The Thief of Faces
Mead, as everyone knows, was stolen by Odhinn. The dwarfs brewed it for the giants but the gods wanted it for themselves, as well they might, because it’s delicious. Crafty Odhinn slipped into the giantess Gunnloth’s bed and pleasured her three nights in a row, each time for a tiny sip of the magical liquor. But Odhinn is a trickster and he swallowed the whole vat, making off on eagle’s wings with the mead in his mouth. The Giants chased after and Odhinn spilled some drops on the Middle World, which is why we humans have it now.
It’s all a metaphor, of course. The Mead is poetry, which dizzies the mind, turns a thing into what it is not, and cajoles beautiful women into opening their thighs. Or so I was promised when I began my new career in poetry. So far, I’ve only got as far as dizzying the mind.
The mead at the Golden Roofed Hall was potent stuff. I sat in silence, reliving my memories of Kaupang and the Berserks, the wrath of Harald Tanglehair and poor Fridha. Thoughts of Fridha caused me to flinch away from memory. I muttered the runes of forgetting and tried to study my new home.
A fat man with limed hair had finished a long prayer. The runes painted on his face marked him out as a Godhi, the local priest. Good. This meant I had missed the tedious invocation of Frey that brought the god’s Peace down on this hall. Once the Peace of Frey was in place, the drinking could start in earnest.
Up on his seat of dooms sat the Jarl of Thurstang. Eyvind Eythorsson was every inch the rural chieftain, bad hair and too much eye-liner, muscular once but swollen with cheap beer and rye bread. There were more gold rings on his arms than you expect in places like this. His wife stood beside him. They made quite a contrast: dove beside a bloated goose! The Lady of Thurstang was a statuesque beauty, very tall with a long chestnut braid and a dress that Frankish seamstresses had laboured a year over. Someone had come into money. A lucky raid? A dragon hoard?
“An amazing raid,” Hrapp confirmed. “Monasteries! Monks! We melted down the gold and sold the prisoners. Blood in the surf! The lamentations of women!”
“You were there?”
“Ah, no. But I will be! Next time” Hrapp sat beside two enormous Danes and slapped their backs. interrupting their singing, which, if you’ve heard Danes singing, you’ll know is no loss to the arts. “Isn’t that right, my fellows?”
The two Danes nodded happily. I sat opposite them with my back to a bench of cheering Varangians.
“We’re going back for more, eh lads? With more ships!” Hrapp leaned forward conspiratorially. “It’s going to be a Winter Viking. We sail after the Yule Blót!”
I understood now. The Jarl had stumbled onto some untouched monastery on a foreign shore, looted it and been clever enough to keep the location secret. Now every mercenary in Norway wanted a piece of the pie.
A Winter Viking was no ordinary raid. It meant sailing in the dark months, straight after Yule, when sensible folk hunkered down and waited for Spring. Very risky. A storm could wreck such an enterprise. But if his luck held, Jarl Eyvind would go back with three or four times the force of his first visit and utterly demolish the unlucky community he’d discovered. I wondered where this doomed settlement might be. Somewhere nearby but undefended. There were a lot of Frisian thralls on the markets these days. Francia perhaps?
“I’ll be with them this time,” cackled Hrapp Squintbrow, tearing a rind of meslin bread from the loaf and dunking it in his beer. “Some of that slaughter will be my red work! Then I’ll be a hearthman and bear a sword like yours.”
I watched Squintbrow lick his fingers and giggle at the prospect of profit and plunder. There is only so much gold in the world and blood flows when it moves around. If Squintbrow was happy to stay a lowly Karl, he’d probably live to curse his ingrate grandchildren in his old age. If he won a sword for himself on a Winter Viking, he’d probably be dead within the year on some doomed venture or ill-advised duel. Hrapp Squintbrow didn’t know yet that swords owe their wielders nothing. Grandchildren are a better investment. I became morose at that thought. Dark memories stirred. There had been a child of mine once.
I repeated my runes of forgetting, over and over.
Hrapp proceeded with his explanations. The beautiful woman with the chestnut hair was Jarl Eyvind’s wife Gudhrun, called Quick-tongue, for her wit and charm, supposedly.
“Don’t be fooled by beauty,” Hrapp told me. “That one has a heart as hard as her voice is soft. She bore our Jarl only daughters until he decked her in Viking gold. Skál!”
“Skál!” I replied, sipping at the mead with more caution.
Since last year’s raids, two squealing babies had arrived. The two heirs were brought out of the Bower at the back of the Hall where the women of the household lived. The twins were paraded in front of the guests as proof of the old Jarl’s virility – or mastery of his wife’s stubborn womb. A tall man bent over the babies. He wore a cloak of raven feathers and carried the rune-wand of a thul. This wizard applied ointment and runes to the babies’ lips and fingers.
