The Thief of Faces
I had not come all this way for this. Silver and gold had brought me to the Golden-Roofed Hall – and safety from King Harald’s vicious henchmen. Now here I was in a place where they murdered poets! Under my breath, I added a few unkind names of my own to Odhinn’s many titles. The one-eyed god had contrived to land me somewhere I didn’t want to be - somewhere even more hostile than Kaupang, if that could be imagined.
And how had I come to be here? You’ll be wanting to know about murder and the thief of faces, yes, but that will come about soon enough. First you must understand something about me and my crooked Wyrd and the way my mischievous god tricked me into doing his dark work in Thurstang.
And it came about in this manner.
It all began in a brewery in Kaupang, where I was sitting with no silver and no girl, and if that sounds like the fate of the inglorious dead you wouldn’t be far wrong. It wasn’t one of the nice breweries either. You see, the town was glutted with King Harald’s fawning poets and all ears were deaf to my glees and riddles. The boy-king’s revolting Berserks were wrecking all the finer taverns and the prices had shot up. I didn’t think the sentence of death Harald put on me at our last meeting still applied, but the thought depressed me. I needed a new plan and a plan needs someone with money to fund it.
That’s why I marked Hrapp Squintbrow when he entered the sooty hall. I didn’t know his name was Hrapp, of course, but I guessed his by-name from the way his eyes darted to left and right, bulging like a frog’s. He carried a jangling purse and had the look of a man keen to spend what was in it. I pulled up my hood to shadow my own empty eye socket and beckoned him over.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” I said in what I call my Odhinn-voice, deep and impressive.
Hrapp startled at that, because back then he didn’t know me from old bones. I didn’t even smirk. I’d been through this many times.
“That silver you carry will purchase a service for your lord. Share a coin with me and I’ll be your guide in this town.”
The hood, the deep voice, the I’ve-been-expecting-you routine, it makes strangers think they are meeting a sorcerous Finn or rune-reading Thul. Hrapp blinked again, which wasn’t a pretty sight, given the way his eyeballs rolled around inside his skull.
“How do you know…?”
At this point, I pull customers in like flapping fishes. Holding Hrapp’s gaze with my left eye, I tipped back the hood to let him see the gaping socket on the other side of my face.
“Allfather Odhinn!” exclaimed Hrapp piously.
My empty eye often got that reaction. My one-eyed god Odhinn has a reputation for wandering this Middle World, hiding under gallows and lurking in graveyards and rushing out to frighten people with his famous deformity. Our resemblance is profitable for me, but I doubt the Allfather takes much pride in it. He’s a mischievous god, is Odhinn, and a wise man keeps him at a distance. But I’m not wise in that way.
“Have a care, Squintbrow!” I boomed, thoroughly enjoying my Odhinn-impression. “The Gallows Lord will not be mocked. Show me your silver.”
Hrapp pulled out the purse. He tugged at the cords and coins spilled out, but then the squinter lived up to his by-name and peered at me with his unsteady eyeballs.
“What do you know about my lord, stranger?”
He placed his hand over the coins.
“That he rewards his humble servants as if they were warrior hearthmen,” I said, noting the gold rings Squintbrow wore on his wrist and his lack of a sword. “In your eagerness to serve him, you have travelled by sea and even taken the oars yourself.”
This impressed Squintbrow, as well it should. But it was no great mystery. I’d seen his furs were stiff with salt, like most men fresh from the sea, and, in the firelight, I could see fresh calluses on his soft hands.
“This is surely sorcery,” he breathed.
I didn’t want to disappoint him, so I said nothing.
Hrapp introduced himself and prattled about his sea journey, as if no one had ever thrown up over the side of a longship before him. I kept my eye on his silver. Since finding myself with just one eye, I suppose I’ve learned to use it a bit better than most people use their two. Being observant and drawing conclusions is a bit like solving riddles, which I’m good at too, but it looks like necromancy when you tell people things about themselves that their own mothers don’t know. It’s a talent that had earned me beers and coins on previous occasions. Hrapp Squintbrow was about to offer me both.
“Beers, beers for myself and my friend!” Hrapp announced, pulling at the apron of one of the brewer’s wenches.
The girl was a plump creature with saucy lips and I’d spent the afternoon propositioning her to no end, although my cheek was no longer a stranger to the flat of her palm. She scowled at me, but returned quickly with a keg of beer and two drinking bowls. Hrapp dropped a coin into her apron pocket then held up another for her to see and dropped that after the first.
