‘Niklas! Wait for me!’
‘I’m not as tall as you, these roots are slowing me down!’, the voice of a young boy sounded throughout the snowy pine forest.
‘And you dare call yourself a warrior of the Gotar Clan? Keep up, Alexi, or the Olfs shall have your legs for dinner!’, another, slightly older voice mockingly soared through the cold air.
The two boys, brothers by blood and sons of the snowy expanses of Gladr, were making their way through the night to sneak into the traditional Hiarta festival. They wanted to listen in on the tales the returning hunters had to tell.
‘So what is your plan, brother?’, Alexi, the younger, asked.
‘My plan?’, the older replied in a questioning tone.
‘Surely you must have devised some sort of plot. Do you not know that us young ones are not allowed to join the feasts?’
Niklas chuckled as they hurried past the trees.
‘You are no fool. We shall ascend to the tree tops, no soul will see us there!’
‘Lest we fall and crash right at their feet!’, Alexi quipped at the boy’s plan. With a hearty laugh, they continued their race to the festival with only one goal in mind: to hear the hunters’ tales.
Night was beginning to fall above the treetops, however the forest floor had already been drowned in a sea of shadows hours before. Wildlife was zipping back and forth on the ground; in the trees and everyplace in between, desperate to avoid an encounter with the fearful predator that is the olf.
None of this was of concern to the group of men and women gathered on a clearing in the forest, not all too far from the village of Gotar. Here, sat on a number of large tables, which formed a circle around a blazing fire, were the hunters who had returned from their journey earlier that day. Sitting amongst them were the men and women who preferred to call Gotar, rather than the lonely expanses of Gladr’s forests, their home. There were blacksmiths, brewers, fishers and foresters, shoulder on shoulder with farmers, merchants, druids and aether ship mechanics. The last dying rays of sunshine in the sky were only just disappearing behind the distant mountains, yet the sugardew mead was already flowing generously.
One of the men stumbled to his feet. He was wearing the light and flexible nalk leather and pummel wool garments of a hunter, with the pelt of an olf draped across his shoulders. The crowd quieted down as the hunter raised his horn, drink spilling as he did.
‘Brethren!’, He shouted in a voice, baritone and a little husky from a long, frugal life in the woods.
‘Tonight we celebrate not only the success the gods have granted us in our hunt, but also…’, he paused and looked into the faces of his brothers of the hunt. ‘But also let us celebrate the souls lost along the way.’
‘To Ulrik!’, someone shouted, raising his horn in a similar manner as the hunter before him.
‘To Jarli! May the gods be welcoming towards them all’, another voice broke through the solemn silence.
Before long, all the men surrounding the fire were standing and had their horns and cups raised towards the center, each paying tribute to the dead, man and hunted beast alike. ‘To the fallen!’, the voices whipped across the clearing. Cups were emptied and readily filled back up within the blink of an eye. Laughter and talk began to replace the heavy quiet which had filled the clearing only moments ago.
The Hiarta festival had begun.
Alexi and Niklas heard the celebrations long before they saw the orange gleam of the fire. As the traces of a collective shout reached the boys, cut into pieces by the trees between them and the source, they heard the men for the first time: ‘..the fa…en…’
‘Haste now, they will be telling their tales soon!’, Alexi shouted at his brother, looking back with excitement in his eyes. No fallen tree or shrub would slow him down now. The younger took off and this time it was Niklas who had to try to keep up.
Like almost all children in the lands of Gladr, Alexi and Niklas had been in training since they were old enough to walk. Tutors taught children every skill they would need later in their adult life. The boys knew how to stalk and kill a wild animal, in order to later properly prepare and cook it. Both knew how to handle a weapon and could protect their lives if it came down to it. An ability well prized within the rivaling tribes of Gladr.
All children, be they boy or girl, would be taught the basics of killing, cooking, weaving and a selection of crafts. Later on, by the age of 8, the children would be split up to learn a craft of their choice. Alexi, now 9 cycles of age, chose to take up the trade of a blacksmith. Being the prepubescent boy that he was, he had an astonishing fascination with weaponry of all kinds, despite despising violence.
Niklas was quite the opposite. Niklas seemed to revel in violence. That was why, 4 cycles ago, he chose the path of the warrior. He was not an evil person or otherwise- he simply enjoyed the test of strength in a good fight like another person may savour the taste of a hot drink on a cold winter night.
In short, Niklas was a competitive spirit.
Niklas picked up the pace again and began to catch up to Alexi. He, in turn, responded by increasing his pace even further. Soon, both of them were caught up in a race of neck breaking speed, willing to stop for nothing and no one until they reached their destination.