“Their nurse left them unattended and they tried to eat hot embers that had fallen from the fire, as babies will,” Hrapp went on, pointing to the infants. “Lady Quick-Tongue had that thrall whipped to death.”
That sounded like firm discipline for thralls. In my current mood, it didn’t sound excessive. A light whipping would improve haughty Valka’s manners, I brooded. But I ignored the rest of Hrapp’s gossip. I spent my time instead studying the Jarl’s wife and his daughters, Gislaug and Ingimod and another one with an even more horrid name. Ingimod was dough-faced with her father’s hooked nose.
Ah, but Gislaug Eyvindsdotter. Gisla, they called her, lovely Gisla…
Gisla was slim as a willow wand, fair as a sheaf of summer wheat in the sun. Valka waited upon her and I had thought Valka the beauty until I laid my lone eye upon Gisla. Pale cheeks and red lips, hair of gold and eyes as grey as the summer sea. There had been another beauty once, like that, that turned her smiling face my way. Aye, but I will think no more about the past. I drank a toast to Gisla instead, whose loveliness reminded me of a happier day.
“There sits a treasure fit for a Viking,” I slurred after several more toasts to Gisla’s loveliness. “Gishla –” her name seemed to be defeating my tongue “- She’s why you’re all here, eh?” I nudged one of the Varangians behind me – it was Velmud, perhaps, or maybe Vermund – in what I thought was a discreet manner, but knocked over his drinking horn. “She must be married soon, to some lucky hero, am I right? Am I right?”
Hrapp caught my arm and pulled me away from the Easterners’ company, explaining something about the Yule Blót, but I wasn’t paying attention. Blood sacrifices bore me. All those hours standing around in a field or a beach, until some poor animal gets its throat slit. That did remind me of something I needed to know.
“Tell me, about the last skald – Olof, the fellow who was murdered?”
The worst threat to a poet is other poets. One that I know, Hord Silkbeard, was a travelling harper like me, once, till his silken couplets attracted the envy of a court poet with influence. A group of poetry-lovers visited Hord one night and they pulled his tongue out with hot pliers. Pulled other things out too. Now he sells seidh and his own backside on the wharves of Hirsk to out-of-luck pirates and homesick Finns. Hord Silkbeard was unfortunate with his couplets and now he couples most unfortunately. It’s a fraught business, creating art.
Hrapp started explaining something about an orchard but then fell silent. Something was taking place.
The tall man in the raven cloak had taken to his feet. I groaned. When a thul opens his mouth, he’ll use every word he knows before closing it again. This fellow’s unkempt beard was worthy of Harald Tanglehair, but black and streaked with white.
“Where is the newcomer,” he boomed in the theatrical tone all thular use in public, “that bears Odhinn’s Gift on his lips?”
That was my cue. As a skald, I was the bearer of Odhinn’s Gift – poetry. I stood up and turned around so that everyone could get a good look at me. I kept my eye patch on. The warriors grinned through their beer-soaked beards. The Varangians folded their brightly-inked arms. They knew what was coming.
“Lodhinn am I,” the tall man announced: “Thul and sage, wise in the runes of men and elfs, learned in saga and song, troll-crafty am I, Knud’s son they call me, and Eyvind Eythorsson is my lord.”
A bit pompous and I didn’t like that ‘learned in saga and song’ stuff. That was supposed to be my job! This Lodhinn seemed to think he could fill the old skald’s boots without me.
“Lodhinn Knudsson, be hale!” I replied, smiling broadly while wishing him dead. “Eirik Glee am I, skald and harper, not unwise in runes nor uncrafty in troll-lore, a master of song and saga am I, riddles I weave, Odhinn’s friend they call me –” I flipped up the eye patch to show my bare socket, to gasps from the audience “– and Eyvind Eythorsson will be my lord and I his praise-singer.”
It wasn’t bad, though I say it myself. I had trodden on Lodhinn’s toes in a gentle way by claiming to know as much about runes and trolls as any thul. Heads swivelled back to the tall man. Lodhinn was clearly the sort who didn’t waste a smile on anything less than a drowning cat, but his lips hooked upwards now as he prepared his evil Nidh.
“Eirik One-Eye? Such a one it was
Who fled the field, fearful of harm,
Surrendering sight as well as sword;
Are you that youth, that yelled for mercy
And soiled his stockings when spears advanced?
Now Eirik Netherwetter, this Nidh I name!”
Strong words! Me, a coward, wetting myself in fear on the battlefield? It was a routine insult really, but the audience loved it. The jolly Danes showed themselves to be comedians by going through a pantomime of examining my nethers for telltale stains and my boots for puddles of piss.