“For special treatment,” he leered. “Don’t wander too far!”
The girl didn’t look delighted with the assignation, but nodded. Squintbrow rubbed his sore hands together as he watched her go. What is it about a sea journey, I reflected, that makes a man so eager to couple when his boots hit dry land? I advised myself that, the next time I travelled, I would keep a cold space between my dignity and the first woman I met on shore.
“To my lord, Jarl Eyvind Eythorsson,” Hrapp cried, raising his drinking bowl in a toast, “to my Lord of the Golden Roofed Hall. Skál!”
That was the moment when I was misled by a metaphor. A Golden Roofed Hall! My poet’s mind came alive with tales of Asgardh, where the immortal gods feast, and the gilded treasure-hall of Old King Hroar. I stopped scheming for beer and silver pennies. A grander prize formed in my mind: to be court poet – a skald! – in a Golden Roofed Hall! For the first time since fleeing Harald’s court, I was stirred by ambition.
“Skál!” I replied.
I yanked the hood back over my head and ducked low over the table.
Here was the reason why. A group of King Harald’s Berserks had entered the brewery. I have enough reasons to be nervous around Berserks. They are Odhinn’s folk too, but the inspiration the Gallows God gives out to them is very different from the sort he whispers to us poets. Berserks howl and scratch themselves like beasts, they pull their clothes off, they bite people. I’ve seen those madmen run out naked onto the battlefield, throwing themselves onto enemy spears. They think they’re bears. The Wulfhedhnar are even worse. They think they’re wolves.
They were wild-looking even for their kind, with their filthy hair braided into tangles in imitation of the boy-king they doted on. I didn’t recognise them, but that wouldn’t stop them recognising me. My one eye is distinctive.
“Eyvind Eythorsson is my lord,” cried Hrapp, so that the room could hear, “and he’s the Jarl of Thurstang!”
I wished he would shut up and enjoy his beer. His boasting drew the attention of the Berserks, who looked across to us with a mixture of irritation and amusement. Drunken Berserks are slightly less fractious than sober ones, but, since you never meet a sober Berserk, it hardly matters.
“His Golden Roofed Hall is filling with warriors eager for renown,” Hrapp went on, twisting around to draw everyone in the room into our conversation, “but our skald, Olof Greywhiskers, is dead and the Jarl seeks a new poet!”
I pressed my forehead onto the table and wished myself elsewhere. One of the Berserks had roused himself and approached. He stood over our table now, reeking of stale beer and dead enemies.
“All the poets in this town sing the praises of King Harald,” he slurred. “Your Jarl should be here too, pledging his sword, to join the war against the Goths!”
“Let me tell you, there’s no more loyal vassal to King Harald than my lord!” Hrapp protested, then added “Ow!”
I had kicked him, of course, under the table. You don’t argue with Berserks. You offer them alcohol and if that doesn’t soothe them, a woman. But Hrapp was from somewhere up-country where the bear-cult wasn’t strong. The only Berserks he’d be familiar with would be broken-down old veterans and ale-bloated braggarts. But these fellows were lean and rangy killers and King Harald’s favour was their licence to kill whom they pleased.
“Who’s this?” growled the Berserk, prodding me as I sat with my face hidden.
“A sorcerer!” Hrapp answered. “A sorcerer with only one –”
I wanted to kick him again before he could mention my eye, but I didn’t get the chance. The Berserk grabbed my hair and yanked me upright.
“Sorcerer? I’d like to see some seidh magic!” he bellowed.
But he was drowned out by his comrades. A fight had broken out, as it always does when Berserks are in town. One wildman had snatched some girl from the lap of a seaman and he, poor fool, had risen to defend the girl’s honour, or his own. Their table was tipped over, the girl screamed, an axe was brandished.
A roar, like a beast emerging from its winter cave, rattled the roof beams. The dead man’s head rolled across the floor, but I didn’t attend to that. Nor did anyone else. All eyes were on the other Berserk who had killed him. This man thrashed on the floor, spitting and howling. He was hamasking, going through his berserker transformation. Once it was complete, he’d probably kill everyone in the room.
