The Thief of Faces
The town was full of weeping women. The murder of Ingaberg’s faceless baby had sent the mothers of Thurstang into a frenzy of sorrow. I had to get away. I had a faceless child of my own. I’d named many runes to bury his memory, only to have my old ghosts raised by a mother’s screams. Even a troll hunt was better than staying here.
So, troll hunts.
This is how it is with a troll-hunt. Every man fit to travel is called up, along with some of the older women who know troll-lore, the way old women do. The troll is hunted across field and forest. There’s a lot of banging drums and rattling kettles, because trolls hate noise. A wise thul is needed to recite charms and carve runes on all the doors and markers posts. Skalds like me go about, singing charms about the bright gods that trolls find so offensive. Everyone has a fine day out and the troll-wise experts get paid for their help.
At the end of it, the troll is driven out of the land.
For a time. Perhaps.
The troll hunt had already set off while I was in my sick bed. I wandered into the mead hall and found it deserted except for old greybeards playing at the game of Hnef’s Table. The children had disappeared, kept at home by their terrified mothers.
I loaded up a sledge with some warm furs, my sword and a flask of spiced wine taken from a thrall I intercepted on his way to Lodhinn’s quarters. Then I set out after the Jarl’s party.
The wood-paved path climbed above the fjord, up tree-lined terraces, to the valley between the mountains. The passage of the hunting party was visible in the snow, which promised to make a swift ride for my sledge. I stopped and looked both ways, as a man must on the edge of two worlds.
Below me, the roofs of Thurstang, with its chimneys and steaming tanneries, looked oddly welcoming, as even the meanest hovel does in winter, when the ice forms on your beard. Ice was also forming on the fjord, with lumps of it drifting out towards the sea like lazy whales. Over the mountaintops on the other side of the fjord, grey clouds massed, promising more snow. A Winter Viking is a chancy journey even in fine weather, but what would persuade so many captains to risk their ships and their crews if more ice filled the straits? Perhaps that was the real reason for this troll hunt: hopes must be kept high because men, stuck in a hall through the darkest month, turn to mutiny and complaint when luck turns bad.
On my other side, the high valley snaked away between the peaks. In summer, there would be fields of barley up here, orchards and forests teeming with game for the nobility to hunt and the common folk to skin and cook. Now, the frost giants claimed their lease on this place and had made it as they like it: cold and white and empty, a fastness for the wolf and the screeching owl. And, of course, trolls.
Two worlds: the world of men, with the laws and songs and bright gold; and the world of trolls, mysterious and deadly. The trolls had come down into our world to murder and mutilate; now we were entering theirs.
I flicked my whip and the ponies pulled the sledge at a brisk pace. Later, I would spare their strength by walking alongside them, but, at the start of a journey, there’s nothing finer than gliding over crisp snow, feeling the breath snatched from your lips as the pines flash by. Then it is that a man feels as the gods must, moving effortlessly through a magical realm.
The dread of the faceless baby faded. The future opened before me, with no ghosts.
Moments later, I pulled myself out of a snow drift. The sledge lay upturned. One of the ponies had wandered off.
You see how it is? Your mind is with the gods in high thoughts, and some troll places a boulder just under the snow, to wreck your sledge and snap your neck, if that’s to be your Wyrd.
Well, it wasn’t to be my Wyrd. I had fallen clear and landed in soft snow. Once again, death had called my name but I was too crafty to answer.
I examined the sledge. There are men with the skill to repair such things. Those men are called carpenters. Thankfully, I was taught useful arts instead, like poetry, so I left the vehicle in the snow. The remaining pony limped, so I untied it; its good horse-sense would take it back to its stable. My somewhat more questionable sense would guide me on, on foot, into the winter woods.
Not for the last time, I found myself missing my invalid’s bed, with Valka’s bright smile and warm nearness. Then the thought of that little shrew’s spitefulness filled me with better purpose. Onwards!
It goes without saying, on a troll hunt, that when you set off, bruised but in high spirits, still wearing a bandage round your head, along a well marked path under blue skies, the following things will happen.
First, the temperature will drop, so that your breath clouds and your beard crackles with frost. White mist spreads from the tree roots and fills the path, filling in the ruts and craters left by the beasts and sledges of the party that went before you.
Secondly, it will start to snow. Not a great snowstorm, just a few wisps drifting in the air. This is merely the foreshadowing, the way irresistible Wyrd clears its throat before Dooms are pronounced.
Thirdly, those clouds that were far behind you will roll overhead, like a shutter being pulled across the sky. Under the pines, it grows very dark. Still travelling hopefully, you stumble, tripping on roots and sliding into buried ditches.
The master stroke is the fork in the path. Now that enough mist has thickened and enough snow fallen to disguise the route your predecessors took, a fork in the path must present itself. In two directions, white lanes curve away between the trees, both featureless and smooth.