But the trick with a Nidh is how you react to it. If you flush and clench your fists, then everyone sees it’s under your skin. Then they’ll never hear your reply for laughing.
I kept my calm and spread out my fingers, examining my nails for flecks of dirt.
When he’d done, I carried on with my grooming. In a contest like this, it was up to me to reply, insult for insult. This was my reply:
“Lodhinn Knudsson, late do you linger!
I counsel you creep away while I craft my Nidh
And bury your beard in your mother’s breast.”
My Nidh was taking shape nicely. A suggestion of cowardice back in his face and I’d brought his mother’s breasts into it too! All this and only the third line! The warriors banged the benches in appreciation. I reminded myself that poets were murdered in these parts. Keep things friendly, I told myself: friendly and polite.
Then mischievous Odhinn whispered something into my mind and my Nidh went off in a different direction.
“But maybe your mother’s a mysterious sight?
Black is your beard but your bristles are white
Has a beast like a badger birthed you one night
When your father, wine-fuddled, loved it like a wife?
Do you too loose your loins in the creature’s lust-hole!
The badge ‘Lodhinn Badgerfucker’, on you I bestow.”
Lodhinn’s eyes hardened.
Had I gone too far?
Had I gone too far, just like Hord Silkbeard? A hint of cowardice, mother’s breasts, standard stuff for an insult contest; why didn’t I leave it at that? Why did I have to go too far?
Then everyone laughed.
They banged their drinking horns on the tables and roared with delight, brawny warriors and toothless men, even the thralls. ‘Badgerfucker’ was on everyone’s lips. The Varangians had to have it explained, then declared it the finest Nidh outside of Rus, which from an Easterner is the highest praise imaginable.
Lodhinn fliched. The clatter of drinking vessels on the benches became a drumbeat.
The Jarl stood up and silenced the room. He had a crooked nose like an eagle that made him look commanding when he roused himself. This was the moment of truth. If my Nidh was a slander, I’d find myself dining in a dungeon tonight.
Jarl Eyvind glared at me as did his chestnut-haired wife in the pretty dress. Then he turned to Lodhinn, who was shaking with the fury of a dishonoured man. The thul’s crazy hair had, if anything, even more white in it now among the black.
Jarl Eyvind passed his hand over his mouth. Was he hiding a smile?
“Badgerfucker!” he chuckled.
Then he snorted. Lodhinn sagged, his humiliation complete. Jarl Eyvind pointed at me.
“Be hale, Eirik Glee, and be my skald.”
More roaring and giant Danes pounding my shoulders. A close call? It was tempting to blame Odhinn for my perverse inspiration, but it was probably being embarrassed by that slave girl Valka that made me want to punish someone so badly.
“My skald, Eirik Glee,” the Jarl bellowed, “has been tempted here from the court of King Harald to sing for us this Yule!”
Well, that wasn’t entirely true, was it? But I wasn’t going to correct Jarl Eyvind on that point. Besides, I did know Harald Tanglehair, though nothing would tempt me back to his poisonous court.
“Badgerfucker!” cried Hrapp, clenching my hand in his and wiping tears from his cheeks with the other. “Brilliant! Bring mead. Mead for our poet! Skál!”
I relaxed and accepted their congratulations. I would be asked to perform again, many times, tonight, but I would need to keep things sensible. Standard sagas, old riddles stuff everyone knows. No more mad improvisation. No more dishonouring important people. But first, lots of mead. I held out my drinking horn to be filled.
The mead, smelling of honey and spice, streamed into my lap. I yelled as the cold liquor soaked into my thighs.
The girl Valka held out the serving bowl, now empty. She glanced at my crotch and her pretty brow wrinkled.
“You soiled your nethers,” she said. “Skál!”
She flounced away. I wanted to shake her like the doll she was, but the delighted Danes started back-slapping again, hooting in my ears and shoving their own mead horns under my nose. There was nothing for it but to join in the joke.
As I watched Valka move down the other aisles, ignoring my angry stare but making a great display of smiling to everyone else, I realised that I’d made enemies of the first two people I’d met tonight.
Then the laughter died on everyone’s lips.
The doors to the hall opened and the storm blew in, making the fires roar and smoke. The curtains parted. A red-headed woman entered, her handsome face disfigured by shrieking.
“My boy… look what it did to my boy…!”
I think that was the moment for me when the gates of the Underworld opened and my old ghosts returned. My Wyrd closed around me like the net that traps the twisting fish.
The woman’s knees weakened and she fell. The bundle in her arms unravelled, spilling its content onto the floor. The bloody object had been a boy once. Its hands and feet had been cut off and that was not all. Above the chin and between the ears, an eyeless skull peered out of the boy’s head.
The child’s face had been cut away, cut away and stolen.