The Thief of Faces
The storm blew itself out, but the hearth company remained at their benches. Faces were pale with fear. Women’s sobs echoed from the Ladies’ Bower. Ingaberg the grieving mother was being comforted and, as is the way with women, the tears of one drew tears in the rest, like an incoming tide.
“Weregild – who pays a blood price for my son? Someone must know!”
The speaker was the grieving father, Dag Stygsson. He was one of the Jarl’s hearthmen, distinguished by a mane of red hair. He dressed well in furs and silver rings, but he had labourer’s hands. He was another commoner who had been enriched in the last Winter Viking – the sort of man Hrapp envied.
Jarl Eyvind turned to the fat priest, who sighed.
“Runes have been cast, omens consulted,” he said to the company while the furious Dag Stygsson stalked up and down the hall. “Can no one here speak of this crime? A boy has been murdered, in his crib! Murder and mutilation! Someone, speak!”
In the grey light, everyone sat still and silent, contemplating their cold oats and stale beer. Many of these men had seen such bloody work done on a battlefield. But to a baby, in his crib? I sat on a stool beside the Jarl’s throne, plucking gloomy notes on my harp. To murder a man’s child is to rob him of his future, his name, his hope. Poor Dag Stygsson. I had wept those same tears once.
Then someone muttered, “Trolls!”
That call was taken up:
“ – Trolls, aye!”
“ – For certain, trolls!”
“ – Troll-work if ever I saw it!”
A change came over the company now that this crime had a culprit. I groaned and knuckled my forehead. I hate trolls.
Let me explain about trolls. There’s not much misery or grief that cannot be laid at the feet of trolls. They walk invisible or make themselves into anything they choose. Your horse goes lame? A troll did it! Your wife miscarries? A troll smote her! Your house burns down? Trolls must really hate you!
This talk was on every tongue now. I stared around the room like the one sober man at a wedding. Everyone seemed to be an expert in troll-lore with something to offer about the troll that murdered Dag Stygsson’s son.
This is how I view it. There are things that no man knows with certainty, nor will ever know, such as why there are no baby eels, or where starlings go in the winter, or whether this Middle World is really rounded (as they say in Byzantium) or a flat disk (as is obvious to the stupidest child). And on these matters men will argue and put forth their baffling explanations. But troll-lore infuriates me above all these things. For example, there are riddles where the answer is ‘a troll.’ It’s impossible to solve these riddles (unless you already know them) because anything can be a troll and a troll can be anything.
“What’s hot and cold, dry and wet, small and huge, all at the same time… A troll!”
See? Not a good riddle.
Then there are sagas where the hero has to defeat a troll but this can only be done with a certain spell or a magic axe. Why? No reason, that’s just how it is. I’ve yawned through these sagas before. In the sagas I tell, I want the hero to kill a flesh-and-blood man, like a rival warrior or even a Berserk, and I want there to be a reason for this, like a blood feud or a broken promise or a woman’s love. I don’t put trolls in my sagas.
But I am on my own in this matter.
Nonetheless, I tried to make an appeal to the company.
“What sort of troll walks abroad in the holy season of Yule?” I cried, waving my arms for attention. “We all know the sound of music and the scent of roasting meat offends them. Surely, this is man-work, not troll-work! A man did this to Dag Stygsson’s son, to poor, helpless…”
I tailed off – what was the baby’s name?
“Hostein,” muttered a voice beside me. It was the fat Godhi. He was considering me with an odd expression on his face.
“Poor helpless Hostein Dagson,” I added, “was surely the victim of human malice, not trolls.”
Everyone stopped to digest this. It was an unwelcome thought.
“But who?” Dag Stygsson’s voice sounded frail now, as if his anger had burned through him like a wildfire leaving only ashes. “Who would do this?”
The doors banged and a group of men entered, led by the thul Lodhinn. The black-robed wizard had disappeared into the Bower with the ladies after the crime had been discovered. He had been missing for the last couple of hours. Now he was back with a troop of soldiers and a prisoner.
“Do you ask who? Let the just gods decide. We have one murderer here.”
The sentries led a man down the aisle, his chains clinking. He was a big fellow – a foot taller than me, but every part of him was broad, from his massive arms and barrel chest to his box-like head. He was etched with tattoos proclaiming him a Berserk, dedicated to Odhinn, madness and death, in no particular order. I hadn’t expected to run into a Berserk again, so soon after escaping from Harald’s hairy crew. But Jarls like to keep a Berserk on hand, stupefied with drink, to impress people.