I flopped back onto the table. The Berserk at my side rushed to his comrade along with his friends. They named runes and massaged the madman’s scalp and sang soothing little songs to put the bear in him back to sleep. The best people to deal with Berserks are other Berserks, which is all they’re good for in my view.
“This man’s blood-price,” cried our Berserk, pointing to the severed head that lay in the corner of the room with a surprised expression on its face, “will be paid by King Harald.” He scattered coins across the floor. They glinted in the pool of blood that spread from the dead man’s corpse. “Drink, everyone, to Harald the Victory-Giver!”
There were a few weak cheers to that. We all watched as the Berserks carried their frothing comrade out of the hall. The brewer watched them go and, once the door had closed on them, sent his shaven-headed thralls to roll the body in a rug and put the head in a sack and start clearing up.
The rest of us, who had barely breathed during the entire exchange, discovered ourselves to be powerfully thirsty. The wenches similarly discovered gratitude and appreciation for their regular clientele. They came out with full bowls of better ale and served us all a generous stoup while the slaves mopped the blood from the floor.
Hrapp recovered from his shock. He pulled his silver bangles down to his wrist and kissed each one, breathing thanks to the gods, goddesses and elfs that he was still alive. Then he remembered his mission for the Jarl of Thurstang.
“This silver,” he explained, gathering the pennies together into a pile, “is to tempt a new skald to winter with us and sing praise-songs. If skalds flock to King Harald’s court, I’ll go there to recruit the finest…”
I didn’t want to listen to any more teeth clattering the praise of King Tanglehair (and more of that self-righteous maniac at another time). More importantly, Hrapp was my passage out of this town, away from Harald and his ghastly henchmen.
“Look no further, I am your new poet!”
“You? But you’re a seidhman?”
Well, I didn’t like that! ‘Sorcerer’ has a touch of glamour to it, but a ‘seidhman’ is a male prostitute with a gift for clairvoyance and access to drugs.
“Seidhman?” I spluttered. “I’m a skald!”
“You do magic.”
“Poetry,” I told him, “is the greatest magic of all!”
“I’m not sure…” Hrapp muttered. “I have my orders…”
He rose to leave. I saw my passage to a Golden Roofed Hall slipping away. Those Berserks had shown me what fate waited for me here in Kaupang.
“What are orders,” I added, catching his sleeve, “compared to the power of Wyrd?”
Wyrd – all-powerful Fate! Hrapp was a superstitious man. Here was my chance.
“Yes, Wyrd!” I continued. “It was Wyrd that brought you to this brewery, Wyrd that brought you to my table.”
It’s strange how people respond to being told about their Wyrd, especially if they’re doing something disreputable. Hrapp was here to spend some of his lord’s coins on beer and wenches and now here I was, telling him this was all part of Wyrd’s inscrutable destiny. It’s a very cheering thought for a guilty conscience.
“You think so?”
“It was Wyrd that brought me here too,” I told him. “It is Wyrd that you and I return to your Golden Roofed Hall together.”
Hrapp Squintbrow studied the purse. His thoughts moved in a happy direction.
“I won’t need all this money for my commission,” I said, lifting the purse from his hands and tipping half the coins into my palm. I was still shaking from the business with the Berserk. I spilled the rest of the coins on the table. “The rest are for you – as a finder’s fee!”
Wyrd and self-enrichment, what a powerful combination! Hrapp needed no more persuading and I allowed myself to be hired. The rest of the coins went into the apron of the beer-wench and her eager sisters and many cries of “Skál!” followed. I drank far more than I should and confided more in Hrapp than was wise, but I think he was too fuddled to recall much of it. I was escaping from Kaupang and from Harald. I was leaving danger behind. That was worth celebrating!
We sat the girls on our laps and investigated their charms, but the beer made fools of us and in the end we slept, Hrapp and I, side-by-side under the table, while the wenches robbed us of the coins left unattended.
The next day, I joined Hrapp at the bow of the returning ship. We took it in turns to spew into the waves as the lights of Kaupang dropped away beneath the mountains and the sky. One by one, they winked out and I congratulated myself on a wily escape. A new life lay ahead, the life of a skald to a wealthy Jarl in a Golden Roofed Hall.
A life far away from King Harald, a life with no Berserks in it.
A life without thoughts of Fridha, without our faceless child.
A life where old ghosts would not follow and Odhinn’s spite would pursue me no further.
I was wrong about that, of course.