lost love.

Suddenly another woman rose from the lake. As she approached Gunther, she shook her head and said in Danish, “I see that Darne has been up to her old tricks.” She made a complicated motion with her hands over his head. All at once, he felt better and wondered why he had been so enthralled by the temptress.

“Thank you, whoever you are, for disenchanting me. I'm in your debt.”

“I am called, Nimue, Lady of the Lake, and do not like cruelty. Darne enchants fellows like you simply for amusement.”

“Nimue, can you tell me how to escape these enchanted woods?”

“You cannot until daybreak. You are no longer in your world. This is Alban Hefin, one of the four times of the year that the Tir Nan Org appears on earth. Come, I will introduce you to our queen, Aeval, Queen of the Midnight Court.”

She led Gunther to a beautiful castle-like structure made of the bows of living trees and festooned with flowers. They entered a passage way of greenery and blooms lit by some unknown source. On every side were strange creatures, tiny people with wings, squirrels and chipmunks with human heads, people with the heads of animals, dwarves, elves and other unusual creatures. Sitting on a throne was the beautiful Aevel in her black velvet robe.

“I see you have brought us a human visitor, Nimue,” she said. “Welcome to my court.”

Gunther bowed and sank to one knee. “Thank you, Your Majesty.” He was rather bedazzled by all that happened to him in the fairy forest and could not imagine was next.

“You are one of the Fin Gall. Why do you fight the Celts for the Dubh Gall?”

Gunther felt he may as well tell the truth. “For glory, land and treasure, Your Highness.”

The fairies all burst into laughter. “And what treasure have you received so far?”

“Alas, none.”

“Approach my throne.”

When Gunther complied, she waved a wand over his head. To his utter surprise, he suddenly realized that he could now read the runes on his sword, that he knew Latin and Celtic, and that somehow he had learned mathematics and astrology. “What is happening to me?”

“You are a fine and truthful lad. As a reward, I used the wand of learning on you. It is a branch off the Tree of Knowledge. I will also bestow the Cauldron of Plenty. Use your new knowledge and good fortune wisely.” She then sprinkled him with fairy dust.

Instantly he fell to the earth in a faint.

* * *

Sometime later, Gunther felt someone shaking his shoulders. He opened his eyes to bright sunshine and the homely face of Eric. “What happened to you, lad?”

Gunther flushed. “I got lost. Somehow I became separated from the rest of our troop.” He wondered whether he had dreamed all the strange events that had occurred during the night that he was in the woods, about the woman swordsperson who vanished when struck, the temptress that made him weep, the Lady of the Lake, and the fairy queen. “I had a very strange dream.”

“And what is this?” Eric pointed at an ancient black cauldron lying at Gunther’s feet. Gunther picked up and read the runes etched on its side. It said Cauldron of Plenty in Celtic. How did I learn to read Celtic? he thought. Perhaps it was not a dream after all and somehow I entered a strange land. Nonetheless, he said nothing about what had happened to Eric, lest his mentor think him mad.

“How did the raid go?”

“Bah. The place was empty except for one old monk. He told us that Celtic Druids had sacked the place some time ago. He only escaped their wrath by hiding in a fireplace. So we got nothing. I don’t expect much payment from those cheating Danes either. At least you found an iron pot. I knew you were favored by Odin.”

 

   

 

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