“The gods demand justice, blood for blood,” Lodhinn continued. “How can Dag Stygsson receive justice for his son while this murderer still lives and breathes?”
This Berserk looked placid, but I didn’t look into his glassy eyes as he lumbered past.
“Who’s that?” I whispered to Hrapp who sat nearby.
“Ogmund the Ganger,” Hrapp Squintbrow whispered back.
I could see why he was a ‘Ganger’ or Walker – someone that huge would never mount a horse.
“What did he do, that they keep him chained up like that?”
“He killed the last skald,” said Hrapp. “Poor Olof. Tore him to bits. They say he ate some of the bits.”
That shut me up. I fell to wondering, what sort of Nidh poor Olof must have composed to drive that dopy-looking Berserk into a murderous frenzy. Silly question really, since Berserks get out of bed in the morning in murderous frenzies. I was pulled back to the moment by the sound of my own name being called.
Lodhinn Knudsson had been reciting the laws of the tribe and mentioning the opinions of various gods and elfs concerning the sin of murder. He pointed at me now and his smirk suggested some private joke unfolding. That smile should have put me on my guard, but I had forgotten the reason I had already given this man to hate me. It had been an eventful night.
“My lord?” I called to Jarl Eyvind in my brightest voice.
“Will you serve as my skald in this?” the Jarl demanded, regarding me over his nose.
“In this and anything else!” I replied, approaching the nobles’ table with a cheerful skip.
Something seemed wrong. If Lodhinn’s grin got any wider, the top of his head would have to fall off. The Berserk, meanwhile, fixed me with a look of fury.
One of the sentries, the older man with the grey beard, presented me with a cloth bundle. He wasn’t smiling. His comrade held on to the Berserk’s shackles.
Inside the bundle was Tunga, my sword. Suddenly my bladder felt very full.
“Holmgang!” roared Ogmund the Ganger, struggling against his chains. “Holmgang for Ogmund!”
In a just world ruled by just gods, Berserks would not be allowed the right of Holmgang, which is a duel to the death. But this is Odhinn’s world and follows his rules and Odhinn’s tastes run to the whimsical. His whim seemed to be that Ogmund would prove his innocence by chopping me to bloody messes.
“My lord..!” I began my protest. I wasn’t going to touch that sword. “What have this man’s crimes to do with me?”
“Holmgang!” hollered Ogmund, straining at his bindings. One of the links snapped. Someone shouted out a warning.
Lodhinn explained what was about to happen: “Ogmund the Ganger murdered our skald, Olof Ormsson. So does it please you, Jarl Eyvind, that your new skald should prove the murderer’s guilt in battle? Then, with justice done, we will track down the child-killer. Let a skald avenge a skald!”
“Me?” I cried, looking from Lodhinn to the Jarl and back again. “Me fight the Berserk? What will that prove?”
“Holmgang proves the dead man’s guilt!” crowed Lodhinn. “And if the new skald triumphs, it shall prove his words, that no troll did the night’s dreadful deed!”
Well, that made no sense at all, but it went down well with the crowd. People love trial by combat. But the prospect of fighting a Berserk brought my wits together. I turned away from the offered sword – to lift it was to accept the challenge. I needed an argument. The Peace of Frey governed this hall – let me call a champion! There were traditionally three days to prepare for a duel. Or better still, why not trial by ordeal? Let the monster prove his innocence by gobbling hot nails!
I never got a chance to make my case. Ogmund broke his chains. Moving with unexpected grace for such a big man, he snatched a spear from the nearby sentry.
“Holmgang for Ogmund!” he yodelled and ran at me, spear first.
Odhinn must have been commanding my limbs, or else they remembered some of their old war skills, because my hand grabbed my sword and used it to turn away Ogmund’s spear in a surprisingly elegant way. Then the Berserk collided with me and I flew away from his colossal shoulder in one direction and my sword flew away in the other.
I skidded along the floor. I heard some sensible fellow shouting, “The Peace of Frey! Remember the Peace of Frey!” before I realised it was my own voice shouting and no one was listening.
The warriors leapt up and formed a tight semi-circle around the space where I lay. One of the Varangians threw me a hog knife and it embedded itself in the floor nearby.