And then, only then, at that precise moment as you stand there, indecisive, naming travel runes to no effect, that is when the snowstorm arrives. For after that, immediately after that, within seconds, the world is a seething cauldron of sleet and screaming winds.
This should go without saying of course, for how could it be otherwise on a troll hunt?
I blundered into the snowstorm anyway. I tried to shield myself from the wind, but it seemed to come at me from all directions...
Was I on the right path? Was I even on a path at all?
The curtains of snow parted and the trunks of trees emerged, and then vanished. Low branches struck my temples, again and again. Then the snow drew around me like a swaddling band and everything became white. I took another step but found no ground. I pitched forwards into space. Several more branches reached out to smack me and tear at my clothes. I rolled in the snow and fell again through branches. Only after much of this did I crash into a bed of pine cones and lie there, stunned, watching the snowflakes spiral down towards me out of darkness.
This was fine troll-work. The finest. And yet, I lived.
I tested one leg, then the other, and found them to be unbroken. It was not my Wyrd to fall to my death. But, perhaps, instead, it was to die of cold in a trackless forest. After all this troll-work, I felt that the bright gods owed me some sliver of luck. Surely that was not too much to ask, even from Odhinn the Grudge-Nurser?
“Eirik Glee? Is that you?”
A friendly voice! I sat up, dislodging icicles and pine cones.
It is strange, but I’ve seen green hills rise above the sea’s horizon when the last fresh water is spent and the weary sailors can row no more. I’ve seen a beautiful woman sleeping in the morning light surrounded by my own tangled sheets. Yes, and I’ve pressed my ear to a woman’s belly and felt the kick of a child, my child, answering to my voice. These are special moments. Yet it seemed to me that Hrapp Squintbrow, appearing before me in this troll-haunted wood, surpassed them all. Seeing him standing there, draped in warm furs with absurd skis tied to his feet, I loved him dearly.
“It is I, Eirik!” I cried. “Hrapp, dear friend, it is myself, and no other.”
Hrapp stomped over to me. Despite their foolish appearance, the skis made it easier for him to walk on the snow.
“You fell from the sky! Gods and elfs, what are you doing here?”
“Searching for the Jarl. Is he near?”
Hrapp regarded me like some sort of marvel.
“Not near, but drawing closer,” he told me. “The Jarl returns to Thurstang and I go ahead of him to prepare for his return. There’s a lodge nearby, friend Eirik. I’ll guide you to it and you can find warmth and rest.”
I let him pull me to my feet and examined the sheer hillside I’d tumbled down. The cliff was studded at intervals with small trees that clung to the rock face and short snow-filled ledges. By some sublime joke on the part of Wyrd, it was through these I had dropped, slowing my headlong fall. Had I fallen a few feet to either the left or the right, I would have dashed open my skull or snapped my neck.
“Hrapp, my friend,” I said with a sigh, contemplating the narrowness of my brush with death, “it seems that good luck comes disguised as bad fortune. Hindsight is everything.”
Hrapp didn’t reply because an arrow pointed out of his throat. It stayed there, dripping blood. With his head still raised to the heavens, Hrapp fell to his knees, like a worshipper at a Blót. He made a gurgling noise and then sprawled on the ground. The snow around him turned a livid red.
I believe there will come a day when events like this no longer surprise me and I react to them immediately, with clarity and great cunning.
This was not that day. I stood staring at the back of Hrapp’s head and the black-fledged arrow sticking out of his neck. I reached out with my boot to prod him.
He remained still.
Another arrow slammed into the tree trunk behind my shoulder, dislodging more tinkling icicles.
I didn’t need another hint to solve this riddle. I ran.
Once again, branches slapped my face and pulled at my shirt. If I was lucky, there might be another cliff to fall off. I wanted to look back, but didn’t dare. Someone had killed Hrapp and would now kill the witness – me.
The trees vanished behind me and I was under open sky. I was also sliding. My feet shot from underneath me and I landed on my back, but kept flying forwards, across a frozen river. I came to a stop when I ploughed into a snow drift on the far bank.
More snow slid onto me, covering my arms, chest and beard. With my head hanging backwards, I could see across the river, although everything was upside-down. The snow was already covering the tracks left by my slide across the ice.
A group of men in furs emerged from the trees. One of them, who carried an evil-looking bow, slithered on the ice. The other two pulled up short. Then they did a strange and terrifying thing. They dropped to all fours and sniffed the air. One of them ran round in a little circle. The sound of their snarls carried across the crisp air.
“Oh gods,” I moaned.
The men wore the skins of wolves over their heads and shoulders. They were Wolfcoats and they were going to hunt me, kill me and eat me, but probably not in that order.