Somewhere a little further along the forest, underneath the bright stars of a clear night sky, the festival was in full spin. The sugardew mead had loosened everyone’s tongues and lifted everyone’s spirits. While Alexi and Niklas were challenging each other to a race through the frozen underbrush, the hunters had brought in a nalk on a spit. Being roasted on the central fire, it filled the clearing with the heavy, plump smell of tender game. As the fire was drizzling with the juices of the nalk, Andlaf, the eldest of the hunters was, in his chair, heaved onto one of the tables.
Andlaf was old. Older than any other man or woman living in Gotar by far. His legs were weak. His eyes, fallen back into their sockets were of a pale grey colour. His cheeks had caved in many cycles ago and now his cheekbones seemed sharp enough to cut a man. Despite of all this, when he went on the hunt – when he caught the scent of prey – all his winters seemed to drop from his shoulders. Within an instant, he would transform into something beyond a mere man – he became the hunter. A predator.
With a voice belying of his seemingly frail body, he belched: ‘Now listen up, yer good for nothing young ‘uns.’
All attention was now turned towards Andlaf. Everyone was looking his way, fevery expectation written across their faces.
‘I have a story to tell.’, he continued, pausing again after a few words. ‘The tale of Leif Dovason.’
The crowd broke out into an avalanche of cheerful shouts full of anticipation.
By the time the mouth watering fragrances of the cooking nalk began to spread out over the forest, not unlike the feelers of an aether lobster scouting the darkness for food, the two brothers had concluded their chase. They had begun to climb one of the trees near the clearing. It took some effort, but eventually they began to make progress, climbing higher and higher. With every inch they got closer to the orange tipped canopy which was bathed in the glow of the fire below.
‘I advise you…’, Niklas said between deep, panting breaths, ‘…To hold on tight.’, he continued. ‘Long way down, brother.’
Alexi recognised the tone in his sibling’s voice to be a mixture of legitimate concern and brotherly mockery. Niklas had, seemingly effortlessly, ran past him on the last second and taken the victory on this race to the festival.
The boy replied nothing. He only lifted his head and stared at the older with an expression that anyone could have easily mistaken for deep settled contempt. Niklas stared back with a face of unprecedented sternness. Seconds later, both their masks broke and turned into broad smiles at first, then muffled laughter. Onwards they climbed, and soon Niklas reached a branch large enough to support the both of them whilst giving them a clear view to watch the Hjarta Festival. He climbed on and reached out his hand. Alexi took it, and with a near effortless movement, Niklas pulled his younger brother up next to him.
‘The tale of our forefather Leif Dovason’, Andlaf repeated for good measure. ‘He was a hero if I ever had heard of one’, the old man continued. ‘Leif Dovason lived many generations ago. Was he still alive to this day, his eyes would have seen more winters than all of us here put together. And that is including myself.’, there were laughs. No one even knew for certain how old Andlaf really was.
‘In his time, there was no Gotar. There was no clans. There were only small groups of families, fending for their right to breathe. Leif, his wife Briga and their son Juri, were roaming the ice and snow, far beyond our treasured forests. They are harsh lands, even to this day. Dangerous lands. There, you will find nothing but cold, bitter death.’
An electric current went through the circle under the mention of the Snow lands. There were few who had not lost a friend or brother in one of the many dangerous hunts out there.
‘Leif and his family had no home. None did in these times. Life was a journey in any sense. One fateful night, Leif returned from an unsuccessful hunt, only to find that their hideout had been discovered. He unsheathed his knife and carefully moved closer. Their few belongings had been turned over and spilled out. He took a turn and what he saw made his blood freeze in his veins. He collapsed to his knees and screamed for the gods.’
A bitter fit of coughing took control of Andlaf’s body. His frame shook as his lungs desperately rang for air. One frail, yet muscular arm protruded from his chair. The hand was shaking, opening and closing. Through one of his bystanders, a horn of sugardew mead found its way into his grasp. He brought it to his mouth and emptied the container in one go.
‘Almost dried up then’, he muttered to himself. ‘Where was I? Ah yes. Leif was a man like no other, do not let this slip your minds brothers.’, Andlaf continued after catching his breath. ‘Yet there is a point where every man will bow, no matter how strong he may be. For Leif, this point was when he found his beloved Briga laying on the frozen earth in a pool of still steaming red, hot blood. Rogues had found their camp. Within seconds, he remembered Juri. He looked for the child everywhere, behind every corner, for he hoped the child had found cover and survived the senseless killing. Yet his efforts were to no avail.’