More guards rushed towards Ogmund and my spirits rose. Then Lodhinn directed them instead to form a cordon around the Jarl and his family, for the ladies of the Bower had come running at the uproar.
“Holmgang!” roared the Ganger.
I scrambled towards the knife, snatched it up and got to my feet.
Ogmund placed the shaft of his spear between his teeth. As Berserks do, he started gnashing on the wood, chewing on the splinters until blood mingled with the white froth over his whiskers. When Berserks start eating things, it can go on a while. I thought I’d take my chance. I know a nice move with the knife where you lunge for the head, but, a-ha, it’s a feint. You duck down instead and slash your opponent’s hamstrings. With Ogmund hobbling about, I’d be able to get back to my sword, which lay on the floor only yards away.
I made my lunge.
That part of the plan went well. But Ogmund, with that cat-like speed he’d already shown, caught the blade in his fist.
“I feel no pain!” he snarled, spitting splinters into my face. Blood welled up between his fingers. The knife crumpled in his hand.
“Blades don’t touch me!” the madman yelled.
I decided to dart to his left. He still held the spear in that hand and cracked it over my head. That sent me spinning. I bumped into the carved pillar in the middle of the room.
“Fire doesn’t touch me!” I heard Ogmund bellow, moments before his hands grabbed my shirt and lifted me into the air.
Ogmund’s crazed eyes looked into my own. His forehead hit my chin. I heard a crack, like an axe chopping wood. For a moment there was no pain or light, no up or down, only me, hanging in space, like Odhinn on his steed.
A cry went up from the crowd, a mixture of excitement and sympathy. Somebody, I reflected, has just been very badly hurt.
Then I hit the floor. Breath was knocked out of my lungs. Dimly, I could see Ogmund striding towards me.
The giant paused and roared at the crowd, then at the Jarl and all his guards, then at the gods overhead. He shredded the hempen smock he wore. He ripped away all his filthy clothes and jumped up and down, his manhood flapping like a flag in a winter wind. He was hamasking – going through his frenzied transformation.
The warriors whooped and shouted insults or encouragement to the big maniac while the women of the hall exchanged private observations regarding Ogmund’s dangling nethers. Still stunned, I threw up over the floor. By the time Ogmund’s frenzy had peaked, I had pulled myself upright against another pillar.
He hadn’t turned into a bear, but he came at me again in a different frame of mind. His eyes were those of a beast sensing its kill. A slather of blood-flecked drool hung from his beard.
I ducked behind the pillar and when Ogmund went one way, I went the other. He changed direction and so did I. We must have circled that pillar a dozen times, me keeping inches ahead of his grasp and the audience yelling, “Boo!” and “Kill him!” and other pieces of advice.
I made a dash for another pillar. Ogmund was at my shoulder. He caught my shirt and tore it and now we were both shirtless, him chasing me back towards the first pillar all over again. Would this end when we were both naked, like a whorehouse parlour game? Or was Odhinn waiting for me to die a warrior’s death, soiling myself in terror while the Berserk popped my arms out of their sockets?
At least Odhinn was sparing me a dishonourable death in old age, in bed, surrounded by adoring grandchildren. Religion struck me in that moment as fundamentally flawed.
Odhinn must have noticed my impiety, because he directed my feet to trip over something. It was my sword, lying where it had fallen. I sprawled on the ground with it just out of reach.
Ogmund thundered past me. He slipped on my pool of vomit and skidded into the roof pillar, face-first, with a force that brought flakes of thatch down from the ceiling.
The big Berserk turned slowly. The impact had turned his face to bloody paste, but his eyes blinked and they were strangely sane. He opened his mouth as if to speak, but only spat out a broken tooth. Then he crashed to the floor. He lay next to me, still.
Helpful hands pulled me to my feet.
“Well fought, One-Eye!” said a voice in an Eastern accent.
I saw a Varangian, grinning at me through one of those ridiculous moustaches they like to grow. He pushed my sword into my hand and propelled me towards Ogmund’s unconscious body. I tried to shout but my jaw wouldn’t work. I thought, perhaps, if I kill this maniac, they’ll give me a bed to lie down on. Maybe some warm soup, nothing chewy. But I didn’t have the strength. The sword slid out of my fingers.
I wondered as I passed out, whether this made Ogmund guilty or not, since I had failed to kill him in combat. Perhaps there were trolls at work after all. Then the floor rushed up to me and everything went dark