The ancient man trailed off, his eyes fixated on an unknown point in the far distance. An artistic short pause became a long pause which in turn became a uncomfortable silence. With a sudden snap, the life in Andlaf’s eyes returned.
‘Dyarlagr the Horned!’, the words escaped the dry, cracked lips like thunder. ‘In the blink of an eye, Dyarlagr the Horned appeared in front of the distraught Leif. Here he was, a simple human, standing at the foot of a god. And not just any god- he was standing face to face with the Trickster, the Wager of War. The creature was many times the height of Leif, as high as two trees. There, in its claws clamped tight, was young Juri. What’s more, he was alive! When Leif saw this, righteous rage rose up inside him. He demanded- no, he commanded the god to let his child go. In response, Dyarlagr only twisted his horrible face into an eyeless grin. With an otherworldly voice, colder than a frost crystal, the creature proclaimed:
“Who are you, mere mortal, to make demands of a god?”’
Andlaf was an exceptional storyteller. He emulated the voice of the immortal creature so well, that for a moment all movement and sound around him ceased in shock. Far up in the tree, Alexi jerked back at the surprisingly thunderous voice and would have fallen down into the snow below if it wasn’t for Niklas’ quick reflexes. He gestured his younger brother to take care and they resumed to listen.
‘A lesser man, my friends’, Andlaf continued, taking the rustling high up in the trees for a stray pinecat. ‘A lesser man may have broken at the sight of this bottomworldly horror. Not Leif, however. Leif stood his ground and with bold determination he shouted into the freezing gusts: “I am Leif Dovason, son of Niels. Return my son, creature of bottomworld, or I shall take him from you by force.”’, the old man spoke in the voice of a man many cycles younger than one would have thought him to be capable of.
‘Dyarlagr’s sharp toothed grin widened until the ends of his mouth almost touched the horns sprouting from the sides of his head. It fell into a hollow laughter. They say any animal whose ears it befell, fell dead within seconds. After the ghastly had rung out over the icy plains, Dyarlagr’s mocking voice sounded again. It was cold, yet comforting. Horrifying, yet jesting.
“I think not so. The young one belongs to me as of this day.”
In response, Leif Dovason rose his axe, getting ready to charge the god towering above him. A moment before he could attack, the wager of wars continued.
“However, should you succeed in retrieving one thing for me, I shall let the boy go.”
Leif released a bone chilling warcry and stormed towards his enemy, only thinking of freeing his son by any means necessary. The god came within reach and Leif brought down his axe, aiming to cut the tendons at the creature’s heels. Alas, the blade struck nothing. Dyarlagr had vanished into nothing, leaving behind only a disembodied voice, sounding inside Leif’s head.
“Bring me the head of an ice mole. I shall be awaiting your return on the peak of Driftwind Mountain”
Leif looked for the creature in his anger, ready to charge at the slightest hint of movement, but it had gone. And worst of all, it had taken his son with it.’
The moon had risen long ago and it was now a single bright eye in the midst of the black sky, dowsing the forest and the festival below in silvery light. The fire in the midst of the gathered hunters’ tables had burnt down to deep red glowing embers. Up in the trees, Alexi and Niklas were beginning to feel the cold through their thick pummel wool coats. To make matters worse, the wind had picked up and was carrying freezing air all the way from the mountains. As the gusts came whistling through between the pine needles, Alexi turned to Niklas.
‘Brother, do you think we may risk finding another place? Should the winds become stronger still, they may easily sweep us off the trees.’
‘What are you Alexi, a man or a glimpf?’, Niklas sneered back.
‘A man, but no fool, Niklas.’, the younger replied.
‘Worry not, just hold on tight. No wind can sweep someone of the likes of us off a tree!’, Niklas tried to calm his brother.
Down below, Andlaf cleared his throat once again and continued with his tale. ‘So after burying his wife, Leif wandered along the vast, icy plains. Apart from a few glimpfes or the occasional starving nalk, he had nought to sustain himself on. What kept him moving, however, was one thought, and one thought only: to free his son. On the search of a rare ice mole, he travelled farther into the nothing than any of us would ever dare. Then, after many moons of travelling, as he was making his way through a nightly storm that had brewed, the frozen ground suddenly began to move. Leif stepped aside and unsheathed his axe and shield, ready for whatever would break through the snow.’
Andlaf paused, reached out for his drinking horn and took three large gulps of the sickly sweet mead. ‘As it appeared, Leif had finally found what he came for. Or rather, it had found him. The ice mole broke free, less than two steps away from Leif’s feet.
Claws first, it shot up like an arrow. Its circular jaws were snapping and the large creature swung one of its arms at Leif. The serrated claws connected with his shield and reduced it to a cloud of splinters. The hand which had until now been gripping the shield, was caught by one of the three claws cutting through the air, and with a sickening tearing sound, Leif’s hand let go of its first two fingers and thumb. Both participants of the fight let go of a howl. Leif’s was of blinding pain, while the mole was howling in bloodlust and victory. The ice mole lurched forward on its six stilty legs, its clawed arm swinging for another attack. This time, Leif was prepared and ducked away. He swung his axe sideways and left a gaping cut on both the creatures’ front thighs. Blood began to spill out onto the thin white fur and the snow beneath, mixing with Leif’s own. Suddenly robbed of its muscle, the ice mole fell to its knees, using its remaining legs and two arms to move. Leif backed away, preparing to strike again, when it shot forward with surprising speed. The round mouth was racing towards Leif. He fell backwards. The creature was over him now, snapping at his head. It caught his hair which was tied back and tore a large chunk out. Trying to devour it, the ice mole coughed and wheezed. Leif took his chance, for he knew that he would not get a second try. In one smooth arc, he lopped off the head of the creature. With a deep “pflump” it landed in the snow. The large body, now convulsing as the life was flowing out of it, collapsed on top of Leif and buried him underneath.’
Alexi and Niklas, safely nestled in between a cluster of branches to keep most of the wind away, were beginning to feel hungry. The nalk on the spit had all been eaten, yet its saturated smell still clung to the trees. Alexi’s stomach made itself heard and Niklas had to admit to himself that he should have had the foresight to bring along some pummel jerky. It was going to be a long night in the trees and he decided the hunter chief’s story was worth persevering for.
Andlaf had seemingly forgotten that he had been telling a story, as he had gone quiet and began confusedly smiling into the distance again. Out of respect for the man, the tables sat in silence, waiting for him to continue. However, Andlaf did not appear as though he would remember to continue the story anytime soon, so an inquisitive female hunter took the word. ‘Say Andlaf, how did Leif escape the ice mole?’
Andlaf blinked and looked at her. ‘Right. The ice mole. So Leif was trapped. A plumb body weighing down on him and one hand reduced to nothing but fleshy pulp, his fate seemed all but sealed. The weather had turned for the worse and as it was getting dark, the storm intensified. Leif fought long and hard to escape, and eventually, only dreams know how many hours later, his efforts paid off. He slid out from underneath the creature he had killed and picked up its head. The features were frozen into a blood curling grimace and Leif had to be wary to not cut himself further on one of the many razor sharp teeth. Like this, one hand tucked to his side, the other holding the head Dyarlagr had requested, he began his return through the snow filled blackness. Hours turned into days. Even after the storm had settled, Leif continued walking. On the second day, he began to see the rugged shapes of the mountains in the distance. On the morning of the fourth day, he collapsed, only to rest a little while and continue walking. Occasionally he stopped to refill the pummel bladder around his hip with snow, which would go on to melt under his coat. Not once on this tedious journey did he let go of the token which would allow him to reclaim his son. After more days than Leif had bothered to count, he reached the foot of Driftwind Mountain. It was morning. Exhaustion had taken its toll on our brave ancestor, and he was only a shadow of his former self. Infection had begun to spread along his wounded hand. Starvation had made his cheeks falter and his light blue eyes were glassy and sunk into their sockets. Driftwind Mountain was not a very tall one and a man of health could have easily scaled it within a matter of hours. Health, however, was not a thing Leif had to his disposal. He worked his way up the mountain, one step in front the other. It took the last of the strength he had left in him, and by the time he reached the plateau on the top, the sun had sunk long ago. As the distant horizon began to glow in a soft, pale grey, Leif let go of the ice mole’s head for the first time. It tumbled to the stony ground and came to a stop some steps in front of Leif. “Dyarlagr the Horned!”, he shouted. “Wager of War! I did as you requested! The time has come to release Juri.” There was no answer. Only silence.
Just as he was about to raise his voice once more, Dyarlagr appeared behind Leif. “You have my thanks”, his voice boomed.
The towering god stepped over Leif, bent down and picked up the head with two spindly long fingers. “I had been longing for one of these since ancient times.” With these words, he put it up to its gaping jaws and dropped it into its monstrous mouth. It was apparent the creature was enjoying himself. Meanwhile, Leif, strung out as he was, asked for his son to be returned swiftly. It was greeted only by a quick hum, followed by a raised index finger. Dyarlagr finished devouring the head and rose to speak.
“I am true to my word, mortal.”, he proclaimed. A second later he added, “Mostly.”.
“What is the meaning of this?”, Leif spoke with strained voice, his hurting muscles tensed.
“The meaning of this”, the Wager of Wars replied slowly, mockingly. “Is that your son is out there. Free to go wherever he may want. However, galoot that I am, I have forgotten where I left him.”
Leif looked at the grinning god in disbelief.
“Worry not, he is safe. And, if the other gods be willing, he shall live to an old age. Mayhaps your destiny is to find him. Mayhaps it is not. It is not my place to reveal your destiny to you.” With these words, Dyarlagr the Horned vanished once more.’
The atmosphere had become rather solemn. Not a sound was to be heard in the forest, save for the crackling of the low fire.
‘The rest, as they say, is history. Leif, now a man with wounds too deep to heal, began roaming all of Gladr in search of his lost son, Juri. At the end of his strength, hours before he would have collapsed and died in the snow, he came across a small family of five. Amongst them, was a healer. She had a vast knowledge of remedies at her disposal and thanks to this savior of unknown name, he survived the infection gnawing away at his arm. Over many more winters, he crossed paths with many a man and woman. Through this journey, countless families were united into the first clans. Our proud clan of Gotar was one of them.’
The hunters cheered and drank to the mention of their clan in this historical tale.
‘Leif Dovason died after many winters, having lived a longer life than many men were blessed with. Throughout all this time, however, there was one person he never saw again: Juri. Leif’s son had grown up with a large travelling family, who eventually settled within the forests. After his coming of age, Juri himself set out to find the fabled Leif Dovason, who was said to be his father. Yet, he never found him. It was not until he was an old man himself, when he came to the village of our very own clan, that he was shown the grave where Leif Dovason was laid to rest. Honouring his late father’s name, he became clans head of Gotar and fathered many a child in the eve of his life. Even today, his legacy continues, as many of our lineages can be traced back to Leif Dovason, the man who challenged a god’
As Andlaf’s words rung out, the wind picked up once more. The old man stood up from his heavy seat, raised his drinking horn which had been filled up and emptied many times over the course of the night, and shouted into the sky, ‘To Gotar!’
‘To Gotar!’, the folks proudly shouted at the top of their lungs.
Another gust sent the trees shuddering. Far above, Alexi and Niklas finally lost their balance and were sent flying into a pile of soft snow below.
‘What was that?’, one of the less stumblingly drunken hunters inquired.
‘Pummel bollocks’, Niklas whispered. ‘Time to retreat’
The two boys stumbled to their feet and set foot back to the village. Behind them, they heard a hunter call, ‘Oi Svenson, thar be kids’.
As the two ran like they never had before, they were already out of earshot when the response came, ‘Lllleave ‘em, are jus’ sssome c… curious kids, thar be righ’ ’
When Alexi and Niklas were close enough to the village that they could see its lights shining through the trees, Niklas stopped in his tracks behind Alexi.
‘What be the matter?’, Alexi asked.
‘I shan’t be returning, brother’, the response came reluctantly. ‘I find no reason in this life within the clans. I am seeking a challenge, that which Gotar, or even all of Gladr, can not give me.’
‘W-Wwhat are you saying, Niklas?’, the boy asked insecurely.
‘I will make my way to the grand city of Ares, far beyond the snow and the trees. I intend to join the militia and measure my strength with anyone who challenges me.’, Niklas explained. Alexis’ eyes began to glister wetly in the distant village lights. ‘This is not fare-well. We shall meet again, brother, you’ll see. Beyond all this.’
‘Don’t go!’, Alexi blurted. ‘I need you here, what will I do without you? Who will take me to the Hjarta festivals?’ Tears began streaming down his face.
‘I shall be with you in your dreams, Alexi. I must go now, before anyone from the village notices us. Avalon awaits me. Good-bye, my beloved brother.’ And with those words, Niklas gave his little brother one last hug and turned to walk away from the village and the life he had lived so far. He took a step and stopped. ‘Here, I want you to have this’, he said and removed a necklace before handing it to Alexi. ‘It is the tooth of an olf. Father gave it to me when I began the path of a warrior. I want you to have it.’ he said solemnly. ‘At least until we meet again so I can take it off you again’, he added jokingly, trying to get one more smile out of Alexi. It worked.
Alexi put the string around his neck and tied it together. ‘Good-bye, Niklas. May the gods grant you dreams of light.’
With those words, the two brothers went their separate ways. Little did they know that Niklas’ words carried a heavy truth. They would meet again once more in cycles to come.
That however, is a story for another day.